We Live in an Encouraging Time!
Notwithstanding the continued legacy of white supremacy, anti-Black propaganda, and racial oppression, we live in a time where we have more access to our true history more than ever before. Black intellectuals unearth more pieces of our historical jigsaw puzzle via books and articles. The Internet search engines point us to pictures, documents, and multimedia clips to supplement the information provided even in the most deficient social studies textbooks and mainstream media outlets.
Yet history is broad, and even with these encouraging developments important people, information and experiences remain obscured in our historical narratives. For example, we can all name some significant figures in the Black Liberation Struggle, but our list often contains the same celebrated names recycled redundantly across generations. Therefore, we must reclaim our history and its meaning by expanding our pool of references and actively utilizing their ideas and best practices.
Objective of This Article
This article identifies and attempts to explain the significance of five important figures in Black history whose influence often is obscured. This is not a complete or final list by any means. For various reasons these five people resonate with me, but I encourage you to create your own list.
Our rich history contains hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of individuals we need to learn from and whose examples we need to build upon. In this spirit, I do not wish to contribute to the “roll-call” approach to history or the tradition of hagiography where we recite the names of great people we idolize; My aim here is to explore the meaning and enduring impact of ordinary people that thought or did extraordinary things so that we can draw inspiration and clarity from them.
Toward a Living and Relevant Understanding of History
History is not an old or irrelevant regurgitation of old experiences or people (no matter what our ill-equipped and uninspired history teachers believed) but a living reminder that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and consequently no need to completely “reinvent the wheel” in our quest for meaning, direction, and resolution.
History is a living thing, and the only thing “dead” about it are the minds and imagination of those who fail to appreciate this fact.
Five Under-appreciated and Utilized Figures of the Black Liberation Struggle
Callie House: Born in 1861 in Tennessee, Callie House was a mother, wife and washerwoman who created the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association in 1894. As the organization’s leader, House spearheaded efforts to lobby the U.S. government to provide financial and social service reparations for formerly enslaved Black people. While Blacks debate the validity of reparations today, House and her supporters saw reparations as a moral, practical and civil rights issue. She traveled throughout the south educating former slaves about their right to reparations and pensions as compensation for their years of unpaid labor in the slave South. House hired a lawyer and sued the U.S.Treasury Department for $68,073,388.99 in cotton taxes traced to slave labor in Texas. The case was eventually dismissed, but her organization did provide charitable aid to many Black families. Threatened by her amazing grassroots organizing abilities and uncompromising leadership (not to mention the enormous amount of money it stood to pay Black people), government agencies monitored her mail and her activities. Falsely accused of using the postal system to defraud the public (the same tactic used years later to neutralize Marcus Garvey), House received a one-year prison sentence. Her fearless and outspoken leadership despite limited education and financial means challenges the concept that only exceptional men can lead movements and forces us to acknowledge and appreciate the issue of reparations with renewed vigor.
The Caribbean-born Communist intellectual Cyril Briggs was a contemporary and critic of Marcus Garvey. His Harlem-based organization, the African Blood Brotherhood, fused Communist analysis with Pan-African and Black Nationalist ideologies. His magazine The Crusader reached approximately 36,000 readers nationwide and while his organization never became national or global like Garvey’s, his focus on Black self-defense, anti-imperialism, capitalist exploitation, and racism, along with his critique of Black nationalism’s rigid aspects foreshadowed later groups like the Black Panther Party.
You can get a glimpse of his penetrating analysis and indomitable spirit by reading his article “The American Race Problem” written in 1918 or “Summary of The Aims and Program of The African Blood Brotherhood,” written in 1920. The relevance of his insights to our contemporary times is simply amazing.
Charles Hamilton Houston: Most current social studies textbooks make mention of the groundbreaking Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case which declared racial segregation in american public schools unconstiutional. We often don’t know that this case was actually one of six cases aimed at dismantling school segregation; nor do many of us know that the famed NAACP legal Committee that engineered this legal victory began their methodical legal campaign against school segregation nearly two decades before the Supreme Court ruled on Brown vs. Board in 1954. Known as “The Man that killed Jim Crow,” Harvard Law School graduate, civil rights attorney, and legal scholar Charles Hamilton Houston outlined the NAACP’s long-term legal strategy to end Jim Crow practices in American schools. Drawing from the 14th Amendment and the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision which supported racial segregation (it permitted such segregation so long as whites provided “separate but equal” facilities for Black people), Hamilton’s brilliant strategy involved three components. 1. He pressured states to provide separate but equal colleges for whites (knowing this option would prove too expensive), 2. He attacked the myth that the presence of Black students might lower white school/social standards, and 3. He proved that racial segregation psychologically damaged Black students.
