Workers Vanguard No. 1071
10 July 2015
Racist Terror and the Legacy of Slavery
The coldblooded massacre of nine black people in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church by a 21-year-old white supremacist is a searing manifestation of the racist terror and reaction at the heart of American capitalism. As Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black radical and former Black Panther who was framed up and sentenced to death for his defiance of this racist order, declared in a radio commentary from prison: “White supremacy is the mother’s milk of Charleston, of South Carolina, of the South, of America. For surely as slavery funded and built America, the underlying principle was the devaluation, exploitation and oppression of Black life. It’s the only thing that makes the church massacre in Charleston even remotely intelligible.”
Bourgeois politicians from across the political spectrum, from America’s first black president to the son of archsegregationist Strom Thurmond, have rushed to exploit the killings, cynically promoting “racial healing” and Christian charity and calling to “forgive your enemies.” For them, the bloodbath in Charleston was a chance to divert attention from the near-daily killings of unarmed black men at the hands of racist cops and to quell the protests against their gendarmes.
President Barack Obama promised that the FBI and the local police would “make sure that justice is served.” It was local police who just three months ago killed 50-year-old Walter Scott in North Charleston, shooting him five times in the back. Likewise, in the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, South Carolina highway patrolmen gunned down students protesting segregation, killing three and injuring 27. Fascists like Dylann Roof and vigilantes like George Zimmerman, the killer of Trayvon Martin, are not exceptions to the rule of racist law and order but auxiliaries to the far more powerful murder apparatus of the capitalist state—the cops, the prisons and the military. These state forces are the main source of racist violence.
In the same statement, Obama seized on outrage over the massacre to push for more gun control, arguing: “Innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.” No! Innocent people were killed because they were unarmed and defenseless in the face of a fascist murderer who was emboldened by the racism that pervades every aspect and institution of American society.
Gun control laws are a means to enforce a monopoly of violence in the hands of the capitalist state. Throughout U.S. history, they have been used to prevent black people from being able to defend themselves against race terrorists. In 1961, Robert F. Williams, the head of the NAACP in Monroe, North Carolina, was hounded out of the country for organizing a defense squad against racist attacks. The Klan and other fascist killers never have any problem procuring their weapons. On the contrary, the racist murderers were often assisted in their bloody work by FBI agents, such as in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.
It took a bloody Civil War, the Second American Revolution, to smash the chains of black chattel slavery. Two hundred thousand black troops, guns in hand, played a decisive role in crushing the Confederacy. But the promise of black freedom was betrayed by the Northern bourgeoisie, which allied with the Southern propertied classes against the aspirations of the black freedmen. It will take a third American Revolution—a proletarian socialist revolution that breaks the chains of capitalist wage slavery—to finish the Civil War.
“The Cradle of Secession”
The port of Charleston was the main entry point for black African slaves brought into the U.S. It was also in Charleston Harbor that the opening shots of the Civil War were fired against the Union garrison at Fort Sumter. Reverence for the heritage of slavery is still officially sanctioned in Charleston. A giant statue of John C. Calhoun, the infamous 19th-century apostle of slavery and white supremacy, looms less than a block from the Emanuel AME Church, which is located on the main thoroughfare—Calhoun Street. A June 23 article by Jon Schwarz on The Intercept website (“Five More Things South Carolina Can Do After Taking Down the Confederate Flag”) quoted the memoir of Charleston native and activist Mamie Garvin Fields: “Blacks took that statue personally. As you passed by, here was Calhoun looking you in the face and telling you, ‘N----r, you may not be a slave, but I am back to see you stay in your place’.”
The Confederate battle flag still flies at the South Carolina state capitol in Columbia. At the time of her election, Nikki Haley, the virulently labor-hating Republican governor, defended the flag of slavery as a “tradition that people feel proud of.” But with pictures of Roof displaying the flag flashed around the world, Governor Haley and other right-wing Republicans have joined a chorus calling for the Confederate flag to be removed from statehouses and other official displays across the South. This is pure hypocrisy aimed at trying to quell outrage over the church murders, which were carried out under the banner of the Confederacy.
The capitalist politicians might be whistling a different tune but it still is Dixie. Haley refused appeals from the family of the murdered Emanuel AME Church pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney (who was a State Senator and a prominent opponent of the Confederate flag), to take down the banner while his body lay in state at the capitol. In a final racist humiliation, the horse-drawn carriage transporting Pinckney’s coffin was forced to pass through the capitol grounds as the Confederate battle flag flew overhead.
While Haley and the South Carolina legislature talk about removing the flag some day, Bree Newsome, a 30-year-old black activist decided action could not wait. She heroically scaled the 30-foot pole on June 27 and pulled the flag down. Newsome, along with James Ian Tyson, who assisted her, was arrested, and the pair now face up to three years in prison while the Confederate flag was immediately put back up. We demand that all charges against Newsome and Tyson be dropped. Down with the flag of slavery!
There has been a racist backlash against calls to get rid of the racist flag. Charleston longshoremen told Workers Vanguard that a caravan of cars and trucks drove through North Charleston with Confederate flags flying. The race terrorists of the KKK have announced a rally at the Columbia statehouse on July 18. That provocation ought to be stopped by a mass mobilization centered on the power of the labor movement from the Charleston area and supporters nationally, acting in defense of black people and in their own self-defense.
