Organizing for Empowerment: The National Political Congress of Black Women
Vol. 7, No. 3, 1985, pp. 5-9
Sidebar: Excerpts and Observations
Shirley Chisolm, president of the National Political Congress of Black Women: Ever since we started to put this organization together last August and September we’ve felt that Spelman-the oldest black woman’s college in this country-was the place to hold the first assembly of the National Political Congress of Black Women.
Black women have decided that the time has now come for our political empowerment as a group to be reckoned with. We no longer need and will not accept surrogates speaking for us. As a result of what happened last year in the Democratic Convention we came to the realization that even though we have been very involved in all kinds of alliances and groups, we had no real political clout of our own. Our sisters came back from that convention and decided, “Never again.”
Here, in the fiftieth year of the founding of the National Council of Negro Women, we are founding the National Political Congress of Black Women. Representatives from twenty-nine states are here, approximately 450 women in attendance. This Congress is a non-partisan organization. It is an organization in which to belong you don’t have to come from a certain social class. Today, we see grassroots black women, the backbone of their communities, here running for the board, getting up and speaking.
Mabel Thomas of Atlanta, youngest member of the Georgia General Assembly, board member of the NPCBW: I think this organization has come together out of the dissatisfaction felt by black women at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. During the convention, black women were ignored. Their votes were not lobbied for or respected. We could not even get Shirley Chisolm’s name put on the floor as a vice-presidential candidate. The machine that was in place didn’t want to look at the issues facing black women, they just wanted black women to vote with them.
Hazel Obey, a national boardmember from Austin Texas: I worked with Jesse Jackson’s campaign as field director for the state of Texas. When we got to the National Democratic Convention in San Francisco there was a concern there that a woman needed to be on the ballot. Yet when a vice-presidential was being considered, and although there were many qualified black women, none were interviewed. Out of that incident grew the concerns about forming this organization.
We have eight delegates here from Austin. Nobody had their way paid here. Everybody came out of their own pockets.
Our problems as black women are unique, different from those of white women. Even though I belong to the National
Women’s Political Caucus-the “Anglo Caucus”-we need to have a group like this where we can come together as black women and deal with the problems we have. It gives us credibility and clout with which to be recognized. I hope that we can go back home and do some chapter building and some coalition building.
C. Delores Tucker, first vice-president NPCBW: The theme of our assembly this weekend is “Organizing for Empowerment.” Among our several missions is that of making certain that black women understand how to effectively involve themselves in the political process, how to run for elective office and how to achieve their parity within the appointive processes of our political divisions.
There are ten million black women of voting age in this country. Seven million are registered and three million are unregistered. Over half of these unregistered black women are under thirty-five. Our mission is to register these unregistered. Sixty percent of black women voted in 1984, the largest percentage of any single group voting in that election.
There is no other national organization of black women that has as its priority political empowerment. Within the next year we plan to develop this Congress within twentyfive states. By the year 2000 we hope will have more than 100,000 members and a thousand chapters. Building strong chapters of the Congress will provide a training ground. We will develop a political action committee through which by the year 2000 we intend to have $10 million.
We will develop a dialogue with both political parties.
We will endorse candidates. We intend to provide finance for our romance with the political system. We intend to develop and encourage black women to run for office at all levels. Even though we have the highest percentage of any group that participated last year, we have only twenty-nine.
black female mayors, seventy-five state legislators, fourteen state senators and one member of Congress.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, professor of law at Georgetown University and a founder of the NPCBW: I’ve been counsel to this Congress during its formation and I am pleased to report that the black women who have gotten together here have recognized that law is inferior to substance. We have passed by-laws in a shorter time and with more gusto than any organization I have ever heard of. We took only four or five hours to do what organizations usually take weeks to accomplish. The birth of this Congress signals another crossroads for black people in a journey through the American political process.
Carrie Prioleau, teacher, Sumter, South Carolina: I believe that the goal of the National Political Congress of Black Women to reach a large number of black women in the United States is excellent and I am with the organization. After I saw the list of names of the ladies who were a part of this Congress, knowing what they stand for, I wanted to become involved and be a part of moving our people on into political areas.
I hope to go back to Sumter and help organize a chapter of the Congress there. So many times we have capable people who want to run for positions and they do not have the funds to do so. This organization can help such women and the community.
Dorothy Height, the president of the National Council of Negro Women: Mary McLeod Bethune always gave two messages. One was that we need to work together. And that’s what this Congress is about. And the other was that we have to make our impact upon the political machinery. It’s been a long time coming, but I think the time is now.
There are many organizations represented here this weekend. But the uniqueness of this Congress is that we
will be able to go directly to the heart of the political machinery, to endorse candidates, to select candidates, to promote candidates, to raise funds and to speak for ourselves.
