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Soul Serenade: The role of international affairs in 1967

The global struggle’s link to Detroit’s 1967 rebellion, part 3

Published Aug 18, 2007 11:10 PM

On July 23, 1967, a confrontation between Detroit vice squad officers and a section of the Black community exploded into a major rebellion, the largest in U.S. history up to that time. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in National Guard and U.S. Army paratroopers to repress the population. The result was 43 dead, 467 injured and over 7,200 arrests. More than 2,000 buildings burned down. The following is Part 3 of excerpts based on a talk given by Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, to a Workers World forum in Detroit this July 21.

There were other developments in the international community that had a tremendous impact on organizations based inside the U.S. that had played a leadership role within the civil rights and Black power movements. The escalation of the war in Vietnam propelled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to take a public position against the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.

King had been reticent to take such a stand prior to the spring of 1967. Although his wife Coretta had participated in the national march against the war organized by the Students for a Democratic Society in April of 1965, King personally did not participate. He had made statements against the war and its role in deflecting attention away from the struggle for civil rights and the so-called “war on poverty,” but it was not until April 4, 1967, in his speech at Riverside Church in New York City that he clearly articulated his views on the war and its relationship to the struggle against racism and poverty in the U.S.

Of course the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had come out against the war with a statement issued on Jan. 4, 1966. This statement read in part:

“The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee has a right and a responsibility to dissent with United States foreign policy on an issue when it sees fit. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee now states its opposition to United States involvement in Vietnam on these grounds:

“We believe the United States government has been deceptive in its claims of concern for freedom of the Vietnamese people, just as the government has been deceptive in claiming concern for the freedom of colored people in such other countries as the Dominican Republic, the Congo, South Africa, Rhodesia and in the United States itself ...

“We therefore encourage those Americans who prefer to use their energy in building democratic forms within this country. We believe that work in the civil rights movement and with other human relations organizations is a valid alternative to the draft. We urge all Americans to seek this alternative, knowing full well that it may cost them lives—as painfully as in Vietnam.” (Taken from “The Making of Black Revolutionaries: A Personal Account,” by James Forman, Macmillan Company, 1972, pp. 445-446).

Another major issue that arose during June of 1967 was the outbreak of the so-called “Six Day War” between the states of Israel and Egypt along with other Arab countries. Various civil rights organizations were pressured to come out in support of Israel. However, SNCC generated a tremendous amount of controversy when it took a position in opposition to the Zionist state in support of Egypt and the Palestinians.

James Forman, who had been executive secretary of SNCC between 1961 and 1966, had taken the position of international affairs director of the organization. In his book cited above, he points out that during the war the Guinean ambassador to the United Nations, Maroof Askar, had summoned him and the leadership of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to their mission in New York. Ambassador Maroof had told both organizations that the radical African nations as well as others were coming out in support of Egypt and the Arab states in the conflict.

Forman states that the CORE leaders conveyed to the Guinean ambassador that CORE had not taken a position on the conflict because it felt the organization could not sustain the reaction to such a position by the pro-Israeli forces in the U.S. However, during this period SNCC published its newsletter containing an article by Ethel Minor which seemed to take a position in support of Egypt and the Palestinians.

According to Forman: “[T]he newsletter was not in my opinion anti-Semitic. ... But none of this really mattered to some. SNCC had come out in support of the Arabs, as far as the Zionists were concerned, and that was enough.” (Forman, p. 496).

In addition to the sharpening ideological and political struggles surrounding the U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam and the Middle East, the role of revolutionary movements in Latin America had been a serious focus of concern for many years. The Cuban Revolution had presented a model of social transformation and development which posed a direct challenge to the racist capitalist system in the U.S.

Under the chairmanship of Stokely Carmichael, SNCC sought to form alliances with the Puerto Rican independence movement as well as Latino communities inside the territorial boundaries of the U.S. In early 1967, Carmichael traveled to Puerto Rico and made statements in support of the national liberation struggle there as well as SNCC’s opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Later that year in July, after Carmichael had stepped down as chair and turned over control to H. Rap Brown, he traveled to Cuba to participate in the First Conference of the Organization of Latin American Solidarity. During his speech at this gathering, which was attended by President Fidel Castro, Carmichael made statements pledging unconditional support and solidarity with revolutionary forces in Latin American and around the world.

