The Undying Revolutionary
By Paula Span
When Kwame Ture talks about politics, his voice gains strength. His tired eyes grow lively. He sounds as if he's on a podium lecturing college students, or at a news conference issuing denunciations and exhortations, instead of where he is: lying wearily in a hospital bed at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, with fluids dripping intravenously into his thin left arm.
"The secret of life is to have no fear; it's the only way to function," Ture is saying. "You just wipe it out." He's talking about another time and a different threat, about registering black voters in such near-war zones as the Mississippi Delta and rural Alabama in the 1960s, when he was still known as Stokely Carmichael. He's not referring, directly, to the prostate cancer that was diagnosed more than two years ago.
Yet there is a connection; that earlier experience, he explains, helped prepare him for this one. During his years as an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, as the firebrand who shouted the then-incendiary phrase "Black Power," as the Pan-Africanist who moved to Guinea and changed his name, he was arrested . . . well, he's unsure of the precise number of times. More than 29, he thinks, but fewer than 36. He was chased, beaten, gassed, surveilled; he expected a bullet.
"We are revolutionaries," he lectures, slipping into the plural as leaders and royals sometimes do. "We were aware of the fact that death walks hand in hand with struggle. So sustaining myself in this period is not difficult. . . . When you're trained that way in your youth, then in your elderly days it just becomes habitual."
At 56, Ture is not really elderly. But he is seriously ill, and that lends a sense of summation to his remarks, an air of leave-taking to the event that -- he vows -- he will attend in Washington tonight.
The Friends of Kwame Ture Testimonial Dinner is expected to draw a thousand people -- Howard University classmates, SNCC comrades, Black Panther Party colleagues, well-wishers from across the country -- to the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. The mayor will be there (Marion Barry was SNCC's first chairman), and so will Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and several other members of Congress, the ambassadors from Guinea and Tanzania, and actor Wesley Snipes, who's producing a documentary about Ture.
They're coming, in part, to raise money: Revolutionaries rarely have health insurance plans. But that's not the only purpose. "We're coming together to provide some spiritual energy," says event organizer Karen Spellman, "in what might be his most difficult fight."
The benefit will draw people who would follow Ture through flame and also those who, at one time or another, have opposed his positions, rued his rhetoric, possibly cursed the day he was born. But none of that seems to matter much anymore.
"You've got a lot of people who admire him. They don't agree with him, but they admire him," says SNCC compatriot and freelance writer Charlie Cobb. With his education, his will and his charisma, Stokely Carmichael -- old friends use his names interchangeably and he doesn't seem to mind -- could have been anything he wanted to, Cobb says. But "he chose this committed, political life. That's what this testimonial is about."
'A New Kind of Force'
Those who encountered him as a lanky undergraduate at Howard University in the early '60s use words like "brash" and "brilliant." Thanks to an elite education in his native Trinidad and then at the Bronx High School of Science, Carmichael was a formidable orator. And he was already a battle-tested Movement veteran: arrested for attempting to integrate buses and terminals as a Freedom Rider, he was sentenced to Mississippi's brutal Parchman Penitentiary for 49 days. "Anyone who goes there and comes back out, it says something about commitment and courage and strength," says Cleveland Sellers, one of a nucleus of activist students who turned Carmichael's Washington apartment on Euclid Street into a hangout and headquarters.
Carmichael's forays south each summer, and again after his graduation in 1964, have inspired a lode of Movement lore. How he could execute a smooth U-turn at 90 mph on a Mississippi road to evade a carful of pursuers with rifles. How he corrected three Delta cops who stopped his car, addressing him as "nigger" and "boy," with a lofty "Let me remind you, it is Mr. Stokely Carmichael." (And got carted off to jail immediately afterward.) How he and his SNCC cadre registered close to 4,000 black voters in Alabama's murderous Lowndes County, where not one had been on the rolls when the civil rights workers arrived.
"Their sheer presence there, challenging white authority, was a fantastic lesson in how to overcome fear," says Charles V. Hamilton, a Columbia University political scientist who was on the scene as the black citizens of Lowndes County went to the polls at last. "When people saw this, they had to recognize this was a new kind of force."
Historian David Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Martin Luther King Jr., thinks this period may have been Carmichael's most consequential "in terms of real, positive, tangible influence on people's lives." But what made him a fixture of front pages and news broadcasts wasn't the years of grass roots work with SNCC; it was two words he shouted at a rally in Greenwood, Miss.
Imagine the scene in June 1966: Carmichael had been elected chairman of SNCC a few weeks earlier. James Meredith, who had integrated the University of Mississippi, had been shot during his "walk against fear" from Memphis to Jackson, and civil rights leaders had vowed to continue his march. When the column of demonstrators reached Greenwood and tried to set up camp, Carmichael was arrested again. Frustrated and furious after posting bond, he rejoined the protesters and thundered that it was time to demand black power.
