The Possibilities of Black Power History in Newark

*This post is part of our online roundtable celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the publication of Komozi Woodard’s A Nation Within a Nation

Amiri Baraka at the Newark Public Library in 2008 (Newark Public Library-NJ, Flickr)

Spend enough time in Newark, New Jersey, and the vitality of Amiri Baraka’s legacy there becomes unmistakable. From murals on Clinton Avenue and McCarter Highway, to a banner in the Newark Public Library, to photographs in the Mayor’s office in City Hall, visual tributes to the great poet, playwright, and organizer are abundant. The real power of his legacy, however, is found amongst the generations of Newark residents influenced by Baraka and the Black Power movement, who carry the torch of the city’s Black radical tradition for present and future generations. Throughout the city, artists, activists, elders, educators, politicians, business owners, and faith leaders are carrying on this legacy through what Baraka described as “the real work” of “building, and training and educating and passing on” (110).

Komozi Woodard has long served as one of these torchbearers. A Newark native and comrade of Baraka in the city’s Black Power movement, Woodard has brought the invaluable insights of a scholar-activist to his analysis of Black cultural nationalism and the Modern Black Convention Movement in Newark and the United States in the 1960s and 70s. I first read A Nation Within a Nation several years ago as a graduate student, but it was not until I began working in Newark that I realized the significance of this text. The 20th anniversary of this landmark book presents a valuable opportunity to recognize and analyze Woodard’s contributions as a scholar-activist.

As a study of such a formative period in the Black Freedom Struggle, A Nation Within a Nation provides critical lessons for scholars and activists alike. For example, Woodard’s methodology in analyzing a nationalist movement that “fell short of sovereignty” is instructive for students of not only nationalist movements, but also other social movements which made important gains yet fell short of achieving their ultimate objectives (9). In using “nationality formation” as a metric for this study of Baraka’s organizing, Woodard was clear that the question of primary concern was not whether or not cultural nationalism or the Modern Black Convention Movement “liberated black people.” The bigger concern, he explained in his conclusion, was “whether or not these movements accelerated the processes of nationality formation and black liberation.” By this measure, Woodard concluded that the experiments of the Black Power Movement must be analyzed based on their contributions to advancing a complex and protracted struggle against racial oppression (260-61).

A vital aspect in this exploration of “black nationality formation” is Woodard’s careful attention to the transformative processes of individual political education and the emergence of collective racial consciousness in Newark’s Black communities. By the time Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) returned to Newark in late 1965, these processes were well underway, laying the groundwork for Baraka’s nationalist organizing. Building upon the momentum generated by the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC) in the post-war era, an array of organizations like the Newark Coordinating Council, Newark Community Union Project, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equality had begun to galvanize Newark’s Black community. By the mid-1960s, they had done so through extensive grassroots struggles in housing, education, urban renewal, and policing.

The oral history interviews that Woodard conducted for A Nation Within a Nation were critical for documenting and analyzing this process of “black nationality formation” in Newark during a formative period in the city’s history. For studies of the dynamic relations between grassroots political consciousness and praxis, oral histories are imperative resources for understanding and analyzing the emergence, evolution, and impact of organizations whose participants often fly under the radar of media outlets and other contemporary observers. Interviews with members of Baraka’s various organizations, for example, traced the political consciousness, actions, and evolution of local people and leading organizers who shaped the course of Black Freedom Struggles in the city and the nation.

Additionally, through interviews with veteran organizers like Eulis “Honey” Ward and Russell Bingham (Baba Mshauri), Woodard was able to document the formative influences of Black radical labor organizing in the post-war era upon the Civil Rights Movement in Newark. These interviews contain a trove of remarkable stories that illustrate an underappreciated, yet pivotal era in Black Freedom Struggles in Newark and cities across the country. The interview with Woodard’s uncle, “Honey” Ward, for example, is one of very few resources containing information about Clarence Coggins, a leading organizer in the NNLC and key player in the elections of Newark’s first Black city councilman in 1954 and first Black mayor in 1970. Like many of his contemporaries in the NNLC however, Coggins has gone underappreciated by scholars for his active role in the Black left, which guided the evolution of the Black freedom struggle in Newark and many other cities. Both Woodard and veteran Newark activist Junius Williams have expressed a deep regret for not having interviewed Coggins while they could, demonstrating both the centrality of his place in these histories and the historical imperative of conducting oral history interviews while the opportunity exists.

