Workers Vanguard No. 1001
27 April 2012
Black History Forum
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
Contradictions of the Civil Rights Movement: A Marxist Analysis
The following is a presentation, edited for publication, by Spartacist League spokesman Diana Coleman at a February 25 forum in Los Angeles.
So it is Black History Month, and even though we have a black president sitting in the White House, things look bleak for the masses of black people and, indeed, all working people. The world has been plunged into an economic crisis the likes of which have not been seen since the Great Depression. Wall Street was bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars by the Bush White House and the Democratic Party administration of Barack Obama, while the working class, black people, Latinos and the poor were made to foot the bill.
Unemployment, housing repossessions, poverty, homelessness, hunger, mass incarceration, the disappearance of the pensions that people thought they had, the ever-increasing price of a college education—all of this particularly impacts black and Latino people. The National Urban League, a fairly conservative, business-oriented black group, wrote a report last year called, “At Risk: The State of the Black Middle Class” whose conclusion was: “Our analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics will clearly establish that whether one looks at education, income or any other meaningful measure, almost all the economic gains that blacks have made in the last 30 years have been lost in the Great Recession” that started in December 2007.
Meanwhile, U.S. imperialism rampages around the world from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya, maybe Iran next, leaving death and destruction in its wake. And if that’s not enough, Obama is ramping up the war on civil liberties at home and has deported more immigrants than Bush ever did. As Mumia Abu-Jamal, former Black Panther and America’s foremost class-war prisoner, stated, “All of this under the authority of the nation’s first Black president, who, despite his blackness is but a Clinton clone. A servant of big business, and a cudgel against the Black Movement.” Never has it been clearer what a losing strategy it is to ally with the class enemy, in this case the Democratic Party of capitalism, racial oppression and war. We definitely need a revolutionary workers party and some hard, integrated class struggle around here.
There can be no justice, equality or freedom for black people in racist capitalist America. When I was in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, there was no lack of dedicated people. What was lacking was the Marxist program that could show the way forward to black liberation. So this forum today will take up the dead end of both the liberal leadership of the civil rights movement and the black nationalist organizing in Detroit of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
Let me make some general points on the black question. From the formation of the Spartacist tendency in the early 1960s, we have stood for the perspective and program of revolutionary integrationism. This position is counterposed to both the liberal reformist response to black oppression and to all political expressions of black separatism. The liberation of black people from conditions of racial oppression and impoverishment—conditions inherent in the U.S. capitalist system—can be achieved only in an egalitarian socialist society. And such a society can be achieved only through the overthrow of the capitalist system by workers revolution.
We have described the black population in the U.S. as an oppressed race-color caste. We noted in “Black and Red” (Marxist Bulletin No. 9, “Basic Documents of the Spartacist League”) that “from their arrival in this country, the Negro people have been an integral part of American class society while at the same time forcibly segregated at the bottom of this society.” Thus blacks face discrimination, in different degrees, regardless of social status, wealth or class position. Blacks are today still an integral and strategic part of the working class, despite unemployment and mass incarceration.
James P. Cannon—the founding leader of American Trotskyism—described the crucial intervention of Lenin and Trotsky’s Communist International in driving home the centrality of the fight for black freedom to proletarian revolution in the U.S. Cannon emphasized that “everything new and progressive on the Negro question came from Moscow, after the revolution of 1917, and as a result of the revolution.” Further, he said that Lenin and the Russian Revolution “contributed more than any other influence from any source to the recognition, and more or less general acceptance, of the Negro question as a special problem of American society—a problem which cannot be simply subsumed under the general heading of the conflict between capital and labor” (“The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement,” in The First Ten Years of American Communism ).
