Black Power, Education, and the History of the Peoples College

African Liberation Day, 1972. Photo: District of Columbia Public Library.
African Liberation Day, 1972. Photo: District of Columbia Public Library.

Over the past several years, scholars such as Ibram X. Kendi, Martha Biondi, Russell Rickford, and others have produced scholarship on the radicalism of Black students in higher education, alternative educational institutions, and community-based political education study circles of the Black Power Movement. The late 1960s and early 1970s were ripe with the inventiveness of establishing counter-hegemonic Pan-Africanist institutions and student formations dedicated to the teaching and study of Africa and the Third World. The post-Black Power era of the 1970s continued the evolution of Pan-Africanism and Black Internationalism that unpacked the political, cultural, and historical multi-dimensionality of the African continent. During this period, several independent institutions and radical study groups emerged to continue the legacy of the Black Power era.

The Peoples College (PC) of Nashville, Tennessee was one of these institutions. Founded in 1970 by radical Fisk University Sociology Professor Dr. Abdul Alkalimat (formerly Gerald McWorter), the PC was a radical Black Marxist-Leninist organization dedicated to an anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggle program of political education and activism. Born at a time when the Black Power Movement provided more nuanced critiques of capitalism, the PC of the 1970s was actually the rebirth of a community education program (of the same name) started by Dr. Charles Johnson of Fisk University in the 1930s. Under Johnson’s leadership during the 1930s, the PC was modeled largely after the Urban League, providing adult education courses and teaching literacy, home economics, and hygiene. Differentiating between the PC and the former organization, Dr. Alkalimat stated, “In the early 1970s PC folks would say that the first Peoples College (under Johnson) taught people how to read, we’re teaching people what to read.”1

Fisk University students in the 1960s. Photo: Fisk University.
Fisk University students in the 1960s. Photo: Fisk University.

The group was comprised of wage workers, salaried professionals, and Black male and female students from Fisk University, Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University, and Meharry Medical College. Under the leadership of Alkalimat and Dr. Ron Bailey—and with the unwavering support of Dr. Lucius Outlaw, Jr.—the PC evolved from a body of socio-political theorists to become a Black leftist organization aimed at advancing a program of political education from a transnational perspective. A major component of the PC line dealt with converting various segments of the Black Liberation Movement to adopt a more robust critique of capitalism. Taking a puritanical approach adopted from the Vietnamese and Chinese communist parties respectively, the PC’s eclectic version of Marxism sought scientific application to the concrete problems facing Black folks and the Black Liberation Movement as a whole. More importantly, the PC wanted to motivate the Black intellectual community to engage in the historic and social responsibilities of the Black scholar—more intense investigation and critical analysis of Black conditions to further Black progress. Adopting a part of its dictum from Mao Tse-Tung’s essay “Reform Our Study,” the PC worked to actualize the expression “no investigation, no right to speak.”

A publication of the Peoples College Press. Photo: Author.
A publication of the Peoples College Press. Photo: Author.

During the 1970s, the PC held classes at a local YMCA in Nashville, and the organization eventually expanded its initial program to local church spaces and available classrooms at various college campuses throughout the city. The PC program was established under a “Basic College” program, which was a five-week course module of open classes that met every Saturday and covered topics such as National Black History, Pan-Africanism, the Third World, Analysis of Nashville, Analysis of the Southern Region, and World Revolution. It provided workers, students, and everyday laypersons an opportunity and curricular resources to critically analyze the socio-political dynamics affecting various locales from the Southern US region to Mozambique. From the Basic College program evolved study circles that developed as interest groups.

Many of the students who emerged from the Basic College program of the PC went into the Genesco manufacturing plants, food-processing sites, and hospitals—all for the expressed purpose of organizing Black workers in Nashville. Though many of the students were products of Black middle-class backgrounds, they were genuinely interested in wedding their newly found theoretical interests with on-the-ground happenings of Black workers. Consequently, the PC cadre initiated the practices of organizing in order to confront struggle where it existed. Furthering the efforts to align with Black workers, the PC developed significant relationships with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers of Detroit. As the united front of the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC) developed and expanded by mid-1973, the PC interfaced with the national ALSC to provide regional support. Concurrently, a local ALSC chapter working to build African Liberation Day and the coordination of ALSC anti-imperialist demonstrations concentrated in the Southern region. From these alliances, the PC spearheaded the formation of the student-led Coalition Against Police Repression on November 28, 1973. Comprised of approximately thirty organizations, the coalition provided a significant organizing presence for the PC and ALSC by bringing national and regional attention to the 1973 murder of Tennessee State University student Ronald Lee Joyce and police brutality in Nashville.

A publication of the Peoples College Press. Photo: Author.
A publication of the Peoples College Press. Photo: Author.

With these developments, the PC changed its perspectives on selecting time and space for its classes. The PC eventually replaced the concept of “liberated space” with the notion of “liberated time,” which meant instead of waiting to receive confirmation to use available locations, the PC commandeered space, understanding that classrooms became vacant between 5pm and 6pm on most college campuses in the Nashville area. After scouting out a space, the PC would commandeer classrooms for guerrilla teaching sessions. Whenever the PC study sessions extended into the late night hours beyond the approved time, the study groups would retreat to a dorm room, apply a spray-painted chalk blackboard to the back of a dorm room door and continue the study session. By 1972 these practices and pedagogy had become the norm for the PC, and these developments emerged from the organization’s Basic College program.

