This month I interviewed the scholar-activist Abdul Alkalimat (born Gerald McWorter) about his new website and his life of scholarship and struggle. Dr. Alkalimat has been fighting for Black liberation for six decades. A pioneer in the struggle for Black studies, he played a key role in the civil rights, Black Power and Pan Africanist movements. He served as chair of the Chicago chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was a founder of the Organization of Black American Culture, the Institute of the Black World, the Peoples College, the African Liberation Support Committee, the Illinois Council for Black Studies, and the Black Radical Congress. He was deeply involved in the anti-apartheid movement and the Chicago mayoral campaign of Harold Washington in the 1980s. In 1990, he convened, in New York City, “Malcolm X: Radical Tradition and a Legacy of Struggle,” the largest international conference on Malcolm X to date.
Alkalimat has taught at institutions throughout the United States and in the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and China. A native of Chicago, he holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago. He is the author of many books, including the important study, Introduction to Afro-American Studies (1986). Alkalimat has curated several websites related to African-American history, including brothermalcolm.net. Now 75 and a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Alkalimat has launched his latest digital project: a collection of writing, documents, and images chronicling his academic life and involvement with freedom movements from the 1960s to the present. The site, alkalimat.org, reflects Alkalimat’s longstanding commitment to the production and circulation of knowledge in the service of liberation.
Russell Rickford: How did you become an activist?
Abdul Alkalimat: My story is about family and generation. On my father’s side my great-great-grandfather, known as “Free Frank” McWorter, purchased sixteen family members out of slavery in Kentucky and turned his Illinois farm into a station on the Underground Railroad in the 1830s. His grandsons fought in the Civil War, having grown up in the town established by Free Frank “New Philadelphia,” twenty miles from the slave state of Missouri where they owned land and had guns. My father’s sister worked with Margaret Burroughs to create the DuSable Museum in Chicago and was one of the first Black women in Chicago to train Black women workers in labor law. On my mother’s side my grandfather was a railroad worker who joined the Communist Party in the 1920s, and his daughter-in-law, Eleanor Rye, joined with W. Z. Foster in organizing steel workers and then became a full-time organizer with the National Negro Congress. Eleanor fed me stories and music from the struggle, especially about her friends W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson.
Emmett Till was born in 1941, and I was born in 1942, both in Chicago. His death in 1955 marked me with a life-long desire to fight for the liberation of Black people. I internalized what Mike Dawson calls “linked-fate.” My sister joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), in a support group in Chicago and I followed her in, later becoming chairperson of the Chicago Area Friends of SNCC, supporting the southern struggle but waging our own struggles in Chicago as well. As a working-class youth from Chicago, I had not learned to take low to anybody, hence fighting back against racism in all its forms was for me a normal reaction.
Rickford: How, when, and why did you start chronicling the Black freedom struggle?
Alkalimat: It has been a life-long journey. I entered graduate school in Sociology at the University of Chicago in 1963 and discovered a silence on Black people in the research literature, at least the kind of literature that I was looking for. My first project was to do a comprehensive review of the literature on what I called at the time the “political sociology of the Negro,” and then I turned to the school boycotts of 1963 and `64. The main crisis then and now is that generalizations in the literature far exceed the available appropriate empirical evidence. My framework is to turn the classroom from a site of intellectual consumption to one of intellectual production. My students have labored to create digital projects. They learn the same as with other assignments, but they contribute to creating something meaningful for the community and the movement.
Rickford: What inspired your new website, alkalimat.org, and what purposes do you hope it will serve?
Alkalimat: I became a born again revolutionary in the context of the information revolution, and initiated the project called “eBlack.” The website is a project report on this project, what I have created as digital resources for Black studies scholarship and the Black liberation movement. I usually work on others websites such as Malcolm X, Harold Washington, St. Clair Drake, and Saladin Muhammad, but this website is turning the digital tools on myself. My goals are to promote a BRAIN, a Black Research Archive on the Internet.
Rickford: What challenges did you face as an activist in the academy?
Alkalimat: Racism and class prejudice jumped in my face just being a graduate student. I was the only Black graduate student at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. All the other grad students had faculty to keep them inside the games being played—the Catholics had Andrew Greely, the Jews had Seymour Warkov, and the Reed College graduates had Robert Hodge, and I had to stay late and rummage through the waste paper to read the old correspondence and memos to stay in the know. However the Black staff duplicating documents and proposals kept a stash for me.
