Powerful New Biography Recounts Life and Work of Stokely Carmichael

Read an excerpt about the black power leader’s friendship with Harry Belafonte, his love of Miriam Makeba and his admiration for Malcolm X.

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Ruby Doris Smith, a Spelman College co-ed who had already served two stints in prison (in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Parchman Farm as a Freedom Rider), was among the most vocal and eloquent attendees. Of all the young black women inspired by the sit-in movement, Smith possessed the most irrepressible combination of youthful idealism, iron-willed determination, and outspoken assertiveness. Ten months younger than Stokely, Smith would, after short stints in the field organizing, become one of SNCC’s most valuable administrators.

Perhaps the most important SNCC activist who would have an enduring impact on Stokely was also its most unassuming member. A high school math teacher and budding philosopher from New York named Bob Moses joined the group after Bayard Rustin sent him to Atlanta to work for Martin Luther King and the SCLC. After an awkward meeting with King, who warned Moses about associating with suspected communists, Moses accepted Baker’s offer to tour the South. He immediately plunged into a recruiting effort for SNCC’s planned October conference (where the group formally structured itself) that would seem quixotic had it not been so successful. In the unassuming town of Cleveland, Mississippi, Moses developed a fast friendship with Amzie Moore, a local black businessman and World War II veteran. Moses left Mississippi to resume his teaching job but offered to return to assist Moore in voter registration efforts destined to change the very face of American democracy.

In September 1961, Stokely returned to Howard from Nashville a campus celebrity. The fall semester was marked by other changes as well. His infatuation with Mary Lovelace, who joined NAG his sophomore year, now bloomed into love. On Wednesday afternoons the smitten Stokely assisted Mary, a talented visual artist, by handing her paintbrushes. It was a romantic pairing doomed as much by their egos as by the unpredictability of the movement and competing schedules, but the two would date on and off throughout Stokely’s time at Howard. Key patterns emerged that semester, including Carmichael’s tendency to get arrested. He would earn his second trip to jail for sitting in at a Baltimore restaurant.

The Hilltop, under managing editor Mike Thelwell, dedicated the fall semester’s first issue to the subject of nonviolence. “In doing so,” the editorial reasoned, “we pay homage not only to a revolutionary ideal struggling to be heard in a world hell-bent on suicide, but, with special warmth, to seven Howard Freedom Riders who forayed into the Deep South to redeem a moral wasteland.” In the same issue, Stokely recounted the details of his post-Parchman encounters with police while demonstrating in Nashville. His account played up the Sisyphean nature of nonviolent struggle; a group of eight students protesting outside a department store withstood eggs, chunks of ice, tomatoes, and bricks hurled by an angry mob that, in quick order, began throwing punches at demonstrators and lit cigarettes down their backs. He vowed to return to the Delta the next year and challenged Howard students to join him.

Charlie Cobb, a freshman born in Washington, DC, but transplanted to Springfield, Massachusetts, would answer Carmichael’s challenge. Cobb’s personal aversion to attending group meetings made him a more frequent presence at protests than at campus strategy sessions, but his infectious smile, easy humor, and good-natured personality made him a well-liked colleague who quickly became one of Carmichael’s good friends. The son of a radical Congregationalist minister open-minded enough to form political alliances with Black Muslims, Cobb met Malcolm X in the 1950s when the latter stopped by his father’s house to discuss politics.

Malcolm X, whom Cobb knew as a family friend, came to Howard in October as the most controversial speaker ever to visit the university. That year, Malcolm had become one of the most sought-after public speakers in America, delivering well-received lectures at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Temple, Michigan State, and Berkeley. He was born Malcolm Little, in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925. Black radical activism was a part of Malcolm’s birthright. His parents, Earl and Louise Little, were followers of Marcus Garvey. Earl’s willingness to plant the seeds of black nationalism in the midwest city of Lansing, Michigan, carried a high cost. Malcolm remembered his father’s death as a lynching, although authorities claimed a streetcar accident had practically severed Earl Little in two. The death of the family patriarch sent the Little family into decline, with Louise Little suffering from mental and emotional scars that prevented her from taking care of Malcolm and his seven brothers and sisters.

During the 1940s, Malcolm lived in Boston, New York, and Detroit, where he cultivated a reputation as a slick-talking petty criminal. Malcolm’s arrest in Boston in 1946 on burglary charges drew him closer to his activist roots. In prison between 1946 and 1952, when he was paroled, Malcolm Little transformed himself through reading, a strict diet, and embracing the teachings of the Nation of Islam (NOI). The Nation stressed personal responsibility, discipline, and race pride in a manner that mirrored Marcus Garvey’s ideas. But the NOI replaced Garvey’s worldly dreams of revitalizing Africa with religious prophecy that predicted the white man’s doom. The group’s leader, Elijah Muhammad, was a former sharecropper from Georgia whose frail health only strengthened his devout followers’ belief in his divinity. Malcolm Little left prison as Malcolm X, the new surname reflecting the NOI’s belief that blacks were a lost tribe wandering in America’s racial wilderness, blindly clinging to a culture and tradition (including last names) rooted in slavery and oppression rather than to their actual history.

Malcolm X emerged during the 1950s as a political phenomenon who transformed the NOI. It went from a small, obscure religious group into a sprawling and financially secure organization capable of injecting itself into the national debate over civil rights and race relations. Malcolm’s brilliant mind, voracious reading, and supple debate skills made him the group’s most politically motivated spokesman. He became the group’s national representative in 1957, and soon the NOI was as much political as it was religious. His minimalist style, dark suit, tie, and glasses, became as legendary as his biting sermons, which combined humor, politics, and autobiography in an effort to convince blacks that they were important and intelligent enough to choose their own fate and design their own futures.

Malcolm’s advocacy, following the teachings of Muhammad, of self-defense elevated him as the primary rhetorical opponent of Martin Luther King. The two men would meet only briefly once. King assumed the role of a defense attorney, extolling the inherent humanity of blacks and whites to each other. Malcolm, in contrast, relished his ability to serve as black America’s district attorney based in Harlem’s Temple No. 7. From there, he publicly condemned white racism for creating urban ghettos, condoning lynching, and maintaining a society that was so bankrupt that African Americans were forced to organize, protest, and march in order to gain citizenship rights that were supposedly guaranteed. For Stokely’s generation, Malcolm X became the avatar of a new movement for black liberation, one anchored in the quest for self-determination epitomized by Garveyism and its many variations that would come to be known as Black Power.

Upon hearing news of Malcolm’s visit to campus, Carmichael promised to lick envelopes and sweep floors so long as he garnered a front-row seat. The October 30 event was a debate between Malcolm X and Bayard Rustin, and it would become an instant legend. Carmichael did indeed make it to the front row of the debate; dressed in a suit and tie, he gazed intently at the proceedings. In a few short years, after Malcolm’s assassination, supporters and critics would practically anoint Carmichael as the slain leader’s official political heir. But at the great debate, Carmichael could only watch in awe, along with his classmates, at the power of Malcolm X. Here was a man who at thirty-six years old had transcended a life scarred by childhood tragedy, juvenile crime, and almost seven years in prison to emerge as the most authentic working-class black leader of the twentieth century.