Workers Vanguard No. 1002
11 May 2012
Black History Forum
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
Detroit: The Rise and Fall of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers
We print below the second part of a presentation by Spartacist League spokesman Diana Coleman at a February 25 forum in Los Angeles. Part One was printed in WV No. 1001 (27 April).
Up North, after the ghetto upheavals in Harlem and Watts, it became clear that the explosions were part of a pattern and not isolated events. It also became clear that Martin Luther King’s “turn the other cheek” pacifism had no relevance to the embittered urban black masses. The Spartacist League was very active around the black question during this period, as you can see by perusing Spartacist Bound Volume No. 1.
In Harlem in 1964, only the reds defended the Harlem ghetto masses against what was in reality a police riot. Bill Epton of Progressive Labor Party, organizer of the militant Harlem Defense Committee, was witchhunted by a bourgeois hysteria campaign that included all the usual black leaders. At a mass rally in the New York garment district, called by the Spartacist-initiated Harlem Solidarity Committee, we attempted to mobilize the power of labor to defend the black masses. We called for removal of the rioting cops from the ghettos and recognition of the masses’ right to defend themselves against the police occupation. Contrast that with MLK calling for the cops to go into Watts!
It was in Chicago that the liberal premises of the civil rights movement came most clearly into explosive collision with economic and social reality. Blacks in Northern ghettos already had the formal rights won by the civil rights movement in the South—“equality under the law” and “one man, one vote”—but that did not prevent them from being forced to live as second-class citizens. Underlying the forcible segregation of blacks at the bottom of American society today are primarily the workings of capitalist civil society and the market economy, reinforced by various laws which, while they don’t mention blacks, are nonetheless consciously directed at blacks. For example: the restrictions of student enrollment in public schools to children living in the neighborhood where the school is located, the mass incarceration of young black men under the anti-drug laws, the phenomenon of “driving while black.” The speed limit may be the same for everyone, but it isn’t enforced the same for everyone!
The contradiction between formal legal equality and the pervasive social and economic inequality that black people are subject to is enforced centrally through systematic police terror and the race and class bias of the judicial system. As was made abundantly clear in Chicago, King and the rest of the liberal civil rights leadership got nowhere in the fight for “open housing” and had no program to fight the causes of racial discrimination, which are deeply rooted in the economic and social structure of capitalist society. These will not be dealt with by some new civil rights act, but only by socialist revolution.
In 1966, Stokely Carmichael, newly elected as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), raised the demand for “Black Power.” This call electrified young radicals from the Jim Crow South to the ghettos of the North. We noted at the time that the Black Power slogan “represents the repudiation of tokenism, liberal tutelage, reliance on the federal government, and the non-violent philosophy of moral suasion” (“Black Power—Class Power,” reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised], “What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism” [September 1978]). But we also warned that “‘black power’ must be clearly defined in class, not racial terms, for otherwise the ‘black power’ movement may become the black wing of the Democratic Party in the South” (“Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom,” Spartacist supplement, May-June 1967, reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9, “Basic Documents of the Spartacist League”). This was prophetic, not only for the South but for the North, too.
Without the intervention of conscious communists fighting for a program of revolutionary integrationism and proletarian socialism, black militants turned away from MLK liberalism and embraced the dead end of black separatism. Most of these black nationalists quickly re-entered the fold of mainstream bourgeois politics, becoming administrators of the various poverty programs and supporters of local black Democrats. The Black Panthers and the Detroit League of Revolutionary Black Workers were considerably more radical, but both were deeply contradictory, for Marxism and black nationalism do not a coherent program make.
Detroit: Black Workers
and the UAW
We have written a lot about the Panthers, so today I want to talk about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit. Actually, there is one very good article about the League in Marxist Bulletin No. 5R called “Soul Power or Workers Power?” Detroit: I Do Mind Dying is still the best book to read on the subject. Unlike other black nationalist groups, the League insisted on the centrality of the working class and organizing at “the point of production.” But this only made their internal contradictions more explosive. It is necessary to understand a couple of things about Detroit to understand why the League developed there.
Detroit, like Chicago, was a big destination for blacks during the “Great Migration” out of the Jim Crow South to what they hoped would be a better life in the North. It was still pretty hard. First courted by Henry Ford as a counterforce to unionism, most blacks refused to scab and joined the union. After World War II, blacks were a real presence in the auto plants and city. But it was still a highly segregated city, with blacks forced into substandard housing, rotten schools and the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the plants.
