by Manning Marable
(This appeared originally in the Summer 1998 ColorLines Magazine. Manning Marable is cochair of the Committees of Correspondence and director of African American Studies at Columbia University)
For over a year, several hundred black activists across the country have been discussing the state of the African American freedom movement. The purpose of these discussions has been to attempt to consolidate various constituencies and groups within what could be called the black left, into a single, national political project.
This coordinated effort, called the Black Radical Congress (BRC), convenes for the first time in Chicago from June 19--21. The BRC has the potential to become an important ideological and political pole in public policy debates inside the African American community. But whether it fulfills its promise will depend on whether its participants learn from recent history and express their ideas and policies in a way that is both accessible to and resonant with black America.
ROOTS OF THE BRC
Several important events prefigured the development of the BRC. A decade ago, Jesse Jackson mounted an impressive national campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, receiving over seven million popular votes. The Rainbow Coalition was on the verge of becoming the most significant left-of-center force in national politics with a presence both inside and outside the Democratic Party.
But following the 1988 election, Jackson decided-- for reasons known only to himself--to dismantle his own organization. The radical wing of the Rainbow Coalition, which was already demoralized by the collapse of socialism, became increasingly fragmented. By the early and mid-1990s, the decline of the Rainbow left a gaping political vacuum, and various forces within the black community attempted to fill it.
Two efforts were particularly significant. In 1994, the newly appointed national secretary of the NAACP, Benjamin Chavis, initiated the National African American Leadership Summit. The Summit brought together a broad spectrum of black organizations and representatives, ranging from Kweisi Mfume, then head of the Congressional Black Caucus, to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Chavis' controversial ouster as NAACP national secretary halted the Summit's development.
Farrakhan then stepped forward in 1995 with a call for a Million Man March on Washington, D.C. The program for the March was deeply problematic, with its emphasis on "atonement" and its misogynist orientation. Nevertheless, the Million Man March of October 16, 1995, was the largest public gathering of people of African descent in U.S. history, and an inspiration to many more.
Still, despite the efforts of some progressive March organizers, Farrakhan and his reactionary entourage (which by that time included Chavis), failed to consolidate a secular or political infrastructure capable of mobilizing the black masses. Farrakhan further reduced his credibility with his subsequent political affiliations with conservative white Republicans and cult leader Lyndon LaRouche.
Black leftists were bitterly divided in their assessments of the Million Man March. But despite these differences, nearly all agreed that a radical presence in national African American politics had completely disappeared.
BLACK ACTIVISTS ORGANIZE
In the aftermath of the Million Man March, a number of black leftists and activists initiated local discussion groups and networks. Agenda 2000 was formed in late 1995 by a prominent group of black feminists who publicly criticized the March. In Chicago, activists established the Ida B. Wells discussion group, named for the militant 19th century feminist and journalist. In New York, the Ida B. Wells-W.E.B. Du Bois Network was formed: a collective of black writers, scholars and activists who met monthly and sponsored public forums and projects.
In this context, five individuals with long histories of black activism began to have discussions about the future of the black left: Barbara Ransby, Abdul Alkalimat, Bill Fletcher, Leith Mullings, and myself. We come from diverse political backgrounds and organizational affiliations: democratic socialism, Marxism-Leninism, radical feminism, left-wing trade unionism. We saw in our ideological diversity the possibility of bringing together others who shared our disparate histories and experiences. On March 1, 1997, the five of us convened an informal summit in Chicago of 35 people from around the country to discuss what to do. Participants included long-time political activists General Baker, Jarvis Tyner, and Jerome Scott; radical scholars Cornel West, Adolph Reed, Rose Brewer, Bill Strickland and Cathy Cohen; and radical journalists Salim Muwakkil, Herb Boyd and Lou Turner.
We all agreed that a national conference of black radicals should be held. We concurred that we should not attempt to establish a new political organization, but instead find ways to encourage coalition building and joint activities among existing groups. To define the ideological ballpark for participation and working relationships, a Principles of Unity statement was adopted. By unanimous vote, we agreed to call this new project the Black Radical Congress. Everyone who attended the Chicago meeting became members of what was called the National Continuations Committee and the five original conveners (Ransby, Alkalimat, Fletcher, Mullings and myself) were named the BRC Coordinating Committee.
In May 1997, an expanded National Continuations Committee decided to hold the Black Radical Congress in Chicago on June 19, 1998.
The date was selected for its historical symbolism, as "Juneteenth" marks the end of slavery in parts of the South. By December, local organizing committees (LOCs) had been established in Chicago and New York. LOCs have also been initiated or planned in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Raleigh-Durham, Washington D.C., Cleveland, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Detroit. To date, about 250 people have actively participated in BRC national and local meetings.
The New York Committee has been involved in several public demonstrations and planned several large public events of its own, including a political and cultural event marking the centennial of the birth of Paul Robeson, held on May 1 at the Schomburg Center. Feminist scholar! activists Cathy Cohen and Lynette Jackson have been instrumental in building a BRC Feminist Caucus, with members drawn from throughout the country. A BRC Youth Caucus has also been established.
FIGHTING THE RIGHT
The process of mobilizing for a national Congress has not always been smooth. The BRC project brings together individuals and formations with distinctly different backgrounds, ideological orientations, and constituencies.
Members have exchanged sharp words over issues such as homophobia and the practical and theoretical connections between race, gender, sexuality and class. Nevertheless, all of us recognize that we cannot successfully oppose the right in this country unless we construct a strong progressive movement with grassroots militancy.
Central to this larger left project is the consolidation of the black left. In some modest respects, this effort parallels the early development of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1941, or the emergence in 1960 of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the sit-in struggles across the South. The BRC should be understood as a transitional vehicle, an organizational expression of a collective effort by African American activists to re-establish a militant protest movement that fights for social justice and progressive change.
New protest formations develop when established organizations fail to provide adequate leadership to meet new events and challenges. The socioeconomic crisis within the African American community today--widespread unemployment, the incarceration of almost an entire generation of young people, the collapse of human services programs, inadequate shelter and public--provides the context for new forms of struggle.
PATHS FOR THE FUTURE
The goal of Congress organizers is to bring 1,000 to 1,500 participants to Chicago on the June 19-2 1 weekend, with at least 350 low-income and working people busing in from New York City alone.
What will happen with the BRC after June 19? The BRC may adopt a Black Freedom Agenda, now in draft, which could provide a framework for continuing work around particular issues at both a local and national level. Several potentially important new national networks and projects are being developed. The Black Feminist Caucus brings together theorists like Barbara Smith with community activists. The Youth Caucus could be developed into a nationwide black youth organization. Another possibility is a BRC sponsored summer institute that brings together African American activists from community-based, women's and labor organizations for classes in organizing techniques, tactics, and strategies.
Louis Proyect (http://www.panix.com/~lnp3/marxism.html)