July 25, 1939 –
Raised in Ulster Spring, Jamaica
“I didn’t really become black until I set foot in this country. In Jamaica, I was simply a promising, very smart, very articulate young man. I got off the plane at La Guardia, and I became a Negro.”
Michael (later Ekwueme) Thelwell was born in Ulster Spring, Jamaica. After his father died, he and his two siblings were raised by their mother, who worked tirelessly to send them all to the best schools in Jamaica and the United States. Thelwell ultimately chose to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C.
He enrolled in Howard University in 1960 and quickly became an active member of the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), the campus-affiliate to SNCC. While NAG was not a recognized organization on Howard’s campus, Thelwell, Stokely Carmichael, Courtland Cox, and other NAG students protested racial discrimination in the nation’s capital. They were also active in sit-in protests in neighboring Maryland. During his sophomore year, Thelwell became the editor of the campus newspaper, the Howard Hilltop and used it to spread word of the Movement. As Carmichael remembered, “The Hilltop to which we all contributed became a sho’nuff overt organ of the student movement.”
Throughout his campus career, Thelwell’s involvement with SNCC deepened. In 1964, he became co-director of SNCC’s Washington office with NAG-member Bill Mahoney. He spent much of his time fundraising for SNCC. He also interviewed and recruited students for the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project.
Thelwell briefly went to Mississippi during the summer of 1964. Though he wanted to be a field organizer, “wear the blue jeans and run from the sheriff and do all the romantic kinds of things,” there was work to do in the capital. Following the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge in Atlantic City that August, MFDP chairman, Lawrence Guyot, asked Thelwell to open an MFDP office in Washington. “So I had to turn around and go all the way back to Washington,” he remembered.
As director, Thelwell worked to secure commitments from the Democratic legislators to unseat Mississippi’s congressional delegation. Although he garnered the support of New York congressman, William Fitts Ryan, Hawaii congresswoman, Patsy Mink, and six others, the MFDP’s chances looked slim. In the end, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party received 147 votes in their favor. While the campaign was still defeated, the remarkable support they gained–as in the Atlantic City challenge–was important to opening up Mississippi’s “regular” Democratic Party.
Thelwell continued writing after his time in SNCC, aiming to be “historically and culturally very purposeful and very pointed…largely to reclaim and define our [Black] culture for ourselves.” He authored numerous short stories, as well as arranged Stokely Carmichael’s memoir, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael.
Stokely Carmichael, Ready for Revolution: the Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) (New York: Scribner, 2003).
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008).
Daryl Cumber Dance, Fifty Caribbean Writers: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986).
Interview with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell by Emilye Crosby, August 23, 2013, Civil Rights History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
Interview with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell by Amy Goodman, August 8, 2005, Grassroots Radio Conference, Democracy Now!