From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject What Radical Black Women Can Teach Us All About Movement-Building
Date July 25, 2021 12:05 AM
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[Three historians lift up Black women journalists, organizers and
activists who were critical to Black freedom movements but often
erased from history. ] [[link removed]]

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Keisha N. Blain, Premilla Nadasen & Robyn C. Spencer
July 15, 2021
In These Times
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_ Three historians lift up Black women journalists, organizers and
activists who were critical to Black freedom movements but often
erased from history. _

DC Vigil For Delegation Of Grieving Mothers 33 by Stephen D.
Melkisethian, This image was marked with a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.


The Movement for Black Lives is noteworthy for a leadership that is
overwhelmingly women (both cis and trans). Although not always
recognized, Black women’s organizing, insights and analysis have
long been an engine of Black freedom movements. That is no accident:
As the Combahee River Collective, a collective of Black feminist
socialists, write in their groundbreaking 1977 statement, ​“We
believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics
come directly out of our own identity.” They saw the particular task
of Black feminists as ​“the development of integrated analysis
and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression
are interlocking.” 

_In These Times_ and the Movement for Black Lives guest editors asked
distinguished historians of the Black experience to lift up the Black
women in movements that presaged the Movement for Black Lives. In this
roundtable, professors Premilla Nadasen, Keisha N. Blain and Robyn C.
Spencer offer snapshots of chapters of Black struggle that provide
inspiration and grounding for the work of the 21st century Black
freedom movement.

Nadasen reminds us that there was intersectional Black feminist
practice before it had a label. Poor Black women in the welfare
rights movement were justice crusaders who, in their campaigns,
speeches and demands, reflected an understanding of the confluence of
different systems of oppression. Blain recovers a powerful lost
chapter in the history of Black radicalism in Detroit by retelling the
story of internationalist and anti-racist organizer Pearl Sherrod.
Spencer, herself an outspoken proponent of Black and Palestinian
solidarity, adds the story of Black Panther Connie Matthews, another
lesser-known exemplar of Black internationalism in the 1970s.

This recuperative process of remembering Black women in the Black
freedom struggle is more than celebratory. It is a reminder that the
real, hard work of movement-building and freedom-making is not going
to be done by celebrities, or even politicians — but by ordinary
people with deep passions, strong commitments and clear visions.

_—Barbara Ransby_


PREMILLA NADASEN: Poor Black women have waged a generations-long,
often overlooked struggle for economic autonomy against
a patriarchal, racist capitalist system stacked against them. The
welfare rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s is an underrecognized
example of the deep contestation of this system through a radical
Black feminist vision.

Established during the Great Depression, the welfare system catered
to ​“worthy” white widows with provisions aimed at denying
assistance to ​“undeserving” Black mothers, forcing them to
remain in the labor force rather than be full-time caregivers for
their own children. The legislation excluded the farm and domestic
sectors that were dependent on Black women’s underpaid labor. In
a 1939 report, a welfare field supervisor in the South wrote that
welfare officials see no ​“reason why the employable Negro mother
should not continue her usually sketchy seasonal labor or indefinite
domestic service rather than receive a public assistance grant.” 

Even as civil rights activists worked to dismantle discriminatory
welfare provisions in the 1960s — enabling more Black women to
gain access to benefits — new regulations required that
recipients take paid employment outside the home. 

African American and other poor women of color contested this
injustice in the 1960s and 1970s. Following in the radical tradition
of Sojourner Truth, they asserted their womanhood and claimed the same
treatment afforded white women. The changes they demanded spanned from
improved welfare benefits and participation in decision-making to
access to abortion and the end of coerced sterilization.

The most far-reaching demand of the welfare rights movement was for
a guaranteed annual income that would bring all poor
people — regardless of race, gender, family status, legal
status, employment status — up to a minimum standard of living
well above the poverty line. Welfare rights activists sought to
dismantle the economic status quo predicated on Black women’s
low-wage work, which maintained joblessness and a reserve army of
labor for capital. Instead, they envisioned substantive access to
freedom, autonomy and self-determination for poor Black mothers.

ROBYN C. SPENCER: Black women acted as leaders and the organizing
backbone of the Black liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Like the welfare rights movement — itself a form of Black
liberation — their political work reflected an ethos of radical
care that included mutual support around bodily autonomy and
childcare, as well as a commitment to eradicating poverty and racism.
Other focal points were concern for male draftees and political
critiques of U.S. empire and state violence.

