Building on the Tradition: Lessons of African American Conventions and Congresses for the BRC
This pamphlet will briefly discuss four of these historical gatherings: the 1840 Convention in Albany, NY, the 1875 Convention in New Orleans, LA, the famous 1905 Niagara Convention and the 1972 Convention in Gary, IN. These four have been selected not because they are necessarily the most important ever held, but because they illuminate particular lessons of independence and self-determination in action. The process leading up to the conventions, the debate and the sharpening of line struggles during these conventions, and the resolve to continue to fight following the conventions deserve our attention.
1840 Albany, New York Convention
During the summer of 1840, the Colored American newspaper called for Black people to come together to discuss ways to obtain political power. Slavery was the main issue facing the United States, and there was little unusual about this convention or this topic. Abolition conventions had become a part of political life in New York and elsewhere in the North. The convenors sought to use political leverage in the North to rid the Southern states of slavery. The Albany convention, however, was to be somewhat different. The sponsors made it clear that this convention was to be run exclusively by Blacks.
The primary convenors of this convention, among them Sam Ward, Theodore Wright, and Henry Highland Garnet, felt that Blacks must begin to exercise more independence in both thought and deed from organizations where they did joint work with white colleagues. Although whites were not excluded from attending, from its inception this clearly was going to be a Black-run event, an exercise of Black self-determination. Such a move was necessary in the organizers’ eyes because whites were not always as committed nor as identified with the struggle for Black advancement. In fact, many African Americans were coming to the conclusion that the anti-slavery movement was riddled with paternalism and racism. As a way of dealing with these problems, the convenors attempted a convention conceived and developed by Black people. In the ensuing months, the convenors increasingly concentrated their energies on the Black community, as they united around the centrality of the need for Black suffrage.
The opening session of the three-day Albany convention was attended by 40 delegates. One of the major topics of discussion was the relative importance of possessing land. The business sub-committee put forward a resolution calling on Blacks to view land ownership as a means toward respect. With land, they argued, would come greater financial equality and ultimately political equality. (Owning property was a pre-requisite for voting.) Garnet and others opposed the resolution on the grounds that land ownership, even if it were achievable, would not guarantee respect for the rights of Blacks. They believed that the property requirement in the law was simply a barrier erected to prevent Blacks from exercising the franchise. If property were acquired, they argued, another barrier would, in all likelihood be placed in their path. Despite these objections, the convention passed a modified resolution calling on Blacks to purchase land in New York “because it guarantees permanency of residence.”
The major decision which came out of the Albany convention was to mobilize a force to collect signatures in order to petition the state assembly to remove obstacles to voting. In the succeeding years thousands of signatures were collected and presented to the state legislature. However, each time, the legislature took no action. Despite not achieving their ultimate goal through the legislature, this suffrage campaign made real achievements. It heightened consciousness and introduced like-minded people to each another. Further, by 1851 the estimated 5,000 black voters in New York had formed a bloc that all the major political parties recognized. Some of these people were instrumental in advancing the cause of the newly formed Liberty Party, which was explicitly dedicated to the overthrow of slavery.
1875 New Orleans, Louisiana Convention
The New Orleans Organizing Committee, responsible for pulling together a convention in 1875, recognized the steady progress which was being made throughout the South as a result of Reconstruction. Under the protection of federal troops, a small but significant number of Blacks climbed a rung or two on the economic ladder. Black farmers garnered larger plots of land and Black politicians were elected to serve in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Schoolhouses were being built, bridges were being constructed, and ferries were being reestablished. In short, the infrastructure of the South was taking a great leap forward. This progress was primarily due to Reconstruction. Yet, despite the ongoing progress, members of the Organizing Committee faced the depressing prospect of more election violence (in the upcoming 1876 elections), designed to intimidate Blacks from exercising the recently won franchise. It decided to seek federal support. Henry Adams, one of the members of the Organizing Committee wrote:
We first organized and adopted a plan to appeal to the President of the United States and to Congress to help us out of our distress, or protect us in our rights and privileges. And if that failed our idea was then to ask them to set apart a territory in the United States for us, somewhere we could go and live with our families. When that failed then our idea was to appeal to other governments outside of the United States to help us to get away from the United States and go there and live under their flag.
So, the continuously arising central question manifested itself again in 1875: What is the relationship of African Americans to the United States? Is this the land where we should struggle and attempt to transform after investing so many years? Or is this land beyond our abilities to reform, and therefore we should look for another place to live? Or is there some other alternative?
Many of the delegates decided to collect names of those interested in leaving Louisiana for Liberia or some other country. By August of 1877, the Organizing Committee had enrolled some 69,000 people. At a meeting the following month, three resolutions were passed. One threatened to abstain from voting in national elections unless protection was offered in light of the emergence of such groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The second called on Congress to restore all the money which was lost in the failure of the Freedmen’s Bank, where many African Americans had invested their savings. The last resolution sought an alternative to the much-debated positions of either leaving the country for Africa or staying within the US and struggling in vain. This final resolution called on some territory to be set aside within the United States where African Americans could establish their own nation-state.
The following months saw the Committee hold public meetings, canvass door-to-door, and attempt to generate a broader consensus for their movement. The basic problem, of course, was poverty. It was difficult for an economically-dependent people to acquire the material necessities in order to spread the word. To some extent people were leery, specifically when it came to finances, particularly in light ofthe recent failure of the Freedmen’s Bank. The closing of its branches in Shreveport and New Orleans alone cost Black customers $300,000 in deposits. In spite of this reality, people did contribute, and the Committee grew as it heightened the consciousness of the growing African American population.
Years of organizing and pent-up frustration gave birth to the Exodus of 1879. This followed the Compromise of 1877 (where in a back-room deal the South agreed to allow Rutherford B. Hayes the Presidency, in exchange for getting federal troops out of the South–thereby effectively ending Reconstruction). Black people now stood alone against the terrorism of white paramilitary organizations and the white-run government. Driven also by inadequate educational facilities, peonage, and economic exploitation, many decided to head to other territory. It’s not clear how many thousands became “Exodusters,” as Black people en masse left the resurgent racism of the deep South to settle in Kansas and elsewhere. (The population of Kansas jumped from slightly over 16,000 in 1870 to close to 50,000 in 1880.) Though led by Adams and “Pappy” Singleton, this extraordinary movement was characterized not by leaders but by the sacrifice and determination of ordinary, everyday working folks.
There is a straight road of progress from the theoretical efforts of the New Orleans Organizing Committee prior to 1875 to the practice of the Exodus of 1879, and it is paved with the sentiment of self-determination.
1905 Niagara, N.Y. Convention
This is probably the most famous of all the conventions, in large part because it gave its name to the short-lived organization which followed, the Niagara Movement. Surprisingly, this momentous meeting was attended by only 29 African American militants. That is because it was organized in secret by a small group of young intellectuals. The effort was spearheaded by Monroe Trotter and W.E.B. Du Bois.
They were responding to the dire situation in which the African American community found itself after the turn of the century. The dismantling of Reconstruction, which the southern white power structure had begun in earnest 30 years before, was now complete. The last remaining Black congressman was defeated and left office in 1905. The vicious segregation system known as Jim Crow had been put into place in the South through a series of laws backed by police terror and social custom.
The 1896 Supreme Court “separate but equal” decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson upheld segregation as legal, giving the stamp of approval of the whole white supremacist ruling class to Jim Crow. Though not as all-encompassing a system as it was below the Mason-Dixon Line, segregation was commonplace in the North. This very convention wound up meeting in Ontario, Canada because no hotel in northern New York State would provide space to the African Americans who attended.
They were also responding to the situation within the Black movement at the time. The African American nation, which had taken shape in the Black Belt South Following the defeat of Reconstruction, had developed its own class divisions and structure. On top was a nascent Black bourgeoisie, a handful of business people, educated professionals and clergy. This group lived lives substantially more comfortable than the masses of their brothers and sisters who had been forced into debt slavery under the sharecropping system. Chief among this samll upper class was Booker T. Washington, head of the foremost Black college, the Tuskegee Institute.
Washington had a real following in the African American community, people who respected him as a leader and someone dedicated to the advancement of his people. But it was the white newspapers and politicians who anointed him HNIC after a famous speech in Atlanta in 1895, which was publicized the length and breadth of the U.S. Booker T. Washington’s stand was that African Americans should not fight the onslaught of Jim Crow laws, but “cast down your bucket where you are”–that is, don’t protest but work hard and industriously at whatever labor the white man might permit you and thus win his respect.
To men like Du Bois and Trotter, this was sheerest treachery. Booker T. Washington was complicit with the White supremacist power structure in holding down African Americans. Washington used his considerable authority to try and squelch opposition to his views. On a rare visit North in 1905, he was challenged by Monroee Trotter at a church meeting in Boston. Trotter wound up arrested and jailed for rioting.
So the call to a convention which Du Bois issued that June was an effort to mobilize radical forces to challenge the too conservative leadership of Washington and his supporters. The Niagara resolutions he penned reflected the bold stand taken by this small group: “We claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social: and until we get these rights we will never cease to protest and assail the ears of America. . . ”
Though subject to savage slander by the white press and most Black newspapers–and as a result always short of funds and other resources–the Niagara Movement was underway. In 1906 they met openly in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, to give respect to the great white abolition fighter John Brown and to take the fight closer to Booker T. Washington’s base in the South. Only four years after its formation, the Niagara Movement merged with other anti-racist forces, which included many whites, to form the NAACP, which soon became the largest organization in the African American struggle for the next half century. The accommodationist line upheld by Booker T. Washington and his successors was on the run.
