by R.L. Stephens II on August 10, 2015
Black Lives Matter, a loose network of activists around the country, is currently facing backlash for storming the stage at Bernie Sanders’ events. Black people have a long and powerful history of taking over white political spaces in an effort to advance our interests. But how do these contemporary activists compare to Black insurgency of the past? Moreover, as some of these activists—rallying under the Black Lives Matter banner—demand that Black leadership be centered in the majority-white electoral political machine, what has been the historical role of Black leadership in racial hierarchy?
The wave of Black activists currently demanding the elevation of and submission to Black leadership has given me tremendous pause. Last month, Tia Oso led an insurgent crowd to disrupt Bernie Sanders’ appearance at the Netroots Nation conference in Arizona. Time will tell what the protest’s ultimate outcome will be, but I want to draw your attention to something Oso said in defense of her actions. In an article for mic.com, Tia wrote that through the protest, “Black organizers claimed our rightful place at the front of the progressive movement.” She continued, “Black leadership must be foregrounded and central to progressive strategies if we are to achieve a multi-racial democracy with social and economic justice for all people.”
At multiple turns, the fact that queer Black women started the Black Lives Matter hashtag has been a major point of emphasis. However, making certain Black people, even if they’re queer and/or women, the face of a new Black leadership class will not save Black people. The problem with the Black leadership class of old isn’t that it was male, it’s that it was elite and used to control the masses. The same dynamics are in play today; just look at who was left behind following the Ferguson unrest. As Sarah Kendzior comments, “The average Ferguson protester is often struggling to get by… a lot of those people who were living in poverty on August 9th are still living in poverty; some more so, because they gave up hourly wages and other things to become part of the protest movement.”
The latest effort to storm Bernie Sanders’ appearances is only making the problem more obvious. The two women that interrupted Sanders last weekend seemingly did so unilaterally. You can’t build real mass political power that way, but building effective power is not their point. Make no mistake, this Bernie Sanders hoopla is ultimately about campaign jobs and foundation funding, not emancipation for the masses. These interruptions will create career opportunities for a few activists and political operatives—the Black leadership desired by Tia and others—but, as with Ferguson, the masses of Black people will be unaffected.
You might call this trickle down racial justice, and it’s deeply cynical. Each time a Black person dies at the hands of the police, for many opportunists, it’s just another news cycle to dominate, one more chance to get some cable TV airtime and web clicks. What’s worse, the people who suffer most are the people on the ground, the Black poor, who have been used as cannon fodder for the cultural and political ascendency of a privileged few. Sarah Kendzior, writing in Politico, captures this dynamic in Ferguson.
In addition to questioning the profit motives of organizations, protesters complain of a “star system” that resulted in a large amount of resources being given to a small number of people. A dozen or so Ferguson protesters, such as Johnetta Elzie, now of Amnesty International in Chicago, and Deray McKesson, of Teach for America in Minneapolis, have tens of thousands of Twitter followers, but most protesters toil in relative anonymity. On the ground in St. Louis, protesters come and go, stymied by daily pressures—who will watch the kids while they protest, how to compensate for lost hourly wages, how to earn a living so they can afford to be in the die-in.
Marginalized people’s complicity in oppressive systems is a difficult reality to accept, but accept it we must. Historians Elizabeth and Eugene Genovese argue that this complicity is a tragic inevitability for subjugated peoples “because they are led to it by worthy motives within a complex social system that successfully directs their anger and resistance into safe channels.”
Black Leadership as a Colonizing Force
The idea that Black leadership is somehow inherently progressive and therefore “must be foregrounded” just doesn’t hold water when we look to history. The African colonial experience clearly demonstrates the fallacy of this argument. Under colonialism, Black leadership was foregrounded by the white colonizing class. This strategy is called indirect rule.
The British empire employed indirect rule as it governed many of its colonies in Africa and Asia. According to Adnan Naseemullah and Paul Staniland, indirect rule is a “ form of colonial control in which colonizers delegated day-to-day governance to local power-holders” who were “often those holding ‘traditional’ or ‘customary’ authority.” This “traditional or customary authority” was, according to Rohland Schuknecht’s British Colonial Development Policy After the Second World War, often exaggerated. A Black leadership class was so beneficial to white colonial governance that where it did not exist previously, the colonizers invented one.
