When I was a young journalist, fearful of trusting anyone over 30 years old, there were prolonged clashes going on in the streets over racist police brutality, just like now. The civil rights movement resisted the white law-and-order backlash and morphed into the mushrooming anti-war movement.
Then, as now, some radical Black thinkers looked at the pubescent faces of white allies who rushed to the front lines with suspicion. Can these white folks be trusted, or are they just trying to distract some of us?
The Hollywood comedy “Undercover Brother” pokes fun at the notion of Blacks being betrayed after putting their trust in white folks. In 1968, I put the question on the front page of my underground campus newspaper, The Son of Jabberwock, at San Jose State. The cover art featured a nearly full-page black panther, with the face of Marlon Brando, asking the question: “Are the Panthers Integrating?”
That stunt earned me a visit from a delegation led by Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, intent on schooling me about my editorial policies. Needless to say, The Son of Jabberwock continued to publish. Our next edition featured a full-page portrait of Dick Gregory at a speaker’s platform with his back to the camera.
Gregory was a presidential candidate that year with the Peace & Freedom Party. He spoke at colleges all over the country, and everywhere he went, he would cheer on “you young people,” whom he said would make a difference and change the world for the better. In our Black Student Union, we were open to white allies, yet suspicious of the long-term commitment the white guys were willing to make.
“They’ll just shave and put on a suit, then go to work in Daddy’s law firm,” we would sneer about the hippies who wanted to affiliate with the BSU. And sure enough, unfolding right before our eyes was the infamous Chicago 7 conspiracy trial, which grew out of the radical disruption of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
It had originally been the Chicago 8, but after discovering that gagging and tying Bobby Seale to a chair in the courtroom could not prevent him from disrupting the trial, demanding a “jury of his peers,” Seale was separated from his co-defendants into a separate trial.
Well, true to form, after the dust cleared, Jerry Rubin, one of the defendants and “the chief hippie,” you might say, joined his family’s stock brokerage on Wall Street.
Today, tens of thousands of young white people have participated in rallies protesting the murder of George Floyd by a white cop in Minneapolis. Some protests have even taken place in towns where there are few Black residents.
Am I wrong for suspecting that the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is the modern version of a Beatles lyric that will be forgotten after the coronavirus pandemic blows over, or after a couple of Grammy Awards shows? Are these young white people today really affected by the words in their creed, “liberty and justice for all”? Or are they just jivin’?
Or is it too soon to tell?
I can see myself being forgiven for not succumbing to the seduction that almost ruined Eddie Griffin’s character in his “undercover” movie. But it would be a bad, bad day for me to proclaim that Kumbaya is the New National Anthem, and that the Donald Trump Experience was just an ugly nightmare that is being replaced by the New Order, where mutual respect is the Order of the Day … but don’t quote me yet.