James Thindwa, a Man Who Did What Needed to Be Done—And Said What Needed to Be Said

In These Times lost a friend. But his words live on.

Joel Bleifuss

James Thindwa (1955–2020)

In These Times lost a friend on January 19, with the passing of James Thindwa (1955 – 2020), a prominent Chicago community organizer and a long-time member of our board of directors.

James’ voice in In These Times will be sorely missed. But like his organizing strategy and the influence it had on many, the words James wrote will survive through the people who read and reflected on his essays.

James was born in Harare, Zimbabwe, grew up in Blantyre, Malawi, and at the age of 18 came to America to attend Berea College in Berea, Ky. Modeled after Oberlin College, Berea was the first interracial and coeducational college in the South.

In a moving tribute to him, James’ wife, the historian Martha Biondi, wrote:

His passionate commitment to fighting for social justice and his belief in the power of ordinary people to change their lives, and our world, will live on in the rich legacy he imparted to so many. …

A lifelong activist and champion of human rights, James fought in numerous struggles, including the anti-apartheid movement, immigrant rights movement, antiwar movement and many campaigns for racial justice. James was a firm believer in the responsibility of government to tax the rich, defend the rights of workers, and provide free health care for all and robust support for the elderly. He refused the lure of cynicism and despair his whole life. He instilled in so many young organizers a fervent belief in the power of personal and social transformation.

Professionally, James was best known as a community and labor organizer, as Lee Sustar, a Chicago activist, writes in Jacobin. James served as the executive director of Chicago Jobs With Justice and, most recently, as a national organizer for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), where he worked to bring the Chicago Teachers Union model of bargaining for the common good to AFT locals across the Midwest. 

James was also a gifted writer; In These Times regularly turned to him when events of the day demanded a dose of political sanity. In the past decade, James wrote 26 articles for In These Times, including several editorials.

What follows is a sampler of times James said what needed to be said:

In January 2013, following President Barack Obama’s speech at his second inauguration, James noted what Obama did not say but should have said. In Obama’s Progressive Agenda: Missing a Main Ingredient,” he wrote, in part:

Notwithstanding Obama’s welcome and reassuring political posture in this moment, his wish list for progressive transformation is lacking a key item. The president has shown no interest in seriously defending organized labor and union rights, even as Michigan, the cradle of the labor movement” was instantaneously flipped into a right-to-work” state. And this followed brazen attacks on workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana by GOP governors in the service of corporate elites seeking a return to unfettered capitalism and unbridled exploitation of workers. …

The right to organize is a core Democratic (and democratic) principle. It serves a fundamental social justice purpose, is universally recognized, and is indispensable to a healthy democracy. Why are these considerations not compelling enough for the president to pick up this cause? …

Reviving the primacy of labor rights will require all partners in the progressive movement to develop political savvy and the wherewithal to defend this endangered civil right. For a Democratic president to declare a new progressive renewal without labor rights at its center is an embarrassment for Democrats, and a betrayal of the rich history of the country’s populist social movements. Pay equity, the workers’ rights issue Obama has focused on, is an important but safe issue for him. After all, who really can oppose this? But pay equity is not a substitute for union rights. Where union organizing can raise wages for all workers, pay equity simply guarantees equal treatment. The workers can be equal in poverty.

In August 2016, following the Democratic National Convention that chose Hillary Clinton as the party’s standard bearer, James took on Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and his fellow members in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in The Black Political Establishment Should Never Have Given Hillary Clinton a Blank Check.” Today, with Lewis and a number of other members of the CBC jumping on the Joe Biden bandwagon, his essay remains just as relevant. He wrote, in part:

During a Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee (CBC PAC) endorsement session for Hillary Clinton, Georgia congressman and movement veteran John Lewis questioned Sanders’ civil rights bona fides, declaring, I never saw him. I never met him.”

Why would Lewis take this odd tack, which discounts the contributions of multitudes who participated in the struggle without having personally met him? Because, of course, Lewis and the CBC were not mounting a real effort to substantively engage Sanders on racial politics. They were stumping for Clinton.

… But that support is part and parcel of a decades-long encroachment of neoliberalism and its gospel of market infallibility on black politics, and on the Democratic Party in general….

