Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Black Power’ Category


The Spook Who Sat By the Door

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.

R.I.P. Sam Greenlee, 1930-2014.



WAFR Radio's Staff, 1973

WAFR’s Staff, 1973

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 AnvilSouthern 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.

Check it out here.

WVSP Staff, 1977

WVSP’s Staff, 1977


Baraka, Carmichael, Brown

Stokely Carmichael, Amiri Baraka, and H. Rap Brown

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 Timesdescribed 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 workThe 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.”[1]  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 CricketBlack 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.


[1] James Smethurst, The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 14.


African World, NC Black Political Convention, Cropped

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.

African World Subscription Ad

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.

African World, ALD copy

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.


Donald Baker, among the first staff members at Durham’s WAFR radio–also known as Wave Africa–reflects on the freedom afforded by the station’s format in a 2010 interview with Joshua Clark Davis:

One morning during the week I played Aretha Franklin’s “Holy, Holy,” and it was off of her double album, it was a gospel album, it’s a double album. It was a live recording. And I followed it with John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme.” The thing about working at AFR is that you could experiment. And if you knew the music, if you knew much of the music: the R&B, the gospel, the jazz, you could mix. You could go a lot of places.

As historian William Barlow writes, “nothing else sounded remotely like WAFR on the Durham market.” (Voice Over, pg. 287) Mr. Baker’s interview will soon be available online via UNC’s Southern Historical Collection.

An ad for a WAFR fundraising marathon connects the station to Freedom's Journal, the first African American newspaper

A newspaper advertisement for a WAFR fundraising marathon invoking Freedom’s Journal, the first African American newspaper


This is Your Life, WAFR

Advertisement for WAFR’s second annual fundraising marathon from Durham’s Carolina Times newspaper, 1973

WAFR and WVSP were no ordinary radio stations. Amid a media landscape that was overwhelmingly commercial, both stations were non-commercial.  They depended on neither advertising revenue nor funding from any established institution like a college or university.

Raising the funds needed for a non-commercial broadcasting was far from easy, however.  These stations survived for years on a mix of modest federal funding, grants, and listener donations from regular fundraising campaigns.  But WAFR and WVSP both eventually folded largely due to the overwhelming and constant challenges of raising adequate funds for maintaining station operations.

But as long as they were on the air, both stations never let their audiences forget that they were listening to non-commercial radio, as the audio clip from WAFR’s 1975 fundraising marathon demonstrates.

(Don’t see the audio player? Try Safari or Firefox. Or use the QR code below.)


WAFR and WVSP embodied a participatory vision of media based in local communities.  At both stations, volunteers without any prior experience in media could complete the necessary FCC-mandated training that allowed them to host their own shows on the air.  Volunteers accounted for a large majority of broadcasting hours at both stations.

The excerpt below from the April 1978 issue WVSP’s Dialogue invites listeners not only to underwrite programming, but to share recordings of meetings and lectures and even submit audio interviews of people on the street to the station, all to be played over the air.

Here is What You can Do Cropped, Dialogue, April 1978


Yomi Moses, a Nigerian student at North Carolina Central University, leads children in singing their ABCs at a children's meeting of the Community Radio Workshop.  Moses also taught children his native Yoruban language at the CRW.

Yomi Moses, a Nigerian student at North Carolina Central University, leads children in singing their ABCs at a meeting of the Community Radio Workshop. Moses also gave lessons in his native Yoruban language at the CRW.

When WAFR commenced broadcasting in September 1971, it didn’t take long for listeners to discern that the station’s staffers had chosen their call letters as an homage to Africa.  Indeed, with programming that celebrated African history, politics, and culture, WAFR made Pan-Africanism a main component of its programming–something that no American radio station had done before. As Obataiye Akinwole, one of the station’s founders explained in an interview for the 1995 documentary Black Radio: Telling It Like It Is, “We wanted to have our heritage in our name.”

Deejays at WAFR also assumed on-air names that emphasized the group’s collective Pan-African identity, not unlike members of black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam or Maulana Karenga’s US Organization in Los Angeles.  Announcers’ names included Mwanafunzi Shanga Sadiki, Baba Femi, Brother Ola, Brother Hassan, and Johnny X.  The Community Radio Workshop, the non-profit organization that administered the station, also offered public seminars on African languages and culture for adults and children.  In the audio clip below, a representative of the African Reparations and Relocation Committee offers his wholehearted endorsement of WAFR’s programming

When WVSP started broadcasting several years later in Warrenton, its staff members also made international news, especially reporting on Africa, mainstays of their programming.  The station developed close ties with Durham’s Africa News Service, the U.S.’s first wire service devoted to news from the African continent (more on this in a future post), and became one of its most loyal distribution outlets.  Interestingly, the station’s tenure between 1976 and 1986 coincided neatly with the Soweto Uprising and the ultimate passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of the U.S. Congress.  Consequently, WVSP frequently featured reporting on the international movement against  apartheid that gained unprecedented momentum in these years, both on the air and in its newsletter, Dialogue.

A WVSP Dialogue story on Rhodesia from 1978, provided by Africa News Service, on U.S. corporations that potentially violated a trade embargo with Rhodesia.

A WVSP Dialogue story from 1978, provided by Africa News Service, on U.S. corporations that potentially violated a trade embargo with Rhodesia and also dealt with South African firms.


In 1971, several young African Americans in Durham, North Carolina founded WAFR–the nation’s first ever public, community-based black radio station.  WAFR catered to Durham’s black listeners with politically engaged, Black Power programming that included jazz, funk, African music, selected local and national news, and even an African American take on Sesame Street’s Children’s Radio Workshop, called the Community Radio Workshop, whose staff is seen in the photograph above. Key WAFR staffers included Robert Spruill, Obataiye Akinwole, Ralph Williams, Donald Baker, and Kwame and Mary McDonald. Although the station ceased broadcasting after just five years, it left an indelible influence on activist media in North Carolina for years to come.

In the coming year-and-a-half, the Media and the Movement site will share interviews, photographs, audio recordings, and commentary on the media outlets and activists that our project examines.  Our preliminary work with WAFR of Durham, North Carolina and WVSP of Warrenton, North Carolina (both of which inspired the larger Media and the Movement project) gives us a perfect starting point for this undertaking.

Staff of the Children’s Radio Workshop, an African American interpretation of Sesame Street, gather in WAFR’s offices in Durham, NC.

Staff of the Children’s Radio Workshop, an African American interpretation of Sesame Street, gather in WAFR’s offices in Durham, NC.