"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Saturday, April 08, 2006
From Conference to Organization: The Challenges of Building the Black Radical Congress
By Jamala Rogers

In “Let’s Liberate Ourselves” (The Black Scholar Volume 34, No 3), Herb Boyd attempted to tackle the inability of failed organizations and stalled movements to address the plethora of issues facing the African American community. His inaccurate information about the Black Radical Congress (BRC) piqued the ire of our some of our members. As the BRC’s national organizer, I was asked to correct the facts. Although correcting the facts was crucial, the opportunity to update readers in a more comprehensive manner was more desirable. Finally, any discussion about the BRC should be in the context of the overall Black Liberation Struggle which means adding my perspective to Boyd’s critique of our sputtering movement.

On March 17, 1997, I was called for duty by who I’ll always affectionately refer to as the “Fab Five”. The idea and necessity of a black left formation had been germinated by Abdul Alkalimat, Bill Fletcher, Manning Marable, Leith Mullings and Barbara Ransby. Their proposal for a gathering of forces from across the spectrum of the Black Left was introduced to what came to be known as the “Continuations Committee”, a larger group responsible for taking the process to the next level.

What follows is a status report of the Black Radical Congress and a preliminary exploration of the mutual challenges that the organization and the Black Liberation Movement face.

“A Quick Check on the Facts”

Many of us were concerned in reading Brother Boyd’s essay that we were reading the obituary of the Black Radical Congress. This was especially disconcerting because of the on-going work taking place across the US in the name of and within the framework of the BRC. Also, we expected Boyd, a respected journalist, to seek out the facts for his article. As such, we must respectfully disagree with several of the brother’s assertions while at the same time appreciating his concern about the state of our movement.

Herb Boyd implied that the BRC was either defunct or near defunct. This is simply not the case. We have, without question, faced significant challenges and contentious debates since our formation; the development of the organization has been far more difficult than many of us anticipated back in ’98. Nevertheless important work has preceded which I will mention below. It was also a bit curious that Brother Boyd reported was that we had failed to muster up enough people to build an independent black political party. Such a party had never been identified or agreed upon as a strategic goal of the group. Further, Boyd’s description of the inner-BRC debate over accepting a major foundation grant was simply inaccurate. The debate never involved a question of a change in our political direction or about organizational models. This will be discussed more fully later.

At the founding Congress, nearly 2000 people came to participate in what can accurately be described as an historic gathering of a major cross-section of the Black Left. Congress organizers were totally overwhelmed by the response, having set a modest attendance goal of 500. We knew shortly after the June 1998 gathering that some of those who participated were curiosity seekers because they never officially joined the BRC. Nonetheless, a new energy was unleashed in Chicago that reverberated throughout the nation. The work of the Continuations Committee in building consensus around the Freedom Agenda and the Principles of Unity was consummated at the BRC’s first National Council meeting held in the spring of 1999 where the documents were officially adopted. The carefully thought out plan also assured the inclusion of the various ideological trends in the Movement, i.e. socialists, Communists, LGBT, feminists and revolutionary Black Nationalism.

In the year following the Congress, a dozen BRC chapters, also called Local Organizing Committees (LOCs), were formed in major urban centers. The LOCs were organized to carry out the national plan and their own local activities. The BRC’s internet presence, initiated by cyber organizing guru, Abdul Alkalimat, leading up the Founding Congress was further developed by Art McGee. The BRC’s various listservs burgeoned to include nearly 20,000 subscribers. It appeared that the BRC was finally taking steady baby steps and defying the naysayers who had predicted Sudden Death Syndrome for the new organization.

“Claim no easy Victories”

As our beloved Comrade Amilcar Cabral once said, “Tell no lies. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories...“ Still a toddler in the continuum of organizational development, the Black Radical Congress has struggled and continues to struggle to become the organization that we put on paper in 1998. There was a critical mass within the BRC committed to organizing around the challenges that faced our people and our movement. Difficulties, mistakes and failures—we’ve have them all. And that’s no lie. The euphoria of the Juneteenth Congress began to fade as the LOCs struggled to survive. Those chapters which survived over the next year or so was based upon their sheer tenacity and organizing abilities. The BRC national leadership body, the Coordinating Committee, also struggled to function as a cohesive entity. Those who were drafted or volunteered to be on leadership bodies soon found themselves overcommitted. Making the time to grow a new organization between existing family and job obligations as well as other political work began to take its toll. The critical role of leadership and how it was affecting the organization on both the local and national levels was becoming more obvious.

For the next few years, the Black Radical Congress conducted national campaigns such as Education Not Incarceration, Fightback Against the War and Count Every Vote. There were additionally local efforts taken up by organizing committees or BRC affiliates. These campaigns enjoyed varying degrees of success. The BRC has been involved in every issue facing our people from HIV/AIDS to toxic waste to police violence (including our very successful work, along with other allies, in defense of the Charleston, South Carolina dockworkers, charged with inciting to riot when they were defending their rights and living standards).

