It’s been 40 years since 1968 and already people are wondering how to remember it. Well, this is how I remember it and some of the years beyond…..
I heard the loud thumping of footsteps coming up the basement stairs of my parents’ home in Silver Spring, Md. Something was very wrong. My girlfriend Marie appeared at the kitchen entrance, distraught and out of breath. Martin Luther King has just been shot dead in Memphis. It’s all over the news. Come downstairs. Now.
A terrible primal rage boiled up from somewhere deep in my consciousness. Not Martin Luther King. Not King. For God’s sake, not him.
I stood for a moment overcome by this terrible anger then said," They’re going to burn America to the ground tonight. And I’m glad."
I wasn’t kidding.
The TV news was already reporting riots in cities across the nation. There had been several seasons of deadly riots since about 1964. Now April, what T.S. Eliot once called the cruelest month, was exploding into flames and gunshots. And Dr. Martin Luther King was dead.
Earlier in 1968, I had volunteered to work on Martin Luther King’s Poor Peoples’ Campaign. King envisioned a massive multiracial occupation of Washington DC to press for social justice and an end to the Viet Nam War. He planned to call it Resurrection City.
King had moved in a radical direction by 1968, still committed to non-violence, but upsetting many in the traditional liberal community with his appeals to class solidarity and his opposition to the Viet Nam war.
I was a student member of the University of Maryland(UM) Poor Peoples’ Campaign Support Committee with my friend Mike Green, another guy who would later become a campus cop and 20 other people. It was nothing glamorous. Our job was logistics: helping to move the food and materials necessary for the poor peoples’ tent city that King hoped would awaken America’s conscience.
At our last meeting, we were planning for a DC walk with Dr. King in mid-April. I had never marched with King before. This was going to be special.
King had gone to Memphis to support a sanitation workers strike. The workers were represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municiple Employees (AFSCME), the same militant civil rights oriented union that had established itself among campus workers at UM. King hoped that the Memphis workers would become part of his Poor Peoples’ campaign.
UM student activists were already committed to supporting the campus workers’ union. Somehow it all looked like it would come together.
Instead, King had been cut down by gunfire as he stood on the balcony of his motel.
I sat with Marie in my parents’ house in Silver Spring Md, and heard the news that Washington’s 14th Street corridor was in flames. This was street where I had experienced some of my earliest childhood memories…where I had seen my first movie (ironically, it was Snow White)…. the neighborhood where I had cried hysterically at the age of 5 when we moved. Familiar landmarks were disappearing.
An era was over. Who knew what was coming next.
The news stations played the speech that King had made the night before, about having been to the mountain top. … about seeing the promised land…..and the possibility he might not get there with us. It was the greatest speech of his life; better than the more famous "I have a dream" speech. King knew the odds. For a man in his line of work, they weren’t favorable.
Both Marie and I felt the need to do something. The next day, we went over to the UM campus for a rally. Several hundred confused, distraught students were there: SDSers, BSU members, SGA representatives and others. Many people had fled the campus in fear of violence.
Everyone wanted to do something. Typical of that Jim Crow era, the flag in front of the admin building was not at half-mast. Even MacDonald’s Hamburgers had lowered the flag out of respect. A short angry confrontation with an administration bureaucrat got the flag lowered. It wasn’t much. But what else was there to do?
Marie and I huddled with other SDS members. Someone said a rally was being organized in front of the White House. Neal and Dinky offered to drive down there with Marie and I. Jackie volunteered her car and another group of SDSers piled into her VW wagon.
Neal took the wheel of his small compact and we sped off down Route One and headed for the White House. As we drove into the District, it was obvious that white people were fleeing the city. DC traffic jams were notorious( especially after they ripped out the street cars), but this one was too early in the day for rush hour.
As we approached the intersection of 7th Street, we could see smoke rising to the right. Stopping for a red light we could see fire trucks and cop cars a couple of blocks away with buildings in flames. People were running in the streets, some with stuff in their arms.
We were in the middle of the riot.
The light changed and we drove on. No one on the street seemed to take any notice of us, but there was now bumper to bumper traffic going out of the city. Periodically, DC cop cars with riot shotguns pointed out the windows would wail past.
