Washington—Kwame Toure, known as Stokely Carmichael when he was an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating, died of prostate cancer on November 15, 1998 in Conkry, Guinea, where he has lived for the last three decades.
During his last trip to the United States for medical treatment, Toure talked with his old SNCC colleahue Charlie Cobb, who is at work on a book about the Algebra Project founded by former SNCC Mississippi project director Bob Moses, wrote this article following his visit with Toure.
The young black boy-maybe 16-years-old if his smooth young face is a
measure-stands handcuffed in a corner of the store while two
policemen-one white and one black-take down particulars; the black
policeman talking to him while scribbling into a small notebook.
told these boys, the woman behind the counter-a black woman-tells
the white policeman who is entering notes into his pad too,
keep coming in here trying to steal I was going to call the cops.
She was scooping up cigarettes, gum, candy, and other counter items,
handing them to a helper who was putting them beneath the counter. The
store wasn’t closing; its just that the neighborhood
wasn’t changing either.
Black power in Greenwood, Mississippi helped make possible the
black-owned gas station and convenience store where this arrest took
place. In the 1950s, Amzie Moore, head of the NAACP in neighboring
Bolivar County, had the only black-owned gas station in the
Mississippi Delta. He refused to put up
colored signs and seated in his rear window with a rifle,
floodlights pouring over the backyard, kept nightly watch to protect
himself from outraged whites. Black power has desegregated
Greenwood’s police force, elected blacks to the city’s
Board of Aldermen, and made it possible for a black man like me to
enter the Leflore County courthouse in Greenwood and have a white
clerk politely ask,
May I help you, sir? The questions
surrounding young boys like the one being arrested remain unanswered.
Black power. Although Richard Wright wrote a book with that title,
history will always associate the words with Stokely Carmichael, who
while continuing a protest march begun by James Meredith, spoke them
in a Greenwood park just down the street from the gas station on June
16, 1966. Earlier that day, Stokely too had been arrested.
the 27th time..., he told the crowd of 1,000.
going to jail no more...We been saying freedom for six years and we
ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black
Power! he roared to amens, clapping, and stomping feet. He stood,
eyes blazing, fist clenched with one finger pointing, like a wrathful
prophet stepped straight from the pages of the Old Testament as Willie
Ricks, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer, leapt to
BLACK POWER! Ricks began chanting,
POWER! What do you want?
BLACK POWER! the crowd responded
with force that startled a press corps expecting to hear the tones of
we shall overcome. And Stokely Carmichael exploded into the
national consciousness as yet another unexpected black leader whose
anger seemed to come out of nowhere.
No one blinks an eye at the phrase today. But then¼
We are all
Mississippians, The Saturday Evening Post warned.
unfortunate choice of words, said Dr. Martin Luther King.
ranging of race against race, fumed the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins.
Thirty years later Stokely Carmichael chuckles mischievously,
recalling arguments during planning to continue the march begun by
James Meredith who had been shot while walking from Memphis to Jackson
on a solitary
March Against Fear. When Martin Luther King
joined SNCC and CORE in approval of participation by Louisiana’s
black self-defense group the Deacons for Defense, Roy Wilkins and
Urban League head Whitney Young stormed out of the first meeting in
Memphis. They had also infuriated Wilkins and Young by deciding
against issuing a national call to resume the march.
didn’t want the militancy taken out, says Stokely, who also
argued against having any national white leaders in the march. While
agreeing that participants should come from the southern movement,
King rejected that,
but he was changing too, adds Cleveland
Sellers who was at that meeting.
