Interviewer: Judy Richardson
Production Team: A, B, C
Interview Date: March 31, 1989
Camera Rolls: 1072-1073, 2110-2114, 3086-3087
Sound Rolls: 132, 251-252, 340
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Amiri Baraka, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 31, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
OK, Tell me about--and if you could look at me when you talk--what was your image of Malcolm and how did he influence your writing?
Well, it's, you know, it's greater, I think, than, than minds, a particular era, a particular age. And, ah, for many of us Malcolm summed up the spirit of the age which was, not only resistance to, ah, White supremacy and imperialism but, ah, aggressive resistance to it. I think a lot of us had been raised watching Dr. King get beat up and, ah, we had seen the students, you know, the students in the, ah, Greensboro and people, you know, dumping ketchup on people's head and dragging people out. And so when Malcolm and the Nation of Islam rose up with the whole message of self defense, you know, along with self determination, self respect, he hit a chord, ah, in a lot of people. And I think I was just one of them, you know, who, ah, took that to be my particular feeling, my, my line about it.
What did he represent particularly for Black men? What is that manhood image?
Well, I, I, I don't think it was, I myself thought of it as man per se, as opposed to woman. I thought of it as, you know, the image of Black people particularly. I guess there must have been something in there in terms of, you know, maybe, you know, Black man standing up. But, I, I, I took that as, a, an image for all us, you know, like, cause when I saw Fannie Lou Hamer, I identified with that too, you know, I thought it was Black people. And--
If you could describe that meeting at the Waldorf with Malcolm in '65.
Yeah, it was set up by, ah, Mohammed Babu.
I'm sorry, again, they won't hear my, my questions.
Oh, the meeting in, in 1965 with Malcolm was set up by Mohammed Babu, who was the leader of the Zanzibari Revolution, and, ah, the three of us met in the Waldorf and, and talked. Ah, Babu was staying at the Waldorf and so, you know Malcolm and I met there and really it was to have a discussion about, you know, the state of, you know, African American politics and African politics, you know. Malcolm had been to Africa. He had come back not long from his tour of Africa and then, I think he went to France, I think, ah, to Europe and they wouldn't let him stay in France. But, he had just come back and, ah, we were comparing notes about the movement, state of the movement, and what was going to happen.
What was your impression of Malcolm at that meeting?
Well, I thought that, you know, Malcolm was a great leader. I mean, ah, that further, you know, confirmed that in my mind. You know we talked about the nature of, of trying, of building a united front, what needed to be done and that, ah, particularly with some of us rather than denounce some of these, ah, mass organizations that we should be joining, we were trying to influence them rather than just,you know, standing on the side denouncing them as backwards. And, he really I think was, that was during the time he was trying to put together the OAAU, you know, modeled on the Organization of African Unity, he wanted, ah, African American Unity after, you know, the split with the Nation of Islam. And that's really what we were talking about, how to expand, you know, Black United Front how to create a stronger kind of Black organizational resistance and presence that would include not just one, you know, particular organization or one particular religion, you remember he was in the Nation, then he came out and became a Sunni, and, all these moves of Malcolm's were aimed at trying to, you know, come up with a secular Black United Front. You know it's interesting that that was King's, ah, last, ah, discussion, I had with him a week before he was murdered. He came to my house here in Newark. He talked about a united front, it was very interesting, of trying to pull together, you know, the so-called militants and the so-called, you know, non-violent or, you know mainstream civil rights people. So, it seems that both of those leaders were very, ah, conscious ultimately of the need to build a Black United Front, in the real terms, not just an organization calling itself, Black United Front, which is usually what happens. you know, some people get together and then they decide United Front is everybody that they like or everybody who relates to them politically and that's not a united front.
Could you also give me a personal sense of Malcolm at that meeting. I mean, how did he personally impress you?
Malcolm, well I think Malcolm impressed, I mean, the people who saw Malcolm and who understood what he was talking about, I think he impressed me like that. He was a, a sincere, forceful man who, ah, understood with a great deal of clarity, ah, what had to be done to, you know, resist White supremacy and to resist the whole kind of national oppression that Black people were subjected to. And I think he was a man who had dedicated his life to that. You know and I can, I can see that and feel that and, indeed I think, ah, many of at the time felt the same way. That this was what we wanted to do with our lives, you know, to fight, you know, to fight against this kind of, ah, this, this kind of scourge, which by that time was getting even more open, if you remember. I mean the Kennedy--
Oh, before you get into that.
Knocked off, yeah.
Yeah. Let me just ask you. How did he personally, again in terms of personal stories, personally affect your writing?
Well, you see, it, it, it, you can't make it more than the influence of ideas, I mean unless you're going to have him guiding my pen, you know. It's, it's a question of, ah, of, of the ideas and the image that Malcolm represented in terms of, of, of standing strong, standing tall, in terms of what this oppression was. See, the, the, the question of, ah, the oppression of Black people, ah, was so constant. It's not like it's something that we don't know about. It's so constant in our everyday life, and to see somebody who represents taking a stand, a forthright and sincere stand against that, and says the things that have to be said no matter what the consequences are and, you know, tells the truth, the truth about these things. These, that was very impressive to me and to a lot of people. And, ah, certainly when you see these, these kinds of, you know, vacillating opportunists, super cautious negroes that many times, ah, supposed to represent us, ah, who will not tell the truth longer than 20 seconds about anything. You know what I'm saying. And at that point, Malcolm came, you know, he came through. This was after the King thing, and, and, ah, after King was assassinated. So Malcolm had come to the fore as the kind of major Black leader, you see, which was why he was killed then, because then, that's when he--I mean King wasn't killed then--but once they killed Kennedy, then a lot of Black people began to see that the so-called non-violent thing, you understand what I mean, was not the way. In other words, I think that Dr. King's influence had come to, let's say, a kind of, sort of stalemated by, ah, the Kennedy assassination, you know. The March on Washington, I think was the kind of, high-water mark and at the same time, the beginning of the end, I think for that particular domination. So, the whole, ah, Malcolm's preeminence began to be clear, the fact that non-violence would not work. You know, the fact that Black people had mainly been non-violent, and all they had gotten was violence in return, no question of self defense, and also the question of imperialism being the enemy. Malcolm began to be clearer on that. You know he came back from Mecca and he used that as his means of saying that finally it was not the color of somebody's skin that was at fault, it was the nature of their politics, you know, and, and the whole question of, of, ah, of internationalism. That was very, very important, you know, the Black people and people generally began to look at Malcolm now more closely because, you know, the non-violent thing had been, ah, I think proven to be ineffective to, to some extent. And the fact that Kennedy, who Black people looked to as quote, ah, "The only person who's going to make this non-violent thing work in the first place," since they had killed him, it became clear that these people would kill anybody, you know, to, ah, I mean, since they killed Kennedy, you know what I mean, it became clear, you know, they would kill anybody. And then of course right away, then Malcolm.
