‘Black women have been, and continue to be, integral in imagining a world where liberation isn’t the goal; it’s the default’.
Writer, activist and educator Altheia Jones-Lacointe is one of the great British Black activists and civil rights worker, and yet this name is hardly known amongst the Black community.
As Danialle Dash states in her article in the Stylist magazine:
“we should all know Dr Altheia Jones-LeCointe. In a perfect world, the British Black Panther(BBP) leader and community organiser would come to mind as easily as Angela Davis and other famous resistance leaders”.
Born Altheia Jones in Trinidad, she was one of the three daughters of Viola Jones, a Port of Spain dressmaker and clothes shop proprietor, and Dunstan Jones, the principal of a government school.
While studying in London, Jones-LeCointe became involved in community organising against racism and for the rights of people of African and Asian heritage in the UK. In London, she became concerned with the mistreatment of black and Asian people by the authorities and worked as a teacher and organiser in the Universal Coloured Peoples’ Association (UCPA).
Danielle Dash’s great piece goes on to explore her ‘White Washing’ from British history:
“Britain’s contribution to global structural racism and the suppression of Black liberation efforts leads to the erasure of important historical figures like Jones-LeCointe. The combination of her race and her gender make it easier for history to forget the important work Jones-LeCointe did to advance anti-racism legislation – not only for black people, but specifically for Black women”.
Having risen to leadership of the BPP after its founder Obi Egbuna the playwright/poet was jailed, Altheia Jones-LeCointe organised marches to show the world how UK police were brutalising British Blacks, especially at the Black-owned Mangrove restaurant.
She became the brains behind – the BPP movement. She re-energised the group, and her position created much-needed visibility for Black women.
Her name rightly rose to prominence again with the release of Steve McQeen’s Small Axe series of films, featuring the Mangrove Nine. Of the nine, only Jones-LeCointe and the late Darcus Howe (blog soon) made the decision to represent themselves in court. She wasn’t a lawyer, but she bravely faced the British legal system. Undoubtedly her defiance was just too powerful – she was charged with ‘conspiracy to incite a riot’.
They demanded to be judged by a ‘jury of peers’ — all Black jurors. Only two Black jurors were selected. They called more than 100 witnesses who spoke candidly about being terrorised by the police, cross-examined police officers, and asked their witnesses about their definition of ‘Black power’.
The judge’s closing statement put the nail in the police department’s case, saying, in part:
“What this trial has shown is that there is clearly evidence of racial hatred on both sides.”
Though, of course, the British Black Panthers in actuality could not be deemed racist, the statement was the first acknowledgement that Britain’s police officers targeted Black citizens.
The Action Committee for the Defence of the Mangrove read:
“This protest is necessary as all other methods have failed to bring about any change in the manner the police have chosen to deal with Black people.”
Dash points out:
That in 1970, Jones-LeCointe organised a demonstration to protest police mistreatment of The Mangrove. The demonstration was vastly over-policed, with 200 officers deployed for 150 demonstrators, and violence erupted. Jones-LeCointe was arrested along with eight others, who collectively became known as the Mangrove Nine.
Their aim was to tackle head-on the prejudice that had seen the national press depict their civil rights movement as nothing more than a violent gang of troublemakers. After what was at the time the longest trial in British history, the Mangrove Nine walked free, with the presiding magistrate Judge Clarke acknowledging ‘police wrongdoing and racial prejudice’.
The BPP movement worried authorities on both sides of the Atlantic, Jones-LeCointe was now a permanent target of the police, and government, her historical importance needed to be erased, not just by White but also some Black historians.
Despite Jones-LeCointe’s revolutionary work, her story was ignored when the time came to tell the story of British Black people’s contribution to the Black liberation movement. The disgraceful TV series Guerrille supposedly about Mangrove basically told women who look like Jones-LeCointe that it doesn’t matter what our achievements are: we are not worthy of starring in our own stories if we don’t have a proximity to Whiteness.
“Society regularly forgets black women exist – going so far as erasing us and our contributions from history. That’s exactly what happened with Jones-LeCointe’s representation on screen”.
A final point Danielle Dash makes in her article I believe speaks for all Black women:
“I admire and am thankful to Dr Altheia Jones-LeCointe because she did the work of dismantling the racist patriarchy at a time when doing so jeopardised her freedom. She paved the way for black women like me, who look the way we do and have the voices we have. She showed us it was possible to stand up to oppression – and succeed”.
Despite the record of LeCointe and others, all Black women activists, faced an uphill battle to not only be taken seriously as activists but to be given their due credit.
All of these women understood that a fight for liberation remains bigger than the individual; the fight for freedom is a collective effort. As we stated at the beginning, Black women have been, and continue to be, integral in imagining a world where liberation isn’t the goal; it’s the default.
Actress Letitia Wright talks about her Small Axe role: 4.02m
200 years since his death, should the French be commemorating a man who was a warmonger and re-introduced slavery to French areas? Should they commemorate a man who brutally tried to re-establish slavery in Haiti in his attempts to put down a slave revolt?
This argument has opened up a deep debate and historical divisions in France. As you can guess the left see him as a dictator and despot and the right admire his French Empire ambitions, giving the country national pride and greatness.
There is a vast amount of information on the web about Napoléon and his countless wars ranging over 50 years so I have no intention of covering that in this blog. We are here to talk yet again about someone who committed atrocities against Black people and who he saw as less than human.
So just a brief over view of the man who created the model for modern military despotism. Napoléon was originally a republican and professed to stand for the people, and yet he murdered his enemies, made himself Emperor and created heirs, a bit like our royal family. At the end of all the warring it was stated in the palace of Fontainebleau, 11th April 1814:
“The Allied Powers having declared that Emperor Napoléon was the sole obstacle to the restoration of peace in Europe, Emperor Napoléon, faithful to his oath, declares that he renounces, for himself and his heirs, the thrones of France and Italy, and that there is no personal sacrifice, even that of his life, which he is not ready to make in the interests of France”.
As they say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
We are however here to talk about Black History and his brutal repression of Black slaves. The celebrations in France are driven by President Emmanuel Macron and the right (I think Macron sees himself by association as a great leader). Even the Guardian Newspaper (also 200 years old) leads with the headline ‘Cruel despot or wise reformer?’ At least they put a question mark.
The Slaves Who Defeated Napoléon: The Haitian Revolution (1791–1804)
When information of the French Revolution (which coincidently also began on 5th May in 1789), filtered through to Haiti, it was the beginning of many uprisings against the French. On the night of August 21st 1791, slave representatives from all over Haiti’s northern plain, the rich area surrounding Cap Français, gathered in Bois Caiman (Gator Wood) near Morne Rouge. It was said that the air was dark, hot, and Fiery; a tropical storm rumbled on the horizon. One slave after another emerged from the shadows, scared and thrilled.
They were not allowed to sneak out of their quarters at night, and they knew that slave gatherings were strictly prohibited. With the onset of the French Revolution, rumors swirled among the planters that the Paris-based Société des Amis des Noirs had sent secret agents to Saint-Domingue to incite the slaves to revolt. Anyone accused of furmenting an uprising would likely meet an untimely, and gruesome, end.
The French Revolution climaxed in 1799 and new hopes of freedom started, and so also began Napoléon’s reign.
For a few months, the island was quiet under Napoleonic rule. While Napoléon Bonaparte condemned the slave trade, he had no strong opposition to slavery, he did not see Black people as having the same human rights as White Europeans.
Like most of his European contemporaries, Napoléon was a racist. He referred to Bedouins, native Americans, Pacific Islanders and Africans as “savages” – a term he also applied to Cossacks.
He treated the Saint-Domingue-born mixed-race general Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (father and grandfather of the writers of the same name) with contempt. At the same time, he welcomed mixed-race men into his army in Egypt, and for the expedition to Saint-Domingue (Haiti).
Napoléon based his policies towards slavery on pragmatism and genetic superiority. He favoured whatever would most benefit him and France.
When it became apparent that the French intended to re-establish slavery (because they had nearly done so on Gaudeloupe), black cultivators revolted in the summer of 1802.
When insurrection broke out in Saint-Domingue, Napoléon argued that France should renew its commitment to emancipation, because:
“this island would go for England if the blacks were not attached to us by their interest in liberty…. They will produce less sugar, maybe, than they did as slaves; but they will produce it for us, and will serve us, if we need them, as soldiers. We will have one less sugar mill; but we will have one more citadel filled with friendly soldiers”.
Yellow fever had decimated the French; by the middle of July 1802, the French lost about 10,000 dead to yellow fever. By September, Leclerc wrote in his diary that he had only 8,000 fit men left as yellow fever had killed the others. In 1802, Napoléon added a Polish legion of around 5,200 to the forces sent to Saint-Domingue to fight off the slave rebellion.
However, the Poles were told that there was a revolt of prisoners in Saint-Domingue. Upon arrival and the first fights, the Polish platoon soon discovered that what was actually taking place in the colony was a rebellion of slaves fighting off their French masters for their freedom.
During this time, there was a familiar situation going on back in their homeland as these Polish soldiers were fighting for their liberty from the occupying forces of Russia, Prussia and Austria that began in 1772.
Many Poles believed that if they fought for France, Bonaparte would reward them by restoring Polish independence, which had been ended with the Third Partition of Poland in 1795.
As hopeful as the Haitians, many Poles were seeking union amongst themselves to win back their freedom and independence by organising an uprising.
However many Polish admired their great hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who had fought in the American civil war and was a strong Abolitionist. As a result, these Polish soldiers who also admired their opponents, eventually turned on the French army and join the Haitian slaves.
Polish soldiers participated in the Haitian revolution of 1804, contributing to the establishment of the world’s first free Black republic and the first independent Caribbean state.
Haiti’s first head of state Jean-Jacques Dessalines called Polish people “the White Negroes of Europe”, which was then regarded a great honour, as it meant brotherhood between Poles and Haitians. Dessalines eventually became a cruel despot himself and was killed by his own people in 1806.
Many years later François Duvalier, the president of Haiti who was known for his Black Nationalist and Pan-African views, used the same concept of ‘European White Negroes‘ while referring to Polish people and glorifying their patriotism.
After Haiti gained its independence, the Poles acquired Haitian citizenship for their loyalty and support in overthrowing the French colonialists, and were called ‘Black’ by the Haitian constitution.
In historical terms this was the ‘only successful slave revolt in the world’.
February 1st 1960 was D-day and the target was F. W. Woolworths Five & Dime Store in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Before I move on let’s look at the courage and enormity of what happened here, their lives were at risk, this was the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement in the Southern states, this sit-in was a contributing factor in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), it was the inspiration behind the subsequent sit-in movement, in which 70,000 people participated, it led to stores including F. W. Woolworth abandoning segregation policies.
On that momentous day when they were refused service and told that Woolworths do not serve Negroes at their lunch counter. The four men had anticipated problems and bought small items and retained the receipt as proof of purchase, and proof they were paying customers of Woolworths, before sitting down at the store’s lunch counter.
While Blacks were allowed to patronise the dining area, they were relegated to a standing snack bar, as the lunch counter was designated for ‘Whites only’. The Greensboro Four politely requested service at the counter, remaining seated while their orders were refused by the waiting staff.
The lunch counter manager contacted the police, but Johns had already alerted the local media. The police arrived, only to declare that they could do nothing because the four men were paying customers of the store and had not taken any provocative actions.
The last person to approach the Greensboro Four on that first day was an elderly White lady, who rose from her seat in the counter area and walked over toward McCain. She sat down next to him and looked at the four students and told them she was disappointed in them. McCain, in his Air Force ROTC uniform was ready to defend his actions, but remained calm and asked the woman:
“Ma’am, why are you disappointed in us for asking to be served like everyone else?” McCain recalled the woman looking at them, putting her hand on Joe McNeil’s shoulder and saying, “I’m disappointed it took you so long to do this”.
The four sat there until the store closed, however the next day they returned with 20 more Black students and the media interest began. By days 3 and 4 more students joined them including White students and females, over 300 participated causing the sit-in to spill out onto the streets. Lunch staff continued to refuse service, and North Carolina’s official chaplain of the Ku Klux Klan, George Dorsett, as well as other members of the Klan, were present.
The F.W. Woolworth national headquarters said that the company would ‘abide by local custom’ and maintain its segregation policy.
On February 5th things turned much darker when the Klan organised 50 White men to occupy positions in the store in opposition to the students creating a tense situation. In spite of this by 3pm there were 300 protesters. The protesters maintained their dignified non-violent stance under extreme harassment, physical violence and having the dining counter condiments (salt, sauces etc.) poured over their heads. Meeting between students, college officials, and store representatives took place, but failed to find a resolution. In truth by now there could only be one resolution, de-segregation.
The protests now were getting world attention – February 6th was viewed with anticipation, fear and trepidation, with good reason, but none the less over 1,000 protesters turned up for the Sit-in.
