History professor Dr. Peniel E. Joseph

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The African American history scholar unpacks his biography of one of the most controversial and important leaders of the civil rights movement.

A leading scholar of African American history, Peniel E. Joseph teaches at Tufts University. He's also founder of a growing subfield that he characterizes as "Black Power Studies," which is actively rewriting post-war American and African American history and related interdisciplinary fields. He's a frequent commentator on civil rights, race and democracy issues, and his essays have appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications. An award-winning author, Joseph's latest text is an authoritative portrait of Stokely Carmichael—a man whose uncompromising vision provoked a national reckoning on race and democracy.



Tavis: Did I just see Stokely Carmichael say, “All the scared niggers are dead” with Dr. King standing next to him?

Dr. Peniel E. Joseph: Yes. (Laughter)

Tavis: That was a clip of Stokely Carmichael making one of his galvanizing speeches. He was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, first as a Freedom Rider and then as chairman of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In fact, he was arrested 27 times for his civil rights activities.

Carmichael’s life is now finally the subject of a masterful biography. It’s called “Stokely, A Life,” by award-winning writer Peniel E. Joseph, professor of history and founding director of the Center for Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University. Dr. Joseph, good to have you on this program.

Joseph: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: Let me go back to where I just started, because I suspect that clip, which I of course have seen a few times, but I suspect that clip might be a bit arresting. That’s some pretty strong language with this person that we know as America’s peacemaker standing right next to him.

Joseph: Yeah, and it’s really a great example of King and Carmichael’s relationship with each other. They are friends. In a way, they mentor each other during the civil rights movement, and they become sort of a yin and yang when we think about the second half of the 1960s, in terms of the Black freedom struggle.

Tavis: Yeah. Yin and yang, I take that in part because there was always this – my word here – this friction, this tension between the two of them. They loved each other, they respected each other, they were friends with each other, as you mentioned.

But there was this tension, this friction between nonviolence on King’s side and the other way on Stokely’s side. Tell me about that dialectic.

Joseph: Well Stokely Carmichael comes to the United States from Port au Spain, Trinidad, in 1941. He is part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

He is a young activist who’s arrested 27 times between 1961 and ’66, and he starts to argue that Black people have to have radical political self-determination. So he’s initially militantly nonviolent, but over time, that’s going to transform.

Tavis: Transforms why?

Joseph: Because of the experiences. He sees young people getting killed and murdered. Sammy Young Jr. is a young Black student from Tuskegee who’s murdered in 1966.

One of Stokely’s dear friends was a white activist named Jonathan Daniels who’s murdered in Alabama, and that really has a transformative effect. He starts thinking that African Americans have to fight back.

Tavis: Give me some sense of how he comes to being an advocate in the first place. You mention, of course, his origins, his birth, but how does he come to be this advocate that we eventually know as Stokely Carmichael and then later as Kwame Ture?

Joseph: Well it’s really his background. His mother, Mae Charles, is a huge influence. She’s from Trinidad. His father, Adolphus, his father’s a carpenter, hardworking Black man who’s also very, very religious.

He starts to identify with underdogs, even as a high school student at Bronx Science. He goes to one of the best high schools in New York City. Bayard Rustin, the civil rights organizer of the March on Washington, becomes one of Stokely’s mentors.

He sees Bayard speak and he asks somebody who that is. Somebody tells him it’s Bayard Rustin. He says. “That’s who I want to be.”

Tavis: Where does this courage, though, come from? You mention his parents, of course.

Joseph: Yes.

Tavis: But when you have this kind of courage and this kind of conviction and this kind of commitment in this era, in Stokely’s era, to say what he was saying, where does that brashness come from?

Joseph: Well I think it’s coming from his mother, and I think it’s coming from – he’s got a pan-African sense of who he is. He’s from the Caribbean, he’s listening to Miriam Makeba in the 1950s, the woman he’s going to marry, the international South African singer.

