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Redefining Black Power: Pacifica Archives & City Lights Books Reflect on the State of Black America

Web ExclusiveFebruary 29, 2012
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In this web exclusive interview, Amy Goodman interviews Joanne Griffith, editor of the new book, Redefining Black Power: Reflections on the State of Black America, which was inspired by historic recordings preserved in the Pacifica Radio Archives. She also speaks with Archives director, Brian DeShazor.

The interview begins with an extended excerpt of an archived Fannie Lou Hamer interview. Hamer got involved in the civil rights movement when she volunteered to attempt to register to vote in 1962. By then, 45 years old and a mother, Hamer lost her job and continually risked her life because of her civil rights activism. In the recording, Hamer recounts her beating at the hands of two other black prisoners on the orders of her white jailers.

Redefining Black Power is newly published by City Lights Books and includes contributions from civil rights-era activists such as Vincent Harding, who was a close associate and former speechwriter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. Harding drafted King’s historic April 1967 antiwar speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” It also features contemporary scholars such as Michelle Alexander.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a Black History Month special segment. In its first book project, the Pacifica Radio Archive, which is based at KPFK in Los Angeles, has teamed up with City Lights Books, based in San Francisco, to produce Redefining Black Power: Reflections on the State of Black America. The book includes contributions from civil rights era activists like Vincent Harding, who helped to write Dr. King’s speech against the Vietnam War that he gave a year to the day before he was assassinated, as well as contemporary voices, like such scholars as Michelle Alexander.

This new book by the Pacifica Radio Archive, with Joanne Griffith, is partly informed by some of the historic recordings preserved by the Archive. And I want to play one of those now. It’s the voice of Fannie Lou Hamer. She got involved in the civil rights movement when she volunteered to attempt to register to vote in 1962. By then 45 years old and a mother, Hamer lost her job and continually risked her life because of her civil rights activism. In this recording, Fannie Lou Hamer recounts her being beaten at the hands of two other black prisoners on the orders of her white jailers.

FANNIE LOU HAMER: My home is in Ruleville, Mississippi. It’s located in the Black Belt of Mississippi known as the Delta area. I was forced away from the plantation because I wouldn’t go back and withdraw, you know, my literacy test after I had tried to take it. I wouldn’t go back. And I had to leave, and my husband was forced to stay on this plantation until after the harvest season was over. And then the man that we had worked for, he’d taken the car, and the most of the few things we had had been stolen.

And I’d been in jail, and I’d been beat. I had been to a voter registration workshop, you know, to—they were just training and teaching us how to register, to pass the literacy test. And it was giving us enough training that we could tell other people, you know, how to pass the literacy test. So we had attended a workshop from the 3rd of June through the 8th, and then we got the Continental Trailway bus to come back to Mississippi. And we got to Winona, Mississippi, I would say about 10:30 that Sunday morning on our way back to Greenwood. And that was—we had gotten in 25 miles of the voter registration headquarters.

And the bus stopped in Winona, you know, at the bus terminal, and four people got off of the bus, you know, to use the restaurant to get food, and two people got off to use the washroom, while I was still on the bus. When I looked through the glass, I saw the people rush out. And one of the girls what had gone in the washroom, she just got back on the bus. And I stepped off to see what had happened. And Miss Ponder told me that it was the state highway patrolmen and the chief of police on the inside, and began to tap them on the shoulders with billy clubs and ordered them to get out. And I said, “Well, this is Mississippi.”

So I got back on the bus. And as soon as I was seated, I saw them when they began to put the five people, what was, you know, off the bus, but they wasn’t over six feet from the bus. Began to put them in the highway patrolmen’s car. And I stepped off again, because I was holding one of the ladies’ arms, you know, that they was arresting. And she said, “Get back on the bus, Ms. Hamer!” And then I heard somebody scream from the car that she was in and said, “Get that one there!” And then a white man stepped out of her car and told me I was under arrest. And when he opened the door and I went to get in the car, he kicked me.

And they carried me on down to the county jail, where they had the other—highway patrolmen had carried the other five. And they—you know, when we walked in—when I walked in with the two white men that had carried me down—and they cursed me all the way down. They would ask me questions, and when I would try to answer, they would tell me to hush. And when I walked inside of the booking room, one of the policemans went over and jumped up on one of the Negroes’ feet that was with us. And then they just began to, you know, put us in cells. And I was put in a cell with Miss Euvester Simpson.

And after I was put in the cell, I could just hear some horrible screams and horrible sounds, you know, of licks. And I saw one of the girls was 15 years old, was with us, and she passed my cell, and she was real bloody. And then they asked a little man that cleaned up the jail to go inside and mop up that blood. And then I heard some more screaming, and I heard some awful sounds. And I would hear somebody when they say, “Can’t you say, 'Yes, sir,' nigger? Can’t you say, 'Yes, sir'?” And they would call her names that I wouldn’t want to go on tape.

And she said, “Yes, I can say, 'Yes, sir.'”

“So, well, say it!”

And she said, “I don’t know you well enough.” And I would hear when she would hit the floor again. And finally, she began to pray, and she asked God to have mercy on these people, because they didn’t know what they was doing. And after a while, they passed my cell door with this young woman, Miss Annell Ponder. And one of her eyes looked like blood. And her hair was standing up on her head, and her clothes had been torn from the shoulder down to the waist.

And then three white men came to my cell, and one of them was a state highway patrolman, because he was wearing a little silver plate across his pocket that said “John L. Basinger.” And he asked me where I was from, and I told him I was from Ruleville. And he said, “I’m going to check that.” And he went out. And I guess he called Ruleville, and they didn’t like me in Ruleville because I worked with voter registration there. And when he came back, he said, “You’re damn right. They say you’re from Ruleville, all right. And we going to make you wish you was dead.”

And they led me out of that cell into another cell. And he gave a Negro prisoner a blackjack, and he ordered me to lay down on a bunk bed. And the Negro prisoner said, “Do you want me to beat her with this, sir?”

And he said, “You’re damn right, because if you don’t, you know what I’ll do for you.”

And I laid down on the bunk like he ordered me to do. And the first Negro beat me. He beat me until he was exhausted. And after he beat, the state highway patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack. And during the time he was beating, I began to work my feet, because that was a horrible experience. And the state highway patrolman ordered the first Negro that had beat to set on my feet, while the second one beat me. And I just began to scream, where I couldn’t control it. And then the white man got up and began to beat me on my head.

I have a blood clot now in the artery to the left eye and a permanent kidney injury on the right side from that beating. These are the things that we go through in the state of Mississippi just trying to be treated like a human being.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the voice of Fannie Lou Hamer, just one of the voices that we are honoring now in Redefining Black Power: Reflections on the State of Black America. The book is edited by Joanne Griffith, a leading progressive voice herself, having reported on issues from around the African diaspora for BBC and NPR, working with the Pacifica Radio Archive. She is joining us now, as well as Brian DeShazor, director of the Pacifica Radio Archive.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

BRIAN DeSHAZOR: Thank you.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s wonderful to have you with us. Joanne, start by talking about how Fannie Lou Hamer fits into Redefining Black Power.

JOANNE GRIFFITH: Well, it was a recording that Brian listened to, that very recording that we just touched on. And he listened to it, and he realized at the time that he was the only person that really had free rein to listen to this material. And there’s a way that when you listen to audio, you listen to a voice of history. You know, we’re listening to Fannie Lou Hamer describing how she was beaten to the point that the man that was beating her, he was exhausted, like she worked her feet, she had a blood clot—things that we never have to experience attempting to go and be a part of the democratic process. And when the election of Barack Obama came about, Brian and City Lights Books, they said, you know, there’s a way that we need to, you know, look at this moment in history but make sure that we never forget all the stepping stones, from Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks and so many other black freedom fighters who gave up their lives to get us to this point. So we wanted to make sure that whenever you have that conversation about the first African-American president, that it’s always linked to history and the people that stepped the stones.

AMY GOODMAN: Brian, you talk about that in the forward to Redefining Black Power and the power of the Pacifica Radio Archive, all of our archive.

BRIAN DeSHAZOR: Yeah, there’s 55,000 reel-to-reel tape masters that are still waiting to be digitized. So, in this moment—it was about six years ago when I really did realize that so—only a handful of people could have the experience of being moved to the point of being almost radicalized in a different way. So that point of, you know, releasing it and making it accessible through audio form was one thing, but also to sort of introduce the audio and the whole collection and the concept of Pacifica’s mission to a reading audience was something—a way to sort of broaden the awareness and then, hopefully, you know, identify even more recordings that need to be digitized. So, thanks to City Lights and Greg Ruggiero and Joanne Griffith, they sort of took the idea of making a bridge between the past and the now, in the contemporary, so that we don’t forget, and so that there is a historical reference and context, and that the Pacifica Radio Archives, being that we broadcast and recorded these interviews when nobody else was in mainstream media at the time. And this was a 1965 interview. Imagine Fannie Lou Hamer in 1965 ever being invited to tell that story, without editing and without retribution. That’s the power of the Pacifica Archives, you know, so it’s my mission. You know, it’s only seven of us in that staff that are literally like taking reel-to-reel tapes that are deteriorating so quickly. We only have maybe 20 years left to get all of it done. And then we can sort of make it build and make it accessible and preserve it forever.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to go to a clip. Dr. Vincent Harding was a close associate and former speechwriter to Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. Harding drafted King’s historic April 1967 antiwar speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” In this recording, Dr. Harding discusses the need to reinvent the civil rights movement as the, quote, “movement for the expansion and deepening of democracy in America.”

DR. VINCENT HARDING: The longer I live, the more I am certain that the civil rights movement is an absolutely inadequate way of talking about this great transformative movement that many of us were deeply involved in and that many of us continue to be deeply involved in, which I prefer to call the movement for the expansion and deepening of democracy in America. And so, whenever you say “civil rights movement,” I’m going to be hearing “the movement for the expansion and deepening of democracy in America,” that was manifested at one point in something we called the civil rights movement.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Joanne Griffith, can you comment on what Dr. Vincent Harding said and your own experience working on the book and his role in it?

JOANNE GRIFFITH: Yeah. Well, Dr. Harding was actually the first interview conducted for the Redefining Black Power project. And, you know, to sit and have an audience of one with someone who was so key and so integral to the movement, but someone who we don’t often hear about or talk about that often, and he really put it all into—he put the whole project into context, that it’s not just about the civil rights movement or the Black Power movement, that we have to be very careful with how we define certain moments in history. And it also made me realize that we are all part of the continuum. You know, as he said at the end of the interview, it was never their intention in the '50s and ’60s to elect an African-American president. He said, “You know, it was a very nice surprise, but it was never what they set out to do.” And he said, “We can't sleep now because we have Barack Obama. There’s still work to do. We’re all part of this continuum.” He said, “You know, I’m an older man.” He said, “I can’t do this work forever. But,” he said, “you younger ones” —pointing to me, he said, “You younger ones have to continue the work.” That’s what he meant by “the movement for the expansion and deepening of democracy in America” and the importance that all of us play within that, not just looking towards our “leaders,” quote-unquote, but we’re all leaders within our own spheres, which is part of the conversation that we have throughout Redefining Black Power.

AMY GOODMAN: These archive—describe, Brian, as you put together—I mean, it’s so interesting that we have this multimedia project here, where you’ve got the book, you’ve got the archive, the many voices, I mean, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Rosa Parks, James Baldwin to, oh, a discussion between Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X.


AMY GOODMAN: But talk about these tapes and what you’re hearing when you listen.

BRIAN DeSHAZOR: Well, you know, James Baldwin, from the CD companion that is for the Pacifica Radio stations—James Baldwin, that was 1963, September 25th, at a New York community church after the murder of four girls in Birmingham. I mean, that was a point in Baldwin’s life when he became more enraged than ever. You can hear it in his voice, you know, as we have so much Baldwin. That particular recording, it changed the way he even moved in the world and what he wrote about. But the power of the archives and that sort of recording sound that Pacifica has preserved all these years so far is really about the hearing of the emotion and the rage and the soul of James Baldwin that was just different than Baldwin on the written form. So when we look at Rosa Parks and Baldwin and Bayard Rustin and Malcolm X, you know, an unlikely pair—and actually, we have a debate between James Baldwin and Malcolm X.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, which is incredible!


BRIAN DeSHAZOR: Right. So, again, it’s these moments in time where nobody else was recording it and nobody else was even interested in point of it, supporting their voices, where Pacifica Radio, KPFA in Berkeley and the rest of the network, were there for them. And the movement sort of came through, and the Archives is that document.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to James Baldwin, the classic speech Baldwin gave back—I think it was 1963, a month after the historic March on Washington, days after Birmingham, Alabama—


AMY GOODMAN: —the bombing of the church that claimed the lives of the little girls. Now, after that, we’re going to play the Bayard Rustin. Talk about who Bayard Rustin was, the Bayard Rustin-Malcolm X discussion.

BRIAN DeSHAZOR: Well, Bayard Rustin was an African-American open homosexual, so—and he was a very important part of the civil rights movement in its infrastructure. But at some point in the civil rights movement with Dr. King, they sort of put him in the background because he was so openly gay at the time. And so, they felt it might hurt the movement. But at this point, again, Pacifica Radio and Pacifica Archives recorded him on many occasions. And I really don’t know what the occasion was. There actually is no historical reference of when Bayard and Malcolm got together. There is another moderator on the recording, but we only know his name, but I don’t really know much about him. And we think it’s 1960, but we still don’t know. And this is another point about preserving these archives, is I’m still the only one that really has the information. The point is, is to make it accessible, to get it into academia with the researchers and scholars, so that they can render and do the investigation and render it through with the historical context.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re going to go right now to James Baldwin in 1963. Maybe we can go to Rosa Parks just after she sat down on the bus, that one a few months after—


AMY GOODMAN: What was it? May—March or April of 1956. We’ll see if we can get to that, but let’s go to James Baldwin right now, the legendary writer, civil rights activist, born in Harlem in 1924. This is James Baldwin.

JAMES BALDWIN: In this country, this is one of the things that it means to be an American. It is one of the great dangers of being an American. In this country, there’s always been something not to think about. And what that was was me, sometimes called “Sambo,” sometimes called “Uncle Tom,” sometimes a rapist, sometimes a saint. These are your inventions, not mine.

The effort that the public has expended in not thinking about me has weakened its grasp on reality to a very sinister extent. It shows, I think, in every level of our lives, from the most private, where the people ask you, in perfectly good faith, until today, 1963, one year after the emancipation, “Would you let your sister marry one?” They still think that’s a question. And they mean it. And they don’t realize out of what kind of spiritual and moral emptiness and panic such a question can come. There’s never been a question of who married whom, besides which it’s 400 years too late to talk about miscegenation. I’m produced by it.

If one can be so confused on this level, it means that one doesn’t know what to tell one’s child. And after all, let me tell you this. In spite of all the books written about how to raise your child and all the theories about it, ultimately you raise your child in one way only: you are his model. If you don’t know what you mean, if you are lying, the child will know it. Children don’t listen to what you say; they listen to what you don’t say. They watch what you do. And they become what you, their model, make them become. We’ve all been, I think—I know everyone in my generation has, at one point or another, been in the position of trying in the middle of his life, when it should have been done, to find a model on which—some standard to prove that you could be a man, because in this country we no longer believe in that.

Now, to finish this off, what I’m saying, in effect, is that this is not a white country. It is a myth that we can no longer afford. We are living in a time of revolution. It is our job not to try to prevent these revolutions, but to use them. I talked one minute ago about the weakening of our grasp on reality. I had in my mind one thing: the entire Cuban fiasco, the entire Cuban disaster. And what I’m meaning to suggest by that is this, that we have no right not to know the existence of the Cuban peasant and what that means, what the Cuban peasant lives, endures and how he must feel toward us. Now every Negro in this country has some sense of that, so that, for example, it would be difficult for my morale to allow me to go to Cuba to free Cubans, when I cannot—when I’m not free here.

My point is that the country ought to know it. Americans must discover that really they are not the people from Heaven. They come from the shores of Europe. We have a long, long past, the human past. Everything that has happened in the history of the world, all the follies, all the disasters, all the heartbreak, that’s the American lot, too. There’s no way to escape it. All one can do is use it. That’s life—to say yes to it and to use it, to triumph over it. And then we could finally achieve an identity here and stop being, as we are now, trapped, in effect, between two oceans, one going east and one going west. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to be white here, because it’s the only thing one can be sure of. And that means, if you’re going to be white, then someone’s got to be black. That’s me. Now it’s time to end this adolescent nightmare. I look to you to help us do it.

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