Episode 90: Stokely Carmichael: A Life

Host: Joan Neuberger, Professor, Department of History, UT-Austin
Guest: Peniel E. Joseph, Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values, and Founding Director, Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, LBJ School of Public Affairs, and Professor, Department of History, UT-Austin

14894638Stokely Carmichael, the charismatic and controversial black activist, stepped onto the pages of history when he called for “Black Power” during a speech one Mississippi night in 1966. A firebrand who straddled both the American civil rights and Black Power movements, Carmichael would stand for the rest of his life at the center of the storm he had unleashed that night.

This week, preeminent civil rights scholar Peniel E. Joseph, author of Stokely: A Life, winner of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change National Book Award (2014), discusses Carmichael, using his life as a prism through which to view the transformative African American freedom struggles of the twentieth century.

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In 1966, 50 years ago, Stokely Carmichael called for Black Power during a rally for racial justice in Greenwood, Mississippi. Let’s talk about how he got to that moment. Maybe you could start by telling us about his origins and early life and we can start there.

Stokely Carmichael was born in Port au Spain, Trinidad, June 29, 1941, and comes to United States in 1952, shortly after his 11th birthday. He’s reunited with his mother who had gone in the 1940s and a couple of his sisters so he’s reunited with his mother and his father who were there. He was raised by his aunts and his maternal grandmother in Port au Spain, Trinidad. He’s very bright, very precocious. He lives in the Morris Park section of the Bronx, in a predominately Jewish, Italian and Irish neighborhood. He’s one of the only black students at the Bronx [High School of] Science and he’s the class of 1960 and he’s an activist so his origins are really coming out of that milieu.

So he was an activist even in high school?

He was an activist in high school. Bayard Rustin, the black social democratic activist, is one of his mentors. Gene Dennis Jr., whose father was a high ranking official in the American Communist Party, was one of his best friends. He’s an activist and organizer. He’s reading in Marxist study groups. A lot of his friends are Jewish Americans who were at Bronx Science, he’s going to their homes and he’s also hanging out in Harlem and listening to Miriam Makeba, listening to black street speakers, black Pan-African street speakers in Harlem.

And then he went to Howard University in the early 60s and he was active there in SNCC …

…The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

Yes absolutely.

One of the things I was curious about was, what role does nonviolence play in his thinking at this point?

I think it plays a pivotal role. I think early on he agreed with Bayard Rustin and with SNCC that nonviolence is going to be the best strategy and the best tactic to transform Jim Crow and the segregated south but also the segregated north. They do sit-ins along Baltimore’s I-40, Maryland’s I-40. They do sit-ins in Washington DC, at the Justice Department, so they’re against segregation everywhere and he believes that it’s the proper tactic. Now he’s never a philosophical believer in nonviolence or a religious believer in nonviolence like John Lewis.

He was a Freedom Rider as well right?

He is a Freedom Rider.

Could you tell us a little about that?

That’s the first time he meets John Lewis. Lewis is a Freedom Rider as well. Stokely and the Howard group, they were called the Nonviolent Action Group, or NAG. They’re very supportive of the Freedom Rides and Stokely becomes a Freedom Rider in June of 1961. He’s on a train from New Orleans to Mississippi and he’s arrested in Jackson, Mississippi on June 8, 1961. He’s transported a week later to Parchman Penitentiary where James Farmer of CORE, the Congress for Racial Equality, John Lewis of SNCC, all these different people are. He’s going to spend about 49 days in Parchman Penitentiary and he actually celebrates his 20th birthday in the prison farm.

And that was a notorious prison farm, right?

Absolutely. David Oshinsky has written the definitive history about Parchman Penitentiary, absolutely the worst prison farm in Mississippi.

And then in 1964, when he was working in Mississippi, he joined up with Fannie Lou Hamer, who he said was one of his personal heroes actually. Can you tell us about what he was doing there and how he ended up working with her?

In Mississippi he’s the 2nd Congressional District Director of Freedom Summer, which is an effort by SNCC led by Bob Moses to register people to vote and also to set up 41 different Freedom Schools. They set up a Free Southern Theater. They teach civic lessons, literacy lessons. They help people with food, and raise money. There are people who are nurses there so it’s this real comprehensive summer, where thousands of students, predominately white, come down to help with the civil rights effort and Stokely was doing day to day organizing, he was also coordinating different groups of people. Fannie Lou Hamer was part of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which is an effort by black sharecroppers to attend and be represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention

And why was that important, why did they set up their own Democratic Party basically?

Well the Mississippi representatives were racially exclusive so the Mississippi Delegation were really basically white supremacists who did not believe in racial justice or black equality so they set up an interracial group. There’s about 68 delegates and I believe there’s 2 white delegates — their group was open to white Mississippians but there were only two who were sort of courageous and political enough to be apart of it.

So he went with Fannie Lou Hamer to Atlantic City where the Democratic National Convention was meeting [in 1964] and what happened there?

