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Beyond ‘Black Power,’ recounting the under-told story of Stokely Carmichael

March 17, 2014 at 6:44 PM EDT
Stokely Carmichael marched with Martin Luther King Jr., campaigned for voting rights and against Vietnam, was a Pan-African revolutionary and coined the term "Black Power." But what's the complete story behind this leading figure of the civil rights movement? Gwen Ifill talks to Peniel Joseph of Tufts University about his new biography, "Stokely: A Life."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: a portrait of a charismatic, but divisive figure who inspired a revolution within the civil rights movement.

Gwen Ifill recently recorded this book conversation.

GWEN IFILL: Stokely Carmichael marched with Martin Luther King Jr. He campaigned for voting rights and against the Vietnam War and ultimately devoted himself to a Pan-Africanist movement that linked him to controversial leaders across that continent.

But, in most history books, he will be forever remembered as the activists who coined the term black power during years of racial turmoil in the United States.

A new biography, “Stokely: A Life,” tells a more complete story of a man who shaped the contemporary and sometimes conflicted civil rights movement. Its author is Peniel Joseph, professor of history at Tufts university.

Welcome back to the NewsHour, Peniel.

PENIEL JOSEPH, Author, “Stokely: A Life”: Thank you for having me, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: The cover of your book has a picture of Stokely with fists in the air. That’s the way people think about him. Is there more?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Oh, absolutely.

He was a young black intellectual. He was from Port of Spain, Trinidad. He moves to the Bronx when he was 10 years old. He tests into one of the best public high schools in New York City, Bronx Science, majority white, majority Jewish high school.

He has parents who are hardworking Caribbean immigrants who sort of instill in him a love for social justice and underdogs. When the sit-in movement starts in 1960, he’s a student at Howard University. And at Howard University, he really becomes one of the key activists who’s part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.

So, even before the black power speech of 1966, Stokely was a day-to-day organizer. He was a student activist. He was in Mississippi, in Alabama, so he’s a very unique individual.

GWEN IFILL: So, define what black power meant to a man raised in the country where he saw black power, teachers, doctors, political leaders all around him, and who grew up in this foment of the ’60s.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, black power for Stokely meant political self-determination. It meant that black sharecroppers, people like Fannie Lou Hamer from Mississippi, were going to be political leaders in a new world order.

He talks about in 1966 a new society has to be made in America. And for him, black sharecroppers in places like Alabama, Lowndes County, in Mississippi, in the Delta were the people who were going to lead a new transformation in American society.

GWEN IFILL: We like to put our leaders in boxes. So Malcolm X was here, Martin Luther King Jr. was here. And so where was Stokely Carmichael on that continuum?

PENIEL JOSEPH: I think Stokely is a bridge figure, and I think that Stokely fits in with Dr. King and Malcolm X as one of these key 20th century protean figures who bestrides the world stage, talking about human rights, but also pushing the envelope.

So, I think, when we think about Martin and Malcolm, Carmichael is the bridge figure between civil rights and black power. And he’s the only major black power icon who is also a civil rights activist. So he doesn’t just come into activism in the mid, late ’60s, when things get hot. He actually knew Dr. King. He marched along…

GWEN IFILL: They actually got along pretty well.

PENIEL JOSEPH: They got — they were good friends.

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Stokely cries when King is assassinated. He considers him a friend, a mentor, older brother, even a father figure.

But Stokely is also mentored by black women like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer. So he’s this very interesting figure who’s also this critic of the Vietnam War. He’s a critic of economic injustice. So black power only tells a part of the story.

GWEN IFILL: It’s interesting. Even though he was considered to be the most difficult, the most controversial of the three of them in lots of ways, he’s the only — he lived longer than either of them did and he wasn’t assassinated, like the other two.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Yes. Both King and Malcolm died at 39.

Stokely Carmichael, who becomes Kwame Ture, moves to West Africa. He goes to Guinea. And in a way, moving to West Africa, where he is this Pan-Africanist organizer and revolutionary, it dims his star wattage in the United States. Some people say, well, what happened to Stokely Carmichael?

Well, he marries Miriam Makeba, the really beautiful South African singer. He moves to West Africa. He continues to organize, but he is not organizing in the United States.

GWEN IFILL: But there’s a leap in here somewhere, going from being to an organizer in the South to suddenly being almost an expatriate in Guinea.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, it’s really based on his political experiences.

He’s organizing black folks in Mississippi in Lowndes County. He becomes this national mobilizer. But I think one of the key things that happens to him is the trip in 1967 around the world. He goes to Cuba, meets up with Fidel Castro, goes to Algeria. But in Africa, he finds his identity. He meets up Kwame Nkrumah, the deposed president of Ghana, and the president of Guinea, and Sekou Toure, the president of Guinea

And he decides on the spot he is going to return to Africa and this is going to be the base for revolution.

GWEN IFILL: Where do the Black Panthers fit in this continuum?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, he founds the first Black Panther County in Lowndes County, the Black Panther Party that starts out as a political party and inspires Huey P. Newton Bobby Seale.

He later becomes honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. And he leads the charge to free Huey P. Newton, the imprisoned minister of the defense of the BPP.

GWEN IFILL: Was there a point in time in which he transferred from being nonviolent, a Dr. King-like figure, to being violent and feeling that that was a legitimate response to injustice?

STOKELY CARMICHAEL, Civil Rights Leader: We must start to turn our backs on this country.

PENIEL JOSEPH: By the same we look at Stokely Carmichael as this black power international figure in 1967-’68, he’s talking about armed rebellion.

STOKELY CARMICHAEL: This country has never cared about black people.

PENIEL JOSEPH: And armed revolution. And it is going to take armed struggle to fulfill this Pan-African revolution.

His earlier incarnation, he believes in nonviolence as a tactic. He’s never a philosophical believer in nonviolence, but he believes it’s a tactic. And for years, he really adopts that discipline of nonviolence.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things we spent a lot time talking about last year around this table and other places was the anniversary of the March on Washington.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Was he part of that? He was quoting as calling it a middle-class picnic at one point.

PENIEL JOSEPH: He called it a middle-class picnic did, but he did help organize Mississippi activists who came to the March on Washington because he was working in Mississippi.

And this year is the 50th of the Civil Rights Act and the 50th of Freedom Summer. And Stokely Carmichael was one of the key activists and organizers of Freedom Summer. He was in the Mississippi Delta 2nd Congressional District. And when those three civil rights workers go missing, Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, Stokely and different activists go looking for them. So he’s a key activist in Freedom Summer.

GWEN IFILL: Stokely Carmichael was nothing if not charismatic and able to lead people with him, but Stokely Carmichael, Kwame Ture, how is he going to be — how should he be remembered?

PENIEL JOSEPH: I think he should be remembered as really one of the watershed figures of 20th century, this activist who believed in human rights, who really, when he was 19 years old, is arrested for the first time, one of over 40 arrests for civil rights demonstrations, puts his life on the line, puts his body on the line to try to achieve citizenship, democracy, human rights for all.

So I think it’s an incredible story about young people who persevere and believe that the United States, and really the world, could be changed.

GWEN IFILL: Certainly an undertold story.

“Stokely: A Life” is the name of the book.

Thank you, Peniel Joseph.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Thank you for having me.