Summit Shows Discontent In Black Communities

By Sam Manuel, The Militant, Vol.59 No.47, 18 December 1995

WASHINGTON, D.C.—A three-day meeting of the National African American Leadership Summit (NAALS) was a window on the widespread discontent in Black communities across the country, and the growing frustration with the ineffectiveness of traditional civil rights leaders and organizations.

Several of the 500 participants pointed to these themes to explain the enormous turnout for the Million Man March on Washington held here October 16.

The principle organizers of the meeting were Ben Chavis, former executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, now chairman of the NAALS; Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan; and Conrad Worrill, chairman of the Chicago-based National Black United Front.

Others participating were Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League; Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Jesse Jackson; and Gail Holness, an executive board member of the NAACP. They were joined by several Black elected officials from across the country, Black college sorority and fraternity officials, and members of professional organizations.

Many of the national Black rights organizations belatedly supported the march. Others like the Urban League and the NAACP refused to support it. But local affiliates of these groups, along with political and civic organizations, were strongly involved in building the rally.

Organizers of the Million Man March put participation at 1.5 million. National Parks Service officials have retreated from their lower estimate of 400,000.

Most of the participants in the summit had helped to organize the march. Local march organizing committees have remained intact. In some cities, like Pittsburgh, they are helping to organize fights against police brutality and other racist attacks. In other cities these committees have organized follow-up meetings that have become forums for ongoing discussion. Some 4,000 people showed up for such a follow-up event in Philadelphia.

The summit agreed that the local committees would become affiliated with NAALS and would help carry out the summit decisions.

In short reports throughout the summit participants painted a more detailed picture of the broad support behind the Million Man March. A city councilman from East St. Louis reported that city authorities officially closed the city for the march. Buses for Washington were organized through city hall.

Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit chapter of NAACP, reported that 100,000 participants in the march came from across Michigan. He also brought $22,500 collected from supporters of the march in the Detroit area to be donated to future NAALS activities.

A representative of the mayor's office in Denver, Colorado, reported 10,000 people came from that city and that they are planning a Mile High Million Man March in Denver next year.

Black political convention called The main proposal from the summit was to organize a national Black political convention in late August next year. The convention, scheduled to be held in St. Louis, will be preceded by a national conference in Memphis in early April. NAALS chairman Ben Chavis explained that the purpose of the convention and conference would be to develop a Black Political Agenda for the 1996 election.

Chavis added that the two meetings will be preceded by discussions in local cities across the country to develop input for the agenda. Chavis and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan announced they will be touring the country to publicize the conference and convention.

Many participants were frustrated by the lack of discussion and decisions on vital issues facing Blacks. Except for meetings of ten standing committees most of the summit consisted of panel presentations by heads of national organizations with little opportunities for discussion.

Though a wide range of views were expressed on what constitutes independent Black political action, all stopped short of proposing a break with the two-party system. During a public event attended by 1,000 people Farrakhan said, Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have been fair, but we must extract what we need from the parties that exist.

Price, of the Urban League, argued the interests of Black people can never be advanced by a strategy of only voting in one party and never the other.

Lowery stated his conclusion that the Republican domination of Congress and the Supreme Court meant the federal government could no longer be used to redress our grievances. He proposed concentrating on electing Blacks and defending gains at state and local levels.

Members of the audience began to take the microphones and demanded to speak after sitting through long presentations and discussions between the panelists. Jesse Jackson, this city's shadow senator, was singled out by several in the audience.

Robert Hamilton, a single parent, related the deplorable conditions his two children face in the Washington, D.C., public school system. The students don't have up-to-date books, classrooms are overcrowded, and the buildings are unsafe, Hamilton said. I want to know what you are going to do about that, fat brother, he shouted at Jackson.

A young person asked Jackson, What have you accomplished for us? When Harvard University Black studies professor Cornel West attempted to defend Jackson he was booed by the audience.

Order was restored only after Farrakhan pleaded with the audience. He conceded, Many of you do not feel that we have adequately served your needs. And in many respects you are right.

The order of the closing plenary was changed when several participants explained that the summit had failed to adequately deal with the concerns of Black women and youth.

A student leader from University of California at Los Angeles said they had received no response from the Million Man March organizers to a written list of student and youth demands and proposals. A committee report on youth was amended to propose two permanent representatives, one male and one female, for youth at all levels of the summit organization.

Throughout the conference participants complained about the lack of women panelists and committee reporters. One woman who is a co-chair of a local organizing committee for the Million Man March and a member of the steering committee of NAALS pointed out that there was no standing committee on the concerns of women at this summit. Chavis promised that the concerns of our sisters will be addressed and dealt with.

Our struggle has been filled with a history of denigrating the contributions of our women, Farrakhan demagogically added. I will not be a part of that and will fight to destroy it, he said to cheers of many participants.

The meeting had to be extended late into the night when angry participants continued to demand a chance to speak.

A reporter for the committee on economic development cited the disproportionately high levels of unemployment among Blacks and the assaults on job gains made through affirmative action.

The meeting adopted the committee's proposal to establish an economic development trust which would provide loans for the development of Black-owned businesses. No proposals were made on how to fight to maintain and extend jobs and to defend affirmative action.