Letter from America (1969)

A postcard addressed to Angela Davis – at the time confined at the Women’s House of Detention in New York – from the youth federations of five major political parties in Italy. The reverse side reads, “The Italian democratic youth is on your side. Your struggle is our struggle. U.S. imperialism will never have your life.”

Dan Georgakas first visited Italy to teach at the Overseas School of Rome in 1964. The contacts he established would help to foster a transatlantic, political, and intellectual exchange over the next decade between heterodox Marxists in Italy and the United States – especially between Detroit and Turin, two centers of worker struggle, capitalist accumulation, and automobile production the mid-20th century. In the fall of 1970 Georgakas facilitated the travel of the radical newspaper editor John Watson, who was one of the founding leaders of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, to sell foreign rights to the League’s 1970 film, Finally Got the News. This effort took them to the UK, where they met with C.L.R. James, and some footage of the film was sold to Swedish television. A copy of the film was later circulated at workers’ centers and other sites in Italy, and Georgakas hosted subsequent screenings after Watson had to return to the United States.

Georgakas began to share his insights from the Italian experiences with U.S. readers through journals like Radical America. But upon returning to the United States after his first trip to Italy, he was also the major researcher for Black Power, an Italian title by Roberto Giammanco published by Radiotelevisione Italia, a media outlet controlled by the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance. Georgakas had also already begun writing a series of dispatches on developments in Black Power and New Left movements that were translated for publication in the Italian journal Quaderni Piacentini and read by Italian comrades seeking details about the evolving political scene in the United States. The essays were published subsequently in French translation in Jean Paul Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes, but they were never published in English. We are excited to offer one of these transmissions, “Letter from America,” in English for the first time.

Letter from America (Spring 1969)

The spring of 1969 has seen the dynamism of both the black liberation movement and the New Left reach a new peak. The most obvious and encouraging development in the two basic units of American radicalism is the new emphasis on economic and class analysis taking the concrete form of attempting to organize workers and conducting ideological disputes with the black nationalists and white “crazies.” The Black Panther Party stands at the center of the new developments but it is beginning to count new and important allies. The Black Panthers, black trade unionists, and the student seizures are collectively raising the American struggle to a new plane.

The Black Panthers

A national, state, and local campaign has been mounted by the government in an effort to destroy the Panthers. The earlier police shootings in California have proved to be only the prelude to the persecutions of the present period. In New York, 21 Panthers have been indicted in a fairy-tale conspiracy to blow up department stores. In Chicago, three officers were arrested for trying to purchase submachine guns. Again in Chicago, National Chairman Bobby Seale was indicted for being one of the eight main conspirators to disrupt the Democratic National Convention. These sensational cases, mainly contrived, are matched by literally dozens of local harassments, jailings, and trials. The pattern is always the same. A fanciful charge is made and an enormous bail required. The local Panther unit is then required to use its limited resources for months of legal maneuvering. Invariably there is an acquittal or a dropping of the charges or a drastic reduction in the charges, but there have also been some actual convictions. The prime secondary benefit of these cases is to whip up white hysteria to a new racist apex. The attacks on the Black Panthers have been substantial, but they have failed to destroy the organization. Eldridge Cleaver is in hiding, Huey Newton is in jail, most officers are under indictment, and 13 Panthers have been killed, yet the party grows stronger. 45 branches are now operating in almost every major state. Membership was growing so rapidly and the danger of infiltration was so acute that shortly before the New Year, the Panthers declared a moratorium on new memberships and began a systematic investigation of members which resulted in many expulsions and suspensions. Since the murder of “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins by black nationalists belonging to Ron Karenga’s US, the Panthers have developed a powerful attack on all such groups. Newton has coined the description “porkchop nationalist” to identify their affiliation to the pigs (cops) and to make capital on an old American political expression. The obvious right-wing style nationalists have come under attack but so have people like Le Roi Jones and even a radical spokesman like Julius Lester when he indulges in chauvinism. They have developed article after article in their newspaper attacking the black capitalists as the handmaiden of the enemy and the cultural nationalists as the barkers for the new show. When Lester attacked SDS for its resolution citing the Panthers as the black vanguard under the premise that whites should not engage in black affairs, Kathleen Cleaver, secretary of communications for the party, took the occasion to blast that entire mode of thinking:

According to this line of thinking, when black cultural nationalists murdered Bunchy Carter and John Huggins on the UCLA campus, no white person could support or condemn this atrocity because they could not be members of US or the Panthers, cultural nationalists or revolutionary nationalists. We don’t have to be Chinese to decide whether Mao Tse-Tung or Chiang Kai-Shek is a better leader of the Chinese people, to support one or condemn the other… Fanon put an end to the debate with the statement, “The only culture worth holding onto is revolutionary culture.” But for those who don’t relate to his terminology, there will always be distinctions between those who move to serve the needs of the people (revolutionaries) and those who move to manipulate the people (cultural or reactionary nationalists like Papa Doc Duvalier and Tubman) and to replace the white oppressor with a black one.

Such Panther positions are important because their newspapers reach deep into the ghetto. The Black Panther itself increasingly uses quotes from the Chinese or tough Chinese-style American speech. A comparison with Progressive Labor, a China-leaning American communist party and an enemy of the Panthers, is instructive on how one group can creatively adapt the ideas of a foreign revolutionary party while another lapses into dogmatism and infantile imitation. Many Panther chapters use Mao’s red book as a text, finding it useful to get members to read who have not read before. The military aspect of the party remains important but it is given less publicity than earlier. Breakfast programs for ghetto children is a typical new technique being used to function governmentally in the community and to link up with the masses in the most basic way. The besieged Panthers are doing very well but increasingly they are getting solid ideological allies who agree with their basic positions. A conference was recently called by religious and liberal leaders to discuss the possibilities of black economic development. The black invitations committee selected the delegates so well that the conference was taken over by the participants and became an anti-capitalist conclave. James Foreman, the former SNCC theorist who has had some personal problems with the Panthers in the past, provided the basic position paper which called on the nation’s churches and synagogues to provide blacks with $500,000,000 to be used to establish communal enterprises in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The resolution was adopted by an overwhelming majority and a program of forcefully entering churches during services was agree upon. The first Sunday in May, Foreman made good on his pledge by taking over the pulpit at a fashionable N.Y. church noted for its liberal congregation. Foreman’s attack on capitalism at the conference was absolute:

There can be no separation of the problems of racism from the problems of our economic, political, and cultural degradation. To any black man, this is clear. But there are still some of our people who are clinging to the rhetoric of the Negro and we must separate ourselves from those Negroes who go around the country promoting all types of schemes for Black Capitalism. Ironically, some of the most militant Black nationalists, as they call themselves, have been the first to jump on the bandwagon of black capitalism. They are pimps, Black Power Pimps and fraudulent leaders and the people must be educated to understand that any black man or Negro who is advocating a perpetuation of capitalism inside the United States is in fact seeking not only his ultimate destruction and death, but is contributing to the continuous exploitation of black people all around the world.

League of Revolutionary Black Workers

Just as the Black Panthers have enlarged their vision and organization in the political sphere, black militants in Detroit have moved decisively in the economic area. After years of experience with various groups, black Marxists are at the nexus of a new movement in the auto factories. In spite of Walter Reuther’s liberal rhetoric, his United Auto Workers has systematically been supporting racism even as it provided token black leaders for the press. A recent survey taken by the union indicates that more than half the autoworkers are now black. The union has been in retreat on general labor standards for a decade and the blacks, last to be hired, first to be fired, have suffered even more than the average autoworker. Conditions for a revolt have existed for some time and they erupted at the wildcat strike at Hamtramck’s Dodge Main plant in May 1968. Chuck Wooten who was to be one of the original nine workers who founded the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) has written:

During the wildcat strike of May 1968, upon coming to work that morning, there were picket lines established which, ironically, were manned by all white workers at the time, and as a result of this all the black workers received the harshest disciplinary actions. A few workers and I went across the street and sat in the bar, sitting there drinking. We were sitting at that table talking and it was here we decided we would do something about organizing black workers to fight the racial discrimination inside the plants and the overall oppression of black workers. Well, this was something I’d been trying to get started in the body shop for the four years I was in there, but I just never ran into anyone who was conscious enough to really take some steps about doing something. And it was not until I met those brothers who worked on the front end of the plant, which at that time I didn’t know any of them except Don – we grew up together, but the plant being so large, he had been there the same amount of time I’d been there – I never knew he was working there. And this was the beginning of DRUM.

Dodge Main employs approximately 7,000 workers of whom 70% are black. The nine black assembly line workers described by Wooten went to the staff of the militant Inner City Voice for help on how to organize as one of the Voice staff members had been prominent in the wildcat. The first newsletters were written entirely by workers and exposed conditions in the plant. Then the Voice group began to integrate itself with the workers and to write political articles. Mike Hamlin, a DRUM leader, writes, “By the eighth week of the newsletter, the plant was in an uproar. The company began to walk softly and the union was in chaos.” Black workers demanded a strike and the UAW leadership agreed reluctantly. The strike occurred on July 8, 1968. The entire radical black community was organized and it stopped every black worker at the gates for a talk. The strike kept the plant closed two days because most black workers stayed out. Hamlin writes, “We struck because the workers demanded a strike but we could not continue because DRUM did not yet have the organization to run a long strike.” Following the July strike, DRUM membership surged and the leaders were hard put to keep a rational organization. DRUM considers itself an independent black workers union and not the traditional caucus within a union, but it decided to enter UAW politics as a test of strength. DRUM candidate Ron March gained 653 votes to 521 of his white opponent in a preliminary election. Oppression of DRUM quickly followed. Cars with March posters were given tickets and delayed on the main election day by Hamtramck police. Cops swept through bars near the union hall, roughing up black workers. Fifty black workers went to the Local hall to complain and were maced and beaten with ax handles by police led by UAW official “Cannonball” Selpski. Over 1000 white retirees were mobilized to vote and the final outcome was that March lost by some 700 votes. DRUM had lost the election but won the hearts of the black workers. The organization continued to tighten its discipline. Workers from other plants came forward to form FRUM (Ford), ELRUM (Eldon Gear & Axle), and other unions. A blanket organization was formed over these with the title League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The League acts as a central committee to its components and is working toward the day when a general strike of black workers will be feasible. Although accused by PL and other Left sectarians of splitting the working class, the League is very conscious of not alienating white workers. It has repeatedly asked and worked with SDS, NOC (National Organizing Committee), and other white groups to rally white workers to a revolutionary position. The League would be the last to deny racial friction in the auto plants, but it feels that independent organization is essential for black workers at this stage and that rather than alienate white workers, it will ultimately win their respect, especially the younger white worker who feels almost as oppressed as the blacks. The Wall Street Journal was among the first to take serious notice of DRUM. Two front-page stories appeared in 1968. Later the Detroit News and the radical press began to comprehend what was going on. The UAW was among the last to know, thinking perhaps