1972 Gary, Indiana Convention
In March of 1972 Black nationalists, publicly elected officials, trade unionists, welfare rights advocates and many others gathered in Gary, Indiana (where Richard Hatcher was one of the first Black mayors of a major city) for the National Black Political Assembly. This convention was an attempt to bring together representatives of very different orientations and perspectives among Black people in order to forge a National Black Agenda. Despite some serious disagreements about tactics for the movement, 8,000 people united around the need to dialog and develop a collective strategy. Gary came well after the high tide of the civil rights movement and after the massive urban rebellions and other manifestations of the Black Liberation Movement had crested.
The political atmosphere in the country was marked by the strength of the Republicans. Nixon was running for re-election with a “Southern strategy” of appealing directly to white supremacy and the sentiment among many whites was that the U.S. had done enough for Black folks. Forty-five states sent delegates to help to sum up what the movement had accomplished, to figure out how to consolidate the gains that had been won and make plans for dealing with this growing backlash. African Americans set out to develop a national Black agenda under the theme “Unity Without Uniformity.”
Workshops and caucuses covered a wide range of topics. Subjects of debate included whether to develop new institutions to deal with unemployment, reparations, national health care, and how to establish meaningful environmental safeguards. However, a big question on the minds of many was whether the diverse political forces could hold together long enough to ratify a Black political agenda.
Serious debate centered on a number of issues, especially on planks being proposed for a National Black Political Agenda. One controversial resolution condemned Israel for its “expansionist policy” toward the Palestinians. Another condemned “forced racial integration of schools.” The latter measure came from Southerners who said integration cost black teachers jobs. The Michigan delegation, dominated by union members and staff, felt that the wording and the tone of the proposed Agenda was too separatist and may hurt its alliances with organized labor. They opposed, for example, a proposal urging blacks to shun “discriminatory” unions and form their own.
The document finally adopted was a very radical one, reflecting the summed-up experience of the preceding years and a determination by many not to let the most conservative forces set the tone. The Gary Declaration (which was published on the birthday of Malcolm X, May 19, 1972) pointed out, “The American system does not work for the masses of our people and it cannot be made to work without radical fundamental change. Indeed, this system does not really work in favor of the humanity of anyone in America.”
One major issue around which different tendencies manifested themselves was electoral politics. The Gary Declaration set the tone, stating, “Both parties have betrayed us whenever their interests have conflicted with ours (which was most of the time), and whenever our forces were unorganized and dependent, quiescent and compliant.”
Behind this unity resided a broad range of views, none of which crystallized into broad organized groupings. Nationalist and revolutionary forces who opposed electoral work on principle did not have a consolidated voice. Neither did those who advocated an immediate break with the Democratic Party. This group included a range of socialist forces, among them the Congress of Afrikan People, which was moving toward Marxism-Leninism at this time. Overall the groups and individuals who made up the left were divided, lacking cohesion and the ability to rally broader forces around them.
There was another position which basically sought to stay the course with the Democratic Party. Elected officials like Mayor Hatcher and Charles Diggs were not interested in jeopardizing their careers by breaking publicly with the Democrats. Although many within this camp had been advocates of Black Power at some point in the recent past, they tended to believe that reform efforts such as affirmative action laws, school desegregation, and the establishment of independent Black institutions were the correct path on the road to salvation. This grouping did not organize effectively among forces it might have united, either. They also couldn’t bring along cultural nationalists who continued to advocate the need to establish all-Black institutions, but were less than clear on the financial base for such proposals.
A smaller and somewhat consolidated tendency took a more centrist position. It was influenced by people like Ron Walters, Ron Dellums and Harold Cruse, and led politically by Ron Daniels. Although these folks supported running Black candidates for office, they simultaneously recognized some limits of electoral politics. Their strategy largely saw gaining political power through winning office as the path to Black self-determination. These forces advocated an eventual break with the Democratic Party, but wanted to do it in a gradual manner.
In the aftermath of the convention, the folks who pushed this line found they had few immediate practical differences with the politicians and others more closely tied to the Democratic Party. As a result they increasingly followed policies substantially less radical than the ones adopted at Gary as they worked together in the post-Convention period. One effect of this was to increase the developing marginalization of the disunited left forces as the ’70s went on.
The experience of Gary shows how important such conventions can be. It both reflected the mood of the times and helped shape developments in the following years. Electoral politics did become the main vehicle of the Black Liberation Movement. Over the course of the next decade, the number of African American elected officials in the United States jumped from 2,264 to more than 5,000. Areas of Black majority in some parts of the North and South did get elected Black leadership.
Though some gains won in earlier stages in the Black liberation struggle were consolidated at the time, the limitations of this strategy have become all too painfully clear. And as for that “eventual break” with the Democratic Party, events in the ’80s–Harold Washington, the Rainbow–did move a ways in the direction of independent politics, for a while. But the break never came, and 25 years after Gary we can sum up that there is a desperate need for a new and very different strategy.
And Chicago 1998?
The Black Radical Congress stands in a long, proud tradition. Again and again, at the four conferences described here and literally scores of others, Black people have summed up their situation and charted the road ahead. This inspiring history is rich in lessons for the BRC. We have highlighted four such lessons–drawn from Albany, New Orleans, Niagara and Gary–that will help make Chicago a worthy successor if we take them to heart.