“Tired of Going to Funerals:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary

Delegates, including Reverend Jesse Jackson, marching into the National Black Political Convention, courtesy of Gene Pesek/Chicago Sun-Times, accessed wbez.org.

They agreed that black prisoners should receive fair trials, that black Americans should not die years earlier than white counterparts, that black workers should be afforded a living wage, and that black candidates should be given opportunities to craft legislation that affected their communities. They shared a collective outrage. In 1972, organizers asked them – Americans of color affiliated with Socialists, Democrats, Republicans, Nationalists, and the Black Panthers- if they could overcome differing ideologies to channel this outrage into political action at the National Black Political Convention (NBPC) held in Gary, Indiana. Black poet and activist Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) advocated for the gathering to practice “unity without conformity.”

According to an essay in Major Problems in African American History, the Gary convention was the culmination of a series of uprisings in protest of discrimination, which historians refer to collectively as the Black Revolt. Black Americans were emboldened by tragic events, such as the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, as well as legislative progress, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  In an interview, North Carolina convention delegate Ben Chavis recalled:

I had gotten tired of going to funerals. . . . so much of the Movement had been tragic. You know. And I have to emphasize [Rev. Martin Luther] King’s assassination was a tragic blow to the Movement. And so four years later, March of ’72, for us to be gathering up our wherewithal to go to Gary, Indiana–hey, that was a good shot in the arm for the Movement.

Historian Stephen Grant Meyer identified 1968, when King was assassinated, as the year in which the modern civil rights movement began to diverge. No longer was integration the primary means to make political and economic gains.  This fracture gave rise to a Nationalist faction, which sought to promote black identity and improve living conditions through a separate black nation. The polarization was reminiscent of the late-19th and early-20th century debates between reformer Booker T. Washington and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, who both worked to ease the economic and social plight of African Americans. Washington believed this was best achieved by earning the respect of white citizens through hard work and self-help. Du Bois, on the other hand, believed white oppression should be cast off by protests and political activism, in large part through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization he co-founded.

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. According to the NWI Times, he declared “all black people, involved in any way with survival programs for the black community, [to be] revolutionaries at the National Black Political Convention,” AP Photo, courtesy of the NWI Times.
NBPC organizers, who had begun planning the conference in 1970, struggled to find a city willing to accommodate an influx of politically-engaged black Americans. Gary Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, an advocate of civil rights and minorities and one of the first African American mayors of a major U.S. city, volunteered his predominantly black city. Not since the 1930s, with the first meeting of the National Negros Congress in Chicago, had such a massive and diverse gathering of people of color convened to advance their rights. Approximately 3,000 official delegates and 7,000 attendees from across the United States met at Gary’s West Side High School from March 10 to March 12. The attendees included a prolific group of black leaders, such as Reverend Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, U.S. presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, Amiri Baraka, Muslim leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, Black Panthther co-founder Bobby Seale, and Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz. Organizers sought to create a cohesive political strategy for black Americans by the convention’s end.

Television crews waiting for convention to start, courtesy of the NWI Times.

A bomb threat was called into convention headquarters at the Holiday Inn and a local gang reportedly deposited guns in school lockers. These threats to disrupt the convention necessitated additional security. Uniformed and plainclothes policemen reinforced the northwestern Indiana city. Armed civil defense personnel supplemented the police presence and boxer-turned-activist Muhammad Ali served as sergeant-at-arms.

The high school, decorated with red, white, and blue bunting, thrummed with activity. As vendors sold books, banners, and souvenirs, a band prompted snapping and feet-tapping with “gutsy,” drum-driven music. The Munster Times reported “Two or three white reporters, their faces split with grins, were lost somewhere with the music. A policeman absentmindedly slapped the butt of his pistol to the beat.” Delegates ranging from “pinstripe-suited conservatives to youngsters in colorful flowing robe-type shirts [dashikis] and mod fashions to the black-uniformed para-military” milled about the gym waiting for the delayed convention to finally start. Organizers scrambled to respond to complaints that the elevated platform for journalists blocked the stage.

Welcome poster, courtesy of the NWI Times.

Entertainers like James Brown and Harry Belafonte lent their support to the convention by performing. Comic and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, weighing 90 pounds as a result of fasting to protest the Vietnam War, addressed the audience about issues of policing and drug access and asked, “‘[H]ow can a black kid in Harlem find a heroin pusher and the FBI can’t?'”

State delegations, national organizations, and individuals proposed resolutions in the creation of “A National Black Agenda” (Muncie Evening Press). This agenda would extend the movement beyond the convention. As convention attendee and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York Dr. Ron Daniels noted, the Black Agenda was “integral to holding candidates, who would seek Black votes, accountable to the interests and aspirations of Black people.”

