The early 1970s saw a collective outrage in the Black community following years of discrimination and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
It led to a historic gathering of Black leaders in March 1972 in Gary, Indiana. Approximately 10,000 people gathered to channel that rage into political action by setting a Black agenda.
“We must emerge from this convention an independent, national Black political agenda, a dynamic program for Black liberation that in the process will liberate all of America from its current decadence,” Then-Mayor of Gary Richard Hatcher said while opening the convention.
The convention was organized by poet and activist Imamu Amiri Baraka and Congressman Charles Diggs Jr., the leader of the newly-formed Congressional Black Caucus.
The convention attracted Black leaders with vastly different political ideologies like Coretta Scott King and Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz, along with Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale.
Celebrities Harry Belafonte, Isaac Hayes, Richard Roundtree and Dick Gregory were all among the 10,000 attendees as well.
One notable absence however was Shirley Chisholm, who was making her historic run for President as the first woman and first African-American. Chisholm decided to skip the convention when organizers couldn’t decide if they would endorse her candidacy.
More than 3,300 delegates from just about every state in the country tried to reach a consensus around a Black agenda on issues like affordable housing, improved health care, a guaranteed minimum wage and political representation, among several other pressing concerns.
One of the delegates at the convention of was Reverend Al Sampson.
“It was convention, full of tension, because people needed attention and the value of convention, folk came together and folk stayed together and that meant people has to listen to one another,” Sampson said.
A young Reverend Jesse Jackson fired up the crowd with chants of nation time, from Imamu Baraka’s poem on Black nationalism.
“Black nationalism does not espouse Black supremacy, it just simply says ‘We want to be free, we want to control our communities,'” Northeastern Illinois University Political Science professor Bob Starks said.
In later years, Jackson moderated his position on Black nationalism, eventually running for the Democratic nomination for President twice, in 1984 and 1988. Activists today, however, are taking a cue from the 1972 convention.
“The Black Lives Matter movement is one of those things that came out of this whole convention. The idea that you continue protests, because one of the demands on the part of the nationalists is that you never give up, and continue to fight,” Starks said.
Organizers also have credited the convention for nearly tripling the number of Black elected officials in the United States.
Angela Ford recently uncovered several photos taken by an unknown photographer at the convention. She has posted them on her website, ‘The Obsidian Collection”, a digital museum of Black history.
“What it does, is it allows a new generation to tell our stories. As we organize and deal with the politics today, it’s important that they understand what successes their elders had, and how they did it,” Ford said.
The convention adjourned without reaching a consensus but a committee later published a 68-page National Black Agenda, which called for among many things, more Black representation in Congress.
Filmmaker Williams Greaves also produced an 80-minute documentary on the convention called ‘Nationtime.’ It was considered too militant to be released at the time, but was recently uncovered in a Philadelphia warehouse, restored and released in 2020 by Kino Lorber.
You can stream it here.