Becoming an activist then added additional stress because then even some of the Black secretarial staff started putting pressure [on me] because they had hopes for me being a high achiever up into the system, the very system that I was challenging. Even John Hope Franklin was opposed to my dropping out of graduate school to go to Mississippi to work for SNCC during Freedom Summer, something he declined to do [was] to go to the University of Maryland to be the first Black professor to teach white students there about slavery and the reconstruction. I was however encouraged by liberal scholars who were interested in the Civil Rights movement.
Rickford: What is the role of the Black intellectual?
Alkalimat: This is a critical question. I coined the phrase for the Black studies mission statement in 1977, “Academic Excellence and Social Responsibility.” In other words Black studies is the combination of theory and practice to serve the intellectual, moral, and social needs of the Black community. I have worked for fifty years in Black studies. We need a renaissance in the field to reconnect the campus with the community and the Black liberation movement. Do we have a history of the Black community where each of our colleges are located? Do we have biographies of key local leadership? Do we have documentary historical surveys of the key institutions and organizations in each of our communities? Have we studied and documented the local movements for social justice? It is time to flip the script and get our research agenda from the Black community and not merely our general professional colleagues. Let us practice the highest utility of academic excellence and social responsibility.
Rickford: What was most rewarding and challenging about participating in the Black Power and Black studies movements?
Alkalimat: The greatest challenge was being part of the vanguard founders of the field. We had to invent what we were doing. We had to criticize the mainstream and rediscover Black intellectual history. I left the University of Chicago and went to work at key institutions of Black intellectual history, Fisk University and the Atlanta University Center. Vincent Harding and I designed the Institute of the Black World. This helped me dive into the founders, the first two generations of Black PhDs and the legacy of their research. Many of them were still there working so I had close mentorships, for example Aaron Douglas at Fisk and Horace Mann Bond at Atlanta University.
Every day was a major blessing, to teach students who reflected my life’s work, the study and improvement of life’s conditions for Black people. Even when I fell short in what I was trying to do, I learned lessons. And on that basis, I could improve. I had the chance to impose the standards of Black intellectual history and the Black liberation movement on my life and avoid being pulled into submission by mainstream colleagues unaware of their racist bias. What I did was to bring what I could use from my formal degrees into my activism and scholarship, I wanted to best the mainstream on our terms. Still working on it.
Perhaps the main challenge is to maintain the focus that our Black particularity is a gateway to the universality that covers the human condition. Given this we can embrace all the different flavors of the human experience. Black power in Black studies is the affirmation of humanity from the particular perspective of Black people!
Rickford: What were the challenges of maintaining a cogent vision of Black liberation in the “post-civil rights era,” especially during the conservative Reagan years and beyond?
Alkalimat: My answer might seem abstract, but I feel that it has been a matter of philosophy, of worldview. Dialectical and historical materialism has kept me on the path from Kennedy to Trump, in other words the scientific method. The most profound rediscovery of revolution came with the information revolution. We often use that term to reflect a change in class relations, but we are now in a fundamental shift of the productive forces like the changes of the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
Now Black people face a fundamental change that is impacting more and more people—the end of work! So-called “smart technology” is transforming the workplace and not recreating a comparable demand for labor, especially low-skilled labor. The very essence of capitalism, the exploitation of labor, is being undermined by the very policies of greed that emphasize such use of this technology without comparable policies for improving the quality of life for the majority of people.
Rickford: What have you found most promising and disappointing about recent social movements?
Alkalimat: The main thing is that people are now rising up in a great rebirth of mass action. This is promising, a new stage of spontaneous fight back. I tend to think in stages, so I have co-authored a booklet we call “Three Waves of Struggle: Notes Toward A Theory of Black Liberation and Social Revolution.” As long as the motion keeps going forward there is nothing to be disappointed about, rather there are lessons to be learned in preparation for the future.
There are three dangerous trends that concern me a lot. One is the tendency to delink today’s movement from those in the past. Another is the dependence on the funding and intellectual guidance of the NGO-foundation “experts.” And third, turning youth into fetish, as if inexperience and passionate energy are the basis for leadership. But we were like that in the 1960s as well so I don’t expect these issues will be stronger than the movement to persevere and develop. As a veteran, I continue to learn and change from the movements.