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Beyond The Civil Rights Agenda for Blacks:
Principles for the Pursuit of
Economic and Community Development
WILLIAM MONROE TROTTER INSTITUTE
UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS AT BOSTON
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS 02125-3393
Occasional Paper No. 29
Beyond The Civil Rights Agenda for Blacks:
Principles for the Pursuit of
Economic and Community Development
This paper is based on a presentation made at a forum sponsored by the African- American Law
and Policy Report, University of California at Berkeley, in January 1994. James Jermings is
Professor of Political Science and Director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute at the
University of Massachusetts Boston.
Through this series of publications the WilHam Monroe Trotter Institute is making
available copies of selected reports and papers from research conducted at the Institute. The
analyses and conclusions contained in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily
represent the opinions or endorsement of the Trotter Institute or the University of Massachusetts.
The Trotter Institute publishes its research through the Occasional Papers Series, the
Research Report Series, the Monograph Series, and the Institute's periodical, the Trotter Review.
For more information on any of these publications or the William Monroe Trotter Institute, please
contact us at the address below.
This paper. Beyond the Civil Rights Agenda for Blacks, is based on the Black Agenda
Project, a 6-year effort devoted to elevating community-based discourse on political, economic,
and social challenges facing blacks in Boston and Massachusetts.
Dr. James Jennings, Director
William Monroe Trotter Institute
University of Massachusetts
100 Morrissey Boulevard
Boston, MA 02125-3393
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Today the black community continues to face serious community-wide social and
economic crisis. Blacks, compared to whites, are characterized by persistently greater levels of
poverty, unemployment, inferior and inadequate housing, and health problems including high
levels of infant mortality, homicide, drug, and alcohol addiction. Even in those places where
blacks have made important political gains, major social and economic problems remain steadfast
and, in fact, are intensifying in many ways. Moreover, a significant and growing racial divide
continues to characterize almost all aspects of life in the United States. The nature and substance
of this racially-based social and economic hierarchy have been documented and analyzed in
several national studies including the study published by the National Academy of Sciences, A
Common Destiny, and the Trotter Institute's five volume study, Assessment of the Status of
African-Americans.^ What these and other studies show in various ways is that while some
individuals and strata in the black community have been able to realize certain kinds of racial
progress, large sectors of this community continue to be characterized by poverty, unemployment,
poor housing, high incarceration rates, and related problems. Both these studies provide a wealth
of data illustrating the extent and persistence of these kinds of problems.
A racial gap between whites and Afiican Americans remains steadfast and may be
increasing in the areas of employment, housing, health, and poverty. Note, as but one example of
this continuing racial hierarchy and division, that in 1939 the proportion of Afiican Americans in
poverty was at least 3 times that of whites; in 1959, the proportion of Afiican Americans in
poverty was still 3 times the proportion of whites; and in 1989, the proportion of African
Americans in poverty remains as 3 times the proportion of whites!^ Thus, despite significant
changes in race relations in the United States, including the elimination of a multi-generational
system of legally and socially sanctioned apartheid, society is still characterized by fundamental
divisions along racial lines.'' This entrenched, and persisting, racial divide and hierarchy has been
evident for generations, and apparently has not been impacted significantly by changing national
administrations, changing family structure among blacks, or even increasing levels of schooling on
the part of blacks . '* The assertion of persisting racial hierarchy is not to deny, or minimize, the
significant degree of racial progress that has taken place in this country. But a racial chasm, a
hierarchical ordering of race in the United States, is persisting and, in some ways, widening
according to many national reports.
A range of reasons have been offered for this state of racial affairs in the United States.
