Ron Daniels is executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. A scholar-activist who holds a Ph.D. from the Union Institute, Ron has taught History, Political Science and Pan African Studies/Black Studies at Youngstown University, Cornell University and Kent State University. Daniels was Executive Director of the National Rainbow Coalition in 1987. In 1988, he became Deputy Campaign Manager for Jesse Jackson’s bid for President, and in 1992, he ran as an independent candidate for President of the United States. Daniels was the Chairperson of the Coordinating Committee of the National State of the Race Conference, which was held in 1994. He played a leading role in the formation of the National African American Leadership Summit (NAALS), and was a member of the Executive Council of the National Organizing Committee of the historic Million Man March in 1995.Daniels is on the Board of Directors of the Center for Democratic Renewal and the Nation Institute. He is the National Chairperson of the Campaign for a New Tomorrow (CNT), a people-of-color-led, multi-racial independent political organization.
BUILDING A NEW “RAINBOW COALITION”
Bill Fletcher, President/CEO of the Trans Africa Forum, and Danny Glover recently published an article in Nation Magazine entitled “Visualizing a Neo-Rainbow,” in which they argue that something akin to the movement/organization built by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson in the 1980's is needed again today. A central thesis of their article is that “the approach that Jackson advanced – building an organization and campaign both inside and outside the Democratic Party - points progressives in the direction we should be moving now.” They contend that the genius of the Rainbow Coalition for the progressive movement lay in the fact that “he articulated a political vision that, while based on the African-American experience, did not solely represent a ‘black candidacy’ or ‘black politics.” Moreover, they suggest that the power of Jackson’s initiative was that he “tapped into three key constituencies to build and anchor both the Rainbow and his 1984 and ‘88 candidacies: the African American political establishment, African-American religious institutions ... and the left.” This formidable combination coupled with Rev. Jackson’s vision and charisma galvanized a movement which had the potential to move the progressive agenda forward in a manner unprecedented in the latter half of the 20th century.
As a former Executive Director of the Rainbow Coalition and Deputy Campaign Manager of Rev. Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, I had the unique opportunity to share in and help build one of the most remarkable movements in the history of this nation. Indeed, I have often suggested that the Rainbow movement had the greatest promise for promoting and effecting far ranging social change in America than any movement since the Populist movement of the 19th century. For a brief period, the White led Populist movement composed of poor farmers, artisans and workers reached out to Black farmers and workers to form a formidable alliance which nearly toppled the White power elite in several southern states. Unfortunately the movement was shattered and rendered impotent largely because the White Populists ultimately concluded that Blacks were a liability in their struggle with their powerful kith and kin. In one of the great tragedies of American history, in the end, the White elite broke the back of the Populist movement leaving White and Black farmers and workers divided, subordinate and totally vulnerable to exploitation.
The great promise of the Rainbow Coalition, as Fletcher and Glover correctly observe, is that this movement was rooted in and flowed from the experience of Africans in America. Though Rev. Jackson reached out to White farmers, workers, activists and other people of color, the Rainbow Coalition was grounded in and largely led by African Americans and people of color, minimizing the risk that racism and/or an emphasis on class over race would lead to a betrayal of the interests and aspirations of Black people – as has so often occurred in White led social movements. Indeed, Rev. Jackson brilliantly illustrated that large numbers of White progressives and ordinary people will follow Black leadership when there is a vision that connects with their issues and concerns. Rev. Jesse L. Jackson captivated the nation, leading a movement which, like the Populist movement of the 19th century, threatened to shake the foundations of White corporate-elite rule in this nation.
The reasons for the Rainbow’s ultimate demise are too numerous and complex to elaborate in this article. However, suffice it to say, Rev. Jackson’s failure to maintain the Rainbow Coalition as a mass based, democratic membership organization/movement was a lost opportunity that the progressive movement is still struggling to recover from today. The question implicit in Fletcher and Glover’s article is do we need a new Rainbow Coalition in this period to counter the rise to prominence and power of the radial right. This question was discussed recently on a panel at the 2005 Global Left Forum (formerly the Socialist Scholar’s Conference) in New York.
As a presenter on the panel, I found myself in total agreement with Fletcher and Glover that the progressive movement could definitely benefit from building a new Rainbow Coalition in this period. From my vantage point, the most important ingredient in the formula for building a new Rainbow Coalition is the clear articulation of a progressive vision for the reform and reconstruction of the American socio-economic-political system. The liberal-left-progressive forces must be able to offer a critique of the existing social order, expose the gross inadequacies the system’s policies and this administration in relation to that critique and advance alternative policy proposals which reflect the vision and values of the liberal-left-progressive movement. In essence, the progressive movement must engage the struggle for the hearts and minds of the American people, challenging the reactionary nature of the conservative vision of America at every turn. And, we must contest for power to implement our vision of a new America.
A new Rainbow Coalition could be a vehicle to wage such a struggle. Fletcher and Glover emphatically recommend, and I concur, that a new Rainbow must be an independent political organization which is consciously constructed to have the capacity to mobilize/organize/act outside the Democratic Party and simultaneously support progressive elements inside the Democratic Party. Indeed, where possible, progressives should capture/takeover local and state party organizations. The New Rainbow should run or endorse independent or third party candidates as well as Democratic and Republican candidates always with the objective of advancing a progressive agenda of reform and reconstruction. And, the new Rainbow must have the capacity to mobilize/organize protests, demonstrations, strikes, boycotts and utilize other non-electoral approaches to advance a progressive agenda to contest for power.
It is important to emphasize that the outside dimension of the inside/outside equation is the most crucial in terms of maximizing leverage on the establishment parties. As long as the Democrats and the Republicans do not see a real threat from the outside, they will feel no need to respond in a meaningful way to the progressive agenda. Hence the most urgent task of a new Rainbow Coalition is to build the capacity/power of organizations and movements to effectively pursue the outside strategy. Finally, Blacks and people of color should take the lead in creating a new Rainbow Coalition to ensure that our interests will always be at the center of the progressive agenda. Correctly conceived, a new Rainbow Coalition can help to challenge and defeat the forces of reaction that are currently stifling the march towards a more just and humane society.
MOBILIZING MOVEMENTS THAT MATTER TO BLACK PEOPLE
As the news about the Commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of the Million Man March (MMM) spreads across the nation, predicably there will be some who will appropriately question the value of another mass mobilization of this magnitude. This skepticism is rooted in the failure of the leadership of MMM to put in place mechanisms to systematically sustain the momentum of the mobilization after the event. In fact there are many within the Black community who have grown tired of events where there is no meaningful follow-up. As convener of the State of the Black World Conference in 2001, I certainly encountered this skepticism, hence our promise/commitment to build the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW) as a tangible and meaningful outcome of the conference. Our painstaking work to build IBW notwithstanding, there is a healthy fatigue in the Black community for events that have little or no follow-up.
This does not mean that various kinds of mobilizations are not needed to address the myriad crises and problems afflicting the Black community. But what our people are yearning for are mobilizations that matter to Black people, mobilizations that have a sustained impact in terms of transforming the condition of the masses of our people. The key word is “masses.” There are millions of Black people who have achieved “middle class” status and are of the opinion that the struggle is over. Despite the fact that Whites with less education still fare better than Blacks with more education, and despite the fact that discrimination is rampant in banking, lending and housing, there are many Blacks who feel sufficiently “free” that they see no need to engage the struggle to uplift the rest of the race. In fact some “successful” Blacks count it as a matter of prestige that they can call themselves “conservatives” - translation, they can hang out with White folks who tout the virtue of a “color blind” society and castigate those Blacks who are still “stuck” in the “black movement.” There are plenty of Blacks who have racial amnesia until pulled over by the cops for “driving while Black” or followed in the department store for “shopping while Black.” Then we may see some evidence of the “rage of the privileged class.”
There are also millions of Black people who are “catching more hell than ever before,” as Malcolm would put it. Millions who are involuntarily confined to America’s dark ghettos, plagued by chronic unemployment, under-employment, poor performing schools, inadequate health care facilities, polluted environments, crime, violence.... And, there are millions of young Blacks whose only future is life behind bars in the burgeoning prison-jail industrial complex. Worst still, there are millions of Black people who feel exploited and oppressed by the racist systems of society and abandoned by their “brothers and sisters.” There is an urgent need for mobilizations that galvanize the disaffected among the “privileged class” to unite with the masses to fight for social justice and social change. The masses of Black people need mobilizations that matter in terms of the prospect that engaging the struggle will lead to a brighter future.
We need mobilizations which will give the masses of our people hope that through struggle there will be progress; mobilizations that are first and foremost grounded in the vision and values of our African forebears who were determined to resist oppression so that a new day would dawn for their progeny. We need mobilizations that will reconnect this generation and those who have racial amnesia with the culture of humanism and justice which are the cornerstones of the African world view and spirit of resistance which has enabled our people to survive in the face of the most horrendous holocaust in human history. In this era where high profile “Blacks” like Clarence Thomas, Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell are held up as “model” leaders because they are loyal lieutenants to death dealing Presidents and willing accomplices to an oppressive system, we need strong mobilizations that expose America’s hypocrisies – mobilizations that challenge the existing order and articulate a politics of social transformation geared to creating a just and humane society.
Beyond our ability to articulate a vision of a new society, Black people need mobilizations that will help build the capacity/power to effectively wage the multifaceted war that is necessary to fundamentally transform the racist/oppressive/exploitive systems of this malignant Capitalist political-economy. Therefore, our mobilizations must strengthen existing movements, organizations and institutions and spawn new ones. We need righteous Black power to overcome the evils of white supremacy and White power. We need mobilizations that bring together unconnected networks of organizations and people to learn from each other and glimpse the potential of our collective power. We need mobilizations which promote operational unity by bringing together the disparate leadership of the Black Nation to focus their combined talents on specific issues/problems confronting our people and/or to achieve specific goals that will advance the welfare of the masses of Black people.
Therefore, let us be careful to plan mobilizations that will put systems and mechanisms in place to preserve the momentum beyond the momentary exhilaration of the event. And, while there is skepticism about mobilizations, let us be clear that they are necessary and can be powerful tools for moving people forward. The challenge in this crucial period in the history of Africans in America is to thoughtfully and carefully plan mobilizations that matter to the masses of Black people. We pray the planners of the MMM Commemoration are up to the challenge!
COMMEMORATING THE MILLION MAN MARCH
WILL IT BE DIFFERENT THIS TIME?
A decade ago I was honored to serve on the Executive Committee of the historic Million Man March (MMM). I witnessed the vision, tenacity and courage of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan spawn a miracle the likes of which Africans in America and the world had never seen, as upwards of two million men and women assembled on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Inspired by the Minister, thousands of committed activists around the country saw their work come to fruition in a magnificent moment filled with a sense of family, community, the willingness to assume responsibility and the collective power of African people. And, MMM had an impact. As a result of the mobilization and the call to action on that day, there was a spike in voter registration by Black men which was reflected in the elections in 1996. The adoption of Black children also dramatically increased, and there was a noticeable decrease in violence in the Black community. Most importantly, the lives of millions of Black men were utterly transformed for the better by the miracle of MMM.
But like many events, movements and historical phenomena, MMM had weaknesses which prevented it from maximizing its potential. Though the overarching theme/mission of calling Black men to atone for negative/destructive behavior and take responsibility for family, community and race was powerful and compelling, MMM lacked a political focus, a goal around which the millions who gathered on the Mall and the millions more who watched on national/international television could be galvanized. The call for an economic sanctions campaign against a major U.S. corporation, massive action in support of H.R. - 40, Congressman John Conyer’s Reparations Study Bill, or the creation of a Black Development Bank, almost certainly would have produced significant results by moving our people forward.
The most devastating weakness of MMM, however, was the failure to have a strategy/plan and mechanism(s) to capture and coordinate the tremendous energy and enthusiasm generated by this historic event. This led to frustration, disillusionment and strained relationships with many who had hoped MMM would be a vehicle to propel our people forward in an organized and systematic way. This latter failure was compounded by the inability to maintain the National African American Leadership Summit (NAALS) as a national united front vehicle to keep the momentum of MMM alive and moving in a coherent direction.
Measured against the enormous potential/promise of MMM, these failures constituted a lapse of leadership and a squandered opportunity to maximize the potential of an extraordinary moment in the history of Africans in America. As the Call goes forth for the commemoration of MMM, the question is what will be different this time? Why should we muster the energy and resources to launch another mobilization of that magnitude ?
To a large degree the answer to these questions must come from the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, who offered the vision for MMM and is who is now calling on Africans in America to mobilize once again to seize control of our destiny. Minister Farrakhan is always serious about the liberation of African people, but in recent meetings I have attended, he seems earnestly concerned about the legacy he will bequeath to African people. In that regard, the Minister has expressed a heartfelt determination that his life’s work make a meaningful and definable difference in the quality of life of African people in America and the world. No doubt he is getting an ear full from those who are offering critiques of MMM, and he appears to be listening. The accumulated lessons of the experiences since MMM may offer some hope that the Commemoration will produce a more systemic and sustained impact. And, that is precisely what the Minister is promising to do.
The Call for the Commemoration is coming from the depths of the Minister’s anguish over the condition of our people which he describes as a “ Death March into the oven of social deterioration, broken homes, broken marriages, broken spirit, evolving from a string of broken promises by government and leadership that has failed to help our people turn around the misery and wretchedness of our condition.” He views operational unity, the coming together of Black leaders, organizations and institutions to work collectively for the common good of the race as the corrective that can transform the condition of our people. More importantly, the Minister views the Commemoration as a vehicle to “mobilize and organize our people nationally, and put systems in place that will permit a successful programmatic thrust to bring to fruition what we envision for ourselves as a people.” The emphasis on “systems” can certainly make the Commemoration different this time around.
From the vantage point of those of us striving to build the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, there are several steps that can be taken to avoid the weaknesses and failures of MMM. The Commemoration should have a limited number of clear political objectives. For example, there should be a focus on broadening the base of support for the reparations movement. The planners should also seek to give greater exposure to and strengthen existing initiatives like Dr. Claude Anderson’s Powernomics program and the MATAH movement. There must be a conscious effort to develop and sustain local organizing committees and resources must be raised and invested to achieve this end. Some form of inclusive continuations mechanism should be created with a national leadership council as an important component of the structure. Last but not least, women must be full partners and participants in the process this time. Indeed, Minister Farrakhan has already made it clear that women must be included at all levels of the planning and mobilization of the Commemoration and that this time women and men will march side by side in demanding a just and equitable relationship with the U.S.
