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.
He continued James Meredith’s March Against Fear when Meredith himself was shot by a sniper. It was during this march in June 1966, that Carmichael was arrested for the 27th time in his civil rights career for erecting a tent in the grounds of a local African American school in Jackson, the final destination of the marchers. It is probable that Carmichael had been pushed too far and it was during this march, that Carmichael made it clear that he did not support the use of non-violence and on this topic he clashed with Roy Wilkins, head of the NAACP. Carmichael also did not want white people on the march but on this issue he had to give way to the influence of Martin Luther King who did. Carmichael got out of jail on bail.
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.
Carmichael protested about America’s involvement in Vietnam. This so angered the authorities that his passport was confiscated and held for ten months. Many front line troops in Vietnam were African American conscripts and their casualty rates were higher than for white soldiers. Senior political figures were concerned that Carmichael, along with the protest of Muhammad Ali, might provoke a more widespread rejection of conscription amongst young African Americans.
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.
Carmichael died of cancer in November 1998.