The Black Radical Congress: Moving On Up To Congress 2000
On June 19, 1998, over two thousand African Americans gathered in Chicago to participate in the founding conference of the Black Radical Congress (BRC). Despite the relative absence of media coverage and working with limited funds, people of African descent traveled across the country, some coming from as far away as the Caribbean, Canada, and Europe to be at this historic event.
The BRC was only the latest example of the historical tradition of African-American national conferences, which have been held to discuss the major issues and struggles that confront the black community. The first such meeting of what would later be called the Negro Convention Movement, was organized in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, back in September 1830. The National Negro Congress of the 1930s, initiated by trade union leader A. Philip Randolph, brought together black Americans from a wide variety of political affiliations and ideological perspectives, to engage in common projects that would lead to the greater empowerment of black people during the Great Depression.
The Gary Black Political Convention of March, 1972, represented the highpoint of the Black Power phase of the black freedom struggle of the sixties and early seventies. Thousands of African-American activists and political figures, brought together by Black Arts leader Amiri Baraka, Congressman Charles Diggs of Detroit, and Gary, Indiana Mayor Richard Hatcher, came together for common objectives-to expand black power in the electoral arena, and to foster independent political institutions committed to black liberation.
It is sometimes suggested that we now live in different times, and that we need to tailor our political message to be more acceptable to the mainstream. We should remind ourselves that economic, social, and political conditions confronting black people today are not an aberration, but a deliberate consequence of the unequal and oppressive institutions of power and privilege that define that "mainstream." We will never transform and democratize U.S. society by conforming the established rules of the political game. Fighting for power requires a variety of tools essential for dismantling the hierarchies and institutions that oppress our people. That means going well beyond the Democratic and Republican Parties. Building upon the rich traditions of national black conventions and congresses of the past by constructing networks of activists is a necessary step forward into the future.
Since the Chicago congress, the BRC has been active in reaching out to more than one dozen African-American communities throughout the nation. In New York City, two local organizing committees were established, with both sponsoring public forums, educational events, and taking part in demonstrations against police brutality. Nearly two hundred African Americans from New York City attended the Chicago congress, indicating a strong base of support for the politics of black radicalism.
Similar activities has been organized and sponsored by BRC local organizing committees throughout the country. In Boston, BRC activists have participated in sponsoring several forums on police brutality and the black community. In Los Angeles, the BRC has held public forums, and a number of members work closely with activists in Asian American and Mexican activists on labor and social justice issues. In the Bay Area of northern California, local organizing committee members are engaged in a number of struggles, including the battle to save the progressive voice of KPFA-Pacifica radio station, and efforts to combat police harassment of people of color. In nearby Sacramento, members have started outreach efforts to youth and students.
In the Midwest, the BRC has local groups in Minneapolis, Chicago and St. Louis. In Minneapolis, BRC members have been actively working with community coalitions around police brutality cases, and have supported an event on behalf of farmers' rights. The Chicago BRC activists are involved in a number of initiatives, from the national campaign to defend the freedom of sister Assata Shakur, to supporting initiatives on lesbian and gay rights. Sisters and brothers in St. Louis have sponsored educational forums focusing on issues of relevance to the black community.
In North Carolina, local organizing efforts are taking place in Raleigh and Durham. In Philadelphia, members are involved in coalitions around police brutality, supporting the freedom and new trial for political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, and fighting against school vouchers. Other local organizing committees are forming in several other major cities throughout the country.
In only one year, the BRC has successfully established a modest but active national network of African-American activists, drawn from a broad spectrum of progressive constituencies: lesbian and gay activists, feminists, labor union organizers, teachers and students, activists involved in prisoners' rights and protesting police brutality, fighting for a living wage for all working people. The BRC has an internationalist and Pan-Africanist vision, yet is also grounded in the practical struggles of daily life that confront people of African descent here inside the U.S.
The BRC is only a small network, with all limitations that a lack of resources creates. It is not a mass organization like the NAACP. Its core members, supporters and those who have attended its local meetings probably number less than one thousand people nationwide. But we should not judge the success of a political formation simply by its numbers, but by its work and commitments to struggle. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was the vanguard of the desegrationist campaigns of the early 1960s, but also had fewer than one thousand people. The Black Panther Party at its peak never had more than five thousand members--although millions of people throughout the world identified with its message and cause.
Next June, 2000, the second Black Radical Congress will be held near Washington, D.C., with the goal of reaching out to five thousand black folk. Can we dare to imagine a movement fighting for democracy and racial justice, that is also committed to gender equality and lesbian and gay rights? Can African Americans construct a new kind of SNCC, that brings together activists from different political organizations around a common progressive agenda? In Washington, D.C., next year, several thousand black people will attempt to make this black radical vision a reality. Now is the time to join that process of rebuilding the movement for black liberation, as we move on up toward Congress 2000.
Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge to over 325 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally.