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94 chapter eight Forward Together, Backward Never The visible leadership of the Black United Front was male. This meant Ronnie Herndon, the late Rev. John Jackson, the late Halim Rahsaan, Kamau Sadiki, and Richard Brown. Jean Vessup coordinated a lot of the BUF work around civil rights and police issues. She was an amazing organizer, hard worker, and good friend. Yet it was almost tradition that women worked in the background doing research, preparing for meetings, and making sure that things like press conferences happened. I was doing a lot of that work in the background, as were Karen Powell and Charlotte Rutherford, before she left for Howard University Law School. So were my good friends Evelyn Crews and Venita Myrick, and her mother Bobbie, and Elaine Harrison. Mrs. Bobbi Gary, Gloria Johnson, Mrs. Vivian Richardson, and Mrs. Vesia Loving also stand out in my memories. All of us were called to service. We all signed on for the mission and vision of BUF, with its upbeat motto Forward Together, Backward Never. Over time, I became part of the more visible, before-the-cameras team at the press conferences, for example, or in a delegation to meet with the mayor. One day, I was talking with a Front supporter, Jean Drew, who worked at Portland Community College. I had recently wound up in more of an out-front role than usual and she commented: “Oh, now the fellas are letting you in.” I remember that her comment struck a chord in me, like “Yeah, they are.” It was not a criticism from her but it wasn’t quite an affirmation either. At another BUF meeting at the King Neighborhood Facility, the topic being discussed was reproductive rights. After a time, I heard myself say, “You know, all the folks talking are men so far in this conversation and I’m really interested to know what the women around the table think about all of this.” I felt the situation was odd and strange and needed to be interrupted and challenged. And the women did speak. 95 There was respect in BUF yet at the same time sexism in terms of the roles that folks just kind of fell into—or were asked to fill. Those of us who were conscious of it bumped up against it, and did not play along. At another meeting at my house, we were assembling packets for a public meeting. We were literally doing this assembly work on the floor with our chairs pushed back. The folks doing the work on the floor were the women and the guys were sitting back on chairs. We said, “Oh, no. This isn’t going to work. You’ve got to work too. This is a work party. We’re all in this together.” So we put them to work. There was a lot of teasing and laughter. It was a little “gotcha” but at the same time an important recognition of the disrespectful assumption that only the women were going to be working on their hands and knees. In BUF my leadership was affirmed. I was never co-chair of the organization, but I was asked to take on coordinating kinds of roles and I was seen as a leader. We held elections for co-chairs, and for secretary. Our longtime secretary was the late Mrs. Vivian Richardson. We always called her Mrs. Richardson, not Vivian, but Mrs. Richardson, as a sign of respect. The elections were more like affirmations of leadership rather than voting for rival slates. We were all also very conscious that Ronnie and Rev. Jackson had their lives on the line. They were getting death threats at their homes and death threats at their offices. There was fear. So there was a deep, deep, deep respect for these two men and the roles that they took on and a lot of love and concern for their families. As I recalled with Richard Brown just the other day: “That time was a magical time.” It will never be repeated in the same way. We had people who had a consciousness; who loved Black people and who loved themselves. They were clear about identity. We knew who we were and we were not ashamed. We were not afraid. Or if we had fear, there was a place to speak about that. We had honesty with and were accountable to one another. We all practiced these values faithfully for years and years. I haven’t seen...


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