KWAME TURE (STOKELY CARMICHAEL)
Stokely was born on June 29, 1941, in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. His parents, Mabel and Adolphus left for New York when he was a toddler, where they worked for a better life for their family. Stokely remained in the care of his grandmother until the age of 11 when they were financially able to bring him to the United States.
Mabel worked as a stewardess for a steamship line and Adolphus worked as a carpenter by day and a taxi driver by night. An industrious and optimistic immigrant, Adolphus Carmichael chased a version of the American Dream that his son would later criticize as an instrument of racist economic oppression.
“My old man believed in this work-and-overcome stuff. He was religious, never lied, never cheated or stole. He did carpentry all day and drove taxis all night. … The next thing that came to that poor black man was death—from working too hard. And he was only in his 40s.”
In 1956, Carmichael passed the admissions test to get into the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. An excellent and gifted student, Stokely received scholarship offers to a variety of prestigious predominantly white universities after graduating high school in 1960. He chose instead to attend the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. There he majored in philosophy, graduating from Howard University with honors in 1964.
While a freshman at Howard University in 1961, Stokely went on his first Freedom Ride— an integrated bus tour through the South to challenge the segregation of interstate travel. During that trip, he was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi for entering the “whites only” bus stop waiting room and jailed for 49 days. Undeterred, he remained actively involved in the civil rights movement throughout his college years, participating in another Freedom Ride in Maryland, a demonstration in Georgia and a hospital workers’ strike in New York.
Freedom Summer With the SNCC
Stokely left school at a critical moment in the history of the civil rights movement: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had dubbed the summer of 1964 “Freedom Summer,” and rolled out an aggressive campaign to register black voters in the Deep South. With his eloquence, charisma and natural leadership skills, the newly minted college graduate was quickly appointed field organizer for Lowndes County, Alabama.
When Stokely arrived in Lowndes County in 1965, African Americans made up the majority of the population but remained entirely unrepresented in government.Although 80 percent of the population was Black, there were no Black elected officials.Economically dependent on white plantation owners, many were afraid to join civil rights efforts.
And none had been allowed to register to vote until early 1965. Carmichael went door to door, day after day to educate and register the otherwise uninformed eligible Black voters, and helped to increase the number of registered Black voters from 70 to 2,600 — 300 more than the number of registered white voters.
Unsatisfied with the response of either of the major political parties to his registration efforts, Stokely founded his own party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. To satisfy a requirement that all political parties have an official logo, he chose a black panther, which later provided the inspiration for the Black Panthers.
Early in his time with the SNCC, Stokely adhered to the philosophy of nonviolent resistance espoused by King. In addition to moral opposition to violence, proponents of nonviolent resistance believed that the strategy would win public support for civil rights by drawing a sharp contrast — captured on nightly television — between the peacefulness of the protesters and the brutality of the police and hecklers opposing them. However, as time went on, he — like many young activists — became frustrated with the slow pace of progress and with having to endure repeated acts of violence and humiliation at the hands of white police officers without recourse.
By the time he was elected national chairman of the SNCC in May 1966, Stokely had largely lost faith in the theory of nonviolent resistance that he had once held dear. As chairman, he turned the SNCC in a sharply radical direction, making it clear that white members were no longer welcome.
In June 1966, after activist James Meredith was shot during his solitary “Walk Against Fear” from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. Carmichael decided that SNCC volunteers should carry on the march in his place. Upon reaching Greenwood, Mississippi, the enraged leader gave the address for which he would be best remembered: “We been saying ‘freedom’ for six years,” he cried. “What we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power.'”
Ordinary people both Black and white came from the South and all parts of the country to participate. The marchers slept on the ground outside or in large tents, and were fed mainly by local communities. On the early evening of Thursday, June 16, 1966, when the marchers arrived in Canton, Mississippi, the marchers began to set up their tents for the night on the grounds of the all Black Stone Street Negro Elementary School. Permission to use the school grounds had been granted by the Black school board but was later revoked by white city officials.
When law enforcement demanded they vacate the premises, Carmichael took to the stage and thundered “We don’t want anybody to move! The time for running has come to an end. You tell them white folk in Mississippi that all the scared niggers are dead. You tell them they shot on the rabbits, they going to deal with some men!”
By June 26, when the march entered its end point at Jackson,Mississippi it was estimated to be 15,000 strong. Its passage was warmly welcomed in the Black neighborhoods and by some whites. However, many whites jeered and threatened the marchers; others simply stayed indoors.