Talk about, describe what you're doing and how you felt when you hear that Malcolm is assassinated.
Well, I mean for me, it was a declaration of war. I mean I felt that it was like, ah, open--
You know, Malcolm's assassination for me was a declaration of war. I mean I took it as a, as a straight out, you know, attack. I mean really a kind of open attack that could only be met with some kind of, ah, equal attack. I mean, I don't think there was anything that made me as, ah, I mean seriously outraged, you know, in the sense, not only of, of being angry at the murderers but of losing, you know what I mean, of, of having lost, you know, some kind of great person and, and, and being outraged at the sense of, of the forces who could conspire to do that. That these people thought that they could actually make you submit to them. That, that, they could make Black people submit to them, that they would kill anybody and, you know, the only thing I think that did for me and a lot of people was strengthen our resolve. That, you know--
OK cut. Sorry we just have to, ah--
Describe for me what you're doing and how you feel when you hear, first hear that Malcolm has been assassinated.
Well, you know, it was, ah, I don't know, I was downtown in some, ah, a book party at a book-store, and, ah, it was a Sunday and, we'd already formed an organization called, ah, Black Arts. And I think, hearing about that, you know, that he had been murdered, um, it just made, the people that I was with resolved to, ah, that we were going to go to Harlem. That we were going to, ah, move.
And how did you feel. I need to know how you felt.
I felt, I felt outraged. I felt mad. I felt like I should be involved in trying to redress this. It was like, you know, just too much, that the whole thing had gotten beyond, gotten beyond the case of, ah, just reacting indirectly one way or another or in some other kind of way. That there had to be some direct, um, answers, that Black people had to fight back directly and, you know, consistently and continuously against this kind of, the menace, the people that actually thought that they could continue to make you a slave, that they could continue for eternity to have you, you know, submit to their madness, you know. And, ah, I mean I feel that way even today. I mean that's one thing I think that, that, the whole kind of, a element of rage in terms of, of, of, you know, imperialism and racism has never left me. That just, I think, just, ah, made it deepen.
And then what happens, you leave the party and you go to Harlem, during the assassination?
No, not that very moment.
Oh, I see, OK.
You're talking it in the apocryphal way. We organized a thing called the Black Arts up in Harlem I think, I was living downtown, I think that by the next month we had, you know, bought this building and opened the Black Arts which is a group of people, a group of Black people who were trying to put together an organization of Black artists. And so, to us, that, that, that had to be, ah, now, and it had to be done, and people needed to quit jiving about it and they need to, you know, if art really was going to serve the people, it could really help make, ah, revolution, then, those of us who thought we should get on with the work or shut up about it. That's the way I felt.
Now, you're so intimately connected with the music and the, the, the other, all of the arts. You said something in the book about, Malcolm and Trane being selected for the same life development. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Well, you know, Trane actually, that whole movement, I mean, the arts reflect the social movement all the time. The confusion in these western academic circles, I mean, you know, like these universities and these critics that are serving a White supremacy and imperialism notwithstanding, the arts are only a reflection of society. You know, so when you have a social upsurge you always have an artistic upsurge that reflects that, you know, so that the whole anti-slavery movement, you get the slave narratives, you know, the great speeches and, and, orators and rhetoric from the Black convention movement. When you have the whole Garvey, Du Bois, African Blood Brotherhood at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, you've got Harlem Renaissance, you know, Negritude, Negrismo, Negrism and all that stuff. In the '60s, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, SNCC, the Panthers, you have a Black arts movement that reflects that because the artists who are most sensitive to what the society is doing and particularly the people that they, you know, they draw their life sustenance from. The art movement has the same kind of desire, you know. The art wants the same thing so that the, it's not like Coltrane, whose breaking out of the, the standard stating of quote, you know, the American popular song as, jazz and jazz solo, is a classic kind of case because just like, ah, ah, Malcolm, moving through different levels of experience. I mean, you know, Malcolm one time was, you know, robber, you know, pimp, you know, used to sell drugs. He was intimate with all the musicians because he used to be their drug supplier, still he was a, a man of culture. This is incredible. He was a person who exemplified the African-American people in a way that those, you know, Civil Rights, in quotes, leaders chosen by, ah, White academics and White corporations could never be, which is why he was dangerous. You know, and, so Trane, I mean, he would come up, you know, out of the South, and, you know, church music, and then he went to Philadelphia, played with all the rhythm and blues groups, Big Maybelle and, you know, finally coming up through be-bop and Charlie Parker and then, finally, you know, had gone through that whole gamut of Black experience. So when he came to the point where, ah, the society, Black people generally were beginning to make a leap, you know, a kind of revolutionary leap in their thinking, ah, I mean his music paralleled that, I mean, you know, we used to stand up and listed to Trane play a 30 minute solo, you know what I mean. He wouldn't even know, ah, I mean, it was the time had past because it was all of that feeling, all of that energy, all of that striving and all of that, ah, ah, rage, all that beauty, ah, just reflected our own feelings at the time. And I think, ah, I always hoped to that Malcolm because of the fire that, you know. I mean Trane get down and start playing one of those, I mean just mind-crushing solos that would be screaming for 20 minutes, just screaming and screaming and screaming and screaming. You could hear, ah, say the rage in Black people talking about, you know, America. I mean you could hear not only Malcolm but you could hear, you know, somebody like a Rap Brown, you know, you might hear Stokely, you could hear, you know, the Panthers, I mean you could hear that, the rap, in other words, you know, and rap music, I guess, is a further extension of all that, that feeling. I mean it seems like it's the best part of us, that the poetry and the music that's coming to the '80s, you know, and you get somebody like Public Enemy talking about "It Takes a Nation of Millions (to Hold Us Back)". You can see that that is a continuum, you know, that it contains both politics and the art, in it. Even though, you know, people want to, you know, diminish it, but they don't understand that they diminish it the same way they diminishing us. You know, they diminish it like they diminish our children. I mean how can Public Enemy be serious since our children are dope addicts and unserious[SIC], you know what I mean?
