The Meeting in 1998 That Kept Black Radicalism Alive

Manning Marable, Director of the Institute of African American Studies at Columbia University, poses for a photograph in his office August 16, 2001 in New York City. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Two decades ago, the Black Radical Congress convened to reclaim revolution and denounce reformism.

The Movement for Black Lives draws from a long heritage of Black radicalism. In July 1998, In These Times senior editor Salim Muwakkil wrote about a group of progressive Black activists, artists and intellectuals who formed the Black Radical Congress in Chicago — a group that included Barbara Ransby, Manning Marable, Abdul Alkalimat, Bill Fletcher Jr. and Leith Mullings. At a time when Black radicalism was sputtering, the group’s manifesto, A Black Freedom Agenda for the Twenty-First Century,” included reparations, community investment and environmental health — demands echoed today by the Movement for Black Lives.

In 1998, Salim Muwakkil wrote:

A year ago, a group of progressive black academics, activists and artists met in Chicago to address the growing insignificance of the black left in the current political climate. They decided that the time is ripe for a revival of the black radical tradition. …
The group (full disclosure: I was one of the organizers) decided to convene a conference to assemble the varied segments of the black left and craft an organized response to the rightward drift of U.S. politics. We saw the deepening crisis of the African-American community and the government’s continuing indifference, and we knew that demanded some kind of radical response,” says [Abdul] Alkalimat. Two months later, the group met in Washington, D.C., and scheduled a conference from June 19 to 21 in Chicago. They called it the Black Radical Congress.
At the time, many participants had doubts about the name; rather than attracting interest, they worried, the radical” label would scare people away. Black Americans have seldom been attracted to radical or revolutionary strategies. Historically, major African-American organizations have promoted tactics that are best termed reformist. …
The realization of genuine democracy in the United States requires radical solutions,” begins the group’s manifesto, titled A Black Freedom Agenda for the Twenty-First Century.” Radicalism, the document continues, means to get at the root of real problems, seeking effective solutions. What we want is an end to the exploitation of capitalism, white racism and every manifestation of human oppression, a revolutionary transformation of the state and society, and the realization of humanistic values.”
The Black Freedom Agenda includes many typically social-democratic demands — for example: We want a social policy agenda which invests in human beings. … We want justice in the legal systems. … We want a clean and healthy environment for our people.” But two planks in the document are startling departures. One — We want civil rights, affirmative action and compensation for centuries of institutional racism” — supports a reparations demand, long an item on the black nationalist agenda. The other is an item demanding an end to homophobia and discrimination against lesbians and gay men,” an explicit elaboration of the left’s liberation agenda. …
The black left has always had a problem with its program because revolution is a hard calling. The nationalists, on the other hand, have succeeded because their programs are generally more mainstream. There is little popular opposition to programs designed to strengthen nuclear families and enhance mom-and-pop capitalism. …
For much of the past decade, the path out of this morass has been guided by those urging a back-to-the-future return to separate-but-equal, patriarchal family arrangements and moral salvation. The Black Radical Congress is an opportunity to chart a more engaging and empowering course toward a truly emancipatory politics.

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