A Tribute to Kwame Ture:
"Ready for the Revolution"
Revolutionary Worker #984, November 29, 1998
On Sunday, November 15, 1998, the people of the world suffered a great loss when Kwame Ture died of cancer in Conakry, Guinea at the age of 57. Tireless organizer, fiery orator, and promoter of revolution, Kwame Ture touched the lives of millions. A dedicated revolutionary leader, he lived his life for the people and was bold and courageous in the face of the enemy. He had deep love and faith in the masses of people and he never stopped struggling against oppression. For this reason, the people mourn his passing and celebrate the example of his life.
Born Stokely Carmichael, Kwame Ture was part of a whole generation of revolutionaries molded by the intense fires of struggle in the '60s. He emerged as a leader who embodied and advanced the "spirit of the times." A young rebel who hated the system, loved the people and bravely fought against injustice. He met the challenges of an historic juncture--leading the people as the Civil Rights Movement gave way to the Black Liberation struggles of the '60s.
Awakening in the South
Stokely Carmichael was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and came to live in Harlem and then the East Bronx with his family when he was 11 years old. When he gained admission to the elite Bronx High School of Science he was already searching for radical ideas and philosophy. He remembers that while some of his old friends were reading the funnies, "I was trying to dig Darwin and Marx."
Meanwhile, the struggle against Jim Crow was busting out in the South, igniting the soul of youth like Stokely. He said, "One night when I saw those young kids on TV, getting back up on the lunch counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair--well, something happened to me. Suddenly I was burning."
Stokely entered Howard University in Washington in 1960 and became a political activist on campus. His freshman year ended in the spring of 1961--the same time the Freedom Rides began in the South. Like many others around the country Stokely joined the struggle to challenge segregated interstate travel in the South. Groups of Black and white activists took dangerous bus rides, knowing they faced the reactionary violence of the Ku Klux Klan and Southern sheriffs. Freedom Riders were often arrested when they reached their destinations. Stokely spent 49 days in the infamous Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi where he was beaten constantly--the first of what was to be over 30 times he ended up in jail during the Civil Rights Movement.
But Stokely and other young college students were undeterred by the KKK, police brutality and jail. They kept coming to Mississippi--across four time zones and deep cultural gaps, knowing that going up against Jim Crow could cost you your life. They came to build freedom schools, register Black voters, set up clinics and address other problems of poverty and racism. This was a movement that changed people's lives. Stokely returned every summer to the struggle in Mississippi until he graduated from Howard University in 1964. Then he went to the South to stay.
As a full-time organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Stokely became project director for the Second Congressional District--Mississippi Delta, cotton country, where two-thirds of the population was Black and virtually none was registered to vote. Stokely said, "Our work was to go into a little town or a little village where nobody knew us. We just come to tell them we're looking for the strongest people here who can put us up, give us a floor space to stay on so we can organize the people. Whoever gave you that floor space, their houses would be burnt. They would be shot into, they would probably be killed. They certainly would come under all sorts of terrorism. But our job was to find them and of course we would always find them."
The viciousness of the system radicalized Stokely--his determination and commitment grew as he witnessed protesters beaten, brutalized and sometimes killed just for seeking basic human rights. He recalled watching from his hotel room in a little Alabama town while Black demonstrators were beaten and shocked with cattle prods by the police. Horrified, he said he screamed and could not stop.
Stokely emerged as a dynamic leader of SNCC--the kind of leader who brought fearlessness as well as humor to the struggle. Writer and photographer Gordon Parks said that watching Stokely made him believe that the young man could "stroll through Dixie in broad daylight using the Confederate flag for a handkerchief." Indeed, Stokely exuded a defiance and confidence people could believe in. Bill Strickland, another SNCC organizer at the time, remembers Stokely as a role model of courage, of humor, of we-can-do-it-ness, of our-time-has-come-ness--a "role model of possibility."
Stokely said he learned from the people of Mississippi, more than from any distinguished professor, the meaning of courage and dedication. "The important aspect of SNCC," he said, "was that you had to depend on the people. Learning that has saved me, keeps me going."
