Stokely: A Life by Peniel Joseph

Summary: A biography of a young civil rights icon who called for ‘Black Power’.¬†

After reading Peniel Joseph’s excellent joint biography of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, I picked up his biography of Stokely Carmichael, mostly because it was on sale (as of posting, it is still $3.49). I had heard of the name of Stokely Carmichael, but little else. Like many, his is an incredible story.

It is hard to get over how young he was for the main part of his civil rights career. He started working nearly full time as a civil rights activist through NAG (during the school year at Howard) and for SNCC during the summers in Mississippi and Alabama. He was first arrested during the Freedom Rides before he turned 20. At Howard, he was mentored by Bayard Rustin and many of his professors, including Toni Morrison, who later became his editor.

After graduating in 1964, he moved to Mississippi and began working on voting rights projects through SNCC. He quickly became the project director in Mississippi and then in 1965 moved to Lowndes County Alabama. It was during this point when his organization started using a black panther as its mascot. Only a year later, Stokely Carmichael, at just 25, became the head of SNCC.

Carmichael was clearly a gifted speaker and organizer. He kept SNCC funded primarily through his speaking fees. Because he was dependent on those fees to pay the staff and fund the organizing, Stokely spent a lot of time speaking at predominately White colleges which could afford higher fees. The struggle to fund black-led organizations is not new and even for someone known for his Black power stance he faced the struggle of both a desire to work with Whites and a desire to be a Black-led and Black-oriented organization.

A number of issues led to his short tenure. There was a struggle to keep SNCC oriented toward a unified goal during an era of changing priorities in the Civil Rights movement. He also does not seem to have been a great administrator and his fame and name recognition also created both opportunities, jealousy, and self-centeredness.

At the same time, the FBI targeted him in their COINTELPRO operation. His outspokenness against the Vietnam war, which was earlier than most in the Civil Rights movement, was controversial inside and outside of SNCC. After the end of his time at SNCC, he moved toward the Black Panther Party. Within a year of leaving SNCC, MLK, Jr. was assassinated, Black Panthers were strained, both because of ideological difference and because of problems with FBI informants. Carmichael began spending more time out of the country visiting Africa and becoming more oriented toward the pan-African movement. Fred Hampton and other Black Panthers were killed by police in 1969 and Carmichael from that point primarily lived outside of the US.

In 1968 he married Miriam Makeba, a well-known singer, songwriter, and actress. Their marriage alienated her White audience which made their move to Africa less financially harmful since her audience was now largely in Africa. They divorced in 1974.

While Carmichael continued to speak and write and influence those in the US, his connections to increasingly authoritarian African leaders left him alienated from many. He helped to found the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, changed his name to Kwame Ture and continued to work toward pan-African freedom.

Kwame Ture died of cancer in 1998 at the age of 57. Most of the last 30 years were far less influential than his very active and influentials 20s.

Peniel Joseph is not writing hagiography, Carmichael was brilliant, talented, and flawed. He was at times known as ‘Starmichael’ because of his ego while at SNCC. At the same time, he expanded the work on the civil rights movement, brought attention to the Vietnam war as an aspect of the civil rights movement, and drew together organizers in a variety of movements to work together. But also ended up driving some away with his radical rhetoric.

Stokely: A Life filled in a lot of holes in my civil rights era knowledge as well as highlighted the importance of both shared ideology and methodology while organizing and the importance of working across lines for shared goals.

Stokely: A Life by Peniel Joseph Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

Leave a Comment