An Historic Turning Point?

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

an interview with Ron Daniels

RON DANIELS IS national chairperson of the Campaign for a New Tomorrow and well-known as a proponent of independent progressive political action. Formerly a leading organizer in the Rainbow Coalition, he campaigned as an independent in the 1992 Presidential election. He served as a member of the executive council of the Organizing Committee for the Million Man March.

David Finkel of the ATC editorial board conducted this telephone interview on the dynamics and implications of the March.

Against the Current: Before getting into the main issues we’d like you to discuss–the significance of the March for overall U.S. politics and its implications for reconfiguring African-American leadership–can you say something from the inside about how the March was built and grew so rapidly, and also your own role?

Ron Daniels: The real organizing for the March only started in May–it’s miraculous how quickly it came together in that sense–but the discussions were ongoing over the past year and a half. During that time I played a role of critical support, pushing for changes in some of the original conceptions in order to make it broader and stronger.

Minister Farrakhan actually brought the idea of the Million Man March to the National African American Leadership Summit (NAALS), to be part of its 1995 agenda. So the March was never a narrowly conceived Nation of Islam project, it was a coalition effort from the beginning.

Then, with Dr. Chavis being selected as Director of the March, he was able to reach out to a number of different forces. The Summit helped to give it a broad character. And of course the grassroots dynamic began to build in an incredible way–it touched the nerve of the African-American community.

The breadth of the March grew as many mainstream civil rights leaders and others felt they had to identify with it.

ATC: As someone who is active both in African-American movement politics and in the left, what do you see as the impact of the March in the general society?

RD: First, there was a whole emphasis to mobilize the capacity inside the African American community–that is, all of the economic and educational and political and cultural resources. Thus Minister Farrakhan began to talk, in a way he hadn’t previously, about two concepts.

One was the idea of registering x number of voters as independents, something which subsequently was de-emphasized as the March began to draw in Black Democrats. The other is the concept of a third force in American politics–something I’ve talked about in terms of the potential the Rainbow Coalition had, but which was new for him to say.

Farrakhan spoke of the need for a Black agenda and the need to pressure candidates around that agenda. This wasn’t just to be tied to Democrats and Republicans; independent candidacies would be part of that mix. That is something I think many people find attractive and appealing–not that it goes exactly where I’m going in terms of clearly independent politics, but it provides a comfort level for people who aren’t ready to leave the Democratic Party but also see independent candidacies as an option.

Recent studies show that over 50% of the Black population now supports the idea of an independent Black party. That’s a very strong expression of sentiment.

Another thing about the Farrakhan factor–it’s only a potential–is that he leads a very disciplined core of people who could, in fact, do voter registration. And if voter registration is tied to a Black agenda, considering that what the Black community wants and needs represents the core of a progressive program–it would change the political direction of the country dramatically.

I say that Farrakhan’s disciplined cadre of people has the potential in terms of voter registration and voter turnout; the problem of course is that they have no experience of having actually done it. The exception was a brief interlude in 1984 with the Jesse Jackson campaign, and then I think they ran some candidates in Washington, D.C. and Montgomery County (Maryland), with some reasonable success.

You have that potential, and then the fact–no question about it–that Farrakhan is certainly among, if not himself the most, preeminent Black leader in America. So there would be the possibility of him moving across the country, as was suggested in the NAALS, registering people in the way Jesse Jackson did.

I think there will be some efforts to do that. As an analyst, I have to caution that it’s one thing to talk about and another to do it. The question is whether NOI can work effectively with the people who do have that experience.

Yet another factor to consider is that a lot of energy coming out of the Million Man March is decentralized. It’s been said that there are as many as 400 local communities. Let’s be conservative, maybe there are only 200–we’ve heard that some of them went right to work registering people to vote.

So it’s helped to generate a sense of participation which, if it can sustain itself, has profound possibilities. That’s a big “if,” and that’s where the ongoing role of the NAALS becomes critical. Now, coming out of the Political Empowerment Committee of the NAALS is the prospect of a Black Political Convention in 1996, to be preceded by a Black Political Agenda Conference (to take place in March 1996).

This Agenda conference would involve leading Black scholar-activists and grassroots activists, coming together to talk in a very sober way about the conditions of Black America and what’s needed. This could be used to evaluate the candidates, of all kinds, during the primary season.

I’ve always envisioned Black America, and even the broader progressive movement, coming together after the Democratic and Republican conventions to evaluate which way to go. The 1996 Black Political Convention would be envisioned for early September.

This becomes an interesting tool, from my point of view, to re-institute and internalize a process within the Black community of evaluating political options–something I think is needed across the political spectrum, and could be repeated in the Latino and Asian-American communities as well.

It’s too early to say where that idea could go. But if the Gary (1972) Black Political Convention had 8-10,000 people, this time you might see 20-25,000 people, including both elected delegates and observers. This is the next focal point of the Million Man March.

The March itself didn’t have that sharp critical focus on the corporations. Jesse of course had good things to say, but the event was heavily weighted toward Black spirituality and atonement–the challenge to corporate America didn’t really emerge in the public statements, though it does exist in the mission statement of the March.

The agenda conference and convention would be the logical place for that challenge to express itself.

ATC: The other question we wanted to bring up is what all this means in the reconfiguration of African-American leadership.

RD: The Million Man March is really a challenge. The civil rights leadership and mainstream Black elected officials now have to assess where they are in relationship to this motion. I think that’s positive, because many people had settled into the routine of functioning within the system instead of stretching and challenging it.

Many people who joined the NAACP, Urban League and other groups after the March are going to be demanding activist agendas. And the word coming out from these organizations, the SCLC and all the rest, is that they all experienced membership jumps.

The other exciting potential of this dynamic process can be seen in Minister Farrakhan sitting in these meetings with the National African-American Leadership Summit, with people from a broad range of perspectives–from nationalist to the Black left, to Black Democrats and even conservative forces.

There’s a lot of discussion about direction, and interaction between people such as Cornel West and Farrakhan about points where they may differ. Interestingly, Farrakhan has talked not only about an agenda for Blacks but about one for all the oppressed.

You’re seeing the gradual incorporation–in terms of Farrakhan’s interaction with other people–of a class dimension. I think this is healthy, because when Black people move it’s a catalyst for working people in general. That’s an important evolution in Farrakhan’s thinking, not only in his own search for direction but because he’s participating in this discourse and dialogue. It’s reflected in his speaking of white supremacy instead of the old “white devils” terminology.

One of the things he has had to do is find a theological basis for whatever new direction he wants to take. I think he really does want to develop a united front–again, wanting to do that and having the experience to do so are different things.

 You don’t need that experience when you’re heading a religious-military kind of structure where people are waiting for you to give them marching orders. So he’s finding that interchange outside the NOI structure itself, inside the NAALS.

It would be a fatal mistake if the NOI fell into the trap of seeing itself as the dominant force. We really need someone like Minister Farrakhan using his enormous stature to encourage leadership–not a leader. We need a broad cross-section of people interacting as leadership.

We can’t afford dependency on one, two or three leaders. It’s incumbent on those who come to be revered for their contributions not to nurture dependency. That’s one of the challenges: Can we forge a genuine collective leadership through the NAALS? Or will it become the unitary structure of one or another leader? If that were to happen then much of the energy will be dissipated, because it just won’t bring in the broader forces which need that space.

But if we can, in fact, forge a united front kind of formation with the NAALS, then the energy from the Million Man March can be harnessed and become a seminal force, a real turning point not just for the Black movement but for the broader progressive forces in the country.

ATC 60, January-February 1996