A More Radical Vision for Palestinian Self-determination

Protesters in Times Square, May 20, 2021 (Lev Radin / Shutterstock.com)

Nearly fifty years ago, at the 1972 National Black Political Convention (NBPC) in Gary, Indiana, Douglas E. Moore of the Washington, D.C., delegation introduced a strong resolution critical of the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state:

Whereas the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel in 1948 constituted a clear violation of the Palestinian traditional right to life in their own homeland,

Whereas thousands of Palestinians have been killed, thousands have been left homeless by the illegal establishment of the state of Israel,

Whereas Jews ruling Israel have demonstrated fascist desires through the occupation of other Palestinian and Arab lands,

Whereas Israeli agents are working hand-in-hand with other imperialistic interests in Africa,

The resolution, whose story has been told by Cedric Johnson, Leonard N. Moore, and Michael Fischbach, was remarkable then and remains prescient today in its insistence that the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 required redress as part of a Black political project. As Palestinians collectively continue to rise up in Gaza, in the Occupied West Bank including Jerusalem, and within the 1948 borders of Israel, communities throughout the world continue to seek ways to mobilize in support of the Palestinian struggle against Israel’s military assaults on Gaza, the attempted ethnic cleansing of Palestinian residents from Sheikh Jarrah, and widespread anti-Palestinian pogroms.

On such questions, Douglas Moore’s resolution advocated:

that the U.S. government end immediately its economic and military support of the Israeli regime;
that the U.S. government should withdraw its military forces from the Middle East area;
that the historical land of Palestinian and Arab people be returned to them;
that negotiations be ended with the freedom of the representatives of the Palestinians to establish a second state based on the historical right of the Palestinian people for self-government in their land.

Although the resolution was approved on the convention floor on March 12, 1972, it remained at the center of a controversy that continued for more than two months as the NBPC steering committee met to finalize a National Black Political Agenda (NBPA). Under pressure from the NAACP and Black elected officials (who were themselves being pressured by Jewish organizations and other supporters of Israel), the committee abandoned Moore’s language in favor of the Organization of African Unity and the UN Commission on Human Rights position condemning “the Israeli government’s expansionist policy,” effectively that Israel should return to its 1967 borders.1

One of the most vocal opponents of these resolutions was Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP. While the NBPC was meeting in Gary, Wilkins was in Israel where he met with Prime Minister Golda Meier. Amid the debates, Wilkins contributed a series of pro-Israel articles to the Baltimore Afro-American while Bayard Rustin expressed similar sentiments in the Amsterdam News. The response of the newly-established Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) sought to reclaim the language of “homeland” from an indigenous people on behalf of a settler population: “We fully respect the right of the Jewish people to have their own state in their historic national homeland. We vigorously oppose the efforts of any group that would seek to weaken or undermine Israel’s right to existence.” Although Israel’s existence was acknowledged by both NBPC statements, the CBC response blurred the distinction between the rights of a religious group and the supposed rights of a state. While the final Agenda that was released on May 19, 1972, Malcolm X’s birthday, did not include the language of “homeland” or mention 1948, it nonetheless affirmed its “support [for] the struggle of Palestine for self-determination.”

The language of self-determination is critical to the National Black Political Agenda which also advocated “self-determination” for Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia. For many delegates, Palestinian self-determination was part of an ongoing anticolonial struggle, inclusive of southern Africa, as reflected in Moore’s simultaneous work on the national steering committee for the May 1972 African Liberation Day, which the NBPC endorsed. While critics suggested that the resolution was marginal, if not illegitimate, in part because it was approved at the end of the convention’s final day, Johnson points out that it was consistent with similar resolutions at the 1968 Black Power Conference and the 1970 Congress of African Peoples, where “opposition to the state of Israel and support for Palestinian self-determination were widely embraced international policy stances among Black Power radicals.”2 Although support for Israel would have been inconsistent with the rest of the program, the national NAACP nonetheless tried to claim the mantle of civil rights on behalf of Israel’s “democratic achievements in the struggle to maintain justice for her racially diverse population.”

