Forty-six years ago this month, Carmichael headlined massive “Free Huey” rallies in California on behalf of imprisoned Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton. For a time, Carmichael even served as honorary prime minister of the Panthers, a group that his activism helped found.
Yet Carmichael’s political activism and international celebrity carried a heavy cost. Federal surveillance, FBI harassment, death threats and efforts to charge him with sedition and treason helped accelerate his departure (along with that of his wife, the beautiful South African singer Miriam Makeba) for Guinea in 1969.
Over the next 30 years, Carmichael operated from a political base in West Africa. He adopted the name “Kwame Ture”—in honor of Kwame Nkrumah and Guinean President Sékou Touré—and became a revolutionary Pan-Africanist. The more cautious and mainstream the civil rights movement became, the more outspoken Ture grew.
There are no monuments to Stokely Carmichael’s activism, but there should be. As a 24-year-old revolutionary on a Mississippi highway, he changed the course of American history. Black power offered a bold prescription for political, social, cultural and economic transformation. It challenged black people, including King, to find beauty and strength in African culture and to take their political ambitions to new, far-reaching heights.
The movement did not succeed in all of its ambitions, and its legacy is still fiercely debated. Yet this Black History Month, we would all be well served by remembering the man who aided black America’s unyielding quest for citizenship, identity and freedom. Carmichael’s unapologetic love of black people, his courage in the face of racist terror and his willingness to speak truth to power against all odds offer us an important example of black activism that, despite not being rewarded with “official” recognition, remains integral to understanding not just the African-American past but our contemporary politics as well.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael, Stokely: A Life, is due out in March. Follow him on Twitter.