When the name Stokely Carmichael comes up these days, it’s usually in the context of the Black Power movement he helped pioneer.
In an era of political assassinations, urban riots, and the Vietnam War, Black Power inspired many African Americans, especially young people, with messages of self-determination and defiance in the face of enduring racism; it also drew mainstream media attention, not to mention avid FBI surveillance, far out of proportion to its political influence.
Nearly 50 years on, Black Power seems to be remembered more for its fierce glamour and fiery rhetoric than for its serious contributions to the discourse on race and rights. Few were as glamorous, fiery, or serious as Stokely Carmichael.
In this passionate, thoughtful new biography, historian Peniel E. Joseph seeks to reintroduce Carmichael and reposition his legacy. Carmichael is properly seen, Joseph argues, alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as part of a trio “whose revolutionary politics dominated the world stage in the 1960s.”
Our popular history has enshrined the others — sometimes simplistically so — but has nearly abandoned Carmichael (perhaps in part, Joseph suggests, because he was the only one of the three to die a natural death). Yet only in Carmichael’s life and work, from student activism in 1960 to chairmanship of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, in 1966 to expatriation to Africa in 1968 can we see the “genealogy of black political activism” in its full sweep.
A Trinidadian immigrant, Carmichael graduated from Bronx High School for Science in 1960, the year lunch counter sit-ins introduced civil rights as “moral theater,” an inviting arena for a young black man of courage and a philosophical bent.
The next spring, while a freshman at Howard, Carmichael traveled to Mississippi as a Freedom Rider; arrested, he celebrated his 20th birthday behind bars (he spent so many birthdays in jail that it became a running joke among SNCC workers, Joseph writes).
For the next four years, Carmichael marched and protested, educated and organized. He and Bob Moses helped impoverished rural African Americans understand and claim their rights; he worked with Fannie Lou Hamer to outlaw segregated primaries in the Democratic Party. By the time Carmichael graduated from Howard in 1964 with a degree in philosophy, he knew, he wrote later, that “the movement was my fate.”
Joseph’s deep research is evident here, sometimes to a fault; readers may wish for more landmarks in what can feel like a dogged chronological march. Some of the book’s best moments come when Joseph pauses the flow of names and dates to focus on how Carmichael felt at home in the Mississippi Delta, where “[t]he rhythms, the food, the essence of the place reminded him of Trinidad,” or the way the local women fed him, mothered him, and impressed him with their strength.
Anguished over the murders of civil rights workers, disillusioned by the compromises that had disenfranchised Hamer’s Mississippi Free Democratic Party, distrustful of help offered by white liberals, Carmichael increasingly argued that black people should not only defend themselves, they should “embark on a political mission to transform the nation on their own terms.”
In a speech on June 16, 1966, Carmichael led the crowd in a call and response urging “Black Power!” Three days later, he appeared on “Face the Nation,” arguing for black self-determination and against America’s military presence in Vietnam. As a media figure, he dazzled and provoked. President Johnson privately predicted that he would be killed within three months but nonetheless ordered stepped-up FBI surveillance.
The book seeks to replace the received wisdom that has risen around not only Carmichael, but the mythology of the black ’60s — from the earlier, church-based, heroic age of the Civil Rights movement to Black Power and beyond — with context and complexity.
As his fame grew, Carmichael was frequently contrasted with King, a dichotomy Joseph argues was overblown. In fact, he writes, the two men shared a deep mutual respect and fondness.
In calling for Black Power, Carmichael wasn’t rejecting the civil rights work that had gone before, Joseph suggests, but rather responding to what he had seen, and to a “fundamental dilemma . . . how to stay nonviolent in a fatally violent atmosphere.”
Carmichael spent his last 30 years in the West African nation of Guinea, where he renamed himself Kwame Ture (after Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea’s Sékou Touré). His political affiliations became embarrassing (supporting Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, for instance); his speaking appearances, once spellbinding blends of humor and erudition, now found him “using chalk and a blackboard to explain historical and theoretical concepts that he insisted were vital to the revolution.” He died of cancer in 1998.
Of all the roles Carmichael played, Joseph says, “perhaps the least recognized is that of public intellectual,” and it is in his analysis of Carmichael as thinker, speaker, and writer that the biography feels most alive. Although at times one wishes for more gossip or grit, this is at its heart a book of ideas — ideas about power, freedom, and identity — and of a life, the author writes, that “took shape against the backdrop of a domestic war for America’s very soul.”
Kate Tuttle was executive editor of the African American National Biography and managing editor of Africana.com. She writes the Globe’s In Brief review column.