Note: Today is Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day. It seems apropos to revisit another historical controversy – one not quite so long ago. Also, I’d like to give a shout out to my cousin Ira, celebrating a milestone birthday today, having been through a lot more than most. I wish him health, happiness and many more celebrations.
In a series of previous blog posts, I wrote about the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers Strike of 1968 because it was a seminal event in both the history of New York City and my family. My Dad was a union activist and walked that picket line. That strike is seen by many as a turning point in the relationship between the Jewish- and African-American communities, damaging it so much that it reverberates to this day.
As part of my exploration of the topic I attended a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society in late January of 2019. Monifa Edwards, the valedictorian from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Junior High School in 1968, began the session by talking about her journey. Ms. Edwards, who is in her 60s now, held herself like a dancer, lean and elegant. She spoke with assurance. She gave some background, noting that her family, originally from the Caribbean, valued education. Her parents were distressed that the neighborhood schools had such a poor reputation. As a result, they enrolled her in a public elementary school in Gravesend, way across the borough of Brooklyn, an opportunity offered by New York City to desegregate the schools.
She described a harrowing experience on one particular trip. The bus was surrounded by angry white parents. The driver and bus monitor vanished, and the parents started rocking the bus and yelling epithets. Monifa recounted that she could still see, in her mind’s eye, the face of one of the mothers – her hair in curlers, her face twisted in hate. Monifa was terrified and traumatized by the experience. She came home and told her parents that she was going to go to a neighborhood school next year, no matter what, even if the education offered was inferior.
I heard Monifa’s story and it broke my heart. I could imagine her fear as the bus threatened to tip over. It made me think of my own experience in 1973 attending junior high school in Canarsie despite a boycott of the schools because parents were against the proposed busing of black students into our district. I walked a gauntlet lined by police and white demonstrators who were yelling and shaking their fists at the few of us who dared to attend classes. It was unnerving.
Monifa continued, explaining how based on this incident, and other painful experiences, she was ‘primed to be radicalized’ (her phrase). To her radicalized meant adopting the beliefs of the Black Panthers. When she asked adults around her, how could that white mother hate her so much and want to do her harm, she was told that white people were the devil. This made sense to her young self. It explained what she had experienced. I could understand how a child would receive and accept that message. As a young teen she joined the Black Panthers in Brooklyn and they became involved in the controversy over the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
Hearing about the Black Panthers brought back images I saw on television when I was growing up. Angry young black men, wearing berets, camo and armed to the teeth came to mind. Those images were unsettling when they flashed on the nightly news in 1967, 1968 and 1969. The energy and anger that radiated was scary – especially when coupled with footage of cities burning. It felt like revolution was in the air.
As a young white girl in Brooklyn, it was beyond my control or understanding. I remember my Dad coming home from the picket line, tired and frustrated; talking about the ‘trouble-makers’ and ‘opportunists’ that were stirring the pot. He viewed the strike as necessary to protect union rights, to ensure due process for teachers who were disciplined. He thought schools needed to be protected from local politics. I implicitly trusted my dad’s judgment – I knew him to be an ethical, thoughtful person.
I later came to understand that the students and parents in the community felt unheard and disrespected in the current system. Though it wasn’t my dad’s intent, the structure he was supporting likely contributed to the community’s alienation. It was a dangerous situation – with the mostly white picketers (the teachers) in a Black neighborhood, Black Panthers on the scene, epithets flying both ways, anger bubbling to the surface, police sharpshooters on the roofs of buildings across from the junior high school. Each side believing in the righteousness of their cause. The civil rights movement, which had been nonviolent, was undergoing a change, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. earlier that year.
Years later I watched the documentary Eyes on the Prize and learned more about the Black Panthers; I gained a fuller understanding of the organization. Their ten-point program doesn’t seem quite as radical today. These are the ten points:
What We Want Now!
- We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
- We want full employment for our people.
- We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.
- We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
- We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
- We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
- We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
- We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
- We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
- We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.
I’m sure some of those demands would trouble people today. Freedom for all incarcerated black men is not realistic, though I can’t deny that racism is embedded in the criminal justice system. ‘Robbery by the capitalists’ is still incendiary language, as well. But the thrust of the program addresses legitimate grievances.
The Black Panther platform also included statements of belief. This part likely stoked more of the controversy.
What We Believe:
- We believe that Black People will not be free until we are able to determine our own destiny.
- We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American business men will not give full employment, the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
- We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as redistribution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities: the Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered 6,000,000 Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over 50,000,000 Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
- We believe that if the White landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make a decent housing for its people.
- We believe in an educational system that will give our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
- We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
- We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives us the right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.
- We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
- We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The 14th Amendment of the U.S Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peers. A peer is a persons from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical, and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being tried by all-white juries that have no understanding of “the average reasoning man” of the Black community.
- When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, and that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such a form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accused. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, and their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards of their future security.
When I read it now, I am first struck by the reference only to men. The organization may have been progressive, but they didn’t extend the call for liberation to Black women. I am also struck by the rage that permeates. We needed to acknowledge that fury. We didn’t then, and we are still dealing with the consequences. While I don’t accept a number of their remedies (or all of the assumptions), some of their answers seem appropriate (decent housing, education that includes contributions beyond those of White men, and, reparations should be negotiated). As is often the case, more attention was given to the extremes, rather than focusing what could be agreed upon.
I can certainly imagine that a young person, like Monifa, would find all of it empowering and tantalizing.
Sitting in the audience that night listening to the discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society, I thought there was a hole in the presentation. The perspective of someone like my father, whose motivations were not drenched in bigotry or a hunger for power for power’s sake, who legitimately believed that the principles of the union were at stake, was not represented. While giving parents a voice in schools is essential, it is reasonable to ask what their role should be if teaching is a respected profession. Having served as a school board member for nine years in an upstate New York suburb, I have grappled with this question. It is not easily answered. Sadly, in 1968 the union and the community could find no middle ground.
I think in one respect that panel discussion repeated the sins of the past. An important voice wasn’t heard.
Sitting in the audience that night, I was also reminded that the messages we receive as children are powerful. I absorbed messages that I still need to examine, so did Monifa Edwards. It takes work and awareness to overcome them. Many people are not introspective, some may not want to make the effort, and others may not be willing to be honest with themselves. But if we are ever going to progress, we need to do the work.
Ms. Edwards said she had long since moved beyond her radical phase, she was able to overcome the hateful message that white people were devils. Unfortunately, time was limited and there were other issues to discuss so we didn’t learn how that process occurred or how long it took.
How many people in the world, who are currently traumatized by violence and/or abuse, are ‘primed to be radicalized?’ How many will do the work that Ms. Edwards did to move beyond hate? And, I wonder how she feels today, eighteen months later, in the wake of continued instances of black citizens being murdered by police, seemingly without consequence.
And, finally, I wonder when we will truly learn to listen and try to understand, beyond just the words.