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We Will Return in the Whirlwind: Black Radical Organizations, 1960-1975

Toussaint Losier
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007

Review of WE WILL RETURN IN THE WHIRLWIND: BLACK RADICAL ORGANIZATIONS, 1960-1975 by Muhammad Ahmad (Maxwell Stanford, Jr.)
Charles H. Kerr, 2007

While numerous books about the struggle for Black Liberation have emerged over the past several years, most have focused on key figures, organizations, or tactical debates in isolation. Few of these studies have tried to place particular developments in a broader context, shedding light on the relationship between the grassroots organizing and movement leaders, activism in the North and in the South or how international politics effected domestic developments. Only rarely do we get a sense of how the movements of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras related to each other, much less how they built on the lessons of the past in ways that can be brought to bear on the future.

We Will Return is one of these rare books, examining the politics of the 1960’s and 70’s through a critical review of four major black radical organizations. Part academic study, part personal memoir, Dr. Ahmad’s book relies heavily on his personal connection to groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party (BPP), and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) as well as dozens of interviews with veteran activists. All of this provides the reader with a behind the scenes perspective on a period that was the high watermark of revolutionary Black Nationalism.

Perhaps the most innovative section of Ahmad’s book is his account of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), a secret network of Black Nationalist and Marxist-Leninist activists based primarily in northern cities. Inspired by the militancy of Malcolm X and Robert F. Williams, RAM cadres sought to build the base for a mass revolutionary movement among African-Americans by combining direct action and self-defense.

Initially established in 1962, RAM grew from a Philadelphia-based study/action group to a network of cadres organized in tight-knit cell structure within a few short years. Members of RAM, many of them students, published a regular newsletter, infiltrated mainstream organizations, established rifle clubs and taught armed and unarmed self-defense classes to its youth wing.

According to Ahmad, who served as the National Field Chairman and now teaches at Temple University, RAM had about 4,000 members spread across the country. Though an underground organization, RAM was connected to other groups, from the Harlem-based Organization of Afro-American Unity to Mississippi’s Deacon’s for Defense.

Sowing the wind

While these organizations all suffered from infiltration and political repression, this book also points out key strategic mistakes. The radicalization of SNCC, for instance, drew activists further away from its base in the South, raising the call for Black Power in the North without continuing the day-to-day task of organizing on the ground. Both RAM and the LRBW sought to build power in the North but faltered because of a lack of ideological unity among its organizers as well as discipline among the rank-and-file.

Ahmad also illustrates how the first Black Panther Party in New York in the summer of 1966 became a radical vehicle for black community activism and electoral participation. Though it spread to other cities, the Oakland’s Black Panther Party for Self-Defense soon came to overshadow its namesake. While the BPP grew into the largest Black Nationalist organization, its structure did not allow for a separation of military and political activities. It also failed to build on the “successful military experience” of groups that had consistently practiced armed self-defense.

In spite of these strategic failures, these organizations were able to make great strides because of their links an older generation of activists. With short biographies of movement elders like Queen Mother Audley Moore and Ella Baker, Ahmad shows how young activists learned under the tutelage of those more experienced and in turn mentored a younger generation. Woven throughout the book, this focus on intergenerational organizing is probably the most useful lesson for today’s activists.

With an eye to the present, Ahmad suggests that the crack cocaine epidemic and the War on Drugs have both cut into “the potential recruitment base for revolutionary political activity” and created “an ideological and organizational generation gap between the young hip-hop generation and the ‘old school’ generation of movement leaders.” Where students played a key role in earlier movements, Ahmad argues that it is their absence that has lead to the stagnation of groups like the National Black United Front and the Black Radical Congress. According to Ahmad, it is the youth who will have to carry forward the struggle, most likely through the movement for reparations.

Though this book offers a number of compelling historical lessons, sloppy editing hinders the clarity of its analysis. Organized thematically, the book too often repeats events in later chapters, rather than providing a smooth chronology. In spite of these rough edges, Ahmad’s text is accessible and the story he tells offers many important lessons for the future.