“There were two or three years there, where the movement went a little too far toward Stokely,” said former US president Bill Clinton last month. He was discussing the 1960s battle for Civil Rights at John Lewis’s funeral.
It’s right that American presidents should fear the name Stokely Carmichael.
The tireless young leader of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was a popular and radical figure in the movement for black liberation.
The son of a steam ship steward and a carpenter from Trinidad, Carmichael arrived in New York at the age of 11 and soon after began a life of agitation against racism.
As a teenager he set about organising boycotts of restaurants that wouldn’t serve black people, and then speaking about his progress at church on Sundays.
In 1961, while studying philosophy at university, he joined the Freedom Rides that aimed to desegregate inter-state travel.
Aged just 19, he spent 53 days in a tiny jail cell after an attempt to desegregate a train station cafe.
Carmichael’s reputation got him a job as full time organiser for the SNCC in Mississippi where he coordinated voter registration drives in probably the most dangerous part of the US.
Black people there were disenfranchised by all manner of local laws upheld not only by trigger-happy racist cops, but also the Ku Klux Klan.
Scores of activists, black and white, had been killed, tortured or injured in the battle for voting rights and Stokely wasn’t about to join them.
Together with others he formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organisation, a political party that used a black panther as its symbol, and was prepared to use arms to defend itself.
All this drove his reputation within the movement still further. But it was a march he organised in 1966 that was to catapult him on the national stage.
Carmichael emerged from jail after being arrested for marching and made a famous speech.
He said, “This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested. I ain’t going to jail no more. What we gonna start saying now is ‘Black Power’.”
The slogan had an immediate affect and was soon echoing among young radicals.
It was ambiguous but powerful.
In Carmichael’s hands it became first a rejection of white liberalism, and later a rejection of white people’s participation in the movement. He also opposed black women’s demands to tackle sexism in the movement.
In 1964 he said, “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.”
In the late 60s, the fight against racism increasingly fused with opposition to the Vietnam War. Carmichael seemed to be an ever-growing threat to the establishment— especially after he joined the Black Panther Party.
The FBI was obsessed with the idea of a radical “black messiah” and targeted him with death threats.
Along with many other black leaders, Carmichael went into exile in Africa.
He changed his name to Kwame Ture and embraced a version of Pan-Africanist politics.
His time as a potent threat to the US establishment was short.
But Clinton was right to imply that for a few years Carmichael, and everything he stood for, posed a radical threat to the system.