Stokely Carmichael, also known as Kwame Ture, was a Trinidadian American Black activist and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party (BPP). He later moved to Guinea, West Africa, and became a Pan-African Socialist. This entry looks at his life and his contributions to African American and African politics.
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Carmichael is said to have been a rebellious child. In Ready for Revolution, Carmichael is described as defiant of scoldings by older friends of the family to avoid playing with “barefoot, scruffy little boys,” and “bad company.” He often responded to such admonitions by questioning the morality of avoiding others because of their socioeconomic status. Such rebellious zeal in his younger years is cited as an early sign of his belief in the equality of all people, regardless of racial or class divisions. While disobedience to elders was atypical of children’s behavior in West Indian culture, Carmichael based his defiance on Christian doctrine by citing verses from the Bible. Carmichael himself acknowledged uncertainty over whether his boyish actions reflected a “guileless, simple faith” or a “strategic maneuver.” Regardless, such actions appear to have laid the bedrock for his adult activism: Carmichael would years later use the same tactic to appeal to White southern conservatives in the Bible Belt of the U.S. South.
When he was 11 years old, in June 1952, and due in part to the death of his grandmother 6 months earlier, Carmichael moved into a three-bedroom apartment with seven other relatives (his two parents; his four sisters, Umilta, Lynette, Janeth, and Judith; and his aunt “Mummy Olga”), at 861 Stebbins Avenue, in the South Bronx area of New York City. He began fifth grade in the New York City schools and expressed consternation at the disrespect, lack of control, and disengagement with learning among students there relative to those in the British colonial schooling system of his homeland.
Not long after, his mother and father bought a home on Amethyst Street (in the Morris Park/White Plains Road area, near the Bronx Zoo), which to Carmichael’s surprise was a mostly White neighborhood. In 1956, he entered the Bronx High School of Science, where he surpassed his classmates in various subjects as well as IQ tests. Carmichael would remark that it was during those school years that he learned that intelligence and intelligence testing reflected cultural bias and social inequality. Also during this time, he was approached by the Communist Party but did not join because of his early connection with religious ideology; its centrality in the everyday life of the West Indies kept him from fully embracing Marxist thought. Yet because of his attendance at the Bronx High School of Science and its scientific materialist orientation, his religiousity gradually lessened but never waned completely. In his last years of high school, he heard the socialist Bayard Rustin speak, and his awareness of Black Nationalist thought was broadened by his introduction to the writings of two landmark intellectual activists who were also West Indian: C. L. R. James and George Padmore.
As he became more familiar with Black Nationalism, Carmichael was struck by its divergence from the nonviolent movement espoused by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., but he still felt that Dr. King’s ideology was worthwhile simply because of his influence and success. On March, 21, 1960, during his senior year of high school, the Sharpsville Massacre occurred—South African police fired on nonviolent, unarmed Africans, killing 69 and wounding over 300. That event propelled Carmichael to a series of rallies, one of which took him to Washington, D.C., where he met members of the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) from Howard University, to which he decided to matriculate.
Through his enrollment at Howard University and his participation in cocurricular student life, Carmichael was introduced to SNCC, an organization that emerged in April 1960 from student meetings led by Ella Baker at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. In his first year at Howard, Carmichael participated in “freedom rides” with SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and was frequently arrested and jailed. Over the course of his life, he was arrested many times, saying that he lost count after thirty-two.
Carmichael was invited to a major SNCC organizing conference in Nashville, Tennessee, along with other progressive intellectuals of the time, like August Meier, Kenneth Clark, C. Eric Lincoln, L. D. Reddick, and Herbert Hill. He took on more of a recognized role among SNCC members and spent a great deal of time working for SNCC initatives. Although he had begun to doubt whether he would continue at Howard University, the unexpected death of his father persuaded him to finish school. Upon returning to his studies, he met and was taken under the wing of philosophy professor Conrad Snowden. Carmichael changed his major to philosophy and obtained a job advising youth in the local high schools for the National Council of Negro Women.
As he helped to organize voting rights drives in Mississippi in 1964 and in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, Carmichael began to realize that many in SNCC had grown skeptical about the tactics of nonviolence. After the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, some SNCC members sought to break their ties with the mainstream Civil Rights Movement and the liberal organizations that supported it, arguing instead that Blacks needed to seize power rather than seek accommodations from the White power structure. Carmichael agreed, and he was thrust into the leadership position (replacing John Lewis) of SNCC in May 1966.
On June 5, 1966, just a few short weeks after Carmichael took over SNCC, a sniper shot James Meredith during his solitary “March Against Fear,” from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. Carmichael joined Dr. King, Floyd McKissick, and others to continue Meredith’s march. He was arrested during the march and upon his release on June 16, 1966, he gave his initial “Black Power” speech in Greenwood, Mississippi. Carmichael argued that Blacks should be free to use violence in self-defense and later advocated revolutionary violence to overthrow oppression. Carmichael rejected many, but not all, of the civil rights legislative measures as mere palliatives. While Black Power was not an entirely new concept at the time, Carmichael’s speech brought it into the spotlight, and it became a rallying cry for young African Americans across the country.
In June 1967, Carmichael stepped down from SNCC to join the BPP. H. Rap Brown (later known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) replaced him as the head of SNCC. Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton then wrote the book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, and he traveled to North Vietnam, China, and Cuba to seek collaboration with the efforts of oppressed people of color all over the world. Some leaders of civil rights groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), rejected Carmichael’s ideas and accused him of Black racism.
In 1968, Carmichael was made an honorary prime minister of the BPP and became a strong critic of the Vietnam War. After he denounced the war, his passport was confiscated and held for 10 months. When his passport was returned in 1969, Carmichael and his first wife, the South African singer Miriam Makeba, moved to Guinea in West Africa. There, he became an aide to the Guinean prime minister, Ahmed Sékou Touré, and helped establish the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. In 1971, he wrote the book Stokely Speaks: Black Power Back to Pan-Africanism. The book expounded an explicitly Socialist Pan-African vision, which he retained for the rest of his life. In 1978, he changed his name to Kwame Ture to honor the African leaders Kwame Nkrumah and Ahmed Sékou Touré.
In 1984, after the death of Touré, Carmichael was arrested by the new military regime and charged with trying to overthrow the government. However, he spent only 3 days in prison and was then released. In 1996, Carmichael was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was treated in Cuba and received financial help for his treatment from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Carmichael finally succumbed to cancer on November 15, 1998, in Conakry, Guinea.
Black Nationalism; Black Panther Party; Black Power; Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Marxism and Racism; Newton, Huey; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
(6/29/1941–11/15/1998) Essays, speeches Carmichael’s best-known literary achievement is probably his having been credited with popularizing the...
(1941–1998) People ought to understand . . . we were never fighting for the right to integrate, we were fighting against white supremacy. ...
Stokely Carmichael, also known as Kwame Ture, was a Trinidadian American Black activist and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating...