What became of the vision of black power?

       With the death, imprisonment, or exile of prominent African-American movement leaders, and with the emergence of black politicians who necessarily had to accommodate their political strategies to the Democratic Party establishment, what became of the vision of black power and its call for: black control of the black community in order to facilitate economic and social development; alliance with non-black popular sectors, including whites, in the forging of a national project for the protection of the economic and social rights of all, regardless of race; and an anti-imperialist policy of cooperation with the neocolonized peoples of the earth?  In reflecting on the African-American movement of the 1970s, attention must be given to Rev. Jesse Jackson, who emerged as the most prominent black leader of the period.

     Jesse Louis Jackson was born in Greenville, South Carolina, on October 8, 1941.  His step-father, Charles Henry Jackson, was a janitor in the post office.  His mother, Helen Burns, who gave up hopes for a scholarship to a music college when Jesse was born, worked as a hairdresser. 

     Jesse excelled in high school.  He was elected by his classmates as class president, president of the honor society, and president of the student council; he also was quarterback of the football team.  He entered the University of Illinois in 1959 on an athletic scholarship, but having learned that his race excluded him from the quarterback position, and he transferred to North Carolina A&T, a black college in Greensboro, following his freshman year.  At North Carolina A&T, he was an honor student, president of the student body, and quarterback of the football team.  In 1963, he led demonstrations protesting racially segregated theatres and restaurants in Greensboro; and on June 6, he was arrested for leading a group of students in a sit-in at the municipal building.  As a result of these activities, he was elected president of the North Carolina Intercollegiate Council on Human Rights, and he was named southeastern field director of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). 

     After graduating from college with a degree in sociology in 1963, Jackson enrolled in Chicago Theological Seminary on a Rockefeller grant.  During the Selma voting rights campaign of 1965, in response to Dr. King’s call to the clergy of the nation to come to Selma to support the marchers, Jesse organized the theology students of the University of Chicago, taking more than half of them to Selma.  As a result, Jackson was placed on the staff of the Chicago campaign being organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with the assignment of organizing the support of Chicago’s black ministers for the SCLC Chicago campaign.

     From 1966 to 1970, Jackson was prominent in the Chicago branch of SCLC’s Operation Breadbasket.  It organized successful boycotts of companies in the dairy, soft drink, and supermarket industries, resulting in increased wages and job opportunities for blacks.  In addition, Jackson persuaded the treasurer of Illinois to deposit a fair proportion of state funds in black-owned banks, thus reducing obstacles for black-owned companies to obtain loans.

      In a 1969 Playboy interview, in a historic moment of intense racial conflict and polemical rhetoric, Jackson displays at the age of twenty-seven a remarkable political maturity.  He drew a careful balance between black nationalism and the need to form alliances with whites; and he advocates a strategy of non-violence, but demonstrates understanding of those who were adopting a strategy of armed self-defense. 

     Like Dr. King in his final years (see “The black awakening of 1964 to 1972,” April 16, 2021), Jackson appropriated concepts from the colonial analysis of black nationalism.  He maintained that African-Americans are in a “colonial situation,” and that the civil rights movement was “fighting to end colonialism.”  And he maintained that the United States was wrong to oppose revolutionary movements in the world that were struggling against colonialism.  Further, recognizing the psychological effects of colonialism, he maintained that it was important for blacks to affirm self-worth.  And in addition, in response to the colonial situation, blacks must seek to control the institutions of the black community.  “We want to control the vital elements: the school boards, the churches, the businesses, the police.  The other groups . . . control themselves, but they … control us as well.  That is a colonial situation.”  In regard to the police, “We don’t want to be policed by a supreme white authority, even if the agents of the authority are black.  We’re saying that the black community should police itself.”

      Along with his appropriation of important insights of black nationalism, Jackson advocated the formation of alliances with the non-black poor, including poor whites, in accordance with the concepts of SCLC’s “Poor People’s Campaign.”  It is inevitable, he argued, that a coalition of the poor will emerge, including poor blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans.  And as this movement develops, “racism will lose its hold on the consciousness of the white poor.”  In another interview a year later, Jackson maintained that the racial polarity between the white poor and the black poor will come to an end in the struggle between the have-nots and the haves.

     In the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, many black leaders considered Jesse Jackson to be King’s heir.  This view was shared by the white press, which considered Jackson to be “radical but acceptable,” because he was not, in their view, “a nothing-to-lose radical who would opt for bloodshed and violence over reasonable solution,” in the words of Jackson biographer Eddie Stone. 

     But the promotion of Jackson as Dr. King’s heir by black leaders and the white press caused tension between Jackson and King’s Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Corporation, inasmuch as King had designated his long-time close associate Rev. Ralph Abernathy to be his successor at SCLC.  In this context, Jackson formed his own organization, People United to Save Humanity (PUSH), in Chicago.  PUSH continued the economic boycott campaign of Operation Breadbasket, signing “moral covenants” with major corporations with respect to the employment of black workers and managers and the development of black-owned franchises.  PUSH also sought to facilitate the increase of black-owned banks and media and advertising companies.       

      In the early 1970s, Jackson involved himself in local politics.  He played a central role in ensuring proportionate representation of blacks, Latinos, women, and youth in the Illinois delegation at the 1972 Democratic National Convention.  And in the 1972 Illinois general elections, he was instrumental in the defeat of State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, a symbol of racial hatred as a result of a violent raid against the Black Panthers, resulting in the death of Fred Hamptom.  In these activities, Jackson never was himself a political candidate.

     In 1975, observing alcoholism, drug use, and a lack of self-discipline among black youth, Jackson launched a moral crusade and a motivational program, PUSH/Excel, which sought to stimulate programs, under the sponsorship of local school boards, that stressed the importance of black youth to practice self-discipline and to strive for excellence.  By 1979, twenty-two programs had been developed in cities across the nation.  Some criticized the program, arguing that it was implicitly “blaming the victim,” by implying that lower class youth who were unable to overcome social barriers to educational attainment had been unwilling to make an effort.  Jackson acknowledged that there are barriers, and PUSH was endeavoring to reduce the barriers; but, he maintained, personal determination, self-discipline, and motivation are part of the struggle.  The need for self-discipline is a notion that also was central to the teachings of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X.

     It is evident that in the 1970s, Jesse Jackson’s thinking was deeply rooted in the African-American movement of the 1960s, in which he had had considerable personal experience.  In harmony with the movement, he possessed a global vision, identifying with the anti-colonial struggles of the colonized and neocolonized peoples.  He considered the black struggle in the United States to be one particular manifestation of the global anti-colonial struggle, and accordingly, blacks in the United States, like the colonized throughout the world, must develop autonomous institutions which they control.  Including educational institutions that would teach black history and black self-respect; and including criminal justice institutions that would enable the black community to police and administer itself.   At the same time, reflecting particular conditions in the United States, black empowerment required alliances with other popular sectors, including whites, some of whose ancestors settled in the United States as a dimension of the European conquest and domination of the world.  Jackson, rather than calling whites out for their racism, believed that racism would diminish in the context of a common black-white struggle against the power elite, and he called all the popular sectors of the nation to a movement for the attainment of their common interests.

     Jackson, therefore, took a road fundamentally different from the black politicians of the 1970s, which in the context of the time required accommodation to the white power structure and the Democratic Party establishment.  He took the classic road of the movement leader: using boycotts to extract concessions with respect to employment and the development of black-owned economic enterprises; supporting in particular contexts black and progressive white politicians; and developing institutions that would promote black self-respect and self-discipline.

     Yet questions can be raised concerning the actual achievements of Jackson and PUSH and other black leaders and civil rights organizations with respect to the development in practice of autonomous institutions of the black community, which could provide a foundation for the economic and social development of the community. 

     An important experiment in local community control of schools was developed in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville area of New York City in 1968, with the support of liberal Republican mayor John Lindsey.  Special elections were held to establish a local school board, which was granted authority over the employment of teachers and the curriculum in the local schools.  Great advances were made in the experiment, with the enthusiastic participation of teachers, students, and parents.  But the project was brought to an end by the resistance of the New York City teachers union, which went on strike in protest, shutting down the schools beyond the experimental districts for months, forcing the city Board of Education to make concessions that gutted the authority of the local school boards.

       There were local efforts in various cities to develop local community control of the schools and the police, and they in general resulted in a greater level of parental participation in schools and citizen participation in overseeing the police.  But the schools and the police remained under the supervision of a white authority. 

      Nor was there any indication in the social indicators that progress was somehow being made, in spite of the lack of practical implementation of formulated goals.  Indeed, during the 1970s, the first signs of the sustained structural crisis of the world-economy were becoming manifest, including the combination of inflation and economic stagnation dubbed “stagflation.”  As a result, black median income fell during the 1970s, and black unemployment by the end of the decade was at its highest level since the 1940s. 

      In retrospect, perhaps one could reasonably say that PUSH initiatives in stimulating black-owned economic enterprises and in creating motivational programs for black youth needed to be developed as dimensions of an integral and comprehensive project of local black control of the institutions of the black community.

     Meanwhile, little practical progress was made toward the development of an effective coalition with other popular sectors, including whites, in the attainment of common interests, as had been advocated by Dr. King and was endorsed black politicians during the 1970s.  This strategy would have been timely, taking into account stagflation and others symptoms of national and global economic crisis. 

      Thus, goals proclaimed but not implemented in practice is the legacy of the period.  A half century ago, African-American leaders formulated important concepts, but was there a commitment to implement them in practice?  In this regard, is self-criticism in order?  Today, there are political advantages to blaming white racism, but is this the whole truth, and is such a posture responsible leadership?

     The absence of a comprehensive progressive proposal for the nation coming from united popular sectors would be an important factor in the emergence of Ronald Reagan and the national turn to the Right.  This phenomenon, and the black response, will be the subject of my next commentary, on Tuesday, April 27.

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Preface - April 6, 2021

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