Stokely Carmichael Didn’t Deserve Bill Clinton’s Swipe During John Lewis’s FuneralRoundup
tags: Bill Clinton, civil rights, black power, Stokely Carmichael, John Lewis
Hasan Kwame Jeffries is an associate professor of history at Ohio State University. He is the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt.
I was very much enjoying the service, eagerly anticipating former president Barack Obama’s eulogy, when former president Bill Clinton, halfway through a warm, folksy tribute to Lewis, needlessly attacked another civil rights activist — Kwame Ture, better known by his birth name, Stokely Carmichael.
Carmichael was Lewis’s successor as the chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Born in Trinidad and raised in the Bronx, he introduced the nation to Black Power during James Meredith’s 1966 March Against Fear.
Clinton’s attack was more subtle than savage. But it was still severe.
“There were two or three years there where the movement went a little too far toward Stokely,” he said, “but in the end, John Lewis prevailed.”
For Clinton, the movement’s problematic drift was its turn toward Black Power. Black Power was an approach to change rooted in Black political independence, economic empowerment and cultural pride that gained popularity during the late 1960s.
Like many White liberals and progressives, Clinton doesn’t view Black Power as a logical extension of civil rights organizing. He doesn’t see it as a natural outgrowth of movement victories in the South that put the ballot in Black hands. And he doesn’t recognize it as a product of Black frustration with the slow pace of progress in the North.
He sees it instead as an unfortunate break from nonviolence and a regrettable rejection of integration.
Clinton’s remarks were disappointing but not surprising. Soon after Carmichael called for Black Power, a chorus of left-leaning voices denounced him as the prophet of rage and the high priest of hate. This criticism has never abated. Instead, it has been bolstered by historians who take a dim view of activists who embraced racial solidarity and reinforced by cultural influencers who share the same negative perspective.
This mischaracterization of Carmichael serves a purpose. It allows people to dismiss his critique of America.