Building the Black Radical Congress

An emerging black political movement looks to the left

| January-February 1999

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."

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