Some have proposed that these problems reflect a moral problem, either on the part of society for
maintaining or even confining large numbers of blacks to such negative living conditions, or on
the part of black individuals or "leaders." Others have argued that these conditions are primarily
an economic, political, or even cultural problem. Some commentators have raised questions and
doubts about the effectiveness or limits of strategies of the Civil Rights Movement during the
1960's as a result of this social and economic crisis. A few writers have suggested that the Civil
Rights Movement actually contributed to the negative and deteriorated living conditions in the
1980s and 1990s! Still others have proposed that the Civil Rights Movement was simply too
short-lived; it was an effective period of social and government activism during the mid-sixties
when racism and discrimination presumably were reduced to a certain, but limited, extent.
Persisting negative living conditions have generated intense ideological discussions about
the current and future status of blacks in this nation. These discussions and debates have touched
upon three broad queries:
• Has the 'rights-based' model for attaining black social and economic progress
outlived its usefulness?
• Can the African- American community better gain equality and empowerment by
shifting from a focus on securing or enforcing basic democratic rights?
• What should be the new goals for black America and more effective strategies for
These queries are not new. They have been raised continuously by black people
throughout the history of the United States. It is interesting to read, for instance, the opening
editorial of the nation's very first black newspaper in 1827, Freedom's Journal, which indicates
that some of the problems facing blacks in the early 19th century have yet to be resolved as we
enter the 21st century. Such perennial and persisting problems include poor health, inferior
education, racism, unfair media reporting, and unresponsive government.^ Thus, in slightly
different format the queries that are being raised today by many in the black community were also
cited by the founders of this newspaper, Samuel Cornish and John B. Russworm. This editorial
called for the development of a "Black Agenda" for enslaved and free blacks during the early part
of the 19th century which would include strategies for political and economic empowerment,
training of black youth, and a broad range of self-help initiations. Recently, the Proceedings of
various black national and state summits held during the 19th century were collected and
published by historians Philip S. Foner and George E. Walker.^ These Proceedings also indicate
that the three queries above have been posed in many previous periods by black leadership.
There are at least two fundamental differences in the social-economic and national context
in which blacks struggle today compared to earlier periods. One difference has to do with the
demographic changes which are taking place in the country. In short, the nation's demography is
such that it is becoming increasingly and rapidly less white and European, and at the same time
reflecting a broader and florentine racial and ethnic diversity.' This is occurring while
communities of color such as Asians, blacks, and Latinos are also becoming more ethnically
diverse. One implication of this development is that a discussion on black social and economic
crisis caimot be confined to the concerns and needs, solely, of African Americans. This is due to
the fact that many different ethnic groups (i.e., Afiicans, Brazihans, Haitians, Jamaicans, and
Panamericans) now make-up what could be referred to as the black community.
Another implication is that, as in earlier periods, the black community's struggles for social
redress must be approached in ways that are also beneficial to other groups in society, including
poor people, as well as other communities of color. America's black struggle for justice, as a
matter of fact, has historically represented the moral foundation for social change for all people in
this society. This means that attempts to build an understanding of black strategies for racial
redress and economic quality must be based on principles that democratize society not only in
terms of broadening political and cultural participation, but social and economic justice as well.^
In addition to demography, another major difference between current and earlier periods is
the reduced capacity of the national economy and government to respond to grovvdng social and
economic needs of its citizenry. The U.S. national economy is no longer expanding as in earlier
periods. Therefore, it may not be able to manage, or assuage, social and racial tensions and
conflicts fijeled by inequality.^ Current characteristics of the U.S. economy reflect greater class
cleavage, increasing poverty, growing numbers of persistently unemployed and unnecessary
workers, and declining real wages and family income. Furthermore, the new jobs that are created
cannot make significant dents in resolving these problems because they tend to be part-time,
temporary, and low-paying. '° The nation's economy is constricting in many ways and generally
losing its capacity to grow as rapidly as it did in earlier periods.
