Against the "primers of white supremacy": the radical black press in the cause of multicultural history.
In the 1960s, Muhammad Speaks and Black Panther were widely known for their sensational rhetoric and calls for radical social reform. Yet they also served as a distinct voice in Black communities, providing critical and creative perspectives on a range of social issues-from education reform to police reform--that received little coverage in the mainstream press (Streitmatter 2001). Akin to earlier generations of the militant Black press they sought to define Black liberation struggles through discussion and debate on the fundamental purpose and meaning of education for Black Americans (Fultz 1995). The papers protested the "mis-education" of Black children in public schools, while illustrating progressive alternatives to improving educational opportunity for historically marginalized communities (Kashif 1973). In doing so, they raised important and difficult questions about the purpose of education, the politics of knowledge and the relationship between culture, history and liberation.
This essay explores the role of Muhammad Speaks and Black Panther in framing public discourse on the teaching of history during their peak periods of circulation: 1961 to 1974 and 1967 to 1973, respectively. Over 5,000 articles were reviewed for their education related content, with an eye toward coverage of history education. The study illustrates two salient aspects of the papers' discourse. First, the papers protested the endemic character of racism in history textbooks while framing historical knowledge within a wider conversation about power, privilege, and liberation. Second, the papers attempted to counterbalance misrepresentations of Black history by building historical content into their pages--highlighting histories on people like Fredrick Douglas, events like Nat Turner's revolt, and critical Black historiographies by scholars like W.E.B Du Bois. In doing so they modeled an approach to multicultural history education that resisted superficial "heroes and holidays" style history toward a critical conception of the past that was both troubled and hopeful and engaged with the lived experience of school children.
The study of this discourse carries significance for historians of Black education and multicultural education. The papers represent a widely accessible and appealing medium of educational discourse in Black communities nationwide. With a weekly distribution of 650,000 for Muhammad Speaks and 100,000 for the Black Panther at their respective peaks, the papers represent the most widely circulated newspapers in Black press history (Gardell 1996; Davenport, 1998). Their popularity was due in part to their intimate reporting on regional issues that had national significance (Hilliard and Cole 1993). Editors filled the papers with local stories--like an investigative report on police abuse in a Watts high school, teachers' protest in Harlem, or the founding of an Afrocentric school in Cleveland Heights--in order to provide Black communities with "insight into their deeper wounds" and their "everlasting" and "shifting strength" (Forrest, October 1972). The organic nature of reporting gave the papers' protest local relevance and framed their advocacy of multicultural knowledge construction as a grassroots issue.
Furthermore, the papers operated as a site of "counterpublic" discourse on education reform, that is, a discourse that is not universally representative, yet offers an analysis of dominant social ideas from the perspective of underrepresented voices, revealing original and sophisticated public exchanges of ideas within marginalized communities (Fraser 1989). The papers not only argued that the dominant group's monopoly over history is oppressive, they creatively revealed how alternative epistemologies can serve to democratize knowledge in a multicultural society. The presses created psychic space for Black teachers, students, parents, scholars and activists to construct a vision for education that challenged dominant white ideology and attempted to transform American classrooms into racially inclusive sites.
Contemporary scholars of press history give meager attention to Muhammad Speaks and Black Panther. Clinton Wilson and Armistead Pride's (1997) well-regarded history of the Black press does not mention the radical press at all. Likewise, Stanley Nelson's (1999) popular PBS documentary Soldiers without Swords includes no reference in its exploration of two centuries of the Black press. The first major history to address the papers was Roland Wolseley (1971), which included three pages. His second edition included little more than a page of discussion, despite being an expanded edition (Wolseley 1990). It seems that once the newspapers went out of print Wolseley considered them to be less remarkable in the history of the Black press. Radical press historian, Rodger Streitmatter (2001) observes that most scholars of journalism history have treated these presses with the "same dismissive attitude that the mainstream press of their day regarded--or rather disregarded--them" (xi).
