Nearly 2,000 black political activists gathered in Chicago in June, heeding the call from a group of academics and a union organizer to forge a new black radical movement in an age of American ultraconservatism.
"Now is the time for a revival of the militant spirit of resistance that our people have always possessed, from the abolitionist movement to outlaw slavery to the civil rights movement of the 1950s, from Black Power to the anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s," organizers wrote. "Now is the time to rebuild a strong, uncompromising movement for human rights, full employment, and self-determination. Now is the time for a new black radicalism."
As Angela Ards reports in The Nation (July 27, 1998), the Black Radical Congress (BRC) attracted artists, academics, socialists, Marxists, feminists, lesbians and gays, revolutionary nationalists, and others who turned out hoping to build that united front that would propel black America once again into the vanguard of social change. Old friends and old foes alike, as well as a significant number of young people, gathered to discuss health care and AIDS, economic justice, reparations, electoral politics, affirmative action, environmental racism, and welfare reform.
More significantly, the high profile of black feminists and gays and lesbians forced the congress to confront the blind spots of traditional black radicalism: sexism and homophobia. It did so admirably, Ards reports. Indeed, when lesbian activist Barbara Smith remarked that it was the first time she'd been invited to a meeting of black leftists, she received a rousing ovation.
And Barbara Ransby, writing in In These Times (July 12, 1998), argues that black feminists have a particularly valuable perspective to bring to the debate. "Black feminists offer, not as a perfect model but [as] a principled objective, that inclusive, egalitarian structures are the only legitimate way to build an effective movement for social change," she writes. "We cannot replicate the same competitiveness, elitism, and chauvinism so prevalent in larger society. We have to forge a different path."
Not everyone agreed, of course. "It's one thing to say that we are antisexist and antihomophobic," noted one participant. "It's another to say that fighting homophobia should be as central as race and class."
But BRC leaders effectively sidetracked criticism with an appeal to unity. "The time has arrived to leave guns, hatchets, and arrogance at the door and embrace one another, perhaps not yet as comrades, but certainly as sisters and brothers," said Bill Fletcher Jr., director of the AFL-CIO's education department. Eventually, the congress issued 11 principles of unity, including a rejection of gender and sexuality bias, a rejection of black capitalism as a solution to economic injustice, a commitment to see political struggle as global, and a commitment to look beyond electoral politics for solutions.
The BRC's origins are rooted in discussions that began nearly two years ago when four college professors—Manning Marable, Leith Mullings, Barbara Ransby, and Abdul Alkalimat—and Fletcher began talking about the absence of any significant left presence in the black community. As the right gained ascendancy in U.S. politics, fostering further racial and class divisions, the black community has been divided over how to respond. Exhibit A was Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March, with its emphasis on personal atonement over political accountability.
"Despite his elaborate masquerade of pro-black militancy, Farrakhan can be best understood as an advocate for Reaganomics and [a] conservative social policy orientation," Marable notes in The Black Scholar (Spring 1998).
Still, BRC organizers recognized that the march and the subsequent Million Woman and Million Youth Marches really amounted to a call for political action. What remains unclear is how many African Americans believe action should go beyond what the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Nation of Islam can offer.
The second Black Radical Congress is scheduled for spring 2000. In preparation, the BRC will sponsor four regional planning meetings. For more information, call 312/706-7074 or visit their Web site at www.blackradicalcongress.com.