Within a new context molded dramatically by these kinds of demographic and economic
developments, black America no longer has a clearly defined social agenda that represents a
philosophical map facilitating a degree of concerted political, economic, and cultural strategies
aimed at mobilizing significant numbers of black people. Moreover, the absence of such an
"agenda" has permitted debates about important challenges and problems in the black community
to dwindle repetitive arguments between "liberals" and "conservatives." But, within a context of
rapidly changing demographic and economic conditions, the continuing social and economic crisis
in black America highlight the failures and limitations of "liberal" and "conservative" policy
Over the last several decades, this country has experimented with economic development
and social welfare strategies and programs molded by liberals and conservatives, and embodied in
the policies and politics of both Republicans and Democrats at the national level. However, given
the continuing social and economic crisis, and gaps between Afiican Americans and whites, it
seems the approaches of both liberals and conservatives have been inadequate.^' Due to the
failure of current policy strategies, in terms of black living conditions, debate in the black
community should move fi^om disagreements between liberals and conservatives, or Democrats
and Republicans, towards the question of what kinds of new or philosophical principles and
mobilization should guide political, educational, and economic activism.
Towards A Renaissance Black Agenda
A number of black activists have argued tiiat what's lacking as a response to social and
economic crisis today is a degree of consensus regarding a "Black Agenda"; that is, a
philosophical map that could facilitate the conceptualization of strategies and tactical initiatives
for improving living conditions. Such a philosophical framework facilitated the mobilization of
masses of blacks to pursue a broad range of individual and collective strategies aimed at political
and economic advancement in earlier periods of American history.
The absence of such an "agenda" represents a critical political and cultural disadvantage
for the black community today. It also represents a fundamental philosophical crisis reflected in
the absence, or lack, of theoretical clarity regarding the major principles and values that
incorporate the meaning of the historical and social experiences of blacks, and which should be
the basis of political, economic, and cultural strategies for community empowerment. I am
suggesting that an understanding and review of the principles and values that have characterized
earlier struggles for black poUtical and economic progress are still germane for building and
pursuing a Black Agenda today. During slavery, clearly the agenda was abolition. Abolition was
the fulcrum for facilitating black protest and mobilization to focus on strategies and tactics
directed at the system of slavery. Certainly a range of tactical responses to this agenda were
offered; many chose protest, others preferred emigration, but the bottom line was that slavery had
to be aboUshed and challenged in some way by the African- American community.
For 70 or 80 years after so-called "emancipation," the major item on the Black Agenda
was physical and cultural survival within a legally-sanctioned, oppressive, and segregated society,
and thus anti-lynching campaigns were prominent but so were the building of cultural and
economic, albeit forced "separatist" institutions, including businesses, hospitals, and schools.''' In
the decades of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, it was clear that for many in the black community the
major item on the racial and political agenda was de-segregation. Thus, many black leaders and
activists could develop strategies directed against a common enemy: official and de-facto
segregation. Such a strategic umbrella, if not tactical unity, made it easier to mobilize greater
numbers of blacks for specific actions.
It seems that we should re-examine the principles and values that are historically and
experiential-based and which should be part of a "Black Agenda" today. Such a Black Agenda
could provide the symbolism and theoretical direction that would reflect the principles and values
that masses of blacks have historically endorsed. This could lead to general strategies and specific
public policies by which to organize and mobilize people more effectively, whether at the voting
booth, the local public school or community agency, or other venues of activity.
National and local organizations in the black community should begin sponsoring forums
and broad-based meetings, town halls, and summits to discuss the state and future of race
relations. Activists must involve young people, religious institutions, educators, and health
workers, in a plethora of meetings to begin enunciating the needs of the black community and its
political and economic responses. These local summits must be numerous and representative of
the various ideological strains in the black community. The agendas should define the philosophy
and values of what should be on a Black Agenda today, and pinpoint concrete actions upon which
to pursue mobilization efforts in local communities.
Efforts at developing a Black Agenda, both nationally and locally, could be utilized in
order to accomplish the following:
1) developing a platform representing the policy principles, values, and views of blacks
engaged in attempting to resolve social, economic, and educational problems,
2) exploring what kinds of public policies and recommendations might be effective in
responding to some of the educational, social and economic problems in the black
community, and how such public policies could be effectively implemented;
3) utilizing such a process to hold accountable elected leaders and governmental officials
regarding the kinds of policies and recommendations which are, or are not, adopted and
how such policies impact on the well-being of black communities; and,
4) facilitating such a process to include the black community as an integral part of the making
and implementing of public policies which impact on the well-being of blacks.
