From Stokely Carmichael to Kwame Ture

Charlie Cobb, 2023

A shorter version of this article was published in the June 1997 issue of Emerge magazine

The young black boy — maybe 16-years-old if his smooth young face is a measure — stands handcuffed in a corner of the store while two policemen — one white and one black — take down particulars; the black policeman talking to him while scribbling into a small notebook.

"I told these boys," the woman behind the counter — a black woman — tells the white policeman who is entering notes into his pad too, "that if they keep coming in here trying to steal I was going to call the cops." She was scooping up cigarettes, gum, candy, and other counter items, handing them to a helper who was putting them beneath the counter. The store wasn't closing; it's just that the neighborhood wasn't changing either.

Black power in Greenwood, Mississippi helped make possible the black-owned gas station and convenience store where this arrest took place. In the 1950s, Amzie Moore, head of the NAACP in neighboring Bolivar County, had the only black-owned gas station in the Mississippi Delta. He refused to put up "white" and "colored" signs and seated in his home's bay window with a rifle, floodlights pouring over the backyard, at least when we were there, he kept watch to protect himself, us, and his house from the attack he was certain would be coming some night from outraged whites.

Black power has desegregated Greenwood's police force, elected blacks to the city's Board of Aldermen, and made it possible for a black man like me to enter the Leflore County courthouse in Greenwood and have a white clerk politely ask, "May I help you, sir?" The questions surrounding young boys like the one I saw being arrested at the convenience store remain unanswered.

Black Power. Although Richard Wright wrote a book with that title, history will always associate the words with Stokely Carmichael, who on June 16, 1966, while continuing a protest march begun by James Meredith, spoke them in a Greenwood park not far from the gas station where years later I was witnessing that young boy's arrest. Earlier that June day in 1966, Stokely too had been arrested. "This is the 27th time...," he told the crowd of 1,000. "I ain't going to jail no more... We been saying freedom for six years and we ain't got nothing'. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!" he roared to amens, clapping, and stomping feet.

He stood, eyes blazing, fist clenched with one finger pointing, like a wrathful prophet stepped straight from the pages of the Old Testament as Willie Ricks, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer, leapt to the platform. "BLACK POWER!" Ricks shouted out, "BLACK POWER! What do you want? BLACK POWER!" the crowd responded with force that startled a press corps expecting to hear the tones of we shall overcome. And Stokely Carmichael exploded into the national consciousness as yet another unexpected black leader whose anger and dissatisfaction seemed to come out of nowhere.

No one blinks an eye at the phrase today. But then: "We are all Mississippians," the Saturday Evening Post warned and the magazine did not mean Mississippi sharecroppers. "An unfortunate choice of words," said Rev. Martin Luther King. "The ranging of race against race," fumed the NAACP's Roy Wilkins.

Thirty years later Stokely Carmichael chuckles mischievously recalling arguments during planning to continue the march begun by James Meredith who had been shot while walking from Memphis to Jackson on a solitary March Against Fear. When Martin Luther King joined SNCC and CORE in approval of participation by Louisiana's black self-defense group the Deacons for Defense and Justice, Roy Wilkins and Urban League head Whitney Young stormed out of the first meeting in Memphis.

They had also infuriated Wilkins and Young by deciding against issuing a national call to resume the march. "We didn't want the militancy taken out," says Stokely, who also argued against having any national white leaders in the march. While agreeing that participants should come from the southern movement, King rejected that, "But he was changing too," adds former SNCC Program Secretary Cleveland Sellers who was at that meeting.

That the southern civil rights movement had reached a watershed became even clearer as the resumed march neared Greenwood where SNCC had deep roots. "We had been going against 'Freedom Now' for four days [before the rally]. That's what SCLC would be shouting: 'Freedom now, freedom now.' We'd say 'that don't scare white folks. The only thing that's gonna get us freedom is power." There's still impatience in his voice. "We had been working in Greenwood for a long time. Silent years. Bloody years. People forget that. Dr. King could have countered us, but he didn't. By the time we finished he was using 'black' himself."

He sits the way he stands, in kind of a stationary strut. Smiles come quickly and easily with reminiscence. Only deeply tired eyes give away the cancer slowly eating at his insides. But he's still a powerful presence, especially in flowing African robes which along with his now-gray hair unexpectedly give him the solemnity of an elder.

If in 1966 Stokely Carmichael seemed to come out of nowhere, in 1996 he seems to have almost vanished from black struggle, existing now only as a faded page of a past political moment. But turn the page. The currents that have shaped and reshaped him have long washed over the shores of black life, eroding what white society usually expects of blacks trained to be successful. So today, he is Kwame Ture, an "African", and still, as he greets everyone, "Ready for the Revolution"

To many who remember those eloquently defiant public challenges he flung at both blacks and whites, he is certainly something of a mystery these days. But the road he's traveled from Stokely Carmichael to Kwame Ture solves part of it. How he traveled that road, especially the southern leg, are important pages in the record of transforming times. And along this road, ideas of radical change and black empowerment are the important signposts. He is, full journalistic disclosure requires me to say, an old friend and comrade.

Start with family. Neither one of his Trinidadian parents finished high school but books filled shelves in his home. So did talk of independence, for 1950s Trinidad was still a British colony. But his father, a carpenter, thought the United States offered better prospects, and in 1952 at the age of eleven Stokely Carmichael arrived in New York where he would become a U.S. citizen. After passing a competitive exam, he entered one of New York City's most elite public high schools: The Bronx High School of Science. There, all of his friends were children of college graduates. He devoured huge amounts of books keeping up with them. "I'd listen to what books they talked about and get them."

Discovery that a white classmate lived in Harlem surprised him. "You know I had to go to his house." Then he found out that his friend's father was a Communist Party member. "Spending nights there I met [U.S. Communist Party head] Gus Hall and lots of those folks." But what they offered conflicted with touchstones that were traditional and important to black life as he lived it. "To be a Marxist-Leninist you had to be an atheist. I could be an atheist but I knew my people would never tolerate it. And they [the Communists] didn't want any discussion of Black Nationalism."

This was as much generational as political difference says long-time friend Ivanhoe Donaldson, also a New Yorker, who worked closely with Stokely Carmichael in Mississippi. "Race drove us first. We recognized class but placed it differently. Everybody in our generation did. Even the white folks in SNCC had a little bit of black nationalism in them."

On the street corners of Harlem, however, he found what was missing from his friends in the white left: dynamic orations on race and black nationalist analysis. "Many of them spoke with West Indian accents," he notes. And Bayard Rustin was crucial. Young Stokely was a volunteer in Rustin's office for the Youth Marches of 1958 and 1959. "He was black and socialist."

The southern student sit-in movement had begun when he headed off to college in the fall of 1960. He was the only one of the handful of blacks at his high school to attend a black university, flourishing as he met the rigorous intellectual demands of Howard University black scholars for whom race was a cutting edge issue, and joining the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), a tiny activist island in a vast bourgeois sea.

"There was the sense we were radicals and 'beatniks'. We went to jazz clubs on 14th Street and U Streets," recalls Michael Thelwell, a NAG activist and also Managing Editor of the campus newspaper. NAG also had white members from other campuses and their involvement was suspect. Although they seemed a little disreputable to a student body largely concerned with upward mobility, Stokely could get out bodies for demonstrations, says classmate Courtland Cox laughing softly. "He'd say, 'We're going out to demonstrate and after, we're having a big party.' And they came out too, these guys who were totally apolitical."

Life outside of the classroom was not all protest and no play; he dated one of the prettiest girls on campus. Still pretty, Mary Lovelace laughs thinking of how she first met him; he threw snowballs at her one day. "Carmichael was not my ideal and I was exactly what he didn't want me to be. I was like a cheerleader, a bubble-head; gonna have a husband who is rich and famous, not infamous." Soon she was an activist herself, which puzzled many of her campus friends. Born and raised in Mississippi, "I knew all the crap black people had to live with and it seemed to me that the movement would make it better."

