Nelson Peery discusses Black Radical: The Education of An American Revolutionary.
"Why am I who never harmed anyone, mistreated, segregated, assigned an unequal place in a country that promises equality?" Nelson Peery asks this question upon returning home to Minneapolis from fighting in the all-black 93rd Infantry Division in World War II in BLACK RADICAL, the sequel to his acclaimed autobiography Black Fire.
"As I learned the truth," Peery realizes in the face of rising tides of racist violence, "I became a communist, for I could do nothing else." Newly politicized Peery's journey leads him from the works of W.E.B. DuBois and Marx to the streets of Detroit, Cleveland, Harlem and Los Angeles, where he encounters some of the most luminous figures of 20th century cultural history: Paul Robeson, Alexander Trachtenberg, Leadbelly, Malcolm X.
More than a chronicle of personal events, BLACK RADICAL is a rich capsule of turbulent moments in postwar America, and an urgent reminder of all that informs the struggles of today, and an inspiration to younger generations of activists and radicals- Cody's Books
Nelson Peery is an American political activist and author. Peery spent over 60 years in the revolutionary movement, and has been active in the Communist Party USA (CP-USA), the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Marxist-Leninist Party (POC), the Communist League (CL), the Communist Labor Party (CLP), and the League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA).
He is the author of Black Radical: The Education of An American Revolutionary.
Please welcome Nelson Peery.Well, thank you so much and thank all of you for coming out, of course coming from Chicago. It's areal pleasure to come this place like Berkeley, so I am very, very happy to be here and I have a chanceto have discussion with you about these critical years between 1945 and 1965 and 1966, this periodwhen America was reshaped by these black social revolution, that was in proportion and conjunctionwith the women's liberation movement, the struggled organized the farm workers have been you nameit with the time of social turmoil, social upheaval. And we want to do more than just chronicalize whathappened. But to look and see why it happened and at the end of the discussion at the end of the myremark I want to spent a few moments on what we can expect in the immediate future. And of coursewhen we come to book signing, I mean I think which is the back of everybody's mind is why do I writethat book? You know I was talked on the phone to one of my friend who would just pick up the book,and I saw I feel something like the like the guy who wrote the song Boll Weevil back years ago, andthe end verse of it is who did the hell wrote that song, tell them Nelson Perry done been here and goneand at sometimes you feel that way as a writer you know, you are almost afraid to come out and sayyeah, that's - that's the book that I wrote. But anyway, they want to know why the book was written,and to just sum it up I think that the reason I wrote the book, and no book is really ends up beingwritten for the reason that it was started, but the I think what was really behind it was that in thebeginning was to show the origins the real origins of the of the freedom movement that broke out in 1945.And you know one of the terrible things about human history is that the victors write history, and theycan write anyway they want to write it, and you don't have the access you know to the press, to thetelevision, to all the means of communication, or you could say no that's not what happened, here iswhat really happened? And so you are squelched right by this concentration of authority that comes withwith the social victories. So we want to look for a moment at the origins of the freedom movement.And secondly the thing, I want to deal with was that at the year 1945 to the early part of 1946, onemillion black veterans were discharged from the army and came back into civilian life, and they hadbeen changed tremendously by their military experience, I was in the infantry myself. But a goodportion of them were in service battalions or or labor battalions so forth like that no matter whatpart of the army or navy that time the marine corps excluded blacks veterans so we didn't have any blacks in themarines at all but anyway no matter what the branch of service you were in that there is the major thingthat happened I believed was the black soldiers, was that they learn something that they lacked forever,and that is the sense of organization.I mean every minute that you were weak in the army there was a purpose to it, you had every day thenyou had a mission that you have to perform. Everyday there was a organization of food, shelter,medicine, you name it in order to carry out that mission, and above all there was a sense that what wasthe important was the war and the mission of the war not the general because we would characterizethe African-American movement for ever, is that it was always organized their own individual leaders,and the movement to that individual leader stepped out like he or she was eliminated and no lost in thedust bin of history and somebody else took that place lead that movement where ever they wanted. Butwhen the black soldiers came back in 1945 1946, they came back with the sense of purpose, or thesense of mission, we are not going to live like this.Very, very exciting thing to take a second class citizen and make them into a first class soldier, becausethere is some thing about being a soldier you know the something the bodies wearing, something thebodies wearing there is something about being a first class soldier that's attractive. Especially who hadknew he had been a second class citizen. But at the end of the war the dichotomy was "how do you takethis the first class soldier and drive him back to