The National Black Political Convention

Lee Sustar looks at the attempts to create an independent Black political voice--and why it foundered because of continuing connections to the Democratic Party.

The History of Black America

DURING THE 1980s, when Jesse Jackson's campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination drew mass support from the Black community, many on the left claimed that this was the realization of a goal set by the Black liberation movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.

But the Black radicals of that era envisioned a national Black political party independent of both the Republican and Democratic Parties.

Many of those who led the fight for an independent Black party back then later supported Jackson. But this wasn't because the Democratic Party had evolved into a vehicle for social change and Black liberation. Rather, it was a sign of the defeat and demoralization of the movement.

The situation could hardly have been more different in the early 1970s. Although the FBI's COINTELPRO harassment of Black militants had led to the imprisonment or murder of many leaders of the Black Panther Party and other radical nationalist organizations, the spectacular rise of such groups convinced tens of thousands of Blacks that it was possible to break with the Democratic Party and form a new political organization capable of bringing "community control" to Black neighborhoods.

A worried Democratic Party had opened its doors to a new generation of Black politicians in an effort to co-opt the struggle. But in 1972, Black militants were confident that they could exert control over these officials by mobilizing mass action.

The great rebellions of the 1960s were still a recent memory, and the anti-Vietnam War and women's movements were at high tide. Yet the militants underestimated the conservatism of the Black officials who had so recently taken office. Although they were often propelled into office by struggle, these Black officials quickly adapted to the priorities of the state machine and the Democratic Party--even if those priorities included opposing Black activism beyond their direct control.

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THE PREAMBLE to the National Black Political Agenda written for the convention was far more radical. It read in part:

A Black political convention, indeed all truly Black politics, must begin from this truth: The American system does not work for the masses of people, and it cannot be made to work without radical fundamental change...The profound crises of Black people and the disaster of American are not simply caused by men, nor will they be solved by men alone.

These crises are the crises of basically flawed economics and politics, and of cultural degradation. None of the Democratic candidates and none of the Republican candidates--regardless of their vague promises to us or to their white constituencies--can solve our problems or the problems of this country without radically changing the system by which it operates."

One of Socialist Worker's earliest features was a monthly series on the history of the African American struggle in the U.S., from slavery to the present day.
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Everyone from cultural nationalists like Amiri Baraka and Democrats like Gary, Ind., Mayor Richard Hatcher declared their support for the convention's stated goal of a break with the twin capitalist parties. But Hatcher argued that the antiwar presidential campaign of George McGovern warranted giving the Democrats a "last chance."

The illusion of Black unity was destroyed at the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., on March 10-12, 1972. Attended by over 8,000 people, the convention marked the first large-scale gathering of the various currents in Black politics: radical nationalists, cultural nationalists, socialists, Maoists and Black Democratic elected officials. The conference was hosted by Hatcher, one of the Black elected officials whose numbers had risen fourfold to 1,860 between 1967 and 1971.

The promises of continued support for the Democrats were not enough to stop a walkout by the convention's Michigan delegation. These delegates, many of whom were NAACP leaders and trade union officials, were worried that any association with the National Black Political Agenda would damage their relationship to the Michigan Democratic Party.

Jackson and Baraka made a last-ditch appeal to the Michigan contingent, telling them that the Agenda was only a draft--although the document had already been adopted by the convention. Later, convention organizers announced that a final version of the Agenda would be written by the heads of each state delegation.

This bureaucratic maneuvering, along with minimal speaking rights accorded to delegates, made it difficult for convention attendees to argue for any specific program of Black activism, let alone a break with the Democrats. Any delegate who raised such issues was accused of undermining Black "unity."

Fewer than three weeks after the convention, Hatcher and the Congressional Black Caucus chucked "unity" aside. They publicly renounced the Black Agenda's support for Palestinian liberation and its opposition to the Zionist state of Israel. The Black Agenda was eventually dumped in favor of the Congressional Black Caucus' watered-down Black "Bill of Rights." Although the convention formed a National Black Political Assembly, the perspectives of this group were left largely undefined.

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ONLY 1,700 attended the second National Black Political Convention in Little Rock, Ark., in March 1974. Although there were once again several statements of support for an independent Black party sometime in the future, the convention reflected the politics of the few Black Democratic Party officials in attendance.

The Watergate scandal in the Nixon White House had raised the possibility of a big Democratic victory in the 1974 Congressional election, and Black officials, looking to boost their own standing inside the party, urged Black activists to work for Democratic candidates. Maynard Jackson, the mayor of Atlanta, demanded that the Georgia delegation withdraw its statement in support for an independent Black party. An attempt to discuss implementation of the 1972 Black Agenda was ruled out of order.

A day after the convention, Michigan Rep. Charles Diggs, who had long associated with Detroit-based Black nationalists, announced his resignation as co-chair of the National Black Political Assembly. A year later, Ron Daniels replaced Baraka as general secretary of the organization, and pro-Democratic elements followed Baraka out of the group.

The Black Democrats ignored the National Black Political Assembly during Georgia Gov. Jimmy Cater's 1976 presidential campaign. Realizing that he could no longer rely on a white vote in a "solid South," Carter abandoned that traditional Dixiecrat strategy in favor of an alliance with the nascent Black political machine in Atlanta and other big cities. To middle-class Black Democratic officials, the prospect of a close relationship with the president of the United States was far more important than an independent Black party.

This reconciliation with the Democratic Party put the new generation of Black politicians on the same ground as those many had previously struggled against--the NAACP, the Urban League and the rest of the middle class "old guard" of the civil rights movement.

The National Black Political Conventions provides an object lesson--that even activists most devoted to building a politically independent movement can be sidetracked into a party of racism and imperialism if they aren't clear about the character of the Democratic Party.

A version of this article first appeared in the April 1988 issue of Socialist Worker.