Workers Vanguard No. 1113
2 June 2017
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
Confederate Monuments: Tear Em All Down!
To the jubilant cheers of hundreds, with trumpets blaring, the statue of slaveholder and Confederate general Robert E. Lee was plucked from its pedestal in New Orleans on May 19. For 133 years, the statue obscenely towered over the heart of this majority-black city. It was the last of four monuments that the New Orleans city council voted to remove following the coldblooded massacre in 2015 of nine black people in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church by Dylann Roof, a white-supremacist who had posed with Confederate flags and other racist paraphernalia in photos. In recent weeks, New Orleans also brought down statues of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, P.G.T. Beauregard, a Confederate general, and a monument to the Battle of Liberty Place.
The latter monument was erected in 1891 to glorify members of the White League who died fighting federal troops in the battle. The racists were defeated after they attempted to overthrow the Republican Reconstruction government in New Orleans in 1874. Until 1993, the plaque at the monument’s base commemorated the victory of “white supremacy in the South.” In 1873 the White League, in one of the bloodiest massacres in the Reconstruction era, murdered an estimated 280 black people in the Louisiana town of Colfax. In 1951, the state placed a highway marker celebrating that massacre. To this day, it still stands.
Monuments to the Confederate slaveowners who were defeated in the Civil War, as well as the flag of Dixie, are a vile celebration of black chattel slavery and Jim Crow. They represent a racist affront to black people and serve as rallying points for resurgent racist terror. The fascist “former” Klansman, David Duke, and groups like the KKK have held rallies over the years at the Battle of Liberty Place monument. The racist backlash against the dismantling of the Confederate monuments has brought out a rabble of fascists and defenders of the “Old South,” some brandishing firearms at rallies. It is a statement of the lethal threat represented by these forces that the first of the New Orleans monuments had to be taken down in the dead of night by masked workers in bulletproof vests protected by police snipers. Across the South, racists have rallied to defend their revolting “heritage.” On May 24, the Alabama governor signed into law a bill protecting Confederate monuments.
In Mississippi, state lawmaker Karl Oliver called for the lynching of those removing Confederate monuments. This is no idle threat at a time when racist vigilantes are carrying out deadly attacks aimed at terrorizing black people and other minorities. On May 20, Richard Collins III, a 23-year-old black student, was killed on the University of Maryland campus by a man belonging to an “alt-right” Facebook group. A week before, “alt-right” fascist Richard Spencer led a group of dozens carrying torches and chanting Nazi slogans to protest plans to remove a statute of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Throughout the country, the race-terrorists have been emboldened by the unabashed racism and anti-immigrant vitriol emanating from the Trump White House. The fascist threat must be crushed through mass, integrated, disciplined mobilizations based on the social power of the multiracial working class.
New Orleans and Racism U.S.A.
For many years, activists in New Orleans have been fighting to take down Confederate monuments. Democratic Party mayor Mitch Landrieu now proclaims himself a crusader against the Confederacy and its legacy. In fact, he presides over a city that is a racist hell. His cops mete out wanton brutality against black people. Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration among all U.S. states, and New Orleans the highest rate within Louisiana—90 percent of the city’s prisoners are black. Landrieu has built a massive new adult prison complex costing more than $145 million.
Since 2005, the city has succeeded in keeping out black people evacuated during Hurricane Katrina—less than a third of black residents has returned. A man-made disaster and racist atrocity, Katrina was seized on by the city’s rulers to destroy public education, raze public housing and shut down Charity Hospital, one of the oldest public hospitals in the U.S. In 2015, Bloomberg declared it the country’s most unequal city—the median household income of black people is less than half that of whites, and 45 percent of black children live in poverty.
The continued legacy of slavery is embodied not only in Confederate monuments and flags, but also in the racist reality faced by black people in the South and North and overseen by the Democrats as well as the Republicans: segregation, poverty, decrepit schools and housing, miserable health care, rampant police terror and mass incarceration. Black people are a race-color caste and are, in their majority, forcibly segregated at the bottom of society.
From the time of slavery to the present day, black oppression has been the bedrock of the American capitalist order. Black liberation requires a socialist revolution in which the multiracial working class sweeps away the system of capitalist exploitation, ripping the wealth its labor creates out of the hands of the capitalists. Only then will it be possible to provide jobs for all, free, high-quality housing, health care and education, and to ensure the full integration of black people into an egalitarian socialist society. All working people, whether white, Latino or Asian, must understand that they cannot be liberated from wage slavery and capitalist oppression if they don’t take up the struggle for black liberation.
The Civil War Smashed Slavery
It’s no accident that Trump’s notoriously racist attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, was named after two Confederate leaders memorialized across the South. A racist to the core, Beauregard once predicted, “Seventy-five years hence, the traveler in this country will look in vain for traces of either an Indian, a negro, or a buffalo.” He was the general who ordered the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the first shots that opened the Civil War, and personally oversaw the design of the Confederate flag.
