CHICAGO –To celebrate African American history month, the People’s Weekly World and Workers Education Society hosted a distinguished panel over a delicious meal of the city’s finest soul food. Historian Dr. Timuel Black, civil rights, HIV/AIDS activist and former government official Brenetta Howell Barrett and Political Affairs publisher Joe Sims spoke on the “Roots of Obama and the struggle for equality in a new era.”
Black, born 1917 in Birmingham, Alabama is the son of sharecroppers. Black moved to Chicago with his family during the “Great Migration” in 1918. He is a long time activist and notable writer on Chicago’s Black community.
“History has been made,” said Black about President Barack Obama. The whole world is watching and his presidency is a phenomenon felt across the entire planet, he said. “His election was the exhibit of the possibility of what we can do when we keep on keeping on,” said Black. “We have just created the impossible.”
Black pointed out, “In my life we did not believe it was possible. But we worked to make it happen. We were always pessimistically optimistic and Obama’s win was due to the struggle of working people.”
Along the way there have been many casualties beginning with slavery, said Black. Those include the brave freedom fighters against slavery all the way through the Civil Rights movement that included both white and black, he said.
It’s the voters and American people who are Obama’s main strength and base, said Black. “We are Obama’s resources. Now we have to get on with the miraculous,” said Black.
Brenetta Howell Barrett, a native Chicagoan, has been an activist and educator her whole life. She is the founder and director of the Pathfinder Prevention and Education Fund, which provides prevention education for HIV and AIDS awareness. Barrett is also a board member with the Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights. She was a cabinet member in several city administration’s including Harold Washington’s.
Barrett recalled getting active as a teenager and joined a Black History club in school. Activist and artist Paul Robeson visited her school. “His oratory just meant so much to me and a standard was set in what an individual can accomplish.” she said, also recalling learning at that time she was a “quiet storm.”
Obama was born out of the grassroots and he appreciates local struggles on the ground, said Barrett. He has the best interests of working people at heart, she added. “We need to share our issues and tell him what’s important to us.” For example, a retiree’s corps for education should be appointed by the Obama administration, said Barrett. “There are a lot of skilled people who are looking for something to do.” Barrett also pointed out that people should recognize the role of Michelle Obama too.
Progressive principles are portable and can be applied in different places and we should take those ideas along with us wherever we wind up, said Barrett. Blood is thicker than water but struggle is thicker than blood and when we struggle together that bond is golden, she said.
Joe Sims grew up in Youngstown, Ohio and is the son of a steel worker. Sims joined the Communist Party as a teenager and edited Political Affairs Magazine for 16 years. Today he is its publisher and is also an editorial board member of the World.
Sims mentioned seeing a recent picture of Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos hugging their families soon after Obama’s victory. Smith and Carlos were 1968 Mexico City Olympic medal winners who raised their black-gloved fist in the air during the ceremony in protest of the racial unrest exploding throughout the U.S. at the time.
“The struggle for equality is a mighty tree and has many roots but one of those roots lies back to Smith and Carlos,” said Sims. Back then the movement of connecting the civil right struggle to economic rights was being beaten down, said Sims.
Today with Obama, change is evident including a notable break from the disastrous Bush policies especially when it comes to foreign and domestic issues, said Sims.
But the economic crisis is much bigger than we realize and the housing battle needs immediate addressing because it’s Blacks and Latinos who are suffering the most, said Sims. The biggest legislative battles American voters are going to have to continue to fight for, is the fight for health care and passing the Employee Free Choice Act, said Sims.