Editor’s note: “If Martin [Luther King Jr.] served as the king of the black freedom movement during the civil rights era, then Stokely [Carmichael] 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.” So wrote Peniel Joseph in a tribute to the black revolutionary, who died in 1998. Now The Root contributing editor is publishing his biography of Carmichael, Stokely: A Life, which goes on sale March 4. Here is an excerpt from the book:
On June 29, 1961, Stokely Carmichael celebrated his twentieth birthday in his tiny cell. He came to interpret his arrest as a rite of passage. “It would be the first of many I was to spend in Southern jails,” he would remember. SNCC workers made jokes about his habit of being incarcerated during his birthday. “It got so that people would say, ‘Hey, it’s Carmichael’s birthday. Keep your distance from him today unless you want to be arrested too.’”
While some chose bail as it became available, a few riders remained incarcerated. After forty days in jail, the final remaining Freedom Riders were released on bond. CORE had arranged his release, a deal that Carmichael found distasteful but was powerless to refuse. From Parchman, the riders arrived in Jackson, where they were fêted at Tougaloo College’s gymnasium. “Welcome Freedom Riders,” proclaimed a large banner that gave the occasion the feel of a pep rally, albeit one complete with heaping tables of soul food, loud music, and energetic dancing.
That evening, Carmichael flew to New York and hopped a subway train home to the Bronx. The sight of her emaciated son prompted May Charles to spend the next few weeks nursing him back to good health. Meanwhile, Carmichael’s exploits made him a minor celebrity in movement circles. There were now speaking requests for fundraisers in well-appointed homes where white liberals eagerly listened to his account of Parchman’s harsh conditions and responded with the cash that served as the movement’s lifeblood. At times, these encounters produced a discomfort in Carmichael, who chafed at the slightest whiff of liberal condescension by white allies.
His speaking schedule brought him into the orbit of Harry Belafonte, the singer and movie star whose peerless commitment to civil rights made him the rare entertainer who transcended artificial divides between art and politics. Belafonte’s friendship with Martin Luther King and SNCC placed him in the unique position of being held in equally high esteem by movement power brokers and radicals. Carmichael and Belafonte shared a passion for civil rights activism and more. Belafonte’s mother hailed from Jamaica, and the Harlem-born singer had spent part of his childhood there before returning to New York, where he found unparalleled success by turning Jamaican calypso songs into mainstream American music.
The similarity of the Caribbean backgrounds of Belafonte and Carmichael, their physical confidence and their personal egos made their relationship crackle with an unspoken competitive tension. At least some of this revolved around a woman. Belafonte introduced Carmichael to the South African singer Miriam Makeba, whom Stokely would marry in 1968. Makeba had of course served as the teenaged Stokely’s romantic dream. In fact, in Carmichael’s telling, he wore a “silky Harry Belafonte shirt,” complete “with flared collars, a deep V neck, and billowing sleeves” the first time he met Makeba, but she took no special interest in the young man when they finally met after her concert.
It would have been nearly impossible for Stokely to compete with Harry Belafonte, especially in Miriam’s eyes. In her memoir, she vividly recalled her first meeting with Belafonte, whose international fame preceded him. “This man is so handsome he could make a god jealous!” Belafonte had surprised Miriam that first evening by expressing genuine interest in the racial politics of South Africa in a manner that made her curious and admiring all at once. Now, as Belafonte introduced Stokely to Makeba at a concert in Queens, the two men perhaps briefly imagined trading places, with the singer earning the chance to engage in the dangerous and gritty world he supported financially and the young activist dreaming of the opportunity to consort with international celebrities as a peer instead of a fan. Less than five years later, Carmichael would join the rarified world where politics and celebrity collided, drawing comparisons to Belafonte’s good looks on the road to finding time to turn his romantic fantasies about Makeba into reality.
Stokely went from consorting with celebrities to attending a SNCC-sponsored seminar in Nashville that began on July 30. It was the first time he had attended such a meeting. Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, and Jim Lawson joined some of the major intellectuals of the era, including L.D. Reddick, C. Eric Lincoln (whose trailblazing study Black Muslims in America was published that year), August Meier, Kenneth Clark, and Howard University professors Rayford Logan and E. Franklin Frazier. Tim Jenkins, a former Howard student-body president who had graduated a year before Stokely’s arrival on campus, attended the conference.
Jenkins’ political acumen and ability to knit innovative political alliances made him the rare black leader who could be vice president of the domestic affairs section of the predominantly white (and surreptitiously CIA-infiltrated) National Student Association (NSA), serve on the executive committee of SDS, and maintain a strong relationship with SNCC. John Lewis and Diane Nash, two veterans of the Nashville sit-in movement with close ties to the SCLC, were on hand, as were NAG members Dion Diamond and John Moody. The idea for the seminar originated with Jenkins, who informed Carmichael of his determination to leverage the momentum from the summer’s Freedom Rides. The pragmatic Jenkins sought to outline areas of mutual interest between the student movement and the federal government. In late-night bull sessions, they grappled with a range of questions, including whether to shift energies from sit-ins to voter registration. “For me those sessions were important,” Carmichael would remember. “I think that was when we began to bond into ‘a band of brothers.’ I know that I certainly started to feel the strong respect and love for these brothers and sisters, which has lingered all my life.”