Monday, April 13, 2009

Revolution Delayed: Remembering Stokely Carmichael

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

Kwame Ture, better known to the American public as Stokely Carmichael, gave the Civil Rights movement its most memorable phrases and slogans, most notably, 'Black Power" and "Black is Beautiful". It was on the campus of the University of Houston that I heard Carmichael urge the 'radicalization' of every college and university campus in the nation. Many feared that the idea would catch on. But for the local and national media reps, I may have been the only 'white' face in the auditorium --a sign of
troubled times.

In the video following this article, he is similarly impassioned, warning of possible 'genocide' against the black man, as in fact, genocide had been perpetrated against my own ancestors -- the Native Americans. On yet another occasion, Carmichael quoted the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre --and added that he did not need a law from the 'white man' to tell him that he was free. "I know that I am free!" He didn't need a law --a 'honky' law -- to tell him what he already knew.

Later, white students, perhaps inspired to exercise 'student power', protested the US quagmire against the various 'peoples' in Southeast Asia. When they were fired upon at Kent State, four students were killed and nine others wounded. They died martyrs to the cause of free speech in America.

White students were inspired to exert 'power' -- if not 'black power'. Both faced a common oppression, a Military/Industrial complex which by way of a 'draft' sent young men of both races to SE Asia to fight yet another war of US imperialism in defense of a string of faceless Viet Namese generals --all US stooges. In response, an entire generation proposed to change the world.

Despite the best efforts of a generation, we are now dictated to by a ruling oligopoly that represents but one percent of the nation's population. The oligopolists have partnered with their military wing --the 'Military/Industrial Complex'. This unholy alliance is supported by and benefits only the increasingly tiny, ruling elite of just one percent of the nation's population and more specifically a right wing media owned by just seven major, powerful corporations. It is an environment in which your so-called 'representatives' in Washington may ignore you with impunity.They no longer have to care and don't.

Your only chance of making your preferences known are all but nullified by an obstacle course called the 'primary process', the object, the measured effect of which is to marginalize the independent vote, i.e, any candidate not issuing from either wing of the establishment, that is, the Democrats or the Republicans. Meaningful 'campaign reform' requires the outright abolition of the absurd, seemingly endless and prohibitively expensive 'primary' process. It's only effect is a bad one: it guarantees a corrupt two party system in which just two parties compete for crooked money.

In a race to the rear, both parties are corrupt. The only logical choice --the Democrats --are desirable or better but only because they are merely 'less bad'. It's a fucked up system! Our only choice is not between better or worse but between crooked on the one hand and utterly beyond all redemption on the other. Even in the thirties, humorist Will Rogers would assure us: "I am not a member of any organized political party! I am a Democrat!" Another, more recently, defended his support of Democrats: " least they are our crooks!" The reductio ad absurdum of American politics sounds like an early 1960s TV game show: "Choose Your Crook!"

Carmichael, the flamboyant civil rights leader, died of cancer in Conakry, Guinea at the age of just 57. In the mid-1960's he may have ignited a white backlash and alarmed even the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Nevertheless, he understood what every revolutionary of the period understood: the US 'establishment' is corrupt and illegitimate. His words are just as relevant today as they were when they were spoken. He spent his last 30 years in Guinea, advocating revolutionary agenda that was all but ignored in the US.

He joined the SNCC --the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee --in 1960 while a student at Howard University. By 1961, he had became a member of what is remembered as the 'Freedom Riders --black and white volunteers who sat next to each other as they traveled throughout the Deep South. Initially, the 'white' community regarded the tactic as a deliberate provocation. And so it was! The tactic had roots in Thoreau and Ghandi. Violent reactions to it merely proved the point. Arguably, the tide had turned. Bigotry had been exposed; point made!

It was in 1966 that James Meredith began a solitary March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson. He was soon shot by a sniper. Immediately, other campaigners, including Carmichael and Dr. Martin Luther King took up the banner in Meredith's name.

It was the 27th time that Carmichael had been arrested. Upon his release --on June 16th --Carmichael made his historic 'Black Power' speech.
Upon his release from jail on June 16, 1966, Carmichael made an impassioned speech on the topic of Black Power, railing against advocates of integration and calling instead for black rage and militancy:
"The advocates of Black Power reject the old slogans and meaningless rhetoric of previous years in the civil rights struggle. The language of yesterday is indeed irrelevant: progress, non-violence, integration, fear of 'white backlash,' ... One of the tragedies of the struggle against racism is that up to this point there has been no national organization which could speak to the growing militancy of young black people in the urban ghettos and the black-belt South. There has been only a 'civil rights' movement, whose tone of voice was adapted to an audience of middle-class whites.... We had only the old language of love and suffering. And in most places -- that is, from the liberals and middle class -- we got back the old language of patience and progress.... There is no black man in the country who can live 'simply as a man.' His blackness is an ever-present fact of this racist society, whether he recognizes it or not.... 'Integration' as a goal today speaks to the problem of blackness not only in an unrealistic way but also in a despicable way.... 'integration' is a subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy."

By this time, Carmichael had clearly rejected nonviolent civil disobedience as a vehicle for black progress. His desire instead was to burn all bridges between black and white America. Establishing himself as a committed black separatist, he denounced the integrationist Martin Luther King, Jr. as an "Uncle Tom" and began advocating armed violence as the favored means of promoting civil rights.

--Stokely Carmichael, A Guide to the Political Left
A book followed in 1967: Black Power. It was not universally embraced. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), called Carmichael's ideas 'black racism' Nevertheless, 'black power' is more readily remembered than his other slogan: "Black is Beautiful". Madison Avenue failed to equal either slogan for their ability to 'brand' and 'position' not just a product but a movement and, at the same time, putting all opposition in a defensive posture from which they never recovered.


Anonymous said...

A man ahead of his time: Ignored by the Neilsen rating masses.

Thanks, Len. Like I was back in the 60's, and still full of idealism.

Now, it is simply awaiting the day we overrun D.C., and rinse the filth into the Potomac.


Len Hart said...

farang sez...

Now, it is simply awaiting the day we overrun D.C., and rinse the filth into the Potomac.Thanks, farang! Sadly, the 'revolution' of the sixties was confined to our generation. That was a mistake --but, perhaps, inevitable and/or unavoidable.

It was also a 'segregated' revolution. In retrospect, the 'Civil Rights Movement' was most successful, primarily, I think, because it was the most focused. Carmichael gets too little credit for the lunch counter protests etc. This tactic met all the criteria that had been articulated by the Chicago neighborhood organizer --Saul Alinsky.

White protests were not merely segregated, they were confined to campuses. The best that could have been achieved was closing down an administration building for awhile. They always re-opened. And, as far as I can tell, no one ever introduced a bill or changed anything because of it.

The labor movement of the thirties had been much more successful. This was a movement that was not afraid to strike and fight back. IN the end, however, they were --literally --outgunned. The murder of labor leaders had begun much, much earlier with Carnegie's hiring of Pinkerton thugs in Pittsburgh.

Greenpeace has scored points...and so, too, animal rights activists. What we DON'T have, however, is a NON-VIOLENT CO-ORDINATING COMMITTEE. If all these movements could be brought together on one front, an ASSAULT upon the corrupt officialdom,i.e, the RULING OLIGOPOLY just might have a chance to change this nation before it is forever too late.

giemmevi said...

Very good summary of Carmichael's life and achievements. I graduated from the University of Florence in Italy writing a thesis on Carmichael and his Black Power Rhetoric.
On my blog I pubblished so far a series of articles on Carmichael. Subsequently I will pubblish exerpts of my linguistic analysis of his speeches. I'd be glad if you came by to take a look.

Len Hart said...

giemmevi said...

I graduated from the University of Florence in Italy writing a thesis on Carmichael and his Black Power Rhetoric.

Is it possible to read your paper online? Perhaps a PDF? If so, I would be very interested in getting your perspective. Secondly, I am in the progress of reading you series re: Carmichael posted on your blog. Excellent work.

BTW --on another topic. Florence is among my favorite cities.

Subsequently I will pubblish exerpts of my linguistic analysis of his speeches.A topic about which I am most interested.

Clearly --Carmichael understood the 'power' of words and chose them carefully. In retrospect, I believe he is the only public speaker I have ever heard quote Jean Paul Sartre.

Carmichael seems (in retrospect) to have presaged recent advertising gurus who place less emphasis upon 'persuasion' than upon 'positioning' --an advertising strategem that did not gain currency until much later. Carmichael understood that the 'honky' had positioned an entire race --'black' race. He also understood how the tables might be turned.