New Look At The Man Behind Black Power

Stokely Carmichel popularized one of the best known and most polarizing phrases of the civil rights era: "black power." Historian Peniel Joseph shares his new book Stokely: A Life.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If I were to ask you to name a person who helped organize or participated in every major civil rights demonstration of the mid-1960's, what names would come to mind - Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, James Bevel.

Chances are the name Stokely Carmichael would not, at least according to historian Peniel Joseph who believes that Carmichael's essential place in the history of the fight for the recognition of black people's rights and dignity has been all but forgotten. This despite the fact that the language and the style he evoked are used to this day. And now, in what he calls an act of recovery, Professor Joseph has spent a decade preparing a comprehensive biography of Stokely Carmichael. It is called "Stokely: A life," and Peniel Joseph is with us now. Thanks so much for joining us.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Oh, thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, you remind us of the breath of his accomplishment all before the age of 30. I mean, he was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He's considered kind of one of the godfathers or the founding figures of the Black Panther Party. So why don't you just start at the beginning. Born in Trinidad, came here at the age of 11. What is it that sparked his interest in the movement?

JOSEPH: Well, he listens to Bayard Rustin as a very young teenager, and he asked who is Bayard Rustin. And he, of course, was the pacifist and social Democratic activist who helped Dr. King organize the March on Washington. And he asked who is Bayard Rustin. And somebody tells him who that is, who's speaking at a rally, and he says he wants to grow up and be just like him.

MARTIN: His story was the story of a lot of people. I mean, his parents left Trinidad to try to better their lives. He was only, what, 3 when they left. He didn't see them again for many, many years. They were busy. They were working hard trying to kind of make their way in this world. Do we know how they felt about the course that he took?

JOSEPH: Well, his parents were both very proud of him. Adolphus was his father who was a carpenter but also served as a taxicab driver once he hit the states - a man of God, religious man who worked very, very hard, always multiple jobs. And then May Charles, as he affectionately called his mother, she was initially a housewife raising the kids. And after this father dies in 1962, she's doing different work, including domestic work, to support the family. They were very, very proud of Stokely Carmichael. They knew he was stubborn. They knew he went his own way, but they were always very proud. But they also were fearful for his safety.

MARTIN: What's his claim to fame. What did he do that was so valuable to the movement?

JOSEPH: He's hugely charismatic, so people want to follow him - men, women, black, white. He's usually humble as well. People think of his public demeanor as arrogant, but he's really a humble person. So he, for instance, babysits the young daughters of sharecroppers in Mississippi and Alabama. He is very deferential to older African-Americans calling everybody sir and ma'am and by their formal names. He sleeps on people's floors, doesn't need any kind of accommodation. So he's somebody who many, many different people are willing to follow. But he's also a very, very effective organizers. So, for example, at Howard University, he's part of the non-violent action group, the SNCC affiliate, and he organizes demonstrations along Route 40 through the state of Maryland, sit-in demonstrations against segregated restaurants.

MARTIN: I just want to play I think what, for many people, will be an iconic moment. I mean, we 're not - we can't play the whole speech. But I want to play a clip from a speech in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1966. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

STOKELY CARMICHEL: We are engaged in a psychological struggle in this country, and that is whether or not black people will have the right to use the words they want to use without white people giving their sanction to it.

(APPLAUSE)

CARMICHEL: And that we maintain, whether they like it or not, we going to use the word black power and let them address themselves to that. But that we are not going to wait for white people to sanction black power.

MARTIN: So first of all, did he, in fact, come up with this phrase?

JOSEPH: Well, he popularizes the phrase. Willie Ricks, who was a SNCC organizer, had used the phrase along the march. Richard Wright had used it in a book in 1954.

MARTIN: And what did he mean by it?

JOSEPH: That black people were going to identify not only their identity but also their own ambitions, their own goals, their strategies and tactics.

MARTIN: One of the points that you make in the book is that he and Martin Luther King Jr. actually had a very kind of warm relationship. You want to talk about that?

JOSEPH: Yeah, they were close friends. Dr. King and Stokely really have almost an older brother-younger brother or even an almost paternal relationship where he's very deferential, very respectful of Dr. King, even though they have sharp political disagreements.

MARTIN: How then did he turn into a more radical vision of the best kind of way forward for black people, to achieve rights and dignity for black people. How did that happen?

JOSEPH: Well, I think there are two turning points. One is 1964 in the Democratic National Convention where SNCC tries to organize black sharecroppers to be an official delegation and get recognized at the Democratic National Convention. And Lyndon Johnson prevents that from happening. I think that makes Stokely sour on the Democratic Party, and then he tries independent organizing in Lowndes County, Alabama, which leads to the creation of the Black Panther Party.

MARTIN: He witnessed a tremendous amount of brutality.

JOSEPH: Yes.

MARTIN: And you write in the book that he even lost count of how many times he was arrested. Could you just talk a little bit about some of the experiences that he had that may have shaped his thinking?

