Bodies on the Line




BOTH OF MY GRANDFATHERS were preachers. On my father’s side, Sydney was a rum barrel cooper turned street preacher from Kingston, Jamaica, who immigrated to Los Angeles in the ’70s; I only ever saw him read the Bible. My mother’s father, Alonzo, was a preacher and theologian originally from Birmingham, Alabama, who worked tirelessly to bring seminary training to black layfolks in South Central Los Angeles in the ’60s, during a time when prestigious white seminaries wouldn’t let black students in.

Dr. Alonzo Levert, or “Doc,” as he was called, would take trips to visit his former students once they retired and moved “back home” to various cities in the South: Memphis, Nashville, New Orleans, and his hometown of Birmingham. The summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, he invited me to go with him on his yearly pilgrimage to the South. While there, we stayed with friends of his in Birmingham. We visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, a place my grandfather had worshipped in his teens before leaving Alabama to join the army and fight in World War II.

Years after my grandfather had moved to Los Angeles, the 16th Street Baptist Church became a national symbol of the lengths white supremacists would go to “keep Blacks in their place.” Early on a Sunday morning in 1963, four little black girls were getting ready for church, when a bomb that was placed by three white Ku Klux Klan members detonated, killing the four girls as they were crushed underneath the rubble. The men who set the bomb were not convicted of the murders until 1977, 2001, and 2002, respectively.

This past summer, the black church again became the site of anti-black domestic terrorism. In Charleston, South Carolina, I watched the aftermath of the massacre perpetrated by a white supremacist at Mother Emanuel AME. I am still grieving for the nine families who lost mothers, aunts, sisters, fathers, sons, and uncles that night. Salt was added to a centuries-old wound as the shooting was followed by a slew of black church burnings throughout the South, a tried-and-true tactic of the KKK; white supremacists have always recognized the importance of the black church in the fight for black freedom and liberation. 

As I processed this act of terrorism through my own deep connection to the black church, I wondered at the role it was to play in the fight for liberation today. This was around the same time that I came across the work of the Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou, author, documentary filmmaker, public intellectual, organizer, pastor, and theologian. At the time he had been the Scholar in Residence at Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Education and Research Institute and the Fellowship of Reconciliation Bayard Rustin Fellow. A native of St. Louis, he played a major role, in mid-August of 2014, in the rebellion that occurred as a result of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. He organized with the young people from the day of the shooting to the announcement of the grand jury results and beyond. During this time, he was arrested twice; once for co-leading a group of religious leaders on Moral Monday and another for praying in the street in front of a line of heavily armed police officers. Five hundred days after his arrest in front of riot police, his trial was set to commence. He faced a $1,000 fine and up to 100 days in jail. 

We spoke via phone the day before his trial was set to begin. The interview has been edited for clarity; great care has been taken to preserve the tone and content of the original conversation.

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JUSTIN CAMPBELL: So where did you grow up, Rev.?

REV. OSAGYEFO UHURU SEKOU: I was born in St. Louis, but I grew up in a place called Zent, Arkansas, in the Arkansas Delta. There were 11 houses and 35 people. It’s one of the blackest parts of the country in terms of the population being predominantly African American. It’s located halfway between Little Rock and Memphis. My childhood was damn near perfect, except for the occasional spanking that I got, that of course, I never deserved. But truthfully, I had an amazing life. Miss Roberta, a community elder, couldn’t write her name, and couldn’t read, but I would read to her and she taught me about the dignity of being an intellectual. My grandparents loved me deeply. My grandfather was an elder in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and my grandmother was a staunch Baptist; they loved me. Sometimes I felt like she loved me too much. It can be a mean old world.

So does Zent feel more like home to you than St. Louis?

I mean, yes. I’m a Southerner; a country boy. I grew up on farms. But yeah, St. Louis is home also as well. My family started migrating to St. Louis in 1952. In that sense, St. Louis has always been in my orbit and it’s home now.

So St. Louis isn’t somewhere you ended up because of the Ferguson rebellion. It’s where you’re from.

Right. I’ve got probably 100 family members in this town.

In terms of the COGIC, how did you get involved with the black church, and then with activism?

My grandfather, Elder James Thomas, who was not my biological grandfather, was an elder in the COGIC. I went to Faith Temple Church of God in Christ in Brinkley, Arkansas. I hung out and traveled around with him when he was preaching or doing funerals. I remember being eight or nine or 10 or something and going with him to a funeral with the family of the deceased and trying to prepare the family; trying to get them not to spend a bunch of money on the funeral, but to think about the future. My grandfather was also a railroad worker in Arkansas and there was a strong socialist tradition among Arkansas railroad workers, particularly after the Elaine Riots. And so, my grandparents weren’t activists, they weren’t marching, but they had a deep commitment to loving black people. I also lived above a sundown town. The bus would pick us up and they were mean to many of us. And so I grew up with an understanding of racial politics in the context of the Arkansas Delta. It was in the air.

Once I was older, I started at Knoxville College, a historically black college in Knoxville, Tennessee. I went there on a vocal performing scholarship. I thought that I would one day be singing opera and on Broadway doing musicals and theater. I starred in two little premieres; Stories of the Old Days was one of them. Once I got politicized, I eventually joined the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. There, I was named and mentored by Stokely Carmichael. At 19, I was trained at the Highlander Center; my godfather Avon Rollins was one of the co-founders of SNCC. I guess I’m kind of a child, in that sense, of the movement. Later, Bob Moses, James Lawson Jr., Ruby Sales, and Diane Nash all laid their hands on me; they invested their time in me. And so for me, it was always in the air.

The thing you have to understand is that in my spiritual tradition, we place a strong emphasis on calling. I have a call story; I had dreams of my grandmother speaking to me, telling me that I would enter into the ministry. But by the time I entered the ministry, I had already become politicized. I became a minister at 23 and had already become politicized, and so was trying to reconcile the two. I happened upon James Cone’s book, God of the Oppressed, which was the first radical theology book that I read at the age of 20. I would later go on to become his student at Union Theological Seminary. I’d say that my calling was solidified the year I spent at Union Theological Seminary, after I left New Orleans. I had been in New Orleans for six months organizing after Hurricane Katrina and I founded the Interfaith Worker Justice Center there. Union gave me the time to think critically on these matters and reflect on them theologically.

I too grew up in the black church, and will always consider Christianity to be my first spiritual language. That being said, I find it increasingly difficult to reconcile the oppressive history of Christianity with some of the liberating values espoused by Jesus. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Is it possible to separate the baby from the bathwater?

The thing is that all ideologies have blood on their hands. I’m a socialist and there’s plenty of blood on the hands of socialism. No religion is without blood on its hands. No ideology, whether it be atheism or any religion is innocent. All of them have blood on their hands. The question before us is how do we then interpret it?

For example, Christianity is a contested text. The Bible is not a book; it’s a library with competing Gods. When you look at how the Bible was constructed, what scriptures went into the canon and what did not, you see that the Bible historically has always been a contested text.

For me, religion is primarily a meaning-making activity. I’m a Camus-ian, an existentialist at heart, and I take very seriously the work of Camus. What I am against is the violent use of any kind of religion. If you look at violence between Hindus and Muslims in India, you find that both religions have blood on its hands. For me, on the other hand religion has always been about belonging, not oppression. It’s about sitting with my grandmother, it’s about community, it’s about longing, it’s about caring for people. So in that sense, I’m the most critical son of the black church second only to James Baldwin. I love the church. But I’m a cis-gendered black man who’s relatively good looking and who speaks well. So I understand that my experience is definitely going to be different than a black woman. But the contradictions are evident and we can’t shy away from contradictions.

So as we talk about contradictions within black spaces, fellow black theologian and activist Rahiel Tesfamariam recently posted on her public Facebook account the following quote: “Black folks who have adopted the mentality and methodology of white supremacy do not serve our interests. Nor do patriarchal women. Period. Just because they look and sound like you doesn’t mean they love you and are speaking and fighting for you.” I know you wrote an “Open Letter to Black Clergy” right before Christmas criticizing the lackadaisical response of the black church to the events of the past few years. Does this quote resonate with you in terms of your working with black lay-Christians and clergy members?

The reality is that in a lot of instances clergy function like Sadducees and Pharisees. What I mean by this is that when you look at the context of the people in power in these black churches, they’re not necessarily bad people. They’ve just committed themselves to an immoral system and have become negotiators with that system. Most of them have churches with less than 100 people in them and they’re just trying to get the foot off the neck of their people. They’re trying to lessen the pain of their people and, yet, in the process they reproduce the very systems that they’re trying to fight. It’s always been that way, though. Harriet Tubman said it best: “I would have freed more slaves if they had only known they were slaves.”

You’ve talked about the conservative black church in your work; would you say in America that that’s the majority of the black church, in general?

The majority of religion writ large, is right-wing and reactionary. That’s the nature of religion. The black church is not unique in this regard. What is unique about the black church is that it has long been the remedy, the ram in the bush, for black folks. At its best, the black church has made a prophetic difference inside the larger church. So yes, the majority of the black church is conservative. That being said, there are a few who are willing to put their bodies on the line in the struggle to make the world better.

You’ve written about how when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an emissary of the black church in the ’60s, traveled to Los Angeles in August of 1965, in the wake of the first Watts Uprising, he wasn’t well received by the young black folks there. Looking back, this is almost hard to believe. You mention how King, alongside Bayard Rustin, was booed at a community meeting, one man standing up to say, “We will not turn the other cheek.” These men were two pillars of the Civil Rights movement; why was there such a divide between them and the youth? Is it a divide that still exists between the youth and the black church establishment?

When King gets to Watts, the first thing he does is hold a press conference at the airport. He doesn’t speak to any of the local leadership. He was talking with national media as soon as he gets off the plane. This is because he was doing a dance. In 1964, if MLK is on television, white people were going to be watching. As a result of that dynamic, young people see him on TV, appealing to the white mainstream. As we look back, we can have a critique of that; but his ultimate aim was national legislation.

By the time he got to the community, the young folks who had seen him on television, in their mind “buck dancing” for white folks, weren’t having it. Combine this with the fact the LAPD had been so unchecked and so violent to that point, and you have most folks saying to King, “Nah, that ain’t how this going down.” So that was a tactical error on King’s part. He actually talks about these mistakes in the 1965 interview with Alex Haley in Playboy.

I think it’s interesting too that you mentioned in your pieces on him, that he realized his error after the fact. I love this; it’s a sign of his humanity, a moment that demythologizes him.

I think part of it is that King also faced the some of the same constraints that people doing the work do today: the conservatism of the church and national hysteria. In King’s time, the national hysteria was communism; ours is now terrorism. And both generations face the constraint of religious conservatism. The same contradictions are emerging given that we live in the same country with the contradictions.

The tension between the old guard and the new guard now is more about ideological differences. Older organizers who are more Civil Rights era-orientated tend to lean toward respectability politics, their main goal being to gain access to the mainstream. That being said, there are people like Angela Davis and SNCC from that era who would be ideologically aligned with some of the younger organizers we see today.

You mentioned Angela Davis and SNCC would resonate more with the younger generation today. In fact it seems like the split that happened organizationally between SCLC and SNCC is a precursor to the divide we see happening now. Do you agree?

One of the people who embodied SNCC and Black Power for the era, was Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Turé, who went on to become a dear mentor of mine. Even though he had critiqued King publicly, during the riots after King was murdered, there’s the story of Kwame getting out of the car on U Street as they’re burning the town down and, as the story goes, he’s weeping and begging the people not to burn. He’s walking around saying, “This is not what King would have wanted.” I say all that to say that Turé loved King deeply. Even though the ideological contradictions emerged, and they were definitely there, Kwame fundamentally understood the role that King played. For example, when they were in the South organizing, an old black woman would ask Turé, “Are you Dr. King’s man?” and he’d be like, “Yep, I’m working for Dr. King,” even though he was working for SNCC. This is because Kwame understood that King resonated rhetorically in a certain way with everyday Southerners in a way that Malcolm X did not.

Shifting back to the present, it’s no secret that you were in Ferguson during the rebellion, and that now you travel around advocating for folks working on the ground in Ferguson today. As you’ve done that, what has been the biggest misconception in regards to what’s happened since the death of Michael Brown from both skeptics and sympathetic parties?

The greatest challenge has been the mythology of the Civil Rights movement! For example, I was just out in Oakland, doing an release party for my new album right around MLK day. Some of our colleagues from Black.Seed shut down the Bay Bridge. People were literally tweeting out, “Dr. King wouldn’t shut a bridge down.” I said to myself, “Did you not see Selma?! That was all about a bridge!” And so I think that part the problem these young folks are facing is the mythology of the Civil Rights movement and then the kind of trafficking of the normative stereotyping as it relates to violent black youth. It was like it was nothing but rioting in Ferguson and nothing but thugs. This idea that that the young people in the streets have no political discourse, that the young people are not politically sophisticated … That is simply not true. There’s a level of political sophistication that is deep, that is internationalist, that keeps track of Palestine. It’s quite amazing.

So how would you frame the kind of political discourse that you’ve seen on the ground, coming from the youth? You referenced Palestine, but what are some other characteristics?

The way I talk about it, right, is that if Black Lives Matter is the Word, then Ferguson is the Word made flesh. When I hit the streets of Ferguson, the way my body felt, the way I physically felt, inherent in my body, felt like I did in Palestine in 2011. My body felt the same. That’s because Ferguson police were running Israeli tactics on American citizens. And so there’s an internationalist political discourse at work. The leadership is also primarily queer black women with single moms at the forefront. And so it has a womanist, a black womanist, black feminist politic. It also contains a sustained critique of capitalism. So politically, this is a unique moment in the history of black struggle in the United States.

And it seems as well that the current movement is not interested in assimilation or “getting a seat at the table.”

Right.

That’s what the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act were attempting to do: to make space in the mainstream for black folks. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not denigrating those; there just seems to be a different focus now.

The age of Ferguson, for me is characterized by three issues. It’s characterized by 1) the occupation of public space, 2) the rejection of traditional leadership, 3) and the calling into question systems that previous generations have attempted to integrate into.

You have written about how the common response of many black (and white) clergy has been to tell young folks with tattoos, gold teeth, and fitted caps protesting in streets that they need to get saved and that they “need Jesus,” as if accepting Jesus into their hearts would end white supremacy’s impact on their lives. You even went so far as to say that in the streets of Ferguson the clergy collar became a symbol of cowardice, a scarlet letter deserving rebuke. Are these young protestors going to actually end up saving the American church as opposed to being saved by it? Do you see this happening already? If so, how? If not, what would it look like?

Well I think that on one level, religion is as religion does. So I don’t have much hope for the church writ large. But I got hope in the young folks. I believe that they’re our salvation. And that’s always been the case. It wasn’t like the church said, “Hey! Let’s not do slavery!” Some people put their bodies on the line and forced the church — same thing with women and access to the pulpit; same with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. It’s social movements that push the change. The church is like hip-hop, in that if the people are on the move, the church will be on the move. If the people are on the move, hip-hop will be on the move.

And so what does the salvation of the church look like in this moment?

For me theologically, salvation is a process; it’s not an event or destination, but a journey. One of the challenges I gave to clergy when I spoke to the Chicago Teachers Union a few weeks ago is that when the teachers go on strike, clergy open their churches 24 hours a day, as long as they’re on strike, as a place to care for the children affected, to give sustenance and support to the protestors. For me also, the holiest place in St. Louis is not a church; it’s a coffeehouse called MoKaBe’s. It’s a place where we can go and be fed and loved and cared for. And so, for me, the church is alive, it’s not just in the four walls of a congregation.

So the church doesn’t look like what we think it looks like.