For example, white colonial elites in Sukumaland (Tanzania) strengthened “the status of the chiefs who were at the heart of the new Native Administration setup at the expense of other institutions.” These “other institutions” were the indigenous communal and egalitarian organizing structures that pre-dated colonialism and to which the chiefs had been subservient. Black leadership was foregrounded under indirect rule, and it operated in direct opposition to participatory politics.
Black Leadership vs. Fannie Lou Hamer
The conservative function of the Black leadership class has been a long-standing element of racial hierarchy in the United States as well. Black leaders’ response to Fannie Lou Hamer’s famous interjection at the 1964 Democratic National Convention is a dramatic example. Hamer’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was committed to what she would describe as “clean politics,” a grassroots participatory program that strove to advance the interests of all marginalized people in the state. Hamer and the MFDP’s demand that the full slate of MFDP delegates be seated at the expense of the traditional all-white Mississippi Democratic Party brought them directly into conflict with the White political establishment as well as the Black leadership class.
I think the president [Johnson] became very angry… Then they had a big meeting of everybody else except us in Mississippi and just decided they were going to tell us what to do. And when we came back to this church, at this meeting at this church, they were saying what Dr. King, James Foreman, Roy Wilkins, and it was other big people, and Senator Humphrey… [A. Phillip Randolph] and Bayard Rustin.Fannie Lou Hamer, 1973 Interview
President Johnson enlisted Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins and other prominent members of the Black leadership class to pressure Fannie Lou and the MFDP into accepting a token two of Mississippi’s delegate seats, rather than the full slate to which they were clearly entitled. The white leaders of the Democratic Party placed Black leadership at the foreground and made it central to their strategy. But Fannie Lou wasn’t there for Black leadership. She wanted liberation:
And I says, “I don’t know nothing about them people.” But we felt that we had a right—as it was us, as it was our own delegation, and the delegation was from Mississippi—we had a right to make our own decisions. Not them! They couldn’t understand it when we rebelled and we refused, you know, because if we got two votes-at-large we didn’t have nothing.
Fannie Lou Hamer didn’t go to the ‘64 convention demanding—as some Black Lives Matter activists do today—that Black leadership be foregrounded. As she stared down the Democratic party and their allies in the national Black leadership class, she did so as a member of a grassroots political party intimately connected with the needs of poor people in Mississippi. It has always been the centering of participatory politics, not the elevation of Black leadership, that has been truly threatening to white elites. That’s why a concerted effort was made to destroy Fannie Lou and the MFDP, and within ten years, their form of participatory political organizing had been all but extinguished.
The MFDP As a Model for Multi-Racial Organizing
To understand the MFDP’s threat, we need to look at their strategy. For example, the MFDP’s work on voter disenfranchisement was never framed as a purely racial issue. In a 1964 MFDP newsletter, we can see the party use multiracial appeals to set itself as the only true and legitimate political force for all people in Mississippi.
In the 1963 gubernatorial election, only 114,000 people, Negro and white, voted, out of 932,000 citizens of voting age. There are, then, 818,000 people whose voices are not heard. If white people do not register, it is due to ignorance and apathy and also to the systematic methods of disenfranchisement employed, such as poll taxes, and literacy tests which create a generally overwhelming obstacle course between the citizen’s conscience and the right of the ballot.
The MFDP argues that white people are also disenfranchised by a system that creates a “generally overwhelming obstacle course between the citizen’s conscience and the right of the ballot.” By first couching the rhetoric in terms that highlight the general failure of state power to meaningfully include the people, even white people, the MFDP now had the platform to then introduce how racism multiplies the debilitating effect of a system-wide problem.
[Poll taxes and literacy tests] may also be important to the Negro community, but the Negroes who do want to register to vote are prevented by all these methods plus the more drastic means of general intimidation and economic reprisals. Of 435, 000 Negroes of voting age in Mississippi, only some 21,000, or fewer than 5%, are registered voters.
This strategy created potential for political solidarity rooted in shared interests, not empathy or pity. Given that police brutality has killed thousands of non-Black people in the last ten years, it would serve us well to take a page from the MFDP playbook. Instead, many of us choose to pursue a staunch race-only line. Fannie Lou Hamer summarizes the party’s stance on race, “it wasn’t racial exclusive because we tried to include poor blacks and whites and any other body that was really concerned about real changes. Because, you see, to have a real change, we can’t do the same thing that they’ve done in the past, right? So, it would have to be a change from that.”
