Book Excerpt: Stokely Carmichael’s Roots in the Black Panthers

In a new biography, we learn about Carmichael’s embrace of militant nonviolence and his shock over losing a friend to the turmoil of the South.

Stokely Carmichael Youtube

On August 6, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in a public ceremony that featured King, who was given a presidential pen for posterity. The law, which included federal safeguards designed to prevent Southern states from denying the black vote, represented the culmination of the Selma demonstrations. But if King’s star power helped usher in the right to vote, it would be Carmichael and SNCC’s work in Lowndes that pressured the government to ensure local follow-through. Four days after Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, federal registrars arrived in the Black Belt counties of Marengo, Hale, Dallas, and Lowndes. In Lowndes, they set up headquarters at Fort Deposit, which made it, rather than the county seat in Hayneville, the site of the area’s civil rights activity.

Newspaper reporters alerted by SNCC to the simmering conflict swarmed Fort Deposit on the morning of August 14, the day of a planned protest. FBI agents milled about while Carmichael spoke to young people of the dangers of violent retaliation. A crowd of one hundred blacks stood in line outside the post office for voter registration as demonstrators arrived downtown by car and on foot. An ambush cordoned off the first line of picketers as dozens of armed men descended onto the scene. Reporters from The Southern Courier (which sympathetically covered the civil rights struggle from 1965 to 1968) and Life magazine covered the story by car. The journalists traveled in a group for their own protection but still found themselves fleeing local vigilantes.

Then there was the one time when Stokely actually almost welcomed being arrested. En route to Lowndes County Jail in Hayneville, Carmichael and driver Chris Wylie along with three local young people were pursued by a truck filled with white troublemakers, who menaced them with a knife and blocked them from proceeding. After a nervous Wylie accidentally hit the truck while trying to get away, they all headed to the local police station. Charged with reckless driving and leaving the scene of an accident, Carmichael and Wylie were locked up in Lowndes County Jail. “That was the one time,” recalled Carmichael, “that I was not sorry to be arrested.”

But then their day took an ominous turn. Local authorities transported Carmichael and the others back to Fort Deposit that evening under mysterious circumstances. Evening reports, filtered out of Fort Deposit and Hayneville, described roaming white mobs outside the local jail, intimidation, and threats of violence. Inquiries from SNCC staff, locals, and the Justice Department probably saved Carmichael’s life that night. The next day, Carmichael and Wylie were transported back to Hayneville. Stokely and Wylie shared a cell with Jonathan Daniels in the Hayneville county jail. After authorities released five underage prisoners on the first night, eighteen remained, including four SNCC workers, Daniels, and a white Catholic priest, Father Richard Morrisroe. Bob Mants posted bond for Carmichael and Wylie on Wednesday, August 18, but there was not enough bond money, and so Daniels was left in jail. He was released two days later.

Friday, August 20, Jonathan Daniels became a martyr to the cause. He and seventeen-year-old Ruby Sales, a protester who had also just been released, went in search of Coca-Colas in Hayneville. Suddenly, shots rang out. Daniels threw his body in front of Ruby to protect her. But he was hit, and a second volley killed him. In shock, Sales crawled to safety while noting that Father Morrisroe lay writhing on the ground in agony, a victim of the scattered gunfire. He and Ruby would survive.

Carmichael heard the news of his friend’s murder while traveling back to Lowndes from Selma to sign bonds for the release of the prisoners. Amid the aftershock of Daniels’ murder, Carmichael informed reporters that Hayneville and Selma had turned into tinderboxes. “Sheriff Clark has deputized over 300 whites in the past few hours,” he warned. Back in Selma to organize a response to Daniels’ killing, he called in reinforcements from projects in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Washington for a two-week “crash drive” that drew experienced organizers and expert drivers.

Cleve Sellers lashed out at the Justice Department’s John Doar in a telephone conversation over the decision to send FBI agents from Selma to Lowndes. “Obviously,” Sellers sarcastically remarked, “you didn’t waste the cream of the crop on us.” That remark so outraged Doar that SNCC staff suggested a one-day cooling-off period. Meanwhile, SNCC gave a CBS crew permission to enter SNCC’s local headquarters in Lowndes, Freedom House, and film interviews. It was a privilege granted to the sole news organization that had offered SNCC unrestricted access to its taped eyewitness reports.

CBS’s behavior was in direct contrast to the government’s. Federal procedure of taping witness statements but offering no protection from local reprisal had rubbed salt on a festering wound at SNCC, whose internal reports criticized the government for advising witnesses to “run and hide the best they can.” On August 21, SNCC’s Selma office issued a statement that linked events in Lowndes to larger national stirrings for racial justice. “The brutal slaying of the Rev. Jon Daniels and the shooting of Father Morrisroe is but another page in the blood-stained history of Alabama, another page in the history of Lowndes County, and another blot on the blood-soaked image of this nation.”

Carmichael spoke of Daniels at a Sunday evening mass meeting attended by John Lewis. Shedding tears for the fallen martyr missed the point, he said, since they could not bring him back from the dead. Instead, those who soldiered on in the wake of disaster could “resurrect” themselves. But Daniels’ death shattered Carmichael, who blamed himself for allowing him entrée into Lowndes. “I had a lot of appreciation for him,” he remembered over two decades later. Carmichael considered Daniels a rarity: a white volunteer who listened more than he proselytized, capable of grappling with hard questions about race, democracy, and power.

Editor’s note: You can read another excerpt from the book here.