Workers Vanguard No. 1060
23 January 2015
The Bankruptcy of Pressuring the Democrats
Selma: The Movie and the Real Story
By Brian Manning and John Perry
Director Ava DuVernay’s film Selma, based on three months of tumultuous black voting rights protests in 1965, graphically portrays the courage and tenacity of civil rights activists in the face of racial oppression and KKK and state terror in the Jim Crow South. From the Birmingham church bombing and the savage attack on marchers at Selma’s Pettus Bridge to the beatings and murders of black and white protesters, Selma paints a picture of the horrific racist violence.
But fundamentally the movie is a glorification of Martin Luther King Jr.’s liberal program of nonviolent protest and reliance on the federal government and the Democratic Party. The moral of the film is that Selma—the last major battle of the Southern civil rights movement—was a watershed because voting rights for black people paved the way for black elected officials. As longtime Congressman John Lewis said in 2009 right before President Obama’s inauguration: “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”
The mass mobilization of black people against the Jim Crow system of legal segregation disrupted and challenged the racist American bourgeois order. But from the outset, the civil rights struggles were dominated by a black middle-class leadership wedded to Democratic Party liberalism, with King as its most effective exponent. The movement achieved important, though partial, gains for black people largely in the realm of formal democratic rights, whose main beneficiaries make up a thin layer of the black petty bourgeoisie. To this day, the blood shed to win the right to vote is invoked to herd black people to the ballot box to elect “lesser evil” Democrats.
The civil rights movement met its defeat in the mid 1960s when it swept into the North, where the Jim Crow segregation codes did not exist. Activists ran headlong into the raw reality of black oppression that is woven into the fabric of American capitalism: rat-infested slums, crumbling schools, mass unemployment and rampant cop terror. Fifty years later, and six years after the election of a black president, the hellish conditions of the urban ghetto masses have only gotten worse. While today possessing formal equality under the law, black people remain a race-color caste, integrated into the U.S. economy but in the main forcibly segregated at the bottom of society.
Barack Obama proclaimed that the civil rights movement took black people “90 percent of the way” to full equality. But the yawning gulf between white and black America persists by every measure—employment, income, housing, education, incarceration rates. Black people are still blown away on the streets of America with impunity by the cops simply because of the color of their skin. The massive military mobilizations by the racist capitalist state against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, last year could have been Birmingham or Selma in the 1960s. Those gains that were won in the civil rights struggles almost immediately came under attack. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, which Selma presents as a crowning achievement, has been gutted over the years, with the Supreme Court dealing it a major blow two years ago.
From the days of chattel slavery, American capitalism has rested on a bedrock of black oppression. Achieving genuine equality will take nothing less than a socialist overturn of the capitalist profit system by the multiracial working class, whose central role in production gives it the social power and objective class interest to put an end to capitalist rule. This country’s rulers ably wield anti-black racism to divide and weaken the working class. In the course of class struggle against the common enemy—the owners of the banks and industry—white workers will be compelled to forego race prejudice. What is crucially needed is to forge a workers party that emblazons the cause of black freedom on its banner: Finish the Civil War! For black liberation through socialist revolution!
The 1965 Selma Protests
In early 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been organizing a voter registration effort in Selma, combating an entrenched system that denied the right to vote through a combination of racist terror, poll taxes and “literacy” tests. In the film, a white registrar challenges an older black woman to name every county judge in the state, and when she cannot, sneeringly stamps “denied” on her application. King announced that his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) would make the town the center of its own voter registration campaign.
As we wrote at the time in “Conspiracy and Treachery in Alabama” (Spartacist No. 4, May-June 1965, reprinted in WV No. 1051, 5 September 2014):
“From the beginning the black voter registration campaign in the South was an assertion of potential independence—directed against the underlying social system as well as the segregationist political apparatus which helps maintain it. Revolutionary in implication because it involved organizing masses of black workers and share-croppers in struggle, the mass character of the movement poses a dangerous threat to the American ruling class and its politicians. Hence they use every means at their disposal to derail the movement—including sending in such kept leaders as Martin Luther King—to head it off and deliver it to the Democratic Party where the job of beheading and neutralizing it can be finished off.”
While lionizing King, Selma makes clear that MLK aimed to use the blood of black civil rights foot soldiers to pressure the capitalist ruling class to grant those demands its liberal wing was willing to concede. Selma portrays King lecturing SNCC militants: “What we do is negotiate, demonstrate, resist. And a big part of that is raising white consciousness, and in particular the consciousness of whichever white man happens to be sitting in the Oval Office.” King’s strategy of nonviolent resistance was in fact a pledge of allegiance to the white power structure.
