Hello! Helen here continuing to report on my engagement with the concept of the Walking Archives and with my work with the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee (JBAKC) collection. This post focuses on an interview I conducted with Lisa Roth, one of the founders of JBAKC.
Lisa grew up in Manhattan, New York City and during high school first got involved in politics with her high school’s SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) chapter by “agitating, researching and studying.” Later at NYU, she joined the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and supported the local chapter of the Black working on organizing for a Black Studies program. However it wasn’t until she began to organize around prison issues that she saw how deeply ingrained white supremacy was in the US.
Lisa told me: While working with prisoners my comrades and I learned that the head of the New York Prison Guards Union was also a grand dragon in the Klu Klux Klan (KKK). Initially shocked and in disbelief, the fact was confirmed when they found the name of the union leader on paperwork for the non-incorporated chapter of the KKK. This raised important questions on the value of research and study – and through that process they found that the KKK were engaged in all sorts of workplace organizing and specifically in areas that tied into the military industrial complex for example gun factories in Connecticut. This is why Lisa and her comrades eventually centered their organizing around opposing the Klan. JBAKC began in New York but after some years Lisa moved to the Bay Area and continued to work with the West Coast chapter of JBAKC.
When I asked what made membership in JBAKC unique from other left organizations of the time, Lisa responded that members of JBAKC saw white supremacy as the central factor in the formation of the United States as a settler colony. Members of JBAKC also viewed their organizing as intersectional, meaning that it was united with other struggles (women, queer, class, etc.), were anti-Zionist and engaged in militant direct action, which many people on the left viewed counterproductive.
JBAKC and The Walking Archives:
“Have you ever seen herself as a walking archive to be accessed?”
I’ve “never thought about it in that exact phrase” that in, “my own life over all I always valued speaking with people who were participating in movements, but never thought about that in the context of an archive.”
“How did you and other members of JBAKC understand preserving history, back now and then?”
“Back then we did not understand the importance of preserving history. You don’t realize you are making history as it is happening. Now it is valuable to have people like you pulling the pieces together. We have donated a lot of material to places like the Freedom Archives and the GLBT Historical Center. It is important to have a cosmic over view. To put it all together and make it relevant.”
One of the last topic Lisa and I spoke about was how so many members of JBAKC have stayed involved in dismantling white supremacy. One of the most exciting things that I took from my interviews with Lisa was to learn that some aspects of JBAKC have reformed. They participated in the anti-Nazi and “alt-Right” protests in San Francisco and Berkeley and are starting to meet more regularly. They sponsored a program featuring Mark Bray, author of the ANTIFA Handbook. They also are working with Standing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and Catalyst Project, groups that have formed more recently but are also dedicated to eradicating white supremacy. While the context of their need to reform is incredibly disheartening, it is inspiring to see that an organization that does such great work is getting back into the fight.
Keep on the look out on my final post about my journey with the walking archives!