The current expression of the concept of revolutionary integrationism derives from the ideas of Richard Fraser, a veteran Trotskyist who made a unique Marxist contribution to the understanding of American black oppression and struggle in the 1950s. Fraser began from the premise that black people, whom he described as “the most completely ‘Americanized’ section of the population,” were not an oppressed nation or nationality in any sense. Crucially, black people lacked any material basis for a separate political economy. Whereas the oppressed nations and nationalities of Europe were subjected to forced assimilation, American blacks faced the opposite: forcible segregation. Hence, in the struggle against black oppression, the democratic demand for self-determination—separation into an independent nation-state—just didn’t make sense. Fraser wrote in “For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Question” (printed in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised], July 1994):
“The goals which history has dictated to them are to achieve complete equality through the elimination of racial segregation, discrimination, and prejudice. That is, the overthrow of the race system. It is from these historically conditioned conclusions that the Negro struggle, whatever its forms, has taken the path of the struggle for direct assimilation. All that we can add to this is that these goals cannot be accomplished except through the socialist revolution.”
Emergence of the
Civil Rights Movement
So these are our starting points. Two events in 1955 are often referred to as having started the civil rights movement. These are the murder of Emmett Till and Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus. Till was a black 14-year-old from Chicago whose family sent him down to Mississippi to stay with relatives for the summer. Within days of his arrival, young Emmett was kidnapped, tortured and brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
After Till’s murder, his mother mounted a courageous campaign to ensure that the world saw the stark reality of race-terror by displaying her son’s mutilated body at his funeral. More than 100,000 people waited in line at a Chicago church to view Till’s open casket. So shocking was the horribly mutilated body that an estimated one out of five individuals needed help out of the building. This, along with Rosa Parks’ defiant stand in Montgomery, Alabama, in December of that same year, was key in galvanizing many thousands to join the burgeoning civil rights movement.
The civil rights movement did not just fall from the sky. The urbanization and industrialization of the American South during and after World War II began to create concentrations of black workers. By 1960, some 42 percent of the Southern black population lived in urban centers, compared to less than 15 percent in 1890. The material conditions of Southern blacks had changed, and this fundamentally eroded the Jim Crow system of segregation—a system based on police/Klan terror aimed at atomized rural sharecroppers.
By the mid 1950s, black anger and the changed conditions gave birth to the civil rights movement—a movement whose core activists were, at the beginning, black proletarians, many of them veterans of World War II or the Korean War. But the organized working class was not an active force in the civil rights movement. Except for a few heroic efforts undertaken by reds, the impressive unionization drive of the 1930s did not breach the Mason-Dixon Line separating North from South.
The first CIO initiative to organize the South, in 1941, was scuttled by the labor bureaucracy to show their support to the imperialist war. A second attempt, launched in 1946 as “Operation Dixie” (a disgusting name that foreshadowed its collapse), was shipwrecked on the shoals of the red purges, racism and the CIO bureaucracy’s ties to the Democratic Party. I think that this vacuum of leadership was an important factor in allowing the upsurge of protest unleashed by the movement to be contained within the conservative channels defined by the black preachers.
From its onset, the civil rights movement was dominated by a black middle-class leadership allied to Democratic Party liberalism. The aim of this leadership—whose most effective exponent was Martin Luther King Jr.—was to pressure the capitalist state, especially the Democratic Party administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, to grant formal, legal equality to blacks in the South. Working to keep the civil rights movement within the confines of bourgeois reformism and the Democratic Party were Walter Reuther, United Auto Workers (UAW) bureaucrat and premier witchhunter—he took the lead in expelling Communist Party-led unions from the CIO—and A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Socialist Party, assisted by other elements of the decomposing American social democracy like Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington, as well as by the Stalinized Communist Party.
The civil rights movement has become so mythologized that I barely recognize it when people talk about it—and I was there. To the liberals and reformists, King was the messianic leader of the movement who everyone followed and adored. Not true! There was a political, left-right division in the civil rights movement with King on the right and SNCC and Malcolm X, in his own way, on the left. To the reformists like the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Party for Socialism and Liberation, and Workers World, King was becoming some kind of revolutionary in his final days.