The book Race Against Liberalism by David M. Lewis-Colman gives a vivid picture of how Walter Reuther, United Auto Workers (UAW) president, with his social-democratic past, purged the union of Communist Party supporters and radicals of all varieties, black and white, working in tandem with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). This included putting the giant Local 600 at Ford River Rouge in receivership in the early 1950s. Lewis-Colman writes:
“On March 14, two days after HUAC left Detroit, Reuther moved to neutralize the dissident local.... Reuther spent much of his presentation presenting evidence of communist domination of Local 600. He described the local’s anti-Korean War stance as a response to the dictates of the Communist party and suggested that an aerial picture of the River Rouge plant printed in Ford Facts [the local newsletter] was evidence of espionage. At the end of the lengthy meeting, the executive board voted unanimously to take control of Local 600 and soon dismissed or suspended many of its leading Negro-caucus activists and their white progressive allies.”
Lewis-Colman goes on, “In the late 1940’s as the cold war intensified, Reuther became increasingly focused on civil rights and concerned about the race issue in the union. Like many liberal anti-Communists, Reuther believed that racism had become an effective issue for Communists.” It was an issue he sought to deflect by giving support to Martin Luther King’s pacifist liberalism in the South, while not dealing in the slightest with racist practices in the Detroit auto plants or in the UAW itself.
This situation led the few aspiring black bureaucrats in the ’50s to set up an opportunist formation called the Trade Union Leadership Council, which involved people like venerable social democrat A. Philip Randolph (amazing how the same names keep coming up). They raised the question of discrimination, while keeping everything well within the context of liberal pressure politics. As our article in MB No. 5R says, “The combination of Reuther’s hypocritical liberalism and the impotent pressure-group politics of King and the black bureaucrats provided fertile ground for the spawning of more militant black nationalist political currents and organizations.”
The anti-cop ghetto upheaval in Detroit in the summer of 1967 was one of the biggest and bloodiest of that period. Geronimo Pratt, who died recently, was a framed-up former leader of the Black Panther Party whom the Spartacist League and Partisan Defense Committee defended for many years and who was freed after an outrageous 27 years in jail. With few job opportunities, at age 17 Geronimo had joined the Army. After his first tour of duty in Vietnam with the 82nd Airborne, they were sent to Detroit to quell the ghetto rebellion. It is said that military hardware was soon finding its way to the ghetto. Pratt recalled that his unit, which was 60-70 percent black, was supportive of the besieged ghetto. So they were sent back to Vietnam as a not-so-subtle punishment. This is an illustration of the Achilles’ heel of American imperialism: a heavily black and brown army is unlikely to be very loyal to the capitalist class and state when there is real social struggle in the country.
Then there were the horrendous conditions in these old, decrepit auto plants, now with a heavily black workforce. Racism from foremen was common, as was speed-up, industrial injuries, etc., etc. The title of the book, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying came from a Detroit blues song of the ’60s which starts, “Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. No, I don’t mind workin’, but I do mind dyin’.”
To give you an example, in 1970 at the Eldon Ave. Chrysler plant, one of the most dangerous plants, a black worker who had been fired flipped out and shot dead two foremen and a white co-worker. When I worked at the Post Office, we used to call this “going postal.” In any case, Ken Cockrel, a black lawyer and member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, defended him, blaming the deaths on the working conditions at Chrysler and this worker’s lifetime experiences of racism. As a climax to the trial, Cockrel took the entire jury on a tour of the plant so they could see the conditions for themselves. The jury was so horrified they found the worker not responsible for his acts, and he was awarded workman’s compensation for the injuries done to him by Chrysler! When I was in Detroit in 1973 when we set up a local there, people were still talking about this.
Vacuum of Leadership
After the upheaval of 1967, a group of young black nationalists, centered at Wayne State University, coalesced around a community oriented newspaper, the Inner City Voice. Some of this initial group had been around the ex-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP), while others came from a Maoist background. Comrade Don Alexander recounts having met one of these guys, John Watson, abroad somewhat later. Watson told him that he and some of the others had attended a number of SWP Friday night Militant Forums in Detroit. They had been quite impressed with the SWP, but the SWP, far from trying to recruit them, told them to go off and form their own black political party. They were much influenced by this and did so.
