Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, on June 29, 1941. During the early part of his life he attended The Bronx High School of Science. Later he was a philosophy major at Howard University, and a young man whom spent summers in the South working with the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). There he was both a prominent member and chairman. One of the main purposes of the SNCC was to get African-Americans in Alabama and Mississippi registered to vote.
Stokely, at the age of 19, began his journey as a young radical and became a preeminent figure of the civil rights movement. He was most noted for the Freedom Rides, being a rising young community organizer in the civil rights movement, and for coining the phrase “Black Power.” Stokely worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Southern leaders to stage protests. He agreed with Dr. King’s vision of Non- violence and peaceful protests, but had a change of heart during the 1960’s. This later sparked the Black Power movement.
In his first year at the university (Harvard), in 1961, he participated in the Freedom Rides of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to desegregate the bus station restaurants along U.S. Route 40 between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Along with eight other riders, on June 4, 1961, Carmichael set out to travel by train from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Jackson, Mississippi. His goal was to integrate the formerly “white” section on the train. Before getting on the train in New Orleans, they encountered white protesters who were blocking the way, Carmichael says: “They were shouting, throwing cans, and lit cigarettes at us…. spitting on us.”
Eventually, they were able to board the train. When the group arrived in Jackson, Carmichael and the eight other riders entered a “white” cafeteria. They were charged with disturbing the peace, arrested and taken to jail (49 days). At 19 years of age, Carmichael was the youngest detainee in the summer of 1961. Later, Carmichael was transferred to the infamous Parchman Farm in Sunflower County, Mississippi, along with other Freedom Riders. He spent 53 days at Parchman Farm in “a six-by-nine cell. Stokely was allowed to shower twice a week. He had no books to read and nothing to do.
They would isolate us, maximum security. The sheriff acted like he was scared of black folks and he came up with some beautiful things. — Stokely Carmichael
Sparking a Movement
One night he opened up all the windows, put on ten big fans and an air conditioner and dropped the temperature to 38 degrees [Fahrenheit; 3 °C]. All we had on was T-shirts and shorts. Stokely was frequently arrested, spending time in jail. He was arrested so many times for his activism that he lost count, sometimes estimating at least 29 or 32. He gained notoriety for being a witty and hard-nosed leader among the prisoners. While being hurt one time, Carmichael began singing to the guards, “I’m gonna tell God how you treat me,” to which the rest of the prisoners joined in.
After the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner in Neshoba County, Miss., Carmichael lost faith in the tactic of non-violence and instead promoted “Black Power.” The phrase “Black Power” quickly caught on as the rallying cry of a younger, more radical generation of civil rights activists. The term also resonated internationally, becoming a slogan of resistance to European imperialism in Africa. ”It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.” (from Carmichael’s 1968 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation).
Also, due to the assassination of Malcolm X (February 21, 1965) and the crushing government response to the unrest that had blazed through several cities by the late ’60s, Carmichael decided to rethink his beliefs. He became an ally of the Black Panther Party. Carmichael associated the term, Black Power, with the doctrine of black separatism, which was articulated most prominently by Malcolm X. “When you talk of black power, you talk of building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created.”
In May 1967, Carmichael stepped down as chairman of SNCC and was replaced by H. Rap Brown. SNCC was a collective and worked by group consensus rather than hierarchically. Many members had become displeased with Carmichael’s celebrity status. Committee leaders had begun to refer to him as “Stokely Starmichael.” They criticized his habit of making policy announcements independently, before achieving internal agreement. Carmichael accepted the position of Honorary Prime Minister in the Black Panther Party, but also remained on the staff of SNCC. He attempted to forge a merger between the two organizations.
Stokely Carmichael was Framed by Cointelpro
Sometime during this same period, Carmichael was personally targeted by a section of J. Edgar Hoover‘s COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program) which focused on black activists. The program promoted slander and violence against targets that Hoover considered to be enemies of the US government. A March 4, 1968 memo from Hoover states his fear of the rise of a Black Nationalists, “messiah.” He noted that Carmichael alone had the necessary charisma to be a real threat in this way. In July 1968, Hoover stepped up his efforts to divide the black power movement. De-classified documents show a plan was launched to undermine the SNCC-Panther merger, as well as to “bad-jacket” Carmichael as a CIA agent.
Both efforts were largely successful. Carmichael was formally expelled from Student Non- violent Coordinating Committee that year, and rival Panthers began to denounce him. In 1968, Carmichael married Miriam Makeba, a South African singer. After they divorced, he later married a Guinean doctor named Marlyatou Barry. Although, he re-married the leader continued to make frequent trips back to the United States. He advocated pan-Africanism as the only true path to liberation for black people worldwide.
Carmichael maintained permanent residence in Guinea for the rest of his life. Carmichael was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1985. He died on November 15, 1998, at the age of 57. Kwame was an inspired orator, persuasive essayist, effective organizer and expansive thinker. His tireless spirit and radical outlook are perhaps best captured by the greeting with which he answered his telephone until his dying day: “Ready for the revolution!”
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