"He asked the audience, `What do you want?' " recalls Sellers, who was there. "And the response, orchestrated by [fellow SNCC activist] Willie Ricks, was `Black power!' And it got to a crescendo. `What do you want?' `Black power!' And everyone cheered and embraced him."
It was a phrase that, though he did not invent it, will be associated with the young Stokely Carmichael forever. It electrified young blacks, frightened many whites, commandeered the headlines. From his hospital bed more than 30 years later, Kwame Ture acknowledges that he was unprepared for the reaction. "I didn't know it would spread so rapidly, like wildfire, embraced by so many different circles of the African community," he says.
In the book "Black Power," published in 1967 and still in print, Carmichael and Hamilton attempted to explain the term. "It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community," they wrote. "It is a call for black people to begin to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations . . . to resist the racist institutions and values of this society."
However unremarkable it now sounds, at the time "black power" was "a very troublesome cry to a lot of people, black and white," Hamilton recalls. To many it implied separatism or reverse racism. And in ensuing months, as Carmichael's speeches grew more threatening and civil disturbances leveled swaths of Detroit and Newark, "it was associated with riots and guns and `Burn, baby, burn,' " Hamilton says.
To Garrow, the way Carmichael handled the black power controversy "was more destructive than constructive." For months, the movement and the media became "caught up in this rhetorical game: What does black power mean? Is it anti-white? Who's in favor? It's a completely unproductive cul-de-sac."
Did his words, that militant yet ambiguous phrase, the repudiation of nonviolence, hasten the fracturing of the Movement? Ture says such questions "are really not fair. The knowledge I have now is not the knowledge I had then." Then, he was turning 25; now, his hair and beard are silvery. "I usually say I did the best I could with what I had. I have no major regrets." As for those fearful whites, "the only thing they had to be frightened about was that Africans would break out of the space prescribed for them, and thus control of them would be far more difficult."
Though controlling Kwame Ture, it seems, has always been a challenge.
Victory Is Inevitable'
Sometimes, sunk back against the pillows and assessing past and present, he grins broadly, knowing that he has said something outrageous. At other times he wags one finger to accompany a professorial-sounding lecture, dense with Old Left allusions to the masses, the overthrow of capitalism, armed struggle.
When a young friend hands him the telephone -- people call every few minutes to see how he is -- Ture answers the way he has for decades, though more weakly: "Ready for the Revolution." His other verbal trademark is a brisk "Of course!," suggesting that the truth is glaringly obvious and doubt is a waste of time.
"Of course!" He's talking, without much specificity, about the mistakes he acknowledges. "Many many errors, from small tactical errors on demonstrations to big political errors on the direction of the struggle."
Then he catches himself in the act of making one, of saying that black power is "no closer to realization," and stops himself. "Closer," Ture says. "It is closer, much closer."
But the frustrations are obvious nonetheless. To an unrepentant revolutionary, what may look to others like progress against racism is unimpressive, or even counterproductive. Take the advances by African Americans in electoral politics. "They make them mayors and took away the power of mayorship," he says, dismissing the phenomenon, not having to identify who "they" are. "They made powerless mayorships."
Take the growth of the black middle class. It's anathema to one who has denounced that class as racist and "anti-humanist," and who hasn't changed his mind. "Of course! The masses don't shed their blood for the benefit of a few individuals," Ture proclaims. "The only justification to accept [upward mobility] is to advance the people's cause, not their own."
Ture's solution, as always, is a socialist revolution led by a unified Africa. He will discourse readily on the continent's problems: "Leaders in Africa are so corrupt that we are certain if we put dogs in uniforms and put guns on their shoulders, we'd be hard put to distinguish them." But that hardly deters him. With Marxism in worldwide retreat and African unity undermined by bloody ethnic warfare, he still maintains that "it is impossible for anyone seriously following or participating in the struggle not to understand that victory is inevitable."
If his positions sound out of step, at variance not only with mainstream thought but probably with the politics of many of his comrades, that's an old story. Ture has rarely hesitated to go his own ideological way. In 1967, for instance, he received "a letter of expulsion" from SNCC.
A group that had always favored collective decision-making and disdained celebrity leadership was losing patience with its spotlit spokesman, semi-jokingly nicknamed "Stokely Starmichael." He always seemed to have the microphone, and as he crisscrossed the country and traveled the world, he didn't always seek consensus before publicly mouthing off about, say, "building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created." To Ture, the ejection revealed SNCC's "struggle between reformers and revolutionaries" -- and in any such division it's very clear which side he's on. "If it's not," he says, "I need to shoot myself."
The urban paramilitary style of the Black Panther Party seemed more hospitable to his revolutionary rhetoric. He spent about a year as the party's "prime minister" before a split developed there, too.
