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What Time Is It?: Black Lives Matter, the Gary Convention and Electoral Politics

The Gary Convention was, in many ways, the culmination of the Black Power era.

It has been two years since “Black Lives Matter” went from an obscure hashtag to a national movement. Born in the aftermath of the murder of teenager Trayvon Martin, the new slogan represents “an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”[1]

The social media presence of Black Lives Matter (founded by three black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi) quickly spread to the streets during the community response to the murder of another black man, Michael Brown, in the distressed suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. At least five hundred activists, all drawn by the idea of manifesting the importance of Black Lives Matter in the real world, cut their teeth during the Ferguson actions. This new freedom ride brought together a wide variety of men and women who would carry the lessons of Ferguson on as the tide of police killings of African Americans continued to garner national attention.

One comment in particular, made during the Black Lives Matter Freedom Ride, seemed to crystallize the sentiments of many and point a way towards the moment the movement faces now in 2015. “Even though we’re gathering for Mike Brown, we’ve got to think about what that means for other black folk-black women, black queerfolk, black transfolk,” activist Benjamin Ndugga-Kabuye said. “We can’t just think [theoretically]. We put together the language. Now we’ve got to practice a politic that encompasses all black people.”[2]

As the 2016 presidential race begins to heat up, the question now is: what forms will that language take? Black Lives Matter activists surprised a host of political commentators when they recently confronted presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley at Netroots Nation, an annual progressive political convention. The demonstrators demanded answers to a series of questions regarding structural racism, and both Sanders and O’Malley foundered badly when pressed to respond.

The confrontation drew intense criticism from white progressives, who largely argued that Black Lives Matters was only harming itself by interrupting a candidate like Sanders. Things escalated even further in August when protesters interrupted Sanders again at a rally in Seattle. After demonstrators successfully won a moment of silence for Michael Brown, Sanders left the stage, and the rally came to an end. At this point, a sustained assault from progressives ensued, which included pointed threats to individuals associated with the movement.[3] Some saw the activists as a tool of Hillary Clinton, and others viewed them as unwitting dupes for the Republicans.

But another question lingered: was the movement ready to enter the world of electoral politics? Activists recently met with candidate Hillary Clinton, and in the process got an introduction to Realpolitik. When pushed to address her husband’s “get tough on crime” policies from the 1990s, Clinton vacillated. “I do think that there was a different set of concerns back in the ’80s and the early ’90s. And now I believe that we have to look at the world as it is today and try and figure out what will work now,” she said. “And that’s what I’m trying to figure out and that’s what I intend to do as president.”

Clinton also disagreed with the activists’ assertions that her husband’s criminal justice policies constituted a racially prejudicial platform. All this despite the fact that Bill Clinton, who once presided over the execution of a mentally retarded black man, supported the controversial “three strikes and you’re out” law and also put forward the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill (supported by then Senator Joe Biden, the lead sponsor of the bill and now a possible Democratic presidential candidate) which radically escalated the drug war and the growth of the prison industrial complex. [4]

Clinton, however, did offer some advice to Black Lives Matter at the same time. “Look, I don’t believe you change hearts,” she said. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”

The former senator’s comments, oddly enough, echo those of some on the Black Left who have criticized the movement, accusing the group of “wanting access to the ruling class and to the servants of the ruling class” while failing to “challenge the system by making demands,” as Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report phrased it.[5]

Black Lives Matters headed off any potential accusations of collusion with the Democrats by dismissing the party’s recent endorsement of the movement. This seemingly wise move is giving some hope that the organization will not be co-opted; however, it leaves open the question of whether or not they will enter the world of electoral politics.

There are compelling arguments as to why they should avoid direct participation and instead focus on institution building. Still, could Black Lives Matter attempt to create a comprehensive black policy agenda? Could a genuine third party spring from the movement? If so, it would pay to revisit the history of the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, and the later formation of the National Black Independent Political Party.

In the spring of 1972, eight thousand people arrived in the steel city of Gary, Indiana, to adopt a unified political agenda for African Americans-one that could create a front against what was seen as the indifference of both major parties to the plight of blacks. The Gary Convention was, in many ways, the culmination of the Black Power era. It tapped into the spirit of black self-determination that pervaded the early 1970s, and it focused attention on a wide variety of ills plaguing the black community.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson later reflected on the importance of the convention: “For the first time ever, really, in a political sense, this was a really major, somewhat unorthodox, political convention. People were there from all over the country and the Caribbean. And even without Internet, Facebook and high technology, people came. Getting the right to vote in ’65 was the beginning of a process, but the convention in Gary solidified the sense of focus. This convention was overwhelming. It could not be turned around.”[6]

Black delegates from every state descended on Gary, a majority black city whose mayor, Richard Hatcher, was one of the very few in the nation to offer to host the event. Convention goers were treated to blocks festooned with Pan-African flags and filled with citizens raising the Black Power salute. But a lack of unanimity ended up plaguing the convention.

