Operation Breadbasket: An Untold Story of Civil Rights in Chicago, 1966-1971.
Martin L. Deppe.
Athens: The University of Georgia Press.
320 pp., $26.95.
The best small history/political science books fill in huge socio-historical gaps that few see. Deppe’s treatment of Operation Breadbasket is a great compact study, because he combines diary elements, a significant amount of primary and secondary sourced history, and just plain observation transformed into clear analysis. Operation Breadbasket started in 1966 as the economic arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Using protests, boycotts and negotiation, its initial goal was to get Black and Brown people jobs in corporations that were operating in those communities. The inter-racial group grew as fast as its leader, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, introduced here a young man not yet 30 and not yet ordained. Deppe, a white Methodist minister and a Breadbasket founding member, lived the territory and, thankfully, kept his records organized. He calls Jackson the team’s “quarterback.” If so, that makes the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—who, as SCLC president, is Breadbasket’s de-facto initiator and a compelling supporting character here—the team’s general manager of sorts. Happily, Deppe does not hide from criticizing his friend Jackson. The usual charges against the then-Afro-ed, dashiki-ed country preacher—of rank opportunism, self-centered, camera-hungry leadership without necessary, detailed follow-up, and appropriation (both Breadbasket’s children’s breakfast program and the “rainbow coalition” idea are liberally borrowed from the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, led by the martyred Fred Hampton)—are, 50 years later, a permanent part of the Black American (and Jackson’s) narrative. (Speaking of personal Movement history, his book should be followed up by a much-needed biography of Breadbasket/PUSH stalwart Rev. Willie Barrow, one of the most visible Black female leaders of the Chicago Movement.) But sticking with right now, Deppe should be congratulated for balancing the Civil Rights and Black Power movements so thoughtfully, and with so many statistics and records of Breadbasket’s many accomplishments backing up the anecdotes and notes. Breadbasket’s short but impactful life—an optimistic, empowering period of “Black Christmas” celebrations and the publication of a citywide Black directory nicknamed “the mellow pages”—is well told. By the time Breadbasket breaks from SCLC and becomes Operation PUSH (now the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition), the reader has traveled well through the thorny fields of the Chicago Black Power Movement, the political machine of the city’s mayor, Mayor Richard Daley, King’s assassination and its aftermath, and Black economic development and/versus Black capitalism. No more can be asked of such a strong, fine account.
The first First Lady of Black America has a lot to say, particularly since her first memoir, from 1969, was revised, not updated, about 25 years ago. Veteran Black journalist Barbara Reynolds, no stranger to chronicling the Civil Rights Movement, lets Coretta, who died in 2006, be Coretta, and the widow decided that meant turning her life into a Christian fable, a generation-filled testimony of faith and courage. The first half of the book re-hashes her time with MLK, but it’s the second half that awakens the reader from a black-and-white documentary slumber. That second act is where King details her struggles to create the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, and makes sure to, in a gentle Christian fashion, settle old scores against her husband’s former comrades-in-arms. So Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Hosea Williams and, later, the Black American apartheid activist Randall Robinson, are briefly portrayed as Black men who attempted to deny King the Black leadership mantle she said she inherited from God and Martin. King wanted this book to make clear to history that she was an important part of a dangerous movement for Black liberation (“We forged a rough and blood-drenched road, but Martin never looked for easy victories”). She convinces the reader that she was a well-respected national and international human rights leader in her own right–a Blackish heir to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was dubbed “The First Lady of the World,” and, to a lesser extent, singer-activist Paul Robeson. (Her story is sometimes candid, but other times exactly that, a story: for example, ignoring reams of documented history to the contrary, she claims her husband never cheated on her.) As Black America moves to permanently claim a younger, hipper, actual First Lady, it might be important to remember when thinking about both women that maintaining a public display of dignity–something they both mastered–was not enough; that it was direct, dangerous action against the forces of war, capitalism and white supremacy, accepting a life of risk that Coretta knew all too well, that made real, lasting history.
Civil Rights For Beginners (2016).
Paul Von Blum. Illustrations by Frank Reynoso, et. al.
Foreword by Peniel E. Joseph.
Danbury, CT: For Beginners Books.
ISBN-10: 1934389897; ISBN-13: 978-1934389898.
161 pp., $15.95.
Malcolm X For Beginners (1992).
Text and Illustrations by Bernard Aquina Doctor.
Danbury, CT: For Beginners Books.
ISBN-10: 1934389048; ISBN-13: 978-1934389041.
186 pp., $16.99.
Black Panthers For Beginners (1995).
Herb Boyd. Illustrations by Lance Tooks.
Danbury, CT: For Beginners Books.
ISBN-10: 193999439X; ISBN-13: 978-1939994394.
154 pp., $15.95.
Fanon For Beginners (1998).
