Let us go back and distinguish between the two things that we want to do; for we want to do two things in modern society. We want one class of….
very few African Americans trusted Nixon
federal posts, and he even called himself a supporter of Black Power when he proposed reducing welfare in favor of grants and tax cuts for black-owned businesses. Despite these measures, very few African Americans trusted Nixon. His cabinet was openly less concerned about racism than the Johnson administration had been. Indeed his domestic advisor, Daniel P. Moynihan, passed on a confidential memo proposing “the time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ’benign neglect.’” Moynihan felt that enough progress had been made and there was no need to actively combat racial inequities. More important, Nixon and his advisers understood that the Republicans’ success came in part because of their attacks on radical social movements, such as the Black Panthers, and on liberal policies, such as Johnson’s War on Poverty. A large segment of the white middle class believed that African Americans, especially the poor, received too many government handouts, and they were tired of “paying the bill.” They believed that African Americans had nothing to complain about because, in their view at least, racism no longer existed. They were tired of the Vietnam War and felt besieged by the constant protests by hippies, ghetto residents, feminists, and welfare rights activists. Fearing that ghetto rebellions would spill into their suburbs and that too much of their taxes was going to support welfare, the overwhelming white vote for Nixon partly reflected an anti-black backlash. One of Nixon’s campaign promises was to get rid of “troublemakers,” especially militant black nationalist organizations like the Republic of New Afrika, the National Committee to Combat Fascism, the Black Liberation Front, and the Black Panther party— whom FBI director J. Edgar Hoover once called “the greatest threat to the internal security of this country.” During the Nixon years, the FBI and local police forces intensified their efforts to squelch dissent of any kind. And it did not matter if their tactics were legal or not. In Chicago, for example, local police not only raided the headquarters and homes of black activists frequently but they also kept files on prominent outspoken African Americans, including future presidential candidate the Reverend Jesse Jackson. At the time, Jackson led Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), a fairly mainstream grassroots organization that sought to help African Americans get off welfare, find jobs, and motivate poor children to stay in school. Jailings, beatings, and constant surveillance conducted by local police and the FBI were part and parcel of what most political movements during this era had to contend with. One very important case centered around the Reverend Benjamin Chavis, a young black minister of the United Church of Christ who would eventually serve a brief stint as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It all began when Chavis tried to organize a nonviolent campaign in Wilmington, North Carolina, to improve education for African-American children. The campaign was still in its early stages when, in February 1971, a white-owned store was burned in the midst of the campaign. Chavis, along with eight black student leaders and one white woman activist, was charged and convicted of arson and conspiracy. Altogether, their combined sentences totaled 282 years; the twenty-fouryear-old Chavis received 34 of those years. Human rights activists from around the world questioned the convictions from the very beginning. Not only was there no solid evidence against them, but it was revealed that at least one jurist was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Even Amnesty International, a worldwide organization dedicated to monitoring human rights abuses, called Benjamin Chavis and his fellow inmates “political prisoners.” They quickly became known as the Wilmington Ten. Despite many appeals, the Wilmington Ten remained in prison throughout most of the decade. Then, in 1977, one of the key witnesses for the state admitted that he had been pressured into lying on the stand. Another witness said he was given a job at a local service station and a minibike in exchange for testimony that would lead to a conviction. Yet, in spite of these new developments in the case, the judge would not reverse the decision. He insisted that the defendants’ constitutional rights had not been violated. Yet because of increasingly negative publicity surrounding the case, the governor of North Carolina persuaded prison administrators to parole Chavis in 1979. A year later, the U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the original decision, ruling that the Wilmington Ten had been denied a fair trial. Many African Americans and movement sympathizers believed that federal, state, and local governments arrested activists on false charges in order to stop them from protesting and organizing. While this may seem to contradict American ideals of freedom, the release of secret files of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and the voluminous files local police departments kept on suspected dissidents revealed that some activists were indeed jailed and harassed because of their politics. The FBI devoted much of its energies to collecting information on “radical” organizations. Under COINTELPRO, FBI agents also used fake press releases to spread false rumors about social