For Hamer, clean politics was about fair participation for all people: “if they would give us a chance we could make things better for everybody… I don’t want no politics if it’s just going to involve us [Black people].” After the MFDP sprouted, a counter-revolutionary group — the Loyalists — was formed. The loyalists had a convention where 50% of the delegates were white, which Hamer found objectionable when the party’s actual constituency was 90% Black. In the same interview, she says, “Now, I don’t mind giving the whites what they got, but don’t give them over what they got… because they never give us nothing. So, if they have 10 percent of this delegation, set that 10 percent, and let that other 90 percent that was black go on up there.” Hamer’s work wasn’t only about political rights, her multi-racial Freedom Farms project provided housing, income, and food for thousands of people. She says, “We’ve been able to save, we’ve been able to help a lot of people, and they hadn’t all been black.”
Ain’t nothing going to be handed to you on a silver platter, nothing. That’s not just black people, that’s people in general, masses. See, I’m with the masses. So, you don’t ever get nothing, just walk up and say, “Here it is.” You’ve got to fight. Every step of the way, you’ve got to fight.
Black Leadership During Reconstruction
1964 was not the first time that Black egalitarian populism intervened in convention politics. Elsa Barkley Brown inNegotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom highlights how the mass participatory politics of Black Reconstruction were deeply challenging to the white political class, former slaveholders and liberal Republicans alike. At the 1867 Virginia Republican state convention, Black people—including women and children—showed up en masse, actively and vociferously contributed to policy debates, and made sure that their interests were heard if not adopted by the body.
At issue was not just these men and women’s presence but also their behavior. White women, for example, certainly on occasion sat in the convention’s gallery as visitors silently observing the proceedings; these African Americans, however, participated from the gallery, loudly engaging in the debates. At points of heated controversy, black delegates turned to the crowds as they made their addresses on the convention floor, obviously soliciting and relying upon mass participation. Outside the convention hours, mass meetings were held to discuss and vote on the major issues. At these gatherings vote was either by voice or rising and men, women and children voted. These meetings were not mock assemblies; they were important gatherings at which the community made plans for freedom. (p. 119)
Black people’s mass participatory politics during Reconstruction threatened to democratize the political process in substantive and fundamental ways. Brown recounts, “The most radical black Republican faction argued that the major convention issues should actually be settled at these mass meetings with delegates merely casting the community’s vote on the convention floor.” White Republicans and the white political class more broadly did everything in their power to eliminate Black people’s emerging mass participatory politics.
Disturbed at black influence over Republican meetings, beginning in 1870 white Republican officials had taken steps to limit popular participation and influence in party deliberations. First they moved the party conventions from First African to the United States courtroom, a facility which held many fewer people and was removed from the black community; then they closed the gallery, thus allowing none but official delegates to attend and participate. In such a setting they were able to adopt a more conservative platform. (Brown, p. 132)
The white Republicans’ marginalizing of Black mass participatory politics was complemented by the emergence of a new Black leadership class. As this new Black political class advanced, Brown notes, “the black public sphere emerged as more fractured and perhaps less democratic at the end of the nineteenth century.”
In increasingly delimiting the church’s use, distinguishing more clearly between sacred and secular activities as when it began to disallow certain kinds of entertainments in its facilities or on its behalf, and attempting to reserve the church for what was now designated as the “sacred,” First African contributed to the increasing segmentation of black Richmond… As political meetings moved to private halls rather than church buildings, they became less mass meetings not only in the numerical sense; they also became more gatherings of an exclusive group of party regulars. This signaled not only a change in the role of the church but also a change in the nature of politics in black Richmond. The emerging format gave business and professional men, especially, greater control over the formal political process. (p. 133)
The violence and political isolation tactics employed throughout Reconstruction were designed to end participatory politics in Black communities, replacing it with a vertical hierarchy that was both more conservative and easier to control. This transition undermined the participation of women and children in Black politics, and would be the beginning of the gendered and male-centered leadership class with which we are familiar.
Fannie Lou Hamer and the MFDP, as well as the Black masses during Reconstruction, interjected in white political spaces in an effort to center a participatory form of politics intimately connected with masses. In each case, Black leadership emerged as a counter-revolutionary force and tool of the establishment. This means that real organizing in actual communities, and not the ascension of a Black leadership class, is the only way to combat racism. As Black people, that’s been our legacy at its best. No one among us is entitled to political support; it must be earned through service and clean politics. It’s time for supporters of Black Lives Matter to decide, are you with this new Black leadership class or the masses? Fannie Lou said “I’m with the masses,” and we’d do well to say the same.