A leaflet by the ISO in L.A. titled, “The Real MLK: Against War” says: “Come celebrate Black History Month with a discussion that aims to recapture King’s real legacy, and the relevance of his struggles against war, poverty, and racism today.” Well, they can have his legacy of pacifism and liberalism. Workers World cites the “transformative” last year of King’s life, during which it claims he “had come around to the understanding that merely altering the appearance of the capitalist system would in a short time amount to little more than a cruel betrayal of the fierce urgency to change the system” (Workers World online, 3 September 2008). They add: “This contradiction pushed King toward...an anti-capitalist struggle.” Michelle Alexander, an outraged liberal protesting the mass incarceration of blacks in her book The New Jim Crow, cites the “revolutionary potential” of the “human rights movement” that King championed at the end of his life.
Although King went to Memphis to support black union members and spoke out in moral opposition to the war in Vietnam, his basic politics never changed; to the end, he never wavered in his reliance on the capitalist Democratic Party and the strategy of pressure politics. And for all those various leftists who think the answer is a new civil rights movement, the real question is why did such tremendous efforts yield such meager results. Yes, the civil rights movement ended Jim Crow segregation and made the South look somewhat more like the North. Yes, there is a black overseer in the White House and we have Oprah Winfrey. But really—it did not end hellish conditions in the ghettos, the mass unemployment, the mass incarceration or the police brutality that are the everyday realities of life for black Americans.
Liberal Pacifism vs.
I do want to make the point that the civil rights movement really was a mass movement, and it defined a whole generation of young people, black and white. You could watch TV and hundreds of thousands of black people marching for the right to vote or the right to use public facilities and then see them set upon by police dogs, fire hoses, tear gas and every kind of police brutality and mob violence. The book Local People, The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by John Ditmer gives you a visceral sense of how many local black people were killed fighting for civil rights. NAACPer Medgar Evers, killed in 1963, was the best known, but only one of many. The eruption of black struggle shattered the Cold War/McCarthyite climate of the early 1950s and set the stage for the New Left student radicalism of the 1960s.
When I was 17, I decided I should get involved and joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in late 1963 or early 1964 in San Francisco. I participated in various mass demos protesting racist job discrimination—at the Sheraton Palace Hotel, at Lucky’s (now Albertsons) and on Auto Row. Now I wonder about that last one—for the right of blacks to be car salesmen? But these demos drew thousands because there was ferment in the North as well as the South. In the summer of 1965 I decided to go down South for the second Freedom Summer. In its mass support, in the aspirations for freedom and equality which it generated among black people, and in bringing into existence a whole generation of young radicals, the civil rights movement had a revolutionary potential. It was this potential that the liberals and reformists derailed.
Let me start with the Montgomery bus boycott that ensued when Rosa Parks courageously refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus in 1955. The figure who Rosa Parks turned to first and who first dominated the Montgomery action was not a preacher but a longtime trade unionist, E.D. Nixon of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (and the NAACP). MLK came to the fore for security reasons, presumably as someone who was more educated-sounding and generally more respectable.
Under the influence of Bayard Rustin, MLK came to embrace pacifism and nonviolence. Bayard Rustin was also influential in helping King and others set up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) on the basis of pacifist “direct action.” King wrote, “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we will not obey your evil laws. We will soon wear you down by pure capacity to suffer.”
As a moral philosophy, this is disgusting. But the real point is that this was a political strategy. King and the SCLC looked to the Northern liberals of the Democratic Party, the federal government, the federal courts and federal troops to come to the aid of black people in the South. When later the question of nonviolence versus the right to armed self-defense was debated, it wasn’t really the question “Do you have the right to defend your family against the Klan” but whether you were for armed self-defense for a mass movement which embraced millions and was confronting the capitalist state.
