Judy Richardson and Tony Gittens, 1968-Photo by Washington Post
In 1967-1968, members of the SNCC leadership moved from the organization’s headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., to Washington, D.C. After years of organizing Civil Rights protests in the South, the Movement was expanding to urban centers. Dr. King was now leading protest marches in Chicago, and the Black Panthers were shoving aside non-violent tactics and bearing arms in California. Marion Barry was the first SNCC leader to settle in the District. Stokely Carmichael, the Black Power icon, soon followed. He started the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party and opened an office on U Street, N.W. SNCC activists Charlie Cobb, Ivanhoe Donaldson, and Courtland Cox later moved to Washington. Johnny Wilson and Frank Smith (both future Washington City councilmen), Jennifer Lawson, Jean Smith, Judy Richardson, Ralph Featherstone, and others arrived later. Carmichael, Cobb, and Cox had attended Howard University and were familiar with D.C.’s culture and political milieu. Donaldson and Cox could often be found at the progressive think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies. Donaldson would go on to help strategize Marion Barry’s ascent to Mayor of the District. In early March 1965, I went to Lowndes County, Ala., as a member of a Howard University student group organized by fellow student Karen House. I was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., and had never been further south than Washington, D.C., so I was a bit on edge. Our plans for the trip were vague, but we knew we wanted to protest the recent murder of Viola Liuzzo and support the Selma to Montgomery march. I met Cobb and Carmichael in Alabama and was impressed by their militancy, courage, and commitment. Inspired by what I had seen in the South, I returned to Howard University more militant and determined to make changes on campus and within the Washington community at large. I became features editor of the university’s Hilltop campus newspaper, leader of numerous student protests and director of Project Awareness, the student organization bringing speakers to campus, including Muhammed Ali, Ron Karenga, and anti-war advocate Dr. Benjamin Spock. I was expelled from Howard for my activism and later readmitted after legal action and protest. When Cobb and Carmichael returned to Washington, we renewed our friendship. Their organizing experience in the South, its victories and frustrations, led the SNCC theorists to two conclusions. The first was most clearly articulated by Charlie Cobb: Racism traveled and was maintained by institutions. To combat racist institutions, Black people had to build our own institutions. The second principle was Pan Africanism. It was most clearly voiced by Courtland Cox and Marvin Holloway, an Africanist scholar and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies: African Americans need to establish a strong identity and meaningful relationship with African nation-states because they had land, political authority, and potential resources that, if unified, could provide powerful opposition to racist supremacy. “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he has the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism doesn’t travel through intentions; it travels through power.” – Stokely Carmichael To fulfill these principles, Cobb, Cox, and several other activists established Afro-American Resources, Inc., a non-profit education corporation with several SNCC veterans and me on its board. Charlie Cobb was able to raise funding from the United Church of Christ to help finance the corporation’s initial endeavors. Charlie championed a bookstore as their first project. Drum and Spear Bookstore’s mission was to disseminate information by and about Black people in the African Diaspora. Drum and Spear Press, the Center for Black Education, Maelezo Bookstore (located at the Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) federal headquarters building), and Makonde African Art import company soon followed. My involvement with Drum and Spear began one evening when I was visiting Charlie Cobb in his apartment above the New School for African American Thought, located on 14th Street, N.W. We were discussing Cobb’s progress with establishing the bookstore. I told him none of the options available to me upon graduation from Howard (grad school, law school, various jobs) interested me. Charlie asked if I wanted to be the bookstore’s manager. Not knowing better, I said yes, and he threw me the keys. I became Drum and Spear’s first manager and ran the store for one year. As a home for Drum and Spear Bookstore, Cobb had rented a storefront on 14th and Fairmont Streets, N.W. The entrance was on the street level of a large apartment building, next to Joe’s barbershop. Fourteenth Street was then a bustling Black thoroughfare with shoppers, people walking to work, and children playing. The store was only blocks from U Street, the heart of Washington’s Black entertainment and shopping district. However, by the time the bookstore was ready to open, the 1968 riots following the murder of Dr. M. L. King, Jr. had resulted in burned-out storefronts and police unrest that made a once vibrant community distressed.