I'm sorry. Let me cut here.
We're going to back into how Africa begins to effect and why Africa begins to affect culture and the politics there. And then I'm going to ask you after that when you first got sense of that personally.
How and why does Africa begin to affect the, um, the culture and the politics of African-Americans?
Well, I guess because the--
I'm sorry, if you could just mention the name.
About Africa, I think the whole African, ah, National Liberation struggle had intensified after the Second World War and, by the '50s, you know, you began to hear about people like Nkrumah. And, ah, then I think the, the most dramatic--I know for us the most dramatic thing--was, of course, Lumumba. What was that, 1961, something like that? When, you know, they killed Lumumba, at this time the United States was in charge of the U.N. and, ah, Lumumba was, of course, the first premier, independent nationalist premier of Belgian, had been the Belgian Congo, the Congo. Of course, Rockefeller and the Belgians, you know, the U.S. government colluded to kill him. Mobutu, a Negro that's in there now, is directly responsible. And so for a lot of young Black intellectuals that marked the kind of, ah, coming to consciousness, you know. I remember a lot of people went into the U.N. I remember I was picketing in front of the U.N. I met people who were writers that I had known were writers, I had met them, for instance Askia Toure, I had met them out there, you know, you know, a lot of people who were artists and, you know, scholars of one kind or another, just young Black people. Ah, the Lumumba thing, you know, sparked the kind of rise in consciousness you know and the resistance, I think, of--
Now, is that why you began to see the African dress and the, and the?
I think that's, it, it deepens from that point on, you know, I mean, Africa at that point didn't, the whole liberation struggles begin to be emphasized. People like Nkrumah, people like Kabra[SIC], people like Sekou Toure, they began to come into the, come to the fore, you know. And, ah, ah, of course the South African struggle, you know, there were people there and African revolution was gaining some kind of a place in, you know, young Black intellectuals' consciousness here in this country. And, ah, then of course, Malcolm talking about Africa and, you know, the Mau Mau Rebellion, you know, even, ah, in New York City, you know, which people think is relatively sophisticated, they used to have, ah, there used to just store. I remember on Broadway they used to have photographs in the windows, that were trying to depict the Mau Mau Rebellion, the way they way they try to depict the Palestinians now, some kind of mad terrorists, you know. And they had pictures of Kenyatta and pictures of the Mau Mau. They was supposed to be like taking White people's heads and you know, raping White nurses, you know, all kinds of, trying to make the, the Mau Mau seem like they were, ah, the beasts and the monsters, not the Belgians, who cut off people's hands, and not White supremacy and imperialism, which it is. And you know, even to this day, you know, with invasion of Grenada and so forth.
Are you saying that there's a different image that African-American--
Tell me the personal story of why you decided to change your name. What made you do that?
Well, we had been, ah, even more influenced by Africa, of course, the Nation of Islam and that whole question of, ah, African cultural revolution, you know, and the whole question of, ah, just, ah, Black consciousness, you know, was getting emphasized in the '60s. And, ah, after, ah, I got arrested in 1967 in the Newark rebellion, you know, and, ah, my head split open and my teeth knocked out, sent to jail and whatnot, I met the brother who had said the prayer over Malcolm, [ ]in Arabic. He came to my house. At the time, I was living on the other side of town on street. He came in there with some other people and said that if I was a leader I needed leading information, but anyway he, I mean, I was ripe for that. He wanted to give me this name which was Amiri Barakat which was Arabic, because they were Sunni Muslims. And since Malcolm had become a Sunni I was, you know, could be influenced by that to that extent and so, I thought it was good. I changed it further. I modified it and made it, you know, added the ban to it, a Swahili-ized it instead of Amiri Barakat which is Arabic, it became Amiri Baraka, which is the Swahili pronunciation because I was interested in the African emphasis. And, um, that was it , and, ah, we were identifying with Africa. We identified with revolution and, ah, even after I got a title, Imamu, and I belonged to a cultural nationalist organization, but all the kids that Amina and I had, they all had Swahili names, one got a urab[SIC]-name. It would be kind of out of character for me to be the only LeRoi walking around when I've got these Razas[SIC] and Aminas and Medis[SIC] and Shanis and Obilagis[SIC]--
So was it a big personal decision for you?
Well at the time it was, you know, part of the spirit of the time. The zeitgeist it was something we wanted to do Whatever we thought we had to do to do it, we were gonna do it. It didn't make any difference to us. The question of the slave name actually was kind of a, we thought of it as an honour to take on African names, you know to get rid of you know--and actually, if you look at our history, you'll find it's not the first time. Although Black people right up to the Civil War abandoned the slave master's name, they would take on Anglo sounding names, most of them. Some of them took on other names, but they would change their names anyway, because they didn't want to be named after their slave masters, so they would drop that name and take names. So Black people would change their names. See the thing about Black history is, why it's so important, is the things that we think that we're doing for the first time we find have been done before. Black people have burnt down every city, Black people have burned down every major city in the United States at least twice, except the ones that just got settled. I mean they burnt down New York city twice before the nineteenth century. I mean they had burnt it down in the eighteenth century. In terms of--they burnt down New Orleans and Birmingham and Atlanta for the same reasons. So in terms of our history, once you know it, you see that Black people have been trying to get out of this for a long time and they've been doing the same things.
Let's talk about images, what you did see in film and on radio, whatever in terms Black images as you've grown up? I'm talking about Tarzan and--
Well, that, I never, all of that stuff, it might have had an effect, but when I was a kid I always looked at that with a cold cast in my eye. I knew there was people making fun of us, you know.
I'm sorry could you back up and mention what you're talking about.
