- and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
Stokely Carmichael was a radical, iconic cog in the civil rights machine throughout the 1960's. Situated somewhere between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King on the rage scale, Stokely was often hidden in their shadows but he was one of the most formidable leaders of the civil rights era. A native of Trinidad, Carmichael eventually immigrated to New York City as a teenager where he quickly began to see the stark contrast of the poor black world and the white world of privilege. His scholastic prowess gained him admission to an “elite” all white high school. While he was accepted by his peers, Stokely slowly began to visualize his class mates as the future white power brokers who set their own rules and habitually bought their way to the penthouse and this repulsed him.
A brilliant young mind and a fearless fighter of civil rights, Carmichael became a student at Howard University just as the civil rights explosion was gaining steam. Like most college students, he was eager to transform his passions into deeds by fighting against black oppression which was being exposed by Dr. King's movement. Having been arrested over thirty times on superfluous charges while conducting nonviolent demonstrations, Carmichael's rage began to usurp his naivety. Carmichael initially followed Dr. King’s non-violent philosophy but after having been beaten, gassed and cattle prodded, his peaceful enthusiasm melted like April snows to reveal a landscape continuously scarred by a white power structure that bulldozed it way over pacifistic resistance. He began to gravitate towards Malcolm X and his “by any means necessary” doctrine, eventually becoming a Black Panther.
By 1967, Carmichael's militant, anti-war rhetoric had increased his stature to Ghengis Khan like proportions and in turn he was becoming a major thorn in the Lyndon Johnson administration who was desperately trying to keep the peace on the powder keg he was handed.
“My old man believed in this work-and-overcome stuff. He was religious, never lied, never
cheated or stole. He did carpentry all day and drove taxis all night. The next thing that
came to that poor black man was death – from working too hard. And he was only in his 40s.”
Lowndes County - The Dark Heart of Dixie
To outsiders, Lowndes County Alabama seemed like a Tarzan movie come to life. The dark, primeval forest, had an Africa like density and a spongy swamp like mix that could swallow bull dozers whole. Any stranger venturing more than a stone throw off the road would be strongly advised to leave a Hansel and Gretel trail behind them or risk a jungle self-immolation. Centuries old White Oaks, wider than they are tall, seemed to stand guard over the forest like the Cerberus, the mythical three headed dog who guards the gate to Hades. Cerberus welcomed those who entered his kingdom but snarled at indignant souls who attempted to leave. Lowndes County had fallen into a Rip-Van-Winkle slumber since the end of the Civil War, if it ever did end. Blacks dominated the population but by 1965 still none were registered to vote. Like great puppet masters, the white power structure dangled and twisted it's black prisoners into a stifling choreography of repression.
Freedom Riders - Behind the Cotton Curtain
The Freedom Riders, a gutsy if not naïve band of crusaders who dared to thrust a moral dagger into the heart of Sampson segregation, had among its extensive list of heroes a young Stokely Carmichael. To understand the Freedom Riders one must revisit and recognize the abysmal failure of Reconstruction.
In the ten years following the Civil War, Union troops stood over the newly elected governments of the South and enforced the U.S. Constitution. Exercising this new found freedom, Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina became the first black Americans to be elected to the U.S. Congress in 1870. However, when the Union troops finally were withdrawn with the belief that the South had been "rehabilitated, " the cancer of racism quickly began to re-emerge in the form of the white, Democratic party which permeated and controlled every aspect of southern life and thus the Confederacy was essentially reborn. These Jim Crow conditions were further enforced by the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling in 1896 which would cement black oppression for the next century.
While federal laws were on the books to prevent segregation on interstate buses (Greyhound / Trailways) they were never to be enforced. Like the antebellum days of the Old South, blacks were never allowed to associate with whites. Separate dining facilities, rail cars, hotels and residence were entirely segregated.
In 1946, a black women named Irene Morgan boarded a Greyhound bus in Virginia bound for Maryland. Refusing to relinquish her seat upon request, she was arrested. The Supreme Court sided with her stating: "As no state law can reach beyond its own border nor bar transportation of passengers across its boundaries." In 1947, the Journey of Reconciliation, a precursor of the Freedom Riders, was undertaken with inter-racial passengers on interstate bus travel to test the Supreme Courts will to enforce its own ruling. Wisely avoiding the Deep South, the riders were thrown in jail in North Carolina with this admonition from the presiding judge:
"It's about time you Jews from New York learned that you can't come down here bringing your
niggers with you to upset the customs of the South. Just to teach you a lesson, I gave your black boys
thirty days [on a chain gang], and I giving you ninety."
