Dr. Ron Daniels at 70
A Half Century on the Frontlines of the Black Freedom Struggle
An Autobiographical Reflection and Call to Action
On April 27th at the Schomburg Center in New York family, longtime allies/friends and the community will gather to share in the celebration of my 70th Birthday. Personally, I’m not much on birthday celebrations, so the event will be a benefit to support the work of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW), the organization which I have devoted my energies building for the past decade. I view IBW as a signature/legacy initiative – the culmination of nearly a half century of advocacy and organizing on the frontlines of the Black Freedom Struggle.
I was born in the town of Beckley in the coalfields of West Virginia, the son of a coalminer, William “Bill” Daniel and a coalminer’s daughter, Wealtha Marie Williams. My father, who was born in Georgia and migrated to West Virginia, never received more than a fourth grade education in a one room school house. Nonetheless, he became a Shop Steward for the United Mine Workers. My Mother’s education was cut short as well as she left high school in the eleventh grade to travel to Washington, D.C. to work at the Federal Mint. Both were amazing Griots. My mother frequently spoke of the wretched conditions growing up poor during the Great Depression and the iron fisted rule over the household by Grandpa Ed Williams, who was a strict disciplinarian. It seems her stories were intended to instill a sense of tenacity, toughness of character and the will to achieve despite adversity. She was always encouraging. My father told tales of growing up in the deep South under the brutal reign of Jim Crow, including actually taking us to a tree where one of our relatives was lynched. There were also stories of fearless Black men and women who stood up against the “White folks” and lived to tell about it. The mutual aid societies that Black people built, the bloody battles to organize the United Mine Workers, Sunday outings to enjoy the great stars of the Negro Baseball League and passionate admiration for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal were all part of his repertoire of stories. He was also a staunch devotee of the NAACP, having witnessed the organization’s fight against lynching and efforts to regain the vote.
When I was four years old, my mother and father migrated from the coalfields of West Virginia to the fourth leading steel producing city in the U.S., Youngstown, Ohio. My father went from coalminer to steelworker, and of course became active in the United Steel Workers of America. He was a “union man.” Bill Daniel was also an aspiring businessman. So, with savings accumulated from working as a “bottom maker” in the steel mill and with the support/assistance of my mother, he opened Daniel’s Grocery and Confectionary, popularly known in a de facto segregated neighborhood “up south” as “the Colored Store.” Unfortunately the pressures of raising two young children, spending long hours tending to the store and an age gap of 20 years proved too much. When I was nine, my mother and father separated, and my brother David and I moved to the largest steel producing center in the U.S., Pittsburgh, PA, to August Wilson’s Hill District.
In the mid-1950s, the lower section of the Hill District was a rough neighborhood, a prototypical “dark ghetto” with block after block of rat and roach infested, dilapidated houses, garbage filled alley ways and legions of poor and working people –those who were mill hands making fairly decent wages and others who were unemployed or underemployed along with those who just “hustled” for a living. Gang rivalries and fights; bruising, sometimes fatal arguments at sidewalk crap games; numbers running and basement juke joints with illicit sale of “bathtub gin” were commonplace.
But, there were also incredible strengths in the Hill District. Neighbors looked after neighbors and were particularly protective of children. No matter one’s station in life, the neighbors looked after the children. Neighborhood social/recreation centers and churches were places where youth could find safe haven from the turmoil and troubles of their environment, and there were schools where teachers encouraged us to work hard and achieve despite the obstacles of poverty and racism. Indeed, there were a fair number of teachers, lawyers and professionals sprinkled throughout the neighborhood. It was in the Hill District that I was baptized at Ebenezer Baptist Church at age twelve and encountered a young man named Archie at the Hill City Community Center who had just returned home from the Marine Corps. In Ebenezer Baptist Church I became a leader in the Baptist Young People’s Union and at age twelve was also elected the youngest delegate to the State Baptist Convention. The Church was a major refuge and point of caring mentorship in what was often trying times. Hill City was an amazing place run by program directors who showed a genuine interest in the welfare of young people. Apparently, Hill City had a positive influence on Archie’s life, and he was determined to give something back. He challenged young Black boys to become men by joining a newly formed drill team called the Cadet Corps. Archie was a hard task master. He stressed character, excellence, discipline, teamwork, civic responsibility, good grades in school and leadership.
