Curtis Muhammad on Organizing [video only]
A gun battle with the Ku Klux Klan drove a young man out of his home town and the life of his baby son. Growing up on a farm, working cotton, corn and lumber, and an ornery mule named George, the son grew up in that hometown, McComb, Mississippi. The summer he graduated from high school, he also discovered his father, and the reason his father had been absent from his life. That also happened to be the summer that the first organizers from the militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee arrived in McComb. The die was cast for the creation of a life-long revolutionary organizer.
"Curtis Hayes" as he appeared on his birth certificate added "Williams" when he found his father in Chicago in the summer of 1960. Later, during the intense COINTELPRO repression of the early 1970s, he adopted the name Muhammad as part of a period of underground life avoiding the FBI. Numerous friends and colleagues died, were imprisoned, or fled into exile during the same period: Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Ralph Featherstone - the list is long.
Nothing, however, arrested or interrupted the trajectory of a man determined to spend his life organizing his people to fight for their liberation. The spark ignited by a thousand racist crimes and indignities suffered from childhood on was fanned into flames in the upheaval of the 1960s, and those flames were never extinguished, as the training he received as an organizer of the poorest of the poor from SNCC served him for the rest of his life. The book he is writing traces that trajectory, from the cotton fields of his family's farm during the 1940s and 50s through the devastation accompanying Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and beyond to international organizing that continues even as this book is being written. Rarely has such varied and dramatic experience been packed into one life. Mr. Muhammad survived a bomb that blew up under his bed in McComb only to move the organizing work into the yard. He walked with dispossessed sharecroppers down the highway to commandeer an empty air force base. He worked with youth in Chicago to organize a citywide school boycott protesting racist, segregated schools. In Washington, DC, his roommate turned out to be an FBI agent, and his close friend was killed by a bomb many suspected to have been set by the government. Looking to Africa, as did many young Movement people in the US, he traveled to the new revolutionary nations of East and North Africa and sat in an ice cream parlor waiting to meet with Julius Nyerere, the new president of Tanzania, who arrived at the meeting on a bicycle. On the way home from one such trip, he found the grave of an ancestor in a cemetery during a stopover in Liberia, an event that would lead much later in life to his discovery of a runaway slave whose own fight for freedom took him from the US South to Canada to West Africa - and who bequeathed the "freedom name" his maternal family still bears to this day.
Curtis' older children were born in his rural hideaway from COINTELPRO. Always breaking the mold of social expectation, he was a single parent of five children for periods of his life. He worked to meld an interconnected whole among his 10 children from several marriages, including one child born to a white woman in Chicago where he was organizing to get a friend (Delbert Tibbs) freed from Florida's death row. The oldest children lived in reclaimed abandoned brownstones in Harlem during his project to reclaim empty housing for the use of New York's poorest residents, and were the beneficiary of his militancy, which kept drug dealers off their block and their routes to school.
Reluctantly leaving his young son and pregnant wife, he took up the call for revolution in Africa and went to Liberia to join the struggle for freedom there before it turned catastrophically wrong. Arrested, nearly executed by a firing squad, and then subjected to imprisonment and torture for five months, he was finally released by the combined efforts of striking students and miners in Liberia and his old Civil Rights network, put in motion by his wife. Struggling to recover, he got nurturing from his baby son and newborn daughter, eventually returning to Liberia to establish an orphanage for abandoned children of the war-torn country.
When he returned to the United States, he once again took on the role of single parent, this time for last child, a son born in Liberia who nearly died of illnesses before his father was able to get him to the US. The young boy became his constant companion as he moved around the South, organizing women who worked in garment and laundry sweatshops. By the time Katrina hit, the two were living in New Orleans, where Muhammad had retired from labor organizing and was central to a move to unite labor and community to rebuild some of the worst ghetto schools in the city.
The desertion of the poor, black people of that city which happened at the time of the hurricane prompted Curtis' latest mass organizing project in the US. This was an attempt to bring all the nation's progressive organizations into a united front that would organize the survivors of this travesty to direct the rebuilding of their own communities. The subsequent betrayal of the people by those organizations led Mr. Muhammad to the conclusion that the US was not fertile ground for radical organizing in the current period. He turned his efforts to organizing among the poorest of black communities in the Americas, and simultaneously toward rethinking the direction of revolutionary movements for the 21st Century.
The stories of radical organizers often end with the slow, steady pacification of formerly blazing souls. Not so the story of Curtis Muhammad, who continues to fight for liberation, unabated, as he approaches his 70s.
Copyright © 2011