That the southern civil rights movement had reached a watershed became
even clearer as the resumed march neared Greenwood where SNCC had deep
We had been going against ’Freedom Now’ for four
days [before the rally]. That’s what SCLC would be shouting:
’Freedom now, freedom now.’ We’d say ’that
don’t scare white folks. The only thing that’s gonna get
us freedom is power.’ There’s still impatience in his
We had been working in Greenwood for a long time. Silent
years. Bloody years. People forget that. Dr. King could have countered
us, but he didn’t. By the time we finished he was using
He sits the way he stands, in kind of a stationary strut. Smiles come
quickly and easily with reminiscence. Only deeply tired eyes give away
the cancer slowly eating at his insides. But he’s still a
powerful presence, especially in flowing African robes which along
with his now-gray hair unexpectedly give him the gravity of an
If in 1966 Stokely Carmichael seemed to come out of nowhere, in 1996
he seems to have almost vanished from black struggle, existing now
only as a faded page of a past political moment. But turn the
page. The currents that have shaped and reshaped him have long washed
over the shores of black life, eroding what white society usually
expects of blacks trained to be successful. So today, he is Kwame
African, and still, as he greets everyone,
for the revolution. To many who remember those eloquently defiant
public challenges he flung at both blacks and whites, he is certainly
something of a mystery. But the road he’s traveled from Stokely
Carmichael to Kwame Ture solves part of it. How he traveled that road,
especially the southern leg, are important pages in the record of
transforming times. And along this road, ideas of radical change and
black empowerment are the important signposts. He is, journalistic
disclosure requires, an old friend and comrade.
Start with family. Neither one of his Trinidadian parents finished
high school but books filled shelves in his home. So did talk of
independence, for 1950s Trinidad was still a British colony. But his
father, a carpenter, thought America offered better prospects, and in
1952 at the age of eleven Stokely Carmichael arrived in New York where
he would become a U.S. citizen. After passing a competitive exam, he
entered one of New York City’s most elite public high schools:
The Bronx High School of Science. There, all of his friends were
children of college graduates. He devoured huge amounts of books
keeping up with them.
I’d listen to what books they talked
about and get them.
Discovery that a white classmate lived in Harlem surprised him.
know I had to go to his house. Then he found out that his
friend’s father was a communist party member.
there I met [U.S. Communist Party head] Gus Hall and lots of those
folks. But what they offered conflicted with touchstones that were
traditional and important to black life as he lived it.
To be a
Marxist-Lennist you had to be an atheist. I could be an atheist but I
knew my people would never tolerate it. And they didn’t want any
discussion of black nationalism. This was as much generational as
political difference says long-time friend Ivanhoe Donaldson, also a
New Yorker, who worked closely with Stokely Carmichael in
Race drove us first. We recognized class but placed it
differently. Everybody in our generation did. Even the white folks in
SNCC had a little bit of black nationalism in them.
On the street corners of Harlem, however, he found what was missing
from his friends in the white left: dynamic orations on race and black
Many of them spoke with West Indian
accents, he notes. And Bayard Rustin
was crucial. Young
Stokely was a volunteer in Rustin’s office for the Youth Marches
of 1958 and 1959.
He was black and socialist.
The southern student sit-in movement had begun when he headed off to
college in the fall of 1960. He was the only one of the handful of
blacks at his high school to attend a black university, flourishing as
he met the rigorous intellectual demands of Howard University black
scholars for whom race was a cutting edge issue, and joining the
Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), a tiny activist island in a vast
There was the sense we were radicals and
beatniks, recalls Michael Thelwell, a NAG activist and also
Managing Editor of the campus newspaper.
NAG had white members from
other campuses and their involvement was suspect. We went to jazz
clubs on 14th Street and U Street. Although they seemed a little
disreputable to a student body largely concerned with upward mobility,
Stokely could get out bodies for demonstrations, says classmate
Courtland Cox laughing softly.
He’d say, ’We’re
going out to demonstrate and after, we’re having a big
party.’ And they came out too, these guys who were totally
Life outside of the classroom was not all protest and no play; he
dated one of the prettiest girls on campus. Still pretty, Mary
Lovelace O’Neal laughs thinking of how she first met him; he
threw snowballs at her one day.
