Workers Vanguard No. 925
21 November 2008
Communist Organizing in the Jim Crow South
What's Not in The Great Debaters
By Don Cane and Jacob Zorn
The Great Debaters, directed by Denzel Washington, produced by Oprah Winfrey and starring Washington and Forest Whitaker, is supposed to be a feel-good movie about overcoming racism in the segregated South. It is loosely based on an article published in 1997 in American Legacy magazine about the debate team of Wiley College—a small, religious black college in East Texas—during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Under the tutelage of their coach, English professor Melvin B. Tolson, the debaters triumph in contest after contest against bigger black schools and jump over the color bar to triumph over prestigious white schools as well, such as a touring Oxford University team from England. The highlight of the movie is their victory over Harvard; the team defeats the all-white Ivy League team by advocating peaceful civil disobedience against oppression. As the credits roll, we are told that one of the debaters, James Farmer Jr., went on to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which was founded in 1942 and went on to become one of the organizations active in the mass civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
The Great Debaters drives home the hardships faced by even relatively elite black students and intellectuals—the “talented tenth”—in the Jim Crow South. Farmer’s father, religion professor James Farmer Sr., the first black person in Texas to earn a PhD, is threatened with death by two impoverished white farmers while driving through the countryside with his family because Farmer accidentally hit their pig with his car. His son resolves to stand up after he sees his educated father forced to grovel before illiterate whites.
Tolson, on the other hand, is obviously some sort of radical, perhaps even a Communist, and he actively opposes racial injustice. In one scene, the young Farmer follows Tolson as he sneaks out in the middle of the night to organize an integrated sharecroppers union, and barely escapes arrest as the police raid the meeting. Later, the police track down Tolson after torturing some of the sharecroppers, arrest him at Wiley and drag him to jail. For an audience not familiar with the everyday violence, oppression and humiliation at the core of Jim Crow segregation, the movie provides a glimpse.
Black Rights and the Reformist Left Today
The Great Debaters opened during the 2007 holiday season, but there should be no doubt that it was made for the 2008 presidential election campaign. The heroes of the film, Tolson and his protégé Farmer, are obviously designed to evoke Barack Obama. The audience is supposed to see Obama, who claims that the civil rights movement “took us 90 percent of the way” toward racial equality, as the modern-day Great Debater, triumphing over historic racism through hard work. It is an echo of Booker T. Washington, who over a century ago preached accommodation to the racist status quo by telling impoverished blacks to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Trade-union bureaucrats, black bourgeois politicians, reformist leftists and others seized on economic and social discontent and peddled support to Obama and the “lesser evil” capitalist Democratic Party—the other party of war and racism. The Communist Party’s People’s Weekly World (30 December 2007) wrote, “A film that rings as true and powerful as ‘The Great Debaters’ may have an effect on the 2008 election primaries.” After Obama won the elections, the People’s Weekly World headlined a November 6 online statement, “Dawn of a New Era.”
Workers World Party’s paper (1 February) called the movie “magnificent” because it “puts everything in context.” The message Workers World draws is that “liberation is not to be won through electoral bourgeois politics, but is to be waged and won through open class struggle.” This is rich coming from an organization that has repeatedly supported black Democrats, from Jesse Jackson in the 1980s to New York City councilman Charles Barron in recent years. Workers World called for a vote to Cynthia McKinney, a former Democratic Congresswoman and the 2008 presidential candidate for the capitalist Green Party. After Obama’s win, Workers World (13 November) enthused, “Millions in Streets Seal Obama Victory.”
Genuine Marxists do not support any capitalist party or politician—Democrat, Republican, Green or “independent.” The working class must forge a class-struggle workers party that fights for workers revolution. Capitalism is a system based on exploitation of labor, and, in the U.S., a unique and critical mainstay continues to be the subjugation of the black population at the bottom of society.
The veteran American Trotskyist, Richard S. Fraser, wrote in his 1955 work, “For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Struggle”: “The dual nature of the Negro struggle arises from the fact that a whole people regardless of class distinction are the victims of discrimination. This problem of a whole people can be solved only through the proletarian revolution, under the leadership of the working class” (reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised], “What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism”). We of the Spartacist League base our program for black liberation upon Fraser’s perspective of revolutionary integrationism, premised on the understanding that black freedom requires smashing the capitalist system and constructing an egalitarian socialist society. As we wrote in “For a Workers America!” (WV No. 908, 15 February):
“This program of revolutionary integrationism is a fight to assimilate black people into an egalitarian socialist order, which is the only way to achieve real equality. While we fight against all aspects of racial oppression, we point out that there is no solution to that oppression short of a social revolution. This program is in sharp counterposition to the program of liberal integrationism—what American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon once derided and denounced as ‘inch-at-a-time’ gradualism—which is based upon the deception that black freedom can be achieved within the confines of the racist capitalist system. It is also in sharp contradiction to the petty-bourgeois utopian program of black nationalism and separatism, which rejects and despairs of united multiracial class struggle to abolish this racist capitalist system. Instead, black nationalism seeks to make a virtue of the racial segregation and ghettoization of black people that is seen as unchangeable.”
The Great Depression in the Jim Crow South
The Great Debaters is a well-made movie. But in its paeans to dedication and debate, it downplays the real social struggle that was going on in the U.S. in the 1930s, including by black people in the South. The Great Depression exposed the brutal irrationality of capitalism—in stark contrast to the industrial achievements of the USSR—as it threw millions of workers into starvation and misery internationally, including in other imperialist countries. Germany, which was defeated in World War I, was especially rocked by crises, culminating in the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis in 1933. Only the betrayal by the Stalinist and Social Democratic misleaders allowed the Nazis to come to power unopposed and smash the organized working class in order to save capitalism. A few years later, the Stalinists went on to play an aggressive counterrevolutionary role in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, slaughtering revolutionary fighters in order to appease the “democratic” imperialists and head off proletarian revolution in Spain. Nonetheless, millions of workers, peasants, students and intellectuals joined Communist and social-democratic parties internationally, trying to find a way out of the apparent dead end of capitalism and fascism.
The catastrophic impact of the Great Depression on the U.S. working class was keenly felt by its most oppressed section, black workers. The unemployment rate of black workers exceeded white joblessness by 30 to 60 percent. Even though millions of black people moved to the industrial North and Midwest during the “Great Migration,” which began with World War I, and many others moved to growing Southern cities, half of American blacks still lived in the rural South at the start of the Depression. Southern agriculture was in decline before the Depression hit. “By 1933 most blacks could neither find jobs of any kind nor contracts for their crop at any price,” as noted by historian Harvard Sitkoff in A New Deal for Blacks. “A specter of starvation haunted black America.”
Southern agriculture in the 1930s was, even by contemporary bourgeois standards, economically backward. It retained significant remnants of the slave system. The Civil War, America’s second bourgeois revolution, had smashed the slave system, paving the way for the development of industrial capitalism in the U.S. as a whole. But after the betrayal of Reconstruction by the Northern bourgeoisie, “the Negro was left in the South in the indefinite position of semi-slavery, semi-serfdom and semi-wage slavery” as then-Trotskyist Max Shachtman put it in his 1933 piece “Communism and the Negro” (reprinted by Verso in 2003 as Race and Revolution).
Sharecropping and tenancy formed the labor backbone of Southern agriculture. The sharecropper worked in lieu of wages for a share of the cash crop and “furnishings” (food allowance, housing, etc.). The tenant farmer worked land on which he paid ground rent with a share of the crop in lieu of cash. Sharecroppers and tenants found themselves more in debt every year, and could not leave the land until they had paid off their debts. Even when cotton prices rose, they were cheated by white landowners and merchants. According to Sitkoff, “Over two-thirds of the black farmers cultivating cotton in the early thirties received no profits for the crop, either breaking even or going deeper in debt.”
