Saturday, January 29, 2011


Harry Targ

When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not.- Mark Twain

I know celebrating a birthday is a bourgeois idea. But in a capitalist society we desperately seek ways to maintain a sense of identity and purpose. Once a year we want people to remember us as individuals even though we need to see ourselves as part of larger communities.

Well January 30 is my birthday. I was born in 1940, a year before the United States formally entered World War II, and nine months before Franklin Roosevelt was elected to his third term as president.

Ever since I was a kid I knew I was connected to the personage of FDR because WE HAD THE SAME BIRTH DATE! This connection was formalized in 1942 when an aunt of mine who had been the press agent of "fan dancer" Sally Rand in the 1930s got a picture of me dressed in a soldier suit in the old Chicago Sun. The picture showed me in uniform, celebrating my birthday the same day President Roosevelt was celebrating his.

In another Chicago paper a whole story connected me with the President:
This is the birthday of the president of the United States and it is also the birthday of Harry Targ 2....Harry, with some help friom his elders, is to have a special kind of birthday party, for which he has organized what he calls the Junior Soldiers Corps..."

So I grew up pridefully connecting myself to this great President. Probably my aunt's efforts to give this 2 year old some visibility shaped my political consciousness and self-concept. (Unfortunately when I showed the picture and story to my draft board in the 1960s arguing that I had already worn the uniform of the United States army back in 1942 my appeal for deferment based on prior service was denied).

All was well with my self-concept until the new century when trivial information became more readily available to us all. I was able to google birth dates and their significance. I discovered two that were very troubling. First, on January 30, 1933 President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany. And if that wasn't bad enough, I discovered that former Vice President Dick Cheney was born on January 30, 1941.

So this year I celebrate my birthday confused and dismayed. Maybe in the end I need to come to grips with the fact that celebrating birthdays is at best frivolous and at worst depressing.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Harry Targ

A Young College Kid

I walked to campus one fall morning 1960 and came upon a large crowd surrounding the main quadrangle at the University of Illinois. I asked someone hanging around what was up. He said that Democratic candidate for president John F. Kennedy was going to appear at the steps of the auditorium building at one end of the large area surrounded by classroom buildings.

I stayed and found his talk mildly interesting. I was studying journalism, found politics intriguing, and wanted to grow up to be a columnist like Walter Lippman. I was impressed by JFK’s youth, energy, glamour, as politicians go, and in total the polar opposite of the boring Republican choice, Richard Nixon.

I had not yet begun to read the Beat poets, Paul Goodman, William Whyte’s The Organization Man, or other such analysts of the 1950s “dark ages,” but I intuitively grasped the moment. I began to see the emergence of a new political generation in America. Later that fall Eleanor Roosevelt appeared at the YMCA to campaign for JFK. I did know that she spoke for the legacy of the New Deal of the 1930s and I admired her greatly. I probably saw a connection between that liberal legacy and the possibilities for the 1960s.

JFK as President

Two months later JFK won the election, probably with a significant assist from late night reports of Cook County votes which made Illinois a win for him. His election, of course, was followed by a stirring inaugural speech, one in which he called upon young people particularly to do things for their country, not just for themselves. I was too na├»ve to ask: “What did you have in mind?”

JFK launched a figurative shuttle from Harvard Yard to the White House. Bright, young intellectuals, policy analysts with connections to big corporations, theorists of modernization and development in the so-called “Third World,” liberal anti-Communists, and academics with a preference for moderate Democrats flew in to help the Kennedy team craft policies to expand capitalism on a worldwide stage. Their project included developing policies that would transform the growing opposition to colonialism and neo-colonialism in Africa, Asia, and Latin America into a set of regimes that would be sufficiently anti-Communist to accommodate global capitalism.

