Memoirs of a 1960s Activist

— Gloria House

IN 1965 I was part of a faction within the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that called for a stronger international orientation and self-determination for oppressed nations around the world, including our own nation of thirty million Black people in the United States. This new direction grew out of our deepening understanding of our history as a people in America, and in Africa, and our identification with liberation movements of the period in Asia, South America, and Africa.

Our work coincided with these liberation struggles, and we were beginning to see ourselves as part of this worldwide upheaval of oppressed peoples fighting for freedom. Colonized people worldwide, some of whom were engaged in armed struggle against European powers, were consolidating their national, cultural and political movements, and working to build international solidarity as the Third World — rejecting alignment with both the Western camp and the Soviets, perceived as the first and second “worlds.”

The African-American civil rights and Black Power movements of the ’60s and ’70s constituted a significant flank of this global uprising of oppressed peoples, with many of us viewing our movements as a national liberation struggle, for we were beginning to think of ourselves as constituting an internal colony of the United States.

We saw that our social, political and economic conditions paralleled those of Third World peoples, making it very easy for us to identify with them: our communities were occupied by hostile police forces; we did not own property or businesses in many of our neighborhoods; the schools and other essential institutions were not under our control; we faced disabling discriminatory policies in our search for work and decent housing.

Hence the emergence of campaigns for community control of schools and other institutions that would characterize urban activism of the 1970s.

Coming Out Against the War

Our demonstrations of solidarity with the Vietnamese people were part of this internationalization of consciousness and activism. SNCC’s statement against the war, which I drafted, was a reflection of the thoughts and arguments that were articulated primarily by the nationalist faction within SNCC.

Whether to issue a statement against the war was debated heatedly and finally agreed upon at a national staff meeting in Atlanta. The opposition to the statement by some SNCC staffers was not, of course, because they supported the war, but because they correctly foresaw that once the statement was released, SNCC would lose the support of the Northern liberal establishment.

This statement was written sometime after the Voting Rights Bill had passed and shortly after yet another murder of a civil rights activist who worked closely with us in Alabama. Sammy Younge, a Tuskegee student and resident, was killed by a gas station owner in his home town for attempting to use the white restroom.

The statement tied our opposition to the war to Younge’s murder and questioned the United States’ commitment to the rule of law. We contended that:

“Samuel Younge was murdered because U.S. law is not being enforced. Vietnamese are being murdered because the United States is pursuing an aggressive policy in violation of international law. The U.S. is no respecter of persons or law when such persons or laws run counter to its needs and desires. We recall the indifference, suspicion and outright hostility with which our reports of violence have been met in the past by government officials.”

Throughout, we pointed out the hypocrisy of the country’s stated dedication to freedom and democracy, again connecting the country’s actions abroad to our experiences as civil rights workers at home:

“The United States government has been deceptive in claims of concern for the freedom of the Vietnamese people, just as the government has been deceptive in claiming concern for the freedom of the colored people in such other countries as the Dominican Republic, the Congo, South Africa, Rhodesia and in the United States itself ... [SNCC’s] work, particularly in the South, taught us that the United States government has never guaranteed the freedom of oppressed citizens and is not yet truly determined to end the rule of terror and oppression within its own borders ... We recall the numerous persons who have been murdered in the South because of their efforts to secure their civil and human rights, and whose murderers have been allowed to escape penalty for their crimes.”

We ended our statement by urging opposition to the draft, suggesting instead that “those Americans who prefer to use their energy in building democratic forms within the country ... work in the civil rights movement and other human relations organizations.”

The ongoing protests by African American activists against the war in Vietnam, ranging from street demonstrations to draft resistance — which led in some cases to prison or exile — expressed our firm solidarity with the Vietnamese and other Third World independence struggles. We were seeing ourselves in the world, rather than within the political confines of the United States. We were an oppressed people joining the worldwide community to which we belonged.

Finding Identity

Why had many African-American activists of the 1960s come to this conclusion concerning our international status as a people?