Some black leaders loyal to the Democratic Party boycotted the event, as did the NAACP. (The Congressional Black Caucus also later disavowed the convention’s platform.) White journalists were denied access, thus giving an opportunity to the black press to cover the event in their own words. The struggle over whether or not to push for a black united front within or outside of mainstream electoral politics also continued with no resolution. Nonetheless, the agenda that was produced seems as relevant to today’s world as it was in 1972.

What Time Is It?

We come to Gary in an hour of great crisis and tremendous promise for Black America. While the white nation hovers on the brink of chaos, while its politicians offer no hope of real change, we stand on the edge of history and are faced with an amazing and frightening choice: We may choose in 1972 to slip back into the decadent white politics of American life, or we may press forward, moving relentlessly from Gary to the creation of our own Black life. The choice is large, but the time is very short.

Other passages from the declaration also mirror today’s realities:

Our cities are crime-haunted dying grounds. Huge sectors of our youth – and countless others – face permanent unemployment. Those of us who work find our paychecks able to purchase less and less. Neither the courts nor the prisons contribute to anything resembling justice or reformation. The schools are unable – or unwilling – to educate our children for the real world of our struggles. Meanwhile, the officially approved epidemic of drugs threatens to wipe out the minds and strength of our best young warriors.

Economic, cultural, and spiritual depression stalk Black America, and the price for survival often appears to be more than we are able to pay. On every side, in every area of our lives, the American institutions in which we have placed our trust are unable to cope with the crises they have created by their single-minded dedication to profits for some and white supremacy above all…. The challenge is thrown to us here in Gary. It is the challenge to consolidate and organize our own Black role as the vanguard in the struggle for a new society. To accept that challenge is to move independent Black politics. There can be no equivocation on that issue. History leaves us no other choice. White politics has not and cannot bring the changes we need.[7]

The convention, however, failed to produce a united front, as Ronald Walters writes:

The (Gary) Convention produced a national black political agenda, a document that reflected the militant and substantive issues of the convention, as the basis on which black and white voters bargain for black votes. This process, however, was not followed, because part of the leadership bolted prematurely in the direction of the George McGovern during the 1972 presidential campaign, leaving the agenda an almost meaningless instrument of political strategy.[8]

The National Black Political Assembly, which emerged from the convention in Gary, held successor conventions in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1974 and Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1976. However, both were less influential and less well attended. Still, the NBPA remained as a mouthpiece for “independent progressive black politics,” according to Ron Daniels.[9]

Eight years after the convention in Gary, an effort got underway from the NBPA to form an independent political party for African Americans. The party’s formation was heavily influenced by the 1980 Miami riots, which brought the staggering issues facing blacks in American cities to the fore again. In November 1980, two thousand people attended the formation of the National Black Independent Political Party in Philadelphia. There were attendees from twenty-seven different states and delegates from South America, Africa, and the West Indies. The party’s charter voiced demands that, like the Gary Convention, almost perfectly echo the issues facing African Americans today:

Demand 1: Massive employment programs specifically targeted at the Black community, to alleviate the disproportionate levels of unemployment among our people and especially among Black youth…

Demand 2: Free and low-cost education training for job opportunities for all our people…

Demand 3: An end to plant closings and runaway shops.

Demand 4: Full unemployment compensation for all who are laid off and unemployed.

Demand 5: Increased funding and improved administration for social security and other income maintenance programs for those unable to work.

Demand 6: An end to “right to work” labor laws.

Demand 7: Tuition-free education and open admissions to all institutions of higher learning as well as special technical and professional schools.

Demand 8: Full financial support by the federal government for Black colleges and universities, commensurate with the tax dollars now given to Harvard, Yale, University of California and other institutions of higher education…

Demand 9: A national comprehensive health care services program to make quality health care free and available to all who need it regardless of social status or income…

Demand 10: That the FBI and CIA be abolished, as they are incapable of being reformed to act justly.

An additional thirty other demands rounded out the party’s platform, which sought to counter a rightward moving Democratic Party and a Republican Party beginning to pursue a policy of not-so-benign neglect of American urban centers. And the NBIPP’s opposition to “imperialism, sexual oppression, and capitalist exploitation” put it decidedly at odds with the two major parties.

