- Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of American Politics
Cedric Johnson's Revolutionaries to Race Leaders comes at a perfect time, for in it he analyzes the struggle for legitimacy within the Black Power movement in the sixties, and how myriad internal debates and external attacks both formulated and re-formulated the political dialogue and opened the door to more traditional political activism. Not that he is entirely supportive of the mainstream entrance of black people into the established political process, for one gets the impression that he would be more comfortable with a more separate political party with some power that better represented African American interests. Yet Barack Obama's election as President in 2008 reaffirms Johnson's basic point, that the Black Power movement arose in response to the limitations of liberal democratic reform, and while it worked toward an indigenous ethnic political ideology, debate over tactics and policy inevitably divided the activists and allowed for race to subsume the larger discussion of economic opportunity. [End Page 530]
Johnson begins with an excellent discussion of the tone and import of Harold Cruse and Amiri Baraka to the emergence of the Black Power movement. Cruse "concluded that industrial workers were no longer the central protagonists of historical revolution," but that "colonized peoples—with blacks as America's domestic colony" would be the leaders in the social transformation (4). By resurrecting Cruse, Johnson provides a foundation for understanding the divisions that would emerge within the Black Power movement, which he understands in one instance as having been "elite brokerage over popular mobilization" (40). While Cruse outlined the value of cultural identity within the new political debates, Baraka worked to produce art and inspire the interconnection between black aesthetics and black politics. Baraka believed the militants could bring about the mobilization of the black working class (whereas Cruse feared the militants' romantic view of revolution), and worked hard to help promote ending black political exclusion. Yet the ascendency of black people into leading political positions in cities like Newark, Detroit, and Cleveland exposed the divisions between the radical social-transformation ideology of the militants and the pragmatic political expediency of the elected officials.
Section two of the book provides detailed accounts of the organization, operation and impact of 1972's Gary Convention, African Liberation Day, and the evolution of the National Black Political Assembly. These chapters are very informative, but the nearly blow-by-blow accounting makes for dry reading. The Gary convention sought to build a black united front and outline clearly the political and social goals in the National Black Political Agenda. Also, while the convention drew over 2,776 delegates and 4,000 alternates to the March event and produced the above-mentioned National Agenda document, it also revealed significant divisions "which posed a serious challenge to the pursuit of operational unity" (87). In the preamble, the framers of the Gary Declaration outline the basic humanistic values of the struggle for black political power and voiced in Obama's campaign: "we move for nothing less than a politics which places community before individualism, love before sexual exploitation, a living environment before profits, peace before war, justice before unjust 'order' and morality before expediency" (108). Divisions between the more ideological radicals and practical activists made the Gary event seminal, but both groups found long-term unity difficult to maintain. The same holds true for the creation of African Liberation Day, as the desire to raise consciousness over the complicity of U. S. corporations doing business in repressive states in Africa brought initial unity to disparate African American political groups; long-term unity proved difficult, however, largely due to "ideological conflicts within" the converts to Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory. The May 1972 event, held in Washington, D. C., drew between 15,000 and 30,000 participants and led to larger nationwide events the following year, but power struggles over the legitimacy of race and class "isolated radical activists from each other, and perhaps, more...