Opinion: What Stokely Carmichael might say about 2021, on his 80th birthday
Stokely Carmichael answered the phone this way to acknowledge his role in sacred efforts to build a new society in America and around the world. He defined revolution as transforming the status quo relationship between world systems and societies, institutions and citizens.
This milestone birthday of Carmichael’s is a moment to observe how today’s Black politics still bears the imprint of an icon who remains underappreciated and misunderstood to this day.
The parts of Carmichael’s activism that focused on economic justice — he became a socialist during the second half of his life — remain more important now than ever. Carmichael’s legacy spans the movement for Black power, the push for voting rights in the 21st century and the recent political campaigns that have given 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 spanned the sit-in movement, the freedom rides, Mississippi freedom summer, Selma and beyond. The movement for Black lives owes much of its radical political edge to Carmichael’s organizing, activism and political and cultural rhetoric. He argued that Black lives 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), galvanized Black students and ignited a cultural revolution that spanned the world, attracting a rainbow coalition of Black and indigenous activists across the globe.
But the current environment of backlash against anti-racist efforts would surely not have surprised him. In his own era, Carmichael combated FBI surveillance, police violence against civil rights demonstrators and racial terror from the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama Black Belt to the gritty urban streets of Harlem, Oakland and Los Angeles.
Over time he came to define the obstacles against Black citizenship as global in scope and systemic in nature, which pushed him to embrace a brand of socialism that found hope for eradicating racism and economic injustice in a society that privileged Black and poor people over profits and invested in systems of justice rather than punishment.
After his Black power heyday, Carmichael relocated in 1969 to Conakry, Guinea, 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 based movement against imperialism, racism and capitalism. He organized the All African People’s Revolutionary Party in hopes of forging a global movement against the triple evils of militarism, racism and materialism that Dr. King also outlined near the end of his own life.
He continued to answer the phone “ready for revolution” even during the lean political years of the 1980s, a decade that represented a reversal of course from the hopeful optimism that guided much of the ambitious Great Society agenda of the 1960s. Ronald Reagan’s presidency successfully reinterpreted the 1960s as a time of liberal political excess and racial overreach, making the freedom dreams of Ture seem anachronistic against the “greed is good” ethos of the period.
The young Carmichael’s call for Black power in 1966 proved remarkably prescient and enduring, evolving from an anti-racist call to resistance into an effort to organize a socialist revolution that could eradicate racism, economic injustice and other forms of oppression. In our own time both aspects of his legacy appear to be flourishing, with efforts to achieve Black liberation through political self-determination and systemic change that would have made the young Stokely Carmichael proud and made Kwame Ture smile.