Creating a Viable Black Left: Sixteen Lessons Learned in Building the Radical Black Congress
Note: Twenty years ago this month, 2,000 people of African descent converged on Chicago for the founding of the Black Radical Congress (BRC). The woefully under-estimated attendance goal of 500 by conference organizers was a testament that there was an enthusiastic interest in a national organization of the Black Left. Conversely, the demise of the BRC in 2008--a decade later--was an affirmation that the Black Liberation Movement (BLM) still had some transformative work to do if there was to be a viable, comparable organization. The two of us put together “Sixteen Lessons” in 2015 to ignite the challenge to the BLM to take a deeper look into a more thorough BRC summation and to engage in a national discussion on what kind of organization is needed to address the current issues facing our movement. BlackCommenator.com has re-published those lessons below. We encourage your feedback. A webinar is being planned to get such as conversation started.
No one said it would be easy
Preface: “…Where is the BRC when we need it?” We have heard this question over the years from Black activists from one side of the USA to another, but it was during the April 26-29, 2012 conference to commemorate the life and work of the late Dr. Manning Marable that it really hit home. Manning had been one of the “original five”, that is, the five individuals who started working in late 1995/early 1996 to gather the forces that would eventually form the Black Radical Congress. Along with Marable were Dr. Leith Mullings, Dr. Barbara Ransby, Dr. Abdul Alkalimat, and Bill Fletcher, Jr.
What was striking during the April 2012 conference were the number of people who spoke favorably about the BRC and about the importance of drawing out the lessons—positive and negative—from the experience of building that organization. People also wanted to better understand the reasons for its decline and ultimate end.
In any historical experience those who have participated, not to mention those who subsequently observed, will draw various conclusions. This is just as true with the experience of the BRC. The purpose of this essay is to advance a discussion rather than to answer all of the questions that emerge from a study of the BRC. It is certainly our hope that someone will ultimately write a book about the BRC, but for now, and particularly in light of the many struggles in which so many younger Black activists (and other progressive activists) are engaged, it is important to identify lessons learned to help us all think through what steps need to be taken to build a cohesive, viable Black Left.
The following are sixteen lessons. They are not necessarily the most important and this list is not aimed at being all-inclusive. These are, however, lessons that have stuck with us and which we are interested in sharing, hopefully in order to encourage deeper examination and reflection. We wish to quickly add that these lessons are not all, necessarily, lessons that we alone drew. Many activists who were associated with the BRC reflected on the experience over the years and there were many informal exchanges about the lessons learned. There have also been a number of articles written on the experience of the BRC. We have identified several lessons, some from various discussions and others that were simply our own, that we believe are worth considering. We realize that those who were involved in the organization had varying roles and interpretations of this experience. We all have different pieces of the elephant even if was the same elephant.
We look forward to your feedback.
- Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Jamala Rogers
Background: There have been many efforts over the years to unite the Black Left, i.e., forces that are anti-imperialist, generally anti-capitalist, against various forms of oppression, including but not limited to white supremacist national oppression. Frequently such efforts have been led by a specific organization or a particular tendency, not necessarily being inclusive. In the 1980s, for instance, the National Black United Front and the National Black Independent Political Party both served as efforts to organize segments of the Left and progressive segments of Black America. To varying degrees they made important contributions such as in the fight against police brutality and electoral mobilizations. Over time, however, their bases narrowed. NBUF continues to exist, but NBIPP after several years of attempting to establish an identity drifted into oblivion (though many activists within it, such as Manning Marable, continued to do great work).
The origins of the BRC can be found in two sets of discussions that took place in 1995. In Manchester, Britain, at a commemoration of the anniversary of the 5th Pan African Congress, several people including Barbara Ransby, Manning Marable and Abdul Alkalimat began discussing the need for some level of organization of the Black Left. Separately, in the aftermath of the Million Man March Bill put in a call to Marable (who was at the time a good friend, and over time became like a brother to him) and expressed his dismay that the Nation of Islam had proven to be such a successful and dominant force. He suggested to Marable that we needed to hold a “summit” of the Black Left in order to move discussions regarding the actual situation and what needed to be done. [Note: “Summit” is emphasized here because the original objective was not the creation of a new organization; that would emerge through the process of building for the summit.] Marable agreed and we began discussing the building of a core for such a project. In the course of that discussion he mentioned the Manchester meeting and as a result the importance of including Ransby and Alkalimat. Mullings, an independent leftist and scholar, was a close collaborator of Marable’s and they had recently married. Thus, the original five came together and through myriad of conference calls, exchanges of faxes and later email this original five gelled into a core which ultimately convened a meeting at the end of February 1997 in Chicago of what came to be known as the “continuations committee,” i.e., a flexible body of individuals from around the country who were committed to building the summit. It was at that first meeting of the National Continuations Committee that it was suggested that while we should build for a major conference of the Black Left, we should ultimately aim to create an organization. At that moment the “Black Radical Congress” was christened, so to speak, as the name of this project. The rationale for the name was itself quite interesting:
“Black”: As opposed to African American, we wanted to make sure that people of African origin were all welcomed and this not be seen as strictly a project of those who lineage was tied to North America. We also felt that “Black” was a political coloring and that who was “black” would be a matter of self-identification. As we would half-jokingly say, “…we are not going to do DNA tests to ascertain whether someone is actually African…” There is a long history of this approach in the Black Left which included Asians, Native Americans and Latinos being openly accepted into Black formations.
“Radical”: Originally we had spoken of a “Black Left” formation but some objected that many younger activists would not necessarily be clear as to what “Left” meant and that we should have a name that would attract and speak to those who were anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists. It was also important that the BRC represent various tendencies within the Black Left and, as such, not be monopolized by one group or tendency. This became a balancing act which we shall discuss below.
“Congress”: This term spoke to the nature of the founding gathering plus the sort of formation that we wanted to project. It was raised that what we wanted to do was to build something that resembled, in important respects, the Congress movement from South Africa (such as the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania). “Congress” spoke to this formation as being a united front of the Black Left rather than a formation driven by one ideological orientation. “Congress” also held a special place in African American history with several organizations containing that word in their name.
We also had a critical task: we needed a unity statement, i.e., a document that explained who was in the room in starting the BRC process and why them (as opposed to some others). Creating this document was not as difficult as many would have expected but it was controversial. The document included explicit language not only against racism and sexism, but also against homophobia. The BRC, in other words, from its beginning, welcomed all and we would not tolerate prejudices and aggression against segments of the movement. This declaration meant that there were a number of individuals within the Black Left—broadly defined—who while might otherwise seem logical to be associated with the BRC, would not fit in. Some of them later went on to resent their exclusion from the founding efforts.
With the generous assistance of one attendee at the first continuations committee meeting, we were able to have the funds to get moving. We had several objectives that included: (1)designing and preparing for a founding gathering to be held in Chicago, Juneteenth weekend 1998, (2)holding continuations committee meetings around the country to build momentum, (3)the creation of a Black Freedom Agenda as a permanent document that offered what this spectrum of organizations and individuals believed were some of the key demands flowing from our segment of the Black Freedom Movement.
Over the subsequent months a great deal of work went into the building of the BRC. “Diplomatic” visits were conducted with various leaders in the Black Left to win their support for this project. We were explicitly looking for signatories to a “Call” for the Juneteenth gathering. At a minimum we were looking for endorsements but we were especially looking to include a broad range of voices on the Black Left. Local meetings started to take place either with someone from the continuations committee or when the continuations committee came to town itself.
As each week passed the BRC gained momentum. Money came in, to a great extent through the work of Marable, to help to fund the founding congress. At the same time differences began to emerge as the BRC broadened. Combinations of political differences and personality differences frequently got in the way. These all had to be mediated. There were grudges and differences that sometimes went back decades. In other cases there were ideological differences between some forces, such as between some nationalists and some non-nationalist Marxists. There were struggles between feminists and those less sensitive to the issues of feminism. There were also regional differences.
One challenge, to be discussed below, that became important almost immediately involved the relationship of individuals to organizations in the building of the BRC. In other words, there were individuals from organizations that had committed to help to build the BRC who were represented in the leadership of the BRC, such as from the New Afrikan People’s Organization, the Communist Party, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, the Committee of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and some looser networks. At the same time, you had individuals who, structurally, represented no one but themselves. This created a tension that had a major impact on the development of the BRC.
In the weeks leading up to the Juneteenth gathering attention grew on this project, including in the mainstream media. The leadership core of the BRC had no idea as to how many people to expect. Some expected about 500, whereas 1000 was about the highest number anticipated by most of the core. As it turned out we were all wrong: at any one time there were approximately 2000 people in attendance and close to 3000 people attended at least part of the founding congress. The extent of this turnout overwhelmed the organizers, including at certain moments, our ability to register the participants. The atmosphere was electric. Virtually every trend on the Black Left was represented at the gathering and, for the most part, interacted cordially. Additionally there were individuals from outside of the USA in attendance, which actually led to a brief, though quite interesting discussion regarding whether the BRC needed to be an internationalorganization rather than just internationalist in its orientation.
The participants were asked whether they wanted to form a national organization and, on the final day, the BRC as a standing organization, representing a united front of the Black Left, was called into existence. It was at that point, after the participants voted to form the BRC, and after the closing ceremonies when members of the continuation committee were hugging each other with pride that it dawned on all of us: now the real work begins.
The BRC took off and probably reached its height in 2001. The 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks forced a reorientation on the BRC, however, which accompanied by specific organizational and political difficulties, put the organization into a slow decline. A major dispute in 2003 over the question of accepting funds from a foundation plus a decision by the national coordinating committee to sign onto a statement condemning the repression of dissent in Zimbabwe led to a fragmentation within the BRC. Though the organization continued on for several years it was never fully able to recover. In 2008 some people who had been associated with the BRC plus some other Black leftists formed a separate formation two months prior to the BRC’s planned St. Louis-based national conference. It was not long after that that it became clear that the BRC could no longer function despite the fact that individuals continued to join it until the very end.
The BRC represented the potential of bringing together a diverse set of activists to concentrate on united action. The fact that it was so welcoming is what made it especially attractive to many younger and unaffiliated activists. Yet the construction and sustaining of the BRC became a major project that many of its founders had not anticipated.
It is with this in mind that we move to examine lessons learned.
(1)You always need a core and a core needs a vision: Simply put, the BRC would never have gotten off the ground had it not been for its core. The original five spent more than a year in discussions working to frame the project. They took it upon themselves to reach out to other organizations and individuals who might have an interest in the project. And they did this on no budget, i.e., everyone had to find time and money themselves in order to work on this project.
The experience of building the BRC taught a critical lesson on the nature of any organization. Rather than conceptualizing an organization as a pyramid, with the leadership on top and increasing layers beneath it until you reach the rank & file, it is more useful to conceptualize an organization as a series of concentric circles. Think of it like this:
In the center there is the “core.” The core is not a ranking of control. It speaks to the relationship of an individual to the project. So, people in the core are generally the ones who are leading the project and have dedicated significant time to the project. The objective, in any healthy organization, is to always expand the core through growth (i.e., including new people with new ideas).
Around the core there is a second layer. These are committed activists and leaders in their own right. They have agreed to the project and to build it. They may not yet be leading the project but they have decided to devote significant time to the project.
There is then a third layer. This includes people who have signed onto the project and may attend certain meetings; they make financial contributions occasionally; and are supportive of the effort. In general these are the folks who often think of themselves as “…point me in the right direction…” sorts of people who want to do the right thing.
A fourth layer is those who may have signed on and are generally supportive but are virtually or actually inactive.
A fifth layer is those who are not involved but are interested and may be supportive.
Beyond this layer the rippling weakens as individuals know less and less about the project.
The key in organization building is to increase the size of the core and increase the size of each subsequent layer by involving more and more people in the life of the project, or in this case, the BRC.
The original five, in the case of the BRC, could very well have called a conference on their own, much in the way that certain academic conferences are organized. Had we done this the BRC would, at best, only have been a gathering, and probably one with limited impact. The theory of building the BRC was focused on the construction of the National Continuations Committee and its rotating meetings. In the lead up to the Juneteenth gathering, the National Continuations Committee (NCC) would hold meetings in various cities. There was always a core of the NCC who remained relatively intact. By rotating from city to city, however, we found a way to increase participation and thereby build ownership in this project. This was critical since the aim, as noted earlier, was not to simply hold a conference but to actually build an organization.
Thus, the core of the BRC was only initially the original five. In a fairly short amount of time the core expanded as the NCC was built. After the founding conference, in fact, several of the original five dropped back from active participation for a variety of reasons and a new core emerged.
The original five had a vision but what was interesting was that the vision was able to shift and evolve as the core itself grew. The original idea was for a summit. Our ambitions were quite limited, for better or for worse. In light of the discussions at the first NCC meeting the ambitions shifted. The vision grew into the notion of a united front of the Black Left. This vision necessitated the creation of a unity statement in order to guarantee that the core—in that case the NCC—did not degenerate into a clique. There had to be legitimate reasons for the NCC to be who was in it otherwise the effort would have been, correctly, criticized as factional and unprincipled.
One of the major difficulties, which we shall address below, is to establish what is the “mandate” for a core. This became a hot-button issue later in the life of the BRC.
(2)The BRC was broad and welcoming: From the beginning anti-sectarianism was the dominant paradigm. This did not mean that everyone got along. It meant, however, that there were not ideological tests in order to get into the BRC. If one agreed with the Freedom Agenda (a programmatic/vision document ratified in April 1999) and the Unity Statement, one could join the BRC; simple as that.
This may sound Pollyannaish, however, and with good reason. There were problems that did emerge within the organization. The critical question, however, in the face of problems was the attitude of the national leadership. Let us explain this.
The BRC was structured on the basis of local organizing committees. Someone joining the BRC and wanting to be an active member could join a local organizing committee. There were, additionally, organizations that affiliated with the BRC, e.g., Black Workers for Justice; the Organization for Black Struggle. [Note: When an organization affiliated, it meant that its members automatically became BRC members.] Local organizing committees, like any organization, developed their own cultures to a great extent depending on the local leadership and dynamics. One form of sectarianism that developed was based on age. Many ‘baby boomers’, wanting to continue to play a dominant role in the movement, were not necessarily prepared to share space with younger activists. They shaped the local organizing committees according to their interests. Along with this was a tendency by some BRCers to ‘cadre-fy’ their local organizing committees, i.e., to begin to treat the local organizing committees as if they were miniature cadre organizations with the requisite demands. This made it all the more difficult for newer activists to enter the BRC and feel that this was their organization.
These problems did not represent the dominant aspect of the ‘personality’ of the BRC. All things considered it was easy for activists to join, perhaps too easy. What became a challenge was ascertaining what level of commitment to expect and require of individual BRC members. As such, it was not uncommon for individuals to join the BRC; participate irregularly; and then vanish. Ironically, they might still think of themselves as BRC members but they were not necessarily acting to build the organization.
As frustrating as this situation was for all of us who were part of the larger core of the BRC it should not have come as a surprise. It was also not something that could be altered by attempting to turn the BRC into a cadre organization. There already were cadre and semi-cadre Left organizations that were helping to build the BRC as a mass united front organization.Trying to turn the BRC into something else was objectively sectarian and was destructive.
What could we have done? The first thing has to do with expectations. When you have an organization that has a low bar in terms of membership requirements you cannot get disappointed when you find that your membership is rotating in and out. What we, in the BRC, were not especially good at was finding different levels of participation for members. Activism was, to a great extent, determined by one’s attendance at meetings. If one did not have the sort of life where it was necessarily possible to attend regular meetings one could quickly find one’s self on the outside looking in, not due to a purge or expulsion but because activity was largely determined by what took place at meetings.
To sustain an organization like the BRC we needed to find varying levels of participation, and quite possibly varying levels of membership. We needed to ask recruits what they were interested in doing and see to it that it was possible for them to do the work. That might have meant that they did mailings; perhaps they wrote for a newsletter; or maybe they would help with fundraising. Or, maybe all they did was join and contribute financially.
The other piece of this, which we shall discuss a bit later in this essay, is that we had to be open to operating the organization in different, if not unorthodox ways. Younger activists who joined the BRC were not necessarily interested in working in an organization that used methods from the 1970s, or where discussions that took place made reference to debates from the 1960s or 1970s. They, especially, did not want to hear those infamous words: “…that’s not the way that we do things…”, words that are guaranteed to chase away any number of younger activists.
Thus, while the BRC was generally welcoming and not filled with sectarian exchanges, there were elements of the culture that were objectively sectarian and increasingly narrowed the base of the organization rather than expanding its reach.
(3)We had to have lines of demarcation and they had consequences:All organizations have parameters that they establish whereby there are fundamental agreements and levels of acceptable exchange. In radical circles these are often called “lines of demarcation,” i.e., views that differentiate one group from another. Such lines are not always principled and the Left has years of experience with drawing lines that are self-serving, anachronistic and/or completely idealist (and we do not mean idealisticeither.).
The BRC established certain lines of demarcation that were essential and brought with them real world consequences. One was that we were a formation on the Left, therefore, we were self-described “radicals”. We shall discuss that more below but one implication was that the BRC was not equivalent to the 1980s Rainbow Coalition which, as progressive as it was, could not have been described as anti-imperialist and certainly not anti-capitalist. (This did not make the BRC better or worse than other organizations. It just made it different. The Rainbow Coalition, for instance, existed for different reasons and had an entirely different history. There is plenty of room for various sorts of organizational forms.)
A second line which was of critical importance was on Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgender and Queers. The Black Left had a complicated if not contradictory relationship with the LGBTQ movement and with issues relative to homosexuality. Many baby-boomer Black leftists and progressives, even when they had a strong stand against male supremacy, could find themselves ambivalent towards, if not on the wrong side of LGBTQ issues and rights. For this reason when the BRC National Continuations Committee established, as part of our unity statement, a strong stand against homophobia and heterosexism, there were some on the Black Left who yelled that we were being “sectarian.” The argument was that this should not have been a line of demarcation.
The BRC took its stand, unapologetically, against intolerance and oppression. It was a consistent stand. It was a recognition that entire segments of Black America have had to operate underground, not only in the face of white supremacist national oppression, but also in the face of male supremacy, patriarchy and heterosexism. The BRC was not going to be complicit in such sexual repression.
In most cases the attacks on the BRC for its stand on homophobia and heterosexism were ‘subterranean’ rather than open and above-board. While it meant that some forces were excluded from our ranks, it never inhibited the growth of the BRC. The 2000-3000 people who attended the Juneteenth founding conference knew, well in advance of that weekend, that the BRC took the stand that it did because it was contained right there in the BRC’s Unity Statement.
(4)Building a conference is very different than building an organization: Building a national conference is hard work, but building an organization is even harder. Many of the individuals who were key to the success of the Juneteenth 1998 conference were experienced at putting together conferences. Significant proportions of them were based within academia and understood the dynamics of conferences, including the keys to successful panels, fundraising and planning. There was an immense amount of stress and energy that went into the success of Juneteenth 1998, and certainly by the time that it was over, many people were burned out and needed some down-time.
Yet there was a larger question that the BRC confronted, quite literally immediately after the end of the Juneteenth conference: who would be there to build the organization? This was not a simple question and it was not answered at once or consistently. Beginning almost as soon as the conference was completed there was drop-off. That was not unexpected in the sense that people will attend conferences but not necessarily really want to join or build an organization. What was more unsettling, however, was the drop-off of some of the core. Different reasons were offered, often revolving around the same notion: individuals had put their lives on hold while they were building for the conference but now felt that they must ‘return’ to their respective worlds.
That was the stated reason and in many cases it was the truth. At the same time what became apparent, certainly over the first year of the BRC’s life, was that building an organization necessitated a different approach and temperament, not to mention skill set, than building towards a conference. This is to take nothing away from anyone who left. Rather it is an acknowledgement that we were overly optimistic in assuming that those who worked to build for the successful conference would necessarily stick with the organization once it was formed.
In building an organization there are various tasks and approaches that are very different from a conference, including:
Managing staff (if you have any).
Designing projects to keep the organization focused.
Resolving internal differences that might have been put on hold.
Ascertaining how to grow the organization.
Training new leaders.
Keeping the organization in the eye of the public and relevant.
And in doing this there is no certainty as to success.
There were two particular problems we encountered worth noting: (1)the after-glow of the Juneteenth conference, and (2)the reality is that an organization is bigger than a friendship circle. Let’s look at these separately.
The overwhelming success of the Juneteenth Conference meant that the expectations of what would immediately follow were way beyond the capacity of the organization to fulfill. As one former core member said to Bill some years later “…after the Juneteenth conference we should have embarked on one campaign rather than have spent so much time on infrastructure.” He asked this person, which of the many proposed campaigns we could have taken on around which we would have had sufficient unity to proceed? They looked at Bill and shook their head in acknowledgement of the problem.
Despite the energy that existed in Chicago on Juneteenth 1998, there was no unity on what the next steps were. In fact, the expanded core, including but not limited to the NCC, had to summarize the conference and figure out next steps. Among those was what should be the focus (or foci). When the BRC did not immediately jump into action—though some local organizing committees actually did immediately get to work—this was seen by some as a sign of weakness in the project. So, in that sense the BRC was in a race against its own success, i.e., trying to outmatch what it had accomplished in its birth. Think of the image of a new-born who can play the piano. What else can one expect as it ages? Perhaps inventing faster than light travel by the age of two?
The second challenge for many people who were involved with the formation of the BRC was the recognition that what had been brought into being was far bigger and more diverse than what they were normally familiar with, and perhaps comfortable with. Building the conference did not necessarily involve breaking out of one’s comfort zone, except for parts of the core. You had to build locally for the conference, raise some funds, and then get on the road to the conference. At the conference you could ‘hang’ with those you wanted and ignore those you wished to ignore.
The moment that you have to build an organization, the table shifts a bit. You cannot build the organization around your friendship circle unless you want to create a clique. You have to go broader. You have to make compromises with people you might have for years ignored. You have to interact with people with who you seriously disagree—and may have disagreed with for years! And there is no end to it. Contrary to a conference or election campaign where there is a clearly defined end point, in building an organization and/or a movement, there is usually not a specific endpoint except and insofar as the organization or movement achieves success with their major priorities.
The BRC, by its very nature, meant that nationalists, non-nationalist Marxists, feminists, faith-based activists, not to mention academics and non-academics and individuals from different regions had to interact, and specifically cooperate in order to succeed. The good news is that for most of the BRC’s existence it was able to carry out that balancing act. Unfortunately, in the early stages of the BRC’s existence, however, we lost some good people who seemed to have decided that this was more than they had signed for.
When people left they were rarely direct regarding their motivations. This does not mean that they were lying or that there was mal intent. In some cases we are not convinced that some of our colleagues were entirely sure as to the reasons that they left. Leaving might have taken place in stages or it might have taken place suddenly. In either case, over the course of the first year of the formal existence of the BRC there were many new people who stepped forward who may or may not have been in the first NCC but had, nevertheless, come to play a leading role in the organization.
There is, perhaps, one other issue that is appropriate to discuss in this section. The leadership of the BRC, by which we mean the National Continuations Committee (later the National Council) had a significant representation from academia. The implications of this were complicated and mixed. As noted above, for some, building a conference was all that they were ready to do. But the deeper problem was that academia brings with it timelines and demands specific to that career. There is teaching, writing, etc., that come with the job. This placed an immense amount of pressure on some key leaders and led some to drop away at moments that were not very helpful for the rest of the organization.
The other aspect to this, however, is that there are discussions that often take place in academia that are very different than those that take place at the grassroots or even among non-academic organizers or activists. This, in no way, is a put down of academics. What it is to say is that in having a significant number of academics in leadership it could tend to skew internal discussions in a way that did not necessarily make sense for segments of the rank and file membership.
(5)This could not run on magic; the challenge of resources: One of the most difficult challenges for any organization is that of resources. Resources include, but are not limited, to money. In the case of the BRC, we were constantly in search of new resources and we had a special concern when it came to money.
At the first continuations committee meeting in Chicago in 1997 one individual made a commitment of several thousand dollars in order to get the BRC off the ground. What was striking about this commitment was that it was from someone who had not been part of the original five and was someone who had had issues with several of the other invitees to the continuations committee founding. Nevertheless, at a key moment in the discussion he made a pledge [which he followed through on] which, in many ways, signified the real birth of this effort.
From the moment that the contribution was made at the continuations committee, the BRC project grew and with it, funds started coming in but not on their own. Several NCC members made very generous contributions to the project. This was accompanied by a very active fundraising effort that included approaching various foundations.
In part due to the stature and renown of many of the people associated with the continuations committee, the BRC quickly gained an important level of credibility. When the “Call” to the Congress was issued and it had so many endorsers representing much of the left-wing of the Black Freedom Movement, the BRC became, for many people including many funders, compelling.
As a result of excellent fundraising and the incredible numbers of people in attendance, we were able to come out of the Congress with money in the bank. But, as everyone knows, money will not sit there permanently. The BRC had to position itself to obtain funds. This resulted in an important challenge that many coalition-type organizations face: how do you raise funds without competing with your constituent organizations and/or allies? This was not a challenge that we had prior to the Juneteenth conference since the funds raised at that point were aimed at making the conference successful. After the BRC was formed, however, this became a challenge. We shall discuss some of this below when talking about the nature of the BRC, but with regard to fundraising, the approach to the funders had to become far more nuanced so that the mission of the BRC did not appear to be, nor in fact operate as, a competitor organization. The institutional funders were difficult to convince even when they appeared sympathetic to the mission of the BRC. Subsequent to one meeting with several funders we were told that while the funders were impressed, they were not entirely sure how the work of the BRC would not replicate that of some existing organizations (including some that were constituent members of the BRC).
Two years into the life of the BRC the matter of fundraising hit a critical controversy. We were informed that we had a very good chance of getting $200,000 over two years from a foundation. Many of us were elated. With that money—which by the standards of most non-profits is not exactly rolling in dough but was nevertheless significant—we would have been in a position to really start to staff up. Instead the BRC, at a point of near breakthrough in the political world of Black America, embarked on a major internal struggle that ultimately shaped its future. Though the struggle was put on hold, it would reemerge three years later and contribute to the demise of the organization.
What was the nature of the struggle? It revolved around whether it was appropriate for a Black radical formation to accept funds from a mainstream foundation. The struggle broke down something like this:
In favor: We needed the funds; the sort of money that we were talking about could help to position the BRC better than we were; there we no strings attached that interfered with our mission or principles; receiving such funds would help to convince other funders (both institutions and individuals) that we were worth the ‘investment.’
Opposed: Mainstream foundations aim to co-opt the organizations that they fund; the organization could become dependent on foundations; this particular foundation played a negative role in the 1960s; it would not look right.
The debate was to a great extent mystifying. Here we were with few resources and there was a debate over what this particular foundation had done thirty years previously without the critics having any sense as to what was currently being funded by this same foundation. Additionally, the opponents paid little attention to what steps the BRC would need to take in the real world to raise funds. Some critics had never paid membership dues in the BRC, an act that reflected both on their fiscal and political commitments.
The nature of the debate, though presented by the critics as being about alleged principle, demonstrated the extent to which philosophical idealism (Meaning that ideas were not rooted in any sort of material reality but were free-floating. Sort of along the lines of “…I wish, therefore it will be…” or, to borrow from the words of the comedian George Wallace, “…that’s the way I see it, and that’s the way it ought to be…”) had become a major current in the BRC. Rather than examining real world options for how to build the BRC, the debate focused on abstractions or, to present the case of the critics in its most favorable terms, focused on historical references from 25-35 years past. It is critical to appreciate that the debate never even touched on the question of what the terms of the grant would be. For many of the critics that was irrelevant. What was relevant was whether a Black radical formation could take such funding at all.
The debate paralyzed the BRC at precisely the moment that the organization needed momentum. No agreement could be reached in 2000 so the decision was postponed. Three years later the opportunity arose again and the same debate reignited. This time a majority of the leadership voted in favor of the accepting funds. Some members of the minority chose this issue and another political issue as reasons to abandon the BRC.
Needless to say, the funds from the foundation did not co-opt the BRC, but then again, it was less than clear whether facts were really at stake in this debate.
It would be wrong to leave the matter of funding at the debate regarding foundation money. The deeper problem was that the BRC never internalized the centrality of fundraising and the need to integrate fundraising into the work of the organization. By and large fundraising was seen as a very specific task to be taken up by grant-writers or development personnel. It was the moment in the agenda where everyone groaned and looked at how polished their shoes were. It was a discussion on the agendas of the National Council (the successor structure to the NCC) that everyone was pleased to have ended.
An interesting contrast in an approach towards fundraising could be seen in the movement to support Eritrean independence from Ethiopia (a struggle that lasted from the early 1960s through the early 1990s). In the USA, first the Eritreans for Liberation in North America and later the Association of Eritrean Students of North America and the Association of Eritrean Women of North America did a remarkable job of integrating fundraising into every activity that they conducted. Whether there was an educational program or cultural activity, the Eritrean activists ensured that fundraising was part of the work. Reading materials were sold along with ornaments and clothing. Additionally, outreach was conducted to businesspeople who might be favorably disposed towards supporting the work of these organizations.
By contrast the BRC, but also many other formations on the Left in the USA, pay little attention to this work. The BRC made only limited outreach to businesspeople, and while certain written material would be sold at events and there was the periodic fundraiser, this work was rarely professional in character. This demonstrated the philosophical idealism referenced earlier. Regardless of whether the BRC would receive any foundation funds, the reality is that a formation like the BRC could and should never assume that it could indefinitely (or for any extended period) depend on foundation money. Alternative funding streams needed to be explored and with the exception of a suggestion or two thrown out at meetings, it was not approached with the same vigor and creativity that our organizing work was addressed. In fact, the lack of attention to fundraising was once illustrated by a comment offered by a National Council member who, in the course of a discussion on fundraising, suggested that the fact that National Council members paid their own way to National Council meetings represented their financial contribution to the BRC. As far as this NC member was, apparently, concerned, that settled the matter.
(6)Youth and the misreading of the history of SNCC: One of the saddest chapters in the history of the BRC was the immediate aftermath of the successful Juneteenth conference and the implosion of the BRC Youth Caucus.
Although the BRC process was initiated largely by baby-boomers, it quickly gained traction among younger activists, particularly “20-somethings”. The youth were largely college students and those just out of college. Some were in graduate school while others were relatively new community-based or labor union activists. They played a major role in building for the Juneteenth conference, including in the preparation of major documents and conference design.
Almost immediately there was a generational conflict. Though the BRC recognized the need for what came to be called “intergenerational dialogue” (including opening the Juneteenth conference with an intergenerational plenary panel), there was a significant tendency on the part of the baby-boomers to dominate the process. Sometimes that dominance was reflected in what was referenced earlier in this paper, i.e., a chasing out of younger people by insisting on following modes of operation inherited from the 1960s and 1970s. But it could be uncovered in far more subtle forms, whether in who spoke with whom; historical reference points; forms of organizing; or cultural activities. In either case, generational tension is inevitable; the question is how it should be handled.
Younger BRC members caucused. The result was that at the founding conference there were, in essence, two conferences. There was the main conference and there was a parallel youth conference. Within the BRC Youth Caucus there developed a view that BRC Youth needed to split off from the national BRC much like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) developed independently of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The argument that was made by some on Juneteenth weekend, was that the youth needed their own organization.
In addition to intergeneration tensions, there also existed tensions among the youth. These included the same tensions that exist among “old heads” –ideological, political, class and personality differences. Some of us “old heads” were being consulted during the youth sessions by young people who were struggling to navigate the choppy organizational waters with limited skills and experience. It appeared that a minority of aggressive (sometimes intimidating ) and vocal forces dominated the discussion and thereby the direction the group would ultimately take. There were such bad feelings that accompanied the Youth Caucus that some people suggested that it had been disrupted by agent-provocateurs While this is certainly possible—given the historical experience of police infiltration and disruption of the Black Freedom Movement—the two of us are more inclined to believe that there was a dogmatism and binary approach to discussions (i.e., with us/against us) that often unfolds in debates among younger activists.
The proposal to set up a separate formation, which was one of the major flashpoints in the internal debate within the Youth Caucus, brought with it important problems. These problems included: SCLC had actually been in existence for a few short years prior to the emergence of SNCC. In other words, there was something of a track-record, both positively and negatively.
SNCC defined a purpose. It was not formed simply in opposition to an organization of older activists. But it was also a more secular organization than SCLC, attracting people of different faiths as well as atheists.
The developing BRC Youth Caucus had a poorly defined vision. Instead much of the time at the Juneteenth conference was focused on structure rather than purpose and program.
The BRC was forming at a point not when the Black Freedom Movement was rising and energized, but rather at a point when it had been on the defensive for quite some time. This meant that the BRC was institutionally weak and was in little position to assist a separate organization.
It was unclear why the youth activists did not position themselves to take over the BRC, and we mean that in the best sense of the term.
The result of the reported circular discussions at the Caucus and the overemphasis on structure resulted in an alienation of many younger members from the BRC. Thus, and quite ironically, while most of the participants who attended the BRC founding conference walked away very energized, many of the younger activists simply walked away, in some cases never to return. For reasons still unclear to date, the vibrant and engaging BRC Youth Listserve was dismantled.
The BRC continued to include the participation of activists in their 20s and 30s, but what was missing was the critical mass that we were on the verge of having Juneteenth 1998. As time went on the generational issues became more pronounced as younger activists tended to feel that they were more visitors to the BRC than equal and respected activists.
It is not entirely clear how much of this was preventable but there are important lessons to draw from this:
There are behaviors that are generational that must be acknowledged and, when alienating, addressed directly. This does not simply refer to the activities of older activists; it can include behaviors of younger activists as well.
It is not acceptable, as freedom fighters, to simply walk away when a situation becomes problematic. This was part of what made the youth implosion so tragic. Yes, there was a difficult situation at the Chicago conference and it was one that only the youth could address. Despite the problems within the Youth Caucus, these were matters that needed to be worked out.
There is a tendency for older activists to want one more grasp at the ‘ring’. Put differently, older activists are often unwilling to share the limelight with younger activists but instead tend to want to treat the younger activists as kids. This is tremendously alienating. In the BRC this took the form of some of the older activists not creating sufficient space for younger activists to grow and lead. Activists in their 20s and 30s are not kids but many baby-boomers treated them as just that.
