Michael Thelwell

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.”

James Forman leads singing in the SNCC office on Raymond Street in Atlanta, (from left) Mike Sayer, MacArthur Cotton, Forman, Marion Barry, Lester McKinney, Mike Thelwell, Lawrence Guyot, Judy Richardson, John Lewis, Jean Wheeler, and Julian Bond, Danny Lyon, Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, 123, dektol.wordpress.com

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.

Sources

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!


Interview with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell by Emilye Crosby, August 23, 2013, Civil Rights History Project, LOC

Click Here to View Document
Lawrence Guyot and Michael Thelwell, “The Politics of Necessity and Survival in Mississippi,” Freedomways, 1966, crmvet.org


Michael Thelwell talks about Black communities in the Mississippi Delta, The Choices Program, Brown University


MFDP Congressional Challenge Pamphlet, 1965, CORE, Mississippi 4th Congressional District Records, WHS

Michael Thelwell [09:12], Pt. I “The Rise and Triumph of Black Power, 1965-1966,” We Shall Not Be Moved Conference, 1988, Trinity College