The stories of the main symbol and the most notorious slogan of the Black Panthers deserve to be known. Even though they are previous to the foundation of the group, both of them are related with Stokely Carmichael (1941-98) who, years later, also became one of the principal names associated with the Panthers.
By Wilson Honório da Silva and Américo Gomes.
Known as Kwame Ture until the end of his life, Carmichael had an enormous influence over the Panthers’ polities and tactics, even though he stood in the group little more than a year, between 1968 and 1969, when he broke with Seale and Huey because of their differences centrally related to class and race unity (which, clearly, includes white people), and also related to the debate of how and with whom to make a policy of Black Power.
His career is also an example of the changes taking place at the time and how they had an effect on black movements, days before the Panthers’ foundation. Born in Trinidad and Tobago (islands in the Caribbean Sea), Carmichael migrated to United States at the age of 11. In the early 60’s, as a university student, he became a civil rights activist, participating actively in registration campaigns for black voters and, in 1996, he was elected president of the Students Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Approaching the origins of this movement’s symbol (in this article) and the idea of the “Black Power”, our goal is also to discuss how they are related to fundamental aspects of the Panthers’ trajectory, such as self-defense, violence and different conceptions of “black power” that were mixed at the time.
Enough Persecution! Take Your Claws Out!
In august 1965, Stokely was among the founders of the Lowndes District Freedom Organization (LCFO), in Mississippi, whose main activity was black voters’ registration. Lowndes was an example of racism at the time: 80% of the population was black, but 86 white families had the entire political control, being owners of 90% of the land. The rates of violence were so bizarre that the town was known as “Bloody Lowndes”.
It was to symbolize that black men and women would no longer be cornered in this situation that the LFCO adopted a black panther as a symbol, as Carmichael explained in a lecture at Berkeley University (California), in 1966: “(…) a beautiful black animal which symbolizes the strength and dignity of black people. An animal that never strikes back until he’s back so far into the wall, he’s got nothing to do but spring out. And when he springs he does not stop”.
Following the movements’ dynamic at the time, the focal point of the group turned quickly against racist violence and the LCFO set up an armed self-defense organization to protect itself from the nefarious Ku Klux Klan, the bloodthirsty white supremacist group (known as KKK or “Klan”), formed around 1865, in response to the Southern defeat in the Civil War and the slavery abolition.
The LFCO’s main leader was John Hulett, who founded and ran the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights in the 1960s. However, because of the ineffective tactics proposed by Luther King, Hulett became known for statements that, years later, would also have repercussions on the Panthers’ program and actions: “We’re out to take power legally, but if we’re stopped by the government from doing it legally, we’re going to take it the way everyone else took it including the way the Americans took it in the American Revolution“. In other words: organized as an army and with arms in hand.
This was an idea that hovered more and more on the heads of young blacks, facing the persistent and growing racist violence, as Hulett also recalled in an interview in 1988: “We were not violent people. But we were just some people who were going to protect ourselves in case we were attacked by individuals (…); we were willing to do what needs to be done to survive“.
Surrounded by racism’s ferocity, many young people were concluding that, like a panther, they should react. For many people, this meant to exercise the unquestionable right of self-defense. Furthermore, for a large number of them the armed struggle was also beginning to be seen as an option.
A conclusion that, as we will see in the next article, also reflected many rebellions and revolutions happening all over the world -from Cuba to Vietnam, from Africa to Latin America- and the controversies about the conceptions and perspectives of the main political and ideological currents at the time (Stalinism, Maoism, Castrism, Pan-Africanism, Third-Worldism, etc.). This led to organization methods, action tactics and political perspectives that, despite guaranteeing important accomplishments and leaving valuable examples and a legacy, also made a heroic generation of militants to pay a very high price.
Carmichael, Self-Defense And Black Power
Despite the debates around this issue and the fact that Carmichael was far from being the first one to defend the use of violence in the struggle for rights and freedom, the legitimacy of self-defense policies of the black community, or of revolutionary violence to confront the system and overthrow the oppression (just remember Malcolm X’s example), the great impact these ideas had on the Panthers has to do with the historical context, in the mid-1960s, and the USA’s situation, where the friction with the more “moderate” movement leaders continued to deepen, and the racial polarization was intensifying.
This is the most important analysis of “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in the USA”, a book written by Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in 1967, which had a tremendous impact on the movements at the time: “Each time the black people in those cities saw Dr. Martin Luther King get slapped, they became angry. When they saw little black girls bombed to death in a church and civil rights activists ambushed and murdered, they were angrier. And when nothing happened, they were steaming mad. We had nothing to offer that they could see, except to go out and be beaten again. We help to build their frustration (…).
A key phrase in our days is non-violence. For years, it has been thought that black people would not literally fight for their lives. (…) The notion apparently steems from the years of marches and demonstrations and sits-in where black people did not strike back and the violence always came from white mobs. There are many who still sincerely believe in that approach. From our point of view, furious white cops and white night knights [the Klan] must understand that their days of freedom, aggression, and whipping are over. Blacks should and must fight back”.
Expressing what was going on in the minds of thousands of young black people, Carmichael thought it was time to send an unequivocal message to the racists: “OK, fool, make your move, and take the same risk that I run: to die”.
The synthesized ideas in Carmichael’s book also contributed to shape the Black Power concept that marked the Panthers’ trajectory: “Those of us who advocate Black Power are quite clear in our own minds that a “non-violent” approach to civil rights is an approach black people cannot afford and a luxury white people do not deserve. It is clear to us –and it must become so with the white society- that there can be no social order without social justice. White people must understand that they must stop messing with black people or the blacks will fight!”.
Still relevant in Panthers’ history, Carmichael was one of those who subordinated the tactics and policies of the movement to a radically racialist position – reflected in his opposition, in many aspects, to what was known at the time as “integrationalism”. A debate that was at the center of his rupture with the Black Panthers in 1969.
He considered that any attempt of integration with or to the white society was a despicable illusion, because in fact it was “a subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy”. In everyday relationships and society, Carmichael was against marriages and even interracial relationships. In the political field, his racialism led him to defend, in 1966, the expulsion of white people who were part of the Students Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Despite defending a circumstantial alliance with “white” organizations –especially against the mandatory military service in Vietnam War-, Carmichael was one of the major supporters of Black Power ideas related to a Black Party’s foundation. According to him, “Black Power meant black people coming together to form a political force and either electing representatives or forcing the elected representatives to speak their needs [rather than relying on established parties]“.
As it was mentioned before, Carmichael’s rapid passage and rupture the with Black Panthers was marked by the debates around these matters. We have to say that, following his ideas, after leaving the movement, and in the middle of a furious persecution by the US government, Carmichael moved to Africa where he lived with his partner Miriam Makeba (a South African singer, symbol of the struggle against the apartheid).
In Guinea, Stokely became consultant of the President Ahmed Sékou Touré, one of the independence struggle leader who ruled the country from 1958 until his death, in 1984. The relationship of the American black leader with the president became evident when he changed his name: Kwame Ture is a tribute to Ghana’s president and one of the founders of Pan-Africanism, Kwame Nkrumah.
The last thirty years of Carmichael’s life were dedicated to build the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (A-APRP), an expression of Nkrumah’s ideas. However, this is another story. Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, the debate about how and with whom to build a Black Power project excited all American black movements. This will be the subject of our next article.
Translation: Misty M.