It was a debate that revealed your attitude toward “the system” or the “white power structure” or whatever other terms were current for the American capitalist state. “Armed self-defense” was really a way to say that you had the right to revolution, the right to overthrow the white racist government which oppressed black people. MLK was really pledging allegiance to the government. So nonviolence versus armed self-defense became the way the question of reform versus revolution was posed in the civil rights movement.
The buses were integrated in Montgomery after the long bus boycott, and King was riding high on his pacifism and “soul force.” But Montgomery blacks were left to face the racist backlash, courageously, but tactically and politically disarmed. The KKK came out of their holes, black churches were bombed, buses were burned. Even King’s house was dynamited. But angry blacks who rose to King’s defense were told by King to love their enemies. Rosa Parks was blacklisted and hounded out of Montgomery, eventually moving to Detroit where she worked for black Democrat John Conyers.
SNCC and “Black Power”
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was a youth group that emerged out of the lunch counter sit-in movement which swept Southern black campuses in 1960. It was formed under the auspices of King’s SCLC. It accepted nonviolence in its founding statement, as their name indicates. The initial goal was formal, legal equality, or “Northernizing the South,” and they started with the same strategy as King. You know: have a nonviolent demonstration, get your head beat in by racist Southern sheriffs, scandalize the nation, force the federal government to send in the troops. So SNCC activists started out with the illusion that the U.S. government was on their side. But they soon learned the truth the hard way.
As Marxists, we know that the bourgeois state is not neutral but an organ for the oppression of the working class and the black masses by the capitalist class. The essence of the state is armed bodies of men—cops, prisons, courts, National Guard and army—used by the ruling class to suppress the working class. As SNCC’s organizing among the black masses repeatedly brought things to the flash point, the government rushed in their black sellouts to cool it down, their CIA agents to co-opt it, their courts to indict it, and their troops to crush it.
From Little Rock in 1957 to Birmingham in 1963, federal troops were only brought in when black people began to defend themselves and fight back. When the troops were brought in to “protect” the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, they were conveniently withdrawn as the protesters reached Montgomery, leaving the marchers to make the return journey defenseless in the face of beatings and shootings. Through bitter experience, SNCC activists learned that white liberal leaders like the Kennedys and Hubert Humphrey were a lot closer to the Southern Democrats—Dixiecrats like Senator Eastland from Mississippi—than they were to the civil rights activists.
So it was that within six years SNCC would enrage the liberal establishment by calling for “black power,” and shortly thereafter H. Rap Brown, the last chairman of SNCC, would be proclaiming that “violence is as American as cherry pie.” It is useful here to make a comparison between Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and SNCC. SDS started out as the student group of the League for Industrial Democracy. Moribund by 1960, the LID had served as a handmaiden of the U.S. government in the left and labor movement. Populated by “State Department socialists” such as Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington, the LID also counted among its members Victor and Walter Reuther—social-democratic anti-Communists personifying the link between the labor movement and the Democratic Party—and Bayard Rustin.
Under the impact of the Vietnam War, SDS dropped its anti-communist clause, started organizing against the war, became anti-imperialist as they understood it, opposed to the Democratic Party at least empirically, with many moving toward Maoism. Needless to say, LID disowned them. Similarly, the SCLC was also pretty appalled by what they had given birth to in SNCC. And as I give a few examples of the conflicts, you will notice that the same names keep turning up—MLK, of course, but also Walter Reuther, Bayard Rustin, Hubert Humphrey, A. Philip Randolph.
In 1961-62, SNCC organized black people in Albany, Georgia, in a very popular, all-sided attack on segregation. It would really heat up, and then MLK would come in for a weekend and, to the dismay of the SNCC activists, declare a truce. It was really getting heavy; the KKK was mobilizing, etc. It came to a head when the cops attacked a rally outside a black church and black youth began to fight back by throwing bricks and bottles. King declared a “day of penance” for the horrible crime of black people actually daring to defend themselves against police brutality; SNCC refused to condemn the action and started referring to King as “De Lawd.” It was not meant as a compliment.
In 1963 at the famous March on Washington, SNCC saw how the whole liberal establishment and particularly the liberal wing of the trade-union bureaucracy were used to keep the lid on the civil rights movement. James Forman, an early head of SNCC, in his autobiography The Making of Black Revolutionaries commented bitterly: “Originally planned as a march for jobs and freedom, with the emphasis on black people and their demands, the March on Washington of 1963 turned into a victory celebration for the Kennedy administration and its supporters.” He went on: “The sellout leadership of the March on Washington was playing patsy with the Kennedy administration as part of the whole liberal-labor politics of Rustin, Wilkins, Randolph, Reuther, King, the Catholic and Protestant hierarchy.”
It was this group, after Kennedy read them the riot act, that put pressure on SNCC chairman John Lewis to tone down his criticism of the Democrats, which he did. Here is his conclusion, which got censored: “We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.” He also had to delete a section that referred to marching through the South “the way Sherman did,” even though he insisted this time it be nonviolent. I guess they thought even the mention of General William T. Sherman’s name might alienate the Dixiecrats that the Kennedy administration was trying so hard to keep in the Democratic Party.
So the whole thing was changed into a giant liberal prayerfest, channeling the masses back into the Democratic Party while the U.S. government filmed the event for foreign consumption to prove how democratic the U.S. was. This was an important aspect: Jim Crow and the well-publicized racist violence in the South had become an embarrassment overseas as American imperialism sought to posture as the champion of “democracy” in the Cold War, particularly in competition with the Soviet Union in Africa and Asia. It was this, and the fact that Jim Crow segregation had become an anachronism, that made the U.S. government eventually acquiesce to the demand for legal equality in the South—but not without a lot of hard-fought struggle.
“I Have a Nightmare”
Although at this point they could censor SNCC, they sure couldn’t censor Malcolm X, who contemptuously referred to the March on Washington as “a picnic, a circus” and, most famously, “the Farce on Washington.” In our statement on Malcolm X’s assassination that we printed in Spartacist (No. 4, May-June 1965; reprinted in WV No. 997, 2 March), we referred to him as a “heroic and tragic figure.” He was never a Marxist and saw society as race-divided, rather than class-divided. Not surprisingly given his background, he had no understanding of the strategic role of the working class and the vanguard role to be played by the black proletariat. As well, he commenced his public life in the Muslim movement with all its irrational religiosity and racial mysticism. But he became the American truth-teller, who with passionate oratory exposed the hypocrisy and lies of both capitalist parties and advocated the right of armed self-defense.
In response to MLK’s bleating about “I have a dream,” Malcolm said: “And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare” (“The Ballot or the Bullet”). He spoke for many in SNCC. By the time Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, many civil rights activists did not mourn for this chief of U.S. imperialism, who had ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and sent the Green Berets to Vietnam. They agreed with Malcolm, who had the guts to say that it was a case of the “chickens coming home to roost.”
It is interesting that it is particularly Malcolm’s trenchant criticism of the American system that makes Manning Marable in his biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, most uncomfortable. Marable calls Malcolm’s remarks on the Kennedy assassination “offensive” and his remarks on the March on Washington a “gross distortion of the facts.” Marable has a photo of Malcolm X observing a joint session of the New York State Legislature. It is captioned: “As his political thought developed, Malcolm came to believe that blacks could work within the system to improve their lives.” This is Manning Marable, social democrat, not Malcolm X. Marable’s overall conclusion is that Malcolm “became an icon of black encouragement” and this came to be expressed “in the successful electoral bid of Barack Obama in 2008. Malcolm truly anticipated that the black electorate could potentially be the balance of power in a divided white republic.” [For our review of this book, see “Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Liberal’s ‘Reinvention’,” Parts One and Two, WV Nos. 997 and 998, 2 March and 16 March.]