It changed her campus life. "He was somewhat of a pariah and I became one too. He hated the fraternities and ROTC, was always going after them and here I was, one of the first dark-skinned girls in the Kappa Court." Like many who describe their involvement in the civil rights movement, Mary Lovelace says her participation is best understood in terms of what she gained, not what she rejected. Women in particular were drawn to the movement because "it was a place you could be and discover that you could do something more than be a beauty queen." Today she is an art professor at the University of California.

If the older white leftists he knew in New York de-emphasized race, Howard professors like Sterling Brown took special interest in these young NAG activists as the next generation of race men, quickly adopting them as their intellectual children. "Sterling would invite us to his house and talk to us about music, or black life in America, and it wasn't a lecture, it was like a conversation," says Cox.

Many in this campus cadre would make their way further south. Yet even then, in ways not wholly explainable by his quick and political mind, Stokely Carmichael seemed to stand out. His Caribbean background. partly explains it, says Michael Thelwell, who is from Jamaica: "There is a sense of distinction between the way people in the Caribbean think of themselves and African-Americans. We are in the majority. Our U.S. brothers and sisters are sitting under the weight of white folks." But Thelwell adds, "the difference with Kwame is how completely he identified with African-Americans from the moment he got here."

"I was in America," says Stokely, who as a Pan Africanist considers and calls all black people Africans without using the hyphen, "and it was clear that black struggle would mean with the Africans here. But it doesn't mean I was discarding my Caribbean heritage." A more important clue to his character, says Ivanhoe Donaldson, is that "Stokely is a classic in-your-face New Yorker. Stokely Carmichael always stormed the barricades."

He first went south — to Mississippi — as a Freedom Rider, where he was kept in a cell near death row for 49 days in notorious Parchman Penitentiary, its youngest prisoner in the summer of 1961. Stokely breezily shrugs off the experience: "It would be frightening for the unconscious." But finally he acknowledges: "Well, I wouldn't want to die for a bus ride."

The activist part of him wanted to stay in the south then. But a hard-headed practicality has always leavened his idealism. "Quite frankly, I didn't leave school because of the draft. I wasn't prepared to fight that too, although I would have gone to jail if they had drafted me." Nor was he prepared to disappoint his family by turning his back on a university education.

"I didn't know this would be a life-long struggle," says Mary Lovelace. "I think he did. He knew he wouldn't miss it by staying in school. Anyway, he felt he could do it all. He even started taking art classes to show he could compete with me."

He spent every summer in Mississippi and finally came to stay in 1964 after finishing college. By this time civil rights organizers were wondering how much meaningful change civil rights would bring.

It is worth remembering that the southern civil rights movement was no simple struggle to gain access to public accommodations or even voting rights. That people should participate in the decision-making affecting their lives had undergirded decades of dangerous work by the local NAACP leaders who steered SNCC, CORE, and SCLC toward voter registration in the 1960s. "The idea of power was always there," says Stokely.

What was less clear was whether power would be found inside or outside of the political system. The 1964 Mississippi Summer Project — a coordinated effort by all the civil rights organizations — sought to answer that question. At summer's end the answer seemed to be "no".

Under the banner of their newly-formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, black Mississippians challenged the seating of the regular all-white Mississippi Party at the Democratic National Convention held in Atlantic City, New Jersey that August. Although no one disputed that Mississippi blacks were systematically denied the right to vote, the so-called regular party was seated.

Much of what has been written about this challenge is accusatory distortion aimed at discrediting so-called uncompromising radicals manipulating uneducated blacks. But it was the Democrats who turned their backs on the MFDP by deciding, without discussing it with them, to pick two MFDP members to be seated as honorary delegates. The party's Credentials Committee and Walter Mondale announced the compromise to the press as Hubert Humphrey sat down in a hotel room ostensibly to discuss a compromise with leaders of the MFDP delegation.

