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“Hell No!’—Stokely Carmichael twenty years on

In the U.S., Stokely Carmichael has been known for his extraordinary rhetorical skills at the time that the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. Often compared to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, people considered him an oratorical genius, who knew how to interact with different audiences and adapt his discourse to their response. His name has been associated with the Black Power slogan ever since he gave new meaning to it in a famous speech in 1966. What tends to fall into oblivion is that Stokely Carmichael, who eventually adopted the name Kwame Turé, has also been a proficient grassroots organizer, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Within a timeframe of hardly four years, his organizational efforts evolved from the mobilization of black voters in Alabama and Mississippi to the building of a large movement resisting military draft at the height of the Vietnam war. Until his departure for Guinea-Conakry in early 1969 and his subsequent involvement in the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, he was one of the driving forces behind the development of an independent black political base and an international network in support of deserters from the U.S. military: two of the main issues at the root of the New Left’s worldwide upsurge during the 1960s and 1970s.

Stokely, as the whole world called him in those days, died at his home in Conakry on November 15, 1998, at the age of 57, after a life replete with active political struggle. In retrospect, aspects of his personality and commitments may be open to criticism, but no one can deny his inspirational force. Individual icons are also created by the larger movements carrying them. And perhaps more significant than the intricacies of the struggles in which he took part, is the fact that, unlike many of his contemporaries, he never turned his coat or compromised on his own principles.

Born in the Belmont suburb of Trinidad and Tobago’s capital Port of Spain, at the foothill of the ‘42 steps’ leading up to the Casa Blanca steelband’s pan yard, he joins his family in New York at the age of 11. He will never lose his Trinidadian in-yuh-face wit, shimmies and ‘picong’ puns. Raised and educated in the Bronx, he studies philosophy at Howard University, Washington DC, after first high school encounters with Marxism through fellow-students such as Gene Dennis Jr, the son of Communist Party leader Francis Waldron. “Marxism offered me an approach, a coherent point of view from which to understand and engage society, in terms of the ‘forces of history’.” (Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution [New York: Scribner, 2003], 92)

At Howard, he joins the Freedom Riders of the Congress for Racial Equality, challenging segregated public transport in the South, where he experiences his first incarcerations. His involvement in the Civil Rights movement at NAG (Non-Violent Action Group) and SNCC (‘Snick’, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) rapidly turns him into a dedicated militant. As a SNCC field organizer in Alabama, he helps raise the number of registered black voters and build the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, one of the predecessors of the Black Panther Party. Symptomatic for the political climate confronting the movement at this point is attorney general Robert Kennedy’s equation of the Freedom Riders with the supremacists attacking them, by blabbing about “extremists on both sides.”

Freshly elected chairman of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael participates in the Walk Against Fear started by James Meredith, and gets arrested. On his release on June 16, 1966, addressing a crowd of 3,000 in Greenwood, Mississippi, he spills his disgust: “We been saying Freedom for six years. What we are going to start saying now is Black Power!” He calls for black people “to consciously begin to organize among ourselves and find the power to affirm and control our legitimate political rights and our full human dignity. Self-determination.” And “to consciously and publicly free ourselves from the heritage of demeaning definitions and limitations imposed on us, over centuries of colonial conditioning by a racist culture.” Later that year, he encourages students at Berkeley, since 1963 the cradle of the Free Speech movement, to join the “Hell No! We Won’t Go!” campaign launched by SNCC against the Vietnam war and the military draft.

He will later speak of “the volume and the pace of events rushing up on us,” but in many ways he can be considered symbolic for the shift in black politics at the time—rejecting the concept of ‘integration’ into the white mainstream and advancing black liberation as part of the broader context of liberation struggles in the Third World. As opposed to Martin Luther King Jr, he advocates nonviolence as a tactic, not as an underlying principle. He does, however, convince King to take a clear stand against the Vietnam war. In the eyes of the FBI, Carmichael has the “necessary charisma to be a real threat.”

In the Summer of 1967, he is asked to speak at the Dialectics of Liberation congress in London, where he delivers one of the most concise, clear and beautifully aggressive displays of his political thinking. The congress, with panel discussions that lasted two weeks and eventually spurred a generation of political activists across Europe, had initially been organized around the issue of oppression and individual freedom in Western society. It really started off on the more serious questions of institutional violence and international resistance when mainly two contributors put the Third World on the agenda there, Stokely Carmichael and Monthly Review’s co-editor Paul Sweezy.

Sweezy’s analysis was an eye-opener on the global economics and power structures of capitalism:

Development on the one side and underdevelopment on the other are in mutual and dialectical interdependence. […] Capitalist development inevitably produces development at one pole and underdevelopment at the other. (David Cooper (Ed), To Free a Generation: The Dialectics of Liberation [Penguin Books, 1968], 102-103)

For Stokely, “the American working class enjoys the fruits of the labours of the Third World workers.” As a consequence, “we are going to hook up with the Third World. We are fighting to save our humanity. We are indeed fighting to save the humanity of the world.” He went to great lengths explaining that Black Power was all about cultural integrity against a system of cultural imposition and institutional racism. He also pointed at the fact that, within one year, the “Hell No!” campaign had already grown into a solid resistance movement against the military draft. (Ibid., 150f)

At the time, my modest self was just a young teenager, and covering the congress my first participation in an editorial for one of the ‘Underground’ publications. After heated debates during a late-night walk through London’s Notting Hill district with Stokely and mutual friends, he suddenly told me, “Boy, yuh really wanna do something useful, yuh contact these people,” pulling out a piece of paper with an address in my hometown. So much so for his practical streak and the start of my involvement in a Europe-wide network encouraging and helping GIs escape to Sweden instead of being sent to Vietnam.

Meanwhile, Stokely’s congress interventions were leading to memorable Black Power gatherings at Africa House, demonstrations all over England, and an expulsion order from the UK government. He is delighted to meet with CLR James several times and, from London, starts a hallucinating journey around the world.

As a ‘honorary delegate’, he attends the OLAS conference in Havana, where for the first time he uses the term “Black Liberation Movement of the U.S.” and reaffirms its attachment to the Third World’s struggles. He explains Black Power as “the union of the Negro population of the U.S. with the oppressed peoples of the rest of the world. It is the struggle against capitalism and imperialism that oppress us from within and oppress you from without.” In a message on Radio Havana he reiterates that “we are no longer going to allow our enemies to make us fight against you.” (Granma, August 13, 1967)

After a week of discussions with Fidel Castro, Melba Hernandez and other Cuban revolutionaries, he embarks on a plane to Vietnam. Already in the air, his plane is ordered back after information that CIA agents are waiting for him in Madrid to send him back to the States and retain his passport. Another plane via Moscow and Beijing takes him to Hanoi, where he is received by Pham Van Dong and Ho Chi Minh. He continues to Algeria, Guinea and Tanzania, where he meets with political leaders and combatants from most of the African liberation movements. With the help of Shirley Du Bois, he meets African leader Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea’s president Sékou Touré, with whom he will remain closely connected for the years to follow.

Everywhere I went an exciting sense of movement. And I knew my people in America had to move along with it. I truly became aware of being part of a uniquely favored historical generation. A worldwide generation entrusted by history with opportunity for struggle and progress, in which we all had a responsibility. (Ready for Revolution, 608)

Before returning to the U.S., Stokely Carmichael is a jury member at the International War Crimes Tribunal on Vietnam during its second session in Denmark. At a press conference in Paris he greets the growing convergence of the anti-war and student movements in the U.S. with the Afro-American struggles and their paradigm shift “from protest to resistance.”

Back in New York in December that year, his passport is confiscated and withheld for ten months on the pretext of his stance on Vietnam. He continues organizational work for SNCC, whose chairmanship he had given up before leaving the States, and starts laying the foundations for an international coalition of peoples of African descent. For a short while, and despite political differences, he accepts to be the Black Panther Party’s ‘Honorary Prime Minister’, while Martin Luther King Jr is assassinated, and government and media pressure is building up against ‘the movement’ as a whole. He marries South African activist and singer Miriam Makeba, with whom he emigrates to Guinea after an eventful 1968. At the time, he assumes that this decision “would only be a ‘change of location’ within the same struggle.” (Ready for Revolution, 626)

In 1972, he helps Kwame Nkrumah establish the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, calling for “the total liberation and unification of Africa under scientific socialism,” and eventually changes his name to Kwame Turé. In the decades that follow, he dedicates much of his energy and time in building party branches among African diaspora communities in North America, Europe and the Caribbean, while acknowledging that times are changing, and not exactly in favour of the movements that had erupted so sharply during the early 1960s. Nonetheless, while struggling with cancer for the last few years of his life, his fighting spirit remains unbroken:

In the liberation struggles of Africans and all oppressed and exploited peoples—some unfolding over generations, even centuries—there are low points and reverses. That’s all. The struggle continues. (Ibid., 729)