November 23, 2003
'Ready for Revolution': Stokely Speaks
In June 1966 Stokely Standiford Churchill Carmichael, the newly elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, jolted white America by demanding ''Black Power.'' Barely 25 years old and, as described by the historian Howard Zinn, looking ready ''to stride cool and smiling through hell,'' Carmichael became the news media's black ogre of choice as he spurned nonviolence, integration and coalition with white liberals in favor of black pride, solidarity and militancy. Widely shunned as a malevolent provocateur, censured by the N.A.A.C.P.'s Roy Wilkins and Vice President Hubert Humphrey as racist and hounded by the F.B.I., Carmichael moved to Conakry, Guinea, with his first wife, the South African singer Miriam Makeba. He later took the name Kwame Ture to honor two African Marxist leaders and mentors, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea.
Five years after his death from prostate cancer, Carmichael's memoir, ''Ready for Revolution,'' written with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, blends shrewd reflection with standard-issue slogans for revolution against ''racism, imperialism, neocolonialism and capitalist exploitation.''
Carmichael recounts growing up in a close-knit, pious, upwardly mobile extended family that brought him from Trinidad to New York when he was 11. His education spanned the streets of Harlem and the East Bronx as well as the elite Bronx High School of Science and rallies of the Young Communist League and Socialist youth groups, where he joined in ''singing 'Hava Nagila' and dancing the hora.'' In 1960 he began pre-med studies at Howard University, but the tide of black protest in the South soon displaced medicine as his passion, a shift that crystallized while he spent seven weeks in Mississippi's Parchman prison for taking part in Freedom Rides to desegregate interstate bus travel. ''I reasoned that I wanted to treat people before they became ill,'' he writes, ''not after their health was fatally compromised by social evils.'' Soon he was thriving in remote rural outposts as an organizer, protest strategist and ''freedom school'' teacher.
Carmichael brings to searing life torments like the use of cattle prods by police officers. ''When those points touched your skin,'' he writes, ''the pain was sharp and excruciating, at once a jolting shock and a burn. You could actually see (three puffs of smoke) and smell (the odor of roasting flesh) your skin burning.'' Such passages help readers glimpse why Carmichael came to view appeals to America's conscience as grievously inadequate.
His journey from faith to cynicism about America's potential for democratic change led through Mississippi in June 1964, when the federal government shrank from protecting civil rights workers and three volunteers -- James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner -- were murdered. His doubts deepened later that summer at the Democratic Party's national convention in Atlantic City, when white liberals helped President Lyndon Johnson quash a challenge to Mississippi's segregationist delegation for fear of losing Southern white support -- a serious failure of vision, principle and leadership.'' And in Lowndes County, Ala., in August 1965, a white seminary student, Jonathan Daniels, whom Carmichael had reluctantly allowed to join a black picket line, was shot to death. Carmichael's mother recalled driving up with him in unbroken silence from New York to the New Hampshire home of Daniels's parents: ''I had never seen my son like that. Silent, grim, like a heavy, heavy weight was pressing on him. . . . I do think that this was the hardest thing my son ever had to do in the movement.''
By the time Carmichael replaced SNCC's apostle of nonviolence, John Lewis, as chairman in May 1966, the passage of civil rights laws could no longer relieve his anguish and anger about blacks who had risked beatings, jailings and death for what now seemed uncertain gains. In June the shooting of James Meredith, a young black man beginning a 220-mile ''March Against Fear'' to encourage blacks in Mississippi to register to vote, gave Carmichael a platform to convey his people's changing mood. Emerging from a jail in Greenwood, where police had abused blacks who were continuing Meredith's march, Carmichael declared: ''We been saying freedom for six years -- and we ain't got nothin'. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!''
Most accounts of the march emphasize a ''struggle'' between Martin Luther King Jr., with his focus on integration and nonviolence, and Carmichael, shouting his fiery new slogan. ''Utter, utter nonsense,'' Carmichael counters. ''The fondest memories I have of Dr. King come from that march. . . . During those sweltering Delta days Dr. King became to many of us no longer a symbol or an icon, but a warm, funny, likable, unpretentious human being.'' (King remained warmly protective of him even while deploring the term ''Black Power'' as unwisely provocative.)
Carmichael's stand against interracial alliances met sharp rebuffs. The unshakable sage of coalition politics, Bayard Rustin, branded Carmichael's perspective ''simultaneously utopian and reactionary.'' Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party castigated Carmichael, saying, ''What seems to escape you is that there is not going to be any revolution or black liberation in the United States as long as revolutionary blacks, whites, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Indians, Chinese and Eskimos are unwilling or unable to unite.''
Surprisingly, Carmichael answers his critics only intermittently in ''Ready for Revolution.'' He glosses over landmarks like SNCC's expulsion of whites in December 1966 and his own later ouster from the organization because of both his maverick oratory and his role as ''honorary prime minister'' of the Black Panther Party, a Marxist group often at odds with SNCC. He also mutes how drastic a departure the slogan ''Black Power'' was from familiar civil rights refrains. Noting that he had long preached the need for power in black communities, he says: ''The only difference was that this time the national media were there. And most of them had never experienced the passion and fervor of a mass meeting before.'' Yet in 1989 he had told an interviewer that when an aide prodded him to shout ''Black Power'' instead of ''Freedom Now,'' he nervously replied: ''Give me time! Give me time!'' ''To be honest,'' Carmichael said then, ''I didn't expect that enthusiastic response.''
That Carmichael's book exists at all, though it was in embryonic form at his death in 1998, owes much to Thelwell, a fellow activist since their days at Howard and a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who assembled chapters from Carmichael's taped narratives and instructions, and inserted passages from books and clippings on SNCC and from talks with people close to Carmichael. Sadly, Thelwell has charged steep interest on this intellectual debt by interjecting arch editorial remarks like ''Hah!'' and ''Indeed?'' throughout the text. Thelwell's insults and attempts to settle old scores fit poorly in Carmichael's generally high-minded memoir.
Although vigorous in pressing his views, Thelwell is less vigilant in patrolling for stylistic lapses and factual errors. Protesting Army veterans staged their ''Bonus March'' at the White House in 1932, not in 1920, and John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, not in January 1960. More surprising are the misreported milestones in Carmichael's life and SNCC's history. ''Ready for Revolution'' asserts that until 1966 ''SNCC had always only had two elected officers: John Lewis, chairman, and Jim Forman, executive secretary''; Marion Barry was elected SNCC's first chairman in April 1960 and Charles McDew took over in October, serving until John Lewis succeeded him in 1963. Both Carmichael and Thelwell separately refer to Carmichael's book ''Black Power'' as having appeared in 1968, though it was published in 1967. (A year is no trivial measure in SNCC's history: in 1967 Carmichael was still a leading spokesman, but in 1968 he was fired, ostensibly for failing to clear his speeches with the national office.)
Despite its shortcomings, ''Ready for Revolution'' captures Carmichael's electrifying moments in the national spotlight and his emblematic journey from nonviolent integrationist to advocate of black power and Pan-African revolution. His faith in ultimate justice further buoys his memoir, as does his abiding gratitude at ''being part of a uniquely favored historical generation'' that ''presented black youth with an unprecedented opportunity to engage society militantly.''
Robert Weisbrot, the author of ''Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement,'' teaches American history at Colby College in Maine.