Fallen Warriors-Remembering General Baker, Dottie Stevens and Karega Hart
By Austin Long-Scott
June 12, 2014
Over the past few months workers in the United States lost three of the hardest fighting revolutionaries against poverty and for a cooperative society, three people who never tired of fighting oppression and who championed new visions for a cooperative society right up until the very end.
Dottie Stevens of Massachusetts, General Gordon Baker of Michigan and Karega Hart of California had in common a refusal to accept the national myth that America was a land of opportunity for anyone who would work hard and follow the rules. They knew that most workers are caught in lives of quiet desperation, and they coupled that with endlessly teaching visions of a better future for everyone – not just the one percent.
All three are vivid examples of how tough, how dedicated and how active revolutionaries need to be in order to make inroads against the all-consuming culture of capitalism.
Dottie Stevens died at 72 on March 27 in Brookline, MA, after a long battle with cancer and a lifelong struggle against poverty. She started her first anti-poverty organization while she was a college student on welfare. She ran for governor of Massachusetts in 1990 on an “elect the victims of poverty” platform. The Boston Globe commented that after her unsuccessful effort, she “remained a networking dynamo for the disadvantaged for the rest of her life.”
Over the years she fought poverty in so many different ways that the Boston City Council recognized her tireless battles against it. She founded a number of antipoverty and social justice organizations, including Survivors News, a journal for the poor. She was also a board member of the National Welfare Rights Union.
One of her three sons. Corey Kech of Santa Cruz, CA, said she “didn’t allow herself to be knocked around by the system. They don’t make it easy, and she learned a lot from that process.”
A tribute to her noted that when she spoke out, she “. . . moved every audience, whether it was huge or small demonstrations before the Statehouse, testifying at hearings, in small classrooms, or at national conventions, her message of hope and calls to action were clear, authentic and effective. With Dottie’s encouragement and belief in our abilities, we who worked with her were able to write, speak out, organize, educate and raise ourselves out of obscurity and poverty.”
Although she dropped out of high school she never stopped studying people and the U.S. system of attempting to manage poverty rather than end it. Eventually, although she was always poor, she got a Masters degree from a special program at the University of Massachusetts.
Another son, Joe Goodrich, told reporters, “Here’s a woman who had a master’s degree and could have gone in any direction . . . She really could have capitalized on it if she was a greedier person, but she just cared too much about people. She chose to stay poverty-stricken to help those in that position. That speaks volumes about a person.”
One of her fellow anti-poverty activists was Jim Stewart, director of the First Church Shelter in Cambridge MA and a longtime advocate for poor and homeless people. He said she “had no interest at all at playing an insider game. She wanted to bear witness and speak the truth about something she knew a lot about: being a poor person and trying to survive in a society and an economy that seems to be growing less and less concerned about the needs of people like that.”
“She was extremely brilliant,” said her longtime friend Claire Cummings, a sociology professor emeritus. “She was a strategist of the highest order. She understood the public; she understood the system. She could talk about welfare and talk to every possible kind of audience, and she ended up changing their minds. I saw that happen over and over again. To me, that’s incredible power, incredible talent.”
GENERAL GORDON BAKER
General Baker, also 72, passed away in Michigan May 18 after a lifetime of in-your-face, “no justice, no peace” actions that inspired workers to stand up and fight against the kicking they were getting from fat-cat industrial bosses in the plants where they worked, and class-based exploitation in the communities where they lived.
As one friend put it, from his first arrest at a 1963 protest for “disturbing the peace,” he made that charge his life’s work. He had been protesting Detroit’s bid to host the Olympics when the city was refusing to combat its own extensive housing discrimination.
In the 1960s Baker was in constant motion, working, teaching and learning with students, community activists, workers and anyone else seeking a fairer and more just future than the one offered by profit-seeking capitalists. He spent a summer in Cuba studying with revolutionaries from all over the world and moved from the Black Nationalist thinking of his student days to a deeper understanding of the class-based economic oppression that created slavery and has always been at the heart of the U.S. economic system. And he was always eager to shout out against injustice, and to share what he was learning with others.
In 1968 Baker and an estimated 4,000 other workers at the giant Dodge auto plant responded to a work speedup with a wildcat strike that stopped production and created national headlines. When the then-huge Chrysler Corporation decided he was the ringleader and blacklisted him from the auto industry, even though it rehired white strikers, Baker, in typical fashion, stuck it to them with a letter that read in part:
“Let it be further understood that by taking the course of disciplining the strikers you have opened that struggle to a new and higher level and for this I sincerely THANK YOU. You have made the decision to do battle with me and the entire Black community in this city, this state, and this country, and in this world of which I am a part … [Y]ou have made the decision to do battle, and that is the only decision that you will make. WE shall determine the arena and the time. You will also be held completely responsible for all of the grave consequences arising from your racist actions.”
By that time the benefits of his years of talking and organizing in factories and in the streets were evident. As his friend David Goldberg wrote in the quarterly publication Jacobin:
“The prior organizing done in the plants, papers, pool halls, schools, bars and communities of Detroit began to pay off, as people searched for more radical and militant vehicles to confront racism and economic oppression. When Baker formed the Dodge Revolutionary Movement (DRUM) after the initial wildcat, he did so with rapidly growing in-plant and community support.
