Biography of Stokely Carmichael, Civil Rights Activist

Activist Stokely Carmichael at a 1966 press conference
Stokely Carmichael at a 1966 Mississippi press conference.

Getty Images 

Stokely Carmichael was a prominent activist in the Civil Rights Movement who attained prominence, and generated enormous controversy, when he issued a call for "Black Power" during a speech in 1966. The phrase quickly spread, sparking a fierce national debate. Carmichael's words became popular among younger African Americans who were frustrated with the slow pace of progress in the field of civil rights. His magnetic oratory, which would typically contain flashes of passionate anger mixed with playful wit, helped make him nationally famous.

Fast Facts: Stokely Carmichael

  • Full Name: Stokely Carmichael
  • Also Known As: Kwame Ture
  • Occupation: Organizer and civil rights activist
  • Born: June 29, 1941 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
  • Died: November 15, 1998 in Conakry, Guinea
  • Key Accomplishments: Originator of the term "Black Power" and a leader of the Black Power movement

Early Life

Stokely Carmichael was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, on June 29, 1941. His parents emigrated to New York City when Stokely was two, leaving him in the care of grandparents. The family was eventually reunited when Stokely was 11 and came to live with his parents. The family lived in Harlem and eventually in the Bronx.

A gifted student, Carmichael was accepted to the Bronx High School of Science, a prestigious institution where he came into contact with students from diverse backgrounds. He later recalled going to parties with classmates who lived on Park Avenue and feeling uncomfortable in the presence of their maids — given the fact that his own mother worked as a maid.

He was offered several scholarships to elite colleges and ultimately chose to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C.. By the time he began college in 1960, he was greatly inspired by the growing Civil Rights Movement. He had seen television reports of sit-ins and other protests in the South and felt a need to get involved.

While a student at Howard, he came into contact with members of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (popularly known as "Snick"). Carmichael began participating in SNCC actions, traveling to the South and joining Freedom Riders as they sought to integrate interstate bus travel.

Following graduation from Howard in 1964, he began working full-time with SNCC and soon became a traveling organizer in the South. It was a dangerous time. The "Freedom Summer" project was trying to register black voters across the South, and resistance was fierce. In June 1964 three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, disappeared in Mississippi. Carmichael and some SNCC associates participated in the search for the missing activists. The bodies of the three murdered activists were eventually found by the FBI in August 1964.

Other activists who were personal friends of Carmichael were killed in the following two years. The August 1965 shotgun murder of Jonathan Daniels, a white seminarian who had been working with SNCC in the South, affected Carmichael deeply.

Black Power

From 1964 to 1966 Carmichael was constantly in motion, helping to register voters and fight against the Jim Crow system of the South. With his quick wit and oratorical skills, Carmichael became a rising star in the movement.

He was jailed numerous times, and was known to tell stories about how he and fellow inmates would sing to both pass the time and annoy the guards. He later said his patience for peaceful resistance broke down when, from a hotel room window, he saw police savagely beat civil rights protesters in the street below.

In June 1966, James Meredith, who had integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962, began a one-man march across Mississippi. On the second day, he was shot and injured. Many other activists, including Carmichael and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., vowed to finish his march. Marchers began crossing the state, with some joining in and some dropping out. According to a New York Times report, there were usually about 100 marchers at any one time, while volunteers fanned out along the route to register voters.

On June 16, 1966, the march reached Greenwood, Mississippi. White residents turned out to heckle and hurl racial slurs, and local police harassed the marchers. When marchers tried to pitch tents to spend the night in a local park, they were arrested. Carmichael was taken to jail, and a photograph of him in handcuffs would appear on the front page of the next morning's New York Times.

Carmichael spent five hours in custody before supporters bailed him out. He appeared at a park in Greenwood that night, and spoke to about 600 supporters. The words he used would change the course of the Civil Rights Movement, and the 1960s.

With his dynamic delivery, Carmichael called for "Black Power." The crowd chanted the words. Reporters covering the march took notice.

Up until that point, the marches in the South tended to be portrayed as dignified groups of people singing hymns. Now there seemed to be an angry chant electrifying the crowd.

The New York Times reported on how quickly Carmichael's words were adopted:

"Many marchers and local Negroes were chanting 'Black power, black power,' a cry taught them by Mr. Carmichael at a rally last night when he said, 'Every courthouse in Mississippi ought to be burned down to get rid of the dirt.'
"But on the courthouse steps, Mr. Carmichael was less angry and said: 'The only way we can change things in Mississippi is with the ballot. That's black power.'"

Carmichael gave his first Black Power speech on a Thursday night. Three days later, he appeared, in a suit and tie, on the CBS News program "Face the Nation," where he was questioned by prominent political journalists. He challenged his white interviewers, at one point contrasting the American effort to deliver democracy in Vietnam with its apparent failure to do the same in the American South.

Over the next few months the concept of "Black Power" was hotly debated in America. The speech Carmichael gave to hundreds in the park in Mississippi rippled through society, and opinion columns, magazine articles, and television reports sought to explain what it meant and what it said about the direction of the country.

Within weeks of his speech to hundreds of marchers in Mississippi, Carmichael was the subject of a lengthy profile in the New York Times. The headline referred to him as "Black Power Prophet Stokely Carmichael."

