Radicalism in the Civil Rights Movement and Black Liberation Struggles
Veteran activist, educator, radio host and jazz critic, Mr. Tom Porter, talks about his life, work, friendship with Amiri Baraka and the often overlooked depth of radical ideas within the civil and human rights struggles in the U.S.
JARED BALL, HOST, I MIX WHAT I LIKE: What’s up, world? And welcome to today’s I Mix What I Like, on The Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball.
Mr. Tom Porter joins me for this special multi-segment discussion of radical traditions and political struggles. Mr. Porter among many things, is a former member of CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). He was a longtime friend of Coretta Scott King and at one point was the head of the King Center in Atlanta. Porter has been an adviser to Jesse Jackson, has been a longtime radio host, jazz critic, and author. And as we will discuss a bit later, he was also a longstanding close friend of Amiri Baraka.
Porter is among our leading elect intellectuals, philosophers, and has been the head of the Antioch College Graduate School, served in the U.S. Navy, and once showed Stokely Carmichael (or Kwame Touré) what a real gun was. He is my /ˈjɛgnə/ and godfather and a man of many quotes, among them two of my favorite: I don’t mind when my ideas are stolen–I am a thinking man; I will have others: and I am never surprised when I’m asked to leave; only by how long I’m allowed to stay.
Mr. Porter, welcome to I Mix What I like and The Real News Network.
TOM PORTER, ACTIVIST AND RADIO HOST: Good morning, Jared.
BALL: So, first of all, it’s a pleasure to have you on. I always appreciate you. You’re one of my favorite people to talk to, and someone with whatever platform I have access to I would want to include. But for those who don’t know, tell us a little bit about who Tom Porter is.
PORTER: Well, that’s an interesting question.
PORTER: I’m still trying to find it out myself.
Just very briefly, I was born in 1939 in Montgomery, Alabama, on Columbia Avenue. I was born at home, which was probably a blessing, ’cause in those days a boy child born to the hospital might not have fared too well.
So my folks left Montgomery shortly after my birth, probably about a year, and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where I grew up. And I just had–I mean, I’m 75 years old now, and it’s been a ball. I mean, I’ve had a lot of fun, a lot of ups and downs. As a very young person, I had very interesting jobs which ended up getting me into music. I sold ice cream at the Regal Theater, where they had stage shows, and I saw people like [/ˌstɛpənˈfɛtʃ/ and the /spɛns/ (?)] twins, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Jordan while selling ice cream at the age of eight.
Then I sold the night newspaper. The only place you could sell the night newspaper was in bars. So I’d walk through all the bars. They had music in them. And I’d stand and listen to the music till they kicked me out, and I’d go to the next one and hawk my papers.
So it’s difficult for me to talk about myself, but it’s been a very rich experience. I was blessed to have great parents. At both of my parents’ funerals, I said they were not perfect people, but they were perfect parents. I couldn’t have asked my father, who couldn’t read and write, but was much smarter than I ever was. And people say, you mean he had good common sense /səˈmʌðɚwʊd/ I said, no, my father was a deeper thinker than I ever could be. And he taught me so many lessons, I mean, just a lot of my mother. My mother was a woman of a lot of sayings. She’d say, use your head for something other than a hat rack. If you see a sucker, bump his head.
So I grew up in that kind of environment. I grew up into the inner city of Cincinnati, Ohio–housing project. Had an opportunity to go to the number-two school in the entire country at that time, a school called Walnut Hills. Stokely Carmichael went to the number-one school at that time, Bronx Science, in New York.
And I learned firsthand about racism at that school. Even though it was a grade school, if you were a kid from my neighborhood, each year they would counsel you and ask you if you wouldn’t be better off at the school in your neighborhood.
So I stuck at that school because my mother wanted me to graduate from that school. But that’s my high school.
I joined the Navy at 17, and that was a really great experience. It was in the ’50s. I was stationed in the South. And in those days, the South was pretty rough. And I created projects for myself. I would read. I decided I would read every book that had ever been banned. Then I read all the books about all of the great women–Madame Bovary, Tess of the d’Ubervilles, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. And then I decided I was going to read the Bible. I never get out of Genesis. So that’s how I spent my time in the Navy.
I got out, went to college. And it was–when I got out of the Navy, then I got involved with the Congress of Racial Equality, which was–many people don’t notice it was the oldest of the civil rights movements other than the NAACP.
BALL: But what even inspired that decision? I mean, you said your father was a deep-thinking man. Your mother clearly was as well. What encouraged you to become not only the deep thinker that you are today, but to have even started, at that stage, joining any–the political organization or the movement?
PORTER: Well, my parents were radical in their own ways. They were both union members. And as I said, my father, the Porters, they’re are rough bunch. They’re Alabama men. And I always say to people that I’m the sissy in the Porter family. I’m the one that went to college.
But I can remember growing up and they were building an atomic energy plant in Dayton, in a place called /fɚˈnæld/, Ohio. And the white workers were saying that they didn’t want black workers on the job. And I can remember. And my father and his cousins all worked on this job. And my father was the last one that they picked up going to work. I remember my father going out of the house with his shotgun.
So I grew up in that kind of environment where my parents didn’t take any stuff. And we were taught not to take any stuff. And so it was just part of my growing up is that you stand your ground, you stand up for what you believe in.
And so it was easy coming out of the military in 1960. And a lot of things were going on across this country. And I just decided that there was this organization called CORE, and I went in and joined.
BALL: So how long did that last? And then tell us a little bit about that shift from CORE into SNCC.
