Carmichael, Stokely

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Carmichael, Stokely

African American activist, leader, and militant Stokely Carmichael is known for the galvanizing cry "Black Power!" which helped transform the later years of the Civil Rights Movement. The raised fist that accompanied the slogan was a rallying point for many young African Americans in the late 1960s. Carmichael's forceful presence and organizing skill were compelling reasons to join. In 1966, he was elected chairman of the student nonviolent coordinating committee (SNCC), a Civil Rights organization popularly called Snick. Leaving Atlanta-based SNCC in 1967 with a more radical vision, Carmichael became prime minister of the Oakland-based black panther party for self-defense (BPP), perhaps the most militant of 1960s African American groups. Members of Congress denounced him for allegedly seditious speeches, other politicians and civic leaders blamed him for causing riots, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) matched this fervor with counterintelligence activities. Bitterly severing his ties with the Black Power Movement in 1969, Carmichael announced that he would work on behalf of Pan-Africanism, a socialist vision of a united Africa. He moved to Guinea, West Africa, where he lived and worked until his death in 1998.

Carmichael was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on June 29, 1941. Two years later, he was placed in a private school, as his father, mother, and two sisters immigrated to the United States. At school he earned the nickname Little Man for his quick intelligence and precocious awareness, traits that had him urging his aunt to vote when he was turned away from polling booths at the age of seven. He received a British education at the Tranquillity Boys School, a segregated institution, from the age of ten to eleven, before nearly dying of pneumonia. As an adult, he would recall the Tranquillity School experience with bitterness for "drugging" him with white European views. His parents brought him and three sisters to live with them in Harlem in June 1952.

In Harlem, he found conditions disappointingly different from those in Trinidad, where the black majority had found access to positions in elective government and professional employment. His mother, Mabel Carmichael, worked as a maid. His father, Adolphus Carmichael, who had been successful enough as a skilled carpenter to build a large house in Port of Spain, struggled at driving a cab to make ends meet but remained optimistic about the United States. For this dream, Carmichael later said, his father paid a high price, working himself to death, and dying the same way he began, poor and black.

"An organization which claims to speak for the needs of a community … must speak in the tone of that community."
—Stokely Carmichael

By junior high school, Carmichael's disillusionment revolved around a life of marijuana, alcohol, theft, and a street gang of which he was the only nonwhite member. However, when he entered the respected Bronx High School of Science, his scholastic interests blossomed, and he began to read widely in politics and history. Social opportunities began to appear for him, too. Yet, later, he could not dispel a sense of alienation and anger. "I made the scene in Park Avenue apartments," he recalled in a 1967 interview. "I was the good little nigger and everybody was nice to me. Now that I realize how phony they all were, how I hate myself for it."

Social and political change were in the air as Carmichael was finishing high school. The civil rights movement was in full swing and a new generation of young African Americans began holding lunch counter sit-ins in segregated cafés and restaurants in the South. At first skeptical about these "publicity hounds," Carmichael changed his mind when he saw televised images of white students pouring sugar and ketchup on the heads of the peaceful protesters. By mid-1960 he was in Virginia taking part in a sit-in organized by the congress of racial equality (CORE), a civil rights group founded nearly two decades earlier. Beaten up during his first demonstration, Carmichael was undeterred. He attended more sit-ins and pickets, notably against the F.W. Woolworth Company in New York, as such demonstrations spread widely across the country, resulting in integrated businesses in several states.

Several scholarship offers awaited Carmichael, including one from Harvard. His decision to reject them in favor of attending Howard University in Washington, DC, marked a turning point in his life. In 1961, CORE sponsored trips by young activists to the South. Known as the Freedom Rides, these journeys were intended to fight Segregation. As a freshman, Carmichael went along. He escaped the violent mob beatings that many of the activists suffered while white police officers watched and did nothing, but he and several other CORE activists were arrested in Mississippi, jailed for 53 days, zapped with cattle prods, and forced to sleep on hard cell floors. Such treatment was not the worst inflicted on the Freedom Riders: three were murdered. Released finally, he returned to the university and changed his major from medicine to philosophy, in which he took a bachelor's degree upon graduation in 1964.

