The Firebrand, the Photographer, and Black Power Converge at the MFAH

Stokely Carmichael speaks in a classroom in 1966.
Stokely Carmichael speaks in a classroom in 1966. Photo © The Gordon Parks Foundation.
In the fall of 1966, Stokely Carmichael was a 25-year-old rising star in the the movement and struggle for civil rights and racial equality in the United States. And he was a smart, focused and powerful speaker and organizer.

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Carmichael speaks from a truck bed in Watts, Los Angeles, 1966.
Photo © The Gordon Parks Foundation.
Recently elected as the Chair for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he set out on a travel campaign to spread the message of social justice of Black Power. The latter was a phrase he didn’t invent, but popularized in speeches filled with strength and urgency.

A generation removed from Carmichael, Gordon Parks was a 53-year-old essayist and photographer. And the only Black man taking pictures for the then-dominating national periodical Life magazine, where he often chronicled the Black experience.

His lens had already captured both Malcom X and Muhammad Ali. His assignment—whether it was actually voiced or not—was to illuminate through his work Black issues and interests to a largely White readership.

The two men would be put together to chronicle a speaking trip that ran through the spring of 1967. The resulting Life profile of Carmichael, called “The Whip of Black Power,” was published in May 1967. It featured an essay by Parks with five photographs showing Carmichael in a variety of settings in the south and New York City.

Those five photos, along with 50 additional ones from the more than 700 which Parks shot, and ephemera from both men and the Black Power movement, are the basis of the exhibit Gordon Parks: Stokely Carmichael and Black Power. It runs from October 16-January 16 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

But what can a photo of Stokely Carmichael convey to a museumgoer that a film or essay can’t?

“That’s a great question! Let me answer that in a sort of winding way,” says Lisa Volpe, exhibition curator and Associate Curator of Photography at the MFAH.

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The MFAH's Lisa Volpe.
Photo by Todd Spoth
“I was not alive in 1966 or ’67, so to get a real feel, I reached out to everyone in the photos who are still with us and just talked to them about the photos and the whole series. What was amazing to me is that all of them had perfect recall of the situation that was happening, but none remembered Parks being in the room. What that tells us is that he had that ability to be a fly on the wall. He was famous at the time and yet, just blended into the background. So, what we are seeing is not something prepared or [staged]. It was happening in that moment without any façade.”

The exhibit features photos of Carmichael at official events, lectures, and rallies where he’s “on,” but also quieter, private, and off-the-cuff moments with family and friends. There’s also images of those in Carmichael’s audiences.

Volpe adds that the exhibit is organized by the MFAH in collaboration with the Gordon Parks Foundation, and is debuting at the MFAH. There’s also an accompanying exhibit here with a Houston-specific focus. And a monitor playing video from Parks’ 1994 visit to the MFAH side-by-side with another showing Carmichael speaking at Texas Southern University in 1967 just days after the Life piece was published (on that Texas swing, he also spoke at the University of Houston).

Interestingly, what some of the unused photos show are different sides of Carmichael outside of the forceful firebrand that was his reputation. There are images of him in deep thought, discussion, and even laughing with friends.

“What we know now and is talked about a lot is that Life editors had a lot of control over the [images] that were published, though Parks had a bit more say than most since he was also allowed to write the text. But the final decision on what to include was not his,” Volpe says.

“So, it was filtered through a very White, middle class understanding aimed at that same audience. These exhibit shows all the different sides of Carmichael.”

And while she adds that the mainstream press at the time often painted Carmichael as consumed with racial division and anger, other photos show his love of his family, weariness, and just how young he was.
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Mary Charles Carmichael serving her children Lynette and Stokely at Lynette’s wedding dinner in the Bronx, 1966.
Photo © The Gordon Parks Foundation.
“In many ways, Parks looked at Stokely and saw his own son because they were of a similar age. So, there’s all of the different angles that make somebody a full person and not just a caricature, that’s what this exhibit shows and teaches us.”

Carmichael’s path would take a radical turn just a year after the essay was published when he fled for a decades-long self-exile in Africa and Europe, changed his name to Kwame Ture. He continued the fight against injustices to try and unify a different continent in the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. Though back here in the U.S. names like Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, John Lewis and Jesse Jackson became better known.

Carmichael died in 1998 from prostate cancer at the age of 57. And though it’s more of a historical query than one based on photography, Volpe ponders with what she thinks could have happened had Carmichael remained on these shores.

“Even from the beginning of his chairmanship with SNCC, he just wanted to get back to local activism and local community organizing. In his autobiography, he talks about how it wasn’t even his decision to run for the job,” Volpe says.
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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.
Photo © The Gordon Parks Foundation.
“He loved just being in Lowndes County [Alabama] and going door to door to promote [voter registration]. He had no desire to be the Grand Face of the Movement. He resigned only a year after he got it, to follow his own path.”

Parks would continue for decades to take photographs, but also write, paint, compose music and—most famously in pop culture—directed the “blaxploitation” films Shaft and sequel Shaft’s Big Score. He died in 2006 at the age of 93.

Watching that video from his 1994 MFAH visit in today’s era, Volpe says it’s easy to see how Gordon Parks had just as much charisma and impact as Stokely Carmichael—or anyone else he photographed over the years.

“You should see it! He had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand! And that wonderful mustache of his is on full display!” Volpe laughs. “He’s telling his life story, and it’s just a fantastic thing to have.”

Gordon Parks: Stokely Carmichael and Black Power runs Oct.-Jan. 16 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Beck Building, 5601 Main. For information, call 713-639-7300 or visit Entry included with general admission ticket, $12-$19.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero