Stokely Carmichael’s defiance and opposition during “The Movement” made him one of the most influential leaders of his time. The man who coined the term “Black Power” served as both the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the “Honorary Prime Minister” of the Black Panther Party. Yet how many schoolchildren can tell you his name?
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad on June 29, 1941, Carmichael was raised by his grandparents after his parents immigrated to American when he was just two years old. In 1952, he moved to Harlem to join them. Carmichael was known for his charisma and intelligence, entering the highly selective and prestigious Bronx High School of Science. He also spent time amongst the Morris Park Dukes, a local Bronx youth gang where he was the only Black member.
Luckily, the Bronx High School of Science put Carmichael amongst Black activists and progressives. Their influence instilled a motivation in the teenager to voice his concerns regarding the fight for racial equality. He joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and participated a sit-in movement against Woolworth, which segregated lunch counters in the South.
Carmichael was offered scholarships to a number of prestigious TWIs, but he chose to enter the famed Howard University instead. Majoring in philosophy, Carmichael joined the Nonviolent Action Group and found mentorship in Bayard Rustin, an advisor to SNCC. He participated in the Freedom Rides, where he was arrested and various strikes against the injustices of the Black community. Spending forty-nine days in a Mississippi jail, his rebellious spirit proved to be a challenge for the prison guards. Prison became a frequent destination for the militant leader as his influence and opposition to injustice developed.
His voice was particularly significant in Lowndes County, Alabama, where he helped form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a precursor to the Black Panther Party. The party helped to increase the amount of Black registered voters and local awareness of the injustices facing the Black community.
Carmichael’s success brought his leadership as chairman of the SNCC, replacing John Lewis. Following the shooting of James Meredith, the first Black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, he famously declared “We’ve been saying ‘freedom’ for six years. What we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power.'” Disenchanted by the notion of non-violence, Carmichael soon became a member of the Black Panther Party.
In 1967, he released his first book, Black Power. At that time, Carmichael also became focused on the Vietnam War, as he visited various countries including North Vietnam, China and Cuba, learning more about the culture of various politically radical governments. A year later, Dr. King was assassinated. Carmichael led a huge rally through the streets of D.C. demanding respect for the murdered Reverend. It soon became violent and Carmichael was blamed.
Eventually, the leader distanced himself from the Black Panther Party as the group experienced its own ideological shift. Moving to Guinea in 1969, he changed his name to Kwame Toure, in homage to Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah and Guinean President Sekou Toure. He married South African singer Miriam Makeba, but divorced her a few years later; he eventually remarried a local doctor, Marlyatou Barry. His focus became the cause of pan-African unity and though he visited the US a number of times, he maintained permanent residency in Guinea until his passing in 1989.
Stephon Wynn is an intern for EBONY.com and a sophomore at St. John’s University in Queens, NY.