Stokely Carmichael: Quotes, Black Power Speech & Biography

Instructor: Jill Story
This lesson will examine the life and contributions of civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael, who is known for radicalizing the Civil Rights Movement and developing the oft repeated rallying cry, 'Black power!'

Early Life

Stokely Carmichael was born in the Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, on June 29, 1941. His parents immigrated to the United States when he was a young child, and Carmichael lived with his grandmother until the age of eleven, when he moved to America to reunite with his parents in New York City. His mother worked as a stewardess for a steamship company, and his father worked as a carpenter and taxi driver. While growing up in a mostly Italian and Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, Carmichael sought to gain acceptance from his white, upper-class peers. He qualified for admission to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, where his exposure to wealthy elites informed his increasing consciousness around issues of race and class. Although he could have attended any number of elite universities, Carmichael chose to attend the historically black college, Howard University, where the trajectory of his adult life would take shape.

Civil Rights Activist

While attending Howard University in Washington, D.C., Stokely Carmichael was drawn to civil rights activism. The movement to desegregate public transit, lunch counters, schools, and all aspects of public life was well underway as Carmichael began his postsecondary education. In the early 1960s, Carmichael became a committed follower of the non-violent methods advanced by leading activist Martin Luther King, Jr. and eagerly participated in sit-ins, marches, and assemblies. He took part in the well-publicized Freedom Rides, a demonstration organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to challenge the segregation of interstate buses throughout the South. During this demonstration, Carmichael was arrested and spent forty-nine days in a Mississippi jail. He was reportedly so defiant while in custody that the sheriff and law enforcement officers welcomed his release.

SNCC voter registration drive button

Carmichael joined the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1964 and continued to engage in non-violent protests. He also sought to enlarge the black voting electorate through his involvement in voter registration drives in the South. During this time, he helped found the Lowndes County Freedom Party in Lowndes County, Alabama, selecting the black panther as the party's logo, which would later become the inspiration for the Black Panther Party.

After the violent and senseless murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi, during the summer of 1964 and what he perceived as the government's failed response to urban riots in 1965, Carmichael began to question the efficacy of non-violence and shift towards a more radical approach for pursuing racial justice.

Black Power Speech

As a vocal member of SNCC, Carmichael joined Martin Luther King on the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965, in a demonstration to register more black voters. However, he began to feel frustrated over the dissension happening among major civil rights groups over the future direction of the Movement and grew impatient with the incremental success of non-violence as a strategy. It was at this point that Carmichael began to advance the concept of black self-reliance and empowerment.

Stokely Carmichael at Michigan State University
Stokely Carmichael

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