The Gary Convention Elided Black America’s Internal Disunity

In 1972, black political leaders and activists convened in Gary, Indiana, to develop a unified black political program. But the convention’s emphasis on racial cohesion overlooked the realities of black class stratification and internal ideological divisions.

Gary mayor Richard Hatcher welcomes delegates to the National Black Political Convention, flanked by Imamu Barak of the New Jersey Conference of African Peoples (L) and Rev. Jesse Jackson (R). (Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

Between March 10th and 12th of 1972, the West Side High School auditorium was buzzing with excitement and hope. The room was filled with a tour de force of black political activists, politicians, and cultural figures. Comedian Dick Gregory delivered his usual mix of jokes and political commentary, while Muhammad Ali served as sergeant at arms. Newly elected black politicians like Richard Hatcher, Charles Diggs, and Kenneth Gibson mixed with black nationalists like Amiri Baraka and Queen Mother Moore. Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, sat together in a dramatic display of unity.

The event was the Gary National Black Political Convention, convened fifty-two years ago today. Under the banner of “Unity without Uniformity,” the thousands in attendance sought to synthesize the various strains of black politics into a coherent strategy for the 1972 presidential election and beyond, while considering the options for political action outside the two major parties.

The Gary Convention was impressive in terms of the sheer depth and breadth of black political perspectives represented. In terms of lasting legacy or political impact, however, the gathering fell far short of its grand ambitions. Within just a few years, the broad coalition that was instrumental in mounting the convention was beset by divisions and stalled activity.

The convention’s disappointing aftermath was one of the earlier and more powerful demonstrations of the fundamental contradictions at the heart of the Black Power movement. Despite the best efforts of the convention’s organizers, racial unity was not enough to overcome the vast differences in ideology and class position that existed within black communities.

Black Power to Black Convention

The Gary Convention was inspired by the changing nature of the black civil rights struggle. The fulfillment of some of the civil rights movement’s major legislative priorities, namely the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, had unleashed new questions about the movement’s future strategies and goals.

Quickly it became clear that equality before the law did not necessarily address the systemic issues most black people faced in the realm of employment, housing, and education. Some trade-union-oriented civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin proposed the continuation of a broad multiracial coalition to take on structural economic issues in the form of the Freedom Budget for All Americans. But for many others frustrated with the limitations of civil rights legislation, “Black Power” became the rallying cry from 1966 onward.

An opaque slogan seemingly more radical than the mainstream civil rights movement, the program of Black Power that eventually emerged revealed itself to be fairly easily contained within the dominant economic and political system. The first Black Power conference in Newark in 1967 produced a program that included items like “buy black” campaigns, more black elected officials, more black nonprofits, and community control of schools.

Black politics scholar Robert C. Smith contends in his book We Have No Leaders that by the end of the 1960s this more mild version of Black Power “had been adopted by virtually the entire black establishment and by important elements of the liberal power structure that plays such an important patron role in black establishment leadership.”

The sentiments of Black Power fit in well with the simultaneous growth of a black political class. By the early 1970s there were black mayors in major cities like Cleveland, Newark, and Gary. 1972 was the first year since Reconstruction with widespread black voter participation in the south, leading to the tripling of the black Congressional delegation from four to thirteen.

The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), established first in 1969 as the Democratic Select Caucus, served as an institutional vehicle for this new cohort of black congressional representatives and would play a significant role in the lead-up to the Gary convention.

Of course, Black Power had an organizational expression outside of electoral politics as well. Between 1967 and 1970 more than seventy nationalist organizations of various stripes were formed. The Congress of African Peoples (CAP), under the leadership of charismatic poet Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones), would emerge as the driving force that attempted to bring together various black political strains together for conferences and strategy sessions.

In Newark, during the 1960s, Baraka helped spearhead an ecumenical grassroots effort that installed Kenneth Gibson as the city’s first black mayor. Similarly, in many other local contexts, there was often a dynamic interplay between black nationalist activists and more mainstream black political leaders. Baraka hoped to take this model of broad-based black political unity to the national level, and was hopeful that a grand alliance of black nationalists and moderates could come to fruition.

In 1970, CAP organized a gathering in Atlanta that drew mainstream figures such as Whitney Young from the Urban League, Ralph Abernathy from the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), and Gary, Indiana, mayor Richard Hatcher.  Throughout, clear differences between pro-integration participants like Young and more nationalist elements like Baraka emerged.