Delegates from Illinois suggested fines and prison sentences for businessmen found guilty of discriminatory practices. North Carolina attendees proposed a bill of prisoners’ rights that included humane treatment and fair trials. Delegates from Indiana and other states demanded that the U.S. dedicate resources to the plight of black Americans rather than the Vietnam War and end the conflict immediately. North Carolina representatives also urged that black men receive Social Security benefits earlier than white men since their life expectancy was eight years shorter. The Muncie Evening Press noted that “Politicking was intense . . . as state delegations tried to compromise their own views with positions they felt other delegations could support.” Tensions ran so high that part of the Michigan delegation walked out of the convention.

Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Keynote speakers Reverend Jackson, executive director of P.U.S.H. and Operation Breadbasket, and Mayor Hatcher ignited the crowd and “stoked rhetorical fires aimed at molding the diverse black communities represented here into a solid unit that can tip the political balance this presidential election year and from now on” (Munster Times).

While similar in many aspects, the men’s speeches hinted at the divergence in philosophies pervading the convention. Hatcher believed change could come from within the existing two-party system, so long as the parties responded to the needs of African Americans. However, if legislators continued to neglect black constituents, black Americans would create a third party and, he told attendees, “we shall take with us the best of White America . . . many a white youth nauseated by the corrupt values rotting the innards of this society . . . many of the white poor . . . many a White G.I. . . . and many of the white working class, too.” The party would also welcome “chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Indians [and] Orientals” (Indianapolis Recorder).

However, Jackson, appealing to Nationalists, urged the immediate formation of a black party, potentially called the “Liberation Party.” He asserted “‘Without the option of a black political party, we are doomed to remain in the hip pocket of the Democratic party and in the rumble seat of the Republican party'” (Kokomo Tribune). Jackson also called for the establishment of black institutions to oversee black educational, economic, and judicial matters. He asked the crowd “what time is it?” and the audience, electrified, shouted “It’s Nation Time!”

Harry Williams, “Convention Raps Busing,” The Republic (Columbus, Indiana), March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Jackson’s proposal drew criticism from some black organizations, like the NAACP, which believed that continued segregation, albeit black-led, would impede progress. According to Major Problems in African American History, the NAACP circulated a memo at the convention denouncing the proposal of a separate nationhood for African Americans and criticizing the rhetoric for being “‘that of revolution rather than of reform.'” An Indianapolis Recorder editorial articulated this point, noting “The only road to nationwide achievement by a minority is through cooperation with the majority.”

Presidential campaign poster courtesy of the Library of Congress, accessed BBC.com.

Another contentious issue in the 1970s: school desegregation through the forced busing of black children to white schools. The Jackson faction opposed busing and defined successful black education not as being able to attend white schools, but rather as children attending black-led schools. The endorsement of the presidential candidate that would best represent black interests also generated conflict at the convention. Some delegations supported Democrat Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black Congresswoman, while many Nationalists wanted a leader from a black party.

After intense debate, a steering committee tentatively adopted a National Black Agenda. The committee officially published the 68-page document on May 19, Malcolm X’s birthday. The resolutions included black representation in Congress proportionate to the U.S. black population, a guaranteed minimum income of $6,500 for four-person households, a 50% cut in the defense and space budgets, and an end to national trade with countries that supplied the U.S. drug market. The resolutions, designed to move black Americans towards “self-determination and true independence,” represented major, yet tenuous compromise among the black community.

Image courtesy of NWI Times.

The steering committee also formed the National Black Political Assembly, a body tasked with implementing the Black Agenda. Dr. Daniels noted that, although many of the agenda’s resolutions never materialized, “thousands of Black people left Gary energized and committed to making electoral politics a more relevant/meaningful exercise to promote Black interests.” He attributed the quadrupling of elected black officials by the end of the 1970s, in large part, to the Gary convention and the “audacity of Black people to . . .  defend black interests.” The NBPC was notable too for its inclusion of black Americans from all walks of life, rather than just prominent black figures, in formulating how to ease the struggles of the black community. The Recorder also noted that Mayor Hatcher’s reputation “has been considerably burnished in the white community as well as the black by the success of the historic event” (Indianapolis Recorder).

In 2012, Gary hosted the 40th anniversary of the National Black Political Convention. Speakers discussed the issues that had prevailed into the 21st century, such as a disparity in prison sentencing and poverty. One speaker remarked that without Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black president Barack Obama would not have occupied the White House. Another speaker, who ran for mayor of Baltimore, lamented that forty years after the convention “we’re still asking what to do instead of how to do it.” When asked if it was still “nation time” one speaker responded “it’s muted nation time.” Black Americans, they agreed, needed to “have the audacity.”