I hope the message will go back to the members of the organizations represented here that we all need to be in this Congress no matter what else we are. Our power comes not from others, but from ourselves.
Sidebar: Highlights from the NPCB Workshop on Civil Rights
Mary Frances Berry , law and history professor at Howard University, member of US Commission on Civil Rights: Right now we are in a crisis condition, a hardening of the arteries, on civil rights issues. Mr. Reagan’s election was symptomatic of the change which has occurred in the country. We have seen the attempt to give tax exemption to schools that discriminate on the basis of race–the Bob Jones case. We have seen the change in interpretation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is the section that says you can’t give federal money to institutions that discriminate on the basis of race. And on the basis of sex, in Title IX. We have arrived, in the area of fair housing, at a position in which anyone who brings a complaint has to prove that not only did people not sell you a house, but they intended not to sell it to you because you were black. And in voting rights we had a long struggle to get the Voting Rights Act re-authorized in 1982. Imagine, having to fight about that here in the 1980s.
Mr. William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Justice Department, is working to see that more than fifty cities and jurisdictions get rid of their affirmative action plans under which women and minorities have been hired in jobs in police and fire departments.
In the Commission on Civil Rights, we have seen since 1980 the Commission trashed and demobilized in its effectiveness as an advocate for justice. I had a dinner one night about two weeks ago with two old war horses of the civil rights movement in Washington. They were there in 1957 when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act creating the Civil Rights Commission. They were telling me that the Commission was set up to advocate the rights of blacks. They were wondering why everybody has forgotten that.
The Civil Rights Commission is no longer an advocate for the cause of civil rights, but is a mouthpiece, a watchdog, an outhouse for the White House. The Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1985 still sits before the Congress. It would restore Title VI and Title IX and Title IV to what they were before the Reagan Administration succeeded in having them watered down. Now, as we sit here, institutions can get federal money and continue to discriminate on the basis of sex and race. The National Political Congress of Black Women puts itself behind the passage of this Act.
The Black Family Plan is advocated by the Black Leadership Roundtable. This is a proposal that we have private, affirmative action plans of our own. If the Justice Department isn’t going to enforce affirmative action, then we ought to enforce it ourselves. One way for us to do that is to go to these companies and corporations and hotels where we have conventions and to insist that they do something about the employment of our people if they want to keep our business. We must monitor them, give them ratings as to how well they do, then publicize our findings.
We also put ourselves behind the direct action strategies of the people in the Free South Africa movement. The example of trying to change public policy on the issue of apartheid in South Africa shows that an effective political strategy must involve both electoral politics and direct action. We also support the passage of the Anti-apartheid Act of 1985 in the US Congress.
Angela Davis, board member NPCBW; teacher, San Francisco State University: Yesterday, when we were trying to get this workshop on civil rights organized, Dr. Berry feared that it might not be very well attended since there is such an emphasis at this meeting as to how to run as a candidate and on the electoral arena. But when we came in for the first session, the room was packed and it has remained packed for all three sessions. The fact that this workshop is so well attended is an indication of our
awareness of the need to combine the kind of direct action protests that Mary was talking about with the electoral strategy. Historically, that is the only way that black people have ever been able to win any gains. We have had to get out there and mobilize people, marching, demonstrating, picketing and boycotting. We understand that it is not enough to focus simply on getting elected and functioning as elected officials, however important that may be.
This is a very dangerous era. We’ve witnessed in recent years an intensification of racism that has been instigated by the most racist and most sexist president in the history of this country. ‘We’ve already talked about the attack on the Civil Rights Commission–on Dr. Berry herself–and the attack on affirmative action. There also has been a concerted assault on working people in general and because black people–and black women–are in our vast majority workers, we have received the brunt of the union busting strategy of the Reagan Administration. We have to realize the absolute importance now of developing organizing skills. We must talk about the importance of developing a mass movement. We can want to see a protest movement reemerge, but it’s not going to happen if we do not know how to build that movement.
People who do not have the experience of the 1950s and ’60s are sometimes under the impression that that movement just happened. Somehow black people reached a point where they were fed up and the whole thing exploded. Well, black people have been fed up for as long as we have been in this country. I can remember as a child growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, what our attitude was toward the segregated buses. We used to sit in the front of the bus. I can even remember friends that were arrested for doing that. But when Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, there was an organization behind her action.
Rosa Parks had attended a meeting similar to this one prior to refusing to sit in the back of the bus. There was a women’s political council in Montgomery, headed by a woman named Jo Ann Robinson. And there were a lot of unnamed women who organized that bus boycott movement. They already had a leaflet prepared when Rosa Parks was arrested.
I could speak for hours about my own case and how the movement for my freedom developed. It was very well organized. There were some two-hundred committees across this country and that’s the only reason I’m free today. People may know my name, but they do not know the names of those people who called those meetings, who put out the leaflets, who organized the demonstrations, who developed the petition campaign. As organized black women we have the potential for making an absolutely indispensable contribution to this era which lies before us.
Dorothy Height: The whole effort to free South Africa is related to our civil rights. I was the guest of the Black Women’s Federation of South Africa four years ago at their convention. To show you how the system operates, I have never been on the front page of a paper. Yet I was on the front page of Johannesburg’s Rand newspaper, in color, leading a discussion group of the Black Women’s Federation. Seeing that you would get the impression that this was a very liberal, very welcoming climate.
I can assure you I was treated so well. Friends there said to me, “You know of course that you will be given the best treatment because you are here under such observance that you are really an honorary white.”
Two weeks after I left South Africa, the Federation was banned.
Now those women had come there against every kind of difficulty, including the fear of traveling in groups. But every province except Capetown got there and the Capetown people’s bus broke down along the way. Three hundred women risked their lives and came to that’ meeting. They were really concerned about what is happening to themselves and their children under apartheid.
I think black women have to speak out about what the impact of apartheid is on the whole society. But also its impact on women and children. On the sixteenth of June we commemorate the massacre at Soweto, a massacre of children. When we talk about the free South Africa movement, we’re talking about something very closely related to us, but it is not the same as our civil rights. Those people don’t want to have the privilege of going to the park or sitting anywhere on the bus. That’s not what their fight is about. Theirs is about governing themselves in a country in which they are a majority. I think we have a mission to help people, black and white, in our country to understand this.
I once heard Benjamin Mays say to a group of YWCA women in the days before Brown versus Board of Education, “the time is always right for justice and if you believe in
justice then your job is to ripen the time.” And we’ve got to ripen the time.
Sidebar: The State of Black Women
Shirley Chisolm : How exciting it is to stand before you this morning and recognize that black women in the last part of this century have come to the realization that our time has come. I remember a few years ago when I said to several of my black sisters that it would be very necessary for us to bring ourselves together and speak out forcefully and assertively on matters of concern. I remember so vividly how many of our sisters felt at the time. “Shirley, we cannot move in that direction because certain elements would begin to question our motivation.”
Now, whenever white women begin to organize them selves, whenever white men begin to organize themselves, and whenever black men begin to organize themselves, there is not this kind of concern and this kind of question as to the motivation. But when black women begin to organize themselves, everybody sits up wanting to know “What are you all up to?”
Upon the basis of my observations and experiences of many years I sincerely believe that the reason so many persons become visibly concerned about the potential emergence of the black woman as a political force is because historically they know that we are resilient, we are strong, we have the stamina, the audacity, the courage, the perseverance to change this country.
Today the black woman deserves nothing less than the full equality which is supposedly the birthright of every American. As Dr. King has said, “We are through with tokenism and gradualism and see-how-far-we’ve-come-ism.” We can’t wait any longer.
For as long as we live, we fight. When the day comes for which there is nothing to battle, my sisters, that day is the day that you lay yourselves down and just die. We fight for a living, for a new way of life, for a spiritual blessing, for hope and strength. We fight for better health so that we may continue to fight harder. The first battle we fight is for belief in ourselves and we find that it comes to us while we are still battling. For we know about the legacy of starving to death while working for the minimum wage. We know about the legacy of watching helplessly as our babies were torn from our breasts. We know about the legacy of grandchildren of the oppressor. The history is there. The black woman has had to remain a pillar of strength against insurmountable odds.
The realities of our time are very difficult to face. Many have no desire to cope at all. Others are resigned to live only with the status quo. Well, we black women assembled here in Atlanta have no intention of living with the status quo. Some of us have faced the alienation of our family and our friends. Some of us have given up certain comforts and pleasures that there for the asking, some have endured cruel and viscious criticisms.
Will black woman power in the tradition of our sisters who proceeded us remain a vital force in current history or are we just going to sit back in our armchairs, not daring to accept the new challenges that confront us? Our conscience tells us that we must act.
It is our hope that the National Political Congress for Black Women will become the instrument for gaining the collective clout that we need in order to become an integral part of the decisions and plans that affect our lives and the lives of our children. We must be about the business of talking about the necessity for more day care centers in this country. Only women will go into the legislative chambers and not be afraid to stand up and fight for the most important thing that we have in this country. Fight for the preservation of conservation of our children.
The time has come when–in terms of what is happening to us at this very moment in America–we can no longer sit back and be the quiescent and complacent.
Black women should be speaking out more. We should be much more evident at the many kinds of public hearings that take place in our cities and in our nation. We must testify about how the military budget has a deleterious impact on the quality of our lives and the lives of our families. Our nation has to be brought to new principles by a new generation of women who are fighters, because the war that is being waged on our homefront today is truly a war for the elevation of humanity.
Sisters Chapel, Spelman College Campus, Atlanta. June 7-9,1985.