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June 29: Stokely Carmichael and the Jews

Lawrence Bush
June 28, 2016

stokely-carmichael1Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, a dynamic leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee who evolved into a pan-Africanist revolutionary with a penchant for attacking Zionism, was born in Trinidad on this date in 1941. He came to the U.S. at 13, was a student at the mostly-Jewish Bronx High School of Science, then received his B.A. in philosophy from Howard University. He next threw himself into the civil rights movement as a freedom rider and often-arrested demonstrator who served weeks of prison time in Mississippi’s notorious Parchment Farm. In 1964, he was a key organizer in Mississippi Freedom Summer, in which a third or more of white participants from the North were Jews. Carmichael became the chair of SNCC in 1966 and moved the organization in the direction of Black Power and black nationalism; he supported the expulsion of white SNCC members, which helped precipitate a rupture in the black-Jewish civil rights alliance but also helped motivate some Jewish leftists to dig more deeply into Jewish identity roots. By 1968, Carmichael had walked a long way into Marxist “scientific” thought and a rhetorical style that was absurdly arrogant. Living in Guinea as Kwame Ture, he would attack Zionism as follows: a) carefully distinguish Judaism (a religion born in Africa, he claimed) from Zionism (a colonialist movement born in Europe and founded by an atheist), b) turn away the label “anti-Semitic” (on the basis of supporting the struggle of the Palestinians, a “Semitic” people), c) proceed to attack Zionism (“the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist” was one of his more infamous lines). Toure’s influence, alongside Louis Farrakhan’s, helped popularize anti-Semitic sentiments within the black nationalist movement during its hey-day in the early 1990s. He died of prostate cancer in 1998. To hear him expounding on Zionism, look below.

“Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks.” --Stokely Carmichael

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.