Workers Vanguard No. 957
23 April 2010
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
The Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement
Break with the Democrats!
For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
We print below the second and final part of a Black History Month Forum given in New York City on February 20 by Workers Vanguard Editorial Board member Paul Cone. Part One appeared in WV No. 956 (9 April).
The Democratic Party’s dominance in national politics was based on the New Deal coalition of Northern liberals and Southern segregationists. Throughout the Great Depression and World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to endorse anti-lynching legislation and the desegregation of the armed forces. Many of his New Deal programs—including Social Security—largely excluded the bulk of the black population in the South. Maintaining this New Deal coalition was a paramount concern for the Democratic Party establishment, up to and including John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s.
But in 1948, President Harry S. Truman adopted a mild civil rights platform at that year’s Democratic Party Convention. Truman was motivated by the Democrats’ Cold War foreign relations concerns, as well as the need to prevent a hemorrhaging of liberal votes to Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party in that year’s presidential election. Wallace, who had been Roosevelt’s vice president from 1941-45 and then Secretary of Commerce, ran for president on the bourgeois Progressive Party ticket on a platform that called for peaceful negotiations with the Soviet Union, repeal of Jim Crow laws and legal guarantees of civil rights. Wallace was supported by the Stalinist Communist Party (CP).
Hubert Humphrey’s speech at the 1948 Democratic Convention marked his national emergence as a liberal icon. He went on to become one of Washington’s most virulent anti-Communist witchhunters. Humphrey sponsored the 1954 Communist Control Act outlawing the CP and proposed to amend the 1950 McCarran Act to set up concentration camps for “subversives” in the U.S.
When Truman won the Democratic presidential nomination, a significant number of Southerners fled the Democrats to form the States Rights Party and nominated South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond for president. (The Democrats had been the racist South’s historic party well before Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, won the 1860 presidential election on a platform opposing the extension of slavery.) With the help of the black vote in Northern urban centers, Truman squeaked out an upset victory. For the most part, the Southern Dixiecrats remained a core part of the Democratic Party until the mid 1960s.
While Thurmond was trying to lead the South out of the Democratic Party, the social democrats, liberal labor tops and the CP adopted the strategy of “realignment”—i.e., driving the Dixiecrats from the party and pressuring the Democrats to fight for black rights. The social democrats were also actively trying to drive the reds out of the unions. Some of these social democrats, such as Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and, later, Michael Harrington, would be long-time advisers to Martin Luther King.
Defending the strategy of “realignment,” UAW president Walter Reuther declared, “We felt that instead of trying to create a third party—a labor party
that we ought to bring about a realignment and get the liberal forces in one party and the conservatives in another” (quoted in David Brody, Workers in Industrial America: Essays in the Twentieth Century Struggle). Labor Action, published by Max Shachtman—who had split with Trotskyism on the eve of the Second World War because he refused to defend the Soviet Union against imperialism—declared in 1956: “The indicated strategy for labor in the coming Democratic Convention is: oust the South from the Democratic party through an all-out struggle for civil rights.” This article was written by left Shachtmanite Hal Draper, whose Independent Socialist Clubs, founded in 1964, were the precursor to the International Socialist Organization (ISO).
Years later, responding to the Black Power advocates in late 1966, Rustin stated, “The winning of the right of Negroes to vote in the South insures the eventual transformation of the Democratic Party
. The Negro vote will eliminate the Dixiecrats from the party and from Congress
.” Rustin called for “a liberal-labor-civil rights coalition which would work to make the Democratic party truly responsive to the aspirations of the poor” (Commentary, September 1966). Meanwhile, the CP’s Claude Lightfoot argued, “ousting the Dixiecrats from the halls of Congress” will “lay the basis for building a broad and pro-democratic and anti-monopoly coalition” (Turning Point in Freedom Road: The Fight to End Jim Crow Now ).
The program of building “unity” with progressive capitalists in an “anti-monopoly” coalition and both working within and pushing from outside to make the Democrats fight remain the hallmark of American reformism.
