Amid a worldwide uprising against police brutality and racism, we discuss the historic moment with legendary scholar and activist Angela Davis. She also responds to the destruction and removal of racist monuments in cities across the United States; President Trump’s upcoming rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, the site of a white mob’s massacre of Black people; and the 2020 election, in which two parties “connected to corporate capitalism” will compete for the presidency and people will have to be persuaded to vote “so the current occupant of the White House is forever ousted.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As the nationwide uprising against police brutality and racism continues to roil the nation and the world, bringing down Confederate statues and forcing a reckoning in city halls and on the streets, President Trump defended law enforcement Thursday, dismissing growing calls to defund the police. He spoke at a campaign-style event at a church in Dallas, Texas, announcing a new executive order advising police departments to adopt national standards for use of force. Trump did not invite the top three law enforcement officials in Dallas, who are all African American. The move comes after Trump called protesters ”THUGS” and threatened to deploy the U.S. military to end, quote, “riots and lawlessness.” This is Trump speaking Thursday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They want to get rid of the police forces. They actually want to get rid of it. And that’s what they do, and that’s where they’d go. And you know that, because at the top position, there’s not going to be much leadership. There’s not much leadership left.
Instead, we have to go the opposite way. We must invest more energy and resources in police training and recruiting and community engagement. We have to respect our police. We have to take care of our police. They’re protecting us. And if they’re allowed to do their job, they’ll do a great job. And you always have a bad apple no matter where you go. You have bad apples. And there are not too many of them. And I can tell you there are not too many of them in the police department. We all know a lot of members of the police.
AMY GOODMAN: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is also calling for an increase to police funding. In an op-ed in USA Today, he called for police departments to receive an additional $300 million to, quote, “reinvigorate community policing in our country.” On Wednesday night, Biden discussed police funding on The Daily Show.
JOE BIDEN: I don’t believe police should be defunded, but I think the conditions should be placed upon them where departments are having to take significant reforms relating to that. We should set up a national use-of-force standard.
AMY GOODMAN: But many argue reform will not fix the inherently racist system of policing. Since the global protest movement began, Minneapolis has pledged to dismantle its police department, the mayors of Los Angeles and New York City have promised to slash police department budgets, and calls to “defund the police” are being heard in spaces that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
Well, for more on this historic moment, we are spending the hour with the legendary activist and scholar Angela Davis, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. For half a century, Angela Davis has been one of the most influential activists and intellectuals in the United States, an icon of the Black liberation movement. Angela Davis’s work around issues of gender, race, class and prisons has influenced critical thought and social movements across several generations. She’s a leading advocate for prison abolition, a position informed by her own experience as a prisoner and a fugitive on the FBI’s top 10 wanted list more than 40 years ago. Once caught, she faced the death penalty in California. After being acquitted on all charges, she’s spent her life fighting to change the criminal justice system.
Angela Davis, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us today for the hour.
ANGELA DAVIS: Thank you very much, Amy. It’s wonderful to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, do you think this moment is a tipping point, a turning point? You, who have been involved in activism for almost half a century, do you see this moment as different, perhaps more different than any period of time you have lived through?
ANGELA DAVIS: Absolutely. This is an extraordinary moment. I have never experienced anything like the conditions we are currently experiencing, the conjuncture created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the recognition of the systemic racism that has been rendered visible under these conditions because of the disproportionate deaths in Black and Latinx communities. And this is a moment I don’t know whether I ever expected to experience.
When the protests began, of course, around the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade and many others who have lost their lives to racist state violence and vigilante violence — when these protests erupted, I remembered something that I’ve said many times to encourage activists, who often feel that the work that they do is not leading to tangible results. I often ask them to consider the very long trajectory of Black struggles. And what has been most important is the forging of legacies, the new arenas of struggle that can be handed down to younger generations.
But I’ve often said one never knows when conditions may give rise to a conjuncture such as the current one that rapidly shifts popular consciousness and suddenly allows us to move in the direction of radical change. If one does not engage in the ongoing work when such a moment arises, we cannot take advantage of the opportunities to change. And, of course, this moment will pass. The intensity of the current demonstrations cannot be sustained over time, but we will have to be ready to shift gears and address these issues in different arenas, including, of course, the electoral arena.
AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, you have long been a leader of the critical resistance movement, the abolition movement. And I’m wondering if you can explain the demand, as you see it, what you feel needs to be done, around defunding the police, and then around prison abolition.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, the call to defund the police is, I think, an abolitionist demand, but it reflects only one aspect of the process represented by the demand. Defunding the police is not simply about withdrawing funding for law enforcement and doing nothing else. And it appears as if this is the rather superficial understanding that has caused Biden to move in the direction he’s moving in.
It’s about shifting public funds to new services and new institutions — mental health counselors, who can respond to people who are in crisis without arms. It’s about shifting funding to education, to housing, to recreation. All of these things help to create security and safety. It’s about learning that safety, safeguarded by violence, is not really safety.
And I would say that abolition is not primarily a negative strategy. It’s not primarily about dismantling, getting rid of, but it’s about re-envisioning. It’s about building anew. And I would argue that abolition is a feminist strategy. And one sees in these abolitionist demands that are emerging the pivotal influence of feminist theories and practices.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that further.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, I want us to see feminism not only as addressing issues of gender, but rather as a methodological approach of understanding the intersectionality of struggles and issues. Abolition feminism counters carceral feminism, which has unfortunately assumed that issues such as violence against women can be effectively addressed by using police force, by using imprisonment as a solution. And of course we know that Joseph Biden, in 1994, who claims that the Violence Against Women Act was such an important moment in his career — the Violence Against Women Act was couched within the 1994 Crime Act, the Clinton Crime Act.