Right.

Do you think that the traditional church should move toward a model that looks like what you’re describing?

There will always be these traditional church spaces. I’m a traditionalist in that sense, right? But I’m a traditionalist who believes that tradition is acquired with great labor. It’s not just something you inherit, according to T. S. Eliot. It’s something you struggle for. So I believe in tradition, I believe in ritual, I believe in the gathering of the saints. It’s just that I’m learning to observe where the gathering of the saints is taking place outside of those traditional methods.

During the Dialectics of Liberation conference that took place in the UK in 1967, a conference that you’ve written and spoken about, Stokely Carmichael said, in his talk “Black Power” that “when rebellions break out in large cities of America, the first thing people say is that they’re riots. And white Western society […] the first thing they want is order; law and order […] they never talk about justice […] the United States knows law and order, but it doesn’t know about justice.” Do you think this still rings true?

No question. Law and order discourse emerges after the ’60s and is Nixon’s running point. Law and order, then, is about, as Foucault says, the “disciplining and punishing” of black lives and black bodies. And so, yes, we’re still faced with the same hard truth over and over again.

Do we as Americans understand this is what we’re doing or is the implementation of law and order discourse something more subconscious?

I think that the American empire is in a crisis, right? The financial crash of 2008 where 40 million people went into poverty overnight, was followed by the Arab Spring, which produced the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The empire is in a fundamental crisis and when you’re in a crisis, you see more and more of its tendencies to become more and more violent. It’s always been violent, but it has become increasingly violent. For me, part of what we’re going to see with this increased form of violence is a high level of political consciousness among young folks, which we see at work now. I think we’re going to see more artistic production. This is what we’re attempting to do with the album we just released; the nation gave me the blues and I needed to sing.

But that’s what it’s always been, right? “We Shall Overcome”; all these songs have served that purpose.

Yes. And for me, the point of the music I make is, can we just help someone live to fight another day, be a little bit of salve, you know what I mean?

I totally agree. I’d actually like to talk more about the music, if you don’t mind. Returning back to the Dialectics of Liberation congress, veteran anarchist and polymath Paul Goodman said the following in his talk, “Objective Values”: “Frankly, the real inner policy of the US majority with regard to Negroes is not racist at all […] if only they would go in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and drown. This would be cheaper and more efficient for everybody.” Fifty years later, does hope for the future of America’s relationship with black folks seem naïve? What role does music play in that hope, if any?

At one level, I’m my freest when I’m singing. And I hope the freedom that I experience is contagious. I think also that our tradition is to be hopeful in the face of hopelessness, to be prisoners of hope. It’s to look at the material conditions and to call them a lie; to say that they are not true. And so for me, my music is a product of that. It is what we need to help us live to fight. Part of the tradition of black musical struggle is that when we can do nothing else, we sing a song; we sing songs of Zion in a strange land.

And that’s not to say that the structures disappear when the singing happens.

Right. The old folk saying is that you gotta go through it, not around it.

You’ve talked about the fact that we should push for a radical restructuring of society. What would that look like for you, in your conception of it?

One of our songs, “Heaven,” says,

There’s a story about a place told a long time ago, about a city where the streets are paved with gold. Everybody got a place to stay and food to eat, long white robes and gold slippers on their feet. In that place they don’t study war no more, they’ve laid down their burdens and they’ve picked up joy. Everybody drives a Cadillac and the devil’s got a Rolls-Royce too; we finally got what they owed us: 40 acres and a mule.

So that’s what a radical reconstruction of society would look like for me. A place where everybody is honored. In more materialist language, it’s universal healthcare, universal education, universal housing, a guaranteed income, pulling on the main points of King’s Poor People’s Campaign.

Do you think the current political system is robust enough to be the put forward this kind change as it stands now? 

I think that it’s in the capacity of the demos to radically change the democracy. I believe in people.

Not systems.

Right. I believe that systems can be changed. Now that being said, I don’t believe that social movements should govern. I don’t endorse candidates; I prophesy to them. And so I think social movement’s responsibility is to hold the state accountable. Even when those of us who emerge out of our movements become part of the state apparatus we must hold them accountable.

