Workers Vanguard No. 1051
5 September 2014
From the Archives of Spartacist
Conspiracy and Treachery in Alabama
Spartacist No. 4, May-June 1965
The events that unfolded in Alabama in 1965, half a century ago, attracted worldwide attention. They marked a turning point in the fight for black rights, posing a concrete opportunity to win militants away from Democratic Party liberalism to revolutionary Marxism.
In early 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. launched a voter registration campaign in Selma, Alabama, where only 2 percent of eligible black people were registered. Police jailed King and arrested more than 1,000 protesters, many of them black school children. At a February 18 protest, a state trooper shot and killed 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson while he was protecting his mother from the trooper’s nightstick.
In response, civil rights leaders organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, where infamous Dixiecrat George Wallace sat in the governor’s mansion. On March 7, on the Pettus Bridge spanning the Alabama River in Selma, mounted police and state troopers attacked marchers in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Three days later, by prior arrangement with U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, King turned back from another march to Montgomery in the face of fierce local police resistance. He did so without informing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which organized many young black militants. This set up SNCC activists for police violence.
The situation in Selma escalated. Against the wishes of King and his supporters, SNCC leaders organized protests, which police attacked. Finally, in late March, King did lead a march from Selma to Montgomery. After a rally at the Capitol, Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit, was shot and killed by a group of Klansmen, including FBI informer Gary Rowe.
By this time, the system of Jim Crow segregation in the South had become economically obsolete with the dying out of sharecropping, and it was an embarrassment hampering the U.S. rulers in their Cold War drive against the Soviet Union. As the bourgeoisie on the whole acquiesced to the demand for legal equality in the South, the Lyndon B. Johnson administration offered civil rights legislation and Great Society social welfare programs to head off the exploding protest movement and co-opt black militants into the Democratic Party. In 1964, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. During the Selma campaign, he introduced the Voting Rights Act into Congress.
In the early 1960s, the Revolutionary Tendency, the predecessor of the Spartacist League, had fought inside the rightward-moving Socialist Workers Party (SWP) to seize the historic opportunity presented by the mass struggles for black rights to recruit militants to Trotskyism. The policy of the majority of the SWP, which had been the historic party of Trotskyism in the U.S., was to support whatever leadership emerged from the black movement, from liberal reformers to black nationalists. As a result, the SWP criminally abstained from intervention into the black struggle; notably, it did not send cadres to the South.
In late 1963, the SWP expelled the founding cadres of the Spartacist League. From its early days, the Spartacist tendency raised various transitional demands linking the fight for black liberation to labor’s fight against the capitalist exploiters. A founding document of the Spartacist League, “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom” (1966, reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9), articulated these demands, including the call for a Freedom-Labor Party. This was an expression of working-class political independence and the need to mobilize the ranks of labor under the banner of black freedom.
The following article was part of our effort to intervene into the tumultuous struggles of the civil rights movement.
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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.
Racist Bosses Supported March
The spectacle of Northern “liberal” political bosses, such as [NYC mayor Robert] Wagner and [New York governor Nelson] Rockefeller, shedding crocodile tears over the racist violence and supporting the Selma-to-Montgomery march, corroborates our opinion. For example, Wagner’s representative to the march, Deputy Mayor Paul Screvane, was in direct control of the New York City administration last summer when thousands of his cops terrorized the people of Harlem for four days under the pretext of suppressing a “riot.” And this was merely an intensification of the daily oppression and intimidation of Negroes and Spanish-speaking minorities carried out by the “liberal” big-city machines. (Wagner’s true role was made clear a few weeks ago at a Catholic breakfast-rally attended by 5,600 N.Y. cops featuring ultra-rightist William F. Buckley as speaker. Buckley, in the course of a long invective against the civil-rights movement, praised the “restraint” of the Alabama troopers and pleaded that they had been “provoked” and were justified in attacking the Selma marchers with clubs, cattle-prods and tear gas. For this, amidst enthusiastic “stomping, whistling, and cheering” by “New York’s Finest,” Wagner congratulated Buckley for his “eloquence.”)
