Workers Vanguard No. 933
27 March 2009
On the Civil Rights Movement
1 March 2009
I wish to make some comments about the article “Communist Organizing in the Jim Crow South” (WV No. 925 [21 November 2008]). First, in the section entitled “The Civil Rights Movement.” There is a self-contradictory statement that “
from its onset, the civil rights movement was dominated by a black middle-class leadership allied to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The aim of liberal-pacifist leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Farmer was to pressure the Democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to grant formal, legal equality. Yet the myth of the civil rights movement as monolithically pacifist and dominated by King ignores that the struggle against segregation also produced more militant forces, such as Robert F. Williams, who advocated and practiced armed self-defense
The predecessor to the Spartacist League, the Revolutionary Tendency of the Socialist Workers Party, stated in 1963 that:
“SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] is the most viable part of the southern civil rights movement. Its cadre continually come into conflict with NAACP, CORE [Congress of Racial Equality] and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (King). Its statement of purpose is a credo of non-violence, but people of different ideologies are not excluded. SNCC does not have a worked out program but their workers condemn the ‘black bourgeoisie’ and orient toward the poor masses. They have very close ties with SDS, which is practically dominated by YPSL, and with SCEF. SNCC is the left wing of the southern civil rights movement, and it is a movement which we should be a part of.”
—“The Negro Struggle and the Crisis of Leadership,” reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5R
The main Civil Rights leadership struggled to bring SNCC into line but failed to dominate it. By the time of the “I Have a Dream” speech, King was largely discredited, and most of the old-line Civil Rights leadership had little influence over the militants of both SNCC and CORE. That failure opened the road for the adoption of the Black Power slogan. SNCC broke from non-violence, and the Deacons for Defense caused the CORE leadership to begin to talk about “protected non-violence.” This is not meant to present the militants of SNCC and CORE as revolutionaries (which they were not). They showed a leftward moving impulse, not dominated by King, etc., and were open to revolutionaries.
The noting of Robert Williams, an early heroic figure in the Civil Rights movement, without mention of the mass movement of the 1960s tends to have the effect of re-enforcing the myth of domination by the mainline civil rights leadership. Williams was a relatively isolated individual. It was the contradictions that existed in the civil rights movement as a result of the movement of the black masses that allowed the RT to argue for intervention, and allowed for the early SL to intervene. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was more than militants who were “also produced” as the article states.
Secondly, from the bombing of his house during the Montgomery bus boycott until his assassination, King’s non-violence had little to do with pacifism and much more to do with control of the black masses for the liberal Democrats. The cartoon from Muhammad Speaks reprinted with “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom”  aptly depicts this by having King say to someone being beaten by the cops in Watts: “If there is any blood spilled in the streets, let it be our blood!” In his speech “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” , given after he received the Nobel Peace Prize, King condemns only the war in Vietnam! He does not oppose war in general, but calls for a “revolution of values” that would allow for the end of wars. His position on war is no different from thousands of preachers. He says that the Vietnam war interfered with the anti-poverty program of LBJ, and, by the way, war is terrible. The problem with genuine pacifism is that it is dumb and calls for individual action (“moral witness”). King chose to use the non-violent ideas that he got in discussions with the right-wing social-democrat Bayard Rustin to try to keep the black masses corralled.
Lastly, the article takes a swipe at the founding of black colleges in the South, saying that they “...were founded by church institutions to primarily train clergy and teachers, the core of the black petty bourgeoisie.” While these colleges are today certainly cradles of the “talented tenth,” they were founded in a collaboration between missionaries and the Freedmen’s Bureau for the purpose of teaching former slaves to read. It had been illegal to educate slaves in most of the South under slavery. As a result, there was a tremendous thirst for knowledge (mainly of the bible) by former slaves at the end of the Civil War. According to Eric Foner in Reconstruction:
“In the broadest sense, the schools established by the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Northern aid societies, to quote the American Freedmen’s Union Commission, aimed ‘to plant a genuine republicanism in the southern States’.” (p. 147)
At the time, that was a part of trying to complete the Civil War.
We thank Joe for his letter. Readers are also referred to the Spartacist pamphlet Black History and the Class Struggle No. 2 (1985), titled “On the Civil Rights Movement,” which includes the articles “Bourgeoisie Celebrates King’s Liberal Pacifism” (reprinted from WV No. 207, 26 May 1978) and “SNCC: ‘Black Power’ and the Democrats” (reprinted from WV No. 327, 8 April 1983).