I decided to write this piece in response to a review from 2015 by David Garrow titled “The Tragedy of Stokely Carmichael.” That particular article was written as a review of Stokely: A Life by Peniel E. Joseph. Stokely Carmichael, who later changed his name to Kwame Ture, seems to be one of the most misunderstood leaders of his generation. Carmichael was born in Trinidad and moved to the United States, where he came to national prominence as the national chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As a member of SNCC, Carmichael marched alongside Martin Luther King. Following the dissolution of SNCC, Carmichael briefly joined the Black Panther Party. Carmichael eventually split from the Panthers then moved to Guinea, where he would spend the rest of his life organizing the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (A-APRP), which was a Pan-African organization that was developed by Kwame Nkrumah while he was living in exile in Guinea.
One of the challenges with Kwame Ture is that he is often interpreted by people who do not seem to understand the Pan-African phase of his struggle, which encompassed the last three decades of his life. A common criticism of Joseph’s biography has been that Joseph only devotes a single chapter to the years that Kwame Ture spent organizing in Guinea. Ahjama Umi explained:
I think it’s fair to say the bibliography of Kwame’s life repeatedly plays up the approximately seven years he spent within the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (pronounced SNICK), and the one year he spent within the Black Panther Party (BPP), while down playing, or even ignoring, his last 30 years living in Africa as an organizer for the All African People’s Revolutionary Party (A-APRP).
Umi also explains:
It’s difficult to understand why there is such a consistent lack of intellectual integrity in assessing Kwame’s 30 years in Africa. It’s almost as if there is a conspiracy to actively avoid engaging in the proper research required to dissect Kwame’s legacy in Africa. It would be simple to illustrate for readers why Kwame chose to study under Nkrumah and Seku Ture. It is equally plausible to present an analysis that explains why Kwame decided to dedicate his life to their vision. Joseph could have accomplished this had he taken the time to study Nkrumah’s ‘Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare’ with the respect it deserves. Unfortunately, Joseph apparently didn’t judge Nkrumah’s landmark ‘Handbook’ worthy of time and mention beyond just stating that Kwame Ture read it in one night.
This is where I start my critique of Garrow who, like Joseph, seems to dismiss the work that Kwame Ture did in Guinea. Garrow writes: “ Carmichael’s descent into political irrelevance culminated months later when he relocated to the tiny West African country of Guinea.” This remark is misleading. Certainly, Kwame Ture faded out of the mainstream American political consciousness by moving to Guinea, but how did Carmichael become politically irrelevant? As an organizer for the A-APRP, Kwame Ture worked with Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson and other African American leaders of national stature as part of the effort to build a united front. I would argue that Kwame Ture became even more politically relevant because his work took on an international scope, while he also continued to work in the United States.
Garrow quotes Julius Lester, who explained after reviewing Carmichael’s book: “Though dead, Malcolm is terrifyingly alive in his speeches; Carmichael is alive, but his speeches are depressingly dead.” Lester concluded that “Malcolm X was one of the makers of history. Carmichael was a reflector of it.” It’s an interesting remark, but it means very little in a practical sense because how does one measure the difference between a maker of history and a reflector of history? Lester does not say and Garrow does not care to elaborate. Through his review, Garrow merely quotes individuals who are critical of Kwame Ture without providing much context for these criticisms.
Garrow attempts to create the impression that Kwame Ture was relevant for a short period of time as a member of SNCC, but then faded into irrelevancy when he moved to Guinea. Of course, to truly understand Kwame Ture one most understand the world around him. As I explained before, Kwame Ture came to prominence during the civil rights movement in the United States, but this was also a period of global rebellion on the part of African people. Africa was becoming decolonized as African Americans were fighting for civil rights, and the two movements were connected in several ways. By the time Kwame Ture moved to Guinea, colonialism had given way to neo-colonialism on the continent. Kwame Ture spent his 30 years in Guinea fighting neo-colonialism in Africa, while working to also organize Africans in the United States and other parts of the world.
