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"Speaking for the oppressed"

May 28, 2004 | Page 8

The Black liberation movement of the 1960s produced a number of revolutionary papers that won a significant readership. LEE SUSTAR reports on this forgotten legacy.

WHEN SOCIALISTS sell revolutionary newspapers today, we're often accused of repeating a 100-year-old formula from the Russian Revolution that has no relevance in the U.S. In fact, the most important revolutionary organizations of the African American radicalization of the 1960s made their newspapers central to their activity.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense--deemed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover "to be the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States"--was launched by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, Calif., in 1966. The Panthers made waves with their armed "patrols of the police" in African American neighborhoods. But what set the Panthers apart was their aim to build an explicitly revolutionary socialist party. Their newspaper, The Black Panther, was central to the project.

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AFTER POLICE in the nearby town of Richmond killed an unarmed Black man, Denzil Dowell, the Panthers made the story the lead article in the paper's first issue on April 25, 1967--and led an armed march on the police station to demand an investigation.

Three months later, the massive Black rebellions in Newark, N.J., and Detroit as well as smaller riots in 60 other cities highlighted the growth of radicalism among African Americans. Moreover, the Vietnam War was growing increasingly unpopular, especially among Blacks.

It was in this context that Huey Newton spelled out the need for a revolutionary party in his article, "The Correct Handling of a Revolution," written in the week between the Newark and Detroit uprisings. Newton argued that riots were a "sporadic, short-lived and costly" form of resistance and exposed Blacks to "the brutal violence of the oppressors' storm troops."

"The main purpose of the vanguard group," Newton added, "should be to raise the consciousness of the masses through educational programs and other activities. The sleeping masses must be bombarded with the correct approach to struggle and the party must use all means available to get this information across to the masses."

The article reflected an elitist concept of the revolutionary party derived from Mao's China--something that could also be seen in the arbitrary changes in "line" by party leaders. But with the uprisings of 1967, achieving theoretical clarity seemed less urgent than giving political expression to the revolutionary mood in Black America.

When the police shooting of Newton and his arrest on murder charges in an officer's death made national news, The Black Panther newspaper enabled the group to expand from its initial Oakland base of 75 in 1967 to several thousand just two years later. Party activist David Hilliard, who oversaw the paper's publication, later wrote that The Black Panther was "crucial to the daily work of the party...the most visible, most constant symbol of the party, its front page a familiar sight at every demonstration and in every storefront window organizing project throughout the country."

The Panthers rejected what Newton called "pork chop" Black nationalism. In 1969, he wrote an article from prison arguing that "only by eliminating capitalism and substituting for it socialism will Black people, ALL Black people, be able to practice self-determination and thus achieve freedom."

Just what was meant by "socialism" was unclear. Sometimes the paper featured long quotes from Mao Zedung or North Korea's Kim Il Sung, reflecting the illusions in supposedly "red" China held by the far left in that era. Yet the paper won widespread following because it printed what no mainstream paper would--accounts of police brutality, reports on protests and strikes, and criticisms of moderate Black leaders.

The Black Panther eventually reached an estimated circulation of 100,000. Political differences--and state repression--soon led to a rapid decline in the Panthers' membership.

In 1969 alone, police killed 28 Panthers, and hundreds were jailed. By 1971, the party, unable to formulate a clear revolutionary perspective, split--and both factions soon faded. The Black Panther newspaper, nevertheless, had underscored the importance of a revolutionary newspaper in generalizing the struggle.

As party member Landon Willis put it in a 1970 article written from prison, "The Black Panther Community News Service is a living contemporary history of our people's struggle for liberation at the grassroots level. It's something to be studied and grasped, and saved for future generations to read, learn and understand."

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IF THE Black Panther showed how a newspaper could build a revolutionary socialist organization, the Detroit-based Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) highlighted the role of a newspaper as collective agitator. A group of Black activists--many of them were veterans of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and various Black nationalist organizations--launched their newspaper, the Inner City Voice (ICV), after reading Lenin's Where to Begin? a pamphlet making the case for the revolutionary newspaper.

The ICV editor was John Watson, who had organized an all-Black study group on Karl Marx's Capital, led by Martin Glaberman, a longtime autoworker, activist and revolutionary socialist. The ICV oriented on Dodge Main, a strategic plant that manufactured all of Chrysler's axles, taking up racist discrimination by both management and officials in the United Auto Workers union.

DRUM was launched among Black workers following a May 1968 wildcat strike at Chrysler Corp.'s Dodge Main plant, led in part by an ICV supporter named General Baker. In the fall of 1968, DRUM supporters won the student elections to place Watson as editor of the Wayne State University newspaper, The South End, a daily with a print run of up to 18,000.

"The South End returns to Wayne State with the intention of promoting the interests of the impoverished, oppressed, exploited, and powerless victims of white, racist monopoly capitalism and imperialism," the new editors wrote. "We will take the hard line...Our only enemies will be those who would further impoverish the poor, exploit the exploited and take advantage of the powerless."

The masthead featured two Black Panther logos and the slogan: "One class-conscious worker is worth more than 100 students." By scrupulously meeting financial requirements and publishing nonpolitical news of sports and student activities, Watson outmaneuvered administrators who sought to shut down the paper.

The bulk of the South End readership, however, was off campus--at factories, hospitals and schools. A special issue devoted to DRUM spelled out the group's perspective to Black workers across Detroit.

"DRUM's scope is not limited to the oppressive situation at Chrysler nor all the rest of the plants for that matter," the lead article began. "Although most organizing activity will be in the plants, DRUM sees its long-range goal as the complete and total social transformation of the society. This necessarily will take the effort of the whole Black community as well as other progressive sectors of society."

DRUM differentiated itself from the Black Panther Party by rejecting the Panthers' theory that the Black lumpen proletariat--the inner-city unemployed--would form the revolutionary vanguard, and stressed instead the centrality of the working class to revolutionary social change.

Thus, the South End always put working-class issues in a theoretical, historical and international framework, and frequently featured articles on Marxism. Entire special issues were devoted to opposing the military dictatorship in Greece and supporting the Palestinian national liberation movement.

DRUM activists lost control of the South End after a year, but their efforts helped to launch the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a federation of DRUM-type workplace organizations. The League split in 1971 over disputes over whether to build a national organization and debates over Marxism and Black nationalism.

Yet the issues that led to Black radicalism and the workplace revolts of the late 1960s and early 1970s remain--racism, police violence, poverty, aggressive employers and an unjust imperialist war of aggression. A revolutionary newspaper that can provide an analysis of those problems--and can help link the struggles they produce--is just as relevant today.

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