COLUMN FORTY-FIVE, MAY 1, 1999
(Copyright © 1999 Al Aronowitz)
(Copyright © 1999 Amiri Baraka)
(Photo courtesy Myles Aronowitz )
In 1955, I was 21 years old and had been in the U.S. Air Force a year, where I had gone after being tossed out of Howard University.
The Montgomery bus boycott was heightened in my mind by the Jet cover of Emmett Till (which I've always felt was the opening salvo of the '50s Civil Rights Movement. The boycott began to hoist the image of resistance to what I'd known all my life as racial oppression. I'd been prepped for understanding by my parents and grandparents, who constantly spoke of the repressive racially pathological. They took me South Carolina almost every summer throughout my youth. I had seen and experienced the ugliness and petty terror of segregated trains. One time the white conductor would not let the Black people in the segregated coach where we sat, I half amazed with the dumb unneccesariness of it all. The why of it. Cinders and soot poured in on all our clothes, and we brushed with a stiff resentment with each stroke.
I'd seen the segregated movies and bathrooms and restaurants. In Alabama, where my mother's family came from, we visited the very site of my grandfather's two grocery stores and funeral parlor which were all burned to the ground, Klan style, and my grandfather and family threatened with terror and murder.
I'd looked at the funny looking droopy faced red storekeeper and friends, imagining in adolescent vagueness, what idiotic ideas must be inside them, ugly as they were. And what I'd remembered of what my folks had told me.
They said I talked "too plain," these squint-eyed micro rulers said later. I'd almost fallen into a well, as punishment. I was reading the advertising aloud. That was, I guess, like ignorance, of my place, that made me read aloud!
Racism was a general context of his life, with news of lynchings from 'down home.' The South was always a mysterious terror. . .
The south, for me, was always a mysterious terror our history and lives and families would connect us with----on & on... Racism, a general context of my life, was emanating, like news of lynchings from "down home." There was always such news, ugly movie spooks to make us ashamed, even if it was funny. And so create a code of resistance we could hear later from some of the publicly humiliated. But as the complete awareness of all its meaning and "my place" in that got clear it would, as even today, shape me is absolute conscious resistance to all of it.
But the boycott was distant. I was stationed in Puerto Rico. But my and our local struggles in our specific America, myself now, absolutely under the state's command, was like a current that touched me with its meaning. For me, the boycott, as it registered, was an expected presence we knew emotionally would come. And the Civil Rights movement was in ourselves, as how we were seeing or approaching "America" and its old oppression of Black people.
Rosa Parks was a name that rang for me like an ancestor's name, the way we read the headlines and radio and the grapevine of youth opening where the beat of life beats strongest, as animator of our human development. We were gonna be in the movement---we always knew the crazy tales our people told about the vicious madness of White Supremacy enforced by Uncle Sam Gestapo Good ol Boy Cracker Nazis, spawn of the Soul Thieves who bought our bodies to work for them free forever so they could be rich and rule the world. Sunday School and our people and friends and brains had told us clearly to recognize evil. Heathens. "Jealous Crackers!" Racists. Lynchers. The spiritual KKK in America's soul---We are its Blood, ourselves. Sucked out of our homes by Vampire-like Europeans and American Slave traders. They are the meaning of Halloween. The Skull and Crossbones is their only flag.
So that Rosa Parks was a recruiter for the people, an example, a breath of humanity drawn into us by our lives and minds. Dr. King's appearance, the SCLC, the boycott's Self Determination, political and economic strength, was an instruction in a new era's expression. Park's act, the organization and leadership, campaign development, success and impact, were the opening of the activist phase of the movement.
There was now, along with the historic despising and resistance, an open organized attack on evil, on this real devil, in his Heaven-Hell. Organized "Self Assertion," as Du Bois would say, even unto Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" and Gandhi's "?Non-violent Resistance."
When King's house was bombed, crowds of Black people rallied spontaneously in front of the house, many with rifles and shotguns. The question of Self Defense was raised to its obvious example in real life! National leadership was thrust upon Dr. King when he commuted the crowd's true feeling into a Black Christian alternative.
"If any blood be shed...let it be ours!"
Newsweek and Time carried these words and a part of America confirmed King's vision.
Here the church, the voice of southern Black religion and its professional class would assert its leadership and Christianity now would be the clothes democracy would need. If we were good, we would Overcome, as the Bible and Jesus promised. It was classical Afro American Christian mythology---such as Du Bois characterized the slaves' ontology, connecting Africa with slavery and slaves to philosophy. We "were to suffer and be degraded, and then afterwards by Divine edict, raised to manhood and power..."
