William Jelani Cobb
Evolution of an activist
The New York Times, March 21, 2014
In the iconography of black American history, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. have long been understood as dueling poles of identity, one an apostle of contempt, urging a downtrodden race to renounce a nation that had rejected it, the other an exemplar of Christian idealism, committed to the redemptive power of forgiveness and common humanity. The America we inhabit now is both more socially integrated and segregated than it was in the tumultuous days in which the two men lived. A black president coexists with residential and educational patterns that are in some instances more racially separated than they were on the morning of the 1963 March on Washington. This circumstance is not entirely indicative of a failure of will. It's partly a reflection of the fact that black aspirations for equality were far more complicated than the simple Martin versus Malcolm formulation, just as each man was far more complicated than his public depiction. If those years can be understood as a sort of test, black America looked at the multiple-choice question of identity and answered yes.
It's difficult to grasp the route black America took to its present understanding of itself and its complex relationship to this country. In chronicling the life of the activist-intellectual Stokely Carmichael in “Stokely: A Life,” an insightful, highly engaging and fluently written biography, the historian Peniel E. Joseph has shed light on one crucial if largely overlooked part of that journey. In the aftermath of the assassinations of King and Malcolm X, Carmichael was understood as an heir apparent. His rhetoric midwifed the term “black power” into the lexicon, and he — lean, dark, defiantly Afroed — became the embodiment of the movement.
Carmichael appeared for a moment to have formulated the response to King's question “Where do we go from here?” That his name is far more dimly recognized now than it was during those years is a testament not solely to the effacing powers of history but also to the impact of Carmichael's own migrations, both intellectual and physical. That narrative is a compelling tale even apart from its broader implications.
Born in Trinidad in 1941, Carmichael moved to the United States at age 10. His father, Adolphus, worked as a carpenter and cabdriver, and his earnest immigrant's belief in the American dream would eventually become the foil against which the younger Carmichael defined his radicalism. After an adolescence marked by interracial friendships and academic achievement at the Bronx High School of Science, he enrolled in 1960 at Howard University, a campus that became central to the growing student movement. It was there that he took an English class taught by Toni Morrison, fell in with a group of young activists and discovered his talents as an intellectual and organizer. In Joseph's telling, Carmichael was chameleonlike, a figure who nimbly moved from debating the nuances of existentialist philosophy to endearing himself through common language to unlettered Mississippi farm workers. That skill set brought him to the fore of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — an organization he would go on to lead after defeating John Lewis, then the group's president (now a congressman).
Carmichael, like his peers at S.N.C.C., started out as a devotee of nonviolence, but bitter experience eroded his faith in the creed. As a young organizer he was fond of telling the story of Eddie Dickerson, a white man who attacked and beat him during a Maryland desegregation campaign. After viciously kicking and punching a defenseless Carmichael, he strode off, only to return hours later filled with contrition and eager to work on behalf of the movement. Nonviolence was undoubtedly capable of inspiring vast personal transformations, yet the movement was nonetheless pockmarked by encounters with people whose rage had a far longer half-life.
It fell to Carmichael and other S.N.C.C. workers to scour Mississippi backwaters in the summer of 1964, searching for the bodies of the murdered civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. A year later Jonathan Daniels, an S.N.C.C. volunteer and friend of Carmichael's, was fatally shot while trying to protect a colleague. In 1966 Sammy Younge, another close associate, was killed for using a segregated Alabama bathroom. Carmichael's work gave him a connection to King, but by mid-decade Malcolm X's ideal of black self-defense began to dominate his thinking.
Carmichael's formulation of black power, as articulated in the book of that title he wrote with Charles V. Hamilton, envisioned a kind of black pluralism that was both part of and distinct from the broader American culture. That ideal best describes the social route African-Americans followed in the ensuing years. The election of Barack Obama was indebted to the principles of both integrationism and black political autonomy.
After King's death, Carmichael quit the United States to pursue an ideology of Pan-African socialism, anticipating a revolution whose likelihood became more remote with each passing year. By the time I encountered him, when I was a student at Howard in 1991, he appeared an imposing intellect whose idealism was undimmed by years of struggle but also as a kind of set piece of '60s radicalism not entirely applicable to the circumstances that had evolved in his absence.
Joseph's perspective on this is scarcely cloaked. Choosing to title the biography “Stokely” is an implicit rejection of the phase of Carmichael's life that began when he left the United States and became Kwame Ture, adopting the names of the African heads of state Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure. Indeed, the last 30 years of his life — the years largely spent abroad before his death in 1998 — are dealt with in a single chapter and an epilogue.
There is an inescapably somber hue to that period. Black power had receded into history, and Ture found himself the guest of an increasingly authoritarian regime in Guinea. As Joseph writes of the years in exile, “This inability to confront the depredations of the governments of Guinea and other African nations with the same moral power and force that he deployed against Jim Crow in the 1960s allowed him, up until his death, to align himself with a host of authoritarian figures that the young Stokely Carmichael would have shunned.”
Carmichael was hardly the first political figure to seek aid from a regime whose own practices ran contrary to what he was fighting for — that list includes names as diverse as George Washington, Nelson Mandela and Edward Snowden. Yet the art of compromising in ways that don't ensure diminishing returns was absent from Ture's deal-making.
Despite the abundance of detail in this exhaustively researched book, a significant piece of untilled soil remains — centered on the question at the core of Carmichael's character, which powered his charisma and led him to remain abroad for three decades while womanizing so prolifically that it destroyed his marriage to the singer Miriam Makeba. That Carmichael doesn't quite emerge as a tragic figure is probably responsible for this neglect. He existed in that nebulous space between the heroic and the tragic, between those who are ahead of their times and those who are left behind. Carmichael occupied both those positions at varying points.
Still, his life, as this biography so adroitly establishes, is central to understanding the primary lesson of the 1960s for black America. It was the point at which the country came to a moral fork in the road and opted to go straight.
William Jelani Cobb