Since the 1998 Congress, there have been two other national gatherings. One was an organizing conference co-sponsored by the Black Studies Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan in 2000. The other was a congress held in 2003 and co-sponsored by the Black Studies Department at Seton Hall in South Orange, New Jersey. Currently, plans are being finalized for Congress 2005 to be held Juneteenth in Atlanta, Georgia.

The BRC has advanced a radical analysis on various topics via our public forums, our listservs, leaflets and newsletters. We’ve had presence at numerous conferences and rallies, such as World Conference Against Racism, Black Workers Conference, Socialist Scholars Conference, March for Women’s Lives, National Political Hip Hop Convention as well as the various US-based and international social forums. Wherever we went, we received affirmation that the BRC was needed and appreciated. Those were hopeful bursts of oxygen to the sometimes flickering flames of the black radical legacy whose fire we had vowed to carry and keep burning.

The BRC began to seriously explore how to fund a national organization; the controversial proposal to apply for a major foundation grant came up. After the first contentious debate, we agreed not to submit a proposal. The decision to apply for a major foundation grant was not a quandary between choosing a “corporate” model over a “movement” model as Herb Boyd implied in his article. It came down to whether the BRC would operate as a national organization or as loose network of affiliated chapters and individual members. To put it in another way, there was a very concrete issue of the need for resources in order to sustain a national effort. This was not an abstract question or one that could be written off in the haze of vague proposals about alternative fundraising measures. The BRC was standing at a critical juncture where significant resources were needed in order to sustain the national effort.

Amidst unprincipled tactics and loud denunciations by a few members, the majority stayed focus on our original vision of the BRC. This ultimately led us to the political decision to approach an allied organization and through them seek to obtain a major grant in order to continue national operations. Members believed that the kind of organization envisioned at the Founding Congress called for an infrastructure that could respond to not only the needs of the LOCs and national members (members unaffiliated with an LOC) but to the needs of the broader movement. It was becoming increasingly impossible to realize that mandate with only sporadic funding and a volunteer national leadership.

Since receiving the grant, the BRC has hired staff that includes a full time national organizer and part-time clerical, web administrator and youth organizer. We revived our newsletter and developed other organizational literature. The website was re-designed to fit the current needs of the organization. We have streamlined and democratized our listservs based upon feedback from members to make them more relevant to the work of the BRC and not just for the personal platforms of a few.

Having the funds to pay attention to critical components of capacity building has been invaluable. The BRC membership has doubled. We have national members in over 30 major cities and four chapters operating in the Bay Area, New York, Philly and Pittsburgh. There are two affiliated organizations: the Organization for Black Struggle in St. Louis and Black Workers for Justice with their own chapters located primarily in the South. Both organizations have a long and respected history in the communities where they organize. There are also several “in-formation” organizing committees in the queue doing what is necessary to become full-fledged LOCs. The BRC is organically linked to an additional 90 organizations because of our members’ affiliations with these groups. The potential of the BRC is indisputable.

New Approaches to Old Problems

The Black Radical Congress is not operating in a vacuum. We are grappling with some of the same challenges that plague our movement. The hope is that our collective struggle will net some meaningful lessons beyond our limited organizational boundaries. One critical challenge is leadership, filling the voids, redefining the needs for the current period, developing the next generation of radicals, etc. The other is how to achieve financial viability as a left organization in a capitalist society and neo-liberalism era. In his book, “Black Leadership,” Manning Marable defines leaders as “individuals who have the ability to understand their own times…and who devise instruments or political vehicles that enhance the capacity to achieve effective change.” He goes on to talk about how W.E.B. Dubois came to understand that it was the masses of oppressed people who make history not the once celebrated “Talented Tenth”. Those of us committed to liberation have adopted and adapted organizational models that often restrict personal and organizational growth and development. These models tend to be hierarchal, patriarchal and anti-working class-- in conflict with creating an organizational culture that is inviting, validating, nurturing, engaging and correcting. Can and do our organizations embrace the talents and experiences of workers, women, the differently-abled? For the BRC, it is a work in process.

The business of liberation must be elevated to a higher standard. Kalimu Endesha, a long-time organizer is St. Louis, MO has coined the phrase “Ghetto Volunteerism”. By this he means our movement has abandoned high standards regarding a revolutionary work ethic. There is little accountability to one another or to the collective. People agree to do a task and it’s a throw of the die if they will follow through on their commitment. If they don’t, can’t or won’t do what they gave their word to do, there’s usually no advance warning, no explanation and rarely any self-criticism. The “whateva” attitude has infected our liberation efforts in a serious way and threatens any meaningful progress and genuine unity.. For starters, black radicals need to file “Cullud People’s Time” (CPT) under “Cured Organizational Diseases”. This dysfunctional environmental makes the call for dedicated, radical leaders even more difficult. Responsibility is an inherent attribute of leadership. Yet I have seen and heard those who call themselves progressive, radical, even revolutionary allow almost anything to roll off their lips with the full knowledge that they will not be called out. And then there are those who make the sacrifices, who give precious time to our struggle but who often bear the keloid scars from the internal battles. This schizophrenic practice is changing the very essence of how we define leadership and who is willing to step up to the plate to serve.

