I still love Frantz Fanon’s opening line from his chapter “On National Culture” in his classic The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin, 1967): “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.” From the time that Stokely Carmichael voiced the term “Black Power” in 1966, there was a shift from an older Civil Rights Movement to a Black Power Movement and a generation of activism to which many of us happily belonged. This was the movement that ushered in more confidence in personal representation, demand for more access to university education for masses of Black students, a Black Studies curriculum, Black Arts Movement an international, global sense of pride in music, art, fashion, political advancement; above all self-determination. Yes, there were overlaps but there was/is a Black Power Movement which echoes again today in Black Lives Matter activism. The difference today is that the latter was launched by Black Women. But Black Power (or the critique of the absence thereof) remains the core of all Black struggle.
While the Civil Rights generation, to which John Lewis belonged, created the framework to challenge oppression in Gandhi-like non-violence, it had to agree to accept a great deal of brutality, still captured in those black and white photographs of dogs tearing at people’s legs, hoses at full blast pinning people against the wall or tearing of the clothes of women or having them rolling in fear on sidewalks at this brutality, buses of freedom riders set on fire and a general unleashing of southern terror. But it also created the possibilities of access that many assume today, even when eating in five and dime store restaurants are no longer available or desirable; the civil rights they fought for are given, though some gains have been lost. This is Stokely Carmichael at age 19, still a Howard University student who took a course which Toni Morrison taught, being arrested in Jackson, Mississippi.
I listened to a Question and Answers program with John Lewis on PBS after his last book was published and when asked about Stokely Carmichael who did non-violent Freedom Rides as a Howard student and was arrested as the above indicates as early as 1961, what he ventured was that Stokely never accepted the idea of non-violence in his core. This is an important distinction. It still pains to look at John Lewis being brutalized or those policemen trampling over human beings, cracking skulls and damaging some for life. But this philosophically is what allowed them to claim the moral high ground. In fact, I have heard Stokely talk about this violence from which he himself suffered and one of his quips was that MLK may have been non-violent but often there were people around him armed to protect him as he ventured into the most dangerous places in the south.
Stokely, born in the Caribbean, and with a different urban orientation could never fully accept a model in which being beaten over the head and not being able to do anything about it was the standard. He was not the only one who felt like that. Indeed the former had to be almost a quasi-religious commitment. In this way, he, like many in the Black Power generation, favored more the more assertive position of Malcolm X who voiced the impossibility of adopting abuse as a precondition to freedom. The difference is that Rep. John Lewis had longevity and the same state has now to turn around and recognize his contribution as they did leading up to and in his passing. These are different models of struggle (domestic and international) and not always local and oppositional.
Stokely for his part describes the progressive movement away from the passive resistance model in a chapter called “The Great Leap Forward: The Freedom Rides” in his autobiography, Ready for Revolution (2003). This is how he describes John Lewis who preceded him as leader of SNCC: “That evening was my first meeting of John Lewis, and like everyone else in SNCC, I was overwhelmed by his courage, his quiet determination, his conviction in the rightness of the cause. He was a seminary student, if not already a minister, always soft-spoken, and dressed in a suit in the cut of a Martin Luther King. I was extremely proud of John as our chairman and representative (182).” He goes onto describe the various movements they would take as Freedom Riders and John Lewis speech at the March on Washington which “SNCC had carefully put together to accurately reflect our experience” (332). What I find useful is that they never spoke ill of each other. The unfolding of that event is already known: That John Lewis was made to edit his speech to fit with the whole “dream” ethos of the March. But it is precisely this which ushered Lewis into being the Congressman of the ‘good trouble’ with the support of liberal politicians who would attempt to separate him out from the Black Power Movement at his funeral. Funerals are precisely where these myths are concretized and this is what Clinton was doing, simultaneously, still attacking Black Power Movement and Stokely who had long moved on to embrace his African Diaspora Citizenship and thereby a larger black internationalist belonging. The attempt in that domestic assessment was to limit that largeness and to also create a dated and uninformed opposition between the “good negro” and the “bad negro” by dominant white society, an approach which runs throughout the history of plantation slavery (plantation capitalism according to Rev. Lawson) and into the present. There is a large library on this period which Clinton may well read if he ever wants to speak on a field he has not studied. And the American tendency to see only the individual leader and not the movement prevails.
