“So the Big Four launched a boycott. They got all the organizations that were part of the Coalition of Concerned Leaders and Citizens to Save Our Youth and, every single day for an entire year, their members boycotted the downtown stores. In the beginning, they boycotted all the stores, but the effort was to diffuse; they couldn’t make a big enough impact. So they began a targeted boycott. They decided they would go from store to store, starting with Martin’s, because it had only two doors: one on Fulton Street and one on a side street. Every organization took its turn standing out in front of the store and announcing the boycott. They talked to passersby about the murder of Randolph Evans and Arthur Miller. And they said, again and again, until the stores were closed for the evening, “Boycott. Don’t shop!”
It was the holiday season, and with the steady pressure from the protestors standing guard in front of both its doors, people chose not to enter Martin’s. Within six months, it closed. The store actually went bankrupt. When the other merchants saw Martin’s declare bankruptcy, they said, “Okay, let’s negotiate.” During the negotiations, the boycott continued, now focused on Abraham & Straus department store. In the end, the Coalition got everything it had listed on its ten-point plan. Leah says with a smile, “We still give scholarships in Randolph Evans’s name, though we fund them ourselves now. All these years later, every year, there are kids who go to college on behalf of Randolph Evans.” That catalytic event would spawn the Black United Front in New York (and later, the National Black United Front nationwide). In the meantime, the Big Four continued to organize demonstrations, now under the umbrella of the Black United Front, tackling a variety of issues, such as police brutality, greater job opportunities for black citizens at Brooklyn’s Downstate Medical Center and at construction sites throughout the borough, fighting the closure of Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital. They would go on to be instrumental in the election of David Dinkins, New York City’s first black mayor. “My father and my mother would go to these other cities who expressed interest and meet with the organizers and activists, “Leah recalls. “They would drive around the country and meet with people. The Black United Front was born on the strength of their car and gas.” The first national convention was held in June 1980, with more than a thousand people attending from forty-eight states and five foreign countries—including a young Donna Brazile, who made the twenty-hour journey with some friends in an old station wagon. “My father was elected chair,” Leah says. “We had all these organizations that had long, complicated histories with each other. They didn’t necessarily trust each other, but they could agree with my dad. They trusted him, so they elected him the chair. He was the chair of the Front for five or six years.” This was around the time that Dr. Betty Shabazz began to frequent Leah’s father’s church. “She was always in Brooklyn, “ Leah recalls. “She lived in Mount Vernon, but she was always in the orbit someplace. So she was always around. She and my mom became very good friends. So, when my mom, Dr. Karen S. Daughtry, was launching her organization, Sisters Against South African Apartheid. Dr. Betty was part of that. Ours was the activist church in New York before activism became popular. So everybody came here.”
Reverend Daughtry was a moderating force for some of the more nationalist, more radical people who didn’t want to deal with the “establishment types,” and a radicalizing force for the establishment folks. When he was there, everybody was welcome. They would meet at the church. Steering and committee meetings were held in the fellowship halls around a big square table. “Not round,” Leah specifies. “A square table. No theater seating, so everybody had a seat at the table.” She continues: “The Front made its name on a door-to-door brand of activism. Remember, this was before the internet. This was before cell phones…. This was before black radio; we didn’t have any black radio. Now we have WBLS and WWRL, where you can go on and make an announcement. Back then, you didn’t have any of that. It was true word-of-mouth. It was true talking to your neighbors, and handing out a flyer. I used to do the flyers on a mimeograph machine. That’s when you had to crank it up and then put the stencil on with the blue ink and run. When you had ten thousand people show up at a rally then, it was because we touched ten thousand there. But that was hand-to-hand, knocking on doors: ‘Hey, sister, let me tell you about this event.’ Or ‘Hey, brother, do you know what’s going on downtown?’ We’d gather a bunch of kids, and a stack of flyers, and we’d just hand them out, talking to people. Sometimes we pasted them on the telephone poles, back when there were telephone poles. That was how you organized back then.” Leah was, by this point, a high school student, and she paid careful attention to how her parents were turning a moment into a movement. Her younger brother has fewer fond memories of that time. At the rallies, the Front would give children signs to carry. There’s a photo of Leah’s younger brother carrying one that reads, “Am I Next?” He was ten at the time, just five years younger than Randolph Evans at the time of his murder. Years later, Leah learned how troubled her brother felt by that sign and his connection to Evans. “For many years he used to sleep with a baseball bat or a knife under his pillow,” she says. “He felt unsafe. He wasn’t the only one. My father began to get serious death threats during this time. The church was getting bomb threats. My parents were traveling more as the Front grew in stature both nationally and internationally, and began to fear what might happen with the kids home alone.” Reverend Daughtry moved the family to New Jersey, around the corner from Leah’s grandparents. “We went to their house two nights a week for dinner,” Leah explains. “If anything happened, they were right there. It gave my parents more peace of mind. But what it meant for us was that we couldn’t go to the meetings. We were missing the boycott. We were missing the rallies because we were in Jersey.” As the oldest, Leah in particular missed the energy of activism that surrounded her father’s church. She remembers thinking, “Oh, my God, we don’t know what’s going on.” As in the Marvin Gaye song, “What’s going on?” became a constant refrain around her family dinner table. Eventually, on Fridays, her father would drive to New Jersey from his office, pick Leah and her siblings up from school, and bring them back to Brooklyn so they could boycott, so they could be a part of what was going on. For Leah, the training was invaluable. She learned that there’s a lot of work that has to happen in any movement. “You don’t just wake up and there’s a movement,” she says. “You don’t just decide, ‘Oh, let’s go have a march.’ There’s a lot that goes behind that. Not just the planning but the conceptualization, the mission of it, the why of it. That’s one thing I took away from it.” She learned also that “just because you are in coalition with people doesn’t mean that you lay all of your values down or that you separate yourself from the community.” Each leader of the Front had his own community. When they got ready to roll things out, Jitu brought the EAST. Sam brought Brooklyn CORE. Al brought his governmental political establishment people. And the Reverend Daughtry brought the church people in his network. As Leah says, “They didn’t leave their people behind because they were in conversation with others. That’s what I think made the movement strong and made it grow. These four modeled for us what it was like to be in coalition and collaboration with one another. So, I took that into my work. I can talk to anybody. There’s something we have in common if it’s only our humanity. If we can be respectful enough to have a conversation, then we can move forward. Also, recognize where you come from and who people are bringing to the table with them. That’s what makes you strong.” Leah adds, “I learned from that, that you got to talk to people. That you can find common ground with anybody around a cause. If you can agree on the cause, then you can find a way forward. That only comes through conversation and through deciding that you’re going to be open enough to have conversations.” The people drawn to the Front’s rallies could have said, “I don’t know these people. I’m not coming.” But, Leah says, “They decided that the stakes were too high for them to be separate. That the stakes were high enough that they needed to come together despite their differences.” In some ways, the Big Four was a brain trust parallel to what we would become when we became the Colored Girls.
To be continued…