Disparaging Stokely Carmichael, Bill Clinton attacks the black freedom struggle

During a historic upsurge of black activism, Bill Clinton attacked the late Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture, a leading black power revolutionary. Dr. Peniel Joseph, professor and author of Stokely: A Life, responds.

At the funeral for John Lewis, former president Bill Clinton disparaged Stokely Carmichael’s (later Kwame Ture) leadership role in the black freedom struggle of the 1960s. “There were two or three years there where the movement went a little bit too far towards Stokely,” Clinton said, “But in the end, John Lewis prevailed.”

Dr. Peniel Joseph, professor at University of Texas at Austin and author of “Stokely: A Life”, responds to Clinton’s comments and discusses Carmichael/Ture’s legacy as a black power revolutionary. “Bill Clinton was a terrible president for black people,” Dr. Joseph said. “So the disparaging of Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael is really just another example of this kind of racism and patronizing attitude coming from the forces of political reaction that people like Bill Clinton represent.”

Carmichael, the professor added, “exposed the depths of state-sanctioned violence against black bodies in the context of the 1960s, and exposed the moral and political hypocrisy of American democracy and fantasies of American exceptionalism.”

Guest: Dr. Peniel Joseph, Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Author of “Stokely: A Life” and his latest, “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.”

Dr. Joseph at U of T: https://lbj.utexas.edu/joseph-peniel

Dr. Joseph on Twitter: https://twitter.com/PenielJoseph


AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback. I’m Aaron Maté. At the funeral for Congressmember John Lewis, former president Bill Clinton took a strange detour when he disparaged the veteran civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture.

BILL CLINTON: And I say there were two or three years there where the movement went a little bit too far towards Stokely, but in the end John Lewis prevailed.

Well, joining me to discuss is Peniel Joseph. He is Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, author of several books, including Stokely: A Life, and his latest, The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Welcome, Professor Joseph, to Pushback. What was your reaction to hearing Bill Clinton talk about Stokely Carmichael at John Lewis’s funeral?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Thank you for having me, Aaron. I was surprised, disappointed, because Bill Clinton was a terrible president for black people, something that those of us who are active in social justice, racial justice, civil rights, black power movements, even before the Black Lives Matter movement, told to everyone who was willing to listen. So, the disparaging of Kwame Ture, Stokely Carmichael, is really just another example of this kind of racism and this kind of patronizing attitude that is coming from the forces of political reaction that people like Bill Clinton represent. So, we shouldn’t be surprised because Bill Clinton is a neoliberal. He was pro-death penalty, really an unbelievably racist president when we think about the crime bill, when we think about welfare reform, we think about Sister Souljah, attacking Sister Souljah at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push Coalition event.

BILL CLINTON: We had a rap singer here last night named Sister Souljah. I defend her right to express herself through music, but her comments before and after Los Angeles were filled with the kind of hatred that you do not honor today and tonight.

PENIEL JOSEPH: We think about presiding over the death penalty case of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man who was mentally challenged, but Clinton made sure that the state violently killed Ricky Ray Rector so he could prove his bona fides to white supremacists, and still only ended up with 43 percent of the vote in 1992. So, Bill Clinton has always been morally reprehensible and political…politically indefensible.

AARON MATÉ: Let’s talk about what you think Clinton might have meant by his jab at Kwame Ture, Stokely Carmichael. When he talked about how he was thankful that SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, went in the direction ultimately of John Lewis and not Stokely Carmichael. What do you think he was trying to say?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, Stokely was too black and too strong. Stokely Carmichael is the leader of an anti-imperialist movement, it’s an anti-capitalist movement, it’s a…it’s a movement for radical black political, cultural, economic self-determination. It’s a movement way before this moment of 2020, that castigated white supremacy and white privilege, that really exposed the depth and breadth of white supremacy both in United States and globally. And we think about that black power movement, certainly Malcolm X is the avatar of that movement.

But what Kwame Ture is able to do, Stokely Carmichael, as a civil rights militant-turned-black power revolutionary, is really expose the depths of state-sanctioned violence against black bodies in the context of the 1960s, and exposed the moral and political hypocrisy of American democracy and fantasies of American exceptionalism. And Stokely did this because he was both a civil rights militant who had been arrested dozens and dozens of times. He jailed with John Lewis in Mississippi. Stokely was in Alabama, the buckle of the black belt there. He was in the Mississippi Delta. He was a Freedom Rider. He was a sit-in activist. He was a Howard University graduate student, a graduate of Howard University, 1964.