As we approached what was then the downtown shopping area near Woodward and Lothrop dept store, we began to see small bands of teenagers running through the stalled traffic. They were looting stores a couple of blocks from the White House. We saw armed soldiers and riot cops as we neared Pennsylvania Ave. We were supposed to meet in Lafayette Park, but that was closed off. Angry short-tempered cops waved us away. If there had been a rally, we were too late.
Driving back through the riot via Rhode Island Ave and the stalled traffic jam of terrified commuters did not seem like a good idea, so we headed over toward Dupont Circle and got back to the Maryland suburbs from that direction.
As night fell we knew that across our nation people were being killed, wounded and arrested as whole blocks went up in flames.
There were machine guns on the White House lawn. But for us, there was nothing to do but go home feeling helpless and defeated.
We got in touch with Jackie and she told us that they had made it to Lafayette Park ahead us, but had been driven out by cops and soldiers. The rally had fizzled.
Something went out of me that day. I never went back to volunteer for the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. Yes, King’s aides did organize a Resurrection City, but I lacked the spirit to even go to help out or attend the rallies. Somehow it seemed pointless.
1968 was a bad year. A very bad year.
In January the Tet offensive in Viet Nam was drowned in blood. Thousands of people were killed. Lyndon Johnson did announce that his presidency was over and that Viet Nam peace talks were scheduled, but they soon bogged down. Then Martin Luther King was shot. Soon afterward, Bobby Kennedy, the great liberal presidential hope was assassinated. The Mexican authorities massacred peaceful demonstrators at Mexico City’s Plaza of the Three Cultures. The Gaullists put down the French student-worker revolt with riot cops and repression. The Soviet Union sent in tanks against the Czechoslovak experiment in socialist democracy. Mayor Daley’s Chicago cops beat up anti-war protesters on international television while Gene McCarthy’s peace candidacy went down in defeat at the Democratic convention. Richard Nixon was elected president in the fall.
A bad year. A very bad year. One could easily argue that our current age of GOP barbarism dates from those awful 365 days in 1968.
In the winter of 1968, I had volunteered to work for Dr. Martin Luther King. In the winter of 1969, I found myself volunteering to work with the Black Panther Party. The times were a changin’ alright……..
In the Year of the Panther
The Illinois Prairie Path begins on First Avenue in Maywood, Illinois, a little north of Madison Street. It is a 61 mile bike and hiking path that branches off in several directions when it reaches the Fox River. Despite its bucolic sounding name, the scenery surrounding the first few miles of the Path is blue collar suburban rather than the swaying grasses one associates with the word prairie.
But if there is no prairie to be found near the Path when it begins in Maywood IL, there is history. On Oak Street near the Path is the Fred Hampton Family Aquatic Center. On hot summer days, it is filled with noisy frolicking kids escaping the blazing sun of the American Midwest.
I’ve ridden past it on my bike a number of times and I always think of Fred, although I never met him or even saw him when he was alive. He would have approved of naming a swimming pool after him. When he was youth organizer for the West Suburban NAACP in the 1960’s, he mobilized hundreds of young people to fight for better recreational facilities for the largely Black town of Maywood.
On December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton was assassinated by the Chicago police as he lay in a bed on the city’s Westside. He had left the NAACP by then and had become the head of the Illinois Black Panther Party. Drugged by an undercover informant without his knowledge, Fred never had a chance when the police raided his Chicago apartment that night. Also killed in the raid was Panther Mark Clark. Several other Panthers survived the raid, including Fred’s partner Deborah Johnson who was 8 months pregnant .
I was living in Langley Park, Maryland then and struggling through my first year of teaching in the DC Public Schools as a member of the Urban Teacher Corps while trying to adjust to my new married life.
The previous year, I had been emotionally overwhelmed by the death of Martin Luther King to the point where I actually quit my volunteer work for the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. King had hoped to build a powerful multi-racial coalition to challenge economic exploitation and war with the use of creative non-violence. That dream died with him.
Although committed to the philosophy of armed self-defense rather than Gandhian non-violence, the Black Panther Party shared King’s vision of a multi-racial coalition to fight injustice. One of the most promising of these multi-racial campaigns was the one led by Fred Hampton in Chicago. In May 1969, he had announced the foundation of a Rainbow Coalition that would unite young Chicagoans across racial lines in what was then the most segregated city in the North.