The development of a Black Agenda, incorporating a set of philosophical principles and
values that are democratically-determined, can lead to more efifective strategies for mobilizing
people at a grassroots level and generating greater support for public policies that would be
beneficial to a broad range of poor and working-class people in the United States.
This proposed Black Agenda is neither liberal nor conservative. As a matter of fact, these
two schools of thought are but different sides of the same face of power that has been utilized to
maintain the black community, as well as poor and working-class people, in a politically-weak and
economically-tenuous status by the perpetuation of a racially-defined hierarchy. While the liberal
school, sometimes represented by the Democratic Party, has been more reformist than the
conservative school, at times reflected in the Republican Party, policies and strategies for both are
still limited and defined by the well-off and corporate sectors. It is precisely due to the political
fact that both Republicans and Democrats, conservatives or liberals, are unreliable in terms of
racial and social justice that the black community must again develop and advocate for a vision of
society that does not sacrifice equality and justice. A historically, and culturally-relevant. Black
Agenda can provide the symbolism that serves to unite and mobilize large numbers of blacks to
focus on tactics directed at social change today in the United States.
In reporting what I believe are key principles and values for black community
advancement, particularly ideas that are especially important for economic development, I have
relied on several sources of information. In the last 15 years I have collected, read, and analyzed
the speeches of a broad range of black leaders and activists. Studying the content of these
speeches has allowed me to note some of the principles and values that have been espoused and
supported in black America, historically and in the current period. I have participated in
organizing a number of Black Agenda meetings sponsored in the 1970s and 1980s, and I have
reviewed the proceedings and deliberations of several Black Agenda summits that have been held
throughout the history of the United States.
There are several principles and values related to black economic advancement that
emerge from these sources and that are relevant for responding to black urban crisis today. Some
of these principles are;
• The development of political power, rather than mere access to such, is a
fundamental requisite for black social and economic advancement.
• The cultural strengthening and preservation of the black community is fiindamental
to the economic well-being of black people.
• The pursuit of economic development needs to be planned and implemented in
ways which benefit significantly, and directly, the poor and working-class sectors
in the black community.
• The pursuit and conceptualization of education must be expanded beyond the
concept of schooling or training.
The following are brief explanations of these four principles.
L The Development of Political Power is a Fundamental Requisite for Black Social and
A general theme emerging from a review of historical documents is that many of the
problems facing the black community require the political strengthening or "empowerment" of this
community. The political muscle and respect of the black community must be enhanced. The
collective political consciousness of the black community, especially among young people, must
be raised, addressing the role of power in the American society and its history, and how it is used
to depress the well-being of the black community. This kind of political consciousness is far more
important than mere electoral influence or access to the powerful, by the way. The latter implies
the ability and capacity to challenge interests with wealth, as well as the processes that determine
or mold the ownership, accumulation, management, and distribution of wealth.
This principle suggests that political and economic development cannot be separated; the
effective pursuit of one goal cannot be accomplished v^thout the other. In fact, there is an
historical synthesis of two philosophical trends in the black community, one calhng for economic
power, the other for political power. Generally, while liberals would argue that an expanding
economy and a responsible government would take care of the needs of blacks, poor people, and
working-class people, conservatives believe that it is an expanding economy via "free market," but
non-interfering government, that would actually accomplish these objectives. Both these
perspectives presuppose a politically passive black community. Blacks, however, must be highly
politicized, and continuously, whether liberal or conservative administrations are in control of
This theme is developed by Harold Cruse in Plural, But Equal. He critiques the
traditional bias of mainstream civil rights organizations to pursue political rights outside of a
context of economic empowerment, or to assume that liberal administrations will be qualitatively
better for black means. Martin Luther King, Jr. certainly realized the importance of utilizing
political rights as a means for economic advancement and empowerment as is illustrated in one of
his later essays, "MLK Defines Black Power". Here, he argued that the struggle for democratic
rights in the Civil Rights Movement can only be viewed and approached effectively within the
context of economic advancement and political power for blacks.