"You cannot trust the political system," declared an angry Bob Moses, SNCC's Mississippi project director. Similar outrage reverberated throughout the MFDP delegation who voted to reject the Democrats' offer despite pressure from powerful liberal allies. Perhaps the gentlest reaction, and it cut deeply with razor-sharp precision, came from Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, former sharecropper and one of the MFDP delegates. She was asked if the delegation was seeking equality with the white man: No, she replied to this strange question. "What would I look like fighting for equality with the white man? I don't want to go down that low. I want true democracy that'll raise me and that white man up...raise America up."

It is not a huge leap from Fannie Lou Hamer, sharecropper, to Kwame Ture, Pan African Socialist. Perhaps the most important skill Stokely Carmichael brought to Mississippi was not his gift for gab, but his gift for listening and being open to people like Mrs. Hamer — much of it cultivated by a mother with whom he could have easy exchanges, teachers who insisted on careful thought, and friends who never let him get too full of himself.

The qualities he brought also reflect what was best about movement organizing throughout the south; indeed, more than nonviolence, formed its moral core. It also led to choices that from the outside seemed impractical, even self-defeating, such as the refusal to accept the compromise in Atlantic City.

Kwame offers this organizers view: "I have a 16-year-old sister; she's just learning how to type. It takes her one hour to type out a press statement. I get a white volunteer. She can come in and type it out in five minutes. Whoosh, it's finished! I got to make a decision. Once you see it in a political sense, you got to go with the sister."

But where do we go from here? asked many alienated organizers after Atlantic City. Among SNCC workers especially, the issue of armed self-defense surfaced as white violence continued. There had never been much discussion of it; nonviolence had been an effective tactic, not a philosophy. But anger was growing side-by-side with frustration and doubt that America would be willing to concede any place but the bottom for the black and poor.

When the MFDP decided to continue trying to become a part of the Democratic Party, Stokely disagreed. "It seemed like putting all your eggs in one basket," he comments today. "It was clear to me that you needed an independent black party."

But, responds Lawrence Guyot, who headed the MFDP, and had been a SNCC organizer and was a native Mississippian: "Our strength had become our weakness," he says in oblique criticism of the growing ideological tenor of debates within SNCC over purpose, nonviolence and Black Nationalism. "A lot of people were prepared to fight the SNCC fight but not do the day-to-day organizational drudgery here. To not fight the Democrats in Mississippi was not to fight segregation. Our position was that SNCC had done a great job of organizing but new people were in charge [of Mississippi's movement] now and SNCC had no more right to control the MFDP than anyone else."

In a sense, Stokely Carmichael came to the same conclusion, announcing suddenly that he was leaving Mississippi to begin organizing in Alabama's blackbelt. "It was too much work to change the direction of the MFDP. It was already geared to be a part of the Democratic Party."

So he and a small band of organizers slipped quietly into Lowndes County, Alabama during the height of Dr. Martin Luther King's Selma campaign in March 1965. The Selma to Montgomery march seemed an outdated tactic, but its passage right through the heart of the county also created political opportunity. Explains Stokely: "We could see who from the county participated and they would be the strong people."

Such strong people were easily found, like brick mason R.L. Strickland, who flipped the movement organizing tradition of commitment to nonviolent action by telling Stokely: "You turn the other cheek and you'll get handed back half of what you're sitting on." Men like Strickland sat on their porches with guns, "and Stokley wasn't inside the house being protected by them," says Ivanhoe Donaldson. "He was right there with them."

Ironically, a new federal law and an older state law were key factors leading to the radical notion of organizing black power here: The 1965 Voting Rights Act passed in the wake of Selma dramatically began to boost the number of black registered voters. And a unique Alabama law encouraged creation of county- level political parties. "The law stipulated you had to have a symbol because of the high rate of illiteracy," recalls Stokely. "Well, the Democratic Party symbol was a white rooster, the white cock party we used to call it." A panther became the new party's symbol...almost accidentally.

