In 1961, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) rode interstate buses into segregated parts of the United States to test the United States Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia. These Freedom Riders wanted to see if the ruling that segregation on public transportation was illegal would be upheld. In Alabama the riders were met by violence that nearly cost them their lives. Eventually new freedom riders made it to Jackson, Mississippi and were subsequently jailed after attempting to use white-only facilities.
The Freedom Riders actions revealed the glaring inequality that still existed in America. In 1961, Jomo would experience a similar brand injustice in the penal system after being arrested for running whiskey from Virginia Beach to Elizabeth City North Carolina.
“Anyway, I was working with a white dude, and we was driving for this guy on a service station. Nobody knew he was hauling corn-whiskey out of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, cause it’s close to Virginia Beach right. So he told me and this guy, he said “Y’all love to drive fast cars . . . he said look I got one here, you take this down to Elizabeth City, park it. Y’all go have some fun, here’s some money, and then you come back and pick it up an bring it to the service station.” We found out later that this tank that we thought was a gas tank, cause it was always filled up and we just drive, cause it was only about 30 miles in Elizabeth and back to Virginia Beach. And we found out that the tank, the original tank is where the corn-whiskey was, so they had another little tank inside the car that was for the gas. And we found out we was hauling corn-whiskey.” -Jomo [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/JomoClip8.mp3|titles=JomoClip8]
When Jomo and his white friend Charlie were tried in court and sentenced, Jomo received a harsher punishment for the same crime. Charlie went to the army, while Jomo went to jail and was subsequently hardened by his experiences within the penitentiary. Jomo elaborates on his first experience with the justice system:
“Well, you know how Virginia Beach was in 1961. It’s still racist. Charlie had a separate lawyer — I think the people we worked for got him his lawyer. Mine was court-appointed. I was eighteen and I didn’t have a lot of court experience then. They split our cases up for the sentencing, and on this particular day when I come down, thinking I’m going back home, they say “One of y’all is going to jail and one of y’all is going to the Army.” I get sentenced to five years. You know, looking at the way the trials go now, it don’t even seem like I went through a whole trial. When I come out of the courthouse that day, there was Charlie getting on the Trailways bus to go join the Army. I was gone for eighteen months to South Hampton prison before they gave me parole” (Davis 1995).
In 1965, the Selma to Montgomery marches shifted public opinion of the civil rights movement. That same year Malcolm X was assassinated; however his influence was already evident in the increasing militancy of groups such as SNCC and CORE. “Malcolm X, although a loyal student of Elijah Muhammad for his entire career in the Nation, introduced a new and more militant posture of nationalism that was not wholly characteristic of the organization before and after his membership. Malcolm X’s oratory appealed to the masses of urban malcontents, who would later pick up the mantle of black nationalism and militancy” (Ogbar 2004). These groups would come to embrace the idea of Black Power as nationalism spread throughout the country.
Jomo explains why the idea of Black Power emerged within the Civil Rights Movement. See video below.
“We didn’t agree with Martin Luther King and them and that march down there, and they was beating the hell out of people, turning fire hose on the people, and killing people and make like they had killed themselves. And after that, we broke away from that nonviolence stuff, cause that’s when we really found out in this country that you cannot deal with violence, confront violence with nonviolent means. So our first enemy became J. Edgar Hoover, he did not want us waking up the people. And we wasn’t violent at first we was just educating the people.”- Jomo [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/JomoClip9.mp3|titles=JomoClip9]
The Black Panther Party (BPP) emerged as the most popular organization within the Black Power movement. The group was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 in Oakland, California on a doctrine of protecting African-American communities from police brutality. The party was one of the few organizations during the Black Power movement to form alliances with groups representing other races, including the White Panthers and the Puerto Rican Young Lords.
“Now the gun was really never, that wasn’t the point. But what happened, once you’ve got the gun everything changes. And everybody was young, people weren’t able to really deal with that. Because the idea at the time in the Bay Area was the same problems we have now– people were poor, they’re miseducated they’re brutalized by racist police, just every possible thing. Education’s number one, finding out the people’s needs was number two.” -Agieb [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/AgiebClip1.mp3|titles=AgiebClip1]
While the Black Panther Party’s police patrol programs received the predominate media attention, they also produced a well circulated news paper and helped run “survival programs” for community members.