Yet the papers are of considerable value to histories and merit more careful consideration than they have been given in the past. They offer education historians, in particular, unique insight into a range of issues --including a distinct vision of the purpose and possibility of multicultural history education. The 1960s and 1970s ethnic movements to reform secondary education asserted that U.S. history curriculum is shaped by social arrangements of power. In turn, the demand for culturally inclusive histories represented, what James Banks (2002) describes as, a social ethos of "hope and the quest for knowledge that would help to eliminate poverty, create equality and eradicate racism" (7). Black Panther and Muhammad Speaks amplified this quest. Their art and prose provided a widely accessible articulation of history as a culturally inclusive and critical discipline. In the spirit of 1960s educational activism, they held forth the hope that dispossessed peoples can work toward a better future if they can imagine an alternative past.
MILITANT WEEKLIES "DEDICATED TO JUSTICE"
Prior to analyzing the papers' discourse on history education, their own histories merit consideration. The papers were known as the official voice of their parent organizations and served to counter negative depictions by the mainstream press of the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party (Malcolm X and Haley 1992; Hilliard 1993). They included pointed and colorful rhetoric that highlighted the ideological premise of their sponsors--revolutionary socialism and dialectical materialism for the Panthers, separatist Black Nationalism and racial chauvinism for the Muslims. Yet what is less understood is the quality of the papers' writing, the grassroots character of their journalism, and the broadly justice-minded nature of their coverage. Moreover, despite their ideological differences, the papers served a common cause: providing relevant and professional content aimed at critically and constructively engaging with white supremacy and structural inequality.
Much of the distinct tone, style, and content of 1960s radical Black press was an outgrowth of the vision and structure established by Malcolm X. Throughout his years in the Nation of Islam (NOI), Malcolm X held firm belief in the power of an independent Black press as the only medium for "voicing the true plight of our oppressed people to the world" (Malcolm X and Haley 1992, 247). After several proto-journalistic endeavors, Malcolm settled on a formula for a 1960 city paper, titled Mr Muhammad Speaks, which proved to be strikingly effective at appealing to Black Harlemites.
The tabloid-sized city paper's banner read: "A Militant Monthly Dedicated to Justice for the Black Man." The paper included the religious teachings of NOI leader, Elijah Muhammad, and stood out in its professional layout, quality of writing, and coverage of news events pertinent to Black communities. Malcolm X went outside his organization to hire renowned professional Black journalists and writers. He directed them to produce a protest-oriented paper that used stirring language to stage news of the day within a narrative of racial justice (Sales 1994). All male members of the NOI were required to sell a quota of papers each week, and did so largely on foot, peddling outside churches, store fronts, and community centers. The triple threat of quality journalism, a racially charged approach to current events, and an aggressive grassroots sales campaign earned it notoriety throughout New York City. In 1961, the paper moved to Chicago and replaced Malcolm X as chief editor. By 1964 it grew from a monthly to a weekly national publication.
The co-founders of the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, "studied carefully" the weekly contents of Muhammad Speaks (Newton 1995, 113). In turn, Black Panther mirrored key aspects of the tabloid format and tone of Muhammad Speaks, and also required their male members to hawk the paper. Both papers took a militant approach to current affairs, oriented themselves around community concerns, and staffed their offices with activist editors.
Muhammad Speaks' editors had a record of civil rights and social justice activism that preceded their work at the paper. Dick Durham was a CIO labor organizer, Leon Forrest participated in the March on Washington, and Dan Burley, John Woodford, Askia Muhammad, and Lonnie Smith had strong records of anti-racist, advocacy journalism (Rusinack 2003; Woodford 1993; Forrest 2000). With the exception of David Du Bois, editors of Black Panther were all active participants in the organization's racial justice activities. Eldridge Cleaver and Elaine Brown helped organize the Black Panther's protest activities against police violence, housing discrimination, and school segregation. JoNina Abron taught children at the Panther's Oakland Community school, and each of them directly or indirectly supported the party's relief programs such as the free breakfast program for children, the liberation schools, clothing distribution, and first aid training (Hilliard 1993; Brown 1992; Abron 1998).