Carmichael was not my ideal and I
was exactly what he didn’t want me to be. I was like a
cheerleader, a bubble-head; gonna have a husband who is rich and
famous, not infamous. Soon she was an activist herself, which
puzzled many of her campus friends. Born and raised in Mississippi,
I knew all the crap black people had to live with and it seemed to
me that the movement would make it better. It changed her campus
He was somewhat of a pariah and I became one too. He hated
the fraternities and ROTC, was always going after them and here I was,
one of the first dark-skinned girls in the Kappa Court. Like many
who describe their involvement in the civil rights movement, Mary
Lovelace O’Neal says her participation is best understood in
terms of what she gained, not what she rejected.
particular were drawn to the movement because it was a place you could
be and discover that you could do something more than be a beauty
queen. Today she is an art professor at the University of
If the older white leftists he knew in New York de-emphasized race,
Howard professors like Sterling Brown, Kelly Miller, or Harold Lewis,
took special interest in these young NAG activists as the next
race men, quickly adopting them as their
Sterling would invite us to his house and
talk to us about music, or black life in America, and it wasn’t
a lecture, it was like a conversation, says Cox.
Many in this campus cadre would make their way further south. Yet even
then, in ways not wholly explainable by his quick and political mind,
Stokely Carmichael seemed to stand out. His Caribbean
background.partly explains it says Thelwell, who is from Jamaica:
There is a sense of distinction between the way people in the
Caribbean think of themselves and African-Americans. We are in the
majority. Our U.S. brothers and sisters are sitting under the weight
of white folks. But Thelwell adds,
the difference with Kwame is
how completely he identified with African-Americans from the moment he
I was in America, says Kwame, who as a Pan Africanist considers
and calls all black people
Africans without the hyphen,
it was clear that black struggle would mean with the Africans
here. But it doesn’t mean I was discarding my Caribbean
heritage. A more important clue to his character, says Ivanhoe
is that Stokely is a classic in-your-face New
Yorker. Stokely Carmichael always stormed the barricades.
He first went south-to Mississippi-as a freedom rider, where he was
kept in a cell near death row for 49 days in notorious Parchman
Penitentiary, its youngest prisoner in the summer of 1961. Kwame
breezily shrugs off the experience:
It would be frightening for the
unconscious. But finally acknowledges:
Well I wouldn’t
want to die for a bus ride.
The activist part of him wanted to stay in the south then. But a
hard-headed practicality has always leavened his idealism.
frankly, I didn’t leave school because of the draft. I
wasn’t prepared to fight that too, although I would have gone to
jail if they had drafted me. Nor was he prepared to disappoint his
family by turning his back on a university education.
didn’t know this would be a life-long struggle, says Mary
I think he did. He knew he wouldn’t
miss it by staying in school. Anyway, he felt he could do it all. He
even started taking art classes to show he could compete with me.
He spent every summer in Mississippi and finally came to stay in 1964 after finishing college. By this time civil rights organizers were wondering how much meaningful change civil rights would bring.
It’s worth remembering that the southern civil rights movement
was no simple struggle to gain access to public accommodations or even
voting rights. That people should participate in the decision-making
affecting their lives had undergirded decades of dangerous work by the
local NAACP leaders who steered SNCC, CORE, and SCLC toward voter
registration in the 1960s.
The idea of power was always there,
What was less clear was whether power would be found inside or outside
of the political system. The 1964 Mississippi Summer Project-a
coordinated effort by all the civil rights organizations- sought to
answer that question. The answer seemed to be
Under the banner of their newly-formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic
Party, Black Mississippians challenged the seating of the regular
Mississippi Party at the Democratic National Convention held in
Atlantic City, New Jersey that August. Although no one disputed that
Mississippi blacks were systematically denied the right to vote, the
regular party was seated.
Much of what has been written about this challenge is accusatory
distortion aimed at discrediting so-called uncompromising radicals
manipulating uneducated blacks. But it was the Democrats who turned
their backs on the MFDP by deciding to pick two of its members to be
seated as honorary delegates. The party’s Credentials Committee
and Walter Mondale announced the
compromise to the press as
Hubert Humphrey sat down in a hotel room ostensibly to discuss a
compromise with leaders of the MFDP delegation.
