The Million Man March of October, 1995, was the largest public demonstration of African Americans in US history. Despite the controversies surrounding the event, including the exclusion of black women from the mobilization, most black Americans felt a an incredible sense of empowerment from the March. Many hoped that this demonstration would mark a renaissance of black male activism and a commitment to black unity.
But even at the March itself, there were signs that these goals would be difficult to achieve. Farrakhan's keynote address at the March was widely recognized, even by many of his supporters, as disappointing at best. More than two hours long, it was rambling and occasionally nearly incoherent. Unlike Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington, which succinctly captured the political mood of the times, Farrakhan's address lacked a political strategy which could bring together the broadest democratic forces within our community. The emphasis on "atonement" and personal responsibility seemed to parallel the conservative, patriarchal rhetoric of the Christian Coalition and the Republicans' Contract With America. This is why Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, a white conservative, extends praise and support to Farrakhan, a black nationalist: both men essentially agree on self-help and private enterprise.
The principal political instrument which could have expanded the tremendous popular support sparked by the March was the National African American Leadership Summit. The Summit had been established by Benjamin Chavis when he was still executive director of the NAACP. In June, 1994, Chavis called together over one hundred prominent African Americans to the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore, to establish a process which would build a national coalition of black organizations.
Two months later, Chavis was fired from his NAACP position under charges of financial and sexual impropriety. He quickly found a defender and patron in Farrakhan. With his support, Chavis was able to maintain the Summit, which evolved into a non-profit coalition of more than two hundred black groups. Many of these organizations reflected the black nationalist orientation of a significant segment of the African American middle class: black sororities and fraternities, black professional organizations in medicine, social work, law and engineering, and business associations such as the World Africa Chamber of Commerce. Largely missing, however, was representation from black trade unions, progressive groups, black feminist organizations, civil rights formations and black elected officials.
In the national mobilization for the March in 1995, more than four hundred local organizing committees were formed. Thousands of black men who had never been actively involved in political organizing stepped forward. The historical stage was set for the construction of an authentic black united front, similar perhaps to the National Negro Congress, founded by A. Philip Randolph in the Great Depression during the 1930s.
But history did not repeat itself. Randolph was a democratic socialist, and the militant leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. His vision of politics was based on the activism of the black working class. Even as NAACP leader, Chavis has alienated many prominent black trade unionists by endorsing NAFTA. He displayed little interest in organizational details or management skill. Neither Farrakhan nor Chavis have had much experience in building broad coalitions with groups who hold widely divergent beliefs and philosophies. Moreover, because Chavis apparently believes that his own political destiny is tied to Farrakhan's, he has been unwilling or unable to define a truly independent role for himself. This contributes to the perception, unfairly or not, that Chavis has become merely a mouthpiece for Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
In a city like Detroit, for example, there were more than one dozen different local committees which were created by the March. As one local activist explained to me, these new leaders were "ideologically all over the map." Some have long histories of struggle and practical experience as community organizers, while others were inexperienced and virtually unknown. A similar situation existed all over the country. These organizational weaknesses in the structure and administration of the Leadership Summit contributed to a lack of direction and focus, driving away many young African Americans who had been inspired to activism by the Million Man March.
The failure to consolidate a genuine black united front following the Million Man March became strikingly apparent at the National African American Leadership Summit's national convention, which was held in St. Louis, Missouri, in late September. The original date for the meeting had been postponed. Key activists received communications late, or not at all. Little information on the convention appeared in the African American press. Even many black residents of St. Louis weren't aware of the event that was taking place in their own city. Chavis personally invited me to speak at the convention, and I seriously considered the invitation. But the late change in the meeting's date, plus the lack of information, made it difficult for me, and undoubtedly for many others, to come.
As a result, the turnout was disappointing. Most observers place the attendance at three thousand, with many of these participants coming primarily to hear Farrakhan's address. At the convention, the proceedings were halted at one point, because materials for discussion had not yet been printed or ready for distribution.
The political character of the gathering also seemed to reflect a more narrow spectrum of opinion than those who had originally endorsed the Million Man March. Few prominent civil rights leaders, black feminists, trade unionists and/or African American elected officials were in attendance. Cornel West was the token voice reflecting a black left perspective. Many cultural nationalists and left nationalists who had endorsed the March, such as Kwanzaa founder Maulana Karenga, political scientist Ronald Walters, and Ron Daniels, head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, were not present.
Most disturbing of all was the bizarre appearance at the St. Louis conference of Lyndon Larouche. A controversy erupted over Larouche's presence at the meeting, and the suggestion that he might be permitted to speak. Delegates from Atlanta, Detroit and other cities vigorously dissented, and Larouche did not speak or appear at the podium.
Lyndon Larouche has a long history as an enemy of the black freedom movement. According to the New York Times, in 1979 Larouche was paid by South Africa to produce reports on the growing anti-apartheid movement inside the US. In the mid-1980s, the Schiller Institute, a front organization for Larouche, began to cultivate followers within the African American community. Larouche sponsored a Washington, D.C. rally in 1985 on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, hypocritically associating King with the rightwing demand to support President Reagan's "Star Wars" missile program. Larouche has collaborated with leaders of the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. According to black scholar Clarence Lusane, "Klan members have often served as his bodyguards and traveled as his security." Larouche's organization has repeatedly and viciously attacked many black liberal and progressive leaders, including Randall Robinson and Jesse Jackson.
Why was Lyndon Larouche at St. Louis? Apparently, the connection between the fascist Larouche, Farrakhan and Chavis is veteran civil rights activist James Bevel. In the 1980s, this former lieutenant of Martin Luther King, Jr., sadly gravitated toward white conservatives and the religious right. In 1992, Larouche selected Bevel as his vice presidential running mate on his Far Right campaign for president. This year, Bevel was reported to have been with Farrakhan during his recent trip to Libya. Bevel clearly is attempting to expand Larouche's reactionary influence inside the National African American Leadership Summit. But Larouche or his fascist cult followers never would have appeared without the prior knowledge and approval of Farrakhan and Chavis.
The convergence of conservative, patriarchal black nationalism with the racist white extreme right is not unusual. In the 1920s, Garvey dialogued with white extremists at a time when the Ku Klux Klan had several million members. Roy Innis, leader of CORE, has been a supporter of white conservative Republicans and reactionary positions for years. Similarly, Farrakhan's conservative social and economic agenda finds parallels with Larouche's fascist program. One wonders whether this budding political relationship has become a financial relationship as well.
The real tragedy here is that thousands of sincere, deeply-committed black folk have gravitated to the Leadership Summit, out of a real desire to build black solidarity and empowerment. Farrakhan and Chavis owe the national black community a full explanation about their strange relationship with Bevel and Larouche. More importantly, we need to recognize that as deeply as black Americans desire black unity, we cannot achieve it at any price. When those among us are ready to compromise with white racists and political reactionaries, that price cannot be paid. A real African American united front can only be achieved when there is the full democratic participation of all mass organizations, ideological perspectives and political groups within our community, and not dominated by any single organization or national leader.
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