Junius Williams on the Power of Stories
Categories: Society & Politics
This month, we look back on the history of the Black experience in America. We look back to remind ourselves that the Dream is yet to be achieved—that there is an unfinished agenda. We look back to educate new generations of this history, and to re-ground ourselves in this revolutionary tradition.
Listed among Ebony’s “100 Most Influential Blacks in America,” Junius Williams is a prominent attorney, educator, and advocate who is responsible for developing 2,000 housing units and many community centers in Newark, New Jersey. A graduate of Amherst and Yale, he was elected the youngest President of the National Bar Association in 1978 and is currently Director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University.
Williams’ story is pertinent to those who are involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, mostly young people, who have not been fooled and lulled into submission by the Empire’s stories. His story can teach the members of this movement much about the workings of power in this country, and what they need to do next, having taken preliminary steps toward personal freedom and justice for all people—just as was done some forty-plus years ago.
I am such a believer, and so I have written about lessons learned in my quest for power for black people, primarily in Newark, New Jersey. Such a journey in the name of a group can be deceiving, even illusory. And so my book is also a personal reflection on my life in politics—the personal costs of chasing power to the edge of endurance. This is my answer to many friends who ask, “Why did you do it, and in Newark, of all places?”
Mine is also a story about the call-and-response nature of any movement for power. We made demands, and “the Empire” struck back. What is “the Empire”? The collective interests, both economic and political, that control America.
Mine is a personal testimony of the power of black people to organize, build effective community-based organizations, and grab power through the politics of confrontation; only to confront the power of the Empire to quell and misdirect our voices by keeping us divided and still under its control.
Carter G. Woodson said this could happen because of the power of “miseducation,” and saw it as a more effective and long-lasting means to control black people under slavery and later under Jim Crow. Sometimes rather than using whip and gun, the Empire simply dumbs us down. But in fact, one of the permissible conclusions from the evidence I present of the Empire’s manipulation of its message and the people they create or suborn as leaders, is that they have miseducated all Americans, not just black folks.
Because of our varying states of miseducation, the Empire controls by keeping Americans divided and unclear about what we have in common as members of what the Occupy Wall Street Movement calls “the 99 percent.” My memoir is about how that happened in the empowerment quest for one community—the black community—using my life story as the means of exploration of principles and practices that are useful for any people who want to take power in America, no matter what color, or social or economic standing.
The Power of Stories
One way for the Empire to miseducate is by telling its stories, over and over, which can only take root absent stories of our own.
Too few of us from the Black Power generation and the movements to take power in cities through the election of black elected officials have told our stories. Hence there is very little understanding of the agenda for change we outlined for black people and America in the 1960s and early 1970s. We wanted self-determination, an end to racism, and economic security. It is an agenda that was never fulfilled, and hence the title of my book, Unfinished Agenda.
What does my story have in common with the untold stories of the others in that movement? First of all, we all confronted or accommodated Jim Crow racism in the South and the North. Then, we formed or joined small, unpredictable grassroots organizations and larger coalitions that moved from confrontations in the streets, combining direct action and professional technical expertise, to campaigns to elect black people to city government.
These city elections created a new black political class, which unfortunately took greater pleasure in imitating its white predecessors in office than in pursuing a more radical goal of seeking inclusion of more people at the table: younger leaders, people with different backgrounds, with new ideas for community development; people heretofore left out of the leadership development process; people who were leaders in confrontation politics.
This has resulted in the elimination of collective memory of the politics of confrontation that catalyzed and energized the movement to elect “the first black mayor” in Newark as this new black political class sought to justify its existence and solidify its power on terms it found more acceptable, such as its membership in the Democratic Party.
So there is a perspective on power that is not often entertained by many people coming of age now, who simply have no idea it exists. There are almost two full generations who stand upon the shoulders of my generation, and, for better or worse, who owe their position in society to us. But they don’t really know to whom the shoulders belong. Some of those that do know thank us for our sacrifice but proclaim that the playing field has changed so much that our services are no longer needed, while others have learned our history and the history of those before us and continue the struggle the best way they can.
The newest generation of urban advocates sees the election campaigns of black and brown officials as models to emulate. How much of what they call “power” today comes from imitating the narrow, one-sided electoral scramble choreographed by the two-party system in America? They know very little of the most important building block of our triumph in controlling these mean streets, namely independent community organizations pursuing the politics of confrontation, coupled with eventual negotiations at the boardrooms and back rooms of private industry and city halls all over America, and election victories at the local level.
These organizations paved the way for President Barack Obama by eventually creating an organized, disciplined voting bloc that knew what to do on Election Day. These community organizations became the foundation from which the Democratic Party collected campaign workers, city government its professionals in the bureaucracy, and local elected officials who proved not as threatening or disruptive to traditional party and economic interests as white power brokers first feared. But once in office, many of these officials forgot the bridge that brought them over, the power that can still be used to now help the president we elected to office. Most people don’t make that connection, nor see its utility.
This is the position we find ourselves in, in the Age of Obama. The youth, parent activists, and politicians in places in Newark are symbolic of the members in urban communities all over the country who got together to elect a black president twice in this country. No matter the disagreement at home, we all agreed that we needed to elect and reelect President Obama. And his smart, tough campaign organization won him two victories despite a well-financed opposition that misjudged the president’s ability to pull together a new majority that required only 39% of the white vote, the remainder coming from black, brown, and yellow people, with huge reliance on youth and women voters.
But our participation in these elections was based not on strategic negotiation with our standard-bearer. The Obama generation (those who were born in the last eighteen to fifty years or so), and those from my generation, invested in blind “Hope,” proclaiming that great change is forthcoming, without having done the analysis of what really happened over the last forty to fifty years in our journey from Jim Crow to Barack Obama.
Why is it we have a noteworthy black president but very little power in the black community? Why are we still unable to prosper in places like Newark, with its complex political culture built upon hope and despair?
I offer this book for the lessons I’ve learned, beginning with the common denominator of Jim Crow, which was America’s context in the 1960s, and the overarching determinant of black people’s responses at that time.
It is a story of my understanding of power, starting with my upbringing in Richmond, Virginia; as it developed during my stay at Amherst College; traveling to Uganda and Kenya in an African homecoming; working in Harlem, New York; going to jail in Montgomery, Alabama; and ultimately becoming an organizer and political leader in Newark.
It is my story, but it is also our story, as hundreds and, at times, thousands of people rose to the occasion and made Black Power a reality in Newark. Put another way, this is a story about what happened when the Movement came North and morphed into the quest for power by black people first in the streets, and then in the suites of city hall, and finally into the arms of the Democratic Party.
My growth as an organizer and political advocate has given me a different perspective on the advent of the Age of Obama. After reading my story, I want you to answer a question: How can all of us, no matter what color or what stage in life, become more empowered by the history that has brought us this new president?
Excerpted & adapted from Unfinished Agenda by Junius Williams.Tags: Social Change Junius H. Williams Cultural Studies