When King was jailed in early February, Selma exploded with protest marches, and over a thousand protesters were arrested. After the murder of 26-year-old protester Jimmie Lee Jackson by a trooper, the SCLC called for a protest march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. On March 7, a day subsequently known as “Bloody Sunday,” 2,000 marchers were stopped on the Pettus Bridge by a phalanx of state troopers and deputies, who attacked them with clubs, bullwhips and tear gas, driving them back through the city streets.
The film’s crisis point comes with the second attempt at the march to Montgomery three days later. At the bridge, again faced with a horde of state troopers, King gets everyone on their knees to pray, and then suddenly stands and turns the marchers back. In the movie, King’s decision to turn around is shown as a response to a directive from God. In reality, the directive had come from the federal government. As recounted in Clayborne Carson’s In Struggle (1981), the Feds worked out a secret deal with MLK that if he turned back the marchers, the state troopers would not attack them. The film shows that SNCC members were bitter at King’s reversal. Indeed, SNCC activists began openly talking of King as a coward and sellout. Instead of “We Shall Overcome,” the young militants sang “We Shall Overrun.”
Selma’s portrayal of Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson as a recalcitrant racist who orchestrated FBI wiretapping of King has elicited a howl from liberal commentators. Former Johnson aides and historians point out that Johnson and King actually collaborated closely. In fact, the film captures LBJ’s attitude toward MLK when the president is depicted telling FBI director J. Edgar Hoover: “If he’s a degenerate, what I do know is he’s a nonviolent degenerate and I want him to go on leading the civil rights movement, not one of these bloodthirsty militants.” The Texas Dixiecrat Johnson’s catering to racists (which he did) and his administration’s spying on King (which it did) did not preclude the White House from collaborating with MLK.
As CEO of U.S. imperialism, Johnson was carrying out the will of a section of the American capitalist ruling class, which had its own reasons for acquiescing to the dismantlement of Jim Crow. With the mechanization of agriculture, which largely displaced sharecropping, and the increased urbanization of the black population, the system of legal segregation that had been consolidated to enforce the powerlessness of the black rural poor was rendered obsolete. Jim Crow also exposed the hypocrisy of the U.S. imperialists, who were extolling the supposed virtues of American democracy as part of their Cold War drive against the Soviet Union.
The tempo of the Selma events made it necessary for LBJ to offer some kind of voting rights law. The culmination of the film is the third, final march to Montgomery, portrayed as a brilliant success. We wrote at the time, “The march acquired the character of an ‘official’ parade directly launched from Washington, with a corps of food and latrine trucks, doctors and nurses, swarms of politicians, etc., and Federal troops standing guard along the route.” As the film shows, the march was a sea of American flags waved by an integrated crowd. It amounted to a support rally for LBJ and the Democrats.
SNCC: Breaking with Nonviolence and the Democrats
What Selma disappears is that by 1965 a whole layer of SNCC militants were rejecting King’s liberal pacifist, pro-Democratic Party pressure politics. Far from being a transcendent leader of a unified movement, as Selma portrays, King was one of the political poles against which the left wing of the civil rights movement was defined.
Outrageously, the film slanders SNCC activists, particularly James Forman, as arrogant, petulant opponents of the Selma protests whose main interest was defending their own turf against the SCLC; and King wins every argument with them. In reality, the differences between King and the SNCC activists were over burning political issues, such as reliance on the Democrats and the federal government, along with the question of armed self-defense. (See “SNCC: ‘Black Power’ and the Democrats,” reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 2, 1985.)
When SNCC was formed in 1960, it was a constituent part of the Southern black liberal establishment, the youth group of what W.E.B. Du Bois had termed the “talented tenth.” But through bitter experience, SNCC had been radicalized by its grassroots organizing of poor black sharecroppers, which repeatedly brought it into direct conflict not just with the Dixiecrats, but the whole racist, capitalist state.
The film alludes to the 1961-62 protests in Albany, Georgia, where SNCC activists were already becoming disenchanted with King. When civil rights protesters were getting arrested by the hundreds in late 1961, King intoned: “Don’t get weary, children. We will wear them down by our capacity to suffer.” The next summer, black youth fought back with bricks and bottles when cops attacked a rally outside a black church. King declared a “day of penance” for the “violence.” SNCC, though, refused to condemn the protesters. In Albany, many SNCC members began to refer to MLK privately and derisively as “De Lawd.” This epithet is slipped into the movie so fleetingly that those unfamiliar with the history would not even notice it.
