Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998), also known as Kwame Ture, was a leading black activist in the United States and advocate of Pan-African socialism in Guinea. He was a leader of the Student Non-violent coordinating committee (SNCC) and later the Black Panther Party before moving to Guinea in 1968. Ture/Carmichael is credited with defining the concept of Black Power. Although he died at age 57, he is still remembered as one of the most influential black leaders of the late twentieth century.
From young civil rights activist to Black Panther leader and finally proponent of socialist Pan Africanism, Stokely Carmichael (June 29, 1941 – November 15, 1998), also known as Kwame Ture, was one of the most famous African Americans in the last half of the twentieth century. His increasing radicalization reflected the trend in the Black Power movement in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s and he has even been credited with the invention of the term “black power.” Since his death from prostate cancer, his writing and speeches have continued to influence many African American leaders and activists.
Early Life and Education
Two years after he was born in the city of Port of Spain in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, Stokely Carmichael’s parents left him in the care of his grandmother and two aunts when they emigrated to the United States. His father, Adolphus, was a carpenter who also worked as a taxi driver in New York City, while his mother, Mabel, worked as a stewardess for a steamship line. Once they had established themselves in New York, his parents sent for Stokely and his two sisters to join them in 1952.
The reunited Carmichael family briefly lived in Harlem before moving to the Van Nest neighborhood in the East Bronx. At that time, this area was populated primarily by Jewish and Italian immigrants and their descendants, but despite being a racial minority Stokely Carmichael made friendships with local boys. According to an interview that he gave to Life magazine in 1967, young Carmichael was the only black member of the Morris Park Dukes, a youth gang with activities focused on petty theft and alcohol-fuelled parties.
Originally a student at Tranquility School in Trinidad and Tobago, Carmichael attended public school in the New York City system where he excelled as a student. He was later accepted into the elite and selective Bronx High School of Sciences, on the basis of his academic performance. After graduation in 1960, he continued his education at Howard University, an historically black university in Washington, D.C. His professors included the poet and literary critic Sterling Brown, sociologist (and founder of academic black studies programs) Nathan Hare, and Toni Morrison, later winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Carmichael graduated in 1964 with a degree in philosophy and was offered a full graduate scholarship to Harvard University, which he declined.
Civil Rights Activism
While at Howard, Carmichael joined the Non-violent Action Group (NAG), the campus affiliate of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly pronounced “snick”). He met and became friends with Tom Kahn, a white, Jewish student at Howard. Kahn introduced Carmichael and other NAG members to Bayard Rustin, an African American Quaker and socialist who had become an influential advisor to SNCC. Inspired by Rustin and by the growing Civil Rights protest marches in the South, Carmichael began to become more active in the Civil Rights Movement. In his first year at Brown, he participated in the Freedom Rides sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) designed to desegregate restaurants along U.S. Route 40 between Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C. His activism led to frequent arrests and time spent in jail. These were so frequent that he lost exact count, and in later life could only estimate the number of his arrests as being fewer than 36.
On July 4, 1961, Carmichael and eight other activists took part in a Freedom Ride train trip from New Orleans, Louisiana to Jackson Mississippi, to integrate the “whites only” section on the train. Even before they could board the train, they were met by a crowd of white protestors, who blocked their way, shouted, threw cans and burning cigarettes at the Freedom Riders and spat on them. Eventually, Carmichael and the other activists were able to board the train, but when they entered the “white only” dining car during the trip they faced further trouble. After the train stopped in Jackson, the nine African Americans were charged by local police with disturbing the peace, arrested and taken to jail. After conviction, Carmichael and the others were imprisoned for nearly two months, including 49 days served with other activists at the infamous Parchman State Prison Farm in Sunflower County, Mississippi. While at the prison farm, they were kept in isolation in cells 6 by 9 feet, allowed to shower only twice a week and denied books or other activities. Still, Carmichael kept up the morale of the group, telling jokes and singing.
After graduation from Howard University, Carmichael became a field organizer for SNCC, taking on such projects as registering African Americans in the rural South to vote. These voting registration campaigns were meant to reverse nearly a century’s repression of the black vote by the white-dominated Democratic Party (which was in the majority in the South after the Civil War). The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act helped Carmichael and other SNCC activists, since it allowed federal supervision and enforcement of equal rights to vote. In 1965, for example, he helped to increase the number of black voters in Lowndes County, Alabama from 70 to 2,600, exceeding the number of whites registered to vote in the county. While working on this project, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization was formed, and adopted a logo of a black panther; the local Democratic Party organization used a white rooster as its mascot.
In 1966, Carmichael succeeded John Lewis (later elected to the U.S. Congress) as chairman of the SNCC. Only a few weeks after he took office, he faced his first major challenge: Activist James Meredith, who was staging a solitary “March Against Fear” from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi in June of that year, was wounded several times by a shotgun just two days into his protest march. Several civil rights organizations, including the SNCC, vowed to complete Meredith’s march. Carmichael, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., Floyd McKissick, Cleveland Sellers and other prominent activists, attracted national attention and succeeded in registering more than 4,000 black voters.
