Hail to a Chief
Civil Rights Pioneers Gather To Pay Tribute to Kwame Ture
By Kevin Merida
They came from California and Mississippi. A thousand people gathered at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel for what was officially called the Friends of Kwame Ture Testimonial Dinner. But it often resembled a huge homecoming of civil rights activists, a celebration of struggle and perseverance.
"I see some people here I haven't seen since the '60s," said Joyce Ladner, a member of the D.C. financial control board and a graduate of the Movement. "We all come to each other's aid when there's a need. And we survived. A lot of people didn't. Every time we get together, I think about the fact we're still standing."
Last night, Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) was also still standing, though he looked just a bit fragile. When he walked into the pre-dinner reception, dressed in an all-white African robe, there was applause. He smiled warmly, graciously accepting his well-wishers' embraces and kisses, though in some respects a "testimonial" is not his kind of deal.
He wants to be seen as an independent warrior still fighting for social justice, not a man fighting for his life, taking in fluids intravenously, someone who needs help. But that is part of his reality. At age 56, he is a weak man waging battle against prostate cancer.
And some were there clearly because they didn't know if they would get another chance. The tribute, by some measure, was a nod to the old anthem of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee: "This May Be the Last Time."
"This may be the last time he gets a chance to see us do this," said Chuck McDew, a former SNCC chairman. "In SNCC, we always talked of having one heart and many minds. That one heart was what kept us together."
Through all of his manifestations -- Freedom Rider, SNCC chairman, Black Panther Party prime minister, Pan-Africanist, chairman of the All-African People's Revolutionary Party -- Ture has remained a revolutionary.
Unlike many in the movement who honored him last night, he did not get elected to city hall or to Congress, did not do a political makeover, did not go corporate or suburban. He did go to Guinea and change his name, but he didn't change himself.
"He's probably the last prominent Pan-Africanist who is philosophically pure," observed Bobby Rush, the Black Panther turned Democratic congressman from Chicago. "He has not compromised with the forces of capitalism."
Earlier in the day, Rush was with President Clinton as he talked about school construction in Chicago. But he wasn't about to miss last night's event. He flew back in time. Everyone scurried to get close to Ture, largely ignoring the admonitions from his handlers to give him space. But he seemed to love the love. Bernard Demczuk, assistant vice president of George Washington University and a former SNCC hand, kissed Ture's hand. Why? "Because he's Stokely Carmichael. He's our manhood. He's our hero."
As Ture left the reception, friends put him in a wheelchair to preserve his strength for the dinner. As he headed toward the elevator, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, a former SNCC comrade, appeared, dressed in an African tunic and matching pants. "You are looking good," Ture said to Barry, who leaned over and returned a compliment of his own. "You taught me well."
Barry, who's been through his own bout with prostate cancer, then shifted into medical-advice mode. He asked Ture how he was managing the pain and shared his own experience. "The surgeon gave me morphine. . . . I couldn't focus. . . . I stopped taking it."
Later, beginning the official dinner program, Barry introduced the former SNCC chairmen on the dais and fired up the crowd from the podium: "Ready for the revolution! Ready for the revolution! Ready for the revolution!"
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, another official greeter, put Ture in context. "In the beginning, of course, there was Stokely," she told the audience, "and for some of us he will always be Stokely because Stokely doesn't change. He just evolves."
She then turned to Barry and quipped, "Marion, you know, Stokely could have stayed here and done something foolish like running for mayor of the District of Columbia."
But then she turned more serious. "Stokely injects new meaning into the cliche 'courage of his convictions.' Some people don't leave the battlefield until the war is over. Stokely is still on duty -- and we are here this evening to honor his service."
Some who came to honor his service last night weren't big fans back in his heyday. Some thought Stokely Carmichael was simply too loud and too divisive to advance the cause of black folks. Even his beloved SNCC sent him a "letter of expulsion" in 1967; his comrades had grown weary of his uncleared pronouncements.
"I remember we used to have these fights with Stokely," said Ladner, a former SNCC member who was expelled from Jackson State for organizing students there. "He's getting too much of the glitz in him, we would say."
Time and distance have a way of offering fresh perspective on leadership. Today, Ture's phone never stops ringing. He has become -- through sickness and dedication and longevity -- a kind of royal figure in the black community. Everyone from Louis Farrakhan to D.C. Council member Harold Brazil was there to pay homage.
Mary King, who teaches political science at American University and who has known Ture since the '60s when she worked for SNCC, says: "If you look at the 20th century as a continuum, on the one hand you have Gandhi and nonviolent resistance and on the other hand Leninist revolutionary violence.
"He's somewhere in the middle -- more on the Lenin side than the Gandhi side. He still believes in using words and persuasion as his primary means of getting things changed. Even though the words are loaded, he still believes in words."
For King, the night was a reflection of the best of times.
"For most of us, the movement was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to us."
Staff writers Annie Groer and Vernon Loeb contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company