activists; hired undercover agents to commit crimes in the name of the more militant Black Power movements; violently attacked competing organizations; and created an atmosphere of tension, confusion, and division within the organizations under surveillance. COINTELPRO was finally disbanded in 1972 after the death of J. Edgar Hoover. A congressional investigation of the program not only revealed that Hoover had kept tabs on many prominent African Americans— including political leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young; athletes Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Jackie Robinson; and cultural figures such as Lena Home, Paul Robeson, and James Baldwin— but that President Nixon himself used the FBI to attack his enemies and wage war against alleged dissidents. Clearly the most celebrated “political prisoner” of the early seventies was Angela Davis. “Free Angela” posters, buttons, and T-shirts became as much a part of the changing urban landscape as liquor stores and “soul food” restaurants. Tall, lean, with a raised fist and an Afro, a flashing smile, and an aura of confidence, Angela Davis offered the African-American community a striking image to rally around. To her many supporters— young and old, male and female— she was a young, beautiful, militant intellectual boldly challenging “the system.” Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Angela Davis was the daughter of schoolteacher and early civil rights activist Sallye Davis. The oldest of three children, Angela Davis lived a fairly comfortable life in some respects, but segregation and racial tensions also made for a very dangerous environment. Two of her friends were killed in a church bombing in September 1963. The bombing was orchestrated by white supremacists retaliating for the civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham. And as a very young child, she lived in a neighborhood where black-owned homes were firebombed so frequently that it was nicknamed “dynamite hill.” The bombings were the work of white residents attempting to keep black families out of that section of Birmingham. Anxious to leave Birmingham (or “Bombingham” as black residents began calling it), Davis moved to New York City when she was fifteen to attend Elisabeth Irwin High School, a renowned experimental private school in Greenwich Village. She went on to Brandeis University, the Sorbonne in Paris, and Goethe University in Frankfurt; in 1967 she moved to California to work toward a Ph.D. in philosophy. Always concerned about the plight of African Americans, she soon became active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. As a SNCC activist, Davis saw both the possibilities and limitations of the organization. She not only encountered sexist attitudes on the part of several male leaders, but she realized that SNCC and other Black Power organizations did not have an adequate explanation for why people remained poor. Insisting that the “free market” exploits workers by paying them poorly and making them dependent on the marketplace and wages to survive, she regarded the capitalist economy as the source of many social ills. Many of her ideas were based on the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, two nineteenth-century German radical thinkers whom Davis was introduced to in high school. Reading Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848) as a teenager changed her life. “Like an expert surgeon,” she wrote in her autobiography, this document cut away cataracts from my eyes. … What had seemed a personal hatred of me, an inexplicable refusal of Southern whites to confront their own emotions, and a stubborn willingness of Blacks to acquiesce, became the inevitable consequence of a ruthless system which kept itself alive and well by encouraging spite, competition and the oppression of one group by another. Profit was the word: the cold and constant motive for the behavior, the contempt and the despair I had seen. Although there are different varieties of Marxism, adherents generally argue that all wealth is created by labor. Capitalists, or the owners of businesses, are able to exploit labor by denying workers access to other sources of income through the private ownership of land and factories. Thus workers have no choice but to work for wages to survive, a condition which breeds conflict and resentment between those who own wealth and those who do not. Marxists believe that this conflict between workers and owners is a fundamental aspect of capitalist society. To resolve it, they advocate replacing capitalism with “socialism”—a system whereby working people, in theory, share the fruits of their labor. The land and factories would not be owned by private individuals but by the people who work them. The goal of labor would not be to enrich the few but to improve the quality of life for all. Quality education and health care would not be things one would pay for individually but would be paid for by and available to all members of society. Of course, there have been attempts to create such a system in places like China and the former Soviet Union, but in these countries it never worked in practice the way it was imagined to work in theory. Nevertheless, in the minds of many Marxists and liberals who sympathized with the Marxist point of view, the failure of socialism in other countries did not diminish the fact that capitalism made some people’s lives miserable while making a handful of people very wealthy. As a Marxist, Davis was convinced that the building of a new socialist society would go a long way toward creating the kind of equality many labor, student, and civil rights activists dreamed of. Thus in 1969 she made the fateful decision to join the Communist party of the United States (CPUSA), longtime advocates of socialism whose origins go back to 1919. That same year the University of California at Los Angeles hired her to teach philosophy. However, once her party membership became public knowledge, the California Board of Regents and Governor Ronald Reagan fired her, citing a state law that banned communists from teaching at state universities. Davis and the many who rallied to her defense were undoubtedly upset over her dismissal. She challenged the decision in court, arguing on the basis of the First Amendment that she had the right to freedom of expression. The jury and judge agreed; the law was overturned and the regents were forced to reinstate her. Nevertheless, they eventually succeeded in forcing her out of the University of California system by censuring Davis for her political activism and closely monitoring her classes. Losing her job did not keep her from organizing. She became actively involved with the Black Panther party and worked with radical black prisoners— most notably George Jackson. George Jackson had been an inmate at Soledad prison in California for nearly a decade when he first came into contact with Davis. After spending the first fourteen years of his life in a Chicago ghetto, in 1957 he moved with his family to South Central Los Angeles, where he fell in with neighborhood gangs. He was constantly in trouble with the law; he was arrested several times as a juvenile for theft, burglary, and robbery. At age fifteen he was sentenced to eight months at a California Youth Authority camp— a state-run juvenile detention center. He escaped twice from the camp, once fleeing to Illinois, where he was involved in a knifing and subsequently returned to California in chains. Paroled after sixteen months, Jackson continued to pursue a life of crime. In February 1961 he was arrested for being an accessory to armed robbery of a gas station in Bakersfield, California. Because no one was hurt and only seventy dollars was taken, the public defender persuaded Jackson to plead guilty in exchange for a light sentence. To his surprise, the judge sentenced him to “one year to life.” He was nineteen years old. Jackson was initially sentenced to San Quentin, where he gained a reputation as one of the meanest, toughest inmates in the prison yard. He participated in prison gangs, received disciplinary action at least forty-seven times for assaulting guards, and was feared by most of his fellow inmates. But by the fifth or sixth year of his sentence, Jackson began to undergo a dramatic change. He began reading books he had never read in school, and he eventually linked up with the Black Panther party. In his quest to understand why so many of his fellow inmates were black men, why so many were driven to steal, Jackson studied the writings of revolutionary leaders from across the globe and read broadly in the fields of history, sociology, and politics. He came to the conclusion that racism, the economy, and the government’s covert efforts to put a lid on black rebellion were the main reasons for the rise in African-American prisoners. In one sense, he argued, virtually all of the inmates were “political prisoners”: There are still some blacks here who consider themselves criminals— but not many. Believe me, my friend, with the time and incentive that these brothers have to read, study, and think, you will find no class or category more aware, more embittered, desperate, or dedicated to the ultimate remedy— revolution. … They live like there was no tomorrow. By the late sixties, Jackson emerged as one of Soledad’s most outspoken radicals. He introduced fellow prisoners to a variety of radical ideas, including Marxism and black nationalism. Influenced by the various protest movements erupting outside prison walls, Jackson and a few of his fellow convicts set out to “transform the black criminal mentality into a black revolutionary mentality.” Quickly, prison authorities identified him as a serious threat when he attempted to organize the inmates to fight for better conditions. In 1969, the activities and plight of George Jackson became nationally known after he and two fellow inmates, Fleeta Drumgo and John Clutchette, were accused of murdering a prison guard. Since the state had very little evidence against the three men, most of their supporters believed they were being framed for political reasons. Jackson, Drumgo, and Clutchette were well known in Soledad for their political activism. Once the case went public, they became known as the Soledad Brothers. Throughout the country, student activists, black militants, and people concerned about prisoners’ rights organized demonstrations demanding the release of the Soledad Brothers. Donations for their legal defense came from all over the country. Leading publications, including the New York Times Magazine , carried articles about Jackson and the others. Within a few months, they were celebrities. Their most vocal defenders included actress Jane Fonda, child psychiatrist Benjamin Spock, and poet Allen Ginsberg. The Soledad Brothers’ most dedicated advocate turned out to be George Jackson’s younger brother Jonathan, also a close acquaintance of Angela Davis’s. On August 7, 1970, the younger Jackson, barely seventeen years old, somehow smuggled several guns into the Marin County (California) Courthouse during the