James E. Blackwell and Organizational Insurgency
Rutledge M. Dennis
This article highlights James E. Blackwell’s assessment of organizations and institutions as instruments of individual and societal change. His organizational involvements and the tactics and strategies he used can be explained within the context of the unfolding Civil Rights and Black Power Movements that emphasized black community and organizational control. This article discusses Blackwell’s role in the formation of the Caucus of Black Sociologists, later the Association of Black Sociologists, and his vision for the organization both within the larger organization, the American Sociological Association, and outside, in its potentially important role as an advocate for black issues in the larger American society. This organizational philosophy--the organization as an insurgent structure and weapon for social change--was seen in Blackwell’s organizational leadership in his work for the U.S. government, his leadership in the NAACP in San Jose, and in his role as Chair of the Department of Sociology, UMASS/Boston.
The 1960s and 1970s were years of unrest and insurgency in the United States. Among large segments of the black community Martin Luther King’s declaration of “Why We Can’t Wait” rang with rigor and impatience, and many questioned whether justice was possible in the United States. This questioning moved others to challenge the largely integrationist focus of the Civil Rights Movement and opt for a Black Power strategy. In hindsight, this was more a movement toward greater pluralism rather than, as it was seen at the time, as a declaration of separatism. Indeed, within the United States and abroad, the anticolonialist movement, the community-control movement, the Pan-African movement, and the hippie, yippie, and feminist movements all reflected a sense of urgency prompted by a need and desire to enact imminent social change. The mood reflecting this urgency was most evident in black student campus organizational strategies and networks and the membership of black scholars and academicians in predominately white academic professional organizations.
During the 1960s and 1970s, new community cultural and political organizations and activities grew at quantum levels. In addition, organizational insurgency was being played out in colleges and universities, which had only recently begun to enroll black students in large numbers. Another key feature of the insurgency was the role played by black members of largely white academic and professional associations and organizations. As black members of these organizations began to demand a seat at the table, they were often met with polite and tacit claims and promises that indeed the organizations wanted inclusion on many levels, and that together blacks and whites could come to an understanding of where and how greater black inclusion could be implemented. Not apparent to many white members, and a few black members, was that the challenge to these predominately white organizations and associations was twofold: one part was the historical and longstanding stated mission and internal structure of the organizations; the other was the isolation of these professional organizations from the day-to-day concerns and struggles of ordinary Americans, especially black Americans. That is, black members of these professional organizations asserted these organizations had little interest in addressing issues of discrimination and exclusion within their own organizations; they also had little interest in relating to populations, especially the black population, outside of their organizational structure and networks.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Black Power, community control, and alternative cultural, political, and economic ideas, values, structures, and programs were driving issues. Black student unions on predominately white college and university campuses proliferated. These movements were driven ostensibly by a series of events throughout the 1960s and 1970s: the ongoing war in Vietnam; the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Medgar Evers; the deaths of students at Jackson State and in the Orangeburg Massacre. These deaths and the ongoing problems of discrimination were pivotal forces in the urban uprisings in the late 1960s. They brought to a head the problems of social and economic justice and racism.
Following these tragedies, organizations felt they needed to be more socially accountable; they could no longer stand on the sidelines and point to their historic organizations’ missions and objectives as reasons to remain bystanders in an increasingly turbulent world. Several alternatives were opened to black members of predominately white organizations: remain in the larger organization as it structurally existed and continue to fight for organizational and structural changes; create a separate caucus within the existing organization and use the caucus as an organizational weapon to force changes in the larger organization; and lastly, withdraw completely from the organization and create a totally new professional organization that would focus to varying degrees on the racial issues and concerns not addressed by the larger organization. These were the choices, and blacks in many organizations moved between forming caucuses and forming separate organizations with degrees of attachments to the larger group: the Union of Black Episcopalians, the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, the Association of Black Psychologists, the Organization of Black Jews. Similar caucuses and separate organizational units were created by black accountants, anthropologists, chemists, journalists, and chiropractors.
The story of the drama within the American Sociological Association that prompted the creation of the Caucus of Black Sociologists (CBS), which later became the Association of Black Sociologists (ABS), was fully documented in the James E. Blackwell and Morris Janowitz edited volume, Black Sociologists (1974). Some of the larger issues in the ASA encounter relate to sociology’s professional accountability and the direction of the profession itself: the type of sociology to which the ASA was committed. Joyce Ladner (1973) and Robert Staples (1976) both engaged the larger issue of not only what sociology did, but also for whom, and how a new sociology would unfold when contrasted with a contemporary or “old sociology.” For each, the issue transcended organizational format, strategies, and tactics. Instead, both struck at the heart of the profession itself, with Ladner enunciating the death of white sociology and Staples formulating a theory of Black Sociology. The new book on systemic racism by Sean Elias and Joe Feagin (2016) restates and extends the Ladner-Staples theses.
