A “Jeopardy” answer might be: “He was the most famous civil rights activist not to attend the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The correct question to that answer is “Who was Stokely Carmichael?” Another such answer might be: “He invented the slogan ‘Black Power’ and married famed South African singer Miriam Makeba.” The question again is “Who was Stokely Carmichael?”

I asked my oldest sister, who was a member of the Philadelphia branch of the SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, of which Carmichael was a member and eventually chaired) why she with several others started the Black Student League at Temple University in 1966. “It wasn’t my idea,” she said. “At a meeting at Lincoln University in 1966, Stokely Carmichael encouraged black students to start them.” Ever the political organizer, this Carmichael. Yet Peniel E. Joseph’s biography provides various answers to the question of who Carmichael really was and how he acquired so much influence over his peers.

Carmichael was born in the Caribbean, lived in the United States and died in Africa. The Pan-Africanism he was to advocate in his later life was a philosophical and political attempt to tie this sense of black diaspora together.

Born in 1941 in Trinidad, Carmichael grew up in the United States, attending a largely Jewish high school in New York City. He came not from a communist background — that would have made him a red-diaper baby — but from a progressive Jewish and intensely liberal Christian milieu that shaped his intellectual and political beliefs, making him a kind of pink-diaper baby. He went to college at historically black Howard University. His engagement with the civil rights movement — inspired by peace activist Bayard Rustin — led to long organizing sojourns in Alabama (the attempt in Lowndes County to create an independent black political party) and Mississippi (Freedom Summer Schools and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to unseat the Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention) and a deep familiarity with rural black Southern life, for which he retained a lifelong fondness. He was arrested dozens of times for his civil rights activism, and his heroism in the face of fierce racial violence is both undeniable and admirable.

He became a truly committed leftist (his opposition to the Vietnam War split the civil rights movement and moved Martin Luther King to oppose the war, too) and a black nationalist, positions that he discovered were not easily compatible with each other during his “flirtation” (Carmichael’s term) with the Black Panther Party in California. He traveled the ultra-radical circuit of the day: Cuba, North Vietnam, Algeria, Egypt and the leftist salons of Europe. He disavowed nonviolence and touted violent revolution to overturn the American empire. The irony that he was feted in countries that were less free than the United States and less tolerant of dissent did not seem to have struck him.

‘Stokely: A Life’ by Peniel E. Joseph (Basic )

Ultimately, he wound up in sub-Saharan Africa, a guest of Sékou Touré, the head of Guinea, who was a student of the exiled Kwame Nkrumah. The first president of Ghana, a founding member of the Organization of African Unity and a Pan-Africanist, Nkrumah was seen for a time as the face of African liberation by blacks worldwide, and he imagined that he could unify the continent under his rule. But Nkrumah was ousted from power in 1966 and dreamed of and schemed at achieving it again until his death in 1972.

Carmichael encountered all this revolutionary, history-making glory before he was 30. Like many others in the American 1960s, he lived an accelerated youth and young adulthood, which explains why this biography devotes 14 of its 16 chapters to him in the 1960s. Only one chapter covers the last 30 years of his life (he died in 1998), when he seemed to be simply spinning his wheels intellectually. He tried, as an activist, to organize something that refused to be organized, something that existed in the minds of black people: their idealized unity and their perfected liberation, a desire that fed and exhausted itself on black people’s contradictory beliefs in the deserved yet stern majesty of their fate and in their failure to be worthy of it. He wrapped up all of these experiences of blackness with the word “African,” which simplified matters without clarifying very much. What, after all, is an African on a continent positively riven by the awesome complexities of multiple identities? But the virtue of being African was that it was clearly not European, and for many black people that was more than enough.

Joseph’s account of Carmichael’s life is well-written and well-researched, providing persuasive explanations for his appeal. Carmichael was handsome, articulate, brilliant at times, young, reckless yet disciplined. Joseph also adeptly chronicles his subject’s transformation into a revolutionary, driven by U.S. government harassment and the trauma of seeing several friends die at the hands of hard-core segregationists. But he was, too, a product of the 1960s zeitgeist of liberation begetting liberation, the youthfully immature combination of cynicism and utopianism that characterized the radical politics of the time.

Malcolm X (“black America’s district attorney,” Joseph calls him), the firebrand minister of the Nation of Islam who became a Pan-Africanist revolutionary, looms large over this book. Carmichael was entranced by Malcolm, as were many young blacks of the 1960s. In fact, once Carmichael professed Black Power in 1966 and black control of black communities, he became, for the press, Malcolm’s replacement as the black enfant terrible of the civil rights movement. When Mad magazine parodied the movement in its special race issue in June 1967, Carmichael — not the late Malcolm X — was presented as King’s chief ideological rival.

But Malcolm’s mythologizing of the black criminal in his famous autobiography led to a romanticizing of the black prisoner. This belief that the prisoner was inherently a political revolutionary led to the thuggish excesses of the Black Panthers, the Black Mafia offshoot of the Nation of Islam that afflicted the South Philadelphia neighborhood where I grew up, and the Ford Foundation’s funding of Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers. There was a strange, white-liberal-leftist belief that the criminal class was the truly authentic element of everyday black America.

Carmichael knew that his arrest record gave him “street cred,” but he was skeptical of revolutionary thugs, even as he ignored, even promoted, the authoritarian nature of a good deal of international black political leadership, denouncing “the superior role of the individual,” the only true safeguard against authoritarianism and majority tyranny, as “bourgeoisie garbage.” It’s a common belief among the persecuted that iron, dictatorial leadership will make them strong because it will give them harsh discipline.

Joseph’s biography fills a huge void and is a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on the civil rights movement.

Gerald Early is a professor of English and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. His latest book is “A Level Playing Field: African American Athletes and the Republic of Sports.”


A Life

By Peniel E. Joseph

Basic Civitas. 399 pp. $29.99