He’s influenced by people like Harry Belafonte, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker. So I think all of those things come into fruition, and just who he is – he’s somebody who has a deep love for poor Black people and a deep love for social justice.

Tavis: How much of his path versus the path of King that we know so well – we’ll come to a moment about what’s so misunderstood about Stokely all these years later.

But how much of the path that he chose versus the path that King chose had to do with his age? I ask that because King is only 39, like Malcolm, of course. They’re both dead at 39, so they’re both young people.

Joseph: Yes, yes.

Tavis: And yet King was seen as old and passé and kind of beyond his time by this Black Power generation that was coming on. So how much of that has to do with his age and his era?

Joseph: I think a lot of it has to do with his age. He’s 19 when he’s arrested for the first time in Mississippi, June 8th, 1961. So he’s a young, young man. By the time he’s a revolutionary, this Black Power icon, he’s actually 24 years old in that clip.

He goes to Africa and London and Cuba. He’s 25, 26 years old, (laughter) and he’s hanging out with the Nobel Prize winner, Dr. King, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Fidel Castro.

So he’s 24, 25, 26 years old, it’s an amazing life, and certainly his youth, he becomes the leader of a youth movement that’s not just Black, it’s white too. People like Tom Hayden will talk about Stokely’s influence.

People from Students for a Democratic Society, and Stokely becomes the leading antiwar protestor in the United States, anti-Vietnam War protestor.

Tavis: In many ways, he pulls, or helps to push, Dr. King in the direction of being more vocal in his anti-Vietnam, his antiwar stance, and Stokely takes great delight in that, in fact.

Joseph: Yeah he does, and they headline an enormous rally, April 15th, 1967, that’s the most important antiwar rally in the late 1960s, I would argue. Dr. King’s there, Stokely, Benjamin Spock, and Harry Belafonte, and 400,000 people come, both Stokely, Dr. King give speeches.

In a way, Stokely might upstage Dr. King with his eloquence, and afterwards at Belafonte’s apartment, sprawling New York City apartment, Stokely’s teasing Dr. King.

He’s saying, “Look, my activism and the things I’m doing is one of the reasons why you’re coming out against the war at Riverside and other places.”

Tavis: You’re being charitable and generous, and this audience knows I love Dr. King. I’m working on a text, as you know, about him, coming out later this summer. I regard him as the greatest American this country’s ever produced.

That’s my own assessment. But I’ll be the first to tell you that Stokely got him that day. (Laughter) At the March, when you see Stokely speak then you see King speak, it was the one day where Stokely just stole the show. With all due respect to Dr. King, Stokely killed it that day.

Joseph: Oh, absolutely, and their deep friendship, though, is connected to that Vietnam War protest. Dr. King calls up Stokely Carmichael to invite him to Ebenezer a couple of weeks later. Stokely says he’s coming and he’s going to be in the front row, and it’s Stokely who’s leading the standing ovation for Dr. King.

So it’s important to remember that Stokely Carmichael loves Dr. King deeply and always credits Dr. King with teaching Black people to protest against racial injustice without fear.

Tavis: This might sound, Peniel, as an indictment on this generation, even on our generation, and if it comes across that way, maybe it’s deliberate. (Laughter) So maybe it’s unapologetic that I offer this.

But I was at a dinner party not long ago and we were talking about the fact that our generation, with all due respect, just – we don’t measure up. Put another way, we are not our parents, we are not our grandparents, we are not our great-grandparents.

What I’m coming to, of course, is the point you made of what Stokely was doing at 23 and 24. The thing was Stokely wasn’t the only one.

Joseph: No.

Tavis: There were a whole lot of these brothers and sisters who we now regard – Ella Baker and Diane Nash – the list goes on and on and on of all these young people.

King himself was young, as I said; Malcolm was young. But you look at what we’re doing today or not doing today, and what they were doing back then – again, I don’t want to demonize our generation – but compare and contrast that for me.

Joseph: Well I think 50 years later, after what these young people did during the heroic period of the civil rights movement, Black Power, Dr. King, Malcolm, Stokely, Ella Baker, things have changed and transformed.