You cannot trust the political system, declared an angry Bob
Moses, SNCC’s Mississippi project director. Similar outrage
reverberated throughout the MFDP delegation who voted to reject the
Democrats’ offer despite pressure from powerful liberal
allies. Perhaps the gentlest reaction, and it cut with
razor-sharp precision, came from Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, former
sharecropper and one of the MFDP delegates. She was asked if the
delegation was seeking equality with the white man:
What would I look like fighting for equality with the
white man? I don’t want to go down that low. I want true
democracy that’ll raise me and that white man up...raise America
It’s not a huge leap from Fannie Lou Hamer, sharecropper, to Kwame Ture, Pan African Socialist. Perhaps the most important skill Kwame Ture brought to Mississippi was not his gift for gab, but his gift for listening and being open to people like Mrs. Hamer. Much of it cultivated by a mother with whom he could have easy exchanges, teachers who insisted on careful thought, and friends who never let him get too full of himself.
The qualities he brought also reflect what was best about movement
organizing throughout the south; indeed, more than nonviolence, formed
its moral core. It also led to choices that from the outside seemed
impractical, even self-defeating, such as the refusal to accept
the compromise in Atlantic City. Kwame offers this organizers view:
I have a 16-year-old sister; she’s just learning how to
type. It takes her one hour to type out a press statement. I get a
white volunteer. She can come in and type it out in five
minutes. Whoosh, it’s finished! I got to make a decision. Once
you see it in a political sense, you got to go with the sister.
But where do we go from here? asked many alienated organizers after Atlantic City. Among SNCC workers especially, the issue of armed self-defense surfaced as white violence continued. There had never been much discussion of it; nonviolence had been an effective tactic, not a philosophy. But anger was growing side-by-side with frustration and doubt that America would be willing to concede any place but the bottom for the black and poor.
When the MFDP decided to continue trying to became a part of the
Democratic Party, Kwame disagreed.
It seemed like putting all your
eggs in one basket, he comments today.
It was clear to me that
you needed an independent black party. But, responds Lawrence
Guyot, who headed the MFDP, and had been a SNCC organizer:
strength had become our weakness, he says in oblique criticism of
the growing ideological tenor of debates within SNCC over purpose,
nonviolence and black nationalism.
A lot of people were prepared to
fight the SNCC fight but not do the day-to-day organizational drudgery
here. To not fight the Democrats in Mississippi was not to fight
segregation. Our position was that SNCC had done a great job of
organizing but new people were in charge now and SNCC had no more
right to control the MFDP than anyone else.
In a sense, Kwame came to the same conclusion, announcing suddenly
that he was leaving Mississippi to begin organizing in Alabama’s
It was too much work to change the direction of the
MFDP. It was already geared to be a part of the Democratic Party.
So he and a small band of organizers slipped quietly into Lowndes
County, Alabama during the height of Dr. Martin Luther King’s
Selma campaign in March 1965. The Selma to Montgomery march seemed an
outdated tactic, but its passage right through the heart of the county
also created political opportunity.
We could see who from the
county participated and they would be the strong people.
Such strong people were easily found, like brick mason
R.L. Strickland, who flipped the movement organizing tradition of
nonviolent instruction by telling Kwame:
You turn the other cheek
and you’ll get handed back half of what you’re sitting
on. Men like Strickland sat on their porches with guns,
Stokley wasn’t inside the house being protected by them,
He was right there with them.
Ironically, a new federal law and an older state law were key factors
leading to the radical notion of organizing black power here: The 1965
Voting Rights Act passed in the wake of Selma dramatically began to
boost the number of black registered voters. And a unique Alabama law
encouraged creation of county-level political parties.
stipulated you had to have a symbol because of the high rate of
illiteracy, recalls Kwame.
Well, the Democratic Party symbol
was a white rooster, the white cock party we used to call it. A
panther became the new party’s symbol...almost accidentally.
Courtland [Cox] came to Atlanta and asked me to design a business
card with an emblem for the party, recalls Ruth Howard
I came up with a dove. Nobody thought that worked and
someone said I should look at the Clark College emblem. It was a
panther and that’s where the panther came from. Somebody up
there traced it on a piece of paper for me. In Lowndes County that
pouncing black panther gave instant visibility to the newly-formed
Lowndes County Freedom Organization as the
Black Panther Party.