Sometime on December 5th, I learned of Fred Hampton’s death. My wife Marie and I were devastated. Fred’s prowess as an organizer was well known nationally. I had retreated from the struggle after the death of King. This time would be different. Marie and I talked it over and we decided we had to do something.
We had heard that Dick Ochs was involved in trying to organize a Rainbow Coalition with the DC Black Panther Party. Dick had been a leader of the University of Maryland SDS and an inspiration to both of us. We called Dick and he told us we could meet with him at the DC Panther headquarters on 18th Street. It was located in the heart of the Adams-Morgan area, then an integrated working class section of DC, not at all like the Yuppie enclave it has become.
That began what became for us, "The Year of the Panther".
The Rainbow Coalition in DC consisted of the Black Panther Party and the Patriot Party. The Patriot Party was an outgrowth of the Young Patriots, a group of young whites from Chicago’s Uptown and Lincoln Park neighborhoods who were in coalition with the like minded Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Organization (a Puerto Rican revolutionary group).
The Patriot Party, led by Arthur Turco and William "Preacherman" Fesperman, was trying to organize chapters across the country in working class white neighborhoods.
DC no longer had any white working class neighborhoods to speak of. Most working class whites had moved to nearby Prince Georges (PG) County or to the less affluent areas of Montgomery County like Glenmont, Viers Mill Village or Twinbrook.
I was born into inner city DC when whites still lived there in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. We moved to working class Glenmont when I was 5 and eventually to the leafy middle class area of Hillandale in Silver Spring. The class differences between Glenmont and Hillandale were stark.
Glenmont was a land of black leather jackets, Brylcreem, beehive hair and ’57 Chevys racing up and down the streets. The junior high in Glenmont was a violent place with frequent fights, where gangs of kids would form a circle and cheer on the combatants as subsidiary fights broke out among the spectators. There were assaults in the lavatories and cherry bombs exploding in the hallways. I never heard of anyone carrying a gun in Glenmont, but switchblade knives were a popular item.
When I transferred to Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, it was a whole different social scene with snooty rich kids and tight cliques. There was scarcely a black leather jacket in the place. I only saw one switchblade the whole 4 years I was there and fights were rare. In a way it was a relief. I had been in a lot of fights while growing up, but was rarely successful because I had a bad temper without the physical skills to go with it.
I wasn’t one of the "poor whites" that the Patriots wanted to organize, but my experience in segregated white Glenmont led me to believe that only a multi-racial working class movement could really turn this country around. I saw racism as the primary roadblock to serious social change in America.
I had been through desegregation when I was in the YMCA and knew that despite the social isolation that prevails in white working class neighborhoods, at least some of the people were not the hopeless redneck bigots that they were portrayed in the media.
The DC Patriot Party had attempted to set up a base in PG County’s District Heights area, but had met with little success. When I arrived on the scene, they were in a period of reorganization. Dick Ochs had a printing operation in the basement of the Black Panther office. He was genuinely overwhelmed with the volume of printing and needed help. So that became my first job as a supporter of the Patriot Party. Dick gave me some technical training and I was soon printing jobs on an ancient 1250 multilith.
I spent many nights in the basement of the Black Panther office on 18th street printing material for both the Panthers and the Patriots. Marie was a skilled clerical worker and so was often busy in the 18th Street office helping create newsletters and leaflets using her formidable typing abilities.
We also joined a political study group that analyzed American history and Marxist theory.
Marie and I had purchased a Ford van with our modest salaries and since neither the Panthers nor the Patriots had anything like that, I became the unofficial transportation department.
One afternoon I got an excited call from Dick. There is a huge copy camera available if we could pick it up. It would make producing large format literature a lot easier. Apparently it had been built in WWI and designed for making battlefield maps.
We climbed into the Ford van and drove off to look at it. It must have weighed a ton and I don’t remember how we got into the van. The van sagged dangerously with all of that weight in it, but we somehow got it from Northern Virginia to the alley behind the Panther office and into the basement. Dick was like a little kid on Christmas morning with this huge piece of printing equipment. The van was less than happy and I had to have the suspension repaired from the sheer bulk of the thing. It cost me a couple of hundred dollars, but it was worth it. The monster copy camera made producing posters and newsletters a lot easier.
The van got a lot of use and was a familiar sight parked near the Panther office. We moved furniture, office supplies and building materials. I drove community members to Panther events.
