Black Revolutionary Theory in the BPM
Throughout this work I have maintained that prominent Black Power Movement (BPM) activists were often theorists of black revolution, as well. Most took Malcolm X’s thesis on black revolution, which was the most influential revolutionary framework emanating from the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), as their theoretical and programmatic point of departure. Malcolm’s thesis evolved from a static, unidimensional, religious-based conceptualization into a dynamic, multidimensional, secular framework. Among the most important aspects of it was his thesis on black cultural revolution. Malcolm associated a cultural revolution among black Americans with a broader political revolution to radically transform the United States and culminate in a worldwide revolution; yet BPM revolutionists who built on Malcolm’s legacy rarely captured the fullness of his thesis, often minimized contradictions in his arguments, and generally failed to address major shortcomings in Malcolm’s analyses, particularly its reverse civilizationism.
An examination of the major BPM organizations reveals that they had difficulty overcoming the contradictions inherent in reverse civilizationism to create a coherent theory reconciling black cultural and political revolution in the United States. Such a thesis was available to them in the historical arguments of W. E. B. Du Bois and the theoretical arguments of Alain Locke, but these alternatives were predicated on the assumption that African Americans possessed a culture, which reverse civilizationism denied. Reverse civilizationism assumed that black Americans had been stripped of their culture and that revolutionary developments were more advanced in Africa than in the United States. Under its influence, Malcolm’s thesis and those of BPM revolutionists who followed suit became preoccupied with African rather than African American cultural institutions and practices, while inadequately appreciating the urbanized, Christian-identified, working-class culture of the African American communities that they sought to revolutionize. Their approaches focused on African (or “third world”) anticolonial movements, assuming that they offered the most relevant models for a black liberation movement in the United States. As a result, BPM revolutionists were attempting to fashion a movement across the terrain of the most powerful country in the world using a theoretical compass better suited to an African or third world country.
The Problem of Reverse Civilizationism in Malcolm X’s Revolutionary Theory
Reverse civilizationism led to the failure to recognize the historical antecedents of black revolution in the United States, epitomized in the prominent slave revolts and ultimately the Slave Revolution of the Civil War. In privileging contemporary African anticolonial struggles, Malcolm’s thesis neglected black American revolutionary precedents that could more readily have served as referents. Seemingly oblivious to this history, BPM revolutionists didn’t realize the extent to which the Slave Revolution served as a referent more than anticolonial struggles abroad that they sought to emulate. The Slave Revolution suggested the salience of a general strike strategy in future black liberation struggles and demonstrated the revolutionary potential of black culture, specifically, black religion merged with an incipient working-class consciousness, to encourage black liberation in the antebellum era. BPM revolutionists, under the influence of reverse civilizationism, did not recognize the significance of African American culture, nor the religiously inspired incipient working-class culture that helped generate it. That is, not only did they fail to recognize the salience of the Slave Revolution as a historic case of black American revolutionary activity, they also did not appreciate the centrality of black culture in generating it, even as they called for a cultural revolution. Relatedly, they missed a major implication of the aftermath of the Slave Revolution, which was that future black revolutionists would need to adopt strategies that utilized their independent institutions, primarily their cultural institutions, to target the cultural system that bound Northern and Southern whites in a shared white supremacism that fused their political and economic agendas. A similar fusion of white interests, nationally, in the early postbellum era, was the basis for Northern whites’ betrayal of their former black allies, transforming the black military victory of the Slave Revolution into politico-economic defeat in the post-Reconstruction era.
A century later, the cultural system of white supremacism still provided the sinews binding and reinforcing politico-military and socioeconomic power in the United States, suggesting the continued salience of a cultural revolutionary focus. As before, with comparatively little political and economic resources as compared to federal, state, and municipal agencies, as well as the major institutions of civil society, which were all dominated by white racists, black revolutionists were forced to organize within their own community-based institutions, primarily their cultural institutions, to target the white supremacist cultural system of U.S. society in ways that ramified into the political, economic, and social systems. Simply put, they required a program of action guided by a theory of black cultural revolution in the United States.
Yet as essential as it was, BPM revolutionists had great difficulty developing such a theory, or at least one that would transcend Malcolm X’s flawed formulation. At the root of the problem was the reverse civilizationism that they often adopted, which influenced their understanding of black culture, black nationalism, and black revolution. It contributed to a range of inconsistencies in their conceptualization of black cultural revolution, the manner in which such a revolution would be prosecuted, and the relationship between it and political revolution. This problem was evident among the major BPM organizations that we examined in the previous chapters, leading some of them to adopt dubious “traditional African” forms (e.g., Us, RNA, [kawaida-phase] CAP, PAOCC); and/or replicate “third world” models of revolution that were inapplicable to U.S. society (e.g., RAM, BPP, RNA, LRBW, and [Marxism-phase] CAP). As a result, major BPM revolutionists failed to construct a revolutionary theory that drew on the peculiar context of African American history to guide their initiatives and provide meaningful strategies to achieve their objectives. Devoid of adequate grounding in the cultural history of black America, many did not fully appreciate the role of black culture in the social transformation of black Americans, including their revolutionary initiatives as epitomized by the Slave Revolution during the U.S. Civil War. Even when they made references to a “Second Civil War” or a “Second Reconstruction,” these were mainly rhetorical rather than analytical expressions.
A corollary was that not only did the Civil War and the General Strike provide a guide for the revolutionary organization and mobilization of black Americans, they suggested them for white Americans as well. How different in their orientation toward black liberation—in some ways even in their spatial locus—from abolitionists, Readjusters, Copperheads, and Redeemers were white civil rights supporters, white liberals, white Democratic and Republican segregationists, and white rightists from the KKK and Citizen’s Councils to the John Birch Society, respectively? A white cultural revolution might have been considered to be as central to the success of a black cultural revolution as the Union Army was to the success of the Slave Revolution. This is not simply an argument from analogy; it’s supported by the enduring relevance of the factors and objectives that compelled the former which are still evident in the latter, namely, the fact that conditions the BPM confronted were largely the result of the unfulfilled and unresolved issues of black liberation that persisted after the Civil War, and especially after the white counterrevolution that overthrew Reconstruction.
In effect, BPM revolutionists failed to adequately historicize their own movement. The most deleterious results of that failure were that instead of (1) developing a theoretical focus recognizing the importance of religiously inspired proletarians in the previous black revolution (the Slave Revolution), which was the same social group that was most prominent in the ongoing CRM and BPM, and (2) concentrating on the revolutionary propensities of the Black Church, in which many of them were institutionally grounded, resource dependent, and emotionally attached, BPM revolutionists often dismissed, denigrated, or denied the salience of the Black Church in the revolution they sought. In fact, with notable exceptions (e.g., the PAOCC), they failed to link their cultural revolutionary theses to the prominent cultural institution in black communities, the Black Church, which was also the institutional hub of political mobilization in black communities throughout the United States at the time, much as it is today. The prospect of mobilizing black communities on a national scale for revolution—or almost any major political objective—without a strategy that utilized, neutralized, or mobilized the Black Church was doomed to failure. Moreover, the vacuum left by the distancing of BPM activists from the Black Church was filled by black elected officials (BEOs), who often grounded themselves in, or emerged from, the revitalized and politicized black urban churches. Although predominantly integrationist in political orientation, nonetheless, both prospective and successful BEOs often drew heavily on black nationalist rhetoric, practices, and initiatives to gain political power, not through an independent black political party, as nationalists preferred, but by linking their programs to the Democratic Party, an alignment that Malcolm X decried, disparaged, and proscribed. In this way, the BEOs outflanked the BPM organizations and turned the political trajectory of black communities toward reform rather than revolution.
The Crusian Influence on Revolutionary Theory in the BPM
A prominent exception to the historical myopia of major BPM revolutionists was Harold Cruse’s influential thesis on cultural revolution, which was not hamstrung by Malcolm’s reverse civilizationism. According to Cruse, since cultural institutions in the United States are embedded in white supremacism, the revolutionary transformation of U.S. society would have to address the cultural as well as political and economic dimensions of black oppression. Cruse’s thesis was only superficially adopted by the major BPM organizations in practice, and, no less importantly, it suffered from its own inconsistencies. For example, while Cruse’s thesis targeted the cultural apparatus—primarily the mass communications media—of the United States, it focused inadequately on the cultural apparatus of the black community itself as a precursor to, or concomitant of, the cultural revolution. That is, it insufficiently addressed the role of cultural agents and institutions within black communities as instruments of the cultural change he sought. For example, he failed to integrate the major black cultural institution, the Black Church, into his thesis, which both reflected and reinforced the propensity of BPM revolutionists to dismiss the political, much less the revolutionary, efficacy of the Black Church in their revolutionary theses. In addition, he did not address the major cultural contradiction in black communities, sexism, as a key aspect of the cultural revolution he envisioned. He also did not attend sufficiently to the substantive cultural demands of black America, such as reparations, which would ramify into the political and economic sphere, and, in this way, augur cultural revolution. These shortcomings would resonate among BPM revolutionists and, likewise, hamstring their theses and the programs derived from them.
