Stokely: A Lifeby Peniel E. Joseph
Stokely Carmichael, a charismatic and controversial black activist, stepped into the pages of history when he called for “Black Power” one humid Mississippi night in 1966, at a speech during the March Against Fear. Carmichael’s life changed that day, and so did America’s civil rights movement. “Black Power” became the slogan of
Stokely Carmichael, a charismatic and controversial black activist, stepped into the pages of history when he called for “Black Power” one humid Mississippi night in 1966, at a speech during the March Against Fear. Carmichael’s life changed that day, and so did America’s civil rights movement. “Black Power” became the slogan of an era, and provoked a national reckoning on questions of civil rights, race, and democracy. A firebrand who straddled both the American civil rights and Black Power movements, who had been nurtured by civil rights leaders and radicalized by the brutality of white America, Carmichael would stand for the rest of his life at the center of the storm he had unleashed that night. In Stokely, preeminent Black Power scholar Peniel E. Joseph presents a groundbreaking biography of Carmichael, using his life as a prism through which to view the African American freedom struggles that transformed the twentieth century.
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Carmichael immigrated to the United States in 1952 and settled in Harlem. He came of age in a nation ruled by Jim Crow, and his understanding of racial identity was indelibly marked by America’s system of segregation. As a Howard University student, Carmichael helped dismantle Jim Crow by organizing sit-ins, demonstrations, and voter registration efforts in the South during the civil rights movement’s heroic years, the decade between the 1954 Brown Supreme Court desegregation decision and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The turbulent years that followedwhich saw the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and witnessed urban race riots and the rise of the anti-war movementradicalized a generation of young Americans, and Carmichael became the revolutionary icon for this new racial and political landscape.
Carmichael was a popular and polarizing leader for black America, equally capable of inspiring crowds and profoundly disappointing his most ardent admirers. Carmichael’s very name became shorthand for what his supporters viewed as an uncompromising commitment to revolutionary politics and what his critics decried as rhetorical excess that, in time, triggered an epidemic of urban violence. Yet Carmichael risked his own life countless times, whether helping to organize the original Black Panther Party in rural Alabama or heading the iconic Black Panther Party for Self Defense that would galvanize frustrated African Americans and ignite a backlash among white Americans and the mainstream media. And despite his rejection of nonviolence, Carmichael had a close relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr, who had served as Carmichael’s mentor during his entrée into the civil rights movement. Hailed as Malcolm X’s heir at the age of twenty-five, at thirty Carmichael made the abrupt decision to leave the United States, embracing a pan-African ideology and adopting the name of Kwame Ture, a move that baffled and alienated many of his allies in the U.S. By the time of his premature death from prostate cancer in 1998, Carmichael had become something of an enigma, a symbol of both the idealism of the 1960s and of the dangerous turn toward extremism that the nation had taken midway through the decade.
In Stokely, Joseph captures this complicated, arresting personality, showing how Carmichael’s passion for equality and justice forever reshaped race relations in the US. Using new and revealing information, including the FBI’s 20,000-page file on Carmichael, Joseph reintroduces the seminal figure whose dramatic life provides the key to understanding the nation’s transition from civil rights to Black Power.
This stunningly thorough appraisal of this radical activist, 50 years after the "heroic period" of the civil rights movement, is both timely and relevant. Excavating a multifaceted and constantly evolving political personality "poised between Malcolm's sword and Martin's shield," Tufts Univ. professor of history Joseph presents an analysis of Carmichael's lifelong international political career. Citing a wealth of primary material, especially speeches and essays, and with an eye for detail that uses specifics such as fashion choices to paint a nuanced image of his public persona, Joseph explores how Carmichael thought and how he was perceived in each moment of his philosophical evolution. He is particularly interested in restoring the memory of Carmichael as a master speaker, a "professorial rhetorician" and "public intellectual," in addition to the "symbol of defiance" that popularized Black Power. Amid Carmichael's career of public action, his personal life seems nearly nonexistent, referenced only rarely, in connection to his marriage to singer Miriam Makeba. Still, his personality remains in focus throughout, even among the panoramic wealth of contextual historical information, a quality that recalls his own "rock star" ability to command attention throughout his life. It's not casual armchair reading, but should surely be considered required material for a fuller understanding of a critical, and ongoing, American struggle. (Mar.)