In the final analysis, however, the Commemoration can and will be different if leaders, activists and organizers who love Minister Farrakhan do not depend upon him alone to ensure its outcome. It is our duty and responsibility to insist that he and the planners commit to taking steps, like those outlined above, as a pre-condition for our support/participation. This time around there are clear signs, including the appointment of Rev. Willie Wilson, the able Pastor of the talent laden Union Temple Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., as the National Director, that the Minister is serious about avoiding the mistakes of the past. He seems obsessed with sparking a movement that can have a qualitative impact on the lives of our people. Our challenge and charge is to engage the process and hold him and ourselves accountable. “We are the leaders, we’ve been looking for!”
DEFINING BLACKNESS IN THE 21ST CENTURY
In the era of the 60's, the quest for identity was one of the most crucial struggles facing the sons and daughters of Africa in America. Malcolm X once said that of all the crimes committed against our people by Europeans, the greatest crime was to take away our names. What Malcolm meant was that we are victims of cultural aggression, the assault on the culture, history and identity of our people. As Queen Mother Moore taught us, there was a conscious effort by the slave masters to de-Africanize the African, to shape a malleable laborer more compatible to the plantation system. Nonetheless, it is interesting that in the early days of this Republic many institutions among the "free" folks in our community in the North carried the designation "African." Richard Allen and Absolom Jones were the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and there were African Free Schools and African mutual aid societies.
As time elapsed and fewer immigrants, free or forced, came to these American shores to reinvigorate the sense of Africaness among our people, gradually the question of our identity became clouded. And, in an environment where "white" is associated with superiority and "black" with inferiority ("if you're white you're alright, yellow, mellow, brown stick around, but black, get back"), it is not surprising that our people avoided embracing "black" as our identity. For years the most commonly accepted designation was "Colored" (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In the South facilities were identified for Whites and Colored. Gradually, Colored fell into disfavor, and the term Negro (which means black) became increasingly popular (Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association). I'm told that there was a major demand that the "N" in Negro be capitalized so that as a race we might be considered on the same level of other races/nationalities. Occasionally, the question of identity took on political connotations as in the Harlem Renaissance when militant young artists and activists were referred to as the "new" Negroes.
By the 60's Colored and Negro were still around as racial designations, but Negro was increasingly the most preferred designation. This would soon change as a new generation of militants began to question why we did not call ourselves Black instead of Negro or Colored (particularly since Negro means black). When Black Power exploded onto the scene in the mid-60's it carried with it the notion of blackness as a challenge to whiteness in cultural and ideological terms. In cultural/historical terms, "blackness" challenged the prevailing concept of the aesthetic superiority of "whiteness." There was a defiant sense that black racial characteristics – skin color, hair texture, shape and size of nose and hair texture – were uniquely suited for people of African descent and beautiful. Folks began to wear "Afros" and braids as a statement that "Black is Beautiful." James Brown declared, "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm proud." A Black Arts and Culture Movement emerged which was tantamount to a second Harlem Renaissance as Black poetry, literature, music and dance became an integral part of the "movement" in the 60's.
For political activists, however, "Black" was also associated with social justice and social change. "White" was associated with oppression, injustice and the status-quo in terms of power and privilege for people of European descent. "Black" took on connotations of being against racism, sexism, exploitation, colonialism and imperialism. Within virtually every predominantly White socioeconomic and political structure in the U.S., where there was a sizeable number of our people, Black caucuses sprang up to promote and defend the interests and aspirations of Black people. Moreover, activists knew that "Black" was not just a question of pigmentation. Mobutu in Zaire and Buthelezi in South Africa may have had black skin, but they were recognized as enemies of Black people.
But not everyone was a political activist in the 60's, and for many folks "blackness" was as much fad as political philosophy. For others being Black was a way of riding the tide of the moment into a successful career, benefiting from the "movement" without having to actually be a part of it. Today we have more Black elected and appointed officials than at any time in our history, and Blacks also hold prominent positions in corporate America. But far too many in public and private officialdom have no real allegiance to Black people.
People like Ward Connerly are eager to prove that race does not matter in American society and are therefore eager to destroy affirmative action and "race conscious" remedies for past and present racial discrimination. Indeed, they declare that racial remedies themselves are racist. Clarence Thomas, is first and foremost a Supreme Court Justice whose allegiance is to his strict constructionist/conservative philosophy and not to Black people. Condoleeza Rice is just a talented woman, who happens to be Black and is devoted to service to her country, right or wrong. These are the high profile Blacks who are of the race but not for the race. Equally damaging are the countless thousands of Blacks who occupy positions of authority in the public and private sectors who have no commitment to the race as a whole, even though they are the beneficiaries of the blood, sweat, toil and tears of their Black/African forebears.
