Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, was a Trinidadian born black activist, civil rights leader, and the fourth Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a notable activist during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. He was preceded as Chairman of SNCC by John Lewis and followed H. Rap Brown as leader of the group. Ture later became an Honorary Minister of the Black Panther Party. The noted scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Carmichael as one of his 100 Greatest African Americans.
Carmichael was a well-educated man attending the elite, selective Bronx High School of Science in New York and graduated from Howard University with a degree in philosophy. His professors included Sterling Brown, Nathan Hare, and Toni Morrison, a writer who later won the Nobel Prize. While at Howard, Carmichael joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), the Howard campus affiliate of the SNCC, where he was introduced to Bayard Rustin who became an influential adviser to SNCC. Inspired by the sit-ins in the South, Carmichael became more active in the Civil Rights Movement. He once remarked that he was arrested many times for his activism that he lost count; sometimes estimating at least 29 or 32.
In 1964 Carmichael, then one of the leaders of the SNCC and became Chairman of SNCC in 1966, taking over from John Lewis, who later became a US Congressman. A few weeks after Carmichael took office James Meredith was shot and wounded by a shotgun during his solitary “March Against Fear”. Carmichael became involved joined Dr. Marin Luther King, Floyd McKissick, Cleveland Sellers and others to continue Meredith’s march.
He was arrested during the march where upon his release; he gave his first “Black Power” speech, using the phrase to urge black pride and socio-economic independence. He is largely credited as the person who coined the phrase “Black Power”. He said during that speech “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. 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”.
He was strongly influenced by the work of Frantz Fanon’s 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. Reportedly he wanted to encourage whites to organize poor white southern communities, while SNCC focused on promoting African-American self-reliance through Black Power.
Carmichael saw nonviolence as a tactic as opposed to a principle, which separated him from moderate civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Carmichael became critical of civil rights leaders who called for the integration of African Americans into existing institutions of the middle-call mainstream.
During this period, Carmichael was personally targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro counter-intelligence program, which specialized in isolating and slandering black militants. Carmichael accepted the position of Honorary Prime Minister in the Black Panther Party, but also remained on the staff of SNCC, and attempted to forge a merger between the two organizations.
In July 1968, Hoover stepped up his efforts to divide the black power movement. Declassified documents show a plan was launched to smear Carmichael as a CIA agent, as well as to undermine the SNCC-Panther merger. Both efforts were largely successful. Carmichael was formally expelled from SNCC that year, and rival Panthers began to denounce him.
Carmichael was present in D.C. the night after King’s assassination and led a group through the streets, demanding that businesses close out of respect. Although he tried to prevent violence, the situation escalated beyond his control. Due to Carmichael’s reputation as a provocateur, the news media blamed him for the ensuing violence as mobs rioted along U Street and other areas of black development.
Carmichael held a press conference the next day, at which he predicted mass racial violence in the streets. Now, living in Washington, Carmichael had been under nearly constant surveillance by the FBI. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI director instructed a team of agents to find evidence connecting Carmichael to the rioting.
A 1968 memo from Hoover suggests his fears that Carmichael would become a Black Nationalist “messiah”. He was also subjected to COINTELPRO bad-jacketing techniques which led to Huey P. Newton suggesting that Carmichael was a CIA agent. Carmichael soon began to distance himself from the Panthers. He disagreed with them about whether white activists should be allowed to help them. The Panthers believed that white activists could help the movement, while Carmichael had come to agree with Malcolm X, and said that the white activists should organize their own communities first.
Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture, to honor the African leaders Nkrumah and Touré, who had become his patrons. Amongst the turmoil of the time, Ture moved to Guinea to live in a self-imposed exile. At the end of his life, friends still referred to him interchangeably by both names, “and he doesn’t seem to mind.” I don’t think this man, as well as many others, have not received enough credit for the contributions made to the struggle and to the civil rights movement. May you rest in peace. And that’s my thought provoking perspective…