It’s hard to believe that Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King Jr. were once ideologically aligned. As a young college student at Howard, Stokely spent his summers serving on the front lines of the civil rights movement in the bowels of Mississippi. Arrested numerous times, Stokely embraced the ethics of the non violent movement, refusing to return evil for evil. But something began to happen in his heart that would eventually manifest itself in a seismic philosophical shift. On a sweltering Mississippi summer evening in 1966, Stokely Carmichael reached his breaking point:
“We have begged the president. We’ve begged the federal government- that’s all we’ve been doing, begging and begging. Every courthouse in Mississippi ought to be burned down tomorrow to get rid of the dirt and the mess. From now on, when they ask you what you want, you know what to tell ‘em. Black Power!” (Peniel Joseph, Stokely: A Life, page 2).
Three years later Stokely would move to Africa, change his name, and continue the revolution from a far. Dr. King’s assassination the year before his exodus proved to be too much for Stokely. In his estimation, the approach of Dr. King and his non-violent comrades was insufficient. Sure the Civil and Voting Rights Bills had been passed, but there would be years before they were sufficiently implemented, in the mean time, southern whites were using violent and unjust means to protect the last vestiges of old man Jim Crow. Stokely’s anthem of “Black Power,” was an appeal to fight power with power, to use any means necessary to experience justice.
History has already cast her verdict. King’s slain corpse on a Memphis motel balcony proved far more effective, than Stokely’s raised fist. A voracious reader and student of history, Stokely missed the glaring message of past revolutions: Love always wins.
The reason why the Jews of Jesus’ day couldn’t buy into his Messianic claims is that they were looking for Stokely and not Martin. They wanted a defiant, fist raised, fight-the-power political revolutionary, not a gentle lamb who would be lead to the slaughter and buried in a borrowed tomb. Stokely Carmichael doesn’t heal the dismembered ear of his attackers, or stand silently before his accusers.
Someone once said that the duty of all revolutionaries is to make revolution. That’s what we’re trying to do here in Memphis. Every time I pass the Lorraine Motel I think of Martin’s bloodied body, and am thankful. Yet I’m also reminded that “the weapons of our warfare are not of this world”. Raised fists, hate and anger are not the bullets in our arsenal, only love.
Stokely lives deeply within. My years in multi-ethnic ministry have not been easy. Trying to lead a church with our white brothers and sisters who assume that their way of viewing the world and doing church is the right way. Putting up with people who pay no regard to the redemptive elements of your culture, while at the same time feeling as if you have to constantly play to theirs. One can become so used to contextualizing themselves that they wake up one day and feel as if they have lost themselves along the way.
There’s many Sunday’s I’ve wanted to raise a clenched black fist. Like Stokely I’ve wanted to exit stage left and head for more comfortable surroundings where people get it without any explaining. But what keeps me from doing this is that I don’t want to be marginalized like Stokely. I want something that is redemptive, something that pulls together, and not polarizes. That something is the emulsifier of love.
Church should not be a safe place. It’s a training ground for revolutionaries to continue in the path of the great Revolutionary, Jesus Christ. The life, death and life of Jesus Christ was anything but safe. He confronted government officials and racism. He sparred with the legalist’s, and Jesus Christ conquered the kingdom of darkness, all the while wielding only the weapon of love.