The radical press served as an extension of the editors' effort to win rights and opportunities for Blacks and the working class. They articulated a commitment to improve the lives of Black Americans through excellence in journalism and covering stories they regarded as significant to their readers and "often unreported by the white press" (Forrest, October 1972). The presses proudly offered themselves up as a counterpoint to the failures of the mainstream press to get at the complex, lived realities of communities of color. Leon Forrest assailed the "Neighborhood News" section of major dailies that printed special sections for inner city readers. He saw this as a shallow attempt to absorb and isolate underrepresented voices "while the suburbs remain purely untouched. This means that the newspapers in question don't have to change their basic editorial policy and the paucity of Blacks informing decision making on Editorial boards" (Forrest, September 1972). By contrast, Forrest argued that newspapers "are not autonomous agents unto themselves, but rather nourished and accredited by the community." Furthermore, Black communities are "hungry for information" on bad housing, "rent strikes, tutorial programs, narcotics woes, and how to employ the vet home from Viet Nam" (Forrest, October 1972).
Muhammad Speaks and Black Panther embodied Forrest's sentiments, developing and sustaining relationships with Black communities. The Chicago-based Muhammad Speaks had bureaus in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. and had scores of correspondents nationwide. The San Francisco-based Black Panther published news reports from members in every major city on the East and West Coasts. The papers worked to maintain relevance among local patrons by dispatching journalists to cover regionally pertinent issues. The viability of Muhammad Speaks rested on its capacity to serve and be relevant to the interests of Black consumers in Black communities, and the paper built its reputation on it. In an interview with the author, John Woodford recalled that a reporter from Muhammad Speaks "could go to any kind of Black community meeting or gathering and if they knew you from Muhammad Speaks we got a great deal of respect. Even if they didn't like the Muslims that much, they liked the paper" (Woodford 2009).
Complementing the grassroots approach of the editors, the vendors ensured its salient presence in Black communities. Their parent organizations relied on the revenue, resulting in a flood of NOI and Black Panther members selling papers in front of Black churches, NAACP headquarters, and on the street corners of Black commercial centers across the country. Pedestrians and motorists alike became accustomed to hearing "Salaam Alaikam, come back to your own, read Muhammad Speaks!" and "We're the Panthers, want to see? Buy the paper!" (Lincoln 1994, 218; Hilliard 1993, 123).
As other Black papers steadily declined, Muhammad Speaks and Black Panther laid claim to hundreds of thousands of purchases every week. Expansive and aggressive salesmanship along with quality coverage of issues of interest to Black readers propelled the papers' circulation (Clegg 1996). David Hilliard, who helped establish Black Panther, recalls that it "didn't take much to sell those papers even then" because Black Americans "wanted that newspaper because it gave a different counterpoint to the establishment media that was so biased and racist as a matter of fact" (Hilliard 2007).
IN THE CAUSE OF EDUCATION
The papers took particular care to offer a "counterpoint" to establishment media's coverage of educational issues. Both papers responded to the dominant discourse with rejoinders that troubled the underlying assumptions of the mainstream press. When, for example, the 1970s mainstream press widely discussed the "achievement gap" between Black and white children, Muhammad Speaks appropriated the term to address the "gap" between standard white history books and racially inclusive texts (Garcia 1974). Likewise Black Panther covered the "silent gap" between Black students' demand for relevant curriculum and the alienating nature of school curriculum ("Black Liberation Publishers" 1969).
The papers actively covered educational issues from the perspectives of Black teachers, students, and parents, especially those perspectives that received little coverage in the mainstream press. For example, when Black students occupied Cornell University's Willard Straight Hall, demanding reforms to the Africana Studies program, Time described the incident as a "crisis in a week of chaos that almost destroyed Cornell and deeply alarmed universities throughout the U.S." ("The Agony" 1969). By contrast, Muhammad Speaks did not talk about the students, but through them. The press ran a special report, honing in on student demands, interviewing protestors, publishing their writing in the paper, and concluding, with the students, that substantive curricular reform were needed nation-wide (Walker 1969).
