Stokely Carmichael and Black Power

stokeley carmichael

Stokeley Carmichael at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theater, October 29, 1966

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. At the end of June, 1964, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., and hundreds of civil rights activists marched across Mississippi to register African-American voters in one of the turning points of the civil rights movement. In remembrance of that “Freedom Summer,” we’re republishing our show with the Carmichael biographer Peniel Joseph, historian Isabel Wilkerson, and activist Jamarhl Crawford.
Stokely Carmichael was a down-home organizer and radical off-beat visionary of racial equality in America 50 years ago, a quicksilver activist, theorist, street hero, preacher and prophet of black revolution in America and the world.  He’s in the civil rights pantheon, for sure, but he’s still struggling in spirit with the leadership, especially the example of Martin Luther King; and he’s still a scarecrow in the memory of white America.   Stokely Carmichael had some of Malcolm X’s fury and fire, and some of the comedian Richard Pryor’s gift with a punchline, too.  “Black power” was his slogan that became a chant, that built his bad-boy celebrity and awakened a political generation but may also have been his undoing in the 1960s.  So what does a half-century’s hindsight make of the man and his Pan-African vision?  And while we’re at it: what would Stokely Carmichael make of black power today – looking at Hollywood, Hip Hop,  the White House, and prisons and poverty?

Reading List

  • Stokely Carmichael, “What We Want,” from The New York Review of Books (1966):

An organization which claims to speak for the needs of a community, as does the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, must speak in the tone of that community, not as somebody else’s buffer zone. This is the significance of black power as a slogan. For once, black people are going to use the words they want to use, not just the words whites want to hear. And they will do this no matter how often the press tries to stop the use of the slogan by equating it with racism or separatism.

  • Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, the bible of the movement, by Carmichael (under his African name, Kwame Ture) and Charles Hamilton;
  • Peniel Joseph talks about his new biography with the Boston Globe, and presents a helpful introduction to Carmichael’s life and legacy at The Root;
  • Two of Jamarhl Crawford’s contributions to the discussion: a speech to Occupy Boston from 2011, and Blackstonian’s ongoing reporting on shootings in the city;
  • Two great films — the episode on the classic series Eyes on the Prize given to the March Against Fear in 1966, and the more recent Black Power Mixtape.

Related Content

  • nother

    “Black Power” relative to what? Relative to black power fifty years ago, or relative to white power today? I’d argue that there is black influence – mostly cultural – but “black power” is a misnomer.

    There are seven Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, accounting for a little over one percent of all Fortune 500 CEOs. Only one of those CEO’s is a woman, Ursula Burns of Xerox.

    There are three black male U.S. Senators, two of them were appointed not elected. There have only ever been nine African American U.S. Senators and only one was a woman.

    • Kate McShane

      I love you, Garrett. I agree wholeheartedly: black power is a misnomer.

      You don’t have to agree with anything else I say. These are just some of my thoughts on the state of things now with Barack Obama with respect to his (lack of) help for black people. First of all, I don’t really get how Obama’s power is black power. I get that it’s power, alright, but it’s power to the military, the NSA, the rich. Until the other day, he hadn’t done a damn thing for black people — now he has raised, relatively a drop in the bucket, $200 million, for the Brother’s Keeper program. I heard Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks recently say that black people will be the last people to receive any help from Barack Obama, because they support him more than any other group of people, and he doesn’t help anyone who does support him. He came out for gay marriage because gay men were 20% of his bundlers in the last election.
      In 1969 in Philadelphia, you could walk into a mainstream bookstore and find many books by black revolutionaries, black power members, and weeks out of the convent I found that bookstore downtown. I bought so many of those books and read them (and eventually gave them to a black teenager in Boston in the early 1980s, because he’d never heard of Stokley Carmichael). Good luck finding even a decent independent bookstore now, let alone one with books on display that were written by black revolutionaries. We don’t need them anymore — we have a black president and racism doesn’t exist.

    • Robert W Peabody III

      Nike is rated 136 on the Fortune 500. Let’s make the CEO a black guy for the sake of discussion.
      Would an inner city kid facing a life decision be able to dial him up and ask: Look I want a pair of Nikes but I have no money. I can get money by being a lookout for a local drug gang, what should I do?
      If the CEO sends him a pair of sneakers, every kid in the country will be calling. That is a moral hazard for the company.
      The problem is consumerism: the corruption of values for reasons of social status.
      Harry Lennix wants to know what can be done today. What can black CEOs do today? What can Nike do today?

      Stokely contributed a significant awareness but he could not have foreseen that the institutions of his day would be turned inside out, such that people would be their own worst enemy.

