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Stokely Carmichael’s call for ‘Black Power’ spoke real truth to a flawed nation

50 years ago today, those words revolutionized the civil rights movement

Stokely Carmichael’s call for “Black Power!” in Mississippi 50 years ago today indelibly transformed America’s civil rights struggle and national race relations. The Black Power Movement radicalized domestic civil rights struggles in ways that continue to transcend racial, political, cultural, and generational boundaries.

From Black Power to Black Lives Matter, the struggle for black political self-determination — that is, the power for black people globally to define their wants, needs, friends, enemies, aspirations, and ambitions for themselves — remains as relevant in our own time as it was then.

As heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali’s recent death reminds us, selective memory haunts our national soul. We make peace with history by forgetting its most uncomfortable parts, basking instead in moments of retrospective national unity. The awkward identification of Ali as a “civil rights” activist, instead of Black Power icon, attests to the sanitizing of our recent past.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the belated recognition of the Civil Rights Movement’s heroic period, from the May 17, 1954, U.S. Supreme Court desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education to the Aug. 6, 1965, signing of the Voting Rights Act. National holidays, lavish memorials, new museums, documentaries, and films have exalted this period in American history as a national reckoning that moved us closer to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a “beloved community.” Veterans of this movement, most notably civil rights activist and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chairman John Lewis, have been rightfully lauded by President Barack Obama, politicians, and pundits as legendary soldiers in the struggle for racial equality that predates America’s founding.

Stokely Carmichael, 25, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, speaks at the University of California's Greek Theater, Berkeley, California, October 29, 1966, jammed with 14,000 people. Carmichael at the rostrum, said: "To hell with the draft."

Stokely Carmichael, 25, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, speaks at the University of California’s Greek Theater, Berkeley, California, October 29, 1966, jammed with 14,000 people. Carmichael at the rostrum, said: “To hell with the draft.”

AP Photo

The Black Power Movement, in stark contrast, has been demonized and disparaged as the “evil twin” that destroyed the civil rights movement. There are no holidays for Black Power icons such as Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture). The Black Panthers are too often caricatured as gun-toting militants who engaged in reckless shootouts with police rather than young revolutionaries who resisted state violence through ambitious social programs that offered health clinics, food giveaways, breakfast for school children, and other anti-poverty efforts that positively affected black communities across the nation.

Malcolm X, whose activism paralleled modern civil rights struggles, served as the avatar of Black Power activism: a figure expansive enough to be admired by the young Carmichael and Cassius Clay and inspire at least two generations of black cultural figures, including Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), Max Roach, Abby Lincoln, and Maya Angelou.

Black Power emerged from the cauldron of political struggle, a time where the worlds of civil rights and Black Power activists traveled along parallel lines and, at times, overlapped and intersected.

Carmichael represented a living bridge between both movements. Trinidad-born, an intellectual and political roughneck, a Bronx High School of Science graduate, and protegé of the radical social democratic activist Bayard Rustin (who helped school King on the nuances of nonviolence in the 1950s), Carmichael spent six years as a community organizer in some of the most dangerous parts of the nation.

At Howard University, he joined the campus-based SNCC and stood out as much for his fearlessness as for his intellect, charisma, and good looks. He spent the summer after his freshman year in Parchman Penitentiary, the Magnolia State’s worse prison farm, for being a Freedom Rider.

By 1966, Carmichael had become chairman of SNCC, a position he earned in part due to his committed organizing in Mississippi and Alabama. That June, Carmichael returned to Mississippi, along with King, to participate in a three-week civil rights campaign to register black voters and take up the cause of James Meredith (the first black to enroll at Ole Miss in 1963), who had been shot as he walked through the state in defiance of racist violence.

File photo dated 30 November 1967 shows Stokely Carmichael, alias Kwame Ture, the radical former Black Panther leader who died 15 November in the West African country of Guinea, his political organization said. Carmichael, 57, died in the capital Conkry, after a more than two-year bout with prostate cancer. N/B B/W (Photo credit should read )

Stokley Carmichael, alias Kwame Ture, the radical former Black Panther leader

STR/AFP/Getty Images

After being released from his 27th time in jail for civil rights activism, Carmichael unleashed the cry that would reverberate around the world. It was Thursday, June 16, 1966, and he gazed upon a crowd of familiar faces in Greenwood, one of his favorite cities in the delta, a region he came to love after years of spending time there. “We want black power!” he told them. “Black Power!” They chanted back in response. Declaring that, “every courthouse in Mississippi ought to be burned down tomorrow to get rid of the dirt and the mess,” Carmichael announced a call to action that would come to define each successive generation of black and oppressed people around the world.

Blacks intuitively defined “Black Power” as a positive turn toward political self-determination. Students on college campuses organized black studies programs and departments. Black poets and writers unleashed a Black Arts Movement that debated the meaning of black aesthetics, literature, art, and language. Aspiring politicians used the new black consciousness to seek undreamed-of political heights. Revolutionaries sought to eradicate structural racism, sometimes through Marxism, black nationalism, feminism, socialism, or a combination of all of these ideologies. More conservative blacks urged the community to promote black capitalism as a cure-all, a perspective that found warm response from President Richard Nixon.

What is now smeared as the emergence of “identity politics” actually gave birth to indigenous liberation movements domestically and internationally, ones that helped to inspire Chicano/a, Asian American, Native American, and white radical activism in the United States and beyond.

Black Power fundamentally transformed American democracy by changing the way in which black people defined themselves. On this score, the movement renewed ties between black America and Africa and the larger Third World. During the Age of Decolonization, it’s not surprising that Black Panther minister of defense Huey P. Newton “opened” China before Nixon, or that the Panthers would house an International Section in Algeria. At a time of worldwide political revolution, the Black Power Movement’s ability to audaciously speak truth to power even amidst extraordinary violence, illegal FBI, state, and local harassment, and the violent deaths of key activists, made some of its leaders recognized as the representatives of black people in the United States.

Africa became the focus of Carmichael’s activism during the second half of his life. Taking the name Kwame Ture, in honor of African revolutionaries Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure, he moved to Conakry, Guinea, where he became an outspoken and committed advocate of African solidarity and Pan-Africanism. Ture returned to America regularly to conduct college speaking tours, raise money, and organize. Despite a diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer in 1996 (that would lead to his death on Nov. 15, 1998), he remained an unapologetic proponent of black liberation around the world. For Ture, Black Power meant that black lives mattered enough to critique a nation-state that inaugurated war in the name of peace and claimed freedom and democracy in the face of Jim Crow segregation.

Until the day he died, Ture answered the phone with a phrase that captures the spirit of the Black Power era then and now: “Ready For Revolution.”

Peniel Joseph is author of “Stokely: A Life," a biography of the late Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who is credited with popularizing the phrase, “black power.” Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair Designate in Ethics and Political Values and Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas-Austin.