TransAfrica: Future Of Struggle

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Think about the reaction to Harry Belafonte's challenge to Colin Powell a couple of years ago, not to mention his recent challenge to Bush. People who would otherwise love to be seen with Harry distanced themselves, despite the fact that they knew that he was telling the truth. This fear in a McCarthy-like era has affected many funders making it essential that we assume, to borrow from the name of the Irish organization Sinn Fein, that we are ourselves alone.

It has been a difficult 4 plus years. Had it not been for the staff, my board members, and you--the supporters of this organization--we could not have made it. I stepped into this organization and faced several challenges. One was to follow Randall Robinson. Second, to rebuild the organization. Third, to develop a 21st century organization.

On one level it was impossible to follow from Randall. Randall had become almost larger than life. He was a great leader of a great cause, and was completely associated with the struggle against apartheid, and deserves such credit for his leadership. Yet Randall encountered a number of issues after the victory of the anti-apartheid movement that have haunted us ever since: (1) is there an issue that can bring forward the mobilization that the anti-apartheid struggle did?, and (2) how do we take on campaigns around injustices where race is not the determining feature, i.e., issues or struggles where the situation does not fit neatly into a dynamic of oppressed Black masses vs. oppressor white elites?

I would not fault Randall for not answering this. This same question, in various ways, has haunted the entire African American leadership because it is not simply about international issues; it is about domestic questions as well. In fact, as much of the African American leadership has attempted to go mainstream, it has found itself less and less able to lead Black America at a time when leadership is so necessary. The leadership response to the Katrina disaster is just one example of this.

When I took over TransAfrica Forum, one gives away nothing to say that it was the shell of an organization, held together largely by two staffers and the energy of the then new Board chairman Danny Glover. We had a lot of repair work to do and this took us a while. We can proudly say that today the organization is on good footing, but I wish that this had been our only challenge.

Repositioning the Organization Connected to rebuilding the organization was repositioning the organization. The two are integrally linked, actually. In rebuilding TransAfrica Forum the question arises: rebuilding for what? Even though we were able to prove to funders and supporters alike that we had overcome supreme obstacles to rebuild the organization, this did not seem to be enough.

It was as if we were receiving polite applause as the curtain went down. What we quickly realized was that we were, indeed are, an organization standing between two constituencies. There is the old constituency of TransAfrica Forum. It is old chronologically, and more importantly, politically.

Certainly, within the old constituency are some determined fighters who have wanted to press on and are as relevant today as they were years ago. There is also a section of this constituency that is no longer interested in justice for the African World. As long as business can thrive in the African World, and white people are not the obvious oppressors, everything is right with the world. There are those in the old constituency for whom the anti-apartheid struggle was the completion of the Civil Rights Movement, and now no movement is necessary.

Then, there is the new constituency. This tends to be younger and is not composed of the Black elite. These are folks who want to hear what we have to say, but are not necessarily ready to mobilize.

They may not be convinced that we can win, having seen so many failures. They want to know, however, that we are out here speaking truth to power, as the saying goes, but this does not necessarily translate into contributing time, money or resources. They need to be convinced to translate their concerns and interests into joining or forming an organization.

Danny and I set out in the fall of 2001 to construct what was in effect a new organization that was largely focused on this new constituency. More than anything else, we wanted more than a thinktank, and we certainly did not want an organization that was a platform for one personality.

Instead we were looking to build a Black global justice organization that combined activism with policy development. We wanted to build an organization that could harness and unite the constituency within Black America that deeply cares about international affairs. The obvious question is whether we succeeded.

Too Soon to Tell.

To answer this, I am reminded of one of my favorite stories. Sometime in the 1960s, the late Premier of the People's Republic of China, Zhou En-lai, was asked what he thought had been the implications of the French Revolution of 1789. After pondering the question for a moment he replied: "It is too soon to tell." Judging success, failure or, for that matter, the implications of a project must always be done in a particular context. I would say that our results have been mixed, at least so far.

I remain convinced that we have planted sufficient seeds that if carefully nurtured--through leadership, volunteer activism, and funds—can produce something truly extraordinary. One of those seeds is the project known as the "Amilcar Cabral/Sojourner Truth Study Action Groups," our newest effort to rebuild movement at the local level.