In the early years of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) insisted on the need for an independent labor party in the fight for black and workers rights. American Trotskyist leader Richard S. Fraser argued against “realignment” reformism: “The differences within the leadership of the Southern Democratic Party are tactical ones of how best to protect white supremacy.” Fraser recognized the revolutionary implications of the fight for black freedom:
“It is the Negro movement which at the present moment holds the key to the whole picture. If the Negroes should succeed in breaking away from the Democratic Party, large sections of the industrial working class in decisive sections of the country would be impelled to do likewise. The result would be the disintegration of the Democratic Party in its strategic Northern centers and its replacement by independent labor political action.”
—“Why Support for the Democrats by Reuther and the CP Helps Preserve White Supremacy,” Militant, 24 September 1956
Ultimately, the Democratic Party did get “realigned.” But not in the way the social democrats foresaw. Passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the Johnson administration would lead to a massive flight of Southern whites to the Republicans—the realization of the Southern strategy first devised by Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election and implemented successfully by Richard Nixon in the 1968 election. The Democrats have won barely any Southern states in national elections since. And as the Democrats spent the next 32 years pandering to that white racist vote, the reformists only deepened their commitment to “fighting the right” through the Democratic Party.
Post-World War II Struggles
The United States emerged from World War II as the pre-eminent imperialist power. Its European capitalist rivals were in tatters, and several of them were discredited and reviled by large sectors of the working masses for their identification with the fascists. Colonial empires were dissolving. Independence movements in turn were inspiring black activists in this country, as would the revolutionary overturns of capitalism in countries like China and Cuba.
Wartime employment and organization into CIO unions provided tremendous advances for black people. At the same time, black veterans returned to a wave of lynchings and race terror North and South. These black workers would form the core of the early civil rights movement—for example, the NAACP grew ninefold between 1940 and 1946.
In posturing as the shining defender of “freedom” and “democracy,” Washington had a distinct handicap. Despite the devastation and the loss of 27 million people during the war, the Soviet bureaucratically degenerated workers state emerged with tremendous international prestige—a military power that had liberated Europe from Nazi Germany, and a rising industrial power as well. The Soviets provided support for national liberation movements in Africa. The U.S. was widely detested as an ally of the British, French and other European colonial powers. The postwar Marshall Plan to rebuild West Europe as a bulwark against the Soviets also played a key role in preserving the colonial empires of U.S. allies—for a time. When the French African colony of Guinea voted for independence in 1958, the U.S. supported France’s retaliations and refused to recognize Sékou Touré’s government. In 1960, the U.S. opposed a United Nations resolution condemning Portugal for forced labor and brutality in its African colonies, and another censuring South Africa for its apartheid policies.
Following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, in which 69 black activists were killed for protesting the hated apartheid pass laws, President Eisenhower waxed on about his concerns for the white South Africans and what he called their “difficult social and political problem.” The Congo won its independence from Belgium that same year and within months Eisenhower resolved to remove its nationalist prime minister Patrice Lumumba, authorizing the CIA to try to eliminate him. Lumumba was executed in early 1961, with U.S., Belgian and UN complicity. During the Kennedy administration the CIA worked closely with South African security forces, in 1962 tipping them off to African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela’s whereabouts, which led to his arrest and 27-year imprisonment.
But the biggest public relations problem for the U.S. rulers was the horrific treatment of black people within their own borders. This was well known to workers, students, guerrilla leaders and government officials from Bombay to Lagos. Even U.S. imperialism’s closest allies recognized the dilemma. In 1947, at the height of the Greek Civil War, with the U.S. pouring military aid to the brutal right-wing forces, Helen Vlachos, writer for the conservative Greek newspaper Kathimerini, traveled to the American South. She related how, after her trip, she could better understand “the bitter answer of a small Negro boy who, when asked by his teacher what punishment he would impose upon Adolf Hitler, said, ‘I would paint his face black and send him to America immediately’” (Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights ).
The opening verbal shot of the Cold War was British prime minister Winston Churchill’s famous 1946 Fulton, Missouri, speech. I say “verbal shot” because the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first real shots. Over 200,000 Japanese people were sent to a fiery death out of racist spite and with the purpose of intimidating the Soviet Union. Churchill, speaking at the segregated Westminster College in Truman’s home state of Missouri, declared that “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” Churchill stated, “We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.” Needless to say, none of these applied to black people in the South. The NAACP, the leading civil rights organization of the day, blasted Churchill’s speech: “It would virtually insure continuation of imperialism.... Great Britain’s policies toward colonial peoples which have been continued by the present labor government can cause only shudders of apprehension as far as Churchill’s proposal of an Anglo-American coalition is concerned” (quoted in Gerald Horne, Black and Red ). The NAACP would soon sing a different tune.
The State Department’s international propaganda efforts had a sort of Joseph Goebbels quality. On one hand, the government prevented black critics from traveling abroad. Most prominent among them was the actor Paul Robeson, a supporter of the CP, whose passport was seized. The State Department also prevented unfavorable books from being stocked in its libraries overseas. At the same time, the United States Information Agency distributed pamphlets abroad, such as The Negro in American Life, that depicted ever-increasing harmony in race relations. This pamphlet boasted of how equality was slowly “nurtured” as compared to post-Civil War Reconstruction’s “authoritarian measures” that had sought to impose equality for the newly freed black slaves in the South.
The State Department sponsored tours of black public figures to back up the lies. Whenever called upon, NAACP executive secretary Walter White would fly overseas to sing the praises of U.S. race relations. Jazz great Dizzy Gillespie toured Africa for the State Department, as basketball star Bill Russell did in 1959. New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who had earlier been elected with CP support, told the 1955 Bandung Conference of “non-aligned states” that his presence gave “living proof to the fact that there is no truth in the Communist charge that the Negro is oppressed in America” (quoted in Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights). Ultimately, Powell’s “reward” for this service was to be stripped of his Congressional seat in the 1960s. Wilson Record’s 1951 book, Race and Radicalism, The Negro and the Communist Party in Conflict, was used by the U.S. in Asia and Africa. Promoting Record’s anti-Communist work, Voice of America broadcasts proclaimed, “This is the real American Negro as he is described by the distinguished Negro sociologist Wilson Record.” Wilson Record was a white man, from Texas.
A number of civil rights leaders joined in the State Department’s efforts. A. Philip Randolph declared his support of the Fair Employment Practices Commission in 1948. He said: “The most powerful political propaganda weapon Russian Communism now holds in its hands is discrimination against Negroes” (quoted in Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight ). Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the NAACP’s founding, Walter Reuther warned that segregation “can be American democracy’s achilles heel in Asia and Africa where the great millions of the human family lives” (quoted in Horne, Black and Red). In 1958, after a federal court judge ordered a moratorium on school desegregation for a couple of years, Martin Luther King, Randolph, the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins and others joined in a letter of protest to Eisenhower, declaring, “In our world-wide struggle to strengthen the free world against the spread of totalitarianism, we are sabotaged by the totalitarian practices forced upon millions of our Negro citizens” (quoted in Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights).
In 1949, when Randolph declared blacks would and should fight in a war against the Soviet Union, the SWP’s Militant (26 December 1949) powerfully answered:
“By this answer he gives a go-ahead signal to the very same ruling class that is responsible for the oppression and segregation of the Negro people at home—for a war that will be a projection on the international field of the same reactionary policies that they are pursuing in the United States.... Not only the Soviet masses but American workers and Negroes have a stake in preserving this system, for its destruction in a war by U.S. imperialism would mean a new lease on life for dying world capitalism. The strengthening of capitalism in turn would mean the strengthening of all its institutions, including the institution of Jim Crow which Negroes are fighting to end.”
The Cold War Attacks on Labor
The year 1946 saw the largest strike wave in U.S. history, followed by an anti-Communist purge of the unions. Key in this purge was Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers (UAW). At the same time, the imperialists, led by the Democratic Truman administration, launched the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
As early as 1947, Truman put in place a loyalty board to screen all government employees and the purge of left-wing militants from the CIO began. That same year Congress enacted the strikebreaking Taft-Hartley Act. In addition to outlawing such labor weapons as secondary strikes, it barred Communists from union office. The anti-Communist witchhunt was launched to regiment the “home front,” to break the back of the militancy of the industrial unions that had been organized in the 1930s.
Some 25,000 union members, many of them key leaders of the CIO organizing drives, were purged from the labor movement, in some cases leading to the destruction of whole unions. Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League supported the expulsions of the CP-led unions from the CIO. The anti-red purge installed a venal, pro-imperialist union leadership that abetted the bosses in fostering racial divisions and would preside over the decimation of the unions in coming decades.