During the march, Carmichael was arrested and, upon his release, gave his first “Black Power” speech. In a theme developed in subsequent speeches of this type, Carmichael urged black people to unite, recognize their heritage and develop a sense of community and black pride. He also called for African Americans to define their own goals and lead their own organizations. While the concept of Black Power was not new, his speeches attracted national attention and became a rallying cry for young African Americans across the country. Underlying the slogan was the philosophy that black Americans should unite to form their own political force and vote in their own interests. Under Carmichael’s leadership, the SNCC became more radical, focusing on Black Power as its core goal and ideology.
The new direction of SNCC became evident during the Atlanta Project in 1966. This was a voter registration campaign, lead by local SNCC leader Bill Ware, to support the candidacy of Julian Bond for the Georgia State Legislature from the Atlanta district. Unlike in previous campaigns, however, Ware specifically excluded Northern white SNCC members from participating in the drive. Initially, Carmichael opposed this policy, but ultimately sided with those calling for the expulsion of white SNCC members when the issue came to a vote. Whites, Carmichael concluded, should concentrate on organizing poor white southern communities, but leave SNCC to promote African American self-reliance through Black Power. It was also in 1966 that he began to criticize the principles of the traditional Civil Rights Movement. Not only did he propose that non-violence should be used selectively as a tactic, but also questioned the benefits of racial integration in the United States.
Stokely Carmichael’s increasing prominence and national fame brought him into conflict with members of the SNCC. Organized as a collective, with only nominal authority and power given to its leaders, many people in the organization criticized his tendency to make major policy statements for SNCC independently, without seeking prior internal agreement. He stepped down as chairman of SNCC in 1967, to be replaced by H. Rap Brown.
Despite leaving the post, he still remained on the staff of the SNCC, and accepted the title of Honorary Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party. In fact, he worked to force a merger between the two organizations. Soon, however, rumors began to circulate about him, including one that he was an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency. While it was later revealed that these rumours were launched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) orders of its Director J. Edgar Hoover, Carmichael’s reputation was damaged: He was formally expelled from the SNCC and criticized by many members of the Black Panther Party.
Carmichael began to travel extensively throughout the world, visiting Guinea, North Vietnam, China and Cuba. Back in the United States, he wrote a book titled Black Panther with Charles V. Hamilton and gave speeches outlining his vision for the Black Panthers. He became strongly critical of the war in Vietnam, on the grounds of its legality and his view that the draft was racist in implementation. During the 1968 riots in Washington, D.C. following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Carmichael demanded that businesses in the city close out of respect for the murder of the civil rights leader. Although he tried to prevent violence during the riots, his reputation as a radical attracted blame from the news media for the destruction and deaths.
After the 1968 riots, Carmichael began to distance himself from the Black Panthers. Although many of the leaders of that organization believed that white activists could be used to further their goals, Carmichael advocated a black-only policy. After marrying Miriam Makeba, a noted South African singer, he and his wife moved to Guinea. There, he became an aide to that nation’s president, Ahmed Sékou Touré, and became close to the exiled Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah. His wife, Makeba, was also appointed the official representative of Guinea to the United Nations.
To honor his new patrons, Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture, a name that he used for the rest of his life (although he would also accept being addressed by his original one). He continued to travel, speak and write in support of leftist ideas and organizations. He published a collection of essays promoting African socialism under the title Stokely Speaks: Black Power Back to Pan-Africanism in 1971.
For the next decade, Ture (Carmichael) continued to support President Touré, even as his personal life became troubled. He divorced from his wife Miriam Makeba in 1973 and later married Guinean doctor Marlyatou Barry. After having a son, Bokar, in 1982, they also divorced. After a coup deposed President Touré in 1984, Ture/Carmichael was briefly imprisoned, but then released.
Death and Legacy
In 1996, Ture/Carmichael was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He began treatment in Cuba, but later moved to New York City for two years’ of therapy at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Popular support included a grant from the Nation of Islam, a series of benefit concerts to raise money to defray his medical expenses and a monthly stipend from the government of Trinidad and Tobago. Shortly before his death, he returned to Guinea where he died in 1998 at the age of 57.
Even during his last months, Ture/Carmichael continued to criticize the United States and the lack of political power held by African Americans. Although he died relatively young, he outlived the SNCC (which faded away in the 1970s) and the Black Panther Party (which was dissolved in 1982) . He is still remembered for his defiant stand against “institutional racism” (a term he created) in the U.S. and for promoting Black Power and Pan-African socialism. Considered an extreme radical by some during his life, many of his ideas are widely advocated in the United States, in Africa and throughout the world today. To this day, some count him among the greatest of the black leaders of the last half of the twentieth century.