James Blackwell’s pivotal role in the creation of the Caucus of Black Sociologists, and later the Association of Black Sociologists, as insurgent, dovetails with his role as organizational strategist. Cedric Herring’s tribute to Blackwell noted that he wrote the new organization’s mission statement and envisioned the organization would be “a direct catalyst for change in the African American community…to find solutions to our problems; to support effective programs and policies in our communities” (1999:4). According to Herring, this mission statement reflected “the social activism which has characterized so much of his life...[and was]…a not unexpected outgrowth of early childhood socialization and the determination to fight racial discrimination, bigotry, and social injustice wherever and whenever encountered” (4). Given his commitment to social change and his orientation to activism, it is not surprising that Blackwell (1974:365), like W.E.B. Du Bois, focused on organizations as instruments of social change. Indeed, Blackwell himself noted that the very formation of the Association of Black Sociologists had to be seen from the vantage point of a “rational-system perspective” and as “an instrument for the realization of well-defined goals” (1975:166). Indeed, Blackwell‘s views on the creation of a “parallel” sociological association were very consistent with his general view of one of the pivotal reasons for black survival in a segregated America: the construction of effective parallel institutions within black communities. Parallel institutions, irrespective of differences in organizational membership, are competing for power, whether symbolic or real, a point made popular by Pierre Bourdieu (1991) in his concept of “fields.” Joseph P. McCormick Jr. (2012) describes similar aims of the quest for power in the decision of black political scientists to form a parallel political science organization, the National Conference of Black Political Scientists. No doubt, Blackwell envisioned the new organization creating on a micro scale what he described was needed for the black macro world: It would be a quest for identity and a shaping and reshaping of that world and for “creating new value systems that are peculiarly and distinctively indigenous to the black community; it means accepting and appreciating the self” (1975:3). This essay explores the ways James Blackwell oriented, and in some cases, reoriented many organizations so that desired social goals might be achieved.
In his book The Black Community, Blackwell charged the collective black community with the need to have one central mission: that of “acting to create meaningful social change” (1975:3). However, meaningful social change runs up against what Blackwell used to describe and define historical and contemporary black–white relations: internal colonialism. At the heart of Black America’s problem, Blackwell theorized, is the existence of internal colonialism, which exploits, controls, and manipulates blacks (1975:12–13). Blackwell went even deeper when he asserted that the damage to blacks is more acute because the collective black population is the victim of “white oppression, racism, and patterned repression” (1975:281).
Blackwell’s view of the collective mission of the black community as contributing to social change took an entrepreneurial direction, specifically racial, as he confronted this “patterned repression.” Working within the ASA to create a role for black sociologists who were largely excluded and marginalized, Blackwell knew he had to work with white colleagues, and practice what the sociologist Oliver C. Cox (1948) called “antagonistic co-operation.” As Cox described it, this dual role meant that Blackwell and others in seeking change for blacks had to “maintain peace and friendship with whites; yet they must seem aggressive and uncompromising in their struggle for the rights of Negroes.… [They] must be a friend of the enemy” (1948:546). Though Blackwell might be reluctant to use the word “enemy,” he would certainly agree with the term “dominator and the dominated.” Blackwell attacked the irrationality of racism and discrimination as specific features of the larger social irrationalities in American individual and social life.
In private correspondence, Blackwell noted that Robert S. Lynd’s book Knowledge for What (1948) helped him to navigate between the necessary world of books and ideas about the American society, and the specific need, as Lynd asserts, to seek “the analysis of its more critical problems and for the devising of indicated concrete programs of action” (Lynd 1948:20). Fighting for and attaining racial equality and social justice were paramount goals for Blackwell; however, before a serious fight to obtain both goals there had to be a clear understanding of the condition of Black America and White America, the interaction between the two, and the ways in which racial and social domination had cemented racial relations and afflicted Black America. Historical racial wounds have persisted and have evolved into contemporary racial wounds.
