Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Tim Thomas

Moving ahead to liberation: Learning from the past

First Published: Unity, Vol. 12, No. 2, February 16, 1989.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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When I was growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, we often watched the popular TV show “Star Trek”. Often, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock would, in times of trouble, ask Scotty to “beam us up” to safety aboard the Starship Enterprise.

My foreparents also talked about a ship in their Sorrow Songs. That Old Ship of Zion which would carry them safely to freedom and a better life. Historically, this ship has always faced rocky, treacherous waters and attacks, both internally and externally, and our unity has been critical in enabling us to go forward. As Malcolm X said, “We have the same problem ... a problem that will make you catch hell whether you are a Baptist, a Methodist, a Muslim or a nationalist, whether you are educated or illiterate, whether you live on the boulevard or in the alley. ... We’re all in the same boat.”


Throughout our history, Black freedom fighters have used different instruments, from armed self-defense to boycotts to demonstrations to music and art to propel our Ship of Zion forward. Periodically we have held conventions to chart the course of this great ship.

In the 1830s conventions set the Black Agenda for the Abolition Movement. They played the same role during the Reconstruction period. The Niagara Convention set the Agenda for the Segregation Era, the Garvey Conventions for the ’20s, the conventions of the Civil Rights Congress for the ’30s, the meetings of the March on Washington Movement for the ’40s, the conventions of the NAACP for the ’50s, and the Black Power conferences for the ’60s. The Gary Convention of 1972, which produced a Black Agenda and out of which grew the National Black Assembly (NBA), clearly set the tone for the ’70s.

These conventions cannot accomplish everything, of course. What different forces bring into these conventions and what they return to afterwards is what really counts. Winning votes and resolutions at a convention is not enough to carry them out once the convention is adjourned, if you do not have the forces, strategy and tactics to make those resolutions a reality. Nevertheless, conventions can set a tone and outline an agenda of priority issues for the movement at any given time.

This year, there is to be an African American Summit called by Reverend Jesse Jackson and other Black leaders, scheduled for New Orleans from April 14-16, as well as a 10th anniversary convention of the National Black United Front (NBUF) in July. For these gatherings to be successful, the movement needs to draw lessons from the past, drawing from the positive and avoiding a repeat of the mistakes.

Gary 1972

The 1972 Gary Convention was the most recent one which many of us active today participated in. As we prepare in our respective communities for attending the New Orleans Summit and the NBUF Convention in New York, I would like to offer a few lessons from this convention.

Gary represented the coming together of the objective Black united front. At that time, we can divide the core of the convention into basically two sectors. On one side were anti-imperialist Pan Africanists represented by Amiri Baraka, chair of the Congress of Afrikan Peoples (CAP); Nelson Johnson, chair of the Youth Organization for Black Unity (YOBU); Owusu Sadaukai of the Malcolm X Liberation University in Greensboro, North Carolina; Gene Locke of the Lynn Eusan Institute in Houston, Texas; Ron Daniels, at that time an organizer of an alternative educational institution in Youngstown, Ohio; and various other nationalists, many with strong mass ties. The other part of the core was represented by Black elected officials. Major players here were Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana; Congressman Charles Diggs, D-Mich., chair of the House Sub-Committee on Africa, and Congressman Walter Fauntroy, D-D.C. Intellectuals, administrative, and fund-raising experts like Dr. Ronald Walters, Bill Strickland and Ivanhoe Donaldson were also key.

The coming together of both the Pan African nationalists and the Black elected officials in an “operational unity” provided the basis for the success of the Gary Convention, which brought together over 8,000 African American delegates, representing all classes and strata of Black America.

CAP and the Pan Africanists

The main force among the Pan Africanists was the Congress of Afrikan Peoples (CAP), whose members did a lot of the hard work which enabled the convention to function and be broadly representative of all sectors of the African American community, particularly the grass roots. For nine months prior to the convention, CAP sent organizers around the country, promoting the convention and identifying local organizers who could mobilize in their areas. CAP also mobilized its own mass base, especially from its successful campaign to elect Kenneth Gibson as mayor of Newark. And during the convention, CAP members played key roles in areas like food, child care, registration, housing, transportation and security.