Many of the stories covered in the papers were altogether invisible in the mainstream press. In dozens of articles the Black Panther detailed the abuses of teachers and "marauding" police officers "that pervaded the very atmosphere" of Black school communities ("Maximum Security High" 1970). Whether reporting on the efforts of a Brooklyn community to wrestle control of their schools or reporting on the ruinous conditions of a school building, the radical press took their cue from the communities that bought their papers. In the process they constructed an alternative set of priorities for improving education that were invisible in mainstream discourse.
In addition to their community driven journalism, Muhammad Speaks and Black Panther took a clear position regarding the inextricable relationship between educational reform and racial justice. Eugene Alsandor told readers of Black Panther that if social reform is to be "meaningful and successful, if it is to permeate throughout the nation and affect every household such a change must inevitably be reflected in the educational institutions" (Alsandor 1968). For the radical Black press, this required both deposing the cultural and institutional legitimacy of white supremacy as well as reaffirming the rights of Black Americans to have a voice in determining the conditions and context of learning. These sentiments were articulated across ideological lines, with Black Nationalists, Marxists, Pan Africanists, and civil rights activists advocating for the reform of curriculum, particularly history curriculum.
The radical Black press argued that Black historical narratives and worldviews were suppressed by a white supremacist super-structure. However, the character of critique varied somewhat between the two papers and shifted over time. Black Panther's critique of history education revolved largely around progressive approaches to curricular reform and anti-racist education. This viewpoint emerged primarily after 1969 and particularly after the establishment of the party's school system: Intercommunal Youth Institute (IYI). This period marked a turning point in the party's history, as they moved toward more progressive approaches to education, just as their politics began to shift to more reform oriented goals (Perlstein 2002).
Likewise, political shifts within the Nation of Islam had important consequences for Muhammad Speaks' educational priorities. The most prolific coverage and complex articulations of history education reform emerged from 1961 to 1969, during the tenures of Richard Durham and John Woodford. As organization members took over the editorial work in the paper, religious education took center stage. Yet, all things considered, they share an important enduring focus. Throughout each paper's peak circulation period they consistently framed school as a site of social transformation and advocated for education that serves, substantiates, and represents the oppressed. The following sections outline the character of their critique and vision for advancing reform.
AGAINST THE TEXTBOOKS
"History is used," writes Lerone Bennett, "to undergird the whole superstructure of prejudice and race hatred" in America. Writing in Muhammad Speaks, he concludes that this is "why there is a deep-seated resistance on the part of millions of whites against a complete revelation of the role of black people in the building of this country" (Bennett 1965). Bennett's words capture the urgency and scope with which the radical Black press addressed history. Historical misrepresentations of Black Americans were seen as part of a larger issue of inaccurate and inequitable representations of Black Americans in public life. Moreover, Muhammad Speaks and Black Panther framed historical knowledge as politically consequential and inextricably linked to the wider Black struggle against racism and toward liberation. There was editorial consensus in the papers that the abuses of Black history must be rectified, especially in children's schoolbooks.
Serving as editor of Muhammad Speaks, Richard Durham prioritized covering racism in public school textbooks (Woodford 2009). Prior to his post at Muhammad Speaks, Durham's journalistic career was marked by racial justice advocacy. A former labor organizer and journalist, Durham rose to national prominence in the late 1940s for Destination Freedom, a Chicago-base radio program that dramatized Black struggles for civil rights (Rusinack 2003). For Durham textbook reform was an extension of that struggle:
Today when at least the more 'moderate' elements in the freedom struggle in the country are concentrating on desegregation in education, it is particularly urgent that we demand equal treatment in the school books as well as in the school rooms. (Durham 1962)
One editor opined in 1965 that schoolbooks "participated in a cultural lobotomy" engineered "to make the American Negro a rootless person." The editor argued that publishers, authors, and artists in the field of children's books were part of a longstanding white-supremacist program to "defraud, dehumanize and demoralize black Americans into quiet submission of this country's unreal whites-only philosophy" ("Jim Crow Textbooks" 1965). In turn, editors attempted to counterbalance the absence of Black contributions in textbooks by highlighting them in the paper.