Sitting atop all this was the system of Jim Crow. Designed to prevent blacks from voting, becoming educated or fighting for their rights, Jim Crow was the systematic legal segregation of black people in the South, enforced by legal and extralegal violence. When blacks did challenge Jim Crow—either by personally refusing to follow its rules or, more rarely, by organizing—they faced racist terror, whether by the local sheriff or the Klan (who were often one and the same). At least 3,000 black people were lynched between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the dismantling of Jim Crow in the 1960s. Shachtman summarized the position of black farmers in 1933:
“In a word, to all intents and purposes hundreds of thousands of Negroes in the South today occupy, both in economic as in the political sense, the position of serfs and peons, tied to the land, life and limb at the disposal of the landlord, whose semi-feudal sway is maintained with the aid of the sheriff, the courts, the elaborate system of social and political discrimination, and, when necessary, the law of Judge Lynch. The white sharecroppers and tenants are not very much better off.”
Poor white farmers were also horribly oppressed economically. Southern agriculture remained dependent on the cash crop cotton and cheap labor, and where cheap labor is in abundance technology will lag. In 1929, less than 10 percent of all Texas farms had tractors. The rural South was still mired in primitive farming techniques, illiteracy and poverty. During the 1930s, the price of cotton plummeted. In 1929, cotton sold for 18 cents per pound; in 1933, for less than 6 cents per pound. By the Depression, with the South sinking further and further into misery, the ruling class as a whole was desperate to modernize this decrepit system, which could only be done under capitalism through the immiseration of untold numbers of black and white rural toilers.
The United States in the 1930s was an advanced industrialized capitalist country with a powerful working class. By the Depression, textile, iron, coal, steel and chemical industries were developing in the South. In the North, powerful industrial unions formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that broke away from the ossified American Federation of Labor (AFL) craft unions. The CIO organized all workers in a particular industry, regardless of their ethnicity or race—a significant improvement from the color bar of many AFL unions.
In the 1930s, large sections of the industrial working class in the U.S.—black and white, native-born and immigrant—became more militant and radical, fighting to build the CIO, often under the leadership of Communists and other leftists. However, thanks in large part to the Stalinists and social democrats, the incipient radicalization of labor was diverted into Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democratic Party. During the Second World War, the Communist Party subordinated the struggles of workers and black people to U.S. imperialism’s war effort, falsely portraying this interimperialist war as a struggle against fascism. In contrast, the Trotskyists, while standing for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet degenerated workers state during World War II, opposed all the imperialist combatants in that carnage—a position for which Trotskyists were imprisoned in 1941 under the Smith Act.
Who Was Melvin B. Tolson?
Every reviewer gives passing mention to the movie’s insinuation that the real-life Melvin B. Tolson was a “Communist,” “radical” or “self-described socialist.” During the 1930s, Tolson had his feet in two different worlds—one foot was in the world of the aspiring black middle class of Wiley College, and the other foot was in the world of the black dispossessed masses of the rural South. In the 1940s and later, Tolson was most famous for his poetry, including “Dark Symphony” (1939) and Harlem Gallery (1965). In the early 1930s, he lived in Harlem while working on his Columbia University master’s thesis on the Harlem Renaissance. There he met black radicals like poet Langston Hughes, who would be his lifelong friend. He taught English and speech at Wiley for over 20 years. In 1947 he moved to Langston, Oklahoma, where he taught at Langston University and was mayor from 1954 to 1960. He died in 1966.
During the Depression, Tolson not only sympathized with radicalism but courageously struggled to implement his radical ideals in the Jim Crow South. There is no concrete evidence of what, if any, political organization Tolson joined in the 1930s. One historian argued that “although he heard the siren song of communism and felt that capitalism was the great force pulling his people down, he never joined the Communist Party and remained loyal to the social gospel of the Methodist Episcopal Church” (Gail K. Beil, “Melvin B. Tolson—Texas Radical,” in The East Texas Historical Journal ). In the 1930s and 1940s, Tolson had a column in the Washington Tribune, “Caviar and Cabbage,” that gives a sense of his politics. In 1939 he wrote:
“The Negro would not have escaped from chattel slavery if it had not been for radicals of all classes, isms, ologies, and sects. Don’t forget that. For 150 years before the Civil War, radicals kept up a continuous fight for Negro freedom. Many of them were lynched .
“After the World War, white radicals came to the defense of the Negro in larger and larger numbers.”