In the South, the red purge drove from the unions a militant generation of working-class fighters for black rights. Ironically, this took place against the backdrop of “Operation Dixie,” the CIO campaign to organize the South. As the experience of the 1930s had shown, this would require combining the fight for unionization with the struggle against Jim Crow. This was anathema to the CIO tops, whose Democratic Party loyalties ruled out any effort that would affront the Dixiecrats.
The anti-Communist purge targeted just about anyone seen as fighting for black rights. This in turn also levied a heavy toll on the unions. Among the questions asked of Dorothy Bailey, a black U.S. Employment Service employee, to “prove” supposed Communist sympathies, was: “Did you ever write a letter to the Red Cross about the segregation of blood?” (quoted in Biondi, To Stand and Fight). She was fired from her job. Black workers were asked, “Have you ever had dinner with a mixed group? Have you ever danced with a white girl?” White workers were asked if they ever entertained blacks in their home. Witnesses before the witchhunting commissions were asked, “Have you had any conversations that would lead you to believe [the accused] is rather advanced in his thinking on racial matters?” (Philip S. Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1973 ).
Under the 1950 Port Security Act (a precursor to the Maritime Security Act adopted a few years back as part of the “war on terrorism”), 50-70 percent of sailors and longshoremen dismissed were black or foreign-born. Purgings of black postal workers by the loyalty board were upheld by the Supreme Court.
In Birmingham, Alabama, the South’s one truly industrial center and accordingly a center of black—and white—proletarian power, there is a long history of investigations into the connections between blacks and reds. By the end of 1956, Virginia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Mississippi had adopted laws and launched investigations to harass the NAACP, while Alabama, Louisiana and Texas banned the organization’s activities outright.
In 1948, the U.S. Justice Department indicted leaders and members of the CP under the thought-crime Smith Act. The SWP defended the CP, which had earlier hailed the Smith Act prosecutions of Trotskyists in the early 1940s for their revolutionary opposition to World War II. Even while under attack during the Cold War, the Stalinists did their best to poison any united action against the witchhunters. Robeson spit on the SWP’s campaign for the “legless veteran” James Kutcher. Kutcher, who had lost both his legs in World War II, was fired in 1948 from his government clerk’s job in Newark, New Jersey, because of his SWP membership.
By the late 1940s, in stark contrast to their statement following Churchill’s speech, the NAACP had dropped even any verbal opposition to colonialism. They had ousted W.E.B. DuBois, one of the organization’s founders, following his support to the Henry Wallace presidential candidacy in the 1948 elections. For the next two decades NAACP head Roy Wilkins and lead counsel Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, shared information about alleged Communists with the FBI. The Harlem Branch of the NAACP had a special “Committee on Subversion.”
Toadying to the forces of racist reaction did little to immunize liberal civil rights leaders from the witchhunters. Ultimately, it only emboldened them. Redbaiting was a common thread throughout the course of the civil rights movement. Despite his pacifism and pro-Democratic Party politics, King was subjected to vicious and degrading FBI surveillance, wiretapping and interference in his personal life. The wiretaps on his phone, as well as on Bayard Rustin’s, were authorized by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
The International Context
There is a lot of anecdotal material on the international effects of various events in the civil rights period and how these events caused a great deal of embarrassment for the U.S. imperialist rulers. I want to give just a few examples surrounding some of the landmark events of that time.
The international effects of the civil rights movement were made clear in the Justice Department’s intervention into a series of civil rights cases, including the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which outlawed segregation in public schools. In the Brown case, the government submitted a “friend of the court” brief that quoted Secretary of State Dean Acheson at length: “The United States is under constant attack in the foreign press
because of various practices of discrimination against minority groups in this country.” Acheson continued, “As might be expected, Soviet spokesmen regularly exploit this situation in propaganda against the United States, both within the United Nations and through radio broadcasts and the press, which reaches all corners of the world.” One young activist of South Africa’s African National Congress offered, “I think America has lost African friendship. As far as I am concerned, I will henceforth look East where race discrimination is so taboo that it is made a crime by the state” (quoted in Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line).
Over the next few years, black students’ attempts to attend all-white schools were met with a vicious racist backlash that again reverberated across the world—most famously in the fall of 1957. When nine black students went to enroll in Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, they were met with lynch mob opposition led by the Capital Citizens’ Council. The day before school opened, Democratic Party governor Orval Faubus called in 250 National Guardsmen, guns in hand, to keep the black students out. As soldiers blocked the school entrance, a racist mob screamed at 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, “Lynch her! Lynch her!” After days of protests, Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division.