In a way, they did so much to help the African American community that vestiges of racism were defeated. Not all, but major vestiges. I think the new generation has had a tough time really confronting the challenges that remain.

So in a way they did such heroic work, there’s a narrative about civil rights of a beginning middle and end, and the end is the election of Barack Obama. The middle is Dr. King’s activist. The beginning is Rosa Parks in Montgomery.

So that narrative too many of us have bought into, and we don’t think about all that remains to be done.

Tavis: How dangerous is that narrative, particularly your point about it ending with the election of Barack Obama?

Joseph: Oh, it’s hugely dangerous, because Dr. King was this huge freedom fighter for peace and justice, and so was Stokely Carmichael. They didn’t want to just elect a president.

They were willing to put their lives on the line to speak truth to power, so it wasn’t about one man, it was about millions of Black people in the United States and around the world being liberated.

Tavis: Again, my phrase, not yours; this is not exactly how you put it; you’re much more elegant and eloquent in the text. But Stokely eventually, not unlike Du Bois, gives up on America. He just leaves. Tell me why.

Joseph: Well he leaves because of two reasons. One, there’s a pull of Africa. He believes in Africa, he believes in Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure. He’s going to live in Conakry. This whole idea of a pan-African revolution.

But he’s also pushed out of the country because of COINTELPRO, the FBI. The Washington requests twice-weekly reports (laughs) on this young brother because of his antiwar activism. So he’s pushed out of the country and he’s also pulled towards Africa.

Tavis: And then the name change, we – there are many who know him as Stokely Carmichael; perhaps persons who are younger know him as Kwame Ture. Why the name change.

Joseph: Well, those are the names of his two African mentors, Kwame Nkruma, the president of Ghana, and Sekou Toure, the president of Conakry, Guinea. So those two mentors really – he becomes the embodiment of the pan-African revolution and he becomes Kwame Ture.

Tavis: How did Stokely, or Kwame, how did this brother, this individual, view the notion of democracy in America?

Joseph: Oh, gosh, he becomes a critic, a vibrant critic of American democracy. As a young man he fights for a vision of radical democracy, where Black sharecroppers, people like Fannie Lou Hamer, are going to lead the country politically.

By the time he’s Kwame Ture he comes to really reject the notion of American democracy and feel like Malcolm did – that it was nothing more than hypocrisy.

Tavis: What, then, to your mind – I know there’s a long list; we could do a whole show on this one question. You could teach us seminars. I’m sure you do at Tufts just on this one question.

But what is the most, what are the most misunderstood things all these years later about Stokely Carmichael?

Joseph: Well one, that he wasn’t an organizer, he wasn’t an activist, that he just was an angry young man, the prophet of Black rage. Two, that he’s somehow anti-white.

Stokely has huge multiracial, interracial relationships. He’s against institutional racism, never against white people. Then finally that his call for Black Power somehow disrupted the civil rights movement.

It really didn’t disrupt the civil rights movement. It spoke truth to power to what so many millions of young people were feeling. It actually cast a light on people who were in prisons, people who were welfare rights activists, tenants’ rights activists, and also in the international arena.

Tavis: I’ve just scratched the surface on this text. To my mind, Stokely Carmichael is without question, if not the, certainly one of the most – I’d put Paul Robeson on that list –

Joseph: Yes.

Tavis: – one of the most underappreciated, misunderstood, undervalued personalities this country’s ever produced, and thankfully, Peniel Joseph out of Tufts is changing that for us, if we would have the courage. But read this text.

It’s called “Stokely, A Life.” I’ve already gone through it. I highly recommend it for a better understanding of this great American, as far as I’m concerned. Peniel, thanks for the text. Good to have you on this program.

Joseph: Hey, great to be back. Thank you.

Tavis: My pleasure. Coming up, country singer Martina McBride – stay with us.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: June 23, 2014 at 12:48 pm