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Searching for Stokely Carmichael

Stokely Carmichael (left) and Michael Thelwell in 1972. Photo Courtesy the CRB

Stokely Carmichael (left) and Michael Thelwell in 1972. Photo Courtesy the CRB

Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) by Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell; introduction by John Edgar Wideman (Scribner, ISBN 0-684-85003-6, 836 pp)

At the end of 1996, when he was 55, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) discovered that he had prostate cancer which had metastasised and would shortly kill him. An autobiography had been in his mind for some time, and the following spring he began work on it. He did not write it himself, but dictated many hours of tapes for his friend Ekwueme Michael Thelwell to turn into a book.

Carmichael died in November 1998, having signed off on only six of Thelwell’s 29 chapters. “Well, Thelwell,” he remarked, “looks like you going have to finish the book.” Thelwell — a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of The Harder They Come — laboured for several years over the remaining material, and the book was eventually published on the fifth anniversary of Carmichael’s death.

A reassessment of Stokely Carmichael is long overdue, and perhaps this book — together with the cautious rehabilitation now under way in Trinidad — will start the process. While Martin Luther King, Jr, has a national holiday in his honour, Carmichael’s mainstream image is still negative. Amazon lists only 11 titles (including this one) dealing with him, nearly all of them out of print. There is no serious biography. “Carmichael has been discredited,” states one Amazon reviewer baldly.

Perhaps this is not surprising. While Dr King led the respectable Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was publicly identified with dignified nonviolence, and Roy Wilkins’s NAACP preferred to work closely with the US administration, Stokely Carmichael worked through the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and its Howard University offshoot NAG (Nonviolent Action Group). The SNCC was the most volatile and creative of the civil rights groups of the 1960s; it operated by consensus, and believed in community-level organisation rather than large public gestures. From 1961, Carmichael was one of its most successful organisers, and from 1966 to 1967 its chairman. He was the source of the “black panther” logo (developed for his Lowndes County Voters League in Alabama and hijacked by Huey Newton) and the author of the “black power” slogan.

So it has never been hard to depict Carmichael as the wild-eyed revolutionary of the civil rights movement, bent on overthrowing the established order and taking over the state. When J. Edgar Hoover decreed that “black nationalist hate-type organisations” and potential black messiahs must be crushed, it was Carmichael he had in mind, along with Dr King and Malcolm X (both of whom were assassinated). Carmichael was banned from the UK, France, and the Commonwealth, including his own birthplace, Trinidad. The mainstream US media — as asinine then as now — enthusiastically crucified him. Even after he had settled in Guinea, the US seized his passport and tried to destroy his credibility by smearing him as a CIA agent.

Ready for Revolution goes some way to putting the record straight.

The six opening chapters deal at length with Carmichael’s Trinidad childhood, his move to the South Bronx to join his parents at age 11, his life and schooling in New York, and his four years at Howard University. He makes no bones about how close he came to serious delinquency in the Bronx, and how his parents’ strength and influence just about kept him on track. There are intriguing glimpses of Carmichael mastering Latin, taking piano lessons, Scouting, and considering the clergy as a career.

Perhaps these chapters are most important for tracing his steady radicalisation. The McCarthy persecutions, segregation, the Montgomery bus boycott, ban-the-bomb protests, and the beginning of Afro-Caribbean independence (his father told glowing tales of Nkrumah’s Ghana) provided the backdrop to his teenage years. In the Marxist left, he encountered “for the first time . . . a systematic radical analysis, a critical context and vocabulary that explained and made sense of history.” But as he tuned in to the grassroots African American community (through the Harlem barbershop he went to, and the Garveyite “stepladder orators” of 125th Street), he understood that atheistic Euro-socialism was never going to appeal to religious African Americans.

At Howard, he did a year of pre-med, then switched to philosophy, also taking various courses in history, Afro-American studies, and literature. But his early contact with NAG and SNCC provided an immediate outlet for direct action. “They were smart, serious, political, sassy — and they were black,” he says about his first encounter with NAG on a Washington demo. “All the way back to New York I was intensely excited.” Campus propriety (which assumed that “negro improvement” was the gateway to acceptance into white society) enraged him. He soon understood that politics were his real interest, organisation his true talent, and racial segregation the immediate enemy.

He grasped early on what the deeper fight was about: “our people’s humanity as expressed in terms of their own devising. Psychic and cultural autonomy; the right to be and define ourselves without embarrassment, apology or external constraint.” He also knew what this meant in terms of physical danger. “Would I, could I, maintain nonviolence in the face of attack? What would my first arrest feel like?”