being a second class citizen"? And that was the crux ofthe beginning of that freedom movement. We weren't going back to the farms, we weren't going back to thekitchen, we weren't going back to these dark places that nobody else wanted to work at. We were adifferent generation of people and that that story has never been told. If you want to if you askevery young person if they what was the arguments of the freedom movement or the modern freedommovement being gone on forever but I mean if the modern freedom movement they will tell you it waswith the development of Martin Luther King not at all, not at all. It was at the end of the war, whensuddenly these forces collided. On the one hand, I am not going back to that cotton patch. Andon the other hand we are not going to allow you to enter into American society on the level of an equal.And what was the result of it?From June of 1945, to September of 1946 45 black veterans were lynched in this country for fightingfor the very things that had fought for four and half years in world war two. And that gives yousome idea of the intensity of that struggle. And I might say that that 45 was what they counted. Theydidn't count the one that simply disappeared, right, I mean automotive automobile wheel tied tothem thrown in the river and they will lost forever. Those people won't even count them. I think theother thing I as a book evolved, I think one of the other thing that I wanted to show was theindispensible role of the black left in that freedom movement that you will never hear of it. You willnever hear the what the role of that black left was if I could just give you a one in one statistic,one example what I am talking about, in 1946 there were 15,000 black members of the communistparty. And they were the core of that entire freedom movement and they were utterly indispensible,because they were the ones who understood organization. And that if what you back in 1945 when yousaid communist, you said organizer you know, you didn't supposedly say you didn't supposedly takein terms of creating a new society, you did think in terms of efficient organizational activity and that'swhat they - what the black veterans, the black communist at that period of time brought back toAmerica. And lastly, as I got into the writing the book, it became clear to me that I also had to saysome thing about myself. I had to give some chronicle of my own development from coming out ofthat army as a black militant to to becoming a serious oriented revolutionary.Now, I want to deal with these three aspects fine, rather lightly because I hope that the majority of thetime that you're here will be taken up with discussion between us lets and to this you know, that the -you know, questions and answers and discussion not just questions on your part but also discussions.But I I don't think it's possible to understand what happened if we don't understand the conditionswithin which it happened. So I want to say just a few words about America in 1945-1946. Andprevious to that as opposed to what it was today. You know, from the demographic level, you know,one of the tremendous weaknesses of the African-American movement is that we were scattered. Imean if you go down let's see that it was the state that held the majority of African Americans wasMississippi, but did they all live in one place. No, they were scattered in little hamlets hither, hither, and the Ku Klux Klancould come under one hamlet, burn the place down, kill several people and the other hamlets wouldn'teven hear about it for two days. As you know, it was the scattered nature of the of the African-American movement that made it very, very weak and very, very vulnerable. Of course that wasn't trueof Chicago or Southside or Harlem or so forth and so forth. But even there it was this certain amount ofscattered demographic right.We saw at under the war and even right before the war, this tremendous mass migration from thesescattered communities in the south into the towns of the south from the towns of the south in the majorcities of the north. And it was a concentration that especially took place during the war, concentrationof a huge number of African-American workers that came in that sense of unity that sense of strengthyou know, that I can remember when I was a little kid and my grandmother hiding me and my brotherunder the bed because the Klan was holding a parade they came right to straight to the middle of the blackcommunity. They didn't they didn't do anything to anybody but it was possible right, so mygrandmother put me upon in the bed to hide. What can we imagine a Klan march to the to the southside of Chicago, that's the original black hole right I mean you may go in but you will not come up,that it was this this new concentration of of people that also added to it, this was part of the partof the objective aspects of the development of the freedom movement. Secondly I think after dealideologically that as little as people talk about it and certainly the African-Americans don't talk aboutit. There was a huge number of African-Americans who by their life experience accepted the idea thatwe aren't equal to whites.I remember in army when when somebody said well we are not equal to them I get madder than hellknow, what do you mean by we are not equal to then so I look at then, they live longer then we do, theydon't do the kind of work that we have to do. They eat better than we do, they dress better than we do,they live longer than we do, they are better than us. And it took a long time and a serious situationsuch as world war two to convince all of the African-American people that they were to equal toanybody on the face of the earth. There is nothing like shooting somebody to make you understand thatyou are they are equal. I mean its its not I don't like to talk like that, but when you are facing