Stokely Carmichael

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Kwame Ture
Carmichael amidst a demonstration near the United States Capitol protesting the House of Representatives' action denying Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., his seat, 1967.
4th Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
In office
May 1966 – June 1967
Preceded byJohn Lewis
Succeeded byH. Rap Brown
Personal details
Born(1941-06-29)June 29, 1941
Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
DiedNovember 15, 1998(1998-11-15) (aged 57)
Conakry, Guinea
Alma materHoward University (B.A., Philosophy, 1964)
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Kwame Ture
Carmichael amidst a demonstration near the United States Capitol protesting the House of Representatives' action denying Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., his seat, 1967.
4th Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
In office
May 1966 – June 1967
Preceded byJohn Lewis
Succeeded byH. Rap Brown
Personal details
Born(1941-06-29)June 29, 1941
Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
DiedNovember 15, 1998(1998-11-15) (aged 57)
Conakry, Guinea
Alma materHoward University (B.A., Philosophy, 1964)

Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture; June 29, 1941 – November 15, 1998) was a Trinidadian-American black activist active in the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement. He rose to prominence first as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick") and later as the "Honorary Prime Minister" of the Black Panther Party. Initially an integrationist, Carmichael later became affiliated with black nationalist and Pan-Africanist movements.[1] He popularized the term "Black Power".[2]


Early life and education

Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Stokely Carmichael moved to Harlem, New York City in 1952 at age eleven to rejoin his parents,[2] who had left him with his grandmother and two aunts to immigrate when he was two. He attended the elite[3] Tranquility School in Trinidad until his parents were able to send for him.[4]

His mother, Mabel R. Carmichael,[3] was a stewardess for a steamship line, and his father, Adolphus, was a carpenter who also worked as a taxi driver.[2] The reunited Carmichael family eventually left Harlem to live in Morris Park in the East Bronx, at that time an aging Jewish and Italian neighborhood. According to a 1967 interview he gave to LIFE Magazine, he was the only black member of the Morris Park Dukes, a youth gang involved in alcohol and petty theft.[2]

Carmichael as a senior in high school, 1960.

He attended the Bronx High School of Science. In 1960, Carmichael went on to attend Howard University, a historically-black university in Washington, D.C.. His professors included Sterling Brown,[5][6] Nathan Hare[7] and Toni Morrison.[8] Carmichael and a white student and civil-rights activist, Tom Kahn, helped to fund a five-day run of the Three Penny Opera, by Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill: "Tom Kahn—very shrewdly—had captured the position of Treasurer of the Liberal Arts Student Council and the infinitely charismatic and popular Carmichael as floor whip was good at lining up the votes. Before they knew what hit them the Student Council had become a patron of the arts, having voted to buy out the remaining performances. It was a classic win/win. Members of the Council got patronage packets of tickets for distribution to friends and constituents".[5] His apartment on Euclid Street was a gathering place for his activist classmates.[3] He graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1964.[2] He was offered a full graduate scholarship to Harvard University, but turned it down.[9]

He joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), the Howard campus affiliate of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).[1] Tom Kahn introduced Carmichael and the other SNCC activists to Bayard Rustin, who became an influential adviser to SNCC.[10] Carmichael became inspired by the sit-ins to become more active in the Civil Rights Movement. In his first year at the university, he participated in the Freedom Rides of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and was frequently arrested, spending time in jail. In 1961, he served 49 days at the infamous Parchman Farm in Sunflower County, Mississippi.[2][11] He was arrested many times for his activism. He lost count of his many arrests, sometimes giving the estimate of at least 29 or 32, and telling the Washington Post in 1998 he believed that the total number was fewer than 36.[3]

Freedom Rides

In his first year at the Howard University, the nineteen-year-old Carmichael participated in the Freedom Rides of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Along with eight other riders, on June 4, 1961 Carmichael made the trip by train from New Orleans, LA to Jackson, MS.[12] Before getting on the train in New Orleans, they encountered white protestors blocking the way. Carmichael says that “They were shouting. Throwing cans and lit cigarettes at us. Spitting on us.”[13] 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. Eventually, Carmichael was transferred to Parchman State Prison Farm where he gained notoriety for being a witty and hard nosed leader among the prisoners.[14]