trial of James McClain, another black Soledad prisoner accused of stabbing a guard. After watching the proceedings from the audience for a while, Jonathan Jackson rose to his feet, drew a sawed-off shotgun from under his coat and announced, “All right, gentlemen. I’m taking over now.” He then passed the other guns he had concealed to McClain and Ruchell Magee, a Soledad inmate who had been brought to trial as a witness to the stabbing. They took the judge, the deputy district attorney, and three jurors hostage in a van parked outside. As they left the courthouse, according to one witness, McClain shouted, “Free or Release the Soledad Brothers by twelve thirty or they all die!” The police and San Quentin guards in the area responded promptly. Remaining true to their “no hostage” policy, the guards opened fire on the van as it pulled off. When the smoke cleared Jonathan, along with two prisoners and the judge, lay dead. (Soon after the Soledad Brothers were acquitted of murder, prison guards killed George Jackson during an alleged escape attempt. The guards claimed Jackson had hidden a gun in his Afro.) Young Jonathan Jackson’s actions directly affected Angela Davis. The guns he used were hers— firearms he had taken without permission. Because Davis owned the guns and because she was a noted radical activist in California, the FBI issued a warrant for her arrest and placed her on its “Ten Most Wanted” list. Following her capture, an international campaign demanding her release was born. Even the celebrated soul singer Aretha Franklin offered to pay her bail: “I’m going to set Angela free … not because I believe in communism but because she’s a Black woman who wants freedom for all Black people.” After spending eighteen months in jail, she was finally released in February 1972 on $102,000 bail. She was eventually acquitted of all charges. The decade of the seventies, therefore, was hardly the end of a militant era. The violent repression and jailings of black radicals no doubt transformed the movements they led, sometimes making leaders ineffective, other times turning them into martyrs. New debates and new circumstances compelled African-American activists to think about politics in new ways. African-American women activists began to chart their own course, creating a dynamic black feminist movement that challenged male-dominated black nationalism and white-dominated women’s rights organizations. Moreover, black elected officials joined community activists and artists to develop a new approach to the ballot. “It’s Nation Time!”: From Black Feminism to Black Caucus Black community activist Margaret Wright was tired of being told by male leaders in the Black Power movement that black women oppressed black men, that black women were domineering, that successful black women stripped black men of their manhood. “Black women aren’t oppressing them,” she announced in a 1970 interview. “We’re helping them get their liberation. It’s the white man who’s oppressing, not us. All we ever did was scrub floors so they could get their little selves together!” The very idea that black women kept black men down made her even more angry when she thought about the role most black women had to play in the Civil Rights and black liberation movements. “We run errands, lick stamps, mail letters, and do the door-to-door. But when it comes to the speaker’s platform, it’s all men up there blowing their souls, you dig.” Margaret Wright knew the truth. Black women, in general, were not only more exploited and oppressed than black men but they were often oppressed by black men. As an activist in the Los Angeles-based group Women Against Repression, she confronted issues ranging from wife battering to inequities in household chores. Most black women not only worked for wages but were responsible for child care, cooking, and cleaning. And when it came to participating in political movements, black women were often shunted aside or told that the struggle for liberation is “a man’s job.” While she acknowledged that black men and white women were also oppressed, she wanted both groups to understand how they unintentionally contributed to the exploitation of black women: Black women have been doubly oppressed. On the job, we’re low women on the totem pole. White women have their problems. They’re interviewed for secretarial instead of the executive thing. But we’re interviewed for mopping floors and stuff like that. Sometimes we have to take what’s left over in Miss Ann’s refrigerator. This is all exploitation. And when we get home from work, the old man is wondering why his greens aren’t cooked on time. Margaret Wright voiced the opinions of a growing number of African-American women, some of whom joined forces with the feminist movement that had reemerged in the sixties. While there was no single definition of feminism, most feminists agreed that male domination —in the family and the government— pushed women into an inferior status in society. They argued that women were paid less for the same job, underrepresented in positions of power and authority, and expected to take responsibility for housework and other domestic duties, not because they were less able than men, but because they were discriminated against. Even the culture women lived in contributed to their subordination. Women were portrayed as passive and weak or as sex objects for male pleasure. Feminists did not merely want to take men’s places in positions of power, to substitute male dominance with female dominance; they fought to replace male domination with a