As myth has it, this was to “protect” the black students. The call for federal troops to the South was a defining issue throughout the course of the civil rights movement. We are opposed to such calls on the armed forces of the capitalist state. In an early expression of the SWP’s loss of its bearings under the pressure of the Cold War, in October 1955 the party called on the government to send troops to Mississippi to defend blacks. Inside the SWP, Richard S. Fraser objected to the slogan, writing in a March 1956 document, “If we advocate that the Federal Government send them there, we will bear political responsibility for the consummation of the demand.” He noted, “The most probable condition under which the Federal Government will send troops to the South will be that the Negroes hold the initiative in the struggle. As long as the white supremacists have the initiative and the lid of repression is clamped on tightly, the social equilibrium is not upset by a lynching or other terrorist actions.” Fraser presciently added, “When the Negroes take the initiative it is a ‘race riot’ and the public security is threatened and an excellent reason is given to the government to intervene” (“Contribution to the Discussion on the Slogan ‘Send Federal Troops to Mississippi’,” reprinted in “In Memoriam—Richard S. Fraser: An Appreciation and Selection of His Work,” Prometheus Research Series No. 3, August 1990).
This was proven to be the case. Eisenhower’s troops were sent to put down an upheaval of the Little Rock black population when it fought to disperse the racist mob and defend the students. The troops restored “law and order,” preventing the total rout of the retreating racists. In a pattern that would be repeated in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 and Watts, California, in 1965, King praised the troops for enforcing “nonviolence” among the black population. He sent a telegram to Eisenhower “to express my sincere support for the stand you have taken to restore law and order in Little Rock, Arkansas.” He added, “your action has been of great benefit to our nation and to the Christian traditions of fair play and brotherhood” (The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume IV: Symbol of the Movement, January 1957-December 1958 ). Eisenhower had earlier conveyed his notion of brotherhood to Supreme Court justice Earl Warren, telling of his empathy for the segregationists: “These are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit alongside some big overgrown Negroes” (quoted in Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights).
Little Rock reverberated worldwide. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles complained, “this situation was ruining our foreign policy.” Jazz legend Louis Armstrong canceled a propaganda trip to the Soviet Union planned by the State Department. He explained: “The way that they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell.” When then-vice president Richard Nixon visited Venezuela in 1958 his limousine was stoned by an angry crowd who chanted, “Little Rock! Little Rock!”
Dignitaries from Third World countries wooed by Washington were themselves often denied the use of public facilities and subjected to the same racist humiliation as American blacks were on a daily basis. John Kennedy’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, described one such incident:
“Early in the Kennedy years a black delegate to the United Nations landed in Miami on his way to New York. When the passengers disembarked for lunch, the white passengers were taken to the airport restaurant; the black delegate received a folding canvas stool in a corner of the hangar and a sandwich wrapped with wax paper. He then flew on to New York, where our delegation asked for his vote on human rights issues.”
—quoted in Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights
Having been elected in 1960 with no particular political commitment to civil rights legislation, the administrations of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson ushered in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This won John Kennedy and his younger brother, Robert, reputations as champions of black rights. In fact, Kennedy’s primary concerns were prosecuting the Cold War against the USSR and keeping the Democratic Party coalition of Northern liberals and Southern Dixiecrats together. Just a few years after Robert Kennedy signed wiretap orders on King’s phone, Johnson’s attorney general Ramsey Clark would escalate the war against the Black Panthers and other “black extremists.” In 1992, Clark went on to found the International Action Center, among whose leading spokesmen are members of the Workers World Party (WWP).
In Birmingham in 1963, the world watched police official Bull Connor and his stormtroopers: police dogs were set loose upon black protesters, while firehoses set at pressures sufficient to strip off tree bark hurled children up against walls. In response, the black masses fought back with sticks, rocks, knives and bottles against the racists in the streets. It was at that moment—and not before—that Kennedy sent troops to bases outside the city and announced he had taken steps to federalize the Alabama National Guard.