(7)The challenge of a central focus: Having formed an organization by acclamation on Juneteenth weekend 1998, the National Continuations Committee (soon to be the National Council) was confronted with two major problems: (1)what sort of structure made sense for the BRC, and (2)what could and should the BRC do?
The structure we shall discuss below. With regard to what the BRC should do, that became a major quandary. There were pressures in different directions, e.g., economic justice and labor; political prisoners; incarceration; education; international solidarity (and relating to the rest of the African World); and reparations. Each direction had its own ‘partisans’ who made very convincing arguments as to why the BRC should do what they were advocating. In effect this led to stalemate.
The challenge was not an academic one of choosing from column A or column B. There were different things at stake, including whether and how the BRC could become a major force in the Black Freedom Movement and develop a real-world base. There were also questions regarding our not repeating the work of existing organizations or, worse, eclipsing existing formations. And perhaps one of the greatest fears was that should we choose one specific focus, the partisans of the other foci would either drop away from the BRC or lessen their commitment to the formation.
The BRC did not succeed in creating a means to work through strategic priorities. Instead the partisans of the different proposals advanced their views. None of it was put into a broader context examining things like (a)what was the moment we were in, (b)what would a formation like the BRC actually be capable of doing, and particularly, where could we make a difference, (c)were some of the proposed areas of work being addressed elsewhere, thereby needing support but not focus by the BRC, (d)what would it mean for the BRC to support existing work compared with making it a priority.
In effect the National Continuations Committee/National Council punted. In our own minds we saw it as a matter of principled compromise and, essentially, it was, but it was a compromise that brought with it several consequences. We established four areas of work: education/not incarceration; reparations; economic justice; international as the work of the organization. To this was added the incorporation of the “Hands Off Assata Shakur" (Assata Shakur, former Black Panther Party member, who went into exile in Cuba after escaping police custody. She has been hounded and hunted by reactionary forces ever since.) campaign, which was an already existing effort, in effect creating five areas of work.
The theory behind the four/five areas of work is that each would have a workteam of volunteers from the NC and the membership who would work up a plan of operations for that specific area. Each workteam would have a coordinator or chair responsible to keep the workteam moving. The National Council would, in theory, coordinate the overall work and mobilize to support the direction of the specific workteams.
It did not quite work out that way. Despite the enthusiasm that was usually engendered at NC meetings, following the NC meetings the operations of the workteams were inconsistent. Part of this was reflective of an organization that depended on volunteers, i.e., individuals having diverse responsibilities and, in this case, the BRC was only one of them. It was, additionally, not just a matter of capacity but also what the level of organizing skills that members had to carry out their respective tasks. Therefore, the chairs of the workteams along with team members did not always follow through, irrespective of intentions. What we needed was some level of staff support, and by and large we did not have it. In the absence of that, we needed disciplined cadre who were truly making the BRC their major political work and could, therefore, be counted upon to keep the organization in motion.
A second problem could probably be described as strategic. The workteams operated as independent projects, sometimes doing exceptional work, but not quite the equivalent of a “commission” of an organization that develops policy, but implementation is left to the national leadership. In our case, the workteams were supposed to develop policy and implementation.
A third, related, problem was linkage. The four areas of work were just that, four areas. They were not linked together except and insofar as they were all aspects of the fight for Black Freedom.
There were efforts to address these problems. In 2000/2001 the BRC engaged in the “Charleston 5” Defense Campaign and played a significant role in building community support. (The campaign was aimed at freeing five members of Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen’s Union (ILA) who had been set up by the state and accused of conspiracy to incite to riot and inciting to riot. The national AFL-CIO, along with the South Carolina AFL-CIO and Local 1422, ILA took the lead in initiating a national defense campaign (actually international). The BRC joined into this effort. Local 1422 was/is overwhelmingly black and the attack on the local represented a combined racial/class attack plus stepped up repression. The defense campaign proved to be a success and the state’s case largely collapsed, resulting in the defendants getting off with the equivalent of a reprimand.) In the lead up to the United Nations World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa (September 2001), BRC leaders were very central in preparatory work for the Non-Governmental Conference (NGO) as well as in various activities at the conference itself. In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, the BRC—in addition to vehemently condemning the attacks—shifted gears to attempt to respond to the drift towards war and domestic repression. So, it was not as if the organization was sitting on its hands. That said, it was still trapped in its lack of a directional consensus.
Recognizing this directional quandary, the BRC made efforts at uniting around a focus. The experience had complicated results. First, there was an effort to create a strategic plan, but we did it incorrectly. Second, we ultimately united around a central campaign “Education/Not Incarceration” which we hoped to utilize to unite the organization. Let’s look at these separately.
Within two years of the founding of the BRC it became clear that we needed a more coherent plan for our work. As the first unpaid national organizer for the BRC Bill took a certain sort of initiative but it was not helpful, regardless of intent. In the context of trying to develop proposals to take to funders on the work of the BRC it occurred to Bill that we could use much of what we were writing and put that together in the form of a planning document around which to unite the National Council. This planning document would—in draft form—be circulated to the National Council and then discussed at a NC meeting with the intent of moving toward adoption. What a bad idea!
The draft plan was discussed at a NC meeting and passed. It then died, for all intents and purposes. The reason was simple, at least in hindsight. It was not the plan of the NC; it was Bill’s plan. There was no ownership. There was no discussion within the NC that could lead to collective conclusions. Rather, people responded to what Bill came up with and, while generally agreeing with it, could not ‘see themselves’ in the plan. As a result it amounted to nothing.
The second effort was more successful but ran into its own set of challenges. Through good, protracted discussion the National Council united on the notion that “education/not incarceration” needed to be the thrust of our work. This would involve challenging the prison-industrial complex as well as moving the demand for the need for greater resources into building quality education.
“Education/Not Incarceration” was an excellent slogan but it was not precisely a campaign demand. It was more of an agitational slogan. Therefore, the good news was that BRC local organizing committees were able to take it up and implement it as they saw fit. The bad news is that it did not result in the sort of organizational cohesion we were hoping to gain. This may have reflected the contradiction between our efforts at building a focus, on the one hand, with the demands on the ground that already engaged BRC members and affiliates, on the other hand. Thus, the campaign may have seemed as if it was additional work rather than either (1)something responding to an immediate and perceived crisis and/or need, or (2)a project that flowed from an in depth analysis of the needs of the moment.
In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks we confronted an aspect of this contradiction. With the move towards the Right in the USA, there was pressure within the BRC to respond to this fundamental change in circumstances with a united campaign against war and repression. Nevertheless there was stiff resistance from some sections of the organization who felt that we should stick with “education/not incarceration” regardless of the change in national circumstances and that it was somehow frivolous to alter course. The National Council decided, correctly, that 9/11 had reshaped the landscape and that the BRC needed to step forward. Yet even here, though the BRC took initiatives to mobilize against war and repression it failed to follow through and, in some cases, was outflanked. A case in point was the formation, in Washington, DC, of “Black Voices for Peace,” under the leadership of the late environmental justice activist Damu Smith (Formed after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan.). The irony of BVfP could not be any starker: many of the key individuals in helping to bring BVFP into existence were BRC members! For whatever reason it did not occur to them to utilize the BRC as the means of building a Black anti-war formation. Instead, something new was called into existence which, during its life, never affiliated with the BRC though it had many members in common.
What conclusions can be drawn about this matter of focus? Any coalitional organization faces the same dilemma, and it simply cannot be avoided. United fronts or coalitions come together with multiple agendas. While they may be brought together by a specific crisis or challenge, those agendas hover in the background like apparitions. They are never dropped but they can be addressed.
What the BRC needed in the immediate aftermath of the Juneteenth 1998 conference was an examination of the state of Black America; an assessment of the capability(-ies) of the components of the BRC; and the ascertaining of where the BRC, as the BRC, could make a difference. This is more than a formality. Instead, it needed to be a careful examination and discussion. Having such a discussion would have been complicated by the fact that there was, from the very beginning of the BRC, pressure on it to “act,” therefore discussions regarding doing anything that appeared to be less than “action” would have been attacked in some quarters. Nevertheless, the rush to “do something” undermined our ability to more carefully determine the best sort of contribution a group such as the BRC could make.
(8)Gender: The BRC had a remarkable female leadership. Compared with so many other organizations, certainly in the Black Freedom Movement, the BRC was very diverse, gender wise. Beginning with the original five and then with the creation of the National Continuations Committee and later the National Council, women made up much of the BRC’s leadership. The second (and last) National Organizer—the position that served as a combination of national chairperson and quasi-director of organization—was a woman. Women were not in the background in the growth and development of the BRC.
The composition of the BRC was not accidental. It was the result of two important factors: one, who was at the table at the beginning, and, two, active outreach.
` It is all too common that organizations are started without any real attention as to who is sitting at the table. Organizations can start, to put it another way, on the basis of ‘comfort,’ in this case, who is comfortable with whom. While there is always some legitimacy to such an impulse and one never wants to have an enemy at the table, ‘comfort’ is one of those odd terms that can often refer to cliquishness and bias.
From the beginning the BRC was not conceptualized as a male-only or male-mainly project. The women who were involved were not tokens or appendages to other men but in every case came with their own base(s) and legitimacy. This was critical in shaping the BRC. From the very beginning attention was paid to gender balance in terms of both composition as well as in meeting dynamics. That said, we had our fair share of struggles against patriarchal behaviors throughout the BRC’s existence.
The second factor was active outreach. Again, with the construction of the National Continuations Committee on into the Juneteenth conference and the composition of panels and speakers, the leadership paid attention to reaching out to individual women and networks of women to ensure participation. The results were impressive, not only in terms of turnout but as well who turned out and participated. In some cases women activists who had felt excluded by male-centered Black Freedom Movement activities found a safe space for both men and women.
While there was much to be proud of, there were at least two important challenges: (1)who defined feminism?, (2)was the BRC positioned to be an organization that represented the interests of women?
From the very beginning of the work towards the Juneteenth conference and following from that, a subtle tension revealed itself within the ranks of the BRC. It revolved around how one defined “feminism” and who was empowered (among women) to define who was feminist. This may sound convoluted but the roots to the tension go back to the 1970s and the revitalized women’s movement. With the rise of this movement and the mass articulation of the term “feminist” a debate ensued within the left-wing of the Black Freedom Movement (and spread beyond that) as to how Black women activists who were vigorously engaged in the struggle against both white supremacy and male supremacy would self-define. Some accepted the designation of “feminist” as at least part of their self-description. Others rejected that term and used other terms, such as “womanists”, usually to distinguish their own brand of gender justice from what was frequently perceived as a white women’s movement. And still others used no specific designation, while at the same time being very active in fighting for gender justice. (There is no intent here to characterize the intentions of those in any of these tendencies. In some cases those who openly used the term “feminist” were identified with academia, adding a class dimension or complication to this situation. Some who used the term “womanist” or may not have used any specific identification, perceived “feminist” as referencing the largely white dominated women’s movement. That said, all of these tendencies were represented in the BRC and they were equally committed to advancing the BRC project. The differences among them, however, were of significance.).
The BRC had each of these tendencies from the very beginning. Some women in the camp of self-described feminists took the position that they were the ones who could best lead and analyze the struggle against male supremacy/patriarchy. This put them at odds with other women who held that irrespective of whether they were self-described feminists, that their own practice and analysis positioned them to be co-articulators with other feminists.
This dispute was rarely made public but it was, nevertheless, very real. It was also never resolved, at least in a productive manner. Each side had often unspoken views of those from the other side. While there was a feminist caucus within the BRC, this caucus did not serve to surface or resolve these contradictions. The result, or at least one result of this was that some women pulled back from active involvement with the BRC and, at the same time, discussions started about the need for the formation of a Black women’s organization that had the politics of the BRC but would be independent. It was never clear, in the course of said discussions, whether such an organization would represent a split from the BRC or a formation that was complementary. In either case, a multi-racial/multi-national network of women did come together in the early 2000s which included, but was not restricted to, Black women (and among them, several active and former BRC members).
This contradiction has surfaced in other Black organizations and it has surfaced enough that it is the sort of matter that needs to be addressed quite openly. As we saw in the case of the BRC, the failure to deal with it directly led to unease within the BRC that resulted in mutual alienation. Actual political differences among these different tendencies were fairly minimal or, at the least, had little to do with whether one was a self-described feminist or not. Nevertheless, resentments built up over time.
The second challenge had to do with whether the BRC was positioned to represent the interests of women. This may be poorly worded but one way to explain it is by analogy. Karen Nussbaum, a leading staff person in the AFL-CIO and the founder of the organization “9-to-5” (the organization of women office workers), has made the provocative yet pointed comment that the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the USA, is the largest organization of women workers in the USA. At the same time, the AFL-CIO never positions itself as such an organization or movement.
The BRC had an impressive leadership of women at all levels as well as may women activists. Yet, and this may lie at the roots of some of the concerns and criticisms raised by BRC feminists, it was not an organization that located itself at the heart of the struggle for gender justice. This does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that that BRC took a pass on opposing male supremacy and fighting patriarchy. It was more complicated than that. To some extent the problem revolved around the matter of base. To what extent, for instance, was the BRC committed to building a deep base among Black working women? The use of the word “committed” is problematic because it comes off as moralistic. The point is that none of the BRC’s major work was targeted explicitly at issues that had a disproportionate impact on Black women. Certainly an argument—and a good one—can be raised that the four areas (or five if one includes Hands Off Assata!) all had an implication vis a vis Black women, but that is almost beside the point. There are issues that are of particular concern to Black women and could, conceivably, have served as a means to not only attract more Black women but for more left-leaning Black women to see in the BRC a champion of their concerns. This goes way beyond whether the BRC discussed patriarchy but instead moves into the world of practical program, whether with regard to fights around gender discrimination, supporting domestic workers, reproductive rights, or a myriad of other issues. The suggestion here is not that of separating off “women’s issues” into a special category but more of the need we had to center the BRC within the actual and day to day fights against male supremacy and for gender justice.
The other aspect of the gender issue was LGBTQ. As mentioned earlier, the BRC—from its beginning—took a principled stand against homophobia and heterosexism. While it would be an exaggeration to say that the BRC was active in the LGBTQ movement, it can be said that the BRC spoke out on issues relative to homophobia and heterosexism. Additionally, it did not tolerate the existence of either within its ranks. The net result of this was to make the BRC a safe space for Black LGBTQ activists.
As mentioned earlier, the BRC faced criticism, mostly indirect, for its stand with the LGBTQ movements from those who held that opposition to homophobia and heterosexism was too high a threshold for the left-wing of the Black Freedom Movement. We did not budge from our position. Certainly there were BRC members who were personally uncomfortable with either LGBTQ individuals or the entire matter, but such a bias was not considered a legitimate one for discussion or expression within our ranks.
(9)The importance of being internationalists: Frequently African American activist formations are placed in a box that is called “domestic issues.” The way that that “box” works is that Black activists are, at least according to mainstream white America, restricted from discussing or engaging in anything other than domestic issues (and within domestic issues, usually only about race). For this reason people like W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were chastised, if not demonized, for daring to speak out on matters such as imperialism, colonialism and war.
The conception of the BRC from its inception was “black internationalist” in several senses. It saw the African American struggle in the USA as integrally connected to struggles of people of the African World and other oppressed groups domestically and globally. Second, the BRC defined itself as “black,” as noted earlier, making it an organization that while focused largely on struggles within the USA among African Americans, was nevertheless an organization that could and would include individuals from other parts of the African World and/or those who self-described as “black”. Third, the BRC saw itself as engaging in international work, including but not limited to matters of solidarity.
At the Juneteenth founding an important controversy arose that helped to define the identity and focus of the BRC. There were participants from outside of the USA who were in unity with the objectives of the BRC. Some of them not only wanted to join but wanted to establish BRC chapters in other countries. Through discussion it was agreed that this would not be the direction of the BRC. The decision reflected many concerns not the least of which was the lack of actual capacity to center a global organization. But there were other concerns. There has been a history in the USA, including within the Black Freedom Movement, of attempting to center international organizations from within the USA. This has sometimes led to problems of chauvinism in not paying attention to the actual conditions in other countries. Instead it was agreed that should the participants wish to return to their homelands and start their own BRC we would welcome the opportunity to build a relationship based on mutual respect and independence rather than those organizations being chapters of a US-based organization.
The BRC’s internationalist work—at least outside of work to support other people of color within the USA—broke down into two main arenas: (1)statements and positions taken on international events (and/or US foreign policy), (2)the specific work in connection with the UN World Conference Against Racism (UNWCAR).
The BRC National Council established a coordinating committee which met, via conference call on a regular basis. It was to the coordinating committee that the task of responding to various events was sent. In some cases the International Workteam would prepare statements, either to be issued by the coordinating committee or in its own name. In general, the coordinating committee was asked, to issue statements regarding world events. It was through one such statement that a major crisis unfolded, a crisis that contributed to the decline of the BRC. More about that later.
Activity centered in the International workgroup included the UNWCAR. So as to clear up misunderstandings, this was focused on the Non-Governmental Organization conference that paralleled (and was supposed to inform) the official United Nations conference. (This clarification is offered due to a strange criticism offered of Manning Marable’s book on Malcolm X, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. The criticism was offered by Abdul Alkalimat, one of the original five in the BRC, who claimed that Marable was entirely off base in suggesting that Malcolm X would have been excited by the UNWCAR. Alkalimat went on to say that Malcolm would never have been interested in any forum that was a dialogue with imperialists. It is unclear whether Alkalimat read Marable’s book too quickly or was overly anxious to criticize Marable, but in either case he blundered in this criticism. Marable was speaking about the NGO Conference that took place in Durban at the same time as the official conference. Thousands of people attended the NGO conference, representing a myriad of nations and social movements. The BRC was well represented, including but not limited to Marable, Mullings, and International workgroup coordinator Humberto Brown, International Workgroup members Jean Bond and Horace Campbell, as well as BRC coordinating committee member Ashaki Binta.). Members of the International workgroup attended preparatory meetings for the UNWCAR and were active participants. They additionally helped to build for the conference in the USA, writing about its potential significance and why the involvement of Black America could be of such importance.
Had it not been for the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks it is quite possible that the UNWCAR would have had a more lasting significance. (The horrendous attacks took place as many of the delegates were returning home. In fact, some delegates had to prolong their stay in South Africa as a result of the impact of the terrorist attacks on air travel.). The BRC International workgroup, and through it much of the rest of the BRC, appreciated this potential significance.
In general the international statements by the BRC coordinating committee were not internally (to the BRC) controversial. A test of this was found in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.
The BRC, like every other anti-imperialist organization in the USA, was confronted with what for some people was a major challenge. Should and how the BRC speak out on the terrorist attacks and, if so, what should it say? In a statement that has withstood the test of time, the BRC, without any qualification, condemned the terrorist attacks. It made no excuses for the attackers. At the same time the BRC coordinating committee addressed the question of US foreign policy and the reasons that people around the world often stood in fear and anger vis a vis the USA.
The BRC statement on the 11 September 2001 attacks was important on many different levels. Among other things the BRC statement distinguished the BRC from knee-jerk anti-imperialists who believe that any enemy of US imperialism is automatically a friend of progressive forces. It was also an important statement because it was risky. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks anyone raising questions regarding US foreign policy was either treated with suspicion and/or condemned as being unpatriotic and otherwise dangerous. Despite this, the BRC refused to be silenced.
In 2003, however, the BRC encountered what many people, including the two of us, failed to expect in response to one such statement. Approached by the US-based non-profit advocacy group Africa Action, the BRC, along with TransAfrica Forum and some other groups and individuals signed onto a statement critical of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe for the repression of dissent that was underway, and particularly the brutality of said repression. The statement called upon President Mugabe to step away from this repression.
In section #11 below we shall explore this problem a bit more, but here it should be noted that despite the fact that the coordinating committee unanimously agreed to sign onto the statement there was major pushback from within the ranks of the BRC. As a result of this controversy, and following the 2003 conference of the BRC, there was the departure of some BRC members who were disenchanted by the position taken. That people would walk away was a shock to many of the remaining BRC members.
(10)The implications of being an organization of both organizations and individuals: The BRC, from the beginning, was confronted with a challenge that we never directly addressed, though proved integral to the entire manner in which the BRC grew, functioned and ultimately declined. Specifically, what sort of united front of the Black Left were we?
As noted earlier, the BRC was actually conceptualized by five individuals. Several of those individuals, but not all, had affiliations, including the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism; Communist Labor Party (which evolved into the League of Revolutionaries for a New America); and the Freedom Road Socialist Organization. More importantly, the BRC was not a project of those organizations (though it later became a project that involved those organizations). In time, as the project got under way, individuals from other organizations, and many individuals either affiliated with loose networks or unaffiliated entirely, were incorporated as partners. Organizations such as the New Afrikan People’s Organization and the Communist Party came to be present in the life and work of the BRC, playing significant and positive roles.
The conception of the BRC focused largely on the participation of individuals. At the same time we developed a theory of “multiple points of entry,” meaning that individuals and organizations could participate in the life of the BRC through multiple means. Let’s explain this a bit.
The BRC had local organizing committees through which individuals could participate. There were also organizational affiliations, as mentioned earlier. There were campaigns that were carried out by working groups, through which individuals and organizations could participate (particularly if there was no local organizing committee in their area). Despite all of this, there was not a discussion concerning whether organizations should have a special role. The BRC was not, for instance, run by a council of organizations and there was no special weight to any organization that was somehow involved in the BRC, except those that explicitly affiliated as organizations, e.g., the Black Workers for Justice (with automatic membership in the BRC for its members). (A contrasting example would be networks like the Grassroots Global Justice or the Right to the City Alliance which are alliances of organizations. Individuals cannot join these alliances as individuals but must, in effect, join a participating organization.).
Although we did not realize it at the time, we had walked into a labyrinth. While individuals worked to build the BRC, it was the case that a set of organizations had devoted an immense amount of time building for the Juneteenth conference, and in some cases, building the BRC afterwards. Yet, these organizations did not have a special role in leading the BRC, though in virtually every case, individuals from those organizations found themselves on either local or national leading bodies.
The implications of this problem began to set in not long after the founding conference. Some organizations had focused much of their work on building for the Juneteenth conference. Following that conference they were then faced with the question as to whether they would continue doing such work and, if so, what would be the implications for their other work. A second question to emerge was about decision-making. Would a local organizing committee of unaffiliated individuals have the same voice and role as an organization in the work and life of the BRC?
The result of our failure to address this problem directly was illustrated in the departure of or minimized role of some of the organizations that had been key in getting the BRC off the ground. Though no one gave voice to this concern, it was obvious that these organizations had to balance the question of the work of their respective organization vs. building the BRC. And, further, if they did not have a special role in the direction of the BRC—despite their activity in building it—did it make sense to continue?
