This is the medal given to nearly two hundred black soldiers in General Butler’s Army of the James. Inscribed in Latin “Ferro Iis Libertas Perveniet” means “Freedom will be theirs by the sword.” General Butler began the war as a Democrat and a political appointee. While his generalship was mediocre at best, he developed into a Radical Republican. Much of his change is attributed to the influence the actions of the black troops under his command. After the war as a member of congress he sponsored the most far-reaching anti-racist legislation of the Reconstruction era; the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (Ku Klux Klan Act) and, with Republican Senator Charles Sumner, the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The latter was over-turned with the collapse of Reconstruction.
The black regiments in the Army of the James included the 7th, 8th, 9th, 45th, 4th, 6th, 5th, 36th, 89th, 1st, 22nd and 37th U.S.C.T. and fought with distinction at Fort Harrison, Chaffin’s Farms (where 14 Colored Troops won the medal of honor), New Market Heights and on this day, October 7th, in 1864 on Darby Town Road. Many hundred fell and thousands were wounded in the bitter campaign below Richmond in the waning days of the war. For Colored Troops no quarter was received and little given. The 5th United States Colored Troops was raised in Ohio early in the process of black recruitment, of the 550 members of the 5th that went to battle at Chaffin’s Farm 146 years ago this week, 85 were killed and 248 wounded, in addition to 9 officers wounded.
Above is one of those 5th USCT warriors who received the Medal of Honor at Chaffin’s Farm, Powhatan Beatty of Cincinnati, Ohio (my home town). He took command of his company after all the officers were killed or wounded leading them in the day’s fierce combat. After the war he returned to Cincinnati where he lived at Serman Avenue and McNeal Street in Norwood. Originally from Richmond, Virginia where he would return to fight to overthrow the system from which he once fled, this freedom fighter was a cabinetmaker, janitor, a porter on a steamboat and a semi-professional actor and playwright who once appeared before Frederick Douglass. A working class hero of black liberation. Freedom will be theirs by the sword, indeed.
As we come up to the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry we should also celebrate those who came after Brown and fought in his spirit. Robert F. Williams was heir to the militant abolitionist movement, but that part of the movement enslaved. Nobody’s boy, Williams followed his own path and this alienated quite a number of his supporters in his own life. He, however, remained true to himself and lived life fully always in the vanguard. He is as complex and compelling now as he was when he was alive. His freedom call has yet to be answered.
A hero of the black liberation struggle and the fight against imperialism around the world his story is completely absent from the dominant narrative on the movement for civil rights. If he is remembered at all it is for his militancy rather than the politics that informed that militancy. Williams’ voice is the working class voice of that movement. And Williams was not alone. The image of the Civil Rights Movement as being a single Gandhian movement is false. Whatever gains black folks have made these last years is as much a response to the methods of Williams as it was to those of King and Rustin.
His long and fascinating story; from North Carolina to a life of exile and an internationalist journey through the whirlwinds of history that rivals those of Paine and Che in its breadth and scope, finally returning to live out his life near Baldwin, Michigan is retold by his equally remarkable wife and comrade Mabel Williams in a recent audio CD and can be found here. Mabel Williams might be the most dignified presence I have ever been in a room with. She is still unwavering and a hero in her own right. Click on the video above to get to the rest of this nearly hour long interview with Williams. This is one that you’ll want to watch. Robert F. Williams, Presenté!
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The Black Agenda Report’s Glen Ford along with Cynthia McKinney and others spoke at the Which Way Forward for the Black Left? meeting organized by the Harlem Tenants Council on May 31st. Ford isn’t for waiting for the Obama administration to show its mythic “progressive” heart. For Glen, with trillions to bail out banks the Obama administration has already shown, definitively, which class it works for and what that means for black people. Ford knows the ground covered by that particularly American intersection of race and class well and that is from where he fires his shots. In the process he takes aim at Michael Eric Dyson who supports the administration’s policies yet questions Obama’s “embrace of blackness”.
Vincent Harding’s There Is A River: The Black Struggle For Freedom In America should, in my humble reading, be a required text in schools. Sometimes the history of the States coming into being and then coming to power can seem one long racist orgy of bloodletting, of “amalgamation and capital”, of inhumanity astride a whole continent. But that the resistance to that horror show has been ceaseless, often innovative and occasionally profound.
The particularities of our history have meant that black people have been the invariable recipient of exploitation and the repression it requires as well as the vanguard of resistance to it. Vincent Harding’s work, and especially There Is A River, helped me to pivot my entire viewpoint on that history. I used to look at a map of the States and see only markers of savagery integral to its construction. It is possible now to see on that very same map everywhere signposts of struggles for liberation.
Harding is not just an historian but an activist. As confidant of Martin Luther King he largely wrote King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. All of those in Denver last month who feted King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and crowned Barack Obama as the herald of its fruition would do well to listen to that speech. Though Jesse Jackson says King would have supported the war in Afghanistan (if Obama didn’t support the war Jackson would hardly being using King in its defense) I tend to doubt it. King saw his government as the “greatest purveyor of violence” in the world and saw in the rebellions against that purveyance allies in the “revolution” that King envisaged.
Here Harding speaks about King as part of a lecture series on the African American Freedom Struggle at Stanford last year. His audience is largely those who benefited from the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. Obama’s candidacy is being hailed as the realization, and therefore the end, of that movement. Listening to Harding on King one realizes how false that proposition is.
Harding’s politics are firmly in the tradition of the Civil Rights Movement; including some of its weaknesses. Non-violence as a principle sees in violence the base of society’s conflict whereas Marxism sees in violence the symptom of a conflict based on society’s division by class.* Where I see alienated labor he sees alienation from God.
That said, he is an extremely principled and observant man; radical and honest. An historian for whom history is a teacher to absorb and act on. There is a short introduction and then Harding opens with Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Would Know How It Feels To Be Free.”
* I have recently read and can’t recommend enough Isaac Deutscher on Marxism and Non-Violence. I can’t find it on line (if it’s out there please let me know). I have it in the collection Perry Anderson put together called Marxism, Wars and Revolution.