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Stokely Carmichael was a Trinidadian-American political activist best known for leading 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.
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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is widely considered the most influential leader of the American civil rights movement. He fought to overturn Jim Crow segregation laws and eliminate social and economic differences between blacks and whites.
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A stellar student, Carmichael received scholarship offers to a variety of prestigious predominantly white universities after graduating high school in 1960. He chose instead to attend the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. There he majored in philosophy, studying the works of Camus, Sartre and Santayana and considering ways to apply their theoretical frameworks to the issues facing the civil rights movement. 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 dubbed the summer of 1964 "Freedom Summer," rolling out an aggressive campaign to register black voters in the Deep South. Carmichael joined the 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.
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