At nineteen years old, Carmichael became the youngest detainee in the summer of 1961.[15] He spent 53 days at Parchman Farm in “a six-by-nine cell. Twice a week to shower. No books, nothing to do. They would isolate us. Maximum security.”[15] Carmichael said about the Parchman Farm sheriff that “The sheriff acted like he was scared of black folks and he came up with some beautiful things. One night he opened up all the windows, put on ten big fans and an air conditioner and dropped the temperature to 38 degrees. All we had on was T-shirts and shorts.”[15] 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.[16]

Carmichael kept the group's morale up while in prison, often telling jokes with Steve Green and the other Freedom Riders, and making light of their situation. While he joked around quite a bit, Carmichael knew this was serious. “What with the range of ideology, religious belief, political commitment and background, age, and experience, something interesting was always going on. Because no matter our differences, this group had one thing in common, moral stubbornness. Whatever we believed, we really believed and were not at all shy about advancing. We were where we were only because of our willingness to affirm our beliefs even at the risk of physical injury. So it was never dull on death row.”[13]


In 1965, working as a SNCC activist in Lowndes County, Alabama, Carmichael helped to increase the number of registered black voters from 70 to 2,600 — 300 more than the number of registered white voters.[2] Black residents and voters organized and widely supported the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a party that had the black panther as its mascot, over the white dominated local Democratic Party, whose mascot was a white rooster. Although black residents and voters outnumber whites in Lowndes, they lost the county wide election of 1965.[citation needed]

Carmichael became chairman of SNCC later in 1966, taking over from John Lewis. A few weeks after Carmichael took office, James Meredith was attacked with a shotgun during his solitary "March Against Fear". Carmichael joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Floyd McKissick, Cleveland Sellers and others to continue Meredith's march. He was arrested once again during the march and, upon his release, he gave his first "Black Power" speech, using the phrase to urge black pride and socio-economic independence:

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.

While Black Power was not a new concept, Carmichael's speech brought it into the spotlight and it became a rallying cry for young African Americans across the country. Everywhere that Black Power spread, if accepted, credit was given to Carmichael. If the concept was condemned, he was again responsible and given the blame.[17] According to Carmichael: "Black Power meant black people coming together to form a political force and either electing representatives or forcing their representatives to speak their needs [rather than relying on established parties]".[18] Heavily influenced by the work of Frantz Fanon and his landmark book Wretched of the Earth, along with others such as Malcolm X, under Carmichael's leadership SNCC gradually became more radical and focused on Black Power as its core goal and ideology. This became most evident during the controversial Atlanta Project in 1966. SNCC, under the local leadership of Bill Ware, engaged in a voter drive to promote the candidacy of Julian Bond for the Georgia State Legislature in an Atlanta district. However, unlike previous SNCC activities — like the 1961 Freedom Rides or the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer — Ware excluded Northern white SNCC members from the drive. Initially, Carmichael opposed this move and voted it down, but he eventually changed his mind.[19] When, at the urging of the Atlanta Project, the issue of whites in SNCC came up for a vote, Carmichael ultimately sided with those calling for the expulsion of whites, reportedly to encourage whites to begin organizing poor white southern communities while SNCC would continue to focus on promoting African American self-reliance through Black Power.[20]

Carmichael saw nonviolence as a tactic as opposed to a principle, which separated him from moderate civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.. Carmichael became critical of civil rights leaders who simply called for the integration of African Americans into existing institutions of the middle class mainstream.

Now, several people have been upset because we’ve said that integration was irrelevant when initiated by blacks, and that in fact it was a subterfuge, an insidious subterfuge, for the maintenance of white supremacy. Now we maintain that in the past six years or so, this country has been feeding us a "thalidomide drug of integration," and that some Negroes have been walking down a dream street talking about sitting next to white people; and that that does not begin to solve the problem; that when we went to Mississippi we did not go to sit next to Ross Barnett; we did not go to sit next to Jim Clark; we went to get them out of our way; and that people ought to understand that; that we were never fighting for the right to integrate, we were fighting against white supremacy. Now, then, in order to understand white supremacy we must dismiss the fallacious notion that white people can give anybody their freedom. No man can give anybody his freedom. A man is born free. You may enslave a man after he is born free, and that is in fact what this country does. It enslaves black people after they’re born, so that the only acts that white people can do is to stop denying black people their freedom; that is, they must stop denying freedom. They never give it to anyone.[21]