A bomb threat was sent to the store for 1.30pm that day and Woolworths had to be evacuated and closed. However it was too late to stop the sit-in protest which was now spreading across many American southern cities and states including Kentucky, Richmond, Lexington, and Nashville. In March President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed his concern for those who were fighting for their human and civil rights, saying that he was:
“deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution”.
The action of the Greensboro Four on February 1 was an incredible act of courage, but it wasn’t unique. There had been previous sit-ins. In 1957, for instance, seven African Americans staged one at the segregated Royal Ice Cream Parlor in Durham, North Carolina. What made Greensboro different was how it grew from a courageous moment to a revolutionary movement. The combination of organic and planned ingredients came together to create an unprecedented youth activism that changed the direction of the Civil Rights Movement and the nation itself. The results of this complex and artful recipe are difficult to faithfully replicate. Besides the initial, somewhat spontaneous February 1 act of courage, more components were needed.
The essential ingredient in this protest was publicity.
Bob Dylan wrote two classic songs about these two deaths that became iconic links to the Civil Rights Movement, the direct brutality of the lyrics astonished the activists and became an influential style in the art of protest song writing.
More about the songs later (below), let me first discuss the deaths of Evers and Carroll at the hands of White Supremacists.
Medgar Wiley Evers
Was a brilliant and effective Civil Rights activist and distinguished himself fighting in WWII. The fury over Evers’ assissination fuelled the March on Washington in August 1963, and his death is widely considered a pivotal event in the civil rights movement.
Born in 1925, Medgar Evers had followed (his brother) Charles into the Army during WWII. He was assigned to a segregated field battalion in England and France. Although some black soldiers refused to come back from France where they were treated as equals, some vowed to return fighting. As did Medgar he said to his brother after a racial incident:
“When we get out of the Army, we’re going to straighten this thing out”
In 1946, after three years of distinguished military service, Evers received an honourable discharge, finished high school, and enrolled in Alcorn College in Mississippi, where he met his wife Myrlie Beasley.
Alarmed at the level of poverty and destitution he found among the black populace of rural Mississippi, Evers decided to do something about it and joined theNAACP.
In 1954, a few months before the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, Evers volunteered to challenge segregation in higher education and applied to the University of Mississippi School of Law. He was rejected on a technicality, but his willingness to risk harassment and threats for racial justice caught the eye of national NAACP leadership; he was soon hired as the organisation’s first field secretary in Mississippi.
Evers soon began organising local NAACP chapters and coordinating boycotts of gasoline stations that refused to allow African Americans to use their restrooms. Evers’s organisational skills allowed him to bring together isolated groups of disillusioned individuals and meld them into a unified force.
The position catapulted him to what his wife Myrlie later called – No. 1 on the Mississippi ‘to-kill’ list. Evers garnered national attention for organising demonstrations and boycotts and for securing legal assistance for James Meredith, a black man whose 1962 attempt to enroll in the University of Mississippi was met with riots and state resistance. As we have mentioned in previous blogs, his courage gained support from star activists Nina Simone, Lena Horne and spread right to the White House and John F. Kennedy.
In the weeks leading up to his death, Evers found himself the target of a number of threats. His public investigations into the murder of Emmett Till and his vocal support of Clyde Kennard left him vulnerable to attack. On May 28, 1963, a molotov cocktail was thrown into the carport of his home, and five days before his death, he was nearly run down by a car after he emerged from the Jackson NAACP office.
Civil rights demonstrations accelerated in Jackson during the first week of June 1963. A local television station granted Evers time for a short speech, his first in Mississippi, where he outlined the goals of the Jackson movement. Following the speech, threats on Evers’ life increased.
On June 12, 1963, Evers pulled into his driveway after returning from an integration meeting where he had conferred with NAACP lawyers. Emerging from his car and carrying NAACP T-shirts that stated, ‘Jim Crow Must Go’.
The events inspired Bob Dylans song Only A Pawn In The Game, unusually for a protest song, Dylan named the assassin in the lyrics.
Evers was struck in the back with a bullet fired from the rifle of Byron De La Beckwith. He staggered 30 feet before collapsing, dying at the local hospital 50 minutes later, who had at first refused him entry because of his colour. Evers was murdered just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s speech on national television in support of civil rights and just five months before Kennedy suffered the same fate.
Byron De La Beckwith a member of the White Citizen’s Council in Jackson, Mississippi and the Klu Klux Klan was acquitted twice in the 1960’s by two all White male juries. He was eventually convicted in 1994 (31 years later). The 1994 state trial was held before a jury consisting of eight black people and four white people.
New evidence included testimony that he had boasted of the murder at a Klan rally, and that he had boasted of the murder to others during the three decades since the crime had occurred. The physical evidence was essentially the same as that presented during the first two trials. They convicted De La Beckwith of first-degree murder for killing Medgar Evers, he was sentenced to life without the chance of parole.
Was not a Civil Rights Worker and nor was she politically active. She sang in the over-45 person choir and was a member of the congregation’s ‘Flower Guild’, charged with beautifying the church. However, in the eyes of her killer she was a worthless ‘nigger’.
She was murdered by, William Zantzinger (not Zanzinger, as Dylan’s lyrics read) He was a wealthy 24 year-old white tobacco farmer and he murdered her because she could not serve him a drink fast enough. Living in the segregated South, Carroll was a barmaid in a Baltimore hotel. Using his cane, Zantzinger hammered about her head for five minutes.
Carroll was born in 1911, possibly on the 3rd March, she had 11 children (not 10 like Dylan wrote), lived in the lower-middle-class black neighborhood of Cherry Hill in Baltimore, and attended the Gillis Memorial Christian Community Church downtown. As with Medgar Evers Dylan named the murderer in the song, The Lonsome Death Of Hattie Carroll.
He was apparently having the time of his life at the hotel’s ‘Spinster’s Ball’, a drunken country mouse in the big city. His drinking and disorderliness quickly turned cruel, as he yelled racial epithets at the Black waiting staff. What’s more, he held onto his cane instead of leaving it at the coat check:
“I was having lots of fun with it, tapping everybody,” he said.
That tapping became more like hitting when it came to a few of the hotel’s Black Staff, including Hattie Carroll, he said:
“I don’t have to take that kind of shit off a nigger,” before he attacked her with his cane..
After this vicious attack she was unable to move her arm and her speech became slurred, she ran to the hotel kitchen for help. At that point, an ambulance was called. She died eight hours later at the hospital from head injuries.
Zantzinger was at first charged with murder, however he was eventually charged with the lesser crime of manslaughter.
