Kwame Toure, 1960s' Carmichael, dies Civil rights activist conceived 'black power,' supported pan-Africanism

November 16, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Kwame Toure, the flamboyant civil rights leader known to most Americans as Stokely Carmichael, died yesterday in Conakry, Guinea. He was 57 and is best remembered for his use of the phrase "black power," which in 1967 ignited a white backlash and alarmed an older generation of civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The cause of death was prostate cancer, for which Mr. Toure had been treated at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York in the past two years. He once said his cancer "was given to me by forces of American imperialism and others who conspired with them."

Mr. Toure, who changed his name in 1978 to honor Kwame Nkrumah and Ahmed Sekou Toure, two African socialist leaders who had befriended him, spent most of the last 30 years in Guinea, calling himself a revolutionary and advocating a Pan-African ideology.

Though his active participation in the struggle for civil rights in the United States lasted barely a decade, he was a charismatic figure in a turbulent time, when violence and rhetoric escalated on both sides of the color line.

Stokely Carmichael was inspired to participate in the civil rights movement by the bravery of those blacks and whites who protested segregated service with sit-ins at lunch counters in the South.

"When I first heard about the Negroes sitting in at lunch counters down South," he told Gordon Parks in Life magazine, "I thought they were just a bunch of publicity hounds. But one night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch-counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair -- well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was burning."

Rejecting scholarships from several white universities, he entered Howard University in Washington in 1960.

By the end of his freshman year, he had joined the Freedom Rides of the Congress of Racial Equality, hazardous bus trips of blacks and whites that challenged segregated interstate travel in the South and often met with violence.

Graduating with a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Howard in 1964, he joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

As an SNCC field organizer in Lowndes County in Alabama, where blacks were in the majority but were politically powerless, he helped raise the number of registered black voters to 2,600 from a mere 70 -- 300 more than the number of whites registered to vote.

Displeased by the response of the established parties to the success of the registration drive, he organized the all-black Lowndes County Freedom Organization, which, to fulfill a state requirement that all parties have a logo, took a black panther as its symbol. The panther was later adopted by the Black Panther Party.

Mr. Carmichael was arrested so many times as a nonviolent volunteer that he lost count after 32. His growing impatience with the tactics of passive resistance was gaining support, and in 1966 he was chosen as chairman of SNCC, replacing John Lewis, a hard-working integrationist who is now a congressman from Georgia.

Barely a month after his selection, Mr. Carmichael, then just 25, raised the call for black power, thereby signaling a crossroads in the civil rights struggle. Increasingly uncomfortable with King's resolute nonviolence, he sensed a shift among some younger blacks in the direction of black separatism.

In 1966 and 1967 Mr. Carmichael lectured at campuses around the United States and traveled to countries including North Vietnam, China and Cuba. He made perhaps his most provocative statement in Havana. "We are preparing groups of urban guerrillas for our defense in the cities," he said. "It is going to be a fight to the death."

In 1967 a declining SNCC severed all ties with him. Soon afterward he became honorary prime minister of the Black Panthers, the ultramilitant urban organization begun by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.

But he soon found himself embroiled with the other Panther leaders for opposing their decision to seek support among whites. He moved to Guinea, in West Africa, in 1969, saying, "America does not belong to the blacks," and calling on all black Americans to follow his example.

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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