The APSP built the National Committee to Free Dessie Woods, the courageous African woman who was an example of African resistance

The Uhuru Movement and the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP) lost a dear friend and a powerful fighter for the liberation of African people everywhere. Dessie Woods, also known as Rashida Mustafa, died of lung cancer in Oakland, California at the age of 61 on November 4, 2006 

Dessie Woods’ name was known around the world after she was sentenced to 22 years in prison for killing a white man in Georgia with his own gun when he tried to rape her. The story of the resistance of Dessie Woods and of the powerful movement led by our Party that freed her is part of the legacy of the ongoing struggle of African people for independence and liberation. 

The APSP joins the work to free Dessie Woods

In the early 1970s, the entire Black Liberation Movement was under heavy attack by the U.S. government’s COINTELPRO program, one of the counterinsurgency programs responsible for assassinating our leaders, destroying our revolutionary organizations and locking up African people who took a stand of resistance. During this time, the African People’s Socialist Party was a leading force in defending countless African people who found themselves in prison for fighting back against the conditions imposed on us. 

Our Party freed Pitts and Lee, framed up and facing the death penalty in Florida, and Connie Tucker, a Party member who had been imprisoned for her stand. Because of the success of these campaigns the Party was asked to join the existing work to defend Dessie Woods.

The Party was asked to join this campaign by one of the two factions around which the work had developed. This factional struggle represented the ongoing contest between those struggling for African self-determination and the ideological imperialists posing as revolutionaries.

Joining the work to free Dessie Woods was a strategic decision made by our Party. In the Basic Party Line, Chairman Omali Yeshitela makes it clear that “All our work is guided by our understanding that our struggle for national liberation within U.S. borders is an integral part of the whole African Liberation Movement…”

When we joined the work, the existing committee to defend Dessie woods was disorganized and dominated by white left forces. The white women’s movement and their sympathizers who wanted to build a defense for Dessie Woods based on a struggle against rape and sexual abuse of all women. Our Party struggled that the attack on Dessie Woods was part of the colonial violence imposed on all African people for the past 500 years. The white left position was defeated. 

The Party formed and led The National Committee to Free Dessie woods with the slogan, “Free Dessie Woods! Smash Colonial Violence!” This was a powerful statement that brought to center stage once again the liberation struggle of African workers inside the U.S. 

1975: A defiant example

On June 17, 1975, Dessie Woods and her friend Cheryl Todd were hitch-hiking home to Atlanta, Georgia from an unsuccessful attempt to visit Todd’s brother in Georgia’s infamous Reidsville Prison. The two African women were picked up by an insurance salesman named Ronnie Horne.

As an ordinary southern white man, Horne understood his “right” to assault the two African women if he chose to do so, and he did. Horne began to intimidate the women and when they resisted he pretended to be a cop and threatened to arrest them.

After stopping in a deserted area, Cheryl Todd escaped from Horne’s car and ran. Horne drew his pistol in an attempt to stop her, but Dessie Woods who had been sitting in the back seat, grabbed the gun and struggled.

Dessie was successful in removing this colonial attacker from the land of the living and ensuring that he would never again attack another African woman. She then took Ronnie Horne’s money and made sure that she and Cheryl Todd got safe transportation home to Atlanta.

1976: The trial and demonstrations

For this courageous act of self-defense and African resistance, the women were jailed and convicted. Todd’s family was able to secure an attorney, but Dessie Woods had to rely on a public defender. The attorneys made some small trial victories and had the trial moved to Hawkinsville, Georgia. On January 19, 1976 a contentious trial began in this small plantation town of cotton and peanut farms and a population of 3,000. Woods, Todd and their militant supporters were seen as such a threat to the colonial relations, that scores of law enforcement officials descended on Hawkinsville — armed bailiffs, armed state troopers, sheriffs deputies and local cops.

Beginning with her successful confrontation of Ronnie Horne, Dessie Woods continued to act with calm resolve. Through her carriage during the trial, she personally smashed any preconceived notion of the passivity of African women and the general servility of African people.

Hers was a defiant example too dangerous to go unpunished. The State therefore chose her as their main target, allowing the liberal and white left supporters to separate Cheryl Todd’s case from Woods. Todd was given a light sentence, primarily probation.

The trial was understood to be a sham, and the mass support for Dessie Woods and for justice to African people continued to build. Because of this, the State was unable to convict her for murder, but on February 12, 1976, Dessie Woods was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and armed robbery. She was sentenced to 10 years and 12 years to be served concurrently.