Many SNCC activists started wearing “I have a Nightmare” buttons after that. In 1964, SNCC had students, mostly white, come down from the North for the first Freedom Summer to help organize a voter registration drive. As Clayborne Carson makes clear in his definitive book on SNCC, In Struggle, the Kennedy administration tried to persuade civil rights groups, including SNCC, to move away from direct action and do voter registration. They even used liberal anti-Communists like the CIA-connected Allard Lowenstein to try to keep the movement within mainstream politics and isolate and redbait the militants. (We had an excellent obituary for Lowenstein called “No Tears for Allard Lowenstein!” [WV No. 253, 4 April 1980].)
But in the end the voter registration drive hardly had the effect the liberals were expecting. In Mississippi, it was very dangerous; this was the summer Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were killed. SNCC organized 80,000 blacks who were refused the right to vote to sign protest ballots. SNCC took these protest ballots and formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). With Fannie Lou Hamer, a local woman at the head of it, they tried to get seated at the 1964 Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City in place of the all-white Jim Crow delegation from Mississippi.
They really got shafted—and not just by the Dixiecrat Southerners either, but more particularly by the Northern liberals. The MFDP was offered a rotten compromise whereby it would get two at-large seats and the entire Dixiecrat delegation would be seated. The list of usual suspects—King, Reuther, Rustin—was there to browbeat SNCC and the MFDP into accepting the compromise. Lyndon Johnson even offered Hubert Humphrey, who was considered a great liberal (we referred to him as a “liberal rat” in the WV obituary), the vice-presidential nomination if he could keep the MFDP from getting seated.
This time SNCC and the MFDP weren’t going to be intimidated, and they turned the deal down flat. James Forman of SNCC, who was there, came to this conclusion: “No longer was there any hope, among those who still had it, that the federal government would change the situation in the Deep South.” Malcolm X spoke eloquently to the illusions in the Democratic Party when he said, “Either party you align yourself with is suicide because both parties are criminal. Both parties are responsible for the criminal condition that exists.”
SWP’s Criminal Abstentionism
One SNCC project that resulted from the growing disillusionment with the Democratic Party was the attempt to organize an independent party in Lowndes County, Alabama, called the Black Panther Party. Although narrowly based on a single impoverished county, it was important because it was organized in opposition to the Democrats and openly advocated armed self-defense. This inspired the Black Panthers in Oakland, California. It also helped inspire the Spartacist League’s call for a “Freedom-Labor Party,” which took this a step further by attempting to link the exploding black struggle to the power of labor.
After the debacle at the Democratic National Convention, SNCC went into a prolonged political crisis. They rejected liberalism as they understood it but had no coherent program to replace it. It was around this time that I went to Mississippi for the second Freedom Summer in 1965. Not surprisingly, it was politically confusing and frustrating. At first I thought it was just my project in Gulfport that was disorganized, but in retrospect it was clear that SNCC was politically coming apart at the seams.
There was a lot of discussion about confronting the underlying economic and social reality of black oppression, North and South, but no consensus on how to do that. Like many others, I believed that black oppression was an integral part of “the system,” but the only two answers I heard in SNCC were MLK liberalism or an incoherent black nationalist separatism. Being a red-diaper baby, I knew the answer had to have something to do with Marxism, but of a more radical kind than my parents’ stodgy, pro-Democratic Party Communist Party (CP) variety. I would have been so happy to meet a real Marxist who understood how black oppression fit into capitalism and had a revolutionary strategy for its overturn. Indeed, after that summer I began to hang out in Berkeley checking out the left groups. I will comment that the CP was never on my list. I knew very little about their history and their betrayal of black struggle, particularly during WWII, but I knew they supported the Democratic Party and that was enough for me.