"Courtland [Cox] came to Atlanta and asked me to design a business card with an emblem for the party," recalls Ruth Howard Chambers. "I came up with a dove. Nobody thought that worked and someone said I should look at the Clark College emblem. It was a panther and that's where the panther came from. Somebody up there traced it on a piece of paper for me." In Lowndes County that pouncing black panther gave instant visibility to the newly-formed Lowndes County Freedom Organization as the Black Panther Party. The new party's slogan: "Power for black people."

Almost immediately, the black panther leapt out of the state. When a volunteer from Oakland, California working in Lowndes county returned home, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale asked for permission to use the emblem for the Black Panther Party they had decided to organize.

Nor would Stokely stay in the county long. "The Lowndes County Freedom Organization was classic SNCC," says Donaldson. "It was the local people's organization, not Stokely's organization. At the heart of everything was local control. SNCC was Stokely's organization and he wanted to make his ideas central in it."

A year after his arrival, as the Lowndes County Freedom organization was selecting candidates, SNCC met outside of Nashville, Tennessee to determine its own direction and Chairman. An exhausting all-night session over the chairmanship would change both SNCC and Stokely Carmichael. John Lewis, Chair of SNCC since 1962 was nominated along with Stokely, and Lewis won easily.

But the issue of a direction was not so easy. "It was like a thousand years had passed since 1960," muses Donaldson. "We were reading [Frantz] Fanon not [Albert] Camus. But it wasn't so much about blackness and Stokely wasn't the purest black nationalist anyway; it was about revolution and change and internal frustration within the movement. After all, John believed in empowering the black community too. But they had two different personality profiles. John was almost innocent, gentle. Stokely was talking about taking on the country...going to the wall."

Tortuous debate dragged on through the night, and when the nomination for Chair was reopened near dawn most of the 150 or so participants had long left the meeting. Stokely Carmichael became SNCC's Chairman.

For his part, John Lewis, now a United States Congressman, says he is not bitter. "Worth Long challenged my election saying SNCC had violated its constitution, but we didn't even have one. More than anything else, what happened in 1966 can be traced to what happened in Atlantic City in 1964. Stokely and I were symbols about the sense of direction; whether we would move away from the concept of integration or keep to the philosophy of nonviolent change. I didn't take it personally. Change is bound to come in any movement where you don't have a top down structure."

SNCC had always been ambivalent about its Chair...somebody has to be spokesperson being the typical attitude; but it shouldn't get in the way of the organizing. Under Stokely Carmichael SNCC became increasingly defined by its Chair, and that did begin to get in the way of organizing. At one point, Cleve Sellers, elected Program Secretary at the Tennessee meeting, cabled Carmichael in Cuba asking him to tone down rhetoric that had enemies and supporters alike expecting SNCC to lead an armed insurrection.

He was less an organizer now than a spokesman for black power; not a role he would be able to continue comfortably. For a time he was honorary Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party, attracted by its determined confrontation of police and thinking that allying SNCC's veteran rural organizers with urban militants could advance black struggle. Although black power was born in the south, he says, "There's no question that the urban rebellions gave it its force. But ill-prepared leadership and other conflicts inside the Party made it impossible for me to stay. We even had to duck FBI bullets inside the Party."

His black nationalist stance also brought invitations from third world nations, especially, African nations. On his first visit to Africa in 1967 he was introduced to Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah by Shirley Graham DuBois, the widow of W.E.B. DuBois. Brash as ever, though awed at meeting Nkrumah, a personal as well as political hero, he urged Nkrumah who had been ousted in a military coup and was living in Guinea, to take back Ghana through armed struggle.

"Nkrumah sat me down and asked me why I was so impatient. I told him because I see my people suffering. Well, he asked me, if I saw a boat coming while I was on land would I wade out and meet it? I said 'yes,' without question. He said 'you'll only get wet and the boat won't come in any faster. The revolution is going to triumph,' he told me. Then he asked me if I thought the revolution would triumph. I said yes sir. 'Oh I see,' he said. 'It's just that you want to be the one to bring it about. All impatience is, is selfishness and egotism.'"

Nkrumah suggested that he stay in Africa as his political secretary. Asked about his decision to accept the offer, Kwame answers emphatically. "Real black power requires a land base. The only place where we have a material basis for power is Africa."

