Past presidents, the Black Agenda and Obama

Written by admin   // April 14, 2010   // 0 Comments

By Taki S. Raton

We shared in the last issue of the MCJ (March 31) a writing on the Black Agenda panel held March 20 at Chicago State University.

Hosted by convener Tavis Smiley, over 3,000 Chicagoans and national print and media press gathered in the Emil and Patricia A. Jones Convention Center to hear comments from 11 of the nation’s most influential Black activist, educators, authors, and political scholars.

The roundtable discussion centered on the need here in 2010 of a national Black Agenda and most notably, the absence of such a platform under the administration of the first Black President of these United States, Barack Obama.

The previous article was a report on the event void of an actual overview accounting of a historical legacy.

Many readers perhaps may not be aware of the Black agenda historically as such pressured directives influenced presidential legislation from the periods of slavery, to Reconstruction, through Jim Crow, into the era of legal segregation and well into the civil rights campaign.

Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford B. Hayes, Harry S. Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and in more recent times Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were either responding to Black based agenda demands or up front sensitive to the pressing concerns of the African American community.

Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson says that the Black agenda is nothing more than the possibility of African American people being included in the promise of America “without hindrance or limitation.”

Princeton University scholar Dr. Cornel West would echo that we needed to “emancipate white supremist democracy into a multiracial democracy and the same was true with our response to the Jim Crow era.”

He would add that the Black agenda has always been the best agenda for the nation because it expanded inclusionary democracy and reconstructed freedom.

Rainbow PUSH founder Jesse Jackson positions the idea that the history of this country “defined Black people as three-fifths of a human being and the conditioning of the thought of white Supremacy and Black inferiority in the mind of our nation has fashioned the Black agenda as the struggle to even the playing field.”

“So what’s wrong with Obama?” laments the cry of the panel.  Chicago based “N’DIGO Magapaper” publisher Hermene D. Hartman eloquently stated in her Publisher’s Page event report that “President Barack Obama has not addressed a Black agenda and seems fearful to do so, claiming that “rising tides lift all boats.”

The reference to “rising tide” is the president’s rationale that what is good for America will automatically benefit the Black community.

Countering this expectation, Hartman reveals that “the Black unemployment rate is significantly higher than that of whites; only one percent of the stimulus dollars went to Black enterprise, and home foreclosures are affecting Blacks at a greater rate than whites, yet the Obama administration has neither embraced nor included Black America in a single governmental fashion.”

The Megapaper publisher says that the inclusion of Black America “is to recognize unique problems of comparability and competitiveness,” and that we are the only people on earth that when we rise to positions of power, “we are expected to ignore our people.” Other groups, she notes, such as the Irish, Jews, Hispanics and Italians certainly do not function in this regard and work together to advance themselves and their group interest.

“It seems as though we must apologize or have a special explanation to acknowledge our own. This is an unreal notion.  And the irony is, it is mostly done with the idea of assured fairness,” she adds.

Jackson states, as noted in the previous article, that the Black community is currently at the bottom of most social and developmental statistical indicators citing that “while today, Black America is number one in football, basketball, baseball, golf and tennis, we are also number one in infant mortality rates, number one in home foreclosures, number one in church foreclosures, and number one in student loan defaults.”

Past presidents, Hartman contends, have implemented race-based programs citing that “if a country can execute and enforce laws that excluded a particular people, that same government has the right and power to execute laws to include a particular people.  It becomes a positive impact correcting a negative one.”

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan said an agenda “is a schedule, a timetable, a plan, a scheme to accomplish a certain result. We have come up with Black agendas. But we have been looking to the wrong people to fulfill our agenda.”

To this point he would add the question of how long are we “going to sit around begging white people to do for us what we have the power to do for ourselves?”

As it relates to the Black agenda, Smiley concludes in expanded panel remarks that it should not be the president’s agenda, it should be our own agenda.

In the words of Chicago State University’s student government head Raven G. Curling, the youngest member of the roundtable, “We have to voice our own concerns. We have to tell Obama what we need.”

Panel members supported the argument that today in 2010, Black people have forgotten past struggles forged to free our people and to level the field of humankind participation within the American arena.

We would today forget that 190 years ago in 1820, there was born in slavery a little girl named Harriet Tubman in Dorchester County, Maryland. At the age of 29, she would succeed in her escape to the free state of Pennsylvania in 1849.

Tubman did not wait for someone else to give her a Black agenda.  She was the “Black Agenda.” Over a ten-year period between 1849 and 1859, she traveled south of the Mason-Dixon Line to bring enslaved Blacks to the North.

This major conductor of the “Underground Railroad” would “steal away” 300 slaves in 19 trips.

Sources estimate that the “Underground Railroad” consisted of 3,000 members who by 1861 helped 75,000 enslaved Negroes find freedom. In his text, “Historical and Cultural Atlas of African Americans,” Molefe Kete Asante says that Tubman and her escapees would travel by night and hide during the day. They would “move generally by foot through swamps and streams to throw off the scents of pursuing bloodhounds.”

Sojourner Truth streamed forth in her day a Black agenda.  Born to enslaved parents 213 years ago around 1797 in Ulster County, New York, her birth name was Isabella Baumfree.  She would change her name some fifteen years later to Sojourner Truth after being freed by the New York State Emancipation Act of 1827.

Described as being nearly six feet tall with a deep voice and impressive features, Truth would become the first African American woman to lecture against slavery.

Joan Potter in her work “African American First” records that Truth drew crowds wherever she spoke and that she visited President Lincoln in the White House “several times” urging him to allow Black troops to fight with the Union forces in the Civil War.

Frederick Douglas certainly fashioned a Black agenda. And as a result, 133 years ago in 1877, Douglas was appointed United States Marshall for the District of Columbia by President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Born in 1817 on a Maryland plantation, Douglas earned fame as a noted abolitionist, orator, writer, and editor. He published two newspapers, “The North Star” and the “Douglass’ Paper.” Both were passionate instruments in the battle against slavery.

Contrary to Black and white liberal beliefs, Lincoln did not free the enslaved out of the kindness of his heart. He was forced to by a Black agenda.

As cited in a later work, “African American History – A Journey of Liberation,” Asante would tell us that by the 1850’s, audible Black voices were speaking to “their natural rights as human beings to freedom and justice. They were also appealing to the moral principles of right and wrong that the United States needed to adopt as a nation to end enslavement.”

As the talk of freedom became louder and attitudes and outright physical resistance to slavery grew angrier and more overt – via the slave insurrections of Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey, and Gabriel Prosser – it would not be long before Lincoln had to make a decision. The nation would then be plunged into a bloody sectional war between the North and the South. The rest is history.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was hit with a Black agenda.  By the 1920’s during industrialization, more than 31 percent of all African Americans were employed in manufacturing, trades, and in transportation. Due to unionization, there was very little job security for Blacks until we became union members. Many unions refused to allow African Americans membership.

Asante’s “Journey” reveals that in 1930, there were virtually no African American electricians or plumbers in unions although there were 4,000 of them working in such trades. During this same period, there were 34,000 African American carpenters, but only 592 were members of the Carpenters and Joiners Union and only 279 out of 9,000 painters were card carrying members.

Asa Phillip Randolph 85 years ago in 1925 organized and served as president of the first all-Black major African American trade union, the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. To address the discrimination and to end segregation in government defense jobs, Randolph called for a march on Washington in 1941, which he described as a “nonviolent demonstration of Negro mass power.”

It was to be a march of protest by Blacks from all over the country. President Roosevelt attempted to dissuade him. Randolph, however, stood firm with his planning.

Just four days before the march, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 forbidding racial and religious discrimination in defense industries and government training programs. Randolph calls off his scheduled march on Washington.

Roosevelt additionally establishes the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to oversee compliance with the order to end discrimination; another example reflecting significant impact of a functional, well planned and executed Black agenda.

Moving forward however, the exclusion of African American professionals and blue-collar workers from many companies was still the outcry of white workers.

Driven by stereotypes acquired from education, family, peers and friends, many white professionals let it be known that they would not work with Black people.

In 1946, President Harry S. Truman takes initial steps to issue an Executive Order establishing the Committee on Civil Rights to investigate racial injustices.

Two years later, Truman would deliver the first Presidential Speech on Civil Rights in the history of the nation in February, 1948. Truman appointed another committee, the Committee for Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces two years later in 1950.

Asante in “Atlas” would position that this would be the first occasion that a president “had taken what was considered at that time such a bold step.”

Resistance by whites to what the Smiley panel often referred to as a “level playing field” was still growing well into the 1960’s.  In a televised address June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy makes an impassioned plea for an end to discrimination in America.

He asked for legislation “giving all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores, and similar establishments” as well as “greater protection for the right to vote.”

He would that summer additionally write into law a new Civil Rights Bill allowing the attorney general of the United States to bring lawsuits to enforce school integration and to cut off federal funds when a program was guilty of discrimination.

To apply pressure on the bill’s passage, Dr. King and other civil rights leaders structured their Black agenda in the “March on Washington” August 28, 1963. More than 200,000 marchers staged the largest protest demonstration in the history of Washington, D.C.  It would be here where King, in what some say was his finest hour, delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. As a result of this direct action pressure, the bill finally became law under President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 giving the U.S. Attorney General additional power to outlaw discriminatory practices in voting, racial segregation in schools and in facilities serving the general public. Discrimination was also prohibited in government funded programs.

In 1969 to address the racial imbalance in the workforce, President Richard Nixon initiated minority hiring goals for federal contractors. Affirmative action policies were additionally expanded by legislation and Supreme Court decisions to cultivate opportunities for public agencies, organizations, corporations, and educational institutions to respond to centuries of Black exclusion from key sectors of the American fabric.

President Jimmy Carter in 1978 signs into law the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Bill in 1978. Co-sponsored by Senator Hubert H. Humphrey and Congressman Augustus Hawkins, this bill calls for effective remedies to unemployment.

So where is president Obama on issues of employment, economics, education, housing, and crime, just to cite a few pressing Black community concerns?

Although not really a “Black Agenda” as above contextualized, according to Roger Madison in his weekly Black business, directory “iZania” out of Columbus, Ohio, Obama has invested or proposed initiatives that would have the potential to benefit African Americans, particularly as some reflected on the president’s view that all boats can be “lifted” by this expectant rising tide.

The “iZania” blog reveals that the $1 trillion in stimulus spending includes “hundreds of billions” in social initiatives, safety-net dollars for food stamps and unemployment benefits and that the historic health care legislation alone will dramatically improve the lives of the 7 million African Americans without health insurance.

The report cites that in the health care package is a “little-noticed provisions” to restructure the college loan system to “push” $36 billion into the Pell Grant program noting that “one out of every six” Pell Grant recipients are Black and that $2.55 billion were invested directly into historically Black colleges and universities.

Additional investments from the president’s office include $5 billion for home weatherization targeting jobs to low-income communities; $250 million for Choice Neighborhoods’ “bottom up” projects; $400 million to open new supermarkets and farmers markets in underserved communities; $600 million for summer youth jobs; $210 million for Promise Neighborhoods to initiate the Harlem Children’s Zone model; $8.1 billion for nutrition support programs; $4 billion for early childhood education; $144 million for prisoner re-entry programs; $4 billion for Community Development Block Grants, and $4 billion in job-training programs for youth, displaced workers and the unemployed.

Although such “rising tide” proposals are promising – with particular congratulations to President Obama on his March 21 passage of the health bill – it is in reality, according to earlier statements from the Chicago State roundtable, the African American community’s responsibility to fashion its own Black agenda.

But it appears that all we wanted was a Black face in the White House. We were not asking for much. “Equality” for us as a community has only and always meant just physically being there around white folks in a decision making seat, however symbolic.

And this discussion really needs to be fair and balanced to president Obama.   As a close friend and confidant recently shared, one primary weakness of the Black community politically is that we hardly have ever demanded any type of platform agenda or schedule from our Black elected officials locally, regionally or nationally. We just vote them into office and that’s it!

As it relates to African Americans, we as a group when it comes to Blacks in political office have always been satisfied – relative to our concerns – with image instead of substance, a position without authority or a title without power. All we wanted was the “image” of symbolic equality – be it in the masta’s big house on the plantation or the White House in Washington. To be clear, the focus of this writing, with a particular mirror reflecting the spirit of Farrakhan, Curling, Smiley, and “BRAINWASHED” author Tom Burrell, is what are we doing for ourselves since Obama has been elected?

Given all the energy, commitment, time and money expended by Black folk to get Obama seated, what – asked Smiley – has Black leadership, Black civic concerns and Black organizations asked us to do since his election? Indeed, voiced the panel, it is actually our responsibility to have our own vision, and design a Black agenda for our president.

But apparently, according to African American leaders, ministers, school principals, educators, civic officials, public servants and organizational heads, out of some sense of strange and confused “fairness and morality,” we say let the past be the past and “we ain’t got to talk ‘bout that Black stuff no mo’.”  At least this is what our children are picking up from us.  This writer hears it in the classroom all the time.

We say that we finally got a Black man in Washington and “we be free now!” with claims, however false, that we are now living in a “post racial America” and everything is fine.

This is obviously one lie, among many, that we are passing down to our children.

So when will the time come when we also can structure a Black agenda that would be our own command of a rescued, reclaimed and restored future for our young to inherit, grow into and proudly carry forth no matter who is in the White House?

Taki S. Raton is a school consultant and former founder of Blyden Delany Academy in Milwaukee. He is a writer and lecturer on the national stage detailing African World historiography, urban community issues with emphasis on education, the social development of Black youth and African American male concerns. For consultant and presentation schedules, he can be reached at

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