Stokely Carmichael was a U.S. civil-rights activist who in the 1960s originated the black nationalism rallying slogan, “black power.” Born in Trinidad, he immigrated to New York City in 1952. While attending Howard University, he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was jailed for his work with Freedom Riders. He moved away from MLK Jr’s nonviolence approach to self-defense.
In 1954, at the age of 13, Stokely Carmichael became a naturalized American citizen and 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. In 1956, he passed the admissions test to get into the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, where he was introduced to an entirely different social set—the children of New York City’s rich white liberal elite. Carmichael was popular among his new classmates; he attended parties frequently and dated white girls. However, even at that age, he was highly conscious of the racial differences that divided him from his classmates. Carmichael later recalled his high school friendships in harsh terms: “Now that I realize how phony they all were, how I hate myself for it. Being liberal was an intellectual game with these cats. They were still white, and I was black.”
A stellar student, Carmichael received scholarship offers to a variety of prestigious predominantly white universities after graduating high school in 1960. He chose instead to attend the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. There he majored in philosophy, studying the works of Camus, Sartre and Santayana. While still a freshman in 1961, he went on his first Freedom Ride—an integrated bus tour through the South to challenge the segregation of interstate travel. During that trip, he was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi for entering the “whites only” bus stop waiting room and jailed for 49 days.
In June 1966, James Meredith, a civil rights activist who had been the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi, embarked on a solitary “Walk Against Fear” from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi. About 20 miles into Mississippi, Meredith was shot and wounded too severely to continue. Carmichael decided that SNCC volunteers should carry on the march in his place, and upon reaching Greenwood, Mississippi on June 16, an enraged Carmichael gave the address for which he would forever be best remembered. “We been saying ‘freedom’ for six years,” he said. “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 black power: ”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.
In 1967, Carmichael took a transformative journey, traveling outside the United States to visit with revolutionary leaders in Cuba, North Vietnam, China and Guinea. In 1969 Carmichael left the United States to take up permanent residence in Conakry, Guinea, where he dedicated his life to the cause of pan-African unity. “America does not belong to the blacks,” he said, explaining his departure from the country. Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Toure to honor both the President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, and the President of Guinea, Sekou Toure.
In 1968, Carmichael married Miriam Makeba, a South African singer. After they divorced, he later married a Guinean doctor named Marlyatou Barry. Although he made frequent trips back to the United States to advocate pan-Africanism as the only true path to liberation for black people worldwide, Carmichael maintained permanent residence in Guinea for the rest of his life. Carmichael was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1985, and 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.” He died on November 15, 1988, at the age of 57.
His tireless spirit and radical outlook are perhaps best captured by the greeting with which he answered his telephone until his dying day: “Ready for the revolution!”
For more information please read :