by Curtis Muhammad
With this second anniversary of Katrina upon us, there are a few words
I wish to speak. This letter is written to the progressive, left
movement for justice in the USA. In the last two years, every left
organization has been in New Orleans, but despite that there is still
no sign of a mass movement. There is still no sign that most activists
are willing to put their knowledge and resources at the service of the
grass roots and take their leadership from the bottom.
I have found myself wondering, have poor black people been so vilified and
criminalized that they are completely off the radar even of the
When Katrina happened, I hoped and expected that this
would be the trigger to once again set off a true mass movement
against racism and for justice in the US, led by those most affected:
poor, black working people. When it became abundantly clear that this
was not happening, I found myself at the crossroads of hope and
hopelessness, and began to wonder how to spend the last years of my
life in the service of my people.
The thing that I remind myself when I'm contemplating hopelessness is
the beauty of humanity and the fact that people have always fought for
what was right even when they knew they couldn't win. They tried
because they loved each other; I think it's because it's built into
human beings for people to look out for each other.
There is a drive in humanity to be just, to live in a society that is just, equal and
respectful. I believe that ultimately people will achieve a just
society; I believe humanity came out of a just society and will create
I do believe that there was a time that the lovers of life, the lovers
of humanity, the lovers of justice dominated the world. Some say this
was so during the hunter-gatherer days, when though there were evil
people they could never gain dominance. Their numbers were always
small, less than 1%; people ran their lives collectively, and
therefore the greedy could not dominate. Well then, I say what
happened, there is only that same 1% who dominates the world now.
This thinking, this logic has been the motivating factor in my life of
movement work: the belief that there is a basic humanity that is
inside the soul of most people. That this humanity can be harvested
and organized into a movement for justice to free our people from
slavery, bondage, oppression and exploitation. That the 80% of the
world who live on an average of $2 a day can and will overcome the 1%
and return us to a collective life organized around love, justice and
Most of you who know me also know I'm a storyteller and believe story
to be a universal language that can be a vehicle for voice - the voice
of all regardless of status, class, cast, race, gender. Story is an
egalitarian language. So I wish to share with you my story, an
abbreviated story of my organizing work from SNCC in Mississippi
through the ghettoes of the US to the villages and jungles of Africa,
to CLU, PHRF, NOSC, POC and finally the International School for
My story is meant to clarify why I now choose to
live, work, teach and write outside the US and away from the grip of a
drastically de-energized and often opportunistic and reactionary left
in the USA.
* * *
I grew up in a community that, of necessity, had to take care of its
own. In rural Mississippi in the 40s, 50s and 60s, mothers and
fathers, grandparents, uncles and cousins protected the children from
the hostile, racist world and collectively helped each other meet
Nonetheless, when I was a child traveling to church on
Sundays, I had to pass the tree from whose branches my cousin was
lynched. The community of my birth gave me both my strength -- my
faith in the people, my dedication to egalitarianism - and my undying
hatred of racism and the oppressive few that control the world.
When SNCC came to town, I found my direction. It was both a community
of love and a set of organizers devoted, at the risk of their lives,
to the folk on the bottom: the poorest black folk in Mississippi,
those who had nothing, not even the knowledge of how to read. SNCC
introduced me to the struggles of my brothers and sisters around the
world, and particularly in Africa.
I became an internationalist and a
revolutionary. The lessons of Ella Baker and SNCC have stayed with me
throughout my life; I labored to make them a reality from Mississippi
to the ghettoes of our major cities, from my time in the revolutionary
movement in Africa to my work as a labor organizer, and I have done my
utmost to apply them in post-Katrina New Orleans.
In 1998, I helped to organize Community Labor United (CLU), a
coalition that was founded with a commitment to bottom-up organizing.
(CLU principles included "ending the exploitation of oppressed peoples
everywhere; educating, organizing and mobilizing the masses within our
organizations and communities from the bottom up.") After eight years
of organizing in some of the poorest areas of New Orleans, it became
the "first responder" after Katrina, and led the formation of the
People's Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF).
As a founding member of PHRF and an organizer and New Orleans
resident, I was back in the city within 8 days of the flood,
struggling with overwhelming pain and anger. I felt that Katrina
represented an historic moment. Never before had all levels of
government united to attempt genocide of 100,000 black people at the
same time. Even in the 60s in Mississippi, they were murdering us in
ones, twos and threes.
I threw myself into the attempt to put the
knowledge and resources of the left and nationalist organizations and
"movement" people under the direction of the bottom: the poor and
working class black folk who had been left to die in New Orleans. PHRF
became a coalition that committed itself on paper to that goal.
What followed was a dramatic learning experience for me and for all
those whose commitment is truly to the people and not to their own
particular grouping. Within months, mainly as a result of a speaking
tour I went on for PHRF, we had raised about a million dollars from
folk across the country who were deeply moved by the attempted
genocide of over a hundred thousand black folk. And by December, there
was already conflict over who controlled that money and how it was to
The New Orleans Survivor Council was organized by PHRF with the
understanding that it was to become the leadership of the organization
and the movement, and should control all resources. By April of 2006,
when the NOSC began to sound like it wanted oversight of the funds,
the interim leadership of PHRF took the money and ran, firing its own
organizers for daring to tell the poor black residents in NOSC that
they had the right to control the resources raised in their names.