      The revolution is being televised …..on YouTube.

  • mary

    Hey nother and Kate, any interest in either calling into the show on Thursday night or leaving a message on our voicemail we can play during the program? We love your comments; we’d love to hear your voice, too!

    • Kate McShane

      Mary, I don’t know very much about Stokely Carmichael. I know he said, “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.” (although I’ve read he wasn’t like that and actually supported women in SNCC) What do you want me to say when I call — or what do you want me to talk about? And what is the number? And when do I need to call, what is the deadline?

      • Robert W Peabody III

        Well, he was briefly married to Miriam Makeba, who was not likely to be ‘prone’ to anything – including apartheid.

        • Kate McShane

          I meant that as a joke. I’ve read that many women in SNCC said he wasn’t like that at all. (Just in case you thought I meant it as a criticism). In the late 60s-early 70s, the remark was ascribed to Eldridge Cleaver in one publication.

  • mary

    Call and leave a message to be used on the show!
    (deadline is 5pm Thursday)
    (617) 353-0692

    This week we’re talking about Black Power — slogan and reality and biography of the fiery and charismatic Stokely Carmichael. In your own terms, fifty years after the Stokely moment, where’s black power today?

  • Mark Aisenberg

    Black power today is not pushed forward by fiery leaders. It is dispersed, and in the air and water. Young people are very much more relaxed than their elders about racial differences, and interracial dating is common.

    In the past, as the Irish, Jews, Italians, and others “became white”, African-Americans remained “the other”. I sense now that, as gays and Asians are being mainstreamed in America, African-Americans are progressing along with them, no longer being left behind. And as the economy punishes the middle class across the board, poverty and social welfare programs are less perceived as primarily the province of the African-Americans (which was always inaccurate anyway).

    There is still a ways to go. But I sense that the genie is out of the bottle, due in part to the efforts of Black leaders of the past, and progress is now seen as a natural, nearly sure, thing.

  • Robert W Peabody III

    Actor Harry Lennix in an interview with Tavis Smiley February 25, 2014 :

    “We’re in that present and we need to concern ourselves with right now.”

    Lennix: I’m talking about “12 Years,” I’m talking about “The Butler,” I’m talking about “The Help,” I’m talking about all this retrograde, retrogressive necrophilia which is of no use to us right now.
    That was a long time ago. Those people were not helped by, in any great measure, by the people who represented dramatically their – I don’t know what I’m going to learn from any of those things.

    I haven’t seen them because there’s nothing I can take away from it except for humiliation and anger. So I think that what we need to do is – I’m not talking about sanitizing history.

    I think history is history, that’s great. If people learn from it, I’m all for it. If they learn from “12 Years,” as I say, I’m sure it’s very good, or “The Butler” or any of the other movies, then God bless them, God bless the movies.
    But there’s nothing that I could take away from it. I think that to continue to throw awards at these things only encourages people to continue living their lives in the past while the present is slipping away.
    I think that that’s where we really need – the future is not here. The past is gone. There’s this great quote by John Lewis Gaddis, where he says, “The present is a singularity from where you have to fuse the continuity as a contingency.”
    We’re in that present and we need to concern ourselves with right now, because right now, things are bleak. I don’t think things are better now than they were in the 1960s as a whole.

  • Floyd Wilkes

    Mary, a point of interest: Marshal “Eddie” Conway was released from prison yesterday after serving 44 years. He mentions Stokely in his appearance today on DemocracyNow! Perhaps sounding him out for his perspective would add an interesting dimension to this program?

    • Kate McShane

      That interview was wonderful. Maybe you could interview him on the phone. Or do another show with him.

  • Kate McShane

    If you haven’t read it already, on, there is a letter written by a man named Ray Jasper who will be put to death in days. He never killed anyone, but like so many black men in Texas jails, he witnessed someone kill a man: that man is doing life, but Ray was given death for being with him. He was 19. He wrote this letter, in which he discusses what has been happening to black men for many decades — he says that when he went into prison, he thought he’d gone to Africa because there were more black men than he’d ever seen in one place. He talks about the laws that have enabled this and he says that people can vote for these laws, because they have no empathy. “Empathy breeds proper judgment. Sympathy breeds sorrow. Contempt breeds arrogance….Empathy gives you an inside view. It doesn’t say, ‘If that was me…’, empathy says ‘That is me.’

    When I look at Washington, D.C. I see many, many men and women who have no empathy. That’s a hallmark of narcissism. You recognize them by their contempt for human beings, by chronic lying, by an absolute inability to feel compassion (although some of them try to imitate compassion).

