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Review of "Stokely: A Life"

Stokely: A Life
by Peniel E. Joseph
Basic Civitas Books, 2014

Stokely Carmichael was an icon of the black freedom struggle during the late 1960s and early 1970s. His call for black power frightened many whites, while providing black Americans with a sense of pride and empowerment.  Yet today Carmichael is largely forgotten, unlike Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., who have maintained their iconic status in the history books and popular imagination. Peniel E. Joseph, professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University and a leading scholar of the black power movement, seeks to correct this oversight with a well-researched and written biography of Carmichael. Drawing upon extensive archival research internationally and in the United State (including declassified FBI surveillance), along with interviews from Carmichael’s associates and close analysis of the activist’s many speeches, Joseph crafts a sympathetic but not uncritical account of the controversial civil rights leader.

Born in 1941 on the island of Trinidad, Carmichael followed his parents to New York City in 1952. His father Adolphus was a carpenter who believed in the American dream, but Stokely always insisted that his stoic father worked himself into an early grave in pursuit of that elusive dream. The family lived in a largely white Italian neighborhood, and Carmichael was one of the few black students at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. He sought a different college experience, enrolling at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and becoming involved with the civil rights movement through the Nonviolent Action Group. Although critics of Carmichael later claimed that he was fond of radical rhetoric but was averse to the dangers of confrontation with the white establishment, Joseph illustrates that as a college student Carmichael spent his summers in the South where he was beaten and arrested, serving time in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm state prison.

Joseph also describes Carmichael’s comfort with and admiration for the black sharecroppers of the Mississippi Delta. Emerging as a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Carmichael believed that the civil rights struggle in Mississippi, supported by the federal government, had the potential to foster genuine democracy in the United States. This approach placed Carmichael in alliance with Bayard Rustin and King, but he also admired the courage and independence of Malcolm X. The failure of the federal government to protect SNCC workers during Freedom Summer and the betrayal of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party by President Lyndon Johnson at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City convinced Carmichael that democracy would not come through the Democratic Party. Instead, he attempted to promote a more independent approach with formation of the Black Panther Party in Lowndes County, Alabama. Although the Black Panthers did not take power in Lowndes County, they inspired the formation of a national movement based upon black political power.

Carmichael’s ideas of black power were enunciated on the evening of June 16, 1966 during the Meredith March following the shooting of James Meredith in Mississippi. Joseph writes that Carmichael’s advocacy of black power “instantly transformed the aesthetics of the black freedom struggle and forever altered the course of the modern civil rights movement. For Stokely, the power of ideas mattered only if they were applicable in the real world. He now defined Black Power, or political, economic, and cultural self-determination, as the vehicle for achieving radical democracy” (115). Now perceived as a radical, Carmichael was often depicted by the media as a foil to King, performing the role once assigned to Malcolm X. Joseph, however, observes that the relationship between Carmichael and King was complex, with the younger man respecting King’s courage but concluding that the minister was often naïve about nonviolence and trusting white people. But the two civil rights leaders maintained a dialogue, and Joseph credits Carmichael with influencing King’s decision to denounce the Vietnam War.

Carmichael’s fame, however, caused considerable stress within SNCC after he ousted John Lewis as chairman of the organization. Carmichael was in demand as a speaker and was raising funds for SNCC, but he had little time for organizational strategy and failed to follow the collaborative structure and approach embraced by his colleagues. He was also criticized by some comrades for his sexism. Joseph acknowledges that Carmichael was somewhat of a womanizer, but concludes that most of the SNCC women that he interviewed for the book found Carmichael to be a champion of gender equality. Joseph argues that Carmichael’s 1964 comment with colleagues that women could best serve the movement on their backs was simply an awkward joke. Nevertheless, internal dissent convinced Carmichael not to seek reelection as SNCC chairman in 1967, when he was replaced by H. Rap Brown whose rhetoric was often more radical than that of his predecessor.

Carmichael, meanwhile, carried his denunciation of the Vietnam War as the embodiment of American imperialism and racism to the world stage with a 1967 speaking tour which included Western Europe, Cuba, North Vietnam, and Algeria. Joseph argues that his time abroad radicalized Carmichael, “convincing him that revolutionary violence served as a necessary corollary to racial and political transformation” (197). Now identifying himself as a revolutionary, Carmichael was increasingly drawing the attention of the FBI and Johnson administration, while members of Congress called for his arrest on charges of sedition.

Rather than being arrested upon his return to the United States in December 1967, Carmichael was named as the honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party.  His relationship with the party, however, proved to be short lived. In addition to strained personal relations with Eldridge Cleaver, Carmichael’s growing emphasis upon Pan-Africanism at the expense of international communism and socialism, coupled with opposition to alliances with white groups, revealed serious ideological differences with the Panthers and led to Carmichael’s resignation from the party. Carmichael’s growing dissatisfaction with the possibilities for the black freedom struggle in America was exacerbated by King’s assassination in April 1968. Seeking scapegoats for the urban uprisings following King’s murder, mainstream politicians and the media blamed Carmichael and his angry rhetoric for the violence. Carmichael also failed to accept Robert Kennedy as the new champion of racial understanding, remembering Kennedy’s failure to protect SNCC volunteers in Mississippi when he was attorney general.

A disillusioned Carmichael and his new wife, South African singer Miriam Makeba, decided to make their home in Guinea under the protection of President Séhou Touré, where Carmichael would study African socialism under the tutelage of Ghana’s deposed President Kwame Nkrumah. In fact, in honor of the two African leaders, Carmichael officially changed his name to Kwame Ture. As Kwame Ture, the former SNCC leader sought to promote Pan-Africanism in the United States through the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. Joseph notes that Kwame Ture became increasingly ideologically rigid in his belief that Nkrumah’s African socialism could be imported to America, pursuing this goal with the passion of a religious convert. In addition, Joseph acknowledges that Kwame Ture and Miriam Makeba, until divorcing her husband, ignored the evolution of their benefactor President Touré into a dictator who brutalized his own people. Even through the deaths of Nkrumah and Touré, Kwame Ture remained true to his new faith, asserting that the sins of African leaders paled in comparison to the atrocities committed by American presidents.

On November 15, 1998, Kwame Ture died from cancer in his adopted homeland of Guinea. During the 1980s and 1990s, the crowds attending his speeches in the United States dwindled, while his criticism of Israel and support for African leaders such as Idi Amin and Muammar Gaddafi continued to stir controversy. Nevertheless, Joseph concludes that in many ways Kwame Ture remained true to the legacy of Stokely Carmichael, asserting, “Ture remained both an organizer and itinerant activist who dedicated his life to combating social and political injustices long past their expiration dates in the American and global imagination.  In so doing, Kwame Ture displayed the kind of revolutionary spirit that would have made the young Stokely Carmichael proud” (327). Certainly not all readers will agree with Joseph’s conclusions regarding the life and ideas of Stokely Carmichael, but he has, nonetheless, made a major contribution with this biography which restores the voice of Carmichael and Kwame Ture to the history of the civil rights movement and a continuing national and international dialogue on the meaning of black power and Pan-Africanism.