Fast forwarding to the 1960 s the Jim Crow mentality was once again being challenged by the awakening giant of the civil rights movement. Segregated seating was still being enforced on interstate buses throughout the South. Blacks had to sit in the back of the bus. If there was an excessive number of whites then blacks had to relinquish their seat and stand. Enter the Freedom Riders. In an effort to challenge this injustice, teams of black and white riders would sit side by side, refusing to move as they traveled a perilous course into the heart of hatred. When they arrived at segregated bus stations they would further test their rights by entering segregated rest rooms and restaurants.
A young and perhaps still naive Stokely Carmichael as part of the early Freedom Riders in 1961. Arrested in Jackson, MS with a inter-racial group of protesters, the arresting officer quipped, "We got five black niggers and four white niggers." At this stage Stokely was following the edict of non-violence but as time ticked by and the beatings began to accumulate, it became clear that allowing your enemy to do what he has been doing for centuries was not going to advance the cause of civil rights.
Above - 1930s photo of Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi penitentiary where Stokely was sent in June of 1961 after his arrest as a Freedom Rider. Author William Faulkner once described Parchman as "destination doom." Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett insisted the Freedom Riders do hard time. Young Carmichael would age a year in a week but his resilient willpower only seemed to multiply.
Fred_McDowell - "Woke Up This Morning With My Mind On Jesus."
“Lowndes County was one of the poorest counties in the nation, it was feudal. It actually made the Mississippi Delta look advanced. About 80 [white] families owned 90 percent of the land. ... Half of our people were below the poverty level, most of the other half at or barely above it. Mostly agricultural day laborers and share-croppers. Fully half of the women commuted to Montgomery for housework at $4 a day.”
- Stokely Carmichael
As Carmichael and SNCC volunteers began the laborious and progressively dangerous task of canvassing the county to register its black voters, the white backlash was there to meet them. The initial wave of threats were aimed at blacks who contemplated running for sheriff:
"If you elect a black sheriff you'd better elect 52, because one will be killed every week."
The long, violent road to registration was littered with martyred casualties who's names and faces all too often fall into the obscure cracks of history. The open lawlessness exhibited by the Klan was more reminiscent of Dodge City in the Old West. But while the elections fell short of electing a black candidate, in part due to the mathematically impossible 118% white registration, the Panther was now out of the cage and now the hunter was being hunted.
"Willie Ricks from SNCC was introduced and Ricks was angry and he was lashing out at whites like a cracking whip. And as he talked, there was a chill, there was a feeling of a rising storm. Willie Ricks asked people what they wanted, and they answered, “Freedom Now.” Willie Ricks exhorted the crowd to demand not “Freedom Now” but “Black Power.” He kept talking at the crowd, and when he asked that they wanted, they answered “Freedom Now,” but more answered “Black Power,” until eventually “Black Power” began to dominate until finally everyone together was thundering, “Black Power, Black Power.” And it was chilling. That was frightening. Suddenly the happy feeling of the march was threatened. Suddenly I felt threatened. It seemed like a division between black and white. It seemed like a hit on well-intentioned northern whites like me, that the message from Willie Ricks was “Go home, white boy, we don’t need you.”
Around the tents [later that day] after listening to Willie Ricks, the atmosphere was clearly different. There was a surface of more anger and more hostility. There was a release of more hostility toward whites. Suddenly, I was a “honky,” not “David.”
Carmichael's famous (or infamous) "Black Power" speech at Greenwood, MS in June of 1966 after a hard days march. Dr. King, who had marched all day with Carmichael, had been called away temporarily for a taping of Meet the Press and was unaware of the inflammatory speech in what was supposed to be a non-political, peaceful march.
