The struggle has come to land

Two miles from the White House, 'Black Land News' forwarded a bold vision of political, economic, and cultural autonomy inspired by African decolonization struggles.

Masthead and headline from the first edition of Black Land News, December 1969. Image via the Wisconsin Historical Society.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was struck down by an assassin’s bullet while standing on the balcony of a Memphis motel. Within hours riots broke out in more than one hundred US cities; by midnight the streets of Washington, DC were in flames. The four-day uprising that followed was finally quelled by sweeping arrests and the deployment of 13,000 federal troops—the largest military occupation of an American city since the Civil War. In the end, 13 people lay dead and more than 1,800 buildings were destroyed, putting to rest any claims that the Black-led rebellions which had engulfed the nation’s cities over the previous four years, would not reach the capital.

Black Land News editorial on the racist foundations of standardized testing from September 14 – 30, 1972 issue, via the Wisconsin Historical Society.

For a number of United Planning Organization (UPO) organizers in Washington—paid to support citizen participation in the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty initiatives—the message behind the uprising was clear. From now on, Black communities would make their own decisions about what was best for their neighborhoods, rather than white administrators, merchants, and real estate agents. Self-initiating “urban renewal on a crash scale” with bricks and Molotov cocktails, as these dissenting staffers put it in their short-lived newsletter Shaw’s Last Stand, DC’s ghettoes would no longer serve as internal colonies that furnished profits for the suburbs. Nor would they supplicate outside forces, appealing to the power structure for scraps. Relaying this message by leading a four-hour occupation of UPO’s executive offices, 10 organizers were summarily fired.

Cover of September 14 – 30, 1972 issue outlining a citizen’s tribunal following the police killing of sixteen-year-old Gregory Coleman, via the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Coming together with a small cadre, a handful of these former anti-poverty workers went on to form the Black Land Movement (BLM) later that year. In so doing, they drew inspiration from not only the broader Black Power upsurge taking place domestically but also the longer history of decolonization struggles on the African continent. This inheritance was particularly reflected in the name of their youth arm, The Young Pioneers of New Africa (YPNA) a nod to the Ghana Young Pioneers organized by Nkrumah. It also informed their political and economic program, which borrowed from Tanzania’s vision of Ujamaa in its call for collective land ownership and the creation of cooperatives that could meet the community’s needs for housing, employment, healthcare, education, and childcare. Dreaming beyond the boundaries of their Shaw neighborhood’s, BLM aimed to forge an alternative model of urban development for an ascendant Black nation within the borders of the US—one whose ultimate allegiances lay with the African diaspora.

To spread the word about this bold mission, BLM launched Black Land News in December 1969. At once an organizational newsletter, a local gazette, and a national forum for Black political and cultural perspectives, Black Land News evolved into an ambitious biweekly effort distributed at sites throughout the city and beyond. Early issues focused largely on the group’s own campaigns, from the cooperative food buying club it launched, to the carpentry and design workshops it held for area youth. They also chronicled the alternative comprehensive plan BLM was developing for the neighborhood, inviting residents to provide feedback on their proposals and attend popular education sessions. Members of the YPNA relayed the lessons they were learning about African culture and African American history, curricular subjects largely ignored within the public school system.

The writers of Black Land News, many of them BLM members, cast a critical eye on the streets that surrounded them. Bill Street, a trained architect and the group’s chair, described how white “land grabbers” bought up parcels within designated urban renewal areas only to sell them to the government for a much higher price, depleting redevelopment funds and ensuring the housing that followed would be out of reach to most residents. Student reporters described the carceral webs that ensnared their everyday life, from the institutional environment of their schools to routine harassment at the hands of police. The paper’s pages also highlighted other campaigns taking place across the city, including a rent strike organized by public housing tenants and the battle to defeat a planned elevated freeway that threatened to devastate multiple neighborhoods.

Graphic insert on the Black Land Movement’s alternative Comprehensive Plan for Shaw Urban Renewal from May 1, 1971 issue, via the Wisconsin Historical Society.

In addition to local coverage, Black Land News reported on developments nationwide. These articles demonstrated the rapid evolution of Black politics and cultural production in the early 1970s, attesting to the critical role of underground newspapers and independent journals within the circulation and refinement of Black radical thought and aesthetics in these years. They also displayed the experimental character of Black Power ideology. A May 1971 article saluted the Republic of New Afrika’s securing of pastureland in Mississippi; a Black-led coalition’s takeover of the Berkeley City Council received praise in the same issue. Amiri Baraka’s speech at nearby Howard University on Black nation building was excerpted alongside an opinion piece analyzing the incarceration of young Black men through a Marxist-Leninist lens of class oppression. That these divergent approaches were each covered speaks to the searching nature of the editors and the period more broadly, a sentiment corroborated in interviews with former BLM members. Later issues also increasingly examined culture as a terrain of struggle, discussing organic foods and displaying images of Black women adorned in natural hairstyles.

During the four years it was published (1969-1973) the purview of Black Land News expanded from a primarily local focus to encompass more national and international concerns. This shift reflected both the widening experiences of its editors and the diminishing prospects for BLM’s initiatives. As with similar efforts to render Black Power in concrete, BLM’s vision of territorial autonomy ran aground against the realities of institutional politics and inadequate resources, leading to the organization’s disbanding by 1973. The pages of its newspaper, however, leave behind a record of Black anti-colonial thought that emanated from within the heart of US empire, a perspective that saw the struggles of residents in Shaw and Soweto as inherently connected and that is worth recovering in the present.

About the Author

Tim Kumfer is an interdisciplinary scholar of social movements and cities with a focus on the history of Washington, DC. He holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Maryland and is a 23-24 Mellon Sawyer postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University.

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