Updated: Aug 30
When I began researching grassroots responses to crack-cocaine I found myself—albeit naively—both surprised and confused by heavy-handed, aggressive calls for more policing and harsher sentencing from working and middle class black urbanites. Was this unique to the period? Did this represent a specific and different response to the marketing invention of crack? Moreover, I found myself asking: What motivated calls to stigmatize and scapegoat members of their own local communities? Why would local leaders deliberately attract negative attention to their already beleaguered districts, thereby further perpetuating negative stereotypes regarding the debasement of inner-city culture? Where were the progressive voices calling for moderate, rational, public health responses?
In earlier posts, I have begun to explain this reaction through the lens of black-lash. Much like working class white ethnics before them, working and middle-class blacks responded to what they deemed destructive and dangerous changes to their neighborhood and organized
Recently, the use of the term black-lash has given me some pause for two reasons. First, black-lash is less clearly and directly motivated by race. The increasing significance of class in the post civil rights era makes such a term less useful. More significantly, black-lash is not unique to the Crack Era. The new work of Michael Javen Fortner clearly suggests that such sentiment existed in the 1970s as Harlemites fought vociferously against the increasing presence of heroin and crime in their neighborhoods. This suggests that black-lash existed less as a reactionary impulse, and more as an enduring, but understudied class fissure within the black community. With that said, let’s take a closer look at the roots of black-lash in the late 1960s and early 1970s to better assess the utility of the term “black-lash” as an explanatory tool.
Long before Richard Nixon labeled drug abuse “Public Enemy Number One,” Pastor Oberia Dempsey implored readers to, “PLEASE JOIN THE WAR ON DOPE,” with the headline of his 1968 Amsterdam News Op-Ed. In June of 1970, Dempsey drew over 1,000 supporters to Federal Hall Memorial in the Financial District to protest Wall Street firms investing money from narcotics sales. The “Pistol Packing Pastor”—as he came to be known—made headlines for his rigid stance against crime and drug use, his rhetoric, and his ability to organize. Leading by example, Dempsey carried a loaded revolver everywhere, even in the pulpit. This was because Dempsey believed and espoused to his followers that “we are all policemen,” and needed to be in the war against crime and drugs.
Oberia Dempsey: A Man Proud of His Signs and Placards.
In a 1968 telecast regarding youth in cities, the battle for Harlem’s streets came to be framed as literally a “biblical struggle between good and evil”. The “forces of good” of course dotted churches throughout Harlem while the forces of evil polluted local street corners. In order to take up this biblical struggle, Dempsey and his followers founded an “armed private militia” to combat what the Pastor called the “onrushing Armageddon” of heroin and street muggings. Captured from a sermon, the piece shows Dempsey indicting local criminals from the pulpit: “There is no justification for crime. I don’t care if you are as black as an ace of spades, you are not justified going out and snatching someone’s pocket book or robbing somebody.” Here, Dempsey de-centers racial politics and structural inequalities of the period by focusing on individual behavior, morality, and responsibility. Later, Dempsey reminded parishioners (and definitely TV viewers) of the real threat to their communities, and the nation: “The greatest challenge facing America today is not North Vietnam. It is crime.” Instead of focusing on a Civil War beyond our borders, Americans would be better served to focus their ire on “junkies, hoodlums, and hustlers.”
In both the 1970s and 1980s, grassroots calls from angry Harlemites and frustrated residents of the Bronx for more police and harsher sentencing were vested in the belief that the state did not care about their district or their people. In many ways, rhetoric and tactics in both eras are deliberately alarmist and dramatic because poor urban districts had become desperate for help. By calling attention to the problem in terms previously and successfully used by white groups, black-lash activists used the limited tools at their disposal in the best way they knew how. Mixing and mingling the tools and strategies used both for and against the Civil Rights Movement, anti-drug and anti-crime organizers went to work.
As early as June of 1970, Ebony began to cover grassroots efforts against heroin on Harlem streets. In an article entitled, “Blacks Declare War on Dope,” the subtitle suggests Ebony may have buried the lead: “Police, Government inaction prods New Yorkers to launch their own attack.” The article begins with a local black mother suggesting that both government and police were apathetic regarding the heroin issue because it had been viewed largely as a black problem confined to inner cities. When it became a white problem—the mother lamented—then, there would be appropriate action. This, in part, became another staple to black-lash strategy: frighten suburban districts to action by magnifying the problem on city streets. If the state does not care about our children, suggest that heroin, crime, and disorder threatens more prized children in suburban districts. Dempsey, and later the Reverend Wendell Foster, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and even Dick Gregory would warn of the fire next time; one that might spread beyond the confines of Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville or the Bronx.