So, Stokely has more bona fides to talk about activism than virtually anybody of his generation. And when you push back against Stokely Carmichael, it’s because Stokely Carmichael wasn’t interested in political reform. Stokely goes to the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and that’s the last convention he goes to. And he’s right there with Ella Baker, the organizer, the founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, he’s right alongside of Fannie Lou Hamer who’s the voting rights activist, sharecropper-turned-voting rights activist, who tells the credentials committee live on national television about all the death threats and the violence that black folks who are sharecroppers are receiving because they’re trying to organize the right to vote. And she has that famous line: Is this America, the land of the free, the home of the brave, where we are beaten for wanting to exercise our rights as citizens and human beings? And she does that, and that’s so riveting that the president of the United States interrupts her live testimony with a press conference because he doesn’t want this messing up his political convention.

So, Stokely leaves that political convention, never attends a Democratic political convention or any political convention in the United States ever again, because Fannie Lou Hamer had represented the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the racially integrated, genuine representatives of democracy. Yet the Democratic Party, they allowed white supremacists to be seated at the DNC that year, and the Mississippi delegation still walked out.

So, when we think about Stokely, Stokely had experienced all of this. He knew Malcolm X, he was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. By the time he takes a five-month tour of the world in ’67, he gets to meet Fidel Castro in Cuba, he gets to meet Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, he meets Kwame Nkrumah and [Ahmed] Sékou Touré in Guinea. And Nkrumah is really the godfather of post-war Pan-Africanism, former prime minister of Ghana.

So, Stokely is this hugely extraordinary iconic global figure who’s an anti-imperialist, who’s the biggest critic of the war in Vietnam, even before Dr. King comes out against the war at the Riverside Church, April 4th, 1967. And it’s really ironic that Bill Clinton criticized Stokely, because without Stokely people like Bill Clinton could not have escaped the Vietnam War. Because Clinton wasn’t going to fight. He was trying to escape the war like many people were. And it’s Stokely who popularizes the term “Hell no, we won’t go!” So, Stokely creates a context where people like Bill Clinton can survive to become the neoliberals who incarcerate and punish and demonize and dehumanize and murder and kill black people in a later generation.

AARON MATÉ: If I could ask you to talk more about that, Stokely being against the Vietnam War well before Dr. King. When Dr. King makes his famous turn against the Vietnam War, he alienates a lot of his own allies. How did Stokely Carmichael’s opposition to the Vietnam War influence Dr. King?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, it’s really Stokely and SNCC, and this is one of the reasons why John Lewis is moved aside in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. SNCC had always been a radical revolutionary group. And when we think about John Lewis, John Lewis has a kind of political radicalism when we think about how he’s willing to put his body on the line and have…bear witness against the deprivations and the degradations of white supremacy.

But then when it came to things in terms of policy, SNCC becomes an overtly anti-imperialist organization. By January of 1966, where they come out against the Vietnam War, and by the time Julian Bond, the late Julian Bond—who John Lewis defeated in 1986 to win his congressional seat—when Julian Bond says that he is against the war in Vietnam as well, the Georgia State Legislature refuses to allow him to be seated in the Georgia State Legislature, after he has won election twice. They refused to allow him to be seated. And that’s why coming out against the war in Vietnam is what really hurts Julian Bond’s political career in Georgia, because it’s in a Georgia that’s overwhelmingly white, and even after the Voting Rights Act—except for very specific districts like the district that John Lewis won, that Andy Young won, that was gerrymandered to try to create representation—Julian Bond could never really win statewide again. Because many people in the late 60s, early 70s used to think that Julian Bond, who was a major civil rights activist with SNCC, would have been the first black governor of Virginia…excuse me, of Georgia, would have been maybe the first black vice president or president as well in the 60s and 70s.

So, when we think about Stokely, Stokely is really following SNCC’s lead, and after he comes out for black power on June 16, 1966, he is touring and crisscrossing the country throughout the year, talking about the Vietnam War. He says that it’s a racist war, it’s an imperialist war. Stokely is the person who has already traveled to Puerto Rico, he’s traveled to all these different places in solidarity, he had spoken out against the Vietnam War even before he becomes SNCC chairman, he pushed back against the use of napalm in Vietnam, which was a chemical agent that was burning women and children and the elderly and young people, and he said that the war was an immoral war on Meet The Press. So, what’s interesting about Stokely is that Stokely is the person whose anti-war activism is going to influence Martin Luther King Jr., because he’s listening. He’s listening, and he knows that the war is wrong. But before April 4th, 1967, King doesn’t come out in a courageous way and say what he believes to be wrong internally, because he’s still…still trying to push for a kind of reform that will never happen.

