Workers Vanguard No. 1004
8 June 2012
Reformists Knifed 1960 NYC Woolworths Protests
The photo and caption to the article “For Black Trotskyism” in WV No. 1002 (11 May)—an excerpt from the July 1963 document of the same name by the Revolutionary Tendency, a minority faction in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and forerunner of the Spartacist League—showed a 13 February 1960 picket line in New York City against Woolworth’s. This protest was in solidarity with the Southern sit-in campaign against segregation at lunch counters that began on 1 February 1960 at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. The sit-in campaign, by mobilizing large numbers of young militants in direct action, was a watershed in the civil rights movement. Our readers may be interested to know about the role of the social democrats and Stalinists in moving to squelch the solidarity movement in the North, which we wrote about previously in the article “Socialists and the 1960 Woolworth Sit-Ins” (WV No. 579, 2 July 1993).
On 15 February 1960, supporters of the Young Socialist (YS) newspaper, who in April 1960 would found the Young Socialist Alliance and formally affiliate with the then-Trotskyist SWP, launched a national student campaign of picket-line protests in support of the Southern activists. The young socialists formed an ad hoc New York Youth Committee for Integration. Calling to “Boycott Woolworth’s,” the YS campaign immediately got a powerful response, with committees and pickets soon spreading to Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Francisco and other cities. But the picket-line movement against racist Jim Crow quickly ran into opposition in New York from liberal and pacifist groups like the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), as well as the National Student Association (NSA) and the Young People’s Socialist League, which was affiliated with the anti-Communists of the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation (SP-SDF).
These groups, abetted by the reformist Communist Party (CP), sought to demobilize the mass pickets with diversionary rallies, pledges of “nonviolence” and redbaiting while attempting to wrest leadership of the struggle away from the Trotskyists. Spearheading the charge was A. Philip Randolph, the veteran liberal civil rights leader associated with the SP-SDF. Waving a copy of Young Socialist over his head at a March 26 rally in Harlem, Randolph “declared that he would prefer no picket demonstrations at all to united demonstrations with ‘Communists’.” (The Militant, 11 April 1960).
Meanwhile, the NSA and the CP Stalinists had packed a meeting of the Youth Committee and voted to dissolve it. The liberals then formed a “Metropolitan Students for Non-Violent Civil Rights Action” group that did nothing for three weeks before finally holding a small picket of ten white students. At one of their pickets, the CP urged the cops to arrest a YS salesman and Youth Committee members who had come to help strengthen the line. Against such sabotage, the Trotskyists regrouped what was left of the Youth Committee and continued to wage a militant campaign in New York and elsewhere. The YS took up a call by Randolph for a mass rally on May 17, the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision formally outlawing segregation in the public schools. The Trotskyists organized pickets in several cities, and the youth committee submitted 10,000 boycott pledges to Woolworth’s headquarters in NYC.
In the spring of 1960, the liberal civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin and Randolph, joined by the SP-SDF and CP, pushed a strategy of begging the two capitalist parties to put some verbiage in favor of civil rights in their 1960 election platforms. They all threw support to John F. Kennedy’s Democratic Party, with its racist Dixiecrat component in the South. Forcing the Trotskyists out of leadership of the Woolworth’s campaign was part of their efforts to contain the movement for civil rights within the framework of capitalist electoral politics.