Remembering Stokely Carmichael

Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) in 1967
Photo: Duke University Archives. Durham, North Carolina, USA. Creative Commons

By Russell Neufeld, BA RUP ’69

In the Spring of 1967, Stokely Carmichael spoke at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont and at the University of Vermont in Burlington. At the time, Carmichael was the chairman of SNCC – The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was a leading organization of the Civil Rights Movement and Carmichael was its leading spokesperson.

Stokely Carmichael was a charismatic leader, speaker and grass roots organizer. He was among the most prominent and well known leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70’s. Carmichael immigrated to New York City from Trinidad, at the age of eleven. He attended the Bronx High School of Science and Howard University, where he became active in SNCC and participated in the Freedom Rides.  Later in life, he took the African name “Kwame Ture.”  

Stokely Carmichael was known for popularizing the slogan “BLACK POWER”, which became a movement, much as the “Black Lives Matter” slogan has been taken up today. The demand for “Black Power” was seen by some as being in opposition to the traditional civil rights organizations’ goal of integration. As a result, Carmichael was enduring a blistering attack from more conservative elements of the movement; not to mention from outright white supremacists. 

Not only was Carmichael a gifted speaker, but he was a great listener; which helped make him a great organizer. He was one of those rare leaders who never got too full of himself. I was a student at Goddard and active in SDS, Students For A Democratic Society. Carmichael and I had known each other for nearly two years and I had arranged his Vermont speaking engagements.  I attended both those presentations and spent most of the days surrounding his talks in discussions with him. Much of the analysis he offered then has not, to my knowledge, been reported. What one of our most important leaders thought and why he thought it, is of value in understanding the Black freedom movement then and now.

Stokely Carmichael’s analysis in the Spring of ’67 made a deep impression on me. So much so, that I remember it now, more than a half century later. The gist of it was his very real concern that Black people in America were facing the possibility of genocide. He said that Black people in the U.S. were becoming less and less essential to the economy. Technological changes meant that people who had once picked cotton and built the economies of both the South and the Northern textile industry, were no longer needed. To the extent that cheap labor was still necessary, it would be found in the Third World. A despised minority, once subjected to violence to keep them in their place as an essential part of the economy, were becoming wholly expendable. The popular view on the left then was that Black people formed a permanent reserve army of labor. Necessary in times of growth and expendable in times of economic contraction. Last hired; first fired. 

But Carmichael saw that changing.

He foresaw a not-too-distant future where the white supremacists’ hatred of Black people would change from violence used to control, to violence used to destroy.

However, he didn’t see genocide as inevitable. He saw it as a possibility that we could prevent through organizing. Carmichael was a strong believer in grassroots organizing. It had worked for SNCC in the South and he believed it could work throughout the U.S.. The organization of the masses of Black people to be able to prevent, to defend itself, and survive such an onslaught became paramount. The re-positioning of SNCC’s white supporters from ringing on Black people’s doorbells to ringing on white people’s doorbells – to build an anti-racist movement among whites -also became crucial. He encouraged those of us in SDS to move beyond our campus base and organize back in the broader white communities. He was a firm believer in the ability of oppressed people to shape their own destiny.

I first met Stokely Carmichael in August of 1965. At the time, he was SNCC’s lead organizer in Lowndes County, Alabama. Lowndes was one of the poorest counties in America. Unemployment was astronomical among Black people. Those who could find work, found it mostly in Montgomery. The need for agricultural labor, the historic basis of Lowndes’ economy, was on a steep decline. 

Taylor Branch, the great historian of the civil rights movement, wrote, “Lowndes County retained a filmy past of lynchings nearly unmatched.” 

All the social, economic and legal structures that had been put in place in the South to maintain a slave society – Jim Crow laws, debt peonage and Klan/police terror – were fully present in what was known as “Bloody Lowndes.”  On March 25, 1965, following the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights march, where the Selma cops nearly beat the marchers to death, a white civil rights worker, Viola Liuzzo, was driving a young Black activist, Leroy Moton, from Selma to Montgomery. They were driving through Lowndes and were attacked with gunfire by four KKK members, including an FBI informant. Viola Liuzzo was killed. The Klan hated “race traitors” as much as they despised Black people. Many SNCC workers were concerned that the presence of white supporters would only further inflame Klan violence. It was at that time, during the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march, that Carmichael and other SNCC leaders decided to go into Lowndes County.

At the beginning of 1965, as Carmichael wrote, “of a population of fifteen thousand, twelve thousand were Africans, not a one of whom could vote.”  (Ready For Revolution-The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael {Kwame Ture} 457)

SNCC and Lowndes County veteran, Courtland Cox believed there were actually four registered Black voters in Lowndes when SNCC arrived.

So, SNCC started a voter registration campaign. After evaluating the chilly reception the national Democratic Party had given the year before to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, SNCC and the local Black activists decided to start an independent political party. They formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization and the Lowndes County Freedom Party. It soon became known for its symbol, as the Black Panther Party.  

Then, as Carmichael told it, “the plantation bosses got even meaner…, [made] an attempt to drive out the African population before they became voters. African workers were run off the plantation for registering. Sharecropper families were run off the land, their crops abandoned in the fields. It was cruel to see” (RFR 464). 

Most of those driven off the land left Lowndes, but many stayed. SNCC built a tent city for them. The Klan initiated a terror campaign against the encampment. Night riders repeatedly drove by and shot it up. Residents returned fire. The tent city became an organizing incubator, as well as a focus of Klan terror. 

