Ferguson protest movement must become political power

Demonstrators in Ferguson must learn from historical Civil Rights and Black Power movements and include strategic political organizing in its protests to ensure that residents vote in upcoming elections to unseat inattentive politicians. [Shutterstock image]

Demonstrators in Ferguson must learn from historical Civil Rights and Black Power movements and include strategic political organizing in its protests to ensure that residents vote in upcoming elections to unseat inattentive politicians. [Shutterstock image]

As protesters in Ferguson, Mo., look ahead, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the past — lessons that can provide guidance in transforming protest into something more impacting, more enduring.

Political power.

One such lesson comes out of Chicago, where 45 years ago this Thursday, Illinois Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed by tactical police assigned to Cook County State’s Attorney Ed Hanrahan, who had worked with the FBI counterintelligence program. Planning. Executing.

It all happened in the pre-dawn darkness on Dec. 4, 1969, while 21-year-old Hampton and other Panther members were asleep in their West Monroe Street apartment. Hampton reportedly had been drugged by an informant to make sure he would not awaken. Clark was on guard duty. None of the seven Panthers was given a chance to put up their hands before they were hit with a barrage of bullets.

Although Hanrahan would feed the media a self-defense narrative (the “vicious” Panthers fired first, he claimed), it later was revealed that all but one of an estimated 99 bullets had been fired by the police. Two reportedly were fired at point-blank range into Hampton’s head. One to Clark’s heart, killing him instantly. The only Panther bullet reportedly came from Clark’s shotgun in what appears to have been a reflexive act upon his death.

Adding insult to injury, the Panther survivors of that raid, including Hampton’s pregnant fiancée, Deborah Johnson, all were charged with weapons violations, aggravated assault and attempted murder. Charges later were dropped. The survivors were represented by People’s Law Office lawyers Jeffrey Haas, G. Flint Taylor and Dennis Cunningham, as well as future Chicago Corporation Counsel and University of Illinois Trustee James Montgomery. They wound up winning a $1.8 million settlement against the Chicago Police in 1983 in what Attorney Taylor would call “nothing but a Northern lynching.” But that is not the significant lesson for Ferguson protesters.

The lesson is in the African-American political organizing that followed the Hampton-Clark assassinations. As a result of massive black voter registration and turnout, Hanrahan was denied a second term as prosecutor in his 1972 re-election bid. African-Americans overwhelmingly supported Republican Bernard Carey for what historically had been a safe Democratic office. Hanrahan would never again win a political campaign.

Even more, that same engine of strategic political organizing was retuned for the successful Chicago mayoral campaign of Harold Washington a decade later, and even for Barack Obama in his successful U.S. Senate election a little more than 20 years after that.

As we reflect on Michael Brown in Ferguson and Fred Hampton in Chicago, we have to consider what has been lost in terms of the potential of a lifetime, but also what can be gained in potential organizing.

What was lost with Hampton?

He had been a community organizer. By all accounts, he was gifted in that leadership role, moving from his work with the NAACP to the newly formed Panther Party, where he was credited with successfully organizing a non-aggression agreement among Chicago street gangs —the first “Rainbow Coalition.” He also organized a People’s Clinic, free breakfast program for kids and, these, too: political education classes, community supervision of the police and advocacy of self-determination and self-defense. Because of this work, he was seen as a threat by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, whose agency famously embarked on a campaign of disruption and destruction of African-American organizations. And the organizers.

No one understands this as much as Dr. Charles V. Hamilton, W.S. Sayre Professor Emeritus of Government and Political Science at Columbia University. In 1967, the year Fred Hampton began his community organizing, Hamilton and Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), co-authored the seminal ”Black Power: The Politics of Liberation,” the intellectual and activist blueprint for self-determination in an evolving movement.

In a wide-ranging weekend conversation I had with Hamilton in his Hyde Park condo six floors up from mine, he talked of the need for a reassertion of “black power” in a new context. He talked about Hampton and about the dehumanization of the African-American and what Hamilton calls “the legitimization of violence against non-people.”

