Counter-Institutions and Black History/Present

by Mindy Clegg 

The Black Panther Party, a Black Empowerment counter-institution

New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow continues to make the rounds with his new book, The Devil You Know. In it he advocates for a reversal of the Great Migration, when Black Americans fled Jim Crow violence and sought economic opportunity in Northern and Western cities during the first half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, these refugees from the American South were met with more of the same, Blow argues in several recent interviews. Still, most considered escaping the situation in the south a general improvement, a premise he agreed with until recently.

In Professor Hope Wabuke’s review on NPR, she notes how a speech Blow heard by entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte challenged his thinking about the Migration, prompting this book. Based on recent interviews Blow’s premise is that a new Black migration from the North back to the South will give Black Americans a greater share of political power in America, locally and nationally. Born in Louisiana, he’s recently returned to the south himself and currently resides in Atlanta. The recent political shifts here in Georgia bear him out. Atlanta has become an internationally celebrated Black city that’s been led by Black mayors since 1973. In the past decade or so, Stacey Abrams and many others worked to elect President Biden and Vice President Harris, as well as Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, our first Black and Jewish senators respectively. People expressed shock that this could happen. But that’s only because they’ve not been paying attention to what’s been happening in places like Georgia.

I wish to echo Blow’s argument and highlight a necessary strategy for political change. Based on what Abrams and her allies have done here in Georgia—still unfinished work—there is no reason not to think about this in terms of transforming the entire south. I will argue that Blow’s argument has a lot of merit and is how political change happens. When thinking of history, people like to focus on extraordinary individuals and events, but the reality is that changing the politics of a place is a long hard slog undertaken by everyday men and women. Doing that work is going to be critical to creating an enduring and vibrant democracy. Building and transforming institutions are the key to long term change.

Let’s focus on what Stacey Abrams did in the 2020 elections. Since before her gubernatorial run in 2018, she’s been a rising star in the Democratic party. She has been the public face of the transformation of Georgia from a GOP stronghold to more of a purple state trending blue. Many attribute that shift to changing demographics, but Abrams built institutions that bolstered the success of the Democratic party in 2020, the real genius of what she’s done politically. Rather than do all the work of building a network each and every election cycle from scratch, Abrams built the one thing that guarantees long term change—institutions. Her superpower is institution building. The victories of Biden, Warnock, and Ossoff were in part due to organizations she created, fund-raised for, and popularized through an expanding public profile since her time in the Georgia legislature. Organizations like Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project bring in and direct the manpower necessary to create large-scale systemic change. The networks created by these organizations were built to outlast Abrams’ own political career and continue to defend the right to vote. The New Georgia Project, founded by Abrams, now has Nsé Ufot as their CEO. Abrams builds institutions and staffs them with talent to carry on the organization. Both organizations played a major role in turning out the vote in the last few elections reverberating far beyond the more diverse Metro Atlanta area. Atlanta matters, given its economic importance to the state, but Abrams did not count on the already blue metro counties. Rather she deployed a strategy of paying attention to many areas where voter registration was depressed among communities historically disenfranchised. The Black working class communities in more rural parts of central Georgia turned out the vote in record numbers. These organizations also focused only on communities historically disenfranchised, but on new first time voters. There is little doubt that that thousands of young people who voted in the runoff helped to elect Senators Warnock and Ossoff. Although progressiveness of the young should not be assumed, young people in Georgia turned out for the Democratic party in part because of these organizations and because they offered a clear set of policies that excited them. But however they voted, these young people were actively participating in the democratic process, the real objective of the organizations started by Abrams.

Georgia’s flip to blue is just the most recent example of institution building to create a more progressive society. Other institutions have carried on the Black Freedom struggle in recent years. These are often not seen as institutions because they were either too diffuse or too local for most to recognize them as such, such as Black Lives Matter (BLM). But BLM activists absolutely have built an institution that was developed out of previous movements. Often we frame civil rights in American history as a stop and start process—the Abolitionist fight, the struggle against Jim Crow, the classical Civil Rights movement, and now BLM. They rose and fell with little overlap. But there is a more holistic way of thinking about this. It defines the struggle solely through the lens of government action rather than the overall, ongoing struggle for change. These movements shared issues, manpower, and were all part of the larger struggle for a truly democratic society. Discrimination in public accomodations might have been outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but police brutality never stopped being a defining feature of white supremacy in America. In 1966 the Black Panther Party took up arms to ensure fair treatment of Black citizens in California, just as decades later BLM took to the streets to demand an end to extrajudicial executions of Black Americans. Much like the Panthers, BLM works regionally and locally, organized by activists on the ground rather than from a central office. As such, BLM can respond to the specific conditions in each city. The individuals involved in BLM became institution builders. Newly elected Representative Cori Bush from Missouri’s 1st district ran for public office after her experiences protesting the murder of Mike Brown starting in 2014. Other groups built similar networks to address violence against Black bodies. After the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton built a network with other women who suffered the same loss, Mothers of the Movement, some of who have successfully run for office such as Lucy McBath. Fulton also recently ran for office in Miami-Dade county’s 1st district, but narrowly lost. The institutions built on specific issues that continue to haunt American systems and politics are encouraging people to actively engage with our systems, not just via voting, but by running for office and advocating for policies from the inside. Though it’s early days, these women represent a shift in our electoral politics directly from grassroots organizations.

