NEW YORK (FinalCall.com) – George White of North Carolina was the last Black to have been born a slave and to have served in the United States Congress. He was also the last Black man from the Reconstruction Era, his term ended in 1900. During Mr. White’s last speech to his colleagues, he told them “yes” he was leaving the halls of Congress, but it was not the end of Black electoral politics, because “Blacks would rise like a Phoenix and return to Congress.” And his words came true.
The next Black to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives was a Chicago Black Republican, Oscar De Priest, who was sent to Washington in 1928. “You will never get what you want politically, unless you elect leaders who will fight for your interests… Don’t complain about racial discrimination. Change it by practical politics,” Mr. De Priest told a gathering at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1929.
And so, the question begging for an answer is what was the Black political agenda going into Reconstruction, and coming out of WWII, leading up to the election of Harlem’s Adam Clayton Powell Jr? Was there a “Black Agenda?”
A wise man once said history rewards all research. The Final Call turned to world renowned Black History Professor Dr. Leonard Jeffries who, for the past 35 years, has been teaching Black History at the City University of New York, to guide us through the murky waters of Black political thinking and activity.
“We must see the demands by Blacks for freedom, and their taking up arms on both sides during the Revolutionary War as the first steps towards ‘Black Power’ and a ‘Black Agenda,’” Dr. Jeffries explained.
“I try to hammer home to my students that what we as Blacks suffer from is a paralysis of analysis,” he stressed. “We must look at our political sojourn in America from the basis of a system’s analysis.”
He added that to begin with the period of Reconstruction as the start of the Black political movement is ludicrous. “Blacks came to these shores in 1619, and by 1626, they were demanding their freedom in the English colonies of Virginia and getting it. By 1644, Blacks [were] demanding the same thing from the Dutch colonies in New Amsterdam,” Dr. Jeffries said.
“By 1775, the British were realizing through their economic analysis that Blacks were becoming a real economic power in the colonies, and they offered them freedom, if they fought on the side of the British, and thousands of Blacks did so. But men such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson also realized the importance of arming Blacks for their cause, and a similar offer was made.”
“Blacks built a political dynamic early on with churches, fraternal lodges and educational institutions. But, in the 1800s Mr. Jefferson began to call attention to the growing Black population, and how it was slipping away from the plantation owners. And another dynamic that became a stumbling block to Black political and economic freedom prior to the Civil War was the dream of integration. We failed to put our economic foundation on a solid footing,” he said.
Another issue he said that seemed to fall off the radar screen of Blacks between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War was the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision–slaves were property and could not be considered citizens under the constitution.
“Let us for one minute take time to read something written by Lerone Bennett in his book “The Shaping of Black America:” “America or, to be more precise, the men who spoke in the name of America, decided that it was going to be a white place defined by the bodies and the blood of the reds and the blacks. And that decision, which was made in the 1660s and elaborated over a 200-year period, foreclosed certain possibilities in America.”
Mr. Bennett continued, “The race problem in America was a deliberate invention of men who systematically separated blacks from whites in order to make money.”
“So, Dred Scott took precedent over the Reconstruction Amendments, better known as the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, and we must see our analysis of Black political awareness from the basis of White supremacy and the Industrial Revolution,” Dr. Jeffries added.
He said that Blacks did not understand the dynamics of the Industrial Revolution, therefore they made some serious mistakes in systems analysis. “Blacks were talking about a bigger piece of the pie, and the White corporate moguls such as John D. Rockefeller were busy manipulating Whites against Blacks through the labor movements,” Dr. Jeffries said.
In their book, “Labor’s Untold Story,” Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais wrote: “The paramount question facing every sector of the American people, but above all labor, was the fate of the Negro people. The question simply put, was whether the Negro people were to be enslaved again after the bloody war to free them.”
According to Dr. Jeffries, the captains of American industry had begun to realize that Blacks were turning the corner on achieving true Black political power, which had very little to do with voting in Black politicians. “Voting is not politics, it is just an aspect of the political process,” he said.
“We arrived in the 1900s believing that a vote could get us into the mainstream of American life, and that is because our analysis of the great compromises of 1775, when Jefferson decided on the side of slavery, and the compromise of 1876, when during the Hays-Tilden election, there was an agreement fashioned to take political power away from Blacks. He said what really happened was that Whites decided how to fashion our politics to give them more power, and how to design our economics, so it would work for them.
“We are still not understanding the political dynamics of Booker T. Washington, who told Teddy Roosevelt, give us the means to earn a living, and we won’t argue for social quality, and W.E.B. Dubois, who said no way do we take a backseat on the issue of social equality.”
“We are not understanding the political dynamic of Marcus Garvey and the godfather of Black political thought in America, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who said own your businesses, own your schools, control your community and your families,” Dr. Jeffries stressed.
He said that it was the Black Power movement of the early 1900s that led to the political dynamics that brought Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to Congress in 1945, and later was the driving force to Minister Louis Farrakhan’s call for the Million Man March in 1995.
(This article is the first in a series. Next week: The Institutionalization of the Black Agenda: Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to 2003.)