This is a lightly edited excerpt from Becoming Kwame Ture (Chimurenga Magazine, 2020) by Amandla Thomas-Johnson.
Like Kwame Ture, both my parents grew up in the Caribbean island of Trinidad. One of the earliest recollections of my mother, Yvette Thomas, is of attending a concert by Miriam Makeba – Ture’s future wife – on the island in the early 1960s. As for my father, Buzz Johnson, born in the neighbouring island of Tobago, he witnessed Trinidad’s 1970 Black Power Revolution, a mass uprising which had been influenced by Ture and that set out to overturn the country’s staid colonial racial hierarchy.
My father’s contribution to the revolution had been to make Afro combs out of bits of wood and metal rods. But a decade later, after he had moved to London, he set up Karia Press, a radical book publishing house. Its publications ranged from poems from the national liberation struggle in Namibia to a report into policing in inner-city London. He also wrote a landmark study on the Trinidad-born political activist, Claudia Jones, titled “I Think of My Mother”: Notes on the Life and Times of Claudia Jones.
Whenever my father spoke of Ture, he zeroed in on the fact that he had relocated to Guinea and took the names of Kwame Nkrumah and Sékou Touré. He spoke with rare excitement, but offered little in detail, perhaps because there wasn’t much out there about this period in Ture’s life. Nevertheless, it was to me striking that my father focused on this part of his life.
There are also echoes of my own journey in Ture’s. I began working on this project after I had moved from London, where I was born and spent my formative years, to Senegal. I am also a national of Trinidad and Tobago and visit there regularly. So, this project has helped me to grapple with what it means to “return” to Africa, in real and practical terms, and what it means to live as someone of African and Caribbean descent in the West.
Heavily laden lorries formed queues along the narrow road that led into Conakry, an overcrowded city hemmed in by sea, swamp and mountain. It was April 2019, and it had taken the best part of 50 hours to get there. I had travelled from the barren flats of Senegal, across the mighty River Gambia, then onto a battered road that wound through the forested hills and between the red canyons of Guinea’s Fouta Djallon highlands.
Kwame Ture’s archive is kept in a housing compound not far from the neighbourhood in which he lived out the last 10 years of his life. Ture’s prolific political activity is reflected in boxes upon boxes of newspaper cuttings, documents and letters. “I hope this letter finds you in the very best of health and African revolutionary spirits,” is how he typically begins his correspondence, ending with the proclamation, “One Unified Socialist Africa”. His policy was to always respond to everyone who wrote to him, and in the record of his correspondences there are numerous exchanges with political admirers, and even pictures drawn by children.
You can glimpse, too, that Ture was a prolific reader. Crammed onto the wooden shelves at the far end of the room is a canon of revolutionary literature, everything from Eduardo Galeano and Walter Rodney to Frantz Fanon and CLR James. There are also many books on Palestine, Israel and Judaism, including a biography of Ariel Sharon, a history of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a few others on Zionism. Beginning in the 1960s until the end of his life, Ture claimed to have read one book a month on the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Indeed, over the years, Ture would emerge as arguably the most outspoken voice in support of Palestine, and the fiercest critic of Israel outside of the Arab world.
Kwame Ture was born as Stokely Carmichael on 29 June 1941 in Belmont, Port of Spain – the capital of the island of Trinidad. The oil-rich island was the crown jewel of the British West Indies. Carmichael’s family, as with many Black Trinidadians, reflected the diverse heritage of the island’s population, which included migrants from India, Syria, China and Indigenous peoples.
His mother, May Charles, was born in Panama, to Montserratian and Antiguan parents. Adolphus, his Trinidad-born father, a construction worker, had roots in Barbados and neighbouring Tobago. This Pan-Caribbean foundation bequeathed Ture with an innate cosmopolitanism, allowing him to feel equally at ease in the Caribbean, the US and later, in Africa.
But there was trouble in the Carmichael household. May Charles left for the US when Ture was three years old and his father soon followed suit, leaving Ture in the care of his extended family. Ture later recalled that it was his aunt Elaine, a disciplinarian who was not above administering whippings, who first exposed him to politics through her work as a trade union leader affiliated with the noted labour leader Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler.
Following the death of his paternal grandmother, another major influence in his early life, Ture, aged 11, moved to join his parents in the US but he never really left Trinidad. Later in life, he could still summon from memory the sound of the local steel pan group, the sugar tamarind balls, the luxuriant landscapes, and the lily ponds and orchards of the city’s botanical gardens, which he described as “the only completely unambiguous good produced by colonialism”.
In 1956, Ture enrolled at the Bronx High School of Science in New York City and his political consciousness expanded when he met a group of radical leftist students who had embraced revolutionary ideas. After attending study camps with the Young Socialists and Young Communists, he began to develop a Marxist analytical approach, deconstructing poverty and inequality.
The Stepladder Speakers of 125th Street, Harlem’s main thoroughfare, offered Ture something very different. They were the remnants of the movement started by Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican pan-Africanist. Mounted on ladder steps and dressed in spectacular robes, they exhorted the Black masses to look to Africa for their redemption. “They would be talking about Africa. Her history, culture, liberation struggles and bright prospects once independent. And about our need and duty as children of Mother Africa to look to her,” Ture would one day recall.