However, these differences were not formally acknowledged or institutionalized within the organization. In a foreshadowing of what was to come in 1972, “they were simply ignored as if the mere articulation of views in a common forum between Young and Baraka was sufficient to establish unity,” Robert C. Smith noted.

In September 1971, Hatcher convened a meeting of elected officials in Northlake, Illinois. Again, an impressive list of politicos was in attendance, including Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond, and John Conyers. The 1972 presidential election, and the approach of black constituencies and the black political class toward it, dominated the discussion. The topic of Shirley Chisholm, who was planning to make a presidential run of her own, hung over these discussions, although she herself did not engage much with this pre-convention process.

It was out of these broad-based meetings, in the context of growing black voting power and political influence, that activists and elected officials alike began to cohere around the idea of a unified approach to the 1972 elections and a national black political convention.

The idea of a national black convention caused consternation for some. Elected officials like Julian Bond were concerned that, unlike the black nationalist activists involved, they had real constituencies to respond to and needed to be more careful about what positions they signed on to. Other elected officials worried that a move towards an independent black political party would jeopardize their growing influence within the Democratic Party.

But for many activists the prospect of a large convening was attractive, especially following years of severe state repression and the movement’s loss of direction since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. Ben Chavis, a civil rights activist in North Carolina and delegate to the convention, remarked in an interview for Eyes on the Prize, “Keep in mind there had not been a real national meeting of African-Americans since the sixties. And I’m gonna tell you the truth…I had gotten tired of going to funerals.”

“Nation Time!”

Although the convention went off without any major breakdowns, there were some heightened moments of tension. On the first day, Charles Diggs’s heavy-handed style of chairing alienated delegates and led to a misread of a voice vote. On the last day Coleman Young, who would later become mayor of Detroit, led a walkout of the Michigan delegation because he wanted more time to read the resolutions over before voting. Afterwards, rumors spread that the United Auto Workers instigated the walkout.

But overall, at least in the moment, there was a sense of accomplishment and jubilation among the participants. A New York Times reporter interviewed delegates and observed an “enthusiasm and a near-universal anxiousness to maintaining a ‘network’ or a ‘conduit’ aimed at keeping the geographically and philosophically diverse black communities in contact with one another.”

For many the gathering was a moment of black cultural pride. Richard Hatcher remarked, “The colorful dashikis and other African garb that some of them wore, mixing with three-piece suits and so forth. It was just an incredible sight to behold.” Ben Chavis remembered, “I felt like I had been to a revival . . . this was African Americans being proud of who they were. Blackness was everywhere.”

The speeches, though generally well-received by the audience, revealed both political divisions and at times the hollowness of black power’s political program. Richard Hatcher was mostly cheered, but boos crept in when he suggested a broad multiracial movement and said, “We shall take with us . . . many of the white poor who have nothing to lose but their poverty; many a white ex-GI who dares say ‘Never Again’; yes, and many of the white working class, too.”

Jesse Jackson stole the show in many ways. A rising black political star, he had served as a close aide to Martin Luther King Jr and was able to skillfully move between radical black nationalists and the civil rights establishment. While his speech was rousing and emotive, it offered very little in the way of a concrete political program.

Jackson focused heavily on the need for the proportionate representation of blacks in the political system. “Everywhere there is a black population we must have our minimum percentage of jobs,” he cried. “We are one of every five national Democratic votes. That means we are due 20 percent of that party. . . . We got to learn how to count!”

In other parts of his speech, Jackson dipped into neoliberal forms of self-help ideology. Referencing the need to buy books instead of drugs and stop black-on-black killing, Jackson said, “Let us clean up our minds . . . the slums are in us.”

Of great interest to the press was the fact that many speakers seemed to suggest a break with the Democratic Party. Hatcher warned that if the Democrats failed black people in 1972, “We must then seriously probe the possibility of a third-party movement in this country.” Jackson was even more bold in calling immediately for a black political party.

Amiri Baraka seemed to hold the meeting together through the sheer force of his personality. He expertly navigated the different political tendencies and competently chaired the proceedings. Many acknowledged that he was perhaps the only person who could’ve kept things as unified as they were.