“Student activists formed affiliates that reached all the way down to the elementary schools, and helped distribute leaflets and papers at the plants. Allies in an array of grassroots organizations mobilized against racist urban renewal policies, slumlords and substandard housing, police brutality and racism within the building trades unions.
“Black workers in other plants and industries also began following DRUM’s lead, organizing an assortment of their own revolutionary union movements (RUMs) and wildcats to fight against racist employers and company unions. To coordinate this activity, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) was formed, with General Baker, Mike Hamlin, Ken Cockrel, Chuck Wooten, Luke Tripp, John Watson and John Williams comprising the Executive Committee.
The many ways in which Baker and his wife of 35 years, Marian Kramer, moved ordinary people to action meant that when he died, the group they considered their extended family numbered thousands, including students, labor activists, Black Power movement allies, socialist and communist activists, groups involved in welfare rights and housing rights, community activists and advocates for Single-Payer Healthcare.
He was a founder and leader of LRNA, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. A tribute to him in the People’s Tribune, a national newspaper for the working class, said that what the ruling class fears most “. . . is a mass in motion, guided by vision. Comrade Gen’s life is summed up as the effort to organize the scattered demands of the exploited into a vision, to organize the fighters around that vision.”
He never stopped pushing that vision. In his final days, General Baker said to the family and comrades gathered around him, “Carry on!”
KAREGA RODNEY HART
Karega Hart died May 3 in Oakland, CA., after a years-long battle with slowly worsening multiple sclerosis. He was 63. A tribute read by his granddaughter Ashli Hart at his memorial service noted, “While still in his teens, Karega became a lifelong fighter for African liberation, workers’ rights and power, women’s equality, reparations and socialism.”
“While deeply committed to the struggle for Black liberation, Karega taught us that the struggle for racial equality had to be tied to the class struggle,” said Millie Cleveland in a tribute from SEIU Local 1021, where Karega served for a decade as Education and Training Director.
“Despite 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, and 60 years of separate but equal he taught us that racial equality would only be achieved when working class people of all colors were united and organized. Despite his strong stance against any form of oppression, Karega was not motivated by hatred but instead motivated by his love for all people. This is a lesson we should all learn.”
As poet Joe Navarro put it at the June 8 service:
His revolutionary passion, embellished
With socialist compassion, condemning
Those blood-sucking capitalists,
Even in his poetry. From the
Assembly line to the bus line
Karega organized for peace
Equality, Justice and Socialism . . .
That was Karega. A father and grandfather
Who believed that we could live
In a better society that was driven by
Human need instead of corporate greed.
That’s the world he wanted for his family.
The list of organizations in which Karega was active begins in Detroit and includes the United Auto Workers, where he was an active rank and file leader, the Congress for African People, the African Liberation Support Committee, the Black Workers Congress, the League of Revolutionary Struggle, the Black Radical Congress, and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. He considered the late poet Imamu Amiri Baraka to be a close friend and mentor, and he worked on campaigns to free American political prisoners, including the late Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier.
After he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s Karega became a bus driver and president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1574. Later he joined SEIU 1021 in a staffing capacity and continued his community work by becoming a board member of the Women’s Economic Agenda Project (WEAP).
Karega’s views also evolved through the years from a focus on race to a focus on class. In 2009 he sat down for an interview with some WEAP student interns who were working on a variety of social justice projects.
“I used to think the problem was bad white people.” he told them. “I learned it was the system of capitalism that framed people’s ideals about each other and that was the source of the problem: that capitalism benefited from racism. I also learned later that simply by putting more black people in office was not going to solve the problem.”
The WEAP interns found Hart to be “. . . an especially thoughtful person, an intellectual who has a plethora of hands-on experience to strengthen his assessment about growing poverty – the high rates of homelessness and uninsured, the low rates of union representation, and the immense income disparity between the rich and the poor
“I think one of the biggest problems is that we lack a full analysis of global capitalism and all of the things connected to that” he told them. “Unions right now operate out of a framework of “how do we reform and get what we can out of the system?” Not “how do we change the system entirely?” So when you have unions only concerned about what they can get out of the system, then the deeper issues of poverty – contracting out, deregulation, etc. – all of those things become secondary issues because the members of unions are educated only to get what they can out of this system: higher wages, a nice house, a nice car and maybe the hell with everyone else. We don’t think any further than that. It is one of my challenges, to get people to look at things more deeply, to understand that getting more vacation time, more benefits, more money is not necessarily going to solve your problem.”
Ethel Long-Scott, WEAP’s Executive Director, was also a friend. She spoke at the memorial service organized by Karega’s family.
“Karega Hart, was very familiar with what it means to be denied one’s basic economic human rights, such as the right to unionize, the right to a living wage, the right to free speech, the right to education, the right to health care,” she said. “But as a trade union leader he was something more, he was a labor leader dedicated to addressing the increased poverty in America. He saw all these problems like increasing violence in our society. Karega Hart dedicated his life to fighting alongside many, especially fellow union workers, to demand the fulfillment of everyone’s economic human rights. It is a fight for economic security and human dignity.”