Peniel E. Joseph’s newly published biography of Black liberation activist Stokely Carmichael not only takes its rightful place next to Taylor Branch’s epic trilogy The King Years, but also to one of the most powerful autobiographies by any American: Stokely Carmichael’s own Ready For Revolution. Although Ready for Revolution is more emotionally cathartic, what Joseph’s book lacks in emotion he makes up in detail and research. Together, the two books add uncountable wealth to the story of Stokely Carmichael and US civil rights movement history.
Carmichael was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an interracial student organization dedicated to ending legal apartheid in the United States and empowering African-Americans through voter registration, education and organization. Like the slightly older, slightly less radical Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) identified with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., most of SNCC’s best known work took place in the United States’ South. Young men and women lived, organized and marched through Delta towns in Mississippi and country hamlets in Alabama (along with much of the rest of the South), facing down virulent racists bearing guns, wearing hoods and police uniforms, and spewing hatred.
Carmichael joined SNCC while a college student at Washington DC’s Howard University. Once on board, he never looked back. According to Joseph, Carmichael was a natural organizer and leader. His charismatic presence, easy interactions with all kinds of people and his natural intelligence were all ingredients of his persona that pushed him into the national spotlight by his early twenties. Often playing (consciously or not) the militant to Dr. King’s assumed moderation, the two men and their organizations forged a new era in the struggle for Black freedom in the US.
Stokely: A Life details the personal relationship between King and Carmichael, drawing a portrait of a friendship behind the headlines that strengthened as the decade of the 1960s raged on. It was a relationship that broadened both men’s understanding of history, politics and the human condition. As the book progresses, one sees King becoming not only more radical in his understanding of the US system of domination thanks in part to Carmichael’s friendship; King’s deeper understanding of humanity also seems to affect Carmichael. This relationship is but one of the threads running through this well-told biography.
Of course, that relationship was ended on April 4, 1968 when King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I recall seeing live television feed of Carmichael in Washington DC that night shouting something and waving a gun. I always wondered about that image. As it turns out, Joseph tells the reader, Carmichael had just taken that gun from a young Black man whose anger had exploded. He was part of a group of individuals walking through the DC ghettoes with Carmichael and other radicals telling storeowners to close. While most storekeepers heeded the request and Carmichael tried to keep angry citizens from breaking windows, those efforts were in vain. Washington, DC burned for seven days along with dozens of other US cities.
The incident is emblematic of the political/social rage of the time. It is even more descriptive of how the media portrayed radicals like Carmichael. All too often they ignored words and efforts of these organizers, choosing instead to quote them out of context and show footage without explanation. Of course, those images and quotes played into white people’s fears and, at the same time, represented the racial fears of many news correspondents. Joseph’s book does a fairly good job of providing the truth about several such instances surrounding Carmichael.
Stokely Carmichael is probably best known for his championing of the Black Power trend in the movement for Black freedom. Joseph’s book frames most of Carmichael’s work and writings with this in mind. He discusses, albeit briefly, the popularization of the slogan for the first time in Mississippi during a voter registration drive. It was Carmichael (as the newly elected president of SNCC) and his closest confidantes (among them Cleve Sellers) who unleashed the slogan, explaining that it wasn’t anti-white but was an insistence that the only way Black people would achieve justice in the United States was by taking power, not by asking the racist system to give them some. The slogan struck fear in the hearts of white America–fear fanned by the media and politicians who feared the Black vote. It also gave African-Americans a new sense of pride and a certain sense that they had power; they merely needed to organize it.
Peniel relies on numerous interviews, FBI surveillance records, oral histories, books, newspapers and other media to tell his story. For the most part, this serves him well. However, as almost any researcher knows, all sources have their shortcomings. FBI records not only represent a certain bureaucratic and law enforcement take on their subject matter but also reflect the individual agent’s own prejudices. Oral histories and interviews rely on memory and the interviewee’s sense of importance. Mainstream media sources have their own agenda. Overall, Joseph blends the information from his sources with his own understanding of the history he is writing to create a rounded, political and personal portrait of a figure often misunderstood by historians. If there is one shortcoming to this text, it would be in Joseph’s description of Black Panther activities and interactions with SNCC and Carmichael. The author tends to oversimplify the politics of the Black Panthers and dismiss their Marxism as dogmatic and superficial. In addition, in mentioning the murder of Black Panther Bobby Hutton by Oakland Police, Joseph regurgitates The New York Times version of the event–a version seemingly taken directly from a police press release that mischaracterizes the Panther‘s role in keeping the lid on riots in Oakland after King’s murder. To say the least, that particular incident remains disputed at best.
Politically speaking, Peniel Joseph seems to understand and support Carmichael’s Pan-Africanism, at least to a point. After Carmichael moved to Guinea and adopted Nkrumahism as his political philosophy, his anti-communist tendencies tempered. According to Joseph, so did Carmichael’s radical democratic tendencies, which he replaced with Nkrumah’s African socialism. Carmichael also changed his name to Kwame Toure. This political maturation is discussed in the text, but not necessarily in the context of Carmichael’s previous understanding. Always a staunch anti-imperialist, but never a Marxist, Carmichael seemed to mix and match his political philosophies to create a stew that helped him understand the situation of his people and move them forward. If one were to place him in the context of the period, the best comparison would be the movement of non-aligned nations. This was an international movement of nations and national liberation movements opposed to US imperialism but not wishing to align themselves with the Soviet Union or its sphere of influence.
Stokely: A Life is a quality read. By highlighting the life of one of the US civil rights/black liberation most important organizers and thinkers, Peniel E. Joseph has done a great service to history and to the people Stokely fought for. Furthermore, Peniel’s text has lifted Carmichael out of an obscurity he not only didn’t deserve, but which also prevented a more complete understanding of a man who, with Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr., deserves to be recognized as one of the great leaders of one of the greatest grassroots movements for liberation in history: the Black freedom struggle in the United States.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.