Timothy B. Tyson reviews Stokely: A Life for The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Stokely Carmichael embodied the freedom struggle of the 1960s in the way that a comet might speak for a candle; he cast a light, just more so. His lightning illuminated a decade of inspired endeavors and merciless losses: morality plays scrawled by saints and cynics trying to conjure revolutionary fire. How we see these dramas tells us who we are.
Stokely: A Life
By Peniel E. Joseph (Basic Civitas)
In Stokely: A Life (Basic Civitas), Peniel E. Joseph, a professor of history at Tufts University, follows 19-year-old Carmichael as he bravely boarded the Congress of Racial Equality’s 1961 Freedom Rides. After spending weeks in a Mississippi penitentiary with a who’s who of movement soldiers: John Lewis, James Lawson, James Farmer, et al., he returned to Howard University that fall a “campus celebrity.” Soon he went back to Mississippi to join Bob Moses, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s humble icon of nonviolence, who became his hero.
Carmichael also met courageous black Mississippians who, he later wrote, “took us in, fed us, instructed and protected us, and ultimately civilized, educated and inspired the smartassed college students.” One thing he learned from those homegrown activists was that sometimes democracy required shotguns. Never a holy believer in nonviolence, Carmichael saw it as a tactical necessity.
By the end of Freedom Summer of 1964, the violence of white terrorists and the betrayals of white liberals had taught Carmichael how “racial terror simmered beneath popular national bromides extolling individual liberty and achievement,” Joseph writes. He draws a chilling portrait of the bold organizer searching the Neshoba swamps and woods with Charlie Cobb and Cleve Sellers, looking for the bodies of three missing friends, rightly presumed slain. Carmichael also shuttled the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. around Greenwood, Miss., in, he recalled, a caravan “filled with guns.” That began a fascinating friendship between clashing visions of the movement, embodied in two men with a tender regard for each other.
In the early 1960s, Carmichael believed that nonviolent protests and coalition politics might cure America’s white supremacy and intractable poverty. But soon he saw that the lofty rhetoric of the New Frontier veiled not only Dixiecrat segregation but also unprincipled alliances with colonial tyrants in Africa and the Caribbean. Joseph tells us that President Lyndon Johnson’s liberal coalition broke Carmichael’s heart at the 1964 Democratic convention, in Atlantic City, after which he tried an experiment in rural Alabama to “transform democracy from the ground up by investing political power in poor blacks in the rural South’s Black Belt.” So began the short-lived Lowndes County Freedom Organization, better known as the Black Panther Party, not to be confused with the one in Oakland, Calif.
A homegrown black radicalism took power in Lowndes for a time, as the 1965 murder of two more friends, one white and one black, deepened Carmichael’s black nationalism. When the organization declined to join forces with liberal white voters, The New York Times predicted “frustration and defeat for the state’s Negroes.” But for a season, at least, independent black politics seemed to work. For Carmichael, “Election Day in Lowndes marked the end of his life as a local organizer,” Joseph writes. “Millions of Americans would come to know him as a larger-than-life firebrand … whose Black Power call resounded through the nation like a war cry.”
On a march across Mississippi in June 1966, Carmichael shouted, “We want black power!” in call and response with the crowd. He “instantly transformed the aesthetics of the black freedom struggle and forever altered the course of the modern civil-rights movement,” Joseph says.
With verbal gifts of his own, Joseph sees this moment as “a national Rorschach test.” Black Power became an instant bogeyman for the media. But, as he and other historians have reminded us in a new generation of Black Power studies, that power radiated from longstanding traditions in a way that reoriented African-American sensibilities to not only reject white supremacy but also to shine with a new and necessary cultural aesthetic. Its inflections included black unity, cultural pride, armed self-defense, Pan-Africanism, and a historical view of Africans as a colonized people. Its still-resonant black sense of self remains the lasting legacy and unfinished business of the Black Power movement—and, Joseph ably demonstrates, of Stokely Carmichael.
Quite often Carmichael spoke simple good sense, as when he pointed out that the struggle against institutional racism would be won not with nonviolent protests but with institutional power, or when he chided students not only for ignoring the revolutions gripping the globe but also because they didn’t even “know how democracy works in your own little Nashville.”
Other times he seemed to sling rhetoric chosen for its tendency to titillate the white news media and appall most of the population. In 1967 he avowed that revolutionary violence must come to America because “people in the United States must be in threat of their lives.” His fatigues, however, were strictly a costume.
When King was assassinated, in 1968, Carmichael brandished a pistol and proclaimed to a burning Washington, D.C., “The only way to survive is to get some guns. Because that is the only way America keeps us in check, because she’s got guns.” When Joseph describes that posture as one of a “belligerent peacemaker,” his admiration for Carmichael gets the best of him.
Pulled from continent to continent by the demand for his reckless polemics, Carmichael moved to Guinea, leaving a movement in search of Afrotopia. In its revolutionary delusions, Black Power did much the same thing, the difference being that Carmichael had airline tickets. He studied with the famed leader of African independence Kwame Nkrumah and lived under the patronage of Sékou Touré, the freedom fighter turned tyrant.
As what Joseph terms a “professional ideologue,” Carmichael added socialism to his Pan-Africanism and continued to stir. At first he thought that the Pan-African revolution needed a nation-state base. But in time he simply needed a base of his own, which led him to sashay among unprincipled dictators, including the murderous Idi Amin, whom the young SNCC organizer would have shunned.
The moment the young crusader became another thing entirely is hard to pinpoint, and Joseph doesn’t try. But he is right that Carmichael, who died in 1998, remains “one of the most protean figures of the 20th century.” At times he served as signal flare, warning America while illuminating its political landscape. At others he became an aurora, lit by the electricity in the atmosphere. In the end, although Joseph takes pains not to say so, Carmichael lost himself in shadows. At a distance, though, he still crackles for the ages, nothing left to do but burn, baby, burn.
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