Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural Center and Bookstore on July 16, 2011. He spoke at the conference on preemptive prosecution. (Photo: Andrea Egypt), a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Overcoming Government Repression in the African American Struggle
From slavery and post-reconstruction to the 21st century
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
PANW Note: The following address was delivered at the Conference on "Resisting Profiling, Preemptive Prosecution, and Prisoner Abuse" held at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural Center and Bookstore in Detroit on July 16, 2011. The event featured speakers from around the United States including Tom Burke of the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, Tamer Mehenna, Sharmin Sadequee and Mel Underbakke of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, Dawud Walid, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) of Michigan, Steve Downs of Project Salam, Shahid Buttar of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, US Congressman Hansen Clarke, Efia Nwangaza of the US Human Rights Network and Debbie Johnson of the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice (MECAWI).
This forum today is very important because it links the centuries-old racist policies implemented by the United States against Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos and other oppressed nations with the escalation in repression against Muslims, immigrants and international solidarity activists. It is essential during this period that these struggles against repression and for freedom of speech and association are brought together under one umbrella.
What we need more than ever in the United States is a broad-based alliance to fight the excesses of government interference in the affairs of oppressed and minority groups. It is the job of the ruling class inside this country to divide and conquer each group separately and to deny that there is a concerted plan to escalate coercive mechanism that further the exploitation of the majority of people in the U.S. and around the world.
In fact the domestic policy of a particular state is always reflected in its foreign policy. This is profoundly illustrated in the current period where the repression against Muslims, immigrants, African Americans and others are utilized to justify imperialist wars in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
It is no accident that intense conflicts initiated by the U.S. are being carried out against countries that have predominantly Muslim populations and people of color. This war is also going inside the U.S. against these same oppressed groups who have historically been subjected to racism, exploitation and state repression.
Almost every week the corporate media in the U.S. reveals another purported “terrorist plot” that always seem to involve Muslims. This is done without any real motivation being cited other than hatred towards the values and institutions of the country.
What is also significant about the ongoing round-ups of Muslims in the U.S. is that the corporate media does not draw any parallels between the plight of the Islamic community and that of immigrants, African Americans and social activists. All of these constituencies are under increasing levels of repression.
Inside the U.S. approximately 2.5 million people are incarcerated in prisons and jails. In addition, millions more are under the supervision of some law-enforcement agency, public institution or school system. Schools are being turned into prisons as well as neighborhoods where people are encouraged to become informants to the police and other repressive entities.
Slavery, Civil War and the Failure of Reconstruction
With specific regard to the African American people, the legacy of slavery is still very much a part of the overall social fabric of the United States. Between 1619 and 1865, millions of Africans were enslaved by the British and the Americans.
The enslavement of Africans in the U.S. was not only given legal sanction but it was pivotal in building the country into the largest and most powerful industrial state in the world. As African American historian and social scientist W.E.B. DuBois noted in his seminal work entitled “Black Reconstruction in America,” “The giant forces of water and of steam were harnessed to do the world’s work, and the black workers of America bent at the bottom of a growing pyramid of commerce and industry; and they not only could not be spared, if this new economic organization was to expand, but rather they became the cause of new political demands and alignments, of new dreams of power and visions of empire.” (p. 5)
DuBois also pointed out that “Black labor became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure, but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-wide scale; new cities were built on the results of black labor, and a new labor problem, involving all white labor, arose both in Europe and America.” (p. 5)
In the aftermath of slavery, which took a four year bloody civil war to end between 1861-1865, the country’s leaders failed to reconstruct democracy based on full equality and self-determination for the African American people. Immediately after the Civil War the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations were formed in an attempt to put Blacks back into slavery.
With the withdrawal of federal troops from the South after the elections of 1876, the court of “Judge Lynch” became the order of the day. Between the 1880s and the Great Depression of the 1930s, at least 5,000 Africans were lynched in the United States.
These repressive measures were reinforced with draconian laws that institutionalized the subordination of the African people to the white-dominated ruling class. Segregation was carried out in order to better refine the system of labor exploitation of both African American and white workers and farmers.
It was in this social context that the first internationally renowned movement against repression was given birth. This struggle was spearheaded by Ida B. Wells-Barnett who was born in one of the most repressive states in the country, Mississippi, during the civil war. She would later move to Memphis, Tennessee to become a journalist and educator.
Due to racist repression, Wells-Barnett was fired from her teaching job and eventually the newspaper she started had its office in Memphis ordered closed by a racist judge and firebombed in 1893. She would travel throughout the U.S. and the UK during the 1890s spreading the gospel on the need to build a movement against repression.
During World War I there was an escalation in racist violence against African Americans. In 1917, a group of Black servicemen in Houston were fired upon by a white mob. The African American soldiers returned fire and were later arrested and court-martialed resulting in twelve of them being hanged.
Wells-Barnett set out to organize protests against this travesty of justice. She developed a button that criticized the U.S. military for its action. She was later visited by agents of the government and ordered to stop circulating the buttons or be arrested.
In her autobiography entitled “Crusade for Justice,” she recounted the encounter with the secret service agents saying “I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I have said. I would consider it an honor to spend whatever years are necessary in prison as the one member of the race who protested rather than to be with all the 11,999,999 Negroes who didn’t go to prison because they kept their mouths shut.” (p. 370)
The Great Migration and the Repression in the Cities
Between the years leading up to World War I and the 1960s, millions of African Americans migrated from the South to the North and West of the United States. This is noted as one of the greatest movements in any industrialized state which resulted from the determination of an oppressed people to seek freedom.