—“The Negro and Radicalism,” Caviar and Cabbage: Selected Columns by Melvin B. Tolson from the Washington Tribune, 1937-1944 (1982)
The son of an itinerant Methodist minister, Tolson was an eclectic Christian socialist. He wrote: “Jesus didn’t believe in economic, racial, and social distinctions . You talk about Karl Marx, the Communist! Why, don’t you know Jesus was preaching about leveling society 1,800 years before the Jewish Red was born?” Tolson may have found some consolation in his Christian beliefs, but in reality religion is, to use Marx’s phrase, the opium of the masses. In place of the struggle for socialist revolution, it substitutes a quest for eternal salvation to be found in a mythical “afterlife.”
In the 1930s, Tolson was involved in organizing sharecroppers, though not much is known about this. According to Robert M. Farnsworth, one of Tolson’s biographers, “Sometime in the thirties, he actively organized sharecroppers, both white and black, in southeastern Texas. He protected his wife and family from the details of his activities, but they knew he was involved” (Afterword to A Gallery of Harlem Portraits).
What little screen time The Great Debaters gives to the sharecroppers’ struggle is sanitized to give credence to liberal and reformist pressure politics. There is the scene of sheriff-led vigilantes breaking up a sharecroppers’ meeting, burning down the meeting place and later beating information out of one sharecropper that leads to the arrest of Tolson. In the movie, Professor Farmer reclaims his dignity, and the respect of his son, by coming to Tolson’s aid while black and white sharecroppers protest outside the jail. The CP’s People’s Weekly World (5 January) hailed this scene, declaring, the “Rev. Farmer stands tall as a man of the people.”
If anything, this scene underplays the danger of organizing black farmers in the South—and hence Tolson’s courage. In the fall of 1919, amid numerous anti-black race riots throughout the country, white sheriff’s posses and federal troops in Phillips County, Arkansas, killed as many as 300 black sharecroppers over several days who had organized to demand that white landowners pay them a fair price for cotton. After the massacre, the local and state government arrested hundreds, and 12 blacks were sentenced to death. (This is described in the recent book by Robert Whitaker, On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation .)
At the same time, this scene misrepresents the role of the black petty bourgeoisie (represented by Farmer Sr.) under Jim Crow. While most rankled under the humiliation and oppression of Jim Crow, others materially benefited from segregation and opposed militant struggle. One can look at the fate of Clifford James, a supporter of the Communist-organized Share Croppers Union (SCU) in Alabama. After being attacked by a deputy sheriff and other whites, James walked to the hospital of the Tuskegee Institute, which had been founded years earlier by Booker T. Washington. After dressing James’s wounds, the doctor notified the sheriff, who threw James in jail, where he died!
Struggles in the “Black Belt” South
There are several other dramatic scenes in The Great Debaters. One example is a closing scene of the debate with Harvard, in which Farmer Jr. argues that it is “a right, even a duty to resist” unjust laws “with violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I choose the latter.” This message of the fictionalized debate is clearly intended for today’s consumption, to read back the pacifism of Farmer and Martin Luther King Jr. into the 1930s. Blacks fighting against Jim Crow and capitalist exploitation in the South did not live in a peaceful world: they faced a campaign of terror, both legal and extralegal. The right to armed self-defense was key to the fight for black rights. Black veterans, including from both world wars, were often in the forefront of struggles against Jim Crow and of the Southern civil rights movement in the 1950s.
Furthermore, the movie distorts the facts of the debate. As Timothy M. O’Donnell, a professor at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, pointed out in a review of the movie, not only was the culminating debate at the University of Southern California and not Harvard, “the 1935 Wiley team debated the national intercollegiate debate topic about arms sales to foreign countries and not segregation or civil disobedience; they debated both sides of the proposition, not just the side of truth and justice . Finally, by all accounts, Farmer was—if anything—the alternate in the match against USC—and never did have the opportunity to give the ‘winning’ last rebuttal.” Nor does the movie mention the fact that Farmer later served as Assistant Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under Richard Nixon!
Communists were in the forefront of fighting for black workers and farmers and against racial oppression and lynch law terror during the 1930s—putting this struggle on the agenda for the first time since the Populist movement in the 1890s and trying to link it to the newly formed industrial unions. For decades, most of the American labor movement and the left had ignored the special oppression of black people. Most early trade unions linked to Samuel Gompers’ AFL organized only skilled, white workers—or, if they accepted black members, organized segregated locals. Trade-union bureaucrats like Gompers and right-wing social democrats like Victor Berger were openly racist. Socialist Party (SP) leader Eugene V. Debs and others in the left wing of American socialism rejected racist ideology and stood for working-class unity. But Debs did not actively promote the fight for black equality, seeing it as a diversion from the fight for workers interests. Debs famously declared that socialism had “nothing special to offer the Negro.”
The infant American Communist movement, which split from the SP in 1919, also failed to pay attention to the fight for black liberation. As James P. Cannon, an early Communist leader and later the founder of American Trotskyism, noted, the Communist International (Comintern) in Lenin and Trotsky’s time forced American Communists to address the question of black oppression:
“The influence of Lenin and the Russian Revolution, even debased and distorted as it later was by Stalin, and then filtered through the activities of the Communist Party in the United States, contributed more than any other influence from any source to the recognition, and more or less general acceptance, of the Negro question as a special problem of American society—a problem which cannot be simply subsumed under the general heading of the conflict between capital and labor, as it was in the pre-communist radical movement....
“Everything new on the Negro question came from Moscow—after the Russian Revolution began to thunder its demand throughout the world for freedom and equality for all national minorities, all subject peoples and all races—for all the despised and rejected of the earth.”
—“The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement,” The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962)
Prior to 1930, the CP had less than 200 black members, but that year 1,000 black people joined the party. The CP was active in numerous struggles. One of the most famous was the Scottsboro Case, in which Communists led the struggle to free nine black youths who were framed up in 1931 for raping two white girls on a freight train and were jailed in Scottsboro, Alabama. Despite their clear innocence, a local court found eight of them guilty and sentenced them to death. (The judge reluctantly declared a mistrial for the ninth, since seven members of the jury had insisted on the death penalty even though the prosecutor had asked for life imprisonment because he was a 13-year-old; nonetheless, he remained in jail until 1937.) The CP, through its defense arm, the International Labor Defense, rapidly rallied to the defense of the Scottsboro youths and turned their case into an international symbol of the horrors of Southern lynch law. (The Scottsboro defendants were not executed, but were given long prison sentences; the last of the defendants was not pardoned until 1976.)
CP work among black people in the early 1930s took place in the context of the so-called “Third Period,” in which the Stalinists declared that the final collapse of capitalism was imminent and that reforms were no longer possible. As it did on all questions, the Stalinization of the Comintern led to disorientation on the black question. The 1928 Sixth World Congress of the Comintern, applying the dogma of “two-stage revolution” to the so-called “Black Belt” in the American South, promulgated the slogan of “self-determination” for the (nonexistent) “Negro nation.” This was nonsense. Black people are not a nation that is being forcibly assimilated, but an oppressed race-color caste forcibly segregated at the bottom of American society. Black struggles have historically been for integration, not separation. As we wrote in “The CP and Black Struggles in the Depression” (Young Spartacus No. 25, September 1974):
“While the CP of this period was deformed by dishonesty, political zig-zags and egregious departures from Marxism, nonetheless in the area of black work the 1930’s represents the CP’s heroic period. Despite the erroneous ‘Black Belt’ theory and the call for ‘Negro self-determination’ in this territory (a call which was never raised agitationally but remained part of the CP’s written propaganda), the CP’s work in practice combined a proletarian orientation with an awareness of the strategic need to fight racial oppression throughout all layers of American society, especially to address the problems of poor and unemployed blacks.”
Heroic Communist Work in the South
The Great Debaters’ fleeting images of Tolson’s organizing highlight the difficulties and dangers of organizing sharecroppers in the Depression South. Both the Socialist and Communist parties attempted to organize tenants and sharecroppers to demand better pay and treatment from landowners and merchants. Both faced bloody repression from those who wanted to prevent black and white sharecroppers from organizing. The most famous of these groups is the SP-led Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU), which was heavily backed and financed by liberals and the clergy. Under the tutelage of SP leader (and Presbyterian minister) Norman Thomas, it reached national prominence, including by lobbying President Roosevelt’s administration for reforms.