Undaunted, the young organizers continued working for the survivors
and formed a new group called People's Organizing Committee (POC).
This event was a turning point for me. I realized that the words of
those who I had considered my comrades were empty, that their
so-called commitment to bottom-up was a fiction; that their real
commitments were to various organizations and their own egos. Our
attempt to institutionalize bottom-up had led instead to a coalition
When I had spoken to mass audiences about Katrina in the fall of 2005,
I had spoken of my discovery of the depth of the fear and hatred
America has for poor, black people. The images on the media of those
left to die could have been taken in sub-Saharan Africa or the
Caribbean: those people were very poor and very black.
With the desertion of PHRF, I was confronted by the knowledge that this hatred
of poor black people extended into and throughout the progressive
movement, even within exclusively black organizations. I felt very
lonely in my continued commitment to lift up precisely that segment of
oppressed Americans to lead the movement.
But POC plunged ahead, still dedicated to that vision. Thousands of
volunteers came in the spring and summer, and many continue to come to
this day. The hearts of so many people are in the right place. The New
Orleans Survivor Council and its member group Residents of Public
Housing continue to work to put bottom-up leadership on the map and
fight for the right of our community to return and control its own
destiny. But the past year has also revealed further weakness and lack
of vision in our movement.
From the days immediately following the flood, we recognized that
immigrants - brown people, some of the poorest and most desperate of
our brothers and sisters from countries to the south - were being
brought into our city. They were put to the dirtiest, most dangerous
clean-up tasks, and later to replace the forcibly dispersed black
labor force, for slave wages and in slave conditions. From the start,
we called for organizing this new part of the New Orleans community in
unity with and under the leadership of the black folk on the bottom.
This call was part of my message in the speeches I made in the fall of
2005, and several immigrant organizers heeded the call and came to
work with us. However, despite many serious attempts to develop unity
between black survivors and immigrants, it has become clear that those
organizers refuse to unite with and take leadership from black folk.
They have organized immigrant slaves into separate groupings with no
contact with the NOSC, despite their initial commitment to unity. They
are essentially, wittingly or unwittingly, following the government's
agenda, which is to build a racist, assimilationist immigrant
"movement" that will serve the needs of a war economy and patriotism.
And so we come to the second anniversary of Katrina. Bottom-up
organizing is still embryonic, though hanging on to life and with a
small, dedicated band of survivors, organizers and volunteers. But the
rest of the movement is in shambles, or under direct or indirect
influence of our enemies.
Through the experience of the last two years, I have also come to the
conclusion that the infiltration of and direct attacks on the movement
that started (in my lifetime as an activist) in the late 60s and early
70s with Cointelpro have never stopped. Our movement has been
successfully divided into thousands of groupings, non-profits and
NGOs, and the left has been rendered ineffectual.
It is not an accident that, for forty years now, the movement has been so totally
reformist, or that those who want to be revolutionaries are so
isolated as to be irrelevant. The government and its agencies have a
stranglehold on the people, the culture and even the left. I do not
think it is possible in the U.S. at this time - for me - to develop
and train organizers with a real understanding and commitment to the
folk on the bottom.
And thus, I find myself at the crossroads of hope and hopelessness. I
find myself possibly in the position of writing not mainly to the
current readers of these words, but to those future revolutionaries
who will learn from our impasse. I find myself deciding to work toward
creating an international organizing school as a vehicle to discover,
recruit and train radical organizers.
I want to continue my investigation of the movements in Mexico and South America among very poor -- members of the informal economy, workers, campesinos and
landless people -- learn more about how class and hue interact to
shape oppression, take inspiration from the fact that the struggle
continues, un-abandoned, worldwide, and share my own knowledge and
experience with the rebels of today and tomorrow.
I have lived 64 years and have struggled intentionally for justice for
about forty-six of those years. I am thankful and appreciative to all
those who have traveled some of that distance with me: those who
helped nurture my children, who stood with me when I was imprisoned
and tortured, those who have always supported my work and stood by me
when all seemed to stand against me. To these worthy friends, comrades
and loved ones, I will always honor you, be there for you, and know
you are there for me.
Still, I have arrived at a place in my life where I wish to share
everything I have and know with the "sufferers." My principle
continues to be the struggle to engage the poor, oppressed, voiceless,
and those who have the least and suffer the most. The only struggle
that matters to me now is finding justice for those who have never had
This is me, where I am, trying to figure out how to organize our folk
in a way that we always look at need as the principle of justice. If
you are looking for me, look among the youth, the poor, and the
struggling masses trapped in slave-like conditions throughout the
world, for I am no longer available to an opportunistic and racist
left. I NOW SEEK REFUGE AMONG THE POOR.
This is my struggle.
Wish me well,