Living in the midst of poverty, with a mother struggling desperately to make ends meet, teachers, the Church, Hill City, Archie and the Cadet Corps were lifelines that enabled me to maintain my sanity. They left an indelible impact on my soul. It was in the Hill District that my “social consciousness” was forged. I remember gazing out at the heavens one night from the window of our rat and roach infested home and proclaiming that human beings should not have to work as hard as my mother to survive; human beings should not have to subsist in conditions as terrible as we were compelled to by circumstance. That was the beginning of my commitment to social justice and social change.
The struggle to raise four children as a single mother was too much to bear. My mother suffered a nervous breakdown. She decided that the only way to preserve her sanity and for all four children to survive and thrive was to separate us. Accordingly, she departed for Indianapolis with the two youngest children, our brother and sister by our stepfather. My brother and I returned to Youngstown to live with my father. It was yet another painful separation. However, the strengths of the experiences in the Hill District were invaluable, even lifesaving for a troubled young kid of fourteen. I found solace and support in Tabernacle Baptist Church, where I was active in Sunday School and encouraged to stand before scores of people to review the Lesson of the Day – thereby instilling confidence to speak to audiences large and small.
I poured my psychological/mental and physical energies into replicating and expanding on the Cadet Corps concept as taught by Archie. I incorporated some of the programs from Hill City Community Center to create a paramilitary youth organization committed to preventing juvenile delinquency. The Cadet Corps was absolutely an incredible organization which not only had a superb military and boogey drill team but classes in First Aid, Camping and Civic Engagement. With the support of “Cadet Mothers,” we prepared and sold chicken dinners to raise our own money to purchase uniforms and camping equipment. At the age of 15, here was this young kid serving as “Commander” of the Cadet Corps, highly respected by a group of his peers, winning trophies at Parades because of their disciplined drill techniques, appearing on television and conducting themselves as stellar young citizens of the community. The Cadet Corps was the laboratory, the incubator and training ground for the leadership skills which would later become indispensable as a civil rights/human rights advocate and organizer.
I had a cousin who observed the Cadet Corps and took notice of what he perceived to be my leadership qualities. He invited some of the Cadets to listen to speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. and discussed the struggle against segregation and discrimination. He encouraged me to utilize my penchant for civic engagement to advance the cause of civil rights by joining the NAACP Youth Chapter. I took him up on the offer, and under his mentorship and that of other local NAACP leaders, in rapid succession, I was elected President of the Youngstown Youth Chapter, President of the Ohio State Youth Chapter and President of Region III which encompassed several Midwestern states. My very first recollection of the struggle against Southern apartheid was the collections raised in our church that were sent to support the Montgomery Bus Boycott. My first experience on a picket line was a demonstration outside the local Woolworth Store in support of the Sit-in movement at Woolworth Lunch counters in Greensboro, NC and other Southern states. And, the most memorable experience of all was having the privilege of participating in the historic March on Washington in 1963. The NAACP was my introduction to the civil rights movement.
I cite this early history because it is foundational to whom I have become. The stories of my mother and father, the Griots, are seldom far from my consciousness. My involvement with the Church in Pittsburgh and Youngstown, the work of building the Cadet Corps and engaging the civil rights movement through the NAACP, these were the experiences that honed my skills for a life devoted to the Black Freedom Struggle and the liberation of all oppressed people. With the formation and emergence of Freedom, Inc. (which I founded) as one of the most formidable nationalist/Pan-Africanist, activist organizations in the country, Youngstown became the base, the springboard for my leadership in some of the most significant movements and organizations of the last half century. I was one of the Conveners of the Ohio Delegation to the historic 1972 National Black Political Convention and was eventually elected President of the National Black Political Assembly (NBPA) – the official continuations mechanism of the Convention. I was one of the founders of African Liberation Day in 1972, which mobilized the largest demonstrations in support of African independence since the days of the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. I served as Co-Chairperson of the National Black Independent Political Party (NBIPP) which was a direct outgrowth of the NBPA. I was deeply honored that the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson asked me to be Executive Director of the National Rainbow Coalition and subsequently Deputy Campaign Manager of his 1988 campaign for President. Rev. Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns for President were among the most remarkable political events in the history of this nation. I was privileged to have had the experience of playing a significant role in the 1988 Campaign – an opportunity for which I will forever be grateful. However, my huge disappointment with Rev. Jackson’s failure to maintain the National Rainbow Coalition as a mass-based membership organization would eventually lead me to run as an independent candidate for President in 1992 with the hope of preserving the promise of the Rainbow Coalition.