Although the major BPM organizations did not develop an explicit theory of black cultural revolution that transcended Cruse’s formulation, they devised programs and practices oriented toward and involving factors suggestive of such a revolutionary formulation, both in terms of adopting the sine qua non of the Slave Revolution, the general strike (e.g., RAM, the LRBW) as well as focusing on the importance of black religion as a change agent (e.g., the Shrine). Among these organizations, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) came closest to developing programs and practices that reflected the importance of black cultural revolution—even if they didn’t refer to them in this way. For example, the League’s approach reflected an understanding of the general strike strategy, the importance of the black working class, the centrality of coordinating the major social institutions of black society, and the salience of proposing cultural claims that ramify into the political and economic spheres. In its focus on organizing the black working class, the League sought to leverage its power as an organization of both black workers inside the auto plants and community members outside the plants to garner concessions from the auto companies that would address the immediate demands of black workers as well as to realize the broader objective of revolutionary change in their communities. This dual strategy, focusing on both in-plant and out-of-plant coordination, sought to organize strikes to disable the auto industry, which would culminate in a general strike shutting down core sectors of industrial production in the United States and compelling companies and ultimately the government to concede to the League’s demands.
Besides political repression and internal dissent, structural factors such as deindustrialization spelled the death knell of the League’s focus on industrial union organizing, as did the hostility of major unions to civil rights, ranging from white workers’ protests epitomized in the Hard Hat Riot to the Teamsters’ endorsement of Nixon, as well as teachers’ unions’ rejection of black and brown community control, as exemplified in the New York City/Ocean Hill-Brownsville Strike. Such developments not only undermined the League, but suggested the need for black labor organizers in the future to focus on more clearly exploitable and critical sectors in the changed politico-economic context of the third ghetto and beyond. By comparison, other major BPM organizations, such as the Congress of African Peoples (CAP) and the Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church (PAOCC), proceeded on important but what turned out to be less auspicious paths toward the black cultural revolution that they sought, focusing less on black union workers as change agents and instead on black political parties or black churches, respectively.
Although BPM revolutionists left behind an influential set of insights, practices, and programs that continued to inform black American activism, nevertheless, during the BPM itself they were unable to integrate them into a coherent theory of black cultural revolution. At the outset of the BPM, the revolutionists’ program focused on the need to develop parallel institutions staffed by black revolutionists, which would highlight the contradictions illustrated by the provision of services to blacks, especially poor blacks, by these dedicated activists in contrast to the absence of the same from the government agencies mandated to provide them; and the additional contradictions embodied in the exceptionally poor quality of both the provision and the delivery by government institutions and social service agencies of services and resources to black people and black communities as compared to those delivered to whites and white communities. The struggle waged to generate and secure resources for these parallel institutions would result in conflict between the black community and the agencies and representatives of municipal governments, as well as the white homeowners’ associations and civic groups, etc., intent on maintaining white resource supremacy in the cities and towns (McRae, 2018). The intracity conflicts ultimately would generate a large-scale politico-economic struggle centered on the delivery of resources, in which blacks would play a central role.
However, with the ascendancy of BEOs, much of the energy of the CRM focused on gaining and maintaining control of the major agencies of city government and promoting the political, economic, and social development of black communities using the resources these institutions commanded. When these resources were parceled out as patronage directed at privileged elements of an emerging black elite and middle class but not at the masses of black residents, the BPM’s appeal was less effective at targeting black political leadership for these failures than it had been in targeting the previous white leadership. As a result, the anticipated intracity conflict did not materialize, and the failed strategy employed by BPM revolutionists reflected the decreased relevance of the BPM’s programs, plans, and priorities, and especially its call for revolution.
