28 Days Of Black History Day #15 Stokely Carmichael
Stokely Carmichael (also Kwame Ture; June 29, 1941 – November 15, 1998) was a Trinidadian-American black activist active in the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement. Growing up in the United States from the age of eleven, he graduated from Howard University and rose to prominence in the civil rights and Black Power movements, first as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) and later as the “Honorary Prime Minister” of the Black Panther Party.
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Stokely Carmichael moved to Harlem, in New York, New York in 1952 at age eleven to rejoin his parents, who had immigrated when he was age two and left him with his grandmother and two aunts. He had three sisters. As a boy, he had attended Tranquility School in Trinidad until his parents were able to send for him.
His mother, Mabel R. Carmichael, was a stewardess for a steamship line, and his father, Adolphus, was a carpenter who also worked as a taxi driver. The reunited Carmichael family eventually left Harlem to live in Van Nest in the East Bronx, at that time an aging neighborhood of primarily Jewish and Italian immigrants and descendants. According to a 1967 interview he gave to Life Magazine, Carmichael was the only black member of the Morris Park Dukes, a youth gang involved in alcohol and petty theft.
Carmichael as a senior in high school, 1960.
He attended the elite, selective Bronx High School of Science in New York, with entrance based on academic performance. After graduation in 1960, Carmichael enrolled at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C.. His professors included Sterling Brown, Nathan Hare and Toni Morrison, a writer who later won the Nobel Prize. Carmichael and Tom Kahn, a Jewish-American student and civil-rights activist, helped to fund a five-day run of the Three Penny Opera, by Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill: “Tom Kahn—very shrewdly—had captured the position of Treasurer of the Liberal Arts Student Council and the infinitely charismatic and popular Carmichael as floor whip was good at lining up the votes. Before they knew what hit them the Student Council had become a patron of the arts, having voted to buy out the remaining performances. It was a classic win/win. Members of the Council got patronage packets of tickets for distribution to friends and constituents”. His apartment on Euclid Street was a gathering place for his activist classmates. He graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1964. Carmichael was offered a full graduate scholarship to Harvard University, but turned it down.
While at Howard, Carmichael had joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), the Howard campus affiliate of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Kahn introduced Carmichael and the other SNCC activists to Bayard Rustin, an African-American leader who became an influential adviser to SNCC. Inspired by the sit-ins in the South, Carmichael became more active in the Civil Rights Movement.
In his first year at the university, he participated in the Freedom Rides of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to desegregate the restaurants along U.S. Route 40 between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and was frequently arrested, spending time in jail. In 1961, he served 49 days with other activists at the infamous Parchman Farm in Sunflower County, Mississippi. He was arrested many times for his activism, so that he lost count, sometimes estimating at least 29 or 32. In 1998, he told the Washington Post that he thought the total was fewer than 36
Along with eight other riders, on June 4, 1961 Carmichael made the trip by train from New Orleans, Louisiana to Jackson, Mississippi, to integrate the formerly “white” section on the train. Before getting on the train in New Orleans, they encountered white protestors blocking the way. Carmichael says that “They were shouting. Throwing cans and lit cigarettes at us. Spitting on us.” Eventually, they were able to board the train.
When the group arrived in Jackson, Carmichael and the eight other riders entered a “white” cafeteria. They were charged with disturbing the peace, arrested and taken to jail. Eventually, Carmichael was transferred to Parchman State Prison Farm, where he gained notoriety for being a witty and hard-nosed leader among the prisoners.
At nineteen years old, Carmichael became the youngest detainee in the summer of 1961. He spent 53 days at Parchman Farm in “a six-by-nine cell. Twice a week to shower. No books, nothing to do. They would isolate us. Maximum security.” Carmichael said about the Parchman Farm sheriff:
“The sheriff acted like he was scared of black folks and he came up with some beautiful things. One night he opened up all the windows, put on ten big fans and an air conditioner and dropped the temperature to 38 degrees. All we had on was T-shirts and shorts.”
While being hurt one time, Carmichael began singing to the guards, “I’m gonna tell God how you treat me,” to which the rest of the prisoners joined in.
Carmichael kept the group’s morale up while in prison, often telling jokes with Steve Green and the other Freedom Riders, and making light of their situation. He knew their situation was serious.
“What with the range of ideology, religious belief, political commitment and background, age, and experience, something interesting was always going on. Because no matter our differences, this group had one thing in common, moral stubbornness. Whatever we believed, we really believed and were not at all shy about advancing. We were where we were only because of our willingness to affirm our beliefs even at the risk of physical injury. So it was never dull on death row.”
In 1964 Carmichael, then one of the leaders of the SNCC, famously responded to a question, “The only position for women in the SNCC is prone.”  No small number of movement women have said that Carmichael was, in practice, an advocate for women within SNCC and the Panthers, and that while it may have been a joke in poor taste, it was not representative of his views. 
In 1965, working as a SNCC activist in the black-majority Lowndes County, Alabama, Carmichael helped to increase the number of registered black voters from 70 to 2,600 — 300 more than the number of registered white voters. (Note: Black voters had essentially been disfranchised by Alabama’s constitution passed by white Democrats in the early twentieth century. Their constitutional voting rights would be enforced under federal supervision after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.) Black residents and voters organized and widely supported the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a party that had the black panther as its mascot, over the white-dominated local Democratic Party, whose mascot was a white rooster. Although black residents and voters outnumbered whites in Lowndes, their candidate lost the county-wide election of 1965.
