During the Fourth of July holiday season, I generally write something to remind Black people of the remarkable life and legacy of Frederick Douglass, particularly his great oratorical gifts and steadfast spirit of resistance as reflected in his “What is your Fourth of July to me?” speech delivered in Rochester, New York in 1852. Douglass’ fearless leadership was a critical force as an oppressed people struggled to forge a new African community in the U.S. However, this year as I reflected on the plight of Africans in America and the state of disorganization and disarray I discussed in a recent article, I elected to focus on the words of Rev. David Nickens, a lesser-known 19th century abolitionist/freedom fighter from Cincinnati, Ohio. Assessing the status/condition of approximately three and a half million enslaved and a half million quasi-free Africans prior to the Civil War, Nickens saw the need for Black people to affirm our identity, create bonds of unity and build strong structures/institutions to achieve full freedom. Hence, in a speech delivered July 5, 1832 in Chillicothe, Ohio (which was strikingly similar to Douglass’ famous oration), he said, “Let us cherish a friendly union with ourselves.” Nickens was not suggesting that Blacks isolate themselves from other races; he recognized the importance of internal organization, collaboration and joint effort to the process of liberation.
After decades of involvement with several national organizations and movements, along with a dedicated core of longtime friends and activists, for the past few years I have devoted my energies to building the Institute of the Black World 21st Century as a mechanism that can facilitate Africans in America (and the world) cherishing a “friendly union with ourselves.” This is never an easy proposition for an oppressed people because there is a tendency to internalize one’s oppression, leading to distrust, disorientation and disorganization. Moreover, the oppressor is obviously not eager to see the oppressed unified and therefore will use every possible means to sow seeds of dissension and disunity. The process of building unity in the newly emerging African community in the U.S. was particularly difficult due to the devastating consequences of cultural aggression/alienation and ruthless dehumanization under the British-American form of chattel slavery. Africans in America have had to build a new community from disparate ethnic groups against incredible odds. The struggle has been uneven, but without a doubt, we have successfully bent the arch of history decisively toward total liberation. From being enshrined in the Constitution of the U.S. as 3/5 of a human being to having an African American in the White House is phenomenal progress.
Yet, large numbers of our people are still not free from the affects of racial oppression and economic degradation in American society. Therefore, we must find a way to finish the course. The formula for success in that regard is still the same as it was in the difficult times in which Rev. David Nickens lived; in the face of a state of emergency for the masses of Black poor and working people and large numbers of our young people, we must strengthen our internal capacity to fight the battles necessary to win full freedom. This will require a focus on collaboration, cooperation, operational unity and joint work among leaders, organizations, agencies and institutions at all levels.
As I traveled around the country some years ago, I was struck by the fact that in every community I visited, local organizations and leaders described the persistence of various forms of racial oppression and lamented the lack of a “movement” to overcome these conditions. However, in each of these communities, there were movements and organizations engaged in struggles to combat police brutality, the prison-jail industrial complex, educational inequities, environmental racism, etc. The problem was that the organizations and leaders engaged in these struggles from different locales had no awareness of each other. There were movements and struggles in motion in communities throughout Black America, but they were disconnected. By and large, the same condition prevails today. It is not true that we do not have a “movement,” it is simply that the movements we have are not connected or in conversation with each other.
To cross the finish line to full freedom, it will simply not be enough to have a multiplicity of leaders and organizations. Black organizations and leaders must be effectively connected in order to maximize our collective power. Not only must collaboration, cooperation and operational unity become a habit, we need to focus on specialization and division of labor. For instance, rather than have scores of national organizations engaged in conducting voter registration, education and get out the vote campaigns and duplicating efforts, why can’t we agree on three or four taking on that task and the rest of the organizations and leaders supporting our national voter mobilization team. Equally important, we must strenuously strive to connect leaders and organizations doing work in various issue areas, e.g., housing, education, police brutality, criminal justice reform, etc. The environmental justice movement is an excellent example of how leaders and organizations should collaborate and do joint work. They have demonstrated that this kind of collaboration is possible. Some years ago, under the leadership of the late Damu Smith, the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN) was formed as an umbrella structure to function as a resource center for the environmental justice movement. Scholars, activists, policy analysts and community-based advocates from various locales were connected via NBEJN, thereby creating an effective force to challenge environmental racism anywhere in the country.
As I intimated in a previous article, we urgently need this same kind of collaboration and joint work among our major civil rights/human rights, political, labor and faith leaders in Black America. Indeed, if leaders and organizations at the local level witness national leaders and organizations collaborating on the implementation of an agenda to cope with and overcome the state of emergency afflicting distressed communities it might encourage/inspire them to act accordingly. Failing this, however, action may have to come from the bottom up through grassroots leaders emulating the organizing process of the environmental justice movement referenced above.
From my perspective, what is absolutely essential is the need for Africans in American to seize this moment of crisis to look inward and connect, network, link-up, collaborate, mobilize/organize the capacity to overcome the state of emergency which is stalling our quest to achieve full freedom – not just for the few but for the vast majority still imprisoned in America’s “dark ghettos.” It is time to “cherish a friendly union with ourselves.” We certainly envision the Institute of the Black World 21st Century playing a vital role in facilitating this process.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.