He talked about the need to reframe the discourse. “We’ve got to get people to start thinking in different narrative terms,” Hamilton believes. Citing Aristotle, Hamilton asserted the need for replacing our law-and-order obsession with a new perspective on equity, which “goes to areas the law can’t reach.” Political organizing is the path to equity.

Hamilton should know. The perspective of this 85-year-old activist-scholar might have been contextualized in the Ivory Tower in Morningside Heights, but it was formed and sharpened at ground level, deep in the heart of Dixie. It happened during an early faculty position at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he could not register to vote in the late 1950s. “The registrars never opened the office.” Not for black people, anyway. Hamilton wound up organizing voting-rights demonstrations among Tuskegee students. He worked with famed civil rights attorney Fred Gray on legal briefs leading to the landmark 1960 Supreme Court decision striking down Tuskegee’s gerrymandered voting in Gomillion v. Lightfoot.

For his efforts, Hamilton was fired from that Tuskegee teaching job. The school founded by Booker T. Washington was not ready to disrupt the status quo. Black voting rights in the Alabama of the 1950s clearly would have been a disruption.

That was true in other parts of the country, including Money, Mississippi, where 14-year-old Emmett Till had been lynched in 1955. Till, who spent his childhood in Summit, the Chicago suburb where Fred Hampton later would live with his family, had stepped out of his assigned place with a childish prank, flirting with a white woman. He was tortured and murdered to send a message to other African-Americans.

Till’s murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury after merely an hour of deliberation. These 12 angry men had been influenced by the white county sheriff who helped the accused murderers get off, when he had a sworn duty to help the prosecutors send them to prison.

Of the 30,000 residents in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi back when the trial was held, 19,000 were African-American. Yet not a single black person was registered to vote. In a county with a two-to-one black majority, black people had no political power to elect the sheriff or serve on juries. It is likely the Till murder trial would have turned out differently if black residents had the vote.

That was then. It all would change, beginning with the protests that erupted from the acquittal of Till’s murderers and the mass movement that flowed from that, starting with the Montgomery Bus Boycott only two months later. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were outgrowths of this mass movement. Today, the state of Mississippi has more than 200 black elected officials, more than any other state.

Hamilton — the man who gave us the term “institutional racism” — refers to this kind of Black Power as a form of “experiential reality.” It is a three-step process. African-Americans must first become “politically literate” to understand the importance of participation, and what the struggle to gain that right has cost us historically. “There is no such thing as an uneducated free person,” he insists.

Second, they must register to vote and turn out to make enlightened choices informed by an appreciation of the background and qualifications of the candidates, as well as the significance of the offices they seek. Finally, people must realize the rewards of voting. Successful campaigns will encourage more participation. “This is a permanent struggle,” Hamilton believes. “Things change. Times change. We’re always working at it.”

The chance to work at it in Ferguson will come with the local elections scheduled there for April 2015. Three of the five City Council seats are up. Blacks make up 67 percent of the local population. Last time around, fewer than seven percent of eligible black voters turned out in Ferguson, where the local elections are the only ones on the ballot in the odd years. With a new majority on the council, maybe African-Americans in Ferguson will get some measure of Charles Hamilton’s equity. Maybe a police force that looks more like them than one that still is 94 percent white — and one that recognizes that putting your hands up is not an aggressive move.

People of color in Ferguson — and elsewhere for that matter — have to recognize their responsibility as generation rising, the latest beneficiaries of people who died to secure their voting rights — rights that can be exercised to attain responsive government. To make sure the killers of our sons are punished. In Money, Mississippi. In Chicago, Illinois. In Ferguson, Missouri.

Clearly, the protesters in Ferguson should continue to raise their hands. But not in surrender. No. They should do it as a promise, as a pledge, as a solemn oath.

“We have to use this as a springboard to not only march, but to march to the polls,” Hamilton urges. And when people get there, they should place their hands on the ballot to make sure their protest voices are heard.

[Clinched fist/Shutterstock image]

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