This revolutionary love for the people stayed with Kwame Ture all his life. At a tribute for him in 1997, he said, "I have known that people who are poor will make any sacrifice for those who sacrifice for them. I have known this since I was a young man working for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, sometimes staying in the shack that I was given to by the people there. At about two o'clock in the morning they would knock on the door and say, `Come on, get up, they're coming to get you.' They'd put me in a car, I didn't know whose car it was, and drive me to another shack, put me there. Somebody else would take care of me until the morning. They always sacrificed their lives for me; so I know that once you sacrifice for the people, the people will sacrifice for you.... We are revolutionaries and we are never pessimistic, never; because we know the people are going to win no matter how long it takes. No matter how long it takes."
Challenge in Lowndes County
Lowndes County in Alabama straddled U.S. 80, the route from Selma to Montgomery. This was real old South--for Black people here, the rustle of movement in the woods and swamps always smelled of danger. In 1965 fewer than 90 white families owned 90 percent of the land. Of the county's Black population, more than half lived below the poverty line, many in unpainted shacks, along dirt roads. Many were sharecroppers or tenant farmers. Half the women commuted daily to Montgomery to work for $4 a day as domestics. The Democratic Party's official motto in Alabama was "White Supremacy." Not one Black person here was registered to vote. The Klan was active everywhere.
Few people outside Alabama had heard of Lowndes County until the night of March 25, 1965. The famous Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights March had just ended. Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a white civil rights volunteer from Detroit, and Leroy Moton, a young Black man from Selma, were driving back to Montgomery. A car of four Klansmen drew alongside, shots rang out. Viola Liuzzo was dead.
The next day Stokely went to Lowndes County to form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. The group took as its logo the black panther--later adopted by the Black Panther Party. Stokely said, "The SNCC people had seen raw terror and they understood properly this raw terror had nothing to do with morality but had to do clearly with power. It was a question of economic power, of the exploitation of our people, and they clearly saw that the route to this liberation came first through political organization of the masses of the people."
From the beginning, the Civil Rights Movement had to confront the terror of the Klan, cops, state troopers and sheriffs and there was sharp struggle over the question of non-violence and pacifism. Early civil rights leaders like Robert Williams had advocated taking up guns in self-defense. The Deacons for Self-Defense and Justice came to civil rights marches, armed and ready to defend the people. And while Martin Luther King became widely known and promoted for his non-violent, turn-the-other-cheek views, many other organizers in the South came to advocate the right of the people to defend themselves with guns.
SNCC reaffirmed the right of Black people to defend themselves and Stokely too, became an advocate of armed self-defense. He recalled one incident when Martin Luther King came into town: "I knew that Dr. King was non-violent, but he knew that his people weren't non-violent. They were going to protect him. So when Dr. King came to Greenwood, Mississippi, as soon as he came there I came out quickly, I grabbed him, I embraced him. I was so happy because he really did me a great honor. I said, `Dr. King, this car in the front is filled with guns. This car in the back is filled with guns, but all these cars in the middle have no guns. And you're in the middle car, so you're buffered by non-violence, but we got violence to protect you.' "
In June 1966, three weeks before his 25th birthday, Stokely was elected national chairman of SNCC. Shortly after this, he raised his famous cry, "Black Power," which reverberated around the world.
Civil Rights activist James Meredith had just been attacked during his 220-mile "March Against Fear" from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. His aim had been to encourage Black people in his home state to register and vote. But after crossing the state line into Mississippi, he was shot and wounded. In response to this vicious attack, Civil Rights leaders decided to continue Meredith's march. And Stokely decided this was the time to put "Black Power" out as a slogan for the masses.
It was June 16, 1966. Stokely had been arrested earlier in the day. When he got out of jail, 3,000 people were gathered in a park in Greenwood, Mississippi. Stokely got up to address the crowd. He said, "This is the 27th time," referring to his arrest, "I ain't going to jail no more... We been saying `Freedom' for six years and we ain't got nothin'. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!" The crowd roared. People shouted back, "Black Power! Black Power! Black Power!"