Joseph (History/Tufts Univ.; Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, 2010, etc.) introduces a Stokely Carmichael (1941–1998) few white people ever knew in the 1960s, a man who dared to speak truth to power. "Before leaving America," writes the author, "Stokely reigned as Black Power's glamorous enfant terrible: telegenic, brash, equal parts angry and gregarious…a ‘hipster hero' whose easy grace allowed him to consort effortlessly with both the dignified and the damned." A brilliant student and forceful, persuasive speaker, Carmichael spent his college summers working to "change the world." He began working for civil rights as a student at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1961 and never stopped. Close to Martin Luther King Jr. and many other significant civil rights leaders, he devoted himself to more than civil rights. He developed into a true idealist, seeking more than just voting rights; he wanted equality and not just for blacks. Carmichael knew that blacks were not the only suppressed group in America, and he welcomed whites and minorities of all kinds to work for self-determination. The author mentions that women were not a large part of the movement but goes on to name many, like Septima Clark--often considered the grandmother of the civil rights movement--whose influence was known only to insiders. Reform was never enough for Carmichael; he was fighting the systemic phenomenon of institutional racism. As he grew, he sought a radical democracy, rejecting communism and socialism since they only addressed class differences, not racism. This is a man who stood out in the civil rights movement, the man who defined Black Power and whose quest for Pan-African democracy led him to express radical ideas that successfully frightened the powers that be. Joseph showcases the brilliance of the man, his exceptional ideals and his pursuit of an equality that was years ahead of his time.
2014 winner of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change National Book Award
Daily Beast Best Books About the Volatile 60s
New York Times Book Review
“An insightful, highly engaging and fluently written biography”
“Joseph’s account of Carmichael’s life is well-written and well-researched, providing persuasive explanations for his appeal.... Joseph’s biography fills a huge void and is a welcome addition to the scholarly literature on the civil rights movement.”
“This is at its heart a book of ideas ideas about power, freedom, and identity and of a life, the author writes, that ‘took shape against the backdrop of a domestic war for America’s very soul.’”
“Mr. Joseph’s detail rich biography delves into the life of a political activist turned icon while not forgetting to show us his human side.”
Post & Courier
“A thorough and engaging account of one of the most important figures of the civil rights movement. Stokely achieves its primary goal of restoring Carmichael to his rightful place in the pantheon of influential Americans.... Offers delicious details, thoughtful analysis and a good amount of drama concerning this enigmatic figure.... Joseph’s landmark book is the best portrait yet of this important, complicated man and the America he so wanted to love but could not.”
“An unflinching look at an unflinching man.”
“Peniel E. Joseph’s newly published biography of Black liberation activist Stokely Carmichael not only takes its rightful place next to Taylor Branch’s epic trilogy The King Years, but also to one of the most powerful autobiographies by any American: Stokely Carmichael’s own Ready For Revolution.... Stokely: A Life is a quality read. By highlighting the life of one of the US civil rights/black liberation most important organizers and thinkers, Peniel E. Joseph has done a great service to history and to the people Stokely fought for. Furthermore, Peniel’s text has lifted Carmichael out of an obscurity he not only didn’t deserve, but which also prevented a more complete understanding of a man who, with Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr., deserves to be recognized as one of the great leaders of one of the greatest grassroots movements for liberation in history: the Black freedom struggle in the United States.”
“Meticulously-researched and painstakingly-detailed, Stokely: A Life is a fast-flowing, informative read which intimately follows its subject from the cradle to the grave in absorbing fashion. In the process, this powerful portrait effectively re-positions him as an uncompromising prophet who played a pivotal role in the struggle for black equality.”
“A thought-provoking biography.... A brilliant bio with plenty of brio”
“This stunningly thorough appraisal of this radical activist, 50 years after the ‘heroic period’ of the civil rights movement, is both timely and relevant.... Should surely be considered required material for a fuller understanding of a critical, and ongoing, American struggle.”
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Meet the Author
Peniel E. Joseph is a professor of history and the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
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No One is Free When Others are Oppressed Stokely Carmichael was an exceptional leader and thinker. He wrote Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, which is next on my reading list. In this great biography by Professor Joseph of Tufts, the story of his passion for civil rights is told from the time that he was a student at Howard University in 1961 and into the 90s. He developed into a true idealist who sought more than voting rights for blacks but equality for all people. It really takes my breath away when I think what a different world this was just 60 years ago. Great book!