When I first entered the bookstore space, I was struck by how much more needed to be done to make it viable. A carpenter had been hired to build a wall of bookshelves but had only completed half the job. The space had to be painted, retiled, and cleaned. Thank goodness Judy Richardson, another SNCC veteran, joined me in preparing the store to open. She, too, was taken aback by the amount of effort needed. We got to work. To raise money for college tuition, I had worked as a bank teller in Brooklyn, so I was familiar with accounting, banking, and general business practices. Judy was an excellent organizer and office administrator. Buying and selling books was something we learned along the way. Between us, we were able to get Drum and Spear up and running as a bona fide business and opened the store on June 1, 1968. Daphne Muse, a Washington D.C. public school teacher and writer, soon came on staff. We had an excellent team. The First Year
Drum and Spear immediately became a center for Black intellectual gathering and discussion. It was doing exactly what we wanted it to do. The store was the only source in the Washington metropolitan area for many of the books on our shelves, so sales were brisk. Books such as “Before the Mayflower,” “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “100 Amazing Facts about the Negro,” the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, and almost any children’s book were hard to keep in stock. During the holiday season, we restocked Black-themed holiday cards every day. Howard University professors assigned books found at Drum and Spear as part of their curriculum. A cross-section of community members, intellectuals, teachers, and students felt comfortable visiting the store and chatting with its staff. Rarely invited to white bookstores, Black authors made regular stops at Drum and Spear. In the store’s first year alone, Julius Lester, Gwendolyn Brooks, Don Lee (Haki Madhubuti), Lerone Bennett, Jr., Eloise Greenfield, and others visited. The store often hosted book parties with lively conversation. When I was in Paris in 1969, I visited Présence Africaine, the bookstore that had inspired Charlie Cobb to establish Drum and Spear. While meeting with its manager, I arranged for copies of “Présence Africaine” magazine, a major journal of African thought, to be sent to Drum and Spear. Hence, the store became the only source for this scholarly journal on the U.S. east coast. Charlie, Courtland, and I made a day trip – a pilgrimage – to visit Michaux’s African National Memorial Bookstore in Harlem (1932 – 1974). Michaux’s was the oldest and largest Black bookstore on the east coast; its founder and owner, Lewis Michaux, had become an icon. When we walked into Michaux’s on 7th Avenue, I was immediately struck by how dense and full the store was. Volumes were piled high, and people were browsing and picking up books throughout the store. Lewis Michaux was sitting at a small desk toward the center of the store. We had called to schedule our meeting, but I got the impression he was surprised to see us, as though he thought we wouldn’t make it. After introducing ourselves to this venerable figure and chatting for a few minutes, Courtland and Charlie looked at books on the shelves while I caught a few private minutes with Lewis. I asked him about the business of running a Black bookstore. “Always remember, you have to pay the tax man every 3 months,” he advised me. “Don’t take on too much debt. Don’t buy more stock than you’re sure you can sell. Remember, you’re running a business.” This advice helped me avoid many pitfalls. After a year of working at Drum and Spear for nearly seven days a week, I was burned out. I left the bookstore, and Ralph Featherstone took over as manager. For nine months I travelled through Europe and East, West, and North Africa. It was an experience that changed my life.
The bookstore moved to a new location around the corner on Fairmont Street, N.W. The new space was bigger and brighter with a black, silhouetted map of the African continent beautifully cut into the floor tile by Jennifer Lawson. Cobb, Cox, and Lawson moved to Tanzania to work with the Tanzania Publishing Company and to help organize the Sixth Pan African Conference. The Center for Black Education was established a block away. Drum and Spear Press published C.L.R. James’ “A History of Pan African Revolt” and Marvin Holloway ushered “Enemy of the Sun,” a book of writings by Palestinian poets, through Drum and Spear Press. After Ralph Featherstone was suspiciously killed, Willard Taylor became the store’s manager. We opened the Maelezo Bookstore, an annex of Drum and Spear, in the lobby of the Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) federal office building. Marvin Holloway, his wife Anne, and I led the effort to establish an African art import and resale business. Saa Ya Watoto (“The Children’s Hour” in Kiswahili) was a weekly radio show produced by Mildred Hayes and hosted by Judy Richardson as Bibi Amina with all of us acting out roles in African adventures, which was great fun. Drum and Spear and the Police The FBI had been following Stokely Carmichael for many months. According to an FBI report, Stokely’s visits to Drum and Spear sparked their interest in the store’s activities. I believe all of the Drum and Spear leadership had FBI files. Mine went back to my days as a Howard University activist. Agents, easily identified by their dark suits and ties, visited the store and tried to make casual conversation with staff while hoping to overhear suspicious comments among customers. There were none. According to their reports, the FBI gained access to our bank records and sought out informants of our activities. One afternoon in 1968, there was a disturbance on the street in front of the bookstore. Disturbances following Dr. King’s assassination sporadically occurred, and the National Guard was called in to patrol the streets and guard against another riot. At that time, the National Guard was composed of young men from Maryland and Virginia. Lined from sidewalk to sidewalk, the guard moved up 14th Street, rifles at the ready. As I moved from the entrance to inside the store and looked over my shoulder, a guardsman lifted his gun and shot a canister of tear gas directly at me. The canister missed me and crashed through our glass door, spreading tear gas, which choked us and our customers. One woman fell to the ground; the store was uninhabitable for many days afterwards. It was the closest I’ve come to being killed. Contradictions Cobb and Cox were always clear about their vision for the bookstore. It was to be a communications and educational vehicle. The business needs of the store were secondary. But Drum and Spear was a business, and like any business, it had revenues and expenses that had to balance. We were playing by the tax man’s and vendors’ rules, which had to be respected if the doors were to stay open. Eventually, the contradictions caught up with the store and forced it to close. A contributing factor was that the large downtown bookstore chains finally saw the demand for Black books and began including them in their catalogs. Drum and Spear could not compete. The press, Center for Black Education, and African art import businesses were defunct. Drum and Spear Bookstore closed in 1974. The Significance of Drum and Spear Bookstore
I suppose there were more impactful events that took place in Washington in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but none better expressed the principles, spirit, and enterprise of the Black Power Movement than Drum and Spear Bookstore. Its attempt to combine business with progressive politics was risky and unique. It was a destination and resource for thoughtful Washington book lovers. Before Busboys and Poets, there was Drum and Spear. Before Politics and Prose, there was Drum and Spear. The young Black people involved with conceiving and implementing Drum and Spear and its attendant projects were among the best and the brightest. Within only a few years, and while they were in their 20s, they established a bookstore, press, cultural center, African art business, and radio programs, and they helped coordinate a significant African international congress. The lessons learned were not available in any classroom. Many of us went on to prominent positions and made major social contributions. This was an amazing, creative era during which, though we were quite young, we thought we could do anything, and accomplished a great deal. Tony Gittens is founder and director of the Washington, D.C. International Film Festival and former executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. He was designated a Knight in the Order of Arts and Literature by the French Ministry of Culture. Copyright © 2020 Anthony Gittens. All rights reserved. [maxbutton id=”2″ ]