Making the history he teaches

West Side native Prexy Nesbitt knew King and Mandela, worked with Obama

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Prexy Nesbitt, 74, never did finish his PhD work on African History, in large part because he was too busy making the history he was teaching at Columbia College in downtown Chicago.

If there was a struggle against colonialism or racism in the last 60 years in Africa or the U.S., there's a good chance the West Side native was involved. He addressed Nelson Mandela by his clan name, Madiba, a sign of both respect and affection used in the Nobel Prize winner's presence only by those who were close to him. He worked side-by-side as a young man with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and he knows Barack Obama personally.  

The goal of his life's journey, as well as the force that drove him, was literally to change the world. "The vision of those liberation movements [in Africa] that I supported," he said in a 2009 interview with Columbia College Chicago, "was about creating just, equitable, participatory societies … and creating a world in which race would no longer be the dominant force that it is even today. It was about building a new human being."

That lofty vision grew out of experiences in the first two decades of the activist-educator's life.

Rozell William Nesbitt — he hates the name Rozell and always goes by Prexy — was born in Cook County Hospital in 1944 and grew up mainly in North Lawndale.  

His mother, Sadie Crain Nesbitt, was a teacher. "It wasn't accidental," he recalled, "that she took me to hear The Weavers [Pete Seeger's group] and watch Katherine Dunham dance." Sadie was a close friend of Mahalia Jackson, whom some critics refer to as "the queen of Gospel." 

"When I first learned to drive," Prexy said, "I remember taking recipes back and forth between my mother and Mahalia."

"I remember going through a phase of hating white people when I was 17 or 18," he added. "My mother came to me one night and said, 'If you want to have your own house, you can do whatever you want, but as long as you're under my roof, you can't have those attitudes.'"

Prexy and his parents had experienced their share of discrimination from white people, but those negative interactions were balanced not only by his parents' perspective on race but also by attending a Jewish nursery school and spending a summer in Sweden, hwere he lived with the Holmgren family between his junior and senior years in high school.

"My parents were big advocates of international exposure," he explained. "Many of the Holmgrens and their friends have been here to see my family, and many of my family have been there to meet them. We're like one family."

Prexy's father was a union organizer and was very politically aware. 

"My father and mother were both oriented toward learning out of life," he recalled. "There was book learnin' and there was life learnin' and you had to have a lot of both."

Prexy remembers fondly the 11-unit apartment building at 1514 S. Albany owned by his father and four of his father's brothers. "It was an institution," he said. "It wasn't just a home. It was an institution."

He recalls meals the whole building would share together, one dish in one apartment, the dessert in another, and so forth.

It was there that he and his cousins heard stories like the one about a man on his mother's side of the family whom they called "the gun-toting pastor." 

"Pastors were special targets of the Ku Klux Klan," he explained, "because they were the learned ones. Rev. Crane said, 'Sometimes I got the gun in the pulpit and sometimes I don't. I ain't worried about the people. It's the bishops that I worry about.' He was anti-hierarchy. He was a people's kind of pastor. That's the kind of tradition and values that I was raised with in my family."

Book learning also mattered. In the 1950s, Prexy's parents pulled him out of public school and enrolled him in Francis Parker, a progressive school whose tuition was $2,000 per year, a lot of money then.

On a trip he and his father took to visit Yale University and Oberlin College, they stopped to check out Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. "Black people called the town the oasis of the desert," said Prexy, "because in the racism and bigotry down there in Southern Ohio, Yellow Springs was open." 

He studied political science with a minor in 19th-century Russian literature at Antioch but what impacted Prexy even more was the year he spent at New University in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (1965-66). 

"It was mind-boggling," he recalled. "It opened me up to an entirely different world."

Early on he met a group of students from South Africa, refugees from the Apartheid regime there. They invited him to listen to a recording of a speech given by a guy named Nelson Mandela. Mandela and nine other opponents were on trial for their lives. The charge was sabotage and the future Nobel Prize winner was found guilty.

During the trial, when Mandela was given a chance to speak, he put into words a vision that would guide and energize Prexy for the rest of his life. Mandela said, "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

When Prexy returned to his home in Chicago in 1966, Dr. King was leading open housing marches in the city and using the Nesbitt family's church building, Warren Avenue Church, as his base of operations. With four months to go before returning to Antioch College, Prexy's mother suggested he "go and do some things with Dr. King."

"I worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff the whole summer and got very close to Dr. King," he said. "Some of them became lifelong friends."

 

Not your ivory tower academic

'I'm not an academic in an ivory tower," declared Nesbitt in an in August, right before leading a group of teachers on a trip to Cuba to learn how educators there are dealing with the issue of racism. 

"The ivory towers couldn't tolerate me," he said. 

Indeed, the Oak Park resident dropped out of graduate school at Columbia University in New York in 1966 because the school did not renew his financial aid after he was "right in the middle" of a student protest against the Vietnam war and the school's plans to expand into Harlem.

Within a week of dropping out, he was drafted to fight in the war he was protesting, but evaded the draft by moving to Africa to join the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO or Frente de Libertação de Moçambique), a movement with which he had become familiar while studying abroad in Tanzania a couple of years before.

"I did not agree with the war in Vietnam," he explained, "and decided that if I'm going to fight, I want to fight for something I could believe in, which was the struggle against Portuguese colonialism in East Africa. It was not an intellectual engagement for me. It was something I believed in very, very deeply."

As it turned out, Eduardo Mondlane, head of the FRELIMO at the time, told him that they would not let him fight, but that they did want him to contribute to their cause by helping to build schools.

That was the beginning of 50 years, on and off, of Nesbitt's active engagement with Africans fighting to end colonialism and apartheid in Sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to FRELIMO, he was actively engaged with five other liberation movements at different times.

"I decided to support these liberation movements," he explained, "because in my view they had a perspective and set of objectives that were consistent with creating a world in which race would no longer be the dominant force that it is even today. It was about never seeing people as the enemy based on race; it was seeing systems as the enemy."

Prexy's work with FRELIMO was interrupted in 1969 by a telegram he received from his father saying that his mother was dying. He arrived back in Chicago in time to see her once before she died, but his return was the beginning of a series of sojourns — working for oppressed people in Africa, then in the U.S., Africa, Switzerland and so forth — which would shape the trajectory of his life for decades.

During the times he has lived in the U.S., Nesbitt taught in a variety of schools, did organizing for unions, and gave educational speeches on behalf of the anti-apartheid cause. Part of his work in this country was the effort to convince schools, church denominations and unions to divest from South Africa as a tactic aimed at ending apartheid in that country, an effort that culminated in the passage here of the Comprehensive Sanctions Bill of 1986.

Because he had evaded the draft by moving to Africa and because the administration in power in Washington regarded the liberation movements he worked with as "communist," Nesbitt was under surveillance and had a file with the FBI. Packages delivered to him were routinely opened before he received them.

He would return to Africa many times, sometimes under cover, to edit magazines and do other kinds of educational work in support of liberation movements. One such engagement took place in a convent in the Transkei region. He was transported under cover to impart what was going on outside of South Africa to the information-hungry, anti-apartheid cadre assembled there. He was then smuggled out — dressed as a nun — right past the South African security forces.

He wasn't afraid to criticize liberation movements when he saw corruption. For example, he authored a report in which he recommended discontinuing funding for the Pan African Congress (PAC) because he had uncovered "a lot of corruption going on with the use of monies."

Nesbitt worked for the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland from 1979 through 1983 with the Programme to Combat Racism, where he was able to get the WCC to withdraw its money from banks involved with the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The release of Nelson Mandela from jail in 1990 was, of course, a huge event that signaled a genuine shift in power in that country and in all of Africa from white colonial rule to self-governance by black Africans. The problem for Nesbitt was when black African rulers fell into the same abuses of power that infested their former colonial oppressors.

"There are not a lot of the leaders of those liberation movements who have kept the faith with the values that we were talking about," he noted.

Much of his work as an educator is done outside the classroom. At present, he teaches African History at Columbia College in downtown Chicago, but two weeks ago he returned from Cuba where he brought American teachers to dialogue with teachers on the island about how they are addressing the issue of racism.

He is anxious to get Americans to visit other countries, in part because he thinks Americans are uninformed, misinformed or at best partially informed about what is going on in the rest of the world.

 "If people are not knowledgeable about the history," he said, "you can't change any attitudes or convictions they have. That's why I teach and take people to places like South Africa and Cuba. I watch them and I see lights go on in their heads and hear them ask, 'Why did I not know about this before?' That's what I do with my organization, Making the Road."

In a very real sense, Nesbitt's underlying mission is not to help students learn about Africa as much as to help students see their lives from a new perspective. 

"I learned out of all of this involvement," he says, "that it wasn't about skin color. It was being with people who paid the highest price you can possibly pay for your values. Being taught by people like that, I internalized a much more clear understanding that would be the basis of the organization of all my life."

His years working with liberation movements also gave him a new perspective on his own country. To explain, he quoted an African he greatly admires, named Amilcar Cabral, who once told him, "The highest form of solidarity you can give us Africans is to change the conditions and circumstances of the United States."

"I think it's truer now than it's ever been before," he said. "Because the United States sets the pace and shapes the framework for so much of world affairs and of human interactions, it's only going to be when there is real change in the United States, that there will be possibilities for change in other parts of the world."

Looking back at a long life in which he participated in the making of the history he teaches, he admitted to having some regrets. 

"When I got involved with the liberation movements in Africa, I was told that I won't be allowed to have a personal life, that my personal life will always be subordinate to the imperatives of the struggle. We were about changing the world, not trying to line up the loves of our lives. At the time, I very much believed that. Now I think it was all nonsense."

Is he happy?

"I have had wonderful, wonderful people who have loved me and whom I have loved through the course of it all. Did I do well by the conventional measures of marital life and family? No. But did I do better by the other measures of friendship and contribution and serving? Then, I am very happy."

Reader Comments

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Jenna Brown Russell  

Posted: September 26th, 2018 1:44 PM

What a wonderful telling if an extraordinary life!

Matt Johnston  

Posted: September 25th, 2018 6:36 PM

Not that you need it to remind you but you are well loved by the Buzz Crew, we are always going to love you Prexy!

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