Black History Month is the time to delve beyond the predictable roster of celebrated and increasingly mainstream African-American icons in order to spotlight an undiscovered country of political activists and activism. Going beyond the usual cast of characters celebrated during this time of year allows us to better understand the narrative of struggle that makes up African-American history.
In recent decades, America has been willing to commemorate sanitized versions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But there are some figures from our past who will never be redeemed in the national imagination. And this is precisely why these “people’s heroes and heroines” need to be remembered.
One man whose life underscores this is Stokely Carmichael. If Martin served as the king of the black freedom movement during the civil rights era, then Stokely 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.
Tall, black and slim, the enormously charismatic Carmichael traveled from humble roots in Port of Spain, Trinidad, to the Bronx, N.Y., in 1952 at the age of 10. He enrolled at the predominantly Jewish Bronx High School of Science and became an intellectual and political prodigy, as well as a favorite of his liberal white classmates.
In 1960, the year lunch counter sit-ins gripped the national imagination, Carmichael entered Howard University, where he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (via its campus-based affiliate, the Nonviolent Action Group). At 19 he quickly established a reputation as a fearless organizer, eloquent speaker and outsized personality.
Over the next four years, Carmichael regularly traveled to Mississippi to work on voter-registration campaigns, spent more than one birthday in a prison cell and became friendly with national civil rights leaders, including King and John Lewis. Carmichael practiced militant nonviolence, a strategy he embraced as an effective political tactic rather than a way of life.
His 1966 election as SNCC chairman helped radicalize the group. And his bold call for “black power!” during a freedom march in Mississippi galvanized a new generation of African Americans. It revealed the complexity of the black freedom struggle, since he and King would eventually part ways over the term’s merits, while managing to maintain a close personal friendship.
Over the next three years, Carmichael became the black power movement’s rock star. He debated critics on national television, outraged the FBI and White House officials with stinging indictments of American racism and led thousands of young people to resist the Vietnam War by popularizing the chant, “Hell no! We won’t go!”
Carmichael’s anti-war activism pushed his friendly rival King into his own, more celebrated resistance. Carmichael became an international phenomenon, traveling to Cuba, Vietnam, London and the African continent while counting Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and former Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah as close friends.
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.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.