The nominal distribution of resources to some elements in black communities undermined BPM claims of the inability and unwillingness of the central governments to deliver resources to blacks, including those in the ghetto. Just as importantly, as blacks exercised their newfound access to electoral politics by electing black candidates in historic numbers across the country, they viewed the accession of this black electoral leadership, as an opportunity to take their place in the ethnic succession that the melting pot myth promised. Even in the face of the grave inequalities in the country’s inner cities, especially the presence of black elected officials at different levels of, mainly, local government seemed to undermine the claim that blacks could not achieve an electoral form of black power. It appeared that for the most part the black masses aspired to the middle class, where they might reap the benefits of a reformed if inadequately transformed U.S. society. Black electoral success was viewed less as one component of a broader revolutionary strategy, but in a kind of crass and politically expedient version of Malcolm’s “ballot or the bullet” rationale, the apparent success of blacks’ use of the ballot was viewed more as an end in itself (i.e., the attainment of black elective office), and thus a repudiation of the call for the bullet. In the event, calls for revolution seemed passé.
If Malcolm had difficulty conceptualizing black revolution in the United States at the outset of the BPM, a different set of challenges beset revolutionists as the BPM waned. As Cruse might have had it, this was largely a problem of black intellectuals and activists once again failing to adequately interpret and orient their struggle in the ongoing phase of U.S. national development, even as black power played an important role in the transformation the country was experiencing. That is, the challenges facing black power were partly a result of the movement’s successes in challenging white power, as well as the ongoing responses of the white supremacist system to those challenges. A key response of the U.S. political economy was the transformation of the second ghetto into the third ghetto, which resulted from a combination of factors, including deindustrialization, advanced suburbanization, the decline of unionism, economic decline (exacerbated by the first oil crisis and the inflation resulting from spending for the Vietnam War), white flight from black jurisdictions (both cities and school districts), declining support of civil rights gains, black middle class movement from inner cities, the end of the Vietnam War, emergence of national and local “law and order” regimes, prominent media depictions of black cultural deficiency, the promotion of culture of poverty discourse, and general white racist revanchism. These factors expanded the second ghetto, manifested in enclaves of black underdevelopment within the cities, into the third ghetto, represented by the underdevelopment of whole cities, particularly those under black political leadership (Nightingale, 2003). Facing the intellectual—and, of course, the practical and programmatic—requirement of theorizing these developments in their particular and often peculiar American context, BPM revolutionists simply, and simplistically, grafted the colonial analogy onto it. Thus, instead of recognizing the proclivity of the U.S. politico-economic system to channel ethnic/racial/class demands into resource competition among ethnic interest groups in the context of the richest and most powerful country in the world with its highly institutionalized civil society, most leading BPM revolutionists, following Baraka, explained that the decline of the BPM was simply a matter of the transformation of black domestic colonialism into black domestic neocolonialism.
The domestic neocolonial analogy was as myopic as the domestic colonial analogy from which it derived. In particular, it obscured the fact that the United States could deliver on any of the resource requirements that black Americans demanded but simply lacked the political will to do so until the protests of the CRM and the BPM pressured it to begin to do so. The demands of black power that were channeled through the electoral system could be accommodated with even fewer resources. Thus, the challenge faced by BPM revolutionists was to devise a theory centered on a program focused on resources that arose from the legitimate but unfulfilled claims of black Americans that were not easily accommodated by the faux interest group politics paradigm. The main unfulfilled claim was reparations, and it could not be accommodated as simply another interest group claim, just as the claim of African Americans for freedom a century earlier was not reconcilable with a war aimed simply to preserve the union. Reparations implicated both the economic and the political systems of the United States. In fact, if fulfilled, it would have necessitated a major redistribution of resources on a scale unseen since Reconstruction. To be sure, reparations was a specific cultural claim for which blacks had exclusive standing as an “interest group,” but one that addressed such a major unresolved issue of socio-economic-political injustice that it not only foretold a systemic crisis given the expansive resource redistribution demands it required but it called into question the ability of the extant system to serve as an arbiter of the competing interests implicated in it. That is, a white supremacist system could not be expected to fairly arbitrate a case against its white supremacist practices, institutions and personages. Either an international institution would have to serve this function, or the national system would have to be transformed prior to or along with the consideration of the reparations demands.