Hoping to avoid a racially charged trial and national publicity, the defense opted to forego a jury, and won a change of venue to Hagerstown, Maryland. Many witnesses testified before a panel of judges, who found Zantzinger guilty of manslaughter, but gave him a sentence of only six months. The sentence was handed down on August 28, 1963, the same day that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his, I Have a Dream speech in nearby Washington, D.C. If the sentence had been any longer, Zantzinger would have had to serve it in the state prison, but as it was, he could stay at the local jail. Moreover, he was released on bail to get his tobacco crop in before starting his sentence in September.
He received received 6 months in prison for the crime and a fine of $500.
Lyrics – The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll Bob Dylan
William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll, With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger At a Baltimore hotel society gath’rin’, And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him As they rode him in custody down to the station, And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder.
But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears, Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for Your tears.
William Zanzinger, who at twenty-four years, Owns a tobacco farm of six hundred acres With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him, And high office relations in the politics of Maryland, Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders, And swear words and sneering, and his tongue it was Snarling, In a matter of minutes on bail was out walking.
But you who philosophise, disgrace and criticize all fears, Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for Your tears.
Hattie Carroll was a maid of the kitchen. She was fifty-one years old and gave birth to ten children Who carried the dishes and took out the garbage, And never sat once at the head of the table And didn’t even talk to the people at the table, Who just cleaned up all the food from the table, And emptied the ashtrays on a whole other level, Got killed by a blow, lay slain by a cane That sailed through the air and came down through the room, Doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle. And she never done nothing to William Zanzinger.
But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears, Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for Your tears.In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel, To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the Level And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and Persuaded, And that even the nobles get properly handled Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em, And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom, Stared at the person who killed for no reason, Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’. And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished,
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance, William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.
Oh, but you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all Fears, Bury the rag deep in your face, for now’s the time for your Tears.
Lyrics – Only A Pawn In Their Game
A bullet from the back of a bush Took Medgar Evers’ blood A finger fired the trigger to his name A handle hid out in the dark A hand set the spark Two eyes took the aim Behind a man’s brain But he can’t be blamed He’s only a pawn in their game
A South politician preaches to the poor white man “You got more than the blacks, don’t complain You’re better than them, you been born with white skin, ” they explain And the Negro’s name Is used, it is plain For the politician’s gain As he rises to fame And the poor white remains On the caboose of the train But it ain’t him to blame He’s only a pawn in their game
The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid And the marshals and cops get the same But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool He’s taught in his school From the start by the rule That the laws are with him To protect his white skin To keep up his hate So he never thinks straight ‘Bout the shape that he’s in But it ain’t him to blame He’s only a pawn in their game
From the poverty shacks,
he looks from the cracks to the tracks And the hoofbeats pound in his brain And he’s taught how to walk in a pack Shoot in the back With his fist in a clinch To hang and to lynch To hide ‘neath the hood To kill with no pain Like a dog on a chain He ain’t got no name But it ain’t him to blame He’s only a pawn in their gameToday,
Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught They lowered him down as a king But when the shadowy sun sets on the one That fired the gun He’ll see by his grave On the stone that remains Carved next to his name His epitaph plain Only a pawn in their game
Singer – Songwriter – Musician – Actor – Civil Rights Activist
This blog is long overdue for a man who put himself on the line with his prominent Civil Rights activities and who is still kicking but today even though on the 1st March 2021 he saw his 94th birthday.
We should add before we skip through his life that this blog is also a ‘music party blog’ to be exact a CALYPSO PARTY.
Harry Belafonte was mentored in his political beliefs by Paul Robeson, he was also a close confident of Martin Luther King Jr. and as with many activists he came under the spotlight of ‘McCarthyism’ and was blacklisted.
Belafonte did not play at Civil Rights,he got his hands dirty and was in the mix, amongst the many, many things he was involved in are some notable historic moments.
His list of political activities seem endless and always on the side of the oppressed – the underdog. In 1985, he helped organise and produce the song We Are the World, a multi-artist effort to raise funds for Africa and performed in the Live Aid concert that same year. In 1987 he became a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, he served as chairman of the ‘International Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children’.
No decade in his life did he seek a quiet life, by the new century he was campaigning against HIV-AIDS, he is on the board of directors of the non-profit making Civil Rights Advancement Project, he also served on the Advisory Council of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He met with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and opposed George Bush Jr. Middle East war ambitions; on the Black members of the Bush administration, he used a Malcolm X quote when describing Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice:
“There is an old saying, in the days of slavery. There were those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master, do exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him. That gave you privilege.
Colin Powell is committed to come into the house of the master, as long as he would serve the master, according to the master’s purpose. And when Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture. And you don’t hear much from those who live in the pasture”
We could go on and on about this remarkable man’s life, and we have not yet mentioned that he made 35 films between 1953 and 2020 including Carmen Jones (1954) and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (2018).
However let’s jump to the music that most people in the world remember him for, no small thing – he introduced CALYPSO MUSIC to the world.
The single Matilda (1953) became the first widely released Calypso song and was an instant success; this was followed in 1956 by the album Calypso. This album became the first album to sell over a million copies, including the first album to sell a million copies in England alone (I’ve got 2 vinyl copies just in case). Belafonte was nicknamed the King of Calypso, he liked the tag, but true to form he always emphasised that Trinidad & Tobaga were the origins of Calypso music.
African history is intrinsic to British history, yet hidden when taught in schools. We may be discussing the Industrial Revolution and the cotton mills, yet little is said about the raw cotton, where it was grown, who picked it – free labour from enslaved Africans. Nor how the wealth to start the Revolution came from – slave labour and colonisation. We may discuss medieval history, but ignore the great empires: of Zimbabwe, Benin (in Nigeria) and Mali, in Africa; Mongol and the Yuan Dynasty in China; and the Ottoman Empire. Such ommission negates England’s, Europe’s relationships with these empires.
“In a system of knowledge that is hegemonically Eurocentric, how did he get to anpoint where he could write this? This article summarises what I have learnt about Walter Rodney, author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, over the years….
“On the 23rd of March, 1942, Walter Anthony Rodney was born in Georgetown, Guyana (pictured above). He was absolutely brilliant in school and so in 1960, when he graduated first in his class, he won an open scholarship to the University of the West Indies (UWI). Rodney studied history at UWI Mona Campus in Jamaica, graduating with a first class in 1960. Brilliant. He then went on to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London from where he received his PhD in African History at the age of 24! From London he went to teach in Tanzania for a year before returning to Jamaica to teach. Absolutely brilliant and Pan-African.”
Walter Rodney’s book is reviewed by Tony Mckenna in 2018, in Marx & Philosophy is an excellent summary. The book itself was first published in 1972.
