Over three days in March 1974, 17 years after the crisis at Central High School, Little Rock found itself once again in the national civil rights spotlight. The second National Black Political Convention, which met at Robinson Auditorium and Central High School between March 15 and 17, followed a first convention held in Gary, Ind., in February 1972. The aim of both conventions was to seek a common agenda for black advancement between a growing cohort of elected black politicians and grassroots activists.
Gary was chosen as the NBPC’s first venue because it had elected Richard G. Hatcher as one of the first black mayors of a major American city in 1967. The theme of the Gary convention was “Unity without Uniformity.” But disunity characterized the meeting. Black politicians played a prominent role, while black nationalists seized control of the program agenda. The convention passed two resolutions, one condemning the use of busing to desegregate schools and the other demanding the dismantling of the state of Israel. The two resolutions were subsequently watered down to appease black politicians who deemed them too radical.
Little Rock was chosen as the NBPC’s second venue in the hope that it would focus more on the role of grassroots activists rather than black politicians. The city was the site of a defeat for white supremacy during the 1957 desegregation of Central High School; it provided a signal victory for grassroots activism, led by Daisy Bates, the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president, and the Little Rock Nine; and the victory was won in the absence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an indication that the civil rights movement could triumph without a prominent national black leader.
When the second NBPC opened, the discord that had characterized the first convention continued. A number of prominent black politicians failed to show, including, most embarrassingly, one of the three convention co-chairmen, Rep. Charles Diggs Jr. (D-Mich). Neither of the other two convention co-chairs — Mayor Hatcher representing black politicians and poet Amiri Baraka representing grassroots activists — could say why he was missing.
Hatcher finally called the convention to order two hours behind schedule. Robinson Auditorium, with a capacity of 2,600, was less than half full. The credentials committee said that only 599 delegates and 215 observers had attended. The official number registered for the convention was 1,718, whereas there had been 8,000 people registered at the Gary convention. Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) decried the absenteeism of other black politicians, telling the audience, “It seems to me that any black elected official who understands why he or she is in political office has got to come here.” At a press conference afterwards, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said he was confident that at least “the grassroots of America” was well represented.
Baraka took charge of the main proceedings on Friday evening when he read out a report produced by the convention’s steering committee. The report described the situation in black America as “one of unrelieved crisis,” and it labeled the nation’s cities as “crime-haunted dying grounds.” Neither America’s courts nor its prisons, the report said, “contribute[d] to anything resembling justice or reformation,” and its schools, “are unable or unwilling to educate our children for the real world of our struggles.” The report concluded, “On every side, in every area of our lives, the American institutions in which we have placed our trust are unable to cope with the crisis they have created by their single-minded dedication to profits for some and white supremacy above all.”
A second report by a special law and justice committee called for the proportional employment of blacks in the judicial system and at every level of government; community control over the police, courts, prisons and other institutions that affected black lives; and a “bill of rights” for blacks “caught in the inequities of America’s criminal justice system.” Other proposals included the release of all black political prisoners; the granting of unconditional amnesty to all black Vietnam War draft resisters; opposition to efforts to restore capital punishment that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional in 1972; and the termination of the political surveillance of blacks by federal agencies — almost certainly a reference to the FBI’s COINTELPRO program that harassed civil rights and black power leaders and organizations in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Central High School was the main venue on the second day of the convention. A number of workshops were held in 16 different classrooms. The showpiece event was a tribute to Daisy Bates, where Basil Patterson, vice chairman of the national Democratic Party, described Bates as the “rock of Little Rock” and presented her with a plaque. It was reported that the 59-year-old Bates, “stood weeping as the delegates gave her a sustained, heartfelt standing ovation.” She told the 1,000 people in Central’s auditorium that “it didn’t take 999 to change the destiny of the country — it only took nine children.” In her typically forthright manner, Bates demanded that convention delegates “put your money where your mouth is.” She complained that there had been “much talk but very little action.” However, she added, “If you’re going to do something, I’m willing — I want to be part of it.” Ernest Green was the only one of the Little Rock Nine to attend the event. The black principal of Central High, Edwin L. Hawkins, presented an award to the parents of the Nine, noting the sacrifices that they had made. Lois Pattillo, the mother of Melba Pattillo, collected the award on their behalf.
The award for show stealer of the day undoubtedly went to Jesse Jackson, president of People United to Save Humanity. Jackson had been one of the most prominent voices at the Gary convention, but he had not been invited to Little Rock in an effort to shift the focus away from national leaders. Jackson turned up unannounced at Central High and told the media scrimmage around him that he was in the city to preach the following morning at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church at 14th and Ringo streets. Conyers suggested that Jackson’s preaching appointment may not have been “purely accidental” in coinciding with the convention.
The convention speeches delivered that evening at Robinson Auditorium by co-chairs Hatcher and Baraka further highlighted the gulf between black politicians and grassroots activists. Hatcher criticized black politicians for not playing a more active role in the convention and “old line” civil rights organizations like the NAACP for not keeping up with the times. He advocated forming a bold and united national black political coalition for the future. By contrast to Hatcher’s call for a consolidation of the institutional gains made by black politicians, Baraka called for the “total overthrow of all forces that seek to define … African people,” and he went on to rail against capitalism, industrialism and imperialism. Echoing sentiments from the Gary convention, Baraka condemned the support of black politicians for Israel. Both Hatcher and Baraka received standing ovations for their quite different messages.
Jesse Jackson once again cast a long shadow over the final day of the convention with his Sunday morning sermon at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. An overflow crowd of almost 1,000 people packed the church and its environs. Striking a conciliatory tone with the convention taking place “across town,” Jackson insisted that despite the dissension and disagreements apparent there, people should remember that “10 years ago we couldn’t even have a political convention to argue about.” He outlined the political strides that blacks had made in the past decade, saying, “Hands that picked cotton 10 years ago can pick presidents this morning.” Jackson encouraged blacks to use their newfound political and purchasing power as leverage with white businesses to elicit more and better employment opportunities, as he had done in his Operation Breadbasket campaign in Chicago. Mount Pleasant pastor J.H. Corbitt concluded the two-hour program with the observation: “We have heard from heaven. I am happy.” There were plenty of amens in support.
The final convention session at Robinson Auditorium that evening clearly lacked Jackson’s pulling power. Only 309 people turned up. The convention’s central proposal, to form a national black political party, was comprehensively voted down by a voice vote. Most delegates agreed that community organizing should be the top priority. In his closing speech, comedian Dick Gregory — who had been arrested in Pine Bluff for participating in civil rights demonstrations 10 years earlier — tried to paper over the cracks at the convention. Gregory said that disagreements should not detract from the delegates’ shared passion for change, and he pointed out that such disagreements were a natural part of any democratic process.
Few people appeared happy at the outcome of the Little Rock convention. Local black leaders decried its focus on ideology over practical matters. Black intellectual Harold Cruse labeled it “a betrayal of the Black Militant potential built up in the struggles of the ’60s” because of the convention’s focus on a narrow black nationalist agenda. Jesse Jackson bluntly declared, “The civil rights movement is dead.” Jackson repeated his belief that the way forward was no longer street protests but rather building and then exerting black political and economic power. When Jackson later made an unsuccessful presidential bid in 1984, Hatcher chaired his campaign.
In 1974, the civil rights movement arrived at a crossroads in Little Rock. Those who took part in the second NBPC hoped that it would be a meeting place where they could find a way to bridge the disparate interests and agendas of black politicians and grassroots activists. Yet, instead of a coming together, it proved to be a parting of the ways, as different leaders, organizations and activists took increasingly divergent paths.