It took him two more years to get back. He had traveled not only to Africa in 1967, but to Vietnam and Cuba and his passport was taken from him when he returned to the U.S. His decision to live in Africa seemed abandonment to many and he spent much of his time explaining to colleagues why he was going. "I fought with him over going to Africa," says Cleve Sellers. "I thought we needed someone here to talk about the connectedness. But SNCC was dying, the FBI was tracking him everywhere, and we had all gone through 10 years with no break and though nobody likes to admit it, you had to take your behind somewhere just to think."

There's more to it than that, argues Courtland Cox remembering his discussions with Kwame. "After his trip to Africa he realized that a lot of the forces you were up against were global. And being in Africa with Nkrumah and Sekou Ture (President of Guinea), allowed him to function at that level." And as for why Nkrumah would ask someone from the United States to be his political secretary, in Cox's view "a lot of the political dynamism was coming out of the states. They were looking at us. [Tanzania's] President Nyerere allowed me to organize the 6th Pan Africanist Congress. I was even able to speak at the O.A.U."

Kwame's own explanation embraces all of these political sentiments. "You never know what America does to you before you get outside of it. My being in Africa is logical. SNCC had a deep relationship with Africa. One man one vote comes out of Africa. Lowndes County and the increased number of Black elected officials around the country represent change, but not qualitative change. A child learning to count from one to ten and then to 100 represents progress, but until he knows how to multiply or divide he's only made quantitative progress. We have mayors and congressmen now, but what's been the qualitative effect? Conditions for the masses of our people are worse than before." Nonetheless says Michael Thelwell echoing the view of many admirers: "His being in Africa is a loss."

Well aware of criticism that being in Africa is a waste of his time, Kwame points to his travels and lectures inside the United States. "It's a process of education. In America for us, the ideological struggle is the crucial struggle. It's just that Africa is the primary reality; not the sole reality, but a land base offers us the best security as a people. Where are we going to find that here?"

Sometimes the old loose Stokely seems to have been completely consumed by the ideological Kwame Ture. But this Stokely-now-Kwame who stormed the barricades in the 1960s is on a kind of intellectual train, says Ivanhoe Donaldson. "It's his way of trying to get somewhere, to truth, to justice, to anti-imperialism, go forward."

And there's the cancer — advanced prostate cancer that's spread and causes constant pain between his knees and pelvic joints. His ankles are swollen. It's slowed down his body. "On a scale of 10 mine is 7 — what they called 'a killer one.'" He's undergone chemotherapy, unusual for prostate cancer. At a Washington, D.C. holistic health center he's offered a wheelchair but refuses it. He does accept the arm and shoulder of a friend to assist him in climbing up the center's steep stairs, which seems some kind of metaphor for his life now. Friends have established a medical fund, for he has neither money nor insurance.

But he has no regrets. "Money and material wealth have never been priorities," he says.

"The movement made me distrust money anytime too much of it was offered me. The important aspect of SNCC was that you had to depend on the people. Learning that has saved me, keeps me going. You can't serve two masters: money and the people."

He tires easily. During an interview he asks to stretch out on a bed. "Not to sleep, just to rest a little." When he wakes up he sighs: "This cancer really exhausts you." But then he laughs, loudly like the old Stokely, picking up and taking pleasure in the exchange of political ideas and shared memories.

Asked about his name, the laughter gets louder even though politics is laced throughout his explanation. "Well Nkrumah and Ture didn't always agree. And sometimes I got caught in the middle. After Nkrumah died I was bringing up one of his points one day when President Ture said: 'You always take the old man's side, why don't you take his name.' What will be my second name? I asked. 'It'll be Ture,'" he told me. "That's who you are, Kwame Ture.' I thought Kwame Nkrumah might be turning over in his grave; the last name is always the most important.""

But there's challenge in his laughter too. "The masses of our people are ready for struggle. It's the intelligencia who are not ready." And who knows whether history isn't on his side. It's been on his side before.


Copyright © Charles Cobb, 2023


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