And what we’re calling for is a process of decriminalization, not — recognizing that threats to safety, threats to security, come not primarily from what is defined as crime, but rather from the failure of institutions in our country to address issues of health, issues of violence, education, etc. So, abolition is really about rethinking the kind of future we want, the social future, the economic future, the political future. It’s about revolution, I would argue.
AMY GOODMAN: You write in Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, “Neoliberal ideology drives us to focus on individuals, ourselves, individual victims, individual perpetrators. But how is it possible to solve the massive problem of racist state violence by calling upon individual police officers to bear the burden of that history and to assume that by prosecuting them, by exacting our revenge on them, we would have somehow made progress in eradicating racism?” So, explain what exactly you’re demanding.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, neoliberal logic assumes that the fundamental unit of society is the individual, and I would say the abstract individual. According to that logic, Black people can combat racism by pulling themselves up by their own individual bootstraps. That logic recognizes — or fails, rather, to recognize that there are institutional barriers that cannot be brought down by individual determination. If a Black person is materially unable to attend the university, the solution is not affirmative action, they argue, but rather the person simply needs to work harder, get good grades and do what is necessary in order to acquire the funds to pay for tuition. Neoliberal logic deters us from thinking about the simpler solution, which is free education.
I’m thinking about the fact that we have been aware of the need for these institutional strategies at least since 1935 — but of course before, but I’m choosing 1935 because that was the year when W.E.B. Du Bois published his germinal Black Reconstruction in America. And the question was not what should individual Black people do, but rather how to reorganize and restructure post-slavery society in order to guarantee the incorporation of those who had been formerly enslaved. The society could not remain the same — or should not have remained the same. Neoliberalism resists change at the individual level. It asks the individual to adapt to conditions of capitalism, to conditions of racism.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Angela Davis, about the monuments to racists, colonizers, Confederates, that are continuing to fall across the United States and around the world. In St. Paul, Minnesota, Wednesday, activists with the American Indian Movement tied a rope around a statue of Christopher Columbus and pulled it from its pedestal on the state Capitol grounds. The AIM members then held a ceremony over the fallen monument. In Massachusetts, officials said they’ll remove a Columbus statue from a park in Boston’s North End, after it was beheaded by protesters early Wednesday morning. In Richmond, Virginia, protesters toppled a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from Monument Avenue Wednesday night. In the nearby city of Portsmouth, protesters used sledgehammers to destroy a monument to Confederate soldiers. One person sustained a serious injury, was hospitalized after a statue fell on his head. In Washington, D.C., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi joined other lawmakers demanding the removal of 11 Confederate statues from the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol.
Meanwhile, President Trump said he will “not even consider” renaming U.S. Army bases named after Confederate military officers. There are 10 such bases, all of them in Southern states. Trump tweeted Wednesday, “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom,” unquote. Trump’s tweet contradicted Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Mark Milley, who suggested they’re open to discussion about renaming the bases. And a Republican committee in the Senate just voted to rename these bases, like Benning and Bragg and Hood, that are named for Confederate leaders.
Meanwhile, in your hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, Angela, comedian Jermaine Johnson is pleading not guilty to charges of “inciting a riot” after he urged protesters at May 31st rally to march on a statue of Charles Linn, a former officer in the Confederate Navy.
Did you think you would ever see this? You think about Bree Newsome after the horror at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who shimmied up that flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina Legislature and took down the Confederate flag, and they put it right on back up. What about what we’re seeing today?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, of course, Bree Newsome was a wonderful pioneer. And I think it’s important to link this trend to the campaign in South Africa: “roads must fall.” And, of course, I think this reflects the extent to which we are being called upon to deeply reflect on the role of historical racisms that have brought us to the point where we are today.
You know, racism should have been immediately confronted in the aftermath of the end of slavery. This is what Dr. Du Bois’s analysis was all about, not so much in terms of, “Well, what we were going to do about these poor people who have been enslaved so many generations?” but, rather, “How can we reorganize our society in order to guarantee the incorporation of previously enslaved people?”
Now attention is being turned towards the symbols of slavery, the symbols of colonialism. And, of course, any campaigns against racism in this country have to address, in the very first place, the conditions of Indigenous people. I think it’s important that we’re seeing these demonstrations, but I think at the same time we have to recognize that we cannot simply get rid of the history. We have to recognize the devastatingly negative role that that history has played in charting the trajectory of the United States of America. And so, I think that these assaults on statues represent an attempt to begin to think through what we have to do to bring down institutions and re-envision them, reorganize them, create new institutions that can attend to the needs of all people.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think should be done with statues, for example, to, oh, slaveholding Founding Fathers, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, you know, museums can play an important educational role. And I don’t think we should get rid of all of the vestiges of the past, but we need to figure out context within which people can understand the nature of U.S. history and the role that racism and capitalism and heteropatriarchy have played in forging that history.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about racism and capitalism? You often write and speak about how they are intimately connected. And talk about a world that you envision.
ANGELA DAVIS: Yeah, racism is integrally linked to capitalism. And I think it’s a mistake to assume that we can combat racism by leaving capitalism in place. As Cedric Robinson pointed out in his book Black Marxism, capitalism is racial capitalism. And, of course, to just say for a moment, that Marx pointed out that what he called primitive accumulation, capital doesn’t just appear from nowhere. The original capital was provided by the labor of slaves. The Industrial Revolution, which pivoted around the production of capital, was enabled by slave labor in the U.S. So, I am convinced that the ultimate eradication of racism is going to require us to move toward a more socialist organization of our economies, of our other institutions. I think we have a long way to go before we can begin to talk about an economic system that is not based on exploitation and on the super-exploitation of Black people, Latinx people and other racialized populations.