Again we turn to Lynd as we begin to probe Blackwell’s assessment of the role of institutions and organizations as instruments of individual and social change; Lynd, according to Blackwell, was the thinker who most influenced his views on social problems, social change, and the use of institutional and organizational frameworks as integral in this process. A quotation from Lynd indicates the approach Blackwell used when addressing the problems of the subjugated: “Understanding of institutions and social problems must be based upon analysis of what these institutions and problems mean to specific, differently situated people, and how they look and feel to these different people, and how they are used” (1964:25). This quotation aptly describes Blackwell’s efforts, for he can be described as an institutional and organizational man, par excellence. Indeed, for Blackwell, the organization becomes a weapon, a hammer, striking the anvil, the society, to influence, mold, and shape individuals and society.
So Blackwell became the man behind the organization as he entered the organizational and institutional world during the early stages of racial and social integration. He, along with his wife, Myrtle, became a model of what was possible racially as society entered the active stage of the Civil Rights Movement. In the late 1950s, prior to receiving his Ph.D. at Washington State University, Blackwell initiated his personal, organizational, and institutional, quest for social change. The quest began at Washington State where Blackwell became the president of three campus organizations: Associated Graduate Students; Alpha Kappa Delta, the Sociology honor society; and South House Residence Hall. There are no accounts of specific events and actions by Blackwell when he presided over these organizations, but one might assume that he took an activist role in whatever the organizations sponsored or supported. With all three organizations, and given the times, we can assume that he was probably the first black to head each group. This would continue to be a trademark of Blackwell organizational life: being the first black to hold a position of leadership in predominately white organizations.
Blackwell’s organizational astuteness was revealed when he took the position of associate professor of sociology at San Jose State University in San Jose, California. While a professor at the university, in 1961 Blackwell was elected president of the San Jose Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This is where his commitment to social action began to fully emerge, for in his role as president of the local NAACP chapter, he led the fight to change the racial status quo by accomplishing the following objectives: (1) desegregating all public facilities in San Jose; (2) persuading the city council to pass a Fair Housing Law; (3) establishing the equal employment law at all the local 5 & 10 cent stores in San Jose; (4) persuading San Jose State University to waive out-of-state tuition for black students expelled from Alabama colleges and universities for protesting segregation in Alabama; and (5) sending 10,000 members of the San Jose NAACP chapter to assist Freedom Riders throughout the South. The above activities and the high visibility of the NAACP chapter prompted an individual or a group to burn a cross on the lawn of a house where the NAACP operated. The above challenges and achievements are excellent illustrations of Blackwell’s views of, and uses of, organizations to address and resolve social problems.
In 1963, Blackwell’s quest to make a difference took him in another organizational direction, an international one. He was appointed by Sargent Shriver and President John F. Kennedy as acting director of the U.S. Peace Corps in Tanganyika. There he supervised 285 Peace Corps volunteers who worked as teachers, engineers, nurses, and community development personnel in the country. He worked with a staff of seven. In 1964, he was appointed director of all Peace Corps programs in Malawi. In Malawi, he was responsible for 265 Peace Corps volunteers who worked as teachers, health assistants, and community development personnel throughout the country. Later in 1964 he was appointed the director of the Peace Corps Training Program at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee where he supervised the training of volunteers for programs in India, Uganda, and Columbia. In 1965 he was appointed a U.S. Foreign Service reserve officer and assigned to Nepal, where he worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the American Embassy. In Nepal, he taught English and sociology at the University of Nepal in Katmandu. He also traveled throughout the country working with the local population on community development programs—building roads, schools, and bridges. He also helped to relocate Tibetan refugees in Nepal and provided for housing and the distribution of food. Finally, he was instrumental in sending twelve Nepalese college students to the United States for training in community development and public administration so that they could return to Nepal for advanced leadership positions. Until 1969 Blackwell continued to work for USAID, dividing his time and assignments between Tanzania, Nepal, and Malawi.
In 1970 he was recruited to chair the Sociology Department at UMass–Boston, and remained as chair until his retirement in 1989. In his first year, he helped to establish an affirmative action office on campus. He was elected president of the Black Faculty and Staff Association, and assisted in the following objectives: helping many departments and schools recruit and hire black faculty, and recruiting minority students. When he arrived in 1970, 3.5 percent of faculty positions were held by minority faculty; he helped to increase the number of minority faculty from eleven to thirty-four in three years. When he retired, the percentage of minority faculty had risen to 18.7. By the time he retired in 1989, the percentage of minority students at UMass–Boston was 32.8. Women comprised 40 percent of employees. Nor did he neglect his academic interests; he was an active participant in programs at the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture and wrote several monographs (Blackwell 1987; Blackwell and Stracqualursi 1987) and articles (Blackwell 1988).