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
In the first section of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Walter Rodney treats us to an image of Africa and its peoples before the horror of the transatlantic slave trade was visited upon them. He shows us a rich and complex patchwork quilt of interlocking societies and civilisations. Some involved a basic division of labour and were profoundly communal in character: the Khoisan hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert, for instance, or the Kaffa cultivators, the Galla pastoralists, as well as the communities of Bozo fisherman or the nomadic Fulani herdsmen.
At the same time such groups often existed alongside more developed societies: the Benin Kingdom whose powerful industry and sophisticated division of labour underlay the creation of a plethora of great art, including the famous bronze heads, or further to the North, the great civilisation of Medieval Mali whose capital, Timbuktu, was a centre for learning across the continent and beyond (at its height a quarter of its population attended its great universities), or the Fatamid dynasty of Egypt which introduced the new industries of ‘papermaking, sugar refining, porcelain, and the distillation of gasoline’ while the ‘older industries of textiles, leather and metal were improved upon’ (page 57). That same dynasty also happened to found the world-historic city of Cairo. Or some centuries later, and far to the South, Great Zimbabwe, another monument to the history and the grandiosity of city building in old Africa:
‘One of the principal structures at Great Zimbabwe was some 300 feet long and 220 feet broad, with the walls being 30 feet high and 20 feet thick.’
But Rodney’s purpose, in his rather far-ranging and systematic depiction of the diversity and complexity of these societies is not to provide the reader with some idealised and utopic vision of a pre-modern Africa. In actual fact Rodney recognises all too well that much of the great material and spiritual artefacts of African civilisation were often premised on a more developed division of labour in which ruling aristocracies emerged, seizing control of the means of production, thereby becoming ‘a social stratum above the clans which previously existed and which had had narrow territorial bases.’ (p73)
The development of a heightened set of class contradictions which allowed for an increased intensity in the exploitation of the direct producers was the precondition for great advances in both technology and culture, for in many places ‘communal egalitarianism was on its way out’ having become a ‘brake on the development’ of ‘collective communities.’(p72)
Many of the places which had travelled furthest along the line of development also introduced slavery, both chattel slaves and domestic slaves, though Rodney argues that slavery itself was not concentrated enough to form the central mode of production in any one region or kingdom. In any event, Rodney’s description of the great civilisations of old Africa is one which combines high culture, technological innovation, city building, art and education – with glittering powerful elites and ruthless aristocratic dynasties and more often than not the intensive and debilitating exploitation of those at the bottom.
It is not in any sense an idealised portrait. It is a highly systematic analysis of a place which most of all shows that in terms of its sociological character and the sheer diversity of various societies from the most backward to the most advanced – Africa was not greatly removed from the medieval Europe of the day and was everywhere embroiled in active, vibrant historical developments.
One of the many tragic consequences of the transatlantic slave trade was that it worked to put a stopper on such developments. At the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade, there was a level of parity between Africa and Europe in many respects. When the Dutch first visited Benin City, they were struck by its resemblance to their own cities, with one traveller describing it thus:
‘The town seems to be very great…. The king’s palace is a collection of buildings which occupy as much space as the town of Harlem, and which is enclosed with walls. There are numerous apartments for the Prince’s ministers and fine galleries, most of which are as big as those on the Exchange at Amsterdam.’ (cited 83)
Many African leaders enjoyed honorary roles in European courts, indeed Africans more generally, on the cusp of the transatlantic slave epoch, were still able to become knights in European feudal society, a fact famously expressed in the painting The Kings Fountain (Chafariz d’El-Rey) where an Afro-Portuguese knight can be seen riding through a central square in 16th century Lisbon.
But though ‘European technical superiority did not apply to all aspects of production … the advantage they possessed in a few key areas proved decisive.’ (p90) One such area, of course, was the use of guns (a weapon which was not invented in Europe but in Yuan dynasty China). But also in terms of ships. Intra-African trade was almost always centred on the rivers and waterways inland, so that:
‘African canoes on the river Nile and the Senegal coast were of a high standard, but the relevant sphere of operations was the ocean, where the European ships could take command.’
In addition the Europeans controlled many of the trade routes which led to Asia and thus Africa’s trade with the outside world was increasingly monopolised by Europeans.
Once the Americas had been opened up, and once the indigenous peoples there had succumbed in their millions to the genocidal activities of the Europeans and the diseases they brought in their wake, a need to find new blood to invigorate the labouring population became a pressing one on the part of the conquerors. It was a need which was met first by indentured labourers and later by an ever increasing number of (in the main) African slaves. European commercial interests were able to create the pattern of triangulation which would define the next several centuries:
‘They engaged in buying cotton cloth in India to exchange for slaves in Africa to mine gold in Central and South America. Part of the gold in the Americas would then be used to purchase spices and silks from the Far East. The concept of metropole and dependency automatically came into existence when parts of Africa were caught up in the web of international commerce.’
European traders and merchants were able to ‘bamboozle’ African rulers of a ‘certain status and authority’ with their luxury wares so that the latter provided more and more slaves and ‘even began … to raid outside their societies as well as to exploit internally by victimizing some of their own subjects.’ (p91) Thus the success of the transatlantic slave system depended on some level of collaboration between European commercial interests and African elites. Rodney notes, rather tellingly, that in:
‘the simplest of societies where there were no kings, it provided impossible for Europeans to strike up the alliance which was necessary to carry on a trade in captives on the coast.’
At the same time some rulers of powerful states did resist; the Angolan state of Matamba, for example, with:
‘Queen Nzinga at its head … tried to coordinate resistance against the Portuguese … and this left Matamba isolated…. So long as it opposed trade with the Portuguese, it was an object of hostility from neighbouring African states which had compromised with Europeans and slave trading.’
The figure which is most frequently provided is that of 10 million Africans; 10 million people who were ripped from their homes and converted into someone else’s property, transported across the Atlantic and condemned to a life of inhuman brutalisation which beggars belief. But the 10 million figure neither takes into account the number of people (captured slaves) who died on the journey from the inland to the great ports of West Africa and nor does it account for the number of those who died in the slaving wars which were facilitated by European commercial interests.
The true number is certainly far greater. The massive loss to the labour force in those regions meant that many local industries were weakened, which meant in turn that European products became more dominant and that the natural flow of trade which flowed from region to region within Africa was increasingly usurped in favour of the need to satisfy the commercial demands which Europeans imposed. Consequently, all sorts of industries were retarded. Rodney writes of the cloth making industry:
‘When European cloth became dominant on the African market, it meant that African producers were cut off from the increasing demand. The craft producers either abandoned their tasks … or they continued on the same small hand-worked instruments to create styles and pieces for localized markets. Therefore there was what can be called “technological arrest” or stagnation or even regression…. The abandonment of traditional iron smelting in most parts of Africa is probably the most important instance of technological repression.’
