By JESÚS A. RODRÍGUEZ – As the Black Lives Matter movement aims to translate protest energy into political action, an earlier generation of activists offers words of advice and caution.
On the night of March 11, 1972, thousands of Black Americans from around the country — Democrats, Republicans, socialists and nationalists alike — packed into a high school gymnasium in Gary, Ind., for the first National Black Political Convention. The room brimmed with tension, as the high ideals of Black separatists were set to clash with the pragmatism of elected officials. A congressman was booed and jeered at. The NAACP denounced the convention for excluding white people. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black major-party presidential candidate, boycotted the event because the conveners couldn’t decide whether to endorse her campaign.
Then the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a close ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., took the stage. The assassinations of King and Malcolm X in the previous decade had delivered a tragic blow to the civil rights movement, and Jackson had come to Gary hoping to unify the community with a bold call.
Now, 48 years later, a group of Black Lives Matter organizers is looking to the Gary convention as a model for how they can take the energy and ideas of their protest movement into the halls of political power. On August 28, the Movement for Black Lives — a coalition of organizations founded in 2014 in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — aims to engage tens of thousands of Black voters in an online Black National Convention of its own. The Black Lives Matter movement has resisted coalescing around a single leader or a hierarchy. Instead, organizers see the convention as an acknowledgment that protest is but one way to push for police and other reforms, and that electoral politics needs to play a role as well. While a handful of Black Lives Matter activists have ascended to political office, the United States still has only three Black senators and zero Black governors, despite the gains after 1972.
“There is no better time because we’re in the thick of it,” says Rukia Lumumba, who co-leads the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project, which is overseeing the conference. “We’re not all going to be on the same page about [how to achieve] our freedom, but that’s our North Star.”
And yet, the fact that the Gary delegates made many of the same demands that Black Lives Matter organizers are making today — untrammeled voting rights, a reduction in the military budget, the abolition of the death penalty, an end to police violence — goes to show that there’s no guarantee of success.
Looking back, Jackson now says his call for an independent Black party would be too divisive in the current political moment, and that today’s Black organizers are wise to shy away from it. “We’ve evolved into a rainbow coalition — multiethnic, multicultural,” he says. “An independent party would be limiting.”
While applauding the new convention’s aspirations, participants in and scholars of its 1972 predecessor also offered a cautionary note in recent interviews. They warned that social media can be an effective educational and organizing tool — one they never had access to — but that online attention should not be mistaken for political change. They emphasized the importance of unity, which they weren’t always able to maintain themselves. Perhaps most important, they argued that in order to achieve lasting change, organizers will need to understand the benefits of coordinating with other marginalized groups to elect more Black officials into the political system, while also working from the outside to hold those in power to account.
That’s one lesson the Black Lives Matter activists seem to be taking from 1972 so far. “Electoral politics is not something that we can neglect,” Lumumba says. “Unless we continue to experiment with governing, we will never see ourselves being free.”
The tradition of Black political conventions in the United States, historian William Pretzer told me over Zoom on a recent afternoon, goes back at least to meetings in the 1830s about the abolition of slavery. Then, as now, a more fundamental schism undergirded the debate: Should Black Americans make inroads within the system to enact change, or should they work to dismantle the status quo and assert their power by any means necessary?
So, in early 1971, several leaders of the civil rights movement — notably Jackson, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.), Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz — decided to hold a convention to create a national platform for Black activism in the ’70s. They partnered with Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher — one of the first Black mayors of a large U.S. city — and secured a local high school gymnasium to host the three-day affair. Diggs, representing the nascent Congressional Black Caucus, issued a news release in November 1971 announcing the convention, and a commission converged in Washington to draft a Black political agenda that would be debated at the convention and published afterward.
An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people — delegates selected by local organizations from Oregon to North Carolina — traveled to Gary in March 1972. Many of them road-tripped and stayed at friends’ homes in Gary or in neighboring Chicago. “It wasn’t held in a high-rise hotel where people spent the night,” says Leonard Moore, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of an account of the Gary convention. “It was very much a grassroots effort, and that was intentional because they wanted to make sure the convention was accessible to everyone.”
Tensions inevitably broke out on a couple of occasions. The first instance of pandemonium arrived at the very beginning of the convention, when Diggs misread the crowd and gaveled down before everyone could submit their nominations for the person who would preside over the day’s proceedings. “People were not looking for some Roberts’ Rule of Order to rule the day,” Chavis recalled. “We wanted an open convention, not a repressed convention.” Coleman Young, who would go on to become the mayor of Detroit, almost caused the entire delegation of Michigan to walk out at one point because he disagreed with the leadership over a vote.
