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William Turner Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub
Medium 9781936227037

5. Earl Caldwell

William Turner Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

On June 15, 1969, the New York Times carried a story headlined “Black Panthers Serving Youngsters a Diet of Food and Politics.” It was an inside view of the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program, and of its revolutionary indoctrination of African American young people in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was full of authentic detail, including the children’s repeating after a Panther leader: “I am a revolutionary; I love Huey P. Newton; I love Eldridge Cleaver; I love Bobby Seale; I love being a revolutionary; I feel good; off the pigs; power to the people.” An observer was quoted as remarking, “Say anything you want, but there is one unmistakable fact: Black Panthers are feeding more kids every day than anyone else in the whole state of California.”

The article was written by Earl Caldwell. It was one of at least 16 Times articles Caldwell wrote that year on the Black Panthers. The Times had hired Caldwell, an African American, because its white reporters had been unable to get access to the Panthers or establish any rapport with them. The Panthers paid no attention to press credentials or customary reporter-source practices. Caldwell was basically the Times emissary to the black radical movement. He had covered riots in several American cities in 1967 and 1968. He was the only reporter actually present at the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis and wrote the Times’s front-page story on it. Caldwell developed relationships with Panther sources and was the only reporter in the Times organization able to do so.

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7. Clarence Brandenburg

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“Personally, I believe the nigger should be returned to Africa, the Jew returned to Israel,” Clarence Brandenburg said. The film showed twelve hooded figures, some of whom carried firearms. They gathered around a large wooden cross, which they burned. The members of the group could be heard saying, “This is what we are going to do to the niggers,” “Save America,” “Bury the niggers,” “Freedom for the whites.”

In the late 1960s, Brandenburg was a Ku Klux Klan leader in Cincinnati. He had telephoned a local television station and invited a reporter to come to a Klan rally at a farm in Hamilton County. The reporter, accompanied by a cameraperson, attended the rally and filmed it. During the rally Brandenburg made a speech, in which he said, “We’re not a revengent [sic] organization, but if our president, our congress, our Supreme Court continues to suppress the white, Caucasian race, it’s possible that there might have to be some revengeance [sic] taken.”

Brandenburg was prosecuted under an Ohio criminal syndicalism law of the same vintage as the “red flag” law used to prosecute Yetta Stromberg in California, one of the batch of similar World War I–era laws passed by states out of fear of Bolshevism. The Ohio law made it a felony to “advocate ... the duty, necessity, or propriety of crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.” Brandenburg was convicted, fined, and sentenced to one to ten years in prison.

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1. Yetta Stromberg

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Yetta Stromberg was 19 years old when she was a counselor at a summer camp for young Communists. It was 1929. The camp was in the mountains near San Bernardino, California. The campers came from working-class Communist families from Los Angeles. The 40 or so boys and girls ranged in age from 6 to 16. The parents paid only $6 a week per camper, as all the adults at the camp, including Stromberg, were volunteers.

At 7:00 every morning, Stromberg led a flag-raising ceremony for the campers. As the children stood by their beds, one of them would raise a red flag while the others recited in unison this pledge:

I pledge allegiance to the workers’ red flag,

And to the cause for which it stands,

One aim throughout our lives,

Freedom for the working class.

On August 3, 1929, the camp was raided by several carloads of American Legion members from nearby Redlands, led by George H. Johnson, the district attorney of San Bernardino County. The raid was prompted by the Better America Federation of Los Angeles and the Intelligence Bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department, who were keeping a close eye on radical activities. The Federation, backed by business interests, believed the republic was being undermined by a subversive conspiracy directed by Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union.

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3. Dannie Martin

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“I committed bank robbery and they put me in prison, and that was right. Then I committed journalism and they put me in the hole. And that was wrong.” So said Dannie Martin, a convict’s convict. A longtime heroin addict and alcoholic, Martin knew jails inside and out, mostly from the insider’s point of view. Caught red-handed in a bank robbery in a little town in Washington, Martin was sentenced to 33 years in federal prison.

Prison gave Martin plenty of time to complete the education he never got in the “free” world, and he was an avid reader. He started to write, and it turned out that he had a remarkable gift: the ability to write clearheadedly, honestly, and affectingly about life in prison. No self-pity here, no claims of innocence, no macho braggadocio, no prisoner clichès.

In July, 1986, while in the federal prison at Lompoc, California, Martin mailed off to the San Francisco Chronicle an article he wrote on AIDS in prison. It vividly revealed for the public how serious the epidemic was among prisoners. It landed on the desk of Peter Sussman, editor of the Chronicle’s Sunday Punch section. Sussman liked the piece, determined to publish it, added Martin’s byline, and sent a check for $100 as the standard freelancer’s fee. The article ran on Sunday, August 3, 1986, and readers liked it. Martin continued to submit articles, all first-person essays and vignettes of prison life, and Sussman continued to publish them. They covered diverse facets of prison life that captured the imagination of Chronicle readers and made Martin the most popular regular contributor to the Sunday Punch. One of my personal favorites was “Requiem for Mr. Squirrel,” a poignant story of how Martin alleviated boredom and the lack of meaningful relationships by feeding a grateful and friendly squirrel, whom the prison officials soon poisoned.

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