Leaving Howard, Carmichael became an organizer with SNCC. Founded during his final year in high school, the group had emerged from meetings organized by ella j. baker, the associate executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—the civil rights organization of which martin luther king jr. was president. SNCC contained the seeds of a major change in direction for the civil rights movement. As it grew in the early 1960s, SNCC attracted young volunteers who were impatient with the progress of older organizations such as CORE and the SCLC. It sent black and white young people from predominantly northern, middle-class backgrounds into rural areas of the Deep South, their goal being to educate illiterate farmers, increase voter registration, and set up health clinics. A field organizer for a SNCC task force in Lowndes County, Mississippi, Carmichael brought about noteworthy successes: the number of registered black voters increased from 70 to 2,600, a dramatic rise for a county in which African Americans outnumbered whites but had no share in political power.

In 1966, Carmichael was elected chairman of SNCC. The group's goal was evolving from Integration to liberation. In Mississippi, he had organized a political party called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Its symbol, a black panther leaping with a snarl, would become nationally recognized in the years to follow. So would the words Black Power! that Carmichael shouted to black sharecroppers as he and other participants in the james meredith Freedom March passed them in June 1966. The cross-state march was a project launched by Meredith, who had been the first African American to attend Mississippi University, to prove that black citizens could enjoy their rights in the state without fear. Such fear was well placed. On the second day, shotgun blasts badly wounded Meredith. As another march took place and more violence followed, "Black Power!" became the marchers' chant.

In Carmichael's view, black power meant several things: political power, economic power, and legal power. It was both local and international in scope. "We want control of the institutions of the communities where we live, and we want control of the land, and we want to stop the exploitation of non-white people around the world," he said. This control would be achieved by any means necessary, he promised, drawing on the famous words of the activist Malcolm X. SNCC members carried guns for Self-Defense, a practice defended by Carmichael this way: "We are not [Martin Luther] King or SCLC. They don't do the kind of work we do nor do they live in the same areas we live in." In contrast to the harmonious message of King, Carmichael's rhetoric stirred fear and antagonism in many members of the mass media, who quickly accused him of reverse racism. Time magazine dubbed him a black powermonger. As riots tore through major U.S. cities in the summers of 1966 and 1967, Carmichael was condemned for making inflammatory speeches that his critics said sparked them.

Within SNCC, more than rhetoric was changing. As the organization began to speak of oppressors and the oppressed, it also took practical steps that distanced it from older civil rights groups. Carmichael had SNCC pull out of the White House Conference on Civil Rights, a move that brought condemnation from the SCLC, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Urban League; CORE, however, was moving in the same direction. Support for SNCC began to dry up. Older black activists deserted the organization; white supporters withdrew funding. In late 1966, SNCC purged all white members from its ranks.

Law enforcement agencies turned their sights on the increasingly militant group. Fights between the group's members and police officers broke out in several cities. In August 1966, a raid by 80 Philadelphia police officers on a SNCC office resulted in several arrests and charges that dynamite was stored there. As a result, the city's mayor and chief of police tried to bar Carmichael from speaking in Philadelphia. He was soon arrested and convicted in Atlanta of inciting a riot. Federal authorities also became concerned. The FBI had begun surveillance of SNCC in 1960; now it stepped up the supervision. In the summer of 1967, Cointelpro, the FBI's Counterintelligence Program, officially added SNCC to its list of revolutionary groups to monitor, infiltrate, and, if possible, discredit.

Stepping down from the SNCC chairmanship, Carmichael gave lectures on college campuses and traveled worldwide. To an international audience that viewed him as a revolutionary leader, he gave speeches in Europe, Africa, and North Vietnam. In a talk given in London in July 1967, he so enraged British political leaders that he was barred from entering more than 30 countries in the British Commonwealth. Harsh criticism in the U.S. press followed an appearance in Havana where he said, "We are preparing groups of urban guerrillas for our defense in the cities.… It is going to be a fight to the death." President Fidel Castro of Cuba offered Carmichael political Asylum, which he declined. Upon Carmichael's return to the United States on December 12, 1967, u.s. marshals seized his passport. Lawmakers in Congress denounced him for Treason and Sedition, and, as a result, considered legislation favoring bans on travel by U.S. citizens to countries deemed enemies of the United States.

