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A citizen of the world

Published: 
Sunday, March 15, 2015

Trinidad-born American Civil Rights organiser Stokely Carmichael had a feeling that 1965 would be a watershed year in the American Civil Rights Movement, and he probably even suspected that it would be an event like Bloody Sunday that would finally get the feeling of injustice to sink in to the American conscience. It didn’t take long for Carmichael’s hunch to be right. 

On March 7, 1965, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. The local law enforcement officers did their best to stop the march, beating black people with batons and spraying tear gas as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River on their march to Montgomery. About 50 people ended up in the hospital. 

This year marked the 50th anniversary of that day known as Bloody Sunday, making the month of March one of the reasons why the Sunday Arts Section (SAS) Book Club is featuring Stokely: A Life, the biography of Carmichael written by historian and university professor, Peniel E Joseph. 

Bloody Sunday thrust Carmichael into the international spotlight. Before that fateful day on March 7, Carmichael’s involvement in organising voter registration through the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) gained notoriety, but it was his presence related to Bloody Sunday that changed the course of his career as a civil rights organiser who concentrated on voter registration. 

Carmichael arrived in Selma by charter flight from Atlanta on March 7, and he quickly made waves. 

“During a 3 am meeting with King and his trusted second-in-command man, Ralph Abernathy, Carmichael urged SCLC staff to defy an injunction prohibiting marching,” writes Joseph.

“Staff who had privately chided Sunday’s march as showboating now supported (the upcoming) Tuesday’s efforts as a defiant stand against fear…. Carmichael marched at the head of the line with King on (that) Tuesday. Stokely, in jeans, work boots, and a hooded overcoat, was impassively smoking. It would be the last time that Carmichael participated in a demonstration of this scale in virtual anonymity.” 

Carmichael brought his own personality to the Civil Rights Movement, bridging the enormous gap, in many ways, between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. 

Stokely Standiford Churchill Carmichael was born on June 29, 1941. His family lived at 54 Oxford Street, Port-of-Spain. His father, a master carpenter, had roots in Barbados; his mother was born in the US Canal Zone in Panama. His maternal grandmother came from Montserrat and his maternal grandfather came from Antigua. His paternal grandmother was from Tobago. 

This Pan-Caribbean background, Joseph argues, made Stokely Carmichael “a citizen of the world for the rest of his life.” That is how, Joseph argues, Carmichael could feel at home in Port-of-Spain; the Bronx; Harlem; Washington, DC; Mississippi; Alabama; and Conakry in Guinea. 

Carmichael lived in Trinidad during British colonialism and he attended Tranquillity Boys’ Intermediate School where he received a solid British colonial education. As a child he suffered from asthma but had a doting paternal grandmother who cared for him, especially after his mother, who did not appreciate the extended family relationship typical of Trini homes, migrated to New York. 

By 1946, both of his parents lived in New York. Stokely Carmichael would remain in Trinidad for five more years. He would not see his parents again until he was almost 11, and then his life would change forever.

Note: Although Stokely Carmichael later changed his name to Kwame Ture, I have used Stokely Carmichael in these book club pieces because this is what he was known as at this particular time in history.

QUESTIONS

1. What do you think would have been most noticeable about Stokely Carmichael or Kwame Ture’s identity as a Trinidadian? 

2. How do you think a Trinidadian identity would have shaped his interest and his work in the Civil Rights Movement? 

3. How do you think Stokely Carmichael or Kwame Ture’s Trinidadian roots would have helped his relationship with the grassroots, African-Americans he worked with as a Civil Rights organiser? 

Next week: How Stokely Carmichael bridged the gap between Trinidad and New York and established the identity that made him an important Civil Rights organiser. 

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