At 11, Carmichael travelled to New York to reunite with his parents who had emigrated there several years earlier. Having graduated the Bronx High School of Science (a school that has produced eight Nobel Prize-winning scientists over the years), Carmichael shunned offers of scholarships from several white universities and instead opted for Howard University, which principally served the African-American community.
It was at Howard that Carmichael really got a taste for the practicalities of activism, in particular when he joined the Nonviolent Action Group (NAG), the Howard affiliate of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). While at Howard in 1961, Carmichael participated in the "Freedom Rides”– the challenges to racial segregation in the South – and was arrested alongside eight others for heading into a “white” cafe at their destination, for which he served 49 days in the tough Parchman jail.
Following his release, Carmichael returned to campaign in the Mississippi Delta each summer while still at Howard guided by legendary organiser, Ella Baker. In the end, Carmichael became a full-time SNCC field organiser and ran voter registration drives with disenfranchised Black citizens in the South. It was, however, the rejection of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Party convention which shaped Carmichael’s worldview.
Carmichael viewed the move as a stitch-up. Resentful, Carmichael headed to Lowndes County in Alabama, one of the poorest counties in the state with extreme levels of violence against Black men and women, to register voters and to build support for an independent Black political organisation, the Lowndes Country Freedom Organization (LCFO), which took a blank panther as its mascot that would later be adopted by the Black Panther Party.
Arrested countless times for his nonviolent activism throughout the early 1960s, was selected chair of SNCC in 1966. Following his release from yet another arrest, he called for “Black Power” in the face of racial injustice and the dehumanisation of African Americans. This was a significant shift away from the nonviolence of Martin Luther King towards the "by any means necessary” ethos of Malcolm X.