William “Bill” Strickland, Civil Rights Activist

William ‘Bill’ Strickland, Unsung Civil Rights Activist Dies At 87

Strickland was a co-founder of the independent Black think tank, Institute of the Black World. Even though the organization was relatively short lived, it had a profound impact on legitimizing Black studies as an academic discipline.

William “Bill” Strickland, a civil rights activist who worked closely with Malcolm X, died on April 10 at his Amherst, Massachusetts, home. He was 87. Strickland had a long career in activism and also taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for 40 years in the W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies. 

Strickland was first interested in civil rights as a high school student in Amherst before exposure to the works of James Baldwin and Richard Wright further inspired him as an undergraduate student at Harvard University. 

Peter Blackmer, a former student of Strickland’s and a current assistant professor of Africology and African American Studies at Eastern Michigan University, told the AP that Strickland’s contributions often flew under the radar.

“He made incredible contributions to the Black freedom movement that haven’t really been appreciated. His contention was that civil rights wasn’t a sufficient framework for challenging the systems that were behind the oppression of Black communities throughout the diaspora.”

Blackmer continued, discussing Strickland’s teaching style.

“As a teacher, that is how he taught us to think as students — to be able to understand and deconstruct racism, capitalism, imperialism and to be fearless in doing so and not being afraid to name the systems that we’re confronting as a means of developing a strategy to challenge them.”

Strickland joined the Northern Student Movement’s Boston chapter in the early 60s and later became its president in 1963. Strickland then pivoted to supporting the emerging Black Power movement and worked alongside Malcolm X, Baldwin, and other New York activists on issues such as police brutality, school boycotts, and rent strikes. Strickland later became a founding member of Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964 and 1969. 

According to Amilcar Shabazz, a professor in the same department Strickland taught in for 40 years, Strickland’s path was similar to that of the department’s namesake, W.E.B. DuBois.

“He underwent a similar kind of experience to committing himself to being an agent of social change in the world against the three big issues of the civil rights movement — imperialism or militarism, racism and the economic injustice of plantation capitalism,” Shabazz explained.

“He committed himself against those triple evils. He did that in his scholarship, in his teaching, in his activism and just how he walked in the world.”

Strickland was a co-founder of the independent Black think tank Institute of the Black World (IBW), which functioned from 1969 to 1983. Although the organization was relatively short-lived, it had a profound impact on the legitimization of Black studies as an academic discipline.

It inspired a spiritual successor, the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, which began in 2001. The original IBW counted among its members C.L.R. James, John Henrik Clarke, Lerone Bennett Jr., Kathrine Dunham, and Joyce Lander.

As Black Past reported, “It (IBW) promoted critical research and intellectual development while analyzing the various approaches to Black freedom, including Pan-Africanism, Black Nationalism, and Marxism, in an attempt to redefine and deepen American democracy.”

According to Strickland’s obituary, a symposium and celebration of his life is planned for the fall of 2024, and a lecture series at Amherst University will be established in his name. William Strickland’s memory will be cherished by his first cousins: Earnestine “Perri” Norman, Dorothy Craig, Gwendolyn Smith, Arthur Norman, and Keith Norman; second cousins: Amy Simpson and Gregory Berry, and his ex-wife Leslie Lowery. Numerous friends, colleagues, comrades, and students around the world who will carry on his legacy in the Black liberation struggle will also cherish his memory.