Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Detroit Tribute to Dr. Imari Obadele, Co-Founder of the RNA and Leader in the Modern Reparations Movement

Detroit Tribute to Dr. Imari Obadele, Co-Founder of the RNA and Leader in the Modern Reparations Movement

Hundreds gather at New Bethel to pay tribute on African Liberation Day

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

African Liberation Day in Detroit opened this year on May 28 at the Historic New Bethel Baptist Church with a tribute to Dr. Imari Obadele, formerly known as Richard Bullock Henry, who passed away on Jan. 18 in Atlanta. Obadele was 79.

The event was attended by hundreds of local and national activists. Speakers at the meeting included Atty. Chokwe Lumumba, who is currently a City Councilman in Jackson, Mississippi, Akbar Muhammad, the International Representative of the Nation of Islam, Dr. Ron Karenga of the US organization and professor at the University of California, Dr. Gloria Aneb House, Chair of African-American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, who chaired the gathering.

Born in Philadelphia, Obadele later moved to Detroit where he made his mark in civil rights and black nationalist politics during the 1950s and 1960s. Obadele, along with his brother, Atty. Milton Henry, were key organizers in the groundbreaking “Walk to Freedom” in Detroit that was held on June 23, 1963.

This march was the first major mass mobilization of the post World War II period drawing over 200,000 people demanding the elimination racial segregation and full employment for African-Americans. This demonstration was led by the Rev. C.L. Franklin, the then pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, the Rev. Albert B. Cleage, pastor of the Central Congregational Church (which later became the Shrines of the Black Madonna and the Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

It was at this demonstration in Detroit that Dr. King first delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The address was released on the Detroit-based Motown Records shortly afterwards. King would later deliver a similar speech in the nation’s capital on August 28, 1963 after the famous “March on Washington.”

Shortly after the Detroit march of 1963, Obadele would move more sharply towards a black nationalist orientation. The Group on Advanced Leadership (GOAL), which was co-founded by Obadele along with his brother Milton, supported the independent Freedom Now Party that ran candidates for local and state-wide office in 1964.

In November 1963, GOAL invited the then Nation of Islam national spokesman Malcolm X to Detroit where he delivered his “Message to the Grassroots” speech that would also be released on record and widely circulated during the period.

Obadele became a national organizer in the burgeoning nationalist movement of the 1960s. He would attend the Black Power Conference held in Newark, New Jersey right in the aftermath of the rebellion that took place in that city in July 1967.

During the Detroit rebellion, which took place less than two weeks after the one in Newark and gained notoriety as the largest outbreak of urban civil unrest up until that time period in U.S. history, Obadele and other leaders put forward a series of demands calling for self-determination for the African-American community in the city.

Obadele, who was a key leader in the Malcolm X Society in Detroit, wrote his first book entitled “War in America” during the rebellion of July 1967. Several months later on March 31, 1968, Obadele and other leaders and organizers in the Black liberation movement founded the Republic of New Africa (RNA) at the 20 Grand Motel in Detroit.

The RNA called for the creation of an independent state for Africans in the United States that would be based in five southern states. A letter was delivered by Obadele to the State Department in Washington several days later demanding that the U.S. enter into negotiations with the RNA for the creation of such a state. The founding of the RNA took place just five days prior to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Delegates at the founding conference of the RNA elected Robert F. Williams as its president in exile. Williams was living at that time in the People’s Republic of China after being driven out of the state of North Carolina and the U.S. for taking up arms against white racist vigilantes in the South.

At the first anniversary gathering of the RNA held at New Bethel Baptist Church on March 29, 1969, two white Detroit police officers were shot, one fatally, outside the building on Linwood Avenue on Detroit’s west side. This area had been the epicenter of the 1967 rebellion.

Reports on the incident would indicate that several armed guards from the RNA, known as the Black Legionaires, were escorting Obadele out of the church after the meeting was over when the police driving in a squad car attempted to approach and question the group. The officers were fired on which shortly prompted a massive police raid on the church where hundreds of rounds were discharged and nearly 150 people were arrested.

Soon afterwards, Rev. C.L. Franklin, State Representative James Del Rio and Recorder’s Court Judge George Crockett, Jr. went to the police station where the RNA members and supporters were being held. Judge Crockett set up court at the detention facility and released all of the RNA members and supporters jailed stating that the arrests were a violation of the fourth amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibiting illegal search and seizure.

The release of the participants at the RNA meeting held in the New Bethel Baptist Church sparked outrage by the police and the white establishment in Detroit. The police demanded the recall of Judge Crockett and he was forced to travel for several months with a bodyguard.

Turning Point in Detroit History

Nonetheless, the so-called “New Bethel Incident” would galvanize the African-American community politically. The first Black United Front was formed and Judge Crockett was defended by a broad section of the African-American community in the city.

Three people who were charged in the shooting of the police officers were acquitted and the coalition which developed in the aftermath of the shooting would lay the groundwork for the eventual election of the city’s first African-American mayor, State Senator Coleman A. Young in 1973. Young had been a veteran labor organizer and leftist with close ties with the Communist Party USA.

Crockett, who had served time during the 1950s for his role as a lawyer in defending members of the Communist Party during the Smith Act trials, would later be elected to the U.S. Congress during the 1980s. Young served as mayor of Detroit for two decades and ushered in a new era of African-American political empowerment in the city.

RNA Moves South

In 1971, Obadele led several members of the RNA to Jackson, Mississippi where they attempted to put their theory of establishing an independent black nation in the South into practice. They would soon be attacked by the local police and the FBI on August 18, 1971.

The RNA members defended themselves again resulting in the death of a Mississippi police officer. Obadele and other members of the RNA were put on trial for murder and conspiracy.

The RNA 11 case would gain national support from various segments of the African-American community in the United States as well as Amnesty International, which described the RNA leader as a political prisoner. Obadele, who was not at the location of the shoot-out, later served five years in prison for conspiracy in Mississippi.

Obadele was released from prison in 1979 and went on to earn a Ph.D in political science at Temple University in Philadelphia. He remained an activist and theoretician in the black nationalist movement and worked as a professor at two higher educational institutions in Ohio and Texas.

Later during the 1980s, he was a co-founder of the National Coalition for Black Reparations in America (NCOBRA). The organization helped to popularize the demand for reparations stemming from unpaid labor during slavery.

Obadele was a prolific writer and published a number of books and pamphlets including “Foundations of the Black Nation” during the 1970s. Obadele was survived by his daughters Marilyn Obadele and Vivian Gafford and his sons Imari II and Freddy Sterling Young as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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