IAccording to Bearing the Cross (1986), David J. Garrow's Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Civil Rights movement, a few days after Carmichael used the "Black Power" slogan at the "Meredith March Against Fear," he reportedly told King, "Martin, I deliberately decided to raise this issue on the march in order to give it a national forum and force you to take a stand for Black Power." King responded, "I have been used before. One more time won't hurt."

In 1967, Carmichael stepped down as chairman of SNCC and was replaced by H. Rap Brown. The SNCC, which was a collective and, in keeping with the spirit of the times, worked by group consensus rather than hierarchically, was displeased with Carmichael's celebrity status. SNCC leaders had begun to refer to him as "Stokely Starmichael" and criticize his habit of making policy announcements independently, before achieving internal agreement, and gave him a formal letter of expulsion in 1967.[3] There is some speculation around Carmichael’s reasoning for stepping down from the chairman position of SNCC. According to his personal narratives, Carmichael witnessed African American demonstrators being beaten and shocked with cattle prods by the police. Witnessing the helplessness of people so fully committed to the non-violent approach gave Carmichael a new perspective, one which condoned the use of violent techniques against the brutality of the racist police force. Carmichael’s new tactics sought to reciprocate the fear instilled in African Americans by the police force,[22] which led to the creation of the militant social group known as “The Black Panthers.”

Politics after SNCC

After his time with the SNCC, Carmichael attempted to clarify his politics by writing the book Black Power (1967) with Charles V. Hamilton and became a strong critic of the Vietnam War. During this period he traveled and lectured extensively throughout the world; visiting Guinea, North Vietnam, China, and Cuba. After his expulsion from the SNCC, Carmichael became more clearly identified with the Black Panther Party as its "Honorary Prime Minister."[3] During this period he became more of a speaker than an organizer, traveling throughout the country and internationally advocating for his vision of Black Power.[23]

Carmichael also lamented the 1967 execution of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, professing:

The death of Che Guevara places a responsibility on all revolutionaries of the World to redouble their decision to fight on to the final defeat of Imperialism. That is why in essence Che Guevara is not dead, his ideas are with us.[24]


Carmichael joined Martin Luther King Jr. in New York on April 15, 1967 to share his views with protesters on race in terms of the war in Vietnam.

The draft exemplifies as much as racism the totalitarianism which prevails in this nation in the disguise of consensus democracy. The President has conducted war in Vietnam without the consent of Congress or the American people, without the consent of anybody except maybe Lady Bird.


1968 D.C. riots

Carmichael was present in D.C. the night after King's assassination. He led a group through the streets, demanding that businesses close out of respect. Although he tried to prevent violence from breaking out, the situation eventually escalated beyond his control. Due to Carmichael's reputation as a provocateur, the news media blamed him for the ensuing violence.[26]

Carmichael did host an incendiary press conference the next day, predicting mass racial violence in the streets.[27]

Surveillance by the FBI

After moving to Washington, D.C., Carmichael was under nearly constant surveillance by the FBI. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Hoover instructed a team of agents to find evidence connecting Carmichael to the rioting. A 1968 memo from Hoover suggests fears that Carmichael would become a black nationalist "messiah".[28]

Self-imposed exile

However, Carmichael soon began to distance himself from the Panthers. The Panthers and Carmichael disagreed on whether white activists should be allowed to help the Panthers. The Panthers believed that white activists could help the movement, while Carmichael thought as Malcolm X, saying that the white activists needed to organize their own communities first. In 1969, he and his then-wife, the South African singer Miriam Makeba, moved to Guinea-Conakry where he became an aide to Guinean prime minister Ahmed Sékou Touré and the student of exiled Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah.[29] Makeba was appointed Guinea's official delegate to the United Nations.[30] Three months after his arrival in Guinea, in July 1969, he published a formal rejection of the Black Panthers, condemning the Panthers for not being separatist enough and their "dogmatic party line favoring alliances with white radicals".[2]

