Women and the the Radical Tradition: A review of Want to Start a Revolution?

This week’s book for American Studies 525, a course on social movements, is Want to Start a Revolution? Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, edited by Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard (New York University Press – 2009).  Pushing back against historic erasure and a tendency to merely mention “various women as key participants and note the damage of sexism” (8) – “dominance through mentioning” – this book documents the political, philosophical, intellectual, organizing and activist contributions of several radical women.  Moving beyond a discourse of “firsts” (249), it spotlights visionary women who challenged movements to “imagine a different kind of politics,” to create alternative paths to freedom, and to expand the struggle.

Along with its efforts to chronicle the contributions of “radical women in the Black Freedom Struggle,” to highlight their impact as leaders, organizers, theorists, strategists, intellectual forces, and in a myriad of other ways, the collection pushes the conversation regarding social movements in a broader sense.  Writing against “single-game” analysis and those that focus on individual movements/leaders or the rise and fall of organizations/ movements, the collection speaks to continuity between movements.  From Vicki Garvin to Shirley Graham Du Bois, from Rosa Parks to Flo Kennedy, the history of radical women of color is a story that transcends boundaries.  Whether talking about Garvin’s “journey from old left to black liberation and Third Word solidarity” or Shirley Chisholm’s presence in multiple types of movements, or Flo Kennedy, Ella Baker, Yuri Kochiyama, and Rosa Parks’ presence and influence across various organizations, this collection “resists marking these women as activists defined exclusively within any singular movement,” making “visible the ways these black women radicals redefined movement politics” (4-5). The breadth of many decades of activism and organizing, intellectual and creative works, is illustrative of the range of influences.  To talk about radical women is to talk multiple points of influence, multiple organizations, and multiple movements.

The book’s cover, which shows Rosa Parks holding a picture of Malcolm X speaks to the orientation of the book: a refusal to see the contributions and influences of radical women within the Black Freedom Struggle in a single snapshot.  The history is too dynamic. The influences extend beyond a struggle against a single injustice but instead are seen in the intellectual and theoretical impact and the confluence and bridges that existed between communities, organizations and movements.

These women, and the ideologies, organizing tools, and influences that brought into these movements can be seen across multiple spaces and organizations; their influence was not limited to a single issue, organization or movement.  Here lies one of the most powerful aspects of the book: the influence of a feminist black radicalism across generations and movements, which are often imagined as distinct and at times in opposition.   Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard make this clear in their introduction, arguing:

Black women radicals continued this fight for equality into the 1960s and 1970s.  Unwilling to keep silent about gender issues within all-black organizations, many of these women highlighted gender oppression as part of their political analysis.  They opened up conversations about gendered structures and assumptions in the organizations in which they worked…. Black women radicals fought to make feminist politics an intrinsic part of the black left and Black Power mobilizations, just as they pushed white feminist to address racism and economic exploitation as crucial to women’s liberation (p. 15).

Writing about Flo Kennedy, Sherie Randolph notes, “Kennedy was simultaneously a Black Feminist and a black nationalist who built alliances between the mostly white feminist and Black Power movements during the postwar period” (225).  Kennedy, like Parks, Garvin, Fannie Lou Hamer, Denise Oliver, and countless other Black women radicals were immerse inside many movements.  Their imprint can be seen in their day-to-day impact of various organizations and struggles, and also in their intellectual and theoretical influence within these same spaces. Again from the introduction:

Each woman proved a long-distance runner and embraced a range of strategies.  Each woman traversed a host of movements and invested in innovative coalition building and each woman articulated an intersectional analysis that made connections between multiple movements for social justice: black freedom, women’s equality, anticolonialism, and the redistribution of wealth.  Taken together, they show the day-to-day work necessary to sustain a radical movement, women’s intellectual contributions to the advancement of the struggle, and the broad vision of black liberation that was forged in the post war era” (4).

For example, Shirley Graham DuBois intellectual work and “freedom dreams” brought issues of colonization and the Diasporic struggle into focus within both the Communist and Black radical movements, pushing each to also interrogate gender privilege and patriarchy.  To deny the intellectual theorizing and the imprint on the radical theorizing and thinking is to further the erasure of women from this history.  This collection refuses to follow this tradition.

While the book offered many important interventions, the collection and the individual chapters are organized around three thematic interventions: (1) throughout the book, there is a clear emphasis on how the radical women discussed worked from an intersectional approach.  This approach, which was brought into the organizations and movements, and their theorizing around the interplay of race-gender-sexuality-class-nation, is crucial to understanding this history.  For example, Erik McDuffie highlights the ways that Ella Baker, Marvel Cooke and Esther Cooper Jackson challenged the tendency among white communist women to imagine “’woman’ as a universal ahistorical category.”  To talk about labor and class required talking about race and gender, racism and sexism within a capitalist culture.  “Like Baker and Cookie, Cooper Jackson singled out the Bronx slave market to make the case that African American women encountered unique forms of exploitation and intersections of race, gender, and class positioned black and white women differently vis-à-vis one another” (33).  Understandings of intersectionality, long before academic discourses reflected on the “intersectional turn,” guided the activist work, which included day-to-day organizing and the production of intellectual/artistic works.

