In the Defender article “Celebrating our long history of resistance, part 1” we provided a brief snapshot of the many forms of Black Resistance our people have displayed in the face of mistreatment from enslavement to roughly 1919.
This article provides a brief snapshot of Black Resistance from the 1920s to the early 1970s. However, recognizing that it is impossible to do justice to the many varied ways our people and institutions have pushed back against oppression, the Defender hopes readers will use this article as a jumping-off point for personal research into this grossly under-taught topic.
Building all-Black towns and armed struggle weren’t the only ways Blacks resisted in this land moving into the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance, known by its participants as the “New Negro Movement,” is a prime example.
The late Dr. James Conyers, former chairman of the UH African American Studies Program (now a department) shared during a personal conversation, “That Harlem Renaissance was a monster, when you think about it. The level of Black excellence, Black nerve and Black audacity put not only whites in this country on notice, but people across the planet, especially sisters and brothers in the Pan-African diaspora.”
Alaine Locke, who many consider the “father” of the Harlem Renaissance, believed art and the Great Migration (another form of Black Resistance) were more important to Black progress than political protest.
Part of this renaissance involved other forms of resistance. One was the aforementioned Great Migration, the largest movement of humans from one section of the US to another in history—resistance from Jim Crow, sharecropping and lynchings by literally moving.
The famous Black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, was outlawed in many southern cities and states as it was seen as “agitating” Blacks and inspiring them to move.
“Amazingly, though whites inflicted all manner of torture and brutality upon Blacks, they sent armed officers to local train stations to stop their main workforce from leaving town. Yet, our ancestors found a way anyway,” said community builder and activist Kefing Moor.
Another resistance tool was scholarship. During the 1920s, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founder of Black History Month, Dr. WEB DuBois and many others began constructing Black US and world history to fight against the idea that Black people had no history.
There was also the Pan-African movement with a focus on international self-determination. Though many were involved, leadership must be given to Marcus Garvey who led the largest Black (Pan-African) organization in history, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), with its membership reported to be in the missions prior to the 1930s. DuBois was also heavily involved in facilitating Pan-African connections as Black Resistance.
1940s CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
Another little-known form of Black Resistance was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s.
“For some reason, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s gets no love from elementary school curriculums to college graduate programs,” said Yusuf Ambidwile, a local Pan African Studies educator. in K-college curriculums. “We know horrifyingly little about the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, and even less about the movement that preceded it.”
Ambidwile speaks of the movement, led in part by A. Philip Randolph, civil rights and workers’ rights activist.
“In 1925, Randolph made the big-baller move of founding the first Black-led labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Think about that—organized resistance to labor mistreatment and abuse by white employers at a time when even looking white people in the eye could get you lynched. I know why other people don’t celebrate him. But why we don’t celebrate Randolph’s courage and the fight of others during the 1940s is beyond me.”
Randolph offered another form of resistance—protest marches in hopes of moving the US military to desegregate, believing that if Blacks were allowed to prove their courage on the battlefield rather than remain relegated to servant roles, the walls of segregation would come tumbling down.
Said Randolph, “Winning democracy for the Negro is winning the war for democracy.”
1950s-60s CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
Black Resistance was front and center during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.
“Beyond those names we usually hear when people discuss the Civil Rights Movement, I would challenge people to look at others who resisted for the culture,” said Ambidwile
Some of the individuals he mentioned were Daisy Bates, JoAnn Robinson and Reverend E.D. Nixon (organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott), Ella Baker, the Deacons of Defense, Gloria Richardson and Bayard Rustin.
Ambidwile also suggested looking at Houston-area contributors to Black Resistance, including the 13 TSU students, who on March 4, 1960, staged a sit-in at the “whites only” lunch counter at Weingarten’s grocery store on Almeda and changed the course of Houston history; and Reverend William A. Lawson who opened doors for MLK to speak locally when other ministers did not.
Speaking of ministers, theologian Dr. Howard Thurman offered Black Resistance to US religious beliefs and practices. Pushing back against “the most segregated hour of the week” (Sunday Christian worship), Thurman argued that Christianity wasn’t the problem, but rather the racists who perverted the faith.
In the 1960s, several activists, scholars and religionists sought to find the relevance of Christianity to the movement for Black equality and empowerment. Black Episcopal theologian Nathan Wright called this work “the dehonkification of Black Christianity.” Several individuals participated in this resistance to a eurocentric, anti-Black faith system, including Gayraud Wilmore, J. Deotis Roberts, Dr. James Cone and one of Thurman’s proteges, Reverend Albert B. Cleage Jr, who became known as the “Blackest” and most radical of them all.
