Tufts author shines spotlight on ‘60s activist Stokely Carmichael

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 4/2/2014, 11:42 a.m.
Peniel E. Joseph (Tom Kates/Tufts University photo)

As the foremost advocate of Black Power, Carmichael became an instant celebrity and embarked on a grueling cross-country lecture circuit (which included stops in Boston for organizing in Dorchester). In addition to Black Power, Carmichael preached pan-Africanism, revolution and self-defense, and spoke out against American imperialism and the Vietnam War, popularizing the chant, “Hell no, we won’t go.”

He also coined the term “institutional racism” with political scientist Charles Hamilton, which “crystalized the idea that racism is about structures and institutions, and not something as simple as personal prejudice,” says Joseph. “It provides a more sophisticated understanding of American race relations.” The phrase continues to be used in racial discourse today.

According to Joseph, Carmichael’s radicalism pushed Martin Luther King Jr. to the left, “so that by the time King comes out against the war, conservatives are saying that King and Carmichael are this Batman and Robin of mayhem in the United States.” Although he became famous for his revolutionary rhetoric, it also came at a price — the U.S. government put him under constant surveillance and tried to pin charges of sedition and treason on him.

Carmichael also took this message abroad, particularly to Africa, where he was greeted as a “rock star or visiting dignitary.” Eventually, he settled in the West African nation of Guinea, where he also changed his name to Kwame Ture, a tribute to Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, and Sekou Toure, the president of Guinea — two men he worked and studied under.

Despite his importance in the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s, Carmichael is rarely considered part of the pantheon of civil rights heroes. Part of this, says Joseph, has to do with the way the movement has been remembered.

“There’s now a Civil Rights industry, with the King holiday, different memorials and museums,” he says. “There are different figures who fit in that narrative, and others who don’t. And Stokely, a radical revolutionary, doesn’t necessarily fit in there.”

Still, Joseph says there is much to be gained from understanding Carmichael’s productive 57-year life. “You see a well-lived life,” he says. “The fact that he tried to lead a political revolution against all forms of oppression — racism, poverty, the brutality of Jim Crow and racial apartheid — means that this is somebody we need to remember.”

“His activism opened up spaces for people who he would have disagreed with politically, like Barack Obama,” Joseph continues. “It’s not just King … It’s also people like Stokely and SNCC that provided the context for the freedoms that we enjoy and take for granted today.”