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Stokely 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. In Stokely, preeminent civil rights scholar Peniel E. Joseph presents a groundbreaking biography of Carmichael, using his life as a prism through which to view the transformative African American freedom struggles of the twentieth century.
A nuanced and authoritative portrait, Stokely captures the life of the man whose uncompromising vision defined political radicalism and provoked a national reckoning on race and democracy.
STOKELY CARMICHAEL IS A TROUBLING ICON OF AMERICA’S CIVIL RIGHTS years. His Black Power call became a national Rorschach test: whereas many blacks viewed it as righteous, many whites saw violent foreboding. Newspapers brooded over Carmichael’s words, quickly forming a consensus that judged the slogan to be at best intemperate and, at worst, a blatant call for anti-white violence and reverse racism. In 1966, Black Power reverberated around the world, galvanizing blacks, outraging whites, and inspiring a cross-section of ethnic and racial minorities. In 1969, Carmichael left the United States for Conakry, Guinea, where he reinvented himself as a roving Pan-Africanist organizer and professional revolutionary. For the next thirty years, he remained an energetic dissident, a throwback to the heady years of the 1960s. Carmichael turned the quest for black political power into his life’s work. His faith in a style of politics many considered anachronistic came out of the same tenacity and stubbornness that once made him the most effective and controversial activist of his generation. These same qualities, however, limited Carmichael’s efforts as a Pan-Africanist political mobilizer.
Before leaving America, Stokely reigned as Black Power’s glamorous enfant terrible: telegenic, brash, equal parts angry and gregarious. Whether dressed in three-piece suits, leather jackets, sharecropper’s overalls, or African dashikis, Carmichael came to represent the era’s multifaceted identity: a “hipster hero” whose easy grace allowed him to consort effortlessly with both the dignified and the damned.1
The name Stokely Carmichael first came into my consciousness when I was a young boy coming of age in New York City. As the proud son of a Haitian mother who belonged to Local 1199 Hospital Workers union (a part of the Service Employees International Union), I grew up hearing stories of how civil rights activists, Black Power revolutionaries, Pan-Africanist freedom fighters, and trade unionists helped to shape a new world in America and beyond. By the time I was in elementary school I was on my first picket line, accompanying my mother in support of an 1199 strike. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Stokely Carmichael supported 1199 during the 1960s. Stokely’s political importance came into sharper focus when I was in junior high, after the premiere of the landmark PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize, which featured the twenty-four-year-old Carmichael’s fiery “Black Power” speech and rightly characterized Stokely as his generation’s heir to Malcolm X. Over the course of a decade of research on Carmichael, I would come to understand him as that and much more.
Carmichael’s youth, casual dress, and charisma made him an easily identifiable hero, one whose quick smile and passionate speeches left an indelible impression. An adopted son of the South by way of Trinidad, the Bronx, and Harlem, Stokely adapted to while transforming whatever environment he encountered. As a native New Yorker growing up in the city’s tense racial climate of the 1980s, I found Carmichael’s survival instincts appealing. As a young graduate student in Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to hear him speak and briefly met him afterward. He encouraged me to stay committed to the black freedom movement, a struggle he defined as infinite. With his flowing African robes, gray hair, and white beard he looked like a prince. And he had changed his name. He was no longer Stokely Carmichael. As Malcolm Little had become Malcolm X and later, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, Stokely had become Kwame Ture. It was a name that paid homage to his two African heroes: men who had been the first presidents of their countries: Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea’s Sékou Touré. Kwame Ture spelled the Guinean’s name not as the French did, as white Europeans did, but as Arabs and Muslims did: Seku Ture.
As a college student, Carmichael helped transform America by organizing sit-ins, demonstrations, and voter registration during the civil rights movement’s heroic years, a period that roughly encompasses the decade between the 1954 Brown Supreme Court desegregation decision and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and has become enshrined in public memory through national holidays, films, commemorations, and monuments. Carmichael’s deep sense of justice contributed to his evolution into Kwame Ture, the Pan-Africanist revolutionary and anti-capitalist organizer who moved to West Africa and remained tenacious in the face of searing political setbacks.
