Women’s Leadership in the Organization of Afro-American Unity
*This is the sixth post in a new blog series on Women, Gender and Pan-Africanism edited by Keisha N. Blain. Blog posts in this series examine how women and gender have shaped Pan-Africanist movements and discourses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the United States, Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. In this post, Garrett Felber discusses the significance of women in Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).
Last month, amidst Donald Trump’s calls for a reinstatement of unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policing, I wrote about the efforts of grassroots activists in New York to oppose the origins of these practices under New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1964. The Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which had just been formed that summer, deemed police brutality, stop-and-frisk, and the “No Knock” bill “prime issues” and immediately began protesting Rockefeller’s so-called anti-crime package.
While the OAAU was a relatively short-lived organization that struggled after Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965, its significance has often been narrowly narrated through its chairman’s developing political thought after he left the Nation of Islam (NOI) in March 1964. This focus has neglected the formative role of black women in theorizing, developing, and sustaining the organization both before and after his death. In fact, even when scholars have pointed out the inclusion of women in key leadership roles within the OAAU, they have often done so to evidence the evolution of Malcolm’s gender politics beyond the patriarchal constrictions of the Nation. By viewing the OAAU’s significance vis-à-vis Malcolm X’s developing politics, we miss the significant role that black women played in building the organization and carrying it forward after his death.
As the recent special issue of Women, Gender and Families edited by Keisha Blain, Asia Leeds, and Ula Taylor illustrates, black women were central to Pan-Africanist movements in the twentieth century. A reluctance to see women as central thinkers and laborers within Pan-African and black nationalist movements duplicates the masculinist context these women navigated. It often frames their contributions only insofar as they were able to move men towards a more progressive gender politics. Scholars searching for what they might consider a feminist perspective by these women importantly miss the multiple registers of resistance to race, class, and gender oppression that black women voiced. As the editors point out, “while Pan-Africanist women employed a radical politics that sought to eliminate racism, sexism, and class discrimination, they often endorsed conservative views on gender and sexuality.”
Many women in the OAAU, such as Betty Shabazz and Louise Moore, expressed what Ula Taylor has termed “community feminism,” a terrain of “feminist and nationalist paradigms” that allowed for women’s roles as both leaders and helpmates. Women were not only crucial to the intellectual and physical labor of the OAAU, but they actively redefined black womanhood and manhood and debated the role of women in black liberation politics within these contexts.
A week before the unveiling of the organization at the Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm wrote a letter to Sara Mitchell, a young receptionist working at the New Yorker. He encouraged her to attend the upcoming rally as a spectator and then “afterwards write me an objective analysis of your impressions of what we are trying to do, including your suggestions as to how we can do better.”1 Mitchell responded with nearly twenty pages of constructive criticism, became involved in writing the OAAU’s aims and objectives, and established herself along with Lynne Shifflett as one of the group’s two key leaders.
Mitchell’s response to the OAAU’s statement was sweeping: it surveyed the civil rights movement and diagnosed its principal weaknesses, took stock of the positive and negative aspects of the OAAU’s proposed program, and offered concrete suggestions for a comprehensive program of revolutionary black nationalism. Taken as a whole, the document is a remarkable snapshot of a critical period of the black freedom movement prior to the emergence of Black Power. She articulated the disillusionment of a younger generation with the moderation of civil rights leaders and anticipated many key elements of black cultural nationalism that would take hold the following decade by suggesting a program that replaced the term “Negro” with a new word “based on the acceptance of black skin as desirable.”