Oh, in terms of Black images, no that's why we were starved for them, because that's why when somebody like Poitier came onto the scene, later, in Belafonte we were so happy. Or even, the brother that came before him, James Edwards. We thought it positive, you know, kids because we never saw any. I mean that's one of the reasons we like Sabu in Terhan Bey, because they were colored looking, you know. I remember when Richard Conte, we used to identify with Richard Conte, because he was this dark-looking Italian, you know what I mean. But, you know, Tarzan and things like that, I mean we always knew that that was supposed to be some kind of, I mean I always knew that that was supposed to be a put on of us. And even Mantan Moreland, I mean, it drugged me that people thought that they could do that to us, you know. As a kid, it made me, ah, be kind of pissed off that people thought that they had the right to make us look like that. But at the same time I thought Mantan Moreland was funny. Same thing with, ah, the rest of those people that was poking fun at us, I thought they were funny. The problem was that I knew that the people who had them on were trying to ridicule us, so I always had that kind of a dual--I mean Mantan Moreland still has the most reasonable view about death that I've ever seen, you know, stay all the way away from it.
Do you think that those negative images, though, had an effect on the way we saw ourselves?
Well there's no doubt they would given that, in terms of the negative imagery, that it'd have an effect on us. There's no doubt that it does have some effect in the sense that it begins to, um, you see a parameter, a limit, you see what the society wants to make you. But usually in terms of those of us who, the great majority of Black people, I think that the great majority of us always knew that that was somebody else's limitation on us. I don't think we totally, I mean the ones who actually thought that they were those characters, we see them in public office and whatnot, those negroes with their little, you know, weak hearted, scary acting negroes. We can see them in our lives and they're a minority, and they've always been a minority. I mean most Black people saw that and always stood away from it and knew that that was um, people who didn't like us trying to make fun of us. Certainly if I didn't know it from just my perception, my parents and grandparents kept up a steady line of rap about it. There was no way you could get away from the dinner table and not know about everything that was going on that, White folks was trying to do to you because they would be running it down, they were not just sitting there passive, now.
Do you think it affected the way White folks saw us?
Well it, it affected, they saw us like that for two reasons for on--
I'm sorry if you could just--
Yeah, talking about did it affect the way White folks saw us. It reflected the way White folks saw us. Number one, you see the whole Amos and Andy and Beulah syndrome. It reflected their attempted caricature. What they didn't understand is that there was a legitimate humanity and humor that they wanted to ridicule that couldn't stand ridicule. They wouldn't understand it. For instance, when they had Stepin Fetchit come by and they ask, when one of these people was trying to get Stepin Fetchit to do work because Stepin Fetchit was trying to make conversation, and Stepin Fetchit wants to know "Is Franco still dead yet?" And that's a heavy question. See? And he's going to ask this man, is Franco still dead, if--Franco, of course, is the leader of the fascists. Now if the man is going to get off into a long dialogue about Franco being dead it might take five or ten minutes to get through that conversation, and Stepin Fetchit still hadn't done no work yet. He's just standing there. You know, so that's not lost on us.
If you could set the scene for me, 1968, a sense of the, the Nixon law and order, blue tanks and Agnew, COINTELPRO, that kind of thing. What does it mean for Black folks in '68?
1968. I think that we had this feeling of, full-out conflict, full-out war. I mean, Nixon, Agnew obviously were corrupt and mad. Police were killing Black activists, you know, certainly they were killing the Panthers. I mean, a kind of backward leadership had, ah, taken over from Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Cleaver had this kind of, ah, backward line of engagement where they would actually hole themselves up in these little places and be assaulted by the state.
Excuse me, if you could start that again, we will not have seen the Panthers, so if you'll just mention the Panthers and not get into it. So--
No, the thing about '68 is that we, it was, you know, a feeling of war. It was conflict. Nixon and Agnew, who on the face of it, were corrupt individuals and did not represent anything but violence and hatred of Black people. And I think that, ah, from '67 certainly the intensity of, of Black resistance, I mean, there was Black people getting killed every week. I mean, Black Panthers getting killed, Republic of New Africa, getting killed. All kinds of Black people getting locked up, rammed, people having to leave, Robert Williams, you know, Herman Ferguson, people in exile. Then people started getting murdered, you know. I mean they actually, ah, did a kind of bloodbath of the Black Liberation. I mean not only after the, the, Malcolm X thing, you know, but then all the people in between that, you know, Bobby Hutton, Ralph Featherstone and Fred Hampton, Medgar Evers, you know. They were murdering people. And I, my own view, is the people in the White House now, those far right Republicans, had a hand in that. I don't see, ah, why we wouldn't believe that this country could go so sharply to the right with only one Democrat being elected since Johnson, and that was Carter around Watergate, and now see that the whole wipeout of the Black Liberation Movement, and the other liberation movements, cause there was, you know, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, you know. They tried to destroy the Young Lords in the Puerto Rican community,you know, the Brown Berets in the Mexican community. And all these things were aimed at destroying, ah, the back of the resistance, the back of the anti-imperialist movement that now had joined the anti-war movement for a kind real serious kind of force.
So, why is it important, now, this is 1972, we've got the Nixon, Agnew oppression. Why do you feel it's important to have a Gary convention at this point, Black political convention?
Well I think the whole question of Black Power had, ah, arisen from even from King's marches and from the SNCC people, particularly Carmichael and the others. And, ah, the Black Power Conventions that Adam Powell had set in motion in Washington, the second one in '67 was in Newark, and in '68, Philly, and then '69 they had one in Bermuda, that the government of Bermuda banned most of the activists from even coming to. And so, 1970 Black Power Conference was transformed into the Congress of African People Meeting. And at the Congress of African People Meeting in Atlanta, a conference, a, a congress, a conference was called, ah, to be held in 1972. I was the person put in charge of putting it together, which would be a national convention to, you know, choose Black candidates, to try to organize Black political, you know, power development. And the Gary convention which had, you know, two, three thousand delegates, about eight thousand people there, was an attempt to do that, to set up a congressional structure, you know, how in terms of Black history, you know, about the convention movement and things like that.
Can't get into that, but let me ask you in terms of '72, why particularly '70, '72. Why '72?
Seventy-two was the--elections coming up--and what we felt is that if we could, ah, organize Black political participation. That we would have much more influence on, ah, American politics in '72. And so we had laid out a thing where we wanted to run candidates locally, you know, statewide and, you know, even have some kind of consistent national political influence on, you know, candidates running for Congress, Senate, mayors, and everything else to try to really get some kind of a consistent, you know, Black political presence, and that's what Gary was about. And if you remember we had Shirley Chisholm declared for President that year. And then she gave her, then she gave her, ah, support to, ah, ah, what was the Democrat's name who ran against...
