Gary Hicks—Mentor, revolutionary, and poet—¡Presente! / by Sharon Rose and Danny Shaw

Gary Hicks | Images: People’s World

Originally published in the People’s World on April 20, 2023

On Dec. 2, 2022, the international working-class movement lost an organizing and literary giant, Gary Graham Hicks.

Comrades and friends gathered at the Marxist Library in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, March 25, for a memorial to remember the diverse contributions of a beloved poet, theorist, and internationalist.

We write this tribute so that future generations can draw from the deep well of Gary’s knowledge, verse, sharp-witted humor, and struggles.

The Recruiter

Black Panther Party member Gerald Smith, who hosted the tribute in Oakland, asked “Who will replace Gary Hicks?” Smith reminisced about the many back-and-forths over the decades about the question of Black America, about the struggle for Black self-determination.

Black liberation and class struggle were the two legs Gary walked on. Who else could go into Newark armed with the Black Panther newspaper and interrupt Ron Karenga to remind him that “Marx was a Black man”?

Smith went on to talk about the Panthers’ commitment to “pass it on” to the up-and-coming generations. One organization even experimented with the idea of only allowing members a vote if they attempted to bring young people to events.

This Renaissance Man was a persistent recruiter, especially of young people into the Young Communist League (YCL). Up until his final breaths, he was adamant that there can be no revolution without revolutionary organization. With his actions, Gary rejected sectarianism and never gave into personal judgment or resentments.

He encouraged all of us who knew him to follow George Jackson’s immortal words: “Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that fascism is already here, that people are already dying who could be saved, that generations more will live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act. Do what must be done, discover your humanity and your love in revolution.”

Through it all, Gary worked to build the Communist Party.

The Mentor

Gary was our living encyclopedia. If he was around, young comrades were sure to have a notebook close by. His knowledge of German, Chinese, Cuban, Yiddishland, South African, and Irish history—and any global struggle—was seemingly boundless. We anticipated the next book recommendation Gary might pick off the shelves of his mind’s library. When I visited the international working class’s ancestral grounds at Sachsenhausen and Dachau, it was like he was there with me.

Friday nights were a cause for celebration. Once, there was a new Malcolm biography that had dropped. And there we were at 3 AM, coast to coast, critically picking apart every page by Professor Marable or Les Payne.

On another occasion, a Saturday night, Gary was plotting. He called me up well past midnight: “Hey how are we going to get this lousy, philistine scoundrel of a social democrat to join the p’aty?” (Remember he is from Roxbury and I am from Brockton.)

Then, on a Sunday night, a group of us were scheduled to finish the final chapter of Black Reconstruction. Every word rose to the occasion. It felt like the 7th game of a playoff series between the Sox and the Yankees.

I teased Gary that he got younger every day because he never stopped. The paratransit in San Francisco, a socialist gain fought and won by the people, brought him everywhere and anywhere around town. And when he wasn’t here, we knew he was on a train headed somewhere—to a Progressive Lawyers Guild conference in California, a folk music event in Oregon, a poetry reading in Cambridge, or the Left Forum in New York City.

When I called him on the phone, I always anticipated which of the 50 states he might be in this time—flipping off every state trooper as he went. The student of Lenin that he was, I jested that this was his sealed train.

In 2020, he introduced me to give a talk at the Marxist Library entitled “Capitalism + Dope = Genocide,” a Panther formulation—and how it was relevant five decades later. Boy was I proud; the student had become the teacher.

A brilliant wordsmith, a magical story teller, and a perennial ballbreaker, Gary gravitated gracefully between the gravest and most humorous of topics. Whenever he was around his comrades, his eyes lit up and he locked in on the most pressing international topics of the day.

He often answered the phone by saying “This is Murphy’s Poolhall. Eight Ball speaking.” Always principled, he put many backwa’d workers in their place if they were guilty of any act of racism or sexism. He could hug you, but if he had to, he could stand you down, too. He knew the primary contradiction that existed and who the real enemy was but was never shy to check any of us, “on our bullshit.”

One young communist, Drew King, picked up the torch and recited the following tribute on March 25th:

Gary Hicks
Immortal thinker
Fearless philosopher
History’s restless wanderer
Proud Black Bolshevik
Lenin’s native son
Uncle Ho of Roxbury
Southie’s resident Marxist-Leninist
Berkeley’s Berlin Wall that will never fall
Intellectual giant
Your mind was my portal through history
For 17 years, I traversed the infinite shelves of your mind’s cosmic library
As you showed me the ways of the force
You took me on tours through antiquity, time and space
All of pharaoh’s armies never stood a chance against your cunning wit
You teach us that the struggle for people’s power is the struggle for memory and against forgetting
And since I first asked you what time it was 17 years ago
You slowly taught me to realize that it is the same time that it was when those two young men in London put out that clarion call for the workers of the world to unite, 175 years ago
I swear on my soul, Gary, they will unite after all and we will win

The Revolutionary

Gary was a former political prisoner. In March 1966, just before his 20th birthday, the Roxbury native joined fellow war resisters in burning his draft card on the steps of a Boston courthouse in opposition to the U.S. war in Indochina. These pioneers, shoulder to shoulder with Muhammed Ali, were some of the first in the movement that soon shook the country as thousands followed.

On that day, the group was beaten up by a crowd of mostly high school students from South Boston. Still, he never expressed any personal bitterness towards workers robbed from our ranks by fascism.

Because of his resistance to the genocidal war of aggression against Vietnam, the U.S. government sentenced him to three years in Lewisville penitentiary. There were many chapters and addendums to these stories that could only be understood as poetic license.

But they could never cage you, Gary.
Born Again Red
Fundamental Marx
He wrote it. 
And I read it.
And that settles it.

When he got out, Gary was determined to pursue higher education, which he did at Penn State, Brown University, and Antioch College, ultimately receiving his Master’s Degree from UMass, Boston in “American Studies.”

He spent the rest of his life devoted to the fight for equality and for the interests of the international working class. The coup in Chile in ’73, the Christmas bombing of Panama, the continuation of Communist leadership in China, Gary was on it. From any hospital or nursing home bed, he was getting on the phone to check in with his political fellow travelers.

Gary was in the streets putting his training to good use. He was involved in the housing rights movement, beginning in Boston with the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants, in which he played a key organizing role. Tenants of the last place he lived—Redwood Gardens in Berkeley—benefited from Gary’s knowledge and experience standing up for their rights. No human suffering or triumph was foreign to him.

The Scholar

If there was a new book out by a leftist author, Gary raced to pick it up. There was nothing he enjoyed more than a good crisp read. He led and participated in many reading groups. Among other classics, we read The Seventh Cross together. Line by line, page by page, he broke down the ins and outs of resistance to the Nazis.

He read entire books out loud with study groups, no matter how big or small. W.E.B. Du Bois, Rosa Luxemburg, Eric Hobsbawm, and E.P. Thompson were but a few of his ideological forefathers and foremothers.

Students of the movement visited him in the hospital to keep study groups going. When he called, we gathered around the phone. He approached life with a love for it. As his comrade Juan Lopez remembers, he never sought fame or accolades.

A true dialectician. A revolutionary optimist who found the silver lining everywhere. A wit sharp like a whip with prose, rhythmic like Amiri Baraka’s Blues-words. A biting sense of humor and a dead seriousness that reminded you no matter what personal challenges you always keep fighting.

Comrades remembered: “You can’t talk about Gary without talking about books. His own memorial program was printed on a red bookmark. He was a living example for young communists of Lenin’s quote, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.”

The Poet

Gary Hicks | People’s World

His poetry—especially his books, Itching for Combat and A Pen is Like a Piece, You Pick it Up, You Use It—reflected what he was thinking and feeling about political struggles.

I met Gary on a stage in a movement space in 1997. We were performing poetry in defense of the strong and noble Cuban people. My poem was in Spanglish. He walked up behind me in his quirky way and said, “Hey man, that was a damn good poem. Yeah, I enjoyed it, even though I didn’t understand a word.”

Lincoln Bergman, Gary’s close friend from the Revolutionary Poets Brigade, remembered that despite any personal health issues, Gary’s “pan-socio political brilliance was undimmed.”

At the memorial, Bergman shared “45 Years Later,” one of Gary’s poems that went:

Look at these kids 
on tanks of victory 
My Peeps 
Children of Uncle Ho
My hero
Today I am 74
The kids on the tanks
Roughly my age
The kids who I
Inmate 33602-133
Prayed for victory
Every day of my imprisonment
They won
And we won, too.

The final goodbyes came in the form of affirmations of a radiant future. You brought us together, Gary. We laughed. We cried. We told stories. We listened to poetry. Just as you would have wanted it.

Farewell, kindred spirit. Farewell, comrade. These tears are made of knives and machetes. Aimee Cesaire’s redemption. Fanon’s baptism. Algeria’s boomerang. Vietnamese tanks roll forward. We will end as Gary lived, poetically, with the words of Langston Hughes:

I loved my friend. 
He went away from me. 
There’s nothing more to say. 
The poem ends, 
Soft as it began—
I loved my friend.

Sharon Rose writing for the People’s World.

Danny Shaw Latin American and Caribbean Studies Professor at CUNY. International Affairs analyst at TeleSURtv, RT_com, HispanTV, and PressTV. Author: The Saints of Santo Domingo.