The absence of the left in the Southern civil rights movement was far from accidental and had, indeed, been a major element in the fight by the Revolutionary Tendency (RT, forerunner of the Spartacist League) in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). In the U.S. at the time of the civil rights movement, the SWP was the only organization, at least formally, with an authentically revolutionary program based on Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. However, by the early 1960s, ground down by the isolation and McCarthyite witchhunting of the 1950s, the SWP had lost its revolutionary bearings. The party’s qualitative departure from its erstwhile revolutionary working-class politics began around 1960, when it slid into the role of uncritical cheerleaders for the petty-bourgeois radical-nationalist leadership of the Cuban Revolution. The SWP thus abandoned the centrality of the working class and the necessity of building Trotskyist parties in every country.
The abandonment of the fight for Marxist leadership of the black struggle in the U.S. was the domestic reflection. The SWP leadership willfully abstained from the civil rights movement while cheerleading from afar for both the liberal reformism of King and the reactionary separatism of the Nation of Islam. Against this, a 1963 RT document stated:
“The rising upsurge and militancy of the black revolt and the contradictory and confused, groping nature of what is now the left wing in the movement provide the revolutionary vanguard with fertile soil and many opportunities to plant the seeds of revolutionary socialism. Our task is to create a Trotskyist tendency in the broad left wing of the movement, while building that left wing…. We must consider non-intervention in the crisis of leadership a crime of the worst sort.”
—“The Negro Struggle and the Crisis of Leadership,” reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 (Revised)
It really was a crime, because the civil rights movement offered a short-lived opportunity for even a small revolutionary party to make a historic breakthrough. By the early 1960s, a large and growing current of young black militants was breaking to the left of the liberal reformism and pacifism of Martin Luther King but had not yet latched on to separatist ideology. These young militants were experienced in struggle and were leading a mass movement that included large numbers of black workers. Won to a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party, they could have changed the course of history. This was an opportunity missed.
Over the next year or so, members of the RT were expelled from the SWP. The early Spartacist tendency then actively intervened in the civil rights struggles in the South as well as the North, raising demands such as for a Freedom-Labor Party, for a Southern unionization drive backed by organized labor nationwide, and for armed self-defense against the Klan. Our forces, however, were very small and predominantly white. And the main body of young black activists was rapidly moving toward separatism.
Second Freedom Summer
Let me talk about some of my own experiences in Gulfport, Mississippi. Going to Mississippi and the Deep South was like entering a police state. I will not give the whole story of my trip down there except to say that hitchhiking part of the way there was not the smartest move. Anyhow, everywhere along the highways of Mississippi you would see big billboards urging you to join the White Citizens’ Councils and preserve the Southern way of life. (The Citizens’ Councils were basically Klansmen in suits.)
When I and the other young white woman with whom I was traveling got to New Orleans, we needed to find the bus station. She, being naive, asked a black teenager for directions. While he was politely answering this question, a big pickup truck drove up on the sidewalk, almost running a couple of people down, and this old white guy started shouting, “Is that boy bothering you?” and various other racist remarks. We just tried to calm him down and get ourselves and the black kid out of the situation in one piece. This gives you a sense of how hard the race lines were, and this was in downtown New Orleans, not rural Mississippi.
We didn’t do much voter registration in Gulfport, having learned something from the previous year’s Democratic Party Convention. We decided to concentrate on lunch counter sit-ins. When our integrated group wasn’t served at a lunch counter, we organized demos, first a small one of our project members and then bigger and bigger ones of black youth, mostly teenagers, to demonstrate in front of the store. We were surrounded by a screaming racist mob. Each day our forces became bigger, but so did the mobs. The cops would come in their squad cars, which had Confederate flag license plates on the front, and laugh at the whole scene.
Luckily there was a longshore union in Gulfport, a segregated, black local of the International Longshoremen’s Association. I heard there were negotiations with the union president, the mayor and the chief of police. The union president said that if we were killed or arrested, the longshoremen would go on strike and shut the port. Well, that worked! We weren’t arrested or killed and the lunch counter began serving blacks.
