Stokely Carmichael
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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.”

In Nashville, Carmichael encountered Julian Bond, the light-skinned, boyishly handsome son of Dr. Horace Mann Bond, the first black president of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Poised and elegant, Bond was destined to be a key figure in the Atlanta student movement. A founding member of SNCC who also served as a student leader at Atlanta’s black, all-male Morehouse College, Bond wed a Brahmin pedigree to an acute sense of social justice. Creeping doubt rested beneath a raffish grin and unflappable surface, marking the anxiety-prone Bond as more suited for public relations than the hazards of the field. Also passing through was James Forman, soon to be SNCC’s first full-time executive secretary. He had the stout physique of a bulldog and a fiery temperament, and his administrative abilities would shortly transform the fledgling group.


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.


NAG hosted Malcolm’s visit through Project Awareness, a forum designed to present opposing views of hot-button issues. E. Franklin Frazier helped to negotiate the terms of Malcolm’s appearance in the kind of behind-the-scenes maneuver that endeared him to campus radicals. Rustin had personally approached Malcolm with the idea after university administrators objected to the Nation of Islam minister delivering an unopposed lecture. “You’ll present your views,” said Rustin, “and then I’ll attack you as someone having no political, social, or economic program for dealing with the problems of blacks.” This last line represented a vintage Rustin provocation, one that Malcolm responded to accordingly: “I’ll take you up on that.”

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


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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.

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