Editor’s note: Stokely Carmichael’s activism helped found the Black Panther Party, and his work on voter registration transformed the South and allied him with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. Carmichael’s brilliant but complicated legacy is examined in the new book Stokely: A Life, written by The Root’s contributing editor Peniel Joseph. It goes on sale March 4. Here is an excerpt.
Stokely Carmichael’s belief that black political power resided in the will and political self-determination of local people helped to create the original Black Panther Party. For Carmichael, the Panthers offered the best vehicle for promoting radical democracy in Alabama. Unbeknownst to him, the Panthers would, in many ways, become one of the most enduring elements of his legacy. They would also be among the most misunderstood. Carmichael’s activism helped shaped the Black Panther Party in both Lowndes County, Alabama, as well as its more famous counterpart, founded in Oakland, California, in October 1966 by urban street toughs turned activists.
Carmichael’s involvement with the Panthers showcased two important sides of his character that are sometimes difficult to reconcile: the organizer and the political celebrity. Alabama’s version of the Panthers relied on Carmichael’s organizing instincts to take advantage of a bureaucratic loophole that turned independent politics in the South from a dream into a reality. Here the group’s success hinged on the slow, patient organizing more commonly associated with civil rights than with Black Power. Such distinctions meant little to Carmichael, whose organizing in Lowndes remained fueled by the belief that democracy’s most important shareholders were those who had been denied citizenship for so long.
The Black Panther concept would travel from the heart of Dixie to the Bay Area in a dizzying reinvention that refocused the snarling animal from a defensive posture to one of revolutionary foreboding. Oakland’s newly formed Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, in one of their first acts, drafted Carmichael as a field marshal, determined to attach themselves to his burgeoning iconography. For a time, Carmichael embraced both of these contrasting visions of the Panthers before settling into the leather-jacketed glamour of urban militants whose activism he helped inspire but whose politics he soon grow weary of. Carmichael’s activism in Lowndes helped launch the Black Panthers, North and South, into the national imagination and into history.
Carmichael applied political lessons learned in the Delta to Lowndes, a county he would live in for over a year. Two pivotal events marked his time in Alabama. Organizationally, he helped to launch an independent political group, nicknamed the Black Panther Party, whose symbolism would almost instantly transform the black freedom struggle. The rise of the Panthers, first in Lowndes, then in Oakland, California, signaled Carmichael’s transition from regional organizer to national political leader, a development aided by national profiles in Look magazine and Who Speaks for the Negro? an important anthology examining civil rights leaders.
The second event was the brutal death of his friend and fellow Lowndes organizer Jonathan Daniels. Carmichael reacted to Daniels’ death as if he had lost a brother, but generally refused to discuss these feelings in public. Personal experience fueled Carmichael’s political behavior, and this instance proved no different. Daniels’ death increased his commitment to a style of independent politics that would turn the Black Panther Party from a local curiosity into a national phenomenon. Oakland proved to be the most creative and volatile outpost on this score, and two young activists and part-time troublemakers, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, would claim the Panther image as their own by the fall of 1966. Carmichael’s activism in Lowndes served as an inspiration to urban militants eager to adapt the Panther symbol to local conditions. But the image of Carmichael in sunglasses and leather jacket in 1968 in full Panther regalia obscures the quotidian struggles that gave birth to the group. Before the glamour of Oakland, there was the harsh, dreary, and frightening reality of Lowndes.
In Alabama, local people searched for strength and purpose through self-rule. Farm subsidies, labor rights, sharecropping, criminal justice, and health care were the black community’s chief concerns and the basis for countywide politics. If Mississippi activists dreamed of using the federal government as a battering ram for reform, civil rights workers in Alabama proposed starting a grassroots movement that would produce communitywide change.
Spring turned to summer as Carmichael led SNCC workers in canvassing the entire county. A typical day began early and included approaching rural shacks where residents shared early morning meals of fried chicken and grits but remained noncommittal about the risky prospect of becoming politically active. As always, Carmichael attracted talented people to the cause. Volunteer Gloria Larry chanced upon Carmichael speaking in Selma and followed him to Lowndes as much out of personal interest as political commitment. Jonathan Daniels, a white seminarian student who had bonded with Stokely over a shared passion for philosophy and a practical interest in social justice, traveled to Lowndes as an observer.
On Sunday, August 8, in the little town of Fort Deposit, Carmichael spoke at the town’s first mass meeting, of five hundred people, in Bethlehem Christian Church. White vigilantes buzzed around menacingly outside the church, while inside movement leaders conducted a voting rights seminar. At the meeting’s conclusion, FBI agents cordoned off access to the church to allow a clear path away from Fort Deposit, but a small group of whites trailed the departing caravan for five miles before receding into the darkness. Fort Deposit’s youthful militants vowed to test the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s new public accommodations laws in spite of SNCC’s warnings that the risk behind such efforts far outweighed potential benefits.