The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Book Review:
A Fighter All My Life, by Sam Johnson

Jun 9, 2014

Sam Johnson’s book has finally been published. Compiled from taped conversations that were then transcribed over a ten-year period, it tells the story of one man whose life spanned many of the important social struggles going back to the 1940s. Sam’s life spans the Alabama of Jim Crow, the rebellions in Watts in 1965 and Detroit in 1967, the auto plants of Detroit in the period of wildcat strikes and large mobilizations, and all the years since, right up to today, when militants like Sam have kept the spirit of resistance alive as the movement receded.

All these different periods come to life in the book, as do many of the people Sam writes about, including his mother, Sadie B. Ware. In Sam’s words, “I didn’t have that fear. I think I learned that from my mother because she was a fighter. She wasn’t afraid of the cops. She was a strong person. A lot of men don’t give women respect, but they gave my mother respect.”

Facing a Southern police that acted like and often were the Ku Klux Klan, Sam was sent to Los Angeles by his mother when he was 20. She hoped thus to protect him from the common deadly fate of young black men in the South who refused to back down in the face of police and Klan violence. He discovered in Los Angeles only a different kind of racism, and big city police little different from Southern sheriffs.

By his own account, Sam tells of running with the “fast crowd” in Los Angeles, then going to Detroit, only to be pulled into heroin and the street life there.

Detroit was where he began to get what he called “the big picture.” He had long respected the Nation of Islam for their readiness to stand up for themselves and the black population. But in Detroit he came in contact with communists, who gave him an understanding of the class nature of the racist society in which he lived, as well as of the power the working class could hold.

From that point on, through the rest of the book, Sam tells of his life as a militant, becoming active in the union in the auto plants, taking part in strikes and political campaigns, and always trying to speak to the young people, trying to convey “the big picture” to others.

Much like Malcolm X’s Autobiography, it is the account of a man whose contact with political forces transforms him from a man of the streets into a militant whose goal is the self-organization of oppressed people: in Malcolm’s case, of the black population; in Sam’s case, of the working class, although Sam also saw the key role that black workers would play in any social struggle.

Sam concludes his introduction with the following words: “I have been active as a union militant and a revolutionary militant in the working class, trying to get other workers to see and understand what needs to be done, trying to bring workers to stand together to use the force they have. And I always tried to give them the bigger picture, where we fit in, to get them to understand how things could change if working people stood together, what we could do to defend ourselves and to build a different society.”