from the pages of January 1996

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The Promise of the Million Man March

By Ron Daniels

 

November 16-19, 30 days after the historic Million Man March and Day of Absence (MMM/DOA), Benjamin Chavis convened the fifth meeting of the National African American Leadership Summit (NAALS) in Washington, DC.

Originally convened by Chavis in June 1994 in Baltimore during this tenure as executive director of the NAACP, the Summit captivated the imagination of Black America because of the broad cross section of leadership that participated in the first meeting. The prospects of building a united front/umbrella type structure inclusive of major civil rights organizations, civic and fraternal associations, business and professional organizations and nationalist, pan-African and activist groups seemed like a distinct possibility.

When Chavis was ousted from NAACP, however, the Summit continued, but the base of participation narrowed significantly.

The adoption of Minister Farrakhan's vision of a Million Man March at the third meeting of NAALS in Chicago in November 1994 as a part of the Summit's Action Agenda for 1995 proved to be a critical decision in the life of NAALS. The astounding success of the MMM/DOA not only affirmed Minister Farrakhan as the pre-eminent leader in Black America, it created new possibilities for NAALS and Chavis to guide the progress of Black America.

It is against this backdrop that more than 500 participants came to Washington this past November to attend the largest and most diverse gathering of the National African American Leadership Summit. Hugh Price, president and CEO of the National Urban League made his first Summit appearance. Rev. Jesse Jackson of the National Rainbow Coalition and Rev. Joseph Lowery of SCLC joined the Summit for the National Town Hall meeting. Scores of representatives of local organizing committees for the MMM/DOA also came to the Summit.

Several major initiatives were adopted by the Summit as a part of a Strategic Action Agenda: A National African American Economic Development Trust was established to serve as a vehicle to receive contributions for Black economic/business development; an Abundant Life Health Plan, as presented by Dr. Alim Muhammed, minister of health for the Nation of Islam, was adopted to begin the process of building a national, Black-based Health Maintenance Organization; NAALS affirmed its support for the Black Adoptions program of the National Association of Black Social Workers. Leonard Dunston, president of NABSW reported that 2,600 Black children were in the process of being adopted as a result of the MMM/DOA, thereby achieving 10 percent of the goal of adopting 25,000 Black children. The Summit also adopted an ambitious political mobilization agenda which includes registering millions of Black voters, a National Black Agenda Conference, and a National Black Political Convention in 1996.

The political mobilization agenda has great promise in terms of mobilizing the moderate-liberal-progressive forces within the National Black community into an effective voting bloc. It could also lead to a more independent direction in terms of Black voter participation. At the MMM Minister Farrakhan articulated the concept of Black voters becoming a “third force” in American politics, creating the option to vote for Democratic, Republican, or independent candidates based on a Black Agenda rather than party labels.

A National Black Agenda Conference will be held in March 1996 to develop a National Black Agenda reflecting the public policy positions of a broad range of constituencies and interests in Black America. This Agenda will be available as a guide to evaluate candidates for the House and Senate as well as presidential candidates. The National Black Political Convention will be scheduled in early September, after the Democratic and Republican Conventions, to evaluate the platforms of the establishment parties as well as the platforms of independent parties and candidates.

While the fifth meeting of NAALS was generally quite successful, several issues regarding the character, mission, and leadership structure of the Summit must be resolved. In my judgment a united front, an organization of organizations functioning under the principles of operational unity, is a strategic imperative for Black America. The Summit must not become a mass based, unitary organization, nor should it be viewed as an extension of the Nation of Islam or be seen as a new organization for Chavis. It is not likely that other major organizations and leaders will become a part of or remain with such a formation. Unfortunately, Chavis, who is really without an organizational base since his demise at the NAACP, has tended to vacillate on this critical issue. He is on record in at least two speeches over the past year calling for the creation of a new NAACP-type organization. While the progressive forces within NAALS have no objections to Chavis creating a new organization, there would be fierce opposition to any attempt to make NAALS his organization.

Secondly, as a united front formation, NAALS must be committed to inclusive, collective leadership and shared decision making. Chavis cannot carry the full weight of the Summit, and even if he could, it would violate one of the basic tenets of a united front. The Interim Coordinating Committee of NAALS, which is comprised of representatives of various national and local organizations, is in essence the core of the collective leadership of NAALS. However, Chavis did not call on Interim Coordinating Committee members during the recent Summit to share in the decision-making process or to assist with the facilitation of the meetings. As a result the meetings were often chaotic. One plenary session was delayed for two and a half hours while Chavis met with youth representatives of the Summit to hear their grievances. Disgruntled participants were left with the impression that if Chavis did not chair every session the Summit could not move forward.

Obviously, the Coordinating Committee, as the collective leadership, must play a more meaningful role in the decision making process if NAALS is to become a united front. In addition, organizations like the National Urban League, the NAACP, National Rainbow Coalition, and SCLC, who have become involved in the Summit should be offered seats on the Coordinating Committee to broaden the base of representation. This would strengthen the image and substance of NAALS as a united front.

Finally, there must be a real commitment to gender equality in NAALS. These concerns were raised rather forcefully at the Summit. Though the proposed constitution and bylaws of NAALS call for a goal of 50 percent gender balance in all aspects of leadership, programmatic, and decision-making process, the November 16-19 Summit was clearly a male-dominated affair. During the opening plenary of the more than 20 participants on the dais, only one was a woman. At the National Town Hall Meeting seven of the eight panelists were men and throughout the Summit most of the panelists and speakers were men. After a rather heated discussion about the lack of gender balance within the Summit, Chavis appointed a committee to develop recommendations on how NAALS should implement its stated policy of gender equality.

It is clear that Black America urgently needs NAALS to succeed. The issues of collective leadership, inclusiveness, and gender equality must be kept at the forefront of the internal agenda of NAALS. Progressive forces in NAALS must also offer a vision of social transformation of the political economy of the U.S. and the public policy and organizing strategies which flow from such a vision. Otherwise the political mobilization agenda of NAALS will become just a well orchestrated exercise in traditional practical politics. Whether NAALS will be up to the multiple challenges it faces remains to be seen. To a large degree the follow-up to the Million Man March will depend on how well NAALS is able to meet these challenges.