A better vision of multiracial democracy can be found in Douglas Moore’s long history of activism leading up to Gary. Moore was a seminary classmate of Martin Luther King Jr. at Boston University and a founding member of both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In June 1957, in his home state of North Carolina, Moore organized a sit-in at the Royal Ice Cream Shop in Durham. Three years later when students from his father’s alma mater, North Carolina A&T University, began their sit-in at the Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter on February 1, 1960, they connected with Moore and Floyd McKissick, his attorney in the Royal case. Moore reached out to James Lawson, who was organizing a similar campaign in Nashville, and King, who came to Durham on February 16, where sit-ins had already shut down the local Woolworth’s lunch counter. In March, Moore consulted with Ella Baker who was organizing the Southwide Student Leadership Conference on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation at Shaw University, which led to the formation of the SNCC. 3 Around that time, King tried to hire Moore and Lawson as SCLC staff members, but Wilkins, who would reappear as Moore’s adversary more than a decade later, threatened an NAACP boycott of SCLC.4

In March 1960, at the height of the student movement, in an interview with the Chicago Defender Moore cited African decolonization as a major inspiration. Soon thereafter, he left the United States to work as a Methodist missionary in the newly independent Democratic Republic of Congo from 1962 to 1965, where he served in Sandoa, the hometown of the secessionist leader Moise Tshombe, who has been implicated in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and who Langston Hughes (via Jesse B. Simple) called “the Uncle Tom of the Congo.” While under the auspices of a white U.S. church, Moore witnessed firsthand a new nation struggling to maintain its independence from neocolonial forces as Tshombe, backed by the U.S., Belgium, and white mercenaries from South Africa, ascended from governor of Katanga to Prime Minister. After returning to the United States, he settled in Washington, where he helped to establish the city’s Black United Front and was a leading advocate for home rule in the District. His recognition of Israel as a settler colonial project is grounded in this deep appreciation for the challenge and necessity of self-determination that led him from Boston to Durham to Sandoa to Washington to Gary.

Expressions of solidarity have been increasingly visible in recent years, and a great deal of scholarship has expanded our historical understanding of these connection. Such sentiments were visible in a recent speech that Cori Bush delivered on the floor the House of Representatives. She invoked the memory of her late Ferguson comrade Bassem Masri, and beautifully describes entangled and contingent experiences of occupation and resistance. Given a long, and increasingly familiar, history of Black-Palestinian solidarity, which Bush’s Palestinian colleague Rashida Tlaib similarly evoked in her speech the novelty of such an address lies in its venue. Bush was elected to the Missouri Congressional seat once held by William Clay, a founding member of the CBC and a staunch opponent of the NBPC’s Israel resolution. She defeated his son and successor, Lacy Clay, who served ten terms in the House. On the eve of the 2020 Democratic primary, the Lacy Clay campaign sent out mail featuring a photo of Bush with Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour in an effort to stir fear around her principled defense of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement

Just as Gary pointed toward a more radical vision for Palestinian self-determination, the subsequent, and ongoing, backlash exposes some familiar, and ongoing, ruptures between activists and elected officials, which Amiri Baraka organized the NBPC convention in an effort to bridge. Moore’s resolution was a product of all of the movements of which he was a part, which took seriously grassroots organizing, the expansion of Black political power, and self-determination. Echoes of the Gary resolution are evident in the recent statement of the Movement for Black Lives:  “The fight for Palestinian rights and dignity is integral to the fight for human rights everywhere.”

  1. See The National Black Political Agenda (National Black Political Convention, 1972)
  2. Cedric Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 115
  3. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 240
  4. Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters (Touchstone, 1989), 272-99
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Ira Dworkin

Ira Dworkin is an associate professor of English at Texas A&M University. His work examines the transnational political histories of African American literature and culture. He is the author of Congo Love Song: African American Culture and the Crisis of the Colonial State (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), which was a finalist for the Pauli Murray Book Prize of the African American Intellectual History Society. Follow him on Twitter @CongoLoveSong.

Comments on “A More Radical Vision for Palestinian Self-determination

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    I am so proud of all that you have accomplished in your writing. Your passion for your work speaks volumes. Continue to grace the world with your words of wisdom and understanding of these very important topics.
    My fondest regards,
    Barbara Allen Sebastian

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    No Black African or African-American should support any Arab or Muslim initiative, including Palestinian ones, because from the 800’s through the 1900’s, Arabs and other Muslims captured, imprisoned, and sold Black Africans into slavery, in the Middle East, India, Africa, and, through European slave-traders, North and South America and the Caribbean.

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