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A "revolutionary' speaks

Published Aug. 31, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

Because I am a socialist, I have often heard that my motivation and hence that of the Uhuru Movement is influenced by Russian, Chinese or Marxist ideology. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality my trajectory toward revolutionary conclusions has been essentially American-made in its particulars. And the ideological base upon which my other principles rest is no more seditious than the Christian Bible and no less American than Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson.

I am a socialist and a black revolutionary. And though many people in St. Petersburg no doubt see me only as a police antagonist, I'm less concerned about law enforcement racism than about economic opportunity.

What I want for African people is what is commonly called "the American dream."

I was born in 1941 in the African community of St. Petersburg known as the Gas Plant area. It is a community that no longer exists, having been replaced by Tropicana Field. Davis Elementary is gone. Jordan Elementary School, which I attended, now serves as a Head Start center. Sixteenth Street Junior High and Gibbs High School, other schools I attended, are essentially white institutions with no meaningful relationship to the African community they were created to serve.

At the age of 4, I was taught to read. My Aunt Jessie would spend hours at a time on our living room floor teaching me to read the newspaper. Needless to say, my lessons contained horror story after horror story of Africans being lynched or suffering some other atrocious injustice. My mother has said she cannot remember a time when I could not read or, when growing up, I did not have a book or a paper in my hands. And I did read, everything: from the St. Petersburg Times to Black Hawk and Captain Marvel comic books; to encyclopedias, to Plato and Nietzsche and Dostoevski and Shakespeare and Richard Wright. I read Thomas Paine and the American Declaration of Independence and assumed the liberating ideas in everything I read were transferable to the experiences and conditions of me and my people.

My grandmother, Della Thomas, would spend hours reading and telling me Bible stories, including: the tales of Sampson, who defeated the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass; David, who slew Goliath against all odds; Daniel, who survived the Lions' den, and Moses, who led his people out of Egypt. However, the one that I remember being most important to my grandmother was the story of Joseph, who, after being sold into bondage by his brothers, became a great leader who rescued his people from disaster.

As an elementary school child, I got a job shining shoes on Central Avenue for whites who owned a fruit juice and flower stand. Even at that age, I knew there was something wrong with the fact that I could shine the shoes of white people but Africans were not permitted to patronize me. I quit the job when the white owners asked me to dance on the sidewalk to drum up business.

At home I often upset my parents because I would chase white insurance agents out of our house when they would walk in, as they did in virtually every house in the community, without knocking or receiving an invitation. All black mothers lived in perpetual fear for the lives of their sons, for it was recognized that white power _ either in the form of the state or white mobs _ brooked no insolence from black males and that even the suggestion of resistance could easily mean a most brutal loss of life. To this day many African men of my generation have problems with their mothers who, in a misguided effort to protect their sons, became substitute slave masters, declaring: "I'm going to beat it (the appearance of defiance) out of you before the white man gets you."

Growing up in St. Petersburg, encounters with the police were common.

On one occasion, as a child walking down Central Avenue, I was accosted by police and taken to a store where the white owner was asked, "Is this the one?" I still don't know what they were seeking, and am lucky the shopkeeper didn't identify me as "the one," as has happened with countless other African men who have paid a terrible price for being so identified. On another occasion, when I was 16, I was driving my father's car to take him food on his job at the Atlantic Coastline railroad yard where he was working the night shift. Two of my best friends were riding with me, when we were stopped by a white cop for no reason except to see if he could frighten us into calling him "sir." His anger at my refusal to do so was muted only because my two friends accommodated him.

During the 1960s, I was once picked up by police and thrown in jail for an unusual crime _ walking home in the early morning from my job at the St. Petersburg Times.

These were the American experiences I encountered long before I heard the names of Marx or Lenin or Mao. I had begun to believe that if I could just get out of St. Petersburg to a larger world I would be free of the limitations that I felt were imposed on me as a black man primarily because of the character of this small, provincial city.

I rushed to the local U.S. Army recruiting station, where a happy recruiter enlisted me. I would now be free, go to the U.S. Army where everyone had a chance to advance based on his/her capabilities.

My train ride to training camp in South Carolina was during the December holidays in 1959. The train was packed, and many of us had to stand for the ride. I stood next to a white man named Saylor who, out of the blue, pointed to an African named Morgan, who was seated, and commented, "That's something I hate to see _ a nigger sitting next to a white woman!" My military experience had begun.

I was in Berlin, Germany when the wall was built. I was in one of the first U.S. tanks to face Soviet tanks in a combat mode. I experienced in Germany, a mere 14 years after the military defeat of Nazism, more freedom and equality than I had ever experienced in all my years in the United States. The exception to this freedom was when dealing with white U.S. soldiers. There were ongoing battles between white and African soldiers, mostly when Africans had the temerity to enter the German clubs that had been segregated to facilitate their Yankee patrons.

