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Stokley Carmichael's New Book, <i>Ready for Revolution</i> Reflects  Era in Civil Rights Movement - 2004-02-22

A new book recounts the life story of Stokely Carmichael, remembered as one of the most charismatic and controversial figures in the American Civil Rights Movement. Mr. Carmichael worked to end racial separation in the American South during the 1960s, while serving as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He became an increasingly militant advocate for black power over the course of that decade.

"There are three terms that black people in this country should learn at birth. One is white supremacy, one is neo-colonialism, and one is black power," he announced.

Stokely Carmichael also became a spokesman for Pan Africanism, envisioning a united movement of Africans around the world. He moved to Guinea in 1969. He later took the name Kwame Ture to honor two revolutionary African leaders, Sekou Toure of Guinea and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. He died of cancer in 1998. Some eighteen months before his death, he began working on a memoir with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, a long time friend and fellow civil rights activist. The book has been published under the title, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael.

The title of Stokely Carmichael's new memoir refers to a greeting he used during the last decade of his life. He'd begin or end telephone conversations saying, "Ready for revolution." But Ekwueme Michael Thelwell says that when he talked about revolutionary change, Stokely Carmichael was taking about a change in spirit and values:

"He had a vision of a society that could be humane, that could be rational," explained Mr. Thelwell. "But his impulse towards drastic, transforming social change was always predicated on a certain compassion and a certain sense of justice, which I think readers of this book will discover to their great surprise, because that is not the image of him which prevails, particularly in the media of this country."

He was born on the island of Trinidad, and Mr. Thelwell explained how that shaped his outlook.

"The antecedents of his family were not southern American as was the case with most of the black people he met in the North," he said. "He was conditioned by Caribbean culture, by the Africanness of it, by British colonialism to a certain extent. But then he was also conditioned a great deal by New York culture, the culture of Harlem, the street corner orators, the nationalist movements.

"He was conditioned by the intellectual culture of Bronx High School of Science, by the various strands of immigrants, working class and middle class bright students, who came there," continued Mr. Thelwell. "So in a curious way you'd have to say that Carmichael was a composite of America in all its diversity when he came to Howard University and came to manhood in the Civil Rights movement."

He says in the book that although he was studying at Howard University when he went to work in the South, it was Mississippi that was his education.

"One of the things he says is that Mississippi taught me to love my blackness, this black rural southern culture, the music and the liturgy and the morality of the church and the eloquence of the language, the amazing courage of ordinary black people in the South," he said. "We had been told, the young people of that generation, the activists, that in the South, the black community was totally oppressed, was psychologically suppressed for so long that people lacked the initiative to resist their oppressor. And that if we were going to go down to organize the movement for voting rights, for human rights in the South, we were going there as missionaries to somehow save these people. And he said when I got there I discovered people who had a culture that had sustained them through slavery, sustained through all the vicissitudes of black history in the South.

He was a great admirer of Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was a young activist. Mr. Thelwell explaines how much his thinking changed over time.

"He began as a great admirer of Martin Luther King, and he says in the book, 'I parted company with the nationalists because I recognized that non-violence was a very powerful weapon indeed. Anything that could get thousands of people in the streets was powerful and I respected it.' That was the position he began with and that, contrary to the media opinion, was the position he died with," said Mr. Thelwell.

"He says, 'I was not committed to non-violence as a way of life, in every and all circumstances, but in certain circumstances it was effective and should be used.' His position on Dr. King was quite different from the conventional wisdom, which is that young militants led by Stokely Carmichael turned against Dr. King and discredited him and the movement. That's absolutely not true. Carmichael's respect and admiration for Dr. King never changed. Their political positions changed, but their personal relationship was always very warm, very fraternal, very respectful."

Mr. Thelwell explaines the reason he has been so misunderstood, even feared.

"Part of it is his personality," he said. "He saw himself, as he says, having a responsibility to represent the interests and possibilities of black people honestly. And to do that he thought he had to be totally candid and totally clear. But he was also very eloquent and he had a sense of theater. And frequently when he would be meeting the press, some people would be very aggressive in advancing their positions, and in the face of that kind of provocation, Carmichael would be very provocative indeed, and terrified people.

"But that would be followed by a very reasoned and very serious kind of discussion that frequently didn't make the headlines," continued Mr. Thelwell. "So what people saw about Carmichael was the militant firebrand, not the thoughtful social analyst and dedicated worker for productive social change."

How did his vision for social change ultimately come to encompass Africans around the world?

"He became what they used to call a cultural nationalist," said Mr. Thelwell. "He became a strong advocate of those aspects of black peoples' culture and perceptions and behavior that made them distinctive. And that was true for a whole generation. And that was what attracted him back to Africa and attracted us all back to Africa. So in a certain sense this book is a history of the black sixties and seventies, because it tells the story from a very different perspective from conventional history. Ekwueme Michael Thelwell worked with Stokely Carmichael on a new memoir, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael, published by Scribner. Mr. Thelwell is a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts.