Wednesday October 22nd, 2014, 8:16 am (EDT)

Dear Reader,

We place these articles at no charge on our website to serve all the people who cannot afford Monthly Review, or who cannot get access to it where they live. Many of our most devoted readers are outside of the United States. If you read our articles online and you can afford a subscription to our print edition, we would very much appreciate it if you would consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

Black/White Radical Alliances in the 1960s

Jane Duran (jduran [at] education.ucsb.edu) teaches in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is the author of Worlds of Knowing: Global Feminist Epistemologies and Philosophies of Science: Feminist Theories, among other works.

In The Shadows of Youth, Andrew Lewis demarcates the work of various activists, white and black, during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s.1 It is part of Lewis’s thesis that the efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and other groups were too often overshadowed by those of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and that the individual sacrifices made by a number of workers—John Lewis, Diane Nash, Bob Zellner, Robert Moses and others—have often gone unappreciated.

Although Lewis does not specifically focus on the extent to which alliances of black and white radicals were crucial in a number of settings outside the Deep South, it is a matter of record that this occurred, and that, in various locales, these alliances made a critical difference in the kinds of results that were obtained.2 The focus of the alliances, particularly over a period of time, was often on activity that was driven less by nationalist concerns (from a black point of view), and more by concerns best thought of as generally leftist, and specifically Marxist, in origin. Thus the Black Panthers, for one, started off with a statement of purpose that spelled out their desire to work with a number of oppressed peoples, and that featured extensive reference to other persons of color groups as well as to the white working class.

To be sure, some have argued that there was little or no white involvement in key phases of the Movement. Yet, a cursory glance at the history of radical groups and organizations, particularly in urban areas, should put the lie to this contention. It is important to be specific about these matters, as calls for nationalism resonate up to our own time, and often harken to a more or less false view of the past.3

I

As movements began to coalesce and then push away from SNCC and other overtly non-violent, protest-oriented groups circa 1966, the tendency was for radicals and those heavily invested in the Movement to go in one of two directions. Many blacks who had been involved with SNCC either became stridently nationalist—some joined Nation of Islam—or became affiliated with a number of “Black Power” groups, whose orientation often prohibited white involvement. Indeed, SNCC itself gradually voted to expel its white membership.4 At the same time, white militants and others who might have been motivated to continue working with some “grassroots” race-liberation organizations often took a stand that had more to do with the war in Vietnam than with Civil Rights, particularly after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Thus a number of white students and others originally involved in the Movement either became oriented more towards the counterculture, eschewing explicit politics, or they moved into organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which then became heavily radicalized.

The strongest intersection of black and white radicals commenced in a number of urban areas in the mid- to late-1960s, as black groups such as the Panthers opened up to white participation, however minimal, and as white students became progressively radicalized, resulting in a convergence of the anti-war movement and the black liberation movement. Throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, white radicals assisted the Panthers in setting up speeches and demonstrations, helped to pay for the distribution of their paper and other publications, and aided in the setting up of the breakfast programs, including, in many cases, paying for the food.5 Part of what drove this particular intersection had to do with the Panthers’ Executive Mandate, and with its stated reliance on the notion of an international revolution driven by the oppressed against the oligarchical groups. Unlike some nationalist organizations that seemed to model themselves on the views of Nation of Islam (whether or not this was consciously stated), the Panthers mentioned poverty-stricken whites, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans from the outset in their discourse. Thus much of the most radical activity across the United States, became, in the late 1960s, a multiracial matter.

In a number of U.S. cities during this period, pamphleteering, speeches, demonstrations, and even bombings became an undertaking of coordinated activity between radicals of different groups, but with overarching common aims. Although the media were not always sophisticated enough to be able to make the relevant assessments (or at times too aware of their own interests to report them accurately), those in the know were aware of meetings between, for example, Panthers and sympathetic Weathermen, or black radicals and white theorists who, although perhaps not members of SDS, led SDS-type activities.6

It is important to clarify the differing roles of black radical groups, as the popular imagination often casts them all in one mold. Since the early twentieth century, there had been two main strands in black radical thought. One strand, typified by the Garveyan approach, was interested almost entirely in nationalist movements, and was not directed at partnerships with other political entities. The other strand, more properly thought of as having a Marxist and internationalist orientation, saw black oppression as but one part of a larger oppression attending workers, persons of color throughout the globe, and some disadvantaged whites.7 Many young black radicals of the 1960s, for example Stokely Carmichael, gravitated to the strongly nationalist line of thought.

II

The type of activity espoused by black radicals—and whether or not it merged with anything being touted by white activists— unsurprisingly seemed to have a lot to do with the personal histories of the individuals involved. Lewis notes that, as a youngster, the newly-arrived Carmichael (he had spent most of his childhood in the Caribbean) was fascinated by black speakers whom he heard in Harlem. “At the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 125th Streetthe politics were a revelation. His favorites were the aging supporters of Marcus Garvey, the Pan-African leader from the 1920’s who celebrated the independence movements in Africa and spun visions of a renewed Pan-African movement.”8

This line of argument, which had a long history in Harlem and to some extent in Chicago, turned out to be antithetical in many ways to work being done on the West Coast. But Carmichael, for one, remained more or less impervious to the type of thinking motivating, for example, Huey Newton.9 When Carmichael became chair of SNCC in 1966, after the removal of John Lewis, he advocated a black-only organization.

Part of the history of the desire for black-only, strongly nationalist organizations reaches back into the nineteenth century. As Richard Turner documents in his book on the history of Islam in the context of the black community, many such groups operated in the United States in the later part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, before W. D. Fard formed the group that would become Nation of Islam.10 Malcolm X, in his autobiography, tries to explain why the Nation had such an intense appeal for him and for other young urban black men of his generation when he writes about his correspondence with Muslims while he was still in prison: “And what they termed ‘the true knowledge of the black man’was given shape for me in their lengthy letters.”11 Drawing on the plain fact that about 10 percent of the slave population originally had Muslim roots—this is particularly true of individuals taken from the area that is now Mali and Mauritania—early leaders of the Nation were able to make the argument that what the black man needed in the Americas was a stridently nationalist home. Turner notes that the reception accorded slaves who were Muslims was somewhat different from that accorded to others, and that the impact of that difference was felt in that time. He says, “Aspects of global Islam—literacy, signification, and jihad—equipped them with the tools for a liberation struggle in America.”12 The same thoughts occurred to those who, in 1960s America, turned toward the Nation or other similarly-oriented intensely nationalist organizations.

Just as the splits in the Movement after 1966 left a vacuum that was filled with more radical, militant, and less non-violent groups, the city became the focus of struggle, rather than the countryside of the South. The appeal of the strongly nationalist groups—like the Nation and other groups, including a split between different factions of the Panthers—was that not forming coalitions with either other persons of color or poverty-stricken whites had the benefit that black efforts were used to promote black interests only. The negative side of coalition-building, a point of contention in the black radical community from the early part of the twentieth century on, is that the efforts frequently become co-opted by others, and the buildup of goods, services, and items acquired is often used for purposes that may fail to benefit—or may even harm—the black community. C.L.R. James noted that the black community is naturally anti-bourgeois, and in that sense forms its own basis for change and rebellion.13

Islam, as Turner remarks in his recounting of its history in the Americas, appeals to the black community not only because of its historical ties to the Muslim groups of West Africa, but also because it is inevitably associated in the minds of many with communities of color. From the literate slaves of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some of whose testimonies we still have, to the Moorish Temple communities and to 1930s Detroit, strong nationalist tendencies in the black community are often associated with Islam. That the radicals of SNCC and other groups might, after 1966, turn in this direction is unsurprising. There were, however, other alternatives. Those radical black activists who chose the path of aligning with white radicals who were engaged in revolutionary efforts aimed at the system as a whole made a longstanding impression on American culture. Cathy Wilkerson, an SDS and Weatherman member, has provided us with a powerful description of such alliances.14

III

As white and black radicals began to work together, a differing philosophical orientation was articulated. It was derived partly from a Marxist outlook, and partly from a nascent sense that problems such as the war in Vietnam required equal participation from all hands. In her memoir, Wilkerson notes that alliances between SDS and the Panthers were a focal point of discussion at an early time. She recounts that Bernardine Dohrn, when asked about possible electoral alliances with the Party, said “The best thing that we can be doing for ourselves, as well as for the Panthers and the revolutionary black liberation struggle, is to build awhite revolutionary mass movement.”15

Part of the reason that such debates became so strategic was that many radicals, from a variety of backgrounds, felt that strongly black nationalist movements represented a dangerous tendency of sacrificing one portion of the oppressed for the forward movement of others. In other words, a long tradition among radicals in the United States and Europe reflected the time-honored belief that stringently nationalist groups were, in fact if not in theory, actually right-wing.