In the aftermath of the Jackson for President Campaign, a number of activists from around the country came together to form the African American Progressive Action Network (AAPAN). This group agreed to advance three major Initiatives. The first project was to declare 1990 the Year of Malcolm X as part of a concerted campaign to dramatically increase awareness of the life and legacy of “Our Black Shining Prince,” particularly among young people — 25 years after his assassination. The campaign was a spectacular success. The second initiative was to revive the convening of State of Black America type conferences which had been prevalent during the 60s, to assess the “state of the race” and provide prescriptions for moving the Black liberation movement forward. Under the auspices of AAPAN, the first State of the Race Conference (SORC) was convened in 1994 at Sojourner Douglas College in Baltimore – followed by SORC II in 1997. The third initiative was the African American Institute for Research and Empowerment, which was an effort to fill what AAPAN activists saw as a void in the movement, the absence of a progressive, African-centered think tank. Those initiatives were the seeds for the eventual call for and formation of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century at State of the Black World Conference I in Atlanta in 2001.
In 1994, I served on the Executive Committee of the National African American Leadership Summit (NAALS), a very promising effort to build a united front among African American leadership, spearheaded by Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis during his tenure as Executive Director of the NAACP. NAALS eventually failed to meet its potential when Chavis was ousted from his post at the NAACP. I also served on the Executive Committee of the historic Million Man March and Day of Absence as conceived and miraculously organized by the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakan. In 1993, I was appointed Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the first African American to hold that position. During a twelve year tenure, I broadened CCR’s visibility in the African American community by leading major racial justice initiatives around the epidemic of Black church burnings and police brutality and misconduct. I was also privileged to be at the helm during CCR’s rapid and stanch defense of civil liberties and human rights after George W. Bush declared the “War Against Terrorism “in the wake of 9/11.
By the end of my tenure at CCR, however, the chronic State of Emergency in Black America was increasingly a preoccupation and priority. Hence, in 2005, I felt compelled to “return to the source,” the national Black community to intensify the effort to build IBW as a mechanism that could make a meaningful contribution to addressing the myriad crises afflicting Africans in America. I stepped out on faith not sure how I would be able to make a living as I embarked on this new and risky phase of my life’s work as a scholar/activist in the autumn of my advocacy. But, thanks to the intervention of Councilman Charles Barron, Chairman of the Higher Education Committee of New York City Council and the active interest of Jay Hershenson, Senior Vice-Chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY), I was privileged to meet President Marcia Keizs, who with the blessing of the faculty of the Department of Behavioral Sciences, offered me an appointment as the first Distinguished Lecturer at York College of CUNY! This was a perfect appointment, a Godsend, which affords me the opportunity to bring my rich and varied experiences to the campus and classroom, while simultaneously pursuing my passion of building IBW. The synergy has been extremely rewarding as I have been able to continually connect the academy and the community.
The task of building IBW has not been easy, largely due to a lack of resources and staff infrastructure/capacity to move the process forward on a continual basis, with consistency and coherence. But, with a dedicated Board comprised of scholar/activists and organizers, a loyal core of volunteers in the greater New York area (the Ujima Support Committee), developed with the steady assistance of my wife/partner Mary France-Daniels, and the growing support of sisters and brothers around the country, IBW has become a recognizable presence in Black America and the Pan African world — particularly Haiti. After a decade of relentless work, IBW has developed programmatic initiatives which we believe can contribute to the rescue and reconstruction of people of African descent communities in this country and the Black World: The Black Family Summit; Shirley Chisholm Presidential Accountability Commission; Damu Smith Leadership Development and Organizer Training Institute; Research Consortium; Pan African Unity Dialogue; Campaign to End the War on Drugs; and Haiti Support Project — comprise a menu of initiatives calculated to serve as vehicles to advance the struggle for strong communities and nations [visit the website www.ibw21.org for a description of these Initiatives]. Each of these initiatives is a work in progress which could benefit from the conscious and consistent commitment of time, talent and resources of sisters and brothers who support the vision/mission of IBW.