There were also weaknesses in CAP’s practice and approach, which were weaknesses shared by the Pan Africanist sector in general. However, CAP members did not go to the same extreme as many of us in YOBU[1] and some other groups.

CAP advanced the slogan “Unity Without Uniformity”, which came to be a slogan of the entire convention. This meant that the convention could unite diverse forces around a common agenda, but not seek to achieve uniformity on every issue. In this way, CAP sought to forge an “operational unity” which would strengthen the overall movement for Black Liberation.

On the final day, co-convener Amiri Baraka put forward the proposal which enabled the convention to end on a note of unity and continuity. Though he and CAP agreed with the other Pan Africanists on the need for an independent Black political party, Baraka worked to unite the convention around a compromise proposal which would keep those elected officials who were tied to the Democratic Party within the united front. This proposal, which called for the formation of a National Black Assembly, would allow organizations to retain their independence within a united front structure. It was overwhelmingly adopted by the convention.

In commenting on the convention, Gary City Controller Jesse Bell (who co-chaired the arrangements committee with Mayor Richard Hatcher) said, “Without the assistance of Baraka and members of his group, I doubt very seriously that many of the unexpected problems could have been resolved. They worked with a quiet efficiency that was unparalleled.” (Jet magazine, March 30, 1972.)

At the time, this summation of CAP’s positive role at Gary was not shared by many of us in the Pan Africanist movement from which CAP came. I was a Pan African socialist at that time, the vice chair of the Youth Organization for Black Unity (YOBU). I was among those who wrongly criticized CAP for being “too moderate” and for “conciliating” with the Black elected officials, as we failed to see that the NBA proposal and Black unity was in the interests of our people and our movement, and we thought CAP had basically given up the fight for one of our key demands. (I hear some of these same criticisms echoed today about the League of Revolutionary Struggle, whose legacy in the Black Liberation Movement goes back to CAP. Some leftists say the League pays “too much” attention to unity and not enough to the “class struggle.” But the criticism was wrong in 1972, and it is wrong in 1989 as well.)

Winning a vote is not enough

But YOBU’s error at Gary did not just revolve around differences with CAP over the NBA proposal. We had gone to Gary with the goal of pushing certain issues as far as possible. We wanted to limit the influence of the more moderate elected officials, and towards that end, we pushed for precisely those issues which we thought would expose their lack of internationalism and militancy. We saw this as our mission, and failed to grasp the negative impact this could have on the struggle to build a united front. CAP played a unifying role and stood up, correctly, to a lot of our extreme leftism. But on other issues, all of us, including CAP, worked together in getting a number of resolutions adopted as part of the National Black Agenda. We won the votes because the Pan Africanists had mass ties, numbers and organization.

But some of these planks, which did represent the sentiments of the working and progressive Black masses, were too narrow to unite the entire convention, sustain the momentum, or to expect the whole movement to implement once the convention was over. The end result of the above-mentioned errors was that they gave the Congressional Black Caucus and some other groups and elected officials who had participated in organizing Gary a reason to distance themselves from the Black Agenda following the convention.

Of course, some forces were just looking for an excuse to jump ship. But it’s also clear that the errors of the Pan Africanists gave them the excuse they needed, because we lacked the sophistication and the recognition of the need to keep the front united.

Why did we make these mistakes? I will start by saying that for many of us, we were young, impatient, and in retrospect, lacking some in wisdom. We were revolutionaries because we saw what the FBI did to our leaders, and we knew that the oppressive conditions of our people could not be fundamentally changed without revolution. We wanted revolution, immediately. I say this with no regrets, and with pride in what we accomplished, but I think, despite our good intentions and our many contributions, our “left” impetuosity led to errors.

I’ve learned the hard way that to pay attention to the importance of preserving unity is not just some liberal way of avoiding a fight. The united front is one basic weapon in our arsenal for liberation. And the League’s approach of stressing the importance of the united front, while building up the organized strength of the masses within the front, is the only way to fight and win. Any other approach will have our ship of liberation grounded on the rocky reefs that we must negotiate on our way to liberation.

