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Stokely Carmichael

Kwame Ture (née Stokely Carmichael)
June 29, 1941 – November 15, 1998
Nationality: Trinidadian
Notable: Activist

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Stokely Carmichael was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago to Mabel and Adolphus Carmichael who emigrated to America when he was two years old. He would spend the next nine years in the care of his grandmother before joining his parents in Harlem, New York City. Two years after arriving in America, Carmichael and his parents relocated to the Bronx and settled in Morris Park. During Carmichael’s youth, the neighborhood was relatively suburban, predominately Jewish and Italian, and he joined a street gang.

For high school, Carmichael attended the Bronx High School of Science, one of the city’s elite specialized schools that featured rigorous academics. Overall, Carmichael had a positive high school experience as his popularity resulted in an active social life where he attended parties and dated White classmates. Like his neighborhood, the school was predominately White but the students were the offspring of New York’s liberal upper-class.

He grew up in a household where both parents worked, his mother as a stewardess aboard a steamship, and his father as a carpenter by day and a taxi driver at night. An honest man who believed in the American dream, Adolphus worked long and hard hours in striving for a better life but unfortunately died in his 40s as a byproduct of over-exertion. Carmichael was aware of the racial and socioeconomic differences between him and his classmates and would come to view them and their relationships as phony. He felt that for many being liberal was a cool pastime and not anything to which they were truly committed.

By Carmichael’s senior year of high school in 1960, the Civil Rights Movement had been underway for several years. Up to that point, Carmichael had viewed the Movement as something for adults and the sit-in participants as attention-seeking. But one night he was moved to action while viewing footage of students during a sit-in demonstration. Seeing the young students continually return to their seats at the lunch counter despite enduring harassment and physical abuse sparked something.

Attending the Bronx School of Science coupled with strong academic performance led to scholarship offers from several colleges. Motivated by his shift in ideology, Carmichael passed on attending a White university and instead enrolled at Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C. With the move further south, he would become more deeply involved with the Civil Rights Movement in the South. He became a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and participated in protests at a New York City Woolworth’s as well as sit-ins in Virginia and South Carolina.

As the 1960s progressed, Carmichael was not just a participant but would emerge as a leader of several organizations and campaigns. He participated in CORE’s Freedom Rides as well as workers’ strikes. His graduation (with honors) from Howard in 1964 coincided with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Freedom Summer. Carmichael was sent to Lowndes County, Alabama to organize and execute a Black voter registration campaign. Despite the campaign’s success, there was no meaningful response from either political party. This prompted Carmichael to launch the Lowndes County Freedom Organization as an independent political party for which he selected a black panther as its logo (which the Black Panthers would later adopt).

Carmichael was a philosophy major at Howard, collaborated across races, and followed the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But his commitment to nonviolence wavered as the 60s dragged on and the assaults and murders of activists continued while comparably little progress was made. He became disenchanted with the teachings of nonviolence and the idea of interracial collaboration to bring about change. During his chairmanship of SNCC, Carmichael and the organization shifted towards Black militancy and independence. In a 1966 speech, Carmichael would express his new ideology of Black self-defense, self-determination, and self-esteem as “Black Power.” The term and philosophical shift were indicative of a larger rift within the movement; it would be welcomed by some but regarded as controversial by others.

The late 60s would see Carmichael remaining politically active though leaving SNCC and joining and leaving the Black Panther Party. He traveled extensively around America and the world giving talks along the way. His domestic activities and visits to communist countries brought attention from both the FBI and CIA. In 1969, Carmichael immigrated to Guinea where he became a permanent resident, changed his name to Kwame Ture, and adopted the philosophy of pan-Africanism. During this time he published two books, married twice, and had a son (he had a total of two children though it’s unclear when they were born).

In 1996, Ture was diagnosed with prostate cancer and he passed away two years later at the age of 57 on November 15, 1998.

Bibliography

  1. Bates, Karen Grigsby. 2014. “Stokely Carmichael, A Philosopher Behind The Black Power Movement.” NPR. March 10, 2014. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/03/10/287320160/stokely-carmichael-a-philosopher-behind-the-black-power-movement.
  2. “Carmichael, Stokely.” 2018. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. May 21, 2018. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/carmichael-stokely.
  3. History.com Editors. 2019. “Stokely Carmichael.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. June 10, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/stokely-carmichael.
  4. Kaufman, Michael T. 1998. “Stokely Carmichael, Rights Leader Who Coined ‘Black Power,’ Dies at 57.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. November 16, 1998. https://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/16/us/stokely-carmichael-rights-leader-who-coined-black-power-dies-at-57.html.
  5. “Stokely Carmichael.” 2020. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. August 19, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Stokely-Carmichael.

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