This word and style—“Aframese”—would be expressed through fabrics, patterns, and haircombs. She sketched OAAU necklaces and pins to be sold at a “Unity Shop” along with books, drawings, and African art. She even condemned the phrase with which Malcolm X is now most associated. “‘By any means necessary’ will not sound feasible, will appear foolhardy and unrealistic to sincere listeners,” she wrote. “It claims too much power to be absorbed by people too brainwashed to have a deep faith in the potentials of black power.” Instead, she suggested “Independence, Justice, and Prosperity.”2
Mitchell was part of a group of women who were instrumental to the daily work of the OAAU during Malcolm X’s extended absence in 1964 as he traveled abroad to rally support for bringing human rights violations against African Americans before the United Nations. According to the FBI, Shifflett was “running the OAAU while Malcolm X is in Africa.”3 Nanny Bowe, who had been a member of On Guard for Freedom with her husband Walter, Harold Cruse, and Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) in the early 1960s, became the cultural programmer for the OAAU alongside its provisional director, jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. A month into the OAAU’s existence, the FBI noted that “six women and one man” worked at its headquarters in the Hotel Theresa.4 Shifflett was the executive secretary, former schoolteacher and NOI member Ethel Minor was secretary, Sara Mitchell was in charge of membership, and Bowe (and later Muriel Gray Feelings) chaired the cultural committee.
The predominance of women in the OAAU, which shared office space with Malcolm’s new religious organization, the Muslim Mosque Inc. (MMI), became a central tension between the groups. As former NOI member James 67X Shabazz explained: “[MMI] had a space. And men tend to be territorial. So we saw this as our space.” Many were former NOI members and brought strict ideas about separate gender spheres: “I came from an organization where a woman had a place, man had a place . . . I had a whole bunch of men around me that were accustomed to taking orders and instructions from men because the women got instructions from women.”5 Although Shabazz put distance between himself and other former NOI members, he may have been amongst the culprits. In early 1965, the FBI reported that Shifflett had left her position as executive secretary after “having been ousted out of that job by James 67X Shabazz.”6
Just days after Maya Angelou returned from Ghana to the United States with plans to move to New York and begin her work with the OAAU, Malcolm X was assassinated. Most histories of the OAAU have stopped with his death. But while the new OAAU under the leadership of his half-sister Ella Collins lacked the international scope of its predecessor and embraced a model of black nationalism more reminiscent of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and NOI, dismissing the organization after his death again neglects women’s role in sustaining its vision. After Collins won a heated battle for leadership with Betty Shabazz by incorporating the organization and effectively sealing her out, she immediately hosted an all-women panel on the “role of the black woman in the coming revolution,” brought guest speakers such as Mae Mallory and Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, and even launched chapters of the OAAU in New Rochelle and Boston under the leadership of Louise Moore and Mary Ann Weathers. Weathers would soon join the militant feminist group Cell 16 and author the foundational article “An Argument for Black Women’s Liberation as a Revolutionary Force.” Moore’s New Rochelle group expanded and eventually included Ella Collins, becoming the Black Youth Internationale.
The OAAU, Inc. should be viewed not as a departure, but a continuation—and even an expansion—of the vision of its forbearer. While it lacked the international pedigree afforded by Malcolm’s presence, its commitment to grassroots organizing and the role of women in black liberation marked a strong continuity that helped bridge the years between Malcolm’s death and the rise of Black Power.
Garrett Felber is a scholar of 20th-century African American history at the University of Michigan in the American Culture Department. His scholarship has been published in the Journal of African American History, South African Music Studies, and SOULS. He has also contributed to The Guardian, The Marshall Project, and Viewpoint Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @garrett_felber.
- Malcolm X to Sara Mitchell, June 22, 1964, Box 3, Folder 3, Malcolm X Collection, Schomburg Center. ↩
- Sara Mitchell, Notes, Box 14, Folder 3, ibid. ↩
- OAAU FBI File, Memo, Chicago, November 10, 1964, 21–22. At first glance, the question of whether or not Shifflett got paid also stands out, but other FBI documents suggest that everyone in the organization except for one receptionist was a volunteer. However, it was assumed that the receptionist would be a woman. ↩
- OAAU FBI File, Memo, Washington, D.C., July 15, 1964, 3. ↩
- James 67X Shabazz interview with Manning Marable, August 1, 2007, Series VII, Box 18, Malcolm X Project Records, Columbia University. ↩
- Lynne Shifflett FBI File, Memo, New York, April 19, 1965, 4. ↩