Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure, or Tore), who served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and prime minister of the Black Panther Party, was a major black militant figure of the 1960s and a prominent advocate of Pan-Africanism. Carmichael was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, on June 29, 1941. His Panamanian-born mother, Mabel, went to Trinidad as a teenager, married Adolphus Carmichael, a carpenter, and then emigrated to the United States during World War 11. At the age of 11, Stokely Carmichael, along with other members of the family, joined his mother in Harlem. He became a naturalized citizen in 1954. After the family moved to an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, Carmichael won admission to the selective Bronx High School of Science, graduating in 1960. While attending high school, he became a friend of the son of Communist Party leader Eugene Dennis (q.v.), through whom he met several veteran black radicals. Active in Socialist youth politics, he joined a Marxist discussion group and participated in demonstrations against the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
After enrolling at Howard University, Carmichael joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) and participated in student protests against segregated facilities in the Washington, D.C., area. In 1961 he joined a "freedom ride" to Jackson, Mississippi, where he was arrested after entering the waiting room reserved for whites. In Parchman Penitentiary, he strengthened his ties with other movement activists and briefly considered dropping out of school to work full-time with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which had been formed in 1960. Convinced by his parents that he should return to Howard, Carmichael remained active in the protest movement. As an NAG representative at SNCC meetings, he stressed economic concerns rather than simply a focus on desegregation. In addition to his academic studies at Howard, his activities included freedom rides in Maryland, mass demonstrations in Albany, Georgia, and a hospital workers strike in New York.
Graduating in 1964 with a degree in philosophy, Carmichael joined SNCC's staff as director of a summer voter registration project in the second Congressional district of Mississippi. He and other black activists increasingly exhibited racial militancy, especially after Democratic Party leaders at the 1964 convention refused to unseat the regular, all-white Mississippi delegation in favor of the delegation of the Freedom Democratic Party. Though he maintained close relations with white radicals in SNCC, he became increasingly dubious about the prospects of interracial activism within the existing political structure. He left Mississippi in the winter of 1965 to help Alabama blacks form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, an all-black, independent political group that became better known as the Black Panther Party.
In May 1966 Carmichael was elected chairman of SNCC, and soon afterward, as a result of his speeches on a march through Mississippi, he became nationally prominent as a proponent of "black power." During the following year, Carmichael delivered hundreds of speeches arguing for black unity and for a redefinition of the relationship between blacks and white liberal allies. Although he opposed the decision to expel whites from SNCC, he joined with Black Nationalists in stressing the primacy of racial unity over class unity as a basis for future black struggles. After relinquishing the SNCC chairmanship in 1967, he made a controversial trip to Cuba, China, North Vietnam, and finally to Guinea, where he conferred with exiled Ghanian leader Kwame Nkrumah, who became his Pan-Africanist mentor. Returning to the United States with the intention of forming Black United Front groups through the nation, he accepted an invitation to become prime minister of the Oakland-based Black Panther Party. His black separatist stance resulted in conflicts with other Panther leaders, including Eldridge Cleaver (q.v.) and Huey Newton (q.v.), who saw themselves as Marxist-Leninists. Despite these ideological disagreements, Carmichael remained associated with the Panthers even after the breakup, in August 1968, of the party's short-lived alliance with SNCC. During 1968 he married South African singer Miriam Makeba and later established permanent residency in Guinea. After he became the target of criticism in Panther publications, he resigned his position.
As a follower of Nkrumah, Carmichael helped to form the All-African People's Revolutionary Party (AAPRP) in 1972, which called for "the total liberation and unification of Africa under scientific socialism." On subsequent speaking tours in the United States, he argued against black alliances with white leftists and for a redirection of the energies of Afro-American radicals toward the goal of African liberation. During the 1970s, Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Toure (after Nkrumah and Guinean leader Sekou Toure). Carmichael remains active in the leadership of the AAPRP.
In Biographical Dictionary of the American Left,
edited by Bernard K. Johnpoll and Harvey Klehr.
New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.
SOURCES: Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981); Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964).