it was just another black caucus that would soon dissipate its strength. By early 1969 even the UAW saw the revolutionary thrust of DRUM and circulated a formal letter to its 350,000 Chrysler members warning them against DRUM and stating outright it would not protect such radicals. Emile Mazey, Secretary Treasurer of the UAW, dropped all guises in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, “We can no longer tolerate the tactics of these young militants… Violence by black militants in Detroit auto factories poses a greater peril to the UAW now than Communist infiltration did in the 1930s… Militants who in the future try to invade union headquarters will risk a confrontation with the police… Militants have adopted the tactics of Mao Tse-Tung and the Black Panthers.” Rarely have the lines been so classically drawn in the auto industry. The inferno of the Detroit Insurrection has been replaced by a time bomb far more dangerous to the very entrails of capitalism. Paralleling the developing of the League has been an extraordinary occurrence at Wayne State University, Detroit’s midtown university. Despite being long thought of as open to radical thought, the university has had no viable Left for years. SDS has never managed to take root and although the Trotskyite Young Socialist Alliance has always been able to recruit members it has always been isolated and without influence. Things changed radically in 1968/69 when a group of radicals, black and white, used the dull student government to take over control of the South End, the university’s daily newspaper. John Watson, a central committee member of the League of Black Revolutionary Workers and the editor of the Inner City Voice, became the new editor of the South End. Within a few months the paper became one of the best radical papers published in America, a comparison with the new Daily World of the Communist Party is illuminating. The South End invented a new masthead for itself: “one class-conscious worker is worth 100 students.” It made good on its slogan by emphasizing in article after article every phase of black power and the new movement in the factories. Special issues appeared dedicated to Malcolm X, the Cleveland assassinations, atrocities by Detroit police and similar issues. The paper reflected a viable internationalism with many articles on Cuba, Al Fateh, and the NLF. One 12 pp. special issue featured the revolutionary history and perspectives of beleaguered Greece. More locally the paper carried on a successful expose on Detroit General Hospital which led to real changes. Women’s liberation, the peace movement, personal meetings with NLF representatives and similar inspired journalism made the paper an unprecedented experience for the city and university. Ostensibly because of its supposedly anti-Semitism, efforts were made to remove Watson as editor of the paper. Walter Reuther and other leading members of the Detroit Establishment took part in the campaign. The response was so vigorous that the threat of a Super Columbia beat off the attack. One custom which irks the Establishment is that the paper runs from 8–16,000 copies per issue but does not feel its community is limited to the university. A special issue on DRUM was given out by the thousands at the factory gates and the exposure series on General Hospital was given away at the hospital. New elections will probably mean a toning down of the newspaper in 1969/70 but for one year, Detroit was seeing radical journalism. Watson will most likely put his efforts in the coming period to creating a radical black daily. The problems in Detroit are real. The police continue to have shootouts with blacks. Racial tension has never been higher. The white Left has not been able to deal with the racism of the white workers. The black autoworkers are not yet ready for a major showdown. But all the major elements for a great surge forward exist. A black will run for mayor this year and perhaps win. The old Liberal Coalition which ran Detroit for decades has shown it is no more able to deal out justice to blacks than the Southern Oligarchy. Black liberation has moved to fill the vacuum. As Robert Dudnick wrote in the National Guardian, “A specter haunts Detroit that tomorrow will haunt the nation. It is the specter of black revolution in basic industry – the unity of national struggle and class struggle.”

