The autobiography of Stokely Carmichael—who would later rename himself Kwame Ture in esteem for two of his African forefathers, Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure—highlights a number of the challenges and triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century, including a detailed personal account of the shift from nonviolent action to armed self-defense and reflections on racial and gender inequalities and ambiguities within factions of the movement. Ready for Revolution is a powerful collaboration on the history of the civil rights movement between Ture and comrade Ekwueme Thelwell.
Son to Adolphus and Mabel Carmichael, Ture was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1943. As a child, he was frustrated with the Eurocentric British educational system. He recalls being surrounded by powerful and resourceful women, including his grandmother, his Tante Elaine, and his Mummy Olga. Ture writes, “the formative presences for me in the beginning were women, and that has continued true... I’ve always been... educated and protected by them” (p. 26).
His respect for women continued into his adulthood and throughout his activism. During his year with the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), Ture recognized that “as usual, our sisters were the backbone of the organization and as usual have never been sufficiently recognized” (p. 670). Later he would write that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), even prior to the official decision to exclude whites from participation, had always been mired by “racial/sexual tensions” and that “the apparent color-free harmony had always been just a myth” (p. 306). This reference to existing “sexual tensions” echoes his highly criticized comment that the “position of women in SNCC is prone” (p. 432).
At twelve, Ture joined his parents and two sisters in New York. Here he would live in an all white neighborhood, attend the Bronx High School of Science as the lone black student, participate in Young Communist League study groups and rallies, and become influenced by the political philosophies of Carl Marxi, C. L. R. James, and George Padmore.
Time at Howard
It is during his attendance at Howard University that Ture became more exposed to and involved in the Civil Rights Movement. During conversations with fellow students he began to understand “what segregation was like, the constant humiliations, the random brutality, the economic exploitation and ever-lasting dependence” (p. 132). Ture also came to recognize contradictions inside the system at Howard University, where students adopted affluent lifestyles and administrators and faculty members existed in a precarious system in which Southern Democrats controlled many university financial matters. In this system, politicking and seeming obedient to the whims of these politicians were tools for maintaining the university budget.
Ture became a member of the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG) on campus and it was out of this organization—alongside the non-violent Greensboro sit-in of 1960, to which angry whites responded with violence by hitting the men and pouring ketchup, ashtrays and coffee on them (p. 139) and the subsequent sit-ins across the country—that SNCC would form.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
Originally the brainchild of activist Ella Baker, SNCC was composed of American youth interested in boldly and bravely “transforming the entire social structure of the South” (p. 141). Nonviolent direct action was a founding tactic of the organization and its members. Ture describes nonviolent action as a technique of social struggle—one that is not synonymous with passivity. Instead it is “directly confrontational, even aggressively so, only in a nonviolent way” (p. 166). He writes, “We were secular and militantly confrontational within the framework of a nonviolent activism” (p. 259).
Although committed to the tactic of nonviolence, Ture’s respect for Civil Rights leaders who did not embrace the same approach (for example, Malcolm X) was unchanged. Ture recalls sympathizing and understanding when fellow activist Robert Williams deemed that violence needed to be met with violence after a string of white-on-black violence went unprosecuted.
Ture’s own commitment to nonviolence would shift with time. Ture became the honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party in 1967—signaling a shift from the non-violent campaign held by SNCC and CORE. During a speech in Trinidad in 1996, Ture spoke of revolution and change as emerging from both violent and nonviolent action, friction, and conflict. A reflective Ture recalls Freedom Summer: “I sure would not venture into those swamps and woods again unless I was well armed. And I’m talking superior firepower too” (p. 379).
Despite the Supreme Court ruling outlawing racial segregation of facilities and services for interstate passengers, the Interstate Commerce Commission failed to implement the legislation and Jim Crow laws remained the norm across the South. In response, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) devised a plan that, in the words of Ture, “could [not] be more harmless…in any even marginally healthy society” (p. 178). The implication was clear: America’s racism fostered a deeply unhealthy society.
CORE sent an interracial team to travel from Washington D.C. to New Orleans on public transportation. This team was to ignore the signs marking “white” and “colored” spaces. They would use facilities openly.
The public response was explosive. The riders progressed relatively unharmed until they reached Anniston and Birmingham, where the group was accosted and beaten by organized mobs of Klansmen. SNCC members assembled to join the Freedom Riders to ensure that the journey would continue as planned despite imprisonment and injury. Among them was Ture, who was jailed several times, including a sentence of forty-nine days in the Mississippi Parchman Penitentiary. The Freedom Rides revealed the permeation of racism within all levels of American politics.
“The most important thing Mississippi first taught me was to really love blackness” (p. 282), Ture reflected as he prepared to return to the South for the Mississippi Freedom Summer of June 1964, during which he served as a regional director, leading SNCC workers. Freedom Summer was a statewide campaign to organize community voter registration and booster the network of local leaderships.
Throughout the summer, Ture heeded the guidance and philosophies of Ella Baker in important ways. Adopting an approach that differed significantly from a leadership style that oriented from the educated and professional classes (such as the NAACP, CORE, and SCLC), Baker believed that radical social transformation would not be achieved without consulting the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Baker believed that “if local people did not have ownership of the struggle they were engaged in, they would be beholden politically to others who would not necessarily experience the consequences of that struggle” (Ransby 2003, p. 280). Ture’s leadership was similarly infused with the stories of Mississippians—stories that guided him during the summer.