The BRC erred in not addressing the scale and scope of this dilemma. It is not as if there was a tried and true answer, but there were options, each of which carried with it various consequences. Let’s use an example. The organizations that helped to get the BRC off the ground, e.g., NAPO, FRSO, CP, CCDS, LRNA, could have been given a special leadership role in the BRC. The model from El Salvador of the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), or the networks mentioned in the footnote, would not have worked, however, where you had organizations that came together to constitute the front and individuals had to join one of those organizations. Such a model, at least vis a vis the BRC, would not have succeeded largely because the BRC, from its inception, represented a mass call to activists on the left-wing of the Black Freedom Movement. But it might have been possible that those organizations would have had weighted votes on the National Council given what they were putting into the BRC. There was the additional question of organizational affiliates such as the previously mentioned Black Workers for Justice and the Organization for Black Struggle that would have also needed to have consideration given to a specific leadership role.
By ignoring the role of special, cadre and semi-cadre organizations, in the life and leadership of the BRC, we found ourselves building an organization of individuals in a setting, as we earlier noted, where there was a wide spectrum of involvement and dedication. What organizations like NAPO, the CP, CCDS, FRSO and LRNA brought to the table were dedicated members who devoted an immense amount of time to building of the BRC. They did this because their respective organizations believed that this political project was of importance and encouraged this level of activism. While there were certainly many unaffiliated individuals who were involved in building the BRC and who were dedicated, the work of the cadre from these various organizations was disproportionate to the size of their organizations. (We are talking about relatively small organizations. There was nothing comparable to, for example, the role of the Communist Party in the 1930s in the building of the National Negro Congress.).
For the various organizations that were involved, at one point or another, in the building of the BRC there was the fundamental question of the relationship of building the BRC to the building of their own organizations. In each case there were those who argued that building the BRC hurt the ability of these individual organizations to grow. In some cases it was argued that work in the BRC should only take place if it could help these individual organizations to grow. What was fascinating is that most of the organizations that participated in the building of the BRC did so in a very principled manner despite the fact that it did not necessarily lead to the growth of their own organizations. At a certain juncture, however, that relationship needed to become a bit more symbiotic in order to make it sustainable. If organizations are working entirely through a united front then they can often lose their reason to exist.
(11)The challenge of building a united front organization: Many people outside of the Left think of the Left as near monolithic. They will offer expressions such as “…the Left does this…” or “…you know the Left…” as if they are talking about a consolidated tendency, if not an organization. Yet the Left is very diverse, and this is no less true of the Black Left. There are various shades of nationalists; Marxists; feminists; anarchists; green leftists; Pan Africanists; and so on. And, to make it even more interesting, there are mixtures and overlaps of each of these categories.
It is important to keep in mind that the original conception of the BRC was not as an organization but as an event or process leading to an event: a summit of the Black Left. It was understood from the beginning that there would be different tendencies represented at a summit and, once we decided that we needed to go beyond a summit, it was understood—at least theoretically—that an organization that emerged from the Juneteenth conference would be extremely diverse and, objectively, a united front formation.
There were many implications to being a united front formation. One of the most important concerned the level of unity. As opposed to a cadre organization, or for that matter any sort of ideologically consolidated organization, a united front organization would need to have a level of agreement that was lower than that of a consolidated organization. This does not mean that a united front organization would be loose or amorphous, but it would mean that it would be both easy to join and have a spectrum of views on questions that would not be the case if it was a consolidated organization with a specific world view and/or clearly defined purpose.
A second challenge in building a united front organization concerns how groups working within a united front organization should operate in a principled manner. There are many negative examples of groups attempting to use a united front organization in order to grow, analogous to leaches. Yet in the BRC, as noted above, that, by-and-large, did not happen. (There is a funny anecdote here. An internal document from an organization known for sectarianism was revealed around the time of the formation of the BRC. It indicated that it did not appear as if there were great prospects for them to pick off BRC members for their own growth. The representatives of this organization disappeared in embarrassment from the ranks of the BRC. In case you are curious, it was not one of the organizations mentioned in this document.). The problem is that when a group is publicly represented in a united front organization how does it present its politics in a way that does not come off as sectarian or factional?
The best answer we have been able to come up with, regarding this last question, revolves around a combination of work-style and the public existence of a group operating within a united front organization. In the case of the BRC, the major groups that worked to build it did just that: worked to build it. They deployed individuals to carry out various tasks and did not make their particular point of view the end-all and be-all. As a result, they gained a great deal of respect, in general, sometimes even from individuals and groups that had previously shared disagreements with them. Given the legacy of anti-communism, there was often skepticism about the intentions of explicitly Marxist organizations even though such organizations were not actually shunned within the BRC. In either case, the Marxist organizations—be they nationalist or non-nationalist—worked very hard overall to build the BRC.
The other piece to this puzzle, as mentioned, concerns visibility. It helped to have accessible public representatives of the groups that were working to build the BRC. This is to say that it was important for individuals in the BRC who were unaffiliated with any organization, to have a chance to meet with and discuss various issues with these groups and to understand that these organizations were not somehow alien.
The fundamental challenge in building a united front organization, however, concerns the question of the “mandate” created by the components or participants in the united front organization. To put it another way, there are parameters in all organizations but particularly in united front organizations the parameters can be restrictive and uncomfortable. Those parameters define the unity of the group and, while they can be challenged up to a point, they must nevertheless be recognized and respected.
In general the leadership of the BRC understood its mandate(s) and the parameters within which it could operate. This meant that there certainly was debate on a host of issues, but it was debate that could only go but so far. The leadership could, therefore, lead within those parameters. In the case of the statement in response to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, the coordinating committee pushed the limits of the mandate a bit but not enough to cause any problems. The majority of the BRC believed that the statement represented the unity of our project.
In early 2003, however, a very different situation evolved and one from which important lessons must be drawn. Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was carrying out intense repression against domestic opponents. The forms of repression varied but included jailing, torture and rape. The US-based non-profit advocacy group, Africa Action, initiated a sign-on letter to be sent to President Mugabe protesting this repression and calling upon him to ensure a cessation of such activities. The then executive director of Africa Action approached several organizations and individuals to gain their support and signatures on this letter of protest. Among those approached were TransAfrica Forum (another non-profit advocacy group most frequently associated with leading the anti-apartheid support struggle in the USA) and the BRC. (At the time Bill Fletcher was the president of TransAfrica Forum and a member of the BRC’s Coordinating Committee. Though TransAfrica Forum signed onto the letter to Mugabe, his role in this situation was to convey to the BRC the request on behalf of the Executive Director of Africa Action.).
The BRC Coordinating Committee unanimously agreed that it should endorse this letter. There was not one voice raised in opposition, though one member raised the possibility that there might be pushback. In either case, there was a thorough discussion of the situation in Zimbabwe and the letter. The Coordinating Committee concluded that the BRC needed to go on record in opposition to the repression underway. (Because of mis-information that was spread at the time it is critically important to be clear about the nature of the letter. The letter was criticizing the repression that President Mugabe and his supporters were conducting against his opponents in the political realm and within the social movements. The letter was NOT criticizing the land seizures, though among the signatories there were different analyses as to the ACTUAL nature of the land seizures and, specifically, who was benefiting and who was not. In the struggle that unfolded in the USA in the aftermath of the publication of the letter, many Mugabe supporters in the USA claimed that Africa Action, TransAfrica Forum and the BRC Coordinating Committee were allegedly defending the white farmers who had been expropriated. There is no factual foundation for this argument, and the sole purpose of that line of argument was to attempt to discredit any discussion as to what was actually going on in Zimbabwe at that time.).
The response was like a maelstrom. There was immediate pushback and the tenor of the ensuing debate became more and more toxic. There were two main arguments against the statement: (1)that there should have been a debate within the BRC as a whole prior to the issuing of the statement, and (2)that the statement was wrong.
The response of the Coordinating Committee was largely defensive. Outside of our national conferences there actually had not been a generalized debate on any issue prior to the Coordinating Committee issuing a statement. In fact, as noted earlier, the Coordinating Committee was regularly asked to issue statements. As a result it was the position of the Coordinating Committee that it was their responsibility to speak out as the main leadership body of the formation. On the substance of the issue, the Coordinating Committee reaffirmed its position.
On the basic facts the Coordinating Committee was correct. At the same time it failed to recognize that it had actually erred. The error was not in the realm of formality but rather at the level of not having a better sense of the tensions and contradictions within the BRC. The Coordinating Committee did not take sufficiently seriously the extent of the pro-Mugabe sentiment within the formation and that the Coordinating Committee, in signing onto a critical letter, was overreaching. While we contend that the letter, in substance, was correct and has been vindicated by later actions by President Mugabe, that is, actually, irrelevant. When one is in a united front body one has to always get a sense as to the parameters. This means that a united front organization may not necessarily take the same position that an individual member or organizational member would take on any given issue because the level of unity within a united front organization is, by definition, different and lower.
The “Mugabe letter incident” tore at the BRC and resulted in the defection of important members. That people left over this letter rather than registering their strong disagreements was, itself, significant, which is to say that the drawing of a line in the sand over this letter of protest to President Mugabe in light of the vast areas of agreement within the BRC was indicative of an internal sectarianism, not to mention a narrowness of purpose.
Yet the responsibility lay primarily with the Coordinating Committee. The CC needed to have tested the ground before issuing the statement. It needed to have, at least, floated the statement to someone whose views on the matter differed from the CC. Backed into a corner the CC lined up supporters for its position and the situation went from bad to worse. By the summer 2003 conference of the BRC, an organization already in decline, suffered from a level of demoralization and tension. The defections started and the center could not hold. While the BRC would continue through 2010, it ceased to be the rallying point for the various tendencies as it once had been.
The critical issue here is that the leadership of the BRC had to navigate in very stormy seas. It had to, at all times, pay attention to the actual mandate that it had to lead. To the extent to which the leadership was perceived as fair, willing to listen, open-minded and non-sectarian, it was able to gain an important level of credibility. When the actions of the leadership or a portion of the leadership could be portrayed as trying to push their own agenda—even if this was factually not the case—the credibility was weakened, thereby contributing to defections and factionalism. (Therefore, it would have been one thing for a leader of the BRC, offering their own opinion or the opinion of an organization in which they operated, to have voiced a view on Mugabe. But in speaking FOR the BRC, the problem that emerged quickly was that the unity was simply not there.).
Yet here is the other part of this overall equation. The mandate or parameters are never fixed in stone. They can shift over time, and usually do. But they can unravel even under the best of circumstances when external factors change. In other words, when the circumstances that led to the coming together of the various forces in a united front changes, the front can weaken or strengthen, depending on the nature of the changes. Using an example outside of the BRC, in the build-up to the US invasion of Iraq, coalitions assembled, such as United For Peace & Justice (UFPJ). UFPJ was a massive coalition of various groups that opposed the pending invasion. Yet, when the invasion took place and was successful, this created a major challenge for UFPJ. Could UFPJ stay together? What should happen in light of the successful US invasion? It was at that juncture that UFPJ faced a crisis of direction that included some groups drifting away to get back to their regular work while many of the constituents wanting UFPJ to take on various issues in addition to Iraq. The immediacy of the invasion had kept UFPJ focused; the aftermath led to a very different situation.
To a great extent that situation faced the BRC as well, and not just due to Mugabe letter incident. As unifying as was the Juneteenth conference, it did not lead to an obvious central focus; neither did it result in a sense of an obvious common project, as mentioned earlier.
(12)Was there a role for faith?: One of the great failings of the BRC as a project was its inability to unite, on scale, with faith-based initiatives, projects, etc. While there were religiously-inspired activists who participated in the BRC, including at the founding Juneteenth conference, the reality is that they were not central. Despite that, the enthusiasm of the Juneteenth conference led one faith-based leader who participated to committing to building a religious component to the BRC. The National Continuations Committee was thrilled in hearing that news. Unfortunately, it never happened.
