Through the turbulent 1960s America experienced some of its most life-altering social and political changes, passed monumental legislation in its history and its citizens witnessed the assassinations of its most influential and revolutionary African American leaders. Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) is the civil-rights organizer, outspoken anti-war activist, icon and leader of the Black Power movement and pan-Africanist revolutionary who managed to elude the untimely fates of some his peers and comrades. Ture’s legacy links the powerful and influential legacies of Malcolm X (killed in 1965) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (killed in 1968) together. On the international stage he continued the struggles against political, social and racial inequities until his death in 1998.
Peniel E. Joseph (Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour, Dark Days, Bright Nights) Professor of History at Tufts and founder of “Black Power Studies” in academia, chronicles, for the first time, the dynamic and multi-faceted revolutionary’s influence and story in Stokely: A Life.
The biography and memoir follows Carmichael from his birth in 1941 at the Port of Spain in the Republic of Trinidad to his death in 1998 in Guinea, on the west coast of Africa. The bulk of the book is occupied by Carmichael’s organizing, activism and activity from 1960-1968 in the United States. Less than a year after Dr. King’s assassination, “Carmichael spent December [of 1968] in a blur of combative speeches amid preparations to leave the country, which he did right before the New Year,” writes Joseph. Carmichael would never spend another full year on U.S. soil after his friend and compatriot’s death. Joseph, with access to almost 20,000 pages of previously unreleased F.B.I. files, shows us the incredible amount of influence Carmichael had over the public and the attention his power demanded from the authorities. Joseph says that as he looked at the archival evidence, he began to see just how harassed Carmichael was. One of the things that most surprised him was “just how powerful he was considered by the establishment.” President Johnson required biweekly reports on Carmichael’s activities.
Carmichael wore many hats. He was a key civil rights organizer in the early ‘60s and cut his teeth on the front lines of the civil rights movement in Alabama and Mississippi. According to Joseph, he was the only major Black Power activist to do so. Carmichael also put together the first Black Panther Party in Lowndes County Alabama in 1965 in an effort to register voters. “Stokely becomes the main articulator and proselytizer of Black Power and in doing so he really transforms and changes the aesthetics of the black freedom struggle domestically and internationally,” says Joseph. Black Power gave birth to myriad different movements and organizations: Organization US, Pan-Africanism, the National Black Political Assembly and black studies, to name a few.
“All of those identities are just so fascinating, but people have pigeonholed him as this sort of fiery angry young black man,” Joseph explains. “So he’s both Stokely Carmichael the civil rights activist, Stokely Carmichael the Black Power revolutionary and then Kwame Ture pan-Africanist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, socialist, political ideologue, organizer,” says Joseph.
Joseph says that of the many activist roles Carmichael engaged in throughout his life, the fact that he was always staunchly anti-war has been lost. “He’s the major anti-war activist before M.L.K. comes out against the war,” Joseph says. “He’s refusing to separate Black Power from the war in Vietnam and he headlines the country’s largest anti-war demonstration up until that time: 400,000 people in New York at the United Nations on April 15, 1967,” Joseph points out.
“I hope that people get that you can achieve enormous political transformation by aligning yourself and backing yourself with grassroots groups that are in support of ending racial, economic, all kinds of oppression and injustice,’ Joseph says. “His whole idea of ready for revolution is something that he really lived by.”
Evan Rodriguez is a writer living in Georgetown, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter.