Lessons for #BlackLivesMatter from the life of a Black Power icon

January 12, 2015

Protesters, some holding placards as others raise their hands, shout slogans against police brutality while marching in Manhattan, New York

Pioneering #BlackLivesMatter activists could learn important lessons from Black Power icon Stokely Carmichael.

Carmichael is most often remembered as a revolutionary firebrand whose Black Power call “wrecked” the peaceful civil rights movement by calling for black self-defense and denunciation of imperialist U.S. policies overseas.

Still, he remains one of the most important grassroots organizers of 1960s era social movements. His advocacy of radical democracy — where black sharecroppers could not only vote, but even hold high office — during the civil rights and Black Power eras helped usher in new forms of protest, political organizing, and dissent that offer useful models for contemporary social justice activists.

The new civil rights movement that has been unleashed in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of police added another chapter to its unfinished history recently as thousands took to the streets for brandishing #ICan’tBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter signs.

Last Dec. 1, the 59th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, young organizers of this new movement met with President Barack Obama at the White House. Philip Agnew, the co-founder of the Dream Defenders, recounted the meeting, where the president stressed gradualism even as the young people in his presence refused to “budge.”

As organizers plot strategy, debate tactics, and craft overall political and policy goals for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, they might do well to be inspired by some political lessons from an activist, Stokely Carmichael, who died in 1998, whose “Black Power!” call scandalized and shocked the nation in a similar manner to recent protests.

Carmichael, as the new chairman of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), rejected his chance to visit the White House in the spring of 1966, opting to chart a new course into the undiscovered country of unapologetic political radicalism through a call for black liberation by any means necessary. But the activist who became the subject of illegal FBI, CIA, State Department, and White House surveillance also had a pragmatic and policy-oriented side that offers enduring lessons for today’s social justice activists.

The first is a willingness to craft bold and broad alliances. It’s important to recall that Martin Luther King Jr., the apostle of non-violence, was one of Carmichael’s enduring friends and mentors. King’s visible discomfort with the term Black Power and Carmichael’s advocacy of self-defense did not preclude the two from forming a powerful political and personal friendship. #BlackLivesMatter activists must create broad and lasting coalitions that reach beyond their progressive base if they are to sustain a long-lasting movement.

Carmichael’s unabashed love for poor black people inspired him to become a community organizer and, later, as Kwame Ture in Africa, a global pan-African revolutionary. Despite his fame and subsequent celebrity during the late 1960s, Carmichael never forgot the reason he became a political firebrand in the first place: living, organizing, and learning from black sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta and Alabama’s black belt. The seeds of the #BlackLivesMatter movement contain a radical revolutionary humanism that, surprisingly for some, echoes aspects of Black Power which, despite its unabashed call for radical black political self-determination, helped to innovate the rainbow radicalism (people of all colors overcoming systemic oppression).

Finally, Carmichael implored black people to organize and speak truth to power, even when it was unpopular. Carmichael’s Black Power call, anti-Vietnam War stance, and revolutionary politics made him perhaps the boldest avatar of his time. He wasn’t afraid to name names. By 1967, this included a radical critique of capitalism and embracing anti-imperialist politics that defined the U.S. as a political empire, rather than a democracy, that waged war in the name of peace, starved poor communities of resources, and legitimized state violence at the expense of Third World peoples around the world.

#BlackLivesMatter activists must follow Carmichael’s lead on this score. While many have effectively stated that their movement transcends a simple (although necessary) need for criminal justice reform, they have yet to succinctly state their precise goals and ambitions. Does the movement want a living wage, the end to mass incarceration, a national jobs program, a new war on poverty, or all of the above?

Clearly defining goals, strategies, and tactics, not simply criticizing institutional racism will be a key next step.

Carmichael’s personal course offers an endlessly instructive portrait of political activism that young organizers would do well to study, if not emulate in its entirety. Each stage of his political evolution, as a student activist, full-time organizer, SNCC chairman, Black Power icon, and Pan-African revolutionary offers important glimpses into the complex breadth and depth of a life dedicated to social justice movements. He made, of course, many errors and mistakes.

So will contemporary activists.

#BlackLivesMatter activists would do well to adopt the same intellectual courage that allowed Carmichael to be brave enough as a young man to admit that he didn’t have all the answers, yet courageous enough to organize for freedom against the backdrop of historic problems. From Black Power to #BlackLivesMatter, the movement for social justice beyond what we have ever witnessed continues.


PHOTO: Protesters, some holding placards as others raise their hands, shout slogans against police brutality while marching in Manhattan, New York Dec. 13, 2014. REUTERS/Elizabeth Shafiroff 


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“speak truth to power” This is a good lesson, or speak truth to all is even better. The KKK and others were/are hideous fascist organizations and there exists even today an institutionalized form of racism in our criminal justice system (the single fact that most crimes are committed by whites and most prisoners are black is proof). It’s also true that most black crime is against other blacks and it’s largely due to drug gangs. That’s a truth. Yep, the white man is keeping you down, but not as much as the black criminals and those that aggrandize the thug life style which is ignorant misogynistic and unsuccessful. The actors and musicians who spread the gospel of thuggery are the only ones getting ahead. They and drug gangs both sell out their own people like they are black slavers from Africa. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in the drug war, it’s fake, but when you have illegal commodity you get criminality associated with it’s black market, and while that life can be exciting and once in great while makes a few wealthy people it generally destroys the people, such as in Mexico and in some neighborhoods in the US. So, self defense is great but it is some brother who you will most likely need to use it against, just as it is some brother that is teaching your children to be self destructive and unproductive.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

If we ever have a chance to repair what the obama presidency has torn down, we need to stop letting the media lie sway and put non truths in our minds. Obama needs this problem to succeed in life. We as people need to be honest and help where we can. The Blacks need to repair the FAMILY.

Posted by gunskeepfreedom | Report as abusive