Throughout Durham's tenure, 1961-1968, the paper published the protest of prominent Black leaders and regularly published scholarly studies of textbook racism such as "The Treatment of Minorities in Secondary School Books," "Intergroup Relations in Teaching Materials," and "Bias and Prejudice in Textbooks in New York City Schools." These reports were summarized for readers and discussed in detail to highlight their significance.
An illustrative example of this is an October 1, 1962, publication that dedicated five tabloid-sized pages to spotlight a study of major history textbooks by Columbia graduate student L. P. Beveridge. Titled "Are Millions Being Brainwashed by White Supremacy Poison in Books for Children?," the article detailed how Blacks are depicted as victims and perpetrators or altogether invisible in schoolbooks. It goes on to stress Beveridge's recommendations for reform, which include the development of more inclusive narratives that draw from Black perspectives, and include a call to action:
I suggest that we must consider the proper treatment of Negro history, especially in public education as a political rather than cultural or educational problem, to be solved by political means. (Beveridge 1962)
Beveridge's words are indicative of Durham's approach to covering textbook reform. By featuring research that addressed the political stakes of textbook reform, he framed schoolbooks as part of Muhammad Speaks' justice agenda.
Muhammad Speaks also published readers' responses to the reports in extensive detail. Readers' opinion pieces conveyed a sense of urgency around textbook reform. "We owe it to our children" a parent wrote, "to take more of an interest in their education. I don't mean an interest that would be limited to 'Why can't Johnny read' but 'What does Johnny read.'" (Wilma Ann 1962). Op-ed pieces complimented the paper's overall argument that public schools fail to properly educate children of color by presenting one-sided history:
Even now some of us still say ... "I send him to school ... to learn. Learn what? When your child comes to you with a question such as 'Did Columbus really discover America?' What will you answer? 'No the Indians were here long before Columbus.' We must take an active part in the affairs of our children and the schools which they attend." (Wilma Ann 1962)
Black Panther also directed readers to consider the political nature of knowledge. They took an indirect, but pointed, approach to critiquing public school history curriculum by seating it within the discussion of institutional racism, colonialism, and state repression. Most of the editors of Black Panther were avowed members of the parent organization and worked to publish stories and editorials that fit within the party's radical analysis of white supremacy and their call for Black political agency (Bloom and Martin 2013). Coverage of educational issues was no exception.
The paper's approach is illustrated in a 1968 story of a high school mural in San Francisco that depicted a Eurocentric version of American history. Black Panther described a "full-walled mural of George Washington shown in numerous guises portraying Black slaves and scenes of other, so-called historic shootings and killing of Indians." The story covered the efforts of students to remove the mural and promote interracial dialogue. Throughout the piece, students of color and working-class white students are described as members of the "third world," and their struggle for racially inclusive history is framed as a contestation of power between the establishment elites and the organizing power of youth (Boston 1968).
Black Panther's discussion of historical knowledge was essentially a conversation about power and privilege. The paper identified Eurocentric history as a reflection of the structural inequalities that plague American schools. An April 21, 1970, story titled "Parents Move on Conditions in Dearborn School" demonstrates its approach. The story details a poorly maintained school building, and the corresponding cartoon illustration on the same page depicts students standing in a rat-infested hallway gripping a textbook titled "pig history" (Robertson 1970). The image links the capacity to control the resources in a school community to the capacity to construct and disseminate knowledge. Black Panther, Eddie Joseph took this idea further, arguing that a school's history curriculum should be "planned by the community and those that work there would be employees of the people. In this way knowledge will not be an alien thing to the student." (Joseph 1970) In other words, for knowledge to be authentic, Black communities needed autonomy over its production, dissemination, and legitimation. Furthermore, curriculum and instruction involved arrangements of power and, depending on their designers, helped liberate or oppress Black children.