As the study circles progressed, members of the PC concentrated on a more rigorous level of analysis. Many of the participating students considered attending the PC sessions more important than attending their regular classes at their home institutions. The study groups focused on the political materials of Mao, Marx, Engels, Stalin, and Lenin. At a more advanced level, Alkalimat and Outlaw co-taught a semester-long course on Engels’s Anti Dühring with page-by-page analysis of the work that required using a more exact pedagogical methodology to deepen analysis and comprehension. Facilitators Alkalimat and Outlaw would have students of the more advanced study groups number each paragraph and each individual line of the paragraphs to deconstruct concepts and to contextualize the historical references and political nuances of the more dense curricula. Many PC students adopted this learning modality to pass academic courses from their home institutions, and later in life as their careers advanced, using this methodology helped many of the students succeed during law school.

A publication of the Peoples College Press. Photo: Author.
A publication of the Peoples College Press. Photo: Author.

At the height of the Pan-African liberation struggles of the early 1970s, the PC continued to build its operations by establishing the Timbuktu Bookstore with locations in Nashville, Atlanta, and Riverside, California. Timbuktu Nashville became the base of operations for the PC and the organization also developed the Peoples College Press (PCP) for a mass propaganda campaign that foresaw the production and distribution of materials for Black workers.2 By the mid-1970s, the PCP also became critical in the development and distribution of the PC’s pamphlets, study materials, and the most significant artifact of the PC curriculum development, the textbook Introduction to Afro-American Studies, A Peoples College Primer. As one of the first texts to be produced on African American studies for the field, the PC textbook had been circulated nationally and was on its sixth edition by the mid-1980s.

The Peoples College outlasted many other independent institutions and radical study groups of the Black Power era. However, they ultimately underwent similar developmental challenges. Experiencing downtime, stagnation, and the inventible evolutions of careers and people, the organizational strength of the PC diminished by the early 1980s, leaving only vestiges through the Peoples College Press. The PC’s legacy exists through its artifacts and in the historical memory of Black activism during the 1970s. Yet, the PC’s contribution provides students and scholars an additional lens through which to view black education and radical pedagogy during an understudied era. Their commitment to challenging white supremacy, promoting a transnational agenda, and educating Black men and women left a lasting legacy in Black communities in Nashville and across the nation.

  1.  Alkalimat, Abdul. Interview with author. March 19, 2009.
  2. Peoples College, Principles of Unity – Summer, 1972. Los Angeles, CA: Peoples College Press, 1972. (In author’s possession).
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Richard D. Benson II

Richard D. Benson II is an assistant professor in the Education Department at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. Specializing in the History of Education and the Black Freedom Movement, Benson is the author of the award winning book, Fighting for Our Place in the Sun: Malcolm X and the Radicalization of the Black Student Movement 1960-1973 (Peter Lang Publishing, 2015) that examined the linkages and inter-generational continuity of the Black Freedom Movement that grew out of intersects of the social pedagogy and political influences of Malcolm X.

Comments on “Black Power, Education, and the History of the Peoples College

  • Excellent piece!!! Thank you Dr. Benson for this concise analysis of the place of People’s College within the larger current of Black Power/Pan-Africanist radical activity in the early 1970s. Be interested to know how much more those study practices followed students into their other work outside of PC? Thanks

    • Thank you Dr. Wilkins. I really appreciate your perspective. Thanks for the question – I recall Dr. Alkalimat telling me that many of the PC students utlitized the study practices to pass their law and medical exams. Still on the research hunt for more data but looking forward to the journey. Thanks again for reaching out.

  • Great essay, Dr. Benson.

    • Thank you for the feedback Dr. Alridge.

      Greatly appreciated.

  • Fantastic work, thank you! I am most intrigued by the recovery of the PC’s methods, approaches that classrooms sorely need today to work through the mountains of disinformation in our digital era.

    thanks again Dr. Benson

    • Thank you Dr. Baldwin,

      Definitely agree with you on the critical need of utilizing PCs methodological/pedagogical approaches for today’s youth.

      Thanks again, R. Benson

  • Sharing!

  • Thank you Dr. Benson for this insightful article. Peoples College lives on through cyberspace, for further reading go to:

    • Thank you for providing this link to the the PC archives. It’s a true benefit for the Peoples College artifacts to still be accessible to current researchers and students.

      Thanks again

  • Dr. Benson,

    One of the students at Belmont University shared your article with me today. My husband and I were students at Fisk and a part of People’s College. In fact, I taught the Black History class. One correction, we met at the YWCA on Pearl Street – not the YMCA. Middle class Black women bought and ran that segregated branch and also held their formal events there since they were not welcome in Nashville’s hotels. Thank you for your research. We were pioneers and didn’t know it.

  • Solid piece as I was a principal to and witness of the Peoples’ College experience from conception to resurrection. The other main proposition of the college was “Further the analysis, heighten the contrradictions!”

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