The 60s

While many people of my generation grew more excited by the new administration and how we could participate in the construction of radical change at home and abroad, Kennedy was expanding US military activity in Vietnam, authorizing an invasion of the island 90 miles from our shores by Cuban counter-revolutionaries, dramatically increasingly military spending and shifting the Pentagon from old-style professional militarism to new techniques of scientific management. At home the administration was trying to figure out ways to “cool out” Southern militancy, temper opposition to segregation, and maintain support for the Democratic Party in the weakening “Solid South.”

I remember all this as we reflect on the fifty year anniversary of the dawn of the Kennedy era. We may quibble about when “the 60s” really began. Some might begin their narrative with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 or the publication of The Catcher in the Rye or Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” in the Bay area or manifestations of enthusiasm as Fidel Castro and the 26th of July Movement marched into Havana in January 1959. However, alternatively, a case could be made that the 60s began with the Kennedy inaugural address.

The Irony

The main point I take from my remembrances of JFK is the fact that he did turn on a generation to the possibilities of changing America at home and abroad. He presented a vision of a political regime in which citizens would want to participate for their own betterment and the betterment of others. While he surely did not mean to address these issues, his campaign, speeches, and persona conveyed a message of anti-imperialism, social and economic justice, and profound opposition to racism. Ironically, he meant none of these but 60s youth assumed that that was what he stood for and wanted us to commit our lives to achieving. If Kennedy had lived, he would have opposed the movements against racism, war, and gender equality even more than his successor LBJ, but he turned us on to want to achieve these goals. That is the significance of JFK for the 60s and what followed.

Fast forwarding 48 years, a young Barack Obama, by his style, language, gestures, and some of his words, alluded to the same images of fundamental changes we derived from JFK in his day. Young people flocked to the Obama campaign with a gusto not seen by young people politically really since the 60s. The record is still out but we can only hope that the fire and passion that stimulated youth for Obama in 2008 will ignite the radicalism in the years ahead as JFK did in the 1960s; hopefully with Obama’s support, but if not, without it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Harry Targ

O black man, beast of burden through the centuries
Your ashes scattered to the winds of heaven,

Barbaric centuries of rape and carnage

You will make the Congo a nation, happy and free,
In the very heart of vast Black Africa
(from “Weep, Beloved Black Brother,” Patrice Lumumba).
. . .
We are not alone, Africa, Asia, and free and liberated people from every corner of the world will always be found at the side of the Congolese….To my children whom I leave and whom perhaps I will see no more, I wish that they be told that the future of the Congo is beautiful and that it expects for each Congolese to accomplish the sacred task of reconstruction of our independence and our sovereignty; for without dignity there is no liberty, without justice there is no dignity, and without independence there are no free men (Lumumba’s last letter to his wife, December, 1960).
. . .

Lumumba is the greatest Black man who ever walked the African continent. He didn’t fear anybody (Malcolm X, June 28, 1964).

The basic cause of most of the trouble in the Congo right now is the intervention of outsiders--the fighting that is going on over the mineral wealth of the Congo and over the strategic position that the Congo represents on the African continent. (Malcolm X, November, 28, 1964).

. . .

The adventures that Africa afforded were tawdry enough, but it became the setting for a sudden epiphany…of the pressing necessity for expounding my America for the 20th century.…It was given to me, equally disconsolate on the edge of a jungle of central Africa, to have thrust upon me the mission of expounding what I took to be the innermost propulsion of the United States… (from Harvard intellectual historian Perry Miller’s remembrance of working on a barge in the Belgian Congo, recorded in his Errand Into the Wilderness, 1956).

On January 17, 1961 Patrice Lumumba, the kidnapped leader of the newly independent government of what now is called Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) was assassinated by a group of army officers encouraged by many imperialist powers including the United States. DR Congo, endowed with enormous riches and a large population, had been under the yoke of Belgian colonialism since the powers of Europe divided up the African continent at the 1884 Berlin Conference. King Leopold II, occupied the land and enslaved the inhabitants of it to work huge rubber plantations. Those who resisted enslavement were brutally murdered, their body parts put on public display to serve as a warning to those who had similar thoughts.