As Rodney goes on to argue, development presupposes ‘a capacity for self-sustaining growth’ (119) and it was this which the transatlantic slave trade truncated. The consequences were stark. Rodney provides figures showing how population growth in Africa was minimal, almost flat; from 1650 to 1900 it went from 100 million to 120 million (compared with Asia which went from 257 million to 857 million in the same timeframe). (p110)
In addition, the transatlantic slave trade facilitated the growth of ‘monocultures’ – that is, local economies which were almost entirely dependent on producing one raw material for exportation to Europe. For European economic development, however, the situation couldn’t have been more different:
The African contribution to European capitalist growth extended over such vital sectors as shipping, insurance, the formation of companies, capitalist agriculture, technology, and the manufacture of machinery … the French Saint-Malo fishing industry was revived by the opening up of markets in the French slave plantations; while the Portuguese in Europe depended heavily on dyes like indigo, camwood, Brazil wood, and cochineal brought from Africa and the Americas. Gum from Africa also played a part in the textile industry, which is acknowledged as having been one of the most powerful engines of growth within the European economy. Then there was the export of ivory from Africa, providing the raw material for industries in England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and North America – producing items ranging from knife handles to piano keys. (p97)
The final section of the book concentrates on the rapacious colonialization – ‘the scramble for Africa’ – which the European powers subjected Africa to at the end of the 19th century and into the run up to the First World War. The historical context – the legacy of slavery, the decimation of local industry, the narrowing of productive technique, the interruption of internal trade, the uprooting of labour and life from local communities, the extraction and exsanguination of a plethora of natural resources – worked to abrogate the ‘capacity for self-sustaining growth’ on the part of indigenous Africa while at the same time providing a concentrated boost to European development which would culminate in the humming, high-powered engine of the industrial revolution and the most brutal impetus to global empire the world had ever seen.
The African states fell so rapidly to European power in this period precisely because European economic and productive development had developed, vampire like, by sucking the vitality out of African society and curtailing the possibility of its own. Once more, the colonists were aided by some level of local cooperation. Many of the Africans who had served in the centuries before as the intermediaries facilitating the import and export of goods to and from Europe, were already fluent in European languages and already tethered to European commercial interests. At the same time, Rodney draws attention to numerous examples of heroic resistance on the part of states and communities whose ability to resist was nevertheless meagre in light of European technological supremacy.
On assuming a political domination over the region, the colonialists sank their talons in with a savagery, rapaciousness and disregard which is even more mortifying given the way the continent had already been bled so violently.
Rodney depicts the process with a combination of historical pathos and trenchant statistical research, peppered with many revealing incidents and examples. Once individual states had been overwhelmed, land and resources were sold off at bargain basement prices.
So, for example:
‘after the Kenya highlands had been declared “Crown land,” the British handed over to Lord Delamere 100,000 acres of the best land at cost of a penny per acre.’
These sorts of appropriations, which amounted to little more than naked robbery, were supplemented by the most incredible exploitation of African labour.
In South Rhodesia, for example, in the 1930s, ‘agricultural labourers rarely received more than fifteen shillings per month’. (p179) A more skilled counterpart – a truck driver travelling to the mines in the north of the country for instance – would receive more, but still only accruing a meagre three pounds per month. But the Europeans who did that same job (truck driving in Northern Rhodesia) would receive thirty pounds per month. (p179)
To all of this must be added the most barbaric forms of barely-compensated, forced labour which resulted in millions of injuries and deaths, most notoriously in the Belgian Congo under Leopold II. Such draconian conditions and the incredible profits they yielded helped fuse and forge the great industrial corporations of the epoch with financial giants like Barclays Bank whose capital filtered through them.
Most importantly of all Rodney’s systematic unfurling of all these processes decisively dispels the enduring myth that – despite its brutalities – colonialism nevertheless yielded a progressive modernisation of the continent. The possibilities for the development of technology, the education of the work force, the creation of a modern urban working class, the integration of communities, the development of a welfare state – all failed to transpire:
‘in other words, capitalism in the form of colonialism failed to perform in Africa the tasks which it had performed in Europe in changing social relations and liberating the forces of production.’
The only slight qualification to this exists in the form of those technologies which were integral to transporting goods in and out of the continent.
On Saturday 20th March anti-racists came together in a global day of action to mark UN Anti-racism Day 2021.
In the UK, Stand Up To Racism had called for people to co-ordinate different activities, with the main focus being on a #TakeTheKnee action at 1pm. NorSCARF had explored the possibility of holding a socially distanced and risk assessed public gathering along with a number of community and campaign partners. Unfortunately the police and Stoke-on-Trent city council were unwilling to consider an event of this nature and effectively imposed a blanket ban for 24 hours on anti-racist activity within the whole of the city. See the Sentinel article which ran the headline ‘£10k Covid fine threat if anti-racism campaigners ‘take the knee’ outside Hanley Town Hall’ here.
We were therefore forced to suggest people stay at home and post photos of themselves that we could share online. We also joined…
Not often cited as a controversial Civil Rights activist Lena Horne is still to this day seen only as a singer, dancer, actress performer and not as an activist, in a similar way to Nina Simone. However that could not be further from the truth.
“You have to be taught to be second class; you’re not born that way”.
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne was born on June 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of a banker/professional gambler and an actress. Both parents had a mixed heritage of African American, European American and Native American descent. Her parents separated when she was three, and because her mother travelled as part of various theatre troupes, Horne lived with her grandparents for a time. Later, she alternately accompanied her mother on the road and stayed with family and friends around the country.
Over the course of her long life, Lena Horne became a star of film, music, television, and stage, as well as a formidable force for Civil Rights. She won a Tony in 1981, and two years later, earned a National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) medal that had previously been awarded to Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Rosa Parks.
When she died in 2010 at age 92, President Barack Obama noted that she was the first Black singer to tour with an all-White band and that she refused to perform for segregated audiences. He said:
“Michelle and I join all Americans in appreciating the joy she brought to our lives and the progress she forged for our country”.
Lena Horne was an enormous star throughout the 30’s and 40’s but there was a limit to how far MGM and others would go with her even as a lighter skinned Black women. In the MGM movie Showboat (1951) she was considered but not used as she was seen as, ‘too risky’. Strangely the musical is about a fair skinned Black woman, who’s life is changed when she is discovered to be ‘Black’. MGM instead chose a close friend of Lena’s to take the role, Ava Gardner, and darkened her skin with make up.