But I do think that we now have the conceptual means to engage in discussions, popular discussions, about capitalism. Occupy gave us new language. The notion of the prison-industrial complex requires us to understand the globalization of capitalism. Anti-capitalist consciousness helps us to understand the predicament of immigrants, who are barred from the U.S. by the wall that has been created by the current occupant. These conditions have been created by global capitalism. And I think this is a period during which we need to begin that process of popular education, which will allow people to understand the interconnections of racism, heteropatriarchy, capitalism.
AMY GOODMAN: Angela, do you think we need a truth and reconciliation commission here in this country?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, that might be one way to begin, but I know we’re going to need a lot more than truth and reconciliation. But certainly we need truth. I’m not sure how soon reconciliation is going to emerge. But I think that the whole notion of truth and reconciliation allows us to think differently about the criminal legal system. It allows us to imagine a form of justice that is not based on revenge, a form of justice that is not retributive. So I think that those ideas can help us begin to imagine new ways of structuring our institutions, such as — well, not structuring the prison, because the whole point is that we have to abolish that institution in order to begin to envision new ways of addressing the conditions that lead to mass incarceration, that lead to such horrendous tragedies as the murder of George Floyd.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion and also talk about President Trump going to Tulsa on Juneteenth. We’re speaking with Angela Davis, the world-renowned abolitionist, author, activist and professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, author of many books, including Freedom Is a Constant Struggle. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Shanty Tones” by Filastine. This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the hour with the legendary activist, scholar, Angela Davis, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
President Trump has announced he’s holding his first campaign rally since the quarantine, since lockdowns across the country, since the pandemic. He’s holding it in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19th — a highly symbolic day. It was June 19, 1865, that enslaved Africans in Texas first learned they were free, two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The day is now celebrated as Juneteenth. California Senator Kamala Harris tweeted in response, “This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists — he’s throwing them a welcome home party,” unquote.
Well, Tulsa recently marked the 99th anniversary of one of the deadliest mass killings of African Americans in U.S. history. In 1921, a white mob killed as many as 300 people, most of them Black, after a Black man was accused of assaulting a white woman. The white mobs destroyed a thriving African American business district known at the time as the Black Wall Street of America.
Well, this all comes as a Tulsa police major is coming under fire after denying systemic racism in the police force there and saying African Americans probably should be shot more. Listen carefully. This is Major Travis Yates in an interview with KFAQ.
MJR. TRAVIS YATES: If a certain group is committing more crimes, more violent crimes, then that number is going to be higher. Who in the world in their right mind would think that our shootings should be right along the U.S. census line? All of the research says we’re shooting African Americans about 24% less than we probably ought to be, based on the crimes being committed.
AMY GOODMAN: “We’re shooting them less than they probably ought to be”? Tulsa’s mayor and police chief have both blasted Yates for the comment, but he remains on the force. And on Friday, President Trump will be there. Angela Davis, your thoughts on the significance of the moment, the place?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, that’s — well, you know, I can’t even respond to anything he does anymore. It’s just so, so, so, so ridiculous. And it is, however, important to recognize that he represents a sector of the population in this country that wants to return to the past — “Make America great again” — with all of its white supremacy, with all of its misogyny. And I think that at this moment we are recognizing that we cannot be held back by such forces as those represented by the current occupant of the White House. I doubt very seriously whether the people who come out to hear him in Tulsa on this historic day — of course, all over the country, people of African descent will be observing Juneteenth as an emancipatory moment in our history.
But I think that our role is to start to begin to translate some of the energy and passion into transforming institutions. The process has already begun, and it can’t be turned back, at least not by the current occupant of the White House. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to create lasting change, but at least now we can see that it is possible. When someone like Roger Goodell says “Black lives matter,” even though he did not mention Colin Kaepernick, and even though he may have — he probably did not really mean it, what that means is that the NFL recognizes that it has to begin a new process, that there is a further expansion of popular consciousness.
In New York, of course, you need to ask whether you really want to create new jails in the boroughs in the aftermath of closing Rikers, or whether you need new services. You know, I’ve been thinking about the case of Jussie Smollett, and I’m wondering why — in Chicago, given the conditions surrounding the murder of Laquan McDonald, the police department should be thoroughly investigated. And we need to ask: How is it that the public could so easily be rallied to the police narrative of what happened in the case of Jussie Smollett?
So, there is so much to be done. And I think that the rallies that the current occupant of the White House is holding will fade into — don’t even merit footnotes in history.
AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, I wanted to ask you about another event that’s taking place on Juneteenth, on June 19th. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is finally going to issue you the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Award during a virtual event on Juneteenth. And I wanted to ask you about this, because you returned to your hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, last February after the institute had at first rescinded the award due to your support for BDS — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — and your support of Palestinians. After outcry, the institute reversed its decision. More than 3,000 people gathered to see you talk at an alternative event to honor you, which was hosted by the Birmingham Committee for Truth and Reconciliation. This is a clip of your comments that day.
ANGELA DAVIS: It became clear to me that this might actually be a teachable moment.
IMANI PERRY: Yes.
ANGELA DAVIS: … That we might seize this moment to reflect on what it means to live on this planet in the 21st century and our responsibilities not only to people in our immediate community, but to people all over the planet.