On August 14, 1965, a group of 29 local Black Lowndes County adults, teens and children, and SNCC workers – including Carmichael and two white people – staged a peaceful protest in Fort Deposit. They were surrounded by Klansmen, arrested and taken to the county jail in Haynesville. The youngest children were released, but the rest were held. Carmichael was one of two prisoners who were bailed out with the job of organizing bail money, lawyers and escorts for the rest. But, before they accomplished their tasks, on August 20, the entire group was suddenly released. They were suspicious and asked the sheriff’s deputies why they were being freed without posting bail. They were told to stop asking questions and just get out. 

Four of the group walked towards a nearby store to buy sodas. They were seventeen year old Ruby Sales from Columbus, Georgia, nineteen year old Joyce Baily from Lowndes, Jonathan Daniels, a white Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire, and Father Richard Morrisroe, a white Catholic priest from Chicago. Sitting in front of the store was Tom Coleman, a special deputy sheriff, armed with a shotgun and a pistol. He shouted something about “black bitches” and aimed the shotgun at Ruby Sales, As he fired, Daniels pushed Sales to the ground and took the full blast of the gun. He was killed instantly. Father Morrisroe grabbed Joyce Bailey and they began to run, Coleman fired again, hitting Morrisroe in the back, but failing to kill him. Sales and Baily ran, Coleman fired after them, but missed.  

The murder of a white seminarian was big, national news. Carmichael brought Ruby Sales and Joyce Baily to New York, both to just get them out of Lowndes and to hold a press conference. They arrived at the New York SNCC office, where I volunteered, in the morning. The press conference was scheduled for early that afternoon. Carmichael asked me and another white volunteer, Joe Pisaretski, to take care of Sales and Baily until the press conference. We took them to a nearby luncheonette. Both women were still in shock. 

I was the same age as Ruby Sales, seventeen. We were really both still children. I felt very unprepared to know what to do. Joe Pisaretski and I tried to tell them about New York, in an effort to take their minds off what they’d been through. Sales would start talking and then, suddenly, in mid-sentence, stop. She looked like she was in a trance. I did not really understand what was happening, but assumed her mind kept going back to that terrible event. I was at a loss to help. I could only imagine what she’d been through.  After some time, we returned to the SNCC office for the press conference.  

The press conference went well. Carmichael and the women were forceful and eloquent. It made the national news that evening. But I could see that Stokely Carmichael was devastated by what had happened. He was just 24 years old and felt enormously responsible. His mother, Mrs. Mabel Carmichael, described it. “I had never seen my son like that. Silent, grim, like a heavy, heavy weight was pressing on him. He told me the young man was his friend. That he’d told him not to come.” 

She drove with him to Keene, New Hampshire to see Jonathan Daniel’s parents. “The three of them went into another room. I believe Stokely was crying…I do think this was the hardest thing my son ever did in the movement” (RFR 470). 

Coleman was tried and acquitted by an all-white jury. 

Coleman later said he had no regrets. “I would shoot them both tomorrow.” 

When I visited Lowndes nine years later, some local political power had indeed been won by the Black majority. But it was still poor as dirt. That experience in 1965 showed me first-hand, though from the relative safety of New York City, what a toll the struggle could take on my fellow human beings and what sacrifices many people were making for freedom. 

Stokely Carmichael’s 1967 analysis of the possibility of a Black genocide was based on a history of thousands of lynchings, massacres and shootings, and personally witnessing Klan/police terror as a Freedom Rider, a SNCC organizer in the Mississippi Delta and in Lowndes. I believe it was also the result of his high school experience. For Carmichael, genocide was not an abstract possibility. He had attended Bronx High School of Science beginning in 1956. Most of the students at Bronx Science then were Jews. They were just a few years removed from the holocaust. Some were survivors themselves or their parents were or they were relatives of those who had not survived. They were some of Carmichael’s best friends and made up much of his social and political world. He joined leftist study groups, joined in demonstrations and attended political camps. 

“In the evening after the discussions, we’d have little parties. I will always remember these parties as ending with our singing “Hava Nageela” and dancing the hora.” (RFR 93) 

To these children the idea that one group of people could implement the actual annihilation of another group of people – in the millions – was not hypothetical. It was real. It had just happened. Jews had moved from a despised, but economically necessary minority, to one, no longer deemed necessary and, therefore, subject to obliteration.  

Peter Lindbaugh and other historians have written of the spread of revolutionary ideas across and up and down the Atlantic. So too, were the memories of genocide spread from the children of European Jews to the young immigrant from Trinidad, Stokely Carmichael. It was, therefore, ironic that among the attacks on Carmichael was the scurrilous one of antisemitism, frequently used against any who criticize the Israeli state or support Palestinian rights. 

I thought about all this following the recent presidential election. The out and out racist, Donald Trump lost, but he got the majority of the white vote. On the other hand, 65 million whites voted against him and coupled with the votes of people of color, Trump was defeated. It was a victory for Black power and for anti-racism, albeit, not yet a majority, among whites.  But it was much closer than it should have been. 

We clearly still have a lot more doorbells to ring. 

Russell Neufeld, Brooklyn, NY. January 2021

© 2021 by Russell Neufeld

Russell Neufeld graduated from Goddard in ’69. He served on the Board of the Goddard Alumni Association and was a teaching fellow at Goddard in ’70 – ’71. He became a public defender in NYC, led the Legal Aid Society’s Capital Defense Unit when NY brought back the death penalty. He became the chief public defender in NYC, active in death penalty abolition movement and federal capital defense cases.

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Ready For Revolution-The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael {Kwame Ture}, Camichael and Thelwell, Scribner, 2003.


(1966) STOKELY CARMICHAEL, “Definitions of Black Power” Speech excerpt

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