It is high time for our movement to look at models of organization that are more in keeping with our cultural realities as Africans in America and which are more relevant to the political period we face. As stated earlier in this article, too many of our organizations are hierarchal and undemocratic. Black feminist groups have made significant inroads into deconstructing old models and creating ones where all voices are heard and valued. The Black Liberation Movement has not been exempt from absorbing the rightist ideologies that produce cult-like organizations with benevolent, charismatic male leaders at the helm. A refresher course in Organizing 101, i.e. building grassroots, democratic organizations, is a necessity in 2005.

In this context, Ella Baker’s organizational philosophy bears our collective examination. Her group-centered model over individual leadership has been waving in front of us like an enthusiastic student trying to get the teacher’s attention to answer a question. For too long (over 50 years to be exact!), Baker’s thinking about the process of organizing has been relegated to the non- glorious section of our liberation history book. Her non-intrusive but firm, facilitative approach was often overshadowed by the leadership styles of those like Dr. Martin Luther King. If we pause to answer the question as to how we truly empower masses of people and not just temporarily inspire them, Ella Baker offers one promising approach.

In the book, “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” Barbara Ransby, lifts up this approach for us to study and relish. Ransby points out that Baker’s behind-the-scenes style made her no less a leader than those in the male-dominated Civil Rights Movement whose fiery speeches guaranteed them a respected place in the our people’s hearts and minds. Sister Ransby’s decision to focus on Baker is no accident but could be a missed opportunity for those of us searching for new or better ways to organize our people around issues that impact their quality of life as well as to how to put the “mass” in movement.

Having received another swift kick from the corporate electoral process, Bill Fletcher implores us to resurrect the model used to build the Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s. His Neo-Rainbow concept taps into the elements that made the Coalition resonate with such broad and diverse segments of the country. Fletcher asserts that the key link is still the “building of independent, progressive mass electoral organizations that are deeply rooted among the working class” and that the leadership must come from the most dispossessed, particularly people of color.

The “graying” of all the social movements is a phenomenon that should get no denial. This trend must be decisively reversed. From the BRC’s beginning, youth and student activists were included in the thinking and building of the BRC. One of the most memorable activities at the Founding Congress was an intergenerational activity where aspiring young activists were given the opportunity to interview movement figures such as Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis and General Baker—people they had only been able to read about in books. The road has been bumpy, but the BRC has worked hard to continue its practice of youth inclusion. We encourage those in the thirty-something age group to serve in leadership positions under the tutelage of veteran activists and scholars. With the assistance of the Youth Organizer, we should make considerable strides in this area by implementing a clear plan for recruiting and mentoring a new generation of leaders for our struggle. An intergeneration theme will also be highlighted at Congress 2005 to be held in Atlanta, Georgia.

Lastly, on the subject of organizing, we must revisit the grassroots kind of organizing that takes us to the people, that takes us to the streets. Building relationships is an integral part of building organizations and movements. As Ella Baker would resolutely remind us, our strength lies “within kinship networks, local communities and organizations.” Some think that the one-on-one methodology is outdated in this high-tech world. We substitute face time organizing with cyber organizing or organizing via progressive radio programs. These are all necessary vehicles to reach people but only in concert with a strategic plan that is empowering people along the way.

I am thoroughly convinced that the experiences, talents and skills necessary to rebuild the black left lies within our movement. The Black Radical Congress, as does others groups in the Black Liberation Movement, has a responsibility to do its part. I believe we are in a position to make significant contributions to that end. Let’s also remember the Black Radical Congress inspired similar united fronts in the Latino and Asian movements. Although the New Raza Left and the Asian Left Forum didn’t fare as well as the BRC, we need to reach out to the radicals and progressives in those movements and share our summed up experiences.

We have in place some invaluable assets. In addition to the Fab Five, we constituted an Advisory Board which includes Adjoa Aiyetoro, Linda Burnham, Garry Owens, Clarence Lusane, Ken Riley and Barbara Smith. (Sister Aiyetoro is a veteran organizer in the reparations movement. Barbara Smith is a well-known lesbian-feminist writer and activist. Linda Burnham is a respected feminist and architect of the “Count Every Vote” campaign. Ken Riley is an outspoken labor leader and head of the International Longshoreman’s Association; Clarence Lusane is a writer with expertise in international affairs. Garry Owens is a human rights activist with emphasis on workers rights.) We have our extensive listservs and outreach component. We have the backbone of the BRC, our Local Organizing Committees. We don’t have all the answers, but we have the political will to figure them out. And figure it out we must. The Conservative Right and Immoral Majority are on the offensive, the people’s movements are on the ropes.

Danny Glover, consummate actor and activist in his own right, urged us at Congress 2003 to tap into our “imagination” as activists and radicals. His remarks took me back to the Congress Call of 1998 that declared getting “out this mess requires a new thinking, new vision and a new spirit of resistance. We need a new movement of Black radicalism.” The invitation to “reclaim our historical role as the real voice of democracy in this country” is a standing one. Join the Black Radical Congress
posted by R J Noriega at 5:51 PM | Permalink |


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