    You could say they started with black people, but eventually their plan includes the rest of us who are not rich, who cannot pay them off. And that’s not a conspiracy theory — there are plenty of statistics to back it up. As Martin Niemoller wrote: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Socialist./ Then they came for the Trade Unionists/and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist./Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew./Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

  • Kate McShane

    It sounds like a vicious murder to me, as well. I didn’t see that admission in Jasper’s letter, and maybe I’m still missing it, but I looked over the letter after I read your comment and I didn’t find it. I did find it in the victim’s brother’s letter. It was one of the most vicious murders I’ve ever read about.

    I thought Jasper’s letter was still extremely moving, but it bothers me that he didn’t admit what he had done. I can’t imagine stabbing anyone, and certainly not cutting someone’s throat. In his letter, he seemed to have an open heart, and I certainly don’t know what he went through after he was incarcerated, but he sounded like someone who had grown spiritually after he was convicted. Still, the fact that he didn’t include so many details of the murder, makes me wonder who he really is. Is he dealing at all with the fact that he, personally, cut Alejandro’s throat?

    I will always be against the death penalty. It feels as abhorrent to me as the murder of David Alejandro.

    For me, this does not change my beliefs about what this country has done to black people, in general, over the last three and half decades. We have created this society, the one we have now.

    • Kate McShane

      Kunal — Of course, the relentless harassing of civil rights leaders by the FBI is an important element of the story. ABSOLUTELY. I hope the message I left on Radioopensource (voice mail) makes that clear. I. F. Stone said, “Governments lie.” And that was just the beginning.

      Human beings, apparently, believe they need an authority figure. Part of making our way on this earth involves learning that the only authority we need is within each of us. Choosing an authority figure that lies compounds the problem.

      In studying, lately, mysticism and healing, I learned that not distinguishing the lies from truth and/or not being able to tell the truth keeps us from healing. And lying, for all intents and purposes, has become part of the American culture, more than ever in the last 35 years. For instance, from what we’ve heard that is public racism, many people don’t know what racism is. Their spirits know, but their personalities insist on lying about it, — which brings me to another quote from Stokely Carmichael: “The society either pretends it does not know about (racism) or is in fact incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.”

  • Potter

    I think black power has to come from inside a person…. it radiates out. I notice it comes in flavors, benevolent and not so benevolent ( I can’t think of the right word- angry?).

    Racism is a very strong instinct in us. I notice it in little kids. It seems to me that people have a moral responsibility to work on themselves.

    Black people came here (were brought here) and suffered under slavery like no other immigrants; they were traumatized. The cycle of disadvantage continued and still continues (the NYTimes did series on “Dasani” for example to make this point). Blackness cannot be hidden. And depression is passed on from one generation to another.

    But I still think that black power comes primarily from inside a person, how one thinks of him/herself. My own reaction to it is very positive.

    I also believe ( as Mark above) we have improved as a result of these two-pronged (internal/external-person/society) changes. It is slow. Poverty and disadvantage, depression and anger that can go with it are afflictions. The prison issue is connected to that. And connected to that is the argument over affirmative action.

    We have black immigrants from Africa in our area, Ghana etc, and what they project is very different:self-confidence, willingness to interface. Is the difference history?

  • Robert W Peabody III

    Peniel Joseph:
    Stokely Carmichael had the clarity to see through his anger that racism was institutionalized – a key concept in understanding racism in America.
    He died at age 57 from cancer “given to me by forces of American imperialism”. My question: if he was alive today, would he have mellowed?

    Jamarhl Crawford:
    Why are there no women on the Blackstonian team?
    All the profile pics are angry looking young men except for the food guy, which makes sense – who wants angry food?
    Also, I noted the Blackstonian score card: black Boston police 25% ; black population of Boston 2010 @ 24 %
    Is that working out or is the dynamic the same, police vs community ?

  • Kate McShane

    Wonderful quote from Stokely Carmichael: “This country is a nation of thieves. It stole everything it has, beginning with black people. The American Pie means …raping every country you’ve been in. I don’t want any of your blood money. I don’t want to be part of that system. We must question whether or not we want to continue being the wealthiest country in the world at the price of raping everybody else.”

    I would amend the quote: The rape began with Native Americans. Otherwise, I don’t think he needed to mellow with age. People feel more than ever that they have to adjust their beliefs and words according to what corporations and gov’t want, particularly since Barack Obama has proven worse than Bush in prosecuting truth-tellers and in his support of the NSA and GCHQ. Support of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald could save your life.

    And about Stokely’s cancer, with what some people have created in alternative medicines, i.e. energy medicine, what he said about American imperialism is not “out there.”

