Book Review

A Common Thread of Courage

Two Books Reviewed by Lynne Stewart

The John Carlos Story, by Jon Carlos and Dave Zirin, Haymarket Books, 2011

Veronica & The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal: as told to her sister Valerie Jones, by Valerie Jones1, XLibris Corporation, 2012

Two books—very different and yet with a common thread of courage. If the names do not immediately resonate with you, it is only because time and political circumstances are always changing.

John Carlos is the man and track star who electrified us when he and Tommie Smith and Peter Norman registered their protest to the USA’s denial of Black equality from the winners’ podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Veronica Jones (now deceased) is the witness to the shooting that Mumia Abu-Jamal was convicted of, who came forward after lying at his trial, to clear her conscience and the record in 1995. I was struck by the fact that the two subjects, both African Americans, of these books were so different in outlook and upbringing but who in the crunch elected to stand up. Both suffered afterward for their acts of courage and that is an important part of these stories as well.

Veronica was raised by her mother and ended up in Camden, New Jersey, a dying industrial town across the river from Philadelphia. The mother of three daughters by the time she was 18, she found herself hanging out in the seamy side of Central City Philly with a group of women who earned money by turning tricks. She also became part of the “life” and so found herself on December 9, 1981, in proximity to the spot where Officer Faulkner was murdered. Interviewed by Police subsequently, she said that what she saw was two black men, that she thought she recognized as “vendors” (street sellers) jogging away from the scene after she had heard three shots at the location.

I know from my professional experience, as a defense lawyer who has handled a goodly number of such cases, that cop shootings are “different.” This is especially true if it is a white cop and it is a Black/Revolutionary person who has been chosen to take the rap. The rabid intensity of the police and prosecutorial investigators to “get” the person who they have agreed upon as the “Perp” is unparalleled. Like sharks at a feeding frenzy, they descend upon the potential witnesses and twist and tailor their testimony to fit their official version. They make untoward promises and if that doesn’t work, they resort to intimidation. The “Blue Line” of silence of the fraternity of police is invoked. 

Veronica tells us first how her first interview conformed with what she saw that December night. Thereafter, while arrested on what was undoubtedly a weak if not non-existent case of accessory to Armed Robbery, she is visited by detectives at the jail who threaten her with double-digit jail terms and worse—separation from her children. When she, without any preparation by either defense or district attorney is brought directly from her cell in jail clothes to the court—she believes she is going for her own case. When she gets there, easily intimidated, this 20-year-old testified that she had not seen two black men running away from the scene. She admirably, would not finger Mumia as even being there. We will never know the impact of her lack of testimony on the jury but we know the result of that trial—Mumia was convicted and he has been fighting back ever since.

Veronica’s charges were subsequently dismissed and she wasted no time disappearing. Only through the untiring efforts of Rachel Wolkenstein, a lawyer on Mumia’s defense team and her investigators, was she discovered in time for the 1996 PCRA (Post Conviction Relief Act) hearing. By this time, she had made up her mind to clear the record of her previous lack of truth and she did so only to have an old warrant enable the District Attorney to have her arrested by New Jersey State Troopers while she was still on the witness stand. 

Her outrage and pain at this, reflected in her book, is indicative of a fundamental difference between her and John Carlos. While both were born into and raised in the Black community, Veronica Jones never “got it,” the fundamental understanding that in this United States there was and is an enemy and that enemy, white police and their Black toadies, is unrelenting. They must always be viewed as totally without scruples where Black people are concerned, and even more so when a white cop was alleged to have been killed by a Black revolutionary like Mumia. Her book made me sympathize with this street-smart but hopelessly naive girl/woman who ultimately found the strength to tell the truth and then become a supporter of Mumia and MOVE.

John Carlos was a man of the same color but who had race-consciousness stamped into his genes. Growing up in Harlem of the ’50’s and ’60’s his book tells the story of a young resister who from his exploits as a would-be Robin Hood taking cartons off the freight trains in the Bronx and distributing them to the people back home in Harlem, his devoted attachment to Malcolm X, his political confrontations with the power structure over minor but telling obstacles (bugs in the trees, food served in his cafeteria) he was always aware. Marrying while still in high school, he went to Texas on a track scholarship and learns the bitterness of living in a southern (Texas) society where racial inferiority is a given and permeates even the utopia of competitive athletes.

It was at that time that there began the rumblings of an Olympic Boycott by Black athletes of the 1968 Games in Mexico City. In the organizing for that, John met with the later, and more militant metamorphosis of Martin Luther King who was willing to support the boycott and coined for him the idea that we go out to fight not only for ourselves but for the people who can’t fight and those who won’t fight. John Carlos also accurately portrays the racist control by Avery Brundage, the Chairman of the U.S. Olympic committee and the threat that was implicit for any athlete that might dare to participate. Ultimately the boycott was abandoned but when so confronted, (as have been so many of us activists by thwarted plans,) John Carlos knew he had to do something and enlisting his teammate Tommie Smith, they knew after finishing first and second in the popular 200 meter run, that they would have the victors’ podium to showcase their resistance to the treatment of Black people in the United States. They appeared barefoot to symbolize the poverty and with beads around their necks to echo the African ancestry. They donned the black gloves and raised their fists and bowed their heads during the Anthem. It was a moment of history! It electrified all of us back in the day when struggle was an everyday, recurring dedication and confrontation.

Of course both John Carlos and Veronica were “punished” by the Powers that be. John was expelled from the Olympic Village and thereafter could not find work and was vilified by the sports world. The toll that this took, including the suicide of his wife who had been his high school bride, one can only empathize with. It is interesting to note the people who did reach out to him and that more recently there has been recognition for his courage. Veronica Jones who was mortified on the witness stand after she corrected her previously coerced testimony, also paid a heavy price.

The important message of both these books is that they offer real insight into organizing people and, for me, reinforce my belief also in redemption. John Carlos was a natural—fighting oppression from his earliest recognition of it, never surrendering. For him it would have been unthinkable not to raise his fist and confront America’s racism. For Veronica, she had to come to it—she ran away, she hid and finally with support of people like lawyer, Rachel Wolkenstein and activist, Pam Africa, she raised her right hand to testify and clear the record.

Both of these people, John and Veronica, never surrendered once they stood up—that is the message for all of us who seek to organize—you will find the naturals and those you must protect from the outrages visited on them. But you can also redeem people who may have never had a political thought or position in their lives. The movement needs them both. All of us should read these two books for the history but also for our own enlightenment.

—October 26, 2012

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