Learning for the future

In spite of the mistakes that I made in 1972, I want to stress that I was a revolutionary then and I remain a revolutionary today. In 1973 I became a Marxist and in the years since that time, through working in a factory, living and organizing for many years on the Southside of Chicago, through work in the Free South Africa Movement and in the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, I have learned many lessons. From the vantage points of more years and more experience I feel that the primary lesson to draw from both the success and weakness of the Gary Convention is the importance of the united front and of the need for revolutionaries and leftists to build a real base among the masses and in the working class.

Now as we approach the African American Summit and the NBUF Convention in July, it is very important that we keep in mind the lessons learned from past experiences. While learning from the past, we also recognize that the conditions of the Black Liberation Movement are very different than in 1972, and the lessons cannot be mechanically applied. The nationalists today are not as strong as they were in ’72. And the Summit, which will include more of the Black elected officials, and the NBUF Convention, which includes more of the nationalists, are being held separately, not as one convention. One day, it is my hope that the two will be united as one. But even as separate conventions of the African American people, the same lessons and policies apply in uniting all who can be united for the goals we share. Thus, at both the African American Summit as well as the NBUF Convention, program items, resolutions or tactical plans that narrow, rather than broaden, the Black united front, must be strenuously avoided.

We must fight for those things which are in the interests of the vast majority of African Americans and especially the working class. As socialists, as revolutionaries, as working class people, we understand that it is the masses, the working class above all, who have the most interest in forging the broadest unity of the African American people in a fighting program to improve the conditions of our life – against drugs and racist violence, for education, for housing, and for political power, equality and justice.

I believe we have to forge the broadest possible front in order to move ahead the struggle for the liberation of our people. This front must include all sectors of the African American people because we all suffer national oppression and subjugation. And I think that critical to the implementation of a successful united front policy are the following lessons learned through painful trials and errors.

First, in developing and maintaining the united front effort, we must at the same time allow the constituent parts to have their independent existence. Every party, group or strata in the united front must be allowed to maintain its ideological, political and organizational independence. This is the recognition that this is a united front, we are united around a common goal, but we have differences as well. Unity with independence is also necessary since not all of our work can be carried out through the united front. As revolutionaries and leftists, we need to be organizing day to day among the people, building up the independent organized strength of the working class forces.

Secondly, all elements in the united front effort must take into consideration the conditions of our people as a whole, and think and operate in the interest of the majority of our people. It is very important that individuals and groups grasp the principle of subordinating their individual or organizational needs to those of our people as a whole.

And lastly, it is very important to work well with our allies in united front efforts. The oppressive conditions of our people demand the broadest unity. The practice of a correct policy on the united front in the African American movement calls for the broadest participation from all classes and strata as well as political tendencies. This means that in both political program, but also organizational form as well as in our methods of work, we have to take into account the interests and different operational methods of all strata of the front.

It’s only by adopting this method of work within the Black Liberation Movement that we can produce the “operational unity” necessary to move our ship of liberation forward and beat off the torpedo attacks spun by the Reagan, and now Bush, administration.

* * *

Tim Thomas graduated from George Washington University in 1970 in political science. He was vice chair of the Youth Organization for Black Unity (YOBU) from 1970-75, and also its coordinator of international affairs. He became chair of YOBU in 1974. He moved to Chicago in 1976 to work at the U.S. Steel South Works mill, USWA Local 65. He was active in the West Englewood community on the Southside of Chicago, and was a member of the Chicago Free South Africa Movement and a leader of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. He was a community organizer for Community Emergency Shelter Organization (CESO) before moving to Oakland in 1988 to join the staff of Unity.


[1] YOBU was a revolutionary organization of Black students and other young people which was started in 1969 by student government leaders of Black colleges in the South and Black Student Union leaders in Northern universities. Instrumental in YOBU coming together were Cleveland Sellers, former program secretary of SNCC, and Willie Ricks, youth organizer for SNCC, both serving during the tenure of Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) as chairman of SNCC.