Workers Vanguard No. 1061

6 February 2015


From the Archives of Marxism

On Federal Troops in Little Rock

To commemorate Black History Month, we reprint a 10 October 1957 letter by Richard S. Fraser to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) Political Committee opposing the party’s craven support to the dispatch of federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas. In the wake of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ordering the desegregation of public schools, Dixiecrat Democratic Party politicians unleashed the forces of “law and order” as well as extra-legal terror by KKK-infested lynch mobs to attack black people fighting for equal rights across the South. The crisis reverberated internationally, chipping away at the U.S. government’s democratic veneer and posture as top cop of freedom at the very height of the Cold War.

A flash point came in September 1957 when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus ordered the state militia to draw guns on nine black students who attempted to enter Little Rock’s Central High School. Howling racist mobs surrounded the students and threatened to lynch them. Later that month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne. The big lie that has been accepted as official history is that the federal government stepped in to defend the helpless local black people. The true story is that Eisenhower sent in the troops to crush a local upheaval that included the organization of black self-defense against racist terror. As the Amsterdam News (28 September 1957), a New York black newspaper, headlined: “Ike Moves as Negroes Hit Back.”

The issue of looking to the federal government to defend the oppressed black masses was hotly debated inside the then-Trotskyist SWP. The party and its newspaper, the Militant, had first called on the federal government to send troops to Mississippi two years earlier. Dick Fraser opposed that call and, in a 1956 document titled “Contribution to the Discussion on the Slogan ‘Send Federal Troops to Mississippi’,” noted presciently that “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.... 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.”

In the early civil rights movement, the SWP tailed the middle-class preachers like Martin Luther King Jr., who opposed black self-defense and sought to contain the struggle within the framework of reliance on the federal government. King sent a telegram to Eisenhower “to express my sincere support for the stand you have taken to restore law and order in Little Rock.” The call for federal troops was an important signpost in the SWP’s degeneration to centrism (revolutionary in words, reformist in deeds) and later abject reformism and explicit junking of a Trotskyist program.

Dick Fraser was a veteran Trotskyist and tenacious fighter who illuminated a program of revolutionary integration: the integration of black people into an egalitarian socialist society. Fraser’s lifetime of revolutionary scholarship on the black question sprang from his conviction that to forge a program for black liberation, it is necessary to study the social forces that created the institutions of racial oppression in the U.S. Fraser showed that the systematic subjugation of black people is too inextricably bound up with the historical development and economic, social and political reality of the American capitalist system to permit a reformist solution or separation of the struggle for black freedom from emancipating the working class as a whole.

Although we had political differences with Dick Fraser, we credit him as our teacher on the nature of racial oppression in the U.S. More of his writings can be found in “In Memoriam, Richard S. Fraser: An Appreciation and Selection of His Work” (Prometheus Research Series No. 3, 1990) and in “For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Question,” (Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised], “What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism”).

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The editorial on the action by the Federal government in sending troops to Little Rock, published on the front page of the Militant of September 20th, brings the dispute over this question into sharp focus.

This episode has posed the fundamental question point-blank: shall the struggle in the South be waged in abject dependence upon the government, or independently by the masses?

The entire Negro community of Little Rock, numbering 25,000, was poised and ready for action. Their eagerness to participate in the struggle at times overflowed in dramatic eruptions, as testified to by the Negro press. Moreover, this mass eagerness occurred within a favorable relationship of forces.

The Negro middle class leaders refused the masses any part in the struggle, demanding that they cease aspiring to act and to accept a passive role meekly. Having betrayed the masses’ desire for action, the leadership appealed instead to the government to solve the crisis.

The demand for Federal Troops to the South is revealed in action, not as an adjunct to but as a substitute for the organized action of the masses and is counterposed directly to it.

The editorial sees in this situation a “Valuable Precedent”—“For the use of federal troops in Little Rock constitutes a precedent for the Negro people that the capitalist politicians—much as they will squirm and try to weasel out of—will never be able to get away from. At each crucial stage in the fight for the enforcement of the rights they now possess on paper, the Negro people will be in a position to demand federal intervention if they need it....”

If they need it? Who is to determine if they need it? The editors of the Militant seem quite willing to take the word of the middle class leadership whether the Negro people need Federal soldiers—and this leadership will continue to prefer governmental action to mass action, as has been their tradition.

This perspective for the struggle is justified by the Militant in the following manner: “The resulting political pressure...can blow the Republican-Democratic political monopoly sky high.” Such a formula provides a political justification for continued dependence on the government and for perpetuation of the policy of no organization of the masses.

Spokesmen for the P.C. [Political Committee] convention resolution have repeatedly claimed that one of its central points was the question of mass action vs. dependence on the government. The editorial in question, however, illustrates the contradictory character of the resolution which at one and the same time calls for a class struggle policy in the Negro movement, but also endorses parts of the consciously collaborationist and anti-revolutionary program of the middle class leadership.

I request that this letter be circulated to the N.C. [National Committee] as soon as possible.