In this post, blogger Joshua Clark Davis interviews activist Paul Coates–the father of author Ta-Nehisi Coates–on his life and early activism in Baltimore, Maryland. Paul Coates has lived many lives: Vietnam serviceman, United Airlines employee, Black Panther, and bookseller. His company Black Classic Press (BCP) celebrates its fortieth anniversary as one of the premier Black-owned publishing houses in the United States. Based outside of Baltimore, BCP has reissued out-of-print classics by George Jackson, Bobby Seale, and Amy Jacques Garvey while also publishing original works by such authors as Walter Mosley and Ras Baraka. This interview, originally conducted in June 2012, has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Joshua Davis: Tell me a little bit about your early life.
Paul Coates: I was born in West Philadelphia and grew up in North Philadelphia. I stayed in Philadelphia until I was about seventeen and went into the military.
Davis: Could you tell me something about your early political development?
Coates: The Black Panther Party was an expression of [my] political development. My consciousness, like so many other people of that period, was shaped by the Civil Rights Movement…My later decision to join the Panther Party was a manifestation of that–a development of the consciousness that naturally occurred because of what was happening through the demonstrations. The Nation of Islam, particularly Malcolm X, were also heavy influences. And that, particularly Malcolm X’s experiences, led to the Black Panther Party, who expressed themselves as the “Sons of Malcolm.” That’s how they identified themselves, and they saw themselves as a logical extension of Malcolm X’s legacy. So, it was very attractive.
Davis: You mentioned the Nation of Islam or Black nationalism more broadly speaking. Were those ideas attractive to you growing up?
Coates: Not in a formal sense. I didn’t know what Black nationalism was, even though I was surrounded by it. I grew up in Philadelphia and I grew up along Columbia Avenue, passing by the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) every day. As a matter of fact, I used to shine shoes in front of the UNIA national headquarters.
Davis: How and why did you come to Baltimore?
Coates: I came to Baltimore to marry. And I did marry and I had three children from that marriage. It was love.
Davis: How did you became exposed to the Panthers?
Coates: Sometime around early 1969—I began to notice in newspapers the stories of the Panthers. I was working for United Airlines—as a baggage handler—at that time. I met someone, and that person told me there was a Black Panther Party chapter here. And—just hanging out at night, there was a girl who said she belonged to the Panthers and took me and another guy past the headquarters, which was then on Eden Street. Once I knew where they were, then I sought them out. I eventually sought them out and went down to the chapter and began hanging around as a community worker.
Davis: So, what was your involvement with the Panthers? What did you do as community worker?
Coates: As a community worker, I basically assisted them. They ran different programs, including free breakfast programs and clothing programs. Food had to be collected. I had a car, and at that time, my transportation was the principal transportation for the Baltimore Chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Davis: Well, fast-forwarding along, tell us more about your bookstore, The Black Book.
Coates: When I left the Panther Party, which would have been early 1972, I came back because we still had people in jail and people who were on trial. And I didn’t know exactly what I would do, but I knew that I still had a commitment to those people who were in jail, and particularly to one guy who they convicted…I kept my commitment to him and the other people that were under charges at the time. And I worked with a group of people to try to strategize, all of the exes, ex-Panthers, ex-Socialists, ex-Communists. It was about six of us who got together. And I basically came up with a plan to do what became the George Jackson Prison Movement. And under that plan, we would work in the jails and we would provide books as a move to educate people in the jails. We would provide books to support the work that the incarcerated Panthers were already doing in the jail. We would provide those books. And out of those books, we would also open up a bookstore that would work in our community, okay? And then, later, we would open a publishing house.
Davis: Okay, from the start you had envisioned opening a publishing house?
Coates: Absolutely. But I didn’t envision it myself. I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as the George Jackson Prison Movement.
Davis: What was the George Jackson Prison Movement?
Coates: The concept was that these various activists would work together as the George Jackson Prison Movement. We would first open up a bookstore, provide books, and employment to people on the outside. We would also provide books on the inside to people who were incarcerated because we saw no separation between the outside and the inside. We viewed both communities as oppressed communities.
We would, after opening a bookstore, open up a publishing house [in which] books could be sold that reflected the reality of Black people. These books would reflect the struggles that we were engaged in nationally and internationally, and those books would be sold through the bookstore and also distributed in the jails.
The third level was the establishment of the printing company. And in doing the printing company, we would print books that the publishing company would publish. We would sell those books through the bookstore and in the jails. We would provide employment for people, and we would have a cooperative approach. That lasted about seven days. We had agreement on it for about seven days, and we quickly fell apart.
Davis: So, what happened?
Coates: Some people wanted to work with the working class, and others wanted to organize the working class… Politically, it didn’t hold. The ideologies didn’t hold together so we went our separate ways. I continued to use the name George Jackson Prison Movement, but we never really had programs in place under the George Jackson Prison Movement, except for getting books into the jail. That faded very quickly after we started sending books into the jail only to find out that the brothers in jail were selling our books for cigarettes…So the George Jackson Prison Movement really didn’t exist as an entity, or it existed as an entity for a very short time. But its importance is that it gave birth to the Black Book. It later gave birth to Black Classic Press (BCP), which was the publishing house, and then it later gave birth to BCP Digital Printing.
Davis: Where did you get the idea for a bookstore? Had you been to any Black-owned bookstores that inspired you, or any bookstores in general that had inspired you?
Coates: The earliest Black bookstore that I’m aware of in this area was Liberation Books. And it was a good friend of mine, Walter Lively, who established that sometime around 1970. I don’t remember [the exact year]. It was in Baltimore…During the seventies, all of the stores that sold Black-related items sold a few books. I mean, that was just the way—they weren’t really bookstores but they sold a few books. Books were very important in the Panther Party. The Party’s headquarters were information centers in which books were [available], and they were there for people to read and for people to engage. The political education classes dealt with books and reading because the whole idea was to politicize the community. And so, books were functional. Those bookstores that I remember, you know, were not necessarily Black bookstores, but…that consciousness was certainly [there]—I always gravitating toward books.