No, that was the guy who lost so miserably. I can't think of his name. Got beat to death. But anyway, Gary, Gary demonstrated that the, not only the, that Black people felt that they needed some kind of organized national political representation, but that that was an important thing to do. But what, what wasn't scienced[SIC] out, or what we failed to be able to deal with, was the fact that the whole Black electoral movement, you know, which was headed up mostly by those middle class, Black politicians, that they would align themselves with the, ah, status quo institutions in many cases, and, ah.
Talk specifically about the Coleman Young walkout. I mean what, what's that about.
Well Coleman Young walked out because Coleman Young at the time was representing the United Auto Workers. He might still be representing the United Auto Workers as mayor of Detroit. But he walked out because somebody had proposed a, a Black union, where the unions wouldn't serve Black people, that there should be a Black union organized. So, Young, had to hit the silt because he represented, you know, the UAW, and so he pulled the whole Michigan delegation out. I was the Secretary General. I presiding on the floor and I didn't know what, what he was doing. So we had to call a recess, and I had to go back there and find out what was on his mind. And it turned out that was it.
What did he say to you when you went back?
Well, where he first wanted to get, you know, he was just going through this kind of like, quasi-hysteria about it, but, ah, when people hinted me to what was going on, and I talked to him and he calmed down. He had told me, "I can't go for this. I can't go for this." And he was assuming that I was pushing it. I mean people always assumed since I was the Secretary General that I was pushing the various resolutions on the floor when it was just my job to raise them and to get votes on them. Same thing with the question of Israel. Same thing with the question of busing. The same, they knew my position based on the way I was handling the floor vote, you know.
Well Cole--what did you think of as you see the walkout?
I didn't know what it was, I mean, you know,
I didn't know. I mean I saw Coleman Young, I, I didn't even know him at the time. I just know the Michigan delegation. They were one of the largest delegations in the, ah, convention. Because one thing that was done very well is that we had proportional representation by Black people, according to the number of Black people in a particular state. And we had, you know, delegates, and those delegates were elected, and they represented Black people in those states. And all the states were represented. It was amazing to me. It was really impressive. One of the most impressive things that I've ever seen throughout the whole convention center. Of course Richard Hatcher was the mayor at that time, so we had complete access to the town, you know, to the police and to the institutions and seeing that whole hall set up like that, with you know, the banners for each State, Black people being represented, passionately arguing for these points. I think it filled us all with, with a sense of deep, of self respect, knowing that, ah, ultimately the only thing keeping us down was the mad man's gun. That it wasn't anything else, that we knew exactly what we wanted, you know, and, ah, all we needed to develop was how to get there, you know.
So, in terms of Coleman, now, you're standing there at the podium and he's walking out. What are you thinking?
I just wanted to know, you know, it was my job to see that things were running smoothly in terms of the floor, you know, presiding on the floor. I think all three of us presided, Hatcher presided, Diggs presided and I would preside. That was kind of little triumvirate that we put together. One was electoral politician Diggs, on the congressional level, Hatcher represented local politics, and I represented activists, nationalists. And so we tried to keep their balance which I thought was a good formula for dealing with our different constituencies. But, I didn't know what, what the Michigan thing. There were so many different kinds of wild things going on. At one point Roy Innes--
I'm sorry, if you could--
--kind of demonstrations.
Yeah, if you could just keep on for a second, because we have the footage going on. If you could just talk about you think about when you see that happening.
Well, I didn't know what to make of it. Later, I, you know, I attributed very negative things to it knowing that it was just the UAW demonstrating against Black organizing.
But when you're standing there, you're looking at it, what are you thinking?
I just think like I think that I always think, somehow my job to do something about it. I mean it's an intimidating, this crazy, you know, thing that's happening has got to be dealt with, you know. So I called a recess, you know, and said, "We've got to deal with this. These people are walking off." I don't know how many delegates, one hundred and some delegates getting up, walking off the floor. You know obviously, I guess like they would do at any big convention. You're going to have to call it to a halt. I think we called it to a halt another time when I was up there, they called and said there was bomb in there. We had to call it to a halt again. Although to tell you the truth, I wasn't going to call it to a halt, with the bomb scare, until the police came out, the Black Police Chief, saying, "You better call it for a couple of minutes," because I didn't think there was a bomb. I thought it was just, you know, racists at work, which it proved to be.
The other thing you mentioned, Diggs. Now at one point on Saturday, Diggs does this thing where he overrides a voice vote, um, I think it was on the agenda, and you were then, and it's almost a sense of unraveling. And you then go to the delegations that night. Can you talk about that?
Well you see there was always, already that kind of internecine struggle between, you know, the forces of electoral politics, little petty bourgeois status quo, Negroes, although I thought Charlie Diggs finally came a long way in, in, in trying to be more sympathetic to the mass line, and I think he paid for that, you know, cause he was supposed to be chairman of the House Committee on Africa and then they bounced him out of there, you know, just about that time, which is what they do. Which is a pattern.
But then you go to the delegations, what happens that night?
Well, I have to convince them not to, ah--
Sorry, if you could mention it.
I mean I went to the delegations to try to find out if, ah, how people wanted to handle that. People obviously were angry at the way it was handled, ah, the electoral politicians had certain things that they refused to deal with. I mean they no longer saw it as their constituencies although that was their line that it was their constituencies that they were reacting to. They were really reacting to their relationship with the United States government in some kind of way. Certainly the lines, they would find embarrassing. The NAACP disassociated themselves from the convention, the day before the convention opened, we hadn't said a word. Roy Wilkins came out with an editorial saying he wanted to have nothing to do with us, you know what I mean. Ah, but the electoral politicians who had to be drawn in it because we drew them into it, we knew what we were doing,I mean the activists, the nationalists, we drew the electoral politicians into it because they wanted a national strategy and there was no other way to go except the way we were proposing. But once they get in there on the floor some of the questions they came up with were controversial, the thing on busing, the thing on Israel, for instance, the thing on the unions, the whole thing about a Black political party. Jesse Jackson, for instance, got up and, and, ah resolved that we should do, you know, declare, Black political party. Percy Sutton got up and talked about a, a, ah, a Black Presidential Campaign to nationalize the votes, we can see which way won out, Percy Sutton's won out.
