Appendix C: ''Fascism in Newark'': The Labor Committee, Amiri Baraka, and a Forgotten Strike In Newark
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In 1970 school teachers in Newark, New Jersey, went on a three-week work stoppage for higher wages and improved working conditions and ignited one of the most bitter and least known fights in the history of the postwar American labor movement.1 Newark's teachers spent the next few years enmeshed in a violent conflict that included an incredibly divisive 11 week-long strike that lasted from 1 February to 17 April 1971.That strike resulted in legal sanctions, threats, physical attacks on union members, and arrests of teachers who were then jailed. The Newark Teachers Union (NTU) was led by a black former special education teacher named Carol Graves; an estimated 30-40% of her union's members were black. During the conflict, the NTU received vital support from Albert Shanker's New York-based United Federation of Teachers (UFT) as well as from the national AFL-CIO.2
Imamu Amiri Baraka (a/k/a LeRoi Jones) proved to be one the NTU's fiercest opponents.3 In the early 1960s, Baraka was a fairly well-known leftist black bohemian poet with a Jewish wife named Hattie Cohen, with whom he had a child. Shortly after Malcolm X's assassination on 21 February 1965, Baraka fled Greenwich Village and his first marriage and relocated to Harlem to work as the director of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School (BARTS), an organization which received thousands of dollars from the federal government through HARYOU-ACT.4 Baraka, however, was soon fired after he refused to let Sergeant Shriver, the creator of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and one of the Johnson Administration's leaders in the "War on Poverty," tour BARTS' offices. The incident focused the press spotlight on BARTS' Frantz Fanon-inspired works that celebrated lowly blacks murdering their white overlords. Baraka's reportedly anti-Semitic poems received attention as well. Shriver – now turned literary critic – labeled BARTS' collected oeuvre "vile racist plays in vile gutter language unfit for youngsters in the audience." After the BARTS debacle, Baraka relocated to Newark in late December 1965 and soon became a leader in the emerging black arts scene there.5
On 12-17 July 1967, a wave of riots swept Newark; in the turmoil Baraka was badly beaten by Newark cops. Minus the beating, the 1967 riot might have been the best thing that happened to him. The extensive civil unrest convinced Newark's major financial powers, including the Newark-headquartered Prudential Life Insurance Company, that the city's old Tammany Hall-run Democratic Party political machine had to go. For decades Newark had been governed by a coalition of ethnic whites and their loyal black retainers at a time when the racial demographics of the city had shifted more and more to the African-American community. Seeing that the demographic trend was irreversible, the savvier wing of the business elite now found their own candidate, Ken Gibson, whom they endorsed to become Newark's first black mayor. Gibson had been Newark's chief structural engineer. He sorely lacked "street cred" and would have had a hard time on his own trying to motivate apathetic ghetto voters to significantly turn out at the polls. As a black nationalist radical, a widely-recognized poet and playwright best known as the author of the controversial 1964 play Dutchman, a key member of Newark's black arts movement, and a black man brutally assaulted by Newark cops, Baraka knew he could play an important role in mobilizing voter turnout for Gibson.
ON THE RADIO
Following Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination on 4 April 1968, Baraka participated in a local Newark CBS radio program that urged Newark residents not to riot. The other speakers included Newark's Police Commissioner Dominick Spina and Anthony Imperiale, the far-right founder and leader of the North Ward Citizens Committee (NWCC).6 Imperiale founded the NWCC following the 1967 riots; its critics claimed that the NWCC was little more than a white vigilante group. What made the show especially memorable occurred when the panelists accused "SDS" – and Tom Hayden specifically – of trying to foment riots in the city following King's death.7 Hayden lived in Newark where he ran an SDS-sponsored community organizing project known as the Newark Community Union Project (NCUP).8 Baraka said that he had no problem attacking Hayden and other "white boys pimping off the black struggle." The radio show had been organized by two "white boys" named John Rees and Herbert Romerstein, both of whom were leading professional anti-Communists. Born in England, Rees moved to America in the 1960s and spent decades spying on the American Left for groups like the John Birch Society and Western Goals.9 In 1968 Rees lived in Newark where he ran his own mysterious outfit called National Goals, Inc. He also spent some quality time in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention on assignment for the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to spy on the Left.10 As for Herbert Romerstein, he served for decades as one of HUAC's top anti-Communist investigators.
During the Newark teachers' strike, the Labor Committee began to investigate Baraka's connections and discovered John Rees. The Labor Committee expose of Rees was later picked up by Willis Carto's Spotlight newspaper. A Hitler enthusiast, Carto formed a working alliance with the Labor Committee in the mid-1970s; he despised Rees and other John Birch Society members for their opposition to Spotlight's anti-Semitic attacks on the so-called "Jewish lobby."11 In a 9 September 1981 statement in the Congressional Record in response to a Spotlight attack on John Rees, right-wing Georgia Democratic Congressman Larry McDonald, a leading John Birch Society member and head of the Western Goals Foundation, defended Rees' role in Newark:
The Spotlight story, based on the version of events compiled by LaRouche's leftists, accuses Rees of being a "public ally of left-wing dissident groups." In fact, in Newark John Rees was well known as a consultant to the Police Department and close friend of Police Commissioner Dominick Spina who aided in stopping the rioting being promoted by Communist-led agitators. . . . A careful reading of the LaRouche material indicates that their complaint against Rees was that he was attempting to "pacify" the situation – in other words, end the rioting. This is the substance of an article attacking John Rees in the newspaper of Lyndon LaRouche, New Solidarity, January 8, 1973, entitled "The 1967 Riot and the Police-Baraka Deal."
In their attack, the LaRouche leftists charged that the efforts to end the rioting by gaining the support of all Newark community spokesmen and leaders were "mainly pursued by the local police authorities and by the anti-Communist cranks of the House Un-American Activities Committee" and consisted of the fabrication and dissemination of what they termed "Communist conspiracy theories."
What this amounts to is that John Rees and Herbert Romerstein, then an investigator for the House Committee on Un-American Activities, were able to organize a radio program during which the Newark Police Department; the leader of one of the white groups, Anthony Imperiale; and the leader of a black militant group, LeRoi Jones – now known as Imamu Amiri Baraka – urged the rioters to stop rioting, and said that the violence only benefited the white Marxists from the Students for a Democratic Society led by Tom Hayden, who had come into Newark to instigate the violence.12
RON KARENGA: THE BIG MAULANA
In The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones, Baraka reports that the Prudential Life Insurance Company and other establishment groups gave his Committee for a United NewArk (CFUN) money for a voter registration drive. After Ken Gibson became mayor, however, the powers-that-be eventually decided that Baraka was too controversial and cut him out of any real influence. As Baraka recalls in The Autobiography of Leroi Jones:
We saw how a small group of blacks, a little petty bourgeois bureaucratic class, got over at the expense of the rest of us. We saw how the little "verticality" created by the election had got one group of blacks over, a tiny group, while for the rest of us the struggle had to go on with not much change. We were seeing class struggle in reality.13
During the time he worked for Gibson's election, Baraka served as the East Coast leader of Ron (Maulana) Karenga's über-black nationalist organization, the Los Angeles-headquartered United Slaves (US). Karenga was, to put it mildly, a controversial figure. US, for example, became notorious on the Left for its 1969 killing of two Black Panthers at UCLA named Bunchy Carter and John Higgins. In 1971 Karenga went to jail for torturing two women. From the Wiki on Karenga (whose "Maulana" title means "Lord and Master" in Arabic):
Karenga "was sentenced to one to ten years in prison on counts of felonious assault and false imprisonment." One of the victims gave testimony of how Karenga and other men tortured her and another woman. The woman claimed to have been stripped and beaten with an electrical cord. Karenga's former wife, Brenda Lorraine Karenga, testified that he sat on the other woman's stomach while another man forced water into her mouth through a hose.
A May 14, 1971, article in the Los Angeles Times described the testimony of one of the women:
"Deborah Jones, who once was given the Swahili title of an African queen, said she and Gail Davis were whipped with an electrical cord and beaten with a karate baton after being ordered to remove their clothes. She testified that a hot soldering iron was placed in Miss Davis' mouth and placed against Miss Davis' face and that one of her own big toes was tightened in a vise. Karenga, head of US, also put detergent and running hoses in their mouths, she said. They also were hit on the heads with toasters."
Karenga explained his actions by saying that one of the women he had tortured had attempted to assassinate him, but he had no evidence." 14
Baraka embraced Karenga's Afro-Eccentric vision and brought Karenga's teachings to the East Coast, starting in "New-ark." As the top East Coast spokesman for Karenga's "Seven Principles of Kawaida," Baraka promulgated Karenga's notion that the natural role for black women was to be submissive and that polygamy was the African form of marriage.
Unlike a city government that either did not want to – or could not afford to – pay its teachers a higher wage, Baraka viewed the NTU strike from a much different perspective. He argued that the NTU needed to be destroyed precisely because it inculcated black children with white values. In return for working with the financial elite to put Gibson in power, Baraka hoped to revamp Newark's education system to promote Karenga's teachings. To help ensure that he would become Newark's new philosopher-king, Baraka trained his own paramilitary force known as the Simba Wachunga (Young Lions). Far from seeing himself as Prudential's black stooge as the Labor Committee later portrayed him, Baraka believed he could outsmart the white power elite and spread US-style soteriology across the north.