Many secular Leftists think of faith-based leftists only as an afterthought. That was essentially the case in the BRC. In the construction of the National Continuations Committee insufficient time went into developing ties with that sector. Despite the fact that we had Cornel West as an early signatory to the call to the Juneteenth conference, it was more the Cornel as the left-wing public intellectual rather than approaching Cornel with his religious cap on, so to speak.
Though there was a religious presence at the Juneteenth conference, which contributed to the commitment to the building of a religious component to the BRC, nothing took off. There are different explanations. These include: (1)the lack of a core, (2)absent from our strategy, (3)a different world.
There was an insufficient core of faith-based black radicals involved with or in orbit around the BRC in order for this work to gain traction. This does not mean that there was no involvement. But it means that faith-based activists may have chosen to participate in the BRC in different ways but not as a self-identified grouping. In contrast, and by way of example, there were organized feminist and labor caucuses that saw as their role both outreach as well as influencing the politics and dynamics of the BRC.
There was an absence from the BRC strategy of outreach to faith-based groups and religious institutions. This does not mean that there were not tactical overtures. Whether through demonstrations or for other events, there was outreach to participate in what the BRC was already planning on doing. What was not done, however, was to ensure the inclusion of religious activists in the creation of overall strategy as well as specific plans. Given this, the outreach would appear to be either last-minute or an afterthought rather than representative of an effort to build a very broad front.
This takes us into the question of a ‘different world.’ The failure of the BRC to be inclusive of religious activists was not about “intent” in the sense of any suggestion that the majority of the BRC wanted to exclude or ignore religious activists. Rather, it was more representative of this not being on the radar screen. It was not even a matter of a group of atheists ignoring religious activists, since the BRC was made up of activists from different religious and spiritual traditions as well as those who are atheists or hold to no defined spiritual belief system. It was more reflective of our political and strategic failure to appreciate the importance of the religious community, including among leftists, and the need to see within the religious community comrades who are also in struggle not only for Black freedom, but against regressive tendencies in their respective religious communities.
Our failure to make the consistent connection with the religious community in the left-wing of the Black Freedom Movement cost us deeply in terms of limitations on expansion and base-building. There were other approaches that we could have taken had we been more sensitive to this question. An interesting example, which emerged at roughly the same time as the BRC, was a network called “Ministers Against Global Injustice” (MAGI). Initiated by Global Trade Watch in the midst of the debate around the backward “Africa Growth and Opportunity Act”, MAGI was a national network of progressive Black ministers who spoke out against AGOA and, in effect, regressive trade agreements. This formation, which in time drifted out of existence, was precisely the sort of formation that the BRC needed as an affiliate. MAGI involved ministers who were prepared to speak out on a global issue while at the same time connecting that with domestic issues. MAGI was a potentially strategic initiative and contrasted with the on-again/off-again relationship that frequently transpires between many secular activists (and organizations) and the progressive faith-based movements.
The BRC could have, additionally, taken a bold step into another aspect of the religious community. In the aftermath of 9/11 anti-Muslim discrimination, demonization and violence spread across the USA like wild-fire. Though the BRC spoke out against Islamophobia, this could have been a key moment to link with progressive Muslim activists and provide a base of support against the assaults that were being experienced. Unfortunately, while the BRC did speak out and was a voice against the generally repressive climate that existed after 9/11, there was no coherent outreach to the Muslim community to build appropriate alliances and, where feasible, encourage affiliation with the BRC.
(13)What about class? It is fair to say that the bulk of the BRC was committed to the idea that the BRC needed to be grounded among Black working class people. At the same time, for most of the BRC that notion was something of an abstraction. What did it mean, concretely, to ground the BRC within the Black working class? Would the BRC be an organization that was a voice of the Black working class?
Part of the problem with the framing of the issue of “class” in the BRC was that it was done as if “class” was a constituency group along the lines of any other. In addition, “class” was often interpreted as being the same thing as labor. Thus, the idea that the BRC needed to pay special attention to the working class (the majority of Black America) was not necessarily greeted enthusiastically within the entire organization. Influenced by degrees of post-modernism, some argued that a focus on the Black working class was “pre-figurative” or presumed an importance for the Black working class that was not justified.
The problem of identifying class and labor resulted in the notion that there needed to be a special “labor” section of the BRC just as there had been one in the National Black United Front twenty years earlier. Yet having a caucus or committee focused on labor was not the same thing as rooting the BRC in the Black working class. The labor movement is a particular social movement, possessing its own set of dynamics. The notion of class is about power relations in society and the cultures that flow from them.
Differences on the matter of class arose in various ways. The first was a matter of base. While there certainly was a consensus, as noted earlier, in terms of grounding the BRC in the Black working class, the implications of such an understanding were not grasped. There was little attention to what that meant in terms of recruitment; the manner in which meetings were held; or the struggles in which the BRC was engaged. Thus, while the BRC certainly attracted Black working class activists, it cannot be said that the BRC was an expression of the Black working class. It was a “friend” to the Black working class, possessing a radicalism that supported the Black working class, but the organization itself was not one that Black workers would recognize as being one of their own.
The experience of the BRC when it came to class contrasted with that of the National Negro Congress, the Black united front organization from the 1930s and early 1940s, that was deeply rooted in the major working class struggles of their time. What was interesting about the NNC was that, formed as a result of discussions that started in 1935, the movement was aimed at addressing the disproportionate impact of the Great Depression on Black America and the unevenness on the part of the federal government in responding. But what emerged was an organization that also recognized the strategic implication of the rise of a new labor union movement led by the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) and what that meant for the Black working class in particular, and Black America in general. The NNC’s leadership saw in the rise of the CIO a tremendous opportunity for Black workers and, therefore, decided to play a role in influencing the growth of the CIO.
In the case of the BRC there was no similarity. There was no agreement that working class struggles held a particular importance. To some extent such struggles were collapsed into the generic notion of “community struggles.” Economic justice struggles, including those on the job but also in the communities, did not rise in importance. Just the same, the Labor Caucus was renamed the Working Class Caucus to reflect the desire to broaden its scope beyond just union organizing.
There was an interesting moment that was illustrative of the problem that we faced. In 2000 the BRC was approached about a struggle that was unfolding in Charleston, South Carolina. Five dockworkers, members of Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen’s Association had been arrested on the pretext of conspiracy to incite to riot and inciting to riot. This action was the result of a police provocation at a demonstration by the dockworkers against a non-union stevedore company. Of the five dockworkers, four were Black and the campaign of vilification against them represented an attack on both the Black community and labor.
The national AFL-CIO began a campaign to defend and gain an acquittal for these workers. The BRC got involved. As the BRC became more involved an argument ensued over whether, what came to be known as the “Charleston 5 Defense Campaign”, should become a major focus of the work of the BRC. Specifically this meant should the BRC concentrate resources on this defense effort.
The response within the BRC was initially anemic. Within the leadership there were those who held that a focus on the Charleston 5 was not relevant to the rest of the BRC. The Charleston 5 case, in other words, was treated as a constituency campaign rather than a campaign that held any strategic importance. Yet the C-5 campaign offered tremendous opportunities, including (1)a manner in which to speak with the community about systemic repression, (2)the possibilities of building a very broad campaign connecting the BRC with a wider spectrum of views and groups within Black America, (3)a way of basing the BRC within a segment of the Black working class, (4)a means of potentially influencing the labor union movement.
Ultimately, and for a very brief moment, there was a coordinated effort by the BRC around the C-5 campaign but that unraveled in the immediate aftermath of 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.
Yet the deeper problem, going way beyond the C-5 campaign reflected the adoption of campaigns and initiatives that did not necessarily flow out of the experiences and demands of the Black working class. That does not mean that these projects were either bad or good. What it means is that to base the BRC within the Black working class we would have had to have had a clearer sense of those demands and struggles. We may have found that those demands were not necessarily what the BRC members or leaders perceived to have been priorities.
(14)What’s in a name? The implications of our choice:
The name never became a major point of debate, though what did transpire was a series of discussions as to whether the name was appropriate, attractive, etc. One concern raised repeatedly, largely outside of the BRC, was whether the name should have been something like the “Black Progressive Congress”, i.e., that the term “radical” might scare away many potential members and supporters. This point of view was not treated seriously until the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. More about this below.
Part of what was implicitly at stake was the BRC carving out space to be known and understood to be a pole of the political Left of the Black Freedom Movement. In other words, the BRC was not an outpost of some existing party or formation that was outside of Black America, but was a formation indigenous to Black America and welcoming those committed to Black freedom
In general, the choice seems to have been a correct one. The situation, however, became somewhat complicated in the aftermath of 9/11. After the terrorist attacks the political Right and the mainstream media used terms such as “radical”, “fanatic”, and “terrorist” often interchangeably. This resulted in a situation where those on the political Left using the term “radical” often became a bit uneasy and having the name “Black RadicalCongress” emblazoned on websites, flyers, etc., raised questions as to whether we would receive unwanted attention, so to speak.
There never was a suggestion to change the name. Despite concerns about scrutiny, the BRC stood on the basis of the credibility of its members and its platform. While there were those on the political Right who attempted to demonize the BRC (and continue to this day, despite the demise of the BRC) it did not seem to succeed in scaring away potential friends and allies
(15)Cyber-organizing: The circumstances surrounding the Arab democratic uprisings/revolutions that began in December 2010 in Tunisia has led to a growing fascination with electronic organizing. Interestingly, the BRC was, in many respects, at the cutting edge of this work in its founding and early years.
When efforts got underway to form the BRC and organize towards the Juneteenth conference, the world of electronic communications was undergoing dramatic changes. In 1995/1996 e-mail, for instance, was only just becoming popular. Fax machines were being used much more frequently than they currently are. Pagers were the rage and cell phones were beginning to spread in usage. The Web was becoming increasingly popular as a method for advertising and education.
One of the early steps, once the National Continuations Committee was formed, was the creation of a Website. In fact, the Website became a major instrument for organizing the Juneteenth conference. Along with email communications, the Web took the BRC to all parts of the USA and, indeed, the world.
Within three months of the formation of the BRC, however, there was a major problem that nearly derailed the communications work of the BRC. The principal individual responsible for the Website abandoned the BRC (due to a very strange political disagreement) and froze the site. It took months to regain control of the site, but eventually that took place.
In this document we have generally stayed away from naming names of people who were involved—outside of the original five—but in the case of what came to be known as “cyber-organizing” it is important to make note of two individuals: Charles “Cappy” Pinderhughes and Art McGee. Working together they helped, in different ways, to place the BRC at the head of the line when it came to electronic organizing. Art, particularly, as the operations person with regard to our electronic organizing set up various mechanisms for components of the BRC to communicate and debate. A series of listserves were put together that allowed caucuses and committees to engage in planning and conduct exchanges. Ultimately the BRC won an award for its website and electronic organizing.
What the BRC appreciated, and admittedly many people had to be dragged kicking and screaming, was that organizing was a multi-pronged effort. Most of us were used to face-to-face organizing. Electronics offered us a whole new world. It also brought with it certain dangers.
As many of us have seen over the years, electronics does not substitute for face-to-face organizing; it supplements it. Yet electronic organizing can be seductive. In reaching hundreds, if not thousands of people, one can tend towards downplaying the interpersonal organizing and relationship building that is essential to be successful.