Neoliberalism has also neutralized the passionate advocacy long a feature of black leadership. Few black leaders beat the drum against the Democrats’ rightward drift, even though the party’s abandonment of the working class disproportionately affects black communities. …

The black political establishment has fallen prey to the same corporate influence as the rest of the Democratic establishment. In 2010, the New York Times reported that the CBC Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the CBC, raised $53 million over a five-year period, much of it from corporate donors — Big Pharma, telecom and financial industries. Most went to finance leisure activities such as glitzy conventions, golf and casino junkets, and underwriting the foundation’s headquarters. …

Rashad Robinson, executive director of the activist group Color of Change and a critic of the CBC, terms such practices civil-rights washing …

A real debate within the black community over whom to support would have signaled to Clinton and the Democratic establishment that the days of taking black folks for granted are over. … It would have aligned Black America with the global anti-elite political revolt currently underway. … Instead of using the Sanders challenge to make the candidates compete for black votes, the black establishment effectively awarded Clinton a no-bid contract. Sweetheart deals are as bad in politics as in commerce.

One of the things that most frustrated James, was a tendency on some parts of the Left to discount the importance of electoral politics or to call for the establishment of a third party. As he saw it, building popular movements went hand-in-hand with electoral activism.

In October 2016, as the general election loomed, James wrote The Luxury of Opting Out of This Election.” He wrote, in part:

Few topics have generated more spirited discussion among its readers and writers than how the Left should relate to the Democratic Party: whether to challenge the neoliberal establishment from within or to build a competing political structure from without. This is an old debate, but carries more relevance and urgency today than ever, given the rise of a neofascist Republican presidential nominee.

A core mission of left movements is to promote the interests of working-class and marginalized communities. Yet for many such communities, this debate is far removed from everyday realities.

People whose livelihoods can turn with an election don’t have the luxury to wait for a messianic third party — or a political revolution, for that matter — to rescue them. As just one example, for those making minimum wage, this election could make the difference between their pay plummeting (if Trump carries through on abolishing the federal floor of $7.25 per hour) or doubling (if Hillary Clinton makes good on the Democratic Party platform promise, pushed through by the Sanders campaign, to raise the minimum to $15). On purely humanitarian terms, progressives must help ensure relief for vulnerable communities by voting without apology for the candidate — yes, Hillary Clinton — who will embrace a minimum wage hike. …

Since its founding, In These Times has championed an inside-outside strategy of political engagement — pushing the Democratic Party left by working through the electoral system while simultaneously building popular movements. That strategy works. Outside, the climate movement forced President Obama to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline in November 2015. Inside, the Sanders campaign pushed Clinton to abandon her support for the pro-corporate Trans-Pacific Partnership. Should Clinton be elected, it will be up to the progressive movement, mobilizing on the outside and organizing on the inside, to encourage her to tack to the left, rather than, as was her husband’s wont, to the right.

Here at In These Times, we pledge to continue to help build a national progressive movement by reporting on conditions on the ground and providing a forum to share strategies, solutions and lessons learned. As In These Times’ 40 years on the beat demonstrate, we are up to this historic challenge.

James, a principled internationalist, did not believe the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” He was particularly skeptical of those on the Left who, rather than condemn political persecution and violations of human rights wherever they occur, establish a hierarchy of oppressors, excusing despotic governments merely because their leaders oppose Washington’s imperial designs. In August 2018, James took up the subject of creeping fascism in We Can Criticize U.S. Imperialism and Oppose Putin, Too.” He wrote, in part:

Some on the American Left feel the attention given to the Trump-Putin alliance and the ongoing Mueller investigation is problematic. The incredible phenomenon of a president who behaves like a Russian intelligence asset — his inability in Helsinki to criticize Russian interference in U.S. elections when asked — makes for riveting television. But critics argue the outrage expressed by many progressives toward Putin is overblown and hypocritical. The wall-to-wall media coverage, they say, distracts from underreported crises locally and globally, including racist police violence, nuclear proliferation, domestic voter suppression, the war in Syria and so on.

Critics also suggest the focus on the Mueller investigation comes at the expense of a potential focus on American warmongering. They remind us that the United States also interferes in other countries’ elections, and contend that people of color in the United States are so besieged with other concerns that Trump’s Russian connections are of little interest or import. But as progressives, we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Those on the Left who criticize Russian interference and Putin’s authoritarian posturing — his xenophobia, racism, homophobia and sexism — are simply being consistent, resisting the bad campist” habit of confusing principled anti-imperialism with reflexive support for Washington’s antagonists.

… A truly internationalist Left must persist in resisting reactionary global actors everywhere.

James’ voice in In These Times will be sorely missed. But like his organizing strategy and the influence it had on many, the words James wrote will survive through the people who read and reflected on his essays. His is a legacy In These Times is honored to have contributed to.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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