The convention adopted many resolutions and subsequently released a National Black Political Agenda, which scholar Manning Marable described as “one of the most visionary and progressive statements ever issued by Afro-Americans about their position in this country.” The Agenda contained many social democratic elements championed by the New Deal coalition, which of course included the majority of black voters. Among these were calls for an increased minimum wage, affordable mass transit, employment training programs, progressive taxation, national health insurance, and reduction in defense spending.

Antiwar and anti-colonial planks were also featured in the document such as self-determination for Puerto Rico, an end to sanctions on Cuba, support for Palestine liberation, and withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam.

But the Agenda, just like the convention as a whole, tried to be all things to all people in black politics. Symbolizing this was the fact that Samuel C. Jackson, the Nixon administration’s assistant secretary of housing and urban development, served as the platform committee chairman. So along with the social democratic planks were included more nationalist-oriented programs that called for a national black development bank, community control of black institutions, the creation of parallel black labor organizations, and a rejection of busing as a tool of school integration.

Robert C. Smith, again in We Have No Leaders, critiqued the agenda as “internally contradictory, blending elements of reform and revolution.” In the effort to appease all ideological strains in attendance, differences were ignored, and strategic debate was shunned. Instead, “The convention willy nilly included everyone’s pet ideological or institutional position.”

It was only a matter of time before these ideological differences revealed themselves to be of fundamental importance and put a brake on meaningful progress post-convention.

“But When You Go back Home . . .”

Often when the Gary Convention is discussed today, both by delegates who were in attendance and historians, the very fact that such a meeting took place is used to define it as a success. This view is perfectly displayed by the title of Thomas Johnson’s New York Times essay right after the convention: “We Met Therefore We Won.”

While much of the black press and political class shared this euphoria at the time, there were still many voices that expressed a much more sober and critical view of affairs.

The Chicago Defender was particularly harsh, castigating the event as “a babel of ideologies, half-baked dilettantism and infantile assumptions. . . . It had a chance to be a force in the consortium of American politics, it has muffed it.”

For the more astute observers, the Gary convention revealed the class fault lines within black political life. William Strickland, cofounder of the Institute of the Black World, remarked, “It reflected the aspirations of its convenors and participants who were, whether young or old, in office or out, sincere or opportunity, members of the petty bourgeoisie.” Presciently, Strickland went on to say, “The class factor in black politics is not by itself an insuperable obstacle, but it must be admitted if it is to be successfully transcended.”

Black elected officials and other elements of the black political establishment came out of the convention more skeptical about the ability to operationalize black nationalist ideas in their specific contexts. It was hard for them to see how to use the ideas from Gary in the much more multiracial and cosmopolitan political environment they had to operate in.

Even Richard Hatcher, who was so instrumental in both the planning and execution of the convention, tried to measure expectations when he said, “You can be very black and very unified in Gary . . . but when you get back home, your life, your patronage and your political future depend really on how well you fit into the pattern of the very white regional machine.”

The focus on “community control” also didn’t address the fundamental redistribution of wealth and resources that would be needed to improve most black people’s lives. NAACP President Roy Wilkins commented on the Agenda, “In focusing all its concern upon controlling the meager, poverty ridden institutions of the ghetto, the Agenda would fetter black America forever into the poorest and least influential sectors of the national life.”

The new cohort of black mayors had experienced firsthand how limited their powers were without more resources from the federal government. Again, here, Hatcher was insightful when he explained, “There is much talk about black control of the ghetto. What does that mean? I am a mayor of a city of roughly 90,000 black people, but we do not control the possibilities of jobs for them, of money for their schools or state-funded social services.”

This sentiment was also shared by more radical political actors like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Their Freedom Budget for All Americans was premised on the idea that only a massive federal program in the realm of jobs, housing, and education would be enough to reach the masses of black people in northern cities.

Only a month after the Agenda was published, the Congressional Black Caucus released its own platform that was less militant and more pragmatic. This move essentially undermined the entire strategy of the convention. Instead of seeing the event as a first step towards some kind of independent black politics, many black elected officials used the media attention from the event to further bolster their claims to be the sole racial brokers within the Democratic Party.

In the 1972 elections, there was no uniform strategic approach from black political leaders, as different spokespeople jockeyed for influence at the Democratic National Convention. Jesse Jackson, who just a few months before at Gary issued a strong call for a third party, used his political capital to campaign heavily for George McGovern.