It was at this stage in his life that Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture to honor the African leaders Nkrumah and Touré who had become his patrons. At the end of his life, friends still referred to him interchangeably by both names, "and he doesn't seem to mind."[3]

Carmichael remained in Guinea after separation from the Black Panther Party. He continued to travel, write, and speak out in support of international leftist movements and in 1971 collected his work in a second book Stokely Speaks: Black Power Back to Pan-Africanism. This book expounds an explicitly socialist, Pan-African vision, which he seemingly retained for the rest of his life. From the late 1970s until the day he died, he answered his phone by announcing "Ready for the revolution!"[2]

While in Guinea, he was arrested one more time. Two years after Touré's death in 1984, the military regime which took his place arrested Carmichael and jailed him for three days on suspicion of attempting to overthrow the government. Despite common knowledge that President Touré engaged in torture of his political opponents, Carmichael had never criticized his namesake.[2]

Carmichael and Makeba separated in 1973. After they divorced, he entered a second marriage with Marlyatou Barry, a Guinean doctor whom he also divorced. By 1998, his second wife and their son, Bokar, born in 1982, were living in Arlington County, Virginia. Relying on a statement from the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party, his 1998 obituary in The New York Times referenced two sons, three sisters, and his mother as survivors, but without further details.[2]

Death and legacy

After two years of treatment at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, he died of prostate cancer at the age of 57 in Conakry, Guinea. He claimed that his cancer "was given to me by forces of American imperialism and others who conspired with them."[2] He claimed that the FBI had introduced the cancer to his body as an attempt at assassination.[31] After his diagnosis in 1996, he was treated in Cuba for his illness while receiving money from the Nation of Islam.[32] Benefit concerts were held in Denver; New York; Atlanta;[4] and Washington, D.C.,[3] to help defray his medical expenses; and the government of Trinidad and Tobago, where he was born, awarded him a grant of $1,000 a month for the same purpose.[4]

In 2007, the publication of previously secret Central Intelligence Agency documents revealed that Carmichael had been tracked by the CIA as part of their surveillance of black activists abroad, which began in 1968 and continued for years.[33]

In a final interview given to the Washington Post, he spoke with contempt for the economic and electoral progress made during the past thirty years. He acknowledged that blacks had won election to major mayorships, but stated that the power of mayoralty had been diminished and that such progress was essentially meaningless.[34]

Stokely Carmichael, along with Charles Hamilton,[35] are credited with coining the phrase "institutional racism", which is defined as a form of racism that occurs through institutions such as public bodies and corporations, including universities. In the late 1960s Carmichael defined "institutional racism" as "the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture or ethnic origin".[36]

Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson gave a speech celebrating Carmichael's life, stating: "He was one of our generation who was determined to give his life to transforming America and Africa. He was committed to ending racial apartheid in our country. He helped to bring those walls down".[37]

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Stokely Carmichael on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[38]