The Party forms the African People’s Solidarity Committee

In September of 1976, the Party, guided by our strategy, convened the first meeting to organize the African People’s Solidarity Committee (APSC), laying out the theoretical framework for North American people to do anti-colonial organizing — such as the defense of Dessie Woods — under our leadership. A second meeting was held in December of 1976 and the practical work of organizing Dessie Woods Support Committees under the APSP-led National Committee to Defend Dessie Woods was laid out.

On November 1, 1976, the supreme court of Georgia denied Dessie Woods’ appeal and upheld her conviction regardless of the more than 20 errors committed by the trial court. The struggle to free Dessie became our primary mass work and we intensified this work throughout the United States and in Europe.

1977: The resistance intensifies

Despite the legal setbacks, the Party knew that the defense of Dessie Woods was the defense of all African people colonized in the U.S. and understood the strategic necessity to put her case within the context of the African Liberation Movement. This is illustrated in a quote from Ironiff Ifoma’s November 1978 Burning Spear article entitled– “Dessie Woods Is All Of Us” that reads, “rape attacks against black women by white men are not sexual acts but tactics of colonial terror to keep a whole people terrorized.”

The struggle continued to build, and on September 4, 1977 some 500 people from virtually all areas of the country came together in Atlanta, Georgia to militantly demand the freedom of Dessie Woods. The Atlanta rally of predominantly African forces rejuvenated the African Liberation Movement at that time and further consolidated the APSP’s leadership.

This action, along with a subsequent one on September 14 in the San Francisco, California bay area, also demonstrated the growing support for Dessie Woods.

On the inside, Dessie continued to be defiant and organize other prisoners. She paid a heavy price for this, being continually drugged, brutalized and put into solitary confinement.

APSP “on fire” in 1978 with non-stop mobilizing around the case of Dessie Woods

On July 4, 1978 the National Committee to Defend Dessie Woods led two national demonstrations. Collectively known as the July 4th Movement to Free Dessie Woods, the demonstrations held in San Francisco, California and Plains, Georgia raised the slogan “Free Dessie Woods! Smash Colonial Violence!”

These two mobilizations were extremely significant. They continued the momentum from the September 1977 demonstration in Atlanta and further consolidated the Party’s leadership of the pro-independence movement. This was made clear by targeting Plains, Georgia the hometown of peanut farmer turned president James Earl Carter.

As head of the U.S. Government, Carter represented the colonial relationship Africans had to the United States. The treatment of Dessie Woods and all Africans in the U.S. dispelled the myth that he and the Democratic Party were anything but anti-African white ruling class representatives.

“At that moment in 1975 when she took on Ronnie Horne to protect herself and Cheryl Todd, she also took on U.S. imperialism and defended us all.”

The struggle against opportunism and for real solidarity

The significance of the mobilization for July 4 in the San Francisco bay area is found in the profound ideological struggle made by our Party. We declared and determined that we would lead our own liberation struggle; that ours was a struggle against domestic colonialism; and that the white left’s act of “adopting” the cases of individual African women or prisoners was opportunism and unacceptable.

In 1978, San Francisco was a hotbed of so-called progressive causes, including the Women’s Movement, the Gay Movement, and the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC) — which was articulating clear support for the anti-colonial struggle of African People. There was a strong prisoner support movement with many individuals and organizations such as PFOC having significant relationships with prisoners, particularly African prisoners.

Remnants of the Black Panther Party still existed and memories of the Black Power Movement were strong in people’s minds. There was extensive solidarity work being done with the revolutionary movements in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Cuba.

In this atmosphere, the Chairman’s first large public speech was received enthusiastically and the turnout for the July 4th Movement to Free Dessie Woods was large, boisterous and fantastic. This would all change soon, and by 1979 the Party was publicly calling for the disbanding of PFOC as an organization and struggling with the opportunism of APSC and the North American “left”.

Our primary struggle was that we would lead our own liberation movement, and that the correct response from the North American community was to follow our leadership and provide our movement with political and material support. This put us at odds with PFOC and other ideological imperialists.

The Party struggled that the attempted rape of Dessie Woods was an act of colonial violence targeting all colonized African people, and that the prevention of such atrocities against African women in the future can only be found through the freedom of all African people. This put us at odds with the white women’s and gay movements.

Those ideological struggles made with the white left were earth shaking and ground breaking. The APSC of today is clear proof of our having needed to make the struggle at that time and further proves the correctness of our strategy.

