Turning point at the Black Radical Congress

What has always made the Black Radical Congress (BRC) mystique is its perceived ability to mobilize various perspectives of marginalized Black voices around topics plaguing the broader movement. This unique characteristic can even unite disjointed political tendencies, providing a more cohesive contribution to broader movement discussions. Such was the significance of the original Principles of Unity and the Freedom Agenda consolidated after its opening Chicago congress in 1998.

The BRC’s mystique is one thing. But actually living up to it has been challenging. Was this because its purpose was flawed or because of tactical miscalculations? And thus do we let the organization simply fade out or do we reorganize the BRC to better fulfill its purpose?

The original assumption was to fulfill the BRC’s purpose through the construction of national campaigns which local chapters, affiliates (pre-existing organizations such as Black Workers for Justice) and eventually individual members carried out. Thus came “Education, not Incarceration: Fight the Police State,” which fought the privatization of public schools before it was sexy to do, and “Stop War, Racism, and Repression,” which sparked a series of consciousness raising events, among other sub-campaigns.

All of these provided grounding assertions for what the Black left approaches were on education, the police state and war. However, they rarely contained clear indicators for success, and with limited staffing the “national” was unable to provide the support locals needed to successfully sustain campaigns — leaving members demoralized and less willing to participate in the BRC. Even more, many local groupings were already running significant campaigns so nationally coordinated efforts were extra.

Some have also argued that an organization dedicated explicitly to amplifying the voice of one race of people is a mistake; that only through working with other communities can we truly progress and win clear victories for Black people. Though I don’t think anyone would disagree with coalition building as key, I would argue that all coalition partners must bring something to the table, which the BRC could — that is, a united voice of the Black left.

Today’s prevailing belief is that the BRC simply suffered some tactical errors and restructuring will help. The BRC should literally be a forum that mobilizes and unifies the various perspectives of the Black left. A current proposal suggests the organization focus solely on organizing regular institutes that bring together the existing groupings of Black left thought in a well-facilitated dialogue to discuss and build unity around key topics that both affect the Black population, but also are part of a broader movement debate. Such events could value local historically marginalized Black voices, such as disconnected community groups, at the same level as highly sought-after academics and political leaders. Further, the ultimate result would yield a plethora of deliverables —from documented unity to proposed models for approaching Black communities to catalyzing national campaigns — inspired, but not led, by the BRC.

It’s no shocker that the first proposed institute would be on the struggle for peace, tackling such questions as “How do we tap into the antiwar sentiments of Black Americans to move them more to action?” and “What do Black communities see as their main areas of conflict with the war?” and so on — potentially providing the current peace and justice movement with some new insight on increasing its ranks among Black communities, let alone possibly being the largest mobilization of Blacks for peace in recent history. After all, not only should the peace movement better its outreach to Black people (among other communities), but the Black left should aid in providing it with the proper tools to do so.

This reorganization can only help to broaden the various dialogues we are involved in. We all benefit if the different sectors of our movement actively engage in their own discussions. The outcomes yield a more invested base within the struggle to defeat the ultra-right. Do we not benefit when the women’s movement coordinates its own discussion around peace, or youth, or the faith community? Why not the Black community, and in particular those often alienated from traditional “equal rights” mechanisms?

The BRC definitely has a void to fill. It simply has to fill it better. Reorganization brings hopes of a more inclusive, invested base of Black radicals. And for this reason, we all have a direct interest in fighting for its existence.

Erica Smiley is active in the BRC and the Young Communist League.