Some historical events are merely ephemeral, while others are catalytic, with truly lasting legacies. Such was the case on the date in focus here, when Stokely Carmichael visited Seattle’s Garfield High School and thereby catalyzed the city’s nascent Black Power movement.
Carmichael (1941-1998) was then a rising star of the American civil rights movement as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He would later join the Black Panther Party, and coined the slogan “Black Power.” Speaking at Garfield to an overflow audience of at least 4,000 persons, he passionately discussed the relationships among language, identity, and power. He defined Black Power as “the coming together of black people to fight for their liberation by any means necessary,” and proclaimed that African Americans should assert themselves politically and no longer be ashamed of their color. His speech had a profoundly transformative effect on the social perspective of many Seattleites, both black and white.
Among the audience members that evening were Garfield students Aaron and Elmer Dixon, who would soon afterwards establish the Black Student Union (BSU) at Garfield with the help of Larry Gossett of the University of Washington BSU. The Dixon brothers would also help found the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. Decades later, in his 2012 memoir My People Are Rising, Aaron Dixon would recall listening intently as his own identity was forever defined by Carmichael’s speech that day:
“I walked out of the auditorium transformed. I was not the same person who had entered. From that day forward, I looked at the world and everyone around me with anger and rage.”
Larry Gossett, who would eventually become an enduring local Black Power icon as a longtime King County Council member, would also later recall his own experience of that crucial historical moment:
“Stokely knew black history. Negroes were so starved for information to make them proud of who they were. The next morning, people who had gone to hear him thinking themselves Negroes were calling themselves black. It just spread like wildfire.”
Carmichael told the majority black audience, “You have tried so hard to be white that you have gone to Tarzan movies and applauded as Tarzan beat up your black brothers. We have been brainwashed.” While he fiercely criticized White America, about 20 percent of his listeners were white — and many joined in cheering Carmichael that evening.
Controversy preceded the event because the Seattle School Board had initially denied Carmichael the use of the Garfield auditorium, but that decision was overruled in the name of free speech by King County Superior Court Judge Frank James. The American Civil Liberties Union also helped win the battle for Carmichael’s right to use Garfield as a venue.
Earlier that same day, Carmichael spoke to a crowd of some 3,000 students at the UW’s Edmundson Pavilion. Several black UW students heard Carmichael speak there. As a result, by Autumn Quarter 1967, the UW had several politically conscious and motivated black students among its population. When those students founded the UW BSU in early 1968, members E. J. Brisker and Eddie Demming credited Carmichael for catalyzing their activism. Describing Carmichael’s impact upon Black Seattle circa 1968, Demming said, “[Carmichael] had something we could identify with. He told us that things could no longer stay the same.”
Among the many lasting local legacies of Stokely Carmichael’s speech at Garfield are those that began one year later on May 20, 1968, when the UW BSU staged a sit-in on the UW campus that would yield one of the greatest victories in the history of activism in Seattle. The UW BSU sit-in would lead directly to the creation of the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, the Ethnic Cultural Center and Theatre, and the American Ethnic Studies department — all crucial UW institutions that remain and thrive in Seattle today.
Stokely Carmichael’s truly amazing biography is much too voluminous to detail here. Suffice to say that he was born in the West Indies on June 29, 1941; emigrated to New York City in 1952; attended high school in the Bronx; and enrolled in 1960 at Howard University, where he joined SNCC and became chairman in 1966. That same year in Mississippi, he rallied black people to pursue a new movement that espoused self-defense tactics, self-determination, political and economic empowerment, and racial pride.
He would resign as chairman of SNCC in May 1967, and then became affiliated with the more militant Black Panther Party. He left the United States in 1969 and went to live in Guinea, West Africa, where he changed his name to Kwame Touré and helped found the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, an international political party dedicated to Pan-Africanism and the plight of Africans worldwide. Kwame Touré died of prostate cancer on November 15, 1998, in Conakry, Guinea. He was 57 years old.
–Jeff Stevens. Sources: Robert Cour and Walter A. Evans, “Carmichael Rips Into Whites Here,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 20, 1967, p. 1; Lane Smith, “Black Community Power Will End Abuses, Says Carmichael,” The Seattle Times, April 20, 1967, p. 5; Walt Crowley, Rites of Passage: A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle (University of Washington Press, 1995); Thom Gunn, “The times they have a-changed,” The Seattle Times, January 22, 2002, p. B5; Aaron Dixon, My People Are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain (Haymarket Books, 2012); Atia Musazay, “Garfield High School’s Black Student Union keeps legacy of activism strong,” The Seattle Globalist, March 1, 2015.