Selma was bracketed by the uprisings in Harlem in 1964 and Watts in 1965, which had a profound impact on SNCC militants. It was now clear that the “turn the other cheek” pacifist ethos was losing its resonance for increasing numbers of the embittered urban black masses. In response to Watts, King declared, “It was necessary that as powerful a police force as possible be brought in to check them [the ghetto masses].” King’s defense of cop terror to smash the ghetto explosions was the ultimate proof of what his one-sided “nonviolence” was about.
Up to that point, the young SNCC militants broadly accepted nonviolence. Now many asked themselves how nonviolence and voter registration could answer the oppression of Northern ghetto blacks. After “Watts had exploded in August, 1965,” Forman later wrote, “could we still call ourselves ‘nonviolent’ and remain in the vanguard of black militancy? If we were revolutionaries, what was it that we sought to overthrow?” (The Making of Black Revolutionaries, 1972).
It was SNCC activists who invited Malcolm X to Selma to speak after King’s arrest. In keeping with today’s liberal myth that King and Malcolm X were moving toward a meeting of the minds, the movie falsely portrays Malcolm X apologizing to Coretta Scott King for his criticisms of her husband. That apology never happened (nor was Malcolm ever the mealy-mouthed wimp shown on screen). In fact, Malcolm bitterly opposed King’s kowtowing, and that never changed. Around the same time, after a fascist punched King in a Selma hotel lobby, Malcolm fired off a telegram to Nazi führer George Lincoln Rockwell:
“This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separatist Black Muslim movement, and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans who are only attempting to enjoy their rights as free human beings, that you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation from those of us who are not hand-cuffed by the disarming philosophy of nonviolence, and who believe in asserting our right of self-defense—by any means necessary.”
After the Selma protests, in April 1965 Stokely Carmichael and other SNCC activists stayed on to work in neighboring Lowndes County. There they organized an independent political party, taking a snarling black panther as its symbol, which soon came to be called the Black Panther Party. Although narrowly based on a single impoverished rural county, the Panthers were important because they were organized in opposition to the Democratic Party. As Carmichael said, it was “as ludicrous for Negroes to join [the Democratic Party] as it would have been for Jews to join the Nazi party in the 1930s.” Local residents agreed. One recalled, “SNCC mentioned about the third party and we decided we would do it, because it didn’t make sense for us to go join the Democratic party when they were the people who had done the killing in the county and had beat our heads.” Although Selma deals with numerous capitalist politicians, it doesn’t mention what party they were in. Why? They were all Democrats: from LBJ to Governor George Wallace to the local Alabama segregationists—to MLK!
The Lowndes County Black Panther Party was also important for its open advocacy of armed self-defense, which was a burning necessity for the black movement in the South. In Monroe, North Carolina, beginning in 1959 local NAACP head Robert Williams’ courageous battle against KKK terror (described in his 1962 book Negroes with Guns) became a beacon to black militants throughout the South. Indeed, Forman had visited Williams in 1961 just before the FBI hounded Williams into exile in Cuba. In Lowndes County, the SNCC activists were influenced by and defended the local black sharecroppers who owned guns and were willing to use them against racist attack. By 1965, the Louisiana-based Deacons for Defense and Justice had spread to Alabama. Civil rights rallies in Lowndes County were often defended by these armed self-defense squads.
Class Power and Black Rights
Nonviolence versus armed self-defense was the way in which the question of reform versus revolution was posed in the civil rights movement. The emergence of a layer of radical black youth groping for an alternative to liberalism cried out for the intervention of Marxists to win them to a proletarian revolutionary perspective. In the early 1960s, the predecessor of the Spartacist League, the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) within the ostensibly Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP), advanced a program of revolutionary integrationism—the fight for the assimilation of black people into an egalitarian socialist society. This perspective, which was developed by veteran Trotskyist Richard Fraser, recognized that there can be no social revolution in this country without the united struggle of black and white workers led by a multiracial vanguard party, and there is nothing other than a workers revolution that can open the road to black freedom.
The RT fought for an active intervention into SNCC and other forces in the left wing of the civil rights movement, as a crucial opportunity for the crystallization of a black Trotskyist cadre. But the SWP majority refused to do so, covering its abstention with an opportunist “dual vanguardist” outlook that implicitly defined the SWP as a “white party” whose only contribution to the black struggle was to enthuse over “whatever the black people want.” The RT was expelled from the SWP in 1963-64.
