Hilary Moore and James Tracy, “No Fascist USA!: The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today’s Movements” (2020) – A comrade recommended this book to me. I do love a good movement history, and this one is pretty good indeed. It details the doings of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, which fought the good fight against the resurgent KKK and other white supremacist groups in a period one could call “the long eighties” — formed in 1978, the JBAKC disbanded amicably in 1992.
I had vaguely heard of the group — had seen images of their broadsheet, “DEATH TO THE KLAN!” — but what I didn’t know is that it was mostly made up of SDS and often Weather Underground veterans. I kind of assumed that the ones who didn’t wind up in jail for robbing armored cars all married Jane Fonda and became Democrats, but that’s where assuming gets you. These movement vets looked for ways to get involved during the doldrums of the late seventies. You could say they turned the sort of desperation to prove themselves “good whites” to better use than ill-conceived armed robberies. Namely, when a few of them got a letter from a Black Panther incarcerated in an upstate New York prison that many of the guards and officials at the prison were Klansmen, they got together with other organizers to do something about it. Thus was the JBAKC born.
The Klan (both the actual Klan and Klan-as-metonym-for-open-violent-white-supremacist-organizing) grew considerably in the late seventies and early eighties, fueled by post-Vietnam angst and the general rightward drift that brought Ronald Reagan into office. They got involved in stuff as diverse as “patrolling” the US-Mexico border for migrants, intimidation campaigns aimed at refugee Vietnamese fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, attempting to pretty up their bullshit and go mainstream, etc. Many of them were emboldened by the Greensboro massacre in 1979, where a coalition of Klansmen and Neo-Nazis gunned down five communist organizers who had come out (mostly unarmed) to protest against them… and everyone involved walked free.
JBAKC was mostly a handful of aging radicals. What could they do against this? Well, they could do what radicals are supposed to do- they could organize. They linked up with other groups, often local PoC organizations and some national ones, like the Republic of New Afrika. The New Afrikans, in some respects, provided a conceptual bridge for the former Weather Underground people. New Afrikans, as black/“Third World people” (that’s a phrase you don’t hear nowadays) anti-imperialist organizers, could call upon those who held to the old WUO line (that the role of white radicals was to follow what third world radicals were up to) to follow their lead in fighting the Klan. Kind of weird the white radicals were that programmatic about things, but that’s still a thing you see today, sometimes. Either way, these radicals meant it. They had every opportunity to sell out and get into real estate or supplements or something and didn’t do it.
The coalitions JBAKC helped build did different things in different places. They outed Klansmen and other white supremacists, getting them fired from positions like the ones at the prison they were first warned about. They counter-demonstrated when the Klan or Nazis put on rallies, mostly sticking to signs and derisive chanting but unafraid to throw the occasional brick. They “no-platformed,” with the same unhelpful arguments on the left dogging their heels that we hear today, and Moore and Tracy argue reasonably persuasively that Nazi skinhead appearances on “Oprah” and “Geraldo” helped popularize Nazi skins (and marginalize anti-racist ones). They got involved with the punk scene and helped fend off Nazis there. They did what they could, where they could, and always linked up the struggles on the ground to broader struggles- anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and towards the end, fighting homophobia and AIDS stigma alongside ACT-UP.
The authors let the JBAKC organizers speak for themselves a lot, and it is stirring to hear the voice of experience, even (especially?) when they’re admitting to their faults. The writing in the book is pretty decent with some odd editing glitches (people, often referred to only by their first name, written about as though they’ve been introduced when they haven’t been- that recurs at least twice). More conclusions about what JBAKC accomplished, as opposed to their lessons — be humble, be persistent in the face of fascists, build coalitions, have strategy — for today’s organizers, valuable though the latter are.
JBAKC didn’t overthrow capitalism or even get Reagan out of office. The Klan and the various Nazi groups still, mostly, exist, joined by many others, now. For some (mostly armchair) leftists, that alone would discredit them. Moore and Tracy, who are organizers along with being historians, admit the group’s faults: self-righteousness, occasional dips into a dogmatism that made them turn off potential allies. But to me, that’s more or less the point. Antifascists, then or now, aren’t superheroes. We’re regular people working together to do what we can against a pressing problem. We are part of broader movements for justice and, for most of us, against capitalism. Antifascism is a part of that movement. For all the antifa theatrics you can summon up, I understand what we do as maintenance work for the movement- protecting our organizing and that of organizers and people more generally from marginalized groups under threat. If we manage that, we’ve done something good for the movement. If we prefigure a better world where people protect each other- well, that’s good too. JBAKC did that, and we can all follow their example. ****’