Dr. Carlos E. Russell and the Origins of Black Solidarity Day
A young Black woman demonstrator at a rally at the Capitol protests voting rights limitations contained in bills written by Republicans in the state legislature, 2021 (shuttershock.com)
New York City’s first Black Solidarity Day took place on November 3, 1969, a day before election day. Dr. Carlos E. Russell, an Afro-Panamanian activist, artist, and scholar pitched the idea of a Black Solidarity Day to fellow activists in New York City. As part of Black Solidarity Day, Russell and his eventual collaborators called on Black people to boycott an economy and society that caused them physical and psychic harm. Thousands participated in the inaugural Black Solidarity Day, and many more would participate in the ensuing decades. To this day Black Solidarity Day is observed in New York City, yet most do not know that such a day exists. Looking at this day in November, through a focus on its originator, and his skills as a bridge builder, expands not only our understanding of the Black History calendar, but also the rich history of Black freedom dreamers who viewed the end of the Civil Rights era as an urgent moment to articulate new Black liberation agendas.
To fully understand the life-histories that shaped Russell’s activism, beginning in Panama is essential. Russell was born August 6, 1934 in Panamá City, Panama to Anna L. Coordington Russell and Alberto H. Russell. According to the 1940 U.S. Census, for at least part of his childhood, Russell, his mother, grandfather, grandmother, sister, aunt, and a cousin resided in the U.S. controlled Canal Zone, in the town of La Boca. Russell’s maternal grandparents were born in Barbados and Jamaica, forming part of the close to 200,000 migrants from the British and French controlled Caribbean who made their way to Panama by the first decade of the twentieth century. Due to Jim Crow policies in this neocolonial space, La Boca was a mostly all-Black town. It was also one of the most dynamic within the Zone, hence why many chose to remain even given the segregation therein. Russell also thrived in the city of Panamá. Here he was surrounded by a rich Afro-Caribbean history that imbued day-to-day life, language, art, food, and commerce. Jim Crow discrimination did not exist in this space, but unofficial discrimination and social discrimination prevailed.
Russell was the first in his family to pursue a college degree and reside in the United States. He, like so many other people throughout the Caribbean and Central America, had learned about U.S. culture and politics since infancy. There was one feature of the United States that even Russell could not have prepared for. He was in Chicago following the aftermath of the lynching of Emmett Till and the public funeral that followed.1 Hearing about another Black life lost to white violence was unfortunately not unique. Anti-Black violence was a reality in all of the Americas at this time. Yet, the brutality of Emmet Till’s murder and the visibility of his body after death demanded a new kind of witnessing. As argued by literary and visual studies scholar Jacqueline Goldsby , Mamie Bradley’s decision to have a public funeral and to have pictures of her son’s open casket published in the Black press was intentional. She wanted everyone to see the violence that was done to her son; the violence that had become so commonplace for Black children, men, and women throughout the United States. Russell was among those who decades later could point to Emmett Till’s murder and his funeral, as an ultimate moment of consciousness raising.
After his time in Chicago, Russell, like thousands of other Black Panamanians who came before him, made his way to Brooklyn, New York . It was in Brooklyn that Russell flourished as an activist, a public intellectual, and an outspoken defender of Black life. Brooklyn in the early 1960s was not unlike La Boca, Panamá City, and Chicago. Here too Black people were claiming a space for their own, doing so amidst official and unofficial discrimination. Brooklyn, like La Boca and Panamá City also had Black people not only born and raised in these spaces, but tens of thousands who migrated from or had roots in the Caribbean and Central America. All had unique and at times connected visions of what this space could become. Russell, for his part, connected his interests in the arts and in Black-centered community activism by forming part of the Brooklyn branch of the Harlem Writers Guild and writing for the Black-owned and Brooklyn-based Independent newspaper. He also worked for and held leadership positions in anti-poverty programs like the Bedford Stuyvesant Youth in Action Program and the Fort Greene Community Progress Center.
As Russell explained during New York City’s first Black Solidarity Day, he and his collaborators intended to “make November 3, a Black Monday, a demonstration of Black solidarity, a general protest against the intensifying repression that threatens the very existence of Black people in America.” He also denounced how the trope of “law and order” was routinely invoked to justify this repression. As inspirations for the Day, Russell pointed to the work of Mahatma Gandhi, particularly his practice of Hartal, whereby in opposition to British rule thousands stayed home from factories and public spaces, as well as Day of Absence , a satirical play by Douglas Turner Ward premised on Black people boycotting a fictional southern U.S. town.2
Russell’s collaborators for Black Solidarity Day included emergent and notable leaders within the New York City Black activist scene. Among them were Jamaican-born Lincoln Lynch , a veteran of the British Royal Air Force, leader of the Long Island Chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and creator of the Alliance of Minority Group Leaders; Lilian Davis Roberts , a labor union organizer and director of hospital field operations for District Council 37-American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), where she earned the wrath of the anti-union administration of Governor Nelson Rockefeller; Lloyd Johnson , a social worker and the associate director of Columbia University’s Urban Center; and Rev. Eugene Callender a Harlem-based Presbyterian minister who in addition to his ministerial work, created “street academies” for poor and at-risk young people and served as deputy administrator of the New York City Housing and Development Administration.3
Russell and the Black Solidarity Day Committee called on unions, everyday citizens, politicians, and artists to join in the work of demanding a more just city and nation for Black people. They lambasted welfare cuts that disproportionately affected Black families, the continued discrimination faced by Black people seeking union jobs, and the senseless death of too many young Black men deployed to Vietnam. Thousands participated in this first ever Black Solidarity Day by boycotting work or school, refusing to shop in stores, wearing red, black or green armbands, and attending planned Black Solidarity Day activities. Black students, teachers, and professors emerged as the Day’s most adamant supporters.4
Speaking on the two year anniversary of Black Solidarity Day, Russell reflected on the goals of this day of action: “A city closed by Black folks would be an indication of the determination of Black people to use any means necessary to acquire liberation.”5 What Black liberation signifies in the context of the late 1960s and up to our present moment engenders a number of answers. Ending state violence against Black people, upholding the rights of the most vulnerable within Black communities, the fight for a living wage, prison abolitionism, creating alternatives to capitalism, promoting intersectional activism, and addressing the violence faced by Black migrants seeking asylum are but some of the possibilities encompassed within Black liberation.
At a moment when Black Lives Matter has become a slogan used by activists and commercial interests alike, thinking about the complexities of Black liberation is perhaps more salient than ever. Understanding what activists bring to the table is equally pressing. Carlos Russell’s commitment to activism was not a given. He could have joined fellow migrants who, inculcated by white supremacist practices in their places of birth and in the United States, sought to distance themselves from African Americans. Instead he forged connections with a diverse group of Black people who called New York City home. This bridge building was vital to the possibility and continuation of a Black Solidarity Day.
- Gloria Gordon, “Dr. Carlos Russell: Keeping the Flame Alive,” Everybody’s, March 2002. ↩
- Daphne Sheppard, “Black Solidarity Day,” New York Amsterdam News, October 11, 1969; Carlos E. Russell, “Why Black Solidarity Day?,” New York Amsterdam News, October 16, 1971; Russell, “Black Solidarity Day: Ten Years Later,” New York Amsterdam News, October 20, 1979. ↩
- Gordon, “Dr. Carlos Russell.” ↩
- Shephard, “Black Solidarity Day;” Daphne Sheppard, “Seek Black Unionist Support,” New York Amsterdam News, October 25, 1969; “‘Black Solidarity Day’: A Day of Absence?,” New York Amsterdam News, November 1, 1969. ↩
- Russell, “Why Black Solidarity Day?” ↩