They’re protesting against the murders of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman. Тhey’re carrying around large placards of those civil rights workers who were murdered that summer and they basically are trying to embarrass President Johnson and convince him to seat their interracial, integrated delegation. He refuses to do that, and the Mississippi delegation walks out and there’s eventually going to be a so-called compromise where they’re going to get two non-voting seats at the convention but there’s the promise that by 1968 there will be no more segregated delegates who are allowed to come to the convention.

So their party didn’t actually get seated — there was a compromise — and yet didn’t Stokely see this as a kind of defeat, this was his last role in mainstream politics.

Absolutely. Stokely sees this as a major betrayal and he’s going to move on to Alabama because of this. He’s going to move on and become part of the Lowndes county Freedom Organization in Alabama, which is nicknamed the Black Panther Party and he’s going to be a big advocate of radical independent politics.

What did he do in Alabama?

In 1965 he actually enters Alabama along with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Selma to Montgomery demonstration. He’s marching with King but when King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaves he stays in a small county in Alabama called Lowndes county which is in the buckle of the black belt in Alabama and they basically organized with sharecroppers, they organized with black women, they organize local people to try to run for 7 political offices. Lowndes County has no mayor but it’s things like the board of education, sheriff, coroner, tax assessor. He stays in Alabama for over a year and they get over 900 votes and the only reason they don’t win in the ‘66 election is because of racial intimidation. But by 1970, black elected officials take over Lowndes County.

Now we come back to Black Power. It’s 1966 and he’s at this rally and he calls for Black Power. So what does that mean for him– is it a big shift in his thinking or an evolution of his thinking?

I’d say it’s more of an evolution and he’s describing Black Power as radical black political and cultural and economic self-determination. That black people were going to be able to define what was going on for themselves. And I think that’s an evolution. I think in ‘62 or ‘63, he would not have said Black Power. I think he says at that rally that he’s been arrested 27 times and they’re not going to take anymore. And this was a collective organizational decision too. SNCC had said that they didn’t want to say Freedom Now; they were going to say Black Power because black people needed political and economic power.

Now the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover targeted and slandered a lot of African American activist leaders. Was Stokely Carmichael also a target of FBI attacks?

Yes, absolutely. I would say except for Martin Luther King he’s going to be the number one target from 66-68/69 and that’s because of his anti-war position and his Black Power position. So it’s going to be FBI, local authorities, State Department, CIA, the White House as well — President Johnson requests twice weekly briefs on what Stokely’s activities are. So he’s really going to be one of the most surveilled people in American history.

That’s a lot of effort, a lot of government effort, to go after a liberation movement in the United States.


He becomes closer then to the Black Panther Party. Is that connected to the attacks on him or how does that happen?

His relationship with the Panthers goes back to Lowndes County. The Lowndes County Panthers give Huey Newton and Bobby Seal, two activists in Oakland, California, the inspiration to do the Black Panther Party that we all know of and think of today. He knows them and he meets with them in ‘66-67. By ‘67 when he’s overseas he’s drafted as field marshal with provision to give revolutionary law, order, and justice in the eastern half of the United States and he eventually becomes Honorary Prime Minister. So the Panthers, there’s a point where they’re very close but he’s also close to Martin Luther King Jr because of the Meredith march, they were on that march in ‘66 when he unveils the Black Power slogan, and he feels deeply for King and first met King in 1963 so he’s close to multiple sides of the movement. That is why I see him as this bridge figure between civil rights and Black Power.

You say in the book that he’s situated in between Martin Luther King on the one hand and Malcolm X on the other. Could you talk about what that meant in practical terms?

In practical terms it meant that he really understood civil rights organizing in a way that certain Black Power activists just flat out didn’t because they didn’t participate in that kind of organizing. They might’ve done organizing in the north, Malcolm certainly did grassroots organizing in the north and the west coast but Stokely was a part of every single major demonstration and event from ‘60-66 and so he did not belittle civil rights organizing. He felt it needed to be radicalized but he also understood that Martin Luther King Jr’s non violence was extraordinarily powerful, so he never belittled non violence, he just felt that we were at a breaking point nationally and people had to consider self defense, so he can speak to both sides. He criticizes the Black Panthers as well. He criticizes the Panthers for thinking that revolution wasn’t going to be this long, proactive, day-to-day struggle. The Panthers had never slept on the floors of shotgun shacks in Alabama and Mississippi. They had never faced that kind of racial violence. They faced a different kind of racial violence in the east coast and the west coast. So he’s a very interesting figure in that sense. He loves people like Kwame Nkrumah and Fidel Castro but he worked with Ella Baker, the revolutionary organizer from North Carolina who organized SNCC. Her line was “strong people don’t need a strong leader.” SHE talked about the participatory democracy and grass roots leadership. So he’s an extraordinary figure because of the experiences he had. And he reveres Bayard Rustin. I don’t think there’s a figure who sort of reveres Bayard Rustin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and then Kwame Nkrumah, and Sekou Toure.

And was revered by all of them as well.

Exactly, it was an extraordinary panorama.

And you mentioned international figures as well, so he becomes involved in international Pan-African movements and international Black Power movements.