This principle implies that while black people certainly have a responsibility to develop and
assert leadership regarding social and economic problems facing the community, government is
not excused, or dismissed, in ignoring deteriorating living conditions for vast numbers of blacks,
Asians, or Latinos. Blacks must continue to insist, as is the right and expectation of all groups,
that government be responsive to their needs and concerns. This principle can be utilized to
evaluate, and thereby hold accountable, elected and appointed leaders, as well as governmental
policies and actions. For instance, if we accept this principle, i.e., that black political strategies
and tactical decisions should be aimed at the development of power, rather than merely access to
the powerfiil, then this provides a guide by which to critique or applaud the specific actions of
individuals and groups. This acknowledgement shifts discussion and debate fi^om simply personal
or emotional disagreements about the decisions made by individuals, to a more focused discussion
on whether the action taken reflects movement towards power for the black community. This
also "forces" a discussion on what is power and its manifestations. Actions by individuals
representing the black community must be justified in terms of greater movement towards power.
Within the context of a Black Agenda that has allowed many in the community to discuss the
principles that should be reflected in public life, particular action taken can be evaluated in terms
of how it reflects, if at all, its effect in leading to a greater level of power for the black community.
n. The Cultural Strengthening and Preservation of the Black Community Is
Fundamental to the Economic Well-Being of Black People
Another principle expressed and reflected in these historical documents as well as in
contemporary experiences, is the preservation of the cultures and historical knowledge of the
black community. Cultural efforts in the black community must be expanded and strengthened for
this community to realize significant economic progress. Many have pointed to the economic
progress of groups like Koreans, Cubans, and others in poor and working-class communities, and
have queried why blacks have not progressed similarly. There are many systemic reasons for this
uneven progress. But perhaps one explanatory factor is the cultural basis upon which some of the
successful efforts of other groups are built. It seems that groups reflecting acknowledgement or
appreciation of their cultural context, and utilizing it as a base for mobility, have advantages over
blacks who pursue economic initiatives as culturally-disconnected individuals. This does not
mean that blacks are culturally deficient as suggested in the writings of Edward C. Banfield,
Thomas Sowell, and others. It does mean that in the pursuit of integrating into mainstream
America, some blacks rely on meritocratic and individualistic approaches, rather than utilizing
their group as part of the base for advancement.
Additionally, greater efforts to involve youth in cultural activities must be pursued as an
accompanying strategy for economic survival. Youth should be taught how to use their culture as
a springboard for social advancement. Unfortunately, too many of us have allowed schooling,
whether pubhc or private, elite or plebeian, to become the substitute for cultural education in the
black community. The black church can play a particularly important role in this area. As a
matter of fact, the black church can probably play a far more effective role in the cultural
education of youth and adults, than most other kinds of institutions.
ni. Economic Development Must Be Planned and Implemented in Ways Which Benefit
Signiflcantly Broad Sectors in the Black Community
This too, as we are reminded by W.E.B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk, is a long and
cherished principle in black history.^* Progress must be documented in terms of the social and
economic well-being of the entire black community. The black community has a rich history and
many potential resources that could be tapped via enlightened public policy. Concomitantly, the
black community should be conceptualized, and strategies must be developed which approach this
community as a "community." The ahemative would be to approach the black community as a
collection of economically depressed individuals and families, as scholars and public policy
decision makers have done in urban America.
IV. Education Is a Broader Concept Than Schooling or Training
Education for black people cannot rely on 'deficit' models which presuppose that some
children are bom wdth learning or cultural deficiencies. Additionally, education must be delivered
in various ways, using a variety of pedagogical models and in different settings in the community.
