June 29, 1941 – November 15, 1998
Raised in the Bronx, New York
Because of his call for “Black Power” during the June 1966 Meredith March Against Fear in Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael is often remembered as confrontational in style and far removed from nonviolence. Yet he credited nonviolent activism as leading him and other young Black people like himself into the Movement. “It gave our generation–particularly in the South–the means by which to confront and entrenched and violent racism. It offered a way for a large number of [African Americans] to join the struggle. Nothing passive in that.”
Above all else, Stokely Carmichael was a grassroots organizer.
He was born in Trinidad but came to the United States as a child and grew up in in Harlem. When he started at Howard University, he believed that civil rights was something that adults did. The sit-ins convinced him that young people could and should do something about the violence and racism that plagued the United States. At 19-years-old, Carmichael was the youngest person to participate in the 1961 Freedom Rides, and he served fifty-three days in Mississippi’s Parchman Penitentiary. After his release from Parchman, Carmichael returned to Howard but came back to the Mississippi Delta every summer to work with SNCC organizing local voter registration efforts.
After the national Democratic Party refused to seat Mississippi’s MFDP at its 1964 national convention, Carmichael, then a veteran organizer, concluded that meaningful change could only come through Black political power. He thought an independent Black political party was key, and to build one, he went to Lowndes County, Alabama, one of the poorest counties in a state with a reputation for an extraordinary level of violence toward Black men and women.
Stokely Carmichael had made contacts with some of the local residents during the Selma-to-Montgomery March in March of 1965, but, at first, people were wary of Carmichael and the SNCC workers accompanying him. An important breakthrough occurred when, while handing out voter registration material at a local school, he was confronted by two policeman who ordered him to leave. Carmichael refused and challenged the officers to either leave him alone or arrest him. Flustered, the officers backed down, causing the SNCC workers to be “swarmed” by young people and to boost respect for SNCC in the county.
As word spread, Carmichael and the other SNCC workers were able to work with John Hulett and other local leaders to organize residents into a new political organization: the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). Bringing the lessons of the Delta to Alabama, Carmichael recognized conversation with local people and confrontation when necessary as important to triggering change. The new, independent Black political party in Lowndes County came to represent Black power. The Lowndes County Freedom Party, whose symbol was a black panther, became a powerful and pioneering political force in a state where the Democratic Party prevented the participation of Black people, and whose symbol was a white rooster with the words “white supremacy for the right” written above it.
In 1965, when Carmichael and SNCC entered Lowndes County, which had a population that was 80% Black, there was only one Black registered voter. A year later, Blacks formed a majority of the county’s registered voters. And, in 1970, that lone Black registered voter, John Hulett, who was one of the founders of LCFO, became sheriff.
Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (New York: Scribner Press, 2003).
Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).
Stokely Carmichael, Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism, edited by Ethel Minor and Bob Brown (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 2007).
Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (New York: Basic Books, 2013).
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt (New York: New York University Press, 2009).
Peniel E. Joseph, Stokely: A Life (New York: Basic Civitas, 2014).
Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).