By Ashley Farmer
On January 25, 1975, over five hundred activists gathered in Detroit, Michigan to discuss the position of women in the global black freedom struggle. The participants were members of various Black Power, black progressive, and women’s organizations including the Congress of African People (CAP), the Youth Organization for Black Unity (YOBU), and the National Welfare Rights Organization. After a two-day meeting, the group decided that they needed to create an “anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist, rooted in the working masses of women.” They formed the Black Women’s United Front (BWUF), a federation of activists and organizations dedicated to the “abolition of every possibility of oppression & exploitation.”
The idea for the BWUF developed out of discussions among members of CAP, a national federation of radical and progressive black organizations headed by famed poet Amiri Baraka. Women within CAP began having debates about their role in race, class, and gender struggles in the mid-1960s. Amina Baraka, Amiri Baraka’s wife, often spearheaded these conversations and study groups through the Women’s Division of the organization.
Collectively, women in CAP chapters across the country developed handbooks, women’s columns, and guides that re-framed black women’s roles in nationalist and Pan-African organizing and foregrounded their inter-sectional oppression.
In July 1974, CAP women held the All-Afrikan Women’s Conference in Newark, New Jersey. Organizers framed it as an event designed to heighten the “political awareness and educational development” of women so that they could “more effectively strive for the unification of all Afrikan people.” Hundreds of people attended the meeting at Rutgers University Law School.
The program consisted of workshops dedicated to traditional forms of women’s organizing including education, health, and social organization. The agenda also included seminars in politics, communications, and institutional development, as well as lectures from “Afrikan women from the America’s liberation movements, West Indies, and progressive Afrikan countries.By the end of the conference, attendees were in “unanimous agreement that [they] should put forth an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-neo-colonialist position.” This became the ideological and organizational basis of the BWUF.
At its founding in January 1975, organizers proposed two concrete ways that the BWUF could wage anti-racist, anti sexist, and anti-capitalist struggle. First, the BWUF could “root itself in and join the struggle of working class women and in the Black Liberation Movement.” Second, the BWUF could “carry on political education to raise the consciousness of women within the Black Liberation Movement” by “hold[ing] forums to wage ideological discussion and struggle, build[ing] coalitions with other groups involved in the struggle aimed at the destruction of the system.”
Individual chapters advanced these goals through coordinated protests on the local and national level.
For example, they held rallies in support of Joan Little, a young, working-class black woman accused of killing a white prison guard who tried to rape her in North Carolina. In September 1975, the Pittsburgh chapter brought together BWUF, NWRO, and the U.S. Steel, Homestead Works Black Coalition to discuss “work incentive programs, hospital and pharmaceutical benefits and day care facilities.” BWUF-Pittsburgh organized the forum as a space to deliver information on the rights for black women and “to amass the efforts of women and organizations for the betterment of the community.”
Organizers viewed the BWUF as “an important step” in “unifying Black working class women in a leading role in the Black Liberation Movement.” They believed that their multi-pronged organization could “win over” black women who were “intellectuals,” “professionals,” and members of other “social strata.” They also argued that the organization could work toward creating a unified front to work with other groups “aimed at the destruction of monopoly capitalism.” Most importantly, they argued that their ideological platform would prepare “black women for the coming Revolutionary Multi-National Women’s front” and create “army” for the black proletariat class.
Although the BWUF dissipated before it reached its full potential, the organization’s agenda and ideological framework are instructive for thinking about black liberation in the past and present. The group shows that black women’s formulation of complex networks and ideologies was commonplace among members of the black left in the 1970s.
The widespread support of the BWUF among men and women across the black left reveals that a radical, women-centered agenda had far more support among black radicals than we have previously appreciated.
Most importantly, however, is the BWUF’s lasting ideological legacy. The group offered a vision of what is possible when organizations work together and mobilize around black women’s intersecting oppression—the opportunity to abolish all forms of oppression by organizing and supporting those who are most exploited.
Ashley Farmer is an Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Boston University.
Featured Image: Mail & Guardian