  • Potter

    It’s not so much about what Obama does or does not do, it’s that we elected him and this is progress. In fact I don’t think he could do much more without spoiling the new normality of that fact. But please argue it.

  • Kate McShane

    I wasn’t able to listen to your program last night. Just now I tried to listen to the recording, but it cut off a little while into it. I downloaded it, but it also cut off at around 17 minutes. A big disappointment. Is there any way you can fix this?

  • mary

    Kate, we’ve been having problems with our web server for a day or so, but on the website, anyway, the podcast seems complete. I can check on the mobile site.

    • Kate McShane

      Mary, I’m not computer-literate enough to understand what you mean — I downloaded this from the website, but it doesn’t work. I downloaded 2 other interviews today from the website and they were fine. (I don’t even know what the “mobile site” means.)

  • mary

    Hi Kate, I just tried downloading it from the site, and it worked for me. Iphone works, too. I wonder if anyone else is having this trouble. I’m sorry!

    • Kate McShane

      Don’t worry, Mary. I’ll try to listen to it on Sunday through WBUR. This isn’t the first time I’ve had this trouble, this year, but I don’t understand why some of them are fine and some of them aren’t. My computer is brand new and most of the downloads are fine. Thanks for checking it out.

  • Kate McShane

    I thought I was home free (with the stream) but I got to 39:07. Each time I have to go back to the beginning again, so I’ve heard the interview 7 times. I want to say it is one of the most wonderful interviews I’ve ever heard, but the frustration involved almost cancels out the pleasure. The only other time I’ve had trouble streaming something since I moved here was on the public television website. Now, public radio.

    • Kate McShane

      Kunal, Thanks for all your trouble. I made it to 43 minutes this time. I’m going to stop now, because I’ve reached my frustration limit. Thanks, anyway, really.

  • Potter

    Having grown up in The Bronx around the time that Stokely Carmichael was also there, I know that the Bronx High School of Science was not such an easy school to get into. So I can understand why his mother expected him to be a doctor.

    I remember hearing him and about him in the late 60’s and I have to admit that he put the scare in me too. But he was also so quite handsome in a Harry Belafonte sort of way- your guest called his looks a baby face.We were afraid of “black power” not knowing how that would manifest, afraid of the “in your face” presentation. The anger was scary. It was scary whether that would translate into violence (which it did not). Not that the anger was not warranted. We knew it was and so it was reasonable to be scared and really defenseless. And then he disappeared.

    Thank you so much for this wonderful enlightening show. And what a shame Stokely died so young.

  • chris

    From the marvelous Jamaican novelist Margaret Cezair-Thompson, a child herself of the Pan-African renaissance of thinkers and writers like George Padmore and C. L. R. James.

    Wonderful show on Stokely. Thanks for keeping him in the public’s consciousness. I remember meeting Stokely in Jamaica (my father bringing him around to the house to meet us) when I was a teen. Stokely had recently married the amazing Miriam Makeba (one of the reasons he went to live in Africa). I recall having a conversation with him about the poets of the Harlem Renaissance; he was genuinely interested in what I thought — me a mere girl of 15-16. He was never all about himself; he seemed to have time for everyone. I wish too that more people remembered Makeba — for so long she was the voice of South Africa — the only black South African voice that anyone in the West knew.

  • Potter

    Married to Miriam Makeba.. well I’ll be. Rokia Traore in a concert here in Boston a few years ago sang her song “Quit it”… listen folks, it’s marvelous.

    I started with your first link to Stokely Carmichael’s 1966 piece in the New York Review and thank you for it.

    The love we seek to encourage is within the black community, the only American community where men call each other “brother” when they meet. We can build a community of love only where we have the ability and power to do so: among blacks.

    Well, we white folks are being called “bro” and “sista” now too and it’s great.

  • Stephen Landrigan

    Many, many thanks for the discussion on Stokeley Carmichael last Thursday night. Hearing it brought so many things back, not all of them easy. The few clips of his speeches were a revelation after so many years. They are so tame. So sensible. What was the problem? I would love to hear more. In later years, as he grew increasingly frustrated and bitter and shunned, his tone for a time became shrill. But in those days when he was terrifying J. Edgar Hoover, Lyndon Johnson and many many others, he was simply saying the obvious.

    I am sorry the program, which was crammed with interesting information, did not have more time to talk about Stokely’s Trinidadian roots. I met him a couple of times when I was playing in the Trinidad and Tobago Steel Band of Washington. Some of the other guys had known him at Howard University or knew his family in Trinidad. Occasionally, when he was visiting Washington from his home at that time in Guinea, he showed up at our concerts or in the pan yard “to lime with the fellas.” He told me he loved Africa, but regretted that pan music had yet to take hold there. He missed hearing it, and calypso.