At first glance the radical Black press' critique of history teaching and textbooks can seem unremarkable. Francis Fitzgerald (1980) observes that the children's textbook industry in the mid to late sixties was "temporarily overwhelmed by a chorus of protests against the white, male, middle-class orientation of the texts" (3). However, two important features distinguish the contributions of the radical Black press to this protest. First, the presses, particularly Muhammad Speaks, did more than criticize. They also developed a curricular counterpoint to white supremacist history. By contrast, as Fitzgerald demonstrates, the children's textbook industry made no lasting reforms to its texts, other than a superficial appendage of Blacks into white history. Second, the papers demonstrated their pedagogical value as content sources in traditional and nontraditional classrooms for Black children. Taken together, they contributed to a productive vision of justice-minded multicultural history education.
A HISTORY WITH MEANING
The papers' attacks on mainstream textbooks went hand in hand with their presentation of a racially inclusive vision for history education. This was largely staged within news coverage of the educational programs affiliated with the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party. Since the late 1950s, the Nation of Islam ran a set of full-time nationwide parochial elementary schools known as the "University of Islam" (UOI), which primarily served organization members' children (Lincoln 1973). Beginning in 1969, the Black Panthers instituted "Liberation Schools" as supplementary education programs for children and later "Intercommunal Youth Institutes" (IYI) as full time schools (Hilliard 2007). Both organizations' schooling programs were widely covered in the presses, often to make a broader argument about American education reform.
In Muhammad Speaks, stories and editorials on the University of Islam served to center Black history as an issue of racial justice and social reform. Affiliates of the University of Islam presented this history as an alternative to white supremacist textbooks. No individual was more prolific in making the case for the University of Islam as the National Director of the University of Islam, Christine Johnson X. With a Ph.D. and years of public school teaching experience, her voice was pervasive in the press (Curtis 2006). Her writing on education was printed at length, covering full pages and accompanied by photographs.
As director, she made textbook reform a priority and used Muhammad Speaks as a forum for discussion. She warned readers of "a national conspiracy to indoctrinate our children with 'white supremacy' propaganda." She described public school textbooks in history as "primers in white supremacy," and asked readers, "where in our textbooks, that we use in our schools, can you find one credit that reflects the part that the Black man played in helping make America great?" (Johnson 1961).
Through the newspaper, Johnson launched a campaign to promote school textbooks that presented a rich and empowering historical narrative of Black experiences: "Let them realize early that they have a history with meaning, and not a meaningless, nebulous something about Negro history and how much progress we have made since slavery" (Johnson 1961). Johnson's call for "a history with meaning" signifies a history of the productive lives of Black Americans that moved beyond the superficial inclusion that mainstream textbooks offered. Her conception follows W.E.B. DuBois' vision of Black history as a legacy of collective ideas and experiences. For DuBois, as well as Johnson, Black history should transcend a simplistic narrative of progress to explore the shifting patterns of progress borne out through history:
in the making of this progress, in the working together of peoples belonging to this group, in the patterns of thinking which they have had to follow and the memories which they shared, they have built-up a distinct and unique culture, a body of habit, thought and adjustment which they cannot escape. (Du Bois 1971, 143)
Black Panther added that while history must provide Black children with a landscape of meaning, it must then help them understand who they are now. Huey Newton told readers that educators are obligated to "transfer our heritage of knowledge to succeeding generations for their survival." Furthermore, Newton argued, "it is not, I believe, our duty to impose our limited interpretation of this past on the next generation." Instead he called upon educators to "foster an investigative attitude, and to provide a framework for the comparison of different peoples," including "Black and Mexican American history" (Newton 1971).
Through coverage of the Intercommunal Youth Institute, Black Panther articulated a student-centered vision of history education built on progressive ideals of democratic classrooms. The paper covered stories of students acquiring historical knowledge through hands on experiential modes of learning within interdisciplinary contexts. A 1974 story presented students learning the "historical development of Black people" through the exploration and creation of art. An IYI instructor told the paper that the "works of famous Black artists are discussed on the merits of the art, not on the personality of the artist" ("Art in the Service" 1974). This approach to history embodies the progressive education ideals of organizing learning around problem solving and historical inquiry--as opposed to isolating the discipline of history or focusing primarily on historical facts.