I wish I could have met these longshoremen. They were just the power in the background, but I was impressed with them. SNCC didn’t know what to do with them, but it seemed to me that there must be some left group out there who knew how to organize the power of labor. In the Spartacist League’s successful anti-Klan united fronts, I saw that power consciously mobilized in the fight for black freedom.
“Every Dime Buys a Bullet”
When I was in Mississippi, pacifism was wearing pretty thin. First of all, the Los Angeles Watts upheaval broke out. Martin Luther King said that “as powerful a police force as possible” should be brought to L.A. to stop it. SNCC activists on my project cursed King for that. To SNCC members like me he was a sellout. James Forman commented that “the Mississippi Summer Project was clearly a popular struggle. It confirmed the absolute necessity for armed self-defense.” We experienced that, too. Worried about the threats to our house in Gulfport, we moved out for a while. With another young white woman, I went to stay with a friendly black family. They kept insisting that there would be “no violence, no violence.” When I looked around the room, I could see that every guy there was holding a rifle or a shotgun. I just thought, “Well, this is the kind of ‘nonviolence’ I’m for!”
The white SNCC worker I drove back to California with at the end of the summer had spent his time in the Mississippi Delta. They had encouraged black people to vote and assured them they would provide protection if they did. He spent every night up touring the black section of town with several guys and some shotguns watching for nightriders or Klansmen. As we have always said about gun control, “If guns are banned, only the cops and the Klan will have guns.”
In fact, armed self-defense was considerably more popular than people now realize. There was the courageous Robert F. Williams, Marine veteran and author of Negroes With Guns, in Monroe, North Carolina, and the Louisiana-based Deacons for Defense and Justice. Williams, who as head of a local NAACP chapter organized armed self-defense against the Klan, was disowned by the national NAACP and hounded out of the country by the FBI. The Deacons for Defense also protected civil rights activists. The Spartacist League raised money for the Deacons for Defense, with the slogan “Every Dime Buys a Bullet.”
At one point, the people on my project insisted that we talk to the FBI. As a red-diaper baby, I was horrified, but I couldn’t convince my co-workers not to do it. I was always convinced that talking to them set us up for the bomb threats that made us have to move out and stay with the black family.
The illusions in the FBI were part of the illusions in the federal government. In fact, the FBI rode with the Klan! In the ’60s, FBI informers held top-level leadership roles in the Klan. In 1965, nearly 2,000 of the FBI-estimated 10,000 Klan members were their own informants; that is one out of five! The Klan couldn’t move without the FBI knowing it beforehand. They weren’t there to disrupt the Klan; they were loyal dual members of both organizations.
The most notorious FBI “informant” in the Klan was Gary Rowe, who was involved in the infamous 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that killed four little black girls. He was also in the car, and may have been the actual triggerman who shot down civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo on the highway outside Selma, Alabama, after the troops were removed from the Selma-to-Montgomery march. This was government policy directed not just by J. Edgar Hoover but by liberals like Kennedy. As an arm of the state, the FBI’s mission was to derail, disrupt and “neutralize” black and red organizations. And if that meant cooperation with the Klan, then that’s what it meant.
Finally I will comment that one of the other SNCC projects I liked was a little library that we ran out of our small office. We had been sent a book collection by liberals in the North. Since the public library had only been open to blacks for one year in Gulfport, it was still pretty dangerous for a black person to go there. So our library was much appreciated and everyone was very careful to return the books. When things were slow, I read up on black history, trying to work my way through W.E.B. Du Bois on Reconstruction. I also read Booker T. Washington’s autobiography. I had never heard of him before, but I was immediately horrified at his apologias for segregation and his opposition to the fight for equality. I announced to my fellow SNCC members that he was nothing but an Uncle Tom. For years I thought this was the basic position of leftists, black and white. Can you imagine my surprise to see that today black intellectuals are trying to rehabilitate Booker T. Washington? [See “‘Separate but Equal’ Poison: The Rehabilitation of Booker T. Washington,” WV No. 1000, 13 April.]
[TO BE CONTINUED]