Black History Month is the time to delve beyond the predictable roster of celebrated and increasingly mainstream African-American icons in order to spotlight an undiscovered country of political activists and activism. Going beyond the usual cast of characters celebrated during this time of year allows us to better understand the narrative of struggle that makes up African-American history.
In recent decades, America has been willing to commemorate sanitized versions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But there are some figures from our past who will never be redeemed in the national imagination. And this is precisely why these “people’s heroes and heroines” need to be remembered.
One man whose life underscores this is Stokely Carmichael. If Martin served as the king of the black freedom movement during the civil rights era, then Stokely reigned as the prince of a revolutionary movement for political self-determination and cultural pride that would be embodied in his call for black power.
Tall, black and slim, the enormously charismatic Carmichael traveled from humble roots in Port of Spain, Trinidad, to the Bronx, N.Y., in 1952 at the age of 10. He enrolled at the predominantly Jewish Bronx High School of Science and became an intellectual and political prodigy, as well as a favorite of his liberal white classmates.
In 1960, the year lunch counter sit-ins gripped the national imagination, Carmichael entered Howard University, where he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (via its campus-based affiliate, the Nonviolent Action Group). At 19 he quickly established a reputation as a fearless organizer, eloquent speaker and outsized personality.
Over the next four years, Carmichael regularly traveled to Mississippi to work on voter-registration campaigns, spent more than one birthday in a prison cell and became friendly with national civil rights leaders, including King and John Lewis. Carmichael practiced militant nonviolence, a strategy he embraced as an effective political tactic rather than a way of life.
His 1966 election as SNCC chairman helped radicalize the group. And his bold call for “black power!” during a freedom march in Mississippi galvanized a new generation of African Americans. It revealed the complexity of the black freedom struggle, since he and King would eventually part ways over the term’s merits, while managing to maintain a close personal friendship.
Over the next three years, Carmichael became the black power movement’s rock star. He debated critics on national television, outraged the FBI and White House officials with stinging indictments of American racism and led thousands of young people to resist the Vietnam War by popularizing the chant, “Hell no! We won’t go!”
Carmichael’s anti-war activism pushed his friendly rival King into his own, more celebrated resistance. Carmichael became an international phenomenon, traveling to Cuba, Vietnam, London and the African continent while counting Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and former Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah as close friends.