Contact: npoletika@history.in.gov

 

SOURCES USED:

“Black Convention Split Over Separation,” Terre Haute Tribune, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Black Meet Without Incident Bodyguards, Police Vigilant,” Munster Times, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Black Political Movement Born in Gary,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Creation of ‘The National Assembly’ Concludes Black Political Convention,” Kokomo Tribune, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Dr. Ron Daniels, “It’s Nation Time: The 40th Anniversary of the Gary National Black Political Convention,” Institute of the Black World 21st Century, March 28, 2012.

Harry Williams, “Convention Raps Busing,” Columbus Republic, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Hatcher to Keynote Black Convention,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 11, 1972, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Jay Harris, “Black Political Agenda Hit on Busing, Israel,” Wilmington (DE) Evening Journal, May 19, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

John Hopkins, “Leaders Mold Black Power: Warn Parties” and James Parker, “Blacks Marching to Different Drums,” Munster Times, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Keeping Watch,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, March 10, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Major Problems in African American History: Documents and Essays, Second Edition, eds. Barbara Krauthamer, Chad Williams, and Thomas G. Paterson (Cengage Learning, 2016): 510-515.

“National Black Agenda Calls for Permanent Political Movement,” Kokomo Tribune, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Plans Span Wide Range of Opinion,” Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Wants Changes,” Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Blacks Must Wage Two Wars:” The Freeman Field Uprising & WWII Desegregation

Registration at Freeman Field in 1944, courtesy of the Indiana State Archives.

The 1948 desegregation of US armed forces can be partially attributed to a bellwether protest at Indiana’s Freeman Field in the spring of 1945. Here, officers of the African American 477th Bombardment Group challenged the unlawful exclusion of blacks from officers’ club, resulting in their arrest. The uprising immediately gained the attention of the War Department, NAACP, and lawmakers such as Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg. The refusal of more than 100 black officer’s to comply with “Jim Crow” policies underlined the broader push for civil rights in the World War II era.

America’s involvement in WWII exposed the great disparity between the fight for freedom abroad and the treatment of African Americans at home. In 1945, The Pittsburgh Courier alleged that it was difficult to understand how President Harry S. Truman’s administration “can claim to be prosecuting a war to bring democracy to all of the world when it will not enforce its own orders supposedly establishing democracy in its own country.” Similarly, Hoosier businessman and Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie expressed concern with the treatment of African Americans in the Armed Forces. In his 1944 article “Citizens of Negro Blood” for Collier’s Magazine, Willkie stated that World War II “has made us conscious of the contradictions between our treatment of our Negro minority and the ideals for which we are fighting. The equitable treatment of racial minorities in America is basic to our chance for a just and lasting peace.” Roberta West Nicholson, Indiana state legislator and daughter-in-law of Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson, worked with the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center during WWII and observed the same type of discrimination at Camp Atterbury. She successfully fought for black servicemen’s rights to utilize the exact same amenities and recreational facilities as their white counterparts, lamenting “It’s difficult to believe, but this is true; because the Army itself was segregated.”

Indianapolis Recorder, April 7, 1945, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Discrimination forced African Americans to fight to even be admitted to the Army Air Corps, which was an exclusively white organization until the late 1930s. According to James Allison’s “Mutiny at Freeman Field,” with the outbreak of global war, the Army revised its policy and recruited black units, but kept them segregated from white counterparts. The Air Corps sponsored flight schools for African Americans due to pressure from Congress and NAACP leaders, but accepted none of their graduates, despite exemplary records. Allison noted that “Countervailing pressures from politicians seeking the black vote and enterprising blacks who threatened to sue resulted in an Air Corps decision to form an African American fighter squadron” in 1941. The squadron, designated the “Tuskegee Airmen,” was trained at Alabama’s Tuskegee Field and produced a formidable combat record.

Unlike the Tuskegee squadron, the 477th Bombardment Group was trained at a base in Seymour, Indiana that included white servicemen. The group was first established at Selfridge Field near Detroit, under the command of white officer Colonel Robert W. Selway. The group was transferred to Kentucky’s Godman Field as the result of racial tension and protest similar to that which later occurred at Freeman Field. The 477th was then moved to the Freeman Field air base in March 1945 to train with better facilities. The Indianapolis Recorder noted in April that:

Arrival of the group here stimulated open hostility on the part of tradesmen in the nearby town of Seymour . . . Most of the trades people announced they would furnish no service or sell commodities to the new arrivals at Freeman Field. Negro residents of Seymour, less than 100 in number, are striving valiantly to meet the needs of the soldiers.

Freeman Field Airport and Industrial Field, 1947, Indiana Historical Society, Digital Images Collection.

These men, many of whom were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart, encountered racial discrimination from white servicemen at Freeman Field. Little had changed regarding their treatment since WWI, during which African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker and her sales agents wrote a letter to President Woodrow Wilson officially condemning the mistreatment of black troops. According to the Recorder, African American officers at Freeman were denied entry into the air base’s tennis courts, swimming pool, and “swanky” officer’s club after 5 p.m. by Officer Selway, who created a “superficial classification that prevented their enjoyment of facilities established for commissioned personnel.” This classification violated Army Regulation 210-10, which prohibited the racial segregation of officers at army camps. According to Allison, black officers mobilized to challenge the discriminatory action, meeting in hangars to plan a peaceful protest.

On April 5, 1945, Selway learned of the plan and ordered a provost marshal to guard the club and turn away black servicemen. At the end of the night, 61 officers were arrested for attempting to enter the club, three of whom faced a jury in July for “jostling a provost marshall [sic].” On the 7th and 8th, more officers were arrested for attempted entry of the club. In a move that could further institutionalize segregation, Selway pressured black officers to “sign a statement that attested to their understanding of the order that had established one club for trainees and the other for supervisory personnel” (Allison). Officers were read an Article of War threatening death for failure to obey command and then issued a direct order to sign. Undeterred, 101 officers refused to sign and were subsequently arrested and sent back to Godman Field. According to Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough, a commander of a local black American Legion Post asserted “Blacks must wage two wars-one against the Axis powers, the other for full citizenship at home.” The Freeman Field officers did just that.

Officers, Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, circa March 1945, Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 3, Folder 68, Indiana Historical Society.

First Lieutenant Quentin P. Smith was among those who refused to sign and recalled “‘I thought, ‘Oh my God this can’t be happening . . . He had given me a direct order to sign. I had finished college and all I had to do was just stay alive and I’ll be a general. I had no voice then'” (1992, Merrillville Times). After refusing to sign, he was escorted to his barracks at gunpoint and held under arrest for twelve days. In a document endorsed by Smith on April 25, he contended “The cited regulation appeared and still appears to be a ‘Jim Crow’ regulation” and that he:

could not, and cannot understand how Medical Officers, qualified as Flight Surgeons and having completed all required Army medical training and having completed years of private medical practice could have been classified as ‘trainee’ personnel unless the distinction were solely one of color.

He added he wished to indicate “his unshakeable belief that racial bias is Fascistic, un-American, and directly contrary to the ideas for which he is willing to fight and die.”

Quentin P. Smith (center) with honor graduates of Class 45-A, Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, circa March 1945, Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 3, Folder 68, Indiana Historical Society.

The Recorder reported that “The mass arrest which is believed unprecedented in the history of the Army has this post in an uproar and has disrupted the entire training program of the 477th Bombardment group.” By the 26th, it appeared that the uprising was beginning to influence Army policy, as the newspaper noted that “Officials of the Public Regulations Bureau of the department in Washington admitted momentous changes are being considered as result of an investigation of conditions surrounding” the incident. On April 28, The Pittsburgh Courier called for the immediate release and “return to duty” of the arrested men and that “Anything less will be a travesty on justice.”

Administrative reprimand of Smith by Selway, courtesy of Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 38, Folder 3, Indiana Historical Society.
Roger C. Terry, courtesy of indianamilitary.org

Following public outcry and the efforts of the NAACP, all were released and served with an administrative reprimand, with the exception of three men. The Recorder noted on June 30, that Selway had been replaced with African American Colonel B.O. Davis Jr. However, the three men arrested for “jostling” an officer continued to be confined and were prohibited from obtaining counsel. In July, a jury acquitted Lt. Marsden A. Thompson and Lt. Shirley R. Clinton of “disobedience of a direct order,” along with Lt. Roger C. Terry, although he was found guilty of “jostling” an officer and forced to pay $150. In 1995, the Air Force set aside Terry’s conviction. In an Indianapolis Star article, Terry declared that this removed the weight he had been carrying since the ordeal and that “What came off my back was that all my hatred went away. All of it.”

Although their military records remained tarnished until the 1990s, the black airmen’s protest significantly influenced President Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces on July 26, 1948. In negating Terry’s conviction, former assistant secretary of the Air Force concluded that the Freeman mutiny was crucial to military integration and a “‘giant step for equality.'”