Best Known For
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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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. About 20 miles into Mississippi, Meredith was shot and wounded too severely to continue. Carmichael decided that SNCC volunteers should carry on the march in his place, and upon reaching Greenwood, Mississippi, on June 16, an enraged Carmichael gave the address for which he would forever be best remembered. "We been saying 'freedom' for six years," he said. "What we are going to start saying now is 'Black Power.'"
The phrase "Black Power" quickly caught on as the rallying cry of a younger, more radical generation of civil rights activists. The term also resonated internationally, becoming a slogan of resistance to European imperialism in Africa. In his 1968 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, Carmichael explained the meaning of black power: ''It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.''
Black Power also represented Carmichael's break with King's doctrine of nonviolence and its end goal of racial integration. Instead, he associated the term with the doctrine of black separatism, articulated most prominently by Malcolm X. "When you talk of black power, you talk of building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created,'' Carmichael said in one speech. Unsurprisingly, the turn to black power proved controversial, evoking fear in many white Americans, even those previously sympathetic to the civil rights movement, and exacerbating fissures within the movement itself between older proponents of nonviolence and younger advocates of separatism. Martin Luther King called black power "an unfortunate choice of words."
In 1967, Carmichael took a transformative journey, traveling outside the United States to visit with revolutionary leaders in Cuba, North Vietnam, China and Guinea. Upon his return to the United States, he left SNCC and became prime minister of the more radical Black Panthers. He spent the next two years speaking around the country and writing essays on black nationalism, black separatism and, increasingly, pan-Africanism, which ultimately became Carmichael's life cause.
In 1969, Carmichael quit the Black Panthers and left the United States to take up permanent residence in Conakry, Guinea, where he dedicated his life to the cause of pan-African unity. "America does not belong to the blacks," he said, explaining his departure from the country.
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