AMY GOODMAN: We were there covering this amazing moment, where the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute had rescinded the award to you, the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Award, went through enormous turmoil. The mayor of Birmingham, so many people across the spectrum criticized them for it, but then this process happened, and you are going to be awarded this. Can you talk about the significance of this moment? And what do you plan to say on Juneteenth, the day that President Trump will be in Tulsa?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, thank you for reminding me that these two events are happening on the same day. And, of course, that was, I think, the last time I actually saw you in person, Amy, in Birmingham. A lot has happened over the last period, including within the context of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. They have completely reorganized. They have reorganized their board. They have been involved in conversations with the community. Of course, as you know, the mayor of Birmingham was threatening to withdraw funding from the institute. There was a generalized uprising in the Black community.
And, you know, while at first it was a total shock to me that they offered this award to me, and then they rescinded it, I’m realizing now that that was an important moment, because it encouraged people to think about the meaning of human rights and why is it that Palestinians could be excluded from the process of working toward human rights. Palestinian activists have long supported Black people’s struggle against racism. When I was in jail, solidarity coming from Palestine was a major source of courage for me. In Ferguson, Palestinians were the first to express international solidarity. And there has been this very important connection between the two struggles for many decades, so that I’m going to be really happy to receive the award, which now represents a rethinking of the rather backward position that the institute assumed, that Palestinians could be excluded from the circle of those working toward a future of justice, equality and human rights.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking about what’s going on in the West Bank right now and about the whole issue of international solidarity, the global response to the killing of George Floyd. In the occupied West Bank, protesters denounced Floyd’s murder and the recent killing of Iyad el-Hallak, a 32-year-old Palestinian special needs student who was shot to death by Israeli forces in occupied East Jerusalem. He was reportedly chanting “Black lives matter” and “Palestinian lives matter,” when Israeli police gunned him down, claiming he was armed. These links that you’re seeing, not only in Palestine and the United States, but around the world, the kind of global response, the tens of thousands of people who marched in Spain, who marched in England, in Berlin, in Munich, all over the world, as this touches a chord and they make demands in their own countries, not only in solidarity with what’s happening in the United States? And then I want to ask you about the U.S. election that’s coming up in November.
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, yes, Palestinian activists have long supported Black people’s struggle against racism, as I pointed out. And I’m hoping that today’s young activists recognize how important Palestinian solidarity has been to the Black cause, and that they recognize that we have a profound responsibility to support Palestinian struggles, as well.
I think it’s also important for us to look in the direction of Brazil, whose current political leader competes with our current political leader in many dangerous ways, I would say. Brazil — if we think we have a problem with racist police violence in the United States of America, look at Brazil. Marielle Franco was assassinated because she was challenging the militarization of the police and the racist violence unleashed there. I think 4,000 people were killed last year alone by the police in Brazil. So, I’m saying this because —
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the president of Brazil, a close ally of President Trump. We only have two minutes, and I want to get to the election. When I interviewed you in 2016, you said you wouldn’t support either main-party candidate at the time. What are your thoughts today for 2020?
ANGELA DAVIS: Well, my position really hasn’t changed. I’m not going to actually support either of the major candidates. But I do think we have to participate in the election. I mean, that isn’t to say that I won’t vote for the Democratic candidate. What I’m saying is that in our electoral system as it exists, neither party represents the future that we need in this country. Both parties remain connected to corporate capitalism. But the election will not so much be about who gets to lead the country to a better future, but rather how we can support ourselves and our own ability to continue to organize and place pressure on those in power. And I don’t think there’s a question about which candidate would allow that process to unfold.
So I think that we’re going to have to translate some of the passion that has characterized these demonstrations into work within the electoral arena, recognizing that the electoral arena is not the best place for the expression of radical politics. But if we want to continue this work, we certainly need a person in office who will be more amenable to our mass pressure. And to me, that is the only thing that someone like a Joe Biden represents. But we have to persuade people to go out and vote to guarantee that the current occupant of the White House is forever ousted.
AMY GOODMAN: Angela Davis, I want to thank you so much for this hour, world-renowned abolitionist, author, activist, professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, author of many books, including Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us. Stay safe.
……can be found here.
Yep, I watched Aretha ALL DAY Friday on the livestream. Even after-the-fact caught Meghan McCain’s tribute to her daddy yesterday.
Okay, I see most of the news coverage about Queen Ree-Ree is about how the bishop enjoyed himself a little too much with Ariana Grande, who, telling the truth, was wearing a little too little for church. 🙂 And no, Bill Clinton did not keep his eyes in his head, but, c’mon, everyone saw that coming. 🙂 ) But I had one question and three comments:
- Why didn’t Minister Louis Farrkahan speak, or get to speak, at the funeral? All the other dignities–former President Bill Clinton, Rev. Al Sharpton, Michael Eric Dyson, and Rev. Jesse Jackson–sat with him, and they all spoke. Also: I’m glad some people noticed what I did–that he was being constantly cropped out of the shots, both photo and live video. He sat up there a long time to get gipped like that in public, if that’s what indeed happened. Whether he got cut from the pulpit or not, at least it seemed that he was enjoying himself. [OCT. 22 UPDATE: Richard Prince tells me today he didn’t want to speak, but he wanted to show up to thank the Queen for what she did for him in 1972 (!)].
- I think I was in the kitchen when U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters gave the Wakandan salute. Just found out about that while researching this post.
