Southern Cultures 10.4 (2004) 88-90
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In August 1967 the director of the FBI urged his agents to "prevent the rise of a 'messiah' who would unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement." J. Edgar Hoover identified two such aspirants. One was Martin Luther King Jr.—not exactly a "militant black nationalist." The other prospect, however, was more plausible: "Stokely Carmichael appears to have the charisma to become such a messiah." Indeed, no agitator was more wont than the chairman (1966-1967) of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee ( SNCC) to generate the sort of tumult that the press inevitably labeled "inflammatory." To the task of community organizer and then to the vocation of demagogue, Carmichael brought the gifts of physical bravery, keen intelligence, hot-button phrase-making, personal magnetism, and suave self-assurance.
Of all the civil rights activists who joined SNCC in its most gallant phase in the South, perhaps only three emerged from the struggle as legendary figures. One [End Page 88] was Fannie Lou Hamer, who embodied all that was authentically primitive in the oppressed peasantry of the Delta, and yet who prevailed over adversity with a tenacity that Faulkner himself could scarcely have envisioned. Another was Bob Moses, isolated, bloodied but unbowed in Amite County. Following the logic of "participatory democracy," Moses would repudiate his own myth and even erase the surname that symbolized prophetic leadership. The third was Carmichael, born in Trinidad, raised in New York City, a philosophy major at Howard University, and braced—more than any other activist who injected himself into the region—to tap the most radical energies latent in the struggle for racial equality. First by invoking "black power" in those Deep South counties where potential black voters enjoyed a numerical advantage, then by trying to channel the simmering rage of the northern ghettoes from riot to revolution, and finally by attempting to make black nationalism pan-African, Carmichael opted for a unique political project. Expelled from SNCC in 1968, he moved to Conakry the same year, married the exiled South African singer Miriam Makeba, and changed his own name to honor Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea's Sékou Touré. The ambitions that Kwame Ture cultivated were so inflated that nothing less than the political unification of the continent became his goal. But cancer got him first—in 1998. Five years later this autobiography was published with the pivotal help of Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, who had known Carmichael at Howard and had worked with him in SNCC.
Hoover's judgment was wrong: Carmichael could attract audiences but not followers. SNCC was not a mass organization (unlike the National Baptist Convention or the Negro Masons or even the NAACP). But while he ranked quite low in the rankings of black leaders that pollsters recorded, his willingness to risk his life for racial justice satisfied all the criteria of heroism. Carmichael joined the second wave of Freedom Riders after its predecessors were viciously attacked in Alabama; the last stop for Carmichael was the dreaded Parchman state penitentiary. By 1964 he was directing voter registration drives in "the most Southern place on earth"—the Delta, where he was jailed almost as often as his mortality was intimated. He helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Then he tested even further the ideal of civic engagement where (to quote Bob Dylan) "black is the color and none is the number" of African Americans registered to vote in Lowndes County, Alabama, in 1965, though they numbered about twelve thousand. To achieve regime change in the county, Carmichael founded the Black Panther Party. It never crossed the line from self-defense into violence, according to Ready for Revolution. But "the beloved community" was left out of the fervent demand for "black power" with which Carmichael was indelibly to be associated, and he holds up a rifle on the cover of...