Kwame Ture
(Stokely Carmichael)

Memories

By Mike Miller, January, 1999, copyright © 2000

I met him in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1963 as Stokely Carmichael: bold, audacious, fearless, inspiring, fun-loving, an infectious grin; his presence filled a room. People there thought he had a streak of craziness because he personally and "in your face" confronted Mississippi authority. But he had a purpose: to strip away the psychological intimidation of white supremacy.

Black Power emerged as SNCC's slogan in 1966, but since its shift in 1962 from direct action to voter registration and community organizing, SNCC had been about black power. I thought it was better to walk softly with a big stick than to talk loudly with almost no stick at all. He disagreed. His strategy at the time was to "use the white media" to talk to the Black community. He thought the central problem was one of consciousness, and that until Africans in America were freed from their white-defined or limited consciousness they would never be free.

In the mid-'60s, Stokely talked about an organizing campaign to "Free DC." Home rule was to be its goal; under that umbrella racism in all its manifestations would be challenged. When he wasn't the public agitator, he was a careful organizer. He could have done something significant in DC. I wish he had taken that course; his call was to a different drummer. He left the US 30 years ago and took residence in Africa.

In May, 1988, he wrote me after attending a SNCC reunion, "(I)t was interesting to see them/us together. Many you know have already accepted their laurels and do not even pretend to see the need for further reforms. For them the '60s put everything in place and they did it. Well I still see Revolution and continue to work for it. So communicating with you at least lets me know there are still some crazy ones, even if not as crazy as I." I responded, "As to revolution versus reform, I'm taken with a couple of new formulations: 'revorm' or 'refolution'. Both imply that there needs to be a basic change in the relations of power and property, but I don't want to throw everything out. Pol Pot and Shining Path leave me cold."

He saw Israel as an outpost for US foreign policy and Zionism as an ideology of imperialism, but he was not anti-Semitic; I think he worked to maintain the distinction. I wrote him in 1990: "I don't have a very elaborated position on this whole issue -- not much more than what I vaguely remember as Sartre's: two peoples with legitimate claims to a homeland who need to recognize each other's rights and negotiate their differences."

"Ready for the revolution?" my answering machine said one afternoon in the mid-1990s in the unmistakable Caribbean-influenced lilt of Kwame's voice. Thirty-five years after Greenwood, we were still in touch. Though our paths had taken different courses, each in his own way stayed true to building the power of the oppressed, marginalized, exploited, discriminated against, powerless--you pick the word--to act as their own liberators. He eschewed the many opportunities beckoning him in a society that is master of the art of cooptation. He could have been a college professor, War on Poverty director or leading elected official and more. We corresponded over the years, and occasionally talked when he was in the Bay Area. I cried, really sobbed, something very hard for me to do, at the April, 1998 Washington DC dinner-celebration of his life. By then, everyone knew he would not beat the prostate cancer he had struggled to overcome.

Kwame spoke at the dinner on unity among all African people. At one moment he cap-tured the room; you could have heard a pin drop. "Minister Farrakhan attacked Martin (Luther King, Jr.)." He paused for dramatic effect. "The NAACP attacked Martin. CORE attacked Martin. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee attacked Martin." He paused again, then quietly said, "And Martin never attacked back. We need unity in the black community."

The public debate about Kwame raged throughout his life--as these comments illustrate:

Recollections

(The author was a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Field Secretary from mid-1962 to the end of 1966. He now directs the San Francisco-based ORGANIZE Training Center.)


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