In the 21st century it is critically
important that we return to the essence and spirit of
what political activists meant by Blackness in the era
of the 60's. To be Black is to be of the race and for
the race. However, in concept and practice, Blackness
must also mean more than skin color; it must be a
commitment to African centered social justice and
social change. Black is not a style or fad, it is
essentially a belief in righteousness, justice and the
transformation of oppressive systems so that human
beings may live in dignity and peace.
THE STRUGGLE IS ON FOR THE “SOUL OF BLACK FOLKS”
My annual pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama serves to remind me that Africans in America, through all of our trials and tribulations, emerged as the conscience of this nation, that out of our suffering and pain was forged a resounding and remarkable collective commitment to social justice and social change, not just for Black people but all oppressed people. We have produced prophets who commanded us to break the shackles of bondage, resist oppressive and exploitative systems, prophets who have also offered inspiring visions of a just and humane society and world. This has been an essential characteristic of the “soul of Black folks” as a people with African roots, reared in a Euro-centric America. In the main, this prophetic tradition has defined who were are as an African people in this hostile land.
As the walls of overt apartheid have come tumbling down and as Black people have gained greater access to the American “way of life,” there is a danger that our historic role as the conscience of the nation may be compromised. Harry Belfonte often recounts his last conversation with Martin Luther King. Dr. King expressed an anxiety that “we may be integrating into a burning house;” by that he meant entering a morally decadent and bankrupt society. His fear was that the sons and daughters of Africa, those whose free labor had contributed to the prosperity of this great edifice, would be corrupted by its ethic of individualism, greed and materialism, that we would surrender our role as the voice for the voiceless and champion of the oppressed within a ruthless, capitalist political-economy.
Dr. King was right to be fearful because of the tendency of human beings to succumb to vice and corruption. But he was also aware that the oppressor devises strategies to coopt, seduce and persuade as many of the oppressed as possible to participate in and defend the oppressive system. For some this occurs through mis-education or internalizing the values of the oppressive system; others fall prey to psychological and material benefits which are extended by the oppressor to “purchase” their participation and allegiance. A conscious and committed people are always a threat to oppressive systems, hence the oppressor seeks to subvert movements for social justice and social change by every conceivable means. Africans in America are not immune to these sinister self-serving machinations of the oppressor class.
Indeed, in Selma this year it was clear that the conservatives are unfolding a bold strategy to disorient, divide and neutralize Black people as a force for change in this country. The conservative Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and the arch conservative Senator Allen from Virginia were part of a Congressional delegation of more than forty people led by Congressman John Lewis. There they were, Frist and Allen, devoted disciples of the Bush agenda and antagonists of much of what Black people need in terms of progressive public policy, there they were prominently seated in the pulpit of the historic Brown Memorial Chapel AME Church uncomfortably clapping their hands, stomping their feet to the beat of gospel music, acting like they really care about Black folks. When the commemorative March across the Edmund Pettis Bridge stepped off, they were right up front clinging to John Lewis, positioning themselves for the photo opportunity that would be beamed across America via the news media. The message – we’re glad segregation is over and now we can all get on with the business of being Americans, free and unequal.
The problem is when Frist and Allen return to the Senate, they will line up to promote and confirm racist judges whose philosophies are antithetical to the interests and aspirations of Black people, working people and the poor. As Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, C.T. Vivian and Congresswoman Maxine Waters pointed out, these conservatives will return to Washington to provide more tax breaks for the wealthy while drastically slashing monies for section eight housing, Pell Grants, community development block grants and other programs which service Black and poor communities. Therefore, their appearance in Selma was a “performance” calculated to persuade the gullible that they really are “compassionate conservatives” – as evidenced by their willingness to mix and mingle with Black people at one of our most sacred occasions.
The battle for the soul of Black folks is on. The conservatives are beginning to wake up to the fact that if they can split off 15-20% of the Black vote that normally goes to Democrats in presidential elections, they can retain the White House well into the 21st century. They also believe that this same “divide and conquer” strategy can be successfully used in elections at all levels, thereby dramatically expanding the base of power of the Republic Party. Their goal is to permanently reduce the Democrats to the status of the minority party, ironically aided by Black and Latino voters. This is the rationale behind Karl Rove’s use of wedge issues to attract Black preachers who may be liberal on social policy but conservative on “value” issues like gay marriage and abortion. Bush’s Faith Based Initiative, while primarily intended to assist his White evangelical base, is also designed to make Republicanism more appetizing to Black religious leadership. Bush even invited a group of Black preachers to the White House for tea as another sign of his “concern” for Black folks.
Finally, the struggle for the soul of Black folks involves employing high profile Black folks to “carry the water” for Bush and company, a kind of diverse entourage of “oppressors in black face,” the Condoleeza Rice, Clarence Thomas and Colin Powell’s who are not the conscience of the nation, but the purveyors of injustice and destruction in service to an exploitative system. This year in Selma, I was more troubled than ever before about the prospect of Africans in America losing our soul and role as prophets in this “burning house.”
REMEMBERING “BLOODY SUNDAY”
By now those who regularly read my articles know that I make the pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama each year for the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee which commemorates the heroic effort of civil rights activists/organizers and ordinary people to March to the Capital of Montgomery in the quest to reclaim the right to vote. March 7, 1965, the initial attempt was brutally turned back on the Edmund Pettus Bridge by State troopers on horseback wielding billy clubs and firing tear gas at the marchers. So vicious were the beatings and wounds inflicted that this infamous day was named “Bloody Sunday.” But, out of the pain and suffering of those who dared to defy the unjust system of their day, out of their sacrifices was born the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a milestone legislative measure enacted by a reluctant society in a belated effort to redeem the soul of a nation.
So, each year I return to Selma, this sacred place, to remember, reflect and walk the hallowed ground where our mothers and fathers put their lives on the line that we might share a degree of freedom in this hostile land. Putting it in a biblical context, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson often exhorts us to “remember the ancient landmarks” less we forget the trials, tribulations, suffering and sacrifices our people have endured to reach this moment in history. Fannie Lou Hamer, the unlettered freedom fighter from the Mississippi Delta, simply urged us to “always remember where we came from and honor the bridges that brought us over.” Selma was a defining moment, a turning point in the life of Africans in America and for this nation, a bridge between the past and the future.
In 1965 Africans in America were virtually imprisoned in the Post Reconstruction South. After the Civil War, the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution and two major civil rights acts between 1866 and 1875 abolished slavery, bestowed citizenship to former enslaved Africans, granted the right to vote and ensured equal access to public conveyances and accommodations. With ballots in hand, Blacks marched on ballot boxes, elected people who looked just like them to public office and exercised more political power than at any time other than the present. This was the Reconstruction period, the glory days of Black political power. Things changed dramatically in 1876 when we were betrayed by the Republican Party that had been our self-serving benefactors during this period. Black voter power was protected because it provided the margin of victory for the Republicans in presidential, congressional and senatorial elections as well as control over most southern legislatures. But in the hotly contested election for President in 1876 there was a deadlock in the Electoral College. In order to maintain their hold on the White House, the Republicans cut a deal with the Democrats which called for all remaining federal troops to be withdrawn from the South, leaving the “problem of the Negro” to the states.
By 1896 the Supreme Court provided the judicial capstone for Southern apartheid, decreeing “separate but equal” the law of the land in the infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson decision. All that had been won in the Reconstruction era was lost, and Blacks were at the mercy of White people. The system of apartheid was enforced through violence, intimidation and lynching by the Klu Klux Klan, the White Brotherhood and Knights of the White Camellia and other terrorist organizations. This was the Post Reconstruction South that was largely still in place in 1965 in Selma.
This was also the Post Reconstruction South where a courageous few, a minority within a minority of Africans in America, refused to endure the indignities, inequities and savagery of this ruthless system of apartheid in silence. These freedom fighters, the names of whom we mostly shall never know and the majority of whom never knew each other, were a part of a resistance movement throughout the South and they could also be found in Selma. Some of the survivors of Bloody Sunday told their stories this year in some of the most poignant, deeply moving and riveting testimonies I have ever heard. In a Mock Congressional Hearing Chaired by Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the legendary civil rights attorney J.L. Chestnut, who was serving as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund assigned to provide legal assistance to civil rights protesters, described what he witnessed on the Bridge that fateful day. He saw state troopers on horse back charging into the midst of the 600 hundred marchers, trampling scores of them without mercy. He heard ribs and bones cracking. He observed troopers splitting open the heads of scores of demonstrators with bat sized billy clubs.
When Ms. Amelia Boyton Robinson, a 100 year old community leader of the Selma movement came forth to give her testimony, she refused to sit down, stating “I can stand.” And, that is precisely what she did on Bloody Sunday. As the troopers were cracking heads and many demonstrators fell to the ground to cover up, Ms. Boyton defiantly refused to fall to the ground, standing tall in the face of death. She took multiple blows to the neck, throat and the head as the troopers bludgeoned her to the ground where she lay unconscious. She was dragged from the street and left for dead. It was only when she woke up in the hospital that she learned what had happened to her. On this 40th anniversary of Bloody Sunday she proudly proclaimed, “I consider that beating a badge of honor.”
Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act there were only 70 registered voters in Dallas County where Selma is located. Within months of the eventual successful March across the Edmund Pettis Bridge there were more than 10,000 Blacks on the books, signaling the prospects for a new era of righteous Black political empowerment. But if we fail to remember what happened in Selma, we will never achieve the full freedom for which those courageous freedom fighters suffered, bled and died on Bloody Sunday. And, that is why I make the Pilgrimage to this sacred place each year, determined that the blood shed in Selma shall not have been in vain.
THE INSTITUTE OF THE BLACK WORLD
PROMOTING UNITY AND ACTION IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY
Periodically I am committed to updating my readers on the progress of the effort to build the Institute of the Black World 21st Century as a global engine for Black empowerment. Modeled in part after the original Institute of the Black World, organized by Dr. Vincent Harding, Lerone Bennett, Jr., Jan Douglass, Howard Dodson and Bill Strickland among others, the process of building a new Institute began with the convening of the historic State of the Black World Conference held in Atlanta in the fall of 2001. The Atlanta Declaration, issued by the organizers as an outgrowth of the Conference, called for the creation of an Institute to link up people of African descent in the U.S. and throughout the Black World to engage in African centered research, policy and advocacy.
In April 2002, the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW) was launched at a benefit fund raising event in Atlanta. As the Convener of the State of the Black World Conference and the primary architect of the new IBW, during my remarks at that event, I cautioned my allies and supporters that it would take a minimum of five years to create the foundation for a formidable vehicle that could promote unity and action in the Black community. The pace of progress has been slow and sometimes painful, but I am still optimistic that we will meet that timetable.
As the architect of the new IBW, a major goal has been to bring some of the initiatives that a dedicated core of allies have been working on for several years under the auspices of the Institute. Accordingly, the Haiti Support Project, which I founded in 1995, is now an initiative of IBW. Indeed, one of the purposes of the Cruising Into History/Haiti 2004 Initiative, which mobilized some 500 people for a Pilgrimage to Haiti to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the Haitian Revolution, was to raise funds via corporate sponsorships to create a financial infra-structure for IBW. Though Cruising Into History was a major success culturally, due to the civil unrest and bad news emanating from Haiti, we were unable to secure major corporate sponsors or donors. Hence, we fell far short of our objective. Nonetheless, the Haiti Support Project is doing exceptional work in terms of building meaningful relationships between African Americans and Haitian Americans to impact U.S. policy towards Haiti and mobilize humanitarian and developmental assistance to improve the quality of life for our sisters and brothers in the first Black Republic in this Hemisphere.
At present, a dedicated task force of progressive African American health care professionals and advocates are busy at work planning a major People of African Descent Health Summit to be held this fall in St. Thomas, USVI, hosted by Congresswoman Donna Christian-Christensen of the Congressional Black Caucus. The Summit is a direct outgrowth of the work session on people of African descent health issues at the State of the Black World Conference. Developing policy initiatives, projects and programs designed to advance the cause of health care as a basic human right in the U.S. and the Black world, and creating networks and effective means of communications that will work to improve the health status of people of African descent worldwide, are among the key objectives of the Summit. In the Fall of 2006, IBW will sponsor State of the Black World Conference II, tentatively scheduled to be held in New Orleans.
In my most recent article, I reported on the hugely successful Commemoration of the 40th Anniversary of the Assassination of Malcolm X, which was held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. This amazing event was sponsored by the National Malcolm X Commemoration Commission of IBW. Our hope is that under that leadership of Dr. James Turner, Chairman Emeritus of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, IBW will be able to identify and connect with organizations, institutions and movements working to perpetuate Malcolm’s legacy as a means of strengthening the liberation movement. At the Commemoration, funds were raised to provide seed monies for a Malcolm X Fellow to work under the auspices of IBW to support the National Commission and undertake youth initiatives consistent with Malcolm’s philosophy.
The Commemoration was also an occasion for me to announce an effort to build an IBW Support Committee to launch an ambitious initiative to promote operational unity in the greater New York Black community. Beginning April 2, IBW will hold monthly State of the Black World Forums the first Saturday of every month at the historic House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn, where Rev. Herbert Daughtry is the pastor. The Forums are designed to feature notable local and national leaders and offer powerful programs that will be informative and inspirational. The hope is that participants will be inspired to provide the financial resources to underwrite the costs of the monthly Forums and the Malcolm X Fellow – who must do the necessary work to make the Forums successful. Ultimately, the goal is to create a local prototype of the kind of work that IBW plans to conduct nationally and internationally, particularly as it relates to devising projects and programs which promote community-building/nation-building through operational unity.
Accordingly, the IBW Support Committee will work to create a coalition to sponsor a unified city-wide celebration for the first night of Kwanza which is focused on the principle of Umoja-Unity; make a concerted effort to pull together Black leaders to form a Black Leadership Summit to meet monthly; and explore the feasibility of forming a Pan African Council with representatives of the various African ethnic and national communities in New York to meet on a quarterly basis. If these initiatives to promote operational unity can work in New York, the idea is that they have an excellent chance of being emulated in Black communities across the U.S.
The bottom line is that the emerging Institute of the Black of the Black World is alive, doing some important work and striving to take the next steps to build an awesome vehicle to galvanize people of African descent to achieve full freedom/liberation and self-determination in the 21st century!
