Black Power and the Detroit High School Organizing Tradition

*Editor’s Note: This week we are publishing some of our favorite BP articles. We continue with this essay by historian Dara Walker as part of our forum on Student Activism.

Selma Sheriff Deputies coming to arrest young boy demonstrating with a sign at Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee voter registration demonstration in front of the Dallas County Courthouse, 1964 (Credit: ©1976, Matt Herron/Take Stock Photos).

The sight of National Guard tanks rolling down the streets of Detroit during the rebellion of 1967 created a feeling in the city’s Black youth that the balance of power was on the verge of shifting. The long tradition of Black radicalism in the Motor City suggested that this shift would occur in the favor of the Black community. Before the rebellion, Black students encountered racist teachers in the schools and textbooks that either failed to acknowledge Black history and culture, or treated Black life as inferior. They welcomed the dynamic organizing energy that emerged out of the rebellion.

Throughout the late 1960s, Black high schoolers across the country sought alternative ways of knowing and thinking that attempted to dislodge educational systems from their Euro-centric moorings through walkouts, building takeovers, and strikes. In Detroit, these students marshaled the analytical tools of the Black radical intellectual tradition—intellectual rigor and the hunger to study actionable revolutionary praxis—to nurture political awareness, intellectual development, racial pride, and self-discovery among their peers. In bringing the full weight of the Black community to bear on struggles for liberatory education, Black high school youth made the development of Black Studies a collaborative, multi-generational project. In the process, these young activists became some of the fiercest foot soldiers in both the Black Studies and Black Power movements. The high school activists who are currently leading walkouts and other actions against structural inequality and everyday acts of violence have extended this tradition into the 21st century.

In its efforts to reshape the form, function, and method of delivery of Black education, Detroit’s Black Power movement embraced a culturally relevant pedagogy that fostered critical discussions about self-discovery and white supremacy among a rapidly growing base of student activists. If students were fortunate, they could also access similar discussions in the classrooms of young, socially conscious teachers. However, these conversations usually took place in freedom schools, political education classes, in students’ homes, as well as in self-organized study groups. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was one of several organizations to create such spaces. As an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and community-based labor organization, the League had quickly established political education classes in 1969 to educate auto factory workers and students to prepare Black workers to better understand their role as revolutionaries based on the objective conditions they collectively encountered.

The group’s leadership identified Black students as a reserve army of activists and soon-to-be members of the Black working class. The League supported Black high school activists by organizing non-hierarchical spaces where they could explore radical ideas, formulate political analyses of social and political conditions, and reflect on the ways in which these ideas might function in practice. The students who participated, in turn, founded the citywide high school organization, Black Student United Front (BSUF). This youth group was folded into the Leagues’s larger umbrella structure that included a variety of Black labor, community, and school-based organizations. As founding BSUF member Gregory Hicks explained, the relationship between the League and the BSUF was a mutually beneficial dynamic that aided the leadership development of Black youth.1

Marching children frame a state policeman during the 1966 March Against Fear (Credit: ©1976 Maria Varela/Take Stock Photos).

The rigorous examination of concrete conditions and an intellectual hunger to study actionable and applicable revolutionary theories and praxis were hallmarks of the League’s political education (P.E.). The League’s classes helped high school students make sense of their world and the relationship between oppression abroad and at home. Early political education classes featured a diverse range of works that examined the history of chattel slavery, the rise of capitalism, and social movement theory and practice. Assigned readings included From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (1947) and Labor’s Untold Story: The Adventure Story of the Battles, Betrayals and Victories of American Working Men and Women (1955), as well as Lenin’s The State and Revolution (1917) to help situate and inform both in-plant and community struggles, and connections to international movements.2

Those who attended P.E. studied an eclectic, and at times contradictory, mix of ideas ranging from Revolutionary Black Nationalism, Marxist-Leninism, and Maoism. Women in the League also played an integral role in the intellectual development of these high school activists. According to Hicks, Marian Kramer, for example, facilitated discussions about women’s exploitation with male and female youth and used readings such as No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Female Liberation to introduce questions around gender. The political education classes were integral to developing an analysis of material conditions and a strategy to fight for a more socially just society.

