It finally came to head about 10 years ago for Larry Hamm.
He had been organizing, agitating and protesting for more than a quarter century, from the time he helped lead a student movement against a Newark teacher’s strike as a senior at Arts High, to his days leading demonstrations against apartheid at Princeton University, to his adult years as the president of the People’s Organization for progress and the state director of the Million Man March.
And he was beginning to think he just couldn’t do it anymore.
This was 1997. He was 43. His mother, Grace Hamm, had just passed away. Shortly before her death, he discovered he was adopted when his birth mother came looking for him. And maybe it was all that turmoil, or some kind of mid-life crisis, or just the cumulative effect of time, but it had all gotten to him.
“I was tired. I was emotionally spent,” Hamm said. “It’s hard to be out there all the time. It’s not a smooth path. Some things change and other things not only don’t change, they get worse. I was thinking maybe it was time to do something different.”
To anyone now acquainted with Hamm or his current work – he is one of New Jersey’s leading voices against police brutality, against urban violence and for social justice in all forms – this would come as quite a surprise.
In the activist community Hamm is known as a go-to guy: “He has really wide shoulders,” said Christine Johnson, founder of the Mothers of Murdered Sons and Daughters. “Any time we need Larry, he always comes.”
He’s known as a teacher: “He taught me how to organize, move and inspire people,” said Frederica Bey, executive director of the Women in Support of the Million Man March. “Of all the organizations I’ve been in, I learned the most from Larry.
And, above all else, he’s known as indefatigable: “He’s like that rabbit,” said Earl “The Street Doctor” Best, founder of the Street Warriors Inc. “He just keeps going.”
Still, everyone’s batteries get low from time to time, and there was a time when Hamm thought his energy for activism had simply drained away. Permanently.
“I thought that chapter of my life was closed,” Hamm said. “I was trying to close it.”
He started spending less time at rallies and more time with his wife and three children in Montclair. He went back to school at night and got an MBA.
He thought he was out.
A dawning awareness
If it had ended there, it would still have been quite a ride.
Growing up on South 12th Street in Newark, Hamm had the kind of adolescence that made his future as an activist seem almost preordained.
It might be tempting to start with the 1967 riots – he lived two blocks from Springfield Avenue and experienced it all through rapidly widening 13-year-old eyes – but, really, you have to start with a much smaller, less profound act of civil disobedience.
He and his buddies got caught throwing rocks through the windows of the South 17th Street School, nearly leading to his expulsion from the eighth grade.
”The principal, Mr. King, told my mother I was a common hoodlum,” Hamm said. “The only time I ever saw my mother cry that hard was when my father died.”
Vowing never to disappoint his mother like that again, he decided to get some distance from his neighborhood buddies. He took the test to attend Arts High School and got accepted.
He didn’t come from a politically active family – his father drove a truck, his mother was a seamstress – but the riots, the continuing protests against the Vietnam War and his burgeoning awareness of the Black Power movement pushed him to get involved with student government.
Which is why, when the Newark teachers strike of 1971 came around, he was Arts High’s representative to the Newark Federation of High School Student Councils. As the strike dragged on, the students became aware that if they missed 35 consecutive days of school, they would be forced to repeat a grade.
And Hamm didn’t think his mother would like that very much. So he helped lead a march down to the Gateway Hotel and organized a sit-in. He demanded – and received – an audience with Mayor Kenneth Gibson, who quickly realized the young man from South 12th Street had a rare gift.
”He was a natural leader,” Gibson said. “He was one of the brightest young leaders I ever came across.”
Gibson was so impressed by Hamm, he appointed the 17-year-old to a vacant spot on the school board shortly after graduation.
“Before I put him on the school board, I made him promise two things,” Gibson said. “One, that he wouldn’t quit school – he had a full scholarship to Princeton. And, two, that if he disagreed with my policies, he would talk to me before he went public.”
Gibson laughed and added, “I don’t think it took very long before he violated both those promises.”
He withdrew from Princeton after just two months, receiving a promise he could someday return. Then he launched himself into disagreeing with Gibson – and a lot of other powerful people in Newark – in any number of ways.
He became a disciple of Black Power leader Amiri Baraka, started using the name Adhimu Chunga (Swahili for “important youth”), and threw himself into the middle of every conflict he could find, flexing his newfound authority. Some of his work – like renaming a high school after Malcolm X Shabazz – was merely controversial.
Other actions, like his proposal to allow students to bring the black national flag to school or his refusal to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, earned him attention nationally and death threats locally.
“He was a very prescient youth,” Baraka said. “He was a phenom in those days.”
Gibson eventually removed Hamm from the school board and, after an unsuccessful run for city council, Hamm returned to Princeton in 1974.
Still going by Adhimu Chunga, he led a variety of student causes, chief among them the push to make Princeton divest itself in South Africa. But he also found time to study. In 1978, he graduated cum laude, receiving a series of awards for his work as an activist.
He was unanimously accepted into the university’s Ph.D. program for political science, and he continued his studies for a little more than a year.
But Newark kept calling him home.
“He was a star scholar, one of the brightest political science Ph.D. students Princeton had,” said the Rev. William Howard, pastor at Newark’s Bethany Baptist Church who first met Hamm as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. “I tried to persuade him to get his Ph.D. and then become a professor of politics, where he could do both scholarly work and activism. But that wasn’t how he wanted to do it. He was dedicated to grassroots work in Newark.”
Hamm returned to Newark in 1980. By 1982, the People’s Organization for Progress (POP) was born.
Striking a balance
If it sounds like a dramatic decision – turning his back on a promising future in academia to return to his still-riot-scarred hometown – it never felt that way to Hamm. He had always planned to come back to Newark and never thought of doing differently.
He also started going by Larry Hamm again.
“Adhimu Chunga represented the culture and consciousness of a certain time,” Hamm said. But it was a time that had ended. “The fact of the matter is, once I had to get a job, I had to use my real legal name. That was just reality.”
And, in reality, Hamm has a practical side to him – one that persists intact to this day. His ideas are radical. His lifestyle is not.
He has a normal day job as a transportation executive. He wears suits, ties and sensible shoes. His graying hair is cropped short. He is easily confused for a tax attorney.
Perhaps the perfect symbol of the balance he strikes in his life – that mix of the radical and the practical – is his car.
He drives a Ford Freestar minivan, that archetype of the mainstream middle class. But instead of toting around kids in shin guards, it’s a rolling protest-in-waiting.
The back of the van is loaded down with banners, placards and flags. There are easels for holding up signs, clipboards and pads for signing up new recruits and a portable sound system charged and ready for a street-side rally.
But it’s all packed in that unassuming package – the van and the man.
“He’s a quiet storm,” Best said. “He’s very meek and humble and you never see him coming. But when he gets before that microphone, watch out.”
Hamm probably speaks publicly about 100 times a year. POP has four standing events – Martin Luther King’s birthday, Malcolm X’s birthday, the anniversary of the Newark riots and Kwanzaa – and dozens of others that arise when POP decides to involve itself in an issue.
Larry Hamm, founder and president of the People’s Organization for Progress, takes part in the 14th annual Prayer and Candlelight Vigil in Newark.
Then there are other organizations that invite Hamm to speak, mostly because they know his reputation as an orator.
“He can give a 45-minute speech without notes and never once repeat himself,” Howard said. “He’ll reference Dubois, Karl Marx, the Apostle Paul and then three other works you’ve barely heard of. He can be nothing short of spellbinding.”
January will be a typically busy month. On Jan. 11, he’ll be honored at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. On Jan. 20, he’ll be one of the leaders of an anti-war symposium being held at Rutgers Law School. And there will inevitably be the usual dose of impromptu street events.
“The beauty of Larry is he really knows how to speak all the languages,” Bey said. “He walks with kings and talks with presidents and at the same time runs an organization that is completely grassroots.”
He simply figured his time as an activist was done: The Million Man March was over. POP was stagnating, with few core members left. It was time to move on.
Then, in 1999, came news that a young man named Earl Faison, who was wrongly suspected of killing Orange police officer Joyce Carnegie, had died at the hands of members of the Orange Police Department.
And suddenly Larry Hamm was right back in.
“Earl Faison was a defining moment for me,” Hamm said. “I mean, here was police brutality happening right here, .7 miles from downtown Newark. It reignited a lot of the passion in me and made me realize the struggle for justice could never end.”
It also reinvigorated POP, which Hamm said today has about 1,000 members – 100 of whom are active at any time – and six branches throughout the state.
POP organized a series of marches and other events, sometimes sleeping outside the old Orange Police Department headquarters on Lincoln Avenue. Hamm wrote letters to public officials and kept presenting them with petitions signed by members of the community.
“Our role was basically to keep public awareness focused on it so government officials would know they couldn’t sweep it under the rug,” Hamm said.
And while it took five years, five of the officers involved were sent to prison for violating Faison’s civil rights and participating in a conspiracy to cover up the crime.
Police brutality has since become POP’s signature issue, and Hamm has been at the forefront of protesting the deaths of Stanton Crew, Bilal Colbert and others.
It has not made him popular among police. Several police officials contacted in Essex County declined to comment about Hamm. But it has made Hamm realize his struggles were worth it, even when they sometimes seemed lonely.
Or even hopeless.
“When I was appointed to the school board in 1971, I was 17 years old and the majority of Newark students couldn’t read and write at grade level,” Hamm said. “Now it’s the end of 2006, I’m 53, and the majority of Newark students still can’t read and write on grade level.
“But there’s a certain realization you come to about the tempo of social change. It’s not the same as the tempo in an individual life. It’s a much longer beat. And we just have to keep doing what we can to keep pushing the struggle forward.”
Thing you might not guess: He’s run four marathons.
Book he thinks every activist should read: “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?” by Martin Luther King Jr.
Things he won’t eat: Meat or poultry
Last vacation: Disney World. 12 years ago.
“The most important thing I’ve derived from my life is the knowledge that ordinary people have tremendous power when they work collectively, when they organize, mobilize and strive for a common goal.”
“He’s a quiet storm. He’s very meek and humble and you never see him coming.” — Earl ‘The Street Doctor’ Best, founder of the Street Warriors Inc.
Published Dec. 31, 2006