The bulk of Ready for Revolution describes the consequences of these decisions. While at Howard, every summer Carmichael headed south to what he correctly saw was the front line. He joined the second wave of Freedom Riders in 1961, after the first had been pulped by the Ku Klux Klan and the police, and spent his 20th birthday in jail. He spent months organising in the Mississippi Delta, not just voter registration but community centres, “freedom schools”, libraries, health and legal services. He relished the “brotherhood of shared danger”, and recognised in the South a culture close to his own Afro-Caribbean roots.

But white resistance was not just violent: it was sadistic and murderous. Volunteers faced the Klan’s flaming crosses, burned churches, drive-by shootings, clubbings and beatings, tear gas, and electric cattle prods. Legal rights were hard to enforce: Danville, Virginia, for example, refused to desegregate not just schools, housing, and jobs, but the city hospital and library, restaurants, and hotels. When 65 people demonstrated there peacefully in 1963, 48 wound up in the (segregated) hospital. Carmichael was gassed almost to death in Cambridge, Maryland, when George Wallace launched his 1964 presidential bid there — guardsmen hunted choking protestors with bayoneted rifles. In Mississippi, Carmichael spent eerie nights searching the swamps for the bodies of SNCC volunteers slain on arrival, the white community’s way of defining the terms of combat.

Carmichael is good at describing these years, and the events that most affected him. He vividly records the atmosphere of the marches, the confrontations with police and Klan, the anguish over slain friends and colleagues.

By 1965 the SNCC was facing an identity crisis, and began to examine its assumptions about “integration”. Carmichael describes how he grew tired of “folks being brutalised or killed with impunity. Tired of the indifference and complicity of the nation . . . [tired] of those wretched, pointless marches, appealing to whom, accomplishing what?” After being gassed and clubbed in Canton, and arrested (for the 27th time) in Greenwood, he began distilling his complex message about black self-determination into the slogan “black power”.

The ensuing turmoil further enraged Carmichael. Now, “integration” became the pious objective of the mainstream, a position from which to attack him and the SNCC. He was accused of fomenting division, racial separation, black supremacy, anti-white aggression. This crystallised Carmichael’s view that what was really expected of the black community — just as it had been at Howard — was assimilation: “hoping to pass over into and be ‘accepted’ by the white community on their terms.” He saw this now as “cultural suicide”.

It was futile, in the face of the media assault, to explain that “black power” was not a call for political revolution, it was not about “hating or loving white people”, it was not even about white people, and that “being pro-black didn’t mean being anti-white”.

What it meant, as Carmichael tells it here, was the right “to self-determination.”

No longer pretending to accept, with a grin and a shuffle, whatever grudging crumbs and concessions the white establishment might feel disposed to toss our way. Thankee, massa. Thankee, boss. No, no. To assert and demand everything that is ours by right, nothing less . . .

Cultural and psychological self-determination, that’s all.

Carmichael flatly denies that “black power” was ever a call to violence. As he tells it, he was committed throughout his US years to nonviolence, as were SNCC and NAG. He understood perfectly well the fierce discipline and suffering that involved, but it meshed with his quest for self-determination. In Dr King’s words, “The beauty of non-violence is that you never let any outside force, nothing outside of yourself, control what you do.”

This is not to say that Carmichael was not sorely tempted. “The night Medgar Evers was murdered,” he recalls, “the Klan sent an assassin for [the Rev. Bernard Lafayette]. Bernard maintains to this day that his nonviolent discipline and demeanour saved his life. I suggest that his nonviolence might have been aided considerably by the neighbour who ran out shattering the silence with his shotgun.”
By far the weakest part of the book is the final section, covering the years from 1968 (when Carmichael, still only 27, moved to Guinea with his new wife Miriam Makeba) to his death in 1998. Perhaps by the time he came to recall that period his energy was failing; perhaps it was too painful to remember.

At first there is elation — Guinea is the “most revolutionary and progressive country in Africa”, President Sékou Touré is his hero, Kwame Nkrumah has been named co-president after being deposed in Ghana. Carmichael renames himself Kwame Ture and becomes Nkrumah’s secretary, anxious to restore the ex-president to power in Accra and further the pan-African revolution.
But Nkrumah dies in exile, and Touré’s regime is forced on the defensive. Carmichael is divorced and remarried, expelled from the SNCC, and laden with domestic politics and diplomacy. He is no longer the free-spirited, self-determined activist on his own turf. Revolution does not come.

All this is quickly glossed over. After Touré’s death and the subsequent coup, Carmichael finds himself on the “wrong” side politically, and rails against the “black revolutionary puppets” who arrest him. He skips the next 12 years of his life completely.

Ready for Revolution gives a vivid sense of Stokely Carmichael the civil rights activist, a man of exceptional courage and intelligence who has been systematically demonised and expunged from memory. What is does not do is evoke Kwame Ture the pan-Africanist and “revolutionary”. Those last three decades await a good biographer.

Jeremy Taylor

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), August 2004. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.

 

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