Carmichael left for Africa in 1969 and soon became Ture. It felt like home. "Always," he says. "I'm so far away from there; that's probably why I'm so sick."
'Memories Had Faded'
His first glimpse of Africa, in Libya in 1967, led him, characteristically, to a denunciation. His plane had landed and he was eager to kiss African soil, but "I didn't know if these people on the plane with me would think I was crazy or not." So he waited for the other passengers to disembark, expecting to perform his ceremony privately. Instead, he emerged to find them all on their knees on the tarmac, apparently kissing the ground, then kissing it again. Someone at last explained.
"I never felt so stupid in all of my life," Ture rages. "Here I was educated in America, with all this technology at our fingertips, and I never knew what the ritual was of a Muslim praying. No comprehension at all! . . . I blasted American education for its imperialism."
He took up residence in the Atlantic port of Conakry, capital of the People's Revolutionary Republic of Guinea. Twice married and divorced, from singer Miriam Makeba and then from Guinean physician Marlyatou Barry, he has a son from his second marriage. Bokar, now 16, lives with his mother in Arlington. But Ture rarely talks much about personal matters; a question about the nature of his life in Conakry elicits a shrug. "When there's lights, I get 'em, when there's no lights, I don't have 'em," Ture says. He'd rather talk politics.
Ture's heroes and mentors are two former presidents: Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, who'd taken refuge in Guinea after a military coup, and Guinea's Sekou Toure; the new name he adopted paid homage to each. Nkrumah also founded the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party, on whose behalf Ture has spent several weeks each year touring U.S. colleges.
Though Pan-Africanism has a long history and literature, Ture's brand of "scientific socialism" is out of style even in Africa, where a new generation of leaders and scholars is seeking free-market solutions to stubborn economic problems. Nkrumah and Toure are less likely to be remembered as leaders of the drive for independence than as repressive rulers whose suffering nations declined into corruption and poverty.
Back in the United States, there were those who felt Ture had marginalized himself, left the battlefield. His influence waned with his diminished visibility, and with the cultural and political changes in the country he'd left behind. "In the '70s, he packed schools when he spoke" on U.S. campuses, says Washington businessman and political consultant Ivanhoe Donaldson, another SNCC veteran. "In the '80s, he was a little older and memories had faded."
Even the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, which tracked Ture's campus speeches for years as he attacked Zionism, has grown less attentive lately. Its bulletin once called him "a disturbing, polarizing figure" whose appearances "engendered discord" between black and Jewish students. Ture's protestations that he is not antisemitic, that he's attacking a political philosophy and not Jews or Judaism, carried little weight with the ADL when Ture repeatedly declared that "the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist." But ADL monitors never saw much student interest in signing on with the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party. And of course Ture has been less active as his health has worsened.
So much has changed and, to Ture, so little. He believes that the revolution is en route -- could boil up overnight, in fact -- and that he has kept faith with it. "In revolution as in so many things," he says, "people are not going to go to the end of the road."
That's the one thing that no one, friend or foe, can say about him. "He actually was able to stay in, to go the whole way, no break in the struggle," Sellers says. "He continued his whole life with that same intensity."
At least until now.
Ture's cancer -- which he is convinced was visited on him by the FBI, though he cannot say how -- surfaced in 1996, and despite radiation treatment and chemotherapy his doctors use words like "progressive" to describe it. A group of friends arranged a "powwow" with him in New York last year, Sellers says, and set up a fund to help pay medical and living expenses.
He had to be badgered into accepting help, Sellers says. "Stokely is fiercely independent. He sees himself as a revolutionary. . . . He wants to continue in that vein. He wants to be seen as a warrior for social justice. He doesn't want to be seen as a person who needs . . . well, I'll just put a period there." Indeed, unwilling to be portrayed in a hospital gown, Ture changes into an embroidered African shirt when a photographer arrives. Helped from his bed into a chair, he mugs a little for the camera.
"What has humbled me is the outpouring of love," he says of tonight's tribute. "Of course I knew it was there -- I never stop repeating that once you sacrifice for the people, they will sacrifice for you. . . . But this is overwhelming."
His friends say nothing could keep him from attending. "Kwame could have 27 bullets in him and give a press conference," says Ivanhoe Donaldson, one of a sizable Washington contingent.
Others are flying in from California, Illinois, Mississippi -- 15 states at last count. The SNCC Freedom Singers will perform; Amiri Baraka will read his poetry. So many people wanted to stand up and speak that organizers, fearful of an event lasting into the small hours and overtaxing its honoree, will provide video cameras so that well-wishers can record their accolades.
Ture has said he intends to return to Africa within a few weeks, and friends don't know when they will have another chance to spend time with him. "This will be an expression of gratitude," Sellers says. "You want to give Stokely his roses while he can still smell them."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company