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Stokely Carmichael was born on this date in 1941. He was one of the most influential Black activists in the 20th-century American Civil Rights movement
Stokley Standiford Churchill Carmichael was born in Trinidad. His family (parents and four sisters) moved to New York City when he was a child. His mother, Mabel F. Carmichael, was a stewardess for a steamship line, and his father, Adolphus, was a carpenter who also worked as a taxi driver. The Carmichael family eventually left Harlem to live in Morris Park in the East Bronx, where Carmichael graduated with honors from the Bronx High School of Science, a specialized public high school for gifted students. He went on to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. He rejected scholarship offers from several white universities and graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1964.
At Howard, Carmichael led the Non-Violent Action Group (NAG), a militant student protest organization that fought against racism in Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas. Carmichael brought NAG into affiliation with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Carmichael participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, serving as a regional director for SNCC workers and helping to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). He had become deeply disillusioned with the national Democratic Party when it refused to seat the multi-racial MFDP delegation. They wished to replace the official all-white, pro-segregation Mississippi Democratic Party during the 1964 Democratic Party National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. After this, Carmichael started to search for alternative means to empower African Americans politically. The ideologies of Malcolm X and Kwame Nkrumah increasingly influenced him.
Carmichael became chairman of SNCC in 1966, taking over from John Lewis. A few weeks after Carmichael took office, James Meredith was shot by a sniper during his solitary "March Against Fear," and Carmichael continued the march. During this march, in June 1966, Carmichael was arrested for the 27th time in his civil rights career. Upon his release, he gave his first "Black Power" speech, using the phrase to urge black pride and socio-economic independence. Although Black Power was not a new concept, Carmichael brought it into the spotlight and made it a rallying cry for young African Americans. He urged "black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, and to build a sense of community," although some within the movement were alarmed and critical of this change.
SNCC gradually became more radical and focused on Black Power as its core goal and ideology. Carmichael became critical of civil rights leaders who called for integrating African Americans into existing institutions of the middle-class mainstream. He believed that to integrate genuinely, blacks had to unite in solidarity and become self-reliant.
He began to make his increasingly radical beliefs known, no longer supporting nonviolence. He clashed with Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP, on this. Although Carmichael did not want white people on the nonviolent march, he gave way to the influence of Martin Luther King, Jr., who did.
In 1966, Carmichael journeyed to Lowndes County, AL, where he brought together the county's Black residents to form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). The organization was an effort to form a political party that would bring Blacks of Lowndes who were a majority in the county but held no elected offices and were locked out of local politics and into power. The organization chose a Black panther as its emblem, ostensibly in response to the Alabama Democratic Party's use of a White Rooster. While he was in Lowndes, the number of registered Black voters rose from 70 to 2,600, 300 more than the number of registered white voters soon after he became the "Honorary Prime Minister" of the Black Panther Party.
In 1967, Carmichael stepped down as chairman of SNCC and was replaced by H. Rap Brown. The group was organized to manage by consensus. Still, SNCC members were affronted by Carmichael's celebrity status and habit of making policy announcements before the group agreed to them. That same year, Carmichael wrote the book "Black Power" with Charles V. Hamilton and became a strong critic of the Vietnam War. After his expulsion from the SNCC, Carmichael became more clearly identified with the Black Panther Party and more of a speaker than an organizer, traveling throughout the country and internationally advocating for his vision of "Black Power."
In 1969, he and his wife, the South African singer Miriam Makeba, moved to Guinea Conakry, where he became an aide to Guinean prime minister Ahmed Sékou Touré and the student of exiled Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah. Makeba was appointed Guinea's official delegate to the United Nations. Three months after his arrival in Africa, in July of 1969, he published a formal rejection of the Black Panthers, condemning the Panthers for not being separatist enough and their "dogmatic party line favoring alliances with white radicals.”
Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture at this stage to honor the African leaders Nkrumah and Touré, who had become his patrons. Carmichael remained in Guinea. He continued to travel, write, and speak out to support international leftist movements. In 1971, he published his second book, "Stokely Speaks Black Power Back to Pan-Africanism." Carmichael and Makeba separated in 1973. After they divorced, he entered a second marriage with Marlyatou Barry, a Guinean doctor whom he also divorced.
He is credited with coining the phrase "institutional racism,” defined as racism in institutions such as public bodies and corporations. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson gave a speech celebrating Kwame Ture's life: "He was one of our generation who was determined to give his life to transforming America and Africa. He was committed to ending racial apartheid in our country. He helped to bring those walls down.”
Stokely Carmichael was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1996. After two years of treatment at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, he died at 57 in Conakry, Guinea, on November 15, 1998. Benefits were held in Denver; New York; Atlanta; and Washington, D.C., to help defray his medical expenses. The government of Trinidad and Tobago, where he was born, awarded him a grant of $1,000 monthly for the same purpose.
Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History
Volume 1, ISBN #0-02-897345-3
Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, Cornel West