Today’s Love: Happy 70th Birthday, Stokely Carmichael

Over a dozen years after his death, his legacy lives on.

By Channing Kennedy Jun 29, 2011

Stokely Carmichael, the activist who coined the terms ‘black power’ and ‘institutional racism,’ was born on this day in 1941, in Port of Spain, Trinidad. He moved to New York City at age 11 and was on track to become a great academic — but at age 19, he said, he saw photos of the lunch-counter protests and was changed forever.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know much about Carmichael’s life or work until relatively recently. But I can also understand why my white midwestern schools didn’t include him in the history textbooks. Watching his speeches today, seeing him as a brilliant, educated young black orator barely out of his teens, who could command crowds from a podium or command a news cycle from a prison cell — well, he must have scared the pants off of people, in ways Dr. King never did. And indeed, he clashed with King over the limits of nonviolence, and he clashed with the Black Panthers over the need for separatism; in 1969, he moved to Guinea and left the American movements behind.

In the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of seeing two excellent new documentaries that address his impact on the movement: Freedom Riders, which revisits the violence-plagued student protests of the segregated South, and The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which contains some of the only non-speech footage of Carmichael. A scene in which he interviews his own mother for a news camera, patiently pushing her until she describes institutional racism’s influence over her life’s struggles, will be with me for a very long time.

Back in May on these pages, Reniqua Allen wrote a state-of-the-movement of black power, looking at Carmichael’s legacy in the light of the modern struggle. Setting the scene, she writes of the movement’s origins:

The black power movement rose to prominence as a counterpoint to engagement with the mainstream political institutions of America, particularly electoral politics. Student activist Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, popularized the political label "Black Power" in 1966, saying it was time for black people to unite and build their own communities. "The concept of Black Power rests on a fundamental premise: Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks," wrote Ture and co-author Charles Hamilton in a seminal 1967 political treatise.

Ture and Hamilton went on to explain how self-determination and self-definition are essential prerequisites to revolution–and they did mean revolution, not merely change. The movement was often considered separatist and anti-white, but its adherents insisted it was just pro-black.

"We shall have to struggle for the right to create our own terms through which to define ourselves and our relationship to the society, and to have those terms recognized," Ture and Hamilton wrote. "This is the first necessity of a free people, and the first right that any oppressor must suspend."

Carmichael died of cancer on November 15, 1998, in Guinea. He was 57. In 2007, CIA documents were released that showed that they had been surveilling him since 1968.

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