Let me make the point that this gross idea that the SWP was a white party and shouldn’t recruit blacks was the corollary to the SWP’s refusal to intervene in SNCC. Here’s what the Revolutionary Tendency wrote in the document “For Black Trotskyism” [reprinted in MB No. 5R and excerpted in this issue] in counterposition to the SWP majority in 1963: “The meaning of the line of the PC [Political Committee] draft is that we are not interested in recruiting these people to our white party because we have the revolutionary socialist program for the section of the working class of which we are the vanguard, and they (Negro militants) must lead their own struggle, although we would like to have fraternal relations with them. This is the meaning of the PC draft. To the concept of the white party must be counterposed the concept of the revolutionary party.” Indeed, for only an integrated revolutionary party can lead the socialist revolution in the U.S.
This grouping around the Inner City Voice was held together by a vague but militant determination to form a “black Marxist-Leninist party.” Maintaining their adherence to nationalism, they nevertheless saw that black workers played a key role in the American economy and working class. Black workers, they reasoned, would give their movement a more stable base than the lumpenproletariat to whom the Panthers oriented.
The Inner City Voice soon attracted a group of young black militants at the Chrysler Hamtramck assembly plant, Dodge Main, and these militants formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, or DRUM. A wildcat strike over speed-up in May 1968 involving both black and white workers resulted in racist disciplinary actions being applied overwhelming to black workers.
Coming off of that, DRUM led a successful boycott of nearby bars that wouldn’t hire blacks, led another three-day wildcat strike, held a rally of 3,000 workers in the plant parking lot and established itself as the leadership of the 60 percent black workforce at Dodge Main. They contested a local union election and almost won, even though the election was totally rigged. Soon word of DRUM’s audacity spread to other plants. ELRUM was formed at Eldon Ave. Chrysler and a number of other groups were formed at other auto plants and even at United Parcel Service (UPRUM). Based on the apparent strength of DRUM and ELRUM, the Inner City Voice cadres moved to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in early 1969.
There was a vacuum, and they filled it. But the key question is always program. DRUM called for rehiring fired workers, entry of blacks into skilled trades, against speed-up and unsafe conditions and denounced the betrayals of UAW officials, etc. That’s all fine and good, but a lot of their demands were totally unsupportable. Let me give some examples: DRUM demanded 50 black foremen, ten black general foremen, a black plant manager; that “a black brother be appointed as head of the board of directors of Chrysler Corporation,” “50 percent of all plant protection guards be black, and that every time a black worker is removed from plant premises that he be led by a black brother”; that all black workers immediately stop paying union dues. These are demands that have to do with getting a few more “black faces in high places” and nothing to do with organizing proletarian struggle. It tells you a lot that DRUM could consider a black director of Chrysler or a black security guard to be a “brother”!
Some white workers did respect the picket lines and did want to work with DRUM, but DRUM consciously avoided organizing them, seeing them as the recipients of “white skin privilege” who had “a huge stake in the imperialist system.” This is false. White, black and Latino workers have a common interest in overthrowing capitalism, but you have to fight to bring this consciousness to the proletariat. The theory of “white skin privilege” was a cover for evading the difficult task of uniting the entire proletariat around a revolutionary program. Especially in Detroit of that time, while there were older, conservative white workers, there were also young white workers who didn’t like the war in Vietnam, had run into Students for a Democratic Society in junior college, and so on.
Black Nationalist Dead End
Then there was the dual union approach, which threatened to pull black workers out of the UAW altogether. As we have stated in the Spartacist League/U.S. Programmatic Statement:
“At bottom black nationalism is an expression of hopelessness stemming from defeat, reflecting despair over prospects for integrated class struggle and labor taking up the fight for black rights. The chief responsibility for this lies on the shoulders of the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy, which has time and again refused to mobilize the social power of the multiracial working class in struggle against racist discrimination and terror.”
What was needed was a class-struggle opposition to the sellout bureaucracy, not a rejection of the union as a whole. Dual-unionist in principle, the League’s caucuses nevertheless vacillated in their conceptions of whether or not it was permissible to work within the UAW. Sometimes they emphasized the commonality of black and white workers; that side of things comes across more in, for example, the movie about the League, Finally Got the News. But here is the ending of the much-quoted anonymous poem that came out of the DRUM struggles: “U.A.W. is scum/OUR THING IS DRUM!!!!”
Like black nationalist groups generally, the League was bad on the woman question. There were activist women in the League, but they didn’t play leadership roles. Wanting an arena they could run, women League members set up a group for women hospital workers but disbanded it when it didn’t get the necessary backing from the League. And some League men actually referred to the woman activists as the IWW—the Ignorant Women of the World.
Even as the League was formed in 1969, there began to be conflicting orientations within the leadership: whether to expand into the community or orient toward a pan-industry workers organization; whether to be a union-type formation or a cadre group. The inability to square a nationalist orientation with the realities of class struggle in the plants led to a turn toward the black community. The League split in 1971, with both sides espousing nationalism. The community-oriented wing of Ken Cockrel, after a sojourn in the Black Workers Congress, moved toward Democratic Party politics, giving support to black Democrat Coleman Young. Cockrel was on the Detroit City Council and had aspirations to be mayor but died before he could run. His widow has been on the Detroit city council as has his son, who was also Detroit mayor at one point.
The more workerist wing of the League—General Baker and others—joined the Stalinist Communist League of Nelson Peery, with its crackpot theory of the Negro nation in the Deep South, and formed the Communist Labor Party (CLP). We set up an SL local in Detroit in 1973. It would have been good if we could have been there earlier; maybe we could have won over some of the League. But setting up a Detroit local required the recruitment of a hundred or so New Leftists to Trotskyism. I liked Detroit; there was a whole series of wildcat strikes in the summer of 1973, lots of left groups to argue with, and Workers Vanguard sold well. The level of political understanding was higher back then. I remember selling WV at an auto plant and a young black guy came up to me very purposefully and said, “I read the Vanguard and I have a dictionary, too; but I can’t find ‘Pabloism’ in it. So what does it mean?”
In 1976, General Baker ran as a Communist Labor Party candidate for the Michigan state congress. It couldn’t have been much of a communist campaign, because I distinctly remember seeing a big election billboard in Detroit that said “General Baker, democrat” and then arguing with the CLP about it. When he ran in 1978, although still a CLPer, it was explicitly on the Democratic Party ticket. Despite the anti-UAW fulminations of the League, he became a UAW bureaucrat. In a photo that ran with an article in 2011, General Baker is smiling broadly as he receives a UAW award for those who “exemplify the teaching and life” of, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King.
In 1979, five anti-Klan protesters were shot down in cold blood by the Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina. This was shown on national TV. As always, the FBI was involved. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was involved, and the local police knew not to get there until the fascist death squad had made a leisurely departure but in plenty of time to arrest the surviving wounded victims. When the Klan said they were going to celebrate this atrocity in black, working-class Detroit, the Spartacist League organized our first labor/black mobilization to stop the Klan. It was small but successful, and the Klan didn’t march.
The black Democratic mayor, Coleman Young, tried to ban it, Ken Cockrel on the City Council refused to take a position on it, the big shots of the UAW refused to endorse the rally. But auto workers and black youth still turned out. In a real way, this integrated rally (about two-thirds black) against the Klan, built by the Marxist Spartacist League, was a refutation of both King’s reformist program of looking to the government and the League’s nationalist views on white skin privilege.
Today Detroit is a wasteland with no jobs, a shrinking population and whole areas going to weeds and rubble. The UAW, thanks to the massive betrayals of the labor bureaucrats, is only a shadow of itself, and there’s right-wing talk about legislation to make Michigan a “right to work” state. But there is still a proletariat in this country and internationally and the class contradictions haven’t gone away. Capitalism cannot help but breed class struggle. In Longview, Washington, we have seen longshoremen battling the company with militant tactics not seen for decades in this country: mass picketing facing down cops, ports in the region shut down, grain dumped out on the tracks, etc. We look forward to more of the same, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Our study of the civil rights period is critical to exposing those who have been obstacles to the development of revolutionary consciousness. So let me conclude by again citing the Programmatic Statement of the Spartacist League/U.S.:
“The proletariat is the only revolutionary class in modern society. Only the revolutionary conquest of power by the multiracial working class, emancipating the proletariat from the system of wage slavery, can end imperialist barbarity and achieve the long-betrayed promise of black freedom. We seek to build the Leninist vanguard party which is the necessary instrument for infusing the working class with this understanding, transforming it from a class in itself—simply defined by its relationship to the means of production—to a class for itself, fully conscious of its historic task to seize state power and reorganize society.”
We urge you to join us in this struggle.