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A Trini fights for US Civil Rights

Published: 
Sunday, March 8, 2015
Born in T&T, Stokely Carmichael became an icon of the US Civil Rights movement.

“Stokely Carmichael is a troubling icon of America’s Civil Rights years,” writes Tufts University professor and historian Peniel E Joseph in his new biography of Trinidadian-born American Civil Rights activist and organiser Stokely Carmichael, published in 2014. Carmichael’s “troubling” status is what makes him the perfect choice for the SAS March Book Club. 

Charming, enigmatic, powerful, witty and often difficult to describe, Carmichael—later known as Kwame Ture in the Pan-Africanist stage of his life—provides a goldmine for discussion. 

At one stage in the American Civil Rights movement, Joseph writes, Carmichael became the face of the movement. Handsome, charming and in possession of that Trini bravado, Carmichael used his natural humour to disarm an audience before hitting hard with fiery rhetoric that demanded voting and equal rights for minorities.

He is better known as an organiser rather than an activist, and he travelled to rural areas in the deep southern US to organise voting campaigns. Carmichael risked his life for this cause, and he saw many friends murdered by those who refused to accept the Civil Rights movement. 

Carmichael’s Civil Rights image was eventually overshadowed by assassinated Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. Other black leaders would emerge and steal some of his spotlight as well. 

While organising voters in the south, Carmichael came up with the image of the black panther as a symbol for his Civil Rights work in the south. The black panther was used as the symbol of the extremely radical Black Panther Party. Oakland, California, had the most famous chapter of the Black Panther Party with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale as their leaders. The party grew more and more militant and was defined by figures like convicted rapist Eldridge Cleaver.

Few people remember that it was Carmichael who originally came up with the image that defined the party. 

All five of these Civil Rights figures that overshadowed Carmichael’s role in history became deeply and permanently rooted in the American Civil Rights Movement. Stokely Carmichael did not. He moved on to the Pan-Africanist movement—not as a means of re-inventing himself, but as a means of carrying on a vision that he saw as a natural progression for his life and the rights he fought for. 

Carmichael, the man who is credited with first using the slogan Black Power in a public speech, had visions and goals that the American Civil Rights movement brought to the forefront, but his vision was unequivocally shaped by his Trini roots, which Carmichael never lost sight of in his life.

Those roots made him different from everyone else in the US-based Civil Rights movement. They provided him with invaluable insights about all people—black and white. Those roots made him equally comfortable with all races and all places in the US, rural and urban. His roots undoubtedly facilitated his rise on the American political stage. 

Discussion questions:

1. How important was Stokely Carmichael to the Black Power and Civil Rights movement in the US? 

2. What impact did Carmichael have on the Black Power Movement in T&T?

3. Why is it important for Trinidadians to know about Stokely Carmichael before he became Kwame Ture?

4. How would you compare Stokely Carmichael to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr?

Next week: How Stokely Carmichael’s Trini roots shaped him as a Civil Rights organiser and Civil Rights leader.

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