Revisiting a declaration of black political independence

Revisiting a declaration of black political independence
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As the Democratic primaries unfold, many African Americans are dissatisfied with the undue influence of white, liberal forces on their political leaders. So, this election season may be a good time for representatives of black districts to pay heed to the legacy of the Pan-African project. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the “Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World,” a galvanizing event in the politics of Pan-Africanism after World War I.

The declaration was adopted at an August 1920 conference of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), a Pan-African movement founded in Harlem by Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey. The event was held at Madison Square Garden and summoned members from different states and countries. Of prime concern was the question of black development in the context of Jim Crow oppression in the U.S. and European dominance in the West Indies and Africa.

The declaration demanded African independence and civil rights for blacks of the diaspora. It issued a political manifesto seeking control of black institutions, fair employment and wages, unlimited educational opportunities, training of doctors and medical technicians, safeguarding of women and children, and trade links between the black peoples of the world.

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The declaration also promoted a cultural agenda of instruction in black history, a holiday to commemorate African culture, establishment of the Pan-African flag with the symbolic red, black, and green “colors of the Negro race,” and the Pan-African anthem, “Ethiopia, Thou Land of Our Fathers.”

UNIA was a populist movement led by the charismatic Garvey. However, Garveyism was only one episode in the broader politics of Pan-Africanism. Parallel to the UNIA program were the Pan-African Congresses organized by black elites. The first was sponsored in London in 1900 by the Trinidadian barrister Henry Sylvester-Williams. By 1920, the meetings were conducted under the American scholar and civil rights leader, W.E.B. DuBois.

In totality, the movements addressed a broad program of African unity. After the third Pan-African Congress in 1923, DuBois took measure of the fledgling efforts in “The Negro Mind Reaches Out.”

“Pan-Africanism as a living movement, a tangible accomplishment, is a little and negligible thing,” he acknowledged, adding, “And yet slowly but surely the movement grows and the day faintly dawns when the new force for international understanding and racial readjustment will and must be felt.”

The goals of the American civil rights and African liberation movements were forged in these associations. Influenced were Presidents Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Leopold Senghor of Senegal, Sekou Toure of Guinea, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and singer Miriam Makeba of South Africa, among others. Martin Luther King Jr. was an honorary guest at the inauguration of Nkrumah in 1957 and commemorated on a Ghanaian postage stamp. The leaders responded with divergent approaches to the Pan-African challenge; they confronted the mean realities of under-development and white neo-colonial control. All were indebted to the visionaries of 1920.

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Today, black political leaders are enmeshed in a quagmire of unrequited liberal alliances. Witness the current black experience in the Democratic presidential primaries: Their concerns are marginalized in a selection process that entitles white regions; their authentic candidates are neutered in a system that rewards white billionaires and financial interests. No doubt some viewers found it ironic that the State of the Union address was more attuned to a black agenda — federal criminal justice reform, Historically Black Colleges and Universities funding, empowerment zones — than the Democratic response.

The centennial of the Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples is an opportunity for the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to reassess the merits of a Pan-African outlook. How can government resources build on the goals of self-reliance, community development and global outreach? How can policies further the needs for self-improvement, strong families, community networks, business investment and state political participation? How to strengthen anti-discrimination laws and programs of uplift for young black males?

In this election season, representatives must consider whether there is more to gain from attention to politics in key southern states than to the Democratic presidential primaries. The Georgia imperative is the most important of all: In the 2018 gubernatorial election, Democrat Stacey Abrams proved that a winning black-led political coalition is well within reach. It took practices of alleged election fraud to thwart victory. Congressional representatives of black districts should demand a House inquiry into such allegations — it could provide valuable information on the means of voter suppression in 2020 and ways to update the Voting Rights Act.

Finally, the establishment of a black-led alliance in Georgia could create opportunities for future generations. The states are laboratories for innovative laws and health and education policies, training grounds for aspiring political leaders, and settings for small business development, trading with overseas markets, and representation in the Senate. Surely, other majority-minority groups have used state power to advantage — the Mormons in Utah, Hispanics in New Mexico, and Asians in Hawaii are examples.

The centennial of the declaration is a moment for black congressional leaders to consider anew the Pan-African project. As the U.S. equivalent of a Pan-African Congress, the CBC could build on the awareness of a shared history awakened in the symbolic 2019 “Year of Return.” Whatever steps they take should reignite the promise of the old declaration to “encourage our race all over the world and to stimulate it to a higher and grander destiny.”

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. Since 2014, he has published VictoryStride.com, a multimedia library resource on African American history and culture. He has produced radio programs on African American history for NPR, and is the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”