Today on Rediscovered Radio, we return to the spring of 1969, a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. At that time, many Americans believed that Dr. King’s dream of equality for African Americans had died with him.
That spring, the Community Lecture series at Antioch College brought activist Clifton DeBerry to campus. Producer Jocelyn Robinson has this story about DeBerry’s message to the students – about what he called the shift from civil rights to Black liberation.
"So when we speak of the civil rights movement, I would rather view it as the civil rights era, which began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and ended with the assassin’s bullet in Memphis in 1968. ‘Cause with the murder of Dr. King, it marked the end of the civil rights era," said Clifton DeBerry in his 1969 speech in Yellow Springs. DeBerry was a militant labor organizer with a preacher’s cadence, that deep silence between phrases. In it you can hear students listening - intently.
"The assassination of Malcolm X began an acceleration of Black nationalism in this country, and began to cause Black people to identify with themselves more and more than they had at any other time," he said.
Clifton DeBerry was a friend to both Martin and Malcolm. He was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1924, but as part of the Great Migration, he left the Jim Crow South for a better life up North.
As a young man in Chicago, he organized a walk-out at the International Harvester plant where he worked, beginning a lifetime of social activism. In 1955, he led protests seeking justice for Emmett Till the teenager from Chicago, who was kidnapped, beaten, and murdered in Mississippi, and that same year, he went back down South to join the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the fight against segregation. In 1964, DeBerry was on the Socialist Workers Party national ticket, running for President against Republican Barry Goldwater and the Democratic candidate, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
"Now once again. if we look back in historical terms, we see how a phenomena comes into existence," said DeBerry in his speech. "It arises out of necessity, it arises out of a given need, struggles to maintain itself, reaches a peak, then it began it’s decline. But in the process of reaching it’s peak, creates those elements within it, which will replace it. Now we see this within the civil rights movement..."
DeBerry brought a message of Black pride and self-determination. It resonated with students who were realizing that the civil rights movement was having limited success bringing about justice and freedom for all African Americans.
That critique had to come because it was not taking care of everyone in the Black community, and that’s what I think Black Power was about, in essence," says Dr. Jahwara Giddings, Professor of History at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. He teaches a course that guides students through the history and legacy of the civil rights and Black liberation movements.
"So what we’re doing in the Youth Social Activism course is just to, you know, make students aware of some of the issues that are out there that folks have fought, that folks are still fighting, and to have them identify the tactics used, the strategies used, coalitions built, to then have all that information inform an issue they might take up," says Giddings.
Brianna Hassan, a psychology major from Chicago, has taken Professor Giddings’ course at Central State. She says students on her campus are aware of national issues around race, but need to learn perseverance, "Based on what I observe, typically we focus on a topic for about a week or two, and then eventually it dies down and we go back to our normal lives and we eventually forget about it. I think that we need to learn how to take something and continue to stick with it until something is changed. Like, we just need to learn how to do that."
"The young people have been standing on their feet these days," said DeBerry in 1969. "Because the young people represent the future, they’re gonna make the future. And contrary to all the old fossils and the critics, I say the future is in good hands.
After a lifetime of commitment to social and political activism, Clifton DeBerry died in 2006 at the age of 82.
Rediscovered Radio is supported in part by Ohio Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.