Lena was stuffed into one ‘all-star’ film musical after another – Thousands Cheer (1943), Broadway Rhythm (1944), Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), ‘Words and Music’ (1948) – to sing a song or two that, she later recalled, could easily be snipped from the movie when it played in the South, where the idea of an African-American performer in anything but a subservient role in a movie with an otherwise all-white cast was unthinkable.
A close friend of Civil Rights giant Paul Robeson. Robeson had an affinity for Horne because her grandmother, a staunch character with a college education, had helped him get a scholarship to Rutgers.
In 1941, Horne found herself seeking Robeson’s advice. As she later detailed in her letter at the Sands Hotel (see below), she told him she was exhausted by the pressures of show business, the racism she faced from the White establishment, and the disdain she heard from Black people who accused her of ‘trying to pass as White’, Robeson kept listening. Finally, he exhorted her to devote her life to making the country a better place, to eradicate her pain by helping people everywhere. He named specific groups such as the Council for African Affairs and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.
Horne also performed at a fundraiser for 10 screenwriters who’d refused to testify; they’d been fired from their studios and found guilty of contempt of Congress:
“I’m not alone, I’m free. I no longer have to be a credit, I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody”.
These activities inevitably led to a brief period in the early 1950s under McCarthyism when Horne’s career seemed to be over. Her name had appeared in Red Channels, a report that listed more than 100 entertainers who appeared to have Communist leanings. Some of the other African Americans on the list were: Lena’s friend and mentors Paul Robeson; the actor Canada Lee; the poet / novelist / playwright Langston Hughes; acclaimed author Richard Wright; the prominent jazz and classical pianist, singer, and actor Hazel Scott; the classical music conductor Dean Dixon; the author / playwight / composer Shirley Graham Du Bois; prominent singer / guitarist / songwriter/ actor Josh White; stage actor Hilda Simms; actress Ruby Dee; playwright / film director Ossie Davis; and others were outlawed by the HUAC. Most of these people were civil rights activists, some were socialists or communists but most had no affiliation to a polical party. The abusive term, ‘pinko’, was bandied around to demonise people.
Because of the accusations and intimidations, some of these creative people went to live in Europe, others were denied their passports, some had breakdowns and suffered ill health, many lost work contracts. Friendships were rift apart and people were ostracised in their own communities.
For more than three years after that, Lena Horne struggled to get work. She continued to perform at nightclubs, but nobody in the TV or film industries would hire her.
She was at a low point in June 1953 when she performed at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. The city was not the shining epicentre of entertainment that it is today. It was not even the Las Vegas of Frank Sinatra’s famed Rat Pack jet set. There were only a handful of hotels and motels, and the infamous Strip was non-existent. But Horne had few other options. She closed the show with Stormy Weather, her most famous song:
Stormy Weather – written byEtta James
Don’t know why There’s no sun up in the sky Stormy weather Since my man and I ain’t together Keeps raining all of the time
Oh, yeah Life is bad Gloom and misery everywhere Stormy weather, stormy weather And I just can get my poor self together Oh, I’m weary all of the time The time, so weary all of the time
When he went away The blues walked in and met me Oh, yeah if he stays away Old rocking chair’s gonna get me All I do is pray The Lord will let me Walk in the sun once more
Oh, I can’t go on, can’t go on, can’t go on Everything I have is gone Stormy weather, stormy weather Since my man and I, me and my daddy ain’t together Keeps raining all of the time Oh, oh, keeps raining all of the time Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah raining all of the time Stormy stormy Stormy weather Yeah
At the end of the show she went back to her room. On Sands stationery stamped with the hotel motto ‘A Place in the Sun’, her story unfolded. She wrote a letter to Roy Brewer, the trade union leader who was prominently involved in the anti-communist movement in the 1940s and 1950s:
Appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947, Brewer testified that the Soviet Union was financing “the takeover of the motion picture industry” and that American communists were attempting to “control the unions.”
“Dear Mr. Brewer”, her letter began. Sadly, this marked the distancing between herself and Paul Robeson, who was also on the list.
For decades, Horne’s biographers have largely glossed over the question of how Horne found her way back into the entertainment business. Even Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, who wrote a 1986 book about the Horne family, didn’t get to see the letter until 2013.
All that time, it was sitting in a bankers box, packed away in a children’s playhouse on a dusty ranch in the San Fernando Valley. But those 12 neatly written pages reveal how a beautiful young Black woman became a pawn in the Cold War – and how she ultimately regained control of her career and her life.
Horne continued to advocate for human rights and took part in the March on Washington in August 1963 with Martin Luther King and said of him:
“Every colour I can think of and nationality, we were all touched by Dr. King because he made us like each other and respect each other”
Later she returned to her roots as a nightclub performer and continued to work on television, while releasing well-received record albums. Lena Horne remained an active supporter of Civil Rights throughout the rest of her life.
“Looking through her papers held at Lambeth Archives, I (Dr Angelina Osborne) came across a photograph taken of her in 1969, when she would have been around 17 or 18. Her face was swollen, her clothes torn and dirty. On the back of the photograph was written, ‘Leaving Kings College Hospital after police assault. 15th November 1969’.”
Morris had intervened when a Nigerian diplomat who had parked his Mercedes on Atlantic Road in Brixton, had been beaten and arrested by the police who assumed he had stolen the car. Because she had tried physically to stop the police from attacking the diplomat, the police turned on her, arrested and assaulted her, threatening her with rape and Olive Morris had to go to hospital.
Olive Morris leaving Kings College Hospital after police assault. 15th November 1969
Born in Jamaica in 1952, Morris and her family arrived in England when she was nine, as part of the Windrush Generation. The family lived in South London.
The British Black Panther Movement was active from 1968 to 1973. It had several branches but Brixton in South London was the centre. Its key members were Olive Morris Barbara Beese, Kenrick Goppy, Darcus Howe, Farukh Dhondy, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Danny Da Costa, Liz Obi, Leila Howe and Neil Kenlock. It had a HQ at 38 Shakespeare Road, off Railton Road, which was bought for them by art critic John Berger, author of Ways of Seeing.
Brixton Black Panthers – March through Brixton lead by young flag bearer with youth dressed in Tulse Hill Scool for Boys uniform in front
For those people who fell between the twin stools of home ownership and council housing (ie those who would traditionally have been housed in the private sector), opportunities were shrinking, rents rocketing and security diminishing. This increasing desperation of people at the bottom end of the housing market together with the growing number of empty houses, led to the growth of squatting both in scale and scope.
