This article was written in the midst of the 40th annual commemoration of Black August. Black August began within the walls of the prison-industrial complex in California State Prisons. After several murders of prison organizers occurring in August 1979, prisoners began to designate it a special month for exemplifying the best characteristics of freedom fighters — through reflection, study, organizing, fasting, and exercise and building self-discipline.
More than 11 sites visited
Harold Welton, a longtime organizer with Black August Los Angeles, opened the 7th Annual Martyrs’ Tour by introducing the sites on the tour. In his words, this tour was an acknowledgment and testimonial of all the freedom fighters who were “targeted for speaking above a whisper.” There were more than 11 sites visited over six hours, taking the participants on a tour through South Central LA, Compton, Lynnwood, and more.
The bus tour helped to give its riders a sense of the historical significance of the streets they see every day. The participants saw the central flashpoint of the historic Watts Rebellion of August 1965 at the corner of 116th and Avalon. The tour also took folks to the corner of Florence Avenue and Normandie Avenue, a central location of the Los Angeles Rebellion of April and May 1992.
At both of these sites, there is no present indication of the struggles that took place, with decades of repair and public relations campaigns obscuring these historical moments. The fact that these rebellions started in the neighborhoods of South Central shows how close to home these movements were.
The intersection of Adams Boulevard and Montclair Street seemed at first glance to be a quiet street, far from a historical monument. However, this was the spot where three members of the Black Panther Party were executed by the Los Angeles Police Department. On Aug. 25, 1968, Black Panthers Steve Bartholomew, Tommy Lewis, and Robert Lawrence were trailed from their West Adams office and murdered at a service station, all three becoming martyrs that day. The murder of the three Black youth by police is both alarming and unsurprising, but serves as further evidence that the LAPD’s reign of terror began long before the rise of the current Movement for Black Lives.
The next stop was the First African Methodist Episcopalian Church, known as “The Phoenix of South Central.” First AME is a historically Black church on 25th Street and Harvard Boulevard in southwest Los Angeles’ Murray Circle. The church was the venue for the memorial to Saundra Red Pratt, an organizer with the Black Panthers who was assassinated and dumped off of the Lynwood Freeway. Pratt was 8-months’ pregnant when she was tortured and shot in her stomach. First AME was the only church that would host her funeral due to her involvement with the Black Panthers.
The next stop was the “Bunchy” Carter People’s Medical Center, a free clinic named after a co-founder of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party, Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter. The clinic was completely funded by community donations and served the surrounding community.
Jitu Sadiki, a member of Black August Los Angeles and coordinator of the tour, commented:
“The image that the state wants the people to have about the Black Panthers is that they were just a violent group. What the Panthers were doing was offering services that didn’t exist before … [like] the Free Breakfast Program for school-age children and medical services as part of their community projects.”
“Bunchy” and his comrade, John Jerome Huggins, both UCLA students, were gunned down on Jan. 17, 1969, in Room 1201 of Campbell Hall on the UCLA campus in Westwood. They were members of the school’s Black Student Union, who were killed after the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) stoked tensions between the Black Panthers and the Black nationalist group US.
The Woodlawn Cemetery, where “Bunchy” Carter’s memorial is located, was closed, but the tour stopped at the Lincoln Cemetery in Compton to view the memorial to Melvin X. A co-founder of the Black Student Union at UCLA, he was found dead in his car, having been assassinated on June 6, 1970.
The corner of 41st Street and Central Avenue in South Central Los Angeles was the site of both the Panthers’ Southern California chapter headquarters and an armed self-defense by the Panthers in December 1969. A speaker who was present at the firefight credited Geronimo Pratt with leading the unit to reinforce their office with sandbags. They proved effective in defending the lives of the LA Black Panthers present, as the police shot more than 5,000 rounds into the headquarters. Three police were wounded and there were no Panthers lost in the fight, but all the surviving Panthers were arrested.
The tour stopped at the site of a house that sheltered members of the Symbionese Liberation Army on 54th Street and Compton Avenue. In a raid that used explosives, LAPD SWAT killed six members by shooting at survivors every time they ran to flee the flame-engulfed house. They were burned to death on May 17, 1974.
Fiftieth and San Pedro Streets was the location of the Soledad Brother Defense Committee’s central headquarters. It was the site of strategy meetings, with the Che-Lumumba Club providing the house. George Jackson’s family, Angela Davis, and other freedom fighters met here.
‘Should not be forgotten’
When asked about the importance of the tour, Black August organizer Virginia Harris said: “The incidents represented by the tour are an important part of LA’s history and should not be forgotten. Forgetting them is what the power structure wants to happen.”
“LA is the foundation for a lot of changes that take place. A lot of the time our enemies realize that, when many who fight for freedom don’t. The enemies will try to distort reality and diminish the importance of it, but just like the history of any other place, it’s important to keep these memories alive.”
The success of this tour should encourage organizers from within and outside of LA to visit these sites and more, but there is truly no replacement for going on the tour with those who lived through these times and witnessed these events themselves. Now is the time to dig up the history of the past and start to create similar tours of rebellion in every city, across every state, so that the stories of the past may continue to empower the future.
The foundation for the future that we must build is in the stories of struggle that rest at our feet. All power to the people, and long live the martyrs!
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