Chattanooga: Lynch Town Revisited

Anarchists Take on the KKK


Fifth Estate # 343, Fall-Winter, 1993

Photo shows a large group of people in front of a building. Signs read slogans such as "Smash white supremacy."
Anarchists take over main entrance to Hamilton County Courts Building as part of anti-racist march in Chattanooga, Sept. 11. -photo / WSA-IWA

Ninety anarchists from a dozen cities attended a successful march and rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Sept. 11.

The action was called to confront a planned Ku Klux Klan anti-gay, pro-killer cop demonstration, to protest 23 murders of Blacks in police custody over the last two decades (seven since 1990), and to demand that charges be dropped against the Chattanooga 8, a group of anti-racist protestors.

To understand Chattanooga it is necessary to understand its backdrop of Lookout Mountain, Orchard Knob, and Missionary Ridge. At those sites during the Civil War, on November 23 through 25, 1863, the Confederates “fought to the last man” during the fierce Battle of Chattanooga, were routed and fled Tennessee.

This opened the way for Union General Sherman’s army to enter Georgia and burn Atlanta to the ground. Then, in their March to the Sea, Sherman’s troops laid waste to everything in their path in a 60-mile swath. Many southern whites never forgot the battles or devastation, and certainly never forgave. Chattanooga is a town, for instance, where many of its mayors have been open KKKers.

Among its more recent battles, there was a 1971 uprising sparked by police brutality. It lasted ten days and was quelled only by calling in thousands of National Guard and Army troops. In 1980, one Klan faction was called “soft” by others for daring to meet with the NAACP. Their response? They proved their battle readiness by driving through a Black Chattanooga neighborhood and shooting five people in the back. When a jury acquitted them, Blacks revolted for a week and even formed a militia that kept cops out of their area.

After that the KKK was driven underground.

Anarchists Challenge Klan

Today though, they’re itching for a revival. To see how and why anarchists took up the Klan’s challenge, a return to the ’60s and some background is needed.

Chattanooga’s Concerned Citizens for Justice, one of the groups that called for the September protest, is headed by Lorenzo Komboa Ervin. Some older anarchists will recognize his name as the author of a pamphlet written in 1979 entitled Anarchism and the Black Revolution. Those familiar with the U.S. anarchist scene know it to be an almost exclusively white movement, so Lorenzo’s presence was noteworthy.

Lorenzo’s radical roots go back to his days as a Chattanooga organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party. After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1967, Chattanooga flared up as did scores of other U.S. cities swept by Black insurrectionary riots.

Lorenzo was in Atlanta during the Chattanooga uprising, but the city establishment was out to get him. It’s been documented that during this period the government was out to destroy the Panthers who were decimated by frame-ups and assassinations.

In 1968, a so-called “Black Power” grand jury was convened to decide whether to charge Lorenzo with running guns and possession of explosives for the riot he was nowhere near. It was a blatant attempt to frame him. A childhood friend of Lorenzo’s in the local police department confided to him that if he went to jail, “he wouldn’t leave alive.”

In that desperate atmosphere of 1969, Lorenzo hijacked a plane to Cuba.

But commandeering the plane to Cuba led to his being jailed by the Cuban Communists who imprisoned many of the Panthers seeking safety in Cuba. To this day, this fact is unknown to Cuba’s many leftist admirers. (Castro’s reasoning? According to Lorenzo and Cuban anarchist exile Gustavo Rodriguez, Castro didn’t want Panthers on the street possibly stirring up Cuba’s second-class Blacks oppressed by the white Cuban Communist dictatorship.)

After six months in captivity, Lorenzo was released and put on a plane, ostensibly headed for Guineam, where the Panthers had an exile base. Instead, the Cubans flew him to post-Soviet invasion Czechoslovakia, refused him a visa for Guinea, and turned him over to Czech authorities. The Czechs then handed him over to a U.S. embassy official. Lorenzo punched the American and ran. He eventually ended up in East Berlin, finding protection in an African students’ dorm.

In late 1969, U.S. agents captured Lorenzo, secreted him to West Berlin, and took him back to the States where he was convicted in 1971 of the hijacking. He was incarcerated until 1983.

While in prison, he reflected on his eye-opening experience with the Communists. This led him away from the Marxist-Leninist influenced politics of the Panthers to anarchism. Thus began his foray into the anarchist movement via his pamphlet on Black Liberation.

After his release, he began to concentrate on fighting racism, and he distanced himself from the anarchist milieu, not known for its anti-racist practice or for a coherent critique of racism. Lorenzo’s recent experience in working with white anarchists in Chattanooga’s multi-issue Justice Alliance, led him to open up once again to the anarchist movement.