When BPM revolutionists and their allies asserted the necessity for black reparations in the 1970s, they put themselves in a position to shift the agenda claimed by the BEOs in meaningful ways, and at the same time to appeal to the revitalized and politicized black churches, on whom both the elected officials and, increasingly, the Democratic Party relied.1 A push for representative change within the electoral system took place, as blacks asserted themselves as the most recent entrant among those ethnic/racial/cultural groups able to practice interest group politics following the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Coupled with systemic change occurring within the economic system as they asserted their reparations claims, as a political demand the reparations issue presented an opportunity to keep black protest relevant as a continuation of the movement to eradicate Jim Crow in the economic realm. Of all the major demands made by the BPM, the reparations demand seemed to be the one whose chief impact would actually be systemic. Not surprisingly, then, this was the major demand that was never seriously addressed by any government entity at any level, and the absence of any serious engagement with the issue makes it obvious that the politico-economic-social system of the United States was never seriously challenged by the BPM. Thus, “domestic colonialism” was never compelled to shift to “neocolonialism,” because it had not been sufficiently threatened at the system level. It was not as if African Americans had achieved “independence” on par with the independence gained by former African colonies, which included at least nominal sovereignty for African states and full citizenship rights for African people. In the CRM and BPM, the change had not been as dramatic as the eradication of chattel slavery a century earlier, although it was hugely transformative of the sociopolitical and, to a more modest extent, economic opportunity structure afforded Southern blacks, insofar as it ended de jure Jim Crow. Thus, the actual change that resulted did not require a major redistribution of resources. The Vietnam War and the Great Society programs probably exerted greater pressure on government agencies for the delivery of goods, services, and resources than either the CRM or the BPM. The U.S. government’s power was not effectively challenged by its “domestic colony,” because it modulated the movement’s demands to suit the interest-group orientation of its polity and the commodity production and (re)distribution of its economy, and utilized its powerful media and cultural institutions to maintain its white supremacist society. The change wrought from the CRM and BPM was incremental and evolutionary, not revolutionary. The revolution had not been adequately theorized.
Nonetheless, the BPM, by building on the reforms of the CRM, was important in promoting the political assertiveness of blacks and increasing their electoral participation, which resulted in greater black political efficacy, and promoted the ascendancy of BEOs. Ironically, in helping develop this new political constituency of BEOs, BPM revolutionists simultaneously created a potential counterweight to their own nationalist organizations, including those that had catapulted the BEOs into political leadership, such as CAP in Newark, the Black Slate in Detroit, and the BPP in Oakland. The logical extension of this electoral work was the creation of an independent black political party, which was key to the original mission of the NBPA; however, the Democratic Party provided a powerful alternative for these mobilized black political interests, including access to well-funded sponsorship and patronage and extensive financial resources distributed through established networks and clients honeycombed throughout the elected offices, agencies, institutions, and political organizations within Democratic Party–dominated city and county governments, congressional districts, and voting precincts. Thus, for many black activists, the protests and pleadings of their black constituents increasingly were channeled through the Democratic Party and its representative BEOs. In this way, the Democrats counterbalanced, coopted, or coerced tendencies in black communities toward independent political party organizing. The CRM and BPM had been effectively channeled into the institutions of the U.S. politico-economic system and its extensive civil society institutions and organizations through the conduit of the BEOs and a reinvigorated, integrationist, and reformist-oriented Black Church.
The ascendancy of the BEOs and the threat of the Democratic Party to those seeking to organize an independent black political party required a revised black nationalist strategy to address these specific challenges within the changed context created by the “black urban regimes” whose leadership black nationalists had played no small role in creating. Such a revised strategy would need to center on political mobilization utilizing a powerful indigenous institution in the black community that could not only rival local Democratic Party formations, such as an independent black political party or black labor unions such as the LRBW, but would not be easily counterbalanced, coopted, or coerced. Among the viable alternatives would be one that was not only politically efficacious but culturally grounded in the black community, which was also the main one that BPM revolutionists dismissed, the Black Church. This left the Black Church largely in the hands of integrationists and reformers under the influence of Martin L. King following the CRM. The CRM institutions and organizations were not passive or undeserving recipients of this increased support; it was earned from activist and often heroic struggle, yet many black church leaders and congregants accommodated their political concerns in the electoral sphere to those of the Democratic Party and more mainstream interest group politics.