In the wake of black self-defense efforts against Klan and cop terror in Birmingham, Kennedy made vague suggestions of civil rights legislation. The 1963 March on Washington was an attempt to channel the mass struggle for black rights into pressure politics for the passing of such a civil rights bill and to cement ties with the Democratic Party. But when Kennedy called the civil rights movements’ “representative leaders” into the Oval Office, they quickly changed their minds about seeking to pressure Kennedy, who they saw was dragging his feet. The destination of the march was changed from the White House to the Lincoln Memorial. The march leaders deleted a “statement to the president” and a call to confront Congress from the march handbook. Participation was denied to “subversive” groups and speeches were censored.
Malcolm X rightly condemned the march as a “farce.” Overseas it generated substantial goodwill for the administration. But this didn’t last very long. The following month the Klan bombed the 6th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young black girls. When an embassy official invited a Cameroon government representative to a screening of a film on the March on Washington, he was asked, “Don’t you have a film of the church dynamiting, too?”
The following year, in 1964, months after Kennedy’s assassination, his successor Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act, formally eliminating segregation in schools and public accommodations. In early 1965, Johnson ordered the first bombing attacks on Vietnam, sparking the initial antiwar protests and again revealing the brutal face of U.S. imperialism around the world. Days after enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Watts erupted after the arrest of a black motorist, as did ghettos across the country over the next three years, an expression of the frustrated expectations generated by civil rights agitation. These upheavals marked the beginning of the end of the civil rights period.
The End of the Civil Rights Era
After the ghetto upheavals in Harlem and Watts, when it was clear the explosions were part of a pattern and not isolated events, it also became clear that King’s “turn the other cheek” ethos had no relevance to the embittered urban black masses. 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. In this sense, therefore, black power is class power, and should be supported by all socialist forces” (“Black Power—Class Power,” reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised], “What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism” [September 1978]). 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).
Unfortunately, this prognosis was proven to be the case. And not simply in the South. Beginning with Carl Stokes in Cleveland in 1967, black mayors came to be installed in Northern cities to contain the seething discontent of the ghetto masses. Over the years, a layer of black elected officials rose to prominence by cynically selling themselves as agents of “change” from within the system. In Chicago, Harold Washington, elected in 1983 as the city’s first black mayor, slashed jobs and services and oversaw Chicago’s murderous police department. In 1985, Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode oversaw the FBI/cop bombing of the MOVE commune, killing eleven people, five of them children. In 1989, David Dinkins, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America led by Michael Harrington, became the first black mayor of New York City. He promised to tame the largely black city workers unions with his pledge to Wall Street: “They’ll take it from me.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, while co-opting a layer of civil rights activists, the capitalist rulers also waged a war of police terror against black radicals, particularly targeting the Black Panther Party. The Panthers originated at just about the same time the SNCC militants were embracing Black Power. In Oakland, California, a group of young black militants led by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale appeared on the scene, dressed in black leather jackets and berets and lawfully carrying rifles. Within the space of one short year, the Panthers would win the allegiance of thousands.
The Panthers represented the best of a generation of young militants who sought a revolutionary solution to the oppression of black people. Despite their militancy and personal courage, the Panthers’ program was one of black nationalism—disdainful of the only force for revolutionary change, the multiracial working class. Their isolation left them especially prey for the brutal COINTELPRO vendetta. Within a few short years, the Panthers of Newton and Seale would run for office for the petty-bourgeois Peace and Freedom Party and then the Democratic Party.
The Myth of MLK’s Radicalism
This brings me back to why understanding historical context is so important. The unique circumstances—both domestically and internationally—that set the stage for the civil rights movement’s struggle for legal equality have long been removed. The desperate conditions of black people today, in the context of the deteriorating conditions of the entire working class, underline that any serious fight for black rights must take as its starting point the need to uproot the capitalist order. Today, black workers remain a strategic part of the working class.
For a number of years, we have seen groups raising the call for a “new civil rights movement.” One that immediately comes to mind is the By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) group initiated by the fake-Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers League in California in 1995. On the one hand, the call is just plain stupid—you cannot suck a movement out of your thumb. Politically, it is an appeal to revive the same type of liberal pressure politics that cut off the revolutionary potential of militant black activists in the 1960s in service of the Democratic Party. But in this, BAMN is not alone.