    Trinidad is the kind of place that leaves its mark on its children, even those who emigrate, as he did at age 11. It is an amazing amalgam of peoples with an attitude of cut-throat generosity coupled with a sense of urgency best expressed by ‘making shtupps’, sucking air through teeth. All that is wrapped in a religious sensibility shaped by Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Shango traditions and reinforced by a rigorous educational system.

    Stokely was baptized into a high church family at Trinity Anglican Cathedral and attended Tranquility Boys School. By the time he was in his second year at Howard, Trinidad had thrown off the British empire and had elected Dr. Eric Williams, a black man, as its first prime minister, who had once been the student of Afro-Trinidadian political theorist (and cricket expert) C.L.R. James at Port of Spain’s prestigious Queen’s Royal College. Meanwhile, a Trinidadian calling himself Michael X was proclaiming a Black Power message in London with vigorous support from John Lennon and Yoko Ono. And Guyanese historian, Dr. Walter Rodney, was espousing a Pan African socialist message from London, Dar es Salaam and in the Caribbean. Stokely’s Trinidadian perspective made all that accessible to him – in a way that it may not have been to others in the Black Power movement – and had to have shaped his thinking.

    Your guest, Isabel Wilkerson, mentioned how courteous and kindly Stokely – by then Kwame Turé – had been when she interviewed him near the end of his too short life. “Of course,” I thought to myself, “he’s a Trini. What else you expect?” Special thanks to Dr. Peniel Joseph for all the knowledge he shared on your program and for his new book on Stokely which I am eagerly looking forward to reading.

  • Fascinating Radio Open Source discussion of Stokely Carmichael and his “Black Power” analyses.
    Downstream from the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and the deaths of Martin Luther King in 1968 and Stokely Carmichael and Whitney Young before, we come to a new historical chapter with the dismissal of Andy Young as America’s UN Ambassador in August 1979, after his taboo-breaking meetings with Palestinian and PLO officials.
    “Ebony” magazine in January 1980 ran an article called “Foreign Policy, Black America and the Andy Young Affair.”
    “Foreign Policy, Black America and the Andy Young Affair”. Ebony. January 1980.
    The subtitle of the “Ebony” piece was the very intriguing sentence:
    “Controversy over resignation marked turning point in the Black presence in the world”
    The phrase “Black presence in the world” prompted me to think about the evolving pressures on and cleavages between Blacks and Jews in the then emergent world-economy and world politics and how the “geometry of coalitions” might change. The context I had in mind at the time was the interaction between Thatcherism (soon to be Reagonomics) and the MIT publication “North-South” (“Brandt Report”) about development and inequality issues globally. I was also mindful of the career of local Boston neighborhood activists such as Mel King of the “South-End Neighborhood Action Program”(SNAP) which was an outpost of the “war on poverty” and led to the publication in 1981 of his book “Circle of Change.” The question was: how would one combine local circles of change with global ones and elucidate “Ebony’s” “Black presence in the world”.
    In March 1980, I came up with the following analyses on these processes:
    It would be fascinating to hear the ROS panel on Stokely Carmichael discuss a periodization of the integration of Blacks into America as America was itself increasingly integrated into the world-economy. ie globalization. There’s a process within a process.

  • katemcshane

    This was one of the most wonderful interviews and discussions ever hosted by radioopensource. Taking part in it was sometimes a thrilling experience, always enlightening. I had missed this for years before I came back and took part. The circumstances of my life had prevented me from participating. When Mary asked Garrett and I if we would call with a statement that ROS would use in their program, (I assume, because at first you didn’t have many people commenting on this subject), I felt quite reluctant, because I am much more comfortable writing. I’m shy and it’s harder for me to speak than to write my opinion. I knew the deadline and I agonized over it, but finally, I did call and give you my opinion and I thought it was articulate and intelligent. When you didn’t use it, I didn’t complain, because I thought I would be seen as self-centered and entitled. You hurt my feelings, though, and I believe you should have treated me with a little more respect, as you should treat all the people who comment on your show and put in time and effort caring for your program.

    • Kate,
      Forgive us. You’re an important friend. You’re always articulate and intelligent, and I’m sorry we didn’t use your comment or thank you for it. Thank you for your support and I hope your understanding, too.

      • katemcshane

        Thank you, Mary. I’m sorry it took me so long to tell you how I felt, but it means a lot to me that you responded. Thanks.