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Stokely: A Life

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Last Sunday morning as I stood in line at Allan's Bakery, a West Indian establishment two doors down from Rep. Yvette Clarke's office on Nostrand Avenue, I fervently read Stokely: A Life. The patrons ahead of me and behind me, both elderly women, exchanged greetings. I waited for a break in conversation, then asked if they recognized the man on the book cover. They replied in the negative -- neither visual nor name recognition. Maybe it was too early in the morning to talk politics. Or, maybe they were being polite, not wanting to mix religion with politics -- at least, not publicly. Shortly thereafter, another patron walked in, stared at the book cover and, without my asking, he announced, "Kwame Ture." Yes, my conversation was about to head in a totally different direction.

Currant rolls and coconut drops in hand, I took the conversation outside. The patron identified himself only by his last name, Slinger. "Just like the Mighty Sparrow," he reminded me with a chuckle, although there is no blood relation. "It is important that we memorialize our leaders and document their legacy," Slinger stated emphatically. I nodded in agreement, reminding him that history in the Caribbean is rooted in an oral tradition, and archiving is gradually gaining traction. Although decades younger than Carmichael, Slinger grew up not far from Oxford Street in Port of Spain, Trinidad, where Carmichael spent his childhood years before migrating with his family to the United States. Carmichael showed up on Slinger's radar in February 1967, when he delivered a speech at McGill University in Montréal, Canada. Slinger followed developments from Trinidad and was totally mesmerized.

As author/historian Dr. Peniel Joseph chronicles in Stokely: A Life:

Carmichael left the country for a brief speaking tour of leading Canadian universities. At Montréal's McGill University, on February 23, he spoke before an audience that found his combination of physical appeal and intellectual provocation irresistible. The next day, the Trinidadian born, one-time Trotskyite, and life-long Marxist historian C.L.R. James joined dozens of blacks, among a sea of white students, at Carmichael's February 24 lecture at Sir George Williams University, also in Montréal ... Carmichael's speech, demeanor, and charisma impressed James, who wrote to him shortly after. Old enough at sixty-six to be Stokely's grandfather, James identified Black Power as the culmination of mass political energies harnessed by world historic figures including Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, and Frantz Fanon. Thus began an occasional correspondence and cordial political relationship that found the elderly Trinidadian offering wisdom of a lifetime spent studying historical materialism to Carmichael. The standing ovation that ended Carmichael's presentation rivaled the wild cheers and large crowds that greeted his appearance, the same day, at Université de Montréal.

On July 15, 1967, Carmichael arrived in London to attend a two-week-long Dialectics of Liberation conference. "Quoting Sartre and Camus, Carmichael captivated journalists with stories that mixed the personal and the political in mysterious and revelatory ways."

In the spring of 1968, Carmichael delivered an impromptu speech at the Masonic Temple in Maywood, Illinois where he was introduced by Fred Hampton, "the talented and effortlessly charismatic 19-year-old head of the West Suburban NAACP Youth Council and the future leader of Chicago's Black Panther Party. Carmichael and Hampton bonded over their respective oratorical gifts."

The discussion at Allan's Bakery was not my first public exchange related to Stokely: A Life. For the past several days I've been walking around with the book tucked under my arm, using it as a conversation piece in different venues and locales. On Saturday night, I attended the Mardi Gras celebration at my parish, where I passed the book to my dinner companions. The memories associated with Carmichael were consistent -- Black Power and the Black Panther Party. In Stokely: A Life, the biographer explores the various arcs in Carmichael's life -- from his high school years when he spent time in Harlem where he met and befriended Bayard Rustin, then his college activism under the influence of Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, and beyond. While spending his second consecutive summer in Mississippi, Carmichael found his calling: "I had discovered what I was -- an organizer -- and that the movement was my fate." But Carmichael's organizing days came to an end on election day in Lowndes. "Within two months, millions of Americans would come to know him as a larger-than-life agitator: the twenty-five-year-old SNCC chairman and black revolutionary whose Black Power call resounded through the nation like a war cry."

But none of my dinner companions mentioned Carmichael's opposition to the Vietnam War, even though he was one of the biggest anti-war activists in the country.

While critics weighed Black Power's intellectual and literary merits, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach delivered a confidential memo five days before Christmas to President Johnson on plans to prosecute Carmichael: "You asked that I examine possible avenues for criminal prosecution of Stokely Carmichael." Katzenbach's sharp legal mind and keen sense of history uncovered a statute dating back to 1799, the Logan Act (which made it a crime to consort with foreign officials for the purpose of "defeating the measures of the United States"), under which Carmichael might be prosecuted. Carmichael's actions in Havana and Hanoi made him ripe for criminal prosecution on these grounds. Public relations and legal obstacles lurked behind this potential opportunity since the Logan Act had not been the basis of prosecution for the past 168 years. The Supreme Court might reverse a conviction since, wrote Katzenbach, "hundreds of American citizens probably violate the broad language of the Logan Act every year" without prosecution. Charges of sedition and passport violation were moot since Carmichael's passport bore "no visa or entry stamps" from banned countries. And so, Katzenbach recommended against prosecution.

Instead, Katzenbach proposed charging Stokely with obstructing the draft: "Carmichael's whole series of speeches in April and May 1967 on college campuses and elsewhere would be viewed as a single attempt to obstruct the draft." The approach rested on arguing that in his speeches Carmichael urged citizens "to disregard or return induction notices," a legal stretch that Katzenbach hoped "might stand up in court." Carmichael's speeches in Cuba would be used as "incriminating admission" for State Department's prosecution.

The material is structured, well edited and devoid of academic jargon. Yet, it took me almost four days to read the book. Why? I took occasional detours to comb through the endnotes, especially the legal citations like Carmichael v. Allen. Then I wanted to know more about Howard Moore, Jr - the attorney who represented Stokely and other SNCC members.

Last evening marked the official book launch at Barnes & Nobles in Manhattan's Union Square, hosted by Dr. Cornel West. The event was well attended by an audience that was as diverse in age as it was in ethnicity. Several guests were contemporaries of Carmichael; another was a teacher in a public school whose students share a background similar to Carmichael. Dr. West started the discussion by asking, "How did Stokely stay on fire? How do you account for his emergence before we talk about his legacy?" The discussion ended with a question from the floor. A young woman wondered what would Carmichael think of the current state of affairs. And so, the dialogue continues.

I have completed my first of what I expect to be at least three readings of Stokely: A Life. When I am done, I am reserving a special spot for it on my bookshelf, bookended by Dr. Williams' Capitalism and Slavery and C.L.R. James' The Black Jacobins.