There are other kinds of organizing to consider that created measurable political change at a local and state level. Returning to the example of the Black Panthers, many see them as an organization that emerged and then fell apart with little to no lasting impact on activism. But the Panthers fired the imagination of numerous people across America and even around the world. Fela Kuti, the influential Nigerian musician and activist, found his political footing after a trip the the United States in the late 1960s. There through Sandra Smith, he was introduced to the Black Power discourses popular in the US at the time. Until his untimely death in 1997, Kuti became an institution unto himself in Nigerian and West Africa politics.

But the Panthers did more than just fight police brutality and inspire Kuti, they built institutions that influenced national policy. The original Oakland chapter pioneered a breakfast program that chapters across the country embraced, feeding thousands of children in communities across the country. Although the popularity of the program led to an FBI crackdown that contributed to the collapse of the organization, it shined a critical light on the need to feed poor children breakfast in addition to lunch. Congress increased funding for school lunch programs and expanded the breakfast program that previously only operated in some communities. While the Panthers’ original leadership imploded in the early 1970s under pressure from the FBI, many in local chapters carried on with organizing and educating their communities about Black empowerment. Many of today’s Black activists and intellectuals born in the 1970s and 1980s had parents who embraced the Panther message of Black empowerment. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer famed for his thoughtful and uncompromising take on race in America, grew up in a house with a former Panther and publisher of the classics of Black literature via his Black Classic Press (BCP), his father W. Paul Coates. His publishing house could be considered a counter-instution, as the goal was to counter white supremacist thought. The key legacy of the Panthers live on in institutions such as the BCP, which recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary. Organizations like the BCP promote change in different ways than electoral institutions built by figures like Abrams. Coates’ work promotes the preservation and dissemination of radical Black thought. By keeping these classics in print since the 1970s, Coates built a storehouse of Black knowledge that influence many today, including his own son. Black Americans depend on these more informal kinds of institutions to preserve their history, in part because for much of America’s existence, the White supremacist institutions actively misrepresented and whitewashed the experiences of Black Americans. These counter-institutions now shape mainstream thought on issues of race in America.

Black America blazed a trail in creating grassroots and responsive institutions that have changed the world, creating a model for many groups over the years. An example of that comes from Portland in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Today, Portland is considered such a bastion of progressive politics and fringe culture that there is an entire comedy show dedicated to the premise:

It’s a funny stereotype with some basis in reality. Despite being a relatively white city, Portland saw sustained protests during the summer of 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The energy that sustained these protests pulled from a longer history of institution building against white supremacist violence in Portland. A recent podcast from KBOO recounted the history of that movement. The coalition included members of various subcultures like punks and anti-racist skins, members of the immigrant community, the indigenous community, the Asian American community, and LGBQT+ activists. The murder of a young Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw in 1988 created a round of organizing to drive out the violent racists and make the streets of Portland safe. This transformed Portland into the progressive Mecca many see it as today. Though these institutions differ from the kind built by Abrams, they represent a collective, autonomous group focused on making a community safe from racist violence. It bore fruit for all the citizens of Portland. The city would not be what it is today without that institution building that dealt with a specific problem related to racism and violence. Some of the groups they built in this movement, like the Coalition for Human Dignity did not survive the long haul, but they set a standard of organizing that many activists in the region embrace today.

There is no singular type of institution that we need to build to improve the world around us, but institution building is critical to the process of social and cultural improvements in the modern world. We have numerous examples to inspire and influence us. Stacey Abrams builds large-scale nonprofits focused on voting rights. Charles Blow advocates for the concentration of Black power back in the south via the ballot box. Sybrina Fulton created a loose network of mothers dedicated to working within the political system to make change. Cori Bush used her skills as an activist to gain national elected office in order to push for systemic change. In Portland a variety of movements came together to deal with the threat of white supremacist violence which transformed the city. All are excellent examples of how to build networks for improving society. All show how older movements provide strategies and frameworks for making lasting political change. We have no need to reinvent the wheel each time.

As Michel Foucault argued, institutions became important means of shaping the modern world and controlling populations. Institutions according to him work in modern societies to organize power. He notes that the panopticon provides a model for modern institutions, noting how it “automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up.”1 Institutions wield enormous power in modern society. But as even a cursory examination of Black American history tells us, counter-institutions can be an effective counterweight to those structures that make us less free.


1 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (New York: Vintage books, 1995), 202.