On some nights we would take the backseat out of the van and a bunch of us would pile in for a poster party. Those were always fun. We’d pick up a few Panthers who were living illegally in an abandoned building on 14th St and then drop off small teams armed with condensed milk, brushes and posters. We’d plaster the walls of DC after midnight and pile back into the van laughing as we passed around jugs of cheap Bali Hai wine. Technically this was against Party rules, but not even the senior Panthers ever objected.
I have fond memories of DC Panthers like Jim, Malik, and Maurice. They were some of the hardest working most motivated people I have ever known. I had met Maurice before he was a Panther. He had sat in my class when I was a student teacher at Coolidge High School. We had studied Orwell’s 1984 that spring.
Sam Napier was the national coordinator of the Black Panther newspaper and he was very good. The guy had an incredible organizational mind and sales of the paper soared because of his well oiled distribution system. He was in DC for a while and I would sometimes help him get bulk copies of the Black Panther paper to various distribution points.
One night we had a close call. It was around 2 am and we were coming down New Hampshire Ave in PG County after a trip to Baltimore. A traffic light had just turned red and I decided to run it. Bad idea. A PG cop turned on his lights and motioned for me to pull over.
There we were: a national leader of the Black Panther Party; a nervous miserable teen-aged member of the Party(he had become ill during the trip); a van load of Black Panther papers; and me. We weren’t doing anything illegal (other than the stupid traffic violation), but PG cops had a well deserved reputation for being trigger-happy racist thugs. If the cop figured out what and who was in the van, there was no telling how complicated things could get.
I apologized profusely, pleaded the lateness of the hour and promised to never, ever run a traffic light again. The cop looked curiously at the two Black men with me, but fortunately did not shine his flashlight on to the bundles of Black Panther newspapers in the back. He let me off with a warning. Sam had good reason to give me holy hell, but he was very cool about it and we delivered our cargo to the 18th Street office without further incident.
It seemed that I was doing more support work for the Black Panther Party than helping the Patriots organize white working class neighborhoods. The actual Patriot Party members were friendly to me, but reserved about their plans for a new project after the District Heights project had fallen through.
I remember a few of them pretty well. Danny was an ex-marine who had come from a troubled childhood. He had made it all the way through Viet Nam without a scratch but had been badly injured after being arrested at a furniture workers’ strike. The cop wagon he was in had crashed on a rain slick bridge coming from SE Washington and he got pretty banged up. He still walked with a limp. Elise was originally from Kentucky and had high hopes that white southerners could be brought on-board a revolutionary movement. Jenny was more of an organizational type and with Dick, seemed to be closest to the Panthers. There were other people I don’t remember very well.
Maryland was a strange mix of Yankee and Confederate attitudes and seemed like a natural for the Patriot Party. Preacherman Bill Fesperman had already been through town and had attracted a large crowd to a public meeting. A documentary film that featured the Patriots working in Chicago was playing to enthusiastic leftwing audiences. Patriot Party chapters were springing up across the country and the group had already published its first newspaper, adorned with a Confederate flag.
I was frankly uncomfortable with the "Stars and Bars". It reminded me of the "White Only" signs I had seen as a kid while visiting my mom’s family in North Carolina. When segregationist George Wallace campaigned in Maryland for president, he always attracted crowds of Confederate flag waving supporters, some of whom had a taste for nasty racial violence.
I understood that the Patriots wanted the rebel flag to take on a new meaning, but I was skeptical. It didn’t seem like that important an issue, so I kept my misgivings to myself.
There were more pressing problems. Across the country the Black Panther Party was under attack. Police raids on Panther offices and police attacks on Party members and supporters were all over the news People had been killed, wounded and imprisoned. Panther leaders faced multiple charges and some were already in jail.
The DC Panthers wanted to focus on their Free Breakfast for Children program, their liberation school and other community initiatives, but the question of self-defense was never far away. Ironically, the whole time I worked with the Panthers, I never saw a Panther with a gun. They were too focused on their community activities.
Once I loaded a couple of heavy crates into my van that were probably weapons, but I had adopted a "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. Well deserved concern about police informers was rising and asking too many questions didn’t seem wise.
