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Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture, 1941-1998) was a history maker but also the product of the long, drawn out, historical struggle of Blacks against the oppression of the Western ruling elites and their economic system

The African American community in which Carmichael entered the fray for civil rights in the 1960s was not comprised of a uniform social class. It is a diverse community which produced different and sometimes opposing sociopolitical alliances, with their own leaders, who too were involved in ideological clashes within the community. [1] Carmichael was a product of these two battles from which he emerged on the side of Pan-Africanism and socialism.[2]

Cornell West in his proposition on the question of Black Community leadership, what he termed “The Crisis of Black leadership,”[3] although a good analysis of the state of African American leadership today does not shed sufficient light on the Black leadership renaissance of the 1960s which led to the rise of leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr; Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Ella Baker and the subject of our inquiry, Carmichael. “Quality leadership”, says West, "is neither the product of one great personality nor the result of odd historical accident, rather it comes from deeply bred traditions and communities that shape and mold talented and gifted persons.” [4] His argument, though insightful, omits the fact that leadership in neither the African American community nor in nation states develops in a progressively linear manner. The fact is that both socialist revolutionary history and the history of Black struggles show that the revolutionary high tide of the masses in struggle wanes in its aftermath and is often usurped by reactionaries.[5] African American leadership in the 1960s, in which Carmichael was involved, came in on the high tides of the masses struggles for mass action. Therefore the current backward-looking leadership in the Black community is not merely a function of the degeneration of the values and attitude of the “Black middle class.” It is an outcome of the struggle between the classes within the Black Community itself, and a reflection of the extent of the influence imposed upon Black leadership by the dominant, reactionary power structure.

West is correct about the role of history in the making of a leader such as Carmichael. Marx concurs when he said that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”[6] Marx is also dismissing superstitious claims, such as the Great Man Theory, which would suggest that leaders such as a Carmichael are born as leaders not made.[7] Trotsky expanded on Marx’s explanation of the making of leaders and quoting him may help to further our understanding of Kwame Ture’s significance. According to Trotsky,

“The secret is this, that a people is comprised of hostile classes, and the classes themselves are comprised of different and in part antagonistic layers which fall under different leadership... Governments do not express the systematically growing ‘maturity’ of a ‘people’ but are the product of the struggle between different classes and the different layers within one and the same class, and, finally, the action of external forces…To this should be added that a [leadership">, once it has established itself, may endure much longer than the relationship of forces which produced it. [8]

In addition to the dynamics of the struggle among the classes in the making of African American leaders, it is also important to understand the important role of urbanization in the formation of the African American classes. During the first half of the 20th century the wars (WWI and WWII) boosted industrialization and economic growth of US cities which in turn propelled the process of Black urbanization, shrinking the peasantry, expanding the working class as well as the Black bourgeoisie. Prior to the 1960s the majority of African Americans who lived in the South and were peasants (over 90%) and with their economic life tied to agriculture, were under greater control by the Southern, racist, power structure. In 1940 about 25% lived in urban areas of the North which increased to 50% by 1960, with a similar percentage of the Black population in the South also living in urban communities. [9] In the face of continued racial violence against Blacks in the early 20th Century, influential leaders and their organizations offered different solutions; among them were Booker T. Washington, W.E. B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey and others.

Booker T. Washington’s (April 5, 1856 – November 14, 1915) public strategy was to “avoid politics” and to develop programs to assist Blacks to gradually uplift themselves socially and economically with education, trade skills and small business. Garvey took an interest in Washington’s program and while not agreeing with all his ideas (on politics) exchanged letters with him.[10] Garvey was a politician. In his speeches and publications, he attacked the white power structure for denying Blacks their civil rights. He also attacked other Black leaders who were pushing racial integration while opposing his idea of establishing an independent state in Africa for Blacks. According to Karenga, “he did not see Blacks’ political salvation in the U.S. but in Africa and thus like Washington, put no real emphasis on political struggles in the U.S.”[11]

Washington’s position, like Garvey’s, was rejected by leaders such as DuBois as well as by the Communists and socialists. DuBois who came to prominence as an intellectual-activist was widely read and had a following in the small grouping of educated Blacks--professionals, intellectuals and the managerial types. DuBois’ initial proposition (and one for which he was demonized in some quarters) was that Blacks would be saved by a “talented tenth,” who would provide the leadership to uplift the community. DuBois’ “talented tenth” was not the vanguard of the masse (described in Marxist theory) because they were understood to be a pro-capitalism, small group of Black elites. DuBois came under the attack of more radical Blacks not only because they disagreed with his leadership concept but because during a period of racial oppression against African Americans, he made an appeal to Blacks in his influential publication, the Crisis, to “Close Ranks,” place on hold their complaints against injustice in the American society and go and fight in World War I (1914-1918). Although Carmichael, in the 1960s, was opposed to elements of DuBois’ ideas, he admired his contributions and saw him as a leader who was “demonized by the press and hounded by the government.”[12]