White radicals who interacted with black radicals of an internationalist cast during this period drew on a long tradition of black Marxism and of labor-oriented thought that reflected the common bonds of struggle. No less a theorist than Amilcar Cabral, author of numerous tracts depicting the colonial struggle of Guinea Bissau with Portugal, had noted, “Any action, regardless of its motives, is sterile unless it produces actual and concrete results.”16 This line of argument, along with the work of C.L.R. James, DuBois, and several other thinkers from African nations whose work was essentially Marxist, provided a strong link between black and white groups. Weatherman, though largely white, began to have occasional black members, and, perhaps more importantly, similar activities began to occur on a number of fronts involving loose affiliations or splinter groups. Wilkerson herself noted, with respect to SDS and its various parts, that “[Huey] Newton also introduced an international perspective that allowed young people to understand the war and the antiwar movement in the context of their own experience.”17

Even black-originated radical material of this period began to show the signs of involvement by a number of groups. Work by the Panthers in California often specifically mentioned Native Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and others. Panthers also frequently helped organize many of the demonstrations set up by these other persons of color groups, in furtherance for these groups’ own causes.18

It would also be no exaggeration to say that Malcolm X himself was at least partially influenced by such views, since it is clear that the turn that he took in the last year of his life had a great deal to do with exposure to international leftist thought, and less to do with changes in racial attitudes than some have claimed.

Wilkerson reports, in Flying Close to the Sun, on at least two events that signaled the change in the late 1960s, as radicals from different backgrounds began to work more closely together in conscious effort. Reporting on the shootings at South Carolina State in Orangeburg, SC, Wilkerson writes:

A few days after Tet [1968], we mobilized the region again in support of black students at South Carolina State, in Orangeburg. When a policeman was struck by a banister post thrown by a retreating student [during a demonstration], his fellow officers, thinking he had been shot, began firing on the students, many of whom held up their hands or fell to the ground. Thirty-three black demonstrators were shot by the police during the barrage of gunfire. Three died of their wounds. Unlike the coverage given to the [other] great battlesthe papers barely covered the event.19

Interestingly, of the many accounts that have been written about political activity during this decade, Wilkerson’s is one of the few that treats this event seriously. That she chooses to highlight this shooting—which took place more than two years before either Kent State or Jackson State—shows that the take on events during this period by groups like SDS (from which Weatherman was soon to emerge), was very much influenced by the notion of a joining of radical organizations. Here the presence of what might have been strong black nationalism on the campus (Wilkerson does not address this issue) does not stop her from noting how deeply the killings and the assault on students was felt by radical whites.

Wilkerson, and other radicals of the time, worked in the Movement with both the knowledge and the hope that alliances could be formed, and that most of the problems they chose to address had similar, or even identical, root causes. Thus the war in Vietnam, the treatment of persons of color in the ghetto, the unequal distribution of goods and services, and a host of other ills (including, for example, inadequate or obsolete course materials on college campuses) were related to the grossly materialistic and consumer-driven U.S. culture, one that paid little attention to peoples’ actual needs. It is for these reasons that Wilkerson and others involved in activities at the time can write about the notion of revolution—it seemed at the time that only intense restructuring of the society could cure the various ills.

Bobby Seale’s Seize the Time and Wilkerson’s Flying Close to the Sun both provide numerous examples of blacks and whites working together on radical causes, although not always with precisely the same goals. But it is an interesting aftereffect of the 1960s that many who were involved in the various activities, demonstrations, and protests become incensed at the notion that the black portion of the activist-generated motion was always nationalist. David Hilliard and others have repeatedly noted that the Panthers, for one, always formed alliances with other groups, and, indeed, more recent black organizations that have tried to adopt some of the Panther paraphernalia and dress have been castigated by former Panthers for this very reason.20 Black and white cooperation was an important part of the urban radical scene during the postwar United State’s most tumultuous decade, and this important point cannot be denied or overlooked.