  1. ^ a b Stokely Carmichael, King Encyclopedia, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University. Accessed 20 November 2006.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Stokely Carmichael, Rights Leader Who Coined 'Black Power,' Dies at 57" November 16, 1998, New York Times. Accessed March 27, 2008. (alternate url)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "The Undying Revolutionary: As Stokely Carmichael, He Fought for interracial relationships. Now Kwame Ture's Fighting For His Life," by Paula Spahn, April 8, 1998, Washington Post p. D 1. Accessed via online cache June 27, 2007.
  4. ^ a b c "Stokely Carmichael Biography" Accessed June 27, 2007.
  5. ^ a b Thelwell, Ekwueme Michael (1999–2000). "The professor and the activists: A memoir of Sterling Brown". The Massachusetts Review 40 (Winter): 634–636. JSTOR 25091592.
  6. ^ Stuckey, Sterling. Going Through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History. Oxford University Press, 1994, p 142, ISBN 0-19-508604-X, 9780195086041.
  7. ^ Safire, William Safire's Political Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2008, p 58, ISBN 0-19-534334-4, ISBN 978-0-19-534334-2.
  8. ^ Haskins, Jim. Toni Morrison: Telling a Tale Untold. Twenty-First Century Books, 2002, p 44, ISBN 0-7613-1852-6, ISBN 978-0-7613-1852-1.
  9. ^ Bruce Watson, Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy, p. 177 (Viking, 2010).
  10. ^ Smethurst, James (2010). "The Black arts movement and historically Black colleges and universities". {African-American poets: 1950s to the present. 2. Chelsea House. pp. 112–113.
  11. ^ Carmichael, Stokely and Michael Thelwell. Ready for Revolution: The life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). Simon and Schuster, 2003. 201. Retrieved from Google Books on July 23, 2010. ISBN 0-684-85003-6, ISBN 978-0-684-85003-0.
  12. ^ Carmichael, Stokely (2003). Ready For Revolution. New York, New York: Scribner. pp. 171–215.
  13. ^ a b Arsenault, Raymond (2006). Freedom Riders. New York, New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 362–363. ISBN 978-0-19-513674-6.
  14. ^ PBS. "Stokely Carmichael Biography". PBS. Retrieved 8 April 2011.
  15. ^ a b c "Freedom Rides and White Backlash". Retrieved 8 April 2011.
  16. ^ Cwiklik, Robert (1993). Stokely Carmichael and Black Power. Brookfield, Connecticut: The Millbrook Press. pp. 14–15.
  17. ^ Bennet Jr., Lerone (Sept. 1966). "Stokely Carmichael Architect of Black Power". Ebony Magazine.
  18. ^ Stokely Carmichael, King Encyclopedia, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University. Accessed 20 November 2006
  19. ^ Atlanta in the Civil Rights Movement
  20. ^ [1], James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, pp. xvi-xv (2d ed. 1997). Accessed 17 March 2007.
  21. ^ [2], Stokely Carmichael, "Black Power" speech. Accessed 17 March 2007.
  22. ^ , Stokely Carmichael, King Encyclopedia, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University. Accessed 20 November 2006,
  23. ^ [3], Charlie Cobb, From Stokely Carmichael to Kwame Ture. Accessed 17 March 2007.
  24. ^ Viva Che!: The Strange Death and Life of Che Guevara, by Andrew Sinclair, 1968/re-released in 2006, Sutton publishing, ISBN 0-7509-4310-6, pg 67
  25. ^ "Protests - Events of 1967 - Year in Review". United Press International. 1967. pp. 15. Retrieved 2009-03-26.
  26. ^ Risen, Clay (2009). "April 4: U and Fourteenth". A nation on fire : America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-17710-5. "Even as he was holding the line in front of Peoples, several young men were inside the pharmacy ransacking it..."
  27. ^ Risen, Clay (2009). "April 5: 'Any Man's Death Diminishes Me'". A nation on fire : America in the wake of the King assassination. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0-470-17710-5.
  28. ^ Warden, Rob (10 February 1976). "Hoover rated Carmichael as 'black messiah'". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
  29. ^ [4], NY Times "Ready for Revolution" Book review. Accessed 17 March 2007.
  30. ^ "Miriam Makeba" undated biography at Answers.Com. Accessed June 27, 2007.
  31. ^ Statement of Kwame Ture undated between 1996 diagnosis and 1998 death. Accessed June 27, 2007.
  32. ^ Schaefer, Richard T. (2008). Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society. Thousand Oaks California: SAGE Publications. pp. 523.
  33. ^ "Some Examples of CIA Misconduct", June 26, 2007 Associated Press report published in the Washington Post. AP report also published same date here in the New York Times. Accessed June 27, 2007.
  34. ^ Span, Paula (8 Apr.). "The Undying Revolutionary: As Stokely Carmichael, He Fought for Black Power. Now Kwame Ture's Fighting For His Life". The Washington Post: pp. D01.
  35. ^ Bhavnani, Mirza, Meetoo, Reena, Heidi, Veena (2005). Tackling the Roots of Racism: Lessons for Success. Bristol, England: The Policy Press. pp. 235.
  36. ^ Richard W. Race, Analyzing ethnic education policy-making in England and Wales (PDF), Sheffield Online Papers in Social Research, University of Sheffield, p. 12. Accessed 20 June 2006.
  37. ^ Black Panther Leader Dies, BBC, November 16, 1998. Accessed 20 June 2006.
  38. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.

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