Those who were looking for a 21st century, 1980-ish anti-apartheid movement were certainly disappointed. The situation in the USA is so completely different than it was in the 1980s that we could not simply replicate that movement. But there was also something else that many people have ignored.

The 1980s anti-apartheid movement was not based upon the genius of one person-- Randall Robinson--or even several people. It was built upon a combination of over 40 years of work by organizations operating around the country, many of whose names have long been forgotten. TransAfrica Forum, and its leader Randall, gave voice to these efforts, but had it been only Randall or only TransAfrica Forum, there would have been nothing.

Too many people lose sight of that fact. It was the work of the Council on African Affairs, the American Committee on Africa, the Communist Party, the Congress of African Peoples, the African Liberation Support Committee, the Washington Office on Africa, the Southern African Support Project, the various Maoist groups, not to mention the ad hoc committees in the trade union movement, in religious institutions as well as in institutions of higher learning that all made the difference.

Grassroots Involvement We are suffering today from the lack of that level of grassroots organizational involvement. While there are organizations, many of them are not focused on international issues including, but not limited to, Africa. The long-term mission of TransAfrica Forum must be to change that equation. I must add to this the question of funding that haunts nearly all advocacy and organizing initiatives on the left side of the aisle. Let me speak candidly about Black America. Over the last few years there have been studies and polls taken that demonstrate that African Americans contribute significantly to so-called charities—a term that includes groups like ours. The lion's share of those contributions go to religious institutions and not to advocacy, educational and organizing initiatives. To put it in its crassest terms, as a colleague of mine and I put it, we are prepared to fund our way into Heaven, but not fund our way out of Hell.

We act as if fundraising is something that could be carried out by someone else; or to put it in its worst sense, that white folks will fund our efforts, while we are responsible for only funding our religious institutions. This must change. The political climate we are in is treacherous. This means that resources will become less plentiful rather than more plentiful as even people of goodwill become nervous.

Think about the reaction to Harry Belafonte's challenge to Colin Powell a couple of years ago, not to mention his recent challenge to Bush. People who would otherwise love to be seen with Harry distanced themselves, despite the fact that they knew that he was telling the truth. This fear in a McCarthy-like era has affected many funders making it essential that we assume, to borrow from the name of the Irish organization Sinn Fein, that we are ourselves alone.

This does not mean that we need no allies, or that we should ignore external support, but rather that we must craft ways of building ourselves that assume our own resource pool. If we are not prepared to do this, we can just hang it up right now because we will be in for a very rough time.

I have been honored to have led this organization. I have gained new friends and comrades. I have learned things about myself that came as a surprise. I have learned new skills that I can transfer to other fronts in the struggle for social justice.
And here is where I should probably close. My intention in stepping down from TransAfrica Forum is not to turn my back on the issues and concerns that this great organization has championed over the years. Rather, a time sometimes arises when one concludes that one can best serve the interests of that organization from the outside. After much reflection, I came to that precise conclusion. So, while I intend to continue the domestic work that has been central to my life, such as stirring things up in the labor movement, and promoting the neo-Rainbow electoral politics that Danny and I have written about, I am not walking an inch away from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, the WesternSahara, South Africa, Palestine or the Philippines.

I could no more abandon the struggle for global justice and solidarity among the oppressed than one could separate a fish from water and expect it to survive. Thank you for the opportunity I have had to lead this organization. Thank you for your support. Thanks for sharing the same trench in this very protracted struggle for the future of humanity. And let us together never forget the words from the 5th Pan African Congress that are emblazoned upon our website: "We believe the success of Afro-Americans is bound up with the emancipation of all African peoples and also other dependent peoples and laboring classes everywhere."

The speech is excerpted from Bill Fletcher, Jr.’s farewell speech to TransAfrica Forum at the TransAfrica Forum Annual Conference, April 1, 2006. Fletcher is the departing president of TransAfrica Forum. For more information please visit www.transafricaforum.org

“Speaking Truth To Empower.� To contact The Black Star News write editor@blackstarnews.com or call (212) 481-7745. Subscribe to this newspaper and advertise to build power.

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