The STFU laid claim to be the first fully integrated Southern union. But the STFU’s concept of integration was for whites to hold primary leadership while blacks held secondary positions. If whites objected to a common union local with blacks, they were allowed to set up whites-only locals. As Shachtman, in “Communism and the Negro,” noted of the Socialist Party: “The fact that the Negro masses in the United States occupy a special position, that they constitute a distinct racial caste of pariahs, is conveniently ignored by the Socialist theoreticians.” The STFU never raised a single demand in support of black rights. The 1934 founding of the STFU was a godsend for the liberals, clergy and petty-bourgeois black leadership seeking to dampen the seething discontent rising up in the South.
For its part, the CP built the Share Croppers’ Union, which organized thousands of evicted black farmers as well as cotton pickers and was largely centered in Alabama. The struggle to organize the SCU was conducted in a state of perpetual civil war with both “legal” and extralegal armed vigilante groups. For example, in 1931 at Camp Hill, Alabama, the local sheriff led a posse and attacked a meeting on union organizing and the Scottsboro Case. The same posse also attacked the home of a local sharecropper leader. In 1932 the SCU was again in a defensive battle when a local landlord attempted to seize the property of an indebted sharecropper in Reeltown, Alabama. Determined SCU members fought off the local sheriff and his posse.
By 1935, the SCU claimed some 12,000 members; when it tried to merge with the STFU, the Socialist leaders refused out of anti-Communism. The SCU not only fought to free the Scottsboro youths, it also raised demands for social equality, equal pay for equal work (including for women), improved schools and extension of the school year, abolition of poor farmers’ debt and resurrected the emancipated slave demand of 40 acres and a mule. As a black-led union, the SCU also sought with great difficulty to recruit rural whites to its ranks. It was of significance that in counties where the SCU was active, the CP would receive hundreds of votes within an all-white electorate when elections were held. Those impoverished whites who dared not join a black-led union demonstrated their solidarity by voting for the CP candidates when and where they could.
The New Deal in the Rural South
After the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Stalin and the Comintern soon abandoned the sectarianism of the “Third Period” and sought desperately to form class-collaborationist popular-front alliances with “progressive” elements of the bourgeoisie. As Leon Trotsky emphasized, the Popular Front was not a tactic, but an expression of the anti-revolutionary program of Stalinism, tying the working class and oppressed to their exploiters under a bourgeois program in order to prevent proletarian revolutions. The American version of the Popular Front meant seeking alliances with the pro-capitalist CIO union bureaucrats like John L. Lewis and the capitalist Democratic Party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s New Deal, today hailed by most liberals and leftists, was an attempt to protect U.S. capitalism against the growing radicalization and labor struggle. New Deal reforms such as the National Labor Relations Act, which made it easier to organize CIO unions, or the Works Progress Administration, which carried out public works, were aimed at stabilizing capitalism by tying the new, powerful industrial unions to the capitalist system.
Key to Roosevelt’s plan was forging the “New Deal coalition,” which included pro-Communist labor organizers, liberals and black leaders in the North, and racist Dixiecrats and Klansmen in the South. The role of Communists and unionists was to be a loyal opposition to “progressive” capitalists like Roosevelt. The end result of their work was to tie workers and the oppressed tighter to their class enemy, the bourgeois Democratic Party, and stave off the independent political organization of the working class. To this day, the trade-union bureaucracy and black misleaders, dutifully tailed by the fake left, still push support to the Democratic Party “lesser evil.” By helping to tie the new CIO unions to the Democratic Party, and using its considerable authority among blacks to support Roosevelt and U.S. imperialism in World War II, the CP played a crucial role in protecting the capitalist system and channeling dissent back into bourgeois politics. This is the real crime of the Stalinist CP, which betrayed the revolutionary aspirations of its working-class base.
