During the heroic early years of the civil rights movement, Carmichael and other civil rights activists advocated nonviolent measures, leading sit-ins, demonstrations, and voter registration efforts in the South that culminated with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Still, Carmichael chafed at the slow progress of the civil rights movement and responded with Black Power, a movement that urged blacks to turn the rhetoric of freedom into a reality through whatever means necessary. Marked by the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., a wave of urban race riots, and the rise of the anti-war movement, the late 1960s heralded a dramatic shift in the tone of civil rights. Carmichael became the revolutionary icon for this new racial and political landscape, helping to organize the original Black Panther Party in Alabama and joining the iconic Black Panther Party for Self Defense that would galvanize frustrated African Americans and ignite a backlash among white Americans and the mainstream media. Yet at the age of twenty-seven, Carmichael made the abrupt decision to leave the United States, embracing a pan-African ideology and adopting the name of Kwame Ture, a move that baffled his supporters and made him something of an enigma until his death in 1998.
A nuanced and authoritative portrait, Stokely captures the life of the man whose uncompromising vision defined political radicalism and provoked a national reckoning on race and democracy.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-12-23
- Reviewer: Staff
This stunningly thorough appraisal of this radical activist, 50 years after the "heroic period" of the civil rights movement, is both timely and relevant. Excavating a multifaceted and constantly evolving political personality "poised between Malcolm's sword and Martin's shield," Tufts Univ. professor of history Joseph presents an analysis of Carmichael's lifelong international political career. Citing a wealth of primary material, especially speeches and essays, and with an eye for detail that uses specifics such as fashion choices to paint a nuanced image of his public persona, Joseph explores how Carmichael thought and how he was perceived in each moment of his philosophical evolution. He is particularly interested in restoring the memory of Carmichael as a master speaker, a "professorial rhetorician" and "public intellectual," in addition to the "symbol of defiance" that popularized Black Power. Amid Carmichael's career of public action, his personal life seems nearly nonexistent, referenced only rarely, in connection to his marriage to singer Miriam Makeba. Still, his personality remains in focus throughout, even among the panoramic wealth of contextual historical information, a quality that recalls his own "rock star" ability to command attention throughout his life. It's not casual armchair reading, but should surely be considered required material for a fuller understanding of a critical, and ongoing, American struggle. (Mar.)
The man behind the Black Power movement
On a humid night in Greenwood, Mississippi, on June 16, 1966, 24-year-old Stokely Carmichael exhorted his audience of 600 to start proclaiming “Black Power.”
“All we’ve been doing is begging the federal government. The only thing we can do is take over,” he told the crowd. After several years of organizing sit-ins, demonstrations and voter registration drives, Carmichael had come to believe that African Americans would never achieve justice until they had the capacity to rule their own lives. His speech and the reaction to it significantly changed the course of the modern Civil Rights movement.
Between 1966 and 1968, Carmichael was more vilified than Malcolm X (who was killed in 1965) had been. The FBI trailed him; politicians accused him of treason; and the Justice Department came close to charging him with sedition.
Carmichael’s complex life and legacy are the subject of Civil Rights historian Peniel E. Joseph’s engrossing and enlightening biography Stokely: A Life. The author makes a strong case that his controversial subject, more than any other activist of his generation, shaped the contours of Civil Rights and Black Power activism. Carmichael’s extraordinary journey took him from involvement in early nonviolent sit-ins to serving as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, from which he was eventually expelled, to his role as honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party, from which he resigned.
Carmichael also became an outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and in 1969, he left America for permanent residence in Guinea. There, he changed his name to Kwame Ture and became an ideologue for a revolutionary pan-Africanist movement.
Joseph makes us keenly aware that despite his historic successes, Carmichael made serious errors in judgment and had numerous large and small political failures. He admired both Malcolm X, with whose ideas he identified, and Martin Luther King Jr., who became a good friend. The morning after Carmichael’s Black Power speech, King urged the younger man to stop using that slogan, but was rebuffed.
This nuanced biography helps us understand a key player in the Civil Rights movement and illuminates the different approaches to social justice within the movement.