BPM revolutionists competed with CRM reformists in black communities not only in supporting prospective BEOs, or over the direction of the Black Church, but even on the terrain of revolutionary transformation. With respect to the latter, they faced challenges from King’s call for a “revolution of values,” which seemed reconcilable with the call for a progressive, if not necessarily revolutionary, black culture, one that many, black and nonblack, associated with the victories of the CRM, especially the overthrow of de jure Jim Crow and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. CRM leaders such as King had appropriated aspects of the cultural revolutionary theses of BPM activists while remaining situated in a reformist context. In fact, King even evoked the sine qua non of the BPM, domestic colonialism, to contextualize the black ghetto. The salience of King’s revolution of values approach went to the heart of the BPM’s claims regarding the necessity of cultural transformation, mainly because King had centered his appeal on the Black Church while also focusing on other major established black institutions, ranging from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to black-owned media. The significance of the breadth of King’s appeal was evident in his largest initiative during the last years of his life, the Poor Peoples Campaign. Notably, King was killed as his organization participated in a strike of black sanitation workers in Memphis. Thus, it was King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), not black Marxists or white leftists, that played a key role in mobilizing protesting black workers in the South.
While King’s assassination quashed the momentum of the CRM and motivated the BPM, the former had succeeded in creating an institutional power base in black communities that would endure for decades, rooted in alliances among black churches allied with the Democratic Party and selected labor unions, which the BPM would challenge but never supercede. Among major BPM organizations, it was the Shrine that came closest to developing a social theory grounded in the changed reality that suggested the increased salience of the Black Church in association with but not deferential to these other elements; but the PAOCC was hampered by its commitment to reverse civilizationism and atrophied by its kawaida-associated catechism of political education. The LRBW came closest to developing a black cultural revolution as historicized by Du Bois in Black Reconstruction, theorized by Locke, and proposed by Cruse, but the revolution they sought could not be fitted into the Marxist conceptual frame the League constructed for it.
The stultifying reality for black revolutionists was that no Western power of that time that even approximated the vast and entrenched institutions of the civil society of the United States had ever been overthrown or was likely to be, and in those that came close, such as France in 1968, it happened when revolutionists coordinated with labor unions, major political parties, major universities, and the military. The BPM had little influence within any of these, so that it would require the actions of only one institutional force (local police, for instance), whether or not it was augmented by any of the others (e.g., the Democratic Party, major labor unions) to undermine and redirect their attacks on the state. To break through the structures of civil society would require a black cultural revolution, and presumably a white cultural revolution as well. Failing that, claims on the polity, economy, and society would have to be channeled through the expansive moderating institutions of U.S. civil society, which would more likely only serve to reinforce their powers. In the event, however seriously they were considered in mainstream black politics, BPM claims were reconceptualized as ethnic interest group claims when applied in a broader plural context. Black protest was redefined as black transactional politics and black revolutionary discourse distanced itself from much of what was viewed as black politics in the post-BPM era. Even though they became marginalized, black revolutionary theses, and the BPM organizations that propounded them, were not irrelevant in the post-BPM era, but without a social movement to buttress them, and from which they might derive inspiration and resources, they receded into the background throughout black communities in the United States.
As the Long Hot Summers and massive demonstrations that characterized the height of the CRM receded into the background, by the mid-1970s the BPM, which in important ways was motivated by and reflected in these events, also began to wane. Like the CRM, the BPM declined, in part as a result of its successes, which seemed to make it no longer necessary, but also from the effects of systemic government repression and the overwhelming but still poorly documented white civilian opponents of both movements (McRae, 2018). Among the important failures of the BPM itself were those that fell short on an intellectual level, one of the most glaring of which was the inability of the BPM to successfully theorize the revolution it envisioned. Specifically, the BPM ended as it had begun, lacking a theory of black cultural revolution to guide its program and practices. Ironically, given the persistence of many of the political, economic, and social justice issues that BPM revolutionists confronted and attempted to resolve—from de facto white supremacism in general to black poverty and police brutality—an assessment of the theoretical arguments of the major revolutionists of the BPM and their precursors that we’ve discussed in this volume may inform another generation of activists and inspire them to revisit their work and apply its lessons.
