Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Civil rights and Black liberation movements: a Trotskyist view

For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
Contradictions of the Civil Rights Movement: A Marxist Analysis

The following is a presentation, edited for publication, by Spartacist League spokesman Diana Coleman at a February 25 forum in Los Angeles.

So it is Black History Month, and even though we have a black president sitting in the White House, things look bleak for the masses of black people and, indeed, all working people. The world has been plunged into an economic crisis the likes of which have not been seen since the Great Depression. Wall Street was bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars by the Bush White House and the Democratic Party administration of Barack Obama, while the working class, black people, Latinos and the poor were made to foot the bill.

Unemployment, housing repossessions, poverty, homelessness, hunger, mass incarceration, the disappearance of the pensions that people thought they had, the ever-increasing price of a college education—all of this particularly impacts black and Latino people. The National Urban League, a fairly conservative, business-oriented black group, wrote a report last year called, "At Risk: The State of the Black Middle Class" whose conclusion was: "Our analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics will clearly establish that whether one looks at education, income or any other meaningful measure, almost all the economic gains that blacks have made in the last 30 years have been lost in the Great Recession" that started in December 2007.

Meanwhile, U.S. imperialism rampages around the world from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya, maybe Iran next, leaving death and destruction in its wake. And if that's not enough, Obama is ramping up the war on civil liberties at home and has deported more immigrants than Bush ever did. As Mumia Abu-Jamal, former Black Panther and America's foremost class-war prisoner, stated, "All of this under the authority of the nation's first Black president, who, despite his blackness is but a Clinton clone. A servant of big business, and a cudgel against the Black Movement." Never has it been clearer what a losing strategy it is to ally with the class enemy, in this case the Democratic Party of capitalism, racial oppression and war. We definitely need a revolutionary workers party and some hard, integrated class struggle around here.

There can be no justice, equality or freedom for black people in racist capitalist America. When I was in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s, there was no lack of dedicated people. What was lacking was the Marxist program that could show the way forward to black liberation. So this forum today will take up the dead end of both the liberal leadership of the civil rights movement and the black nationalist organizing in Detroit of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

Revolutionary Integrationism

Let me make some general points on the black question. From the formation of the Spartacist tendency in the early 1960s, we have stood for the perspective and program of revolutionary integrationism. This position is counterposed to both the liberal reformist response to black oppression and to all political expressions of black separatism. The liberation of black people from conditions of racial oppression and impoverishment—conditions inherent in the U.S. capitalist system—can be achieved only in an egalitarian socialist society. And such a society can be achieved only through the overthrow of the capitalist system by workers revolution.

We have described the black population in the U.S. as an oppressed race-color caste. We noted in "Black and Red" (Marxist Bulletin No. 9, "Basic Documents of the Spartacist League") that "from their arrival in this country, the Negro people have been an integral part of American class society while at the same time forcibly segregated at the bottom of this society." Thus blacks face discrimination, in different degrees, regardless of social status, wealth or class position. Blacks are today still an integral and strategic part of the working class, despite unemployment and mass incarceration.

James P. Cannon—the founding leader of American Trotskyism—described the crucial intervention of Lenin and Trotsky's Communist International in driving home the centrality of the fight for black freedom to proletarian revolution in the U.S. Cannon emphasized that "everything new and progressive on the Negro question came from Moscow, after the revolution of 1917, and as a result of the revolution." Further, he said that Lenin and the Russian Revolution "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" ("The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement," in The First Ten Years of American Communism [1962]).

The current expression of the concept of revolutionary integrationism derives from the ideas of Richard Fraser, a veteran Trotskyist who made a unique Marxist contribution to the understanding of American black oppression and struggle in the 1950s. Fraser began from the premise that black people, whom he described as "the most completely 'Americanized' section of the population," were not an oppressed nation or nationality in any sense. Crucially, black people lacked any material basis for a separate political economy. Whereas the oppressed nations and nationalities of Europe were subjected to forced assimilation, American blacks faced the opposite: forcible segregation. Hence, in the struggle against black oppression, the democratic demand for self-determination—separation into an independent nation-state—just didn't make sense. Fraser wrote in "For the Materialist Conception of the Negro Question" (printed in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised], July 1994):

"The goals which history has dictated to them are to achieve complete equality through the elimination of racial segregation, discrimination, and prejudice. That is, the overthrow of the race system. It is from these historically conditioned conclusions that the Negro struggle, whatever its forms, has taken the path of the struggle for direct assimilation. All that we can add to this is that these goals cannot be accomplished except through the socialist revolution."

