While the militant antifascist movement known as “Antifa” has prompted confused media coverage and plentiful consternation among conservatives, direct confrontation with the Far Right is not a new idea in the U.S. Beginning in 1977, a group of radicals from the New Left created the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee (JBAKC) to organize White people to fight back against White nationalism. Connecting with the radical Black Nationalist and anti-colonial struggles of the time, the John Brown members, as they were also known, created a nationwide network that built antiracist coalitions in cities around the U.S. to stop insurgent fascist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neonazi skinhead gangs. The organization had an uncompromising abolitionist politic—opposed to police, prisons, and U.S. colonial history—which put them at odds with some potential allies. Over the lifespan of the organization, which remained active until 1992, they used a range of tactics to recruit White activists to their cause and eventually moved into broad-based coalitions to build a mass movement to stop fascist violence.
Several members of JBAKC came out of controversial New Left organizations like the Weathermen, and founding members like Linda Evans ended up serving lengthy prison sentences for bombing government targets. JBAKC pioneered an approach that has since become ubiquitous in antifascist circles (often shorthanded today as “where they go, we go”), and they would do everything from holding mass pickets to pressure government officials to cancel Nazi parade permits to throwing rocks and frozen sodas at Klansmen staging rallies.
In a new book called No Fascist USA!: The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today’s Movements, authors Hilary Moore and James Tracy chronicle the ups and downs of the organization’s 15-year history and asked what lessons their successes, and failures, had for activists pushing back on rising fascist movements in 2020. Moore talked with PRA this fall about what was distinct about JBAKC’s history, how their queer and feminist politics informed their work, and how their approach evolved over time.
PRA: What conditions brought about JBAKC? What was happening in the country, and how did JBAKC differentiate themselves from other groups doing anti-KKK work?
Hilary Moore: Many of the John Brown members we talked to described their feeling of being pushed into action. That it was intolerable not to form a group to confront organized racism in the late 1970s. Pam Fadem, a founding member, puts it plainly in chapter one, “racist organizing was everywhere,” and she was right. The Klan and other groups bent on overt and covert racial superiority were taking up more political space than in previous years. Klan members [who worked as prison guards] were outed for brutality cases, but not fired from their posts in New York state prisons. Klan chapters inside the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton were problematized only when Black Marines fought back. Even the Klan propaganda of “reverse racism” had made its way into federal court rulings. White supremacist organizing at every level of society didn’t surprise the JBAKC. Instead, they saw it as a concerted backlash, by state and non-state actors, against the political gains made by marginalized communities during the 1960s in the U.S. and the decolonizing wins around the world.
Their abolitionist perspective is one thing that distinguished the organization from other groups in what would become the anti-Klan movement of the 1980s. It was no accident that they named themselves after a mid-19th Century abolitionist, John Brown, who organized a raid of the federal armory, in hopes of inspiring a revolt against state-sanctioned slavery. To choose this historical namesake signaled their politics about who they were and were not willing to work with to stop the Klan. For instance, they were one of only a few anti-Klan organizations at the time that did not petition local governments to “Ban the Klan” and chose not to cooperate with federal authorities when factions of the White supremacist movements declared war on the U.S. government in the mid-1980s.
PRA: How did the JBAKC view the role of the police with regards to the Far Right? How did they apply a theory of “settler colonialism” to this understanding?
Moore: “Cops and the Klan Go Hand in Hand” and “Blue by Day, White by Night” were two of their longer-standing campaigns across the 15-year arc of the organization. Directly confronting the Klan, for them, also meant confronting the permeable and positive relationship between the police and White supremacists. They emphasized points of collaboration, alignment, involvement, and infiltration. In fact, the first thing the organization did when it formed was classic antifascist research: publicizing the names and addresses of Klan members who held positions on school boards, in police departments, and who worked as prison guards.
Linking the Klan to the carceral state was not a popular position to take in the 1970s and ‘80s. But the JBAKC was a product of their milieu, where movements for self-determination like the Black Liberation Army and the Puerto Rican Independence were increasingly seeing themselves as internal colonies within the U.S. empire. This worldview brought the Klan out from the lunatic fringe, where much of White U.S. society kept them, and articulated them as one component within a broader, historical logic of settler colonialism. This meant that, while the Klan, the cops, and the project of imperialism take different forms, they share a similar aim to control and brutalize Black and Brown bodies and prevent resistance.
PRA: The JBAKC has been accused of not addressing antisemitism.
