In responding to the murder of black youth by local police, outrage and protest, peaceful and violent, are understandable. But they are not enough. The solution to this systemic problem is the development of structures of popular control of police and criminal justice institutions.
The concept of black control of the institutions of the black community, or black community control, was proposed by Malcolm X. In various speeches to black audiences in 1964 in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest, he preached: “The politics, the economy, and all the institutions of the community should be under your control.”
Malcolm lived most of his life in Boston and New York, where large black sections of the cities constituted a de facto separation between black and white societies. Formed by this experience, Malcolm was not in agreement with the emphasis of the civil rights movement of 1955 to 1965 on civil and political rights. He of course understood that the civil and political rights of all should be protected. But he believed that the strategic emphasis on civil and political rights implied an ultimate goal of the integration of blacks and whites. For Malcolm, the physical separation of blacks and whites was not the issue; the problem, as he saw it, was that white men controlled the institutions of the black community.
Following his assassination of February 21, 1965, Malcolm became a revered figure in the African-American movement as it evolved to its black power and black nationalist stage during the period 1966-72. The idea of black control of black community institutions took hold, and there were various attempts to put it into practice. Its most advanced expression was an experiment in control of schools by a local community school board that was formed through special popular elections in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of New York City. The project was supported by Mayor John Lindsey, a white progressive who had been elected mayor as a Republican, breaking the hold of the white ethnic democratic machine on city polities. The local school board ordered the transfer of some of the teachers and hired new teachers, who, it believed, had more respectful attitudes toward black culture and were more committed to the education of black children. Under local community control, the schools developed significant changes in the curriculum, giving more emphasis to African-American and African history and culture. The experiment was brought to an end by the determined opposition of the mostly white New York City teachers’ union, which conducted a long strike, paralyzing education in the city. The crisis was resolved through a compromise that reduced the authority of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school board, effectively ending this experiment in local empowerment.
Then, as now, the local police force was analogous to an occupying army mobilized to control an alien presence in the center of an empire. Such a force could not be a true law enforcement agency, which ought to function to protect law-abiding citizens from criminal elements. Indeed, such a force tends toward a limited capacity to discern the difference between law-abiding citizens and habitual criminals, treating all with suspicion.
There were in the late 1960s and early 1970s some efforts to establish structures of community participation in local law enforcement. But they were limited. So we are left to imagine what could had been: local community control of the employment, education and training of local law enforcement agents; integral relationships between local police and other local economic, political, social and cultural institutions, each of which also possess a capacity for autonomous development; and cooperation between local community institutions and those of the larger society, guided by a common national commitment to fundamental democratic values and principles. In short, a local community actively involved in its economic, political and cultural development, overcoming step-by-step the poverty and underdevelopment that are a legacy of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and exploitation.
Alive as a viable and hopeful alternative before the people from 1966 to 1972, the concept of black community control declined in influence during the 1970s, as a consequence of a lack of political will at the national level. By the 1980s, with the triumph of Reagan and the national turn to the Right, it was forgotten.
That we have forgotten the concept of community control is symptomatic of a larger problem. We have forgotten the key proposals of the two principal charismatic leaders of the 1960s, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition to the idea of community control, Malcolm advocated the development of political and cultural ties with national liberation movements and newly-independent governments of Africa, Asia and Latin America. To this end, he traveled extensively to Africa, met with African leaders, and addressed the Organization of African Unity. Dr. King, meanwhile, experienced a significant evolution during the period 1964 to 1968. Expanding the strategy of attention on political and civil rights, his speeches and organized action increasingly focused on the protection of the social and economic rights of all citizens of the nation and the world, including condemnation in 1966 of the “domestic colonialism” of the urban North, and culminating in the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. In 1967, he condemned the US war in Vietnam as a war of white colonialism against a nation that sought independence and self-determination. In late 1967, a few months before he was assassinated, he wrote that the United States should support the democratic revolutions of the “barefoot people” of the earth, who seek to bring colonialism and neocolonialism to an end. As a nation, we recently commemorated the voting rights campaign in Selma in 1965, remembering the leadership of Dr. King in that historic event. But we have forgotten what King tried to teach us after Selma.
Jesse Jackson kept alive a number of the visionary proposals of the African-American movement during his presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988. As a strategy of popular political empowerment, he proposed a Rainbow Coalition of workers, farmers, students, women, blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, gays, small businesspersons, and ecologists, incorporating the demands of each in a comprehensive and well-formulated platform. The Jackson platform also included decisive government action in defense of the social and economic rights of all citizens. With respect to foreign policy, the platform proposed North-South cooperation, casting aside imperialism as the foundation of US policy.
I was a Jesse Jackson delegate at the 1988 Democratic Convention, and we Jackson delegates discussed the need to develop the Rainbow Coalition as a permanent political formation at the local and state levels across the nation. In South Carolina, we held several meetings dedicated to the implementation of this idea in our state. But we could not sustain the effort.
Imagine what could have been. Had we been able to establish the Rainbow Coalition as a national mass organization, educating and raising the consciousness of our people at the local level, we today would be able to propose a constructive alternative to the superficial and sometimes reactionary discourse of the mainstream. At any moment when a crisis or stunning or shameful event causes convulsion and anguish among our people, we would be able to offer to lead the people and the nation in a positive direction toward the development of democracy in its fullest sense.
Following the national turn to the Right in 1980, progressive white, black and Latino leaders and intellectuals in the United States have had the duty to keep alive before our people the principal ideas and proposals of the two most important charismatic leaders in the United States of the twentieth century, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. We have not been able to fulfill this duty.
We the people of the United States have a long history of developing movements from below: a labor movement that overcame long hours, low pay, and tenement housing; an abolitionist movement that played a central role in bringing slavery to an end; an African-American movement that overcame Jim Crow and established the protection of political and civil rights; a women’s movement that overcame legal and cultural obstacles to the development of girls and women; and a student movement that rejected US imperialism and that brought to an end the savage destruction of Vietnam. We should remember our past and rediscover who we are.
The excellent documentary series “Eyes on the Prize,” in concluding its segment on the Ocean Hill-Brownsville experiment in community control, observed that the idea of “Power to the People” is as old as the nation itself. Indeed so.
McKelvey, Charles. 1994. The African-American Movement: From Pan-Africanism to the Rainbow Coalition. Bayside, New York: General Hall.