Did you support the idea of the third party?
Always, sure, sure.
We thought that what we were doing was providing the transitional form for a third party. And we thought about National Black Assembly, national political council, in my mind, I thought that what we were trying to set up was a kind of, ah, ah, focused headquarters, if you will, a kind of developmental outpost for the beginnings of a third party. I mean it's no secret that most of us thought--
So, why does the idea of a third party not get endorsed by the, by the convention?
Well, there was a furious struggle over it. It came up
--in many different ways and the idea of a third party did come up repeatedly. The idea of a third party, either a Black political party, variations of that, it came up. But you see as I said, the electoral politicians in the committee remained in the Democratic Party, some to the Republican Party. The Republican Party, they were opposed to that, you see. Jesse Jackson, as I said, came up with the idea. He supported the idea of a Black political party, ah, the Black bourgeoisie, on the other hand, Percy Sutton came up with the idea of, of nationalizing the Black vote by running a Black candidate, which of course, is an idea whose time has come for the last eight years with Jesse Jackson. Now Jesse's taken that line, which was Percy Sutton's line. But I think it was the electoral politicians, the Black caucus, ah, that militated[SIC], you know, and, and the various kind of electoral politicians who were connected. One of the parties, the mainly Democrat, who always militated[SIC] against an independent party because they always saw their particular interests hooked up with the Democrats or the Republicans. It's still the same way.
How did you feel about that yourself? I mean what did you--
I didn't like that. You know, and I still think that's a, a debilitating factor in, ah, Black Liberation Movement, that our so-called representatives are more hooked up to Democrats and Republicans than they are to the evolution and development of the Black Liberation Movement. That is, ah, very negative and it must be opposed.
Go back again for me to the, to when you're going that night, delegation after delegation after delegation, to try and keep them together because you're afraid that it might unravel. Can you give me a description of that?
Well, a lot of the delegates felt, you know, the masses felt that they had been, ah, used. That they had been betrayed...
--that they'd been...
A lot of the delegates thought they'd been, ah, treated undemocratically, that they'd been roughed off, chumped off by, you know, Black electorate officials, Black elected officials. Charlie Diggs was up there and he was, you know, chairing and you see there was the perception that whoever was chairing was running the meeting, you know. Although, it was true to a certain extent, you know, that Diggs and his electoral folks did not want certain things to come up, did not want them to get voted on, and their, ah, line of reasoning was that if you take this position, you're going to destroy this, ah, organization or this, ah, united front attempt. You're going to destroy it as a mass vehicle because, ah, people will shy away from it. Well obviously they were talking about their relationship to, ah, the mass media and their relationship to the Democratic Party, more than they were talking their relationship to Black people. Because I don't think the majority of Black people shied away from the idea of a Black political party.
And what do you do? I mean to describe that night of going because people tell me you were tireless. You just went delegation to delegation.
Well, I would, you know, that was, I saw that as my job. I was trying to see that, ah, the majority who I always thought of as that, I, I was going to speak for because I wasn't an elected official. I wasn't a mayor or wasn't a congressman but I was a Black Nationalist. I was an activist. And I thought a lot of those people had come to Gary because of our organizing, our, you know, pleading with people to come and, you know, be part of a whole Black political development. And I thought it was important that the thing, not fly apart. That we talk to the people and find out, ah, what could be done other than, you know, just walking out, you know, just, ah, breaking down into, you know, let's say, even worse, ah, tactics. Because, you know, I mean.
Tell me what you do then? What do you do?
What do I do when I talk to them?
Yeah, no, what do you do when you decide I've got to keep this from unraveling, what do you do?
Well, you know--
We're going back in the sense that it might unravel and what you specifically do about warring delegations--
--trying to deal with what their concerns are. OK.
OK, if you can describe going around to each of the delegations to try and keep it from unraveling.
Well, it was a question of a lot of people felt, ah, ah, that they had really just been dismissed, and deprived of their democracy by way of the elected officials through Diggs, were, you know handling this particular question. I don't remember what the question was, was it the question of busing or the question of Israel or the question of Black Party, one of those things because they were the ones that were really, you know, controversial. But a lot of people felt that that wasn't right. That the things should be struggled out, and, and, you know, the elected officials were using their, ah, slick parliamentary manner, and, and the fact that they were organized, to try to keep things from getting said and resolved that would embarrass them in terms of their relationship with the Democratic Party and the media and so forth and so on. Although they would always cite their constituency, who we were supposed to be in the first place, as the reason that they didn't. So I was in, in the main trying to, ah, ah, discuss with people, you know, what they thought, how they were going to approach it, ah--
And how did you do that?
But I didn't think that--just by talking to the leaders of the delegations, the heads of the delegations--
Well, you know, you'd find that, you know, you'd talk to people who, ah--
I'm sorry, if you could set the stage. Because see the sense I got was that that night, you had been up all night and you're going delegation, I want people to know that.