When Stokely, then a twenty-five year old, voiced “Black Power” the concept documented well in the book Black Power by Carmichael and Hamilton (1968), as the then leader of SNCC in 1966 at a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi, he indicated that he began to be the subject of an ongoing attack from media and government as he was representing the movement’s shifting position. This is because the state-led attack on Black Power Movements was precisely what Clinton was voicing. The point is that the “Black Power” call terrified the dominant society, and simultaneously made Stokely and many of his colleagues the object of government actions like COINTELPRO and a series of media recognitions but also harassments. This would follow him throughout his life as he and his family testify. And definitely the more conservative Black power structures did not like or were worried for or scared of this more assertive Black presence. Still, Black Power is the phrase that has so far accompanied a range of international movements for black empowerment all over the world.
It is interesting that the call for “Self Determination in the Black Belt” an affirmative “Black Power” call had already been voiced by black left activists from the 1920s onwards. Claudia Jones had even written an essay titled as such in 1946 (See Beyond Containment, 60-70). So Stokely’s voicing Black Power has a long history of Black resistance which garnered immediate support with numerous reverberations across the African world. So, there was also a Black Power Movement in the Caribbean which Walter Rodney describes well in The Groundings with My Brothers (1969/Verso, 2019) as there was in Canada, England and other European centers and everywhere. In his “Black Power, A Basic Understanding” Walter Rodney says: “The present Black Power movement in the United States is a rejection of hopelessness and the policy of doing nothing to halt the oppression of blacks by whites. It recognizes the absence of Black Power, but is confident of the potential of Black power on this globe…. “Black Power as a slogan is new, but it is really an ideology and a movement of historical depth (14-15).”
And this is precisely the contribution of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) as he moved to Guinea to work with Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure and founded the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party which includes an All-African Women’s Revolutionary Union. https://aaprp-intl.org/the-all-african-womens-revolutionary-union/ In that context he expanded his credentials and personal domestic limitations, becoming an international political figure who met with all world political leaders of stature from Fidel Castro to Yasser Arafat. (See the forthcoming Becoming Kwame Toure (2020). But he was already diasporically international, even before that, having been born in Trinidad to what he describes as a Pan-Caribbean family and then migrating to New York. He rejected by his very presence the idea that Caribbeans were not active in African American struggles for emancipation. He recognized Southern culture as having some intrinsic Caribbean components, but saw these as threads which run through the Black cultural experience at the time. He saw his place as absolutely in solidarity with the Black US experience and then he took it globally, refusing to accept that the US was the only site for political action. For him the South and Guinea had a lot in common; here were family too. This is why today, we recognize Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) pan-Africanist revolutionary figure of Black movement. Already honored in Trinidad and Tobago, his birthplace by the Emancipation Support Committee in a heroic return visit in 1996, we recognize the contributions of an amazing orator, philosopher, activist, Black internationalist and one of the leading figures of the Black world who refused the separations that many attempt to institute between African peoples globally. Here is a man, a world historical figure, an international icon whose work and stature can never be taken away as we continue to love and respect all the contributions and self-denials that allow some of us to now to access the benefits (including the personal and economic reparations) owed by those who assumed we would not claim anything.
*Author’s note: I wrote this following former President Bill Clinton’s statement at the funeral of Congressman John Lewis, when he made comments, in the sacred space of the Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, which tried to enshrine a split within SNCC in which the radical wing which Stokely Carmichael embodied was disparaged in favor of a more conservative model represented by John Lewis. Clinton missed the idea that there are always these tendencies in Black politics, between a conservative approach and a more radical approach to the Black condition. There were always those like Stokely who refused to accept that being brutalized was a precondition to getting acceptance by white society or the good funeral according to Buchi Emecheta. I felt moved to write this while locked down for an impending hurricane in Miami, August 1, 2020, and because it was Emancipation Day when slavery was abolished in the English-speaking Caribbean even though there was Apprenticeship afterwards. But above all because Stokely is still a Caribbean and Black radical global icon, this is offered in the spirit of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song: “How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?” Black Freedom Movements continue.
Carole Boyce Davies (Prof CBD)
Follow me on Twitter at @Ca_Rule