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Commentary

Carmichael's Lasting Legacy

Black power: An improved racial self-image resulted in better race relations.

November 22, 1998|St.CLAIR BOURNE | St.Clair Bourne is a screenwriter, producer and director. His film "Paul Robeson: Here I Stand" will air Feb. 24 on PBS

For many Americans in their mid-50s, especially those of African descent, Stokely Carmichael is remembered as a crucial part of the 1960s. He is seared in most people's minds as the "black power"-shouting civil rights firebrand during the Mississippi summer voter registration campaign of 1966. He scared whites and moderate blacks alike but earned the grudging respect EVEN of those who disagreed with him.

While making a documentary about his life and times, I met with him last summer before he left for Guinea, his adopted African homeland. Although gravely ill, his smile still lit up the room and his charm, known to captivate his harshest critics, was very much in evidence. But it was his consistency and articulate logic as he argued racial and later class politics that won the admiration of his "fellow Africans in America," as he referred to us.

Many of the things Carmichael advocated and for which he was roundly criticized--ethnic pride, an identification with African culture, a deep suspicion of government, a world view in which the third world plays an important economic role, street demonstrations as an organizing tool--are now commonplace in all parts of the nation. Ultimately, he was right. It was black power and not white benevolence that began to change the structural relationship between the races.

But considering where America "is at" these days, it is his journey from integrationist-turned-black power advocate Stokely Carmichael to self-renamed Pan-Africanist Kwame Ture that I think is more relevant. It was Carmichael's frustration at the failure of America's inability to deal honestly with racial inequalities that caused him to embrace the black power philosophy in 1966. "We been saying 'freedom' for six years and we ain't got nothin'," he said before he shouted the phrase that became a turning point in the civil rights movement. This national failure and the resulting frustration are still with us; the evidence is the abandonment of integration as a worthy goal and of education as a tool for progress. Instead, we have nihilistic anti-social behavior masquerading as protest.

Carmichael's decision to identify himself as an "African living in America" and to work toward developing an economic and political African approach to living is a healthy alternative to the still troubling problems of American life. Although black power, initially aimed at black Americans, was threatening to whites, it was a philosophy of empowerment that made African Americans feel better about themselves in the cultural areas of American life (even if political and economic empowerment goals fell short). Ironically, this new awareness improved the relationship between the races.

Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture said that his primary concern was the welfare of the African people around the world. He turned out to be an American visionary. His Pan-Africanism is the black power of the 1990s.

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