Kwame Ture should not be viewed merely as an individual, but as a revolutionary who was fighting against the global oppression of African people, but Garrow seems to express no interest in the nature of the struggle that Kwame Ture was engaged in. Garrow quotes the Economist, which stated that “by his dying day he was not much more than a nonentity in Guinea…” Again, how does one measure being a “nonentity”? Kwame Ture himself explained that after the death of Sekou Toure, he involved himself in the fight against the military dictatorship in Guinea, so I am not sure how one comes to the conclusion that Kwame Ture was a nonentity in Guinea given the nature of the political work which he was doing there.
Garrow also writes: “ Carmichael was but thirty years old, yet his political obituary was all but complete. Across the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, he would make speaking forays to scores of U.S. college campuses, drawing curious, sometimes hostile, and sometimes confused youthful audiences.” Garrow mentions these speaking forays, but says nothing of the political work that Kwame Ture was doing to build a united front in America. Garrow highlights a quote attributed to Kwame Ture stating that “the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist”, but makes no mention of the political work that Kwame Ture was doing around the issue of Zionism either. In the video above (30 minutes in), Kwame Ture mentions organizing the Worldwide Anti-Zionist front, which included more than 30 organizations. Inside the organization included the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania, which is a South African political party. Kwame Ture was doing much more than just speaking, he was an active organizer as well.
Garrow mentions none of this political work in his review. Instead, he quotes more critics of Kwame Ture, including a Washington Post article which described as a speech by Kwame Ture as “a rambling, sometimes vituperative 90-minute talk” and Garrow also quotes President Barack Obama, who listened to one of Kwame Ture’s speeches when Obama was still a college student. Obama described Kwame Ture’s speech as being “like a bad dream.”
Garrow tries to present Kwame Ture as a rambling “madman” (to quote Obama’s description of Kwame Ture), but the video below demonstrates that Kwame Ture was perfectly capable of engaging in an intellectual debate. In fact, one struggles to come across any video of Kwame Ture speaking which can properly be described as “rambling,” but I will leave it to readers to determine for themselves whether or not Kwame Ture seems like a rambling madman.
Garrow does not share Joesph’s praise of Kwame Ture, but where the two do seem to agree is on their views regarding the work that Kwame Ture was doing when he moved to Guinea. As I noted before, Joesph is very dismissive of the work that Kwame Ture was doing in Africa, which is why Kwame Ture’s time in Guinea is covered in a single chapter.
This chapter is also where Joesph is most critical of Kwame Ture, describing Ture’s support for Sekou Toure as “a moral failure as well as a political one” because of the human rights abuses that Toure engaged in as president of Guinea. I myself have been critical of Kwame Ture’s support for Sekou Toure, but for different reasons than why Joesph criticizes this.
In the first place, neither Joseph nor Garrow mentioned the fact that Kwame Nkrumah, who was one of Kwame Ture’s political mentors in Guinea, was overthrown in an American supported coup. Prior to Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba was assassinated. This is important because Toure had already seen that the neo-colonial forces were willing to resort to forced regime change through staging coups and assassinations. Toure himself was the victim of several coup attempts, which no doubt contributed to his apparent paranoia and his brutal methods of dealing with political dissent. There is also the fact that very early into Guinea’s independence, France sabotaged Guinea’s economy as punishment for Sekou Toure voting for Guinea to become independent rather than remaining tied to France. Kwame Ture always justified the brutal nature of Toure’s regime as an act of self-defense and the fact is that there were external threats to Guinea.
Joesph condemns the human rights situation in Guinea, but he makes no mention of the attempts to overthrow or assassinate Sekou Toure. More so than this, however, Joesph’s shallow treatment of the political situation in Guinea avoids addressing the real issue in Guinea. Sekou Toure’s brutal treatment of his political enemies (whether real or perceived) was always justified in the name of defending the revolution in Guinea, but such measures eventually came to become counter-revolutionary.