Black Reconstruction Slavery ended because of "The Coming of The Lord!"
Such a cultural form was tradition and the emotion of our lives and memory. But we younger Blacks, out of school or the service or in the factories and warehouses, docks, knew being "Good" had never worked, except if you could fight. (That's why we called ourselves "Bad"!) You couldn't be where we lived and let nobody insult you, your family, put you down too tough or get nuts on you. So the Christian essence was lost in the world of the church and other fictions. We would not turn any other cheek. White people could get their whatname beat---I knew that. Their cruelty was near always as a constant. Their real meaning was as Bosses, Owners, Storekeepers, Police, Pain-in-the-behind little racist dudes we'd clashed with and talked tough to.
"What? I'll whip some mammy jammer's white...."
That would come out of many in our generation's mouths---absolutely sincerely... hope to die.
So SCLC, SNCC, Malcolm, Stokely, Rap, Fannie Lou. The Panthers, CAP, CORE, Young Lords, Welfare Rights Organization, Nation of Islam, Urban League, NAACP, churches, Freedom Riders.
"Move on Over or We'll Move on over you!" some of us sang, for all of us. The Black Panther Party of Alabama. Voter Registration Summers. Freedom Marches.
'Meet vioence with violence,'
Robert Williams shouted
and he was put out of the NAACP
Robert Williams in Monroe, N.C., the next wave, "meet violence with violence," he shouted and was put out the NAACP. The Deacons for Self Defense armed defiance of the Klan at Boogaloosa, and James Brown made that town's name into a dance! Selma, Birmingham, Blown up churches. Bull Connor. White Citizen's Council (And how was that different from the U.S. Senate---both shaped by White Supremacy!) Medgar Evers. KKK. Lynchings. Mississippi. Gov. Wallace. Ross Barnett, The fool Eisenhower. Little Rock. Blown up Black children, in blown up Black churches, by known Klan killers the FBI could have stopped! Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver. Bobby Seale. Black Power. We were inside the newsreel in a breathless sweep of struggle and education and commitment.
Hoover, The Panthers, The beatings. The Nazi America. Cheyney,Goodman & Schwerner. Water hoses. Dogs. Violent maniac racists with the green light to do anything to us and get away with it. Despicable ignorant Heathens. Murders---Frauds who make a living lying. Average ignorant white people. Liberals.
Jackson State, Kent State, Texas Southern. Orangeburg, 1960---Greensboro---The Student Movement... "Chickens Coming Home To Roost"...El Hajj Malik Shabazz, Elijah Muhammad, Black Nationalism, Black Power Conferences, Panther Constitutional Convention, Congress of African People.
The Cuban Revolution! Africa! Nkrumah, Lumumba, Toure. The National Black Assembly -Gary, Indiana, African Liberation Support Committee, Voting Rights, Civil Rights Bill, Vietnam, South Africa, Stokes in Cleveland, Hatcher in Gary, Gibson in Newark, The Black Vote.
The movement had swept the whole of the U.S., a revolutionary democratic struggle based on Afro American Self Determination...in tune with the colonial masses of the world. Nasser, Nyerere, Machal, Cabral, Pan African Congress, JFK assassinated and Malcolm and King and Kennedy and Kennedy. Johnson. Nixon. Anti War Movement. Days of Rage. Fred Hampton. Ralph Featherstone. Murders, prison, beatings, trials, demonstrations, protests, conferences, meetings meetings meetings confrontations resistance....
By the last years of the '60s Stokely had called for "Black Power," after Adam Powell's sharp directive that Black People "...seek audacious power!" as he founded the first Black Power Conference in D.C. Before "White America" got him too---put him out of congress! When the Black Power Conference came to Newark, I was in solitary confinement in the Newark jail as a result of the Newark Rebellion. By then---Watts, '65, Detroit, '66, Newark, '67 ...and then hundreds of cities went up in flames across the U.S.!
Not only the cries of "Black Power!" and the urban rebellions in every major city in the country, were the logical, if at lst seemingly contradictory, outgrowth of Rosa Parks' heroic act at resistance. By 1964, the civil rights movement, for many, had become the Black Liberation Movement!
It was a mind altering bombardment of revelation for those of us growing to political maturity during these times. Between 1963 and 1969---John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were blown away, in ways that convinced many of us that it was done by anti-democratic forces within the U.S. government itself! And with each liquidation, we would be shaken and opened to further revelation! ##
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