[Taylor] Rallying for 'Prisoners of War'

March 30, 1973, was a clear, beautiful day, perhaps a blessing from heaven for the day's events. Thousands of Jacksonians and some out-of-town guests congregated on the Jackson State University campus. Exhilarated from the march to the campus from Lynch Street, they listened intently to the message given by Rev. Ben Chavis—a member of the Wilmington 10, the group that had been falsely arrested for conspiracy and arson in North Carolina—who later changed his name to Minister Benjamin F. Muhammad.

People from different cultural, spiritual and economic backgrounds found themselves standing together with one message, "Break the Chains," the official slogan of the International African Prisoners of War Solidarity Day.

This demonstration, later dubbed Black Solidarity Day, came amid a two-day series of workshops, spiritual rallies, concerts and other demonstrations. Solidarity Day was sponsored in large part by the Republic of New Afrika, a group that worked for the freedom of African people all over the globe.

This day drew some of the more vocal activists in the country to Jackson. In addition to Chavis, attendees heard from Imari Baraka, aka Leroy Jones, a famous cultural artist who wrote "Blues for Mr. Charlie," as well as political activist Dick Gregory. Local activist Rudy Shields of Yazoo City had organized a major boycott in Yazoo against Jitney Jungle grocery stores for not hiring blacks as cashiers. There were also locals like City Councilman Leslie McLemore and Dr. Aaron Shirley, founder of the Jackson Medical Mall.

The main focus of Solidarity Day was the call to free "prisoners of war," as they were called—especially members of the RNA who were involved in a shoot-out with local and federal authorities. Two years earlier, police had raided their "compound" at 1148 Lewis Street, at dawn with heavy arms, teargas and a tank, leaving police Lt. William Louis Skinner, JPD's main liaison with the FBI, dead in the gun battle. The police had a warrant for the arrest of a fugitive from Detroit; he was not in the house at the time.

I was introduced to the Republic of New Afrika two years ago. Councilman Kenneth Stokes brought Imari Obadele, former president of the RNA, to a February City Council meeting and honored him at City Hall in celebration of Black History Month, which caused great controversy because, opponents said, Obadele was a "convicted cop-killer." In fact, Obadele had not been in the Lewis Street house, and prosecutors had dropped murder charges against him. He did, however, serve five years on a federal conspiracy charge for helping the RNA to plan how they would defend the "compound" should the police raid it and for warning police that the RNA would "be ready" if they "attacked."

I had never seen so many Jacksonians in City Hall before. (There was literally standing room only.) Whether it is the surreal account of the shooting that occurred Aug. 18, 1971, on Lewis Street between the RNA, the FBI and the Jackson Police Department, the perception of dangerous militancy that most people associate with the group, or some divine force from the group that draws and commands attention, I was hooked.

Spending hours in the archives researching their efforts on behalf of the Black Freedom Movement, I came across Solidarity Day. This day in Jackson's history marked a time when the movement was traveling back to the South, where it had been birthed.

Jackson attorney Chokwe Lumumba, then vice president of the RNA and lead coordinator for the Solidarity Day festivities, says it was immensely important because most events of that nature had happened in the North. Back in the '50s and '60s, the Movement started in the South, but with the rise of African consciousness and the move toward "black power," it drifted away from the South. Solidarity Day, he says, was the first such event that had taken place in the South in a long time, with the exception of Atlanta. It was like bringing the fruits of the movement back to the South.

Much like other demonstrations of the time that were occurring all over the country, the Jackson event was used to educate and empower black people. The different workshops discussed topics such as the mobilization of youth and how they could help work toward the freedom of political prisoners, and women and their role in the movement.

Though the workshops were significant, the march was the focal point for many of the participants. There had been a lot of controversy over whether the march would happen. The city denied the march permit a few weeks before the scheduled date of the event, and the Solidarity Day committee appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court denied them also.

"The atmosphere was very tense that day. There was tension all over the city over whether we would march or not because the City Council had denied our application for a permit to march, and Jackson police had threatened to arrest anyone who participated in the march," Lumumba says.

Despite the courts, the march went on without any problems or arrests. Two days later, Imari Obadele was released from jail after 17 months (but would later be convicted on the federal conspiracy charge).

"The day was not just about the prisoners of war," Lumumba says, "but about the war itself, a war that had been waged on black people—a war that was carried on through slavery, post slavery, and is still going on today."

Contributing editor Ayana Taylor is writing an occasional series about Jackson's forgotten history.


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