On 16 June 1970, Ken Gibson was elected Newark's first black mayor. He defeated Hugh Addonizio, Newark's mayor from 1962 on and who was then under federal incitement for corruption and extortion. Addonizio's reported connections to the Mafia were highlighted in the press as well. With Gibson's election, it now seemed possible that Baraka's Afro-centric Afrikan Free School could serve as a pedagogical model for Newark's educational system as a whole. Because of the centrality of education for his larger project, Baraka's myrmidons harassed and threatened teachers on the picket lines throughout the 1971 strike action.
Support for the striking Newark teachers included a smattering of Black Panthers. Panther leaders David Hilliard and Huey Newton declared that Karenga-style cultural nationalism was ideologically linked to "reactionary nationalism" similar to the notorious Haitian "fascism" of "Papa Doc" Duvalier. As Newton explained, Papa Doc "oppresses the people but he does promote the African culture. He's against anything other than black. . . . He merely kicked out the racists and replaced them with himself as the oppressor." Newton claimed that many black nationalists in America "seem to desire the same ends."
The Panthers and US fought a sub-rosa war across the nation. Following the Eldridge Cleaver-Huey Newton split in the BPP, however, the pro-Newton faction left in the East Coast largely went on life support. In 1973 Newton closed all of the group's local chapters still under his control and demanded that members relocate to Oakland. Not unlike Baraka in Newark, Newton became convinced that after flooding Oakland with his cadre, the Black Panthers would elect a Black Panther supporter as mayor.
ENTER THE LABOR COMMITTEE
Starting with the second NTU strike in the spring of 1971, the NCLC threw its support behind the union, a decision that clearly echoed the group's role in endorsing the UFT during the 1968 teachers' strike in New York. As one of only a handful of leftist group to actively support Newark's beleaguered teachers, the Labor Committee sponsored a February 1971 gathering where a black leftist NTU spokesman named Orrie Chambers described the strike and the reasons behind it.15 The Labor Committee then organized other forums featuring Chambers and tried to mobilize national support for the NTU action.
The Labor Committee now became convinced that Baraka was a radical fascist ideologue, a strike breaker, a paid Prudential stooge, and a police agent of sorts given both his infamous radio show and his ties to Karenga, who was widely viewed on the Left as a creature (if not a creation) of the Los Angeles police. Physical attacks by Baraka's "Simbas" only heightened tensions. A 9 February 1971 New York Times article ("Talks Canceled in School Strike"), for example, noted that "Emotions have run high, particularly since 15 striking teachers were assaulted last week by a group of young blacks dressed in paramilitary uniforms."
In late December 1972, New Solidarity published the first of a long series of expose articles attacking Baraka. With some change and additions, the series would be published in August 1973 as a pamphlet entitled Papa Doc Baraka: Fascism in Newark.16 Labor Committee propaganda was financially subsidized by the NTU, which bought bundles of New Solidarity to distribute to its members. It was during the exhausting Newark campaign that NCLC organizers came under attack by Baraka's Simbas. Labor Committee members were assaulted by Baraka enthusiasts in other parts of the nation as well. In late March 1971, for example, a University of Michigan Labor Committee member named Don Wirtanen had his jaw broken when passing out leaflets critical of Baraka.17 In response, the Labor Committee organized "defense squads" in all its local chapters and nunchaku-wielding Labor Committee cadre fought the Simbas in Newark's streets. The defense squads would, in turn, form the nucleus for "Security." LaRouche later used select "Security" members for his attack on the CPUSA in April 1973.
It would prove an especially bitter irony, then, that not long after LaRouche launched his disastrous attacks on the CP, Labor Committee supporters in the NTU began distancing themselves from the group. In June 1973, for example, the NTU's Orrie Chambers publicly denounced the NCLC in the pages of the Daily World. To make matters worse, throughout this period the CP had refused to mobilize support for the NTU, a union backed by the hated UFT and a union locked in a bitter conflict with Newark's "New Politics" new black mayor, the "progressive" Ken Gibson. Still, perhaps the bitterest irony of all was that a campaign organized to resist "Papa Doc's" would-be dictatorial takeover of Newark helped pave the way for "Daddy Lyn's" very real coup inside the NCLC.
1 On the strike actions, see Steve Golin, The Newark Teacher Strikes. Hopes on the Line (Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002). Also see a review of the book at http://nova.wpunj.edu/newpolitics/issue34/weiner34.htm#n.
2 Long-time Socialist Party leader Bayard Rustin went to Newark to speak at rallies for the teachers.
3 After breaking with black nationalism for Third World-oriented Marxism in 1974, Baraka dropped the name "Imamu."
4 For more on HARYOU-ACT, see my appendix "Mayor's Man" at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.HIABChapter2Appendix2BARRYGOTTEHRER.
