Black Lives Matter: Grace P. Campbell and Claudia Jones--An analysis of the Negro Question, Self-Determination, Black Belt Thesis.

AuthorLindsey, Lydia
PositionCritical essay


In a contemporary assessment, BLM movement is a shifting stance and a recommitment to the core tenets of Black self-determination. BLM's genesis as a hashtag is a signature historical moment of its creation in the digital era. At the same time, BLM has deep roots in the Black freedom struggle for self-determination that can be seen as an extension of the Negro Question, Black Belt Thesis, and Free by '63 as well as the Freedom Now and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Tometi clearly writes that in envisioning BLM they "wanted to create a political space within and amongst our communities for activism that could stand firmly on the shoulders of movements that have come before us." (4) For this reason, a generational approach is used in this article because as a scholar and activist Angela Davis points out, "Revolution is a process, not a destination." "Revolution is not a one-time act or not, a simple turning of the clock, but rather is a process." Revolutions possess "intergenerationality." (5) #Black Lives Matter emerges from the "intergenerationality" of an intellectual insurgency radical tradition among Black women activism that has ignored the imagined boundaries of "nation" and has tapped into the global connections of Blackness and structural racism: that echoes a solidarity cry against racial oppression across the African Diaspora that reverberates the Marxists mantra that "we have nothing to lose but our chains," because the roots of oppression have not been dislodged in any fundamental way. The struggle for self-determination, freedom, and human dignity is a dialectical struggle.

Feminist Anna J. Cooper said the Negro Question stemmed from the black people being "transplanted to this continent in order to produce chattels and beasts of burden for a nation 'conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal';"--yet, black people were denied justice and equality. (6) So, the America dilemma was how could this be corrected. That was the question? The question and the answer must always be placed in terms of historical perspective and context of the struggle. Both the question and the answer must consider concretely the stage of the liberation movement and the present struggle for full black rights or self-determination. Struggle only begets more struggle. The struggle is the secret of liberation and in the words of Frederick Douglas "If there is no struggle, there is no progress."

This narrative will open with background information on Campbell and Jones that draws attention to their affiliation with Leftist movements, and the "intergenerationality" of black youth radical organizations such as the African Blood Brotherhood, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Within this discussion of their lives and these organizations emphases will be placed on the core tenets of their analysis of the Negro Question, self-determination, the Black Belt thesis, and feminism as they presage and intertwined with the six core demands delineated in "A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice."

Then the essay will analyze, the "intergenerationality" of feminist black radical tradition by focusing on Angela Davis, the Black Panther Party, and the Combahee River Collective to show how they inform aspects of the present-day struggle in the BLM Movement, as well as touching on the relations and networks within black feminist circles. The article will conclude by comparing aspects of the structural differences between and the BLM Movement and the Leftist movements of Grace P. Campbell's and Claudia Jones' intergenerational struggles. BLM has put its vision of self-determination into practice through efforts to build a black united front. After the BLM action groups were lambasted by critics for not having crafted any concrete demands or solutions, under the catch-all banner of the BLM movement the various grassroots cadres put together what has been described as a "clear vision of the world where black humanity and dignity is the reality" from the hue of its prison population to its investment choices. The platform is both a visionary agenda for black people and a resource for themselves. The platform seeks transformation and not reform, since the United States as a country "does not support, protect or preserve Black life." The six platform demands are:

  1. End the war on black people.

  2. Reparations for past and continuing harms.

  3. Divestment from the institutions that criminalize, cage and harm black people; and investment in the education, health and safety of black people.

  4. Economic justice for all and a reconstruction of the economy to ensure our communities have collective ownership, not merely access.

  5. Community control of the laws, institutions and policies that most impact us.

  6. Independent black political power and black self-determination in all areas of society. (7)

As the BLM Movement six-point platform is discussed within the context of Campbells' and Jones' radicalism, it will be addressed more by analysis of implication than by mirroring examples, because the various obstacles to acquiring self-determination are unique in time and space within the dialectical struggle. For example, the BLM point that demands an "End the war on black people," stresses the end to police brutality, the demilitarization of police and to systemic attacks on black youth; while Campbell and Jones both focus on the atrocities of police brutality, but they also engaged in anti-lynching campaigns.

This article builds on the growing body of work on black women's radical activism that revises the historical and contemporary understandings of black women's radical tradition. As a journalist, Jones has a plethora of writings that gives insight into her thinking, while Campbell's voice, for the most part, has been muted because her writings have not been located. But the finding of her analysis of the Negro Question among the papers of the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History (RGASPI), and articles in the Negro Champion, Daily Worker, The Woman Today, and The New York Age allows us to hear her voice and helps her to secure her place within the ranks of black leftist feminist intellectuals. In both women's writings, an underlying dominant assumption was that societal structures and ideologies must be transformed to eradicate oppression. Both Campbell and Jones wrote about the Negro Question, self-determination, and the Black Belt thesis when the Communist Party was shifting its focus on black self-determination.

Grace P. Campbell

In 1927, Ruth Dennis of the Pittsburg Courier recognized Grace P. Campbell as one of fifty black women who had made racial progress possible in the nation. Some others in this group were Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Burroughs, and Mary McLeod Bethune. (8) In 1928, Grace P. Campbell wrote as a member of the America Negro Labor Congress (ANLC) "An analysis of the Negro Question in the U.S.A." for the Negro Committee of the Workers Party of America (WP). She wrote in response to the Communist Sixth World Congress' Black Belt Thesis. In her analysis, she concluded that "On the whole, the negro of America is among the most oppressed groups in the world." (9)

Campbell was a "race woman" who stood with one foot in the Progressive Era and the other in the bosom of the black militant left. She was an important link between the reformist movement of the nineteenth century and the emergence of the radical black left within the "new Negro movement" in the twentieth century. She was active in racial uplift charity work and the only female founder of the African Black Brotherhood (ABB), an organization that holds the distinction of being the precursor to black national radical organizations in the twentieth century. Her activism went from uplifting to agitating, in an era when she and other "comrades" regularly debated about the impending "revolution" in the comfort of her parlor. In succeeding years, she and her "comrades" empowered, and at times constrained, the "new Negro movement" in its effort to build a more just society.

Grace P. Campbell Moving Left

With the rise of the women's suffrage movement, the convening of the Pan-African Conference, and the turmoil of the Red Summer, her efforts became directed toward transforming the society through more political actions and less through uplifting work. Her main objective was to transform the political economy. Just like the BLM Platform would later articulate, Campbell believed that radical change could not be achieved through existing institutions, and it was necessary to build separate, alternative structures of power within society. (10)

Towards this end, Campbell energies went toward women's suffrage, organizing workers, creating co-operatives, and improving education as well as societal conditions within the context of a racial paradigm. She joined the Socialist Party (SP), helped to establish the ABB, embraced the Workers' Party (WP), assisted in organizing the Friends of Negro Freedom (FNF) as well as the Trade Union Congress for Organizing Negro Workers. At the genesis of the ABB in 1918, she was probably the most prominent member because of her work as a social worker. (11) Like the BLM Movement would come to understand, Campbell recognized that the task of uplifting and alleviating menacing conditions was not possible without political agitation. The structure that wielded in the oppression of black people would have to be built in the name of black self-determination.

Over the years, Campbell favored the establishment of co-operative stores run by working class Harlemites as a solution to unemployment and community control over a commercial life. Similar to the BLM Movement in later years, she was looking for a strategy that would bring economic justice for all while reconstructing the...

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