The Campuses

The spring offensive on campuses in 1969 resulted in substantial victories. Hundreds of universities and colleges were occupied, the great spectacular tactic of Columbia/68 became the everyday thing in 1969. The elements tended to follow one of two patterns. A small black nucleus (sometimes involving Puerto Ricans as well) demanded a separate studies program and other reforms. A supporting group, generally organized by SDS, provided concrete assistance and support. The other pattern occurred when an SDS group raised an issue such as military training on campus, secret defense contracts, and campus reforms. The struggles initiated by blacks tended to be more intense and substantial. The high point of spring came when 50 blacks took over buildings at Cornell and armed themselves with rifles and pistols. The president of Cornell capitulated to all their demands and the Establishment press howled about “guns on campus” and the “lack of backbone” of liberals. Crazy niggers with guns made good reading for the gullible white masses but the truth was different. The Cornell blacks were specially recruited for a program at the liberal school. They have experienced various racial pressures from the beginning as well as suffering from inadequate academic preparation. Disputes broke out and several blacks were disciplined. In the tensions which followed shots were fired from white fraternity houses, a cross burned on the lawn of the black dormitory, and threats were phoned and mailed. The guns were a defensive reflex. And behind the 50 blacks with guns were 5,000 white students rallying at a nearby building. The Cornell president was acting prudently and wisely, outgunned, outmaneuvered, defeated. The Establishment also raised a great outcry about Harvard. The revolt was striking at the very backbone of the Establishment. This was just so much nonsense as the prestige schools have long had a history of radicalism and in fact provided most of the white students for those now so long-ago civil rights summers. This year’s activities at the prestige schools (Columbia and Harvard) were complicated by splits in the local SDS chapters between the pure SDS elements and the elements holding joint membership in PL. Of far more significance for the New Left was the dissent at small colleges and at two-year community colleges. These are the campuses to which the lower middle class send their children, these are the ladders out for the gifted ghetto student who is lucky. From these schools emerge the teachers, accountants, pharmacists, and lower bureaucratic echelon that makes America run. The revolt in these schools indicates an important deepening of the struggle and it carries the New Left directly into the homes of those the ruling class would most like to remain ignorant about the true nature of the Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, and imperialism in general. New York City, as usual, has been untypical. The disturbances have been occurring weekly at each of its various colleges. In some cases, it has followed the national pattern but in a few it has taken racial lines. Blacks and Puerto Rican students have had fights with some whites who applauded the use of police. This situation reflects the turmoil of the school system of New York where the authorities have been fighting for over a year to achieve community. Arsons, destruction of furniture, and clashes with the police have marked the spring and winter in an increasing spiral of violence. The turmoil has been greatest in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant with junior high schools also involved. But even these negative aspects of New York do not mar the general picture of a student generation determined to control its own destiny. The extension of the struggle into community colleges, high schools, and junior highs is nationwide. In Detroit 150,000 black students made Malcolm X’s birthday a holiday by conducting a successful walkout. Increasingly in the Southwest, Chicanos (Mexican-Americans) are forcing confrontation with the educational system. The whole apparatus of American brainwashing from Harvard to the street corner junior high is quaking from the crisis embedded in the system’s stubborn refusal to deal with its internal crisis.  The reaction of the Establishment has been hypocrisy from the liberals and force from the conservatives. Richard Milhous Nixon took the lead recently by denouncing the students and urging presidents to be tougher. He was followed by an assenting chorus of officials and business leaders. This is a sure sign that the experiences at Columbia and San Francisco State have not yet taught the Establishment that use of police and imprisonment will lead to growth in the New Left rather than stagnation. Special investigating committees will find the SDS kids and black militants far tougher and far more uncompromising than the Communist Party which was so easily crushed in the fifties. The Vietnam War continues to destroy the nation’s internal order. Inflation increased 1% in March and 6% in 1968. Black Panthers are organizing unions in California and New Jersey, Coretta King keeps up the traditional pressure with her labor centered strike in South Carolina, SDS kids are manning picket lines with oil workers in Richmond, California and Ford workers in Mahwah, New Jersey. The multi-billion-dollar missile defense system cannot deal with these “inside” agitators. The growing dullness of the Establishment and its increasing reliance on police power to handle domestic unrest is inevitably building up those forces who can sufficiently cripple Moloch from inside to allow the progressive forces of the world to triumph.

May 9, 1969

Hackettstown, New Jersey

 

This is a transcription of Georgakas’ original English draft. The essay was subsequently translated and published in Italian in Quaderni Piacentini 8, no. 38 (July 1969): 186–92. We have silently corrected minor issues in grammar and spelling in the English original. Thanks to Dan Georgakas for providing the text and image, as well as for contributing biographical information to the editorial introduction.

Author of the article

is a writer, historian, and activist with a long-time interest in social movements. He is the author of My Detroit: Growing up Greek and American in Motor City and also co-author of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying.