In the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibit, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, Nina Simone plays and sings “Mississippi Goddam” on a looping film. Her song was one of Ray Ford’s favorites. A Marxist-Humanist activist and theorist, he loved music and wrote poems and songs in that era, singing and playing the guitar. Some of his lyrics appear below. Ray McKay’s pen name came from Claude McKay, the Harlem Renaissance poet.
Ford was a young factory worker in Baltimore in the 1960s when he became a militant in the Civil Rights Movement. Having grown up Black and poor—he and his brother integrated a Washington, D.C. elementary school–he was influenced by the Berrigan brothers’ liberation theology and joined the “Freedom Now” movement, working with the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In 1966, he was active in the independent labor union it instigated, called the Maryland Freedom Union (MFU). Composed primarily of Black women nursing home workers, its story appears in a pamphlet of that name, available at the bottom of our Archives page. Ford’s own mother’s life was changed when SEIU District 1199’s East Coast organizing campaign came to the Baltimore hospital where she worked in the kitchen and forced a raise in wages to $100 a week. In the MFU, Ford helped and encouraged young women to organize themselves.
In Baltimore and on trips to New York City, Ford met Marxist-Humanism and began to study philosophy, politics and history. In a film made two years ago, “Raya Dunayevskaya: Biography of an Idea,” Ford describes his first meeting with Dunayevskaya, founder of the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism, and how he knew at once that her philosophy was different from the others leftists—those who came to the Civil Rights Movement for recruits to their political organizations so they could boss them around. Ford joined Dunayevskaya’s organization and was a colleague of hers for the next two decades, until her death in 1987.
He lived in several cities where the organization had committees and where he was active in the local Black movements: Los Angeles, Detroit, and since 1972, New York. In 1968, he participated in the national Poor People’s Campaign, organized by Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council. The Campaign took place shortly after King’s assassination. Branches of the Campaign came from all over the country with their demands and converged on Washington, D.C. Ford came with the people from Marks, Mississippi, and he slept in the mud for a week at Resurrection City, the Campaign’s tent-in on the Washington Mall. He reported from Marks:
“The young people here are really out of sight. They have no illusions and are out to get all the things free people should have. Coming here has reinforced my determination to get rid of this system. I have to agree that this is the worst place I have ever seen for people to live, and I’ve seen some pretty bad places at that.”
Dunayevskaya once noted that Ford had “a real feel for philosophy,” high praise from the woman who continuously struggled to create an organization that actually united theory and practice. He was long a member of the leadership, and Dunayevskaya consulted him often to find out what the “voices from below” were saying about work and life in the Black community, as well as to discuss her ongoing theoretical and philosophical writings. He contributed to many articles and pamphlets and, through discussions, also to her books. At a “Black-Red Conference” in 1969 (see our Archives page under Dunayevskaya’s writings, 1969), Ford introduced Dunayevskaya to the audience of workers and youth, situating her work in the context of Marxist revolutionaries.
Moving to New York City in the days of free college tuition and open admissions, he attended the City University and became an environmental scientist. He worked as a health department inspector and then licensor. He was also a mentor to many people in the self-help groups to which he belonged.
In spite of ill health over many years, Ford remained a “Bolshevik,” as Dunayevskaya termed members who put their revolutionary organization foremost in their thinking and imposed organizational responsibility upon themselves. He was crucial to the founding of Marxist-Humanist Initiative five years ago, after he was among those pushed out of the old organization. His “Bolshevik” ideas and convictions served us well during our creation of Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s Principles and By-Laws, which are stamped with his passion for a new society.
Practicing organizational responsibility until the end, just three weeks before his death, he spent the entire day June 1 staffing our book table at Left Forum, talking to people and signing up many he spoke with to our mailing list. Too weak from his illnesses even to go back and forth to our panels, he had volunteered to keep the table open all day so the rest of us could attend the panels.
In addition to his role in the Dunayevskaya film, you can see and hear him in many of the videos and audios of MHI’s public meetings that are posted in our website publication, With Sober Senses. For one, he spoke last year at the first of two public meetings on “Why Do Popular Movements Vanish? And Do They Have To?” In discussing what Dunayevskaya called “the counter-revolution that emerges from within the revolution,” he described how contradictions from within stymied the mass movements in which he had participated, including the tenants movement in Detroit, and discussed the Black movement’s fragmentation and diversion into electoral politics and narrow nationalism. Ford argued for the need for Marx’s total philosophy of liberation as part of the revolutionary process.
The man lived for the goal of a thoroughgoing socialist revolution, and with his firmly planted proletarian roots, he could quickly tell the class character of different ideas presented to the masses. While he spoke often about Dunayevskaya’s concept of “a movement from practice to theory,” he was not a spontaneist. He valued the power of ideas and considered it not rhetoric, but fact, that what Marxist-Humanism can uniquely contribute to preparation for revolution lies in its theoretical work and its attempts to unite theory and practice.
He is survived by his loving wife Sara, his sisters, many friends, and his comrades in Marxist-Humanist Initiative.
We mourn the loss of a link in the fragile chain of historic memory that goes back through Dunayevskaya to the Russian Revolution and, in the realm of ideas, to Karl Marx. Ford’s life is testimony to Dunayevskaya’s concept of “masses as Reason”—not just as forces of revolution, but the reason of revolution.
These are partial lyrics of two songs that Ray McKay wrote many years ago:
They say about America, the great land of the free,
Many fine things that one can’t really see.
This great Uncle Sam is really quite a sham,
Especially for those in the minority.
Uncle Sam, Uncle Sam, Uncle Sam, be damned!
Uncle Sam, you’re no friend to me.
Uncle Sam, Uncle Sam, Uncle Sam, be damned!
For your people still are not free.
“I was born in the middle of a murder”
I was born in the middle of a murder,
And taught that I never should betray,
But the anger is poured out like whiskey in the morning
Before the night turns into day….
Now the reason I’m telling you this story,
All that I really want to say,
Is unless we keep fighting for our freedom
You know there’ll be hell to pay.
I just read this article about Ray, who I met briefly, and want to send my condolences. I appreciate this line in particular: “We mourn the loss of a link in the fragile chain of historic memory that goes back through Dunayevskaya to the Russian Revolution and, in the realm of ideas, to Karl Marx.” The Left would certainly benefit from a less fragile chain of historical memory.
I had the privilege of knowing Ray as a valued friend. I shared much of his politics, & was fortunate enough to be among those for whom he was a mentor in self-help groups (as mentioned in the above editorial). I will deeply miss our many talks, personal & political. Ray ‘got it’ at an unusually deep level, and his loss leaves my life much poorer. His passing truly leaves many people much poorer, even if they never knew him.
It is with sadness that I learned of Ray’s passing and wish to send my condolences to his family, friends and comrades. The world is certainly a poorer place with the loss of this dedicated fighter for human liberation, and for a new society free of oppression and exploitation.
It was my privilege and pleasure to listen just now to Ray McKay’s talk at the MHI discussion, “Why Do Popular Movements Vanish? And Do They Have To?” (Part 1, May 22, 2013).
Everything he said was profound and had the ring of authenticity. I wouldn’t dare to summarize. But among things he said that what radicals and “the left” lack and the capitalists have is the idea of totality.
Just a small gloss on this “Bolshevik” life.
I had the pleasure of knowing Ray Ford and I attended his memorial service, October 19, 2014. He was a good listener,filled with empathy and compassion. He was a “ray” of sunshine in my life, and I will always remember him.