Carmichael became chairman of SNCC in 1966, taking over from John Lewis, who later became a US Congressman. A few weeks after Carmichael took office, James Meredith was shot and wounded by a shotgun during his solitary “March Against Fear”. Carmichael joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Floyd McKissick, Cleveland Sellers and others to continue Meredith’s march. He was arrested during the march and, upon his release, he gave his first “Black Power” speech, using the phrase to urge black pride and socio-economic independence:
“ 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. ”
While Black Power was not a new concept, Carmichael’s speech brought it into the spotlight and it became a rallying cry for young African Americans across the country. Everywhere that Black Power spread, if accepted, credit was given to the prominent Carmichael. If the concept was condemned, he was held responsible and blamed. According to Carmichael: “Black Power meant black people coming together to form a political force and either electing representatives or forcing their representatives to speak their needs [rather than relying on established parties]”. Strongly influenced by the work of Frantz Fanon and his landmark book Wretched of the Earth, along with others such as Malcolm X, under Carmichael’s leadership SNCC gradually became more radical and focused on Black Power as its core goal and ideology.
This became most evident during the controversial Atlanta Project in 1966. SNCC, under the local leadership of Bill Ware, engaged in a voter drive to promote the candidacy of Julian Bond for the Georgia State Legislature in an Atlanta district. However, unlike previous SNCC activities,such as the 1961 Freedom Rides or the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, Ware excluded Northern white SNCC members from the drive. Initially, Carmichael opposed him and voted against this move, but he eventually changed his mind. When, at the urging of the Atlanta Project, the issue of whites in SNCC came up for a vote, Carmichael ultimately sided with those calling for the expulsion of whites. Reportedly he wanted to encourage whites to organize poor white southern communities, while SNCC focused on promoting African American self-reliance through Black Power.
Carmichael saw nonviolence as a tactic as opposed to a principle, which separated him from moderate civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Carmichael became critical of civil rights leaders who called for the integration of African Americans into existing institutions of the middle-class mainstream.
“ Now, several people have been upset because we’ve said that integration was irrelevant when initiated by blacks, and that in fact it was a subterfuge, an insidious subterfuge, for the maintenance of white supremacy. Now we maintain that in the past six years or so, this country has been feeding us a “thalidomide drug of integration,” and that some Negroes have been walking down a dream street talking about sitting next to white people; and that that does not begin to solve the problem; that when we went to Mississippi we did not go to sit next to Ross Barnett; we did not go to sit next to Jim Clark; we went to get them out of our way; and that people ought to understand that; that we were never fighting for the right to integrate, we were fighting against white supremacy. Now, then, in order to understand white supremacy we must dismiss the fallacious notion that white people can give anybody their freedom. No man can give anybody his freedom. A man is born free. You may enslave a man after he is born free, and that is in fact what this country does. It enslaves black people after they’re born, so that the only acts that white people can do is to stop denying black people their freedom; that is, they must stop denying freedom. They never give it to anyone. ”
According to the historian David J. Garrow, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book about the Civil Rights Movement, a few days after Carmichael used the “Black Power” slogan at the “Meredith March Against Fear,” he reportedly told King, “Martin, I deliberately decided to raise this issue on the march in order to give it a national forum and force you to take a stand for Black Power.” King responded, “I have been used before. One more time won’t hurt.”[page needed]
In 1967, Carmichael stepped down as chairman of SNCC and was replaced by H. Rap Brown. SNCC was a collective and worked by group consensus rather than hierarchically; many members had become displeased with Carmichael’s celebrity status. SNCC leaders had begun to refer to him as “Stokely Starmichael” and criticize his habit of making policy announcements independently, before achieving internal agreement. They gave him a formal letter of expulsion in 1967. There is some speculation around Carmichael’s reasoning for stepping down from the chairman position of SNCC. According to his personal accounts, Carmichael had seen African-American demonstrators being beaten by police and shocked with cattle prods. As a witness to their suffering in commitment to non-violence, Carmichael began to develop a perspective that encouraged him to condone violence against the brutality of a racist police force. He wanted to cause reciprocal fear by his new tactics. He later joined the militant political group known as the Black Panther Party.
After his diagnosis of prostate cancer in 1996, Carmichael was treated for a period in Cuba, while receiving money from the Nation of Islam. Benefit concerts for Carmichael were held in Denver; New York; Atlanta; and Washington, D.C., to help defray his medical expenses. The government of Trinidad and Tobago, where he was born, awarded him a grant of $1,000 a month for the same purpose. He went to New York, where he was treated for two years at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center before returning to Guinea.
In 1998 Carmichael died of prostate cancer at the age of 57 in Conakry, Guinea. He had said that his cancer “was given to me by forces of American imperialism and others who conspired with them.” He claimed that the FBI had infected him with cancer in an assassination attempt.
In a final interview given in April 1998 to the Washington Post, Carmichael had criticized the economic and electoral progress made by African Americans in the US during the previous 30 years. He acknowledged that blacks had won election to the mayor’s office in major cities, but said that, as the mayors’ power had generally diminished over earlier decades, such progress was essentially meaningless.
Stokely Carmichael, along with Charles Hamilton, is credited with coining the phrase “institutional racism.” This is defined as racism that occurs through institutions such as public bodies and corporations, including universities. In the late 1960s Carmichael defined “institutional racism” as “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture or ethnic origin”.
The civil rights leader Jesse Jackson gave a speech celebrating Carmichael’s life, stating: “He was one of our generation who was determined to give his life to transforming America and Africa. He was committed to ending racial apartheid in our country. He helped to bring those walls down”.
In 2002, the American scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Stokely Carmichael as one of his 100 Greatest African Americans.
In 2007, the publication of previously secret Central Intelligence Agency documents revealed that the agency had tracked Carmichael from 1968 as part of their surveillance of black activists abroad. The surveillance continued for years