At the time, the main body of the AFL-CIO union bureaucracy was headed by open Cold War crusaders, who had been installed in the red purges of the late 1940s and ’50s. Another section of the union tops, epitomized by United Auto Workers head Walter Reuther, gave a labor gloss to MLK’s pressure politics. Both these wings of the labor bureaucracy were anti-Communist and openly hostile to labor and black militancy. The petty-bourgeois SNCC radicals, who were isolated from the mass of the black working class, equated the rotten politics of the labor bureaucrats with the union ranks. Without the intervention of Marxists, they had no concept at all of the power of the working class, much less the need to oust the bureaucrats to unleash that power.
In 1966, after his election as SNCC chairman, Carmichael raised the call for “black power” in a speech in Greenwood, Mississippi. Young black radicals picked up “black power” as the rallying cry against the preachers’ sermonizing and the liberals’ begging. It was a rejection of “faith in the system,” a vow to take matters into their own hands.
In intersecting these militants, the SL, which had been founded in 1966, explained that the “black power” slogan was contradictory. It raised questions whose answers lay outside the framework set up by the capitalist class, but was not consciously anti-capitalist. The “black power” movement was premised on the view that black militants should organize black people and forget about whites. We warned in “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom” (Spartacist No. 10, May-June 1967): “The slogan ‘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.”
We called for a “Freedom-Labor Party” as the axis to link the exploding black struggle to the power of labor, North and South. That call was coupled with a series of other transitional demands: a Southern organizing drive backed by organized labor; workers united fronts against federal intervention; organized, armed self-defense. But the SL was too small to reach and influence more than a very small number of radicalized black activists.
The hardening of the black/white line in the New Left radical movement sealed us off from subjectively revolutionary black militants of the period. SNCC had expelled all its white members by the end of 1966. Absent a Marxist working-class perspective, many of the best of the “black power” militants turned toward one or another form of black nationalism, a petty-bourgeois ideology that has always been unable to generate a program for struggle in this country. It is based on fiction, as American blacks are not a nation and have not aspired to separation except when prospects for united struggle seemed foreclosed.
The avowedly revolutionary and anti-capitalist Black Panther Party (BPP), founded in Oakland in 1966, crystallized the best of a generation of black militants. But despite their militancy and personal courage, the Panthers’ nationalist program was disdainful of the multiracial working class. Instead, the Panthers looked to the lumpen ghetto masses. Their isolation from the proletariat left them especially vulnerable to government repression. The FBI’s brutal COINTELPRO vendetta killed 38 BPP members and jailed hundreds more on frame-up charges. Within a few years, many leading Panthers would join moderate SNCC members back in the fold of the Democratic Party.
From Selma to Ferguson
The killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York have galvanized young anti-racist activists bitterly aware that six years after Obama’s election the conditions of black America are as hellish as ever. When seven of them met with Obama on December 1, he issued the same advice the racist LBJ gave King: go slow. Some protesters have organized “die-ins” at showings of Selma to draw attention to their demands, and a series of “Reclaim MLK” events were held around MLK Day. The die-in demands, typical of other protests, are straight from the liberal playbook of appeals to the federal government: from “repurposing” law enforcement funding to demanding that the “Obama Administration develops, legislates and enacts a National Plan of Action for Racial Justice.”
A host of reformist socialist groups today are pushing King’s program of pressure politics. The International Socialist Organization (ISO) published a review (socialistworker.org, 15 January) hailing Selma as “magnificent” and crowing that the film shows “what he believed was needed to win: determination, courage, sacrifice.” Like the movie, the ISO disappears the split that led black youth to reject King in favor of “black power,” instead reducing these debates over fundamental questions to “how they together developed and honed their strategy and tactics”!
The reformists like to tout the “transformative” last year of King’s life, when he supposedly was moving toward an “anti-capitalist” and “democratic socialist” perspective. His belated opposition to the Vietnam War in 1967 (at a time when a wing of the American bourgeoisie was also seeking to cut its losses) is cited as Exhibit A. In reality, King was explicit that with angry black youth and workers looking for a revolutionary solution to their own oppression, he was compelled to oppose that war to retain credibility. Far from reflecting a move toward anti-capitalism, King proclaimed that “the pursuit of peace” was “our greatest defense against Communism,” and that poverty should be combated because it was “the fertile soil in which the seed of Communism grows and develops.”
As we wrote ten years after King’s assassination in “Bourgeoisie Celebrates King’s Liberal Pacifism,” reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 2):
“We must break through the myths of ‘passive resistance,’ crack the mask of ‘King the Peaceful Warrior,’ and present a revolutionary analysis of the failure of the civil rights movement to provide a program for fighting the social and economic oppression of blacks under American capitalism.... While the reformists cover for King to camouflage their own treacherous tracks, the task of creating a black communist cadre requires destroying politically the exalted symbols of passive defeatism and reliance on the bourgeois state which led to the death of the civil rights movement.”