Before there was a Black Lives Matter movement, there was Stokely Carmichael calling for “Black Power!” on a humid Thursday evening in Greenwood, Miss., where he had just been released from jail. Black Power represented a radical call for political, economic and cultural self-determination popularized by Carmichael, who served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In May 1966, one month before Black Power exploded upon the national political scene, Carmichael replaced Lewis as head of the group in a tumultuous election that signaled a changing of the guard within the larger civil rights movement.
Clinton’s suggestion that Carmichael’s election and the embrace of Black Power that followed on the national level inspired a political struggle between “good” nonviolent activists and “bad” Black Power militants, one in which Lewis eventually prevailed, is exactly wrong. In fact the Trinidadian-born and Bronx-raised Carmichael and Lewis, a native of Alabama, were friends who were jailed together for weeks in Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary, marched in Selma to aid the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and admired each other’s courage, tenacity and political resolve.
Carmichael proved to be a charismatic speaker, a deeply thoughtful intellectual and a tenacious organizer who learned at the feet of SNCC founder Ella Baker and imbibed lessons from the heroic witness of sharecropper turned voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. He also served as the Mississippi 2nd Congressional District director for Freedom Summer, an ambitious effort to bring democracy to the Magnolia State that resulted in the murders of Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner and James Chaney during the climactic summer of 1964.
Carmichael’s political evolution from nonviolent civil rights militant to Black Power revolutionary could be traced back to experiencing more than two dozen arrests and stints in jail, contoured by police brutality; witnessing the deaths of White and Black friends and colleagues; and observing the ways local, state and federal authorities consistently devalued Black life in America.
Carmichael admired Lewis, but by 1966 SNCC, which had come out against the Vietnam War, found itself moving to the left of its humble and hard-working chairman. Black Power proved to be a controversial slogan that suffered from willful misrepresentation. The Black Power Movement, like the contemporary BLM movement, represented the birth of a new American and global freedom struggle.
Black Power offered a structural critique of racism, violence, poverty and white supremacy. Our current national racial-justice uprisings and growing consciousness about systemic racism are based, in large part, on Carmichael’s popularizing the notion of “institutional racism” in his 1967 classic treatise, “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation,” which he co-authored with the political scientist Charles Hamilton.
Clinton’s remarks failed to comprehend the complexity of a Black freedom struggle that, despite the illusions of White people and politicians, has always been multilayered. Integrationists marched alongside black nationalists, and advocates of self-defense at times strategically joined nonviolent demonstrations. Black Americans have always carried both the political sword and shield, deploying tactics and strategies based on historical and political conditions.
Carmichael’s call for Black Power hastened a national political and moral reckoning around anti-Black racism and white supremacy. Before King, Carmichael emerged as the nation’s biggest and most important antiwar activist, popularizing chants of “Hell no, we won’t go!” that helped save White Americans like Clinton from serving in Vietnam.
Carmichael fused Malcolm X’s call for radical Black dignity with his friend King’s call for radical Black citizenship into a panoramic, globally resonant call for a political revolution capable of exposing structural violence, institutional racism and white supremacy. Between 1966 and 1968 he became a global political celebrity and a defiant symbol of Black political radicalism who influenced King’s peace activism, helped give birth to the Black Panthers and reimagined American democracy for generations of Black folk throughout the diaspora. If America wanted to live up to its founding creed, Carmichael argued, “a new society must be born.”
Carmichael left America in 1969 for Africa, where he was mentored by Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Sekou Toure, the president of Guinea. As a revolutionary pan-Africanist he followed in the footsteps of Malcolm X and renamed himself Kwame Ture in honor of his political benefactors. While many civil rights colleagues, including Lewis, became elected officials, Ture answered the phone “Ready for revolution!” until his death from cancer on Nov. 15, 1998.
I had the privilege of meeting Ture in graduate school, before his cancer diagnosis. He delivered a passionate speech about the depth and breadth of white supremacy, American imperialism and the need for Blacks to organize on behalf of dignity and citizenship for all people. I will never forget that evening, which inspired me to write the biography “Stokely: A Life.”
Clinton’s attack on Carmichael was especially disgraceful considering his role in criminalizing poor Black folk and jailing large parts of racially segregated and economically impoverished communities of color through racist crime and welfare bills. For figures such as Clinton, Carmichael’s Black Power activism, which grew into Ture’s withering criticism of the neoliberal policies of mass incarceration, the looting of the public treasury and the prioritizing of capital over people, makes him irredeemable.
But Lewis knew differently. After the heady years of the civil rights era, Lewis turned his gaze toward the political arena, becoming a city councilman in Atlanta before winning the congressional seat he would hold for more than three decades in 1986. Ture never stopped believing in revolutionary struggle. Whereas former SNCC colleagues like Lewis became political insiders, Ture remained firmly entrenched in the Black Power ethos he helped unleash. From Conakry, Guinea, he organized the All African People’s Revolutionary Party and made frequent tours of the United States to fundraise, teach and reunite with friends and colleagues from his SNCC days. The passage of time and Ture’s cancer diagnosis in 1996 healed wounds between the former friends turned adversaries and hastened a rapprochement with Lewis.
Shortly before Ture’s death in 1998, Lewis gathered with former civil rights colleagues in Washington to pay public tribute to the Black Power leader and former SNCC chairman. Lewis praised Ture’s “raw courage and great strength” as he reminisced about “the circle of trust and band of brothers and sisters” that they shared as young activists in SNCC. In that moment, Lewis publicly acknowledged the fact that efforts to redeem the nation’s soul required both the nonviolent shield that he steadfastly believed in and the political sword that Ture unleashed in Mississippi. Both traditions, then and now, made it possible for us to recognize that Black Lives Matter in our own time.