U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Remembering the Black Radical Congress

The most recent issue of n+1 features a fascinating piece by Aziz Rana titled “Race and the American Creed.” Here, Rana argues for the need to understand the relationship between American ideas of race and ideas of its “creed,” that long-cherished idea of freedom and equality that, as Rana argues in his essay, has been built up by segments of American society since the Civil War. For politicians, it has been an effective tool to demonstrate America’s moral power to the world; for activists, however, it has offered a tolerant, equal vision of a nation crippled by racial, gender, and economic inequalities. His essay includes a useful reminder of the perils faced by African American radicals in confronting the American state during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In addition to Rana’s arguments I argue that intellectuals considering this history of the “American Creed,” along with the state of the modern American left, would be wise to look back to the 1990s and its trials and tribulations during the presidency of Bill Clinton. We should not discard the history of the New Left of the 1960s, or the splintering of the left in the 1970s. Nor are we anywhere near being done with researching the left’s many battles against Ronald Reagan and a resurgent right in the 1980s. But the 1990s do offer some interesting lessons for American intellectual historians (and, I would add, for intellectual historians of other nations too). Among the topics of the intellectual history of the 1990s that fascinates me is the creation of the Black Radical Congress, formed by African American intellectuals during the decade.

In some ways, there are parallels between the 1990s and the present moment. During both, a sitting president is also the leader of the Democratic Party and driving some in the liberal base of that party crazy with a natural inclination towards the center. The question of race in American society, then as today, took a variety of forms and had a multitude of key moments: the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, the 1994 victory of California’s Proposition 187 (which made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to use certain state services, such as public education) and the 1996 passage, again by referendum, of California’s Proposition 209 (which ended affirmative action in the state). That all of those moments occurred in California should not diminish their national significance; on the contrary, they merely point to the state’s importance in national culture and politics.

Against this, and a larger retreat from liberalism by the Democratic Party that began in earnest in the 1980s[1], African American intellectuals on the left attempted to plan out a strategy for dealing with an avalanche of issues they believed the two-party system ignored, or only gave lip service to, in the 1990s. The 1992 riots, along with the Million Man March in 1995, showed the urgent need for an African American politics in tune with concerns about the War on Drugs, police brutality, economic inequality, and education. Into the tradition of a variety of other African American intellectual and political movements entered the rise of the Black Radical Congress.

The Black Radical Congress was conceived by five African American intellectuals—the historians Manning Marable and Barbara Ransby, the African American Studies and library science scholar Abdul Alkalimat, intellectual and activist Bill Fletcher, Jr., and anthropologist Leith Mullings—as a way to mobilize groups already in existence for an uphill battle against racial, gender, and class injustice in American society in the late 1990s. As described here by Marable himself, by 1995 many black leftists felt it was time marable-m09to provide a left-wing response to not just the conservative tide overtaking the nation after the 1994 midterm elections, but also to the success of the Million Man March. Criticized for focusing far too much on self-help and a patriarchal view of African American politics, the Million Man March nonetheless demonstrated to activists that there were worries among African Americans about the future of civil, political, and economic rights for people of color in America.

Beyond the politics, remember the intellectual moment of 1995. Cornel West’s Race Matters was being discussed and read by many—but so was The Bell Curve. The rise of the “black public intellectual” in the mid-1990s sparked skepticism and backlash from many intellectual corners over questions of intellectual dexterity and seriousness. Bill Clinton was given the honorific “America’s First Black President” (for complicated reasons), and yet the Clinton Administration was assailed by members of the black left for its support of stringent crime laws and welfare reform legislation. The Black Radical Congress arose as a response to all these issues and more.

Members of the BRC wrote much about the organization in the late 1990s, galvanizing support for the group and trying to organize it using such as journals as The Black Scholar, ColorLines, and Social Justice.[2] In future posts, I’ll say more about some of those landmark articles and their own interpretation of recent American history, but suffice to say scholars—and scholarship—had a major influence on the growth of the BRC.

It is important to think about the BRC in the context of the modern Black Lives Matter campaign. While the intellectual, political, cultural, and especially economic moments are different between the 1990s and today, there are some echoes today of 1990s-era debates about race and American society. When one studies the American left, the history of the black left often comes to the fore. Pushing and prodding American society along a variety of fronts—not just on race—the black left has provided progressive forces in American society both with support and, more often, sound criticism. It remains to be seen where the left of today will go. As a historian I can only speak with (limited) confidence about the past, and a hazy, unsure analysis of the future. But understanding the last forty years of the American left means thinking a bit about the rise and fall of the Black Radical Congress.

[1] Of course, it can be argued just when this retreat began—certainly, Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976 should be seen as a major victory for the Southern, centrist wing of the Democratic Party that was already worried about a resurgent conservatism making the Republican Party more competitive across the South and, later, across the nation. And the Democratic Party has always included debate and dissension between liberal, moderate, and conservative wings since well before the New Deal coalition of the 1930s elected, again and again, Franklin Roosevelt.

[2] Perhaps the best article about the movement, written as it was in full swing, was Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua’s, “The Black Radical Congress and the Reconstruction of the Black Freedom Movement,” The Black Scholar, Vol. 28, no. 3-4, Fall/Winter 1998.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert: Thanks for this. How long was the Black Radical Congress in existence? Did its membership ever grow? Finally, how often did they convene? …As you can see, I’m intrigued. And I understand if you don’t have answers to these questions, or they are forthcoming in future posts. – TL

    • Thanks for the comment and questions, Tim!

      The BRC was only in existence for a few years–from roughly 97/98 until the early 00s. Now it wasn’t a big organization: I believe at its height it had only under 2000 members, but it was meant as a place where representatives from a variety of organizations could meet and coordinate their efforts.

      The BRC also had smaller chapters that met in various major cities in the USA and also overseas. In fact, one of the reasons they used the word “black” was to establish solidarity with people of African descent in Africa, Europe, and Latin America.

      I’m going to say a bit more about these questions in future posts, but that’s about it in terms of basic organization.

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