The cry of "Black Power" signaled a crossroads in the struggle. And Stokely became a pivotal figure in the transition from the Civil Rights Movement to the Back Liberation Struggle. "Black Power" soon echoed in communities from Oakland to Newark. It helped instill a new sense ofmilitancy and pride among Black people, affirming, "We are Black and beautiful"--"Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud!" As Stokely said, "From birth, Black people are told a set of lies about themselves. We are told that we are lazy--yet I drive through the Delta area of Mississippi and watch Black people picking cotton in the hot sun for fourteen hours. We are told, "If you work hard, you'll succeed--but if that were true, Black people would own this country. We are oppressed because we are Black--not because we are ignorant, not because we are lazy, not because we're stupid (and got good rhythm), but because we're Black."
"Black Power" immediately connected with a new consciousness awakening among the people--an understanding that the struggle had to go beyond the fight for rights long denied. As leaders like Stokely began to articulate, capitalism is based on exploitation and racism. And in order to get real liberation, the people had to go up against and make revolution against the system.
Looking back on that period, Stokely said in 1997: "We had to convince our people that there is no place in the American political system for us. We then moved on to demands for `Black Power,' for `community control of businesses, police and schools,' etc. But most of us recognize that this is not really possible in America, that there is no way we can operate as an independent island surrounded by the hostile white community with their police and military forces. The society we seek to build among Black people, then, is not a capitalist one.... Ultimately, the economic foundations of this country must be shaken if Black people are to control their lives. The colonies of the United States--and this includes the Black ghettos within its borders, North and South --must be liberated. For a century this nation has been like an octopus of exploitation, its tentacles stretching from Mississippi and Harlem to South America, the Middle East, southern Africa, and Vietnam; the form of exploitation varies from area to area but the essential result has been the same--a powerful few have been maintained and enriched at the expense of the poor and voiceless colored masses. This pattern must be broken. As its grip loosens here and there around the world, the hopes of Black Americans become more realistic. For racism to die, a totally different America must be born."
This developing consciousness reflected the fact that sections of the movement were increasingly becoming more anti-imperialist and revolutionary. And there was a lot of inter-penetration and unity between the struggle against the oppression of Black people and the struggle against the Vietnam War. In 1966 SNCC was the first major Black organization to take a position against the Vietnam War, and Stokely became a national symbol of anti-war activity and resistance to the draft--calling the war immoral, illegal and imperialist.
From Stokely Carmichael
to Kwame Ture
In 1967 Stokely left SNCC and the Black Panther Party named him as its Prime Minister. Soon after this he took his first trip to Africa and met Ghana's President, Kwame Nkrumah, who had been ousted in a military coup and was living in Guinea. Stokely traveled to Northern Vietnam and Cuba, promoting international revolutionary solidarity and calling on Black people in the U.S. to take up guerrilla warfare. He continued to lecture throughout the U.S., speaking out against and exposing the crimes of U.S. imperialism. He also spoke out against Zionism and in support of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. For all this he became a key target in Hoover's infamous FBI COINTELPRO operations aimed at "neutralizing" Black revolutionary leaders.
Stokely's revolutionary nationalist views led him to oppose the Black Panther Party's decision to seek support from and build revolutionary alliances with white radicals. He began to see the struggle of Black people as a component part of the struggle to liberate Africa. And when Nkrumah asked him to be his political secretary, Stokely accepted and moved to Guinea with his then-wife, South African-born singer and political activist Miriam Makeba. He headed up Nkrumah's All African Peoples Revolutionary Party and soon after this, in a public letter, he announced his resignation from the Black Panther Party. He declared himself a Pan-Africanist with the goal of forming "one cohesive force to wage an unrelenting armed struggle against the white Western empire for the liberation of our people." In 1978, Stokely changed his name to Kwame Ture--to honor Kwame Nkrumah and Guinea's head of state, Ahmed Sekou Toure.
Kwame Ture remained in Africa for the last three decades of his life, promoting the concept of Pan-Africanism--in his words, "The concept that we are all an African people, the concept that we are all working toward building a strong, united African nation wherever we may be, the concept that we must work toward the unification of Africa." But Kwame also continued to return to the United States over the years to give lectures and meet with other revolutionary leaders.
