Once Upon a Time When Blackness Was Golden
Excerpted, by permission, from :
Chapter Six: When Blackness was Golden!*
by Pemon Rami
Presented by Omni-U Virtual University
Don't allow yourself to believe your natural beauty requires augmentation to change you into a diminished version of another cultural group.
When Maséqua and I met, I had already begun working with Jim Harvey on opening the Umoja Black Student Center at 251 East Thirty-Ninth Street, directly across from Wendell Phillips High School. By the early '70s, Afro-American student movements were springing to life everywhere—on campuses, in high schools, and in communities. Students were affirming new demands and priorities. The birth and direction of the Umoja Black Student Center needed young leadership, and I gladly took on one of those roles.
I had contacts at many of the high schools and colleges citywide through my performing company, which made recruitment easier. Umoja opened as a cultural center and home for Black students.
The Umoja Black Student Center was governed by a central committee with twelve members, including me, who decided on the efforts and philosophy of the organization as well as which activities we would become involved with. I was the coordinator of the Black Students for Defense (one of the sub-groups) of the Afro-American Student Association.
The Umoja Black Student Center reflected this multicultural programming. It was the home for African American teens and adults in Chicago trying to find themselves. Black History, culture, manhood, womanhood, Swahili, karate, and self-defense classes were among our offerings.
In November 1967, Englewood High School became the epicenter of our efforts when Owen Lawson, a teacher who insisted on including Black history in his lesson plans, was dismissed. We met with the students, helped them develop their strategies, and even cut or styled their hair for those who wanted to wear their hair natural. Englewood students held walkouts and protests. Despite their efforts, Owen was not reinstated. Lawson's struggle demonstrated the need for more Black control of our schools and, more specifically, our educations.
Broadcast veteran Harold Lee Rush, one of the student leaders at Englewood during that time, became a good friend and joined my acting group.
One of my personal objectives while performing at various schools and community functions was to recruit members and to conjoin the variety of school organizations to find leaders who could help us organize people. I was able to enlist many individuals to join our efforts, which impacted the rest of the movement. I grew to understand the skills and work of activists and the powerful role they played in any community, city, or country.
The third Black Power conference was held at the historic Church of the Advocate in the heart of North Philadelphia from Wednesday, August 28 to Sunday, September 1, 1968. The conference drew over 4,000 people, far exceeding the building's capacity.
The conference theme was "Black self-determination and unity through direct action." Attendees included Max Stanford, Queen Mother Moore, Maulana Karenga, Amiri Baraka, Jesse Jackson, Whitney Young, Nathan Hare, John Conyers, and Rosa Parks, to name a few. We organized ten workshops around politics, education, culture, history, economics, reparations, Black women community organizing, religion, communication, and education. Maséqua and I co-chaired the high school student workshop. One of the defined outcomes was a plan to return to our respective cities and schools to organize a movement to create major changes needed in the educational system. In many ways, the current Black Lives Matter movement is the contemporary version of our movement in terms of youth leading the action in the streets.
While I was in Philadelphia for the conference on Thursday, August 29, five members of the emergency consultative committee held a midnight meeting at the Umoja Center to discuss the results of action taken around the Democratic Convention and the condition of the police state in Chicago. During the meeting, multiple shots were fired into the building. Members scrambled for their lives. The chairman of the Umoja Center, Jim Harvey, remarked, "The attack was an extension of the racist war on Black students seeking self-determination for all Black people."
The Chicago Student Movement
When I returned to Chicago, we learned of the shooting at the center and that one of our members had been murdered a few days later. I immediately began reaching out to other students and organizing small gatherings to share the conference outcomes and events. In the fall of 1968, student protests began at Austin and Harrison high schools. We saw these protests as opportunities to move forward.
On Sunday, October 13, 1968, I organized a final meeting before the boycott of twenty-five representatives from more that thirteen Chicago high schools at the Umoja Black Student Center. The purpose of the meeting was to consolidate growing protests at numerous high schools and to form the Black Students for Defense subgroup of the Afro-American Student Organization to organize our collective demands and demonstrations. I was selected coordinator.
High schools represented included Calumet, Chicago Vocational, Dunbar, DuSable, Englewood, Harlan, Harrison, Lindblom, Marshall, Parker, Wendell Phillips, Simeon, and South Shore. During the meeting, we set plans into motion for a citywide school boycott and distributed copies of the manifesto containing twelve demands, most of which were developed during the student workshop at the National Black Power conference. We attended a meeting at the Board of Education to submit our series of demands that we called the Black Manifesto. When our demands were not seriously addressed, we set the boycotts in motion.
Black Manifesto Demands
Complete courses in Black history
Inclusion in all courses the contributions of Black persons
Black administration in schools in the Black communities
More technical and vocational training
More Black teachers
Repair of school buildings in Black communities
Holidays on the birthdays of such Black heroes as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, W. E. B. DuBois, and Dr. Martin Luther King
Insurance for athletes
Use of Black businesses to supply class photos and rings in Black Schools
Better cafeteria food
Military training relevant to Black people's needs
More required homework to challenge Black students
The first citywide boycott took place on Monday, October 14, 1968. According to published reports, between 27,000 and 35,000 students stayed out of school. We held a rally at the Affro-Arts Theater and then marched to Washington Park, where I addressed the large crowd along with Jim Harvey, Victor Adams, and Russ Meeks. We decided to only boycott school on Mondays because we wanted to demonstrate we were still interested in receiving an education.
On October 28, 1968, we held a mock funeral of the Board of Education at Civic Plaza. Using my theater technical skills, I made a coffin which was carried in a processional to the Civic Center. At a designated time, Victor Adams and I ran across the Plaza and jumped on the coffin, destroying it! Some students wore Black Ku Klux Klan robes as they silently carried the coffin. The picture of us jumping on the coffin appeared in Ebony Magazine and was the week's best photo in Jet Magazine in a November 1968 issue. In the photo, I was caught in the air over the coffin wearing a black beret. Victor Adams is positioned with his back to the camera, and Sharron Matthews is standing in the background. Famed Chicago journalist and writer Lou Palmer was one of the reporters assigned to cover the student movement by the Chicago Daily newspaper because we would not allow white journalists to attend our meetings and rallies. Other media outlets followed suit and hired Warner Sanders and Vernon Jarrett, among others. My first series of meetings with the Rev. Jesse Jackson over the years was at Umoja Black Student Center. He arranged a meeting to convince me to make hiring of Black businesses our number one priority, which would garner his support for the boycott. I respectfully declined because we felt all the issues, we presented were important, and Black businesses were not at the top of our list of priorities.
On October 30, 1968, we met with the Board of Education and submitted our final demands. As anyone who has worked with large groups of people will testify, organizing is not easy! We needed large numbers of students to become involved in our struggle.
During one of our strategy sessions, it was decided we would try to recruit members of the Black Stone Rangers (P Stone Nation) and the Gangster Disciples, two of the largest street gangs operating on the South Side. As coordinator of the Black Student for Defense (the subgroup of the Afro-American Student Association), I believed the support of the gangs was essential. Coordination and security were not only needed for the success of the boycott but paramount to the general safety of the Black community and students.
I arranged a meeting with Jeff Fort, the leader of the Black P Stone Nation, at one of the Stone's headquarters in First Presbyterian Church in the Woodlawn area and headed by Reverend John Fry, a white Presbyterian clergyman.
I arrived at the church with two armed bodyguards and was greeted by Paul Martin (a.k.a. "Crazy Paul"), a member of the Main Twenty-One, the gang's governing body. The meeting, as I remember, was tense but respectful. Jeff said he agreed with our goals and the student movement even though he thought we should join the P Stone Nation. I declined, and he agreed to send representatives to the gang summit I was organizing at the Umoja Black Student Center.
The day of the meeting, Maséqua stood at the door and collected weapons from the gang members. Almost everybody was packing! During the summit, Maséqua was in the rafters with a shotgun guarding my back. The meeting went flawlessly, and several of the gang members joined our student movement efforts. Whenever I hear the term "she's got my back," I always think of Maséqua and how true the statement has been for me.
During my days as a leader in the Black student movement, I met Dr. Anderson Thompson. He was among a group of men who had come to support our movement. It was a time when powerful men committed to standing up with us to support our efforts and create much needed change. Dr. Thompson, Dr. Bobby Wright, Harold Charles (Baba Hannibal Afrik), Cliff Washington, Lorenzo Martin, Alan Collard, and Dr. Harold Pates stand out as some of the brain trust that provided us with consultation, support, and strategy.
It was also during this period that I had the opportunity to hear, meet, and work with Fred Hampton, Stokely Carmichael, Maulana Karenga (the founder of Kwanzaa), Amiri Baraka, Dr. Bobby Wright, Dr. Anderson Thompson, John Hope Franklin, Michael X, Harold Pates, Allan Collard, Tony Martin, Dr. Barbara Sizemore, Minister Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and H. Rap Brown.
Following the massacre of Chairman Fred Hampton and Mark Clark Maséqua, her father and I visited the Black Panther's apartment. The crime scene was overwhelming. Bullet holes were everywhere, and the apartment was completely ransacked. The sight of all the blood, especially on the Chairman's bed, was nauseating. Witnessing a scene like that will either make you want to fight or run and hide. It made me continue to find ways to fight injustice!
Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the secret supporters of the student movement; he donated $20,000 to support the Center and our boycott efforts. Sammy Davis (the Michael Jackson of his generation) was performing in Golden Boy in downtown Chicago, and I had the opportunity to visit him in his suite at the Conrad Hilton Hotel. It was my first time in a hotel's presidential suite, and it was amazing. He had a camera connected to some binoculars overlooking Grant Park. I also met my first celebrity entertainer, the beautiful Lola Falana, in the suite when she returned from a shopping spree. Sammy Davis Jr. was kind and concerned for the students when we informed him of our movement. He was also shorter than I imagined.
Members of our student organization were invited to the Auditorium Theater to see Sammy Davis Jr. in Golden Boy. Maséqua got a ticket, but I didn't. Davis appeared in Golden Boy at the Auditorium for nearly a month. He portrayed Joe Wellington, a young Black man from Harlem who takes up prizefighting and ends up falling in love with his manager's girlfriend, Lorna, a white woman.
The boycotts continued for six Mondays, and even though all our demands were not met, The Board of Education met enough of them for us to stop the boycotts and return to our schools feeling victorious!
Following the boycotts, I was invited to represent the Afro-American Student Organization and speak on a program in New York with H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael. Jim Harvey told me I couldn't go because I didn't speak well enough.
Years later, while moderating a panel at the DuSable Museum of African American History, I thanked Jim for his negative critique because it gave me the motivation to never be told I didn't speak well enough again. Since that day in 1969, I have spoken on many occasions around the world!