“The Black Panthers fed hungry children, escorted senior citizens to banks to cash their checks, administered a model elementary school, and tested people for the rare blood disease, sickle cell. Unfortunately, these community service activities lacked the sensationalism of the gun battles between police and BPP members” (Abron 1998).
Still, Huey Newton is remembered for his statement, “After intense investigation and study, brothers and sisters, I have scientifically come to this conclusion which is a fact– the police who occupy our territories, react the same way to .38 caliber bullets as the people do” (Bilal 2011). Huey discovered that legally, citizens were allowed to carry guns in their cars as long as they were not concealed or loaded. Using these principles, party members observed police activity in their community while being armed themselves.
“We had the law, and we would respectfully observe police activity, but at the same time we were armed and the police didn’t like that. But they couldn’t do anything about that because Huey had made sure that those who were going out on patrol knew their constitutional right to carry arms, and also knew the Alameda county ordinances concerning weaponry and the Oakland city ordinances concerning weaponry. It’s a very fine, exactly how many feet you could be and observe police behavior.” -Agieb[audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/AgiebClip2.mp3|titles=AgiebClip2]
Documents courtesy Duke Special Collections Library
Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 left the panthers convinced that violence was the only way to change the system. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” That year, the Party’s growing popularity lead J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director, to declare the Party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” (Grady-Willis 1998). The BPP then became subject to a counterintelligence initiative called COINTELPRO, which according to the FBI sought to disrupt and “neutralize” a number of “Black Nationalist Hate Groups” (Grady-Willis 1998).
“As this cultural awakening of the black people took place, the police were able to identify subversive black militancy. They would be able to identify the rabble-rouser, they call it the rabble-rouser index, and all these people were targeted.” -Agieb [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/AgiebClip3.mp3|titles=AgiebClip3]
“They would always arrest you on a bullshit charge, so that the good thinking people in your community would say “Well yeah I know he’s a yeah, but yeah but he got a criminal record.” You see what I’m saying. This was all done, I mean all this psychological stuff was done during this period of time. And naturally once Huey is in jail facing the death penalty, the energy of the party in terms of organizing the community and everything, now the energy of the Party has to be transformed to get this man off of death-row or he might die and raise money for him. You see how they side-track, they side-track your energies, and then you’re going in the black community. The other thing is you’re going in the black community, you’re going to people and they say well the average black person in the community said ‘well you know, I don’t know about that. Y’all shoot the police I ain’t down with that.’”- Agieb [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/AgiebClip4.mp3|titles=AgiebClip4]
In 1968, Jomo returned to jail after robbing a supermarket. In prison his mother gave him the Autobiography of Malcolm X and he became politicized. Prior to being sentenced, Jomo escaped from the Virginia Beach jail and changed his name to Eric Thompson. He moved to New York and joined the Black Panther Party. As a member of the Party, he changed him name again, this time adopting the name “Jomo” for Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the May Mau uprising.
“I’d never read a book from cover to cover until she [his mother] gave me the Autobiography of Malcolm X and gave me Black Man’s Burden by John Oliver Killens. And anyway, I read them two books and it talks about how we allow a little bit of people to control so many people and all that, and beat us up and all that. You know so I learned all that stuff and the abuse they did to use.” -Jomo [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/JomoClip10.mp3|titles=JomoClip10]
“When I went to New York, during that time after I got out of prison I went to New York. I started learning about grassroots struggle and all that stuff with the Panthers. I started going to the rallies and they was educating the people and all that stuff.” -Jomo [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/JomoClip11.mp3|titles=JomoClip11]
Later that year Jomo found himself subjected to what he suspects were “trumped up charges,” like those instituted under the COINTELPRO initiative, when he was arrested for “attempting to rob a New York City police officers watch.” He soon found himself in Auburn prison; there he used the same organizing principles used by the party, namely education, to spur prisoners to stand up for their rights.