In the South, the Popular Front was especially criminal. New Deal policies hurt black sharecroppers directly. The Agricultural Adjustment Act paid farmers not to farm in order to eliminate excess supply and raise food prices. In 1933, ten million acres of cotton were destroyed and six million pigs were killed in an attempt to stabilize the capitalist market. That the bourgeoisie would do this in the middle of a worldwide Depression speaks volumes about the irrationality of the capitalist system. In the South, this meant paying the white landlords while black tenants and sharecroppers starved. There is no official count of the thousands of poor black and white families driven off the land and into starvation as a result of Roosevelt’s New Deal alliance with Jim Crow Democrats in the South, the Dixiecrats.
Black people in the 1930s correctly saw the Democratic Party as the party of the old slavocracy and Jim Crow. Though by the end of Reconstruction the Republicans had abandoned their short-lived commitment to black rights, pursuing their class interests as a party of big business, they were still seen as the “Party of Lincoln” and a lesser evil to the Democrats. In the 1932 elections, over two-thirds of black voters voted Republican. But by 1936, 76 percent of black voters in the North voted for Roosevelt, thanks in part to illusions in the Democrats pushed by both the trade-union bureaucracy and the CP.
Speaking of the South, where the Democratic Party was openly segregationist and supported Jim Crow, the CP Central Committee’s Southern representative argued: “It is entirely within the field of practical politics for the workers, farmers and the city middle class—the common people of the South—to take possession of the machinery of the Democratic Party, in the South, and turn it into an agency for democracy and progress” (quoted in Robin D.G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression ). Seeking a popular-frontist bloc with Democrats in the South, the CP liquidated the SCU in 1937 and retreated from the struggle in rural areas. (The SCU’s agricultural worker members were urged to join a CIO union, and its tenant farmer members the National Farmers Union.) For example in Alabama, CP work became centered on the Birmingham “Right to Vote Club,” which was dedicated to voter registration and education in the Deep South, where blacks had long been disenfranchised.
The Civil Rights Movement
Much of the acclaim for The Great Debaters involves depicting the debate team as precursors to the civil rights movement a decade later, a link that James Farmer makes clear. In the movie, he is shown witnessing the racism of Jim Crow, and then, in the last debate, defending nonviolent protest. At the end of the film, we are told that he was a leader of CORE, an early civil rights group. Presumably, then, the civil rights movement represented the culmination of the struggle to eliminate racial injustice and uplift the “talented tenth.”
The courageous struggles of the black and white foot soldiers of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s played an instrumental role in overturning Jim Crow. The creation of a Southern black proletariat fundamentally eroded Jim Crow segregation, which was based on the isolation and powerlessness of blacks in the rural South. The bourgeoisie eventually acquiesced to legal equality in the South, in part because, as protesters showed the world the reality of America’s democratic pretensions at home, Jim Crow became an embarrassment to U.S. imperialism’s posture as the defender of “democracy” and “human rights” in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the industrial and military powerhouse of the non-capitalist world.
The struggle for black equality was intersected by growing domestic opposition to U.S. imperialism’s losing counterrevolutionary war against Vietnam’s workers and peasants. The potential for a revolutionary transformation of American society was palpable. But from its onset, the civil rights movement was dominated by a black middle-class leadership allied to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The aim of liberal-pacifist leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Farmer was to pressure the Democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to grant formal, legal equality. Yet the myth of the civil rights movement as monolithically pacifist and dominated by King ignores that the struggle against segregation also produced more militant forces, such as Robert F. Williams, who advocated and practiced armed self-defense (see, for example, “Robert F. Williams: Fighter Against Klan Terror,” WV No. 737, 2 June 2000).
In the 1960s, the Spartacist League, despite our small forces, intervened into the civil rights movement and put forward the perspective of a class-struggle fight for black freedom. As we said in our Programmatic Statement, “For Socialist Revolution in the Bastion of World Imperialism!”:
“In our intervention into the civil rights movement, the Spartacist League raised the call for a South-wide Freedom Labor Party as an expression of working-class political independence and the need to mobilize the labor movement to fight for black emancipation. This was linked to a series of other transitional demands aimed at uniting black and white workers in struggle against the capitalist class enemy, like organizing the unorganized and a sliding scale of wages and hours to combat inflation and unemployment. We called for armed self-defense against racist terror and for a workers united front against government intervention, both in the labor movement and in the use of federal troops to suppress black plebeian struggles. This program is no less urgent today.”
The bankruptcy of the liberal program of the civil rights movement’s leadership was revealed when the movement swept out of the South and into the North, where black people already had formal legal equality. The struggle for a fundamental change in conditions of life in the ghettos—for real equality, for jobs, decent housing and adequate schools—collided head-on with the realities of American capitalism. The upsurge of “revolutionary” black nationalism in the late 1960s, best represented by the Black Panther Party, was a response to the frustrated expectations of the Northern civil rights struggles. Those struggles promised much but left unchanged the hellish conditions of life in the inner-city ghettos that are rooted in the capitalist profit system. As an expression of despair, black nationalism, which rejects united multiracial class struggle, would deny blacks their birthright: the wealth and culture their labor has played a decisive role in creating.
“Racial Uplift” and the Black Petty Bourgeoisie
The Great Debaters represents a take on the old theme of “racial uplift”—the belief that a talented black petty bourgeoisie can by hard work and dedication transcend the evils of racism and achieve justice. In the words of Denzel Washington, this is not a film about “racism in Texas in 1935. It’s what these young people did about it...to overcome whatever obstacles were in their way.” It is this very aspect of the film that has made it popular among both black and white critics. Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, called it “the feel-great movie of the year” and black journalist Herb Boyd described it as “a feel-good movie (and the underdogs win)” and an “uplifting film that most African Americans gladly embraced.”
“Racial uplift” is the same theme that W.E.B. Du Bois raised in the late 19th century in arguing against Booker T. Washington, who promoted the servile acceptance of segregation. Du Bois argued that it was the responsibility of the educated black petty bourgeoisie to “uplift” black people under capitalism. In a 1903 article, he stated:
“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races.”
Du Bois’ thesis was based on the acceptance of capitalism. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he defended “the rule of inequality:—that of the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig; that some had the talent and capacity of university men, and some the talent and capacity of blacksmiths.” The point of education, he wrote, was to “teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think.”
The Great Debaters articulates the liberal-integrationist view promoted by mainstream civil rights groups that black equality can be achieved under capitalism. In a scene that attracted the attention of all leftist reviewers, a Wiley debater in a contest with a white college team declares, “My opponent says today is not the day for whites and coloreds to go to the same college.... No, the time for justice, the time for freedom, and the time for equality is always, is always right now!” By showing their skills and intelligence, the “talented tenth” are supposed to break down the barrier of racial injustice. But what is left unsaid speaks volumes to the class divisions among the oppressed black population.
The black students at Wiley certainly faced a racist world where even distinguished PhDs like Farmer could be killed with relative impunity. One of the more powerful—and accurate—scenes comes when the team narrowly escaped being lynched while on a rural road in the South. The college debating circuit was segregated, with many white universities refusing to debate blacks. Nonetheless, black colleges such as Wiley, Morehouse and Howard University were founded by church institutions to primarily train clergy and teachers, the core of the black petty bourgeoisie. Political protest was forbidden—as shown by the elder Farmer’s negative reaction to Tolson’s radicalism. For the overwhelming majority of black people, exploited and oppressed as sharecroppers and tenants, the halls of Wiley College might as well have been Mars.
From the movie, one would get the idea that debate can change the world. The official Web site of the movie declares, “Believe in the power of words.” But racial oppression is fundamentally not a question of bad ideas in people’s heads that they can be argued out of. It is based on the workings of American capitalism. In reality, the material conditions for most black people have continued to deteriorate. While Jim Crow is dead, the majority of black people, as a race-color caste segregated at the bottom of society, face brutal daily racist subjugation and humiliation, by whatever index of social life one might choose—joblessness, imprisonment, lack of decent, integrated housing. As the economy crashes into recession, blacks are disproportionately affected.
At the same time, black workers are a strategic part of the proletariat in urban transport, longshore, auto, steel, and they are the most unionized section of the working class. They form an organic link to the downtrodden ghetto masses. Being strategically located in the economy and facing special oppression, black workers led by a multiracial revolutionary party will play a vanguard role in the struggles of the entire U.S. working class. Class-conscious black workers, armed with a revolutionary program, will play a central role in the building of the workers party necessary to sweep away the capitalist system of exploitation and racial oppression.