Organized labor, especially the powerful Charleston International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1422, a bastion of labor/black power in the open shop South, was prominent in January 2000 when tens of thousands of people rallied in Columbia to demand that the Confederate flag be removed from atop the capitol. The reality of the racist terror which that flag stands for is all too well known to members of Local 1422. Close relatives of Local 1422 members were among those slain in Emanuel AME Church; other longshoremen’s relatives, including Walter Scott, Denzel Curnell and Asberry Wylder, have died at the hands of trigger-happy Charleston-area cops.
Local 1422 members themselves have been viciously attacked by forces of the racist capitalist state. Only days after the January 2000 protest against the Confederate flag, club-wielding cops brutally assaulted longshoremen who were picketing to defend their jobs against the use of non-union labor, arrested a number of workers and prosecuted five of them. The potential of Local 1422 to shut down the Port of Charleston, combined with an impressive campaign of solidarity from waterfront unions internationally, backed down the union-busters, and the Charleston Five were saved from the threat of years in prison.
There have been some recent protests in Columbia against the flag, including one on July 4 of some 1,500 people. However, despite the living links between the labor movement and the black community, there has been no significant labor mobilization to protest the church massacre and no sign of labor’s power being mobilized to stop the announced Klan rally. To date, the only statement by the South Carolina AFL-CIO encouraged “all AFL-CIO members to say a prayer.” This appeal to kneel down in the face of racist terror is an expression of the prostration of trade-union misleaders in the face of the one-sided class war that has ravaged the unions across the country and furthered the increasingly vicious oppression of black people, immigrants and the poor.
Honor Denmark Vesey!
The Emanuel AME Church was deliberately chosen as the site for Roof’s murderous rampage. It is the oldest black congregation in the South, established in 1816. Among its founders was Denmark Vesey, a skilled carpenter and former slave from the Caribbean who was deeply impressed by the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804—the largest and most successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere. In 1822, Vesey, along with 34 others, was hanged for planning a widespread slave revolt, and the church building was burned to the ground, in accordance with the laws of the slave South. A monument to Vesey was unveiled in February 2014 after 18 years of obstruction by apologists for the slavocracy. But the monument is tucked away out of sight in Hampton Park. It deserves pride of place in the center of town—the monument to the racist pig Calhoun should be knocked down to make room for it!
The heritage of militant black resistance expressed by the example of Denmark Vesey is the opposite of the black preachers and political leaders of today. Following the liberal-pacifist tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., what passes for black leadership today consists of keeping oppressed black people politically tied to the Democrats and docile before the forces of racist reaction. These leaders’ role is to keep a lid on the righteous anger of black workers and youth who are fed up with daily racist cop terror, unemployment and misery.
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
Black slavery was smashed through the Civil War; legal Jim Crow segregation was overturned through the civil rights struggles. Yet racial oppression remains a central pillar of U.S. capitalist class rule, with the bulk of the black population forcibly segregated at the bottom of society. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” has become a rallying cry for young protesters against racist terror. In the eyes of the capitalist ruling class, black lives don’t matter a damn. Schools are as segregated as ever, and for black youth they are often little more than holding pens along a path into the system of mass incarceration which today ensnares fully one in three young black men. Public housing is either rotting away or has been demolished to make way for “gentrification” and other projects that line the pockets of construction magnates and property developers.
What jobs are available are more often than not temporary, part-time and pay only poverty wages. South Carolina’s rock-bottom wages and lack of unions have spurred manufacturers like Boeing, BMW and Volvo to set up shop there (as others have across the South) in search of maximum profits. Union manufacturing jobs have been destroyed in the North as companies moved to the open shop South, and now the South’s anti-union “right-to-work” model has spread north to former bastions of union power like Michigan and Wisconsin. Through all of this, workers’ pay, benefits and conditions have been driven down while capitalists’ profits have skyrocketed. Black workers, always the last hired and first fired, have been hit hardest in the war against labor.
Black rights and labor rights have always either gone forward together or fallen back separately. This fact is nowhere more sharply seen than in the open shop South. The last campaign by the labor tops to organize the South was the grotesquely named “Operation Dixie” following World War II. It was quickly shipwrecked on the rocks of Cold War red purges, racism and the union bureaucrats’ ties to the Democratic Party, which rendered them incapable of waging a fight against the white, Dixiecrat power structure.
Over recent decades, the trade-union misleaders’ class-collaborationism, including reliance on the capitalist Democratic Party, has led to one defeat after another. It is necessary to forge a new, class-struggle leadership of the unions. Such a leadership would not only fight to organize the unorganized, including in the South, but also seek to mobilize the power of the working class in the fight against racial oppression. Building that new union leadership requires political independence from the Democrats and all other parties of the capitalist class enemy.
The only path to black liberation is through uprooting the basis of black oppression—the whole capitalist system of exploitation and racial oppression. To bring about genuine equality for black people requires the destruction of the existing class relations and the conquest of state power by the multiracial working class. It is the industrial proletariat, with its heavy concentration of black workers providing a link to the anger of the ghettos, which has the social power to end the rule of racist capitalism through socialist revolution. The crucial task is to build the revolutionary workers party that can lead the proletariat to victory. In recognition of the intimate links between racist oppression and all-sided reaction throughout this country’s history, that party will emblazon on its banners: Finish the Civil War! For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!