HUNDREDS GATHER IN HARLEM TO REMEMBER MALCOLM
Reminiscent of 1990, when the National Malcolm X Commemoration Commission commemorated the 25th anniversary of the assassination of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, an overflow crowd of more than 2,500 people packed the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church February 21st for what could only be characterized as a people’s commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the death of Malcolm X. Broadcast live on WBAI, the Pacifica Network station in New York, the proceedings were heard by millions of listeners in the tri-state area. Hosted by the Rev. Calvin O. Butts, pastor of Abyssinian and organized under the theme “We Remember Malcolm,” the massive turn-out clearly demonstrated that the spirit of Malcolm X is still very much alive among the masses of people of African descent in the U.S. In his opening remarks, Rev. Butts reminded the audience that Malcolm had addressed the congregation at Abyssinian in 1963 at the invitation of Adam Clayton Powell, and he declared that Malcolm’s life, teachings and legacy are vital to this generation as the quest for full freedom/liberation continues.
The audience erupted in thunderous ovations time and time again as various speakers mounted the podium to extol the virtues of Malcolm and exhort this generation to continue the struggle for self-respect, self-reliance and self-determination. Rev. Herbert Daughtry, pastor of the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn and Percy Sutton, Chairman Emeritus of the Inner-City Broadcasting Company shared their views about Malcolm’s fierce dedication to Black people and his unflinching courage in the face of death. Viola Plummer, a leader of the December 12th Movement, said that at a time when so many people of African ancestry reach various positions in society and proclaim that they are a teacher, doctor or elected official who just “happens to be Black, ” she was inspired by the fact that Malcolm X was un-apologetically a proud Black man. Herman Ferguson, Chairman of the Malcolm X Commemoration Committee and a leading voice demanding freedom for political prisoners, said he was drawn to Malcolm’s commitment to control land and build a nation for Africans in America. Professor James Small, who leads a pilgrimage to Malcolm’s grave site every year, exhorted the audience to study the philosophy and teachings of Malcolm and work to implement his ideas. Dr. Carlos Russell, founder of Black Solidarity Day in New York, was inspired to write a poem, the essence of which is that Malcolm lives in the words and deeds of the people!
Fulfilling a commitment that the Commemoration have an inter-generational character, young activists, organizers and artists played leading roles in the program. Monifa Akinwole-Bandele, leader of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement was Co-M.C. with Dr. Ron Daniels and the program featured inspiring musical presentations by the Welfare Poets, poetry by positive Hip Hop rapper Khalil Almustafa and a reading by Sister Shani Jamila of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century Youth Commission. M-1 of Dead Prez delivered a stirring presentation of Ossie Davis’s Eulogy in which he immortalized Malcolm as “our Black Shining Prince.”
Sonia Sanchez, the venerable award winning, warrior woman poet, called the audience to “resist” all forms of repression and oppression in the spirit of Malcolm. Marta Vega, Founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center, urged the audience to be inclusive of the entire African family, especially Afro-Latinos from the U.S., the Caribbean, Central and South America, recalling that Malcolm articulated a Pan-Africanist and internationalist perspective on the struggle for liberation. Haki Madhubuti, poet, author, activist and President of Third Word Press, denounced a “Negro” writer at the New York Daily News for characterizing Malcolm X as a “minor figure.” But his more substantive task was to deliver a tribute to Dr. Betty Shabazz, the steady, able wife and soul mate of Malcolm whom Haki had come to love and respect for her warmth and dedication to educating young people. Dr. James Turner, Chairman of the National Malcolm X Commemoration Commission, presented the first Spirit of Malcolm X Awards to a distinguished group of veterans and elders of the struggle: Herman Ferguson, Regent Adelaide Sanford, Preston Wilcox, Viola Plummer, Jitu Weusi, Rev. Herbert Daughtry and Kefa Nephyhys. Taking aim at the “Negro” reporter who had belittled Malcolm, Dr. Turner remarked that hundreds of people had not gathered at the Abyssinian Baptist Church to honor a “minor figure” forty years after his death.
Determined that the Commemoration would not be just an informative and inspirational event, it was announced that the National Malcolm X Commemoration Commission would work to connect with various projects and initiatives across the country devoted to keeping Malcolm’s legacy alive. In that regard, there was a report by veteran social and political activist Sam Anderson about the progress of a Malcolm X Museum which will be based in Harlem but also have a traveling road exhibition. In addition, funds were collected to provide the initial seed money for a Malcolm X Fellow under the auspices of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, which was the principal sponsor of the Commemoration. The Fellow will help staff the National Malcolm X Commemoration Commission and undertake youth oriented initiatives consistent with Malcolm’s philosophy.
The Commemoration of the 40th Anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X was an amazing event, informative, inspirational, uplifting and encouraging. As the assembled multitude departed from the sanctuary of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church to the pulsating, rhythmic beat of the drums of the Welfare Poets, one had a sense that our Black Shining Prince was mingling with his people, pleased that his spirit is still alive!
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