Monica Moorehead to Black students: “Become an activist”
Edited from a talk given by Monica Moorehead, WWP secretariat member, at “A gala celebrating Black activism,” sponsored by the Pace University Black Student Union in New York City on Feb. 1.
When Karina told me that this program was a tribute to Black activism, I thought what might be of interest is to let you know some of my personal background. Because, as the old saying goes, in order to know where you are headed, you have to know where you come from, right?
And my personal journey has been very much influenced by political events, large and small. There is a Marxist saying that your being determines your consciousness or how you think.
My journey began with being born under racist segregation in Tuscaloosa, Ala. My mother, Consuela Lee, a jazz pianist and composer, was raised in Snow Hill, Ala., located between Selma and Montgomery, important battlegrounds during the Civil Rights movement, and my father, Isaac Thomas Moorehead, a college basketball coach, was born in Suffolk, Va., not far from the heroic slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. My mother’s grandfather, William James Edwards, founded a school in Snow Hill for former slaves in 1893, predicated on the philosophy of Booker T. Washington.
My dad grew up under extreme poverty. It was rumored that his father, who migrated from the Virgin Islands, was lynched before my dad was born. So my grandmother was a single parent who was forced to become a domestic worker for whites all her adult life, starting at the age of 12.
When I was three years old in 1955, my parents joined the Montgomery Bus Boycott, four months after the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. The boycott was sparked by Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white man. My parents, professors at Alabama State University, a historically Black college, were part of a tiny minority of Black people who owned cars, so they volunteered their time to drive boycotters to and from work. My parents also attended Dr. King’s church.
I, along with all Black children at this time, was being psychologically traumatized living under this extreme level of white supremacy. At the age of 12, I experienced my mom being physically “escorted” out of a white bathroom in Talladega, Ala., by a white cop. These are the experiences you never, ever forget, no matter how old you are.
Early days of activism
The turning point in my life, where my political and personal journeys started to mesh, came around 1967, when I attended Kecoughtan High School in Hampton, Va. I was one of only 200 Black students out of 1,500. This was a cultural shock for me, after attending all-Black schools for most of my life.
When I joined the high school band, I found myself in the precarious position of having to choose or not choose to play the school’s fight song, which included a refrain from the pro-Confederate song, “Dixie.” When I publicly refused to play the song, I was kicked out of the band. This was my first, modest, defiant act. It was a big deal for me because growing up under segregation played a major role in my being a shy, introverted person.
I started working with a community group that was providing services to the Black community, like tutoring children. Being exposed to how the rest of the local Black community was being treated led to me expanding my political outlook, both nationally and internationally, because of the tumultuous political period that was erupting.
And what do I mean by tumultuous? The Black Liberation struggle burst on the scene in 1967, just two years following the assassination of Black Nationalist Malcolm X, who was evolving into an internationalist when his life was tragically cut short. The Black Panther Party, founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, was advocating the right to self-defense against police brutality and all forms of racist state repression, and creating self-reliance programs in Black communities nationwide. There were the struggles against colonialism and neocolonialism, and for national liberation, on the African continent, in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, inspiring the movements here. U.S. imperialism was being challenged abroad and at home, and direct connections were being made.
An important part of the national liberation movements inside the U.S. was taking place in the prisons. The Black Panther Party was recruiting prisoners inside the walls, like Soledad Brother George Jackson, who had been sentenced to life in prison without parole for taking $70 at the age of 17. When his brother Jonathan Jackson attempted to free George by arming himself and other prisoners on trial in a Marin County, Calif., courtroom, Jonathan, along with two other prisoners and the judge, were slaughtered in a van as they attempted to flee. The FBI issued a warrant for the arrest of well-known political activist Angela Davis, who was accused of being complicit in this attempt to free George Jackson.
This was August 1970. As an 18-year-old teenager traveling from Houston to Atlanta the day after the warrant was issued, I was detained by the police at the Houston airport and then by the FBI once I arrived in Atlanta.
In fact, thousands of Black women with large Afros were detained for “resembling” Angela. This was my first direct encounter with the repressive state — with cops on a local and federal level. Angela Davis became a hero of mine, not because she was also a native of Alabama like me; not because she was a communist, since at the time I didn’t know what that entailed; but because she was an international symbol of resistance against a racist repressive system.
My activism continued at Hampton Institute in Virginia, now Hampton University, another historically Black college, founded during the Reconstruction period. Even though Hampton was a politically conservative campus, this did not stop students from being active on and off campus. I joined the Urban Center, which involved the most politically conscious students, whose ideologies ranged from Pan-Africanist to socialist. In spring 1971, when I was a freshman, students shut down the Hampton campus to defend a radical student government and were expelled by the administration. Students were constantly walking out of class, which led to the school shutting down before final exams. It was such an exciting time to come into activism.
I had not yet defined my political ideas but continued to seek answers as to why unjust conditions existed. In the midst of this exploration, the Attica Prison Rebellion occurred in upstate New York in September 1971. There was 24-hour media coverage while the prisoners took guards hostage to make their demands heard. I began a prisoners’ support group on campus, mainly to write to prisoners to show our solidarity with their demands for more humane conditions.
During my junior year at Hampton in 1972, I met the Prisoners Solidarity Committee, a mass organization formed by Workers World Party in 1970 to support the rights of prisoners and their families. The PSC had a Richmond, Va., chapter, about 90 miles from Hampton, and was giving outside support to prisoners inside the Virginia State Penitentiary who were rebelling against inhumane conditions. The PSC was asked by the leaders of the Attica Rebellion to help bring their revolutionary demands to the outside world. They made this request right before many of them were massacred by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s National Guard and by local police. When I met with representatives of the PSC, it was really the first time I had any experience with anti-racist white activists.
From activist to revolutionary
At the time I met Workers World Party, I was teaching kindergarten in Norfolk, Va., where WWP had a branch. I still held the view that white people were born racist, because that was all I knew growing up in the Deep South. I knew very little about the relationship between capitalism, as a social and economic system, and racism.
But once I started working with the Party, not only did I step up my activism in practice but also in theory. I started to understand what I was fighting against and the best way to do it within a multinational organization fighting for revolution. The theory helped me politically understand how every issue is connected to every issue within the political and economic system of capitalism.
I began to understand that we are not all oppressed in the same ways, but the commonality is that we, meaning people of color, women, LGBTQ people and workers of all nationalities, are oppressed by the same system; and that we belong to the same class based on the varying degrees of exploitation of our labor, our nationality, our gender, our sexual orientation and other factors. I began to understand that white workers are also oppressed as workers, despite the fact that they are susceptible to racist and chauvinist ideas that come from the top, from the status quo.
I began to understand that if there is an oppressed class on bottom, then there has to be an oppressor class on top, keeping the majority of us down, an oppressor class driven to make more and more profits that concentrate more and more wealth in fewer and fewer hands. That is the ruling class — just a handful of billionaires and multimillionaires who not only exploit our labor, but who have the power to shape how people treat and react to each other through reactionary ideas, be those racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist and so forth.
Workers World Party helped transformed me into a materialist, that is, someone looking at and understanding the world objectively, as it is. And also into an optimist, understanding that workers united can be the agents, not of cosmetic change, but of real change.
The system we live under, that system cannot be reformed. How can a system founded on the bloody backs of millions of enslaved people, stolen from Africa, be reformed? How can a system founded on the theft of Indigenous lands be reformed? How can a system be reformed that was founded on the theft of half of Mexico and the colonization of other lands? Institutionalized slavery and imperialist expansion of the West gave birth to capitalism — which cannot be reformed.
This is what the Civil War was all about — a clash of two social systems, vying to see which one would come out on top in controlling the means of producing everything in society. The short-lived Reconstruction period ended with the former slavocracy back in power, resulting in semi slavery conditions for African-American people in the South. On the rise were the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, exploitation of sharecropper farmers, low wages for people freed from slavery and re-enslaving them into convict labor by railroading them into prison. Racist Jim Crow segregation was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1898, forcing millions of Black folks in search of freedom to migrate from the South to the North.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights movement and the Black Liberation movement won tremendous gains for Black people in the South and North through blood, sweat and tears. But those gains have been slowly but surely pushed back during periods of reaction under the Republicans and the Democrats.
When I was a teenager, the Vietnam War was a stimulus for the economy, providing a certain level of prosperity for white workers but not for Black workers. In fact, if not for the rebellions during the mid-1960s in Watts, Detroit, Newark and elsewhere, industrial unions like the autoworkers and the steelworkers would not have opened their doors to Black workers. That is the truth.
But the technological revolution in the mid-1980s — the computer age bringing in high-tech and low pay — has reversed these gains in terms of wages and benefits. This revolution ushered in the period of deindustrialization, and the loss of good-paying union jobs in the auto and steel plants that helped elevate the living standards of millions of Black workers in the North and Midwest.
As industrial manufacturing shut down, millions of workers have been forced to work two or three jobs in fast food, retail or health care industries to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. These working conditions have caused a deep pauperization among people of color and women.
This struggle by workers to survive has also given rise to the “$15 an hour and a union” struggle led by Black and Latinx women. And it’s not just workers of color who have become victimized by the impact of the high-tech era, but young whites as well. This reality was expressed in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, where we first heard the phrase “the 1% vs. the 99%.” Though those numbers are not really accurate, the overall sentiment was clear.
Privileged whites graduating with degrees from some of the most prominent universities were getting a rude awakening as the job market was closing to them when they expected to have a better life than their parents. The Occupy movement was short-lived when the local police brutally repressed the occupations, city by city. But it was a very important wake-up call for young white people, giving them just a glimpse of what people of color have been up against for decades and centuries.
To their credit, many of them joined the Black Lives Matter movement to show solidarity with Black and Latinx people, who are the constant targets of terrorism — a police war claiming more and more lives, especially of youth of color, every year.
Misogynist Trump and globalization
Now, we have just experienced dealing with one year under Trump — an open white supremacist who is misogynist and xenophobic. But as horrible and offensive as he is, are his policies really any different from other, previous presidents, including the Democratic ones?
For instance, under President Obama’s two terms, there were more deportations of immigrants than under any previous Republican administration. Recently, it was revealed that, during her presidential bid, Hillary Rodham Clinton protected a sexual abuser on her campaign staff. Wasn’t she portrayed as a champion of women to counter Trump winning the presidency?
The #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns are exposing all forms of sexual violence, mainly aimed at girls and women, in every aspect of society, from the workplace to schools to Hollywood. But these are not isolated incidents that came out of nowhere. They are interconnected with current material conditions on a global scale.
This gets to the heart of what capitalism is, the effect it has on so many people, and why it can’t be reformed. Capitalism is an economic system that has to expand or it will die. It must expand its markets in order to sell its goods, or it will face collapse on a global scale. And the ultimate impact of the process of capitalism cannot be controlled by any individual or by any policy under capitalist so-called democracy.
The rich have to get richer, and so the poor wind up getting poorer. Consider the Jan. 22 report from Oxfam, which stated that approximately 82 percent of the wealth generated in 2017 went to the richest 1 percent of the global population, while the poorest half saw no increase at all. Oxfam said billionaires would have seen an uptick of $762 billion in 2017 — enough to end extreme poverty seven times over. The U.S. leads the exploitation with the widest gap between rich and poor compared to any other rich, capitalist country. (tinyurl.com/ybkmxo7j)
We are currently entering year 11 of a capitalist crisis, which is part of overall capitalist globalization. More profits are being made with fewer and fewer jobs for millions of unemployed and part-time workers on a global scale. Global internal changes in the capitalist system render larger and larger sections of the oppressed working class “expendable” as far as capitalism is concerned.
To the extent that capitalism no longer needs the labor of youth of color, they are subject to murder, prison, in effect, to a war that threatens the very survival of Black and Brown people. I was able to go to Ferguson, Mo., just a few months after the 2014 youth rebellion against the police murder of Michael Brown. There, Black youth told me directly that what they wanted was to join a union, in order to get a decent-paying job to help support their families, not to be targeted by police.
There is an economic and social basis for the increase in police repression and murder in Black and Brown communities, and in the increase in mass incarceration. And there is an economic and social basis for the increase in resistance to this oppression.
Workers World Party believes that the Black Lives Matter movement represents more than a continuation of the centuries-old struggle by African-American people against racist state terror. We believe that the Black Lives Matter uprising, which is international in scope, reflects the awakening of a section of the working class being transformed into anti-capitalist consciousness by capitalist globalization and technology.
This section of the working class is fighting the internalization of oppression through all forms of resistance against their oppressors, including — as they put it — “shutting shit down” and not waiting for some politicians to carry out empty promises.
When some of our youth members in Durham, N.C., took down a Confederate soldier statue just two days after the KKK and Nazis murdered an anti-fascist fighter in Charlottesville, Va., they declared that the people directly had the right to take down this symbol of racism and bigotry.
What hasn’t changed
So, sisters and brothers, much has changed over the many decades since I was your age. Especially in terms of how we communicate with others on a global scale, which has made the world so much smaller, with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, texting. When I was younger, we had to depend on printed word, snail mail, regular phones. This global change in communications has meant the younger generations are even more informed than 40-plus years ago.
But what hasn’t changed fundamentally is white supremacy, and oppression against women, LGBTQ people, those with disabilities, as well as other forms of inequality. Only the forms have changed, based on the ebbs and flows of the capitalist economy, which is always in crisis.
All of these inequalities are rooted in class society. This keeps us divided, making it very difficult to unite to fight a common enemy — the handful of billionaires who control close to 50 percent of the world’s wealth. Trump is a reflection of the capitalist system in crisis, not an isolated incident.
To stop this oppression means being an activist, not just for a week or a month, but for as long as it takes to help liberate humanity from such a horrific system. So many potential revolutionaries have been tragically lost, not only to repression but to internal oppression, being made to feel that every injustice that they have experienced is their fault. Think of how many women have committed suicide or are dealing with post-traumatic depression after being sexually assaulted.
We see this being played out with what is happening with Michigan State University. These women were forced to keep silent for so many years because they were being blamed for what happened to them. But what is happening at MSU is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s not an isolated incident but a systemic one, rooted in centuries of women’s oppression.
Being an activist, being an organizer, affords you the opportunity to understand the systemic nature of all the injustices we face, the opportunity to fight for a better life, not only for one but for all.
The backbone of any progressive movement has been activists and revolutionaries, no matter the differences in ideas, as long as you can unite for a common cause. And it is becoming much easier to become an activist due to Trump! Trump is radicalizing whole new layers of the population who understand the importance of being in the streets, not to be silenced any longer, especially women.
While you are pursuing your dream of a college degree, make social activism a part of your reality. Because your future will depend on that, along with the future of millions of others.
Don’t we all deserve a future that guarantees a right to a job, housing, food, education, health care and full equality, without having to sacrifice one of those rights for the other? As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “Without struggle, there can be no progress.”