A Large Red & Black Flag

In a 1993 letter to the anarchist newspaper, Love and Rage, Lorenzo asked for aid for the Chattanooga 8, a group of demonstrators arrested May 13, 1993 who had demonstrated at a “police memorial,” against murderous police. This protest was held just two days after a grand jury had refused to press charges against eight white cops involved in the February 5th choking death of Larry Powell, a Black truck driver.

Then came word that the Lookout Mountain Knights of the Ku Klux Klan had filed for a permit to hold a rally on September 11th. They were demanding that the Chattanooga gay pride march not be held again (one was held in June) and were supporting the cops who’d murdered Powell. So, Chattanooga’s Justice Alliance and Concerned Citizens for Justice put the word out to anarchists, civil rights and gay groups to help organize a national mobilization to confront the Klan.

On September 10th, people began arriving from Atlanta, NYC, Chicago, Memphis, Minneapolis, Detroit, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Knoxville, Newark, Russelville AL, Dalton GA, and many Tennessee towns.

No one knew quite what to expect as word was out that the KKK had backed down and withdrew their permit application. Most demonstrators were ready to fight if necessary, but as we arrived at the Miller Park gathering point in downtown Chattanooga, it became clear the day was fully ours.

Not only were no Klan in sight, but no cops either. Without a permit 100 people, mostly anarchists, marched throughout the downtown area taking the whole street, anarchist black flags leading the way, only two cop cars trailing far behind, and ended up at the Court Justice Building without incident. We took over the steps of the building and blocked its entrance.

A rally followed where Lorenzo announced that his group was calling for a boycott of Chattanooga until the killer cop issue was properly addressed. There was one hilarious moment when an unmarked police car slowly drove by with two people photographing and videoing, except their sight was blocked by a protestor who walked alongside the car blocking its view with a large red and black anarcho-syndicalist flag—we laughed and cheered! The rest of the afternoon was spent back at Miller Park where there was a Rock Against Racism concert and free lunch thanks to Food Not Bombs.

The city officials apparently didn’t want any trouble in this tourist town, and were taken aback that a colorful crew of young whites were descending on them to protest racism. There was much media pre-publicity for the action and media attention after the protest.

Though the turnout was small, the demonstration was a turning point for anarchists. For the first time in memory, we succeeded in mobilizing people nationally in coordination with Blacks around an anti-racist issue.

All involved have pledged to keep working together, and it looks like a healthy new phase of anarchism has begun.

Boot the Leftists

The only bringdown in Chattanooga was the inevitable leftist party: two members of the Revolutionary Workers (sic) League showed up to leech off our party. They disrupted our networking meeting by pushing their party’s plan to launch a national anti-racist/anti fascist organization. Sadder, there wasn’t a consensus to boot them.

Why do we allow “left” authoritarians in our midst, when we’d never welcome “right” authoritarians? Not only do Communism and fascism/nazism have remarkably similar methods of enslaving people but today we see significant numbers of Communists in the ex-East Bloc countries literally joining fascist organizations or working in coalitions with fascists.

The Chattanooga meeting was intended for anarchists and other anti-authoritarians in order to develop our own autonomous networking. That’s one of the reasons many attended. The RWL was not invited nor wanted by the Chattanooga organizers. It would have been hard for some to ask the RWLers to leave, but sometimes to stay on principled ground, we have to face up to the facts—no matter how “nice” a leftist is, no matter how superficially some of our politics might coincide, a leftist sect has only one goal—the savvy all know it; to recruit and use us for their authoritarian aims. The RWL, in particular, is known to ambulance-chase around Black issues.

Not drawing a clear line makes us look stupid. For anarchists, collaboration with leftist parties is unconscionable hypocrisy. Those that justify collaboration on the grounds that anarchists can gain from it are engaging in an opportunistic and ultimately fatuous line of reasoning. Worse are “anarchists” who really do have a kinship with the “politically correct” left authoritarian mindset.

FREE THE CHATTANOOGA 8! What you can do:

Make a donation for the legal expenses of the arrested protesters to the: Chattanooga 8 Defense Campaign, c/o Concerned Citizens for Justice, POB 1066, Federal Courthouse & Post Office Bldg., Chattanooga, TN 37401

For more information contact: Concerned Citizens for Justice, Lorenzo Ervin 615-622-7614, or Maxine Cousin, (615) 698-8940.

Neither East Nor West-NYC is planning fundraising pot-luck parties across the country for both the Chattanooga 8 and anti-war/anti-fascist forces in Serbia.

Lorenzo Komboa Ervin will be going on a Northeast (possibly Midwest and elsewhere) speaking tour in November. If interested: NENW-NYC. 528 5th St., Brooklyn, NY 11215. (718) 499-7720.