Blackwell manifested the same degree of drive and energy exerted institutionally at UMass–Boston in his other sociological organizational affiliations. As examples, in 1970, he was appointed as an ASA Council member, and the same year was elected as the first president of the Association of Black Sociologists. Blackwell served two terms as ABS president, during which time the following programs and activities were institutionalized within the ABS and ASA (Conyers 1992): the position of executive specialist for minorities and women within the ASA was established, as was a Committee on the Status of Racial and Minorities (CSREM); the ASA’s Minority Fellowship Program and the Du Bois-Johnson-Frazier Award were created; a CBS-ABS newsletter began publication; and the percentage of blacks participating in the organizational structure of the ASA increased.
But there were other “firsts” achieved by Blackwell: In 1980, he was the first black elected president of the SSSP (Study for the Study of Social Problems), and in that same year he was elected president of the Eastern Sociological Society. In 1989, he became part of the ASA Council.
In retirement he continued to work through organizations in order to effect social change, especially in the lives of black Americans. From 1982 to 1992 he assisted the NAACP and other legal experts in constructing desegregation programs for seventeen southern and border states. In the years 1992–2002, he chaired a New Orleans task force on the recruitment and hiring of “disadvantaged” persons for city employment.
Finally, in ending this essay on Blackwell’s organizational activism and his organizational entrepreneurial objectives, we must make clear that Blackwell sought racial change in the form of racial justice. To accomplish his goal he used organizations as weapons. He enacted his form of challenge and activism as a loyal American patriot seeking to include all under the vast American umbrella of liberty, democracy, and social justice. He forced this change by being the “friendly adversary,” a term similar to Cox’s term, “antagonistic co-operation.”
In 2002, two Washington State University publications interviewed Blackwell when he received the university’s highest award, the WSU Regents Distinguished Alumnus Award. We can hear the ideas of Robert S. Lynd in every quote. According to the article “Blackwell Makes His Mark,” Blackwell wanted students to gain knowledge, but not merely for the sake of knowledge: “I wanted them to put what they learned to use by going on to graduate and professional schools and becoming important contributing citizens” (2002:12). The Sociology Department’s newsletter reports, “Blackwell says he is an activist who believes that an academic job is not only learning and writing for professional journals but also putting knowledge to use in the world.” His life and work are remarkable examples of his having done just that: putting knowledge to practical use and exerting his maximum skills, talents, will, and determination in doing so.
About the Author
Rutledge M. Dennis is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at George Mason University.
Blackwell, James E. 1974. “Role Behavior in a Corporate Structure: Black Sociologists in ASA.” Pp. 341–67 in Black Sociologists: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by James E. Blackwell and Morris Janowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Blackwell, James E. 1975. The Black Community: Diversity and Unity. New York: Dodd, Mead.
Blackwell, James E. 1987. Youth Employment and Unemployment: Outreach Initiatives in Massachusetts and the City of Boston. William Moore Trotter Institute, UMass–Boston.
Blackwell, James E. 1988. “Dynamics of Minority Education: An Index to the Status of Race and Ethnic Relations in the United States.” Trotter Review 2(3):5–13.
Blackwell, James E., and Morris Janowitz, eds. 1974. Black Sociologists: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Blackwell, James E., and William J. Stracqualursi. 1987. “Youth and Jobs: A Bibliography of Publications, 1980–1986, with Selected Annotations.” William Moore Trotter Institute Publications, Paper 23.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Caraher, Pat. 2002. “Blackwell Makes His Mark.” Washington State Magazine (Fall):34–38.
Conyers, James E. 1992. “The Association of Black Sociologists: A Descriptive Account from An ‘Insider.’” American Sociologist (Spring):49–55.
Cox, Oliver C. 1948. Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics. New York: Doubleday.
Department of Sociology, Washington State University. (2002). “Citizen of the World.” Sociology News.
Elias, Sean, and Joe R. Feagin. 2016. Racial Theories in Social Science: A Systemic Racism Critique. New York: Routledge.
Herring, Cedric. 1999. Doing the Possible: Legacy of the Association of Black Sociologists.
Ladner, Joyce A., ed. The Death of White Sociology: Essays on Race and Culture. New York: Random House, 1973.
Lynd, Robert S. 1964. Knowledge for What: The Place of Social Science in American Culture. New York: Grove Press.
McCormick, Joseph. 2012. “Beyond Tactical Withdrawal: Early History of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists.” In Black Politics in a Time of Transition, edited by M. Mitchel and D. Covin. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers
Staples, Robert. Introduction to Black Sociology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.