In memory of Stokely, my friend, who said: Get Guns

Kwame Toure, formerly Stokely Carmichael, died last week, aged 57. Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson apart, he was perhaps the leading black revolutionary activist in the United States in the late sixties and seventies.

I knew the man very well. We grew up together in Trinidad only two streets apart, east of the Dry River in Port of Spain. The river divides the city on class lines and, on our side, everybody was lower middle or working class. But Stokely was different. He was perhaps the first person I knew with relatives abroad. His mother had left for the US and, since he was her first and only boy, she regaled him with presents from the States. He dressed elegantly and spoke emphatically. Even then, he seemed a distinctive personality.

His mother sent for him when he was ten. So he was educated in Brooklyn and later at Howard University in Washington, where he distinguished himself as a philosophy scholar.

Stokely was among the first black students who entered university not as isolated individuals but en masse. Sheer numbers instilled in them a sense of their own power, and demystified any feelings that some of them may have had about being inferior to whites. At the same time, the south was experiencing economic changes on a scale previously unknown. Synthetic fibre was replacing cotton, prompting the landlords to intensify the oppression and exploitation of black serfs. All revolts were violently suppressed by what amounted to a police state, ably assisted by the Ku Klux Klan.

Blacks abandoned the plantations in droves and set up tent cities in Tennessee. Now it seemed inevitable that black students in the north, with many white students, would join the rebellious serfs of the south in a revolutionary campaign for the right to vote. The students' vehicle was the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick"). Stokely and I met again under this umbrella. He was one of their organisers and I an international representative.

The SNCC was a multiracial organisation based in Atlanta, with the students fanning out all over the south, organising black people to struggle for the right to vote. Stokely was based in Lowndes County, a rural area, and, from there, he and his fellow organisers suggested that the SNCC should become a black organisation. The cultural gap between the white members and the black serfs could not be bridged, claimed Stokely, and in the heat of the debate that mighty slogan emerged: Black Power. Liberalism in the civil rights movement was dead and Stokely became chairman of the SNCC.

Later he introduced another slogan in the south, following the murder of one of the SNCC's activists, Emmet Till. It was: Get Guns. He had opened up the issue of a military organisation within the civil rights movement and took the fight to Martin Luther King and the moderate Southern Christian Leadership Conference who were campaigning for the right to demonstrate in Selma, Alabama. Then came the demand for the march on Washington, the peak of the southern struggle.

The SNCC returned to the north with headquarters in New York. The organisation fell apart, with pistols drawn, and Stokely became leader of the Black Panthers. Forced into exile by J Edgar Hoover, the FBI chief, he joined Kwame Nkrumah, the exiled Ghanaian president in Guinea. (Guinea's president was Sekou Toure; hence, Stokely's new name of Kwame Toure.) He set up base there and campaigned for the second liberation of Africa.

I met him in Trinidad a couple of years ago; he was wracked with pain as cancer shot through his system. We embraced and I could feel the frailty. But even on his last legs, he was speaking about the overthrow of the African regimes that held their peoples in thrall. After an attempt at a cure in Cuba, he returned to Guinea to die. He will be remembered by many as the figure who brought hundreds of thousands of us out of political ignorance and illiteracy into the light of the morning.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family