The Black Panthers, the most well-known of the 1960s Black Power
organizations, elevated the profiles of many Black men fighting the
white supremacist system, but quietly relied on Black women’s
organizing work. From food distribution to health clinics around the
country, Black women played an instrumental role in supporting the
Panthers’ community programs to fill desperate needs and gain
support for their political vision. Black women were concerned with
political theory around Black liberation while being attendant to
immediate human needs. I am reminded of Kayla Reed’s Viewpoint
[[link removed]] about
the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) supporting candidates and policies
that meet immediate ​“material conditions.”

The arrest of Black men in the Party opened up space for women in
leadership, such as Kathleen Cleaver, who joined the Oakland Panthers
in 1967 when their ranks had been depleted locally by a wave of
arrests. As communications secretary, Cleaver orchestrated the Free
Huey movement that turned the arrest of Panther cofounder Huey Newton
into a cause célèbre. Behind the images of Panther women rallying
for Newton was the work that Cleaver and other Black women did to
mobilize and educate the masses about what Newton and the Panthers
stood for.

While Panther women (and allied men) held the organization accountable
to its stated commitment to internal transformation and egalitarian
gender roles, they also faced persistent sexism from many of their
fellow Black Power organizers. The unique perspective Black women
brought to Black liberation, along with the frustration at their
treatment within the movement, would grow in the 1970s into new forms
of Black feminist organizing and thought — such as the Combahee
River Collective statement. It acknowledges that
their ​“experience and disillusionment within these liberation
movements, as well as experience on the periphery of the white male
left, that led to the need to develop a politics that was
anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike
those of Black and white men.”

Despite Black women’s immense contributions, even today — a
time of unprecedented awareness of the Panthers — their work
within the organization remains hidden by a focus on male leaders’
advocacy of self-defense above and beyond any other legacy.

I see parallels in the Black Lives Matter movement— although, in
this case, visibility of women is not hidden behind prominent male
leaders. Rather, the work of the Black women who launched the initial
call and the large number organizing at the grassroots — often
to defend the lives of Black men, as with the Panther women — is
hidden in plain sight, eclipsed by political abstractions.

KEISHA N. BLAIN: There is also a legacy of radical Black women
organizers who bridged Black radicalism and feminism decades before
the Black Panthers, the Combahee River Collective or the M4BL. As
a scholar of 20thcentury U.S. history, my research has focused on
bringing these women to light, whose impact on domestic and
international politics has been largely ignored.

Pearl Sherrod is one example. She was a working-class Black woman
in 1930s Detroit, a journalist-activist in the tradition of
anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. Sherrod went from a local
newspaper to an international platform in her fight against the
continued ​“barbequing and torturing of our race in
the South.”

Sherrod used the Detroit’s _Tribune Independent_ to denounce white
supremacy and demand its eradication, bringing light to Black
Americans’ struggles with economic distress and racist violence
during the Great Depression. Like the Panther women who followed her,
Sherrod took risks in standing up to defend Black men’s lives.
In 1934, Sherrod openly criticized the U.S. criminal justice system,
pointing to the mistreatment of the Scottsboro Boys — nine Black
teenagers who were falsely accused of sexually assaulting two white
women in Scottsboro, Ala.

Sherrod also called for Afro-Asian solidarity, highlighting their
shared suffering at the hands of white supremacy. White hostility to
and violence toward Asian immigrants (known as the ​“yellow
peril”) surged during the Depression. In 1937, Sherrod took her
message to the conference of the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association
(PPWA). Held in Vancouver, Canada, the conference brought
together 125 mostly white and Asian women representatives from eight
countries: Australia, Canada, China, Hawai’i, Japan, New Zealand,
the Philippines and the United States. Sherrod was not
invited — no Black women were, nor had ever attended — but
she showed up anyhow with newspaper clippings to call the attention
of ​“you international women” to the prevalence of lynching in
the U.S. South. ​“To the Black man, justice is only a word in
name but not in reality,” Sherrod declared
[[link removed]].


BLAIN: Black internationalism emerged in response to slavery,
colonialism and white imperialism. It describes the visions of freedom
and freedom movements among people of African descent worldwide and
captures their efforts to forge transnational collaborations and
solidarities with other people of color.

