A little more than fifty years ago, on July 28, 1966, Stokely Carmichael, then newly appointed chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, screamed two words into a microphone at a crowded rally in Greenwood, Mississippi:
Those two words would change his life and send the Civil Rights movement veering in a new direction. Until that moment Carmichael had been a relatively unknown, but successful community organizer, responsible for helping to register thousands of Black voters in Mississippi, Alabama, and even helping to lead a coalition of Black Mississippians to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. After that moment he would become the leader of a movement that would spawn a new, more militant and radical approach to the issue of race by many young Blacks in America and around the world, while also inspiring the creation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
The Black Power movement helped redefine and uplift the perception of Blackness with powerful symbols that still shape Black resistance today. Afros. “Black is Beautiful.” Pigs. The Black Power fist in the air. “Soul on Ice.” “Revolutionary Suicide.” Bobby. Eldridge. Rap. Elaine. Angela. Images of Huey P. Newton sitting in a wicker chair with a staff in one hand and a rifle in the other cover walls of dorm rooms, classrooms, barbershops, and dens to this day, but what exactly did the Black Power movement accomplish, economically, politically, long term?
For all of the militant criticism of Dr. King and his nonviolent strategy, his Gandhi-inspired tactics desegregated the South, helped pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and led to Civil Rights legislation that not only helped Black people, but all minorities including women, the LGBTQ community, and even the handicapped.
Am I dissing Stokely and the Black Power movement that he birthed?
But what I am saying is that at this crucial moment in time and history in this country, America, the most militant and radical thing that we as Black people and conscious, aware, and “woke” people can do is not boycott the NFL, sit during the National Anthem, or scream the name of the next inevitable police murder victim. The most radical thing we can do is help register people to vote in swing states like Michigan and ensure that the names of citizens in Mississippi are not purged from voter lists.
The original Black Panther Party didn’t start in 1966 in Oakland, California because of police brutality. It was started by Stokely Carmichael in 1965 in Alabama as a political party for Black people in Lowndes County, Alabama, where Black people made up eighty percent — 3000 Whites, 12,000 Blacks — of the population and only one Black person was registered to vote. Stokely helped register more than 2,500 Black voters within a year. The party later merged with the state’s Democratic Party, electing the first Black sheriff, John Hulett, who kept the position for more than twenty years.
The strategies and tactics used by Stokely in Alabama and by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Comittee in general during the 60s would help elect the first Black mayors in cities across the country — Maynard Jackson in Atlanta, Harold Washington in Chicago, David Dinkins in New York City, Tom Bradley in Los Angeles. When former Georgetown University basketball coach, John Thompson, wanted to get Allen Iverson out of prison he didn’t protest, he talked to Douglas Wilder, the first Black and then governor of Virginia, and got him pardoned.
When Stokely Carmichael came to speak at Howard University after the 1992 Rodney King riots he said:
“You can’t schedule a riot.”
You can’t schedule a protest, either. They are usually birthed out of frustration over lack of action by oppressors, and, unfortunately, the oppressed. You can, however, schedule a re-election, a re-election of principals based on hope and change that ideally, maybe even delusionally, aim to help everyone and create unity in an ever hostile and divided country and world.
If Stokely Carmichael was alive today, would he be raising a fist in the air as he knelt on the sideline during the National Anthem of the next Atlanta Falcons game or would he be preaching at a church about the importance of preparing for the 2020 Presidential election?
Maybe both, but most definitely the latter.
Every day as people rant about Donald Trump’s latest psychotic Tweet, he also signs bills bringing back asbestos, lead bullets, destroying our already annihilated rights to privacy, strengthening draconian mandatory minimum sentences, and it’s all happening while you’re watching football,
or not watching football.
Words by John Fisher.