Stories in the press emphasized learning that facilitates a relationship between historical knowledge and personal meaning. Black Panther highlighted lessons that used autobiographies like Black Boy and Malcolm, X in conjunction with the study of events in Black history. The paper highlighted the development of students' personal connections with events such as Nat Turner's revolt, the March on Washington, and Cesear Chavez's farm workers march. An assistant teacher at a Liberation School told Black Panther that, "they are eager to learn and exchange ideas because the curriculum is based on true experiences of revolutionaries and everyday people who the children can relate to." Progressive education was described as an ideal method for cultivating political consciousness among students "simply because they can relate to what is being taught" (Douglas 1969).
AN EDUCATION IN ITSELF
Along with articulating an alternative vision of history education, the presses literally published history that aimed to educate. Muhammad Speaks regularly carried a one or two page spread spotlighting prominent Black American or African historical achievements. Each week readers were treated to biographies and accomplishments of ancient African kings, inventers, and adventurers, as well as Black American freedom fighters like Fredrick Douglas, intellectuals like Du Bois, and scientists like Benjamin Banneker. These stories bridged space and time, connecting the past to the present and Africa to America. For instance, a 1962 story about Timbuktu told of "a society where university life was highly regarded and scholars were beheld with reverence" (Clarke 1962). The story circles back to the present day to illustrate the living legacy of learning among peoples of African descent.
Black Panther included a weekly side bar series title "This Week in Black History," adjacent to education related news stories. The series detailed a sequence of historical events from the 1700s to the 1970s, highlighting Black agency. For example a May 1974 edition of "This Week" reported the "daring and courageous" events of May 13, 1862, when a "Black steamship pilot, sailed an armed Confederate steamer ... out of Charleston, S.C. harbor and presented it to the Union Navy." The sequence ends with the story of a Black female candidate for Oakland city council in 1974. Each week the sidebar presented histories that were invisible in mainstream history books. From the historic negotiations between Roosevelt and A. Philip Randolph to the Black security guard that arrested intruders at the Watergate Hotel, Black Panther provided readers with an alternative picture of American history ("This Week" 1974). Taken together, the historical content in the papers offered readers a rich corpus of historical content, unknowable from mainstream sources.
Muhammad Speaks' historical content was intended to be a direct response to the failure of public school textbooks. According to John Woodford, editors at Muhammad Speaks saw the newspaper's historical content as an "educational" resource. Editors wanted to provide readers with material to "fill in the gaps" of dominant history (Hussain 2009, pers. comm.). The paper complemented its content with history-themed games and quizzes. A popular crossword puzzle titled "People and Places in Negro History" was a regular series in the press and referred back to previous content with questions like "The first slave rebellion took place in -- in 1730." The puzzle came with a note explaining why some letters were already filled in to ensure people found the answers, "so that the chief aim of the puzzle--to inform--is not lost" ("People and Places 1965).
Readers praised the newspapers for "teaching the true history of black Americans" ("Black History" 1964). Contributors encouraged educators to use Muhammad Speaks and Black Panther as a supplement in their classrooms, and editors celebrated Black educational institutions that utilized the paper in the cause of liberatory education. Letters from public school students and teachers attested to the use of the paper as historical text and poured praise on the press. Eugene Lassier wrote to Muhammad Speaks "to extend sincerest felicitations on your splendid and informative newspaper." Lassier described himself as a student "currently in the process of procuring a 'liberal education.'" He praised the paper as a "supplement" to his education and an "education in itself" (Lassier 1973).
Photos and letters from the University of Islam and Intercommunal Youth Institute classrooms from around the country bore witness to the role of the radical press as classroom text. Educators from Liberation Schools and IYIs from around the country sent in photographs of classroom children reading the pages of the papers. A photo in Muhammad Speaks captures two elementary-age children leaning over a Muhammad Speaks paper. The caption reads: "They will not grow into adults thinking all the worthwhile progress in America and the world was wrought through the skill of only white hands and brains" ("Young Sons" 1965).