The students who comprised the BSUF, however, soon began self-organizing and expanding student organizations in individual schools. Members of the BSUF, for example, constructed a rigorous political education program under the guise of a freedom school at Northern High School in 1969. At this after-school program, students taught action-oriented courses on activism, self-criticism, and comparative Black history. According to BSUF member Cassandra (Bell) Ford, trips to the local courthouse helped young activists understand that the struggles they waged around education were just one part of a much larger movement for Black self-determination and liberation. In witnessing founding League member, attorney Kenneth Cockrel, Sr. argue a variety of cases in court, high school youth learned the art of argumentation and how revolutionaries could use the law to advance the struggles of marginalized peoples. The freedom school curriculum enlarged the adolescent leadership and ranks of the movement for Black Studies.

Northern High School in Detroit in 2007 (Credit: Mikerussell/Wikimedia Commons).

The BSUF selected and introduced the ideas from P.E. classes and freedom schools to classmates through their underground student paper, The Black Student Voice (BSV).  The paper became both a tool for political mobilization and a medium that turned the schools into sites of intellectual development, self-discovery, and political awareness. The BSV addressed issues of educational inequality, housing discrimination, unemployment, and drug abuse at schools throughout the city, and did so from the perspective of Black students. The student editors of the BSV provided reading lists that included works they had encountered in P.E. classes: Negroes with Guns (1962), Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), Wretched of the Earth (1961), and Before the Mayflower (1962).3 They also used Black Art as a form of experiential knowledge, reprinting classics like Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” (1919) as well as more contemporary works like Don Lee’s “America Calling” (1969) as a means to underscore the urgency of the political moment.4

The student editors used the production of literature to introduce Black radical ideas and figures into informal sites of study. The publication also created organizational and writing skills among student activists who produced the newspaper. Darryl “Waistline” Mitchell, BSUF and League member, for example, cited his experience with the BSV as a foundational component of his political maturation and socialization:

[I]t allowed me to become educated, because you have to read. You have to learn how to edit. You have to learn how to work with different people and work in a collective. My organizational experience, which comes off of me wanting to be a printer when I was 13, 14, and 15, setting type,…gave me an opportunity to realize goals and inspirations I already had. So, for me, it was just like this marriage; this perfect thing that had happened.

While producing culturally relevant textbooks and official curriculum required committee meetings and the district’s will to act, the Black Student United Front used the Black Student Voice to realize the possibilities of a culturally relevant education on their own time and in their own terms. In an era where white educators claimed that the Black past did not exist, Black youth carved out the spaces they needed to challenge and shatter this insidious myth.

This history offers key historical lessons for contemporary movements. First, adults must conceptualize high school youth’s daily encounters with marginalization as experiential knowledge that, in tandem with critical study, will shape young people’s analysis of concrete conditions and strategic approaches to present-day struggles. Second, radical study spaces that bring together multiple generations of Black radicals can create dynamic discussions about the history and direction of the Black radical tradition. These spaces are not only essential for Black adolescents’ ability to craft an analysis of contemporary social issues, but are also needed to develop autonomous political and strategic approaches to realize their vision for a more just society.

  1.  Gregory Hicks, 2009, “The League of Revolutionary Black Workers and Detroit’s Black Student United Front: Social Exchange and Leadership Development, Select Interviews with Members of the Black Student United Front.” Master’s Thesis, Wayne State University, unpublished.
  2.  League of Revolutionary Black Workers, “Cadre Education,” in The Black Power Movement, Part 4, The League of Revolutionary Black Workers Papers, 1965-1976, Reel 1, Microform Collections, Firestone Library, Princeton University.
  3. Black Student United Front, Highland Park High Black Student Voice, vol. 1, no. 5, in the author’s possession from General Gordon Baker.
  4.  Black Student United Front, “Black Revolutionary Poetry,” in the author’s possession from General Gordon Baker.
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Dara Walker

Dara Walker is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Her research and teaching expertise include African American history, the history of children and youth, urban history, 20th-century U.S. history, and public history. She holds a PhD in History from Rutgers University, an MA in Pan-African Studies from Syracuse University, and a BS in African American Studies from Eastern Michigan University as a Ronald E. McNair Scholar. Dr. Walker is currently writing her book manuscript, High School Rebels: Black Power, Education, and Youth Politics in the Motor City, 1966-1972, which examines the role of the high school student organizing tradition in the development of Black radical politics of the Black Power era. Her research has been funded by the Ford Foundation's Dissertation Fellowship, the Walter P. Reuther Library's Albert Shanker Fellowship for Research in Education, and Rutgers University. Her review articles have appeared in several journals, including The Black Scholar, Feminist Studies, and The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, in addition to her online publications for Black Perspectives. Follow her on Twitter @afroshedoc.