more just, equitable society. Ironically, this new wave of black feminism was partly a response to male chauvinism within the Civil Rights, Black Power, and student movements of the period. Many cultural nationalists— activists who believed that black people in the United States should adopt traditional African cultures— emphasized that women ought to remain in “their place.” One pamphlet distributed by a nationalist organization in Newark laid out, in no uncertain terms, what men and women’s roles should be: “It is only reasonable that the man be the head of the house because he is able to defend and protect the development of his home. … Women cannot do the same things as men— they are made by nature to function differently. Equality of men and women is something that cannot happen even in the abstract world.” Of course, not all male advocates of black nationalism were hopelessly sexist; on the contrary, some opposed statements such as these. Moreover, not all black women active in nationalist movements agreed with this sort of logic. Women frequently challenged such remarks. Nevertheless, the overall tenor of the Black Power movement emphasized the struggle for power, equality, and rights as a struggle for “manhood.” Concerned about the rising tide of black male sexism and chauvinism, many AfricanAmerican women active in political and social movements spoke out. Toni Cade Bambara, a writer and activist who edited an important anthology in 1970 titled The Black Woman , wrote: “We rap about being correct but ignore the danger of having one of our population regard the other with such condescension and perhaps fear that that half finds it necessary to ‘reclaim his manhood’ by denying her her peoplehood.” Some African-American women were drawn to mainstream feminist organizations, such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), or small radical feminist groups such as the Redstockings and WITCH. However, during the early to mid-seventies, most black feminists avoided the predominantly white women’s movement. Several leading white feminists, including Susan Brownmiller, Jo Freeman, and Kathie Sarachild, had cut their political teeth in the civil rights struggles of the early to mid-sixties and compared the oppression of women with the oppression of African Americans. But many black feminists found their white counterparts unaware of the importance of race and racism, and some resented the way white women equated their plight with black people. When white women appealed to sisterhood, African-American women were quick to point out that historically their relations with one another had been as domestic servants (or other employees) to employers. More important, most black women activists did not separate their fight for women’s rights from issues affecting the entire black community. The majority of black feminists did not believe, as many of their white counterparts did, that all men were the enemy. In 1973 several African-American women’s groups were founded, the most important of which was the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO). The first NBFO conference was held in New York City and was attended by approximately four hundred African-American women. The atmosphere was electric; no one attending the conference had ever witnessed such a large gathering of black women speaking about issues that directly affected them. It became clear from the speeches that the NBFO’s emphasis would be on combating sexist and racist discrimination against black women and struggling for greater involvement in the political process. Many journalists and activists took special note of the diversity of participants— black women from all walks of life, from domestic workers to lawyers, welfare rights organizers to polished elected officials. Although the different backgrounds of these women enriched the discussion from the floor, it also created tensions. After its first year, black women active in the welfare rights movements began to feel that the NBFO sidestepped the problems of poor women, and many African-American lesbians criticized the NBFO for ignoring homophobia and for speaking only to issues affecting heterosexual women. Partly in response to the NBFO’s shortcomings, new black women’s groups were formed to address issues that the NBFO did not choose to address, such as homophobia and the replacement of capitalism with socialism. Despite such differences, black politics in the seventies— as in the sixties— emphasized unity above all else. With unity came strength, black political leaders argued, and with strength came real power. Nowhere was the potential for real power more evident than in electoral politics. After the V oting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, and organizations like SNCC waged massive voter-registration campaigns, the ballot seemed to be an increasingly powerful weapon. Changes in the racial makeup of cities, in particular, improved chances for African Americans to gain a stronger political foothold in major urban centers. With the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971, a group of black members of Congress committed themselves to working jointly in the interests of African Americans. The origins of the CBC go back to 1969, when Congressman Charles Diggs of Detroit led a committee of nine black representatives to oppose President Nixon’s policies. The CBC initially worked for reforms in job training, health care, welfare and social services, and other areas of social policy that directly affected African-American communities. It