In 1972 (March 10 - 12, 1972), the first (and last) National Black Political Convention ("NBPC") was held in Gary, Indiana. The Convention's co-chairs were Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher, Michigan Congressman Charles Diggs, and Newark's Imamu Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), who was at the time the Program Chairman for the Congress of African People. 42 states were represented and the Convention was attended by about 4,000 people. Other major participants included Rev. Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Roy Innis (CORE), poet-activist Haki Madhubuti, and Nixon-aide Robert Brown. The Convention's theme was "Unity without Uniformity", and the idea was to develop a black political agenda and an organizational structure through which blacks -- even from disparate backgrounds, religions, political parties, and ideologies -- could work together to help solve problems facing black America.
To say that the convention was a rousing success, even at the time, would have been an overstatement. With the hindsight of 22 years, it is clear that the effort was not as successful as participants hoped. Nevertheless, when I wrote my senior political science thesis entitled "Black Political Development, 1972 and Beyond" in April 1973, the Convention and the organizational effort spawned by the Convention, represented, in my view, a hopeful sign precisely because it was an attempt at inclusion rather than exclusion, and because it was an attempt to organize black people around common interests and goals.
There were those at the conference who supported creation of a black political party, and there were those, especially black elected officials, who supported working within the existing two-party system. There were black nationalists and integrationists. There were Catholics and Muslims and atheists. The attendees were fairly diverse.
Of course, not everyone was there. Not every group was represented at high levels. For example, although members of the NAACP participated, I don't recall representation by anyone in a senior leadership position of that organization. Nevertheless, the Convention was a hopeful sign. I was there and found the proceedings extremely moving. The dialogue was heated at times, uplifting at others. When the audience rose to sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" with fists raised in the air (yes, even Coretta had her fist raised and I have the photo to prove it!), it was amazing.
The press coverage was, as usual, a little simplistic. "Are blacks going to split with the Democratic Party and run their own candidate for president?" "Are blacks opposed to integration?" (the Convention did vote to oppose forced busing for school integration) "Isn't a black gathering like this, by definition, too radical?" With the coverage of the recent Leadership Summit, its is clear to me that some things haven't changed with the passage of time.
I'm not sure where Ben Chavis was in 1972. I believe he was in jail (Chavis served 4 years in prison following a 1971 civil-rights protest in Wilmington, NC -- the conviction was later overturned by a federal appeals court). But his heart and head appear to be in the same place, fundamentally, as the NBPC organizers' were years earlier. Some problems faced by blacks in the U.S. have improved in many ways over the last twenty years, but economic, crime, drug, and other problems in the inner cities have worsened considerably. The need for blacks to try to address these problems has increased, not diminished. The desirability of greater unity and cooperation among blacks and major black organizations, both nationally and locally, is obvious. Thus Ben Chavis' effort. And, since Chavis' objectives are not shared by everyone, we are witnessing plenty of controversy.
As in 1972, the standard media coverage of these issues remains highly simplistic and slanted toward controversy over fairness and substance. But it is 1994, and complaints about the media are not limited to blacks. To be sure, there is blame to be apportioned, but it can be spread pretty widely. And it is obvious that some of Chavis' opponents have sought to use the Farrakhan controversy as a means of bringing Chavis down. At the same time, it is clearly Chavis' responsibility to recognize that is how the game is played, and to not lose the "game" as a result of controversial events that were in his control. In any event, the balance of this piece discusses some of the major issues and events affecting the success or failure of this new attempt to achieve greater unity among black leaders and black people.