Black Power From the Inside

Chris Harris

Reviewed in this article

We Will Return in the Whirlwind: Black Radical Organizations 1960-1975.
Muhammad Ahmad, Charles H. Kerr Publishing, 2007

Toronto’s Black community has long suffered a crisis of increasing poverty, racism, and violence. This is largely the result of the oppression that African-Canadian people have endured through the implementation of neoliberal policies and the expansion of both the police state and the prison industrial complex. In Canada, African-Canadian people (the majority of whom are located amongst the lowest ranks of the working class) are confronted with two primary problems. First, a growing Black underclass is unable to compete for scarce decent paying jobs. Second, the Canadian ruling class – responding to the crisis of neoliberal globalization with their wars on drugs, guns, and gangs – is criminalizing Black working-class youth and expanding the prison industrial complex. In recent years, the Black left has responded to this crisis by trying to organize Black youth at the grassroots level, and by trying to build new mass organizations that can continue the legacy of militant anti-racist struggle that characterized the Toronto-based Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) in the 1980s and 1990s.

In today’s context, Muhammad Ahmad’s W e Will R eturn in the Whirlwind could make an invaluable contribution to the political development of African-Canadian youth who want to advance the African liberation struggle in the 21st Century. Why is a book on the history of US Black Power necessary reading for revolutionary Black youth struggling against capitalism in Canada? Because the history of the Canadian Black left in Toronto during the 1960s and ’70s was largely influenced by US Black Power organizations. From 1967 to 1975, Canadian Black revolutionaries looked to the Panthers and other US Black Power formations for inspiration and guidance as they sought to educate and organize with Toronto’s Black working class. They also looked to the US in their efforts to organize a united front against Canadian imperialism and build material support for national liberation movements in Africa, the Caribbean, and other parts of the Third World.1

We Will Return contributes to Black social movement literature by providing an inspirational and detailed insider account of US Black Power. Although Ahmad is not as widely known as other figures, he played a central role in the development of Black Power during the early ’60s. As a leader and grassroots organizer, Ahmad helped transform a marginal tendency within the Civil Rights movement into a national revolutionary force.

Ahmad’s book consists of four sections that deal with the leading US Black Power organizations: the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the Black Panther Party (BPP), and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW). W e Will R eturn illustrates how everyday Black working class youth responded to oppression by forming revolutionary mass organizations that transformed African-American workplaces and communities into sites of ideological, political, and organizational struggle.

The chapter on the Black Panther Party provides a sobering assessment of the complexities, contradictions, and tensions that existed within what was arguably the most important post-WWII Black organization in North America. Ahmad sheds light on the contradiction between the Panthers’ ideological commitment to women’s liberation and the sexism exhibited by the male leadership and rank and file in the party’s daily operations. Still, he concludes that the Panther experience was empowering to thousands of women in the movement for three reasons: 1) two-thirds of BPP members were women, many of whom held leadership positions; 2) female members spoke at various rallies and protests; and 3) Panther women ran the party’s survival programs, which were responsible for building a mass base in the Black community.

The many strengths of the Panther movement, such as its anti-poverty survival programs, self-defense units against police brutality, and food security programs, are well documented in the Black Power literature and touched on briefly in this book. For his part, however, Ahmad provides constructive criticism of the Panthers in the hope that their mistakes will not be repeated in future efforts to rebuild the movement in the 21st Century. In particular, Ahmad highlights the party’s weakness at conducting political education and party-building in working class African- American communities. He argues that, in the face of a rapid expansion of its membership during the late ’60s, the Panther leadership was not able to provide new recruits with sufficient training. In this regard, Ahmad cites Panther leader Assatta Shakur’s important criticism that there was a gap between the ideologically advanced party leaders and rank and file party members who were not made familiar with socialist ideology or step-by-step organizing methods.

The lack of internal education in the organization partially accounts for why US police forces, through the counterinsurgency program known as COINTELPRO, were able to infiltrate, undermine, and destroy the BPP within five years. A revolutionary party must not only be able to resist state repression, but also to raise the political consciousness and organizational capacity of the masses. Only then can it make the transition from being on the defensive to launching an offensive against the capitalist state. The Panthers would likely have survived the COINTELPRO counter-revolution if the leadership had developed more advanced political education and party-building strategies based on the rich experiences of national liberation movements that were then defeating US imperialism (as in China, Vietnam, Guinea-Bissau, Angola, and elsewhere). Panther leader Huey Newton was inspired by the writings of Mao but never developed tactics through consultation with revolutionary movements abroad or systematic study of their organizing techniques.

It is useful to contrast the BPP with RAM, which was co-founded by Ahmad and Socialist Party member Dan Freeman in 1962. RAM proved more able to learn from elder African- American revolutionaries and the Cuban Revolution. In 1964, leaders of RAM and some who would later form the LRBW (then in the Detroit African student group UHURU) traveled to Cuba in defiance of the US travel ban in order to investigate the Cuban Revolution, and learn from the experiences of Third World revolutionary movements. During the trip, Ahmad met with radical civil rights leader Robert F. Williams, famous for organizing the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for armed self- defense against Klan terror during the early 1960s. Ahmad was also mentored by Malcolm X, with whom he met regularly from 1962 until Malcolm’s untimely death in February of 1965. It was thus no coincidence that RAM grew into a sophisticated cadre organization that focused more on party-building in the underground, as opposed to the Panthers who built an ultra-left aboveground paramilitary organization with a public leadership that engaged in revolutionary posturing and was easily infiltrated and undermined by US state forces. Unlike the Panthers, RAM and the League did not organize armed public protests because they did not want to engage in revolutionary adventurism or provide the illusion that a young radical organization largely composed of street youth lacking discipline, military training, and ideological maturity was capable of successfully engaging the security forces of an imperialist state in open military confrontation.

As one of the earliest underground Black nationalist organizations, RAM concentrated on base-building in Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit, and organized nationalist youth into mobilized (and armed) cadres during events such as the 1965 Watts Rebellion and the 1967 Detroit Rebellion. An underground US central committee based on democratic centralism and collective leadership governed the group. RAM aimed to build links between Black Power organizations in different regions of the country in order to unify them into a national front. They organized the New York chapter of the BPP along with SNCC and helped to transform a Black youth gang into what later became the Black Guards – a security force that defended the organization and the larger Black community. Ahmad suggests that the several thousand activists organized in the Black Guards during the mid-1960s were forerunners of the Black Liberation Army, a group that grew out of the Panther movement in the early ’70s. Ahmad argues that, with its different levels of membership and different types of cells or units, RAM was the most sophisticated vanguardist Black political organization of its time.

In addition to building solidarity between unemployed Blacks, street youth in gangs, and revolutionary Black student groups on campuses across America, RAM organized mass demonstrations in Black working class communities and workplaces. RAM work units helped the League leadership organize Black autoworkers. It also struggled to gain community control over the education of Black youth by establishing an alternative freedom school emphasizing revolutionary Black nationalist ideology. From 1966 to 1967, however, RAM suffered from internal political conflicts and heightened police repression. The alliance that its members had built between Black students, community activists, and street youth began to decline.

In the case of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Ahmad argues that revolutionary elders played a significant role in the early ideological development of the movement’s leadership. Two key figures were Grace Lee Boggs, a former colleague of CLR James, and James Boggs, a Black working-class intellectual who studied Marxism as a rank-and-file worker in the Detroit auto industry and developed his revolutionary theory through critical reflection on his experience as a labor organizer. In the early 1960s, the Boggs’ hosted Wayne State University students active in UHURU at their home, where they held informal discussion sessions about Marxism and revolutionary Black nationalist politics. The Grassroots Leadership Conference – organized by the Boggs’ and UHURU in 1963 during the height of the Detroit Civil Rights Movement – influenced radicals in the League leadership to adopt revolutionary positions vis a vis the reformist Civil Rights Movement.

Ahmad’s chapter on the LRBW examines the ideological differences between the League and BPP over the correct strategy for the African-American people to achieve political power and/or self-determination. Ahmad argues that the LRBW was the most advanced Black Power organization from 1960-1975 because it had a pedagogy that produced a revolutionary Black working class leadership that linked rank and file workers to the anti-racist struggles of Black labor at the point of production. The League won over thousands of Black rank and file autoworkers and led many in wildcat strikes to achieve better working conditions and increase Black representation in the union. In this way, it became the clearest expression of Black workers’ power in America during that period.

Objective conditions have changed considerably over the past forty years. The Black Power movement represented the first generation to face the economic assault of neoliberal globalization and the accompanying capital flight from the industrial north to the global south. This migration of capital has increased mass unemployment, racism, and police brutality in urban centres heavily populated by Black people and contributed to the development of a permanent underclass within Black working-class communities. Meanwhile, the Black left has entered into crisis. In W e Will R eturn, Ahmad quotes Grace Lee Boggs’ contention that this crisis can be attributed to the inability of the Black left to politicize Black youth and organize a political response to the war on drugs: “The main weakness of the Black left has been its inability to focus on the youth, who are burdened by a very high unemployment rate and are targeted by the drug culture. Until the divorcement of the Black left from the youths is addressed, there is likely to be no real advancement in Black radicalism” (22).

Even under these changed conditions, the experience of organizations like the BPP and the LRBW remains relevant to Black youth in Canada struggling to build revolutionary anti-imperialist organizations today. In order to rebuild the Black left, Black youth need to learn the history of the US Black Power movement and draw lessons from its successes and defeats. Learning this history is especially important if we are to avoid repeating past mistakes – like Black patriarchy – that severely undermined the movement.

A central lesson from Ahmad’s book is that movement building takes time. As revolutionary Black working-class youth and student intellectuals, this requires that we struggle to overcome our own political, ideological, and organizational weaknesses (e.g. lack of discipline, anti-intellectualism, political immaturity), and that we develop more advanced political strategies and tactics based on the hard work of collective study, mentorship, and inter-generational learning with the revolutionary elders who participated in previous generations of struggle.

Notes

1 A brief look at the cross-border activism of Canadian Black Power leader Norman “Otis” Richmond demonstrates the extent to which the Black left in Toronto was influenced by similar developments in the US. In Ahmad’s book we learn that Richmond remained a member of the central committee of the LRBW while organizing in both Toronto and in the Detroit underground (321). Richmond, originally a native of California, helped found the Afro-American Progressive Association (AAPA) – Canada’s first Black Power organization – shortly after he arrived in Toronto in 1967 to protest the Vietnam draft.