The cyber-organizing—as we referenced it—was initiated and sustained by volunteers. The dedication of the individuals, from the beginning, was exemplary. Yet there were problems. One, when you depend on volunteers it is often difficult to enforce accountability. In other words, you are dependent on someone(s) who you are not paying, therefore, that individual (or individuals) has to figure out when they can do the work of the organization on their own time. Two, as a result the organization can become uneasy about raising criticisms of anything that it does not like or appreciate from that volunteer for fear of losing them. This can lead to misunderstandings and unspoken disagreements. Third, the personality of whoever is in charge of cyber-organizing is critical. It is always important to keep in mind that there are varying levels of understandings of electronic media and some people are just not comfortable with it. Those in charge of cyber-organizing have to be immensely sensitive to that reality.
The BRC was unable to sustain its amazing cyber-organizing presence. When we were able to obtain some minimal funding we had the very difficult choice of funding a national organizer or the cyber-organizer. There was insufficient money for both. The National Council decided that it was essential that we have a national organizer to oversee the entire organization and work to build it. The volunteers who had been working on the project were not able to continue to devote the time to the project particularly in light of their own needs for paid employment, school and other affairs.
Did the BRC make the right choice? The choice that it made to hire a national organizer was probably the only choice that it could have made. As important as was the cyber-organizing, if there was no one to work with the affiliates or local organizing committees or to stay on top of the National Council, the organization would have quickly disintegrated. Yet the absence of a cyber-organizer demonstrated that in the 21st century, electronic organizing is not a luxury but a necessity. There is a popular expectation that an organization can be reached electronically, and for that matter, with little difficulty. It is also the popular expectation that new content will appear on Websites on a regular basis. It is not clear that the BRC recognized, as a whole, how central the cyber-organizing was and needed to be. With the loss of our key cyber-organizers and a reliance on web contractors for specific aspects of our work, the electronic presence of the BRC became increasingly mediocre.
A final point about cyber-organizing. What we learned from our experience is that cyber-organizing is far more than maintaining a website. It is thinking about building an organization or movement using electronic tools. Therefore, the introduction of the listserves for the various caucuses and workteams was not a technocratic matter but a recognition that building the BRC necessitated regular and quick interaction between and among those engaged in specific work. This was a very valuable contribution to this project.
(16)Organizations are easy to form and easy to dissolve, but they are hard to sustain: It all started off as a call to a meeting. The idea was that there were many Black leftists, whether in organizations or operating as individuals, but they were passing each other like ships in the night. So, the basic notion of a summit was to convene in order to ascertain what everyone was doing and whether there was a basis for cooperation.
This impulse for a meeting quickly evolved into a demand for an organization and on Juneteenth weekend 1998 there was a mass demand to form the Black Radical Congress. That was easy. More than ten years later, a badly weakened BRC was unofficially dissolved when it was clear that there was an insufficient core in order to sustain it. That was sad, but relatively easy (with the exception of paying off certain debts that had been accumulated).
It was the in-between that was so difficult. Building and sustaining an organization takes an immense amount of work and, as we earlier mentioned, it was not clear how many of those who embarked on the original journey were really prepared to undertake that process. The following represent some summary points on this matter that begin to draw together the overall lessons learned from this experience. Let’s look at this in a bit more detail.
First, it is far from clear that the implications of forming an organization were entirely apparent, not just to the 2000+ people in attendance in Chicago, but as well to the core. In addition to the problem of building a formation that was both an organization of organizations and an organization of individuals, there was the very real question of who was going to put in the work. In this era of non-profit activism (some call it NGO-ism) the notion of volunteer activism has weakened. Particularly among activists under the age of 50, there is a large-scale expectation that if you are active in an organization that you will get paid. Or, an extension of this is that one can be a member of an organization without doing much except, perhaps, engaging in email activism.
The BRC started off with limited funds and there was no way that it could field a staff. That meant that, with the exception of certain administrative work, the running of the organization was done on the basis of volunteers. One implication, and something that the two of us take very personally, is that this means that those in leadership cannot afford to have multiple “distractions”, i.e., they need to be able to focus their time and attention on the work of leading and sustaining the organization and not have a zillion other responsibilities. (For Bill this is an especially important point in that he served as the volunteer national organizer for several years yet had, during that time, a myriad of other responsibilities and political commitments, along with a day job.).
There were other implications in the formation of the BRC. The immediate question in Chicago was whether everyone in attendance at the conference would automatically become members? The National Continuations Committee decided against that approach and later did a membership drive. Part of our thinking was that we were unclear what the implications would be of assuming that everyone at the conference was to be a member. Would that mean that everyone automatically had a vote on who the leadership was? Did it mean that everyone in attendance agreed with the unity statement? We were uncertain and as a result we held back.
A second feature of sustaining an organization: resolving internal tensions. Any organization will have internal disputes. It is the nature of organizations. For that reason there need to be mechanisms for resolving internal disputes. The BRC had, in effect, two mechanisms: (a)go to the National Council, (b)go to the National Organizer. Some of the disputes were often quite serious. In one city the local organizing committee simply could not function. Attempts at addressing the tensions failed. We ultimately set up two local organizing committees in the same city. That step was probably the correct one but it was the result of a mediation session that ultimately failed to resolve the internal disagreements. Was there another way to handle this? We were not sure.
Years after the demise of the BRC, a former National Council member suggested that we needed the equivalent of a trial board in order to address disputes. S/he noted that too many people went to the National Organizer (first, Bill and later Jamala) and that this was not a good way to handle such disputes. It placed far too much pressure on one individual when we had to expect that there would regularly be disputes that needed to be resolved.
Third, sustaining an organization necessitates a core or cadre of activists. To return to an earlier point, we often assume that such a core will be paid activists for the organization. But what happens when you do not have paid activists? This is where the challenge of the role of organizations that had helped to build the BRC comes in. In order to sustain the BRC over the long-haul there needed to be a commitment of resources (including personnel) from the organizations that had made a commitment to build it. That commitment might have been one or two people who would work to build the BRC. The discipline that is normally associated with mature, grounded left organizations is invaluable, as history shows time and again. Relying on individual volunteers was insufficient, no matter how devoted to the BRC they happened to be.
Fourth, there was a challenge that we encountered in the BRC that shook many of the veteran members; a challenge referenced earlier in this paper:the walk-away phenomenon.
We first encountered this walk-away phenomenon on a significant scale after the Juneteenth conference in the wake of the Youth Caucus debacle. What was strange for many activists is that by “movement” standards, the disputes that took place within the Youth Caucus were not monumental. Certainly there was anger and there was bad feeling, but the contradictions that unfolded were over the course of a weekend rather than over the course of a longer period. Even if one assumes that the dispute had been building for a while, it was not something that played itself out destructively—at least visibly—in the lead up to the Juneteenth conference.
There were other manifestations of the walk-away phenomenon. Without any struggle or search for alternatives, individuals would simply decide that they were going to leave. While one comes to expect that in any organization at the rank and file level, it is very unsettling when it takes place within the leadership. And that is precisely what unfolded. In rare occasions an individual would indicate that they were going to step down from a leadership role after the next organizational congress/conference. More frequently, individuals would simply announce that they were leaving and that was that. Although this more often took place among younger activists, it was a phenomenon that played out at all levels.
It is difficult to ascertain what was underway with the walk-way phenomenon. There was, apparently, something in the work and culture of the BRC that individuals felt that they could do conduct themselves in such a way and there would be no consequences. This phenomenon had an impact on the work itself, but also on the morale. When key leaders disappeared, many of the members were only left to speculate on what was unfolding. When entire components of the organization walked away, however, as in the case of the Youth Caucus, it was devastating and called into question the ability of the organization to go the long-haul.
Finally, at what point should individuals leave an organization? To return to the disputes surrounding accepting foundation funds or the Mugabe letter, the question that hovers around all of this is the “breaking point.” In other words, at what point are the differences so great that unity is no longer viable. In the case of the BRC, members answered this as individuals at different times, but what was confounding was the nature of the disputes compared with the actual agreement that existed in the organization as a whole. In other words, how does one balance out a particular difference(s) vs. the level of agreement one has with the purpose and work of an organization? Unless framed like this it is very easy for any dispute to become a “splitting” issue rather than an issue around which there are serious differences.
Moving Forward: Individuals continued to join the BRC until the moment that it ceased to exist, in some ways reaffirming a point that many of us felt viscerally: if the BRC had not been called into existence, it would have been formed in either case. There was a perceived need for the BRC, and, literally, hundreds, if not thousands of people felt it. As we traveled the country, we ran across many activists who proudly considered themselves BRC members regardless of their involvement.
Yet this begs a question: is there a need for a BRC-type formation as we go forward in the second decade of the 21st century? The answer is not obvious. The BRC came together at a particular moment as a result of a growing frustration within the Black Left as to its inability to exist as a visible pole representing an alternative direction for Black America. Certainly such a pole is necessary, but does that mean an organization like the BRC?
A visible, active left-wing formation is very much needed in Black America. A formation that has a grassroots membership rather than just a non-profit staff; a formation that is militant, if not audacious, challenging racial capitalism and imperialism; an organization that is internationalist in its framework and actions; and a formation that is broad and welcoming.
That said, a mass left-wing Black formation must be prepared to engage with mainstream Black organizations, struggle in environments that are not necessarily radical or left but where masses of people exist and operate. This means that such a left-wing formation cannot be purist by any stretch of the imagination. It must be pragmatic while not being pragmatist, accessing whatever resources that it needs in order to sustain itself as long as the strings that are attached are not unprincipled or undermining.
The BRC reached a certain precipice around 1999/2000. We could all feel it. Segments of the political world of Black America could not ignore us, not to mention other segments of the broader Left and progressive world. The formation of the BRC ignited interest among other oppressed nationalities/people of color, resulting in similar formations being established among Asians and Latinos such as the Asian Left Forum and the New Raza Left. It even inspired an effort within a section of the left-wing of the labor movement to congeal. While these formations did not last, the example of the BRC had proven to resonate far beyond Black America.
Within the BRC we were not entirely sure what to do with this influence or with our impact. In that sense the initial debate over whether to accept foundation funding was actually not so much about foundation money, but more about whether the BRC would operate beyond remaining on the margins of politics. To borrow from Rosa Luxemburg, would the BRC engage in revolutionary realpolitik?
In our context “revolutionary realpolitik” is a political practice that moves a Left agenda but does so with an aim of both fighting for power; building alliances; and taking account of the actual conditions rather than engaging in philosophical idealism. It is the direct opposite of practicing pure-ism. It is not an approach taken by so many leftists whereby they engage in the ‘flying of a flag’, asserting their views rather than engaging in a battle for the hearts and minds of millions and the battle for progress.
Thus, a united front organization of Black leftists is needed now more than ever but only if it can be successful in learning the lessons from prior efforts, including but not limited to the BRC. The BRC was a magnificent contribution to a history of organized Black resistance to white supremacist national oppression and imperialism. It was another stone in the road of Black radicalism. And it was an experience upon which freedom fighters in the USA should build as we go forward to challenge global capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, other forms of oppression and environmental devastation.
We believe that the two of us speak for many other former BRC leaders and activists in saying that it was an honor to have participated in that effort.
[BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist, Jamala Rogers, founder and Chair Emeritus of the Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis. She is an organizer, trainer and speaker. She is the author of The Best of the Way I See It – A Chronicle of Struggle. Other writings by Ms. Rogers can be found on her blog jamalarogers.com. Contact Ms. Rogers and BC.
BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfricaForum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” - And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He is also the co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice, which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Mr. Fletcher is also Co-editor of "Claim No Easy Victories: The Legacy of Amilcar Cabral". Other Bill Fletcher, Jr. writing can be found at billfletcherjr.com. Contact Mr. Fletcher and BC.]