5 For a highly favorable portrait of Baraka written by a former member of Baraka's Congress of African People (CAP), see Komozi Woodard, A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka and Black Power Politics (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999). Baraka is much more critical of his past in The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones. My guess as to the reason why would be that Woodard remains more firmly rooted in black nationalism while Baraka abandoned black nationalism in 1974 for his own brand of ultra-left sectarian Maoism. Woodard is also more concerned with examining the rise of black voting power across the country during this period and Baraka's CAP played an influential role here as well. Baraka, in contrast, now viewed this form of pluralist electoral politics with contempt.
6 The Labor Committee said that Charles Kinney, the reported head of the Newark police's anti-subversion squad, also spoke on the show.
7 On the radio show, see Brad Tuttle, How Newark Became Newark: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of an American City (Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009), 179-80.
8 On NCUP, see Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York: Random House, 1973).
9 In one well-known incident, Rees pretended to be a liberal pastor in order to gather information on the anti-war movement in Washington, D.C., and on the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in particular. With help from the Washington police, Rees and his wife Sheila operated a D.C. radical bookstore called the Red House Collective to further ingratiate themselves with local activists.
10 For a look at John Rees' career, see Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals and Reagan's Rise to Power (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), and pages 400-403 in particular for his work in Newark and Washington, D.C. Rees published his own newsletter called Information Digest. For more on John Rees, see Paul Valentine's article in the 27 June 1976 Washington Post.
11 For more on the Labor Committee's alliance with Carto and the far right, see Smiling Man from a Dead Planet at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.UnityNow and, in particular, the chapter "Unity Now."
13 Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, c1997), 427.
14 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maulana_Karenga. Karenga was widely believed to be a police agent. See Louis Tackwood, The Glass House Tapes (New York: Avon, 1973). Karenga emphatically denied these charges; he argues that the conflict between US and the Panthers was the result of a clever FBI-COINTELPRO operation aimed at inciting conflict between the two groups. After Karenga's conviction, the September 1973 issue of Baraka's Black NewArk journal reported that Baraka held a fund-raising benefit for Karenga that July. It should further be noted that Tackwood's book was put together in collaboration with the playwright Donald Freed, who at the time was a very close ally of the Black Panther Party. For a sympathetic profile of Karenga that is critical of Tackwood's claims, see Ron Brown, Fighting for US: Maulana Karenga, the US Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism (NY: NYU Press, 2003). Former FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen, who was based in Los Angeles at the time, states that the FBI was responsible for the killings. See M. Wesley Swearingen, FBI Secrets: An Agent's Expose (Boston: South End Press, 1995).
The Baraka-Karenga network had its NYC affiliate in Jitu Weusi's Brooklyn-based organization known as The EAST. Weusi (a/k/a Les Campbell) became famous during the 1968 UFT strike as an anti-Semite and The EAST paper, Black News, was filled with anti-Semitic comments. For a time, Black News published Baraka's CAP journal Fundisha as a supplement. The alliance, however, fell apart after Baraka abandoned black nationalism for ultra-sectarian Maoist Marxism-Leninism in 1974. For an EAST-friendly analysis of all this, see Kwasi Konadu, A View from the East (NY: NYU Press, 2009). The EAST and its propaganda paper Black News had been promised a grant from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation-backed Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation but the grant was eventually rejected. The EAST suspected that a BOSSI agent named George Dudley, who had infiltrated the organization, may have helped sabotage the grant proposal.
15 For a report on the strike by a leftist group favorable to the NTU, see Workers' Action (April-May 1971) available on the web. Workers' Action accuses the NCLC of being too supportive of the NTU union bureaucrats and "whitewashing" the union leadership. It denounced the Labor Committee's ties to the NTU's Oriel ("Orrie") Chambers, the "idol" of the NCLC. The paper also attacks the SWP for opposing the strike.
16 See http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/downloads/baraka.pdf. Part of the radio show transcript is quoted in this text. This pamphlet famously misidentified "John Rees" as a British academic teaching in Wales. The Labor Committee next decided that the "John Rees" in question must have been John Rawlings Rees, an elderly British psychiatrist and a leading member of the London-based Tavistock Institute. (John Rawlings Rees died in April 1969.) The group finally figured out the right Rees. In an unwitting homage to the famous Mad magazine cartoon series "Spy vs. Spy," the Labor Committee and John Rees then spent decades spying on each other.
17 On the attack, see Don Wirtanen's 10 April 1971 letter in the University of Michigan paper, The Michigan Daily. Wirtanen reports that Orrie Chambers had once been a member of the Young Socialist Alliance. If so, Chambers June 1973 appearance in the Daily World may have been part of a larger SWP-led effort to ally with the CPUSA against Labor Committee attacks.