Carmichael ultimately judged America incapable of creating the free and just world he had struggled for as a young man. But despite living in Africa for the final thirty years of his life, Carmichael’s legendary stature as a Black Power activist lingered even if many ignored his lasting contributions to civil rights struggles that included a bruising quest for the vote in the deep South.
Although today largely forgotten, Stokely Carmichael remains one of the protean figures of the twentieth century: a revolutionary who passionately believed in self-defense and armed rebellion even as he revered the nation’s greatest practitioner of nonviolence; a gifted intellectual who dealt in emotions as well as words and ideas; and an activist whose radical political vision remained anchored by a deep sense of history. In a very real sense, Carmichael remains the last icon of the racial and political revolutions that have come to be associated with the 1960s.
In Mississippi and Alabama, Carmichael pursued a vision of radical democracy that he defined as more than ending racial segregation in public accommodations and gaining the right to vote, although he vigorously pursued both of these objectives. Carmichael’s vision of democracy placed rural black sharecroppers and the urban poor as leaders in a new society freed from racial inequality and economic injustice.
As a young man, Carmichael dreamed of becoming a college professor, and his rapid-fire speeches offered a partial fulfillment of these youthful aspirations. Carmichael’s ascendancy to national leadership deepened his friendship with Martin Luther King. Both men took pains to publicly speak well of each other, and Carmichael’s antiwar speeches offered creative space for King to speak out against Vietnam. Their joint antiwar declarations led critics to argue that Carmichael and King represented two sides of the same coin. Carmichael’s words of fire have overshadowed the depth and breadth of his antiwar crusade, which made him, for a time, the nation’s most outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.
By 1966, Stokely Carmichael the civil rights militant had become a Black Power revolutionary. The pace of his political evolution from this point forward seemed to accelerate at breakneck speed; in short order he became a Black Panther; the leader of a Black United Front in Washington, DC; and then a Pan-Africanist revolutionary who made Conakry, Guinea, his new home.
As Kwame Ture, the leader of a new group, the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (AAPRP), he launched rhetorical broadsides against American capitalism. He described the nation that he struggled for in his youth as an empire willing to wage war in the name of peace and kill innocents to preserve a vision of democracy that did not benefit African Americans.
Ture would not be surprised by the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which stripped the Voting Rights Act he had fought for of much of its strength. This latest setback would confirm Ture’s belief that nothing short of global Pan-African revolution could secure justice and human rights for black Americans and those African descendants living across the entire world.
Yet his organizer’s instincts made him a relentless optimist. He believed, until his last breath, in the ultimate victory of the masses of humanity over an enemy whose face he had first encountered in the Deep South. Ture came to believe that the contorted visages expressing hate against sit-in activists and sharecroppers were merely instruments of a larger, more dangerous, imperial mindset and system that wreaked havoc on the world.
But ultimately, Stokely Carmichael’s story, from his childhood to his political evolution into Kwame Ture, is that of an organizer. Indeed, this was the aspect of Ture’s personality that drew me to write a critical biography. The fact that the young Stokely more readily admitted to confusion and political errors than the seasoned Ture made him an all the more fascinating and complex political figure. His story, with its many successes and failures, victories and defeats, reminds us, in the Age of Obama, how past struggles for racial justice shape the present. His story reminds us of roads not traveled and outcomes that might have been.