Overseas, Carmichael had espoused his view of Pan-Africanism. This political movement favored uniting African countries under a common socialist leadership. SNCC expelled Carmichael in August 1968, disagreeing with his political turn, but by this time he had already joined the BPP. Organized to prevent police brutality toward African Americans, the Black Panthers had adopted the symbol Carmichael popularized in Lowndes County, a leaping, snarling black panther. The BPP's members carried guns, demanded equality and justice, and occasionally exchanged gunfire with police officers, leading to the conviction of one of its founders, huey p. newton. As honorary prime minister of the BPP, Carmichael organized over two dozen chapters across the country.

Black power's growing appeal—and, in the eyes of many white U.S. citizens, its danger—seemed to reach a symbolic height at the 1968 Olympics. There, two medal-winning members of the U.S. Olympic Team raised their fists in expression of their solidarity with the movement, a protest that ended in U.S. officials stripping them of their medals.

Events during this period increased Carmichael's sense of alienation from the United States. He alleged that the FBI harassed him and his wife, Miriam Makeba, a South African–born singer, by following them wherever they went. Carmichael and Makeba felt that Makeba lost singing jobs and recording contracts because of Carmichael's notoriety. When the Black Panthers allied themselves with white radicals he broke with the organization. "The history of Africans living in the U.S. has shown that any premature alliance with white radicals has led to complete subversion of the blacks by the whites," he said in July 1969. He called upon all Africans "as one cohesive force to wage an unrelenting armed struggle against the white Western empire for the liberation of our people." His departure sounded a death knell for the black power movement; by the early 1970s it had all but vanished.

In 1969, Carmichael prepared to leave for self-imposed exile in Africa. Before going, he organized a branch of the All-African People's Revolutionary Party (AAPRP) in Washington, DC, a Pan-Africanist group established the previous year in Guinea, West Africa. After settling in Africa, he briefly returned to the United States in March 1970, and appeared before a congressional subcommittee on national security matters. Questioned about revolutionary groups in the United States, he pleaded the Fifth Amendment throughout the hearing. Back in Guinea, he worked for the AAPRP, taught at the university in Conakry, and, in 1978, changed his name to Kwame Ture, partly in honor of Sékou Touré, former president of Guinea, who was his friend and benefactor. Following the death of President Touré and the rise of the Military Government in Guinea, he was jailed several times for unknown reasons.

Carmichael traveled and spoke in a number of countries since the 1980s. In 1982, the British Commonwealth briefly lifted its ban on his crossing its borders, but it quickly renewed the prohibition after he made a 1983 visit to Britain advocating international black solidarity and the overthrow of capitalism. British officials claimed that he urged black lawyers to throw bombs. Later, he paid several visits to the United States. In 1989, looking back on the accomplishments of the civil rights and black power movements, he expressed skepticism. Citing the 304 African American mayors then in office in the United States, he dismissed them as impotent to effect real change. "All of them singularly and in block are powerless inside the racist political structure of the U.S.A.," he said. "These African mayors represent the biggest cities … yet the conditions of the masses of our people are worse today in these very cities than before the advent of African mayors."

Carmichael and Makeba divorced in 1978 and he later remarried. He received an honorary doctor of law degree from Shaw University, in North Carolina, and authored two books, Black Power: Politics of Liberation in America (1967) and Stokely Speaks: Black Power to Pan-Africanism (1971).

In June 1998, Carmichael donated his papers to the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University. He died on November 15, 1998, at the age of 57, of prostate cancer. In May 1999, Carmichael was posthumously awarded an honorary doctorate by Howard University and his friends and supporters began a drive to establish the Kwame Toure Work-Study Institute and Library in Conakry, Guinea.

Further readings

Carmichael, Stokely. 1971. Stokely Speaks: Black Power to Pan-Africanism. New York: Random House.

Johnson, Jacqueline. 1990. Stokely Carmichael: The Story of Black Power. Parsippany, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press.

Kaufman, Michael T. November 16, 1998. "Stokely Carmichael Dies at 57." New York Times. Available online at <> (accessed June 13, 2003).

Makeba, Miriam. 1987. Makeba: My Story. New York: New American Library.

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