Furthermore, Woodard’s methodology in conducting and documenting these interviews offers valuable insights for scholars and educators. Woodard involved his students in many of these interviews, which provided training and mentoring for the young scholars and encouraged narrators to elucidate certain experiences for the students’ understanding. Woodard once explained to me that the presence of students during an interview with Russell Bingham prompted the World War II veteran to go into great detail about how the racism he experienced overseas influenced his racial consciousness and political organizing when he returned to Newark. Beyond the benefits to the historical record, such collaborative efforts are critical for empowering younger generations to undertake similar projects in their communities.

In addition to these oral histories, as an activist and scholar in Newark, Woodard amassed an extraordinary collection of documents pertaining to Baraka that were made available to researchers on microfilm shortly after the book’s publication. The Black Power Movement microfilm series has not only provided researchers with access to the expansive files of radical activists like Woodard, Muhammad Ahmad, Ernie Allen, Jr., John Bracey, Jr., General Baker, and Robert F. Williams, but has also laid the groundwork for scholar-activists to expand public access to historic materials through digital humanities projects. Educational websites like One Person, One Vote, Rosa Parks’s Biography, and Rise Up North are some exciting examples of projects following in this tradition that have brought new research on Black Freedom Struggles beyond the academy and into the community.

In Newark, this type of work has recently produced an educational website, public school curricula, community class sessions, public exhibitions, and extensive programming using the histories of Black Freedom Struggles in the city to inspire, educate, and empower new generations of community leaders and organizers. Born of conversations between movement veterans Woodard, Junius Williams, and Bill Strickland, Rise Up North documents and preserves the histories of grassroots struggles for Black liberation in the urban North in order to share their lessons with present and future generations who are continuing the struggle.

As a young scholar and lead researcher of Rise Up North, I have both witnessed and benefitted from Woodard’s mentorship in the community. Woodard has been a regular contributor at many events in Newark, sharing with intergenerational audiences insights and lessons from the struggles for Black self-determination that he documented and analyzed in A Nation Within a Nation twenty years ago. At a program last year on histories of urban renewal and struggles for community control of development, Woodard offered critical lessons on economic and residential development from his experiences with Baraka’s Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN) and Congress of African People (CAP). With ongoing struggles in the city for community control of education, economic development, and urban planning, these lessons from Newark’s Black Power Movement remain as instructive and important today as ever.

With next year marking the 50th anniversary of Ken Gibson’s election as the first Black mayor of a major northeastern city, there is an opportunity for engaging in critical dialogue about Black Power, electoral politics, and urban governance. A Nation Within a Nation is an imperative resource for understanding not only the historic grassroots struggle behind this watershed moment, but also for analyzing the possibilities and limitations of electoral politics as a strategy for achieving Black liberation. The platforms of Newark’s Black political conventions in 1968 and 1969, in this regard, provide invaluable insights into Black radical political thought at the advent of Gibson’s election and offer useful metrics for evaluating his administration’s effectiveness in advancing the Black Freedom Struggle.

These histories are essential for those seeking analyses of structural racism and new directions for Black liberation in Newark and other American cities. As Woodard explained in his conclusion, “The specificity of a liberation theory for Black America should be based on the African American experience in the fight for freedom. Fashioning such a theory and practice is something that each group of people must do for itself” (269). Through his methodology and analysis in A Nation Within a Nation, Komozi Woodard has undoubtedly advanced our progress in developing such a theory and practice.

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Peter Blackmer

Peter Blackmer is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Detroit Equity Action Lab at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University. He studies grassroots movements for civil rights, human rights, and political power in the 20th Century United States, particularly in the urban North. He is currently working on a book project on grassroots struggles for Black equality and empowerment in Harlem during the Civil Rights era from 1954-1964.