Yeah. Well, it was, everybody was, I mean after those meetings people wouldn't go to sleep. They would caucus, and each State would caucus, you know, and, and, then there would caucuses inside the caucuses because then we'd have the elected officials caucusing inside the state, and then you'd have the Black nationalists caucusing inside there. And a lot of times there was, there was Marxists or somebody else, they'd be caucusing. So, I'd have to get to the, the heads of the various kinds of power focuses, you know, in there and find out what each thought they were going to do, and whether there was some kind of, whether we were going to have some kind of accord. Whether there was going to be a united front or whether there were going to have crazy, you know, what they were going to do. Whether you were going to put up a resolution or are you going to walk out, or what you going to do, and trying to get some kind of accord really. I guess, like, ah, you would do if you were Speaker of the House in the regular thing, you'd go around, and you'd try to get people to understand, you know, what the greater good is, and to see that we have to be in this and that. I didn't like what was done, you know, and I'm talking to them and we discussing it, and we go and try to find out, ah, how democratic procedures are going to go on here because I can't go on. You know and trying to, you know, at one hand, ah, ah, relate to my own constituency, you know, which in terms of Black activists, nationalists, and so forth, the people who were not elected officially, the masses of people. And to, in, in other words, give them a sense that we were not going to be just misused, but at the same time I thought that trying to hold, ah, a convention together, the national Black Assembly together, that I thought, I believed that was a good idea. It was an important idea, and we had to be willing to fight in there with these people and not just not, you know, nut out, and throw up our hands, you know. So it was a, it was a kind of an endless talking to people in delegation after delegation, because I thought that it had to be done, particularly in delegations where you saw people had real problems, you know, where, there were delegations who were protesting, or delegations who were threatening to walk out, delegations who had had resolutions that couldn't be heard, things like that, you know. So you had whole piles of papers that, ah, characterized different delegations. And then I would recognize, from, you know, standing on the floor, serving, you could see problems in different delegations where there were people were bringing me messages and sending me messages saying, you know, New York wants to talk, you know, Illinois is going to walk, you know. South Carolina says so and so. And so you'd have to look at these papers and you'd have to play fireman with both of these different delegations, and find out what their story was, why, you know. And then there might be independent groups like Roy Innes in CORE, who got some other kind of like half-baked scheme that they wanted to try, and, ah, mash on people, you know like this. And then, you know, people want to get into all kinds of pushing and shoving and, on one hand, like Bill's kind of, ah, real, uninformed types, you know. So, it, it's the gamut of political reaction. And if you're going to manage it, if you're going to see it, if you're going to be the Secretary General, I took the job seriously, then you're going to have to deal with all those people who see that come time for that gavel to hit, everybody that sitting there and everybody was ready to go and that they were, they were there for business, no matter how drugged they might be, you know, Brother so-and-so or Mayor so-and-so, that they was ready to do business and that they would be there, you know what I mean. And the thing was going to go on and was going to follow the agenda and that's really what it's, what it's like.
Now the slogan out of the conference is Unity Without Uniformity. Could you mention the slogan, just talk about what that meant.
Well actually that slogan came form Ron Karenga.
I'm sorry, mention the slogan.
Yeah, Unity Without Uniformity, and, ah, I had gotten, you know, associated influence by Karenga, influences associated with Karenga back in, what was it, '67, you know, about that time and, ah, that was one of the slogans that in his so-called doctrine, Unity Without Uniformity, which actually is the United Front, which meant that people had the right to maintain their own political views even though they would submit in a united front formation to, ah, the greater need that they could agree on. You understand what I mean? That, it didn't mean you had to completely abolish your views but that there was an area in which you could submit to common kind of, you know, common accord, you know, common, ah, discussion and diplomacy, negotiation for the sake of everybody's, ah, development. And so even though Karenga and I had separated by then--
I'm going to ask you what it accomplished, but if you do it in terms of--
--in years, within the time period we're talking about because you can't really go up to what Jesse's doing now.
What do you mean?
In terms of what Gary accomplished. You can't really talk about it in the context of Jesse.
The last day at Gary, you've been through all this. What is[SIC] you're feeling as you're leaving Gary?
Well, I had been given a job to do. The assembly voted that I had to go down to Miami and see that the, ah, Black agenda, which we put together, which was printed, we tried to get John Johnson , everything printed and distributed, but we printed it, and that it was the demands that the Black delegates made of any, ah, candidates who wanted their vote, president and so forth and so on. Unfortunately, we got down to Miami, most of the Black politicians didn't do nothing--
I'm sorry. What I do need is to get that sense of what you're feeling that day.
Well, I, Gary I felt that that was one, one, long and positive step that we had accomplished. I thought that Gary was something that we had done that had been very positive and that, ah, now was the next step because I always thought in terms of increments and steps and degrees. And it was, you know, like any journey, to get there you had to take a series of steps, and I thought Gary represented a large step forward and since I had been given responsibilities that would pass Gary, it simply meant that I would get ready for the next gig.
And personally, I mean did you feel tired, did you feel jubilant?
Well, I mean tiredness is always, I think, you know, the physical part that is momentary. You feel really now, ah, beginning to get your mind ready to analyze what has to be done now. What are the new tasks, you know, what folks do you have to contact, you know. What things do you have to do. You begin to sum up and take a postmortem, at the same time, you know, congratulating, ah, people, I guess yourself to a certain extent. But, you know, I think there was a deep feeling for the people involved that we felt, I think, great respect for each other, because it was a large project and it meant coordinating a great many Black people from all over the world. And to see that done and to see that done with such impact was a deeply satisfying feeling. We felt for sure that, you know, we were, you know on the winning track, without a doubt.
OK, cut, that's nice.
All right, if you could talk about your work in the late '60s early '70s, before '71, ah, in the, in the, in the prisons, but particularly the New York state prisons, and what kind of transformation you've seen within the Black prisons?
Well, you mean Black prisoners. There was a great, ah, spirit of, ah, comradery and solidarity in the '60s and the early '70s, and people on the outside and people in the prison, because there were so many people getting arrested in the '60s. People were locked up in demonstrations. People were locked up in various organizations, ah, organizations were always going in, talking in the prisons to the extent that they could. I remember we organized a great deal in Trenton state and Rahway, here, not to mention we were locked up in some of them, most of them. I know we were in Rikers and Sing Sing. Then there's a woman's prison over near New York by the, ah, West Side waterfront where we went in speaking. I didn't even know it existed. But we've been in prisons to speak, and I know the activists always looked at prison as one way of reaching a kind of, potentially militant brothers and sisters who were already locked up, who had been, I'm going to say disillusioned by America, or been disabused of their illusions about America. And many times we were jailed, either illegally or jailed simply based on White supremacy, and, um, we always thought of the jails as a, as a, kind of explosive, um, ah, resource for um, you know, revolutionary change. Certainly people like Malcolm X had come out of prison and, the Nation of Islam had done a great job of, you know, transforming a lot of people who had been in prison, and some people in prison, you know, had been in the Panthers and things like that. So we saw revolutionary activity as a means of transforming prisoners into revolutionaries and so the,you know, the program of going into prisons organizing and speaking.
And do you begin to see a change in the late '60s for example, within the prison popular, are they reading or are they, what kind of things are you seeing?
Well in the prison, you get the change in the movement, that the, the people are the same essentially, the movement itself changes when the movement goes into decline, the relationship between say movement activists and prison activists declines, I mean, just like the Black family gets weaker. I mean it's all related to the question of social organization within the group. When the social organization of the group is more revolutionary, you know, you see more progressive and positive, you know, dimensions and definition to the group.