In 1960, Ture enrolled at Howard University in Washington DC and, not long after, he joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a major civil rights organisation made up of plucky young students. They routinely stared down teargas cannisters and barking dogs and threats of arrest as they attempted to break racial segregation by riding on whites-only buses in the American south. Ture turned down a scholarship to Harvard University to continue his work with SNCC and thanks to his oratory gifts and organising skills he soon emerged as one of the foremost civil rights leaders, second only in stature to his friend and mentor, Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
But by 1966 disillusionment had set in. Ture had lost faith in American democracy and the civil rights movement’s fixed position of non-violence. “What we gonna start saying now is Black Power,” he declared, making an urgent demand for Black self-determination, political power and organisation that would have far-reaching consequences, its tremors reverberating across the globe. In the years that followed, Black Power movements cropped up in Europe, the Caribbean, and in places as far afield as New Zealand and India. But Ture himself endured a stunning backlash in the US. In Stokely: A Life, Peniel Joseph points out that “he achieved a level of political notoriety that rivalled, indeed at times surpassed, that of Malcolm X”.
Earlier in 1966, SNCC became the first civil rights movement to denounce the Vietnam war, turning Ture into a prominent anti-war activist in the process and popularising the anti-draft slogan, “Hell no, we won’t go”. The SNCC’s Vietnam stance was reflective of an evolution taking place within the organisation as it sought to link racism on the home front with imperialism abroad; the fight for freedom and justice in America with the liberation struggles then engulfing Africa and Asia – what Malcolm X described as a “tidal wave of colour”. Ture had come under the influence of Frantz Fanon’s ideas on revolutionary violence and solidarity between “Arabs and Negroes” – contained in The Wretched of the Earth.
Malcolm X was also an indelible source of inspiration for the budding revolutionaries. In ways both direct and indirect, he laid the foundation for a Black radical third world politics that would peak only after he was slain in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. In fact, after X’s assassination, his secretary, Ethel Minor, a Middle Eastern Studies major who had spent time with Palestinian refugees while working in South America, joined the SNCC and founded a study group on Zionism.
The group read one book a month and discussed it. They read Palestinian and Zionist literature. They read Herzl, Ben Gurion and Begin, the principal Zionists. “These Zionist ideologues provided the strongest evidence against Israeli policies by openly revealing the naked colonialist intention at the heart of the Zionist enterprise,” Ture later wrote. It was only after a period of study that he discovered a “shocker” as he put it: that Israel enjoyed a close military, economic and political ties with the apartheid regime in South Africa. This was a red line.
His growing opposition to Zionism marked an ideological departure. Growing up he had been influenced by New York’s radical Black-Jewish culture, and the young leftist-groups he mingled with were often pro-Zionist. So much so that the first protest he joined was outside the United Nations in support of Israel. “There was no discussion at all of the rights of Palestinian people. None,” he later wrote. Ture had also taken an interest in Jewish culture, reading Isaac Singer, learning the hora dance and marking religious festivals at the home of a Jewish friend whose father was a rabbi.
In June 1967, after launching a military assault against its Arab neighbours, what later became known as the Six-Day War, the state of Israel expanded its territory, occupying parts of neighbouring Egypt, Syria and Jordan, including all of historic Palestine. In response, the SNCC published a no holds barred newsletter in August that same year calling Israel an “illegal state”. It featured three photographs, two cartoons and several hard-hitting statements, one of which framed Israel’s founding in 1947 as a premeditated colonial conquest. Next to one of the photographs was the caption: “Gaza Massacres, 1956. Zionists lined up Arab victims and shot them in the back in cold blood. This is the Gaza Strip, Palestine, not Dachau Germany.”
A storm erupted afterwards. Irving Shulman from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) accused the SNCC of anti-Semitism and The Boston Globe branded the organisation as the “KKK of the New Left”. The SNCC went on the offensive, rubbishing claims of anti-Semitism, and stating that the organisation sought a “third world alliance of oppressed people all over the world – Africa, Asia and Latin America”. The resulting fallout, however, spelt financial disaster for the SNCC as a host of liberal white and Jewish backers pulled the plug on funding which, by this point, had already begun to dry up because of the organisation’s increasingly radical political stances. By December, its Chicago headquarters had closed for lack of funds, while the telephone and electricity service at its Atlanta headquarters were cut because they couldn’t afford the bills. But despite the looming financial ruin, SNCC doubled down, reaffirming its political opposition to Zionism.
“Look, when we took on white supremacy and the Klan, we were attacked. But we survived,” Ture would later reflect. “We took on the president and the National Democratic Party and survived that. When we opposed the [Vietnam] war and the draft, we were really attacked, but survived even that. But dare to open our mouths on Zionism? That one, you don’t mess with and survive.”
The SNCC’s refusal to back down was a watershed moment for Black politics in the US, and for Ture this uncompromising approach to issues of justice, even at personal cost, would typify the years ahead. The ramifications of the SNCC’s staunch opposition to Zionism are still felt today. It demonstrated that a group of young activists could articulate a foreign policy position that went beyond the prevailing, and often paternal, white liberal discourse. But as Michael R Fischbach, author of Black Power and Palestine, observes, it also went further. By its actions, the SNCC “introduced a new discourse into American political life: open support for the Palestinians”.