The prospects for a Crusian-style strategy remain auspicious in the present era of social media–accentuated activism (i.e., hashtag [#] activism), and to some extent they are being demonstrated in the major African American political activism of the day. For example, the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement, founded by three black women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrice Cullors, emerged mainly in response to extrajudicial police killings of unarmed or otherwise law-abiding blacks, which evokes the BPM’s mobilization against police brutality, racism and classism in the criminal (in)justice system, and political repression and imprisonment.2 Remember that Cruse had argued that a major impediment to black cultural revolution during the black power era was that “Negro radicals” at the time were “severely hampered in their tasks of educating the black masses on political issues because Negroes do not own any of the necessary means of propaganda and communications” (1968, p. 239), an issue that may be largely moot in an era of social media. That is, given the accessibility and mobilizing potential of social media and the fact that a sizeable number of Americans walk around daily with a computer on their person (i.e., a cell phone), the likelihood of utilizing this powerful element of the cultural apparatus for social transformation is markedly enhanced in twenty-first-century America.
BLM has influenced an array of associated hashtag activism, including the most recent protests during the playing of the national anthem at National Football League (NFL) games (and other professional sports events), inspired by the actions of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who initiated his protest in response to the police killings of unarmed blacks.3 Kaepernick’s protest is more than nominally related to an earlier “revolt of the black athlete” (Edwards, 1969) inasmuch as the lead organizer of the Olympics Protest of 1968, Harry Edwards (who has also served as a staff consultant to the San Francisco 49ers), had studied Cruse’s Crisis of the Negro Intellectual as a sociology graduate student and intended to use the mechanism of a boycott and the medium of sport as a catalyst to a larger transformative objective oriented around human rights (ibid.). Edwards’s association with the Kaepernick protests links them to these previous efforts and is indicative of the ramifying of the political protests associated with BLM to aspects of the popular cultural apparatus—in the case of the NFL protests, to sports and entertainment—such as the music (especially hip hop), television, and the motion picture industry; but also including challenges to the white supremacism in so much of the U.S. cultural milieu, such as in protests seeking the removal of Confederate and other white supremacist statuary and symbols in public spaces and the renaming of public institutions, especially schools, parks, and streets.
The potency of social media as a propaganda tool for activists in the United States was made starkly evident by the Russian misinformation campaign, conducted primarily through social media, during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, which successfully targeted Democratic Party candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in order to promote Republican Donald Trump’s long-shot electoral victory. The decentralized BLM has been effective in mobilizing large numbers of protesters using social media and a largely nonhierarchical network-based organizational framework toward its social movement goals. In reply to Robert Smith’s (1996) critique that post-BPM black America was hindered politically because black Americans “ha[d] no leaders,” one might contend that one of the reasons that BLM has been effective is largely because “they have no leaders,” but a potential hindrance to BLM’s achieving its objectives may be that “they have no theory” either. BLM’s inclusive focus on cultural—as well as political and economic—aspects of African American liberation reflects its attempt to effectuate the “wholesale culture shift” its founding members advocate (Khan-Cullors & bandele, 2018, p. 197). Interestingly, although the use of social media and black popular culture as conduits of activism are convergent with Cruse’s cultural revolution thesis, often BLM activists, leadership, and analysts seem largely indifferent or resistant to situating their movement in such an African American theoretical context. On the latter point, although it is difficult to pinpoint any ideological consensus in the confluence of interests that comprise BLM and related initiatives invoking its hashtag (#), and although it frames its movement, historically, in fundamental aspects of the CRM and BPM while foregrounding its critical intersectionality with respect to gender, sexuality, age, ableness, and criminal status (Clark et al., 2018), an engagement with Du Boisean-Lockean (or Crusian) black cultural revolution is distant from its theoretical discourse. To the extent that BLM’s direct action and hashtag activism is interpreted through BPM revolutionary frameworks it is rarely attentive to the critiques outlined in previous chapters. Where it encourages a search for a theory of social change to explain its motive force and suggest its strategy and objectives it is more likely to draw from either liberal or radical egalitarianism/integrationism (e.g., Khan-Cullors & bandele, 2018), neither of which is revolutionary and both of which are devoid of an appreciation of black revolutionary antecedents in the United States and/or the role of black culture in them. To the extent that participants and analysts explicate BLM through a neo-Marxist lens (e.g., Taylor, 2014), it weds the “movement for black lives” to a regime of theory poorly fitted to black America and a ham-fisted analysis of black revolution in the United States that reduces its relevance almost exclusively to academic audiences. To the extent that BLM’s objective is an American revolution, the lack of a theory of black cultural revolution is a deficiency for which having no leaders will not compensate.