Always "Ready for the Revolution"
As a Pan-Africanist, Kwame Ture had important differences of basic principle with Marxism-Leninism-Maoism over what it will take to actually destroy imperialism and win emancipation. And he never acknowledged that by the mid-1950s the Soviet Union had become an imperialist power. But Kwame Ture was a promoter of REVOLUTION. He could always be counted on to firmly stand against U.S. imperialism. And to his dying day, Kwame Ture continued to stand with the struggle of the people against oppression.
When the masses rose up in 1992 in the L.A. Rebellion, he said, "Do you know what it takes to organize a rebellion in an urban area? Just dream about it. Do you know what it takes? It takes discussion, it takes planning, it takes logistics, it takes movement. I mean seriously, where the Africans in Los Angeles--the decision is unjust against Rodney King--3 o'clock in the afternoon, without the slightest discussion, without the slightest decision, without anything, they all take the street and already it's happening. Attack capitalism with a vengeance, taking lives, wreaking serious damage, keeping the police and the army at bay. But after all it's only a couple of days. It's not organized, it's mobilization, it's spontaneous. Can you imagine what is going to happen when these Africans organize a rebellion in Los Angeles? And it will come, I want to tell you that. I will tell you I'm not a prophet but I'm a revolutionary and my job is to know the future of the political trends and it is going to come, there is no question about it."
To his dying day, Kwame upheld the use of revolutionary violence against the oppressor. On some of his trips to the U.S. Kwame met with different gangs, trying to promote truces and stop the use of backward and anti-women terms in rap music. Before the L.A. Rebellion he met with the Crips and the Bloods in L.A., talking and struggling with them around different issues. He says he told them, "Listen, they going to let these white policemen go and you all will have to do something...Get some gasoline, and get some bottles, and get some rags, you know? Molotov cocktails is the easiest thing in the world to do..." In another incident, when he was asked to comment on "Black-on-Black violence" he said, "All we got to do is show (Blacks) who the enemy is. At least they're ready to shoot."
Message to the Youth
Kwame Ture recognized the important role students and youth play in initiating and spreading struggle against the system's status quo. Even after he became weakened by cancer, he continued to lecture throughout campuses in the U.S., calling on youth to step forward and serve the people. He told them:
"You are students and you have a special responsibility here. You must be careful: capitalism will confuse you and let you think that everything is a commodity. Well, during slavery they made me a commodity; so they make everything a commodity. If you're not careful they will let you think that knowledge is a commodity, that you come to the university, pay somebody to acquire it and then when you come out, you let somebody pay you to give it back--otherwise you don't give it up. But knowledge cannot be made into a commodity. Knowledge can never belong to any one person, it belongs to the people...Knowledge has but one function. Its function is to alleviate the sufferings of humanity. It has no other purpose. Any time it is used for any other purpose, it is a deviation from the path of knowledge. Not only is it a deviation, it is a betrayal of the people's struggle...You must come to show that you have the ability to change the world and the only way you can change it is by serving humanity, by advancing progress, by fighting against all forms of injustice."
*****"We tell you as revolutionaries that we're strugglers and we look for struggle. We do not try to avoid struggle. And not only do we look for struggle we look for difficult struggle. We leave easy struggle for the chumps. We go for difficult struggle. And, of course, we want to tell you that we have total faith in the mass of the people and we're convinced of the correctness of our position since the early sixties, and the conditions in America prove it today. Clearly, America is more ripe for revolution in 1997 than it was in 1967."
Kwame Ture, April 14, 1997
Kwame Ture gave his life to the people. He was hated and hounded by the enemy. But he was cherished and loved by the people.
Throughout his life, Kwame Ture had a profound effect on many people. Others became strong because of his fearlessness. Others stepped forward to fight the system because of his tireless exposure of capitalism. Others came to dream and work for a better world because of his eloquent promotion of revolutionary ideals.
Kwame Ture will be sorely missed by the people of the world. But his revolutionary example lives on. In his words:"The only tribute you can give to us is to fight against injustices. The only tribute you can give to us is to fight to advance humanity. The only tribute you can give to us is to use yourself to serve humanity wherever necessary. This is how you give us a tribute--anything else is less than that...Ready for the Revolution!"
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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