Last week, as he eulogized John Lewis, Bill Clinton blasted the black radical icon Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture). Referring to the Black Power–oriented direction the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) took after Carmichael replaced Lewis as chairman, the former president said: “And I say there were two or three years there, where the movement went a little too far towards Stokely, but in the end, John Lewis prevailed.”
That Clinton should use a nationally televised event — the funeral of one of America’s most enduring black figures no less — to disparage Carmichael is a disgrace. But we can also assume it was no mistake: his remarks were likely delivered with the upcoming presidential election and the Black Lives Matter protests in mind.
Clinton’s attempt to play Lewis and Carmichael off of each other, pitting civil rights against Black Power, sits within a long tradition of moderate whites seeking to limit the political imaginations of black Americans, even when the existing system has continually failed them. The former president’s words also betrayed an anxiety that has long plagued America’s white political elites: that racism and white supremacy will act as a catalyst, radicalizing black Americans so much so that they will seek to transform existing political structures or attempt to create new ones.
Few figures exemplify this fear more than Stokely Carmichael.
Trinidadian-born, Carmichael grew up in New York City and entered the civil rights fray in the early 1960s as an eloquent and erudite organizer with SNCC. For their peaceful activism, Carmichael and the young SNCC activists were met with the full force of the state — police truncheons, barking dogs, tear gas — as they attempted to break Jim Crow by riding on segregated buses and staging sit-ins and registering people to vote. He was arrested more than two dozen times.
Carmichael’s faith in American democracy began to erode amid political setbacks. In 1964, SNCC’s attempts to open up Mississippi politics to black voters were thwarted when the Democratic Party, following an intervention from President Lyndon Johnson, refused to seat the state’s anti-segregationist delegation, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Two years later, Carmichael formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama, an independent black political party. There was just a single black voter in the county when Carmichael arrived, but by election day SNCC activists had registered more than two thousand and fielded a roster of candidates. But again they were outdone, thanks in part to a campaign of intimidation by local white racists.
Radicalized by his political experience, Stokely in 1966 proclaimed himself a proponent of Black Power. Within a few years Black Power movements would crop up in the United States and across the world, from India to New Zealand to the Caribbean. Carmichael’s turn made him the foremost symbol of black militancy and, like his ideological forbear Malcolm X, he would attract disdain in the press and become a target of the FBI, as he railed against American capitalism, vehemently opposed the US war in Vietnam, and courted the communists in Cuba.
“Stokely,” writes scholar Carole Boyce Davies, “could never fully accept a model in which being beaten over the head and not being able to do anything about it was the standard.”
In 1969, after a brief stint as honorary prime minister of the Black Panther party, Carmichael moved to Guinea, West Africa, where he was mentored by anti-colonial leaders Kwame Nkrumah and Ahmed Sékou Touré. Later, he would emerge as a major Pan-African figure in his own right, serving as leader of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party and taking the name Kwame Ture.
Lewis, meanwhile, would hold fast to the pursuit of racial justice through Gandhian nonviolence and participation in established politics. But Clinton’s idea that he prevailed over Carmichael is plain wrong.
Civil rights and Black Power were two facets of the wider black freedom struggle and were deeply intertwined, as Carmichael and SNCC’s political trajectory show. While they employed different tactics, the two were both committed to taking on white supremacy and securing racial justice. Lewis and Carmichael remained friends until the latter passed away in Guinea in 1998.
Efforts to separate and elevate a moderate vision of civil rights above the more radical wings of the black freedom movement have their roots in the “culture wars” and white backlash of the 1970s and 80s. Dismayed by the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, the New Right — a motley crew of corporate power brokers, old-style conservative intellectuals, and polemical neoconservatives — rewrote the 1960s, casting the passage of civil rights legislation and the end of Jim Crow as the fulfillment of America’s post-racial destiny.
Central to this whitewashing effort was the reconstruction of Martin Luther King Jr as a politically neutered all-American hero. By 1967, King had begun to link racism at home and US militarism abroad, protesting the Vietnam War and calling the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” For this he would earn the ire of the white establishment and would be assassinated the following year.
But the storytellers of the New Right portrayed King as the sunny visage of “I Have a Dream” rather than the practitioner of militant nonviolence and mass disruption. Shorn of his political radicalism, King was inserted into the mainstream of American history, his birthday honored with a national holiday and his bust — eyes cast downward — placed beneath the rotunda of the US capitol among the pantheon of other American heroes.
According to this narrative, not only had racism been conquered once and for all, but black freedom, as exemplified by the whitewashed King, was achieved through passive non-violence and appeals to American patriotism. Militants like Carmichael and Malcolm X were presented as dangerous and written out of the story.
Dianne Feinstein, another Democratic politician, drew on this bowdlerized telling of history when she made passing reference to Malcolm X during Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, arguing that it was King and not X who had won out. Referring to one of Malcolm’s emblematic speeches, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Feinstein said: “Those who doubt the supremacy of the ballot over the bullet can never diminish the power engendered by nonviolent struggles for justice and equality — like the one that made this day possible.”
Then, citing King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Feinstein said that future generations would “look back and remember that this was the moment that the dream that once echoed across history from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial finally reached the walls of the White House.”
As scholar Sohail Daulatzai writes: “While King’s internationalism and criticism of US society were ignored in favor of a more accommodating image of him, Feinstein invoked Malcolm in order to dismiss him not only because of his call for a Black internationalism that tied the fates of Black peoples with decolonization in the Third World but also because of his penetrating critiques of US foreign policy.”
The willful erasure of Black Power from the popular discourse of American history, as Clinton’s speech exemplifies, makes it hard for us to understand its legacy. Hip-hop and black studies programs have their roots in Black Power. But the movement was also able to help transform the political landscape, paving the way for black politicians such as Lewis and later Barack Obama.
From the 1960s through to the early 1980s, the political mobilization of the black urban masses was crucial to the election of mayors from Cleveland to Atlanta to Philadelphia. Black Power veterans played a key role in Harold Washington’s successful run for mayor of Chicago, as well as Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. Lewis rode on the coattails of these successes when he was elected as a representative for Georgia in 1987, as did Barack Obama two decades later.
There is an unmistakable chord linking Black Power to Black Lives Matter (BLM). BLM’s demands to dismantle the police and the prison industrial complex owe much to Carmichael and Black Power taking the fight to institutional racism. Like Stokely, BLM activists have been radicalized by racist policing and discriminatory laws, including, as cofounder Patrise Cullors has pointed out, Clinton’s 1994 anti-crime bill. Like SNCC, BLM has internationalized its struggle, providing inspiration for similar movements from Britain to France to Australia.
But these links have to be sought out and rescued from the tall tales told by political elites. Clinton’s attack on Carmichael was an attempt to distort the history of Black Power and efface black radicalism’s central role in the Civil Rights Movement.
In her landmark essay, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” scholar Jacqueline Dowd writes that “the stories we tell about the civil rights movement matter; they shape how we see our own world.” For Clinton, that world is one where centrist politics prevail, Gandhian nonviolence is the sole form of legitimate protest, and the horizons of the possible extend barely further than the ballot box — where black America sucks it up and just votes for Democrats.
Unfortunately for the former president, Carmichael’s internationalism and black radicalism speak to the present moment far more than Clinton’s self-serving fairy tales. In the end, it won’t be Clinton’s politics that prevail.