So, in terms of examples, now, when you're going into, say, the New York city prisons, what do you see the prisoners doing that is changing then.
Organizing. You know before you'd see more prisoners laid back, you know, just doing their time, you know.
I'm sorry. In the late si--before Attica for example there's that whole prison movement around George Jackson. What are you beginning to see prisoners doing in terms of reading, in terms of being open to what's going on around the Black consciousness movement?
Like I said, there was a big connection between the movement and the prisoners because a lot of people in the movement were getting locked up, and so they would be carrying that message into the prisons, and a lot of people were locked up directly related to movement activities and so when they put them in prisons, it became, you know, a place where you could organize. And then when I was locked up in Trenton, ah, the police did everything they could to put me in solitary, I dodged that, but when I was in Newark, ah, the pen over here in Newark, Essex County pen, they put me in solitary. They never wanted to have, um, the activists in the population, you see what I mean, but it didn't matter. There were still strong ties between militant activity and the people in prison because the people in the prison would resent the fact they were in prison in the first place. Particularly if they were there around, ah, revolutionary activities. So there was a stronger tie and as the revolutionary motion began to stall out, you know the murders of Malcolm, the murders of Dr. King, the murders of, ah, wholesale murders and slaughters and Panthers and activists and lock-ups of people. Then, ah, like the movement itself you begin to get a stalling and a reactionary kind of tone sets in.
Now when you get somebody like a George Jackson who is beginning to, to talk about reading, those kinds of things, are you seeing that also when you go into prison?
Well you always saw that. It depends on the focus, I mean, Bumpy Johnson, when he went to Alcatraz for twelve years, I mean, he educated himself, he had, I guess, a triple post doc in literature and,you know, world culture. I mean based on people who were locked up, like Malcolm said he read the dictionary when he was in prison. I mean people make use of their time depending on their consciousness in prison and you find some very well-educated people in prison because they got the time, to do that, but during the period of revolutionary insurgence, the kind of focus of that reading becomes different, people that are reading, you know, [Frantz] Fanon, Malcolm X doctrines and so forth and so on and uh Nkrumah and,you know, the whole question of, of, of organizing in prisons and leading the prison movement to liberation movements, this becomes much more of, of, of the time. The Nation of Islam was always well organized in prisons, ah, some of the other organizations, like I said in New Jersey we were well-organized in prisons Congress of African People were after the people. We had teachers in the major prisons who went there every week, you know, teaching,you know, about the cultural revolution and the Black liberation movement and things like that. So there was a closer tie based on, ah, the revolutionary,you know, um, character of the times.
And do you remember seeing that when you went into the prisons? Do you remember--I mean, how would you see that?
By the way they were organized. They had many different organizations. The inmates were organized into different organizations, like I said, they had the Nation of Islam, The Congress of African People, The Black Panther Party, they had them in the prisons. They had, you know, a prison Black Panthers, a prison Nation of Islam, a prison Congress of African People, you know the same things you saw on the outside. Now in the inside there's still, ah, Black consciousness movements but not nearly as many as there were. The nation is probably still there, not as much as it was, but you see more people now who you say it's the same as the outside, meaning the people is smoking as much dope, or shooting as much dope inside as they are outside. That's true. But you still have a core of people who develop their consciousness when they're in prison because, you know, they're in school. They see it as a school and not just a prison.
And, again back to Malcolm, particularly since you mentioned that. What, OK, could you tell me again, what was your image of Malcolm, then, before he gets assassinated?
My image of him? I thought he was a maximum leader--
I'm sorry, if you could mention Malcolm's name.
Malcolm X, I saw him as the maximum leader of the movement. I saw him as the spearhead, as the kind of, you know, really I think that sums it up, as the kind of leader, both inspirational and in terms of political, that he was the spearhead of the movement and the cutting edge of it.
Is he beginning to take promise in terms of, as opposed to what you're saying with Dr. King, or--?
Well for me, Dr. King, I, when I was a young man, I never really, ah, approved of Dr. King. What Dr. King did, I always saw that as something imposed upon us by people thinking that we had to qualify to be free. I never agreed with that. I just recently came to see Dr. King in a more progressive light, because Dr. King was much more progressive than even the image that was given out by his sycophants fans and followers, you see. But make no mistake, Dr. King was a positive force in our movement. The fact that a whole lot of these preachers think they can do the same thing, just stand in the pulpit, is not true. Dr. King was an activist, you know, and he was--
I'm sorry, we're cut. I just want to do one more question.
You had talked earlier about the image of people, you know, the sit-ins, getting beaten, in and that whole sense of not being able to retaliate. Can you put Malcolm's image, for you, in that context, that he was a different kind of voice?
He represented a different class of people. Yeah. I mean, Malcolm represented a different class of people that I identify with. He represented the masses of people. Masses of Black people who never were willing to sit still and be spit on. They'd be brutalized so that they could appear to be, you know, civilized to White people, the most uncivilized people on the planet. So that, you know, a lot of us when we were young, rejected that, you know, that idea somehow. Because Black people had never been violent in that sense. You know, our protests in the main were nonviolent. When Black people got violent, then you would know about it, you know. So that, that, that never appealed to me. What appealed to me about Dr. King later was the way I began to understand his thinking as it developed around, ah, the question of Vietnam, the question about activism. Finally, when he began to talk about Ivan Franko, to deal with the whole issues of the workers, you know, which finally got him killed. The Memphis garbage strike. You know, then he became much more dangerous to the establishment, but I think then I began to see King in a little different way.
And how was Malcolm a different voice for you at this point?
Malcolm, to me, represented the masses of people straight on. You know, he was trying to talk about self-determination and self-defense and self-respect. He wasn't trying to ah, ah, appease you know, any part of the establishment. That's essentially it. The est-establishment of the White supremacist establishment was corrupt, and the Negroes attached to it were corrupt. That's what I thought. That's what I feel now. And I thought that when King first appeared, too much of what he said appeared to be couched in the rhetoric of the Black establishment as it kowtowed to the White establishment. You know, and later on, as I said, I began to see King in a different light based on his activism and based on the fact of the development of his thought.
And how is Malcolm different from that?
That he never represented that, represented to me straight-out resistance to racism, imperialism.