The new party’s slogan:
Power for black people.
Almost immediately, the black panther leapt out of the state. When a volunteer from Oakland, California working in Lowndes county returned home, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale asked for permission to use the emblem for the Black Panther Party they had decided to form.
Nor would Kwame stay in the county long.
The Lowndes County Freedom
Organization was classic SNCC, says Donaldson.
It was the local
people’s organization, not Stokely’s organization. At the
heart of everything was local control. SNCC was Stokely’s
organization and he wanted to make his ideas central in it.
A year after his arrival, as the Lowndes County Freedom organization
was selecting candidates, SNCC met outside of Nashville, Tennessee to
determine its own direction and Chairman. An exhausting all-night
session over the chairmanship would change both SNCC and Stokely
Carmichael. John Lewis, Chair of SNCC since 1962 was nominated along
with Kwame, and Lewis won easily. But the issue of a direction was not
It was like a thousand years had passed since 1960,
We were reading [Frantz] Fanon not [Albert]
Camus. But it wasn’t so much about blackness and Stokely
wasn’t the purest black nationalist anyway; it was about
revolution and change and internal frustration within the
movement. After all, John believed in empowering the Black community
too. But they had two different personality profiles. John was almost
innocent, gentle. Stokely was talking about taking on the
country...going to the wall. Tortuous debate dragged on through
the night, and when the nomination for Chair was reopened near dawn
most of the 150 or so participants had long left the meeting. Stokely
Carmichael became SNCC’s Chairman.
For his part, John Lewis, now a United States Congressman, says he is
Worth Long challenged my election saying SNCC had
violated its constitution, but we didn’t even have one. More
than anything else, what happened in 1966 can be traced to what
happened in Atlantic City in 1964. Stokely and I were symbols about
the sense of direction; whether we would move away from the concept of
integration or keep to the philosophy of nonviolent change. I
didn’t take it personally. Change is bound to come in any
movement where you don’t have a top down structure.
SNCC had always been ambivalent about its Chair...somebody has to be spokesperson being the typical attitude; but it shouldn’t get in the way of the organizing. Under Stokely Carmichael SNCC became increasingly defined by its Chair, and that did begin to get in the way of organizing. At one point, Cleve Sellers, elected Program Secretary at the Tennessee meeting, cabled Kwame in Cuba asking him to tone down rhetoric that had enemies and supporters alike expecting SNCC to lead an armed insurrection.
He was less an organizer now than a spokesman for black power; not a
role he would be able to continue comfortably. For a time he was
honorary Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party, attracted by its
determined confrontation of police and thinking that allying
SNCC’s veteran rural organizers with urban militants could
advance black struggle.
Although black power was born in the
south, says Kwame,
there’s no question that the urban
rebellions gave it its force. But
and other roiling conflicts inside the Party
made it impossible for
me to stay. We even had to duck FBI bullets inside the Party.
His black nationalist stance also brought invitations from third world
nations, especially, African nations. On his first visit to Africa in
1967 he was introduced to Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah by Shirley
Graham DuBois, the widow of W.E.B. DuBois. Brash as ever, though awed
at meeting Nkrumah, a personal as well as political hero, he urged
Nkrumah who had been ousted in a military coup and was living in
Guinea, to take back Ghana through armed struggle.
Nkrumah sat me
down and asked me why I was so impatient. I told him because I see my
people suffering. Well, he asked me, if I saw a boat coming while I
was on land would I wade out and meet it? I said ’yes,’
without question. He said ’you’ll only get wet and the
boat won’t come in any faster. The revolution is going to
triumph,’ he told me. Then he asked me if I thought the
revolution would triumph. I said yes sir. ’Oh I see,’ he
said. ’It’s just that you want to be the one to bring it
about. All impatience is, is selfishness and egotism.’
Nkrumah suggested that he stay in Africa as his political
secretary. Asked about his decision to accept the offer, Kwame answers
Real black power requires a land base. The only place
where we have a material basis for power is Africa.
