Kamau Franklin has worked as a community activist for over fifteen years in New York City and is now based in the south. In addition to his work as an activist attorney, he is a leading member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), an organization dedicated to human rights advocacy and building grassroots institutions in the black community. The organization works on various issues including youth development, fighting police misconduct, and creating sustainable urban communities. Kamau has helped develop community cop-watch programs, freedom school programs for youth and alternatives to incarceration programs. He recently moved to Jackson Mississippi to do political work, and he reflects on that move and its strategic implications in this piece. You can read more of Kamau’s thoughts on his Grassroots Thinking blog.
Many people I know expressed surprise at me moving to Jackson Ms., being from Brooklyn (back when it was the BK- but that is another story). The surprise is even more startling for Jackson folks under 30 who with amazement in their eyes ask WHY WOULD YOU LEAVE NEW YORK? Part of the answer is that I have committed myself to the fulfillment of certain ideas. So my career is the politics of black self-determination. It does not pay well by any means; you can’t always get the most qualified people to fulfill certain positions and the hours suck; but over 20 years ago I was bitten by the bug of revolutionary black politics. Those politics have cost me financially and sanity wise, but at the same time they have led me on a life mission, some great comrades and the love of my life. So on balance I still feel as if I am coming out ahead, however back to Jackson, Ms.
I would like to believe that as a committed organizer that the work I do has a larger purpose. That it is coordinated in such a way to gain results that are tangible and that build towards greater community control over social, economic and political institutions. I came to Jackson, Ms with such ideas in mind. The thinking is that the city of Jackson due to its size, demographic makeup and history could be a great place to re-test ideas both historic and current in the struggle for black self-determination.
It is way too early to suggest success; however my first twelve weeks in Jackson is a good guide to early satisfaction with the actual move. I have done more multilayered organizing here than I have in the last 5 years in either New York or Atlanta. I have met and worked with various groups and individuals from people in community civic leagues, church groups, home associations, electoral candidates, cops, preachers, politicians, farmer groups, civil rights workers, and international allies, but relatively few of the pro-black militants or overt left radicals that I have worked with most of my organizing life. Obviously most of these folks don’t necessarily share the full range of my politics but we have enough in common to work on various initiatives which can lead to progressive/radical changes in Jackson. My debates have been substantive and have led to action as opposed to conversations that only ignite plans without success because of follow thru abilities, desire, finances, scale, or scope. I have worked on achieving economic development, international solidarity, electoral strategies, and food justice issues.
More specifically we have already established the largest community garden/farm in Jackson (over 5 acres). A campaign for policy changes on healthy food is in the works. We have supported the successful election of the first Black Sheriff in Hinds County Mississippi (Hinds was incorporated in 1820) which encompasses Jackson and is over 70% black. This is a victory coming on the heels of electing Chokwe Lumumba (an MXGM founder) to the city council two years ago. We are now beginning work on a second city-council race and looking into buying property as a center and we have purchased our fist property for economic development purposes.
The overt work of struggling for self-determination in the south predates me by a few hundred years; however 40 years ago the groundwork was laid for a modern struggle that recognized the south as a battleground in an ideological and at times physical battle for self determination. In 1968 the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) was formed and later in the 1980s the New Afrikan Peoples Organization (NAPO) provided a revolutionary nationalist position for organizing in the South where the majority of black people still live today. People have changed their lives, uprooted their families and died for attempting to convince black people that the south could be more than just a place of oppression but it could also be a place of rejuvenation and control.
Two years ago a new phase of this struggle began. Momentum has been built over that time when we got directly involved in the previously mentioned electoral candidacy of Chokwe Lumumba for City Council. We made several other attempts in nearby cities to do similar work but the time seemed overtly right this time when several months prior the US electorate, partly due to an economic meltdown, open-ended wars abroad and the changing demographics of the U.S. population, voted in a moderate Black democrat as its President, who at the time for many appeared to represent much more.
The southern black population is similarly dominated by local moderate black democratic officials. As the black power movements of the 60’s and 70’s retreated under immense attack by local and national US government forces. The void was filled by “safe” politicians who did not do much to upset the economic balance of power that favored white power brokers and embraced moderate Democratic Party rhetoric on governing. In essence making places like Jackson Ms, a post apartheid South Africa, plenty of electoral power never translated into actual political power, a black petty-bourgeoisie happy to live off the scraps of the minority white capitalist class that calls the shots.
It is in this context that MXGM saw an opening to support the candidacy of Lumumba. For the black political class the needs of the community take a back seat to their own individual career paths. With no commitment to anything, beyond getting elected these officials don’t bring any overarching principles to city-government beyond the principle of careerism. This gave us the opportunity to respond with a candidate who could highlight real choices. In no other place except the South could we play on a city wide basis, where over 50% of the U.S. black population still lives and where in major cities in the South blacks still represent over 50% of the electorate. It is here where we can highlight the politics of self-determination versus the politics of careerism and moderation.
We have also borrowed from our friends in places like Venezuela with the concept of Peoples’ Assemblies. Organizing the community into specific blocks for a more direct democracy that begins to set the agenda for what candidates that are elected should be fighting for as opposed to just hearing what candidates say they are going to do. This work must be done in an intentional way, one that involves planning for what the city/community should look like and how it should be governed. Even if candidates don’t overtly share our politics they are responsive to them for the first time. In addition the Peoples’ Assembly is a larger base where policy thru community organizing can be achieved. We are developing Assemblies for each of the seven wards in Jackson and by the beginning of 2012 we should be supporting the start of two additional Assemblies in Jackson.
On the challenging side the politicizing of young people will take a while. The ideas of politics being outside of mainstream discussions is now a foreign concept to many young people. The idea that life chances are all about personnel responsibility now once again dominate discourse and that will change only through more victories. In addition despite my needed respite from only working with “professional” organizers the need to expand what we have is great if we are to keep the momentum going. As Lenin and others have pointed out the vanguard party cannot easily be discarded when thinking through strategy and planning.
We hope to facilitate several mechanisms for people close to us to move to Jackson through some of our economic development plans but that is a few years away. Unlike the past where activist would move based on what were the strategic needs of a movement they were a part of, today’s organizer is less likely to make such a move unless it’s tied to the adventure of an international struggle or a semi-natural disaster. We don’t want to overwhelm Jackson with transplants but I believe with ten more trained organizers steep in the politics of self-determination we could test our theories that much faster. My goal and hope is that within two years this work will produce real results in making Jackson a capital of black progressive change and positioning the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement as a leading community force that even if not liked by all will certainly be recognized as one to reckon with.