Review: Reintroducing Stokely Carmichael and the meaning of Black Power

STOKELY: A Life. By Peniel E. Joseph. Basic Civitas. 399 pages. $29.99.



For a while, Stokely Carmichael was the odd man out.

Active since 1960 in the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) at Howard University, and then in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Carmichael displayed the energy and organizing skills that would propel him to the world stage six years later with his "Black Power" cry.

He was an early Freedom Rider and endured his share of jailings and threats of violence. He spent his summers during the early 1960s in Mississippi organizing sharecroppers and impressing colleagues and locals with his charisma and intelligence.

But during those years, the two leaders who dominated news stories were Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In many ways, those men represented two distinct approaches. King advocated nonviolence and cooperation; Malcolm argued for self-determination and separation (until he softened his position in the last year of his life).

Carmichael fell somewhere in between. He befriended King and admired the older man's tenacity and charisma. At the same time, he was drawn to Malcolm's intellectual arguments and rhetorical gifts.

By 1966, for reasons made clear by Peniel E. Joseph in his terrific new biography, Carmichael was changing his tune. During the Meredith March in Mississippi, 16 months after Malcolm's assassination, Carmichael issued the call that would make him famous: "Black Power!" Instantly, he filled the media void left by his black Muslim mentor, and offered black Americans a militant vision of the future that contrasted with King's conciliatory approach, even as the two men remained colleagues and friends.

This history received a welcomed boost with the publication of Joseph's "Stokely: A Life," a thorough and engaging account of one of the most important figures of the civil rights movement. "Stokely" achieves its primary goal of restoring Carmichael to his rightful place in the pantheon of influential Americans.

Joseph, who spent 10 years working on the book, offers delicious details, thoughtful analysis and a good amount of drama concerning this enigmatic figure. Since the 1970s, when his interest in pan-Africanism and his disenchantment with America's intractable hypocrisy caused him to relocate to Conakry, Guinea, Carmichael has slipped from the public imagination, his legacy tainted by an unfortunate blend of stubborn idealism and a tolerance for African regimes turned dictatorial.

Joseph seeks to reintroduce Carmichael to readers and emphasize his pre-Africa activism, humanistic impulses, unstoppable charisma and evolving contradictions. Though it is evident that Joseph admires his subject, the historian remains ever true to his task, presenting Stokely's various warts along with his remarkable energy and accomplishment.

Born in Trinidad, Carmichael was raised by aunts and uncles before joining his parents in New York City several years after they emigrated. He attended the prestigious (and mostly white) Bronx High School of Science, befriended all sorts of people and quickly displayed precocious intellectual and academic gifts.

At Howard University, he fell in with the Nonviolent Action Group and quickly threw himself into civil rights activism. He spent the summer of 1962 in Mississippi organizing sharecroppers. "Stokely Carmichael fell in love with the Mississippi Delta that summer," writes Joseph. "The rhythms, the food, the essence of the place reminded him of Trinidad. In Mississippi, Carmichael found his métier: 'I had discovered what I was - an organizer - and that the movement was my fate.' "

But he was much more than an organizer; he was a compelling public speaker who knew how to push people's buttons, to rile them up and inspire action. Little by little, Carmichael was becoming a sort of prophet who advocated wholesale political transformation based on self-determination.

His smart rhetoric often was laced with provocations. When Carmichael told TV correspondent Mike Wallace that the way to avoid violent confrontation was to raise black consciousness and transform ghettoes into thriving neighborhoods by seizing control of resources, Wallace asked, "And the means you will use to achieve all of this?"

"Any means necessary," Carmichael replied, echoing Malcolm X. Then he turned to white America and issued a challenge: "You need now to civilize yourself. You have moved to destroy and disrupt. You have taken people away, you have broken down their systems, and you have called all this civilization, and we, who have suffered at this, are now saying to you, you are the killers of the dreams, you are the savages. ... Civilize yourself."

Comments like these soon would be softened or justified or enhanced or restated or even contradicted altogether. "We're not anti-white," Carmichael said. "It's just that as we learn to love black, there just isn't any more time for white."

By 1966, Carmichael was the "living bridge between civil rights and Black Power activists," Joseph writes.

And he was becoming much more vocal about international injustices. He was among the first public figures to criticize the Vietnam War, and he was loud about it. (Eventually, he'd influence King's stance on the war, getting him to condemn it publicly in a now-famous speech delivered at Riverside Church in New York City.) Carmichael also condemned South African apartheid, European colonialism and capitalism itself. He traveled to Cuba, Algeria, Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa, met with post-colonial leaders and threw his weight behind their revolutionary movements.

In 1966, he was elected chairman of SNCC, a development that signaled the organization's shift from a focus on enfranchisement and integration to the cause of Black Power: cultural and political self-awareness, economic independence, pan-Africanism, black studies at colleges and universities, the Black Arts movement and more.

Carmichael's social and political evolution would continue. Already in 1967, he was eulogizing the civil rights movement, which had failed "because it did not speak to the needs of the masses." The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act did not address acute problems faced by black America (or any disenfranchised population in the U.S.), he declared. "Our problems were an inherent part of the capitalist system and therefore could not be alleviated within that system."

He insisted that white power was a result of exploiting "the sweat of African-Americans and the people of the third world," and that whites would only join a revolutionary movement once they lost economic security. Only then could true democracy flourish, he said.

For all of his revolutionary rhetoric, Carmichael never embraced communism or socialism because they were based on class. For Stokely, racism was at the heart of injustice, a conviction that manifest itself in his formation of the Black Panther Party in Lowndes County, Ala. A counterpart soon would be formed in Oakland, Calif., by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, with whom Carmichael would sustain a tenuous, conflicted relationship.

Race mattered above all else to this complex man whose Caribbean, American and African experiences made him a symbol of pan-Africanism. He was a scary symbol. The FBI tracked his every move, causing Carmichael to fear for his life (he didn't expect to live past 30). College students, black and white, worshipped him, even in the later 1960s and early 1970s when his radical ideologies were getting the best of him.

It all came at a cost. He slept little, traveled constantly and suffered numerous, sometimes debilitating, anxiety spells. He lost close friends. He pushed away others. It was a difficult life that ended in 1998 when Carmichael, who had renamed himself Kwame Ture in honor of two post-colonial African leaders he admired, died of prostate cancer. He was 57.

Joseph's landmark book is the best portrait yet of this important, complicated man and the America he so wanted to love but could not.

Reviewer Adam Parker is Book Page Editor.

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