Bob Fitch photography archive, © Stanford University Libraries
As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael challenged the philosophy of nonviolence and interracial alliances that had come to define the modern civil rights movement, calling instead for “Black Power.” Although critical of the “Black Power” slogan, King acknowledged that “if Stokely Carmichael now says that nonviolence is irrelevant, it is because he, as a dedicated veteran of many battles, has seen with his own eyes the most brutal white violence against Negroes and white civil rights workers, and he has seen it go unpunished” (King, 33–34).
Carmichael was born on 29 June 1941 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. He moved to New York when he was 11, joining his parents, who had settled there 9 years earlier. Carmichael attended the elite Bronx High School of Science, where he met veteran black radicals and Communist activists. In 1960, as a senior in high school, Carmichael learned about the sit-in movement for desegregation in the South and joined activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) protesting in New York against Woolworth stores, a chain that maintained segregated lunch counters in the South.
Carmichael enrolled as a philosophy major at Howard University in 1960 and joined the university’s Nonviolent Action Group, which was affiliated with SNCC. In addition to working against segregation in Washington, D.C., Carmichael traveled south on the Freedom Rides. When the freedom riders traveled to Mississippi, Carmichael was arrested for the first time. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) awarded Carmichael a scholarship designed to support arrested students, and he continued his studies at Howard. Throughout his four years in college, Carmichael participated in civil rights activities ranging from the Albany Movement to New York hospital strikes.
After graduating in 1964, Carmichael joined SNCC’s staff full time, working on the Mississippi Freedom Summer project and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Carmichael found himself frustrated by what he saw as unsuccessful agitation for political rights, and grew skeptical of the prospects for interracial activism within the existing political structure.
After the Selma to Montgomery March in March 1965, Carmichael stayed in Alabama to help rural African Americans outside Selma form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, an all black, independent political group that became known as the Black Panther Party. (Activists Bobby Seale and Huey Newton would later borrow the Black Panther symbol when organizing the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California in October 1966.) He recalled how people in Lowndes County responded to King’s leadership: “People loved King … I’ve seen people in the South climb over each other just to say, ‘I touched him! I touched him!’ … The people didn’t know what was SNCC.” When asked, “You one of Dr. King’s men?” he replied, “Yes, Ma’am, I am” (Carson, 164).
Carmichael had always seen nonviolence as a tactic, rather than a guiding principle. In May 1966 Carmichael replaced John Lewis as chairman of SNCC, a move that signaled a shift in the student movement from an emphasis on nonviolence and integration toward black militancy. One month later, Carmichael, King, and CORE’s Floyd McKissick collectively organized a march supporting James Meredith, who had been wounded by a sniper on the second day of his planned 220-mile walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. Although Carmichael and King respected one another, the two men engaged in a fierce debate over the future of the civil rights movement, black radicalism, and the potential for integration. When the march reached Greenwood, Mississippi, Carmichael was arrested for the 27th time. At a rally upon his release, he called for “Black Power.” King disapproved of the slogan’s violent connotations, and Carmichael admitted he had used the term during the march in order to force King to take a stand on the issue. Although King initially resisted publicly opposing Carmichael and Black Power, he admitted a break between those still committed to nonviolence and those willing to use any means necessary to achieve freedom.
King and Carmichael did come to agree on public opposition to the Vietnam War. Carmichael encouraged King to speak out against the war while advisors such as Stanley Levison cautioned him that such opposition might have an adverse effect on financial contributions to SCLC. Nearly a month after delivering his “Beyond Vietnam” address at New York’s Riverside Church in April 1967, King preached “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” at Ebenezer Baptist Church, with Carmichael seated in the front row at his invitation. King declared before the congregation: “There is something strangely inconsistent about a nation and press that will praise you when you say be nonviolent toward Jim Clark, but will curse you and damn you when you say be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children” (King, 30 April 1967). Carmichael joined the congregation in giving King a standing ovation.
Although Carmichael opposed the decision to expel whites from SNCC, in the later 1960s he joined with black nationalists in stressing racial unity over class unity as a basis for future black struggles. After relinquishing the SNCC chairmanship in 1967, Carmichael made a controversial trip to Cuba, China, North Vietnam, and finally to Guinea. Returning to the United States with the intention of forming a black united front throughout the nation, he accepted an invitation to become prime minister of the militant Oakland-based Black Panther Party. In 1969 he left the Black Panthers after disagreeing with the party’s willingness to work with radical whites.
Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture and moved to Guinea, where he conferred with exiled Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah. He helped form the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party in 1972 and urged African American radicals to work for African liberation and Pan-Africanism. Carmichael died of cancer in Guinea on 15 November 1998 at the age of 57.
Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 2006.
Carmichael with Thelwell, Ready for Revolution, 2003.
Carson, In Struggle, 1981.
Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 1986.
King, Where Do We Go from Here, 1967.
King, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” 30 April 1967, MLKEC.