On Sunday, July 3, Dr. Fred Newman died at the age of 76. I spent more than 30 years of my life with Fred, and he was a very dear friend, comrade and mentor.
I first met Fred in the late 1970s when I was a doctoral student in developmental psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center, looking for a psychology of empowerment that could impact on the suffering and sorrow of Black Americans. I grew up in Chester, Pa., and understood the devastating consequences of being Black and poor.
Fred took seriously my concern that traditional psychology and education were very limited in their capacity to help poor people with the pain of poverty. He told me that to accomplish what I wanted to do, I had to get smarter, and he insisted that I bring the most sophisticated tools of post-modern philosophy to the ordinary people of our communities. He sent me “back to school” in East New York.
Fred grew up in the predominantly Jewish, working-class Southeast Bronx in the 1930s. He served in the U.S. Army in Korea, then graduated from City College and earned a Ph.D. in analytic philosophy at Stanford University. After teaching at several colleges and universities, Fred left academia during the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement to become a community organizer. Over 40 years’ time, together with a vibrant collective of activists, psychologists, educators, artists and fundraisers, he went on to found the All Stars Project and a new brand of psychology called social therapy. He became a leading force in the independent political movement, fighting for the inclusion of Black people in that movement every step of the way.
In the Black community, Fred was known for many things. He created the development approach to performance and learning used at the All Stars. The young people at the All Stars, especially those who got to work directly with him, adored him. He was the campaign manager for my two independent presidential bids. He was an early ally of the Rev. Al Sharpton, joining him in many a march and rally anywhere from Bensonhurst, to upstate New York, to London. He drove Rev to the hospital on the bitter January day in 1991 when he was stabbed.
Fred was known as my partner in liberation. In less polite terms, he was sometimes referred to as “Fulani’s white guru.” Some of the more “politically correct” Black leaders in the city criticized me for working with Fred because he was white. I never cared about those critics. I knew I was lucky to have found him.
Everyone who knew Fred experienced his rigor and brilliance as a scientist. They also experienced the depth of Fred’s caring.
I was not only close to Fred in my work; he was also an active partner in helping to raise my son, making it possible for me to be there for Amani even in the most challenging of times. He helped me with the anxiety that every Black mother feels every time our sons step out into the world: the fear that an altercation with other youth or a police officer might result in injury, incarceration or death. Fred showed me how to support Amani and to not let my worries turn me into just another person in his life giving him a hard time. That made it possible for Amani to come to me when there was a real crisis. A few months before Fred died, he thanked me for giving him the opportunity to share in raising Amani. I just gave him a hug.
Thank you, Fred, for the many holidays you’ve shared with Amani and Ainka, and for sending Amani to baseball camp, where he learned to make his way with strangers and made lifelong friends.
Thank you for sharing with them, with me and with the Black community the history of the Jewish people and the historical importance of Black-Jewish relationships.
Thank you for being such a fierce and brilliant fighter. And thank you for teaching ordinary people that we have the capacity to build and create extraordinary things.
May you rest in peace, and may those of us whom you have organized and led continue to lead.