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November 16, 1998

Stokely Carmichael, Rights Leader Who Coined 'Black Power,' Dies at 57

By MICHAEL T. KAUFMAN
 

 
 
 

Kwame Ture, the flamboyant civil rights leader known to most Americans as Stokely Carmichael, died Sunday in Conakry, Guinea. He was 57 and is best remembered for his use of the phrase "black power," which in the mid-1960's ignited a white backlash and alarmed an older generation of civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The cause was prostate cancer, for which Ture had been treated at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York in the last two years. He once said his cancer "was given to me by forces of American imperialism and others who conspired with them."

Ture, who changed his name in 1978 to honor Kwame Nkrumah and Ahmed Sekou Toure, two African socialist leaders who had befriended him, spent most of the last 30 years in Guinea, calling himself a revolutionary and advocating a Pan-African ideology that evoked few resonances in the United States, or, for that matter, Africa.

Ture's advocacy of Pan-Africanism was the last phase in a political evolution that passed from indifference to the civil rights movement when he was a high school student to emergence as an effective nonviolent volunteer risking his life against segregation to honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party.

Though his active participation in the struggle for civil rights lasted barely a decade, he was a charismatic figure in a turbulent time, when real violence and rhetoric escalated on both sides of the color line.

Stokely Carmichael was inspired to participate in the civil rights movement by the bravery of those blacks and whites who protested segregated service with sit-ins at lunch counters in the South.

"When I first heard about the Negroes sitting in at lunch counters down South," he told Gordon Parks in Life magazine in 1967, "I thought they were just a bunch of publicity hounds. But one night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair -- well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was burning."

Rejecting scholarships from several white universities, he entered Howard University in Washington in 1960. By the end of his freshman year, he had joined the Freedom Rides of the Congress of Racial Equality, hazardous bus trips of blacks and whites that challenged segregated interstate travel in the South. The Freedom Riders often met with violence, and at their destinations Carmichael and the others were arrested and jailed, the first incarcerations he experienced. One early arrest brought him a particularly harsh 49-day sentence in Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi.

Graduating with a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Howard in 1964, he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was "Freedom Summer" in the year that SNCC (popularly pronounced snick) was sending hundreds of black and white volunteers to the South to teach, set up clinics and register disenfranchised black Southerners.

Tall, slim, handsome and a dynamic speaker, Carmichael soon emerged as a leader, cocky enough to be described as looking like he was strutting when standing still. Parks wrote that watching him made him believe that the young man could "stroll through Dixie in broad daylight using the Confederate flag for a handkerchief."

A Radicalism Born of Raw Experience

As a SNCC field organizer in Lowndes County in Alabama, where blacks were in the majority but politically powerless, he helped raise the number of registered black voters to 2,600 from a mere 70, or 300 more than the number of registered whites.

Displeased by the response of the established parties to the success of the registration drive, he organized the all-black Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which, to fulfill a state requirement that all parties have a logo, took a black panther as its symbol. The panther was later adopted by the Black Panther Party.

The young Carmichael was radicalized by his experiences working in the segregated South, where peaceful protesters were beaten, brutalized and sometimes killed for seeking the ordinary rights of citizens. He once recalled watching from his hotel room in a little Alabama town while nonviolent black demonstrators were beaten and shocked with cattle prods by the police.

Horrified, he said that he screamed and could not stop.

Carmichael was arrested so often as a nonviolent volunteer that he lost count after 32. His growing impatience with the tactics of passive resistance was gaining support, and in 1966 he was chosen as chairman of SNCC, replacing John Lewis, a hardworking integrationist who is now a Congressman from Georgia.

Barely a month after his selection, Carmichael, then just 25, raised the call for black power, thereby signaling a crossroads in the civil rights struggle. Increasingly uncomfortable with Dr. King's resolute nonviolence, he sensed a shift among some younger blacks in the direction of black separatism. Many were listening sympathetically to the urgings of Malcolm X, who had been assassinated a year and a half earlier, that the struggle should be carried out by any means necessary.

It was June 16, 1966, and Carmichael, a spellbinding orator, was addressing a crowd of 3,000 in a park in Greenwood, Miss. James Meredith, who had integrated the University of Mississippi, was wounded on his solitary "Walk Against Fear" from Memphis to Jackson, and volunteers were marching in his place. When they set up camp in Greenwood, Carmichael was arrested and his frustration was obvious.

"This is the 27th time," he said in disgust after his release. "We been saying 'Freedom' for six years," he continued, referring to the chant that movement protesters used as they stood up to racist politicians and hostile policemen pointing water hoses and unleashing snarling dogs. "What we are going to start saying now is 'Black Power!' "

The crowd quickly took up the phrase. "Black Power!" it repeated in a cry that would soon be echoed in communities from Oakland to Newark. But if Carmichael's call for black power galvanized many young blacks, it troubled others, who thought it sounded anti-white, provocative and violent. And it struck fear into many whites.

Adverse reaction was powerful and immediate. After the integrationist, nonviolent speeches and sermons of Dr. King and others, few Americans, white or black, were prepared for the uncompromising demands of black militants who rallied to Carmichael's cry.

