A Panther in Winter
Long after most '60s radicals have warily entered the mainstream, Turé, onetime Black Panther and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, remains an unreconstructed rebel. He is still a black separatist who proselytizes for a unified socialist Africa and expects America's dispossessed to overthrow the capitalist system one day. "No question, the revolution will come," he says.
Now Turé must use that unflagging optimism to battle his illness. On a trip to Miami earlier this year to visit his mother, retired domestic worker Mabel Carmichael, 77, and sister Nagib Malik, 48, a psychiatric nurse, Turé felt a sharp pain in his right leg. By the time he reached New York City for a speaking engagement in early February, the throbbing had grown serious. Turé was diagnosed at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Friends, including Stevie Wonder and Washington Mayor Marion Barry, have helped pay for several weeks of apparently successful radiation therapy, although Turé's doctors haven't ruled out surgery. "He's in high spirits and he's surrounded by positive people," says Malik, who spends four days a week caring for her brother in New York.
For Turé the trip is a homecoming of sorts. Born in Trinidad in 1941, he emigrated to Harlem at 11, joining his parents—Mabel Charles and the late Adolphus Carmichael, a carpenter. Although he read Marx in high school, Turé traces his political awakening to 1960, the year he graduated. "One night, when I saw those kids on TV getting back up on the lunch-counter stools after being knocked off them, sugar in their eyes, ketchup in their hair—well, something happened to me," he said. "Suddenly I was burning."
While attending Howard University, where he majored in philosophy, Turé took his first Freedom Ride, protesting southern state laws that forbade blacks to use white facilities; when the bus reached Mississippi he was arrested for the first of 35 times during the civil rights struggle. He was elected chairman of SNCC in 1966 and became prime minister of the Panthers a year later. Eventually, Turé's increasingly militant, separatist rhetoric led to clashes with older civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King. Turé, however, found his own audience among poor urban blacks. In 1969 he also split with the Panthers, which had begun cooperating with sympathetic whites.
To escape what he called police harassment, Turé and his first wife, South African singer Miriam Makeba, moved into the book-filled home on the Guinean coast where he still lives. It became a regular meeting place for advocates of a socialist Africa. (Carmichael renamed himself after two of the movement's leaders: the late Guinean president Sékou Touré and the exiled former president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah.) After Turé and Makeba divorced in 1978, he married Guinean physician Marlyatou Barry, now 41, with whom he has a son, Boca Biro, 14. They divorced in 1992.
Yet Turé has never severed ties with America. Although he has worked since 1969 for Sékou Touré's Marxist political party—most recently as a youth coordinator—he still visits the U.S. annually, seeking to recruit a new generation to his cause and remaining, to admirers, a symbol of stubborn, principled constancy. "I'm one of the few left," says Turé, "who has remained faithful to our goals."
RON ARIAS in New York City