Stokely Carmichael, Black Power’s forgotten prophet
May 4, 2014 12:00 AM
"Stokely: A Life" by Peniel E. Joseph.
Peniel E. Joseph, author of "Stokely: A Life."
The civil rights movement has inspired many to glorify the actions and efforts of the two polarizing figures of that tumultuous time — Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“STOKELY: A LIFE”
By Peniel E. Joseph Basic Civitas Books ($29.99)
Americans tend to overlook another prominent figure of that time who is arguably as influential those icons. In “Stokely: A Life,” author Peniel E. Joseph sheds light on the activist Stokely Carmichael, painting an in-depth portrait of the civil rights leader and the lengths to which he was willing to go for blacks during a crucial time in American history.
Born in Trinidad in 1941, Stokely Carmichael moved to New York with his family when he was 11. He mingled with children of different backgrounds. From those early encounters he developed ideas about class and race that he would bring to the Civil Rights struggle.
A tall, handsome and well-spoken young man, Carmichael developed and honed the rhetorical skills that would help him spearhead grass-roots movements. He led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the Jim Crow-riddled South while still a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
On June 4, 1961, Carmichael boarded a train from New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi, with eight other “Freedom Riders” in an effort to integrate the train’s “Whites Only” section. They were subsequently arrested and taken to jail for disturbing the peace after attempting to dine in a white cafeteria in Jackson.
Carmichael’s political career gained traction as his fame for organizing movements for black rights grew. During this time, his national profile grew as he organized nonviolent sit-ins, marches and demonstrations such as voting rights campaigns in the Deep South.
Stokely Carmichael’s notoriety not only fueled efforts that lead to the 1963 March on Washington, it also put Carmichael in the position meet and befriend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King served as an influence for Carmichael as a nonviolent activist, but it was the young man’s uncompromising rhetoric on the Vietnam War that influenced Dr. King.
After the March on Washington, Carmichael began the transition from a pragmatic peace promoter to a radical revolutionist. His national debut on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program allowed him the chance to expose American hypocrisy in which it justified “dropping bombs in Vietnam to ensure free elections there.” Carmichael argued that the nation could and should “do no less in freedom in Mississippi.”
It was here that his nonviolent rhetoric also changed. He began preaching the necessity of political rights and self-rule by any means necessary, leading to increased scrutiny from J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
President Lyndon B. Johnson viewed the “Carmichaels and Kings” of the world as serious threats to the United States, suggesting that they might be under the control of communists by speaking anti-war rhetoric. Carmichael’s trips to Cuba and North Vietnam didn’t help matters much.
Mr. Joseph argues that Carmichael’s call for “Black Power” and the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense provided a new means for African-Americans to not only unite and protect themselves against white Americans but to take pride in being “not lazy, but black, intelligent, aggressive people.”
Black Power gained worldwide attention during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City when 200 meter Gold and Bronze Medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved fists in the air to symbolize black power.
When he turned 30, Carmichael made the brash decision to embrace pan-African ideology by leaving the United States and moving to Guinea, where the adopted the name Kwame Ture. This move perplexed and disappointed his supporters. He became a somewhat forgotten figure until his death in 1998.
Throughout “Stokely: A Life,” Mr. Joseph suggests that Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael formed an unacknowledged trio that dominated liberation politics on the world stage during the 1960s. It is a disservice to civil rights history that his name is often omitted when chronicling the progress since that time.
Could it be that because Carmichael was the only man the trio to make it past the age of 40 without becoming a martyr through assassination that he’s been forgotten?
Whatever the reason, Mr. Joseph’s detail rich biography delves into the life of a political activist turned icon while not forgetting to show us his human side.
Samson Horne is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.
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