I remember when I was in school they used to say, "If you work real hard, if you sweat, if you are ambitious, then you will be successful." I'm here to tell you that if that was true, black people would own this country, because we sweat more than anybody else in this country. We have to say to this country that you have lied to us. We picked your cotton for $2.00 a day, we washed your dishes, we're the porters in your bank and in your building, we are the janitors and the elevator men. We worked hard and all we get is a little pay and a hard way to go from you. We have to talk not only about what's going on here but what this country is doing across the world. When we start getting the internal strength to tell them what should be told and to speak the truth as it should be spoken, let them pick the sides and let the chips fall where they may.
Now, about what black people have to do and what has been done to us by white people. If you are born in Lowndes County, Alabama, Swillingchit, Mississippi, or Harlem, New York, and the color of your skin happens to be black you are going to catch it. The only reason we have to get together is the color of our skins. They oppress us because we are black and we are going to use that blackness to get out of the trick bag they put us in. Don't be ashamed of your color.
There is a psychological war going on in this country and it's whether or not black people are going to be able to use the terms they want about their movement without white people's blessing. We have to tell them we are going to use the term "Black Power" and we are going to define it because Black Power speaks to us. We can't let them project Black Power
because they can only project it from white power and we know what white power has done to us. We have to organize ourselves to speak from a position of strength and stop begging people to look kindly upon us. We are going to build a movement in this country based on the color of our skins that is going to free us from our oppressors and we have to do that ourselves.
- Stokely Carmichaels Black Power speech, Greenwood Miss, June 1966
David Dawley, a white reporter who had accompanied the march, watched the speech unfold with increasing alarm:
As American cities began to fall to the torch of rebellion and the
black causality list took on telephone book proportions, the front lines
of rebellion seemed a more prudent fit. Credited with the now legendary
maxim “Black Power,” it quickly morphed into a declaration of militant separatism that
greatly influenced black America and became a rallying cry for revolution. "Black Power,"
explained Carmichael, "is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.”
Under the banner of Black Power, Carmichael sifted out the unrealistic virtues of sit-ins and freedom rides and substituted a more retaliatory stance in an effort to force change into a system where the concrete of non-violence had long since hardened . To him, gradualism became an act of treason and the old school leaders were Uncle Toms.
Black Power became the rage across the despondent urban landscapes crying out for help. Dr. King believed the term Black Power was an unwise choice of words because of its violent overtones. Black Power also implied black unity and black separatism. Carmichael also coined the maxim “Black is Beautiful” which advocated racial pride, African dress and a rejection of the conked hairstyle.
While the term "Black Power" had been used previously, it experienced a coming out party during the Meredith March against Fear during the summer of 1966. Dr. King also joined the march under the guise of peaceful unification amongst the numerous black factions. Day after day the march experienced Klanish intimidation, beatings, tear gas, often from law enforcement themselves.
Fast forwarding to the 1960's, in a reoccurring theme throughout the South, whites owned 90 percent of the land in Lowndes County but where only 20 percent of the population so if blacks could "simply" register and vote they could rule the county. But the white reign of terror prevented voting under an increasingly hostile scale of nightmarish circumstances including loss of job, loss of home and ramping up quickly to bodily harm and then death. It was not uncommon for a black man to be lynched and have his bloody clothes hung on a fence indefinitely as a reminder to others.
The historic Selma march, which lasted 18 days including the legendary "Bloody Sunday," was now complete. On the last day, March 25, Detroit house wife and civil rights volunteer Viola Liuzzo was shot to death by the Klan. It was in this hysterical setting that Stokely Carmichael entered Lowndes County. SNCC, (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) a civil rights organization, took it upon themselves to enter the dark confines of Lowndes and organize black voting rights. Recognizing the illogic of running local blacks on the Democratic ticket which was dominated by the Klan, they decided to start their own party. Required by Alabama law to have a symbol for his party, he chose the black panther because of its color, its reputation as a tenacious fighter (panthers don't back up) and its intimidating / motivational capacity.
Dicksonia, the abandoned plantation house in Lowndes County, bespeaks of a time when the white South was prosperous and happy in its cotton splendor. Unwilling to part with its antebellum etiquettes', the old social order was kept in place for generations by a white reign of terror as the federal government slept in a Rip-Van-Winkle slumber, failing to enforce the very constitution it had created.