(2) A second point of intervention rests with the book’s refusal of the binary that posits “respectable and radical” in opposition.  Speaking to the ways that these women “adhered to and destabilized notions of stability,” spotlights a complex and dynamic history.  At times using the middle-class sensibilities and the class-based privileges, they also “reshaped dominant notions of respectability as a vehicle to promote radical change” (12).  Often donning a style coat and hat (12), Juanita Jackson Mitchell used her “social competency and confidence in her social role… to speak to multiple audiences, crossing racial, religious and class lines to convey political messages that were important, relevant, accessible, and inspirational (50).

A third intervention resists the tendency to seeing “women’s work in the movement” as being “solely behind the scenes, local activists.” Speaking to their national influence, and the influences as leaders, the collection moves beyond the story of “slow and respectful work” as it relates to the contributions of radical women within the Black Freedom Struggle.

On one end of the spectrum, this included charismatic leadership.  Women like Lillie Jackson, Shirley Chisholm and Denise Oliver took public leadership roles, pushing aside barriers of sexism in their organizations. … On the other end of the spectrum, many women (and men) believed in participatory democracy and resisted public leadership and national roles.  Activists like Yuri Kochiyama and Rosa Parks understood that no movement could be built without people creating an infrastructure, without the day-to-day work to enable the dramatic public action.  These movement organizers rejected notions of the charismatic individual and instead heavily in building democratic organizing structures and completing the behind-the-scenes work the struggle entailed.  Still others, like Toni Cade Bambara and Erika Huggins, created alternative structures and institutions to nourish themselves and others in order to provide political spaces free from racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia (13).

The radical women highlighted in the book were organizers but they were also leaders, theorists, and activists both visible and in the background; “their radicalism was hidden in plain sight” (3).  Shirley Chisholm often described herself as “unbought and unbossed” – this description applies to the women spotlighted in this book, each who in different ways changed the contours of post-War radicalism.  The collection speaks to their many important contributions, giving voice to their histories and their powerful words.  The book, like the videos below, speaks to the many “freedom dreamers” who in the face of racism and sexism, refused to accept, demanding the world anew.






Discussion Questions

  1. What do Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard mean when they argued that “their radicalism was hidden in plain sight” (3)
  2. Michael Apple argues that 2nd wave of historiography has often engaged in “dominance through mentioning” – what does he mean here and what impact does it have on our understanding of social movements?
  3. Why is the book pushing us to move beyond “first” and documenting the untold stories?
  4. What, according to collection, are the dangers of seeing women purely as organizers, or as bridge leaders?
  5. In what ways does the book document the influences of a larger history of black radicalism on the southern civil rights movement, feminist movements, Black Power  movements, and the White Left?
  6.  Robin Kelley argues, “The collapse of an organization does not necessarily signify the destruction of a movement or the eradication of traditions of radicalism” – what examples does the book supply to illustrate Kelley’s point; why do you think that this sort of historic framework further obscures presence and influence of radical women
  7. Has the focus on the influence and importance of World War II on the civil rights movement contributed to these generated narratives?
  8. In what ways does the book document a history of diversity, breadth, and longevity of movements?
  9. Why is the “long distance runner” metaphor so prominent within this book; why is this an important intervention?

10. In what ways does this book speak to the transnational nature of post-War movements?  What role did radical Black women play in articulating these understandings?

11. Horne and Stevens describe Graham Du Bois as having a “series … of many lives” – why is this sort of historic memory so uncommon within historiography and why is this such an important intervention?

12. Several chapters challenge the flattening if black radical women within the historic imagination – why have movements, historic narratives, and the broader culture invoked black women as symbols – Rosa Parks, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Coretta Scott King?  What does this visibility and invisibility speak to?

13. From Septima Clark’s work as a teacher to Garvin’s work as “mother hen” (84) to Huggins’ involvement with “survival programs” and Johnnie’s Tillmon’s welfare rights organizing to Chisholm’s role as a politician, much of this work gets positioned outside a history of radicalism – why? What does this tell us about definition of radicalism and violence?

Akinyele Omowale Umoja and “We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement ” – A Review

During the spring semester, I am teaching a graduate course on social movements.  Each week, I will post a review of that week’s book (I will also occasionally include a review of a recent documentary that connects to that week’s book)


Reading Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s brilliant We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013), in the midst of the national celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, was striking to say the least.  Whereas the national narrative, from political speeches to ESPN commercials, imagines the civil right movement beginning and ending with King (and a sanitized and flattened history at that), while seemingly erasing the specter of white supremacist terrorist violence, Dr. Umoja chronicles the tireless organizing and agitation. He focuses on armed resistance, people who in the face of entrenched violence challenged white supremacist terror in Mississippi and beyond.

