From Black Militants to Jehovah’s Witnesses
An Odyssey From Black Power to Disillusionment and On to Enlightenment
WHITE students in their orientation week at Tufts University in greater Boston were learning about classes and getting around the campus. Black students were meeting with people like Angela Davis, Dick Gregory, Black Muslims. And unbeknownst to the school authorities, criminals from the militant movement. They came with their bodyguards to tell us what was going on and what to do to foster the revolution. They opened our eyes to dark deeds and roused us to the urgent need for black power. At 17 you’re quickly stirred by injustices, and I saw the need to get blacker.
It was 1969 and my first year at Tufts. A cause to test my blackness was soon at hand. A dormitory was being constructed with too few black workers. At sunrise we were at the construction site. We had people from outside the community who came in with guns and other weapons. We designated captains. I was captain at one of the stations. Three women were with me. We had our walkie-talkies and barricaded ourselves inside.
But when those construction workers got to work, boy, were they mad! To them this was a matter of eating. It had nothing to do with color. This was affecting their family. They wanted to tear us to pieces! The police showed up just in time, in riot gear and with riot sticks a foot longer than normal. They became a wall between us and the workers, and the confrontation ended.
I was going to two campuses that year. I was registered at Tufts but participated in an exchange program Tufts had with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT a black physicist in graduate school approached me. In the library at MIT, there are tons of information on bombs and military exploits. Well, this black physicist said to me: “Look, brother, if you want to take it down [the dormitory being constructed], why—you’re an engineer, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I could make some nitro, and let’s just take it all the way down.” But I wasn’t ready for that.
My name is Larry Whitehead. I was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Arlington, Virginia. I experienced the many indignities, small and large, heaped on blacks. I went through the first year of integration in high school—the process was not helped by the presence of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi party in Virginia. I always had strong feelings about whites, but it was Tufts that taught me to be militant.
Madeline Joins Me at Tufts
The next year Madeline arrived at Tufts—big Afro hairdo, posters displaying the black fists, all the other Black Power trappings. She explains how it came about with her:
“It was different for me. When I came to Tufts, I was already militant. I grew up in a white neighborhood; the high school was predominately white; many of my friends were white. But in my 11th year, a riot started in the cafeteria—Martin Luther King had been assassinated, and tempers were boiling over in many places. So in the cafeteria blacks and whites fought. They had to close the school down. I was appalled when my white friends that I had grown up with showed such hate and animosity. It turned me bitter. I went through a drastic change. I cut off all my hair, grew it into an Afro, and got hot for Black Power. When I arrived at Tufts, my hatred for whites was full-blown.”
Both Madeline and I became active in the black movement at Tufts. It was a period of great change. Major movements on the campuses were taking place. The Vietnam war was a hot issue. The Students for Democratic Society was active. The drug culture was just getting off to a strong run. Neither Madeline nor I was into drugs, but those we associated with not only used drugs but also sold them.
Tufts was a predominantly white school, but they allowed black students to segregate, and we also had an Afro Society Black Orientation. I became president of the Afro-American Society and a citywide fraternity. Martin Luther King’s assassination triggered much of this black activity, the death of Malcolm X added its impetus, and when both Jack and Bob Kennedy were assassinated (they were the outstanding “good white people”), it left blacks feeling hopeless.
We wanted an identity of our own. We started reading Marcus Garvey, Back to Africa, James Baldwin. Our movies showed terrorist methods, blacks in poverty and discriminated against. They showed Arab women and children who could get into places that other people couldn’t, so they went in with bombs strapped to their persons and blew up the place—they gave their lives for the cause. So we were indoctrinated to do the same.
We Teach “Black Religion”
I had always believed in God, groping for him. (Acts 17:27) But I almost lost him completely in 1970. We taught a course at Tufts called Black Religion. It was actually an attack on the Bible. The Black Muslims were influential in it, and they said that white men that came to you with the Bible were devils. Especially those with blue eyes and blonde hair. Jesus, on the other hand, was a black man with hair like lamb’s wool.
We were just at this point in the course when I met Tim Sieradski. He was big, blond, blue-eyed, and came with a Bible in his hand—a white, blue-eyed devil if I ever saw one! Or so I thought. He was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. When he showed up at my door, I thought to myself: ‘Look at this big, blue-eyed devil trying to teach me the Bible.’ But I soon discovered that he did know the Bible, and I did want him to show me in the Bible where it said Jesus’ hair was like lamb’s wool.
Instead he talked about this world ending, with scriptures to prove it. Being an engineer, I had proved scientifically to myself that God existed. I wasn’t sure about the Bible—never had studied it. Tim did read a scripture that intrigued me: “He made out of one man every nation of men, to dwell upon the entire surface of the earth.” (Acts 17:26) So I listened to Tim.
But not Madeline! Let her tell why: “I had been totally turned off by church,” she explained. “By the time I was 16, I saw it was very hypocritical. I knew I wasn’t living right—by this time Larry and I were living together—but I wasn’t going to go the church route and be a hypocrite about it. So whenever Tim would come, with his blond hair and blue eyes and Bible in hand, I wouldn’t speak to him. When he came I left.”
We lost track of Tim. We were not ready to abandon the Black Power movement. The Afro-American Society arranged to go and see a group called The Last Poets. These were blacks that did poetry to music. All they talked about was revolution: ‘Black people get together, get strong, overthrow white society, and make life better.’ ‘Work together, pull together’ ran their refrain. So Madeline and I decided to deal only with blacks.
Misgivings Sprout and Grow
We put a deposit on an apartment belonging to blacks. After waiting three months and listening to many excuses, they told us they had rented it to someone else. Before that, I had an apartment in a black neighborhood, and blacks broke in and stole everything I had. One night I was in an ice-cream shop talking on the phone long distance to my mother. Three black men came in and robbed the place. I didn’t notice until I heard this black man behind me say, “Be cool, brother.” I looked around, and he had a .45 automatic jammed in my back. My black brother indeed!
We saw that blacks preyed on blacks just as whites did. It’s not color, not race; it’s just people. It’s sad and it’s disillusioning. We looked again at the blacks we were associating with at Tufts. In the fraternities and sororities, there was no true brotherhood; neither did we find it in the Afro-American Society. Some of my associates found no problem with demolishing black women. Black girls would come to school. Their parents had sacrificed for years to get money to send them there. Then black men would introduce them to drugs. Some ended up trying to commit suicide.
Then we looked at all these young people around us, black and white. Some were junkies, some were alcoholics, and so many of them were just very much into themselves. And this was the generation in whose hands the world’s future lay? Wherever we looked, we saw no answers, from blacks or whites.
Disillusionment Sets In
Misgivings were becoming disillusionment. Madeline defined her growing problem: “We had all these meetings, and in them they kept saying you didn’t have to have any rules. Anything you wanted to do was okay. That’s anarchy. You can’t accomplish anything that way.”
I agreed. My search had always been for guidelines by which mankind could live. Initially I had felt that if we were all black, all coming from the same place, united in a common cause, then it would work out. Then we saw that the blacks were no different from the whites—no better, no worse, just the same mixture of good and bad. Unity must have a basis other than race.
Obviously, we had to make some changes. Things were turning sour for us. One evening I recalled: “There was a film at Tufts that showed the size of the universe, the order of it. It amazed me, and I remember thinking at the time that that couldn’t happen by accident. If there is that kind of order throughout the universe, there have to be guidelines that God set out for mankind.”
We left Tufts, got married, and started our search for the God that made this orderly universe, planet Earth, and mankind on it.
During our search, we attended a Bible study meeting at the African Methodist Episcopal church. We took with us the book Aid to Bible Understanding that Tim had left with me months earlier. The discussion was on the cities of refuge. No one knew what they were until I read about them from the Aid book. Everyone was delighted until they learned that the book was published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. The room became very quiet. And this was supposed to be a Bible study class?
Enlightenment Transforms Our Lives
We left and never went back. It made us see that apparently the only ones who knew what they were talking about were Tim and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I remembered Tim’s last name, looked up his telephone number, and called him. He started a regular home Bible study with us. And now even Madeline was delighted to speak to Tim—no more was he that “blond, blue-eyed devil.”
Interesting things began to happen. I was working at a large engineering firm in Boston. They called me into the office and told me that if I would give up being a Witness and go back to college and get my master’s degree, they would make me corporate vice president. I declined. Madeline and I were baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1975, and Madeline started as a regular full-time pioneer.
I had one very gratifying experience at the engineering firm. I worked with Mike, a black engineer, there. He was quite a debater, and one of his pet subjects was evolution. On this particular day, with about five other engineers present, he was coming on strong about how you could prove evolution. Then he turned to me and said: “Isn’t that right, Larry?”
So I was forced to make a stand. I hadn’t really witnessed to a group before. I should have, but because I’m an engineer, I hid it. But Mike pulled me right out of the closet. So I told Mike: “Mike, I can’t agree with that.” He nearly went into orbit! Later I gave him the Watch Tower publication Did Man Get Here by Evolution or by Creation? Mike devoured that book! Today he is an elder in a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Richmond, Virginia.
Materialism Not Enough
When I quit the engineering firm in Boston in 1977, they called me in and told me that I was being foolish. They knew I was quitting because I wanted to do more as a Witness. I’ll never forget this man standing at the window looking out over the city, saying: “Whitehead, you can be rich, you can make money, you can buy cars.” He kept on and on. But I was 21 and had already bought two new cars and a home. I had achieved what at that time most people figured you would get by the time you were 40. There was nothing else for us to achieve here. The system had nothing else to offer materially.
It wasn’t enough. It didn’t satisfy, as the Bible warned many centuries ago: “A mere lover of silver will not be satisfied with silver, neither any lover of wealth with income. This too is vanity.”—Ecclesiastes 5:10.
Later the Watchtower Society sent us to where the need for Witnesses was greater, Las Vegas. We stayed there for five and a half years. Both of us served as full-time ministers from time to time. There were periods when food was scarce, but we never neglected the basics: study, service, prayer. Like the apostle Paul, we knew how to be full and how to be empty.—Philippians 4:12.
In Las Vegas I started out working as a carpenter, then as draftsman for the phone company, and finally was made the state coordinator for the computerized project of Central Telephone Company. I later returned to Alexandria, Virginia. I worked for Xerox as a computer systems analyst, being sent into large corporations. I now have my own consulting business as a computer systems analyst.
Madeline and I are now serving in a congregation of Witnesses in Alexandria. I’m an elder there and the congregation secretary. Both Madeline and I are grateful to Jehovah for enlightening us to understand that no human power, black or white, is the answer to mankind’s problems. (Psalm 146:2, 3) We are happy now to ‘let the light of His kingdom shine’ for the enlightenment of others who have eyes willing to see. (Matthew 5:14-16)—As told by Larry Whitehead.
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The Whiteheads with Tim, their onetime “blond, blue-eyed devil”
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The Whiteheads find being active in the Christian ministry fulfilling