Moore: The JBAKC’s treatment of antisemitism was messy, slow, and imperfect. This is precisely why it was important to include in the book. How it was that antisemitism remained overly simplified in the first years of the organization and the conditions that prompted a more concerted engagement are still relevant for movements today.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the JBAKC took on antisemitism directly as a critical part of dismantling White supremacy. This, despite the fact that many, if not most, of the members themselves were anti-Zionist Jewish radicals. At first, accusations came from the far-right group Jewish Defense League [a Jewish supremacist group that used terrorism both against neonazis and against Palestinian rights activists]. Being called “self-hating Jews” in response to their anti-Zionist position, unsurprisingly, did very little to inspire the John Brown crew.
In reality, they had fallen into the traps that punctuated much of the Left at the time. For instance, simplified portrayals of complex relationships between Jewish donors severing support for radical Black organizing. The group’s tendency to foreground Black liberation struggles as the one and only pathway to end White supremacy became a premium that under-developed their analysis on antisemitism.
When other anti-Zionist Jewish comrades pushed them on what was described as an overly simplified treatment of antisemitism, they moved. This in and of itself is worth studying: how ought movements engage in principled deliberation? Antisemitism never became a focal point of John Brown campaigns, but they did integrate more nuance to their positions. Through internal study groups and guest writers in their newspaper, No KKK! No Fascist USA!, the John Brown crew slowly developed more tools to undermine the multiple threads that animate White supremacy.
PRA: The book outlines how queer women took a great deal of leadership in JBAKC. Some of those women had been involved in an experimental lesbian separatist community called Yellowhammer, which built on their attempts to reimagine social relationships in a less coercive and patriarchal way. How did the organization’s inclusion of queer, non-male voices impact its mission and effectiveness?
Moore: A significant number of John Brown members were self-described lesbians. This was common knowledge. So much so that in one of the interviews, Laura Whitehorn joked that Bob Boyle, a founding male member, was an honorary lesbian. Still, as a product of their milieu, the John Brown crew rarely gave credence to the role that identity—such as the high numbers of lesbians and anti-Zionist Jewish members—played in their work.
Nonetheless, I believe the organization was deeply shaped by those particular life experiences. For instance, before JBAKC was formed, some of its future members forayed into the lesbian separatist commune experiments of the 1970s. Yellowhammer was one such project in Arkansas’ Ozarks. There, Linda Evans met Trella Laughlin. Both would find each other later to activate the Austin chapter of JBAKC.
Separatism, however flawed, is an important impulse to pay attention to in writing about social movements. Commune projects were a response to the systematic crushing of movements in the 1960s and ‘70s. The ability to defend yourself and your community became critical, as was the exploration of self-governance principles, not unlike what was taking place in movements fighting for self-determination and against settler colonialism. Principles that still have purchase today. I believe this accounts, in part, for what galvanized this crew into action against the emboldened far-right activity ushered in during the Reagan revolution. From self-defense courses, to community defense models relying on high levels of coordination and communication, the skills developed during lesbian separatist projects held over into John Brown activity.
PRA: What role did Black Nationalism play in the JBAKC?
Moore: I mentioned earlier that the JBAKC saw Black Liberation as the one and only way to end White supremacy. Within this, they aligned themselves with the small, but influential Black Nationalist movement, beginning with the Black Liberation Army and later the Republic of New Afrika and the New Afrikan Independence Movement. I highly recommend Dr. Edward Onaci’s recent book Free the Land: The Republic of New Afrika and the Pursuit of a Black Nation-State. His scholarship offers a grounded account of the Black Nationalist movement’s historical trajectory, their chosen practices of autonomy, and negotiations with the centuries-old struggle for reparations.
Today’s movements are making similar demands—economic independence, political power, a dignified life free from harm—even if the goal of an independent nation has waned. It’s easy to question the JBAKC’s choice to align with the most radical impulse within U.S. Black liberation struggles. As someone who writes with movements, I care less about a movement’s achieved “success” and more about their practices in influencing cultural shifts. How the group prioritized the leadership of these movements, at a time when many White liberals were attempting to define the terms of liberation, is worthy of study.
PRA: What organizing strategies did the group employ, and how did it evolve over time?
Moore: This very well could be one of my favorite parts to the JBAKC story. From screaming into a bullhorn at White people from a moving car, to organizing broad coalitions, to creating a wide range of groups in the Chicago area to confront White supremacists in an ongoing way, the John Brown crew tried everything. They learned what worked and what didn’t. Most importantly, they adapted the shape of their organization to meet the demands of their movement partners and the shifting political conditions.
PRA: What do you think people can learn from the group about today’s struggles?
Moore: The JBAKC story teaches us about what our movements need for the long haul. No Fascist USA! is a story about the longevity of political principles and our collective impact well beyond the life of our organizations. There are no correct political lines and no formulas for ending White supremacy. Rather, we can integrate the lessons from the past to meet the endless changes ahead of us with a little more grace. Most of all, this story teaches us about getting really good at keeping each other close.