His trip overseas in ‘67 is huge here. He’s at the Dialectics of Liberation conference in London with Alan Ginsburg, and Angela Davis. He’s a legend in London and gets kicked out of London. He’s in Cuba for a month and Fidel Castro personally drives him up with the translator through the Sierra Maestro, shows him what the revolutionary groups were doing. He’s going to Middle East, and he’s in Egypt and he’s in all these different places. He goes to Africa, and he goes to Paris. The State Department is hot on his trail because Cuba is a place you’re not supposed to go to. There’s one little anecdote, Harry Reisner of CBS has a great line where he shows Stokely Carmichael denouncing Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam during a rally with 5000 people in Paris and Stokely says he wants the United States to be defeated in Vietnam, and all Harry Reisner can say is “Stokely Carmichael from Paris last night,” and that’s it!

If you look up Stokely Carmichael online you see a couple things that are pretty negative about him. One is that he broke with SNCC over the inclusion of whites in the movement. Could you talk about that a bit?

Yeah, that’s not true. So SNCC by end of ‘66 is not allowing whites into the group, there’s not many in there, but there’s a group of black nationalists in SNCC who want that vote. Stokely is not a part of that; he’s chairman and the newspapers, the New York Times said he instigated that: not true. He had great relationships with whites. He starts to believe that whites need to organize separately because white racism is so endemic that it’s only white activists who can really talk to white people, so instead of going into Newark there needs to be white student organizing that are anti racist in white communities.

And he is often quoted with a pretty sexist comment on a TV show. Does that represent his relationship with women?

Well, no, I mean, that’s “the position of women in SNCC is prone,” and that’s from 1964 and it’s really that is a joke made in jest. Mark King, Casey Haden, people who were around in Mississippi have attested to this, but certainly that’s been used to sort of vilify him and marginalize him. I think Stokely, when you interview the women in SNCC, was more progressive than most men. Did he have sexism? Absolutely, Absolutely.

…this was the 60s

Yes, this was the 1960s, but was he a rampant misogynist and a deep sexist? No

You’ve been talking about him now as this incredibly active and committed person who’s able to talk to all these different people, what would you say were his greatest achievements and legacy?

Stokely Carmichael, becomes Kwame Ture by the 1970s, he takes on name of Kwame Nkumah and Sekou Toure, the leaders, respectively, of Ghana and Guinea in West Africa, he lives in West Africa from 1969 to 1998, his death at the age of 57. He takes frequent trips back to the United States as a public intellectual and organizer. I’d say his greatest legacy is in raising black consciousness and organizing through not just Black Power but also civil rights organizing as well, and part of his legacy is this idea of political revolution. He’s a civil rights militant turned black power radical turned sort of Third World revolutionary, and so Stokely by ‘66 he’s at Berkeley talking about white privilege, he’s talking about radical humanism and why Vietnam should matter to white, black, Asian, everybody. It’s Stokely who is very very critical of the Johnson administration and comes out against the Vietnam war before Martin Luther King Jr and becomes part of this anti-imperialist movement and this revolutionary Pan- Africanist movement and he also is an unapologetic revolutionary. He never turns his back on the dreams of the 1960s even within the context of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and the neoliberalism of the present because that started decades ago, so I think his greatest legacy is in speaking truth to power and also always wanting to organize. He and Martin Luther King Jr, they find a common ground in their shared love for poor people. That’s what’s so interesting, He loves poor people, really irrespective of race and whether they’re in Africa or whether they’re in the Mississippi delta. And he’ll argue that it’s the same group of people. He’ll talk about the food he ate in Africa, West Africa and the food he ate in the Mississippi delta, he said it’s the same food, and he found that extraordinary once he went to live in Africa.

And are young activists today interested in Stokely Carmichael?

I think increasingly they are becoming interested in Stokely Carmichael-Kwame Ture, but his legacy has still been shrouded and part of this is that we can’t rehabilitate revolutionaries in the United States, so one of the reason why Martin Luther King has such a big legacy in America is because we manage to only share some of his legacy. So there are parts of his legacy that remain hidden and shrouded in mystery, and the parts that we share with each other are the parts of racial integration and a beloved community but not King as a radical and revolutionary political activist who was nonviolent. So non-violence has sort of smeared King in one sense and saved him in another. It smeared him with people who are revolutionaries and radicals; they mistakenly believe you can’t be a revolutionary and be nonviolent. I think King, Gandhi, those folks definitively showed that you can be and King’s saved by nonviolence because the establishment, the mainstream says look he was non-violent, he’s a good guy and this is what we need. When we think about Stokely it’s very very tough to rehabilitate him because he talking about self-defense, by the time he goes to Africa he’s talking about revolutionary violence, he’s a huge critic of capitalism he’s an avowed socialist. Hey that’s a lot to rehabilitate in the United States, but I think one thing young activists would do well to remember is his day to day organizing and what was that like to organize in Mississippi at 19 and 20 years old. What did that mean, Mississippi, Washington DC, he was in Cambridge, Maryland with Cory Richardson being beaten by law enforcement and vigilantes and still dedicated his life to the movement. So dedication is a big part of his legacy too.


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