PORTER: Well, I was in CORE until 1964. And the CORE convention was in Kansas City. And Roy Innis and a group of people out in New York essentially pulled a coup in CORE, and they expelled all of the radicals–Julius Hobson’s from here in D.C. These were all men and women who were leaning towards socialism, more radical thinkers, and expelled all of them. And I can remember coming back in the car from Kansas City and your father was in the car. We argued about what to do.
And so a lot of CORE chapters hooked up with SNCC. And most of the CORE chapters were in the North. And we became affiliates with SNCC. That happened in 1964. And that was the time of the ascendancy of Stokely Carmichael and that group of people in SNCC.
BALL: Now, I said in the intro that you told that story about the guns. And Stokely is well known for his position on supporting armed struggle. But recount that story, if you would.
PORTER: Well, we drove down to Mississippi to a SNCC meeting at Tougaloo College, and we were known to be well armed in Cincinnati. So we had, you know, 30 caliber carbines, pistols. And we set up in the dorm where we were like we were in the mountains with Fidel or somebody. We had rifles up against the wall and pistols hung on the bed. And Stokely Carmichael drove over from Atlanta, Georgia, and he had these overalls on, and he kept reaching and pulling out this gun. And it was a .22. I was, like, looking at him. So when he came to Cincinnati, I gave him a .38 and said, you need a real gun.
BALL: How did you all deal with those questions of armed struggle? You’ve already mentioned this expulsion from the movement of those who tended toward socialism. Where for you did these ideas develop, and the ideas that they were even legitimate even to consider, whether it’s carrying guns or armed struggle in the political sense or radical ideas like socialism, communism, etc.? How did that even become–?
PORTER: Well, when you’re involved in struggle, you discuss things. And we read a lot when we were in struggle. We read books like The Revolution Within the Revolution, The Wretched of the Earth. We read a lot of them. Of course, we listened to Malcolm X’s records.
And when you’re involved in struggle, you don’t start off thinking about armed struggle. We were involved in the movement and we said we would turn the other cheek. And it became clear at a certain point after the deaths of people–and I think for my generation the death of Emmett Till, if you ask people of my generation where were they when they saw the picture of Emmett Till, it was probably on a playground and somebody bought a copy of the Jet magazine, that had this 12-, 13-year-old kid, and he looked like he was 100 years old. And we were never the same after that, never the same once we saw that.
But as you’re involved in struggle, it became very, very clear that regardless of how much we turn the other cheek, that the people we were fighting against were not going to change. So we basically decided at a certain point–and it’s almost like Ferguson. There are these moments in history. The police in Ferguson hadn’t been doing anything that they hadn’t been doing before, and the police across this country. And almost every rebellion started as a result of a police incident where people thought that the police and gone too far. Now, it’s not anything that they hadn’t been doing before. And I call those oh hell no moments, when the community collectively says, oh hell no, that’s too much.
And so that began to build up as we were involved in struggle. And there were all kinds of currents coming into the movement. There was RAM (the Revolutionary Action Movement), the Panthers were coming into being.
BALL: Republic of New Afrika.
PORTER: Republic of New Afrika, the Deacons for Defense, Black Panther Party of Alabama. And some people always carried guns. I mean, the right to defend yourself–even Dr. King had a gun at one point.
BALL: Du Bois said he sat out during this portion of the Atlanta riots and said, I’m going to shoot the first white man that comes on my lawn.
PORTER: So it just became very, very clear. And we don’t know when you decide it, but we decided. And, of course, a lot of the men in particular who were involved in struggle in Cincinnati, we had all been in the military.
PORTER: And so we knew a little bit about handling things. And it became clear that we would have to defend ourselves. But defend ourselves against what? If you started an afterschool program, anything that you did to make the community better, the police would come. I mean, for instance, we started organizing the young brothers in Cincinnati who used to fight all the time. And there was one particular parking lot where they would gather at this restaurant on the weekend. So we went down there and we were talking to him and what have you, and somebody said, Tommy, look up. And I looked up, and the police were on top of this building with all kind of hardware trained on us. Now, we’re trying to stop kids from fighting, and the police are not happy about that.
So it became very, very clear that we were going to have to defend ourselves whatever we did. But it wasn’t one day we said, hey, you know, we’re going to start fighting back. I mean, this is after listening to Malcolm, the Michael Schwerner and Goodman killed, Sammy Younge in–I think it was Tuskegee, you know, after a lot of these things. And you decide, hey, if you hit me again–we’d never liked being hit, we never liked turning the other cheek, but we understood it as a strategy and a tactic. But as a way of life, that was never acceptable.
BALL: Well, it’s deep also that you say that what happened when you all were trying to break up a fight with the police, because that’s of course what precipitated Eric Garner’s killing, breaking up a fight. He ends up in a choke hold and killed over supposedly selling loose cigarettes.
But, look, we have a lot more to get to. So we’re going to stop here and come back and have you talk more about some of these other experiences you’ve had, and particularly some of your interactions with these radical traditions, theories, and ideas, and how you’ve looked to promote and extend them in your own work, starting around our conversation that we’ll start with in just a moment around your friendship with the Amiri Baraka and how he relates to all these ideas and activities as well.
So, Mr. Porter, thank you for joining us on this segment of I Mix What I Like and The Real News.
PORTER: Thank you for having me.
BALL: And thank you for watching. Be sure to catch our followup to this segment in another installment of I Mix What I Like in The Real News. I’m Jared Ball.
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