In assessing the “new mood” of working and middle-class black New Yorkers, Ebony reaches many of the same conclusions Mike Davis would make a decade later regarding similar responses to crack. That is, that animus towards users and pushers amounted to a full-blown backlash of sorts: “The Women are angry. And they are representative of a new mood in New York’s black communities. In Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and South Bronx, a black backlash is surfacing—a backlash against the heavy drug traffic in their communities.” To categorize this new activism, the article labeled the protestors the “black silent majority”, a term aptly borrowed by Fortner in his own work. Here, Ebony and Fortner are drawing similar parallels between the traditional silent majority and their project of white backlash versus the new-fangled black silent majority engaged in resistance to drugs and street crime. In both cases, we see reactionary calls to “clean up” and “take back” streets made by overlooked, alienated segments of the population looking to reassert their place as citizens of democracy.
An often overlooked key to understanding and correcting early histories of the punitive turn is the initial role of urban grassroots organizing on the part of working and middle-class blacks. In many cases said groups initiated calls to stigmatize users and pushers, to police their own districts more closely, and to punish offenders more harshly. They did so because they believed they needed to. Because nobody else would. In the words of one frustrated mother from the organizing group Mothers Against Drugs: “We have to move now. We can’t sit back and wait for them to act.” Black citizen’s patrols were established by Dempsey and others to fight the growing drug trade. Activists reasoned that such actions were justified because of “police apathy and arrogance.”
It is important to remember that black urbanites felt the burden of heroin and increasing street crime most acutely. The disproportionate victims of petty street crime were not white old ladies from the Upper East Side, but rather, black victims on their way to-and-from work, church, or daily errands. While iconic period pieces like Bonfire of the Vanities popularized
After a period of wide-reaching gains under the Civil Rights Movement, many blacks viewed the changes around them as a threat to racial progress. Black-lash activists were clear and explicit regarding this belief. Ebony noted that many blacks aligned against drugs and crime believed that, “narcotic addiction is a weapon to control black youths” and that drug abuse had become, “detrimental to the Black Movement.” As such, many reasoned that, “anyone who participates in the business of dope is an enemy of black people and the black participants are traitors to their people and should be dealt with as such.” Indeed, under the Rockefeller Laws and later, the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, drug pushers and users would be dealt with as such.
A Young Wendell Foster.
Many similarities can be seen between the responses of Harlem residents to heroin in the 1970s and Bronx residents to crack in the 1980s. Moreover, the links between Oberia Dempsey and Wendell Foster help us trace the lineage of black-lash sentiment. Both were born in the Jim Crow South. Dempsey in Texas, Foster in Alabama. Both knew what life was like for Blacks before the Movement and both understood the sacrifice necessary to forge hard won racial progress. Dempsey and Foster had made that sacrifice firsthand, both serving in WWII in order to better their case for “Double V”. In addition, both men were at the heart of the class fissures black-lash best illuminates—divides that began with the Great Migration. In pursuit of increased opportunity and a better life, Dempsey and Foster headed North. Later they would both work actively within the Civil Rights Movement. Both would also be shaped by the same mentor, and perhaps, the father of black-lash, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Regardless of the drug or decade, both men saw negative changes in their communities which they believed threatened racial progress made under the Civil Rights Movement. Frustrated by state inaction, both men came to use the tools of the Movement in service of fighting the singular threat to racial progress: not white backlash, urban disinvestment, or the emerging carceral state—but rather—black drug use and failing morality.
Perhaps most unfortunate, both men believed in the same shortsighted solution: forcefully remove pushers and users from city streets to keep the neighborhood safe for “decent people.” Dempsey repeatedly stated his belief that, “all hardcore addicts should be involuntarily removed from the streets” and kept in “health camps” because they were beyond redemption and would only “terrorize and destroy people.” For his part, Foster would later demand that pushers be “caged like animals”. Dempsey and Foster were lightning rods because they brought the special righteousness and frustration of a generation betrayed. After painstaking decades of hard work, their gains were being squandered right before their eyes. To make matters worse, both felt the firsthand sting of victimization. In a 1971 New York Times article, Dempsey claimed that “young drug addicts” had attempted to rob his house, slashing his forehead with a knife in the resulting confrontation. Dempsey told the Times he had been “assaulted by members of a dope mob”, reminding readers that “we know what it is like to be victimized by drug-thirsty, money-hungry, death-dealing criminals.” Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Foster would write scores of letters to the NYPD complaining about drug traffic outside the doors of his parish. In the 1980s, Foster’s church would fall victim to repeated robberies and defacement as his public anti-drug activism likely made the building a convenient target.
Do the roots of black-lash run deeper than the 1970s? Should we look to the Great Migration for answers? Did urban grassroots, minority-led activism predate conservative frontlash? Is black-lash even about drugs, or are long-developing regional and class divides at the heart of the issue? Comments and discussion are welcomed…