We have to march to a position where we can see a strength and unity amongst each other… We have to build a power base so strong in this country that we’ll bring them to their knees every time they mess with us.
“It scared people because they did not understand, they could not subtract violence from power. They could only see power as a violent instrument accompanying it” said one activist present when the term was first introduced.
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. In his 1968 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, Stokely explained the meaning of the term: ”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.”
“Now we are now engaged in a psychological struggle in this country, and that is whether or not black people will have the right to use the words they want to use without white people giving their sanction to it; and that we maintain, whether they like it or not, we gonna use the word “Black power” — and let them address themselves to that; but that we are not going to wait for white people to sanction black power. We’re tired waiting; every time black people move in this country, they’re forced to defend their position before they move. It’s time that the people who are supposed to be defending their position do that. That’s white people. They ought to start defending themselves as to why they have oppressed and exploited us.”
Black Power also represented Stokely’s break with King’s doctrine of nonviolence and its end goal of racial integration. Instead, he associated the term with the doctrine of black separatism, 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,” he said in one speech.
Unsurprisingly, the term proved controversial, evoking fear in many white Americans, even those previously sympathetic to the civil rights movement, and exacerbating fissures within the movement itself between older proponents of nonviolence and younger advocates of separatism. King called black power “an unfortunate choice of words.”
Joining the Black Panther Party
In 1967, Stokely took a transformative journey, traveling outside the United States to visit with revolutionary leaders in Cuba, North Vietnam, China and Guinea. Upon his return to the United States, he left the SNCC and became prime minister of the more radical Black Panthers. He spent the next two years speaking around the country and writing essays on black nationalism, black separatism and, increasingly, pan-Africanism, which ultimately became his life cause.
Like all of the most important figures of the Black Power era, Stokely was subject to intense government surveillance and subversive efforts. FBI documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act describe Stokely as a dangerous subversive and an “enemy of the state”.
Name Change and Move to Guinea
In 1969, under pressure from the FBI, Stokely left the United States and lived the rest of his life out in Conakry, Guinea under the name of Kwame Ture to honor both the president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, and the president of Guinea, Sékou Touré, and dedicated his life to Dr. Kwame Nkrumah‘s socialist All-African People’s Revolutionary Party that would lead the military struggle against settler colonialism, Zionism, neo-colonialism, imperialism and all other forms of capitalist oppression and exploitation.“America does not belong to the blacks,” he said, explaining his departure from the country.
Kwame was married twice during this time, first to South African singer Miriam Makeba, and then to a Guinean doctor named Marlyatou Barry, with whom he had a son. In 1971 he published Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism, a collection of essays and speeches. In 1986, he was arrested for his association with the deceased Touré and briefly jailed on charges of plotting to overthrow the new military government.
Although he made frequent trips back to the United States on behalf of the A-APRP to advocate pan-Africanism as the only true path to liberation for black people worldwide, Stokely maintained permanent residence in Guinea for the rest of his life.
Shortly before his death, he was awarded the Qathafi International Human Rights Prize, and was invited by Muammar Al Qathafi himself to take hospice in Tripoli and participate in the Pan-African Conference there.
Death and Legacy
Kwame was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1996, and although it is unclear precisely what he meant, he said publicly that his cancer “was given to me by forces of American imperialism and others who conspired with them.”
The flight to Tripoli, Libya was to be Kwame’s Last Freedom Ride, a revolutionary act to break, once and for all, the United States government’s travel bans, sanctions, embargoes and blockades against the peoples and Governments of Côte d’Ivoire, the Congo, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria; blockades that had been in place for decades, and some of which are still in place today.
Kwame knew that he could die en route to or shortly after his arrival in Tripoli. But consistent with how he lived his life, was determined to die in Africa and in service to his people. The members of his family, including his mother Mabel Carmichael, and the cadre of the A-APRP who enabled and empowered Kwame to make this Last Freedom Ride, were prepared to die with him.
He made his transition to the ancestors, on November 15, 1998, at the age of 57, in Conakry, Guinea. His revolutionary voice and Pan-Africanist vision is still reverberating in every corner of Africa, the African Diaspora and the World. It reverberates despite the unrelenting, massive and word-wide conspiracy to silence, co-opt, contain and crush Kwame’s voice and vision, and his legacy of revolutionary struggle and sacrifice for Black Power.
An inspired orator, persuasive essayist, effective organizer and expansive thinker, Carmichael/Ture stands out as one of the preeminent figures of the American Civil Rights Movement. 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!”