We end 1978 challenging the legitimacy of the U.S. government

The November 1978 issue of the Burning Spear Newspaper has several articles describing our nonstop mobilizing. In early September, members of the National Committee to Free Dessie Woods held a demonstration in Midgeville, Georgia, home of Hardwick Prison, and then went out to the prison itself demanding to see Dessie Woods.

The demonstrators were bold, refusing to be intimidated by the guards and prison officials. While they were not able to see Dessie, they did set a militant example for all the visitors and challenged the authority of the State.

In the Point of the Spear of the same issue, the Chairman summed up the situation:

“Months of hard work by the African People’s Socialist Party bore fruit on the night of Friday, October 6 [1978] in San Francisco. It was on this night that the California Dessie Woods Support Coalition (DWSC) sponsored a historic political program entitled, ‘Night of Solidarity With African National Freedom Fighters.’

“This program saw almost 100, mostly North Americans, turn out for a program organized by the mostly North American Dessie Woods Support Coalition to express militant solidarity with African national freedom fighters — freedom fighters whose collective existence up to this period has not been acknowledged by the North American Left movement.

“This was an important program for our Party, for it was the concretization of our strategy for winning support from the progressive sector of the North American people for our struggle for political independence through self-liberation.”

At the end of a dynamic 1978, on October 18, the Dessie Woods Support Coalition sponsored a picket and rally in front of the Federal Building in San Francisco. Fifty people, mostly North Americans, militantly marched chanting “Free Dessie Woods, Put the State On Trial!”

1979: Not One More Year!

The March 1979 issue of the Burning Spear was a special edition with the headline reading “Black Women in the Fight for Freedom.” The Spear issue told of a demonstration held on February 17, 1979, when the Dessie Woods Support Coalition marched across the Golden Gate Bridge, a historic San Francisco landmark, thirty strong demanding “Not One More Year — Dessie Must Be Free!” With voices and signs they demanded loudly and publicly that the U.S. State release Dessie Woods from its death grip in 1979 and end the colonial violence against black people in the U.S.

As this activity was occurring on the outside, Dessie Woods maintained her resistance on the inside of Hardwick Prison. She began her fourth year of incarceration challenging the otherwise routine conditions inside this highly controlled southern concentration camp.

Her militancy and pride in her Africanness quickly began to influence other prisoners who sought out her help. In retaliation, the prison authorities made numerous attempts on her life and continued to drug her.

International solidarity with Dessie Woods

Throughout this period of protracted struggle, our Party was guided by a strategy for liberation of all African people. An important component of that strategy, international recognition and support, had the Party touring Europe in 1979 successfully stopping in Copenhagen, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Paris and culminating with a demonstration at the U.S. Embassy in London on September 26. The Party established fraternal relations with several organized African forces in Paris and London and also received a solidarity statement from the Vietnamese government at their London embassy.

This is further illustrated in the article “Dessie Woods Must Be Free This Year” from the November 1979 issue of the Burning Spear:

“On December 8, hundreds of people in over 12 cities in Europe and the U.S. will be in the streets demanding the immediate release of Dessie Woods and an end to colonial violence against African people. In Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris, London, New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Houston, Eugene, San Francisco and elsewhere, [U.S. president James Earl] Carter will be confronted with the massive denial of human rights of Dessie Woods and all African people colonized in the U.S. The internationally supported actions led by the APSP will be demanding African independence and the destruction of U.S. colonialism.”

On November 1 in Eugene, Oregon, an enthusiastic crowd of over 200 people enjoyed a variety of culture by African artists and the North American “Amazon Kung-Fu School.” It was a successful fundraiser for the Dessie Woods support work, but still at the end of 1980 after more than four years in prison, Dessie was “in the hole” and brutally beaten. Her parole had been denied and our work to free her continued on the outside.

1981-2006: Dessie Woods is free from prison

In 1981, after serving five years of the original 12, Dessie was released from Hardwick Prison in Georgia, and she relocated to Oakland, California.

In subsequent years, Dessie Woods, known to us as Sister Rashida, was not always active in the Uhuru Movement, but she was a tireless community activist defending her neighborhood and the human rights of Oakland’s African community. She regularly attended events at the Uhuru House in Oakland, California. Her photo as part of a panel on Building the African People’s Childcare Collective was featured on the cover of the October 1983 issue of the Burning Spear Newspaper. 

The headline for the article describing the panel’s work was “The Struggle of Black Women is the Struggle of Us All.” This sums up the contribution that Dessie Woods, Sister Rashida, made to Africa and African people. At that moment in 1975 when she took on Ronnie Horne to protect herself and Cheryl Todd, she also took on U.S. imperialism and defended us all.

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