|Kwame Ture (June 29, 1941 – November 15, 1998),
also known as Stokely Carmichael, was a
black activist active in the 1960s
American Civil Rights Movement. He rose to prominence
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. Initially an
integrationist, Carmichael later became affiliated with
black nationalist and
He popularized the term "Black
Early life and education
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Stokely Carmichael moved to Harlem, New York City in 1952 at age eleven to rejoin his parents, who had left him with his grandmother and two aunts to emigrate when he was two. He attended the eliteTranquility 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 Morris Park in the East Bronx, at that time an aging Jewish and Italian neighborhood. According to a 1967 interview he gave to LIFE Magazine, he was the only black member of the Morris Park Dukes, a youth gang involved in alcohol and petty theft.
He attended the Bronx High School of Science, a specialized public high school for gifted students with a rigorous entrance exam, from which he graduated in 1960. His experience with the intellectual riches of the high school convinced him to drop his friends from the Dukes gang.
In 1960, Carmichael went on to attend Howard University, a historically-black school in Washington, D.C., rejecting scholarship offers from several white universities. At Howard his professors included Sterling Brown, Nathan Hareand Toni Morrison. His apartment on Euclid Street was a gathering place for his activist classmates. He graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1964.
He joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), the Howard campus affiliate of SNCC. He was inspired by the sit-ins to become 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) and was frequently arrested, spending time in jail. In 1961, he served 49 days at the infamous Parchman Farm in Sunflower County, Mississippi. He was arrested many times for his activism. He lost count of his many arrests, sometimes giving the estimate of at least 29 or 32, and telling the Washington Post in 1998 he believed the total number was fewer than 36.
In 1965, working as a SNCC activist in 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. 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 outnumber whites in Lowndes, they lost the county wide election of 1965.
Carmichael became chairman of SNCC later in 1966, taking over from John Lewis. A few weeks after Carmichael took office, James Meredith was attacked with 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 once again 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:
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. 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]". Heavily 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 — like the 1961 Freedom Rides or the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer — Ware excluded Northern white SNCC members from the drive. Initially, Carmichael opposed this move and voted it down, 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 to encourage whites to begin organizing poor white southern communities while SNCC would continue to focus 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 like Martin Luther King, Jr.. Carmichael became critical of civil rights leaders who simply called for the integration of African Americans into existing institutions of the middle class mainstream.
According to Bearing the Cross (1986), David J. Garrow's Pulitzer Prize winning 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."
In 1967, Carmichael stepped down as chairman of SNCC and was replaced by H. Rap Brown. The SNCC, which was a collective and, in keeping with the spirit of the times, worked by group consensus rather than hierarchically, was 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, and 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 narratives, Carmichael witnessed African American demonstrators being beaten and shocked with cattle prods by the police. Witnessing the helplessness of people so fully committed to the non-violent approach gave Carmichael a new perspective, one which condoned the use of violent techniques against the brutality of the racist police force. Carmichael’s new tactics sought to reciprocate the fear instilled in African Americans by the police force,  which led to the creation of the militant social group known as “The Black Panthers.”
After his time with the SNCC, Carmichael attempted to clarify his politics by writing the book Black Power (1967) with Charles V. Hamilton and became a strong critic of the Vietnam War. During this period he traveled and lectured extensively throughout the world; visiting Guinea, North Vietnam, China, and Cuba. After his expulsion from the SNCC, Carmichael became more clearly identified with the Black Panther Party as its "Honorary Prime Minister." During this period he became more of a speaker than an organizer, traveling throughout the country and internationally advocating for his vision of Black Power.
Carmichael also lamented the 1967 execution of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, professing:
Carmichael joined Martin Luther King Jr. in New York on April 15, 1967 to share his views with protesters on race in terms of the war in Vietnam.
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. The Panthers believed that white activists could help the movement, while Carmichael thought as Malcolm X, saying that the white activists needed to organize their own communities first. In 1969, he and his then-wife, the South African singer Miriam Makeba, moved to Guinea-Conakry where he became an aide to Guinean prime minister Ahmed Sékou Touré and the student of exiled Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah. Makeba was appointed Guinea's official delegate to the United Nations. Three months after his arrival in Africa, in July 1969, he published a formal rejection of the Black Panthers, condemning the Panthers for not being separatist enough and their "dogmatic party line favoring alliances with white radicals".
It was at this stage in his life that Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture to honor the African leaders Nkrumah and Touré who had become his patrons. At the end of his life, friends still referred to him interchangeably by both names, "and he doesn't seem to mind."
Carmichael remained in Guinea after separation from the Black Panther Party. He continued to travel, write, and speak out in support of international leftist movements and in 1971 collected his work in a second book Stokely Speaks: Black Power Back to Pan-Africanism. This book expounds an explicitly socialist, Pan-African vision, which he seemingly retained for the rest of his life. From the late 1970s until the day he died, he answered his phone by announcing "Ready for the revolution!"
While in Guinea, he was arrested one more time. Two years after Touré's death in 1984, the military regime which took his place arrested Carmichael and jailed him for three days on suspicion of attempting to overthrow the government. Despite common knowledge that President Touré engaged in torture of his political opponents, Carmichael had never criticized his namesake.
Carmichael and Makeba separated in 1973. After they divorced, he entered a second marriage with Marlyatou Barry, a Guinean doctor whom he also divorced. By 1998, his second wife and their son, Bokar, born in 1982, were living in Arlington County, Virginia. Relying on a statement from the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party, his 1998 obituary in The New York Times referenced two sons, three sisters, and his mother as survivors but without further details.
Death and legacy
After two years of treatment at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, he died of prostate cancer at the age of 57 in Conakry, Guinea. He claimed that his cancer "was given to me by forces of American imperialism and others who conspired with them." He claimed that the FBI had introduced the cancer to his body as an attempt at assassination. After his diagnosis in 1996, benefit concerts were held in Denver; New York; Atlanta; and Washington, D.C., to help defray his medical expenses; and the government of Trinidad and Tobago, where he was born, awarded him a grant of $1,000 a month for the same purpose.
In 2007, the publication of previously secret Central Intelligence Agency documents revealed that Carmichael had been tracked by the CIA as part of their surveillance of black activists abroad, which began in 1968 and continued for years.
In a final interview given to the Washington Post, he spoke with contempt for the economic and electoral progress made during the past thirty years. He acknowledged that blacks had won election to major mayorships, but stated that the power of mayoralty had been diminished and that such progress was essentially meaningless.
Stokely Carmichael is credited with coining the phrase "institutional racism", which is defined as a form of 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".
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, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Stokely Carmichael on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.