NEW YORK - An overflow crowd in the Winston Unity Hall here heard Angela Davis, the iconic scholar, prison reform activist, socialist and former political prisoner, speak on the theme, "Defeating Racism - Central to Defeating the Right Danger."
The Feb. 26 event, the annual celebration in New York of African American culture and struggles, featured a mix of working-class culture, educational presentations, and progressive politics.
If this year the country saw much racist violence, the event saw people gathered to draw strength from the gathering so they could leave better equipped to continue the struggle not just in the streets but in the 2014 elections.
CPUSA Executive Vice Chair Jarvis Tyner hailed Davis "whose courage is legendary, who stood up to the most powerful people in the world. In coming back to prove her innocence, she expressed confidence in you, the people, that the truth will set us free." He urged everyone to see the recent movie Free Angela.
Tyner placed Davis' remarks in the context of an ultra right seeking to roll back the gains of the civil rights movement, the women's movement and the New Deal. Speaking to many generations in the room - those radicalized by her defense case, those who had worked on her campaigns for Vice President on the CPUSA ticket, and a new generation cutting its teeth on today's struggles, Tyner said, "Every every generation has to pick up the torch of struggle and carry it. That is our responsibility, why we are all here."
Davis congratulated those who had participated in the recent demonstrations commemorating the second anniversary of the killing of Trayvon Martin. "Black history shows resistance is not only possible but necessary," she said.
Davis punctured the myths that the election of Obama ushered in a "post-racial society," or that racism in America ended in 1965 when legal institutions of racism were dismantled. "The very presence of a black president has unleashed instances of old and new manifestations of racism." In addition to "systemic racist violence," "the structures of racism remain embedded in the education, health care and correctional systems," she said.
Decrying the "criminalization of blackness," Davis said, "the U.S. has become a prison nation," with the greatest proportion of its population being people of color. She called for "a new abolitionist movement, taking up the issues not just of mass incarceration, but the issues of housing, education, health care that have loomed over this country since slavery. "
Davis shared recent scholarship that revealed capitalism's reliance on the super-exploitation of black people -- not only in the slavery period but "what one might call neo-slavery" (1876-1928). Combined with the mass incarceration of African Americans, a massive convict leasing system gave northern industrialists and southern planters unbridled access to cheap labor.
Black history also illustrates the power of black-white unity, Davis said. "The most progressive period in American history was the Radical Reconstruction period between 1865-1876. Not only were the forces of racism rolled back, but gains were made for workers rights and rights for women. Struggles led by African Americans led to the first system of public education, including for poor whites, in the South."
Tyner lambasted talk show pundit Bill O'Reilly, whose remarks contribute to the criminalization of black youth. "The real crime is not in the streets, but in the suites of the big corporations," Tyner said. "That is the point of unity. The majority of the American people support taxing the rich."
"The election of Obama could only have been possible if tens of millions of Americans had to think through all the racism and anti-communism they were being handed and say, hell no! That growth is the biggest achievement of the election of the first Black president. It has sparked movements all over the country we didn't have before, like the living wage struggles of fast food workers and the Moral Mondays in North Carolina.
"The Republican Party, with big bucks from the Koch Brothers, is really carrying on the legacy of Jim Crow," added Tyner. The Tea Party will collapse if they lose the South. That is why the Moral Mondays are important.
"In the 2014 elections we must deal a historic setback to the extreme right. Then we can move on to a progressive era. They are the main obstacle to that. Are you with me?" The audience answered with a resounding "Yes!"
A moment of silence was observed for for Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Lumumba, who recently died suddenly. Many signed up afterwards for a new study group on African American history. A fascinating and informative photography exhibit of Davis' life was prepared by members of the We're Not Going Back Host Committee which sponsored the event.
Photo: The iconic civil rights activist Angela Davis was the featured speaker at the CPUSA's recent celebration of African American struggles in New York.