Obituary: Stokely Carmichael

Rupert Cornwell
Tuesday 17 November 1998 00:02 GMT

WHEN THE black power movement scared much of white America out of its wits, no star burned in its firmament fiercer and less compromising than that of Stokely Carmichael. Thirty years on, the names still have a heroic ring: Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Leroi Jones, Eldridge Cleaver and, of course, Carmichael himself.

Of them all, Carmichael stayed truest to his original principles. Not for him recantation and conversion to Reaganism like Cleaver. Not for him the compromises of Seale, who accepted an alliance with white radicals to further the struggle. For Carmichael, the very notion was a sell-out. In 1969 he decamped to Guinea, where he spent the rest of his life advocating a unified socialist PanAfrican state - the last hope, he said, for blacks to break the white race's stranglehold on global power.

Stokely Carmichael was a rebel almost from the moment he set foot on American soil. He was born in Trinidad, but at the age of 11 went to join his parents, who had emigrated to find work in Harlem when he was two. Long afterwards he raged against the British education he received in one of His Majesty's colonies. "At school we were made to memorise Kipling's `White Man's Burden', and told we didn't exist till a white man called Sir Walter Raleigh discovered us," he declared in 1967. "We went to the movies and yelled for Tarzan to beat the hell out of Africa."

At least Trinidad was ostensibly black-run. Not so Harlem and the United States of the 1950s, where white police protected white wealth, white politicians passed white laws and the blacks just had to lump it.

By the time he left high school, he was emerging as a left-wing radical, a student of Marx and Darwin, appalled at the brutal treatment meted out to blacks resisting segregation in the South, beamed nightly on the television screen. He joined the picket lines and found himself on the wrong end of the truncheons: "After a few beatings, I realised it was either them or me. I preferred me." The future black militant was born.

Turning down scholarships at several white universities, he chose the predominantly black Howard University in Washington DC. After graduating in 1964, he threw himself full-time into the civil rights struggle. As an organiser for the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee, he spent most of the next three years in the South, helping set up schools and clinics for blacks, and raising the number of registered black voters. For his pains he was arrested some three dozen times (by the end he had lost count). But the young man had style, looks, and was a spellbinding orator to boot. One admirer described him as "a Nubian god". Another remarked how he "gave the impression he could walk through Dixie in broad daylight, using the Confederate flag for a handkerchief".

His defining moment came on 16 June 1966, a month after being elected chairman of the SNCC. He had just been released after yet another arrest, and was addressing a crowd in Greenwood, Mississippi: "What we are going to start saying now is: `Black Power'," he told his audience. The phrase galvanised, polarised and ultimately split black America. Not only were whites horrified: Martin Luther King, striving to achieve black equality through nonviolence, termed it "an unfortunate choice of words".

In the subsequent book, called inevitably Black Power (1967), Carmichael claimed he was merely calling for unity among black people; but his speeches talked of "smashing everything white civilisation has created," and, as race riots swept the US in 1967 and 1968, Carmichael became the incarnation of violent black separatism and nationalism. The SNCC broke with him in 1967, and that year he was appointed honorary prime minister of the Black Panthers, the militant black group founded by Newton and Seale.

Even the Panthers proved too moderate for Carmichael, as they opted to seek support among radical whites. "America does not belong to the blacks," he thundered as he broke in turn with them too. In response, Cleaver, the Panthers' Minister for Information, wrote an open letter chiding him for his "paranoid fear" of whites. For Carmichael however the only way to fight racism was with racism.

In April 1969, accompanied by his first wife, Miriam Makeba, the South African-born singer, he left the US for Africa, urging all America's blacks to do likewise. He set up home in Guinea and later changed his name to Kwame Ture, after Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader of an independent Ghana, and Sekou Toure, the president of Guinea and the sole leader in former French Africa who had spurned the patronage of de Gaulle when his country won independence. There he studied French, continued to advocate revolution, and took up the cause of Pan-Africanism under the banner of Nkrumah's All-African People's Revolutionary Party.

Increasingly, in his African fastness, he became little more than a historical curiosity. He devoted much time to fighting the corners of outcast countries like Libya and Cuba. The Marxism he still espoused was all but dead, even in Africa. In the US, meanwhile, a genuine black middle class had emerged, and blacks were ascending to positions of real political power in big cities. But sheer unswerving zealotry earned its own respect. One thousand people, including leaders of the black establishment he so despised, attended a testimonial dinner for him in Washington dinner in April this year. Most knew Carmichael was dying of cancer (typically, he claimed he had been infected with the disease by the FBI).

This was a last chance to pay tribute - not because they agreed with him, but because they wanted to thank him for manning the barricades when the barricades were truly dangerous. To the end, he kept his rhetorical swagger and his style. Often he wore the green fatigues of a soldier in the Guinean army. "Since we shed blood sporadically and in a disorganised manner for reform," he wrote in his 1992 postscript to Black Power, "let us permanently organise ourselves and make revolution." Stokely Carmichael, if few of his erstwhile followers and fellow travellers, tried to live up to that aspiration, right down to the way he answered the phone: "Ready for the Revolution . . ."

Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), political activist: born Port-of-Spain, Trinidad 29 June 1941; twice married (two sons); died Conakry, Guinea 15 November 1998.

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