An editorial commentary from Thelwell confronts the complex issue of race in the Freedom Summer Project. “The Mississippi staff was mostly black, Southern and poor, and the volunteers mostly white, Northern and middle class” (p. 367). Thelwell explores sections of Sally Belfrage’s memoir, “Freedom Summer,” which highlights the complexity of the black/white relationship inside the movement, in this case from the perspective of the difficulty of assimilation for white volunteers, expectations of gratitude on the part of whites, and historical circumstances that inherently place whites in the position of being “guilty” and blacks in the role of being “bitter” (p. 369).
Ture likewise confronts the multifaceted issues surrounding racial integration in the movement. He writes, “My position was clear. Whites should organize in white communities” (p. 566). This determination was made after years of working side-by-side with white activists in the South as well as witnessing white allies beaten. Thelwell quotes Ruby Sales, an African American social activist, as having said, “White presence would incite local white people to violence” (p. 467). After the death of a white activist, the project staff of LCFO took the position that “to allow whites in would be tantamount to inviting their deaths” (p. 470).
Ture had begun to seriously question racial integration following the all-white national Democratic Party’s refusal to seat the multi-racial Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) delegation at the DNC. First, LBJ sabotaged Fannie Lou Hammer’s testimony about her beating in the Winona jail by airing a policy discussion at the same moment that Hammer’s speech was on TV. Second, the Democrats refused to admit the MFDP’s delegates—Fannie Lou Hammer, Annie Devine, and Victoria Gray—to the Democratic National Convention. The MFDP, in Ture’s words, was “a bold, creative response to the political realities that confronted us in Mississippi in the South” (p. 400) but had been crushed by pre-existing racism within the Democratic Party.
Lowndes County Freedom Organization and Black Panther Party
After Mississippi and the assassination of Malcom X, SNCC underwent a change as it faced new issues and decisions and Ture himself decided to move in another direction. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) was an intensive effort to mobilize black voters across a county whose history was deep in racial tension. Approximately eighty families owned 90 percent of the land and of a total population of fifteen thousand, twelve thousand were African Americans being denied voting rights. The LCFO was a success as the number of registered voters rose significantly.
In 1966, Ture became chairman of SNCC. After James Meredith was attacked during his solitary March Against Fear, Ture joined fellow activists to continue the march. He was arrested and upon his release, he gave his first Black Power speech, using the phrase to urge black pride and socio-economic independence. In 1967, Ture voluntarily stepped down as chairman.
Travels to Guinea
Ture became a strong critic of the Vietnam War, traveled and lectured, visited Guinea, North Vietnam, China, and Cuba. In 1969, he moved to Guinea and became aide to Prime Minister Ahmed Sekou Toure. Ture’s attention to the politics of history-making as world-making is reflected in his reaction to the coup d’etat that removed Sekou Ture from power. He referres to the French neocolonialists as guiding agents in the coup and responds, “History was rewritten in the media for real, Jack, and the economy opened up to foreign imports” (p. 719). Ture was diagnosed with colon cancer later on and died in 1998. He believed that the U.S. government was behind his illness.
Remembering as reclaiming
Composed in conversational tone, the narrative is a mélange of Ture’s first person narrative juxtaposed with personal, political, and historical commentary from Thelwell, which is clearly defined by italic print enclosed by brackets. This mode of writing emphasizes that this history, although expressed through written word, is ultimately an oral history. The pair recorded dozens of hours of conversation for the writing of the text (p. 634). This act of remembering and telling is both deeply political and meaningful.
Ture’s language is fluid and quotidian as he draws the reader into conversation, “the mountain sure nuff came…” (p. 51), “the world was changing, wasn’t it?” (p. 117), “give praise and thanks” (p. 137), “so…black people were happening, Jack. If you cared at all about your people, it was an exciting, hopeful spring to be alive and active” (p. 326). Conversational jargon creates an active effect of informing or telling the reader in a sustained dialogue, rather than through an inactive effect of language being read. He writes,
Language, and especially the spoken word, has always had a serious hold on me. From my earliest childhood I’ve been just fascinated by words and the sounds and rhythms of words and our people’s voices […] Our people take pleasure in wordplay and in the rhythms, tones and music of spoken language. Usses jes’ loves to play with our language. (p. 286)
His declaration of historic ownership—“what we are writing here is history” (p. 3)—is all the more powerful coming as it does after years of having his ideas intentionally falsified and marginalized by mainstream media outlets. He describes the media’s reporting of Freedom Summer, writing, “I’m talking about a deliberate, systematic, unchallenged campaign of disinformation put out by the local media, much of which originated with the governor […] and ran down the legislature” (p. 360). Ture urged fellow black activists to tell their stories before they were forgotten or obscured by the “latecomers, outside observers and foreign correspondents who have done most of the writing” related to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century (p. 297). He explains the importance of words as a form of reclamation,
[The] fundamental notion was that black folks needed to begin openly, and had the right and the duty, to define for ourselves, in our own terms, our real circumstances, possibilities, and interests relative to white America. To determine what the relationship was. Simple as that. To consciously and publicly free ourselves from the heritage of demeaning definitions and limitations imposed on us, over centuries of colonial conditioning by a racist culture. Cultural and psychological self-determination, that’s all. (p. 527)
Carmichael, Stokely and Ekwueme Michael Thelwell (2003). Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael. New York: Scribner.
Ransby, Barbara (2003). Ella Baker and the Black freedom movement: a radical democratic vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Image credit: http://d.lib.ncsu.edu/