Nonetheless, the conditions prevailing in the cities for African Americans were just as bad if not worse than those in the rural areas of the South. This realization sparked the development of many social movements aimed at self-determination and social emancipation.
For the purpose of the short period in which we examine these issues today, let us put a human face on the role of repression meted out by the U.S. government and the corporate community designed to keep the African American people in these same oppressive conditions.
Hubert Harrison—This writer, orator and organizer was born in the Danish-controlled Caribbean island of St. Croix which was later purchased by the U.S. during World War I. Harrison migrated to the U.S. during the first decade of the 20th century and plunged into social movements that challenged the powers that be during the period. His outspoken efforts as a radical resulted in him losing his job with the postal service, crippling his ability to earn a decent living. Harrison was an orator of legendary proportions and served as an organizer for various organizations including the Socialist Party, the Garvey Movement, among others.
Marcus Garvey—Born on the Caribbean island of Jamaica, he came to the U.S. in 1916 seeking to raise funds to build an industrial school for Africans in that former British colony. He would eventually work with the people such as Hubert Harrison and build the largest mass movement to date in the U.S. In order to curb his influence, Garvey was arrested and framed on mail fraud charges and would spend two years in prison before he was deported in 1927. It was the FBI founder and director, J. Edgar Hoover, who would gain his repudiation for undermining Garvey and his movement.
Claudia Jones—This brilliant woman was born in Trinidad and migrated to the United States where she became involved in left movements. She became a journalist and leading theoretician on the race and gender questions. She is credited for developing the notion of the triple oppression of African American women which took the national, class and gender subordination of black women into consideration in formulating a program of struggle.
Jones was investigated by the FBI and eventually arrested for immigration violations. She would later be a defendant in the 1951 Smith Act trial purportedly for conspiring to violently overthrow the U.S. government. She was imprisoned again for a year and deported to England in 1955 where she died ten years later.
Shirley Graham DuBois—A playwright, biographer, theoretician and organizer, she was the second wife of W.E.B. DuBois. Her efforts would prove instrumental in helping W.E.B. DuBois avoid prison when he was over 80 years old. However, the couple’s passports were confiscated between 1950-1958 and consequently they could not travel outside the U.S. The DuBois’ would take up citizenship in Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah in 1960 where W.E.B. would die in 1963 at the age of 95.
Shirley Graham DuBois would become director of Ghana National Television between 1964-66, when a reactionary military and police coup backed by the CIA overthrew the government of Kwame Nkrumah. DuBois had her US citizenship revoked in the early 1960s and was not allowed to re-enter the U.S. until 1970. She would eventually take up residence in Egypt and China where she died in 1976.
Malcolm X—El Hajj Malik Shabazz is known as one of the great orators of the African American struggle that emerged during the 1950s and 1960s. He was the national spokesman for the Nation of Islam until 1963 when he was forced out of the organization. In 1964 his trips abroad in Africa and the Middle East would attract the attention of the FBI and other intelligence agencies. Malcolm was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965 and many believe that the federal government was behind his death.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—Known as the charismatic spokesman of the civil rights movement and the co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King was subjected to years of government harassment and vilification. In 1964, prior to receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the FBI tried to blackmail him into committing suicide.
When King took a strong position against U.S. military involvement in Vietnam in 1967, he was completed isolated from the federal government. He was gunned down in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Angela Davis—A scholar and activist, Davis was fired from the University of California in 1970 for being a member of the Communist Party. Soon after this, she would be charged with conspiracy to liberate George Jackson from prison and would serve two years in solidarity confinement.
Her trial in 1972 ended in acquittal and she is today an outspoken advocate of prison reform and women’s rights. She is a survivor of the turbulent struggle for African American liberation.
Assata Shakur—A former member of the Black Panther Party, Shakur was driven underground in 1971 and was nearly killed in a shoot-out with the police in 1973. She would spend six years in prison before escaping and being granted political asylum in Cuba.
Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah—Bringing this right home to Detroit, the assassination of Imam Luqman was one of the gravest crimes of the modern era. An Imam at the Masjid al-Haqq, he would work for years rehabilitating juvenile delinquents, former prison inmates and providing food and shelter to the poor and homeless.
His mosque was infiltrated by the FBI with informants. In October 2009, he was lured, along with other members of his mosque to a FBI-created fake warehouse in neighboring Dearborn. After having a vicious police dog set upon him, he was shot 20 times by FBI agents who had been trained at the Counter-terrorism training center in Quantico, Virginia.
A subsequent federal investigation exonerated the agents involved in the assassination. His death came amid a wave of repression against Muslims and other oppressed groups inside the United States.
The Need for a United Front Against Repression
All of these specific cases of government repression leveled against the African American community points to the necessity of building a broad-based alliance of progressive forces to tackle law-enforcement suppression and brutality. This aspect of the struggle for human freedom and decency is imperative if we are to advance the movement toward social justice into a new realm that is required in the current period.
Before we leave here today let us make a commitment to work together to end these various forms of government repression. We owe this to our ancestors and to future generations.