Not surprisingly, in the changed context of the 1980s the issues related to black cultural revolution reemerged on the national stage, as many majority black cities failed to realize the promise of ethnic succession and the benefits that a black electoral strategy seemed to promise. Moreover, deindustrialization, urban decay, depreciation of city services, and increased violence in these communities generated new organizational attempts at black cultural revolution to respond to the new challenges facing urban black communities. In particular, in the 1980s a renewed focus emerged directed at the cultural imperatives of black sociopolitical change as black Americans challenged their continued oppression during the Reagan Era, which was the name given to the rightist turn in U.S. national politics, the political centrism of the Democratic Party in response to Jesse Jackson’s attempt to fashion a “Rainbow Coalition” in a domestic context of entrenched politico-economic inequality, and an international context of a reheated Cold War.
Two of the major differences among various organizational attempts to fashion, formulate, and in some cases foment black cultural revolution in the 1980s was that they were much more committed to internal transformation in black communities and they were led by black working-class women, which may also explain why they have been largely ignored in the academic and popular literature. These women raised a claim that U.S. civil society seemed ineffective at channeling: ensuring the physical survival of black youth who were increasingly falling victim to homicide. That U.S. society was not providing for the physical survival of so many black youths raised such fundamental contradictions that it generated a new movement centered on the human rights of black Americans: the Urban Peace and Justice Movement (UPJM), whose most important organizations were led by mothers of slain black children.4 Among the most influential of them were Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD), led by Clementine Barfield in Detroit, Mothers of Murdered Sons (MOMS), led by Brenda Muhammad in Atlanta, and Mothers Reclaiming Our Children (Mothers-ROC), led by Barbara Meredith in Los Angeles. These women and their organizations provided a paradigm to promote peace in black communities besieged by the killing of black youths, and in so doing raised fundamental issues of cultural transformation in black communities and the broader U.S. society.5 Among the ironies of #BlackLivesMatter is that although the founding members are all black women, two of whom self-identify as queer and one as Nigerian American (Tometi et al., 2015), they (and most major analysts of BLM) also have largely ignored the example of—and rarely if ever refer to—these black women predecessors who led the UPJM in the 1980s and ’90s, even as they invoke similar—at times, derivative—arguments regarding the value of black lives, challenging police brutality, and the fundamental contradiction of the most powerful country in the world being unable and/or unwilling to provide for the physical survival/security of black children and adults (e.g., Khan-Cullors & bandele, 2018; Taylor, 2014). Interestingly, each of these organizations of the UPJM included BPM revolutionists in prominent positions. For example, SOSAD, probably the most influential of these post-BPM organizations, included James Boggs as a member of its executive board, Grace Boggs as its newspaper editor, Ron Scott, one of the co-founders of Detroit’s Black Panther Party, as one of its chief organizers of its peace programs, and General Baker, formerly of the LRBW, as one of its many community volunteers. This “ignored cultural revolution” will be the focus of the next volume.
1. Among black elected officials, this discourse became subsumed and redirected into a call for full employment, as in the Humphrey-Hawkins Act. The essential aspects of the act were substantially watered down when passed by the Carter administration (Smith, 1996).
2. #BlackLivesMatter is the most famous of the hashtag (#) activism prevalent in the era of social media; and although focused mainly on police killings of unarmed blacks, was created by three African American women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrice Cullors, in the aftermath of the acquittal of a white Latino civilian, George Zimmerman, in his fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
3. Beyond the NFL protests, two of the most prominent examples of hashtag activism are #MeToo begun by African American activist Tarana Burke, and #SayHerName initiated after the controversial alleged suicide of black motorist Sandra Bland in police custody. The former emerged to mobilize against rapists, sexual assaulters, and sexual harassers and to support survivors; and the latter is a response to the privileging of male victims of police terrorism on social media and among protest organizations, and focused on the women and girls killed by racist, classist, homophobic and/or transphobic police forces, “hate groups,” and individual civilians. Both are also aimed at supporting survivors and their families and “self-care” for activists themselves.
4. On the UPJM, see Upchurch (1996); also see Henderson & Leng, 1999; Taylor, 1990.