JOSEPH: Between 1961 and 1966, Stokely Carmichael is arrested 27 times for civil rights activities. He personally experiences many, many different bouts of brutality from both demonstrators and from police. He witnesses the death of many different friends and comrades. Two deaths that really particularly hit him hard is one, his white friend and fellow organizer Jonathan Daniels, who's killed while organizing alongside Stokely Carmichael.

Jonathan's death really, really shatters Stokely. Stokely goes to his funeral in New Hampshire, and his mother remembers Stokely as being completely bereft and depressed. Another one is Sammy Younge Jr., who's a young African-American activist who's killed in Alabama in 1966. And Stokely writes to Jim Forman, another SNCC activist, that he just was depressed and out of it for days and drank three bottles of wine in memory of Sammy Younge and Jonathan Daniels and others who had been killed. He witnesses the death of close friends. And certainly, Martin Luther King Jr.'s death impacts him personally. We think of Dr. King as an icon. Stokely Carmichael thought of him as a friend. And he is really bereft in the aftermath of Dr. King's assassination.

MARTIN: Now, you know, you also make the point in the book - and this is, interestingly enough, this is an issue that's kind of recently resurfaced is this whole question of the surveillance of civil rights figures. During the '60s and the '70s, the FBI and the CIA were known to have surveillance operations for civil rights activists, and he was one of their main targets. Why was he one of their main targets?

JOSEPH: There was a counterintelligence program by the FBI designed to route out subversives and people who were considered antigovernment. Stokely, Dr. King, Elijah Mohammed, these were all figures who were considered figures who were big enough, who could be transcended enough to lead some kind of black revolt or black revolution into race war. So he's targeted for that as well as his antiwar activism.

MARTIN: Why did he eventually leave the country?

JOSEPH: He leaves the country because of the political repression that African-American activists, especially radicals like himself, are facing. I don't think he thinks that if he stays in the United States he will live a long and fruitful life. I think he feels he'll be imprisoned and/or assassinated. But there's also a pull factor where he had visited Africa in 1967 for the first time. He met up with leaders Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure, who were the presidents of Ghana and Guinea. And Toure welcomed him, and so did Nkrumah. And he wants to be a revolutionary Pan-Africanist following in their footsteps.

MARTIN: Now we've been talking a lot about his work, but he did have a personal life. I mean, he was married at one point to the legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba. Could you just talk a little bit about his personal life?

JOSEPH: Makeba - Miriam Makeba is very important to that personal life because they have a whirlwind romance. Stokely had been in love with her since he was a teenager. He listened to her music while in high school, and he famously told one of his sisters that he was going to marry this woman when he grew up. And she scoffed at him, and he marries her about 10 years later. You know, his personal life is very interesting because he's somebody who is enormously charismatic and enormously appealing. Yet at the same time, I think he finds it hard to form intimate bonds away from the movement. So Miriam Makeba is very important for him.

That's his first marriage. But even that marriage, which lasts for 10 years, there's really stresses and challenges on that marriage because he's constantly moving, touring, speaking, a workaholic. He's very close to his family - May Charles and his sisters. But his personal life is really going to be sacrificed in a lot of ways by his political activities.

MARTIN: You note that he died in 1998 from cancer, and he was actually back in the states at that time, correct? I mean, he was being treated. By the time he came back, I mean, there were people who were - African-Americans kind of moving into political office, right? So many of the people he'd served with in the movement were moving into political office and things of that sort. And the idea of what was the right focus for people's activity in the struggle, as it were, had changed. Did he ever talk about that?

JOSEPH: Yeah, he does. Absolutely. One of his good friends is Marian Barry who becomes mayor of Washington, D.C. So even before he's diagnosed with cancer, Stokely visits him in 1980, and, you know, they talk about the old times in SNCC. He's Kwame Toure then but Marian Barry, the D.C. mayor, is still calling him Stokely. You know, he feels that the civil rights movement had been transformed of not - and not for the better. He thinks about the new class of elected black leaders. He feels that they've been compromised by global capitalism. At the same time, he always claims publicly in optimism that the revolution that he had been a part of in the 1960s would continue once black Americans realize, what he would call, the contradictions of capitalism.

MARTIN: How would you want him to be remembered?

JOSEPH: I'd want him to be remembered as really a 25-year-old revolutionary on a Mississippi Highway who really dreamed of a different, transformed status for African-Americans, both in the United States and black people globally. One of the striking things about Stokely and where he converges with Dr. King, he loves black people. He loves black culture, but he also loves poor black people. So he loved sharecroppers and the people who did not have a lot on this earth. And he loved and embraced them as if they were family. And so I think that he's a striking individual in terms of his humility and his willingness to sacrifice on behalf of poor people and black people.

MARTIN: Peniel Joseph is the author of "Stokely: A Life." He's a professor of history at Tufts University, and he was kind enough to join us from member station WGBH in Boston. Professor Joseph, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JOSEPH: Thank you for having me, Michel.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.