Despite rhetoric, Stokely deserves America's thanks

November 21, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

THE FIRST TIME I SAW him was on a television newscast -- or it may have been a documentary -- with the inchoate Afro, the ebony complexion and the large eyes that seemed oh-so-innocent above the mouth that chanted the words, "We want black power!"

It was 1966. Stokely Carmichael was then chairman of the radical wing of the the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights movement better known as SNCC. Carmichael shouted the words along the road to Greenwood, Miss. SNCC members had picked up the march where James Meredith had left off. In 1962, Meredith was the first black admitted to the University of Mississippi law school. He started his summer of 1966 with a march across Mississippi alone, to show blacks in the state they had nothing to fear.

Early in Meredith's trek, someone showed him there was plenty to fear. Meredith was shot and had to be hospitalized. SNCC workers marched on. It was on the road to Greenwood that Carmichael and other SNCC workers chanted the phrase that changed the agenda, the tempo and the tactics of the civil rights movement. With at least six civil rights workers killed in Alabama or Mississippi in a two-year period, SNCC members had reached a crossroads. They had come to a decision: no more Mr. Nice Guys.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference head Martin Luther King Jr. felt the term "black power" was divisive and told Carmichael so. The phrase went over with other civil rights leaders like a horde of fire ants at a picnic. But the die was cast. Carmichael and SNCC had redefined the movement. From 1966 on, there were two camps: the black nationalist wing -- SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality, which gave their white members the boot -- and the integrationist wing of King's SCLC, the NAACP and the Urban League. It would be black militants -- with Carmichael and his successor as SNCC chairman, H. Rap Brown, being tagged as lead militants -- vs. black moderates: King, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Whitney Young of the Urban League.

All these memories flashed back to me when I learned that Carmichael, who changed his name to Kwame Toure, died this past Sunday. Those memories passed quickly. The others, the ones of the Carmichael I heard speak in person, lingered a bit.

It was here in Baltimore. The year was 1970. I'm not sure where Stokely -- that's what we all called him before he became Kwame Toure, just Stokely, because there was only one -- spoke. But I listened to the radical Stokely, the post-SNCC Stokely, who had spent time studying in Guinea with deposed Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah.

"If white police don't leave our communities," Carmichael proclaimed, "they will be killed." Within days, two white policemen were shot to death on Baltimore's streets. Carmichael went back to Guinea but returned to the United States frequently. To this day I've wondered why neither the FBI nor Baltimore police tried to nail him for inciting to something-or-other in the deaths of those two cops.

Revolting as the utterance was, I continued to attend Carmichael's speeches. He formed the All-African People's Revolutionary Party, dedicated, he claimed, to the unification of all Africa.

At one African Liberation Day symposium, someone questioned him about the AAPRP program. Carmichael repeated the goal: the unification of all Africa under a government devoted to scientific socialism.

"All of it?" the questioner asked?

"All of it," Carmichael answered.

I sat in the audience and slapped my hand to my forehead.

"Stokely," I said to myself. "That's not a program. That's a fantasy. Who's going to be the Genghis Khan, the Josef Stalin, who's going to conquer all those countries and hold them together under one government? And how many millions would he have to kill to achieve it?"

Yet I returned year after year. It wasn't just for his oratory -- Stokely could tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in such a way as to make you want to go out and tar and feather Goldilocks. It was as if I felt I owed him something.

And I did. In fact, all Americans do. In spite of his rhetoric and beliefs in his later years, the Carmichael of the civil rights era should be hailed as a genuine American hero. While with SNCC, he was a brilliant organizer for the organization's voter registration campaign. When Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife, was killed on the road from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama on March 25, 1965, Carmichael knew the Ku Klux Klan was sending a signal to civil rights workers to steer clear of Lowndes County. Carmichael went straight from his work in Mississippi to Lowndes County, Ala., to show the forces of racist thuggery that civil rights workers would not be intimidated. He went armed only with his talent for organizing.

Kwame Toure's contributions to the civil rights movement have been overlooked and underrated over the years. But for risking his life to make certain that all Americans should have the right to vote, we owe him our thanks and admiration.

Pub Date: 11/21/98

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