Fame and Controversy

In May 1967 LIFE magazine published an essay by the noted photographer and journalist Gordon Parks, who had spent four months following Carmichael. The article presented Carmichael to mainstream America as an intelligent activist with a skeptical, though nuanced, view of race relations. At one point Carmichael said to Parks that he was tired of explaining what "Black Power" meant, as his words kept getting twisted. Parks prodded him and Carmichael responded:

"'For the last time,' he said. 'Black Power means black people coming together to form a political force and either electing representatives or forcing their representatives to speak their needs. It's an economic and physical bloc that can exercise its strength in the black community instead of letting the job go to the Democratic or Republican parties or a white-controlled black man set up as a puppet to represent black people. We pick the brother and make sure he fulfills our needs. Black Power doesn't mean anti-white, violence, separatism or any other racist things the press says it means. It's saying, 'Look buddy, we're not laying a vote on you unless you lay so many schools, hospitals, playgrounds and jobs on us.'"

The article in LIFE may have made Carmichael relatable to mainstream America. But within months, his fiery rhetoric and wide-ranging travels made him an intensely controversial figure. In the summer of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson, alarmed at Carmichael's comments against the Vietnam War, personally instructed the FBI to conduct surveillance on him.

In mid-July 1967, Carmichael embarked on what turned into a world tour. In London, he spoke at a "Dialectics of Liberation" conference, which featured scholars, activists, and even American poet Allen Ginsberg. While in England, Carmichael spoke at various local gatherings, which drew the attention of the British government. There were rumors that he was pressured to leave the country.

In late July 1967, Carmichael flew to Havana, Cuba. He had been invited by the government of Fidel Castro. His visit immediately made news, including a report in the New York Times on July 26, 1967 with the headline: "Carmichael Is Quoted As Saying Negroes Form Guerrilla Bands." The article quoted Carmichael as saying the deadly riots occurring in Detroit and Newark that summer had used "the war tactics of guerrillas."

On the same day that the New York Times article appeared, Fidel Castro introduced Carmichael at a speech in Santiago, Cuba. Castro referred to Carmichael as a leading American civil rights activist. The two men became friendly, and in the following days Castro personally drove Carmichael around in a jeep, pointing out landmarks related to battles in the Cuban revolution.

Carmichael's time in Cuba was widely denounced in the United States. Following the controversial stay in Cuba, Carmichael planned to visit North Vietnam, the enemy of the United States. He boarded a Cuban airlines plane to fly to Spain, but Cuban intelligence called the flight back when it was tipped off that American authorities were planning to intercept Carmichael in Madrid and lift his passport.

The Cuban government put Carmichael on a plane to the Soviet Union, and from there he traveled onward to China and eventually to North Vietnam. In Hanoi, he met with the nation's leader, Ho Chi Minh. According to some accounts, Ho told Carmichael of when he lived in Harlem and had heard speeches by Marcus Garvey.

At a rally in Hanoi, Carmichael spoke out against American involvement in Vietnam, using a chant he had previously used in America: "Hell no, we won't go!" Back in America, former allies distanced themselves from Carmichael's rhetoric and foreign connections and politicians spoke of charging him with sedition.

In the fall of 1967, Carmichael kept traveling, visiting Algeria, Syria, and the African West African nation of Guinea. He began a relationship with the South African singer Miriam Makeba, whom he would eventually marry.

At various stops on his travels he would speak out against America's role in Vietnam, and denounce what he considered American imperialism. When he arrived back in New York, on December 11, 1967, federal agents, along with a crowd of supporters, were waiting to greet him. U.S. marshals confiscated his passport because he had visited communist countries without authorization.

Post-American Life

In 1968, Carmichael resumed his role as an activist in America. He published a book, Black Power, with a co-author, and he continued to speak out on his political vision.

When Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Carmichael was in Washington, D.C. He spoke publicly in the following days, saying white America had killed King. His rhetoric was denounced in the press, and political figures accused Carmichael of helping to spur on the riots that followed King's killing.

Later that year, Carmichael became affiliated with the Black Panther Party, and appeared with prominent Panthers at events in California. Wherever he went, controversy seemed to follow.

Carmichael had married Miriam Makeba, and they made plans to live in Africa. Carmichael and Makeba left the United States in early 1969 (the federal government had returned his passport after he agreed not to visit banned countries). He would settle permanently in Guinea.

During his time living in Africa, Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture. He claimed to be a revolutionary, and supported a Pan-African movement, the goal of which was to form African nations into a unified political entity. As Kwame Ture, his political moves were generally frustrated. He was criticized at times for being too friendly with Africa dictators, including Idi Amin.

Ture would occasionally visit the United States, giving lectures, appearing in various public forums, and even appearing for an interview on C-Span. After years under surveillance, he had become intensely suspicious of the United States government. When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the mid-1990s, he said to friends that the CIA may have made him contract it.

Kwame Ture, who Americans remembered as Stokely Carmichael, died in Guinea on November 15, 1998.

Sources

  • "Stokely Carmichael." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 3, Gale, 2004, pp. 305-308. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Glickman, Simon, and David G. Oblender. "Carmichael, Stokely 1941–1998." Contemporary Black Biography, edited by David G. Oblender, vol. 26, Gale, 2001, pp. 25-28. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Joseph, Peniel E., Stokely: A Life, Basic Civitas, New York City, 2014.