This late civil rights icon’s imprint is all over the place in the present day

Comment from Peniel E. Joseph

The man best known for popularizing the term “black power” always replied with the words “Ready for Revolution”.

Stokely Carmichael answered the phone in this manner to recognize his role in the sacred endeavors to build a new society in America and around the world. He defined revolution as the transformation of the status quo relationship between world systems and societies, institutions and citizens.

Carmichael, who replaced John Lewis as head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1966, led the largest antiwar demonstration of the 1960s and marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr.He died of cancer in 1998 at the age of 57 but would be turned 80 on June 29; his legacy casts an enormous shadow (no less than Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.) on black politics in the 21st century.

This milestone of Carmichael’s birthday is a moment to watch how today’s black politics still bears the imprint of an icon that is still underestimated and misunderstood to this day.

For many, Carmichael will always be the 24-year-old arsonist who started a global political revolution by shouting “Black Power!”. a lot to admonish while arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King marched down Highway 51 in the late spring air of June 1966. Carmichael had been jailed with future Congressman John Lewis, who verbally parried with writer James Baldwin as a university student in 1963 at Howard University, when Baldwin was invited to campus, heard Malcolm X speak as a freshman, and served as a bodyguard and driver for King whom he considered a beloved friend and mentor in the Mississippi Delta.

“For America to truly live on a fundamental principle of human relationships, a new society must be born,” remarked Carmichael in a 1966 speech at the University of California at Berkeley. “Racism has to die,” he continued. “The economic exploitation of this land by non-white peoples around the world must also die – must die too.”

The parts of Carmichael’s activism that centered on economic justice – he became a socialist in the latter half of his life – are more important today than ever. Carmichael’s legacy includes the Black Power movement, the pursuit of suffrage in the 21st century, and recent political campaigns that have given a voice to those seeking more radical change – including socialists, community organizers, and Black Lives Matter activists.

There would be no Black Lives Matter movement without Carmichael’s political activism, which included the sit-in movement, the Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer in Mississippi, Selma, and beyond. The Black Lives Movement owes much of its radical political strength to Carmichael’s organization, activism, and political and cultural rhetoric. He argued that black life mattered against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, white backlash, and urban rebellions against police violence, structural poverty, and systemic racism in the late 1960s.

His 1967 book “Black Power”, co-authored with scholar Charles Hamilton, introduced the term “institutional racism” into the nation’s vocabulary. Carmichael’s activism inspired the Black Panthers (a group he briefly joined as Honorary Prime Minister in 1968), fueled black students, and sparked a global cultural revolution that attracted a rainbow coalition of black and indigenous activists around the world.

The election of black activists to high public office in our day – from Rep. Cori Bush in Missouri to Rep. Lucy McBath in Georgia – marks a translation of this kind of organizing energy into political power in the 21st century. The protests following the assassination of George Floyd have made “institutional racism” a part of the American social lexicon in ways that Carmichael may never have imagined.

But the current environment of backlash against anti-racist tendencies would certainly not have surprised him. In his day, Carmichael fought FBI surveillance, police brutality against civil rights protesters, and racial terror from the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama Black Belt to the gloomy city streets of Harlem, Oakland and Los Angeles.

Over time, he defined the barriers to black citizenship as global and systemic, which led him to embrace a form of socialism that found hope of eradicating racism and economic injustice in a society that made black and poor people through profits privileged and invested in justice systems and not in punishment.

Carmichael’s efforts to forge what he called “a new society,” free from white domination and systemic racism, are thriving in new ways in the age of Black Lives Matter. We can see this particularly in the election of progressive black candidates like India Walton, the first black woman to be elected mayor of Buffalo.

Walton, a 38-year-old community organizer and nurse, is a self-proclaimed socialist whose victory reflects the fact that another world is possible. Parts of Carmichael’s criticism of capitalism and racism can be found in her call to rethink public safety, to invest resources in ending poverty rather than punishment, and to use local elections in the service of community empowerment.

After his heyday of Black Power, Carmichael moved to Conakry, Guinea in 1969 and changed his name to Kwame Ture in honor of his political mentors (former Ghanaian Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah and Guniean President Sekou Toure). For the rest of his life he advocated a form of African socialism rooted in global black solidarity and defined Black Power as an internationally anchored movement against imperialism, racism and capitalism. He organized the All African People’s Revolutionary Party in the hope of forging a global movement against the triple evils militarism, racism and materialism, which Dr. King sketched towards the end of his own life.

Ture would not be surprised by America’s recent culture wars: attacks on “Critical Racial Theory,” a sleights of rhetoric to stop the teaching effort on racial slavery, Jim Crow, Tulsa – in other words, the full depth and breadth of American history. Before the phrase “Black Lives Matter” shook the nation, “Black Power” had a similar effect, creating a national movement for black studies programs that expanded Negro History Week into Black History Month and new intellectual, literary and popular representations of . spawned Black American history that resonates in our time too.

Even during the lean political years of the 1980s, a decade that was a reversal of the hopeful optimism that guided much of the ambitious agenda of the Great Society of the 1960s, he continued to answer the phone “ready for revolution.” Ronald Reagan’s presidency successfully reinterpreted the 1960s as a time of liberal political excess and racist hyperbole, making Ture’s dreams of freedom seem anachronistic to the “greed is good” ethos.

In the midst of that Reagan Revolution, in the early 1980s, a young college student named Barack Obama was sitting in front of a Columbia University audience when Ture spoke of organizing a political revolution against racial and economic oppression that seemed as far away as the moon . “His eyes glowed inward,” wrote Obama in his memoir “Dreams from My Father” – “the eyes of a madman or a saint”.

Young Carmichael’s appeal for Black Power in 1966 proved remarkably forward-looking and sustained, evolving from an anti-racist appeal for resistance to an attempt to organize a socialist revolution that could eradicate racism, economic injustice, and other forms of oppression. In our time, both aspects of his legacy seem to be thriving, with efforts to free blacks through political self-determination and systemic change that would have made young Stokely Carmichael proud and made Kwame Ture smile.

The CNN Wire
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