My dad had been a combat infantryman throughout World War II and hated guns, so unlike some kids, I hadn’t grown up with them. Before I started working with the Panthers and the Patriots, I had never even picked up a weapon. That was soon to change.
Accompanied by a couple of Patriots, I went out to remote sites in the Maryland countryside and practiced with shotguns, rifles and pistols. I wasn’t a bad shot, but I truly hoped that I would never have to aim a gun at another human being.
Being a teacher, it was presumed that I was "respectable", so I became an occasional conduit for guns and ammunition for various people of my acquaintance. Another teacher I knew also worked with the Panthers and started a Black Student Union that became a kind of clandestine youth wing for Panther recruiting. I didn’t inquire into exactly what he was doing with the BSU kids and he didn’t ask me too many questions either. It seemed better that way.
I later found out that the school principal had testified in front of some Congressional committee about how the Black Panthers had tried to infiltrate his school. I was fired from the D.C. Public Schools the following year because of my work with the Panthers. It took several years before i found my way back into teaching again.
More and more of our time became consumed with legal defense work. National leader Bobby Seale was being held in New Haven along with other Panthers after a suspected police informer was killed. 21 Black Panthers faced charges in NYC for supposedly planning to bomb department stores and other public places. The national office of the Patriot Party was raided in NYC.
Patriot Party leader Arthur Turco along with several Baltimore Panthers was under indictment for the murder of Eugene Leroy Anderson, a suspected police informant. Baltimore Black Panther member Eddie Conway is still in prison for another Panther related shooting even though he has long protested his innocence.
Bobby Seale was facing the death penalty in New Haven and we soon had posters all over DC showing Bobby in an electric chair awaiting possible execution. The Panthers planned a national demonstration in New Haven for May 1 to protest the trial. Since New Haven was also the home of Yale University, students and faculty there were involved in the defense. We feverishly printed leaflets and organized transportation. Marie and I made plans to drive to New Haven and take people with us.
Then on April 30, 1970 Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia and all hell broke loose on American campuses. Suddenly the New Haven rally was also an anti-war rally as well as a Free Bobby Seale rally. We arrived in New Haven and the entire campus had become a student strike center. At the main rally on May 1, reports came in from all over the country of demonstrations against the war and in support of the Panthers. Then someone told us that University of Maryland students had trashed the ROTC offices and seized Route One. At first I didn’t believe it. I had been at UM for 4 years and had concluded that it was one big mass of student apathy. But Nixon had succeeded where UM SDS had failed. UM was on the move at last.
That night there was supposed to be a big fund-raising dance at Ingalls Rink near the Yale Campus. Marie and I thought it would be nice to go, but we were both pretty tired. We parked the van around the corner and decided to take a nap before hitting the dance floor. The next thing I knew we awoke to an enormous explosion. Having no idea what was going on, we hastily sped back to the Yale campus. We found out that someone had planted a bomb in Ingalls Rink, but that it had gone off after the dance was over. No one was hurt.
After returning from New Haven, I was busy with anti-war protests at the University of Maryland campus. When my teaching duties ended in June and the UM protests wound down, I had time to devote to the Patriots and the Panthers again.
As part of my required community work that accompanied my teaching job, I volunteered to spend the summer of 1970 working for the Washington Free Clinic. The Free Clinic was located in the basement of a church in the upscale Georgetown neighborhood and catered mostly to Dupont Circle hippies and suburban teenagers. But I had another agenda. We discussed the idea of setting up a health clinic that would be sponsored by the Panthers and the Patriots. The coordinator of the Washington Free Clinic really wanted to branch out to DC’s working class communities and thought working with the Panthers and the Patriots was a great idea. So part of my job that summer was learning how free clinics actually worked.
I was the Clinic draft counselor and specialized in draft counseling working class white guys. I hauled VD tests over to the lab every week and was jokingly referred to as the Clinic "VD carrier". I picked up free samples of drugs in my van from sympathetic doctors. I called our list of abortion providers and made sure they were still on board for women who wanted to terminate pregnancies. We began to reach out beyond the hippies who normally filled the Clinic waiting room. Maybe we could interest people in starting similar clinics in working class communities that really needed them.
On the night of July 4, 1970, the DC police raided the DC Black Panthers. The Panthers now had a second building on 17th Street and that was the target of the raid. A number of people were beaten after the cops broke up a community singing party in front of the Panther office. The cops wrecked office equipment and stole money that had been earmarked for the Free Breakfast Program and the Health Clinic Program.