AARON MATÉ: How did Stokely Carmichael’s thinking evolve? You talk about in your book how…and you mentioned this a bit before, how he was basically involved in every single major civil rights action from 1960 to 1966, I believe. But then at a certain point he starts diverging from Dr. King when it comes to issues such as non-violence. There’s a famous clip of them at the Meredith March [Against Fear] in Mississippi in 1966, featured in the documentary King in the Wilderness, where they’re having a sort of back-and-forth about the issues of non-violence.

REPORTER: Carmichael, are you as committed to the non-violent approach as Dr. King is?


REPORTER: Why aren’t you?

STOKELY CARMICHAEL: Well, I just don’t see it as a way of life. I never have. I grew up in the slums of New York, and I learned there that the only way that one survived was to use his fists. I realized…

BERNARD LAFAYETTE, JR.: When Stokely became chairman of SNCC he had a different approach.

STOKELY CARMICHAEL: For me, it’s always been a tactic and never a way of life.

BERNARD LAFAYETTE, JR.: He believed in self-defense.

REPORTER: Could you comment on that, Dr. King?

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: The negro has an opportunity to inject morality in the veins of our civilization, and for this reason I will continue to preach non-violence. I will continue…

ANDREW YOUNG: Martin was an amazingly tolerant, understanding father figure for all of us. He understood Stokely’s frustrations and he never took it personally. I think Dr. King never forgot that we were all on the same side. He didn’t have any enemies.

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: What I remember was the listening, the patience. He was always there to say, I don’t go there, but I want to really understand why you go there. But that was the first real breach in the non-violence commitment that many of us had grown to accept.

AARON MATÉ: How did Stokely’s thinking on this issue evolve, and what were the key incidents that made him sort of change his views?

PENIEL JOSEPH: It’s going to really be a political experience from Stokely. When we think about Stokely Carmichael, he’s born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1941, June 29th. He comes to United States when he’s…a couple of weeks before his 11th birthday because his parents had come earlier. And then he’s in the Bronx, New York, goes to Bronx High School of Science. And he’s an activist in high school. So, he meets up with Bayard Rustin, you know, who’s gay and proud and a black radical, the organizer of the March on Washington, a Freedom Rider, somebody who had studied Gandhi, who had snuck into Montgomery and taught Martin Luther King Jr. about the tactical and philosophical vision of non-violence in a practical application in a movement setting.

So, Stokely knows Bayard Rustin in the 1950s. Stokely is organizing with black and white students in the 1950s. So, by the time the sit-in movement starts, he is a senior in high school and then goes to Howard University. He had a chance to go to Harvard. And Stokely is always just tactically aligned with non-violence. So, he’s not part of the John Lewis wing and the Jim Lawson wing and this sort of very deeply religious Christian perspective, or [of] Dr. King’s notion of the social gospel and non-violence. Stokely sees it as a discipline that is going to be utilized to reimagine American democracy. And over time he comes to believe that it won’t work, because what he comes to see…and he writes a terrific essay, “What We Want,” in The New York Review of Books, September 22nd, 1966, where he says that, basically the movement has been disabused of all of its illusions because of white supremacist violence. And there’s one line in that where he says: We’ve been saying to you for years now, you’re nice guys, just give us racial integration and stop abusing us. This is to white people, and he says that now we found out you’re not nice guys, we found you out, and we’re going to move for black political power and self-determination and self-defense, whether the heavens and the earth fall in that move.

So, Stokely Carmichael, that’s what he becomes through evolution. Arrested 27 times between 1960 and 1966. He was on the receiving end of all this brutality. He had seen so many black people abused and killed. He had also seen white allies like Jonathan Daniels, who was a friend of his, murdered by white supremacists, and Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered by white supremacists in Selma in 1965. So, Stokely is in Lowndes County. He’s one of the original organizers of what becomes the original Black Panther Party. Of course, he’s going to become honorary prime minister of the Oakland-based Black Panther Party, but the original Black Panther Party comes out of Lowndes County, Alabama, and it’s a move for independent politics away from racist Republicans or racist Democrats. Stokely is in Mississippi when the three civil rights workers, Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, are murdered by a combination of law enforcement and white supremacists. And Stokely Carmichael and Charlie Cobb go looking for them outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi, January, [rather] June 21-June 22, 1964.

