Welcome to the “Black History Month” edition of the Evolving Man Project’s Evolved Man of the Week profiles. Each week in February, we will highlight a historical black male figure who embodies what it meant to be an evolved man, famous and non-famous alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to the author, community organizer, activist, and revolutionary, Kwame Ture, a.k.a Stokely Carmichael.
On June 29, 1941, Carmichael was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and Tobago. Carmichael’s parents immigrated to New York when he was a toddler, leaving him in the care of his grandmother until the age of 11, when he followed his parents to the United States. In 1954, at the age of 13, Stokely Carmichael became a naturalized American citizen. His family moved to a predominantly Italian and Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx called Morris Park. Soon Carmichael became the only Black member of a street gang called the Morris Park Dukes.
Carmichael attended the Bronx High School of Science in New York, being selected through high achievement on its standardized entrance examination. At Bronx Science, he participated in a local White Castle restaurant boycott that did not hire blacks. On student recognition Sunday at his church, Carmichael gave an eye-opening student sermon to the almost totally white congregation. Carmichael was acquainted with fellow Bronx Science student Samuel R. Delany during his time there.
After graduation in 1960, Carmichael enrolled at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. His professors included the poet Sterling Brown, Nathan Hare, and Toni Morrison later awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Carmichael and fellow civil rights activist Tom Kahn helped fund a five-day run of the Three Penny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
In 1961 Carmichael was one of several Freedom Riders who traveled through the South challenging segregation laws in interstate transportation. He was arrested and jailed for about 50 days for his participation in Jackson, Mississippi. After his graduation, Carmichael continued his involvement with the civil rights movement and SNCC with honors from Howard University in 1964. He joined SNCC in Lowndes County, Alabama, for an African American voter registration drive and helped organize the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, an independent political party. A black panther was chosen as the party’s emblem, a powerful image later adopted in homage by the Black Panther Party.
Early in his time with the SNCC, Carmichael adhered to the philosophy of nonviolent resistance espoused by King. In addition to moral opposition to violence, proponents of nonviolent resistance believed that the strategy would win public support for civil rights by drawing a sharp contrast — captured on nightly television — between the peacefulness of the protesters and the brutality of the police and hecklers opposing them. However, as time went on, Carmichael — like many young activists — became frustrated with the slow pace of progress and endured repeated acts of violence and humiliation at the hands of white police officers without recourse.
In June 1966, activist James Meredith was shot during his solitary “Walk Against Fear” from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. Carmichael decided that SNCC volunteers should carry on the march in his place. Upon reaching Greenwood, Mississippi, the enraged leader gave the address for which he would be best remembered: “We been saying ‘freedom’ for six years,” he cried. “What we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power.“
The phrase “Black Power” quickly caught on as the rallying cry of a younger, more radical generation of civil rights activists. The term also resonated internationally, becoming a slogan of resistance to European imperialism in Africa. In his 1968 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, Carmichael explained the meaning of the term: “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.”
Black Power also represented Carmichael’s break with King’s doctrine of nonviolence and its end goal of racial integration. Instead, he associated the term with the philosophy of Black separatism, articulated most prominently by Malcolm X. “When you talk of Black Power, you talk of building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created,” Carmichael said in one speech.
In 1967, Carmichael took a transformative journey, traveling outside the United States to visit with revolutionary leaders in Cuba, North Vietnam, China, and Guinea. Upon returning to the United States, he left the SNCC and became prime minister of the more radical Black Panthers. He spent the next two years speaking around the country and writing essays on Black nationalism, Black separatism, and, increasingly, pan-Africanism, which ultimately became Carmichael’s life cause.
During this period, Carmichael was targeted by a section of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program) that focused on black activists; the program promoted slander and violence against targets Hoover considered enemies of the U.S. government. It attempted to discredit them and, worse, often had them killed as an example to would-be “revolutionaries.” Carmichael accepted the position of Honorary Prime Minister in the Black Panther Party but also remained on the SNCC staff. He tried to forge a merger between the two organizations. A March 4, 1968 memo from Hoover states his fear of the rise of a Black Nationalist “messiah” and that Carmichael alone had the “necessary charisma to be a real threat in this way.” In July 1968, Hoover stepped up his efforts to divide the black power movement. Declassified documents show he launched a plan to undermine the SNCC-Panther merger and “bad-jacket” Carmichael as a CIA agent. Both efforts were largely successful: Carmichael was expelled from SNCC that year. The Panthers began to denounce him, putting him at grave personal risk.
He left the United States in 1969 and moved with his first wife (1968–79), South African singer Miriam Makeba, to Guinea, West Africa. He also changed his name to Kwame Ture in honor of two early proponents of Pan-Africanism, Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah, and Guinean Sékou Touré. Carmichael helped establish the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, an international political party dedicated to Pan-Africanism and the plight of Africans worldwide. In 1971 he wrote Stokely Speaks: Black Power Back to Pan-Africanism.
Ture was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1996. Although it is unclear precisely what he meant, he said publicly that his cancer “was given to me by forces of American imperialism and others who conspired with them.” In his final years, the ailing revolutionary was treated at New York City’s Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, before he passed away at home in Conakry on November 15, 1998, at 57.
Here is Kwame Ture in his own words explaining why Dr. King’s nonviolent strategy would not work against an empire like the United States:
“He (Dr. King) only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent has to have a conscience. The United States has no conscience.”
As a young man of 19 years old, I read Kwame’s book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. His life and work were one of my many inspirations to dedicate my life to making the world a better place. Kwame Ture lived a life full of ups and downs. Still, he remained committed to black and African solidarity across the diaspora until his dying day. He was a leader in the civil rights and Black Power movement. A man of the people who committed his life to be as he often quoted as being “Ready for the Revolution.” Today we honor Kwame Ture, a.k.a Stokely Carmichael, as our Evolved Man of the Week.