That night I was at the Washington Monument with several thousand other people protesting a pro-Nixon rally. We had fought running battles with the police all afternoon and by nightfall the Monument grounds turned into a chaotic riot scene as the pro-Nixon people tried to ignore the teargas and repeated police charges against their tormentors.
The next day I found out about the raid and went downtown to see if I could help. Cops were everywhere and one of the Panthers told me to get back into the van and warn the 18th Street office. It looked like the cops were organizing another attack and he was afraid they would cut the phone lines to prevent communication.
My Paul Revere fantasies ended about 3 blocks down 17th St when I was pulled over and arrested. I spent a few hours in jail before being released without charges. I should have walked. It would have been less conspicuous than the well known blue Ford van. The day ended with no actual police attacks.
By mid-summer it was clear that the Patriot Party was falling apart. Police repression and internal problems had taken their toll.
One day Jenny announced that the Patriot Party was dissolved and we were now to organize ourselves into the Committee to Defend the Panthers. This came as no surprise to me as this was pretty much what we’d been doing anyway.
Besides raising consciousness and money for Panther defense, our other big project was preparing for the Revolutionary Peoples’ Constitutional Convention. The Panther leadership had decided that the USA needed a new Constitution to uphold our nation’s revolutionary traditions and serve the needs of poor and oppressed peoples. Groups from all over the country made plans to go to Philadelphia in September.
Despite all of the repression, raids and assassinations, the Panthers were still very much alive.
Marie and I drove the van up to Philadelphia the first weekend of September to attend the convention. Thousands of people flooded into Philly that weekend. The Convention attracted a diverse cross-section of the movement and I was impressed. We stayed at a church with the Gay Liberation Front. We were probably the only straight people there, but no one seemed to care or even notice.
During the day we attended workshops. Michael "Cetewayo" Tabor gave an especially memorable presentation based on his pamphlet "Capitalism + Dope= Genocide" about how Black communities were being flooded with drugs to destroy the Black Liberation Movement.
We tried to get into the plenary session where Panther leader Huey Newton was scheduled to speak, but were turned away because it was already full to capacity. As we wondered what to do next, a limo pulled up nearby and a large powerfully built man surrounded by security guards stepped out. It was Muhammad Ali. He strode briskly down the sidewalk for a few blocks and gathered admirers into an impromptu parade before jumping back into the limo.
Later Marie and I joined some other DC area people in a street corner meeting with Chicago’s Rising Up Angry(RUA). Michael James was there along other RUA members. Rising Up Angry was organizing among the white working class youth of Chicago. RUA had links to the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords and other like-minded groups. With the demise of the Patriot Party, we were eager to share ideas with them.
We agreed to order bundles of the Rising Up Angry newspapers to distribute to people in the DC area. We also met an RUA member named Mike who was moving to the DC area and we made plans to stay in touch. We were still determined to work toward a revolutionary rainbow coalition despite the setbacks we had encountered.
By this time the Committee to Defend the Panthers had closed up shop and I was looking for a new organization .
After coming back to DC, Dick Ochs, Danny and Elise joined with some former UM SDS people to form a new collective based in Prince George’s County. Marie and I soon joined up with them. We named ourselves the Mother Bloor Collective after an early 20th century radical leader. There was a sister group in Baltimore called the Mother Jones Collective which was already doing some great community work in that hardscrabble industrial city.
We drew up plans to do organizing among PG high school students and help them put out a newspaper. We distributed Rising Up Angry newspapers to high school kids in the Washington-Annapolis area. One of them reported to me that he had shown it to his Annapolis high school social studies teacher. The teacher then closed the door to the classroom and locked it. He swore his class to silence and then read articles from the paper telling the students that he could lose his job if the principal ever found out. No one ratted on him.
Some of us were moving into union organizing. Several Collective members were employees at the University of Maryland and worked to overcome the racial divisions among the employees there. We still kept up contact with the Black Panther Party and were publicizing the next meeting of the Revolutionary Peoples’ Constitutional Convention to be held in Washington DC.
The prospects for a multi-racial revolutionary movement looked brighter than ever. Our optimism did not last long.
