Each year as we revisit the civil rights movement and the contributions of African-Americans, those of us old enough to remember the movement and the violent and turbulent decade of the 1960s, will recall vivid memories of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, among others. The movement contained dozens of highly gifted and intellectual activists whose rhetoric and charisma often galvanized an entire audience. Among these gifted orators was Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture. Although he died on November 15, 1998 after a battle with prostate cancer, his legacy continues and he is remembered by many as one of the most passionate and controversial voices at the time.
The native of Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, left a mark on America, even after relocating to Guinea under the government of Ahmed Sékou Touré. As we look back on his life in this phenomenal biography by Peniel E. Joseph, we are able to revisit a life that was nothing short of extraordinary and spanned across three continents. Present at nearly every major event of the movement and associate of many of its pioneers, his actions and movements resulted in both praise and consternation from his peers. His fiery and passionate speeches, encouraging armed struggle, earned him the wrath of several presidents and a spot on the FBI’s list of racial radicals. He was so despised, that the U.S. government even attempted to prevent him from leaving the country. And throughout all of this and much more, Carmichael remained committed to the struggle with the full intent of overturning what he saw as an unjust and morally corrupt government and society.
Reading about icons is never easy for that they have as many negative traits as they do positive. We sometimes make them out to be larger than life but in the process often forget that they are also human. Failed romances, a troubled marriage, adultery and accusations of misogyny, plagued Carmichael throughout his life. And for some of his peers, his words were far more extreme than they were willing to accept. Thoroughly researched and presented in an engaging style that keeps the reading stuck to the pages, the book is a gem and a pleasure to read. In publishing this masterful work, Joseph as done a service to Carmichael’s legacy. We also revisit the friendships and enemies that were mainstays of his life which including Eldridge Cleaver, Huey P. Newton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Idi Amin and Harry Belafonte to name a few. And is through these relationships and the public battles he waged, that Kwame Ture was eventually born.
His tragic death at the age of 57, prevented him from seeing the results from the monumental efforts put forth by activists and Carmichael himself. If he were alive today, perhaps he would still be calling for Pan-Africanism and armed struggled. But I do believe he would feel vindicated by his prior radical beliefs. Jim Crow has long been demolished and America has made great strides in living up to the reputation as the land of freedom and democracy. Far from perfect, the nation continues to reexamine itself in the effort to move forward progressively. And as we do move forward, Stokely’s words will be there to remind us of the pitfalls of oppression and ignorance. He will always been controversial to many but we can all agree that he remains one of the most colorful and dynamic figures in the history of the civil rights movement.