Workers Vanguard No. 1063
6 March 2015
Our comrade Jeff Higgins, for many years a powerful spokesman for the Labor Black League for Social Defense, died in his sleep in the second week of February. He was 65 years old. We share the sorrow and tremendous sense of loss with his mother, sisters and the rest of his family.
Jeff was the oldest son of a black working-class family in Pasadena, California, where racial segregation rivaled the Jim Crow South. He grew up amid the battles of the civil rights movement and the explosions of ghetto anger against cop terror. Influenced by the Black Panther Party’s militant black nationalism and their eclectic conceptions of “Marxism-Leninism,” Jeff fought for black studies programs and protested against U.S. imperialism’s dirty war in Vietnam as a student at the University of California at Riverside.
Don Alexander, a longtime leading cadre of the Spartacist League/U.S., described the bond he forged with Jeff at UC Riverside as the two black campus radicals “fought to become communists.” Both joined the campus Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), youth group of the reformist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The small but highly political branch was dissolved after it led a revolt against the SWP having dropped its call for “free abortion on demand” in order to placate bourgeois feminists who deemed the slogan far too radical.
In his application for membership in the Spartacist League/U.S., Jeff wrote: “One of the basic motivations throughout my political development was to construct an understanding of the tasks posed by the special oppression of blacks” and “to do this on the basis of a Marxist world view.” He rejected the SWP’s simultaneous pandering to black cultural nationalists and to the liberal NAACP as an obstacle to the fight for black liberation. Recalling Jeff’s contempt for the cultural nationalists—who strutted around in their dashikis and “struggle boots,” baiting the two for associating with white radicals—Don noted, “It didn’t escape our notice that these poverty pimps were tolerated by the bourgeoisie while the Panthers were being killed.”
The demise of the Panthers under the hammer blows of state repression and internal splits ushered in a wave of demoralization among many black radicals. But, together with their experience in the YSA, it propelled both Jeff and Don to hit the books and study the writings and history of the Marxist movement. They began investigating other organizations that claimed to uphold the revolutionary internationalist program of Trotskyism. Moving to the Bay Area in 1974, they sought out the Spartacist League. Through a process of political discussion and struggle, they were won to the understanding that the only road to black freedom lies in the united class struggle of black and white workers led by a multiracial vanguard party to shatter the system of racist American capitalism through socialist revolution. In 1977, Jeff submitted his membership application.
Jeff began an apprentice program to become a unionized electrician and fought against great odds to get his journeyman’s papers. Confronted with the prejudices of the building trades unions, which were mostly lily-white, male job trusts, Jeff withstood a level of anti-black racism that might have broken many. In 1985, the administration of San Francisco General Hospital drew up plans to build a separate toilet facility to ensure that Jeff, the only black electrician on the job, would not use the same facilities as white carpenters and painters. The Bay Area LBL organized a 60-strong protest, which drew more than a dozen other hospital workers on the receiving end of racist treatment by the administration, to demand: “Down with Jim Crow—No to White-Only Toilets!” When addressing the rally, which took place at a time of rising anti-apartheid protest, Jeff observed: “They don’t want to use the same bathrooms as a black man.... This is South Africa right here in San Francisco.”
Jeff was unable to maintain the discipline and commitments of party membership. But his programmatic convictions never wavered. As a member of the LBL, he played a leadership role in the group and was more often than not a spokesman at our anti-racist and other actions. He was with us in April 1984 when Richard Bradley, a supporter of the Spartacist League, scaled a flagpole in S.F.’s Civic Center plaza to tear down the Confederate flag. A photo in Workers Vanguard shows Jeff doing the honor of burning the hated “stars and bars” banner of slavery and Klan terror. After then-S.F. Democratic mayor “Dixie Diane” Feinstein put the flag back up, we took it down again. When Bradley was put on trial on charges of vandalism, Jeff was a witness for his defense.
In 1993, when stories of the Jim Crow treatment of black people at Denny’s restaurants hit the press, Jeff pushed for the LBL to mobilize nationwide protests. Hearing that there was some concern that holding these protests on the July 4 weekend would look “patriotic,” Jeff pointed to the 1852 speech by Frederick Douglass on “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro”:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”
Douglass’ speech became part of our early efforts to mobilize for these protests, which drew hundreds of people from coast to coast, including support from several multiracial unions.
In January 1994, Jeff was the LBL speaker at our mobilization to stop a racist provocation by the KKK on the MLK holiday weekend in Springfield, Illinois. Covered in snow and buffeted by subzero temperatures, Jeff captured our perspective of “black and red” with his usual eloquence:
“What frightens America’s capitalist rulers most is militant, integrated working-class struggle, black and white together, organized and disciplined, independent of the bosses’ political machine and their waterboys in the trade-union bureaucracy. The only road open to real black freedom is in the building of a workers state—the organization of an egalitarian socialist society where workers of all races directly share in, and determine to what use is put, the wealth which their sweat and sacrifices create!”
The many comrades who witnessed him stir a crowd all recall Jeff’s ability to engage by conveying both his hatred of black oppression and his satisfaction in fighting it. This included the fight to free former Panthers like Geronimo Pratt and Mumia Abu-Jamal, who were framed up and imprisoned for the very courage and militancy that had inspired Jeff in his youth. Jeff’s talents were also on display as chair of the LBL-initiated 2002 rally in Oakland where for the first time organized labor was mobilized in defense of its immigrant brothers and sisters targeted under the “war on terror.”
Defiant and proud, Jeff had a heart as big as his build and a laugh to match. His anger fueled his ability to survive and fight but it also led to some wrong turns in his life. He had an extensive library and was a voracious reader hungry for knowledge, understanding the importance of studying the class battles of the past to apply the lessons to the present. Jeff’s work on party facilities was a testament to his skill as an electrician and painstaking attention to detail. He had more than his share of painful losses, particularly the 1992 murder of his then-companion Martha Phillips in Moscow, where she was a leader in the International Communist League’s fight to reimplant the program of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party against the drive to counterrevolution that destroyed the former Soviet Union.
In 2012, Jeff had a near date with death from meningitis, which he survived not least due to the care and attention of his companion at the time, Margaret. But he continued to suffer from many of the diseases that so disproportionately afflict black men in this racist society. Not long before he died, Jeff had one of his regular phone calls with former Spartacist League National Chairman Jim Robertson, who was among his closest friends. Jeff told Jim that he was doing well, reading a lot, pursuing his piano lessons, getting somewhat out and about and feeling that he had the financial capacity to survive. Thus, his comrades, family and friends can take some solace in that he died feeling relatively content with his life.
We hope that some of the current generation of black youth animated by the fight against cop terror might learn from Jeff’s life and the process he went through to become a communist. Even after he was no longer a party member, Jeff remained part of our common movement for decades, and we always knew he would be there with us when the bugle blew.
The concluding words of Richard Wright’s poem “I’ve Seen Black Hands” are a fitting tribute:
“I am black and I have seen black hands
Raised in fists of revolt, side by side with the white fists of white workers,
And some day—and it is only this which sustains me—
Some day there shall be millions and millions of them,
On some red day in a burst of fists on a new horizon!”
Our obituary for Jeff Higgins (WV No. 1063, 6 March 2015) misidentified the Confederate flag that was burned. It was not the “stars and bars,” which was the official flag of the Confederacy between 1861 and 1863, but the better-known Confederate battle flag. (From WV No. 1064, 20 March 2015.)