But, as Lumumba’s words suggest, masses of people rose up to extricate colonial rulers not only in the Congo but throughout Africa: including Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and later in Portuguese colonies (Guinea Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique). Following the uprisings in India in the 1940s, the spirit of independence gripped virtually the entire Global South.

Lumumba, inspired by the freedom currents spreading like wildfire in the 1940s and 1950s helped form the Congolese National Movement (MNC) in 1958. The MNC movement joined with the broad Pan African forces at the All-African People’s Conference in Accra, Ghana in that year. Sensing the growing demands for change in Africa’s third largest country, the Belgian government began to extricate itself from its colony. National elections were held in May, 1960 to establish the first independent government of the Congo. The MNC won the elections and Patrice Lumumba became the government’s first prime minister, and Joseph Kasavubu its president.

Shortly thereafter, political leaders from the resource rich Congo province of Katanga, encouraged by the Belgians, seceded. Internal strife spread to the Congolese capital. In the fall of 1960 Lumumba, who had become a world renowned symbol of African liberation, was kidnapped by dissident members of the new Congolese army and killed in 1961. Both the United Nations and the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States have long been viewed as being complicit in the assassination.

Before the kidnapping Lumumba appealed for assistance to quell civil war in his country. UN peacekeeping forces failed to support the newly created government. Since Lumumba asked for military equipment from the former Soviet Union the Eisenhower administration became convinced that now Lumumba, the African nationalist, had become an agent of international communism.

After Lumumba’s death, and years of internal political conflict, Colonel Joseph Mobutu, the leader of the plot to capture and kill Lumumba seized state power. In 1971, Mobutu (now Mobutu Sese Seko) renamed the Congo, Zaire, and for over twenty years robbed the country of its wealth. When his regime collapsed in the 1990s, due to internal and external forces, a civil war, often referred to as “Africa’s World War,” ensued. Bloody violence, estimated deaths range from 3 to 5 million people, involving Congolese forces, intervening armies from Uganda, and Rwanda, and indirect support of one side or another from European powers and western economic interests continued from 1998 to 2003. After a short ceasefire and the creation of a new DCR government, civil war in parts of the country resumed.

The history of the Congolese people is complicated but several historical and contemporary lessons can be drawn as we reflect on the fifty-year anniversary of the death of Patrice Lumumba.

First, Patrice Lumumba represents that great generation of African anti-colonial leaders, who, through their words and deeds, encouraged African masses to rise up against colonial masters, neo-colonial leaders tied to traditional empires, and to do so celebrating independent nationhood. Leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, and Nelson Mandela inspired the transformation of the political, economic, and cultural life of the African continent. While their struggles remain incomplete, they did succeed in leading the African masses to overthrow the formal colonial order that had been in place for four hundred years.

Second, Americans, such as historian Perry Miller, experienced Africa only as the backdrop for their own musings about America’s identity. Others described Africa as a continent devoid of people, history, and culture, and ignored leaders like Lumumba who had a tremendous impact on the consciousness of peoples victimized by colonial exploitation and racism everywhere.

Third, as Penny M. Von Eschen points out (Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism 1937-1957, 1997), during the time of anti-colonial struggles there were over 200 newspapers in African-American communities across the United States. Their readers knew much about colonialism and the struggles against it in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Members of Black communities in the United States read reports on Asia, Africa, and Latin America from such prolific writers as George Padmore, W.E.B. DuBois, and Paul Robeson. Fighters for freedom in the United States, such as Malcolm X, knew full well about the trials and tribulations of Patrice Lumumba and drew analogies between struggles against colonialism and neo-colonialism in Africa and campaigns for racial justice in the United States.

And finally, the disintegration of one of the largest countries in the world and its replacement by a brutal dictatorship from the 1960s to the 1990s, had its roots in the 1960 murder of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first prime minister. In addition, the “African World War” of the last decade must be scene as connected to the assassination of the proud African nationalist leader, Patrice Lumumba, fifty years ago.