Two musicians find friendship during quarantine.
I was still reeling from the news that one of Detroit’s most remarkable freedom fighters, General Gordon Baker Jr., had joined the ancestors when in rapid succession, like a machine gun of sorrow, word came that the author Sam Greenlee had expired and that the uncompromising voice of Vincent Harding was stilled. Then, as if there was no end to the sadness, the phone was alive with messages that the beloved Elombe Brath was no longer a breathing icon of commitment—and all of them departed as we celebrated the birthday of Malcolm X.
The day before, I had written the obituary of William Worthy, whose name I had not heard in years but whose radical journalism is forever remembered. I hope there’s space in these pages for readers to gather some notion of his courage and audacity in defiance of the restrictions imposed on his freedom of expression.
Let us hope that in future editions I will have the time and energy to say more about the contributions of Baker, Greenlee and Harding. Brath will get his due right away, inshallah.
In my anthology “Autobiography of a People,” I offered readers some indication of Baker’s magnificent personality by presenting a letter he wrote in response to a draft notice during the Vietnam War. “When the call is made to free the Black delta areas of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, when the call is made to free 12th Street here in Detroit—when these calls are made, send for me, for these shall be historical struggles in which it shall be an honor to serve,” he wrote.
Greenlee’s “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” is enshrined in our national literary canon and was given wider distribution as a film. In “Brotherman—The Odyssey of Black Men in America,” a portion of Greenlee’s creativity is shown as his protagonist Freeman surveys and comments on the other Black CIA recruits. “Only Freeman was not middle class, and the others knew it,” Greenlee wrote. “Even had he not dressed as he did, not used the speech patterns and mannerisms of the Chicago ghetto slums, they would have known. His presence made them uneasy and insecure; they were members of the Black elite, and a product of the ghetto streets did not belong among them.”
One of the most lyrical books ever written about slavery and the fight for freedom was Harding’s “There Is a River—The Black Struggle for Freedom in America.” Selecting a representative passage from this book is easy because practically every page has a paragraph or two that resonates with passion and conviction, distills the past and envisions a future full of promise and fulfillment. “Our struggle was to resist both the European captors and their African helpers, to challenge and seek to break their power to take us away from our homeland,” he wrote toward the beginning of his book. “In doing this, we denied the European right to hold us, to rule our lives, to control our destiny. We affirmed our own freedom, our own being.”
Baker’s unwavering integrity as a member of militant labor groups qin the plants of Detroit, to say nothing of his genius at the core of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; Greenlee’s unbridled imagination and his understanding of state power and its conspiracies; and Dr. Harding’s peerless scholarship and his collaboration with Martin Luther King Jr. are irreplaceable elements in our ongoing struggle for total liberation, and these men will be sorely missed on the ramparts and in our crusade to overcome racism, oppression and white supremacy.