- The MSM are focused on Dyson’s slamming of Trump. But I appreciated his shade on Obama. Without referring to him by name, Dyson said “some” (meaning you, Daddy-O) were too afraid to come and stand in front of the entire Black community –which, FOX News’ confusion be damned, includes Farrakhan! (Sharpton read a letter from 44.) I’m not the biggest Dyson fan by a looong shot, but I appreciated that!
- As far as John McCain is concerned, well……let’s just say that if Angela Davis–an American hero!–becomes an Ancestor before me, I look forward to hearing tributes to her courage from the Right, Center and Center-Left (liberals). 🙂
In celebration of Askia Muhammad’s new book, “The Autobiography of Charles 67X,” I wanted to present the following:
A few years back, I failed at an attempt to publish a book of my media columns. I wrote this essay, a tribute to Askia and those like him in the Black press, and asked him to respond.
The following is my unedited essay, from six years ago, and his response:
WHEN VOICES WERE BRIDGES TO DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
Me and the evening’s one-page program I’m scribbling on sat in the last row of the Black church, with me listening and looking around. Just sitting brought back memories. Sitting with the paper brought back more. The occasion was a March 2012 tribute to Askia Muhammad, Washington Informer columnist, 89.3 WPFW-FM/Pacifica broadcaster. Black nationalists, white leftists, and some big muckety-mucks in the Nation of Islam gathered under one roof for a celebration of a Race Man’s lifetime of writing and broadcasting, of observing and documenting. Journalist, columnist, and photojournalist. Poet. Commentator. NPR documentarian. Every Tuesday morning for almost four decades, he’s “Yardbird” playing (African-)America’s classical music, and every weekday evening he’s the host of WPFW’s “Spectrum Today” newsmagazine.
We—my body and its low-technological extension, the one-sheet program and pen, which collectively represent both my observations and my memories, now purged here—were in Reverend Hagler’s church, so my everyone’s favorite local Liberation Theologist should get the first word. “We don’t celebrate each other enough.” True dat, as I used to say when I was younger and actually looked like my old picture IDs. And Askia is still above ground! (I made the mistake of texting a veteran Black historian/journalist about the affair while waiting for the thing to start, and forgot to say the honoree was alive! Folks are sensitive to this kind of thing in 2012, because of so many thousands of formerly Youngbloods and Native Sons [and Daughters] gone.) So it’s all positive.
Somewhere in the church someone hit a trumpet solo. I saw The Man and his family. He was late for his own celebration because “Spectrum Today”—my vote for his greatest journalistic accomplishment—took precedence! His time-to-pull-out-the-good-china suit told me he left his ever-present bicycle home, for once.
Twenty years living in a metro area makes you understand its rhythms. At An Important Black Event in Washington, D.C., you have to see one of two folks—both, interestingly enough, from The Washington Informer, the city’s “other” Black newspaper. (D.C. has been an Afro-American town for nearly a century.) You will either see Askia Muhammad with recording equipment (or a pad, or a camera, or….), or you will see Roy Lewis, a.k.a. The Black Press’ News Photographer in D.C. If you see both at the same event, you know it’s the most important one of that day. I saw Roy before Askia came in, so I knew I was fine.
One member of the large leftist entourage postulated that those who have engaged in struggle for their entire lives “identify with Askia because he identifies with him.” Correct. Heaven forbid that a veteran of The Chicago Defender and a leading writer and editor for The Final Call doesn’t identify with those who wage what my favorite superhero shows call the never-ending battle. Call staffer Nisa Muhammad said Askia taught her how “to make each word count.” I started to remember things my sheet of paper couldn’t really record, like Robert Queen, the editor of The Afro-American’s New Jersey edition. Didn’t he used to do that for me? I remembered Deborah P. Smith, the kind, patient but direct woman who taught me journalism at Seton Hall University’s Upward Bound program in 1983 and started my professional journalism career in 1985 by telling Mr. Queen that I now was cubbing under her at The New Jersey Afro. I was 17, and was about to learn the same thing from Mr. Queen and Ms. Smith that Sister Nisa learned from Muhammad. And now, sitting there, in that church, I remember that Mr. Queen, who gave me my first press pass, is long gone. Along with so many others who, as Fred Rogers of PBS’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” told the 1997 Emmy audience honoring him for a lifetime of media work, “loved us into being.” So I, too, feel the identification. The sheet I’m writing on becomes useless, unable to properly contain the memories.
Always be careful of questions you ask, because you might have to deal with the answers. One Q-and-A created a permanent memory for me, guiding me to take history a little more seriously. My now-understood-to-be-dangerous question to Robert Queen was, “Do you think Black journalists today give you proper respect for your pioneering work in Black journalism?” His answer was, as they say on “Jeopardy,” in the form of a question: “If they knew, maybe, but who’s going to tell them?”
Fifty years in Black journalism, much of it at The Philadelphia and New Jersey Afros? Decades of commentary, a la “Bob Queen’s Review?” Who could forget that?
Turns out it was quite easy to forget all of it. A “segregated” mass press created to serve segregated communities in the early days of the last century. Newspapers that were sold in the corner of bodegas in the communities, later ghettoes, of America. “Ethnic media,” the white folks who define American journalism for all Americans kept calling it. Older Black folks read those old Black weeklies Queen worked for—The New Jersey Guardian, The New Jersey Herald News, The Philadelphia Independent, The Pittsburgh Courier, and those two Afros. Older folks who became Ancestors in the last 20 years, like Mr. Queen did in October 1996 at 84. And with the exception of The Courier, all those papers now “exist” only on microfilm somewhere in libraries in New Jersey and Philadelphia, hopefully. After all, if something doesn’t have an active, present (read: online) archive in 2012, it never existed at all. It only lives as a sentence in a Wikipedia entry, if it’s lucky.
I always remembered that 1989 interview with Mr. Queen, who, in my mind, was my journalistic “granddad.” That question. Thinking about an answer put me, 22 years later, with diplomas from the University of Maryland at College Park and, ultimately, with a job at Morgan State University and, in a way, in that D.C. church right now, making sure I saw Askia Muhammad, a man trained by Queen’s generation of Black press journalists, getting his proper due. The tribute was proof of his existence then and now, his life already lived and the deadlines to come. The fact that the video and audio and photos taken of the event is today’s proof as well as tomorrow’s history was important for this Black press historian to think about. Someone will tell them, whoever “someone” and “they” will be, about Askia Muhammad—assuming radio doesn’t go the way of Blockbuster and FYE, admittedly a big assumption.
Some new memories, not surprisingly, become simultaneously connected to old ones. So many things have now been written about a relatively new Ancestor, a Black scholar by the name of Manning Marable. (I should know; I co-edited a book, and contributed to a second book, blasting Marable for his failure to produce a solid biography of Malcolm X.) Most have mentioned, but not focused, on his journalistic work as a columnist. Marable became a Black press columnist in the late 1970s, around the time Askia was breaking into WPFW.
Manning Marable, like most of us, had a beginning. Robert Queen had been a newspaperman for at least two decades and was just settling into his final stint at The New Jersey Afro-American by the time the teenage Marable of Dayton, Ohio, caught the Black newsprint bug at The Dayton Express. His column was called “Youth Speaks Out.”
He attempted to live the life of a young writer. He covered the funeral of Dr. King. During and after earning his Ph.D. in the mid-to-late 1970s, he became a Black press columnist. He decided to self-syndicate a column, called “From The Grassroots,” which eventually became “Along The Color Line” during the Reagan years.
Marable was part of what could be called the Third Generation of Black press columnists. The first generation was filled with 19th century luminaries such as Samuel E. Cornish, John Brown Russwurm, David Walker, Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells. The second contained the giants of the pre-Martin Luther King/Malcolm X segregated era like Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, George Schuyler, and W.E.B Du Bois. Marable and others of his generation—Tony Brown (of PBS’s “Tony Brown’s Journal”), Charles E. Cobb of the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice, National Urban League head Vernon Jordan, and Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund—claimed the Black press during its long and slow decline. America had not only desegregated, it had begun to replace print with broadcast. In the case of Black America, that meant that the relatively new kids on the block, local and national Black public affairs television (like Brown’s show) and “soul”-formatted FM radio was crowding Black traditional media’s space. So Black press commentary went from leading Black America one opinion at a time to just being part of its collective DNA.
The column’s distribution grew, and while it did he discovered his voice and its language for his ideological and political development. He wrote that his column was the “anchor” he created to find out where he found himself ideologically. The professor found himself a small-but-influential chronicler of a new era created buy the spilling of King and Malcolm’s blood. Harold Washington, Benjamin Chavis and Louis Farrakhan became subjects or targets of his critical acumen. But his best factual venom was saved for Ronald Reagan. Marable melded current events and history in an attempt to create a collective print memory, one that could be passed around and referred to for as long as the page didn’t tear. In the 1980s, Marable had a young reader who discovered him while he was writing for The New Jersey Afro-American. That young Marable reader would join him on national Black press Op-Ed pages for most of the 1990s. It’s all connecting now. The paper and pen are put away.
Around the time Manning Marable was starting his self-syndication, a slightly younger Black man from Brooklyn by the name of Wayne Dawkins was practicing his journalistic craft in the Black press by working for another Black man by the name of Andrew Cooper and a Black woman named Utrice Leid. Cooper, a traditional Race Man, died in 2002. After three decades of journalism and book publishing (as author and self-publisher), Dawkins, a post-modern Race Man, came full circle when wrote City Son, a 2012 book about Cooper’s life, the Black press wire service he and Leid created, the Trans-Urban News Service, and their subsequent newspaper, that Brooklyn dive-bomber, The City Sun.
Cooper had a column, “One Man’s Opinion,” in The New York Amsterdam News, but his coffee burned too many laps. So he and Utrice Leid ran a wire service. But they wanted, and their community needed, more. So they started a newspaper so editorially fierce it was one of—if not the only—Black newspaper in America to openly not endorse Jesse Jackson for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, and had to guts to say that it was because he had sold out the Black community. It was so journalistically fierce New York City Mayor Ed Koch, the arch-enemy of Black New Yorkers, always had Cooper’s phone number nearby, to call and complain. Cooper and Leid loved The People and the fight, and taught others to do so, too.
Dawkins’ book does what all good books do—connects Cooper’s/Dawkins’/Black journalism’s/our past to the present, from the far away days of the 1960s to the still-days of Askia Muhammad. Until someone writes about them extensively, doing what Dawkins’ did to/for Cooper, Queen and Marable, in contrast, will just be seen as Ancestors, having finished fulfilling their roles of using media to morph yesterdays into todays and back again. But they will stay in their own yesterdays. First in print, then in microfilm, and now on databases, their ideas are neatly filed away awaiting discovery, like old pennies under the mind’s collective couch cushions. As people, they still live in the memories of people who remember them. We honor their memories because they—the people and the ideas—are part of our collective consciousness. They are part of our reflection on the days we choose to see and know ourselves.
For more than 30 years, Askia Muhammad has cycled in to WPFW to recycle these collective memories in a vain attempt to make them self-sustaining. He makes them momentarily float in the air. On a good day, they enter the minds of those who, in their day-to-day lives, are struggling to remember that they didn’t always belong just to themselves. He fights for the poem to outlive the poet and his telling. Like Marable, Queen, Dawkins, Cooper and hundreds of others over the centuries, Future Ancestor Muhammad writes for the same reason many of us do: to be part of the world concert filled with every writer who has ever lived, to try to make his small instrument heard within the eternal jam session. He is needed by them/us, so they/we honored him for creating a reliable, steady one-man band-cum-brand of consciousness, news and infotainment for so many decades. And so Ancestors who were scribes who we did need once upon a time, and who Muhammad represents by his very acts, await to be resurrected again, await someone to call out their names, and thereby recycling their consciousness into the iPad age.
But what happens when all those Twentieth Century djelis (griots) who have been remembering for so long, who have been consistently transmitting for so long, join the remembered in the Realm of the Ancestors as the new century, the new millennium, continues? That’s my dangerous question. Someone is about to hit a trumpet solo, so we are about to find out.
Response for Todd Burroughs
by Askia Muhammad
In the summer of 1968, less than two months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I was one of 12 Black interns at Newsweek. Coincidentally, all of Newsweek’s interns that summer were Black. Thanks to writer Johnnie Scott, a high-school buddy, and Newsweek writer Nolan Davis, I was employed in Los Angeles where I grew up, with Bureau Chief Karl Fleming and correspondent Martin Kassindorf.
Born in the Mississippi Delta 23 years earlier, I knew when I was picking in High Cotton, and this was High Cotton.
I resigned from the U.S. Naval Reserve Officer Candidate Program in order to accept the Newsweek internship. I spent the previous summer at Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI.
But in 1968, everything was beginning to look very different to me. Despite the passage of landmark Civil Rights legislation, racial unrest remained at an all-time high, and I was affected by it. There were riots increasing all over the country, even before Memphis in April. Racial resentment blended in me with increasing opposition to the Vietnam War.
I found myself at the first crossroads of my career. I decided that my chance-of-a-lifetime internship at Newsweek meant more to me than becoming a U.S. Naval officer during an unjust war. “The Viet Cong never called me a nigger” I learned from heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
Coincidentally, at the convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in Los Angeles in 2000, I managed to inquire of one of Newsweek’s corporate-suits-in-attendance about the persistent rumor I had been hearing that the magazine had no Black interns that year or the year before, or the year before that. I never got a conclusive denial; neither could I get a confirmation of my suspicion.
But the lesson to be learned from Y2K Summer Intern Apartheid, is the same one we see in Y2K-plus Sunday Morning Apartheid. Face it; we’re living in a different reality today. There is no blood spilling in the streets. There is absolutely no collective White guilt remaining in the society. In point of fact open contempt for Black folks is expressed every hour on the hour in 2012 America. On the eve of Election Day and beyond, the lower-downs of White society beat the President of the United States like he’s a rented mule. And from the higher ups it’s as though the rest of us aren’t even living on the same planet with them. There is just no pressure today to guarantee media job opportunities for Black folks anywhere, whether it’s as summer interns, or as guests or panelists on Sunday morning news shows.
Now, I’m honest enough to confess that I’m just another middle-aged hack, in the twilight of a mediocre career. But I also realize thanks to Newsweek, I reached a lofty plateau practicing journalism–mostly in the Black Press, the non-corporate-owned press. It was the best possible thing I could have done with my life. For the last 40-some-odd years I have been writing a contemporaneous account of late 20th Century and early 21st Century history. And in my world, most of the prominent heroes and sheroes all happen to be descendants of slaves like me.
At the same time, I had the best of both worlds. Like Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, I am conflicted: “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” I am an endangered species, a heterosexual Black man in a White, Holly-weird-dominated news media. But like Brother Malcolm X, my relative anonymity in the Black Press left me free from having to be concerned on a daily basis, with whether or not White people liked what I had to say. And furthermore, I got a glimpse at how that “other half” lives.
Thanks that is, to a decision I made at the end of my Newsweek internship, although I did not know its significance at the time.
During my 12 weeks working in an office in a swank building on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A., I very rarely lived beneath my privilege. I experienced the power of working at one of the media’s then all-powerful “Seven Sisters:” ABC, CBS, NBC, Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post. Corporate executives, defense contractors, movers and shakers, returned my phone calls. I got nice gifts, free tickets. I met Bill Cosby in private. I met Jose Feliciano. This was High Cotton I was picking in, and I knew it. Today, while there are many more elite media platforms available, there are still precious few opportunities for Blacks, unless for the most part they are willing to “coon” or to simply betray the best interests of their people.
But back in my 1968 real life there was a world of radical and racial identity politics awaiting me. There was the Black Student Union at San Jose State. There was The Son of Jabberwock, the off-campus “underground” newspaper I was blessed to publish there.
One day I was thinking about why I wasn’t more delirious at being in the “big time” at Newsweek. I realized that if I got a permanent job at NW my identity would be represented by my name printed in a slug of agate-sized type–C.K. Moreland Jr.–indistinguishable from all the other slugs of type in the magazine’s weekly masthead. But I wanted my name to shout that I was a Brother, so that other Black folks would know that the doors were now opening and that I had found my way inside and was doing fine.
Toward the end of the summer the magazine’s editors helped me resolve my dilemma. A query was sent to all bureaus: the editors wanted to know if Black folks had given to naming their children after Civil Rights heroes and which ones? The L.A. assignment came to me.
I called hospitals. I called birth certificate offices. What I discovered was that Black families were giving their children African names, Muslim names: “free names,” instead of “slave names.” I interviewed Los Angeles Black Nationalist intellectual, Dr. Maulana Karenga, the originator of the Kwanzaa holiday.
What did I go and do that for? I got a rebuke from Hal Bruno, then Newsweek’s Chief of Correspondents, for not having correctly reported the assignment I was given. I defended myself believing that I had–without any racial agenda of my own–done the honest street reporting which led me to the conclusions that were included in the piece that I filed.
Newsweek and I parted friends at the end of the summer. Karl Fleming even wrote a nice job reference letter for me later, but when that internship ended, I knew that I would probably never be happy working at a place where my world view and any facts I might report notwithstanding, would always be subject to some higher verification according to the prevailing White cultural prism.
Later that year, after I skipped a Navy Reserve meeting to attend a Black Power conference at Howard University at the invitation of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) leader Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure), I joined the Nation of Islam and I became a conscientious objector.
In the summer of 1972 I was called to Chicago by none other than the Honorable Elijah Muhammad himself, where I became Charles 67X, and eventually Editor-in-Chief of Muhammad Speaks newspaper, succeeding a Hall of Fame list of previous editors, literary lions all: Dan Burley, Richard Durham, John Woodford, and Leon Forrest.
In 1976—by then known as Askia Muhammad—I went to work for The Chicago Defender, and following the election of Jimmy Carter to the presidency that year, I was sent to revive the Defender’s Washington Bureau where the legendary Ethel Payne had served.
“History is best qualified to reward our research,” I learned from Mr. Muhammad, and here in Washington, with the likes of Thurgood Marshall at the Supreme Court, Shirley Chisholm in Congress, and Patricia Roberts Harris, and Ambassador Andrew Young in the President’s Cabinet, I continued to witness history unfolding right before my eyes, only now on an international stage.
In 1968 my reaction at Newsweek was simple and arbitrary. In the 44 years since, I am convinced that the stories I first reported, from my race-conscious perspective, were valid, even visionary. As Brother Charles 20X, West Coast Correspondent for Muhammad Speaks newspaper from 1969 through 1972, I interviewed Mrs. Georgia Jackson and Jonathan Jackson, the mother and brother of legendary Soledad Penitentiary inmate George Jackson. I covered the funerals of both Jonathan and George. I reported the Angela Davis trial held in San Jose. I even occasionally took Bean Pies to the jailhouse for Angela and for her attorney Howard Moore.
This process helped me become a more caring reporter. I think I “got something” during this training period, which continues to shape my choices. Charles Garry was a famous San Francisco Bay Area attorney I interviewed. He defended Black militant clients, among others. He told me a lesson he learned during his apprenticeship. Perhaps he had been a clerk for Chief Justice Earl Warren. I don’t remember precisely who it was he said taught him the motto: “if I make an error, I hope I always err on the side of mercy.” That became my new motto.
So I’ve always understood the claim of innocence made by Ruchell Magee, the jailhouse lawyer who was in the Marin County Courtroom on August 7, 1970 to testify on behalf of another inmate when Jonathan Jackson stood up, brandished weapons and took over the courtroom, kidnapping the judge, two prosecutors, and three jurors as hostages. Magee, not a part of the jailbreak plan, decided spontaneously to join.
All totaled now, he has spent nearly 50 years in California prisons for what were originally petty crimes, petty, petty crimes, aggravated however by his persistent complaints that he remains unjustly imprisoned. I’ve always understood what caused him to decide his chances were better, attempting to break out of that jail, than remain in the clutches of people who had consistently denied him justice and a fair hearing.
In the same way I understand the appeal from Mumia Abu Jamal, that he remains unjustly imprisoned. I believe he’s innocent. I met and interviewed Mumia once in Pennsylvania SCI Huntingdon. His hands and his feet were shackled to his waist. A wall of thick, bullet-proof glass separated us. I believe he was improperly convicted of killing a police officer. And I applaud his caustic condemnations of the injustices that George and he and Ruchell endured and continue to endure in the hands of the American Just Us System.
I understand the plea of Wayne Williams, who has always maintained his innocence. I spent a month in Atlanta in 1981 during the series of child murders there, producing a documentary for Pacifica Radio station WPFW-FM in Washington: “Atlanta, How Much Can We Stand, Day 600?” I reported and continue to believe the murder of those Black children in Atlanta was a racist plot.
During my career flying well below the radar of media super-stardom, I know myself to have been blessed and highly favored. Over a period of 25 years I did dozens of commentaries for NPR’s “All Things Considered.” I have produced 10 documentaries for the public radio series “Soundprint.” Todd Burroughs calls those documentaries my “Autobiography via Soundprint.” Some of that radio work has won multiple national awards.
I’ve written a half-dozen or more op-ed articles for The Washington Post, my articles have also appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, USA Today, Jet, and Downbeat, and since 1992 I have been a proud columnist for The Washington Informer, since 1996 I have been a feature writer for The Final Call, and since 1979 I have been host of the Tuesday morning drive-time Jazz program at WPFW-FM in Washington, where I’ve been employed intermittently during that time as News Director as well. As my friend Dan Scanlon of Mutual Radio reminded me once: “Not bad for a middle aged hack in the twilight of a mediocre career.”
Blessed. That’s like slaves picking in High Cotton.
Today I can truthfully say that I’m not stuck ideologically back in the 1960s. I’m not nostalgically trying to bring back a lost militant movement. No. I’m just a warm up act for our powerful storytellers who will take us the rest of the way through the 21st Century.
That’s the way I see it. I think that’s the way it is.