Newspapers deplored the term and editorials warned of "reverse racism." Contributions to civil rights groups from sympathetic whites fell. Voting results that November in many state and local elections reflected a white backlash.

A Widening Split With Black Leaders

Many black leaders of the civil rights movement, though eager to avoid a split, were clearly upset by the use of the phrase and the separatism it seemed to advocate.

Dr. King called it "an unfortunate choice of words." Roy Wilkins of the N.A.A.C.P. scorned it as an example of "the raging of race against race." Perhaps the most indignant response came from Whitney Young Jr., the director of the National Urban League, who said: "Anyone can arouse the poor, the despairing, the helpless. That's no trick. Sure they'll shout 'black power,' but why doesn't the mass media find out how many of those people will follow those leaders to a separate state or back to Africa?"

In the book "Black Power," which Carmichael wrote in 1967 with Charles Hamilton, now a professor of political science at Columbia University, the authors tried to explain the term. "It is a call for black people in this country to unite," they wrote, "to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations."

But even as the book, which is still in print, appeared, Carmichael's speeches became more provocative. "When you talk of black power, you talk of building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created," he told black audiences. And as civil unrest flared in Detroit and Newark, Carmichael's call became associated, as Hamilton put it, "with riots and guns and 'burn, baby, burn.' "

Instead of young people singing "We Shall Overcome," new images of militant black men and women were being shown on television -- black berets, raised fists, men with guns. And along with goals of social justice and integration came ideas of black separatism and power harking back to the black nationalism that had been preached in the 1920's by Marcus Garvey.

In 1966 and 1967 Carmichael lectured at campuses around the United States and traveled abroad to several countries, including North Vietnam, China and Cuba. He made perhaps his most provocative statement in Havana. "We are preparing groups of urban guerrillas for our defense in the cities," he said. "It is going to be a fight to the death."

In 1967 a declining SNCC severed all ties with him. Soon after, he became honorary prime minister of the Black Panthers, the ultra-militant urban organization begun by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. But he soon found himself embroiled with Panther leaders for opposing their decision to seek support among whites. He moved to Guinea, in West Africa, in 1969, saying, "America does not belong to the blacks," and calling on all black Americans to follow his example.

Even Black Panthers Not Radical Enough

In July 1969, three months after he moved to Africa, he made public a letter announcing his resignation from the Black Panther Party because of what he called "its dogmatic party line favoring alliances with white radicals."

The letter signaled Carmichael's break from the main currents of American life. He made his home in Conakry as the guest of Sekou Toure, the Marxist head of a one-party state. His next-door neighbor was Kwame Nkrumah, the Pan-Africanist first leader of independent Ghana, who after being deposed in a coup in 1966 was offered sanctuary in Guinea.

In 1968, now calling himself Kwame Ture, he married Miriam Makeba, the South African singer. They lived in a seaside villa where he sometimes greeted visitors wearing the green uniform of a Guinean soldier, a pistol at his side. After they divorced, he married Marlyatou Barry, a Guinean doctor who now lives in Arlington, Va., and from whom he was also divorced. He is survived by his mother, three sisters and two sons, according to a statement by the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party.

He became a globe-trotting exponent of the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party, returning to American campuses to recruit. He maintained that continued progress for black Americans could be made only through "mass political organization on a Pan-African scale."

"Black power," he said, "can only be realized when there exists a unified socialist Africa." He sounded the idea that blacks must work with blacks for their cultural, economic and political liberation.

As early as 1971, he was already on the margins. Julius Lester, who had helped Carmichael draft the radical speech in Havana, compared the speeches of Malcolm X with the speeches and essays that Carmichael collected in a book called "Stokely Speaks." Lester wrote in The New York Times Book Review: "Though dead, Malcolm is terrifyingly alive in his speeches; Carmichael is alive but his speeches are depressingly dead."

Stokely Carmichael was born on June 29, 1941, in Port-of-Spain, Trindidad, and he spent his first 11 years there. His father, Adophus, a carpenter and taxi driver, and his mother, Mabel, a stewardess for a steamship line, had emigrated to the United States when he was a toddler, leaving him in the care of his grandmother.

In 1952 he joined his parents in Harlem. By the time he was in the seventh grade, his family had moved to Morris Park, an old Jewish and Italian neighborhood in the East Bronx. He said in the 1967 Life interview that he was the only black member of the Morris Park Dukes, a gang, and described himself as "a wild, aggressive boy, boozing it up and getting a kick out of petty theft."

But after he passed the admissions test for the elite Bronx High School of Science, he broke with the Dukes. "They were all reading the funnies while I was trying to dig Darwin and Marx," he told Gordon Parks.

He was popular in high school, he said, and remembered dating white classmates and visiting Park Avenue apartments. "Now that I realize how phony they all were, how I hate myself for it." he said in the 1967 interview. "Being liberal was an intellectual game with these cats. They were still white, and I was black."

Ture never publicly criticized President Toure, who was known to jail and torture his opponents. The Guinean leader died in 1984, and two years later Ture's alignment with him led to his arrest by the military government that had taken over. He spent three days in jail, accused of trying to overthrow the government.

Ture continued to live in Guinea. To the end he answered his telephone with the greeting he had used for more than 20 years, "Ready for the revolution!"

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company