In Malcolm X, Bob Marley, and Other Essays, there’s a chapter that discusses Sekou Toure’s presidency. In that chapter, I noted that one of Sekou Toure’s greatest mistakes was when he tried to step on African tradition by replacing traditional markets with government run stores. The market women in Guinea protested and those protests were put down with violent force, with the military opening fire on unarmed women. In the end, the protesters won out and Toure was forced to redraw his policies.
As I explained, Kwame Ture justified these abuses on the grounds of protecting Guinea’s revolution from imperialist forces, but in the end Guinea found itself being drawn towards the same neo-colonial forces that it had fought against, to the point that Sekou Toure was being presented as an example of the pro-Western approach to African development. I point out in Africa-Man the irony of the fact that after Sekou Toure died, Kwame Ture joined Western diplomats in defending a man who had come to be seen as a brutal dictator. Of course, their reasons for defending Toure differed. Kwame Ture justified Toure’s actions as being necessary to protect the revolution in Guinea, whereas Western diplomats justified their relationship with Toure on the grounds that he was mellowing and had ceased using violence against political opponents.
Phineas Malinga explained: “By the last year of his life, Sekou Toure was completely enmeshed in the net of neo-colonialism. Guinea had acquired a crushing burden of debt to Western and Arab banks.” In the end, Sekou Toure could not escape the grip of neo-colonialism. Neither Joesph nor Garrow bother to mention this contradiction because they aren’t very concerned with Western imperialism in Africa, which was the very thing that Kwame Ture was fighting against. For Joesph, Kwame Ture’s support for Sekou Toure was a moral and political failure because he failed to denounce the human rights abuses in Guinea, but Joesph doesn’t even bother to mention Guinea’s shift towards a pro-Western position and how Kwame Ture continued to support Sekou Toure even after this shift.
Garrow also notes that “Carmichael also cultivated close personal friendships with Ugandan mass murderer Idi Amin, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and Nation of Islam chieftain Louis Farrakhan.” Garrow simply presents Kwame Ture’s close ties with dictators without providing any context. At the 35 minute mark of the first video posted, Kwame Ture explains that he sided with Saddam Hussein against America. Kwame Ture saw American imperialism as his enemy and as such adopted a philosophical approach of “the enemy of my enemy is my ally.” He makes this clear when he says that if he was the imam of Mecca, he would side with the devil against American imperialism.
The example of Gaddafi illustrates this because Gaddafi was overthrown with the assistance of America and the situation in Libya has become much worse than it was when Gaddafi was in power. Kwame Ture saw himself as a revolutionary who had little interest in sentiment. If this meant siding with an oppressive dictator to oppose American imperialism, then he did so. One can certainly question the morality or practicality of such a position, but it’s important to understand Kwame Ture’s views in the context of the political struggle that he was engaged in. Kwame Ture at times found himself working with individuals and organizations that he did not always agree with. In Ready for Revolution, Kwame Ture described his relationship with the Nation of Islam when he was with SNCC. He explained, “we felt strongly about the death of Malcolm and his problems with the Nation’s leadership.” Despite this, Kwame Ture found a very strong ally in Elijah Muhammad, who deployed the Fruit of Islam to protect Kwame Ture.
Kwame Ture was someone who marched for and went to jail for civil rights. He was on the frontlines of the protests against the Vietnam War. He opposed Zionism in Palestine and supported the fight against apartheid. These are just some of the social justice causes that Kwame Ture has been involved in. Garrow tries to give the impression that Kwame Ture was someone who was relevant for a period of time, but then faded into political irrelevancy when he left for Guinea. The reality is that Kwame Ture was a political activist and a revolutionary who spent his life working for the advancement and liberation of African people. He certainly was not flawless as an individual, but because Garrow fails to understand why Kwame Ture is such a significant personality in African history, he fails to provide a proper critique of Kwame Ture — the same could be said of Joesph as well. Garrow quotes John D’Emilio, who wrote that Kwame Ture’s life “took a long, tragic detour away from political effectiveness and social influence.” This detour exists only in Garrow’s imagination.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.