Then came the reality check. In 1962, as the Civil Rights movement was heating up, I was reassigned to the United States at Fort Benning, Georgia.

In a short period of time, I encountered an attempt by the U.S. Army to send troops to Albany, Ga., where bloody white resistance had crystalized to prevent black equality, with the proviso that African troops would not be issued ammunition; I was sent to Patrick Air Force Base in South Florida during the Cuban missile crisis in a military convoy that permitted a white-owned restaurant in Palatka to refuse to feed me because I was black; and I was accused of attempting to hold the hand of a white woman who worked in the snack bar on the post at Fort Benning when I refused to drop the money in her hand to pay for services in a way that would allow her to avoid touching my black skin.

I was done with the U.S. Army. I wrote a 12-page letter to then-President John F. Kennedy, telling him of my inability to participate in an armed force that protected the likes of George Wallace and a tradition of oppression of African people. Then, I went on strike. For all practical purposes, I quit the Army.

Upon returning to St. Petersburg, I attempted to find my way through the various movements that existed in this city. Early on, I attended meetings of the NAACP and joined their feeble, theatrical attempts to gain entry to the lily-white movie houses. But I always felt uneasy about those attempts and their tactics, which were never designed to challenge white power, but instead to rely on the good will of whites with power to change the negative circumstances that their power had created for Africans.

I then tried the Nation of Islam, because I had known of Malcolm X and had a deep and profound love and respect for him. But after the first meeting with local leaders of the Nation of Islam, held in my apartment, I found we could not agree on Muslim history, and we parted ways.

By 1966 my personal journey had led me to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, an organization that had grown legendary in the African community for its courage, commitment and sacrifice. Black Power! became the mobilizing demand for struggling peoples around the world. Black power challenged the basic assumptions of white liberalism and the traditional black organizations tied to liberalism. Included in these assumptions were the ideas that the way to freedom was integration with white people, that the struggle of African people was to win acceptance by whites and that our struggle for basic human rights must be philosophically tied to non-violence by the oppressed.

It was as a member of SNCC that I tore the 8-by-4-foot racist mural from the wall of the St. Petersburg City Hall on Dec. 29, 1966. While many people remember the issue of the racist mural, few people knew and understood that the mural simply became a symbol for another greater issue that we in SNCC found it a bit harder to convey to our community. That issue was a $50-million grant to the city from the federal government that the city had decided to use to beautify downtown St. Petersburg. In SNCC we were convinced that the money could be better used to provide jobs and improvements in the African community, which had an unemployment rate that compared with the one of today and needed economic development just as much as it is needed now.

Initially, we assumed the mayor and local government officials would be so embarrassed by having the mural made a public issue that they would remove it and be more amenable to discussing the equitable utilization of the $50-million. However, what we were met with was arrogance and a letter from then-Mayor Herman Goldner declaring that "our minorities had to learn to be less sensitive."

Even so, our initial impulse was not to tear the mural down from the wall. We were simply going to use the mural as a way to galvanize public opinion. The fact that the mural was torn down on that day was due more to my own personal response to the white reporters and policemen laughing at an elderly African woman who spoke at our demonstration to complain about how white-owned insurance companies bilk elderly black people out of their money.

The woman was old and poor. She had joined in our march when it passed her house and the insurance issue was her issue and the one that best crystalized the relationship between Africans and white power for her at the time. But she also spoke broken English, she used double negatives and split infinitives and the media and police personnel found her funny, treated her like entertainment.

My response to this was to turn, and without saying anything to anyone, walk into the City Hall and tear the mural from the wall. The only sounds in the building were those of the mural separating from the wall and of a very proper white woman standing at the top of the stairs screaming, "Black bastards!"

For my act of civil disobedience, I was sentenced to five years in prison. I served two and a half.

While in prison, I helped organize JOMO, the Junta of Militant Organizations, a massive organization of young African workers who had been essentially determined to be redundant by the local government. The 1968 strike of St. Petersburg sanitation workers was representative of the economic interests of this rising youthful black working class, but JOMO was representative of its political interests and militant political consciousness.

The failure of the government, both federally and locally, was an inability to recognize that this new militancy was a consequence of real, economic transformation that had occurred in the United States and the world; that the urbanization of the African working class in the South, stemming in part from an increase in capital-intensive production following U.S. successes flowing from World War II, necessarily meant a new political consciousness among young African workers. The government attempted to respond to this challenge to the status quo, to what Marx calls the new relations of production, with police containment.

Police control of African people was a problem throughout the United States. Many have forgotten, but the initial name of the Black Panther Party was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, a response to the naked police violence inflicted in Oakland, Calif., at the time. Our resistance to this direct police control of our communities was also the basis for the profound popularity of both the Black Panther Panther Party and JOMO among young African workers who were most likely to become victims of police violence.

