Workers Vanguard No. 1061
6 February 2015
Cleophas C. (Hawk) Hawkins
Our friend and collaborator “Hawk” died on January 9 in Chesapeake, Virginia, at the age of 80. His health had been failing for over a year. We share the sorrow of Hawk’s family—his wife Ann, his three daughters Edna, Cheryl and Gail, and his son Harry, as well as his 10 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren. Ann, in particular, was generously hospitable and friendly to comrades who worked and stayed in the Tidewater Area.
Hawk was a longtime sympathizer of our party, facilitating our work at crucial junctures by providing insight on and opening doors to the black proletariat in the South and contributing commentaries to Workers Vanguard. Hawk regularly received bundles of WV, which he distributed to trade unionists and black activists.
We first met Hawk, a shipyard worker in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1981 at a massive AFL-CIO labor rally in Washington, D.C., in support of the fired PATCO air traffic controllers (see “For Labor Action to Bring Down Reagan!” WV No. 289, 25 September 1981). He subscribed to our press, and comrades then made trips to meet with Hawk and some of his co-workers. He had attended a few Socialist Workers Party forums in Newport News. A militant shop steward in his International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) local, Hawk was looking for bigger answers, and he found them in the SL/ICL’s program of class struggle and revolutionary integrationism.
In 1982, Hawk played a key role in making possible our labor/black mobilization that stopped the Klan in Washington, D.C., on November 27. Labor participation from the D.C. area was crucial for this action. When two of our organizers went to Tidewater to meet with Hawk, he didn’t hesitate. Hawk helped us secure the endorsements of his union local’s officers and then started calling other locals in the yard, leading to the endorsements of the two black International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) locals in Norfolk. ILA International president Teddy Gleason also endorsed. The ILA and IBEW put up the money for a bus for the demo contingent from Tidewater—the Nat Turner Brigade!
This support unlocked the entire situation: D.C. unions and community groups began to endorse and publicize the mobilization to their members and to allow comrades to speak and leaflet at union meetings and work locations. Momentum was building—unions and other groups in cities as far away as Chicago endorsed and signed up to form contingents. It was the unions that provided the labor muscle that made our mobilization the force that could stand up to then-mayor Marion Barry’s cops. There were no arrests and the Klan did not march (see “We Stopped the Klan!” WV supplement, 3 December 1982). That victory flowed from Hawk’s initial efforts.
Through this work, Hawk saw that it is possible to mobilize the power of the working class to stop race terror, in this case on the basis of a united front centered on labor but including other organizations and individuals. He became convinced that our party was serious and knew how that power could be unchained to smash the capitalist system of exploitation and oppression. Hawk started to read basic Marxist works with us and to bring other workers around. He had a keen interest in the Russian Revolution and understood its relevance to abolishing capitalism today. Hawk had discussions with workers trying to raise their consciousness about the need to learn from history and apply its lessons in struggle. Those conversations were reflected in his contributions to WV.
Hawk became a part of the fabric of our movement, developing relationships with many comrades. We had our occasional differences, which Hawk wasn’t shy about arguing out. He was hardheaded and could be cantankerous, which is what made him what he was. In the mid ’80s, Hawk corresponded with veteran Trotskyist Dick Fraser, whose groundbreaking document “For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Question” provided the foundation for our program for black liberation. He joined in rough-and-tumble, raucous political repartee, giving as good as he got. As Fraser said when asking Hawk for a comment on his “Two Lectures on Black Liberation” (presented in 1953): “Don’t spare me with your criticism. I can take it, as well as dish it out.”
Hawk continued to organize black Tidewater workers to participate in SL and Partisan Defense Committee activities. In 1988, when fascist skinheads and the Klan declared their intention to march in Philadelphia, Hawk reassembled the Nat Turner Brigade for the PDC-initiated November 5 mobilization in that city (see “Labor/Black Power Stopped the Klan!” WV No. 465, 18 November 1988). On that tense morning, with skinheads lurking around the perimeter and the cops menacing the rally, comrades described it as “exhilarating” when Hawk and his contingent arrived and stepped off the bus.
In the ’90s, Hawk became frustrated with the lack of struggle and drifted from our political moorings as he approached and entered retirement. He turned his attention to community work. Feeling his predominantly black neighborhood was being neglected by the city, Hawk led efforts to establish a youth recreation center, a park, an extended bus route, a storm drainage system, a fire station and to remodel the local library.
Despite this political distance, Hawk always remained a friend of our party, introducing people to WV and to comrades when we were in the area. In a recent call, Hawk expressed great pleasure in hearing about a new statue in Charleston commemorating Denmark Vesey, who was hanged for leading a slave rebellion in 1822.
Hawk was born Cleophas C. Hawkins (although nobody ever called him that, including his wife) and raised in rural North Carolina. After leaving the Air Force, having served as a mechanic in Korea in the mid ’50s, Hawk went to work in a shipyard in Boston. He began investigating various organizations that were part of the black struggle at the time and met Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. Although having great respect for Malcolm, Hawk was never attracted to black nationalism or Islam. Hawk always considered Farrakhan a hustler, noting he used to be a “song and dance man.”
When the Boston shipyard closed, Hawk transferred to the Tidewater area, getting a job in a Norfolk shipyard as an electronics technician. While his co-workers respected his skills and knowledge, he made a name for himself as a militant when a racist foreman threw the coats of the workers, who were predominantly black, into a trash can because they had left them on the shop bench. Hawk retrieved all the coats, brushed them off, neatly hung them up...and then threw the foreman’s coat in the trash. He was elected steward and subsequently secretary-treasurer of his IBEW local. Hawk fought for a greater role for the predominantly black locals in the yard’s union council and defended workers victimized by racist managers.
Comrades who spent time with Hawk have fond memories of talking with him, his glasses dangling from one ear, mysteriously affixed under his red beard. They learned what life was like for blacks in the American South and the constant struggle against racist victimization—often humiliating, frequently violent—as well as the struggles of the unions. Hawk was the advanced worker that we strive to draw around our party, who bring with them links to broader layers of the working class. Hawk’s work with us shows that in the course of future struggles, the promise of our revolutionary program will attract more workers like Hawk to our banner.