withsuperman you know, super man is coming at you and you see that M1 rifle up to your shoulders itsqueeze off one and see him drop and you say now no it didn't get up so I must be at least as good as not better.And this psychology change or the African-American people to a great extent, these million veteransat least no longer held the fear of the white man. The white man is going to get you, they are going totell the white man on you you better be careful that was all over and and these factors were ofextremely important. Thirdly and most important the I have been connected to all of this was thetremendous economic changes that were taking place in America that you know one of the rules ofpolitical economy or social development or whatever you want to call it, is that no slave can be free,until they replaced by something more if efficient, and no matter what the Africans-Americans did,they were tied to the land as cotton pickers so long as they were the only means of production thatcould maintain that grade of super profit in this area, and so that the necessary prelude to a to asuccessful liberation movement was that they have to get off of that farm, they had to be thrown out ofthere. Because you can't make a choice if your daily bread depends upon you getting up on 5 o'clockin the morning and gone to that cotton field that that's the way your children lived, you couldnot make a choice. You can only make the choice when you are thrown out in the street as I got to dosomething. Then you have a choice to do something so so liberation isn't something that comes fromyour your own activity you know, liberation is based in the changes in the economy that allows youto make choices that you could not make before.And so with the African American people as they were thrown out of their shacks you know, on to thestreets and began this you know, this part of this migration you know, to Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland,Pittsburg where ever you want to talk about that there they have the choice you know that I don't haveto do what I did before I can therefore make a choice of be something else other than what I wasvery, very, very important aspect that that the other part of it I want to just mention is that after everywar whether it be the civil war or world war one especially world war two of course, that at the end ofthe war there was a tremendous clash between the reactionaries who were driving the African-Americans back and the soldiers the ex-soldiers who were wanted to find it out. You know, if wethese are from the African-American side the history of say 1919 that they call the summer of 1919the red summer, I mean there was so much blood was spilt that but there was no way for the African-American to win because there was no economic alternative for them, rather than they go back to thecotton patch and back to that servile life that that they are getting forced upon there from you know,from years from years gone by. And and in 1946 we did have that that possibility ofmaking a different choice, because the ecnomy had undergone these these kind of changes that, ofcourse the change I am referring to is the mechanization of southern agriculture or it was no longerprofitable to to utilize human labor, that the cotton picking machine, pick cotton 35 times the rate of aof a human being and let them know the new combines and plows so far that they are developed. So-- so instead of the African-Americans being tied to the land or they could not make a choice they weredriven off the land where they had to make a choice as the therefore we see the psychology of thewhole process you know, under going changes.I think the most important thing and I referred to it a minute ago by I want to emphasize that. The mostimportant thing that came out of that war that laid the basis for this new freedom movement was thissense of organization. I can't begin to tell you how stultifying it was back in your pre-war years thatif something happened to you, you could only go to the preacher, and the preacher might know acouncilman to talk to or something, but what ever it was whether you didn't have any force,any social force in order to confront these people and do something about it and and so, therefore youdidn't have a sense of organization. Because you couldn't organize, what could you organize with? Butthe end of that war with the all these other factors that we spoke about this incoming mass of people,the change in psychology, the determination, we are not going to take this anymore. If I can just giveyou little examples not in the book I lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota. One of the most liberal towns in the city and the UnitedStates. That are the most damn segregated city there was you can imagine I mean there wasn't a singlerestaurant that you could take your girl friend to. If you wanted to have a dating taking your girl friend fora dinner you have to go up to the airport or you want federal property and you could there get beserver, there wasn't not one single bar in the city of the city of Minneapolis we can go get a drink.And they and they would not give the the licenses to a we had a couple of black beer parlors butthey could not get a liquor license. So therefore kid gang and the rest of the green gang you know, theymade their money selling bootleg booze to the black community. I mean this was the the kind of asituation you know, that that we that we found ourselves in, that that all of this begin to changeat the end of the war, simply because the veterans got back like in Minneapolis like tell you the story atthe beginning of the of the social change, the freedom movement in Minneapolis.We had two black doctors in Minneapolis one is from the in the South side, one in North side. Theythe guy who lived in North side, Dr. Right very nice guy, very socially conscious guy and had a sonWilbur who was a hot headed guy for you know, I don't tell you can be a doctor and know all aboutraising children properly all this wristlet you still might get a kid who is you know, who's tendency isto get in the back alley and throw dice and fist fight and all the rest you know, it just happens. Well,Wilbur was one of those people and right before the war he got into a fist fight that ended up fightingwith cop and knocking a cop, well he got three years in prison, got out at the end of the war and Iremember the night that we were sitting around talking about whether it was worthwhile fighting thatwar you know, we had to fight Hitler. I mean Hitler was worse than anything in the United Statesand what's more that he was underpinning of everything that was rotten in the United States. Youcouldn't fight Senator Bilbo unless you got rid of Hitler. And so, I I fighting Hitler was not neverquestion with me we had we had to fight the Nazi movement. But but at the same time we have gotout of the out of the war. We faced with the same conditions that we faced as we enter the war. Youhad a question, was it worth it.And so we talked about democracy and so forth and Wilbur had just gotten out of prison, and so hesaid we will go and find out whether this democracy at Minneapolis. He went to one of the slummyworking class, bars down on Cedar in 19th street and walked in and sat down and the place just fellsilent you know, that it is the black guy walk into the white bar and the bartender looked at him he saidwhat do you want? And Wilbur said I want a glass of beer. Bartender said I wont serve niggers and hepulled out his 32 and he said you will serve this one and so and somebody threw a chair at Wilbur, and Wilburtried to turn but the gun went off and hit the bartender in the head and bartender fell dead into bunch ofbeer bottles right and it almost killed Wilbur he lived but then he served another three years and thenhe went down to St Charles Louisiana where he killed four cops where they killed him. He was very rough guy, butthat was the way the freedom movement did develop. It was did not develop you know, we shallovercome someday, that's what I mean man I am going to blow your damn head off, that's the thingthat broke out everywhere across the United States. Right this violent movement that was led byveterans, because they had no choice, it wasn't that they I am going to get violent is that if you walkinto restaurant and the man says get out of here you have your choice. You didn't say that look this is apublic restaurant and you are going to serve me, all of you get me and if you stay there you going get violent.Was this happening in Minneapolis, yeah it was happening in Duluth, in Milwaukee, in Memphisit was happening in every city in the United States we saw this thing going on and on and on this growingdevelopment violent resistant against the violence of the reaction that took place under the war. Thencame 1949 in Columbus, Tennessee, Columbia, Tennessee I think so you might remember the riot that tookplace there. Or they tried to lynch this young man, the young veteran and his mother and there the Wilburhad gotten and another veteran organize all the veterans in that area. 101 veterans and they dug trenchesand fox holes they knew the mob was coming and when the mob came they killed four of them,including two policemen. And so they pull back and they called in national guard, the national guardcame in and burned the community to the ground, they arrested about 400 people, they took Jackson andGraton who led the movement, took them behind the jail them and murdered them. And that movementthen began spreading.It was like during 1936, '33-'37 period if any of you remember it that you are 80 but at that period youknow there was was worst part of the depression and the working conditions were worse than ever, andand the workers in the in these various shops begin rebelling and begin forming unions andcarrying out wildcat strikes. There in 1937 especially there was a wave of wildcat strikes acrossthis country that paralyzed the nation. And they could not stop it because it didn't belong to anorganized national union with which the government could deal. So the pass the Wagner labor relationsact that made the unions legitimate, which was then allowed for the United States government to talk tothe head of the CIO. There was no CIO before that, and the CIO then disciplined the workers then yousigned the contract to work eight hours a day to produce this much good so much they want. But untilthey applied this to the freedom movement, I don't wanted anything away from the tremendous braveryand sacrifice that the that the church led people contributed to this movement. But I tell you something the weekbefore Rosa Parks took her seat the whole group Reverend King, Reverent Abernathy, Rosa Parks, to thewhole there from Montgomery was taken to Tennessee to the to the Highlander school where they weregiven their training in non violence, then they came back and anybody will tell you in Montgomery,Alabama or any other part of the Alabama you did not get on the seat or get on a bus and sit in the whitesection without getting beat up and getting beat up badly they never touched Rosa Parks. It was allarranged, right. And you remember when Fannie Lou Hamer tried that Mississippi right, they beat have to the deathright crippled to life or life the but the point that I am trying to make is that is that overnight thebalance of power shifted from thousands of veteran led struggles for equality that involved withconsiderable mode of violence in to the hands of preachers in the south, not this preachers in generalbut Southern preachers that was based on non violence.Some logic behind is that because the African-Americans are one tenth of American