Drum and Spear Books founded
Drum & Spear Bookstore was born as the Black Consciousness Movement surged across the United States. The store officially opened shortly after the murder of Dr. King. “There was still tear gas in the air,” Judy Richardson remembered. “You felt it in your nose.” Founded by SNCC veterans Charlie Cobb, Judy Richardson, Courtland Cox, and Curtis Hayes (later Muhammed), the bookstore was for a time the largest in the country dedicated to literature from Africa and the diaspora.
The name “Drum and Spear” reflected the store’s defining principles. The drum, according to Richardson, symbolized “communications within the diaspora” while the spear suggested “whatever else might be necessary for the liberation of the people.”
Drum & Spear was a haven for books published by and about Black people throughout the world. Everything from Black Power titles like Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X to Iceberg Slim’s Pimp or Chester Himes’s Harlem detective novels had a place among the shelves. “We felt you had to have [books for] everybody,” explained Charlie Cobb. “What’s the point of having a black bookstore if you’re going to now start to decide who’s too black or not too black enough to be in the shop?”
Located on Fairmont Street in the heart of Washington D.C.’s northwest inner city, the bookstore was an extension of the political energy and activity coming from all over the city’s Black community. Stokely Carmichael was organizing the Black United Front, and students were protesting on Howard’s campus.
Much like any bookstore, Drum & Spear was a place where Black authors, poets and playwrights like Gwendolyn Brooks, Lerone Bennett, Shirley Graham DuBois, Haki Madhubuti, and Sonia Sanchez came for readings and signings.
Some of the bookstore’s roots lay in Black life overseas. The summer before, in 1967, Cobb and Cox had traveled down the west coast of Africa. Just before that trip Cobb had visited the Presence Africaine bookstore in Paris, France. It had “artists coming in and out of the place, political people coming in and out of the place, and books to inform the struggle.” The Movement could use something like that in the U.S., Cobb thought.
The store was also site for meetings, conferences and information gathering among black political activists in the DC area. The Center for Black Education (CBE), organized by many who had founded Drum and Spear, was located just three blocks away. Its goal was to train and educate Black people in the practical skills and historical grounding that would enable them to combat white supremacy and instill self-sufficiency within the African diaspora, both in the U.S. and world-wide. There, SNCC veterans and others taught courses in Black literature, history and politics, healthcare, communications, early childhood development, African languages, etc. Political mobilization was always the aim. As Richardson explained, “You can get these folks talking politics and they don’t do diddley. So our sense was that this was towards some sort of action.”
The bookstore eventually developed a publishing arm, Drum & Spear Press, to publish material from Washington D.C. and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Their first publication in 1969, C.L.R. James’s A History of Pan-African Revolt, simply retitled James’s early work that had been published as A History of Negro Revolt. Drum & Spear Press also published an anthology of Palestinian poetry, Enemy of the Sun: Poems of Palestinian Resistance, which is now considered a classic work and widely admired in the Palestinian community.
Drum & Spear continued to operate until debt forced its closure in 1974. “We didn’t run it very well as a business,” Cobb later said. “It was a Movement bookstore.”
Colin Beckles, “Black Bookstores, Black Power, and the FBI: The Case of Drum and Spear,” Summer 1996, Western Journal of Black Studies: 63.
Brian Gilmore, “Drum and Spear Bookstore, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Spring 2010, Volume II, Number 2.
Wesley Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 231.
Interview with Charlie Cobb by Joshua Clark Davis, October 16, 2015, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.
Interview with Courtland Cox by Joseph Mosnier, July 8, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
Joshua Clark Davis, “Black Owned Bookstores: Anchors of the Black Power Movement,” Black Perspectives, January 28, 2017.