In the 1960s Montreal was a centre of Black radicalism

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Between October 11 and 14, 1968, several of the leading contributors to the Black liberation movement gathered at McGill University in Montreal for the Congress of Black Writers. This gathering took place on the heels of another important conference in the city, held a week earlier at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia), that focused on "Problems of Involvement in the Canadian Society with Reference to the Black Peoples." While the earlier conference was, as David Austin observes, "primarily pragmatic and local," the congress was "ideologically driven by the spirit and force of radical Black Power politics, Black nationalism and Black internationalism."

State security documents indicate that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police feared that this gathering of Black intellectuals and activists from Canada, the United States, the Caribbean and Africa would galvanize a broader Black population. Their fear, much like images of Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and Franz Fanon that adorned the congress’s main lecture hall, reveal that the congress was more than a meeting of minds -- it was the making of a global consciousness.

Many of the congress' attendees -- people such as Stokely Carmichael, C.L.R. James, James Forman and Walter Rodney -- now form the canon of Black Studies reading lists and courses across the globe. Yet, in 1968, the presence of these figures was neither about hero-worship nor lionizing individuals, but, instead, as the title of Austin’s exceptional collection suggests, about moving against the system.

Through a collection of speeches and documents from the congress, Austin transports readers into the lecture halls and meeting rooms of McGill University and, more importantly, to a time and place critical to the formation of the Black radical tradition. Austin highlights the importance of Canada (and more specifically Montreal) as a nexus for Black radicals at the tail end of the 1960s, a decade now widely known for its immense social and political impacts across the globe.

As Austin reminds readers, Montreal was not only the Canada’s economic and cultural engine at the time but also a place of growing Black mobilization. It was a place visited by "Caribbean and African American cultural-political figures such as Harry Belafonte, Stokely Carmichael, Dick Gregory, Lloyd Best, Richard B. Moore, Jan Carew, Mighty Sparrow, Austin Clarke, George Lamming, Orlando Patterson, Édouard Glissant, and Aimé Césaire, among others."

In his 76-page introduction to this collection of speeches and documents, Austin provides readers with important context about the 15 collected speeches and texts that follow. Austin strikes an impressive balance between documentation and analysis, transporting readers to a time and place that were undoubtedly unique in their import yet hold profound implications for present day.

Is pan-Africanism a viable political project? If so, what does it look like in practice? What promise does socialism hold Black peoples? These were some of the questions preoccuping conference participants as they debated various revolutionary ideologies and grappled with current events such the banning of Walter Rodney from Jamaica, armed resistance in Angola, and the role of organizations such as CUSO and the Peace Corps in stifling African development.

While the backdrop of many of these struggles has changed since 1968, many of the conversations, dilemmas, and intergenerational conflicts remain just as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. Austin remarks, "today’s movements, including BLM [Black Lives Matter] rest dialectically on the shoulders of the historical movement that the congress embodied, with all its glaring absences," Yet he maintains that “1968 is not 2018.”

Indeed, for all its anti-imperialist and anti-colonial verve, the congress was not without its challenges and faults. Those in attendance were undecided about the place of white allies in the struggle for Black liberation, ultimately deciding to reserve conversations about strategy for Black-only caucuses. Similarly, divisions quickly emerged about the role of violence as a tactic. Most notably, the conference did not include a single woman speaker despite the vital role played by Black women in organizing the event. 

Austin does not shy away from these fissures, instead using his sharp analysis and extensive research to paint a detailed picture of the congress, both in terms of its strengths and weaknesses. His analysis of Barbara Smith’s piece, recovered from the McGill Reporter, and its subtle gendered critique is one example among many of Austin’s deep sensitivity, knowledge, and insight with respect to the materials.

Moving Against the System is an invaluable contribution to anyone interested in Canadian social and political history in the 20th century and, most certainly, to anyone interested in the Black radical tradition. Austin has carefully examined some of most pressing debates occurring within 1960s Montreal and, in doing so, reminds readers just how relevant and necessary these revolutionary voices remain today.

Image: McGill Library

Phillip Dwight Morgan is a Toronto-based journalist and writer. He was the inaugural Jack Layton Journalism Fellow in 2017-2018.

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