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.
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.
Excerpted with permission from Stokely: A Life, by Peniel Joseph. Available from Basic Civitas Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.
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.