The DC meeting of the Revolutionary Peoples’ Constitutional Convention was a disaster. The Panthers were unable to negotiate space at Howard University for the Convention and thousands of people came to DC with virtually no place to go.
It was a demoralizing defeat.
Unbeknownst to us, a split was taking place in the Black Panther leadership that would eventually lead to violent showdowns between followers of Eldridge Cleaver and followers of Huey Newton. There is no doubt that government infiltrators played a major role in making the divisions even worse.
I don’t recall any violent factional disputes in DC, but the DC Panthers did split. I didn’t want to become involved in what was shaping up to be a possible civil war, so I cut my ties with the Panthers. Later I learned that the DC Panthers had reorganized in SE Washington and had finally set up their long-planned health clinic.
In 1971 I was shocked to learn of the death of Sam Napier in the fratricidal strife that tore the Black Panther Party apart. Sam was one of their best. It was a terrible loss.
The Mother Bloor Collective went through its own internal problems and the high school organizing project died when several Collective members left the group. Eventually Mother Bloor morphed into a Youth Against War and Fascism chapter. But by that time my marriage was over and I had moved on.
In 1975 I went to Chicago to become partners with Estelle Carol whom I had met in Cuba while on the Venceramos Brigade. Ironically, she lived in the Uptown neighborhood which had given birth to the original Young Patriots organization.
Estelle was an active member of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union which was committed to building coalitions with women of color. The CWLU also had a close working relationship with Rising Up Angry and I was soon swept up into the politics of radical Chicago.
Cha Cha Jimenez, a former member of the Young Lords, was running for alderman of the Uptown ward. He was supported by the Intercommunal Survival Committee, an Uptown group led by Slim Coleman and Helen Shiller and heavily influenced by the Panther ideology. I rang doorbells and turned out voters for Cha Cha. He lost the election, but eventually Helen Shiller was elected to the City Council where she now sits. Efforts by the Daley Machine to knock her out of her position have repeatedly failed.
In 1975 I took a job a the St Mary’s Community Education Center, a innovative alternative high school on the West Side near where Fred Hampton was assassinated. We were part of the Alternative Schools Network, which was committed to educating people from poor and oppressed communities. The Network was on a social mission and made no attempt to hide that fact. I can still name some of its members: The Southern School, Chrysalis, Latino Youth, St. Mary’s, St. Pius, Universidad Popular, and the Ruis Belvis Center.
In 1977, an Illinois State Senator named Harold Washington announced that he was running for Mayor of Chicago. Harold had the backing of the Intercommunal Survival Committee, as well as other progressive organizations. Students from St. Mary’s braved violent threats from the Chicago Machine to work the neighborhoods for him. The rainbow coalition was back in business.
He lost that year, but was successful in 1983, becoming Chicago’s first Black mayor. Chicago radicals who had battled City Hall for years suddenly found themselves running city departments.
A bloc of white politicians, led by Alderman Ed Vrodolyak, declared war on the Harold Washington forces, unleashing years of racial strife in the city. Harold’s supporters, who invariably referred to themselves as "The Movement", fought back. Washington was re-elected in 1987, beating back a nakedly racist challenge from the Vrodolyak forces.
I was active in all three of Harold Washington’s campaigns. Estelle and I had moved into the racially mixed Logan Square neighborhood, a perfect place to campaign for "The Movement". We never got a majority of our ward, but we increased vote totals each time and racial tension in the neighborhood eased.
Harold Washington died of a heart attack in the fall of 1987, brought on in my opinion, by the stress of constant racist attacks on him. As far as I was concerned, he had suffered the same fate as Martin Luther King and Fred Hampton. Ed Vrodolak might as well have put bullet in Harold’s heart, the end result was the same. We lost one of America’s best.
America has a way of killing those leaders most committed to building multi-racial social movements.
But as Fred used to say," You can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution."
Jesse Jackson took up the banner with his own Rainbow Coalition efforts in the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns, doing surprising well among white working class union voters and embattled white farmers in rural America.
I look around today at union workers, student activists, community militants, progressive religious coalitions and others who are building solidarity across racial lines that would have been considered impossible only a few generations ago.
And then there is the rise of Barack Obama, a moderate centrist Democrat who has come to embody the hope that a multi-racial coalition can not only put a Black man in the White House, but turn this country around after years of rightwing rule.
The dream lives on…