This resistance contributed to another: the Black Consciousness Movement.
BLACK CONSCIOUSNESS MOVEMENT
“The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s morphed into the Black Power Movement because of what some scholars and activists label the ‘Black Consciousness Movement,’ a movement that began waking Blacks to our pre-enslavement history and contributions,” shared Ambidwile.
Ambidwile added that out of this growing consciousness, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) morphed from following MLK’s playbook, to organizing for Black self-determination.
“Under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure), SNCC was all about Black power, pushing the envelope, fighting for Black life and rights, ‘irregardless’ of white approval or white disdain.”
That consciousness swept the Bayou City, as well.
According to FreedomArchives.org, “In early 1967, TSU students and Black residents of Houston began organizing on and off campus. In March, students demonstrated against conditions on campus, which were significantly worse than those at the white college down the street. Their grievances included bad food, early curfews, and a lack of courses in fields like engineering and technology. The administration responded by throwing TSU’s Friends of SNCC chapter off campus, firing the group’s faculty advisor, and working with the local police to have a warrant issued for the arrest of a student organizer. The administration’s crackdown only further angered students, and their protest expanded. They came forward with new demands, including an increase in faculty salaries, the disarmament of campus police, the removal of the campus dean from the local draft board, a student court for disciplinary cases, and the dropping of all charges against student activists.”
Several area historians and activists, including John “Bunchy” Crear (Black Panther Party for Self Defense), Deloyd Parker (SHAPE), Kofi Tahara (National Black United Front) and Dr. Abdul Haleem Muhammad (Muslim Mosque #45), have spoke on what followed, and how it was mislabeled by Houston press as a TSU student riot.
“In May , students joined together with local Black residents to protest poor living conditions and city government neglect. A demonstration in the Sunnyside neighborhood was called after a child drowned in an unfenced city garbage dump. Another was held in Northeast Houston to protest the beating of Black high school students with ax handles and chains. The demonstrations gave city officials an excuse to retaliate against TSU students. On the night of May 16, police officers blockaded the campus. Students gathered and some threw rocks at the police. Soon, hundreds of armed police officers swarmed the campus. They arrested 489 students and opened fire on a dormitory. They shot between 3,000 and 5,000 rounds of AR-15 shells into the dorm. In the course of the raid, a student and a number of officers were shot, and one officer was killed, almost certainly from ricocheting bullets,” stated an excerpt at FreedomArchives.org.
Crear has no doubt that the bullet that killed the officer was from friendly fire (ballistics and coroners reports confirmed that the officer was killed by a .30 bullet; the caliber used by Houston PD), as the late Bobby Caldwell, known as “The People’s Lawyer” proved in court when he successfully gained the release and exoneration of all TSU Five members, activists HPD charged with the officer’s murder, though it took over three years to clear them of all charges.
Caldwell showed his own version of Black resistance by defending local student activists (TSU, UH, SNCC, Black Panther Party and the People’s Party II), oftentimes free of charge.
UH BLACK STUDIES
Another tangible outcome of the Black Consciousness Movement was the national push for Black Studies programs on college campuses and in middle and high schools.
“Cleage and others helped form a Black Teacher’s organization in Detroit,” said D. Kimathi Nelson, presiding Bishop of the Shrine. “They successfully got Detroit Public Schools to implement Black Studies in the late 60s and early 70s.”
On college campuses, 1968 was a banner year for this kind of intellectual Black Resistance. The nation’s first Black Studies program was founded that year at San Francisco State University, led by Dr. Nathan Hare.
The University of Houston’s Black Studies program was founded that next year, on Feb. 7.
“In 1969, AABL (Afro-Americans for Black Liberation) students at UH were growing impatient,” UH AAS alumnus Omowale Luthuli-Allen told the late Dr. James Conyers, former head of UH’s AAS program. “We were being impacted in such a way that our ideas were growing more and more militant every day. We were not comfortable with the idea of gradualism. We wanted something to happen right then and right now at that moment so we basically stepped on the accelerator in terms of saying that we could not wait.’
In that same Conyers article, UH AAS alum Gene Locke added, “We had protests virtually every week at the University of Houston trying to demand change. We had political rallies, we had marches, we had demonstrations, we had walk-outs from class, all designed to put pressure on the University of Houston to make sure it became the institution that it could become.”
The result: AABL presented then UH president Phillip G. Hoffman with a 10-point platform/demand, including the establishment of Afro-American Studies as an academic unit.”
DN: The third and final article in this series will focus on Black Resistance from the mid-70s to the present.