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Stokely Carmichael–The Evolution of Black Power

March 4, 2010

“We demonstrated from a position of weakness. We cannot be expected any longer to march and have our heads broken in order to say to whites: come on, you’re nice guys. For you are not nice guys. We have found you out.”–Stokely Carmichael Black Power, 1966

Stokely Carmichael (June 29, 1941 – November 15, 1998) was an activist, public speaker, author, and organizer. He was Trinidadian-American. Throughout his life he ascended to great heights of leadership within the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and The Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP). Stokely, also known as Kwame Ture, went from being an integrationist to becoming aligned with the concept of Black Nationalism. Carmichael is well known for popularizing the term “Black Power.”

His father was a carpenter and taxi driver. His mother was a stewardess for a steamship line, His mother immigrated to the U.S. when he was a child and he was raised by his grandmother. He started at Howard University in 1960. Stokely was introduced to the organization SNCC while at Howard University and graduated from the institution with a Bachelors degree in Philosophy.

Carmichael began his career with SNCC registering black voters in the “deep south”, Alabama to be specific. Stokely became chairman of SNCC in 1966. Not too long after this, one of his colleagues, James Meredith, was shot during a march. Following this event Carmichael was arrested multiple times, and upon his second release he gave a speech that would exemplify the transition he was having in his political ideology. This speech was entitled Black Power.

This speech became the rallying cry for many who had become disenchanted with the American status quo. In short, he viewed black power as black people deciding for themselves what they wanted and them forming a political force that elected representatives, or held representatives. The concept of Black Power also distanced itself from dependence on already established political parties. In this speech he foretold of the “need” to create a Black Panther Party. He also says in Black Power that “White America will not acknowledge that the ways in which this country sees itself are contradicted by being black—and always have been.”  Stokely drew inspirations from the works of people such as Malcolm X, and Frantz Fanon just to name a couple. The shift became clear when during one SNCC function Carmichael voted for white SNCC members not to be at the forefront, rather encouraging them to work in low-income white neighborhoods. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that non-violence was the only approach, whereas Carmichael thought of it as an optional method.

As he began to become more vocal with his assertions of “Black Power” those on the other side of the issue, such as King, began to actively speak against Carmichael. In 1967, he stepped down from his position as chairman of SNCC and wrote the book Black Power (1967).

As his political views became more apparent Carmichael became a strong voice within the Black Panther Party. Stokely was involved in the riots after the King assassination, specifically in Washington D.C. He held strong in his belief that the progress of black people would be done by black people, and this belief eventually led to a falling out between Carmichael and the Panthers.

However, Carmichael soon began to distance himself from the Panthers. The Panthers and Carmichael disagreed on whether white activists should be allowed to help the Panthers.  Following this, he and his wife Miriam Makeba moved to Guinea. While there he studied under Ahmed Sekou Toure and Kwame Nkrumah.

Around this time he changed his name to Kwame Ture to pay respect to his two elders. Through his work in Guinea, and his dissatisfaction with the Black Panther Party, Ture became explicit in expressing his beliefs as those of a socialist and a pan-africanist.

Stokely Carmichael is believed to have been the architect of the term institutional racism as it is understood to relate to the struggle of Black People in the United States. He did not believe that the goal of the Civil Rights struggle was integration; rather he felt that it was the rights themselves. Dating back to his early days with SNCC, Stokely saw firsthand his faith in “white liberals” ring hollow. In Stokely’s mind, the white Americans showed him their true colors by time and time again not validating to unwavering faith black people have placed in them to “do the right thing.”

Chris Roberts

Excerpt from a 1996 interview–

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