Black Summits: Meeting is the Accomplishment

June 19, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

There was more than a grain of truth to NAACP director Benjamin Chavis' assertion last week that the most significant accomplishment of the black leaders who attended his "summit" convention in Baltimore was that they managed to meet at all.

Mr. Chavis was seeking to parry criticism that the much-publicized gathering, whose participants included controversial Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, produced little of substance during 2 1/2 days of meetings, other than a proposal to meet again in August for further discussions.

But a look at previous such gatherings shows that, historically speaking, these kinds of meetings can have long-term effects seemingly out of all proportion to their apparent significance -- or any immediate results they show.

Last week's event was only the latest in a long tradition of gatherings designed to bring black advocates together to swap ideas, cement alliances and unite behind a common purpose. Historically, the record on such assemblies is mixed. More often than not, their main function has been to crystallize the issues confronting African Americans at the time, rather than produce practical solutions.

But that doesn't mean they don't serve any purpose or contribute to the black liberation struggle. In fact, given the extremely harsh conditions under which blacks have lived during much of their history in America, that such meetings took place at all often did represent a triumph of sorts, as Mr. Chavis suggested.

Through them, blacks created a political life for themselves and a forum for expressing their demands despite all the efforts of whites to deny them such opportunities.

One of the earliest black conferences on record, for example, took place in Philadelphia in 1830. It was conceived by a 29-year-old Baltimore resident named Hezikiah Grice, who hit upon the idea of calling a national convention of free black men to protest the white-controlled American Colonization Society's efforts to deport free blacks in Cincinnati to Canada.

The first National Negro Convention took place on Sept. 20 of that year in response to a call issued by Bishop Richard Allen of Philadelphia's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Allen had organized the first mass meeting of Philadelphia blacks against colonization in 1817. The 1830 convention was attended by about 40 black men representing eight states, and the participants spent two days discussing the issue.

When the meeting ended, the participants resolved to condemn the American Colonization Society's program but agreed to support in principle the idea of emigration, on the grounds that America would never grant full political and civil rights to blacks.

The convention's most important practical result, however, was a resolution passed to meet again the following year. That decision launched the National Negro Convention movement, which over the next three decades would nurture a new crop of militant black activists, including such powerful advocates as Frederick Douglass, Martin Delaney and Henry Highland Garnet.

In 1853, for example, a gathering in Rochester, N.Y., called the Colored National Convention, saw delegates sharply split between advocates of Douglass' vision of an America in which blacks were fully integrated and enjoyed equal rights with whites, and Delaney's call for a separate black society -- led by blacks, based on black institutions, educated in black schools -- and informed by black newspapers.

The sharp divergence of views among participants at the Rochester conference gave birth to an argument that would be resurrected over and over again in future years between militant integrationists and equally militant black separatists.

Though the conference produced few practical results, it stimulated an intellectual debate that continues to the present day and whose spiritual legacy can be clearly seen in the competition between traditional assimilationist groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the fiercely nationalistic Nation of Islam.

The last meeting of the National Negro Convention Movement was held in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1864. The delegates who gathered there to deal with such new issues as emancipation produced a grandiloquent final manifesto in which they expressed hope "that the generosity and sense of honor inherent in the great heart of this nation will ultimately concede us our just claims, accord us our rights, and grant us our full measure of citizenship under the broad shield of the Constitution."

Such hopes were soon disappointed. So thoroughly were black aspirations crushed by the resurgence of white supremacy in the South after Reconstruction that by the time the black scholar W. E. B. DuBois attended the conference of African and New World Intellectuals in London in 1900 his words had the character of prophetic utterence when he warned that "the problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line."

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