The tenacity of racial prejudice, the relentlessness of organized violence against African Americans throughout U.S. society, and the intransigent segregation prevalent in all major arenas of life in the United States — the courts, housing, education, employment — had convinced many in my generation that African Americans would never win equal treatment as citizens. Alienated by the closed door of American whiteness and racial oppression, persistent for four centuries, many political activists, intellectuals and writers of the period sought our true identity elsewhere.

We turned to Africa, the Motherland. With unprecedented intensity, Black artists and writers in all parts of the Diaspora attempted to wrest ourselves psychologically from the hold of Eurocentric conventions, to forge a new aesthetic based on African arts, cultural practices and spiritual traditions.

This shift in focus resurrected latent nationalist sentiment of African Americans, and generated the powerful Black Consciousness and Black arts movements of the 1960s and ’70s.

Identification with Africa reconfigured all aspects of daily life for the “conscious” of this generation — including acceptance of our own African physical features, reclamation of African clothing, art and artifacts, music, dance and religion, commitment to the freedom struggle within the United States, and solidarity with the national liberation fighters on the African continent.

There were other important concerns as well: African-American women, who played major roles in the Black Consciousness movement, were redefining gender relationships and the goals of women’s liberation — towards greater equality and respect between themselves and their men, and towards a clear articulation of the ways in which their own political aspirations differed from those of Euro-American feminists.

Fundamental to the Black Consciousness movement and our identification as Africans in the Diaspora was the project of retrieving pre-colonial African history in order to reassert the role of African civilization onto the world stage. Emerging African and African-American scholars brought to light the magnitude of African history buried by Western cultural supremacist scholarship.

They exposed the unprecedented horrors of the European trade in human beings, and the direct relationship between this human exploitation and the accumulation of capital that would ensure European and American powers their subsequent imperialist stature in the world. This intellectual work laid the basis for African-American activism within the Diaspora and elsewhere in the Third World. It also planted the seeds of the student demands of the 1970’s and ’80s to bring Black Studies into the academy.

A New Consciousness

My pan-African/Diasporan consciousness had been intensified by my stay in Paris in 1961. There I had met brothers who were engaged in making revolution in their home countries. These friendships and our intellectual exchanges helped to make revolution real for me, not just something theoretical that I had studied in the university.

Also at that time, Paris was somewhat destabilized because of the Algerian revolution. There were ongoing protests around the city. Witnessing the determination of these seriously committed freedom fighters heightened my own political consciousness so that I began to view U.S. international policy from a different vantage point, and with a great deal more discernment.

In 1970 I was invited to Cuba with a small group of activists for a seminar at which South American revolutionaries educated us concerning their struggles. My stay on the island lasted a month, allowing me to see the ten years of progress the Cubans had made in building a new society.

I was deeply impressed that only a few miles off the Florida coast, the Cubans were engaged in creating the New Man and the New Woman — a new society with socialist values, in which literacy, education, health care, housing for all took priority over profit for the few, in which individuals and groups were being astounded by their own capacities of creativity and nation building.

For many of us activists, Fidel and Che were admirable models, as they appeared to be genuinely committed to make revolutionary changes in themselves. Che’s essay Man and Socialism outlines this transformative effort that would characterize the revolutionary society. For me, Che represented a revolutionary kind of leadership, rejecting elitism and intellectual arrogance, and committed to international solidarity.

In closing, I would like to comment upon how important the Martiniquan psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon was to us as well — as an internationalist, given his work in France and Algeria, and because of the challenge he set for our generation. We read his Wretched of the Earth as if it were scriptural text!

In his chapter on National Consciousness, Fanon reminded us that it is not our role to judge the effectiveness of our foreparents’ attempts to free us. Rather, he pointed out, we are required to identify the liberation mission of our generation, and get busy.

For many of us who came of age in the 1960s, the understanding of our political and cultural ties to the international community of freedom fighters, and our insistence upon lifting the African-American struggle onto that stage through ongoing, consistent work have been major facets of our generation’s mission — undertakings that built upon the work begun by Garvey, DuBois, Padmore, C.L.R. James, Robeson, Robert Williams, Malcolm X and others. I trust Fanon would approve.

ATC 129, July–August 2007