Chapters quickly spread in cities across the country. Local chapters often called for “selective buying alerts,” which encouraged African Americans to not shop at retails outlets without “any or enough black faces.”[10] Establishing rape crisis centers, opening consumer cooperatives, and starting voter registration drives were high atop the list of priorities. When asked about the party’s initiatives, party theoretician Manning Marable did not obfuscate: “We are not replicating the errors and contradictions of the Democratic and Republican parties.” [11]

When questioned about the subject of electoral politics at the 1981 NBIPP convention in Chicago, Professor Barbara Sizemore said, “We are out to build institutions that will represent the interests of blacks in the social, economic, and political arena. Our purpose is simply not to engage in electoral politics. The running of candidates may in some instances become one of our activities, but this is not the purpose of the establishment of the party.” [12]

Indeed, while members did run for office, none actually ran on the NBIPP ticket. Additionally, the party failed to develop a nationally coordinated program. Various initiatives developed from local chapters in an ad-hoc manner. The party’s most organized efforts focused on “public information.” [13] This method of spreading political information via the party’s organs concentrated on international and domestic issues of concern to African Americans and blacks in the Diaspora.

The NBIPP only lasted six years. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 bid for the Democratic nomination drew more support back into traditional party politics. Even Angela Davis, who was then running for president under the Communist ticket, encouraged voters to embrace Jackson’s candidacy. Yet Jackson’s campaign failed to significantly influence the Democratic Party’s platform, and The Crisis, among others, argued that Jackson might have done better to run as an independent candidate in both 1984 and 1988.[14]

The Gary Convention, the NBPA, the NBIPP, and campaigns of Jesse Jackson, are all important chapters in the history of recent black politics, and they all have something to teach the Black Lives Matter movement. While they are primarily concerned at this moment with police accountability, it is clear that policing is connected to a whole host of issues facing black communities throughout the country. Will Black Lives Matter seek to move into electoral politics under a new party banner? Will it focus instead on institution building in hard-hit communities?

As the political season progresses, Bernie Sanders is gaining ground on Hillary Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but regardless of the outcome, the recent history of the Democratic Party leaves little reason to hope that Black Lives Matters can win significant concessions from any candidate. Yet the legacy of black movements from the recent past still beckons. Although the movement today considers itself a decentralized organization, the need for a comprehensive policy agenda for African Americans seems as relevant as it was in 1972 or 1980, if not more so. And through either electoral politics, or through grassroots institution building, some new organization or set of organizations must step in to fill the vacuum before rage and nihilism fill the void.


[1] Alice Garza, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatterMovement,” feministwire, October 7, 2014, (accessed September 1, 2015).

[2] Akiba Solomon, “Get on the Bus: Inside the Black Life Matters ‘Freedom Ride’ to Ferguson, ColorLines, September 5, 2014. (accessed September 1, 2015).

[3] Evan McMorris-Santoro, “Online And In Person, Bernie Sanders’ White Supporters Advance A Black Lives Matter Conspiracy,” BuzzFeed News, August 20, 2015. (accessed September 1, 2015).

[4] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 55.

[5] Black Agenda Radio, “#BlackLivesMatter: What’s a Movement Without Demands?” August 31, 2015.

[6] WBEZ91.5, “Gary’s National Black Political Convention, 40 Years on,” March 9, 2012.

[7] “The National Black Political Agenda,” in Komozi Woodard, Randolph Boehm, Daniel Lewis, ed., The Black Power Movement, Part 1: Amiri Baraka from Black Arts to Black Radicalism (Bethesda, Maryland: University Publications of America, 2000), microfilm, reel 3.

[8] Warren N. Holmes, “The National Black Independent Political Party: Political Insurgency or Ideological Convergence?” (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999), 14.

[9] Ron Daniels, “The National Black Political Assembly: Building Independent Black Politics in the 1980s,” The Black Scholar Vol. 15, No. 4 (July/August 1984): 34.

[10] Peter H. Milliken, “Party Tells Blacks How to Spend,” Vindicator, November 27, 1982, 3.

[11] National Black Political Party to Seek Local Support,” Toledo Blade, November 24, 1980, 3.

[12] Vernon Jarrett, “Fledgling Black Party Seeks a Voice,” The Day, August 22, 1981, 6.

[13] Holmes, 49.

[14] Charles P. Henry, “Major Problems for Minor Parties,” The Crisis Vol. 97, No.1 (January 1990): 26.

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