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Stokely Carmichael, Black Activist, Dies

Civil rights: The fiery leader who coined the slogan 'Black Power' was 57 and living in Africa.

November 16, 1998|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Kwame Toure, who as the fiery political activist named Stokely Carmichael was a seminal figure in the Black Power movement of the 1960s, died Sunday at the age of 57.

He died of prostate cancer at his home in the West African nation of Guinea, where he had lived since 1969, said Sharon Sobukwe, a Philadelphia-based member of Toure's All-African People's Revolutionary Party.

Toure came to public attention at a time of great upheaval in America. First as a university student and then as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he traveled frequently to the South to register blacks to vote. He registered thousands but paid a price by being arrested more than 25 times for his efforts. He once spent 49 days in Mississippi's infamous Parchman Penitentiary, where he was routinely beaten. It was during a protest march in Mississippi in June 1966 that he used the phrase "Black Power."

Toure and other black leaders were continuing a march from Memphis to Jackson that had been started by James Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi. They joined the "Walk Against Fear" after Meredith was shot along a Mississippi highway.

Toure had been arrested as the marchers approached Greenwood, Miss. After posting bond, he returned to his colleagues and told them in no uncertain terms that it was time to demand black power.

According to witnesses, he asked the marchers what they wanted and the response was "Black Power!" The chants continued, and it became a rallying cry that galvanized pride among many blacks.

But the slogan was troubling to many in the civil rights movement, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He called the phrase "an unfortunate choice of words." Some whites who had supported the goals of integration viewed it as a call for racism in reverse.

Some critics charged that Toure's rhetoric, which accelerated in tone after the Mississippi march, fueled rioting in cities across America in the next few years.

Toure tried to explain the term in the book "Black Power," published in 1967 with Charles V. Hamilton, a Columbia University political science professor.

"It is a call for black people in this country to begin to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations . . . to resist the racist institutions and values of this society."

But Toure's call for "black power" was to many in the civil rights movement more harmful than helpful. For months, there was debate about what the phrase really meant, and many believe that debate helped splinter the civil rights movement.

Earlier this year, he attempted to compare his views on violence with those of King, who advocated nonviolence in attaining civil rights.

"[We] had one simple definition that separated us," Toure said. "He saw nonviolence as a principle, which means it had to be used at all times, under all conditions. I saw it as a tactic. If it was working, I would use it; if it isn't working, I'm picking up guns because I want my freedom by any means necessary."

Toure was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago on June 29, 1941. His father was a carpenter, and his parents, with two of their daughters, traveled to the United States. Toure remained in Trinidad, living with two aunts and his grandmother. He received a traditional British education, and in an interview later complained that he was forced in class to memorize Kipling's "White Man's Burden."

In 1952 at the age of 11, he joined his parents in the Harlem section of New York where his father held a second job as a cabdriver to help support his wife, Mae, and children. The family moved to Morris Park, a white neighborhood in the Bronx, and for a time Toure belonged to the Morris Park Dukes, a local gang. Upon entering the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, he changed.

"I broke from the Dukes," he recalled in a Life magazine interview some years ago. "They were reading funnies while I was trying to dig Darwin and Marx."

Tall, handsome, stylish, he cut a dashing figure in school where he was popular with his classmates, both black and white. In 1960, after seeing pictures of blacks sitting in at lunch counters in the South, Toure became politically active. He rejected scholarships from several predominantly white colleges and entered Howard University in Washington.

During his freshman year he took part in freedom rides--integrated bus trips to the South to challenged segregated interstate travel. In 1964, graduating with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, he became an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee--eventually rising to head the civil rights organization. He became the group's most influential and powerful leader and was instrumental in altering its orientation from peaceful integration to "black liberation."

Toure resigned as chairman of the organization in May 1967 and became affiliated with the Black Panthers, the more militant black liberation group founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. He became the party's prime minister.

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