So, Stokely is at all these. Stokely is picketing Bobby Kennedy when Bobby Kennedy’s attorney general, 1963. Stokely is testifying before the US Civil Rights Commission as a Howard University junior. He’s in Tennessee, he’s in Mississippi, he’s in Alabama, he’s in Washington DC. So, he’s this extraordinary figure who knows James Baldwin, who knows Dick Gregory, who knows Martin Luther King Jr. Of course, later he marries Miriam Makeba, but in 1966, once he becomes this national political mobilizer, it’s Stokely who’s telling black people, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud,” way before James Brown. It’s Stokely who’s inspiring the black studies movement and black student union movements. It’s Stokely who’s linking movements with black political self-determination, with African decolonization and radical Pan-Africanism and third world revolutionary internationalism. So that’s all Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture, and he absolutely is going to influence Martin Luther King Jr. The legacy of Malcolm X influences King and so does Stokely Carmichael.

AARON MATÉ: So given what a big role he had on the movement and what a big influence he had on people like Dr. King, why do you think he’s not nearly as well-known as Dr. King and Malcolm X?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I think one, he was not assassinated and killed early. He dies of prostate cancer at the age of 57, on November 15, 1998. He had left the United States in 1969, basically, for Conakry, Guinea. He stays there for almost 30 years and is an international revolutionary Pan-Africanist. He organizes the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. He’s anti-capitalist, he’s for revolutionary African socialism as theorized by Kwame Nkrumah and Sékou Touré.

So, he becomes irredeemable. You know, he didn’t become mayor of Washington DC and have a bunch of scandals. He becomes irredeemable. He doesn’t become a professor at an Ivy League school, talking about old war stories. He continues to say that the United States is the belly of the beast and it’s a corrupt country. There’s no such thing as American exceptionalism and it’s one dictated by a kind of genocidal capitalism, a racist capitalism, a capitalism that cares about profits over people and continues to murder black and brown people with impunity around the world, no matter what moments of racial progress are presented to people as examples that things are getting better.

So, from that perspective he becomes this revolutionary figure that you can’t rehabilitate. He’s not dead. He’s alive and he continues to come to the United States annually, saying all this, right? Barack Obama famously, in Dreams From My Father, talks about seeing Stokely Carmichael. And Obama, the young Obama at Columbia, he’s scared of Stokely Carmichael. He says that Carmichael really repudiates a young woman who asked some question about how she could help, and he talks about socialism and revolution, and Obama says that his eyes glowed, the eyes of a madman or a saint. A madman or a saint. And, again, Kwame Ture was neither. He’s a revolutionary. That’s why he answered the phone, “Ready for revolution.” And whether or not you agree with what his solutions were, his diagnosis, just like Dr. King had a diagnosis that America was sick with the cancer of racism. And King pushed back against people in ’67, ’68, who were angry with him. He says, “I’m just diagnosing and they’re angry at me. Yet you can’t be angry at a doctor who’s just diagnosing the disease. He didn’t cause the illness, and she didn’t cause the illness.” All he did was diagnose.

And that’s what Kwame Ture does. But Kwame Ture certainly is doing it at a global level. And he’s indicting the Bill Clintons, he’s indicting the Margaret Thatchers, he’s indicting the Ronald Reagans, and he’s indicting not just trickledown economics as constituted by the right wing, but also trickledown progress that is constituted by the left wing, that philanthropists are going to save us, that corporate America is going to save us, that it’s going come in small increments. Kwame Ture is saying: Absolutely not. And he has the receipts because he was an activist at a time in American history where none of us would have been brave enough to do what Kwame Ture did. None of us.

AARON MATÉ: And just like Dr. King, he was under heavy law enforcement surveillance and harassment. Is that right?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Absolutely, globally. Globally, to the end of his life. It’s FBI, it’s CIA, it’s State Department, it’s Mississippi Sovereignty Committee, and it’s really local law enforcement, wherever he’s at. And what’s important for us to remember is that while he’s in the United States, he’s under surveillance for trying to bring genuine democracy, voting rights, citizenship, and dignity to black Americans. That’s why he’s under surveillance. So, if he’s under surveillance for trying to advocate for those things, he’s absolutely correct in saying that America was a corrupt society. You’re saying it’s a corrupt society because you’re not supposed to be under surveillance when you’re genuinely advocating those things. You’re not a subversive, right? If you want people to vote, if you want people who are poor to not be poor anymore, people who are hungry to be fed, no one has the right to investigate you. But, of course, he was investigated.

AARON MATÉ: You wrote a piece for The Washington Post where you point out that the dichotomy that Bill Clinton suggested with his comments at John Lewis’s funeral doesn’t actually capture the complexity of the black struggle and doesn’t even capture the relationship between Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael and John Lewis. And you point out that John Lewis even spoke at a tribute for Kwame Ture shortly before Kwame Ture’s death in 1998.

