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The following are excerpted texts from the exhibition Gordon Parks: Stokely Carmichael and Black Power, which was on view at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from October 16, 2022–January 16, 2023. The texts are written by the exhibition's curator, Lisa Volpe, curator of photography at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 

In fall 1966 Gordon Parks was contracted by Life magazine to profile 25-year-old Stokely Carmichael, one of the most maligned and misunderstood men in America. Carmichael, the newly elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”), issued the first public call for Black Power on June 16, 1966, in Greenwood, Mississippi. This robust vision for a Black, self-determined future combined Black unity for social and political advancement rather than integration, the breaking of psychological barriers to self-love, and self-defense when necessary. Yet, media organizations dissected and defined Black Power for White audiences with various levels of prejudice and fear, and Carmichael was cast as a figure of racial violence—a distortion of his character and his message.

Gordon Parks traveled with Carmichael on assignment for Life magazine from fall 1966 to spring 1967. While the May 19, 1967 Life essay "Whip of Black Power" contained only five photographs, there were many more images from those critical months, a time that coincided with larger social shifts within the civil rights movement and a rising resistance to the Vietnam War. Parks challenged the disparaging view of Carmichael in the mass media, presenting him as a multifaceted and honorable character.

Produced more than 40 years ago, Gordon Parks’s revealing profile on Stokely Carmichael is as relevant to our current moment as it was in 1967, presenting the complexities and tensions in the ongoing struggle for civil rights and highlighting photography’s capacity to present a powerful statement against hate and fear.


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Carmichael speaking to SNCC members and staff of The Movement, San Francisco, 1966 

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“Whip of Black Power,” Life magazine. Photographs and text by Gordon Parks, Introduction by Life editors, May 19, 1967

Through a combination of first-person text and multilayered images, “Whip of Black Power” drew comparisons between Parks’s experiences moving through the racialized world and Carmichael’s experiences and motivations. Parks’s work honored the complexities of individual Black identity and respected a shared experience. The Life photo-essay inspired many readers. One letter to the editor noted, “Having read this very lucid account of ‘Black Power,’ and after having gained a marvelous new insight into the character of Carmichael himself, I have had a complete reversal of opinion. Mr. Carmichael is, I think, an admirable young man.”

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Left: Stokely Carmichael, Lowndes County, Alabama, 1967; Right: Carmichael continuing the campaign for voter registration in Lowndes County, Alabama, 1966

Lowndes County, Alabama

During his year as SNCC chair, Carmichael set an intense schedule of travel around the country, stopping at colleges and universities, churches, community centers, living rooms, and more. At each stop, he articulated the aims of Black Power and often debated with other civil rights leaders about the best approach for undermining systemic racism. Parks came to admire Carmichael, writing, “equally damned and lionized, he spoke with eloquence and ease about his cause.” Parks’s photographs make visible Carmichael’s balanced nature, presenting him as a careful listener in addition to a powerful orator.

Although 80 percent of Lowndes County was Black, by 1965, not one Black resident was registered to vote. That year, Carmichael created the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), a political party formed of Black residents with candidates and an agenda drawn from the community. Carmichael was certain, “If we can break Lowndes County, the rest of Alabama will fall into line.” The young leader set a dizzying schedule throughout the end of 1966 and start of 1967, traveling between Lowndes and SNCC events across the nation. Gordon Parks documented his efforts along the way, revealing Carmichael’s adaptability and charisma.

In defiance of the governing party’s symbol—a white rooster with the phrase “White supremacy for the right” above it—Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) chose a black panther as its symbol, an animal that becomes ferocious when cornered. Carmichael proudly wore his Black Panther sweatshirt when he was working in Lowndes County. Taken from a low angle, Parks’s portrait presents Carmichael as a heroic figure, fighting for the rights emblazoned on his shirt: freedom and justice.

Parks shadowed Carmichael as he went door to door to register voters in Lowndes County, marveling at the young activist’s ability to “adjust to any environment,” and noting how Carmichael changed his manner of dress and speech to put his audience at ease. While Carmichael’s tireless efforts recommended him for the role of chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he always felt more suited for community organizing. He revealed to Parks that he was “anxious to return” to field work and resigned from leadership in May 1967, just days before Parks’s photo-essay was published in Life.

Watts, California

The Watts Uprising took place in August 1965 in a Black neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. It began with the arrest of a local man, Marquette Frye, by a highway patrol officer and ended with 4,000 arrests, 1,000 injuries, and 34 deaths. Carmichael spoke to thousands of residents one year later at the Watts rally. In a speech that resonates today, Carmichael declared, “We have to have community alert patrols, not to patrol our neighborhoods, but to patrol the policeman.” Gordon Parks recorded the jubilant reactions of the community in words and pictures and opened his Life photo-essay by describing the energetic scene.

In the essay, Parks quotes Carmichael, “Black Power means black people coming together to form a political force either electing representatives or forcing their representatives to speak their needs. It’s an economic and physical bloc that can exercise its strength in the black community instead of letting the job go to the Democratic or Republican parties or a white-controlled black man set up as a puppet to represent black people. Black Power doesn’t mean anti-white, violence, separatism, or any other racist things the press says it means. It’s saying. ‘Look, buddy, we’re not laying a vote on you unless you lay so many schools, hospitals, playground and jobs on us.’”

Parks had little control over the final pictures and captions chosen by Life’s editors. However, his role as both a writer and photographer allowed him more influence than most. With knowledge gained through experience, Parks carefully crafted a statement in words and pictures that was less vulnerable to the editing process. The photographs chosen for the article were like many others in the press at the time, presenting Carmichael as cocky and determined. Yet, the vast majority of Parks’s other images captured him in tender and humanizing moments, bringing out the full character of this public figure.

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Left: Stokely Carmichael Gives Speech, Watts, California, 1967; Right, top: Members of the US Organization, including james Doss-Tayari (left), Tommy Jaquette-Mfikiri (behind Carmichael), and Ken Seaton-Msemaji (right), walking with Carmichael to the Watts rally, Los Angeles, 1966; Right, bottom: Crowd at the Watts rally, Will Rogers Park, Los Angeles, 1966 

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Left: Carmichael at his desk at SNCC’s Atlanta headquarters, 1966; Right: Printing office at SNCC’s Atlanta headquarters, 1966 

SNCC Headquarters, Atlanta, Georgia

In his profile of Carmichael, Parks aimed to combat the mass media’s one-sided depictions of the civil rights leader by capturing his complex character and emotions. At SNCC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, Parks documented Carmichael in a moment of weary frustration. A portrait of Malcolm X, photographs of Lowndes County residents, and SNCC pamphlets hang above the modest desk. Carefully composed, Parks’s photo guides viewers to a more holistic understanding of Carmichael. The view of the slumped leader with images above him also recalls scenes of religious pilgrims at an altar, deep in thought and prayer.

SNCC’s young members grew up in an image-saturated world, with newspapers, television, and large-format magazines, such as Life and Look, all around them. They understood that producing their own images could afford them some agency in the press. SNCC employed a team of photographers, established darkrooms in three cities, and expanded the capacity of the print shop in the Atlanta headquarters.

New York, New York

On April 15, 1967, outside the United Nations headquarters, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Belafonte, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Stokely Carmichael, and others addressed a massive crowd at the Spring Mobilization against the War in Vietnam. Carmichael’s rousing speech at the anti–Vietnam War demonstration inspired Parks to write, “[Carmichael] was on fire, spitting his heat into the crowd.” Parks’s photographs from the event similarly depict Carmichael as a fiery figure, leaning toward his audience, his gaze direct and burning, his open coat thrashing the air like licking flames.

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Gordon Parks, Carmichael speaking at Spring Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, New York City, 1967

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Top: Carmichael at a photo session with Cleveland Sellers (center), Atlanta, 1966;
Bottom: Carmichael appearing on KTTV, Los Angeles, 1966

Across the Country

In contrast to his stern depiction in the national press, Carmichael is remembered by friends for his good nature and easy humor. Parks emphasized his engaging personality and sense of fun in many photographs. In one image, a SNCC portrait session erupts into laughter as Carmichael and SNCC’s secretary, Cleveland Sellers, Jr., joke in front of the camera. Parks observed in Carmichael, “the irrepressible humor that helps him keep his balance.”

At a press conference following his election as chairman in May 1966, Carmichael found the White press members vehemently opposed to SNCC’s call for Black Power. He recalled, “[It was] as though they were stuck in 1960 with the student sit-ins and we were speaking in unknown tongues. . . . [They] missed that the new direction was simply a necessary response to current political realities.” To clarify the position, Carmichael wrote persuasive articles, oversaw hundreds of press releases, agreed to dozens of interviews, and spoke across the country. Despite these efforts, Black Power was consistently misunderstood and misrepresented in the press. Carmichael noted the only fair assessment was Gordon Parks’s Life photo-essay.