In 1966 when Time magazine commissioned Jacob Lawrence to make a cover portrait of Stokely Carmichael, the U.S. civil rights activist was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who had then originated the black nationalism rallying slogan, “Black Power.”
The “Black Power” phrase/movement, which championed “self-defense tactics, self-determination, political and economic power, and racial pride,” had then caught on with many young people, radical activists, and the press, including Time magazine, which decided to put the charismatic young civil rights leader on its cover.
Only a few African-American personalities had appeared on the cover of the magazine at the time. Editors of the magazine even commissioned a popular African-American artist to produce the portrait. But Time never published the image. Though it didn’t formally explain why it never did, historians said the magazine’s editors were probably not comfortable with Carmichael’s increasingly radical policies.
Born in Trinidad, Carmichael immigrated to New York City in 1952 and later got involved in the civil rights movement. While a freshman at Howard University, he joined the SNCC. At just nineteen, he participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides and became the youngest person imprisoned for his participation after he was arrested for trying to integrate a “whites only” cafeteria in Jackson, MI.
The Howard University philosophy major, following his 49 days inside a Mississippi prison farm, continued to fight to promote the cause of Black people while holding fast to the principle of nonviolent resistance championed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But frustration soon set in, especially after he had witnessed the beatings and killings of scores of civil rights activists. Thus, in 1966 when he became chairman of SNCC, he took a radical direction, shunning King’s philosophy of nonviolence. And what perhaps catapulted Carmichael to fame was his address on “Black Power” during a June 16 protest march in Mississippi.
Carmichael addressed a crowd of about 600 people who had gathered in a park in Greenwood to protest the shooting of James Meredith, a civil rights activist. Meredith, the first Black student to attend the University of Mississippi, was earlier in the month marching in support of voter registration from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi when he was shot and wounded. Carmichael and his SNCC members on June 16 decided to carry on the march in his place, according to History. At Greenwood, Mississippi, Carmichael gave his unforgettable “Black power” speech. “We been saying ‘freedom’ for six years,” he said. “What we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power.’”
At the same period the “Black power” phrase became a rallying cry of many and a slogan of resistance, Time magazine commissioned African-American artist Jacob Lawrence to produce a portrait of Carmichael for its cover. Lawrence would depict the young civil rights leader “in overalls, dressed for a voter registration drive, and added a stalking panther,” according to Smithsonian, which today has the finished portrait in its collections. “The real impact of the image, however, comes from Carmichael’s large, expressive hand and black, masklike face,” Smithsonian added.
Carmichael was to feature on the cover of the issue dated July 15, 1966. Time’s cover showed Indonesian leader Gen. Raden Suharto instead. Apparently, Time had criticized Carmichael on its July 1 issue. “Many militant ideologues are impatient with what they consider the glacial pace of progress in civil rights,” Time wrote, according to Smithsonian. “They espouse instead a racist philosophy that could ultimately perpetuate the very separatism against which Negroes have fought so successfully. Oddly, they are not white men but black and their slogan is ‘Black Power!’”
As at the time the above was written, many whites had condemned “Black Power” as a motto for a new form of racism. Mainstream civil rights leaders also described the phrase as “unfortunate” and called on Carmichael to drop it. Time magazine may have had doubts about using the controversial leader’s portrait, based on the above, most historians say.
Carmichael left SNCC and joined the Black Panthers in 1967, where he explained in an interview how the organization was going to revolutionize the civil rights movement. After leaving the United States and re-settling in Ghana in 1968, then Guinea in 1969, Carmichael changed his name to Kwame Ture. His last name was an ode to his friend, former Guinean president Ahmed Sékou Touré. He was inspired to change his first name to that of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah. Carmichael died in Guinea at age 57 in 1998.