Dr. Umoja works from an expansive definition of armed resistance, which includes “individual and collective use of force for protection, protest, or other goals of insurgent political action and in defense of human rights… including armed self-defense, retaliatory violence, spontaneous rebellion, guerrilla warfare, armed vigilance/ enforcement and armed struggle” (7).  The willingness or the threat to respond to violence with violence, to protect life, liberty and property “by any means necessary,” was central to the fight for freedom.

Pushing back at linear narratives and those that deny the importance of armed resistance, Dr. Omoja speaks to the dialectics between “unviolent” (Payne) tactics and those more militant strategies.  The gun, like a mass meeting, the willingness to provide secured safe havens for Freedom Riders, like nonviolent training, were all crucial to building community, establishing trust, creating a sense of shared identity, and collectively generating “freedom dreams”; organizing was crucial irrespective of the tactic.  We Will Shoot Back highlights the centrality of organizing and collectivity, pushing back at the individual/non-violent narrative to tell a multi-layered and crucial part of this history.

We Will Shoot Back documents that the history of armed resistance is a narrative of a complex system of roles, organizations, identity formation and action.  Dr. Umoja notes:

Though not as visible as Evers, the Deacons, or the NAACP, the works of the enforcer squads, both that of Shields and that of the NAACP women was essential to the Movement.  The enforcer groups ensured accountability and respect for the decisions of the Natchez Movement.  If the boycott was almost 100 percent effective, recognition has to be given to the work of the enforcer groups.  While this has escaped most accounts of the Mississippi Movement, the participants, in the Movement, particularly those active in Southwest Mississippi, recognize the significance of Rudy Shields and the enforcer groups he organized” (139).

This organization and the importance of armed resistance are documented in a myriad of places, taking a multitude of forms.  The book chronicles the violence endured by the Hazelwood family, who after housing Freedom Riders experienced widespread economic reprisals and terrorist violence.  Refusing to back-down in the face of violence, the ability of Luella Hazelwood or Willie Hazelwood to push forward with their work as activists and organizers cannot be understood outside of history of armed resistance.  Luella spoke about how she did not even fear an arrest by the Belzoni police:

They never would hit nobody, when they pick them up like that. ‘Cause they had a war going on… ‘Cause these folks [Black people] was ready to fight some.  They wasn’t like martin Luther King. Get him on this side and turn the other.  Naw, we didn’t turn no jaws. No Lord.

We Will Shoot Back, thus, documents this history and others, including that of “Da Spirit” which made sure that Blacks were adhering to the boycott in Natchez. “Punishment by ‘Da Spirit’ ranged from public spankings to damage to home or vehicle to seizure of property” (169). It is a story of refusal, of challenging terror and fear, of accountability and justice.

While documenting the level of terror and violence that was part and parcel to Jim Crow and American Apartheid, and the level of violence employed in the name of white supremacy (compare historic understanding of shootings at Kent State to that of shootings at Jackson State College where “police fired hundreds of rounds into Alexander Hall, a form dormitory, killing two and wounding 12 others), We Will Shoot Back “documents the role that armed resistance played in overcoming fear and intimidation and engendering Black political, economic and social liberation” (1-2).

In this regard, one cannot understand the history of the Black Freedom Struggle outside of the simultaneous use of boycotts, other forms of direct action, self-defense, and organizing.  Dr. Umoja makes clear that to understand King’s “Beloved Community” or Lawson’s tools of direct action requires looking at the history of armed resistance throughout the movement.

Armed resistance and nonviolence were not in opposition but worked together.  Dr. Umoja highlights how these tactics and worldviews worked hand-in-hand?  That one cannot understand Freedom Rides outside of a history of armed protection; that we cannot understand voter registration movements outside of the role of the gun in conquering fear in the face of white supremacist terror. “Armed resistance must be included with litigation, mass organizing, nonviolence demonstrations and protests, as well as other forms of insurgent challenge to force federal intervention and a change in white attitudes and behavior toward Black humanity,” writes Dr. Umoja. “Moreover armed resistance contributed to giving activities and communities the confidence to challenge White supremacist terror even when the federal government did not have the capacity or will to protect them.  Without due attention to the role of armed resistance in Mississippi, either the agency of Blacks in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements is denied or an inaccurate account of the Struggle is offered” (p. 258-259).

Reading the book alongside in the context of the King Holiday (and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington) added layers to the book.  Likewise, thinking about the book in relationship to the ongoing debate about guns added another layer.  While some have sought to seize upon this history, and the broader story of armed resistance against white supremacy to justify unfettered access to guns, I am struck by the disconnect between the actual history.  We Will Shoot Back speaks to armed resistance to antiblack racism, to state violence, and to systems of white supremacy.  Within these mainstream discourses, the entrenched antiblack racism, the systemic state violence, the specter of police brutality and #every28hours, is nowhere to be found rendering these historic invocations problematic at best.  Akinyele Omowale Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back gives us lots to think about with the past but the present and future as well.