History Mini-Lesson of the Moment Vol. 6: Stokely Carmichael
Our grandfathers had to run, run, run. My generation’s out of breath. We ain’t running no more.
Everybody knows Martin Luther King Jr. - he is the guy responsible for you getting that Monday off from school or work each January. Most people are familiar with Malcolm X also. He’s the guy with the hipster glasses who kind of looks like Denzel Washington.
Unfortunately, one of the important leaders of the Civil Rights Movement remains largely unknown among the general population (large in part because he’s left out of high school history textbooks), despite being one of the most influential: Stokely Carmichael.
Born in 1941 in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Carmichael moved to Harlem (and later the Bronx) in the early 50s. After graduating from the Bronx School of Science, he attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1960 - and it was here where he joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) after being inspired by the increasingly prevalent sit-ins that would go on to define the Civil Rights Movement.
“When I first heard about the Negroes sitting in at lunch counters down South,” Carmichael told Life magazine in 1967, “I thought they were just a bunch of publicity hounds. But one night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair - well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was burning.”
He began participating in the Freedom Rides and other protests, often getting arrested (in 1998, shortly before his death, he said he lost count of his arrests, but estimated that it had been somewhere around 30 times). Despite being busy with this activism, he was able to graduate from Howard in 1964 with a degree in philosophy and was offered a full graduate scholarship to Harvard, which he would decline in order to focus on his activism.
Carmichael was young, energetic, motivated, and handsome - a natural leader. Some described him as being both likable and cocky. One friend wrote that he believed Stokely was so fearless and confident that he could “stroll through Dixie in broad daylight using the Confederate flag for a handkerchief.”
By 1965, he was working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in which he focused on getting black citizens in Alabama registered to vote. In one Alabama county, he helped increase the number of registered black voters from under 100 to over 2,500. A year later, Carmichael became to chairman of the SNCC at the age of 25.
It was here that Carmichael’s philosophies would begin to shift away from King, a friend of his at this point. Later in life, he attributed his shifting philosophy to a night when he watched from his hotel window as black protesters where beaten and shocked with cattle prods by police. Soon, he began to promote the ideas of self-determination and he would popularize the term “Black Power” in a speech during the March Against Fear after the shooting of James Meredith (who, fortunately, survived and is still alive and well at the age of 79).
The conservative media immediately began to distort the meaning of “Black Power” and worked to vilify Carmichael in an attempt to put a decisive wedge between the philosophies of his self-determination and King’s nonviolent protests. In a continuing effort to weaken the movement, the term “reverse racism” was popularized by southern white supremacists. When protests ended in violence, the media often pointed a finger at Carmichael’s philosophies for inciting it and conservatives worked diligently to associate Carmichael’s activism with the ideas of militancy, guns, and anti-Americanism.
Carmichael described the term and his intentions: “‘Black Power’ means black people coming together to form a political force and either electing representatives or forcing their representatives to speak their needs.” He would further clarify his ideas in his 1967 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. Many in the movement rejected the term, with King calling it an “unfortunate choice of words” and the NAACP condemning it as “the raging of race against race.”
Still, Carmichael persisted and soon also helped coin the term “institutional racism,” which he defined as “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture or ethnic origin.”
Despite their philosophical differences - which Carmichael always stressed were not as significant as the media led people to believe - he and King would remain close and often worked together before King’s assassination, particularly in their opposition to the Vietnam War. Both would become targets of J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal COINTELPRO program, which aimed to ”expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” civil rights organizations and leaders with tactics that included “psychological warfare; smearing individuals and groups using forged documents and by planting false reports in the media; harassment; wrongful imprisonment; and illegal violence, including assassination.”
While often associated with the Black Panther Party, he distanced himself from the organization in the late-60s as he believed their philosophies were not separatist enough. He began traveling the world, exploring and writing and speaking. While living in Guinea, he changed his name to Kwame Ture in honor of two African leaders whom he had met and befriended.
He would continue his activism throughout the world - breaking most ties with America and using Guinea mostly as his home base, the CIA always keeping a close eye on him - until his death from prostate cancer in 1998. He always remained a controversial figure.
While largely left out of high school textbooks, Stokely Carmichael’s legacy lives on - least of all in the form of his son Bokar Ture, a University of Virginia and London School of Economics graduate who writes, travels, and has worked at the African Development Bank in Tunis, Tunisia.
“He was just a father,” Bokar said of Carmichael. “He never told me what he did, really. He just told me what was good to do: ‘Work for your people.’”
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