I have challenged the Board and our friends/allies to make 2012 Operation Breakthrough, the year IBW achieves the scope, scale viability and visibility to have meaningful and measurable impact in terms of the quest to reconstruct Black communities and nations. This is a critical moment in the evolution and development of a vital institution. Throughout my life’s work, I have often proceeded on “guts and faith” [during my independent campaign for President in 1992, the New York City Sun Newspaper dubbed me the “Guts and Faith Candidate”], opting not to wait for grants or support of government programs before launching an initiative/project. At critical moments, we have called on our friends/allies and the community to support the cause. When AAPAN launched 1990 the Year of Malcolm X, we didn’t have money. The organizers financed this highly successful initiative by pooling our honoraria from speaking engagements and through contributions, small and large from supporters across the country. The seed money for the first State of the Race Conference in 1994 was secured through an appeal to friends/allies to contribute $100. Scores responded. We financed the conference and realized a modest savings to implement other AAPAN projects.
In 2002, on the occasion of my 60th birthday, friends /allies gathered in Atlanta for the formal launch of IBW and contributed more than $50,000 to get the ball rolling. And, when the costs of State of the Black World Conference II in New Orleans nearly sank IBW after the drastic economic downturn of 2008, once again we appealed to friends/allies from around the country to avert an institution-threatening crisis. IBW survived and we are now poised to convene State of the Black World Conference III, November 14-18, at Howard University in Washington, D. C. – centered on the Theme: State of Emergency in Black America, Time to Heal Black Families and Communities. The Conference will be dedicated to the memory of our beloved Dr. Ronald Walters.
Now in this decisive year in the evolution and development of IBW, once again we turn to friends/allies and supporters in New York and nationwide to achieve the goals of Operation Breakthrough. Therefore, the purpose of the April 27th celebration is more political than personal. It is a collective/communal occasion to advance the process of building a vital institution. Our goal is raise a modest $70,000 on my 70th birthday. And, in the spirit of the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Mary McLeod-Bethune, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Black Church, we seek to establish an independent Black base of financial support for IBW. At the first State of the Black World Conference in Atlanta in 2001, a young activist from Baltimore named Gregory Griffin pledged to send $10.00 a month to support the launch of IBW. Since that moment, each month without fail, we have received a money order for $10.00 from Gregory Griffin. To honor his exemplary institution-building commitment, we have created a Gregory Griffin Support category of donor/contributor as the principal means of establishing an independent financial base for IBW. I would like to see 1,000 friends of IBW become Gregory Griffin Contributors by the end of 2012, beginning with at least 100 making commitments as part of the April 27th Benefit Birthday Celebration.
Age is but a state of mind, and as I approach my 70th birthday, I may feel a few more aches and pains, but as the gospel song proclaims, “I don’t feel no ways tired!” I’m a long distance runner, and the blood and sacrifice of our ancestors cries out for me/us to continue the course. The stories of my Griots, my mother and father, about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of a resilient people in a hostile land, the memories of a commitment made in a “dark ghetto” called the Hill District and more than a half-century of service to African people and humanity fuel my absolute determination to press on until the torch is passed to a new generation to continue until the race is won. In this worthy endeavor, 2012 is the year IBW must emerge as an engine for Black empowerment in the U.S. and the Pan African World. With the support of friends/allies and the community, it will be done. “Up you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will!”
Organizations and individuals interested in supporting the April 27th Benefit Fundraising Event – Ron Daniels at 70: A Long Distance Runner, should visit the website www.ibw21.org or call 888.774.2921.