I’m teaching a civil rights course this semester, and some of my students have asked about [the 1987 TV series] Eyes on the Prize. I remember the premiere of part two, when I was in high school. That really was the first time Stokely Carmichael got into my imagination; that cemented it.
He was really the only person who was a civil rights organizer — a personal friend with Martin Luther King — who then transitioned to become a Black Power-Black Panther leader. He was a really bright individual, incredibly charismatic, who had friendships across racial lines. But his image as a Black Power activist was as a racial separatist whose speeches fomented violence. He was much more complicated than that public persona.
My mom helped with some of the mystery about Stokely. She was part of 1199, a labor union in New York. Stokely marched with them. I was politicized early. I remember watching the 1980 presidential returns — I was 8. My mother was a big Carter person, and I remember her saying that Reagan was not going to be good for the unions and working and poor people.
In college, I read Stokely’s book Black Power. It made a lot more sense than just the angry clips of him. He was thoughtful, using terms like “institutional racism,” which was different from personal prejudice. That was eye-opening for me. It helped you understand that the problem was institutions, not people. White people weren’t the problem.
On some levels, Stokely was really the most courageous, bold political activist of his generation, but he was also the most stubborn. He was 57 when he died, in 1998. If he were alive today, he might be surprised to see the way in which he contributed to political transformations that resulted in the nation’s first black president, someone whose political views he would undoubtedly have strong criticisms of. — As told to James Sullivan (Interview has been edited and condensed.)