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Stokely Carmichael, A Philosopher Behind The Black Power Movement

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Stokely Carmichael, A Philosopher Behind The Black Power Movement

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Stokely Carmichael, A Philosopher Behind The Black Power Movement

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's hear now about the man who back in the '60s popularized the term black power. "Stokely: A Life" is the work of historian Peniel Joseph. His new biography examines, in detail, the late Stokely Carmichael's life and legacy. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates talked with Joseph about Carmichael's transition from civil rights work to black power advocate.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Many African Americans proudly wear afros, corn rows and dreadlocks today, but back in the early '60s, natural hair was considered wild and a little shameful by a lot of black folks. Stokely Carmichael's biographer, Peniel Joseph, says one of Carmichael's most significant gifts to black Americans was his encouragement that they accept themselves, their history and their looks.

STOKELY CARMICHAEL: We have to stop being ashamed of being black. We've got to stop being ashamed of being black.

PENIEL JOSEPH: And so he was really defiant in declaring that, you know, black is beautiful, before James Brown, before that became very popular in the late '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Uh, with your bad self. Say it loud, say it loud.

BATES: The very phrase black power, says Joseph, made some white people anxious.

JOSEPH: They assumed that black power meant being anti-white and really sort of violent foreboding.

BATES: While black audiences heard a different message.

JOSEPH: They received it and defined it as something that was positive, that it was about cultural, political, economic self-determination, so he becomes an icon both nationally but very positively within the African American community.

BATES: Carmichael's words were powerfully resonant, politically and culturally, for a population that had long been measured against white standards and aesthetics and found wanting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around...

BATES: At 19 he began organizing as a university student. Carmichael and other members of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, were spending dangerous summers in the Deep South. They were working to help register first-time black voters. Peniel Joseph says Carmichael had an uncanny ability to make genuine connections with black farmers still living in near feudal conditions on white-owned land.

JOSEPH: He's the kind of activist who slept on dirt floors in Mississippi, in shotgun shacks in Alabama. Really was unadorned in the way in which he had a love for very, very poor people.

BATES: A natural teacher, Carmichael gave user-friendly civics lessons to black tenant farmers, many of whom had not gone beyond the third grade. He urged them to see a future in which their votes mattered.

CARMICHAEL: Now, in this country it says majority rules. We are 80 percent in this county and we have the right to rule this county and we're gonna rule it. I don't care how poor we are and how black we are, we're going to govern this county.

BATES: After graduation from Howard, Carmichael turned down an offer from Harvard to do graduate work in his philosophy major. Instead, he returned south to continue organizing. The movement, he said, was his fate. Carmichael was so active that sometimes, his biographer, Peniel Joseph, observes, it felt as if he was everywhere at once.

JOSEPH: Before the black power theme, he is an organizer who has his hand in every major demonstration and event that occurs between 1960 and '65, which is the second half of the civil rights movement's heroic period.

BATES: But the period when blacks and whites work together for equality began to diverge around 1966. Many white liberals bristled when Carmichael pointed out that however well intentioned they were, they were privileged simply because they were white and the beneficiaries of institutional racism that existed in the country's financial, political and cultural institutions.

CARMICHAEL: What do you want?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Black power.

CARMICHAEL: What do you want?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Black power.

CARMICHAEL: What do you want?

BATES: He was also changing his mind about Martin Luther King's nonviolent philosophy, which depended on what King called the demonstrator's redemptive suffering to effect social change. Carmichael thought King had a good idea, but...

CARMICHAEL: He only made one fallacious assumption. In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.

BATES: By 1967, Stokely Carmichael would become Kwame Ture and move permanently to Guinea, West Africa. His time as a household name was over. But, Peniel Joseph says, the effect Carmichael had on African Americans' racial identity and race relations in the U.S. and beyond created a lasting legacy. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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