At Gary, a resolution was passed calling for an Assembly “party-like structure” that would carry out follow-up work and continue the development of national black politics. Out of this structure would also emerge the National Independent Black Political Party (NIBPP). While subsequent meetings and conventions were held, none had the breadth and depth of participation that was on display at Gary.

Conventions were held in Little Rock in 1974, Cincinnati in 1976, and New Orleans in 1980. The Assembly was a site of productive local-level work like candidate screenings for local elections. But despite rhetoric that emphasized grassroots mass mobilization, often these networks were overly focused on mobilizing black political activists and intellectuals.

As Cedric Johnson explains in his book From Revolutionaries to Race Leaders, the Assembly and NIBPP were “tied up in a bureaucratic politics predicated more in meetings, conferences, and conventions than in the mobilization of real constituencies outside the ranks of radical activist intellectuals.”

Baraka, inspired by African liberation parties in Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Tanzania, envisioned that the Assembly would function as a black political party that would undertake continuous mobilization and education beyond election cycles. However, the broader forces within the civil rights movement and political class that were needed to carry it out did not share this view.

As is unfortunately usually the case when organizations fail to develop a mass base, the Assembly became beset with sectarian infighting throughout the 1970s. By 1975 Richard Hatcher resigned his leadership role and very few other black elected officials took part.

While it is tempting for leftists to subscribe to the interpretation that the goals of the Gary Convention were “co-opted” or “sold out” by the black political establishment, a more honest and thoughtful account is needed. While it is true that perhaps many black elected officials had cynical and self-serving motives for participating in the process, it is also true that radical black nationalists had failed to build a mass base in support of its goals. Often black electoral machines were better organized at the grassroots level and more in touch with the pragmatic material needs of their constituents.

While black nationalists brought an important awareness of international issues and US imperialism, a tendency to focus too much on African liberation further handicapped their ability to attract a mass base in the US. It also led to strategic errors, as they tried to graft the united front experience of liberation parties like the PAIGC of Guinea-Bissau onto a much different US terrain.

A Different Kind of Unity

The Gary Convention took place as the New Deal coalition reached a point of stagnation and exhaustion. While a reformulation of black politics was needed at this time, the organizers of the Gary Convention failed to build on the successes and strategic insights black people had attained during the New Deal period.

Black intellectual Harold Cruse, in a 1974 article for Black Politics about the Little Rock convention, castigated Black Power theoreticians Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton for dismissing the effectiveness of coalitions in their seminal work Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. Primarily, he found it shocking that they had nothing to say about the massive participation of black people in the New Deal coalition.

While acknowledging that the New Deal did not satisfy all black leaders, the growth of a more egalitarian labor movement and the many social programs “did satisfy the masses whose margins of votes kept Roosevelt in office in 1936, 1940 and 1944.” Cruse also asserted, “Were it not for the Black militancy of the 1930s on the political fronts . . . Carmichael and Hamilton would not have inherited the critical wherewithal to write Black Power.

Crucially, Cruse recognized that the Nixon administration represented the culmination of a decades-long Republican Party strategy to “disperse all the elements of the New Deal coalition, and to eliminate every lingering vestige of the New Deal social reforms.”

In the 1970s, the black nationalists of the Gary Convention attempted to replace New Deal coalitional politics with a strategy of superficial black unity. This tendency has a regressive effect on black politics because it obfuscates ideological differences and discourages debate. Such ideological differences about the nature of racial inequality and proposed solutions are inevitable.

Without doubt, many delegates left the Gary Convention reenergized and motivated to fight for worthy causes in their localities. Retrospectively, many saw the gathering as a springboard that accelerated the amount of black political officeholders across the country. Some even view Gary as the beginning of a line leading to the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama.

However, a larger black political class has not alleviated the major issues that animated the Gary Convention in the first place. The class divide among the black population has accelerated since the 1960s, with the doubling of the black middle class between 1960 and 1970 alone. It should be abundantly clear by now that there is no one unified black interest.

Nostalgia for bygone gatherings and constant reformulations of “black programs” are not what we need at this juncture. The work of rebuilding a mass constituency for progressive politics rooted in the working-class majority is the only way we can get out of the current morass of black politics and meaningfully improve the material conditions of most black people.