IV

Insufficient attention has been paid to the intermeshing activities of black and white radicals during the latter portion of the 1960s, particularly those radicals whose lines of argument were essentially Marxist or internationalist. Contrary to those who maintain that a great deal of the work accomplished by black radicals during the latter half of that decade was mainly driven by nationalist concerns, the record indicates that Marxist-derived thinking on the basis of oppression of various groups was the dominant theme.

Work by a number of authors whose main pieces have been published within the last decade or two strongly indicates that this is the case. Elaine Brown, Bobby Seale, and David Hilliard, among the black activists, and Cathy Wilkerson and others among the white radicals, all write of intermeshing concerns and of a concerted effort to articulate them in a theoretical way. That the ultimate source of social oppression was the imperialism of the capitalist system was a line of argument appealing to many. Indeed, the anti-imperialist/anti-capitalist argument was articulated again and again, and led many radicals to differ strongly with those who ultimately tried to place blame for degradation squarely on one ethnic group.

There is a strong black tradition of creative appropriation of Marxist-derived argument, and this tradition has often not received enough commentary in works about 1960s political activities. Black radical intellectuals like Du Bois, Cabral, James, and others had long-standing influence. James interacted with activists during the 1960s, both from his London home and during his travels.21 The historical intersection of capitalism and slavery and its concomitant effects was seen, quite rightly, by black radicals immersed in the leftist economic tradition as an explanation for much that had taken place in the Americas, and as a point of departure for further work.

From Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay Area, to Chicago in 1968, and to the Weatherman activities of 1970 and beyond, collaborating radicals from various backgrounds, including some neither black nor white, helped to create a sustained dialogue that furthered leftist political work. The 1960s as an era of historic struggle and as one of the most important decades of the last century is beyond dispute. What has not been captured in much of the commentary is the melding and camaraderie of many of those involved. It is important to recount the philosophical roots of work from that decade, as it continues to influence our own time, and can provide a source of inspiration for those attempting to articulate a more radical stance for today. The 1960s was indeed a decade of change—change driven by internationalist, leftist politics engaged in by both blacks and whites.

Notes

  1. Andrew B. Lewis, The Shadows of Youth (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009).
  2. Political efforts in the San Francisco Bay Area were heavily interracial, and influenced the rest of the country. Such efforts began, at the very least, with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964. See Reginald Zelnik and Robert Cohen, eds., The Free Speech Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
  3. See Bobby Seale, Seize the Time (New York: Random House, 1970) for an account of how Panther ideology differed from what Seale refers to as the “jive nationalists,” whose rhetoric usually excluded any but black participation.
  4. Lewis has an excellent section on this particular incident in The Shadows of Youth, 215–216.
  5. Some of this is documented in the well-known work by Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power (New York: Scribner’s, 1998).
  6. A number of these meetings are recounted in Brown, A Taste of Power. Seale, although not as detailed as Brown, also mentions some work with white radicals. Brown also alludes to tensions between Nation of Islam and the Panthers.
  7. Work on these issues was done by the Trinidadian thinker C.L.R. James. See C.L.R. James, The C.L.R. James Reader (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999).
  8. Lewis, The Shadows of Youth, 50.
  9. See also Huey Newton, Revolutionary Suicide (New York: Grove Press, 1997) for an account of the Panthers’ beliefs.
  10. Richard Turner, Islam and the African-American Experience (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998). This book is an excellent source of information, and provides a very helpful weaving together of the past with, for example, incidents in the life of Malcolm X.
  11. Malcolm X with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Grove Press, 2002), 187.
  12. Turner, Islam and the African-American Experience, 46.
  13. See C.L.R. James, “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the United States,” in The C.L.R. James Reader.
  14. Cathy Wilkerson, Flying Close to the Sun (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007).
  15. Ibid., 214.
  16. Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source (New York: Grove Press, 1986), 30.
  17. Wilkerson, Flying Close to the Sun, 184.
  18. Black radicals had, for example, some involvement in the demonstration by Native Americans on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay during the Thanksgiving holiday of 1969. The Native American activist LaNada Means is often mentioned in the work of Angela Davis, among others.
  19. Wilkerson, Flying Close to the Sun, 178.
  20. David Hilliard has made a number of public pronouncements to this effect, especially regarding the New Black Panther Party.
  21. James, The C.L.R. James Reader.
FacebookRedditTwitterEmailPrintFriendlyShare
FacebookRedditTwitterEmailPrintFriendly