In the “True Story of Chicken Little,” by Linda Holmes, Chicken Licken is struck by a police officer and sets off to report her injury to the king. Needless to say, the official version of events is a bit different than what really happened.
Media and the Movement was sad to learn that writer Sam Greenlee passed away at the age of 83 on May 19. Greenlee was best known for his 1969 novel The Spook Who Sat By the Door, a semi-autobiographical account of the CIA’s first black agent based on Greenlee’s own experiences with the U.S. Information Agency from 1957 to 1965. After years of tolerating racist and demeaning treatment from his white superiors, the disgruntled agent Donald Freeman leaves the CIA and sets out to put his paramilitary and intelligence training to new use. Freeman relocates to Chicago, where he organizes a group of young black gang members and gives them a radical political education and military training so they can launch an armed revolution in the city.
Following the novel’s release, Greenlee produced a screenplay for a film adaptation, which was directed by Ivan Dixon and released in 1973. The film is nothing short than astonishing. Not only does The Spook Who Sat by the Door forward a radical, Black Power ethos virtually unseen in other movies of the era, but Greenlee and Dixon also shot parts of the film guerilla-style in Chicago without permits from a Ricahrd Daly-era City Hall. Interestingly, Mayor Richard Hatcher’s office gave Greenlee and Dixon’s crew full permission to film other scenes in neighboring Gary, Indiana.
Yet The Spook Who Sat by the Door flopped at the box office and was reputedly removed from national circulation at the demands of the FBI. One pristine print survived and resurfaced in 2004, however, and the film was placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2012.
The trailer for The Spook Who Sat by The Door gives a good preview of the film’s narrative and political trajectory. Particularly notable are the film’s gestures to Leftist, Pan-Africanist, and Third World revolutionary ideology. The young Chicago revolutionaries’ struggle, Donald Freeman explains, is one of “men against machines, brains against computers. Now if you don’t think it can work, then check out Algeria, China, Korea, and the ‘Nam. Can you dig it?”
Out of circulation from 1974 to 2004, The Spook Who Sat By the Door is now viewable in its entirety online.
Media and the Movement has been working hard for several years to locate rare recordings from activist radio stations that are in need of digital reproduction. Radio recordings, particularly from noncommercial and African American stations, have generally been poorly documented and preserved. If the recordings exist at all, they’re usually on outdated formats such as reel-to-reel tapes, sitting in former radio announcers’ garages, attics, and basements. In the course of our project, we’ve come across a number of recordings that interviewees wish to preserve but can’t even listen to because they don’t own reel-to-reel players.
We’re proud to say that we’ve just completed a pilot project of digitizing our first batch of recordings, with the help of George Blood L.P., a crack outfit of audio and video engineers and preservationists based in Philadelphia.
These recordings came from WVSP, the activist radio station in Warrenton, North Carolina that we’ve written about extensively on this site. We’d like to give you a sample with an audio clip from WVSP from 1982 that shows off the station’s distinctive blend of jazz, blues, soul music, and progressive political commentary. The interview is with none other than Anne Braden, the famed activist from Louisville, Kentucky who devoted her life to the struggle for racial equality, peace, and workers’ rights from the 1950s to the 2000s. This is a world re-premiere of audio that’s been sitting for decades in the home of WVSP’s Valeria Lee, so give it a listen!
We just wrote a story for The Durham News section of the News and Observer on the history of activist media in the Research Triangle in the 1970s. Topics included WAFR, the country’s first Black Power community radio station, and WVSP, the country’s first black rural community radio station, as well as WSHA, WDBS, The Protean Radish, The North Carolina Anvil, Southern Exposure, and Africa News Service. The piece was published as part of a larger series highlighting work by board and committee members of the Museum of Durham History.
As Amiri Baraka passed away one month ago today, it’s worth reflecting on the artist-activist’s complex and multifaceted contributions to the media and the movement. Many of Baraka’s obituaries, including ones from NPR , The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, described him as a writer first, a leader in the Black Arts movement second, and a political figure third (Democracy Now’s excellent coverage was a key exception). Journalists recounted Baraka’s involvement with political movements merely in passing, almost as if they were distractions from his literary and artistic career. Most obituaries did not even mention what was arguably the high point of Baraka’s political career, his election as chairperson of the 1972 National Black Political Assembly, when a broad coalition of tens of thousands of African Americans converged on Gary, Indiana to discuss forming their own national political party.
As James Smethurst wrote in his seminal work, The Black Arts Movement, it is “commonplace to briefly define Black Arts as the cultural wing of the Black Power Movement…[but] one could just as easily say that Black Power was the political wing of the Black Arts Movement.” This idea certainly applies to Baraka. Most obituaries framed his political work as an outgrowth of his writing, but one could also argue that Baraka’s written work–especially in his black nationalist period stretching from roughly 1965 to 1975–grew out of his politics.
