On December 4, we commemorated the life and the murder of Fred Hampton, chair of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. We commemorated Hampton's life because he was young, articulate, charismatic—he could have been a congressman from Chicago. And should have been. Except that he was Black and he had a conscience and he wanted to better the conditions of his people. And so, instead of a promising political career, [in 1969] Hampton was executed by Chicago police with two point-blank shots fired into his head.
By this time, the FBI had already articulated its policy that there would be no other Martin Luther King Jr.-type Black leader who had not been preselected by them. In 1965, the CIA wrote that somewhere at the top there must be a clean Negro who could step into the vacuum and chaos if Martin Luther King Jr. were either exposed or assassinated. But just like Dr. King, Hampton was that kind of unbuyable, unbossable Black leader who might just ignite the Black and white masses to unite and overthrow the regime that had so corrupted American politics. In both of those cases, there was a Black man, planted beside these two giants, but who was doing the bidding of the political elites. In the case of Hampton, the Black man who assisted the FBI was Fred's own bodyguard, William O'Neal, who, after Hampton's murder, was given a"bonus" from the FBI. As for Dr. King, it is now documented that his own [Southern Christian Leadership Council] accountant, James Harrison, was a paid informant for the FBI.
Government documents reveal that our leaders have been targeted as far back as Marcus Garvey. In a Justice Department memo dated Oct. 11, 1919, J. Edgar Hoover writes that Marcus Garvey is"an exceptionally fine orator, creating much excitement among the negroes...Unfortunately, however, he has not as yet violated any federal law whereby he could be proceeded against on the grounds of being an undesirable alien, from the point of view of deportation." The Justice Department then paid a Black man, a James Wormley Jones, to work his way into a position of trust at the United Negro Improvement Association. The resultant"mail fraud" charges were all that could be cooked up against Garvey, but they were enough to land him in the Atlanta federal prison and get him deported as an undesirable alien.
I wonder whatever happened to Wormley, Harrison, and O'Neal. Did they live long lives in prosperity after their betrayal of our leaders? And if they did, what a metaphor for the state of Black leadership today. To shake the tree is to make the fruit drop, but it also is to suffer. To come along and pick up the fruit makes one fat, wealthy, and wise.
But what becomes of a community that rewards only those whose only function is to pick up the fruit somebody else shook to the ground? What happens when there ain't no more fruit laying on the ground to be picked up? What does a people do when it has allowed all of its leaders to be"neutralized" or picked by the opposing side?
It has become clear that to be a tree shaker is a difficult, if not outright deadly, occupation. But what do we do now that all the fruit is just about gone?
You could say that the tree shakers of the Civil Rights moment in our country's history gave us the America and the rights that we enjoy today.
It is past time for us to take stock of our situation and understand the critical role that tree shakers play in our community. As for Black leaders, some would rather have us seen and not heard.
Silence is consent. And that's not leadership at all. That's selling out.
If the objective is to have real leadership, and not just somebody leading, then we—the community—must be prepared to walk that lonely, friendless road with our leaders who have the courage to stand up. Now is the time for us to run toward them and to give them the one thing that is in such short supply these days in our mean-spirited, lopsided struggle for justice in this country and in our policies around the world. We must give them true friendship.
By Cythia A. McKinney