In response in 1972, Olive Morris and Liz Turnbull, both members of the Brixton Black Panthers, occupied a flat above a launderette in Railton Road and successfully fought off attempts at illegal eviction. In doing so, they set an example for hundreds of homeless young people in Brixton and the flat remained squatted for many years. 121 Railton Road, became famous throughout Europe. This was the first successful squatters of private property in Lambeth.
Olive Morris Scaling 121 Railton Road
Morris and the other squatters fought against eviction and had a sign up saying:
THIS PROPERTY HAS BEEN OCCUPIED BY SQUATTERS. WE INTEND TO STAY HERE. IF YOU TRY TO EVICT US, WE WILL PROSECUTE. YOU MUST DEAL WITH US THROUGH THE COURTS.
121 Railton Road became more than just a home, it was a meeting space, a social space, a place to stay for visiting activists.
It remained squatted until 1999. Squats were becoming more prevalent.
She became ill during a trip to Spain in 1978. When she returned to London, she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She underwent treatment, which was unsuccessful. She died on 12 July 1979 at St Thomas’ Hospital, Lambeth, and was buried in Streatham Vale Cemetery. She was 27 years old
Olive Morris left a a legacy for people in Brixton and slowly that is being revived. She campaigned for access to education, decent living conditions for Black communities and fought against state and police repression. Despite dying at a young age, she empowered the people who lived and worked around her.
Fannie Lou Townsend Hamer rose from these humble beginnings in the Mississippi Delta to become one of the most important, passionate, and powerful voices of the Civil & Voting Rights movements and a leader in the efforts for greater economic opportunities for African Americans.
She was born on October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi, the 20th and last child of sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Townsend. She grew up in poverty, and at age six Hamer joined her family picking cotton. By age 12, she left school to work. In 1944, she married Perry Hamer and the couple toiled on the Mississippi plantation owned by B.D. Marlowe until 1962. Because Hamer was the only worker who could read and write, she also served as plantation timekeeper.
Hamer began her Civil Rights activities in 1962, outraged when in 1961, she received a hysterectomy by a White doctor without her consent while undergoing surgery to remove a uterine tumor.
This forced sterilisation of Black women, as a way to reduce the Black population, was so widespread it was dubbed a ‘Mississippi appendectomy’. Unable to have children of their own, the Hamers adopted two daughters.
Not a women to be messed with, during her life she founded Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), co founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, worked and organised with Student Non Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), she started a ‘Pig Bank’, she was a member of the ‘Freedom Singers’ and sang with them (she also released an album Songs My Mother Taught Me on Folkway).
She partnered with the National Council of Negro Women, she survived a drive by shooting by the Ku Klux Klan and was fired on 16 times, she said:
“I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d have been a little scared – but what was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember”
– Fannie Lou Hamer was a formidable lady.
In the summer of 1962, Hamer attended a meeting led by Civil Rights Activists James Forman of the SNCC and James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Hamer was incensed by efforts to deny Blacks the right to vote. She became a SNCC organiser and on August 31, 1962 led 17 volunteers to register to vote at the Indianola, Mississippi Courthouse.
In the early 1960s, Fannie Lou Hamer worked as a timekeeper on the Marlow Plantation. In late August of 1962, SNCC workers James Bevel and Bob Moses persuaded 18 Ruleville residents to go to the county courthouse in Indianola and attempt to register to vote. Mrs. Hamer was a part of this group which made a first unsuccessful attempt on August 31. Upon returning home, Hamer received an ultimatum from W.D. Marlow:
stop trying to register to vote or get off the plantation. Hamer had no intention of giving up the struggle for civil rights. Denied the right to vote due to an unfair literacy test, the group was harassed on their way home, when police stopped their bus and fined them $100 for the trumped-up charge that the bus was too yellow.
That night, Marlow fired Hamer for her attempt to vote; her husband was required to stay until the harvest. Marlow confiscated much of their property. She left the Marlow plantation and stayed with Mary Tucker, a friend living in Ruleville, Mississippi in Sunflower County with very little.
In June 1963, after successfully completing a voter registration program in Charleston, South Carolina, Hamer and several other Black women were arrested for sitting in a ‘Whites-only’ bus station restaurant in Winona, Mississippi. At the Winona jailhouse, she and several of the women were brutally beaten, leaving Hamer with lifelong injuries from a blood clot in her eye, kidney damage, and leg damage.
In 1964, Hamer’s national reputation soared as she co-founded the MFDP, which challenged the local Democratic Party’s efforts to block Black participation. Hamer and other MFDP members went to the Democratic National Convention that year, arguing to be recognized as the official delegation. When Hamer spoke before the Credentials Committee, calling for mandatory integrated state delegations.
President Lyndon Johnson held a televised press conference so she would not get any television airtime, he thought her an ignorant Black. But her speech, with its poignant descriptions of racial prejudice in the South, was televised later. By 1968, her vision for racial parity in delegations had become a reality and Hamer was a member of Mississippi’s first integrated delegation.
In 1964 she helped organise Freedom Summer, which brought hundreds of college students, Black and White, to help with African American voter registration in the segregated South. In 1964, she announced her candidacy for the Mississippi House of Representatives but was barred from the ballot. A year later, Hamer, Victoria Gray, and Annie Devine became the first Black women to stand in the U.S. Congress when they unsuccessfully protested the Mississippi House election of 1964. She also travelled extensively, giving powerful speeches on behalf of civil rights. In 1971, Hamer helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Frustrated by the political process, Hamer turned to economics as a strategy for greater racial equality. In 1968, she began a ‘Pig Bank’ to provide free pigs for Black farmers to breed, raise, and slaughter. A year later she launched the FFC, buying up land that Blacks could own and farm collectively. With the assistance of donors (including famed singer Harry Belafonte), she purchased 640 acres and launched a co-op store, boutique, and sewing enterprise. Hamer did not wish to have blacks be dependent on any group for any longer so, she wanted to give them a voice through an agricultural movement. She single-handedly ensured that 200 units of low-income housing were built—many still exist in Ruleville today.
The FFC lasted until the mid-1970s; at its heyday, it was among the largest employers in Sunflower County. Extensive travel and fundraising took Hamer away from the day-to-day operations, as did her failing health, and the FFC hobbled along until folding. Not long after, in 1977, Hamer died of breast cancer at age 59.
No eulogies can be too many for this wonderful human being who put herself in the firing line. Her memorial service was attended by over 1,500 people including Andrew Young, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, he spoke at the RCHS service, saying:
“None of us would be where we are now had she not been there then”.