Historians such as Komozi Woodard have convincingly argued for Baraka’s significance as a central figure of both the black nationalist and pan-Africanist movements, as well as a national leader in Marxist circles. Baraka was also a publisher and editor of various black nationalist and radical magazines and newspapers, including The Cricket, Black New Ark, and Unity and Struggle, and he lent his support to Newark’s black nationalist publishing house, Jihad Productions.
The video below gives a glimpse of just how deeply Baraka participated in black politics and media making in the early 1970s. It comes from Breaking the Chains of Oppression, a rare documentary about the first commemoration of African Liberation Day, when an estimated 50,000 demonstrators assembled in Washington, D.C. in May 1972 to demand black independence in the U.S. and abroad. The driving force behind ALD and the producer of the documentary was the African Liberation Solidarity Committee, a group with which Baraka worked closely.
Baraka was well acquainted with Black Power activists in the South. In 1970, he helped to found the Congress of Afrikan Peoples at the group’s inaugural meeting in Atlanta. The ALSC was also active in the South, particularly North Carolina. Although it was headquartered in Washington, it was led by the Durham-based activist Owusu Sadaukai (Howard Fuller) and worked closely with Greensboro’s Malcolm X Liberation University and the Student Organization for Black Unity.
 James Smethurst, The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 14.
Greensboro, North Carolina was an unlikely meeting place for anti-colonial and Pan-Africanist activists in the 1970s. Unlike much larger East Coast cities like New York and Washington, Greensboro was not a significant site of contemporary African immigration, nor was it the home of major international institutions like the United Nations or African embassies.
But two Greensboro-based organizations devoted to Black Power and Pan-Africanism drew black activists from all over the country to central North Carolina. The Durham-based activist Howard Fuller (later Owusu Sadukai) opened Malcolm X Liberation University with black students who had left Duke University in the fall of 1969. At the end of the 1969-70 academic year, MXLU’s students and faculty moved from Durham to Greensboro to offer classes to a small but growing number of devoted Pan-Africanist college students.
One of the main reasons MXLU’s staff made the move was to strengthen their coalition with Black Power activists involved in the Greensboro Association of Poor People (GAPP). Nelson Johnson, a young black veteran and student of North Carolina A&T, had helped to launch GAPP, but in the early 1970s he founded a new group in Greensboro, the Student Organization for Black Unity. SOBU was a national network of African American students who agitated for black power in their own communities and campuses, while also organizing financial and logistical support for newly independent nations and anti-colonial campaigns in Africa.
In 1971, the organization launched the SOBU Newsletter, which it soon renamed The African World. Over its four-year run, The African World offered a fascinating mix of local reporting on black activism in North Carolina, stories on campaigns for Black Power throughout the U.S., and extensive coverage of anti-colonial struggles in South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, and Zimbabwe. The newspaper became an important organ for the African Liberation Support Committee, which organized the first African Liberation Day in the U.S. in 1972 in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco that drew an estimated 50,000 demonstrators.
Media and the Movement has interviewed several activists who worked withThe African World and other pan-Africanist media in 1970s Greensboro, so stay tuned for more posts on this topic.
Annie Mae Williamson is ninety-four years old. She has been hosting The Women’s Program five-days-a-week on WVOE-AM in Chadbourn, North Carolina, ever since Ted. Reynolds knocked on her door in 1962. Mr. Reynolds, a founder of WVOE (“The Voice of Ebony”), marched right up to Annie Mae Williamson’s home one day over fifty years ago to propose that she pioneer a segment for women on the newly founded black-owned station, only the fifth of its kind in America. In an interview with Joshua Davis, Williamson describes that fateful day Mr. Reynolds approached her with his broadcasting opportunity.
AW: In 1962, when the radio station came on-air, Mr. Reynolds, which was the manager, he came to my home one day. He said, “Mrs. Williamson, I want to do a woman’s program, and I want you to host it.” I said, “Mr. Reynolds, I have no, you know, knowledge of—.” He said, “You can learn!” And so, that’s the way it started. I came on out, and he told me what he wanted me to do, and I just started from that. I learned. You know, as you go along, you learn.
JD: Why do you think he came to you, of all women in Chadbourn?
AW: Well, I guess somebody must have told him—Mr. Walls, I think, was here at the time. And evidently, he probably asked Mr. Walls. And at that time, I was in the church with Mr. Walls, and he knew my capability, I guess. He knew what I stood for.