After a weekend of discussions that spanned the condemnation of Israel as an “apartheid state” to the philosophical writings of Frantz Fanon, speeches by civil rights leaders and even musical performances, the convention adjourned with a Gary Declaration that outlined the political principles participants were committing themselves to for the rest of the decade. The declaration’s main message was that Black Americans needed to assert their self-determination and set their own independent agenda, rather than pining for representation from one of the major parties. “Both parties have betrayed us whenever their interests conflicted with ours (which was most of the time), and whenever our forces were unorganized and dependent, quiescent and compliant,” the declaration read. “White politics seeks not to serve but to dominate and manipulate.”
On May 19, the convention’s steering committee published a 68-page national Black political agenda, which included items such as calls for Black representation in Congress proportionate to the U.S. Black population, a halving of the defense and space budgets, and a government-guaranteed $6,500 income for four-person households. The convention’s planners also set up a National Black Political Assembly, a loose body of leaders tasked with finalizing and implementing the agenda agreed upon at Gary.
Still, others point to a more long-lasting success: Over the next decade, the number of Black elected officials in all levels of government almost tripled, with a significant increase at the local level, according to Pretzer, who credits the 1972 convention with contributing to that. Haki Madhubuti, who was an Illinois delegate at the convention and founded Third World Press Foundation, the largest independent Black-owned press in the United States, points to the convention’s workshops, which trained delegates in organizing, history and political theory.
“On the last day of the convention, I was feeling like I had been at a revival,” Chavis recalled in the 1989 interview. “The Gary Convention gave us all the step forward that was needed to prop us up and give us the renewed energy that we needed to go back home and to continue those struggles that we were all involved in.”
Although the leaders of the Movement for Black Lives convention began their planning last summer, spurred by the upcoming election year, the events of the past several months upended everything. As the coronavirus pandemic struck, the Detroit convention center they had hoped to secure as a venue became a makeshift hospital. The virus’ disparate effects on Black Americans and the months of national protest spurred by George Floyd’s death, however, also made it clear to organizers that the convention was necessary: “We felt responsibility before, but now there’s a mandate,” says Jessica Byrd, a co-lead of the Electoral Justice Project and a founder of the Movement for Black Lives. (The convention is not affiliated with the “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” March on Washington organized by Rev. Al Sharpton and planned for earlier the same day.)
For Byrd, grief is something that unites the current generation of activists with the Gary generation. “Some of the key headlines from that time were, ‘We’re tired of stepping over dead bodies.’ And so are we,” she says. “Our people are really dying: They’re dying in hospitals. They’re dying alone in their homes from coronavirus. And they’re also dying on 30-second camera clips at the hands of police officers.”
Although many Democrats have advocated for some of the movement’s policy goals, Lumumba says the organizers don’t see themselves, or their causes, as well-represented in either party. Each activist who attended the preconvention drafting meeting will be charged with working to implement these policy goals at whatever level they can — whether lobbying their local school board or lawmakers, or launching their own candidacies; the Movement for Black Lives intends to provide organizing tactics and political connections. Beyond marching on City Hall, Lumumba says, she hopes participants will “become City Hall.”
The all-online, one-day convention will consist of three to four hours of speeches by Black elected officials, intellectuals and leaders of the movement. As of Thursday, organizers projected that more than 100,000 people would view the convention, which is free and open to the public, but they are trying to make sure their website can sustain their original goal of 4 million watchers. The virtual convention by necessity won’t be as interactive as the in-person 1972 event. It will, however, be more diverse: The movement today includes many more women and members of the LGBTQ community, including Byrd. Angelica Ross, a Black trans actress, was selected as one of the convention’s hosts. And the BNC co-leads — Byrd, Lumumba and Kayla Reed, a racial justice organizer from St. Louis — are making the event accessible to disabled Americans by hiring sign language interpreters, among other measures.
Madhubuti wants the activists to acquaint themselves with the history of slavery as much as with the history of American colonization and Indigenous plunder. To that end, the organizers will need to ensure that workshops and trainings are ongoing after the convention is over, he says: “You cannot organize effectively unless you can train people, unless you can educate people, unless you can employ people, unless you can protect people.”
“The prosecutor doesn’t abolish the police — and neither does the president, really,” Reed says.