The American Civil War was the last great bourgeois-democratic revolution. The Northern bourgeoisie was compelled to abolish black chattel slavery and destroy the old Southern plantation agricultural system. Union victory in the war paved the way for Radical Reconstruction, the most democratic and egalitarian period in American history. Public education was set up in the South. Black people voted at rates as high as 90 percent, and well over 1,000 black men held public office during Reconstruction in racially integrated local and state governments. Among them was P.B.S. Pinchback, who briefly served as governor of Louisiana in the early 1870s.
The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed following the war, abolishing slavery, declaring that anyone born in the U.S. was a citizen (except for Native Americans) and that the right to vote could not be denied on “account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Under the protection provided by the Reconstruction Acts and the forces of the occupying Union Army, former slaves carried through the social revolution and the destruction of the old planter class. But the promise of black freedom was betrayed when the Northern capitalists formed an alliance with the remnants of the slavocracy. These capitalists looked at the devastated South and saw an opportunity not for building a radical democracy but for profitably exploiting Southern resources—centrally land—and the freedmen. In the Compromise of 1877, the few hundred federal troops remaining in the South were withdrawn to their barracks.
The post-Reconstruction period, cynically called “Redemption” by racists, was marked by a political counterrevolution enforced by race-terror. Over the next 20 years, the system of sharecropping, poll taxes, chain gangs, the convict lease system and lynch law became entrenched. Beginning in the late 19th century, laws institutionalizing rigid Jim Crow segregation and police-state terror dominated the South until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
Finish the Civil War!
A unique place in the antebellum South, New Orleans lies close to the juncture of the Mississippi river and the Gulf of Mexico, connecting the city to both the inland domestic trade and the Atlantic world. It was by far the most cosmopolitan city in the South, though conservative whites also had a strong presence. Its population was a mix of Acadians, Irish, a large German community, Northern transplants as well as a sizable black community, some ten thousand of whom had been free prior to the Civil War—the largest free black population in the South, if not the country. Many of the city’s “free people of color” were educated, light-skinned descendents of French settlers or wealthy mixed-race immigrants from Haiti. A large number were skilled craftsmen—bricklayers, cigar makers, carpenters and shoemakers. Though free, their rights were circumscribed.
On 1 May 1862, the Union Army captured New Orleans. One of the first black regiments to fight for the Union was the First Louisiana Native Guard, established in the city in 1862. Many members came from the city’s population of “free people of color,” a fact related to their already having had, uniquely, their own militia. Many held the view that their fate was indissolubly linked to that of the slaves, and supported the Union in the Civil War. As one black New Orleans paper put it at the time: “This war has broken the chains of the slave, and it is written in the heavens that from this war shall grow the seeds of the political enfranchisement of the oppressed race.”
As early as 1864, before the Civil War ended, blacks in New Orleans agitated for suffrage. They petitioned President Lincoln and even held a mock election in 1865, in which 20,000 freedmen voted, and forwarded the result to Congress. They took their demands to the state constitutional convention of 1867-68, which produced the most radical constitution the country had yet seen: it enfranchised all adult men, required all officeholders to take an oath supporting racial equality and mandated integration in public accommodations, transportation and schools. As Robert Isabelle, a black state representative, demanded in 1870: “I want the children of the State educated together. I want to see them play together; to be amalgamated.” New Orleans public schools during Reconstruction underwent substantial racial desegregation over a period of six and a half years, an experience shared by no other Southern community until after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.
That a small number of the racist monuments in New Orleans have come down is a welcome act of public sanitation, even though the thousands of Confederate monuments that still litter New Orleans and the rest of the country should all be torn down. In 1984, Spartacist League and Labor Black League supporter Richard Bradley, clad in the uniform of a Union Army soldier, scaled a 50-foot flagpole at the San Francisco Civic Center and ripped down the Confederate flag of slavery that had flown over the city for too many years. At ground level, what was left of the flag was burned by a member of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 6. This exemplary action points to the kind of mobilization that the multiracial trade unions should organize to tear down these symbols of race hatred.
The labor movement has been flat on its back for many years under a misleadership that is committed to capitalism and has shackled the unions to the Democratic Party. What is desperately needed is a fighting labor movement that mobilizes to defend not only its own members but also black people, immigrants and all the oppressed. It is vital to build a new, class-struggle leadership in the unions based on the understanding that the interests of working people and the bosses are counterposed. As we wrote in “New Orleans: Still Racist Hell!” (WV No. 1074, 18 September 2015):
“Despite the destruction of industrial jobs and erosion of union strength, black workers continue to be integrated into strategic sectors of the proletariat, including manufacturing, much of which is now located in the South, and longshore in New Orleans and elsewhere. Won to a revolutionary program, black workers will be the living link fusing the anger of the dispossessed masses with the social power of the multiracial proletariat under the leadership of a Leninist vanguard party.”
It is our goal to forge such a party, in which revolutionary black workers, as both the most oppressed and the most conscious section of the proletariat, are slated to play an exceptional role in the struggle for socialist revolution.