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Stokely Carmichael was a Trinidadian-American political activist, best known as the leader of the civil rights group SNCC in the 1960s.
Political Activism in Harlem (2:14)
Watch a speech given by civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael in Greenwood, Mississippi on March 12, 1964 for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, discusses famous figures who contributed to the history of political activism in Harlem.
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At the same time, Carmichael continued to increase his participation in the movement itself. While still a freshman in 1961, he went on his first Freedom Ride—an integrated bus tour through the South to challenge the segregation of interstate travel. During that trip, he was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi for entering the "whites only" bus stop waiting room and jailed for 49 days. Undeterred, Carmichael remained actively involved in the civil rights movement throughout his college years,
participating in another Freedom Ride in Maryland, a demonstration in Georgia and a hospital workers' strike in New York. He graduated from Howard University with honors in 1964.
Carmichael left school at a critical moment in the history of the civil rights movement. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) dubbed the summer of 1964 "Freedom Summer," rolling out an aggressive campaign to register black voters in the Deep South. Carmichael joined SNCC as a newly minted college graduate, using his eloquence and natural leadership skills to quickly be appointed field organizer for Lowndes County, Alabama. When Carmichael arrived in Lowndes County in 1965, African Americans made up the majority of the population but remained entirely unrepresented in government. In one year, Carmichael managed to raise the number of registered black voters from 70 to 2,600 300 more than the number of registered white voters in the county.
Unsatisfied with the response of either of the major political parties to his registration efforts, Carmichael founded his own party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. To satisfy a requirement that all political parties have an official logo, he chose a black panther, which later provided the inspiration for the Black Panthers (a different black activist organization founded in Oakland, California).
At this stage in his life, Carmichael adhered to the philosophy of nonviolent resistance espoused by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In addition to moral opposition to violence, proponents of nonviolent resistance believed that the strategy would win public support for civil rights by drawing a sharp contrast—captured on nightly television—between the peacefulness of the protestors and the brutality of the police and hecklers opposing them. However, as time went on, Carmichael—like many young activists—became frustrated with the slow pace of progress and with having to endure repeated acts of violence and humiliation at the hands of white police officers without recourse.
By the time he was elected national chairman of SNCC in May 1966, Carmichael had largely lost faith in the theory of nonviolent resistance that he—and SNCC—had once held dear. As chairman, he turned SNCC in a sharply radical direction, making it clear that white members, once actively recruited, were no longer welcome. The defining moment of Carmichael's tenure as chairman—and perhaps of his life—came only weeks after he took over leadership of the organization. In June 1966, James Meredith, a civil rights activist who had been the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi, embarked on a solitary "Walk Against Fear" from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi.
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