In his speech, which was reprinted in “Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism,” he states in part that: “The struggle we are engaged in is international. We know very well that what happens in Vietnam affects our struggle here and what we do affects the struggle of the Vietnamese people. This is even more apparent when we look at ourselves not as African-Americans of the United States, but as African-Americans of the Americas.

“At the present moment, the power structure has sown the seeds of hate and discord between African-Americans and Spanish-speaking people in large cities where they live. In the state of California, African-Americans and Spanish-speaking people together comprise almost 50 per cent of the population, yet the two view each other with suspicion and, sometimes, outright hostility. We recognize this as the old trick of ‘divide and conquer’ and we are working to see that it does not succeed this time.

“Last week Puerto Ricans and Blacks took the streets together in New York City to fight against the police—which demonstrates success in this area. Our destiny cannot be separated from the destiny of the Spanish-speaking people in the United States and of the Americas. Our victory will not be achieved unless they celebrate their liberation side by side with us, for it is not their struggle, but our struggle together. We have already pledged ourselves to do what we are asked to do to aid the struggle for the independence of Puerto Rico, to free it from domination by U.S. business and military interests; and we look upon Cuba as a shining example of hope in our hemisphere.

“We do not view our struggle as being contained within the boundaries of the United States as they are defined by present-day maps—instead, we look to the day when a true United States of America will extend from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, when those formerly oppressed will stand together, a liberated people.” (Carmichael, Lawrence-Hill Books, 1971, 2007, pp. 104-105)

Around this same time period, James Forman and Howard Moore attended the International Seminar on Apartheid, Racism and Colonialism in Southern Africa held in Kitwe, Zambia. The conference was sponsored by the U.N. and provided an excellent opportunity for Africans in the region as well as those from the U.S. to articulate a clear position against colonialism and imperialism. In his address, which was delivered during the same period as the rebellion in Detroit was taking place, Forman spoke to the solidarity among African Americans with liberation struggles on the African continent:

“Afro-Americans have watched with sympathy and concern the struggle against apartheid and white-settler domination in eastern and southern Africa over the past twenty years. We rejoiced with all freedom-loving people when the victory was won in Kenya. Today, we express our solidarity with the Freedom Fighters who languish in prisons and detention camps of southern Africa awaiting the day when the heroic efforts of those who are still free to fight will wipe out these inhumanities of man to man once and for all, and place the destiny and welfare of the people in their own hands.

“The cells of Robin Island and the Birmingham jail look the same on the inside. As the vanguard of the struggle against racism in America, SNCC is not unfamiliar with the problems of southern Africa.

“SNCC has never visualized the struggle for human rights in America in isolation from the worldwide struggle for human rights. ... SNCC has made it clear by recorded vote at its May 1967 conference that: ‘It encourages and supports the liberation struggles against colonialism, racism and economic exploitation wherever these conditions exist, and that those nations that assume a position of positive non-alignment express a point of view most consistent with its own views. Therefore, although our name indicates the original form of our struggle, we do not foreclose other forms of struggle.’” (Forman, pp. 486-487).

With these developments in the summer of 1967, the struggle of Africans inside the U.S. was clearly connected to the overall world struggle against colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism. The leadership of the most advanced organizations at the time saw these links as being primary in waging a successful struggle against national oppression and economic exploitation.

The rebellions were not riots because they reflected the people’s resistance to injustice and repression. This legacy of resistance could be traced back to the period of slavery, where flight and rebellion were a constant occurrence. How would this struggle be carried forward in the midst of the rebellion? Would Africans seek reforms from the system or demand a complete revolution to transform the character of the state and the economy within the U.S.? Or would there be a combination of waging struggles for reforms that could potentially strengthen the people in preparation for a fundamental change in society? These were some of the questions that needed addressing during the summer of 1967 and its immediate aftermath.