Stokely Carmichael was among the frontrunners of the ‘American Civil Rights Movement’ in the 1960s. He vowed to fight racism at an early age and hence turned down scholarships to many reputed Universities to study in the historically black ‘Howard University’. In college, he seized every opportunity to contribute to the civil rights movement and joined organizations like ‘CORE’, ‘SNCC’ and ‘Freedom Riders’ to further his cause. Being an effective organizer with excellent oratory skills, he was entrusted with key activities like campaigns for registering black voters. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and was arrested numerous times during his protests. Initially, Carmichael was in favour of non-violent protests but as the government remained indifferent to his demands and the police brutalities also showed no signs of stopping, his patience exhausted and his approach became more radical. Following yet another unjust arrest, he announced his new philosophy of ‘Black Power’ to the world. The concept won him many followers, especially among the younger generation. However, it had its fair share of detractors too, who labelled the concept as a form of ‘Black Racism’. Carmichael continued his activism even after leaving the US. He is remembered today for his intense campaign against all forms of racism, hence heralding a new era in US history.
Childhood & Early Life
Stokely Carmichael was born to Adolphus and Mabel R. Carmichael in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. His father was a carpenter and taxi-driver and his mother was a stewardess.
When he was two years old, his parents immigrated to New York and left him in the care of his grandmother and his two aunts. He studied in ‘Tranquility School’ in Trinidad. At the age of eleven, he moved to New York to stay with his parents.
In 1954, his family moved to Van Nest neighbourhood in East Bronx. Here, he joined a gang called ‘Morris Park Dukes’, a youth gang that indulged in theft.
In 1956, he got admission to ‘Bronx High School of Science’, an elite and selective school, after qualifying through an admissions test. His classmates here were the children of New York’s rich upper-class white residents and Carmichael faced discrimination on account of his race.
He graduated from high school in 1960 and received scholarships to many esteemed Universities, but joined the historically black ‘Howard University’, the same year. He studied philosophy there and his teachers here included some very eminent people, like Sterling Brown, Nathan Hare and Toni Morrison.
Continue Reading Below
You May Like
Carmichael soon joined the ‘Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’ (SNCC), an ‘American Civil Rights Movement’ organization. In 1961, he joined ‘Freedom Riders’, a group that defied discrimination in interstate buses by boarding them. He went on many freedom rides and on one such trip he was arrested and jailed for forty-nine days in Mississippi.
He remained active in the civil rights movement throughout his college years and graduated from the University in 1964, after which he began his work for the SNCC.
As a part of SNCC’s campaign to register black voters, he was chosen to be the field organizer for Lowndes County, Alabama in 1965. Under his leadership, the number of registered black voters in Alabama grew from 70 to 2600.
He founded the political organization ‘Lowndes County Freedom Organization’ in 1965 and chose the ‘Black Panther’ as its mascot, to symbolically oppose the ‘White Rooster’ mascot of the ‘Democratic Party’, dominated by white people. The party lost the elections, but garnered a lot support in the region.
He was elected chairman of SNCC in 1966. Initially, Carmichael was a promoter of non-violent resistance, a philosophy advocated by Martin Luther King Jr. But by 1966, he got disillusioned by the sluggish progress and repeated brutalities by white police officers. From here on, he veered towards more radical measures, which included not recruiting white members to SNCC.
In 1966, he got SNCC involved in James Meredith’s ‘March Against Fear’. When the demonstrators reached Mississippi, Carmichael was arrested by the police and was detained in prison for a few days.
The ideology of ‘Black Power’ caught on very well with the younger African Americans in the US and also became a slogan against colonialism of Africa by European Powers. However, his views were also controversial and prompted criticism from other Civil Rights groups, which accused him of ‘Black Racism’.
In 1967, he travelled to Guinea, Cuba, North Vietnam and China to meet the local revolutionary leaders and gave lectures. On his return to US, he quit SNCC and joined the more fundamental ‘Black Panther Party’ as it’s ‘Honorary Prime Minister’.
From 1967 to 1969, he lectured in many regions of the US and wrote essays regarding black ideologies and pan-Africanism. During this period, Carmichael was against the involvement of whites in the ‘Black Panther Party’ whereas the party wasn’t. This led to differences between Carmichael and the party.
Continue Reading Below
In 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, he demanded closing of businesses out of respect in Washington D.C. and led a group of protesters through the streets. Although he insisted on non-violence, the protestors turned violent and caused riots in many parts of Washington, for which Carmichael was blamed.
In 1969, he quit the party because of their differing ideologies, left US and settled in Conakry, Guinea. He kept propounding pan-African unity for the rest of his life. He also continued to believe that a revolution was the only solution to end racism.
Stokely Carmichael was responsible for increasing number of black registered voters in Lowndes County from 70 to 2600. Not content with the response of major parties, he then founded ‘Lowndes County Freedom Organization’, his own political party with the ‘Black Panther’ as its symbol.
In 1966, after activist James Meredith was wounded in his ‘March Against Fear’, Carmichael continued the march along with other notable activists, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Floyd McKissick. Upon his arrest and subsequent release, he gave his most famous speech expounding ‘Black Power’.
Awards & Achievements
Stokely Carmichael was included in the list of ‘100 Greatest African Americans’ compiled by eminent American scholar Molefi Kete Asante in 2002.
Personal Life & Legacy
Carmichael married famous South-African singer and civil rights activist ‘Miriam Makeba’ in 1968. Their marriage ended in divorce.
In 1980, he married Marlyatou Barry, a doctor from Guinea and fathered a son, Bokar Carmichael. The couple divorced after two years.
He died of prostate cancer in Guinea at the age of fifty-seven. He had been receiving treatment for two years before his death.
This Trinidadian-American black activist was jailed for 49 days for entering a bus-stop waiting room reserved only for white people.
This renowned champion of the civil rights movement would answer the telephone with the message: ‘Ready for the revolution!’