Comment & analysis
Towards African-American Unity and a Black United Front
2008-05-22, Issue 374
Commemorating Malcolm X's Birthday, appraise existing African American leadership and call for a Black united front that can shake the foundation of a border-less neoliberal globalization.
"Power never takes a back step--only in the face of more power."
"Dr. King wants the same thing I want--Freedom." --Malcolm X
On what would have been Malcolm's eighty-third birthday, it is appropriate that we speak to the urgency for unity and the critical need for a functional national Black united front. Malcolm argued for unity across religious, class and ideological lines on the basis of nationality. Our movement has attempted to implement organizational expressions of his call for unity. Such vehicles like the Congress of African People (CAP), the National Black Assembly (NBA) with its Black Agenda, the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC), and the Black Radical Congress (BRC) with its Freedom Agenda have all met with varying degrees of success but with little sustainability. We have to turn the corner on building united front organizations to those that are actually sustainable--the conditions of our people demand it.
In this period of neoliberal globalization, in which we see the gutting of social-welfare programs that due to national oppression never fully provided for the needs of Black people, our communities are faced with stagnant or declining incomes, double-digit unemployment, a crisis of home foreclosures and bankruptcies. Add to these depression-like conditions the fact that Black males are facing a criminal justice system that incarcerates them at more than eight times the rate of whites. If they are not locking our young men up, they are shooting them down in cold blood with no fear of prosecution. The Sean Bell case in New York City is just the latest case in point. Moreover, there is the federal government's criminal response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the growing attacks on our communities through gentrification, the use of our youth as cannon fodder for imperialist wars, and the criminalization of our youth. This latter phenomenon is causing our community elders to fear their own children and grandchildren. It's clear that that we need an instrument of struggle to fight back.
While some may argue that there is a vacuum of leadership in our communities, we would argue that there is leadership, but it is one that has retreated from the progressive agenda of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras. As Brother Malcolm would say, "I for one believe that if you give people a thorough understanding of what confronts them and the basic causes that produce it, they'll create their own program, and when the people create a program, you get action." Today, through corporate and government funding from the likes of groups like Wal-Mart and regional and local developers, we have organizations doing for our people rather than empowering them to do for themselves. The result is demobilization and fragmentation within the Black Liberation Movement (BLM). The national Black community's response to Katrina is indicative of this condition.
During the Civil Rights movement, it was the program and tactics of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the left wing of that movement, which played a leading role during that period. They were not the groups that got all the press and money but they were some of the forces that set the line of march for the movement. Similarly, it was revolutionary nationalists and developing Marxists who set the direction within CAP, the National Black Political Assembly, and ALSC during the '70s.
The Achilles Heel of these young radicals was their lack of a basic united-front framework that would engage the many organizations and activists in developing programs, tactical plans and slogans to guide coalitions and campaigns. Instead, sectarian maneuvering and struggling with allies as if they were the enemy became the practice of the day, which has led to our current situation where the middle and right wings of the BLM are playing the leading roles. While we cannot ignore the role of the state in damaging these efforts, more forces having had a basic united-front approach would have allowed us to better withstand the state's penetration of our efforts.
Having correctly summed up the sectarian, undemocratic membership policies and patriarchal error of the '70s New Communist Movement, Black, Asian, Latina/o and Anglo-American leftists entered the Rainbow Coalition Presidential candidacy of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. However, the Black Left was not playing the leading role in the Jackson Campaign. It was the National Black petit bourgeoisie that was taking the lead and fighting for a more prominent role in the Democratic Party. Despite their hard work on issue development and grassroots mobilization, some of these forces, like Jackson, were seduced by their class origin to become "power brokers" for their nationality and class in the Democratic Party. Instead of creating counter-hegemonic and popular forms of organizations, they relied exclusively on the Jackson campaign organizations for their education and mobilization of the masses. So, as Jackson sought to pull the reins on the "Rainbow Challenge" in the interests of the Democratic Party, the left forces were not able to challenge Jackson's retreat from the Rainbow program.
As the Black Left entered the '90s, the increased power of neoliberal globalization; the massacre in Tiananmen Square in China; the demise of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union; and the question raised at the anti-globalization protest in Seattle, "Where are the People of Color?" were indications of the fragmentation, the lack of a coherent approach to Black Liberation in the US and the overall weakness of the Left in the era of postmodern identity politics with its aversion to a guiding political narrative.
In the mid-'90s the Nation of Islam, under the leadership of Minister Louis Farrakhan and Minister Ben (Chavis) Muhammad, stepped into this vacuum of leadership in the BLM to propose the Million Man March. Held on October 16, 1995, the march attracted some 1.5 million men. Many speakers spoke in support of voter registration and Black self-help programs. They were also very critical of the Republican so-called Contract with America, which was seen as an attack on programs like welfare, Medicaid, housing programs and student aid programs. However, its male-only focus, religious overtones, and the Nation of Islam's top-down organizing style kept many Black leftists away or at arm's length. Two years later, fed up with unemployment, homelessness, teen pregnancy and Black-on-Black crime fueled by the crack epidemic ravaging our communities, several hundred thousand Black women gathered in Philadelphia on October 24 for the Million Woman March. Broader in composition and led by grassroots women from the East Coast, South and mid-West, this march was held without the slick marketing and big-name speakers at the Million Man March. This march was followed in 1998 by the million Youth March and the Million Worker March in 2004. However, a major weakness of these efforts was the lack of organizational development after the demonstrations, as well as declining numbers after the success of the Million Woman March.
The formation of the Black Radical Congress (BRC) in June 1998, drawing some 2000 participants, would break the cycle of "show up but no follow-up" associated with the Million More Marches. The BRC was inclusive of the various ideological trends in the BLM, e.g. socialists, communists, LGBT, feminists, and revolutionary Black nationalists. In the years following its formation, the BRC would develop over a dozen chapters and carry out local and national campaigns like Education Not Incarceration and Fightback against the War. It was also involved in issues like HIV/AIDS, police violence and in defense of the Charleston, SC dock workers (who had been charged with inciting to riot as they sought to defend their rights and living standards.)
However, in the last five years it has become increasingly clear that some of the initial leaders of the BRC were overextended and needed to pull back. It has also become clear that the infrastructure envisioned at the founding Congress could not be sustained with limited resources and a volunteer staff. So while it has seen a reduction in the number in chapters and Local Organizing Committees, the BRC has advanced a radical analysis on various topics through its listserve, leaflets and newsletters.
This June 20-22 the Black Radical Congress will hold its 10th anniversary congress at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. At this congress, the BRC will address such issues as the state of the Black Liberation Movement and what the BRC should look like as an organization in order to respond to the current crisis facing Black people. Other issues to be addressed are how one funds an effective organization with independence and sustainability as guiding principles. Lastly, the congress will deal with leadership and governance for the organization. Notwithstanding the good work of the BRC, it remains just another organization in the fragmented Black Liberation Movement and has not lived up to its initial hope and potential as a space that successfully and for a sustained period brought together diverse radical ideological currents within the Black Liberation Movement.
Although the devastation and neglect caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf Coast provided a golden opportunity for a united approach, this has not been realized. As Malcolm would say, "Our people have made the mistake of confusing the methods with the objectives. As long as we agree on objectives, we should never fall out with each other just because we believe in different methods, or tactics, or strategy. We have to keep in mind at all times that we are not fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition as free humans in this society." Thus, there have been struggles around issues like organizing methodology, leadership accountability, patriarchy, how to promote grassroots leadership, and the role of "base building" in the context of building the Black united front on the ground in the Gulf Coast Reconstruction efforts.
This has led some of the Black left forces associated with Katrina Solidarity work to call for a Black Left Gathering on May 30-June 1 at the Sonia Hayes Stone Center at the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill. This gathering will look at the current state of the BLM, the Gulf Coast Situation, and its relationship to the overall building of a national Black united front. It will also look at the issues of the war in Iraq and its impact on the delivery of basic human services to Blacks, other people of color and the general working class.
While much of the attention of the masses is focused on the Obama campaign, we salute the Black left forces who are planning to meet to strategize on how to build unity of action of the Left and radicals of the Black Nation. Both of these motions are composed of activists and revolutionaries who have grasped Malcolm's message and are correctly summing up the errors of the movements of the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s and are in the process of trying to regroup and to rebuild a potent and effective Black Liberation Movement. In fact, Freedom Road has members working in both of these formations. We believe that these two motions need to come together in the spirit of Malcolm's call for a functional national Black united front. At the same time, we recognize that building such unity on the ground and in practice is a process rather an event. Thus, we applaud both efforts for participating in each other's events as speaker and participants.
Moreover, both gatherings will address the aftermath of Katrina and the failure to implement an adequate, democratic and rapid reconstruction. Each will examine the assaults on Black communities across the country through police murder of youth, gentrification and more. It is here that we urge that the two groups, regardless of what organizational forms they decide on for their work, combine efforts in a community-based national campaign. The "We Charge Genocide" campaign, which is up and running, presents at this moment the greatest possibility for cooperation, addresses some of the most pressing needs of our people, and can contribute in a powerful way to the rebuilding of the Black Liberation Movement.
If the Obama campaign and all that it has inspired is to have a lasting impact, it will necessitate the existence of a mass-based, viable Black Left that practices a united-front approach. If there is to be anything to build upon after the November elections, irrespective of who wins, there will need to be a strong left presence, and there will especially need to be a Black left motion that is pushing the envelope. Malcolm's orientation was toward the building of a broader and broader movement. This is as relevant today as it was in 1965. Just as relevant is the notion that if the radicals in any movement do not cohere, the forces in the middle will start to vacillate, and those on the right will gain dominance. We have seen that before, and we must not let it happen again.
*Prepared by the Nationalities Commission, Freedom Road Socialist Organization/OSCL. For more information, please visit http://freedomroad.org/content/view/516/1/lang,en/
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