It took him two more years to get back. He had traveled not only to
Africa in 1967, but to Vietnam and Cuba and his passport was taken
from him when he returned to the U.S. His decision to live in Africa
seemed abandonment to many and he spent much of his time explaining to
colleagues why he was going.
I fought with him over going to
Africa, says Cleve Sellers.
I thought we needed someone here to
talk about the connectedness. But SNCC was dying, the FBI was tracking
him everywhere, and we had all gone through 10 years with no break and
though nobody likes to admit it, you had to take your behind somewhere
just to think.
There’s more to it than that, argues Courtland Cox remembering
his discussions with Kwame.
After his trip to Africa he realized
that a lot of the forces you were up against were global. And being in
Africa with Nkrumah and Sekou Ture (President of Guinea), allowed him
to function at that level. And as for why Nkrumah would ask
someone from the United States to be his political secretary, in
a lot of the political dynamism was coming out of
the states. They were looking at us. [Tanzania’s] President
Nyerere allowed me to organize the 6th Pan Africanist Congress. I was
even able to speak at the O.A.U.
Kwame’s own explanation embraces all of these political
You never know what America does to you before you get
outside of it. My being in Africa is logical. SNCC had a deep
relationship with Africa. One man one vote comes out of
Africa. Lowndes County and the increased number of Black elected
officials around the country represent change, but not qualitative
change. A child learning to count from one to ten and then to 100
represents progress, but until he knows how to multiply or divide
he’s only made quantitative progress. We have mayors and
congressmen now, but what’s been the qualitative effect?
Conditions for the masses of our people are worse than before.
Nonetheless says Michael Thelwell echoing the view of many admirers:
His being in Africa is a tragic loss.
Well aware of criticism that being in Africa is a waste of his time,
Kwame points to his travels and lectures inside the United
It’s a process of education. In America for us, the
ideological struggle is the crucial struggle. It’s just that
Africa is the primary reality; not the sole reality, but a land base
offers us the best security as a people. Where are we going to find
Sometimes the old loose Stokely seems to have been completely consumed
by the ideological Kwame. But this Stokely-now-Kwame who stormed the
barricades in the 1960s is on a kind of intellectual train, says
It’s his way of trying to get somewhere,
to truth, to justice, to anti-imperialism, whatever...to go
And there’s the cancer-advanced prostate cancer that’s
spread and causes constant pain between his knees and pelvic
joints. His ankles are swollen. It’s slowed down his body.
a scale of 10 mine is 7-what they called ’a killer
one.’ He’s undergone chemotherapy, unusual for
prostate cancer. At a Washington, D.C. holistic health center
he’s offered a wheelchair but refuses it. He does accept the arm
and shoulder of a friend to assist him in climbing up the
center’s steep stairs, which seems some kind of symbolic
metaphor. Friends have established a medical fund, for he has neither
money nor insurance.
But he has no regrets. Money and material wealth have never been priorities, he says.
The movement made me distrust money anytime too much of it was
offered me. The important aspect of SNCC was that you had to depend on
the people. Learning that has saved me, keeps me going. You
can’t serve two masters: money and the people.
He tires easily. During an interview he asks to stretch out on a
Not to sleep, just to rest a little. When he wakes up he
This cancer really exhausts you. But then he laughs,
loudly like the old Stokely, picking up and taking pleasure in the
exchange of political ideas and shared memories. Asked about his name,
the laughter gets louder even though politics is laced throughout his
Well Nkrumah and Ture didn’t always agree. And
sometimes I got caught in the middle. After Nkrumah died I was
bringing up one of his points one day when President Ture said:
’You always take the old man’s side, why don’t you
take his name.’ What will be my second name? I
asked. ’It’ll be Ture,’ he told me. That’s who
you are, Kwame Ture.’ I thought Kwame Nkrumah might be turning
over in his grave; the last name is always the most important.
But there’s challenge in his laughter too.
The masses of our
people are ready for struggle. It’s the intelligencia who are
not ready. And who knows whether history isn’t on his
side. Its been on his side before.