also tried to fashion a national strategy to increase black political representation. The formation of the CBC attracted a wide range of political activists, including cultural nationalists such as Imamu Amiri Baraka, the popular playwright and poet whose Newark, New Jersey-based movement, New Ark, had just played a key role in electing that city’s first black mayor in 1970. Like many other progressives, Baraka believed that the CBC and black voters could pressure the Democratic party into becoming more accountable to black people. For Baraka and other radical supporters of the CBC, however, the ultimate goal was not to have more influence over the Democratic party. Rather, they wanted to build an independent black political movement. The idea of a national black political campaign generated a lot of excitement among black artists as well as among elected officials and community activists. Although black writers, musicians, and visual artists had a long tradition of linking politics and art, the generation of black artists that emerged in the sixties and seventies set a new standard for their direct political involvement and community activism. Poets such as Baraka, Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti), Mari Evans, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Sonia Sanchez were among the leading voices calling for a coordinated black political movement. Thus, prompted by Baraka and Richard Hatcher, mayor of Gary, Indiana, several African-American political leaders organized a national convention to create a black agenda and to discuss possible strategies for gaining greater black political power. The idea proved enormously popular, and throughout the fall and winter of 1971, grassroots political movements elected delegates, people raised process. Many journalists and activists took special note of the diversity of participants— black women from all walks of life, from domestic workers to lawyers, welfare rights organizers to polished elected officials. Although the different backgrounds of these women enriched the discussion from the floor, it also created tensions. After its first year, black women active in the welfare rights movements began to feel that the NBFO sidestepped the problems of poor women, and many African-American lesbians criticized the NBFO for ignoring homophobia and for speaking only to issues affecting heterosexual women. Partly in response to the NBFO’s shortcomings, new black women’s groups were formed to address issues that the NBFO did not choose to address, such as homophobia and the replacement of capitalism with socialism. Despite such differences, black politics in the seventies— as in the sixties— emphasized unity above all else. With unity came strength, black political leaders argued, and with strength came real power. Nowhere was the potential for real power more evident than in electoral politics. After the V oting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, and organizations like SNCC waged massive voter-registration campaigns, the ballot seemed to be an increasingly powerful weapon. Changes in the racial makeup of cities, in particular, improved chances for African Americans to gain a stronger political foothold in major urban centers. With the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971, a group of black members of Congress committed themselves to working jointly in the interests of African Americans. The origins of the CBC go back to 1969, when Congressman Charles Diggs of Detroit led a committee of nine black representatives to oppose President Nixon’s policies. The CBC initially worked for reforms in job training, health care, welfare and social services, and other areas of social policy that directly affected African-American communities. It also tried to fashion a national strategy to increase black political representation. The formation of the CBC attracted a wide range of political activists, including cultural nationalists such as Imamu Amiri Baraka, the popular playwright and poet whose Newark, New Jersey-based movement, New Ark, had just played a key role in electing that city’s first black mayor in 1970. Like many other progressives, Baraka believed that the CBC and black voters could pressure the Democratic party into becoming more accountable to black people. For Baraka and other radical supporters of the CBC, however, the ultimate goal was not to have more influence over the Democratic party. Rather, they wanted to build an independent black political movement. The idea of a national black political campaign generated a lot of excitement among black artists as well as among elected officials and community activists. Although black writers, musicians, and visual artists had a long tradition of linking politics and art, the generation of black artists that emerged in the sixties and seventies set a new standard for their direct political involvement and community activism. Poets such as Baraka, Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti), Mari Evans, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Sonia Sanchez were among the leading voices calling for a coordinated black political movement. Thus, prompted by Baraka and Richard Hatcher, mayor of Gary, Indiana, several African-American political leaders organized a national convention to create a black agenda and to discuss possible strategies for gaining greater black political power. The idea proved enormously popular, and throughout the fall and winter of 1971, grassroots political movements elected delegates, people raised