society, andscattered through out the entire nation. And deep beneath every militant militancy if theirunderstanding you know I am now the only thing I am going to get is that what this sucker is going togive me. And the process that I am in is how do I make him give me what's mine because ten to one Icannot win. I have got to somehow another involve in the struggle and the only way you have gotinvolve the middle class America into this support of the African-American movement was the pledgethat I am not Nat Turner. I do not believe in Nat Turner, I go shoot them. And whenever I take this pledge, I amnon violent and beat me up and so forth. Well, I remember when they tried to make a non violent out ofme they only tried one time, I told them in front. If you come after me, you better bring your lunchbecause I am going to work you overtime. And that was that was my my involvement in the nonviolent movement. But anyhow I want to get it into all that.The thing that I wanted to get into, the thing I want to get over is that there were many, many factors inthat movement. Could not have won with out the with out the cold war. if they didn't if they didn'ttold this, if the Soviet Union didn't throw this question into the face of the American people everyday,everyday the Soviet Union Publish pictures that were never published in America. Told stories thatwere never told in America, embarrassed America around the world, the whole colored world despisedAmerica for their treatment of the African-American people. I will tell I am wasting too much time. Iwant to tell you one more story, then I will quit. I think get some discussion. But the thing that standsout with me one of the most telling stories was that during the at the end of the Korean war youknow, where they had the they had their 38 parallel you don't want to -- and they had a they had adesk or a table there. And the 38 parallel ran right down the center of this table. Actually they werenegotiating, trying to get an armistice and so the North Koreans would come and sit at this side of the table and theAmericans would come and sit at this side of the table, they had to hold their 15 minute meeting inwhich they curse each other or may they would leave. And so, the head of the American army was this utter fascistthe name of General Walker and now he was one Chinese hating, black hating, communist hating sonof a gun. And so he come and he sat down across from these north Korean component he looked athim and he says you goddamn communist savage and so the communist savage refined to his briefcaseand to a picture to General Walker, of these police dogs attacking these black children who wereholding their books up so the dogs wouldn't destroy their books. And there was no more said at that point.General Walker tells the General MacArthur "you got to do something about this question". And at thatpoint you know, the question that became political, international question. And god knows when wepresented the petition I charge we charge genocide, when we show that the official policy of theUnited States government was genocidal against the African-American people and this was this wentto the United Nations. You know, that a number of organizations that tried a petition through theUnited Nations. The NAACP tried it and the Americans vetoed it they also did so it couldn'tcome to their for discussion. Then the the Negro National Council tried it, and they were vetoed. ButWilliam Patterson of the Civil Rights Congress pretty shrewd guy. He went Geneva to the to thehuman rights council of the United Nations and presented that petition and there it could not be vetoed,so it came to the floor of the United Nations and of course they said, they grab this black womanlawyer Simpson and they suddenly made her the ambassador to the United Nations where if you couldstand up and denounce this. But it didn't help. It was all in the it was out in the open.You know there were literally millions of Americans had signed this petition, we charge genocide. Ithad to be discussed and so these were the things that led up and wasn't just individuals or wasn't justholding hands and praying or any of these things was confluent of history, of the economy of thedemographic changes, of the cold war all these things that coalesced at certain moment where thepossible strike and blow and win. Well, we didn't do that, because we it were the leadership wascoopted from us. And the black elite emerged as the winners of the freedom movement andif you think for a minute that the black masses got any got anything out of it I invite you to cometo Chicago and look at our South side and our West side were these black youth are standing idleuneducated with no no future and no vision of the future. And in a sense of the word they areworse of what they before it is like South Africa, right I mean after the betrayal of what happened inSouth Africa. The South African black were better off under apartheid then they were underthe that regime that emerged from - with the crooks in the dope and their thieving son of a gunsthat they were right, same thing happened in America that yes the black elite has got it made. I tell youthough that I mentioned it in the book. That just as a picture of Dorian Gray reflected what the realwhat this real person was right?The black generals, the black CEOs the black you know, mayors are all these elite they're Dorian Graytheir picture is the fact that every eighth prisoner in the world is an African-American. Got a bigfight ahead and clearly part of that fighting is going to be against this black elite. So anyway Iwant to shut up I can go over I don't want to do this I want to hear from you, I want o hear for - butyou think I want to hear your experiences and now hopefully that you will get the book and read it andget active. Okay thanks very much.