Perversion in Selma
Through the King leadership, Lyndon Johnson managed to corral the Selma civil-rights movement into a virtual rally of support for himself and for these same racist bosses in the Democratic Party. In fact, 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., plus Federal troops standing guard along the route. The tempo of mass pressure for democratic rights in the South had made it necessary for Johnson to offer some sort of voting rights law. However, in the granting of this concession, Johnson has made every effort to bend it to the interests of capitalism—and particularly to the benefit of his party. It is clear that Johnson timed his Voting Rights bill and the deployment of troops to coincide intimately with King’s maneuvers in Selma. In this way Johnson, the racist cracker, has made himself appear as a “great white father” and the Federal government as benefactor and defender of the Negro people—a master stroke of cynical dupery.
Celebration on the Left
The mindless enthusing of the [SWP’s] Militant and others over the Selma-to-Montgomery march only attests to the extraordinary political shrewdness of Johnson: firmly directing King’s activities with one hand, staunchly defending “states’ rights” with his other hand, all the while cautioning “both sides”; and then sending in troops and pushing the vote law from the “middle of the road.” In addition to adding its voice to the chorus celebrating the march and the mobilization of Federal troops, the “revolutionary” Militant committed the further betrayal of calling upon Johnson to keep his troops in Alabama, and reiterated its demand to the bourgeoisie that the American troops in Vietnam be sent to Alabama. The grotesqueness of the demand is clear when one recalls what troops are fighting in Vietnam—the notorious Marines and the anti-communist elite “Special Forces”! For “revolutionists” to proclaim that the democratic revolution in the South can be carried out on the bayonets of imperialism, instead of by the organized black and white workers in struggle against such forces, is simple treachery.
Breach in the Democratic Party
In spite of Johnson’s efforts to make his voting rights bill “work” for racist capitalism, it appears that what will emerge is a potentially valuable concession by the power structure to the civil rights movement, giving Negroes in Alabama and several other states the right to vote. Of course the ruling class intends to do all it can to assure that this right is not exercised in a way that would threaten it, i.e., by going outside the Democratic-Republican party framework. In addition, it is vital to note that (as numerous news analysts have pointed out) the bill applies in practice solely to those Southern states in which Democratic machines bolted for [Republican presidential candidate Barry] Goldwater in 1964, while ignoring the voter restrictions of other states, such as Louisiana, which remained loyal to Johnson. Thus, it is obvious that Johnson wishes to pay back Governor Wallace and various other Southern politicians for this defection. Through the services of King and other “policemen,” Johnson feels he has the Southern Negro vote “in the bag” and can afford to push a voting law through Congress—toward pulling the rug out from under his opponents inside the Democratic Party with black votes in 1966 and ’68.
A Southern Labor Party
Recognizing this trap, civil-rights militants in the South must make it their main task to broaden the struggle for democratic rights into a political struggle against Johnson and the two-party fraud, and to work towards an independent party based on the needs of the Negro people and the whole working class. With such an organization, ready to defend itself and its people from the racist attacks of cops, troopers, and hoodlums, black people would have little trouble getting and keeping the right to vote, Federal law or no. Only in the context of organizing for independent political struggle does voter registration have meaning.
In addition, the civil rights movement must realize that it cannot look to the Federal government for “protection” of any sort. If the past history of Federal inaction and collaboration with the segregationist apparatus is not enough proof, the Selma case should make it clear that Johnson will mobilize Federal forces and pass voting-rights bills only when he feels that the interests of the American racist status quo will benefit. Once the Negro people begin to assert their real power and independence, and attempt to use these laws for their own political action, these same troops will be turned against them in the interests of racist oppression. The civil-rights movement will then find itself witch-hunted, its meetings raided and supporters arrested, by the same F.B.I. it is presently beseeching to protect it. The illusion of “non-violence” spread by King and others is a criminal disarming of black people, and is consistent with the role of these “leaders” as agents of the power structure. The movement must scrap these illusions once and for all and begin to organize the Negro people to defend themselves from violence. The movement must look to itself, not to the Federal government, for protection.
By developing now a party commanding respect and winning gains through the organization of black power, yet a party without racial exclusivism, Negro militants will lay the basis for eventual working-class fusion. This fusion will come about when the exploited section of the white South is driven into opposition and in desperation is compelled to forego color prejudice in order to struggle along class lines against its real enemies—the owners of land and industry and their state.
Only Through Struggle
The Selma-Montgomery events must be clearly recognized as an intended perversion of the civil-rights movement. But militants can turn the projected empty voting-rights law against the Democrats, against the maintenance of the capitalist system, the survival of which is inextricably linked with the continued oppression of black people. The key to filling the voting process with content is voting for and building a new party fighting for the political, social and economic rights and needs of the working people.