The guiding idea that should underpin efforts to expand education in a range of pedagogical
settings is the proposition that every child is a potential genius and everyone can make important
contributions to the black community and the broader society. Any kind of response aimed at
improving the quality of education for black children and youth should reflect this principle. This
idea, or value, should be endorsed broadly by leaders and activists and utilized to evaluate
programmatic suggestions about improving the quality of schooling.
In summary, black America must again reconsider how to advance socially and
economically, but at the same time help to mold and push the nation's public and moral agenda. It
can do this by re-examining the principles that have been used as reference points for determining
timely and appropriate strategies for social change in earlier periods. Black leadership and
grassroots sectors, including churches and temples, community-based organizations and
neighborhood groups, and especially student and youth organizations, can begin to do this by
planning and sponsoring a wide range of forums and town halls where public issues could be
presented to residents. The black community — and again, especially its youth — must become
inundated with forums to discuss public life as well as black history and culture in their
neighborhoods. This kind of medium must become as accessible to black people as radio and
television is today. Such Black Agenda forums can present opportunities for people to discuss
and analyze the challenges facing the neighborhood, city, or region as well as the kinds of
strategies and actions that should be pursued for black and social economic progress into the 21st
1. See Gerald D. Jaynes and Robin M. Williams, Jr. (Eds ), A Common Destiny: Blacks and
American Society (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1989); and Womie L. Reed,
Assessment of the Status of African Americans, Vols. 1-5 (Boston, MA: W. M. Trotter Institute,
2. James Jennings, Understanding the Nature of Poverty in Urban America (Westport, CT:
Praeger Publishers, 1994), p. 64.
3. For discussions of what I refer to as legally and socially sanctioned apartheid in the U.S.,
see C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York, NY: Oxford University
4. See James Jennings, "The Foundation of American Racism: Defining Bigotry, Racism, and
Racial Hierarchy" Trotter Review, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Fall 1990), pp. 12-16.
5. See "Editorial fi-om the First Edition of Freedom's Journal (1827)" in Kenneth Estell (Ed.),
The African-American Almanac, sixth edition, (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1994), pp. 138-
6. See Philip S. Foner and George E. Walker, Proceedings of the Black State Conventions,
y^^/^^-y^di (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1979).
7. See William P. O'Hare, America's Minorities: The Demographics of Diversity
(Washington DC: Praeger Publishers, 1994).
8. Several scholars and activists discuss coalitions and the demography of the U.S. in James
Jennings, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians: Status and Prospects for Activism (Westport, CT: Praeger
9. A wealth of statistics illustrating the lessened capacities of the U.S. economy are provided
in Kevin Phillips, The Politics of Rich and Poor (New York, NY: Random House, 1990).
10. James Risen, "Temporary Employment Industry Working Overtime" Los Angeles Times,
(July 5, 1994), Section Al, p. 10.
11. For examples and critiques of such approaches see James Jermings, Race, Politics, and
Economic Development: Community Perspectives (London: Verso Press, 1992).
12. I provide a summary of the views of contemporary black activists regarding a "Black
Agenda" in The Politics of Black Empowerment: Tran^ormation of Black Activism in Urban
America (Detroit, ML: Wayne State University Press, 1992).
13. For an overview of these various ideologies and strategical perspectives see, Howard
Brotz (Ed.), Negro Social and Political Thought, 1850-1920 (New York: Basic Books, 1966).
14. For a historical overview of segregation and how it molded various institutional
arrangements in the black community, see John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A
History of Negro Americans ( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980).
1 5 . Harold Cruse, Plural, But Equal: Blacks and Minorities in America's Plural Society
(New York: Morrow and Co., 1987).
16. New York Times Magazine (June 1 1, 1967), p. 26.
17. I provide a summary of these neo-conservative views in "The New Black Neo-
Conservatism: A Critique" Trotter Review, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Fall 1987).
18. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (Chicago: AC. McClurg
and Co., 1903).