Last week, as he eulogized John Lewis, Bill Clinton blasted the black radical icon Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Toure). Referring to the Black Power–oriented direction the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) took after Carmichael replaced Lewis as chairman, the former president said: “And I say there were two or three years there, where the movement went a little too far towards Stokely, but in the end, John Lewis prevailed.”
That Clinton should use a nationally televised event — the funeral of one of America’s most enduring black figures no less — to disparage Carmichael is a disgrace. But we can also assume it was no mistake: his remarks were likely delivered with the upcoming presidential election and the Black Lives Matter protests in mind.
Clinton’s attempt to play Lewis and Carmichael off of each other, pitting civil rights against Black Power, sits within a long tradition of moderate whites seeking to limit the political imaginations of black Americans, even when the existing system has continually failed them. The former president’s words also betrayed an anxiety that has long plagued America’s white political elites: that racism and white supremacy will act as a catalyst, radicalizing black Americans so much so that they will seek to transform existing political structures or attempt to create new ones.
Few figures exemplify this fear more than Stokely Carmichael.
Trinidadian-born, Carmichael grew up in New York City and entered the civil rights fray in the early 1960s as an eloquent and erudite organizer with SNCC. For their peaceful activism, Carmichael and the young SNCC activists were met with the full force of the state — police truncheons, barking dogs, tear gas — as they attempted to break Jim Crow by riding on segregated buses and staging sit-ins and registering people to vote. He was arrested more than two dozen times.
Carmichael’s faith in American democracy began to erode amid political setbacks. In 1964, SNCC’s attempts to open up Mississippi politics to black voters were thwarted when the Democratic Party, following an intervention from President Lyndon Johnson, refused to seat the state’s anti-segregationist delegation, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
Two years later, Carmichael formed the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama, an independent black political party. There was just a single black voter in the county when Carmichael arrived, but by election day SNCC activists had registered more than two thousand and fielded a roster of candidates. But again they were outdone, thanks in part to a campaign of intimidation by local white racists.