Text and Illustrations by Deborah Wyrick, Ph.D.
Danbury, CT: For Beginners Books.
ISBN-10: 1934389870; ISBN-13: 978-1934389874
184 pp., $15.95.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. Although the Black Power movement officially began months earlier, with Stokely Carmichael, stalwart of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, publicly using the term in Alabama, for this writer the Black Power movement started when two brothers met in Oakland and, borrowing a symbol that SNCC was politically organizing with, developed a 10-point program for Black liberation. Under Carmichael, SNCC stood with the Congress of Racial Equality as the Black Power wing of the Freedom Movement, with an emphasis on organizing Black people to see themselves as members of self-determining Black communities, of miniature Black/African nations in the land of the thief, home of the slave.
Providing art and information to The People—like Fannie Lou Hamer, formally uneducated but politically astute—was a priority for the Black Power Movement. Africana Studies, an idea that had just begun to be implemented in American academia, was still being written in the streets in blood, footnoted with broken glass and Molotov cocktails.
The “For Beginners” books series, originally published by Writers and Readers, are books for The People. The company describes what it produces as “documentary comicbooks.” Being a little more precise, what they create, actually, are well-researched introductory books about complex topics and personalities illustrated by drawings that oftentimes mimic comicbook style. These four books listed were chosen to highlight and celebrate the Black Power movement through their collective analysis and unique presentation. (Although, it is known that this idea is far from new: the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a white liberal group, published “Martin Luther King and The Montgomery Story” in 1957, and Julian Bond published an anti-Vietnam comicbook targeting the Black community ten years later.)
The publisher allows description and explanation on its authors’ terms. Von Blum’s book, for example, takes the entirety of Black history and describes it through the lens of the Civil Rights Movement, reminding the reader that Ida B. Wells sat down and refused to move on a train before Rosa Parks was even a gleam in one of her parents’ eyes. It mentions unheralded actors such as the Southern Tenants Farmers Union, which held a sit-in in the U.S. agriculture secretary’s office in 1934. Doctor’s book on Malcolm is a wonderful text-collage combo (done in the pre-digital era!) that is not afraid to go for the symbolic image: seeing a tiny Malcolm being held in the palm of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”’s “Sophia” (Bea), his white lover, makes the statement. Doctor provides an impressionistic history of Malcolm—a story of Black ideas that override chronology (and unfortunately, sometimes biographical facts) and ideological complexity.
Out of the four, the two that stand out overall are Boyd’s BPP and Wyrick’s Fanon. Wyrick blasts the complex Fanon into understandable chunks of intellectual peanut brittle, explaining and dissecting, critiquing and footnoting. Her thoughtfulness, care and talent shows through, since her own illustrations do a wonderful job of supplementing and complementing her deceptively simple text. Her closing chapter on Fanon’s multifaceted legacy, and her beautifully crafted first-person epilogue, is alone worth every tree that was sacrificed to make this book. Boyd’s snappy, bouncy prose style is more than equaled by Tooks’ energetic, playful art. (This reviewer wishes that the publisher would have made Von Blum follow the Boyd/Tooks model, instead of providing dry, trying-to-get-tenure academic text punctuated by even drier art by the Civil Rights book’s main artist, Reynoso. Liz Von Notias, sadly a supplementary artist for the text, provides the narrative’s more vibrant, alive drawings.) Boyd quotes from most of the Panther scholarship that existed at the time of publication, creating a mosaic of first-person recollections from Panthers as well as its public enemies and private informants. The sections on sexism within the BPP and the Huey Newton/Eldridge Cleaver split is very strong, as is the tracing of police plant Gene Roberts from Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity to the Panthers.
With the exception of Von Blum’s Civil Rights, which was published this year, the major problem with these books is that they desperately need updating. For example, at least a score of studies, anthologies, memoirs and biographies have been published on the Black Panther Party since Boyd and Tooks, and Boyd himself is the co-editor of “The Diary of Malcolm X,” a 2014 book that, like “Blood Brothers,” the recent Randy Roberts/Johnny Smith narrative history on Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, must be incorporated into Doctor’s almost 25-year-old “For Beginners” text. The books also can be editorially uneven; for example, some titles have indexes and some don’t. That sloppiness should not be tolerated.
In spite of these flaws, these books need to be supported by The People. (With the eight-year White House national experiment with being adjective-less “Americans” almost over, it’s time for Black America to go back to its socio-historio-cultural basics.) They need to be purchased and passed out to the Black masses, of any age, who, like the high school seniors and college freshmen the “For Beginners” series is apparently targeted to, may be intimidated by “serious,” “scholarly” texts. Google Search, Wikipedia and YouTube need not have the first, and last, word when it comes to African/Black leaders and movements. As unlikely as it seems, mass political education of The People might only be a few million “documentary comicbooks” away.