Following in the turbulent wake of the initial Freedom Riders, Carmichael & co were arrested in Jackson, MS in June for entering a "white's only" waiting room, eventually landing in Parchman. The solitary confinement halls soon filled with chain-gang like songs from the Freedom Riders. Over-riding the indignant guards demand to stop, they had their lone mattress taken away, forced to sleep on the concrete. Carmichael's militant attitude began to spike and the verbal tirades he launched at his keepers earned him many stints in "wrists breakers," a grueling pair of handcuffs that were well named and guaranteed to soften the toughest felon. After forty-one days in Parchman, Carmichael was released. He had lost weight from the hunger strikes on a physique that already had little weight to lose. Back home, his alarmed mother sought to fatten him up again, then it was off to conquer the next injustice.
Prior to Carmichael's arrival, the first wave of Freedom Riders meet with disaster in Alabama as Klansmen were tipped of their arrival and, with the local law taking a blind eye, administered the dose to the unsuspecting Freedom Riders.
Somewhere lost in the dark recesses of history is that blacks did enjoy some post Civil War victories that were all too often paved over by a century of repression. Over 2,000 African-Americans were elected to public office during the Reconstruction years, from local government all the way up to the United States Senate. But their progress was short lived. After ten years of southern occupation, the North grew weary of its guardianship over the South and brought its troops home. It was a major turning point in American history and the beginning of the end for black social progress. Powerful white southerners, now free from federal yoke, began enacting road blocks to halt black voting and slowly reshape the old Confederacy. With the Ku Klux Klan acting as muscle and now free to unleash their sinister forces, blacks slowly lost power and receded into a terrified corner that was worse than slavery.
The success in registering black voters in Lowndes was not without sacrifice. Carmichael would mourn the loss of two comrades.
(Left) Seminarian Jonathan Daniels was shotgunned to death by a klansmen in Hayneville while shielding a black comrade. Since no blacks were registered to vote they could not serve on juries either and an all-white jury acquitted Daniels killer.
(Right) Sammy Younge, a veteran of the Selma marches, was shot to death when attempting to enter a segregated rest room. His killer was also acquitted by an all-white jury.
“The history of Lowndes County shows that black people could come together to do only three things: sing, pray, dance. Any time they came together to do anything else, they were threatened or intimidated. For decades, black people had been taught to believe that voting, politics, is “white folks” business. And the white folks had indeed monopolized that business, by methods which ran the gamut from economic intimidation to murder."
- Stokely Carmichael
Stokely Carmichael - Timeline
There were many outstanding leaders during the civil rights era. Too many to list. Keeping in mind that you don't have to be "philosophically in phase" with someone to acknowledge their accomplishments, which figure in this list provided the greatest leadership skills with the tools at their disposal?
White House phone conversation between President Johnson and Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas in 1966 in which Carmichael's name comes up twice. Carmichael and Johnson never met but they studied each other and were hyper critical of the others viewpoint.
Johnson's considered Carmichael a evil genius, a prophet of blind rage who was greatly responsible for the tumult plaguing the country.
By all accounts, Lyndon Johnson was a political heavyweight with formidable political skill yet he never seemed to understand the black rage that, unfortunately for him, surfaced on his watch.
Carmichael in Detroit in 1966 with Reverend Albert Cleage who shared many of his nationalistic views.
The Jeffries Housing Project is in the background.
There has been only a “civil rights” movement, whose tone of voice was adapted to an audience of middle class whites. It served as a sort of buffer zone between that audience and angry young blacks. None of its so-called leaders could go into a rioting community and be listened to.
In a sense, the blame must be shared, along with the mass media, by those leaders for what happened in Watts, Harlem, Chicago, Cleveland, and other places. Each time the black people in those cities saw Dr. Martin Luther King get slapped they became angry. When they saw little black girls bombed to death in a church and civil rights workers ambushed and murdered, they were angrier; and when nothing happened, they were steaming mad. We had nothing to offer that they could see, except to go out and be beaten again.
- Stokely Carmichael 1941-1998
With a multitude of civil rights battles now behind them,two aged warriors
H. Rap Brown (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) share a moment of peace. For Carmichael, now battling prostate cancer, the final days were fast approaching but he left behind a legacy of lifting blacks out of the yoke of bondage by inculcating and leading those who had been lost in the fog of oppression.