The nature and extent to which the papers were used in classrooms requires further study. Testimony by former students and teachers at University of Islam, Liberation School, and IYI schools confirms that the papers were used to teach history, politics, and organizational ideology (Zane and Jeffries 2010; Tate 1997). Evidence of their presence in public schools further raises questions about their use within schools. Teenage members of the organizations sold the papers in their high schools (Abu-Jamal 2004). Yet there has been little study on the impact of their presence. Therefore it remains for further studies to examine the extent to which the papers were "an education in itself" in public and independent schools. What can be said with greater certainty is that the radical Black press served as "societal curriculum"--an informal curriculum that educates children through everyday messages in media (Cortes, 2000). The papers were a direct and informal source of societal curriculum. Letters to the editor indicate that readers found it to be a direct source of knowledge. Parents read stories to their children, and adults edified themselves with historical content they did not receive in school. More informally the papers educated children and adults about the significance of historical knowledge as both a tool of oppression and a mechanism for liberation.
The radical Black press provides historians and educators unique insight into the grassroots antecedents of multicultural education and, in turn, its future possibilities. Multiculturalism was academically instituted through the development of "ethnic studies" programs (Banks 1993). The academic iteration of multiculturalism arose in the early 1970s, following unprecedented levels of mass protest by students of color on college and high school campuses nationwide. Frustrated with the limited pace of legislated education reform and trained in organized protest, Black students put their energies toward demanding greater authority over educational curriculum. The protests were remarkable for their impact on college operations, often slowing or stopping administrative functions for weeks or months and winning important concessions for Black studies programs (Rojas 2010).
The radical press heralded these protestors as the "vanguard of revolution" ("Addressing Vanguard" 1968). Between 1968 and 1973, Muhammad Speaks ran a regular series titled "Inside Black Revolts on Campus," which included investigative reporting by embedded journalists at various campuses, and focused on the demands of protestors. The paper used these stories as a staging ground for meditations on the necessity for educational content that reflected Black experiences and held relevancy for Black communities. In doing so, the radical Black press allied itself with the early stages of the multiculturalism project. Furthermore, the press helped frame multicultural curriculum as a public good and compelled readers to see that what was at stake was not just diversifying classroom history lessons, but a wider discussion about democracy and the political meanings of cultural difference in America.
The papers' efforts offer contemporary educators and scholars of multicultural history education a point of consideration. Christine Sleeter (2003) observes that a good deal of what passes for multicultural education today, is a "liberal multiculturalism" which fails to address cultural differences in terms of power and privilege. This flies in the face of the original purposes of multicultural education. The early academic advocates of multicultural history education were sympathetic to the 1960s Black student protestors. They too were not solely interested in the academic merits of culturally inclusive historical content (e.g. Banks 1973; Gay 1977; Weinberg 1977). Instead, they argued that students' right to access "politically and culturally honest information" is necessary for a socially just education (Apple 1990, 165). They hoped multicultural education would inform society's perceptions and ultimately impact social relationships across social locations of privilege and oppression. Yet today, multicultural education has been co-opted by middle class white administrators and turned into an uncritical liberal framework for mass consumption in public school curriculum (Sleeter and Bernal, 2003). According to first name Loewen (2007) the history textbook industry has followed suit, publishing superficial multicultural histories that fail to make meaningful inquiry into the lives of people of color.
The state of multicultural education today provides an opportunity to consider how "counterpublic" discourse might speak back to the current moment. The critical and creative function of the radical Black press reminds scholars and teachers to seek out and advocate for alternative sites of knowledge construction that may otherwise go unnoticed in dominant discourse. Finding such non-dominant voices may be essential in dispatching liberal multiculturalism in the cause of a meaningful multicultural history.
(1.) Hereafter identified as Black Panther.
Abu-Jamal, Mumia. 2004. We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
"Addressing Vanguard of the revolution." 1968. Muhammad Speaks, January 26. "The Agony of Cornell." 1969. Time, May 2.
"Art in the Service of People." 1974. Black Panther Intercommunal News, June 22.
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Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Khuram Hussain, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Title Annotation:||ARTICLE 10|
|Publication:||American Educational History Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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