Stokeley Carmichael was born in 1941 in Trinidad. Carmichael’s family moved the America when he was 9 years old and he attended school in New York. Stokeley Carmichael joined Howard University in 1960 and joined SNCC – an organisation that used non-violence as its principle tactic and had been formed at the outset of the restaurant sit-ins that started in Greensboro in 1960. When civil rights history in the 1960’s is studied, Stokeley Carmichael’s name is up with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
In 1961, Carmichael became one of the Freedom Riders. Trained in non-violence, he was arrested in Mississippi and sentenced to 49 days in jail. He became chairman of SNCC in 1966.
On his release, Carmichael made his famous “Black Power” speech in which he called on “black people in this country to unite, to recognise their heritage, and to build a sense of community.” He also urged all African Americans to reject the values, as they stood then, of American society. Figures vary as to the size of his audience. Some put it at 600 while John Dittmer put the figure as high as 3000. Carmichael’s new public stance could not have been clearer when he said “Every courthouse in Mississippi ought to be burned tomorrow to get rid of the dirt.” Included in his speech were references to his support for Marxist ideas – a clear move away from the beliefs of Martin Luther King.
Carmichael encouraged those who followed him to adopt an African style of dress with Afro hairstyles. He told his followers that they should reject white ideas of appearance and style. He used the phrase “Black is Beautiful”.
From this position, Carmichael went on to criticise the stance of King and the idea of non-violence. Carmichael was made an “honorary prime minister” of the Black Panthers.
When his passport was returned, Carmichael went to live in Guinea, Africa. Here he adopted the name Kwame Ture and he worked as a political aide to the country’s prime minister Sekou Toure.