By 1972, the limitations of JOMO had become obvious to me and to others. A militant organization that simply demonstrated and protested the problem was totally insufficient. What was needed was an organization based primarily on the pursuit and exercise of power. I came to understand that nowhere in the world had a people become free without power.

I came to understand that what we refer to as racism is essentially the ideological underpinnings of a repressive, colonial system, and that Africans did not suffer injustices because people hate us but because we do not have the power to render their hatred or dislike impotent. Therefore, it is a waste of time to struggle against racism, essentially the ideas in the heads of white people. What we had to fight for was the power to prevent what was in the heads of white people from harming us.

Early on, even during the SNCC period, the movement here in St. Petersburg had come to use the term "Uhuru." We had first heard the word, Uhuru, from the black resistance to British colonial domination in Kenya. It would be JOMO that took the Swahili word for freedom and started the process of turning it into a slogan, greeting and all-encompassing movement. The African People's Socialist Party, founded in 1972 in St. Petersburg, would complete that process and give it more definition.

The African People's Socialist Party built what has come to be known as the Uhuru Movement. This is a movement that comprises the party, the African People's Solidarity Committee, an organization of mostly white people founded in 1976; the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, an organization of all nationalities under the leadership of the party, headquartered in Chicago and founded in 1991; Uhuru houses in several cities; Uhuru Solidarity Centers in several cities, including St. Petersburg; Uhuru Furniture stores in Oakland and Philadelphia; and the Uhuru Gym, food buying club and other institutions in St. Petersburg.

The media have suggested the Uhuru Movement was either spawned or given significance by the Oct. 24 shooting of TyRon Lewis and the subsequent rebellions, and it has portrayed us as "black separatists," marginal, unreasonable and extremist forces without a community base and a capacity for rational thought. But the reality is that the Uhuru Movement has been working here in the African community for more than 30 years, and we have done so without a single government grant or without permission from the government, political establishment or economic rulers of this city.

Since the Lewis shooting on Oct. 24 and the police attack on the Uhuru House on Nov. 13 and the rebellions that followed both of these incidents, the Uhuru Movement has sought not just a full accounting of the police behavior. We would like to talk about all the actions of the city government, with the apparent support of powerful financial interests, that have served to confine the African community.

In a relatively short period of time, the city of St. Petersburg has initiated and carried out policies that have razed the African communities of Methodist Town and the Gas Plant area. It has run a freeway through our community, destroying stable neighborhoods and transforming their African inhabitants into urban nomads. Additionally, scores of black businesses have been destroyed, either as a direct consequence of community removal or indirectly, as a consequence of new traffic patterns caused by the freeway, which limit access to those businesses. Moreover, the existing black businesses have been denied access to capital by financial institutions, a fact that stunts their growth and development and limits their capacity to become viable influences within the city and our community.

It is the intent of the Uhuru Movement to break this vicious cycle. While our primary interest is in raising up the conditions of existence of the African community and ending the various political assaults from a host of anti-black forces, we are convinced that this effort is in the best interests of the entire city of St. Petersburg.

What we are demanding for our community is genuine economic development and social justice. For economic development to occur, we must end the quarantine imposed on the African community by the major financial institutions of this city. We must introduce a massive infusion of capital into the African community, money that would help create self-employment, help existing small businesses and provide startup capital for economic projects. We must also find ways to make the African community an integral part of the tourism industry, not merely as service providers but as beneficiaries.

In other words, capital must be made available with the priority being on the internal development of the African community. This does not mean we are opposed to outside economic intervention. What it does mean is that economic activity in the African community must have as its first objective the development of the African community and that is not necessarily what outside economic intervention will provide.

Nor are jobs necessarily what is meant by economic development. Lest it be forgotten, jobs are what got Africans in this situation in the first place. Indeed, under slavery there was full employment in the African community. What we are demanding is that jobs and business activity result in the actual positive transformation of our community.

Real economic development will change the character of the entire African community. Jobs will be grown from the development of businesses in the community that provide services and perhaps even commodities for community consumption. Some of these jobs will go to people in the community who might not meet various educational and other criteria that often function to prevent advancement. Because the person is a neighbor's daughter or a church brother's son, he or she will be known and supported by an employer.

This kind of economic development will help to stabilize our community. It will make whole families affordable and change the self-perception of the community. It is the honest and honorable way to eliminate welfare and poverty programs, which do not serve to give power to the people but instead trap us in a quagmire of dependency. It is the honest and honorable approach to crime and social crisis that plague our community and place the community and the police in a permanent state of confrontation.

The problem we face is not simply the rogue cop or renegade group of cops who may be mobilized by their hatred of Africans. The bigger problem is that the police are put in the untenable position of having to protect an oppressive status quo, and that the African community must challenge the status quo in order to survive and progress.

Our relationship with the police must change, but it can only change if the city and the owning classes will change their approach to dealing with our community. In this city, as in cities across these United States, economic development and social justice are the necessary ingredients for progress. They are what we all deserve.