Carmichael, Stokely

Stokely charmichael

bob fitch photo archive, © stanford university libraries

As president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael challenged the philosophy of nonviolence and interracial alliances that had come to define the modern movement. of civil rights, calling instead for “black power”. Though critical of the “black power” slogan, King acknowledged that “if Stokely Carmichael now says nonviolence is irrelevant, it is because he, as a dedicated veteran of many battles, has seen the most brutal white violence with his own eyes. against blacks. and white civil rights workers, and he has seen it go unpunished” (King, 33-34).

carmichael was born on june 29, 1941 in port-of-spain, trinidad. she moved to new york when he was 11 years old and joined his parents, who had settled there 9 years earlier. carmichael attended the elite bronx science high school where he met veteran black radicals and communist activists. In 1960, as a senior in high school, Carmichael heard about the sit-in movement for desegregation in the South and joined activists at the Congress of Racial Equality (core) protesting in new york against woolworth stores, a chain that maintained segregated dining rooms in the south.

carmichael majored in philosophy at howard university in 1960 and joined the university’s nonviolent action group, which was affiliated with sncc. in addition to working desegregation in washington, d.c., carmichael traveled south on the freedom rides. When the Freedom Riders traveled to Mississippi, Carmichael was arrested for the first time. king’s southern christian leadership conference (sclc) awarded carmichael a scholarship designed to support arrested students, and he continued his studies at howard. Throughout his four years in college, carmichael was involved in civil rights activities ranging from the albany movement to the new york hospital strikes.

After graduating in 1964, Carmichael joined the SNCC staff full-time, working on the Mississippi Freedom Summer project and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party strong>. Carmichael became frustrated by what he saw as a failed agitation for political rights and skeptical about the prospects for interracial activism within the existing political structure.

After the selma to montgomery march in march 1965, carmichael stayed in alabama to help rural african americans outside of selma form the lowndes county freedom organization, a group All-black independent politician who became known as the Black Panther Party. (Activists Bobby Seale and Huey Newton would later borrow the Black Panther symbol when they organized the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California in October 1966.) he recalled how people in lowndes county responded to king’s leadership: “people loved king…i’ve seen people in the south climb on each other just to say, ‘i touched him! I played it!’…people didn’t know what sncc was.” when he was asked, “you one of dr. the king’s men?” he replied, “yes, ma’am, I am” (carson, 164).

Carmichael had always viewed nonviolence as a tactic, rather than a guiding principle. in may 1966, carmichael replaced john lewis as president of sncc, a move that marked a shift in the student movement from an emphasis on nonviolence and integration to black militancy. A month later, Carmichael, King, and Core’s Floyd Mckissick collectively organized a march in support of James Meredith, who had been wounded by a sniper on the second day of his planned 220-mile hike from memphis, tennessee, to jackson, mississippi. Though Carmichael and King respected each other, the two men engaged in a fierce debate about the future of the civil rights movement, black radicalism, and the potential for integration. When the march reached Greenwood, Mississippi, Carmichael was arrested for the 27th time. At a rally after his release, he called for “black power.” King disapproved of the violent connotations of the slogan, and Carmichael admitted that he had used the term during the march to force King to take a position on the issue. Although King initially publicly resisted opposing Carmichael and Black Power, he admitted to a rift between those still committed to nonviolence and those willing to use any means necessary to achieve freedom.

King and Carmichael reached an agreement on public opposition to the Vietnam War. carmichael encouraged king to speak out against the war, while advisers such as stanley levison warned him that such opposition could have an adverse effect on financial contributions to sclc. Nearly a month after delivering his “beyond vietnam” speech at New York’s Riverside Church in April 1967, King preached “why I oppose the war in Vietnam” at the >ebenezer baptist church, with carmichael sitting in the front row at his invitation. King told the congregation, “There is something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say don’t be violent with Jim Clark, but will curse and condemn you when you say don’t be violent with brown Vietnamese children” (King, April 30, 1967). Carmichael joined the congregation in giving King a standing ovation.

Although Carmichael opposed the decision to expel whites from SNCC, in the late 1960s he joined black nationalists in emphasizing racial unity over class unity as the basis for future black struggles. After resigning as SNCC Chairman in 1967, Carmichael made a controversial trip to Cuba, China, North Vietnam, and finally Guinea. Returning to the United States with the intention of forming a united black front across the country, he accepted an invitation to become premier of the militant Oakland-based Black Panther Party. in 1969 he left the Black Panthers after disagreeing with the party’s willingness to work with radical whites.

carmichael changed his name to kwame ture and moved to guinea, where he consulted with the exiled ghanaian leader kwame nkrumah. he helped form the African Peoples’ Revolutionary Party in 1972 and urged African-American radicals to work for African liberation and pan-Africanism. Carmichael died of cancer in Guinea on November 15, 1998 at the age of 57.

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