JOHN LEWIS: So, Stokely, you are a warrior because you dare to stand up and speak truth to power. And so tonight I come to say, thank you, Brother Stokely, thank you, Brother Ture.

Can you talk to us about this?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Yeah, absolutely. They were friends, they were friends. So, they jailed together, they both spent weeks in Mississippi Parchman Farm, the worst prison farm in the nation, you know, alongside Angola in Louisiana, in 1961, as Freedom Riders. Stokely spends his 20th birthday in jail, and he had met John Lewis shortly before. John Lewis was…people admired John Lewis. Stokely admired John Lewis. Reason why John Lewis is not elected SNCC chairman after May of ‘66 is because they wanted somebody which was Stokely and not John Lewis, who…and John Lewis even says this in the Eyes on the Prize video, the documentary series. He says they wanted somebody who would stand up to Lyndon Johnson, who would stand up to these racists and not negotiate with them. So, John Lewis is a person, who as SNCC representative, he would have gone to…there was a 1966 White House civil rights conference that Dr. King does go to. It’s one of the last times Dr. King and Lyndon Johnson actually meet. But SNCC boycotts the civil rights conference because they say the White House is not doing enough, right? And so, they wanted somebody like Stokely Carmichael who is going to boycott these things and say what Stokely calls the White House civil rights conference of ’66. He says this is a subterfuge for white supremacy. And he says that racial integration, the way they define it in the context of tokenism, is a subterfuge for white supremacy. So, a lot of controversy over that, in a way that in 2020 there would be no controversy, because now we’re saying and using the language of white supremacy.

So, what Clinton sets up as this dichotomy is actually something much more complex. The black freedom struggle has always been a mosaic, where you have radical revolutionary, moderate liberal, at times even small c conservative wings. And by small c conservative I don’t mean the neoconservatives of the last 30 or 40 years and people like Clarence Thomas. What I mean is small c conservatives, people who were connected to the [National] Urban League like a Whitney Young, people who wanted black political self-determination, but they weren’t necessarily going to march and protest for it. Even somebody like Thurgood Marshall becomes a small c conservative in the sense that he actually has a disagreement with Martin Luther King Jr. He sides with LBJ because he feels that black people need political power through democratic institutions and authoritative institutions like the White House, like the Congress, like the Supreme Court.

So, there’s always been this push and pull. And then when you talk about even black women in the movement and all the sexism and a deep misogyny that they faced, and now we’re seeing massive, massive high-profile black female leadership in the Black Lives Matter movement, radical black feminists, radical black queer feminists, trans women, the whole…the whole works. That has always existed, but those voices were marginalized, even within the black community. And one of the tributes of BLM is this idea of intersectionality vis-a-vis identity, because there’s always been intersectionality in terms of issues. People braiding race and economics and these different issues: voting rights, small businesses, ending police brutality. But in terms of identity and connecting that to issues, that’s been really, really hugely important.

So, there are people who are both civil rights and black power activists. There are feminists who are part of the Black Panthers, yet the Black Panthers are a sexist patriarchal organization. There are feminists who are part of the Nation of Islam. Nation of Islam is a sexist patriarchal group. So, people are very, very complicated. They can do two and three and four and five things at the same time. And they don’t even necessarily think of these things as contradictions. They think of these things as tensions. And that’s why you see Congressman John Lewis goes to Kwame Ture, who’s dying of cancer, and he’s saying, look, Kwame Ture is one of the reasons why I’m here, I’m here as a congressman because he had such courage to open things up. Even though, again, along the way, they…they’re going to disagree, they’re taking different perspectives, but you need both. Even in this right now, this age of Black Lives Matter and massive uprising and protest. You’re going to need all hands on deck.

Now, people should agree in principle about this idea of black dignity and citizenship, but then when it comes to how do we get there, you’re going to need different people, you’re going to need people who are talking about structural violence, you’re going to need people who are talking about the institutional massive transformations we need, you’re going to need people who are connected to pop culture, higher education, k through 12 education, mass incarceration, and revamping the justice system. When people talk about defunding the police and prison abolition, how is that going to work in terms of policy? You’re going to need people in churches and non-profits, you’re going to need all hands on deck. And the movement has always been that. So, just because a white neoliberal like Bill Clinton feels he didn’t like Stokely Carmichael because black power hurt his feelings, doesn’t mean we’ve got to listen to that kind of nonsense. Because these are all lies, these are lies. And, again, Clinton is good at spinning lies, but certainly he had no right to do that at the funeral of a black American hero.

AARON MATÉ: Peniel Joseph, Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, author of several books, including Stokely: A Life, and his latest, The Sword and The Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Professor, thank you very much.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Thank you for having me. It’s a great conversation.