Albeit, after the Niagara Movement ( an organization formed by DuBois to resist oppression in the American society) was merged with the white liberals controlled NAACP, Carmichael attacked the new organization from a Black Nationalist or Pan-Africanist perspective, arguing that the “Niagara Movement… was all Black and great, until it was ‘perverted’ by whites and merged into the then new NAACP.”[13] The NAACP which was founded in 1909 with the help of white patrons had grown rapidly. It reached a membership of almost one million in 1947,[14] coinciding with the period in which African Americans were becoming more politically organized and the labor movement had achieved what C.L. R. James described as “one of the most astonishing mobilizations in the history of the working class.”[15] Carmichael’s attack on the NAACP was a continuation of the opposition to the organization’s methods, by radical Blacks who felt that its leadership either feared or rejected any form of mass mobilization for political action. Therefore although the organization had potentials, it had contented itself to legal protests and publicizing lynching.[16] Some Black radicals at the time (even those who were opposed to Garvey’s ideas) agreed that post WWII growth of the NAACP parallels the massive post WWI mobilization which was led by Garvey and his movement.[17]

The significance Carmichael’s frontal attack on the NAACP, from the SNCC platform, was its corresponding with the period when the Black masses were abandoning the old “legalistic type of propaganda and agitation.” They were mobilizing for the type of mass action (executed by the civil rights movement of the 1960s), which the old leadership, viewed as degenerated, were too afraid execute. [18] In 1941 the African American masses were ready and prepared to march on Washington. They trusted Randolph, so he was their chosen leader to head the march. Under pressure from the Roosevelt administration and the fear of the NAACP leadership, the march was called off by the leaders: Randolph, Walter White (NAACP) and Frank Crosswaith (Socialist Party). [19] The African American masses felt betrayed. Hence when Carmichael attacked the NAACP, he was reflecting the African American masses distrust of the NAACP leadership and the inability of the old guard Black leadership to lead the type of mass action required to obtain their civil liberties. Carmichael was an emblem of the African American leadership renaissance of the 1960s.


[1] Karenga, . Introduction to Black Studies. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 2010, 136-137.
[2] Carmichael, Stokely, and Michael Thelwell. Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (kwame Ture). New York: Scribner, 2003, 787-788
[3] West, Cornel. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993, 35-46
[4] West, Cornel. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993, 35-46
[5] McCarthy, Lloyd D. Review: “Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914–1972, Michelle Ann Stephens.” Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn 2012), pp. 197-199
[6] Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers, 1963
[7] Northouse, Peter G. Leadership: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks [u.a.: SAGE Publications, 2010; “Theories of Leadership: The Great Man Theory,” Available on Youtube.
[8] Trotsky, Lev D. The Class, the Party and the Leadership. London, 1940; Trotsky, Leon. “The Class, the Party and the Leadership: Why Was the Spanish Proletariat Defeated?” Fourth International, Vol.1 No.7, December 1940, pp.191-195;
[9] Mandel, Bernard. “The Freedom Struggle: Revolt to Revolution.”Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.25 No.2, Spring 1964, pp.42-44, 63. Oct. 28. 2013
[10] Hill, Robert A. ed. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Volume I, 1826 - August 1919. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983; PBS. “Correspondence of Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington.” Accessed Nov. 2, 2013
[11] Karenga, . Introduction to Black Studies. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 2010, 141-143.
[12] Carmichael, Stokely, and Michael Thelwell. Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (kwame Ture). New York: Scribner, 2003, p.100-
[13] Dunayevskaya, Raya. 1967. “Revisiting 'Black Power,' Race and Class.” Marxist Internet Archive. Accessed Nov. 2, 2013
[14] James, C.L.R (“J.R. Johnson”). “The Rapid Growth of the NAACP.” The Militant, 22 Sept. 1947;
[15] James, C.L.R (“J.R. Johnson”). “The Rapid Growth of the NAACP.” The Militant, 22 Sept. 1947;
[16] James, C.L.R (“J.R. Johnson”). “The Rapid Growth of the NAACP.” The Militant, 22 Sept. 1947;
[17] James, C.L.R (“J.R. Johnson”). “The Rapid Growth of the NAACP.” The Militant, 22 Sept. 1947;
[18] Mandel, Bernard. “The Freedom Struggle: Revolt to Revolution.”Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.25 No.2, Spring 1964, pp.42-44, 63. Oct. 28. 2013
[19] James, C.L.R (“J.R. Johnson”) “Negroes, We Can Depend Only on Ourselves!” The Negro’s Fight, Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 28, 14 July 1941, p. 4.

* Lloyd McCarthy is author of the book: In-dependence from Bondage: Claude McKay and Michael Manley: Defying the Ideological Clash and Policy Gaps in African Diaspora Relations. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2007



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