poet, playwright and activist who is a native of Newark. He was one of the founders of the Black Arts movement in the 1960s and was New Jersey’s poet laureate in 2002. He was arrested and severely beaten by the police during the rebellion.
community organizer in Newark and chair of the People’ Organization for Progress that organizes a commemoration of the Newark rebellion every year. He was 13 during the rebellion.
spoke to Democracy Now! Thursday at People’s Organization for Progress march commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Newark rebellion. Rutledge’s 19-year-old brother James was killed by the police 40 years ago. He was shot 39 times.
Forty years ago, Newark erupted. Followed by Detroit, then city after city across the United States, spontaneous uprisings by disaffected African-American communities who were met with brutal violence by police and National Guardsmen. In Newark, 26 people were killed, and 43 in Detroit. Thousands more were injured. A presidential commission into the unrest later famously concluded that the United States was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal." Today, on the 40th anniversary of the Newark Rebellion we go back to the tumultuous days of July 1967 with renowned poet, playwright, activist and Newark native Amiri Baraka, and Larry Hamm, a Newark community organizer, chair of the People’s Organization for Progress, that organizes a commemoration of the Newark rebellion every year. He was 13 years old during the rebellion. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Forty years ago, Newark erupted, followed by Detroit. Then city after city across the United States exploded in spontaneous uprisings by disaffected African-American communities who were met with brutal violence by police and National Guardsmen. In Newark, 26 people were killed, and 43 were killed in Detroit. Thousands more were injured.
At the height of the Detroit Rebellion on July 28, 1967, President Johnson appointed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to investigate the root causes of the unrest. The final report, known as the Kerner Commission, famously concluded that the United States was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal."
AMY GOODMAN: Today, on the 40th anniversary of the Newark Rebellion, we go back to the tumultuous days of July 1967. We’ll speak with Amiri Baraka and Larry Hamm. Amiri Baraka is a renowned poet, playwright and activist who is a native of Newark. He was one of the founders of the Black Arts Movement in the '60s and was New Jersey poet laureate in 2002. In 1967, he was arrested and severely beaten by the police during the rebellion. Larry Hamm is a longtime community organizer in Newark and chair of the People's Organization for Progress. It organizes a commemoration of the Newark Rebellion every year. He was 13 years old at the time of the rebellion. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
AMIRI BARAKA: Thank you.
LARRY HAMM: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to those days. Amiri Baraka, where were you?
AMIRI BARAKA: You mean when I was arrested? I should say, beaten down, arrested —
AMY GOODMAN: Well, July 12th it all began. This is July 13th, exactly 40 years after. When were you beaten by police? And explain the background of what happened.
AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah, we were demonstrating in front of the Fourth Precinct, where we had a gathering yesterday, and we were demonstrating. And after the demonstration, which Bob Curvin and CORE led, I walked home down Springfield Avenue from there and around the corner to my house, which is right next to the Newark courthouse. And when I got — by the time I got to where I was living and sitting on the porch, kids ran up and said they’re breaking out windows around the corner.
I jumped in my car with two other friends of mine. Then we drove right around the corner, and by the time we got up to, you know, Belmont Avenue, it was on. People were breaking out windows. There were already fires. And the police — you could see the police, certainly. So we were driving in and out, zigzagging through these streets, looking, you know, seeing what was happening.
AMY GOODMAN: How did it all erupt? How did it all begin, before July 12?
AMIRI BARAKA: Well, see, if you want to talk about that, as I said yesterday, you have to start with slavery, because those abuses have never been eradicated. You know, people are not living in slums because they voted to. You know, their children are not in jail because they wanted them to. You know, these are the results of a people who have been oppressed and suffer national oppression, you know. And so, in a city like Newark, which is the third oldest city in the United States, by the way, where all these kind of abuses sort of converge, you know, and the racism on top of that — I mean, one absurd example is, one time I was directing a play, and the police rushed into the loft and the man actually took the script out of my hand, you know, as if it was some kind of a volatile weapon, you know.
So that day we had been picketing, because they had beaten up a black cab driver, a guy named John Smith. But that whole month, the two months before that, there was contentions. First they wanted 160 acres for a medical school. We found out the biggest medical school in the United States was Johns Hopkins, which is like one-and-a-half acres. They wouldn’t hire this guy as — what was his name, Wilber Parker — as a secretary of the Board of Education, a guy — what was it, a Cornell master’s degree. They hired instead this — one of Addonizio’s cronies who had high school graduate. They had run into this Muslim dojo, you know, a karate school, and beaten up everybody there. And then the John Smith incident, they pulled him out of the car and beat him up, you know, circulated that he was dead. And so, people gathered at that precinct, and then that was very explosive that night. That was the night before. That was, say, the 11th. So the next day, we were picketing that precinct, because that’s where it happened. And that was the day, by the time the sun started going down is when it broke out.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We saw a clip of Mayor Addonizio, but could you talk a little bit about the political climate, the mayor’s regime, as well as Anthony Imperiale was running around then in those days? What was the climate that the majority population, the black community, in Newark was feeling then?
AMIRI BARAKA: Well, see, first of all, when you say Addonizio, who was indicted and, you know — what was it? He was giving 1 percent of the city’s budget to the Mob.
AMY GOODMAN: He was the mayor.
AMIRI BARAKA: He was the mayor, Addonizio, "No Neck" Addonizio. And his Spina, OK, was the — it was interesting that Spina, who was the police chief, when they beat me up, they didn’t take me to prison or to the — they took me to Spina’s office, you know, and threw me on the floor. And he says, you know, just like I’m right out of the movies, "They got you," you know. And I said, "But I ain’t dead."
AMY GOODMAN: He was head of police?
AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah, yeah. He was the police chief, you know.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And they brought you to his office.
AMIRI BARAKA: To his office, not to jail. But since I had given my given name, Everett L. Jones, laborer, you know, then they could deny, until my wife got hold of Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg —
AMY GOODMAN: The poet.
AMIRI BARAKA: — and he had gotten a hold of Jean-Paul Sartre. And Sartre called the police station.
AMY GOODMAN: From France?
AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah, called the police station. Sartre and Ginsberg and those people started, you know — and then, the only reason I got my life saved is the people in the apartment building where they were beating me started throwing things out of the window at them. Otherwise, I would be gone, you know. But it was a very, very —- the racism that existed there -—
JUAN GONZALEZ: Because by then you were already a very well-known poet and published author.
AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah, and harassing them, you know, in that town. See, the town is too small for you to be doing something. And they actually had policemen stop a poetry reading. I mean, that’s how wild it was getting. They would ride up and down the street and make remarks at my wife and the other ladies in that block, calling them all kinds of slurs. I mean, this was a daily, a nightly thing. And so, it became like, you know, back and forth, back and forth, you know. And finally, it just erupted.
We were trying to do things — we were putting out literature suggesting that we could have a mayor, we could have a city council. You know, that’s — Stokely had come out with "Black Power," and I would staple that — not staple, what do you call it? — spray-paint "Black Power" on all these buildings in the city, you know. So they knew who it was.
And once I got arrested, they ran in my house to destroy all the leaflets and stuff that we were — but my wife was smart enough to get that stuff out of there and move it to somebody else’s house down the street. But they destroyed our mimeograph machines and stuff like that. They destroyed my car, you know. I mean, it was, you know, a search-and-destroy mission, because they knew who it was, you know, in that little context.
But the whole city, you know, as Harper’s magazine said, the worst city in the United States was Newark, 18,000-people density in one square mile. You know, talking about the project. So it was a city that was always on the verge, you know.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Amiri Baraka. When we come back, we’ll also talk to Larry Hamm, well-known community organizer, who was 13 at the time of the rebellion. After the Newark Rebellion died down, Detroit erupted. We’ll go to Detroit to speak with Grace Lee Boggs, but we’ll also hear from family members in Newark of those who lost who lost loved ones — ultimately 26 people died — in the rebellion of Newark.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guests in studio in New York are Amiri Baraka, poet, playwright, activist, beaten almost unconscious, then taken to the office of the police commissioner in Newark by the Newark police in the midst of the uprising, one of the founders of the Black Arts Movement in the '60s. He was New Jersey's poet laureate, as well. Larry Hamm is with us, community organizer in Newark, chair of the People’s Organization for Progress, that year after year has organized a commemoration of the Newark Rebellion. We went out to the commemoration yesterday.
Larry Hamm, you were 13 when the uprising took place.
LARRY HAMM: Yes. Believe it or not, I was at a party across the street from my house that evening. Some folks ran upstairs and said, "Springfield Avenue is on fire!" And we all ran out the house, ran down the stairs. We were getting ready to run down 12th Street. We were running 12th Street. But my mother — we lived across the street — she was on the porch. She says, "You’re not going down to Springfield Avenue." She probably saved my life by doing so. But it was a cataclysmic event, one I’ll never forget. I mean, I think it was the event that shaped my life.
I came from a regular kind of working-class family. My father was a truck driver. He passed away. We went to live with my grandparents. My grandfather was a boilerman. My mother was a seamstress We didn’t talk about politics too much, but after the rebellion broke out, that all changed. It was like our political awakening, or my political awakening.
Our community was under military occupation. We could stand out on our second-floor porch and look out and see everything that was going on. Sometimes it was festive with the looting, but then sometimes it was outright violent, and people were stoning cars that were trying to move into the white community, and so forth. And then the Guard came in, and then we were literally under military occupation. They had like set up posts on either end of our street. I lived a block and a half from Springfield Avenue. For three days, we were under — more than three days, I think, we were under martial law. We couldn’t leave our house.
And then, when it was lifted, and we had to go out and get food, because people couldn’t get food. The stores were looted. You didn’t have no food. They would search our cars going in and search our cars going out. The Guard would go door to door looking for contraband. And it’s funny, because I remarked to you yesterday I can relate to probably what the people in Gaza are going through and in other countries are going through, because we know what military occupation is all about.
But that rebellion changed, I think, changed the course of history of the city and probably impacted the nation. Two weeks after the rebellion, even though I was a young person —- I know this now, I didn’t know it then, but two weeks after the rebellion, Black Power Conference was held. A year later, the Black Political Convention was held at West Kennedy Junior High School. We were just a block away from that -—
JUAN GONZALEZ: In Newark.
LARRY HAMM: In Newark, right, in West Kennedy Junior High School in Newark. And a year after that, 1969 was a black and Puerto Rican political convention, and a Community’s Choice team came out of that, and Ken Gibson was on that team, Sharpe James, Dennis —
AMY GOODMAN: The mayor, the next mayor.
LARRY HAMM: Yes. Dennis Westbrooks. Gibson became mayor in 1970, and in 1971 he appointed me to the Newark Board of Education, and I became the youngest voting school board member in the history of the country.
AMY GOODMAN: You were a high school student.
LARRY HAMM: I was 17 years old, four — just like four years after the rebellion. I had just graduated from high school. I wasn’t even old enough to vote. But, see, the rebellion stirred up everything. There were all kind of movements in Newark, and there was a student movement, and there was a teachers’ strike, and the teachers’ strike was the longest teachers’ strike in the history of the country. We thought we weren’t going to graduate, so all the high school students, we got together, we formed organization, we marched on the board and the teachers’ union. They were negotiating at the Gateway Hotel in 1971, and 200 of us took over two floors of the Gateway Hotel and had a sit-in. We said we weren’t leaving until the mayor came, and that’s when I met Ken Gibson. And it was just a couple of months after that he appointed me to the Newark Board of Education.
JUAN GONZALEZ: In essence, what you’re saying is that the rebellion itself sparked the political awakening in Newark —
LARRY HAMM: Yes.
JUAN GONZALEZ: — and Newark, in effect — wasn’t Gibson the first black mayor of a major American city?
LARRY HAMM: Yes, of a major East Coast city.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, major East Coast city.
LARRY HAMM: Yes, yes. And, you know, Newark was already in transition. I mean, believe there was a Black Power conference held in 1966. Gibson ran for mayor in '66 and lost in ’66. But, see, the rebellion was the thing, I think, that helped transform a lot of people's consciousness.
AMY GOODMAN: And yesterday was the first time a mayor, Cory Booker of Newark, walked in your commemoration march, where you marched from the Fourth Precinct, from the police precinct —
LARRY HAMM: That’s true.
AMY GOODMAN: — to the marker.
AMIRI BARAKA: Well, he didn’t go to the marker. He dropped out. When we turned that corner away from the precinct, he disappeared into the mist.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that marker, Larry Hamm.
LARRY HAMM: Well, everybody in Newark that was there in '67 knew that it was the seminal event that shaped — you can't understand Newark today without knowing something about 1967, and everybody felt that there should be something that would be a constant reminder of what happened. And so, people asked for some kind of monument to those who perished during the rebellion, and the city council, primarily, I guess, George Branch, who was a central ward councilman then, you know, facilitated the establishment of that monument, and it has the names of all 26 people on it.
AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday at the march, some of the family members of those who died were there. Crystal Spellman’s mother, Eloise, was killed by gunfire from police, state troopers, National Guardsmen, 40 years ago. A mother of 11, Eloise was shot through the neck while closing the windows of her apartment in the Hayes Home Public Housing Project on July 15, 1967. This is an excerpt from a documentary made over two decades ago. It’s called Newark: The Slow Road Back. It’s produced by Sandra King. It aired last night on New Jersey Network on PBS. It includes Crystal Spellman describing her relief at seeing her old project building destroyed as she recalls what happened to her mother.
CRYSTAL SPELLMAN: When they blew up the projects, or some of them, I felt good and relieved that these buildings won’t be there anymore, so I wouldn’t have to watch them every time I drove down the street or drove down Springfield Avenue, I wouldn’t have to watch these buildings and remember what happened, you know, to my family.
My mother had 11 children. We all lived in the project. My mother was killed in the 1967 riots. She was shot twice. From what I understand, she was closing the window, and they shot her. They thought that she was a sniper, and they shot her. Where the sofa was set up in the living room, you know, the sofa was by the window, and, of course, she fell back on the sofa.
INTERVIEWER: You saw that?
CRYSTAL SPELLMAN: Yeah, I saw that. I can remember that. I remember all the blood. I remember you can take the pillow on the couch and just do like this to it, and the blood would all come out. I remember that.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Crystal Spellman from the New Jersey Network, Sandra King documentary.
There was also someone else who talked yesterday. His name was Ernest Rutledge, and he was talking about his brother James Rutledge. James Rutledge is someone a lot of people referred to, James Rutledge, the man who was shot 39 times. How did that happen, Amiri Baraka? And how significant was that moment?
AMIRI BARAKA: Well, they claim that James Rutledge was looting this bar, Joe-Rae’s Tavern on Bergen Street, you know. His relatives, obviously, you know, said another thing happened. He was in the store hiding, you know, and then he came out, because the stuff had been done. You know, the place had been looted already. He told a couple of his companions to hide, and then he stood up, and they asked him was anybody else there, and he said no. Then they shot him.
But what was the most brutal thing is they had four shots in the top of his head. I got hold of these autopsy pictures from a law student, you know, Junice Williams phon., and I proceeded to distribute the pictures all over the city. You know, we made copies of it. And they tried to indict me, not the people who shot this boy, but they wanted to indict me for distributing the flicks. But if you saw those flicks, they are so horrific, you know what I mean? You see, anybody shot in the top of the head, they’re not even shot running. You know, he wasn’t running. You know, they had actually — he was down, and they put the gun to his head and blew holes in the top of his skull.
AMY GOODMAN: So let’s go for a minute to Ernest Rutledge remembering that moment. He was speaking to us yesterday in Newark, right next to the tombstone that honors the 26 people who died in Newark.
ERNEST RUTLEDGE: He was killed in the riots of ’67, or rebellion in ’67, but it was — he was in a tavern on Bergen Street, Bergen and Custer. And the state troopers told everybody just to get off the streets, and so everybody was running for cover, because they were shooting like crazy. And him and two other boys we grew up with — their name was Hatcher — they ran into this tavern that had already been looted and everything.
And, in fact, I was a plumber. I own a plumbing business. I got a chance to work in that tavern. And as I put the boiler in — I put a very large boiler in the basement, installed it — I looked up at the ceiling, the ceiling of the basement, but the floor of the tavern, in the back part of it, where my brother was killed. And when I got through, I went upstairs and I looked around where he looked at and where the boys told me that they hid and stayed down behind that bar and would not move.
My brother told them, when the state troopers came in and they asked him, "Who came in here with you?" And he says, "No one." And my brother them, "Don’t say nothing." And at that time, the state troopers, they started shooting him, and they reloaded their guns three times, and they kept shooting. That was how many holes in my brother.
My brother had so many holes in his body that at his funeral you could see the circles and rings and everything, where the bullets — all in his neck, all back here, everywhere. And Mr. Perry Lander phon., he told us to get back, because — and they put a barrier or so we — he said because his body could collapse at any time. And my mother said to Mr. Perry, she said, "Hold my arm." And I’ll never forget that. She said, "Mr. Perry, how many holes did my son have in him?" He said, "Ms. Rutledge, at 39, we stopped counting." That’s how many holes my brother’s body had in him. And then I later saw a picture of my brother on a slab with so many holes on his body.
This incident, my mother became —- she had a nervous breakdown. She became paranoid. And then, above all, she became schizophrenic, and she had to be institutionalized behind this incident. And then I had to spread my wings to raise my other child siblings. So -—
AMY GOODMAN: And the top of his head?
ERNEST RUTLEDGE: In the top of his head and all over his body. His face, what we saw — they had the make-up couldn’t cover up the holes, that you could see the little dark rings and everything. It was that bad.
AMY GOODMAN: How old were you?
ERNEST RUTLEDGE: I was 17, and my brother was 19.
AMY GOODMAN: Ernest Rutledge remembering his brother James. There were no indictments. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Amiri, the ferocity of the way the National Guard and state troopers and the police attempted to put down the rebellion, could you talk and little bit about the white-black relations in the city? And I mentioned before Anthony Imperiale, who — for people who are younger, who was Imperiale and what did he represent, in terms of race relations in the Northeast?
AMIRI BARAKA: Well, Imperiale was just a kind of a hoodlum who seized on that time to become the mouth of racist reaction. That’s what he was. And he issued this statement with himself holding this rifle: "If the Black Panther comes, the white hunter is waiting." You know, but we took that photograph —
JUAN GONZALEZ: And he was what? He was a councilman at the time? What was he?
AMIRI BARAKA: He got to be a councilman later, as a result of that, you see. Even later, he became a state official. But we took this photograph of him holding this rifle with his stomach — he had this huge stomach sticking out — and when we ran Gibson for mayor, we distributed these photos of him holding the rifle and said, "Would you want this for a mayor?" But Imperiale was a — he was a pawn. You know, he was a mouthpiece.
Actually, when we tried to build this Kawaida Towers, Imperiale was making noise, so we bribed him. You know, we said, "Hey, look. What do you want, Tony? We’ll give you jobs, blah blah blah. Just shut up." And he was cooled out, but it was this Steven Adubato who emerged as the power broker. It was Steve Adubato who was behind, actually, the opposition, the behind-the-scene opposition to Kawaida Towers, so that they — we spent a million dollars to make a hole for the building. And then we spent $2 million to cover the hole. So it was a $3 million nothing, you know.
But that kind of rabid reaction — first of all, a lot of the white folks were moving, you know, out of there. That’s why the North Ward, which was once a solid Italian community is now a solid Latino community, as a matter of fact. And then they started to actually set fire to the Latinos’ homes then. And that’s when, you know, Felipe Luciano, Ramon Riviera phon. and I made this mutual defense pact. We called a press conference to say, you know, any violence against the Afro-American community is violence against the Puerto Rican community. Any violence against the Puerto Rican community is violence against the Afro-American community. So Imperiale sends a telegram to the governor and asks, "Is that legal?" I mean, that’s the kind of mental midget he was, you know what I’m saying?
But, you see, that was the kind of energy, because we thought we were fighting directly against oppression. That was a war, and what Larry says —- Adhimu, right? I named him. But what that meant is that this war had finally materialized wholly. We had been fighting it verbally. But when they started shooting, and it was, you say, the rebellion. The people had stopped breaking in store windows and stuff after the first couple of days. But that’s when the murders started, see. When you put that under martial law, you see, my wife -—- you know, of course, I was locked up, but she went back to the house. And we had just been married about a year, right? And the little baby we had, Obalaji, she took him up to the third floor and got in the closet and closed the door. She had a pot of lye — she had a real pot of hot water, lye and some Alaga syrup there.
LARRY HAMM: Ghetto napalm.
AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah, napalm. And she was sitting in there with the child in there, because they were running up and down, you know, like trying to destroy our house.
AMY GOODMAN: You talked about Adhimu, who you named Larry Hamm. Your name, Amiri Baraka. You were born Everett Jones, became LeRoi Jones, then Amiri Baraka. Why?
AMIRI BARAKA: I was Everett LeRoi Jones. My grandfather’s name was Everett. He was a politician in that town. My family came to Newark in the '20s. We've been there a long, long time. My father’s name was LeRoi, the French-ified aspect of it, because his first name was Coyette, you see. They come from South Carolina. I changed my name when we became aware of the African revolution and the whole question of our African roots. I was named by the man who buried Malcolm X, Hesham Jabbar, who died last week. He named me Amir Barakat. But that’s Arabic. I brought it down into Swahililand, into Tanzania, which is an accent. So it’s Amiri, instead of Amir, and, you know, Baraka, rather than Barakat, you know, which is interesting. If it was Amir Barakat, I would probably have more difficulty flying these days.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to — yes, Larry?
LARRY HAMM: And it was after the Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana in 1972, which was like another seminal event coming out of the period of the rebellions — I was one of the youngest delegates to Gary in 1972. It was after Gary that I asked Amiri Baraka to give me an African name, because that was another transforming event for me to see black people coming together in a great act of self-determination.
AMY GOODMAN: And you also led the anti-apartheid movement at Princeton University, but that’s another story for another show. We’re talking to Amiri Baraka and Larry Hamm. When we come back from break, we will also be joined by Grace Lee Boggs. As Newark quieted down, Detroit erupted. So we’re going to Detroit. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us from Detroit is Grace Lee Boggs, philosopher and activist who’s lived in Detroit for 54 years. She was a central figure in the civil rights and Black Liberation movements. She just turned 92 and continues to be at the forefront of struggles to rebuild communities in Detroit and rethink radical politics. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Grace Lee Boggs.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Detroit 40 years ago. As Newark, the rebellion, quieted down, why did Detroit erupt?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, Jimmy and I, my husband, my late husband Jimmy and I, were in California, actually, when Detroit exploded in July. But prior to our leaving for vacation, Jimmy had talked to the people who were with us in the Inner City Organizing Committee, that something was bound to happen and that we should try and stay away from it, because there was a climate in Detroit, which meant that things had to explode.
Two things were happening. One, young people were being frisked and stopped and frisked by the police, whom they considered an occupation army. At the same time, beginning in the early ’60s, a number of us had been saying that as the population of Detroit was becoming majority black, it was wrong for the city to be run almost exclusively by whites. The city council was almost — there was one black person on it. The school board was white. The school superintendent was white. And that was not in the tradition of cities being run by the ethnic group, which is becoming the majority, so this idea that there was a certain justice about Black Power and also a sense of outrage by young people at the treatment that they were given by the police.
Another thing that was also happening in Detroit was that automation had come to the plants, and young people were feeling that they were being made expendable and that there was no longer any future for them. And so, the rebellion was also a cry for help, for understanding by these young people that something very fundamental was happening that required change.
And I think to understand the depth of the roots of what happened helps us to get beyond seeing it as a riot and helps us to see that there were issues raised there that we still face. In other words, Genarlow Wilson would not be criminalized for oral consensual sex with a young woman if it were not for the fact that our society does not know what to do with these young people, what perspective, what vision to offer them, and all we do is criminalize them. So we have this exploding prison population. We have the equivalent of martial law on a day-to-day, 24/7-hour basis in our cities, because we have not heard the cry for help by young people in 1967.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Grace Boggs, I want to ask you, in terms — you mentioned the plants, and, of course, a very big difference between Detroit and Newark was the enormous importance of the automobile industry to that city, the heart-blood in those days of American capitalism, and many, many black workers who had moved, especially during World War II, into the plants, and there was a resurgence of a whole new radical labor movement subsequent to that — the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and other groups that developed. Could you talk about the impact of the rebellion on sort of the political consciousness of the black community?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, what was happening — you see, during World War II, for the first time as a result of the March on Washington in 1941, black workers were being — had gotten jobs in the plant and had acquired enough seniority and wages to buy a home and send their kids to college, kids who became actually the SNCC activists in the civil rights movement. But this was drying up for young people, and what was in front of us was a shrinking working class, rather than an expanding working class. And this required a whole new concept of education. It required a whole new concept of justice. It required a whole new concept of what is the purpose of work.
Detroit had been the national, international symbol of industrialization and successful industrialization for the first half of the 20th century. Now, it was becoming de-industrialized, and we had not yet thought through creating the kinds of infrastructure that are needed for a de-industrializing society. For cities in the 21st century, we have to become very different from what was possible, both ecologically possible and in every other respect during a period of expanding industry. And I think it’s within that historical perspective that we have to understand '67, not only in terms of white power versus black power or black power versus white power, but in terms of the transition that the world and the United States and Detroit, in particular, is undergoing. I think it's within that context that we can get beyond the criminalization, the sort of martial law-ization of our society at the present time.
AMY GOODMAN: Grace Lee Boggs, in Newark 26 people were killed in the rebellion, 24 of them African-American, then a fire captain and a policeman. In Detroit, 43 people were killed. How did that happen? Were there indictments? There were none in Newark.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: There were not indictments. And the question of — I mean, the question — I think what I hear, Amy, is that we think that the question of justice is a question of whether we indict or whether we prosecute. And I think that we’re reaching another stage, where we have to see the question of justice in terms of how do we rebuild our communities, how do we restore our people, how do we as Americans with this terrible crisis that we’re in now, not only in our cities but across the world, how do we become human beings, how do we take another leap in our evolution as human beings.
AMY GOODMAN: You are a Chinese-American woman. Your father ran a Chinese restaurant not far from here in Times Square in New York. And you graduated in 1935, got your Ph.D. in 1940 from Bryn Mawr. How did you end up getting involved with black radical politics?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, the story — I think folks have to understand that, first of all, in 1940, when I got my Ph.D., Chinese Americans couldn’t even get jobs in department stores. They would come right out and say — Macy’s would come right out and say, "We don’t hire Orientals." And it was under those circumstances, when the question of race was so primary in this country, that I was looking for a job. Not thinking — thinking it was ridiculous to think I might get one at a university, I began to find a way to make links with the black movement, especially through the March on Washington movement, which was led by A. Philip Randolph in 1941. I decided I wanted to make movement politics my life at that time. And it’s been my life for the last 65 years.
AMY GOODMAN: 1941. I don’t think people know about a march on Washington or certainly don’t know who A. Philip Randolph is.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: I know. And really, I’m not — I think maybe it’s important to know, because up to 1941 and the March on Washington movement, which was led by A. Philip Randolph, who was a founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, blacks were not able to get the kinds of jobs that would provide them with any security, with any seniority. The defense plants — I mean, the Depression in 1940 had ended for white workers, because the war production was booming, but not for black workers. And it was under those circumstances that the movement of blacks to get jobs, which took the form of a challenge — of the projection of a march on Washington, which scared Franklin D. Roosevelt to death. I’m not quite — I mean, he was forced to issue Executive Order 8002, that we began to have a black working class. And then, very soon, because the technology of World War II was introduced to the plant, that future began to close down for black young people.
And I think it’s necessary to understand that the first rebellion took place in Watts in 1965, in July 1965 — in August, actually, 1965, shortly after the signing of the Voting Rights bill, which came out of Selma. And a few days after that, the Watts erupted, and Martin Luther King went to Watts, found that the kids had no idea what he had been doing, and they were very proud that they had erupted and forced people to recognize that they existed. And in response to that, King moved to Chicago in 1966 to listen to these young people, and he came to the conclusion at the end of his life that what we needed was to listen to them and understand that the age of just expanding economically and technologically had come to an end, or we needed to bring it to an end and understand how it had created and had destroyed community and denied participation to so many people. And so, we were at a watershed in human history, and that’s where we are today. And I think that’s the context in which we have to look at what happened in ’67.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, in relationship to when you say that the young people were proud of the fact they had forced a recognition of themselves, the role of the media, of the news media, in terms of — the Kerner Commission, obviously, after Detroit and Newark, said that the — blamed the media for, one, failing to at all deal with racism in American society, but also found instances where reporters actually fabricated violent events during the rebellions to make things look even worse than what they were. Your analysis of the media’s impact on public consciousness?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: But they were pretty bad. I think if — not to acknowledge that they were pretty bad. I’m just thinking, for example, Mack Avenue, up the street from where I live, before the rebellion, we had a whole lot of small stores, drugstores, hardware stores, small restaurants. Now, it’s a complete wasteland. And many sections of the city were looted and burned. I mean, it was a very difficult and painful period. But out of the pain, what we got out of the pain was a kind of black political power within the cities. But the blacks who came to power in the cities had the same sort of institutions to administer. So it wasn’t a question of changing from white to black, but changing the whole infrastructure, because the rebellions represented this cry from young people to be of use in some way, to have a society in which, instead of being outsiders, they were part and parcel of belonging and creating and being of use.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Amiri, what has changed in these 40 years, in terms of consciousness and in terms of what the country has learned from that period?
AMIRI BARAKA: Well, actually, in some ways, we’ve gone full cycle but up to another level. I mean, we went from the kind of blatant brutalization, of white supremacy and racism. We then organized ourselves and elected two black mayors. We haven’t —- none of my children, for instance, have ever grown under white people ruling in Newark. They don’t even know what that is, you understand? And so, we can be proud of that. But at the same time, after we had our two domestic kind of mayors, who compromised relentlessly with corporate power, you understand, now we’ve come full circle and come to -—
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Let me ask you a question, Amiri. Do you think that we have challenged and criticized and evaluated Black Power sufficiently?
AMIRI BARAKA: Have we? No, no, but I’ve been doing it for — I’m sorry.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: When are we going to do it?
AMIRI BARAKA: Well, I’ve been doing it for almost 37 years. I mean, having two black mayors there, Sharpe James and Ken Gibson, I was probably their most relentless critic all the time. But now we have somebody who doesn’t compromise with corporate power, but who represents it. So that’s the difference. We’ve moved —
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Well, so do you think it’s a question of changing an individual? You know, for changing from Gibson to Booker?
AMIRI BARAKA: No, you have to get an individual who’s willing to change the system. You have to get an individual who’s willing to actually struggle with the system to change it. As long as you have people who —
GRACE LEE BOGGS: I mean, what do we mean by "struggling with the system"? How —- when are we going to be -—
AMIRI BARAKA: To make substantive changes, to make infrastructure changes.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: No, when will we begin to understand that we have to create new infrastructures, new forms, so that you can —
AMIRI BARAKA: Yeah, but you can only do that through people, you see?
GRACE LEE BOGGS: But you’re not going to do it from people at the top. We’re going to do it from people at the bottom.
AMIRI BARAKA: Well, you have to mobilize the whole community. But what I’m saying is that people at the top became accommodated to being in power and not changing.
GRACE LEE BOGGS: Yes, but maybe what we’ve done — maybe what we’ve —- yes, but you see, we’ve put so much emphasis on taking over the power structure, and we became prisoners of it, because the power structure -—
AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to continue the discussion after the show, and then we’ll broadcast that. I want to thank you so much for being with us, Grace Lee Boggs, Amiri Baraka and Larry Hamm.