The same political perspective is seen in the reformist left’s adulation of King. About a year ago, while poring through some left-liberal and self-proclaimed socialist papers and Web sites, I was struck (maybe naively) at how often King was cited as the authority for whatever cause the liberals and reformists were promoting. The invocation of King is a naked appeal to the not-so-progressive wing of the bourgeoisie: Dear Congressman, this cause (whatever it is) is so wholesome that even King would support us—you should too.
A United for Peace and Justice “Action Alert” (19 January 2009) on the U.S. Labor Against the War Web site declared: “We honor King’s legacy by continuing to work for a new foreign policy which recognizes that there are no military solutions in Gaza or Iraq and Afghanistan.” Socialist Action declared, “Dr. King...spoke on behalf of all the exploited and oppressed
. Dr. King’s fight is still before us, as is his inspiration” (January 2004).
Nobody has pushed this more tirelessly than the WWP and the ISO. King’s picture is plastered all over the WWP Web site and posters for their “Bail Out the People” campaign. 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.” They add: “This contradiction pushed King toward...an anti-capitalist struggle” (Workers World online, 3 September 2008).
The ISO’s Brian Jones chimes in that “in that last year of his life,” King “campaigned for radical, social-democratic reforms that are still far beyond what the Democratic Party is prepared to accept” (Socialist Worker online, 19 January 2009). Normally a little slicker, the centrist Internationalist Group (IG) got on the bandwagon in their Internationalist (May 2008) report on the 1 May 2008 ILWU longshore workers’ port shutdown against the occupation of Iraq. The IG wrote without any comment, “The crowd was most animated when actor Danny Glover read from Martin Luther King’s speech against the Vietnam War calling for a ‘radical revolution in values’ and restructuring of the U.S. economy.”
The May Day action, a powerful demonstration of the kind of working-class action that is needed against the imperialist occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, was politically undermined by the ILWU bureaucracy. The bureaucrats disappeared the occupation of Afghanistan, widely supported by the Democrats, and channeled the anger of the ranks against the Iraq war and their desire to defend their union into “national unity” patriotism and support for Obama. (See “ILWU Shuts West Coast Ports on May Day,” WV No. 914, 9 May 2008.) The acclaim given King by Glover and the ILWU tops exemplified the politics of the event.
King was explicitly clear that in the era of Black Power with angry black youths and workers groping for a revolutionary solution to their oppression, he had been compelled to oppose the Vietnam War because of growing criticism of his hypocritical appeals for “nonviolence.” In response to the fake socialists who concoct an “anti-imperialist” King, I’ll let King speak for himself: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” In a speech at Riverside Church, King chastised Johnson for suppressing Vietnam’s “only noncommunist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church” (“Beyond Vietnam,” 4 April 1967). He issued the timeworn appeal for “reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war,” this being “our greatest defense against Communism” (Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? ).
The ISO’s Jones lavishes praise on King’s 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here? In that book the “anti-capitalist” King urged America’s rulers to “seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of Communism grows and develops.” King bemoaned the “sad fact” that “comfort” and “complacency” have “driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit.”
That the ISO & Co. seek to boost King’s credentials by portraying him as a “democratic socialist”—which he wasn’t—certainly tells a lot about them. The whole purpose of social democracy is to tie the working class to its “own” rulers, to inculcate among the workers the inviolability of the capitalist state, to contain radicalization and prevent revolutionary upsurge in times of social crisis. Social democracy is a key prop of capitalist rule—a lesson paid for in the blood of workers and imperialism’s colonial slaves around the world.
Today, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and its destruction has been accompanied by a retrogression in consciousness, albeit unevenly, to the point where politically advanced workers no longer identify their struggles with the goals of socialism. King got his wish.
But things change. The American bourgeoisie’s class war on the working masses has been so one-sided for years that young militants today tend to see only the painful and pathetic reality of the racist ideology that pervades all sectors of society in “normal” times. But when powerful social struggles erupt, these attitudes are rapidly swept aside by the developing consciousness of shared class interest. This has been borne out time and time again in U.S. history. Socialist revolution is the only means for delivering the exploited and oppressed from the capitalist bondage that took the place of the chains of slavery. And in that struggle, black workers will play a vanguard role as the section of the proletariat with the least to lose and the most to gain from a fundamental reshaping of the existing social order.
Our study of the civil rights period is critical to exposing those who have stood and continue to stand as props to the capitalist system, obstacles to the development of revolutionary consciousness. So, I will 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.”