For you, what happens when movements begin to govern?

They begin to look like the state! They begin to function like the state.

Do they lose their revolutionary credibility?

I just think that the machinations of the state become the machinations of the movement. You begin to participate in functions of the state. So then you have to push back and create public space. The state has to be held accountable. We’re always finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems according to Niebuhr. We’re going to find various ways to be unkind. And so the task of the social movement is to keep track of that. And to call the state on it. Whoever it is. If Cornel West becomes president of the United States, I am going to prophesy to him.

And you think Dr. West would want you to, right?

Without a doubt. We must prophesy. And If DeRay Mckesson becomes the mayor of Baltimore, we prophesy to him as well.

Do you think that when social movement leaders enter politics, they underestimate the power of the system to conform them to its way?

I just think the nature of the system is the nature of the system. It’s the way it functions.

So there’s no getting around that.

No.

So going back to young people. I love the way you talk about the folks you work with. You call them “your babies.” I love the love in that. It flies in the face of the personal deficiency model that’s used to talk about the youth: “Well if they just got off their cell phones and if they just stopped listening to that rap music, and if they just pulled their pants up.” Why is this language so pervasive when talking about the youth? What don’t we know about the youth? How do we move toward a space of taking leadership from the youth as opposed to denigrating them?

I’m able to do what I do, in part because people loved me in spite of myself. At 19, I thought I knew as much as I do now. And people loved me. And they challenged me and they disciplined me. But they never let me go. They never wrote me off. And so for me, it’s just an experience of a love that I’ve experienced that I just want to share. I think that at the same time, we have to avoid fetishizing youth. Youth don’t know everything. There’s a certain benefit to having some folks around who have been on the planet longer than you. Just by the fact that they’re still here they might have something to teach you. And I say babies in part because I don’t want to misgender people, right? But it’s also the older I get, the more I become my grandmother. And so it’s a term of endearment. I’m a Southerner and that’s where that comes from.

In closing, what are some of the questions that we should be asking that we are not?

The question that’s been haunting me mostly is, “Is the democracy worth saving?” And if so, who among us is willing to risk life, limb, jail time, everything, for the salvation of the nation?

Is that a question to be answered by all of us?

Yes. And only heaven and history will be able to judge it. In the meantime, I’m gonna stay on the battlefield and keep playing these blues.

How are you feeling about your upcoming trial?

It’s interesting to me that, you know, the state has made some offers; we’ve rejected them all. I’m willing to do the jail time, if need be. It may be a fine or something like that. If I don’t pay it, I’ll be facing up to 100 days in jail. May not be that much, but we pray there’s an impact on the broader conversation, because my jail time would not be about me. It’s about making the nation take a look at itself; asking ourselves, is this really what we want to be? Is this really who we are?

Do you hope for another outcome other than a guilty sentence?

I don’t know. The old folks would say they didn’t know what the future holds, but they know who holds the future.

Any final thoughts?

My highest aspiration is to be an artist. And so I think with this record, it accomplishes something for me, at a personal level, and it’s a tribute to my grandmother. She’s been dead for 30 years, and I’m still trying to honor her. And so one of the songs, “Goodbye Baby,” which is an elegy for mothers of the martyred, has been playing in my ear and it’s kind of the soundtrack of this impending trial.

What has been the connection for you between the song and the impending trial?

I mean, on one level, the trial or the mere fact of the trial, is an elegy on the democracy, very much like this song is an elegy.

On the death of democracy? Or on the fact that it’s dying?

I think that’s for the historians to determine.

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Two days after this interview was conducted, a jury of his peers found Rev. Sekou not guilty on all charges. His latest album, entitled The Revolution Has Come, is now available on FarFetched Records via Spotify, Apple Music, and other music providers.

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Justin Campbell is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He is the winner of the 2013 Hurston/Wright Award for African-American Writers. His work has been published in The Millions and The African American Review.


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