Assistant African-American studies professor Dr. Maxwell Stanford has a rich history. The West Philly native helped form the militant black organization, the Revolutionary Action Movement in the 1960s and worked with historical figures such as Ella Baker, Thomas Higginbotham and Malcolm X. He recounts his roots, his journey through the 1960s African-American civil rights movement and his advice for those looking to carry on the mission for human equality.
The Temple News: You’re an expert on African-American history. When did you first develop this interest, and when did you feel obliged to get involved in black social and political movements?
Maxwell Stanford: My interests were developed because of my parents. I come from a very political family. I’m blessed for the mother and father I had. My father especially had a lot to do with the nurturing of my political consciousness. I went to move with him at age 16, and I would always listen to conversations between him and Thomas Higginbotham, who was president of the Philadelphia [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] at the time. I met a lot of influential people with him and was taken places and saw things the average teen didn’t.
Then, when I transferred schools, I was accidentally put into an advanced history class. My history teacher told me and the only other black student in the class, “The problem is that I’m white and Jewish and I know more about black people than you.”
I knew he was wrong, but that really got me interested in learning more about history too. I started reading a lot and finding context through books. I gained a more African-centered perspective. And that perspective was crystallized once I went to Central State College [in Wilberforce, Ohio] because there were professors with thorough knowledge of these topics.
TTN: Can you describe some of your experiences as a political and social activist?
MS: At Central State, I got involved with the Congress of Racial Equality organizing freedom riders. Then in 1963 and 1964 I worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In 1964 I was sent to Nashville for an African-American student conference on black nationalism. I also went to Detroit in 1964 for a conference and that’s when we took [the Revolutionary Action Movement] from a student organization to a national one. I also helped form the New York Black Panther Party, which was the predecessor to the Black Panther Party for Defense. I was able to work with and learn a lot from people like Ella Baker, Ethel Johnson and Malcolm X.
TTN: What was your relationship with Malcolm X like?
MS: He was like a brother or uncle to me. I had met him in 1962 and remained in close contact with him throughout 1963. I remember when I was attacked and arrested in May 1963 on 31st and Dauphin streets by the police led by Frank Rizzo. We were demanding the inclusion in the building trade of African-American workers, which is still a problem that persists today. I called Malcolm from the police station on 19th Street and Montgomery Avenue and he helped us get over 1,000 people to demonstrate in that area. When I was sent to New York to recruit Malcolm to RAM he kept me with him for eight hours a day for a whole month, and I learned so much from him during that time. I met with Malcolm about 15 days before his assassination and that was the last time I saw him.
TTN: Can you describe how it feels to have a cemented place in history, knowing that your exploits are written about in books and journals and many consider you a pioneer of black rights?
MS: Not really. I don’t see myself that way. I’m just a servant of the people and a servant of Allah. I don’t separate the two. I just think that the pursuit of happiness, equality, freedom and justice is the overwhelming will of the majority of people on planet Earth. And the will of God is that we live in an equalitarian society free from hunger and want. We have the ability to reach that level, but it’s all intertwined with human rights.
TTN: What would you say to black students who are dedicated to furthering the progress of racial equality and justice and carrying your torch, so to speak?
MS: I would tell them that the struggle goes from the cradle to the grave and from one generation to the next until we win; until racism, classism and sexism end. You have to be focused and the earlier you become focused the better. Don’t allow yourself to be bamboozled by this gangster rap and this “monster” mess that has been presented to you. It’s all designed to derail you from your potential. We all have to become more united regardless of race, regardless of religion and decide where we want this society to go. A people united cannot be defeated.
Angelo Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.