On a humid night in Greenwood, Mississippi, on June 16, 1966, 24-year-old Stokely Carmichael exhorted his audience of 600 to start proclaiming “Black Power.”

“All we’ve been doing is begging the federal government. The only thing we can do is take over,” he told the crowd. After several years of organizing sit-ins, demonstrations and voter registration drives, Carmichael had come to believe that African Americans would never achieve justice until they had the capacity to rule their own lives. His speech and the reaction to it significantly changed the course of the modern Civil Rights movement.

Between 1966 and 1968, Carmichael was more vilified than Malcolm X (who was killed in 1965) had been. The FBI trailed him; politicians accused him of treason; and the Justice Department came close to charging him with sedition.

Carmichael’s complex life and legacy are the subject of Civil Rights historian Peniel E. Joseph’s engrossing and enlightening biography Stokely: A Life. The author makes a strong case that his controversial subject, more than any other activist of his generation, shaped the contours of Civil Rights and Black Power activism. Carmichael’s extraordinary journey took him from involvement in early nonviolent sit-ins to serving as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, from which he was eventually expelled, to his role as honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party, from which he resigned.

Carmichael also became an outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and in 1969, he left America for permanent residence in Guinea. There, he changed his name to Kwame Ture and became an ideologue for a revolutionary pan-Africanist movement.

Joseph makes us keenly aware that despite his historic successes, Carmichael made serious errors in judgment and had numerous large and small political failures. He admired both Malcolm X, with whose ideas he identified, and Martin Luther King Jr., who became a good friend. The morning after Carmichael’s Black Power speech, King urged the younger man to stop using that slogan, but was rebuffed.

This nuanced biography helps us understand a key player in the Civil Rights movement and illuminates the different approaches to social justice within the movement.

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