In 1962 Ms. Williamson had already worked as a midwife for the Columbus County Health Department for sixteen years, and she was quite active in her local congregation. Half a century later, she still offers household hints and advice on health issues over the air, with as many as fifty calls from listeners in a single hour. You can tune into Annie Mae’s show from Monday through Friday from 11am to noon on 1590 on your AM Dial in the southeastern corner of North Carolina..
Click HERE to listen to an excerpt of an interview with Annie Mae Williamson conducted by Josh Davis.
Jeffrey Starkweather, born into a conservative Christian household in California, eventually made his way to Washington, D.C. where he worked as a staffer and organizer, developing the community-mindedness that would eventually take him to Pittsboro, North Carolina in the early 1970s. There, he took over the Chatham County Herald, a paper serving this fairly rural county in the North Carolina Piedmont.
Starkweather quickly shocked county leaders by actually covering community issues and political proceedings, a standard journalistic practice not often employed before his arrival. The Herald was not an alternative paper. That is, it did not exist to provide an alternative source of journalism and information for a community already being served by a local media outlet. Chatham County residents read The News and Observer of Raleigh, as did many North Carolinians, but they did not have a local paper to call their own. Starkweather set out to provide one, covering sports, church gatherings, local events, and other local news as well as pursuing investigative reporting.
Within just two years, the paper had won two major journalism awards for its investigative and community work. At the end of the 1970s, the Herald’s coverage of plans to deposit soil contaminated with PCBs in Chatham County successfully halted that effort (the contaminated soil was dumped in Warren County, the home of WVSP), demonstrating the power of local media in addressing and affecting policies and practices with local impact.
Starkweather’s desire was to use the Herald to shed light on the political process, thus contributing to the community’s civic health, but also to acknowledge the importance of the daily lives of Chatham County residents. He describes his philosophy here:
(Don’t see the audio player? Try Safari or Firefox. Or use the QR code below.)
If for whatever reason you had the opportunity to pass through Chadbourn, North Carolina—located in rural Columbus County in the state’s southeastern corner, population 1,844 —you could quite possibly drive by the WVOE radio station without having any clue of its historical significance. You might not even know you were passing a radio station at all, since it’s easy to miss the antennae about fifty yards behind the station. WVOE is housed in a squat white cinderblock building about the size of a double-wide trailer, with a few staff members’ cars usually parked along a dirt driveway out front. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a less conspicuous building.
Yet a sign in front of the building announcing “Music with a Message—WVOE—The Voice of Ebony” suggests that this is no typical radio station. Borrowing their name from a popular African American magazine founded in Chicago in 1945, T.M. “Ted” Reynolds and a group of local investors formed Ebony Enterprises in Chadbourn to launch their own radio station. On April 24, 1962, WVOE, the “Voice of Ebony” began broadcasting on 1590 on the AM dial.
The station’s current president and original Sunday gospel show announcer Willie Walls recalled WVOE’s initial impact in a recent interview. In 1962, “blacks had just been turned loose more or less to freedom, and they wanted to be in the limelight of everything,” Walls argues. “To own a black radio station here in Chadbourn—that was almost something unheard of.”
Actually, it wasn’t almost unheard of—it was entirely unheard of. WVOE was the first ever black-owned radio station in rural America, as well as North Carolina’s first black-owned radio station. In fact, WVOE was only the third ever black-owned radio station in the South and only the fifth-ever black-owned radio station in the entire United States. The first, by the way, was WERD, founded in Atlanta in 1948, followed by KPRS in Kansas City, WCHB in Detroit, and WEUP of Huntsville, Alabama.
Black-owned radio, in other words, reached Chadbourn, North Carolina long before it emerged in such major media markets and black population centers as New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Oakland. Those cities and many others did have black-oriented radio stations, which targeted black listeners with music and deejay sets by African Americans. Yet like Memphis’ WDIA, the country’s first black-oriented broadcaster, the vast majority of these stations were white-owned.
The number of black-owned radio stations slowly grew to fourteen by the end of the 1960s and then rose dramatically in the 1970s, due to increased calls for black community control of radio, as well as FCC policies that encouraged minority investors to establish stations. By 1995, African Americans owned 146 radio stations in the U.S., although that number has declined dramatically since the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 spurred massive consolidation of radio and television ownership.
But WVOE is still broadcasting today and is still owned by Ebony Enterprises. Over fifty years after it went on the air, the station feeds its listeners a steady diet of soul, R&B, and gospel music with a healthy portion of inspirational and informational talk on the side. WVOE doesn’t stream its broadcast online yet, but the next time you’re on I-95 passing over the SC-NC state line, switch to the AM dial and see if you can pick up the 1590 signal from Chadbourn.
Watch here at Media and the Movement in the coming weeks for more posts on the remarkable history of WVOE and the “Voice of Ebony” radio.