Not only did Houston become an expert on these legal issues, he wisely trained a cadre of Black attorneys to help with the campaign. One Houston protegé – Thurgood Marshall – later won the Brown vs. Board case and became the first Black Supreme Court Justice in 1967.
Hamilton embodies our need to think strategically, plan long-term movements, and use the law when possible to fight for our liberation. His famous quote directed to Black lawyers says it all: “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.”
Ella Baker: No meaningful discussion of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950-60s can omit the courageous contributions of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Seasoned activists and organizers like James Forman, Cleveland Sellers, Stokely Carmichael (Later Kwame Ture), future D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, Diane Nash, William Strickland, and Judy Richardson honed their skills through SNCC and changed the course of history in various respects.
SNCC owes its existence to longtime activist and civil rights organizer Ella Baker who began her political activities in the 1930s.
She was a national NAACP leader in Harlem and was later picked by Dr. Martin Luther King to be the Executive Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957.
Baker challenged sexism and the male-dominated culture of the famed civil rights organization, along with its top-down style of leadership.
Supportive of the college sit-in movement, Baker organized a student activist conference in 1960 at which SNCC was born. Originally formed to be the student wing of King’s organization, Baker encouraged student activists to lead their own group and address the issues/tactics of their choice. SNCC patterned their philosophy after Baker and introduced a new model of leadership and organizational structure during the Civil Rights Movement. In contrast to older movement leaders, SNCC members traveled throughout the South helping poor and often uneducated Blacks in various communities to develop their own indigenous leadership rather than imposing SNCC politics and policies on them.
Baker’s mentorship of SNCC yielded tremendous results as SNCC went on to participate in the freedom rides, create freedom schools, and establish an independent Black political party for rural Blacks in Mississippi. Ella Baker’s insistence on gender equality, inclusive rather than elitist leadership, and her willingness to mentor rather than command young activists mark her as a woman ahead of her time and a source of inspiration for us today.
Yet there was another individual during the same time frame that advocated and practiced armed Black self-defense….and lived to the ripe old age of 71 to talk about it!
A veteran of the U.S. army, Williams served as a NAACP leader in North Carolina during the 1950s. Upon realizing that nonviolent strategy made Black people perpetually vulnerable to racist white brutality, he organized the Black Armed Guard to provide armed self-defense for Black people in his city.
In 1959, after his new beliefs became known publicly, NAACP Director Roy Wilkins suspended Williams from leadership office.
After dispersing a Klan mob with gunfire from Black men he trained, and a highly contested attempt to integrate a public swimming pool, Williams incurred the wrath and scorn of white residents. In 1961, after being falsely accused of kidnapping a white couple (that he actually protected from an angry Black mob) Williams and his wife fled to Cuba, fearing indictment by the courts and murder at the hands of white vigilantes. Their interstate travel involved the FBI which promptly listed Williams on their “most wanted” list.
His defection to Soviet-backed Cuba during the cold war period caused the United States great concern and embarrassment as it contradicted America’s false image as a global beacon of freedom and human rights.
Williams soon aired a radio show in Cuba called “Radio Free Dixie” which became very popular with Blacks in the American South. He used these broadcasts and his newspaper The Crusader to denounce American racism and to call for armed revolution. He published his book Negroes With Guns While living in Cuba, which became a huge influence on
many young Blacks in America including Huey P. Newton. Eventually Williams and his wife Mabel left Cuba for China, and they returned to the United States in 1969. Authorities cleared him of all charges and he died in 1996 after many years as an educator and community activist.
These courageous and visionary individuals combined intelligence, activism, and dedication to Black liberation and social justice. Whether we know it or not, we benefit from them and many others we don’t often hear about. And hence we benefit by learning about their activities and ideas and building upon them.
My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations by Mary Frances Berry
“The American Race Problem” by Cyril Briggs
Summary and Aims of the African Blood Brotherhood by Cyril Briggs
Who Was Ella Baker? by The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
Negroes With Guns by Robert F. Williams
Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power by Timothy B. Tyson
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.