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Carmichael, Stokely (Kwame Touré, Kwame Turé)

CARMICHAEL, Stokely (Kwame Touré, Kwame Turé)

(b. 29 June 1941 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad; d. 15 November 1998 in Conakry, Guinea), radical African-American civil rights leader, a fiery speaker who coined the widely used phrase "black power" and personified the face of black militancy in the 1960s.

Carmichael was the son of Adolphus Carmichael, a carpenter and cab driver, and Mabel Charles, a steamship stewardess. His parents emigrated from Trinidad to the United States when Carmichael was a toddler. Until he was ten or eleven Carmichael was raised by his grandmother; he then joined his parents in Harlem in 1952. The family soon moved to an all-white neighborhood in the Bronx, and he entered the elite Bronx High School of Science, a public school for gifted children.

While still in high school Carmichael heard about the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South and became inspired to join the movement for racial equality. He rejected scholarships from several mostly white universities and enrolled instead at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1960. He joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Riders, a group of students of varying ethnicities who took dangerous bus trips that challenged the segregated transportation system in the South, and on these rides he was jailed several times.

In the spring of 1964 Carmichael graduated from Howard with a B.A. in philosophy and joined the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was organizing volunteers for "Freedom Summer," a massive voter registration campaign in the South. Tall, lanky, out-spoken, and charismatic, Carmichael became a campaign leader. Colleague Mike Miller described him as "bold, audacious, fun-loving, with an infectious grin; his presence filled a room." Phil Hutchings, an organizer with SNCC, later wrote: "It was impossible not to like him even if you disagreed with him." Serving as SNCC field organizer in Lowndes County, Alabama, Carmichael helped swell black voter rolls from seventy to 2,600. When the Democratic and Republican parties failed to enthusiastically support the voter drive, Carmichael organized his own party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which adopted a black panther as its symbol. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale would later adopt the symbol as the name for the Black Panther Party.

Radicalized by dozens of arrests, Carmichael, after repeatedly seeing peaceful protesters brutalized, became impatient with the tactics of the nonviolent civil rights movement leadership. Instead of mobilizing blacks to win concessions from the federal government, he sought to organize them to take political power into their own hands. In 1966 he succeeded John Lewis as chairman of SNCC and within a month broke completely with the mainstream civil rights movement. At a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi, on 16 June 1966, Carmichael shouted: "We've been saying 'Freedom' for six years. What we are going to start saying now is 'Black Power!'" The crowd of supporters chanted the phrase, and it caught on quickly, even though the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., criticized the phrase as an "unfortunate choice of words." It galvanized many young people but struck fear into the hearts of some whites supportive of more moderate aims and tactics.

Carmichael became the best-known and most visible advocate of militant tactics and goals. His "Black Power!" slogan turned into a crusade that demanded more than just civil rights and integration into the mainstream of American society—it demanded real political power for black Americans. A mesmerizing speaker, his goal was to use the white-owned media to reach black Americans and change their consciousness.

In 1967 Carmichael explained his views in the book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, coauthored by the political scientist Charles Hamilton. Carmichael wrote that black power was "a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organization." But in speeches that same year, Carmichael said black power meant "building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created." In a speech in Havana, Cuba, Carmichael spoke of "preparing groups of urban guerillas" for "a fight to the death" in the inner cities of the United States.

Carmichael's fierce rhetoric made many people uncomfortable. In 1967 SNCC severed ties with him, and Carmichael joined the Black Panther Party, becoming its honorary prime minister. In an interview with Der Spiegel, he identified bank robberies as one source of potential income for Panther activities. But his relationships with the Panthers soon soured. Even though the Panthers openly advocated armed resistance and militant action, they continued to seek support among whites. Carmichael denounced this practice and publicly resigned from the Panthers.

In April 1968 Carmichael married the South African singer Miriam Makeba and moved to Guinea, where he and Makeba lived in a seaside villa in Conakry, the capital. The deposed head of state of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, was his next-door neighbor. Carmichael soon began calling himself Kwame Ture, to honor Nkrumah and the Marxist leader of Guinea, Kwame Toure, who also befriended him. Carmichael later divorced Makeba and married a Guinean doctor named Marlyatou Barry; they also divorced. He had two sons.

By the end of the 1960s Carmichael became an emissary of the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party, lecturing worldwide. At speeches on American campuses and in cities, he called for black Americans to join him in a mass emigration to Africa to create a pan-African black socialist state, saying that such a step was the only means for achieving black power. But his crusade attracted few adherents in the United States or Africa, and Carmichael quickly became a fringe figure.

Carmichael lived the rest of his life in Guinea and was a staunch supporter of President Toure. He often dressed in fatigues and carried a pistol. In 1986 he was briefly jailed by a military government that took power after Toure's death. He remained staunch in his views to the end of his life, saying his fatal prostate cancer "was given to me by the forces of American imperialism and others who conspired with them." He died at age fifty-seven and was buried in Conakry.

More than any black leader, Carmichael was the personification of black militancy during the 1960s, even though his period of fame was relatively short. He never relinquished that militant stance. He also refused to see the 1960s as a closed chapter and a period of successful change. Until his death he continued to answer his phone with the phrase, "Ready for the revolution!" He wrote to Miller after a 1988 SNCC reunion that "Many you know have already accepted their laurels and do not even pretend to see the need for further reforms. For them the '60s put everything in place and they did it. Well, I still see Revolution and continue to work for it."

Before his death Carmichael was working on an autobiography, but it was never published. Short biographies include Jacqueline Johnson, Stokely Carmichael: The Story of Black Power (1990). Discussions of Carmichael's life and politics appear in Social Policy (winter 1998) and the Economist (21 Nov. 1998). An obituary is in The New York Times (16 Nov. 1988).

Michael Betzold

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