Sherrod viewed alliances with Asian activists as vital to the global
project to achieve rights and freedom for people of African descent
everywhere. In 1934, Sherrod married Satokata Takahashi, a Japanese
immigrant, and took over his leadership of The Development of Our Own
(TDOO), a Detroit-based Afro-Asian solidarity movement, upon his
deportation to Japan later that year.

The first African American to ever speak at a PPWA conference,
Sherrod proclaimed: ​“There can never be peace on the Pacific or
Atlantic until justice is given to _all_ mankind.”

In this early expression of Black internationalism, Sherrod recognized
that domestic conditions — such as economic hardship and the
attacks against various racial groups — provided grounds for
connecting subjugated people worldwide. They were part of the same
antiracist and anticolonial struggle.

SPENCER: Indeed, after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Black
Lives Matter protests erupted not only across the United States but in
over 60countries. This expression of global solidarity builds on the
grid wired by activists like Sherrod — or Connie Matthews, the
Black Panther Party international coordinator from 1968 – 1971.

Matthews spoke at rallies against the U.S. war in Vietnam and, like
Sherrod, emphasized connections between the oppression in Asia and
African decolonization as part of the same global struggle. She
skillfully mobilized a far-flung network of international alliances
to provide support for incarcerated Panthers at the height

Matthews is another example of the way Black women’s work has
shifted abstract concepts like solidarity into actionable political
work. She organized people willing to act, making links with leftist
organizations and giving interviews with the European press to share
the Panther vision. By mid-1969, her activities had laid crucial
groundwork for the creation of solidarity committees in Germany,
France, Holland, Norway and Sweden to support Panther political
prisoners. Her legacy can be felt in groups like the Organization for
Black Struggle, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and Black
for Palestine.

In 2015, the Dream Defenders, an organization founded in Florida
after the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, brought
representatives from Ferguson, Black Lives Matter and the Black Youth
Project 100 to see conditions on the ground in Palestine first hand.
Each successive wave of struggle builds on these prior connections. In
the wake of the bombings in Gaza in May, the M4BL and other BLM groups
swiftly denounced the attacks and ongoing settler-colonialism in the
West Bank.

That initial 2015 trip was explicitly inspired by the
internationalism of the Black liberation movement. As Ahmad Abuznaid,
who at the time served as legal and policy director for the Dream
Defenders, explained: ​“In the spirit of Malcolm X, Angela Davis,
Stokely Carmichael and many others, we thought the connections between
the African American leadership of the movement in the U.S. and those
on the ground in Palestine needed to be reestablished
and fortified.”


SPENCER: Despite all the institutions the Black Panther movement
built and the change it envisioned and achieved, it was riven by
ideological disagreements and power struggles that the government
exploited to attack the movement. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program
stoked divisions through misinformation, surveillance, raids, arrests,
infiltration, harassment and violence (including its role in
the 1969 assassination of Fred Hampton). The return of co-founder
Huey Newton in 1970 after two years in prison exacerbated
longstanding tensions around money, the role of local leadership and
ideological differences about self-defense. Disagreement over whether
to adopt violent tactics in response to government repression
precipitated a schism between Newton and fellow Panther leader
Eldridge Cleaver. Many chapters left, were expelled or dissolved, and
new groups were created that centered armed struggle, like the Black
Liberation Army and the Revolutionary People’s
Communications Network.

Under Trump, the Movement for Black Lives saw for itself how
a hostile government can brand racial justice organizers as threats
(and turn the apparatus of the state against them), or how tensions
can erupt over questions of the acceptability of property damage and
self-defense. Managing internal conflict and dissent with
integrity — in the face of a hypercritical media and right-wing
institutions eager to spotlight so-called cracks in the
facade — remains a challenge.

Organizations today exist in a time of surveillance infrastructure,
militarized policing and a different landscape of political
repression — and must protect against this reality. But they
also have a direct line to the public, through social media, to
challenge misinformation.

Black Lives Matter has adopted group-centered leadership in the
tradition of Ella Baker, calling itself ​“leader-full.” In
contrast to the hierarchical Panther leadership structure dominated by
cis men, the community of BLM’s many leaders is filled with women
and trans, non-binary and intersex folks. Even within this success, it
has to balance its critique of charismatic leadership against strict
organizational hierarchy, while also dealing with power dynamics that
control resources. The recent eruption over money in the Black Lives
Matter Global Network Foundation echoes issues that plagued the
Panthers, highlighting fissures that might imperil momentum.

Looking back, the ability to weather political storms and commit to
the longue durée might be the most important lesson. Black liberation
does not hinge on individuals, dramatic moments or turning points. The
ability to pivot and adapt, transcend human failings and work through
internal dissent — because of love of the people and commitment
to the goals — is one of the key lessons of the past.

NADASEN: The welfare rights movement’s wide-ranging demands were
designed to revalue and reinvest in Black families and communities.
Activists sought to shift state resources to childcare, employment,
healthcare and education to bolster community well-being. As welfare
programs have become increasingly punitive over the past three
decades, redirection from the carceral state to communal care is more
important than ever.

The M4BL ​“invest” demands to defund police and reinvest in
community services follow this legacy.

Although welfare rights activists were not explicitly
anti-capitalist — they might be viewed as accommodationist in
demanding access to state benefits, rather than opposing the state
itself — their insistence on having the option to care for their
families struck a blow to a racialized-gendered economic system that
is reliant on their low-wage labor. The movement offers lessons about
leveraging the state to remake the programs that control and
surveille — like those used against the Panthers — into
ones that reinvest to give people autonomy and sustain their
communities. In this regard, they sought to make all Black
lives matter.

The welfare rights movement models a radical Black feminist politics
that brought together poor women of all racial backgrounds around
economic justice and autonomy. Working side by side, they recognized
how racism was deployed to demonize and divide poor
women — making their class analysis explicit.

“[The National Welfare Rights Organization] is not a black
organization, not a white organization,” argued Johnnie Tillmon,
welfare recipient and organization chair, in
a 1971 interview. ​“We can’t afford racial separateness.
I’m told by the poor white girls on welfare how they feel when
they’re hungry, and I feel the same way when I’m hungry.”

BLAIN: Like Tillmon with the NWRO, Sherrod and the PPWA provided an
opportunity for Black, Asian and white women to work in shared
struggle. Sherrod’s bold stance — showing up uninvited and
speaking at the PPWA conference — opened up a crucial space for
women of African descent to engage in political dialogue with the
mostly white and Asian membership. Sherrod built a political alliance
and gained a broader platform to denounce global white supremacy.

If Sherrod’s experiences offer one lesson, it is that continued
transnational efforts to frame anti-Black racism as an international
human rights issue will help ensure the movement’s vitality
and sustainability.

Nearly 80 years after that PPWA conference, on July 12, 2016,
Nigerian American activist Opal Tometi, co-founder of Black Lives
Matter, delivered a powerful speech before the United Nations General
[[link removed]] on
the heels of the police killings of two Black men, Alton Sterling
[[link removed]] and Philando
[[link removed]].
An invited speaker, Tometi echoed Sherrod in emphasizing three
challenges to the advancement of human rights for all: global
capitalism, white supremacy and the suppression of democracy.

To quote Tometi, all three grow from the ​“root causes of
inequality,” shaped by a history of ​“colonialism, indigenous
genocide and the enslavement of people of African descent.” That
Tometi’s message so closely resembles the words of another Black
woman activist, from 1937, underscores the persistence of the
structural problems we face and the tenacity of Black women in rooting
them out and fighting for transformation.

_Keisha N. BlainL
[[link removed]] is associate
professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and president of
the African American Intellectual History Society. Her latest books
are Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African
America, 1619 – 2019 (with Ibram X. Kendi) and Until I am
Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America._

_Premilla Nadasen
[[link removed]] is currently
a professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, where
she is affiliated with the Barnard Center for Research on Women, the
Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, and the Institute
for Research in African American Studies. She is co-chair of the
National Women’s Studies Association. She also serves on the
editorial board of the following academic journals: Women’s Studies
Quarterly, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture,
and Society, the Journal of Civil and Human Rights, and sits on the
advisory committee of the New York Historical Society’s Center for
the Study of Women’s History. Nadasen has given workshops and
presentations for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the National
Domestic Workers Alliance, the Ms. Foundation’s Economic Justice
Program, the Department of Labor, and the New York State Labor
Committee. Sponsored by history and gender and women’s studies.
Women’s History Month event._

_Robyn C. Spencer
[[link removed]] is a historian
focused on Black social protest after World War II, urban and
working-class radicalism and gender. She co-founded the Intersectional
Black Panther Party History Project and authored The Revolution Has
Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland._

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