The sheer range of people whom Stokely Carmichael influenced is vast. They include figures as different as Mumia Abu-Jamal, the imprisoned former Black Panther, journalist, and revolutionary, for decades on death row, and Brian Lamb, the founder of C-SPAN. Years after Ture’s death, Abu-Jamal vividly recalled Carmichael’s impact on his generation, and the experience of seeing him in person: “There, standing tall, lean, and black as a Masai warrior, stood Stokely Carmichael, spitting fire and rage, lightly seasoned with his Trinidadian clip of the English tongue.”2
Brian Lamb’s image of Stokely remained indelible for different reasons. After listening to Carmichael speak at a black church during the 1960s, Lamb was shocked to discover how a thirty-minute presentation was distorted by the nightly news. “Well, of a thirty-minute speech, probably, . . . maybe two minutes was incendiary,” remembered Lamb. “The rest of it was thoughtful and intelligent and very well stated.” But the only part of Carmichael’s speech deemed newsworthy by the mainstream media “was the fire and brimstone.” This surreal experience, which Lamb quickly observed to be the norm, inspired him to found a cable channel “where everybody gets to see everything from start to finish.”3
For novelist John Edgar Wideman, Stokely represented a truth seeker and myth buster, one who revealed the contradictions of American democracy to a global audience:
Kwame Ture’s dreaming was visionary, a countervision, counterreality, to the reigning myths. He shouted, The emperor is naked. Pointed at the emperor with a finger attached to a black hand, stepped forward, stepped away with a black foot. Black not because of their color, but because Stokely Carmichael was an African-descended man, and, yes, it’s his voice, his finger-pointing, his foot, so they’re black and thus negative in the eyes of lots of folks, then here comes Stokely challenging the obscene spectacle of Empire, uh-uh; and call his anger, his critique, his truth, black if you want to, in fact he’s also calling it black, but with a difference—black equals pride, fierce militancy, a determination to pursue the dream of freedom on his terms, black terms if you please, but really a new dream replacing an old one, so try to wrap your mind and heart around that too, recognize the legitimacy of his vision, not its color, acknowledge its applicability, the seeds of clarity, its promise to seek change, to move all willing Americans to a more equitable, fulfilling social order, more freedom for so-called whites and so-called blacks than Stokely found when he arrived here.4
While the entire world commemorates Martin Luther King’s dream, few people know that Stokely Carmichael even had one. Carmichael did indeed have a dream, one deeply rooted in a global vision of human rights. From its initial groundings in black social-democratic traditions and Pan-Africanism through its evolution into revolutionary anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, Carmichael remained convinced that indigenous people deserved self-rule and that empires could be toppled by political organizing.
This biography, then, represents an act of recovery. Carmichael helped to organize and participate in every major civil rights demonstration and development in America between 1960 and 1965, the second half of the movement’s heroic period. Stokely’s DNA is as much a part of the civil rights struggle as it is of Black Power. His erasure from America’s collective memory is tragic in that it impoverishes our understanding of the most important movement in our national history. For Stokely Carmichael’s story, which took him to African kingdoms, Caribbean ports, European capitals, and assorted global travails is, at its core, also a uniquely American one.
The Chocolate Fred Astaire
June 29, 1941–February 1960
ON JUNE 29, 1941, STOKELY STANDIFORD CHURCHILL CARMICHAEL WAS born in the family home at 54 Oxford Street in Port of Spain, the capital of the island of Trinidad. The centrally located house in Port of Spain’s Belmont neighborhood rested at the bottom of a set of forty-two government-built steps that were a local landmark. The intricately designed house dazzled Stokely’s young imagination. The porch and roof rested on five levels that gave the entire structure an imposing heft that belied the inhabitants’ working-class origins. Adults were impressed, too, especially by the series of movable walls that, properly shifted, turned several rooms into one large space perfect for hosting the kinds of fêtes that native Trinidadians enjoy. Stokely was the middle child, bookended by sisters Umilta and Lynette, of master carpenter Adolphus Carmichael and the former Mabel Florence Charles, known by all as May Charles. A jewel of the British West Indies, Port of Spain, like Stokely’s ancestry, reflected the diasporic nature of African migration to the New World. May Charles was born in the US Canal Zone in Panama; her mother and father came from Montserrat and Antigua, respectively. Adolphus traced his paternal roots to Barbados; his mother, Cecilia Harris, was born in Tobago. Stokely inherited his father’s bronze color and his mother’s fiery temperament. As a child of the English-speaking Caribbean, he claimed a heritage marked by both voluntary and forced relocation. This pan-Caribbean background made him a citizen of the world who, for the rest of his life, would feel equally at home in Port of Spain, the Bronx and Harlem, Washington, DC, Mississippi, and Conakry.
Living in a home crowded with in-laws proved to be suffocating for May Charles. She left Trinidad bound for relatives in the Bronx when Stokely was three. Adolphus followed, arriving in New York in 1946. Stokely would not see either of his parents again until he was almost eleven. His extended family became surrogate parents to him, and Stokely pragmatically adapted to these less than ideal circumstances. In his parents’ absence, he cultivated an independent streak that he would carry with him for the rest of his life.1
His earliest childhood memories centered on the elegant family home that Adolphus had meticulously built but scarcely enjoyed. The relatively idyllic environment included a local steel band, Casa Blanca, which practiced at the top of the forty-two steps. Cecilia Harris Carmichael, Stokely’s paternal grandmother, became the dominant maternal force during his early years, aided by three willful daughters—dubbed Tante Elaine, Tante Louise, and Mummy Olga—whose clashes with May Charles had accelerated her departure.
Grandma Carmichael doted on Stokely, who suffered from childhood asthma. Tante Elaine was the disciplinarian that the more carefree Mummy Olga could never be. Stokely and his older cousin Austin, Elaine’s son, were inseparable, two small boys in a house dominated by strong women. Weekend trips to Point Fortin, twenty miles from Belmont, exposed Stokely to Trinidad’s lush beauty, with its tropical forests, deep blue seas, and vast sugarcane fields. As an adult, he would call the Botanic Gardens he traipsed through as a child “perhaps the only completely unambiguous good produced by colonialism.” Such bucolic sights coexisted uneasily against Port of Spain’s wartime landscape. American military personnel stationed in nearby Chaguaramas filled the bustling city, as did European sailors whose merchant ships docked in the harbor. Yankee dollars flowed into Port of Spain through means legal and illegal, setting up a short-lived boomtown. Calypso songs surged through the downtown’s thriving nightlife interrupted periodically by blackouts in anticipation of enemy air raids. Eastern Boys School, a British colonial entity free to locals, facilitated Stokely’s unambiguous admiration for Western civilization, European history, and Anglophone culture. The form, if not substance, of this colonial education would prove critical to his future.2
Stokely’s relatively privileged childhood shielded him from the harsh living conditions faced by the typical Trinidadian family. The Carmichaels owned their own home, and their lifestyle was supplemented by incomes from Stokely’s three gainfully employed aunts. They also received regular care packages from the States in the form of clothes and American dollars courtesy of May Charles and Adolphus. Stokely was a precocious student, and his encounters with fellow classmates who trekked to school barefoot reinforced his natural sympathy for underdogs. This inclination dovetailed into his early religious training, where Sundays included visits to Anglican, Presbyterian, and Methodist services. On such occasions, Stokely donned a wide-lapelled suit, accented by a bowtie and handkerchief that earned him the nickname “Little Man” from neighbors who delighted in his dapper attire.3
Stokely came of age in a colonial port city, a dominion of the once sprawling British empire whose darker citizens proudly retained vestiges of their unique Anglophone heritage as exhibited by Carmichael’s middle name Churchill. Port of Spain was, like many parts of the British Caribbean, a place where a hybrid culture flourished, with a predominantly black population cultivating an appreciation for both African and Anglophone roots. Trinidad’s annual Empire Day introduced Stokely to anthems such as “Rule Britannia” and “God Save the Queen” and the pageantry of a decaying empire. In such rare instances, fleeting images of whites penetrated Stokely’s largely all-black community. Empire Day made for a bracing juxtaposition—a world where the white heroes of history books and poetry contrasted with the black teachers, bus drivers, nurses, and laborers who populated Stokely’s neighborhood. Stokely was reared in a majority black city, which made him comfortable from an early age with the idea of black power.
When Princess Margaret paid a visit to the island, ten-year-old Stokely, armed like hundreds of others with tiny Union Jack flags, lined the procession route and waited for hours for an unrequited glimpse of Her Royal Highness. By this time, Stokely was enrolled at Tranquillity Boys’ Intermediate School, where, in addition to his academic studies, he enjoyed playing cricket and soccer. In Trinidad, Calypso songs, steel bands, and carnivals existed comfortably alongside colonial schools, British literature, and Empire Day. But the comfort of this existence soon vanished for Stokely.4
Stokely’s paternal grandmother, Cecilia, died on January 16, 1952, setting off a chain of events that would reunite him with his parents. Adolphus Carmichael returned soon after his mother’s funeral for a brief reunion with the son he had not seen in six years. By the time Adolphus departed back to America, it had been decided that his children would permanently relocate to New York to live with their parents. Adolphus and May Charles had settled into a cramped three-bedroom apartment on Stebbins Avenue in the South Bronx. It was, as she later described it, a “mixed neighborhood kind of on the run-down side.” They identified themselves as forward-thinking West Indian pioneers determined to claim a piece of the American Dream. On May 26, 1952, Stokely applied for an immigration visa at the American Consulate General in Port of Spain, a request granted that very day. His visa application listed his height at four feet, seven inches, his complexion as “dark” with no distinguishing marks, and his occupation as “student.” Stokely, Mummy Olga, Umilta, and Lynette now joined May Charles, Adolphus, and two new siblings, Janeth and Judith, born in the States, swelling the American wing of the Carmichael clan to eight.5
On June 15, 1952, two weeks before his eleventh birthday, Carmichael arrived in New York City. The entire trip to the United States mesmerized Stokely, who, in short order, experienced his first airplane trip, took in the sights and sounds of New York City, and wondered if the speeding cars hurtling down expressways like missiles would arrive home safely. He spent that first summer getting reacquainted with his parents. May Charles would prove to be a diminutive firecracker of a woman in contrast to the more idealistic Adolphus, with his immigrant faith in the possibilities of New York City and America. Adolphus toiled at multiple jobs, including driving a cab, to provide for his growing family. Life as a West Indian carpenter meant seasonal work, “two weeks on and four weeks off,” stretches exacerbated by racial discrimination in the city’s trade unions. Life in New York meant readjusting to parents he loved but hardly remembered. Stokely immediately gravitated toward the outspoken and chatty May Charles over a father whom he remembered as “submissive, quiet, and obedient,” traits that he found more puzzling than endearing. May Charles, on the other hand, projected an air of combative assertiveness, humor, and passion, characteristics that were amplified in her only son.6
Stokely’s arrival in New York City began the process of becoming African-American. The Bronx introduced Carmichael to black America’s cultural rhythms and idioms. There were technological wonders as well, including a black-and-white television unlike anything he had seen in Port of Spain. By mid-August, Stokely found temperatures cold enough to wear a winter coat, a practice he continued despite ridicule from neighbors. Carmichael enrolled in PS 39 in Longwood that September, anticipating, as his parents had assured him, that America’s educational system would prove more advanced than Trinidad’s. Instead, the school turned out to be socially chaotic and absent the academic rigor of his schools in Port of Spain. The new boy from Trinidad easily outshone his fellow fifth graders with an academic focus distinguished by his love for reading and a pronounced writing ability. He befriended the black students, but their scholastic ineptitude made a bad first impression, leading him to privately conclude that “American kids were stupid.” In New York, Stokely fell in love with his mother for the second time. “Mabel Charles Carmichael would become—and remains—a major influence in the lives of me and my sisters,” he would much later write. “This little dynamo of a woman was the stable moral presence, the fixed center around which the domestic life of this migrant African family revolved.”7
The Carmichaels soon departed their overcrowded South Bronx apartment for a house in the predominantly white Morris Park neighborhood. They were the first black family to move into a part of the Bronx still dominated by Italian immigrants. Irish and Jewish neighbors added to the community’s ethnic stew. It was January 1953, the middle of the school year, which forced Stokely to get acclimated to a new school and new neighborhood for the second time in less than a year. Adolphus immediately began renovations on the run-down house on 1810 Amethyst Street, a process that would continue over the next decade in the form of small and large construction projects. Adolphus and May Charles’ thirst for better opportunities for their children marked Carmichael’s entrée into a world that would be filled with interracial contact.
Stokely’s enrollment at PS 34 to finish the fifth grade made him the school’s second black student. He quickly befriended the Italian kids in the neighborhood and traipsed around the surrounding blocks with his best friend, John DiMilio. A self-described miniature “paisano in blackface,” Stokely came to appreciate Italian cooking and the culture’s dramatic flair for self-expression. His friends called him “Sichie,” a play on the word “Siciliano” to describe their new dark-skinned playmate. For a time, Carmichael’s friendship with the local kids drifted into small acts of petty theft and juvenile delinquency. He ran with a neighborhood gang, the Morris Park Dukes, but quit after a half-hearted participation in a minor burglary. The most important event that happened to Stokely that first year came courtesy of his father. On April 27, 1953, Adolphus, who had entered the United States illegally on July 15, 1946, became a naturalized citizen. Thus ended legal proceedings that had threatened to split the Carmichael family apart. Adolphus had secured the intervention of a government immigration agent sympathetic to his plea that his deportation would economically harm May Charles. That Monday, under the provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act and most likely while attending classes at PS 34, Stokely Carmichael became an American citizen.8
Carmichael’s citizenship arrived on the cusp of revolutionary transformations on America’s civil rights front. In the fall of 1954, less than four months after the Supreme Court’s historic May 17th Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, Stokely enrolled at PS 83, a school for junior high school students that drew a relatively diverse mix of ethnic students (although he was one of only two blacks in the entire school). Placed on the high-achieving academic track with white classmates who excelled in their studies, Stokely thrived. In the eighth grade, he was elected vice president of the student council. Despite his popularity among local neighborhood toughs, ease in acclimating to his academic surroundings, and acceptance by his peers as a chocolate-hued paisano, Stokely’s family stood apart from his predominantly Italian neighborhood. Black Methodists from Trinidad living in a largely Italian Catholic community, the Carmichaels kept to themselves, rarely socializing with neighbors. Stokely’s process of assimilation proved more complete than his parents’. He attended Sunday school nearby at Westchester Methodist Church in the Bronx, where he played piano and became a Boy Scout.9
- “An insightful, highly engaging and fluently written biography.”—New York Times Book Review
- “Joseph's account of Carmichael's life is well-written and well-researched, providing persuasive explanations for his appeal.... Joseph's biography fills a huge void and is a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on the civil rights movement.”—Washington Post
- “This is at its heart a book of ideas — ideas about power, freedom, and identity — and of a life, the author writes, that ‘took shape against the backdrop of a domestic war for America's very soul.’”—Boston Globe
- “Mr. Joseph’s detail rich biography delves into the life of a political activist turned icon while not forgetting to show us his human side.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
- “Peniel E. Joseph’s newly published biography of Black liberation activist Stokely Carmichael not only takes its rightful place next to Taylor Branch’s epic trilogy The King Years, but also to one of the most powerful autobiographies by any American: Stokely Carmichael’s own Ready For Revolution.... Stokely: A Life is a quality read. By highlighting the life of one of the US civil rights/black liberation most important organizers and thinkers, Peniel E. Joseph has done a great service to history and to the people Stokely fought for. Furthermore, Peniel’s text has lifted Carmichael out of an obscurity he not only didn't deserve, but which also prevented a more complete understanding of a man who, with Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr., deserves to be recognized as one of the great leaders of one of the greatest grassroots movements for liberation in history: the Black freedom struggle in the United States.”—Counter-Punch
- “Meticulously-researched and painstakingly-detailed, Stokely: A Life is a fast-flowing, informative read which intimately follows its subject from the cradle to the grave in absorbing fashion. In the process, this powerful portrait effectively re-positions him as an uncompromising prophet who played a pivotal role in the struggle for black equality.”—Afro-American
- “A thorough and engaging account of one of the most important figures of the civil rights movement. Stokely achieves its primary goal of restoring Carmichael to his rightful place in the pantheon of influential Americans.... Offers delicious details, thoughtful analysis and a good amount of drama concerning this enigmatic figure.... Joseph’s landmark book is the best portrait yet of this important, complicated man and the America he so wanted to love but could not.”—Post & Courier
- “An unflinching look at an unflinching man.”—Daily Beast
- “A thought-provoking biography.... A brilliant bio with plenty of brio.”—Amsterdam News
- On Sale
- Mar 4, 2014
- Page Count
- 424 pages
- Civitas Books