Emergence of the Civil Rights Movement

So these are our starting points. Two events in 1955 are often referred to as having started the civil rights movement. These are the murder of Emmett Till and Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of the bus. Till was a black 14-year-old from Chicago whose family sent him down to Mississippi to stay with relatives for the summer. Within days of his arrival, young Emmett was kidnapped, tortured and brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

After Till's murder, his mother mounted a courageous campaign to ensure that the world saw the stark reality of race-terror by displaying her son's mutilated body at his funeral. More than 100,000 people waited in line at a Chicago church to view Till's open casket. So shocking was the horribly mutilated body that an estimated one out of five individuals needed help out of the building. This, along with Rosa Parks' defiant stand in Montgomery, Alabama, in December of that same year, was key in galvanizing many thousands to join the burgeoning civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement did not just fall from the sky. The urbanization and industrialization of the American South during and after World War II began to create concentrations of black workers. By 1960, some 42 percent of the Southern black population lived in urban centers, compared to less than 15 percent in 1890. The material conditions of Southern blacks had changed, and this fundamentally eroded the Jim Crow system of segregation—a system based on police/Klan terror aimed at atomized rural sharecroppers.

By the mid 1950s, black anger and the changed conditions gave birth to the civil rights movement—a movement whose core activists were, at the beginning, black proletarians, many of them veterans of World War II or the Korean War. But the organized working class was not an active force in the civil rights movement. Except for a few heroic efforts undertaken by reds, the impressive unionization drive of the 1930s did not breach the Mason-Dixon Line separating North from South.

The first CIO initiative to organize the South, in 1941, was scuttled by the labor bureaucracy to show their support to the imperialist war. A second attempt, launched in 1946 as "Operation Dixie" (a disgusting name that foreshadowed its collapse), was shipwrecked on the shoals of the red purges, racism and the CIO bureaucracy's ties to the Democratic Party. I think that this vacuum of leadership was an important factor in allowing the upsurge of protest unleashed by the movement to be contained within the conservative channels defined by the black preachers.

From its onset, the civil rights movement was dominated by a black middle-class leadership allied to Democratic Party liberalism. The aim of this leadership—whose most effective exponent was Martin Luther King Jr.—was to pressure the capitalist state, especially the Democratic Party administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, to grant formal, legal equality to blacks in the South. Working to keep the civil rights movement within the confines of bourgeois reformism and the Democratic Party were Walter Reuther, United Auto Workers (UAW) bureaucrat and premier witchhunter—he took the lead in expelling Communist Party-led unions from the CIO—and A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the Socialist Party, assisted by other elements of the decomposing American social democracy like Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington, as well as by the Stalinized Communist Party.

The civil rights movement has become so mythologized that I barely recognize it when people talk about it—and I was there. To the liberals and reformists, King was the messianic leader of the movement who everyone followed and adored. Not true! There was a political, left-right division in the civil rights movement with King on the right and SNCC and Malcolm X, in his own way, on the left. To the reformists like the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Party for Socialism and Liberation, and Workers World, King was becoming some kind of revolutionary in his final days.

A leaflet by the ISO in L.A. titled, "The Real MLK: Against War" says: "Come celebrate Black History Month with a discussion that aims to recapture King's real legacy, and the relevance of his struggles against war, poverty, and racism today." Well, they can have his legacy of pacifism and liberalism. Workers World cites the "transformative" last year of King's life, during which it claims he "had come around to the understanding that merely altering the appearance of the capitalist system would in a short time amount to little more than a cruel betrayal of the fierce urgency to change the system" (Workers World online, 3 September 2008). They add: "This contradiction pushed King anti-capitalist struggle." Michelle Alexander, an outraged liberal protesting the mass incarceration of blacks in her book The New Jim Crow, cites the "revolutionary potential" of the "human rights movement" that King championed at the end of his life.

Although King went to Memphis to support black union members and spoke out in moral opposition to the war in Vietnam, his basic politics never changed; to the end, he never wavered in his reliance on the capitalist Democratic Party and the strategy of pressure politics. And for all those various leftists who think the answer is a new civil rights movement, the real question is why did such tremendous efforts yield such meager results. Yes, the civil rights movement ended Jim Crow segregation and made the South look somewhat more like the North. Yes, there is a black overseer in the White House and we have Oprah Winfrey. But really—it did not end hellish conditions in the ghettos, the mass unemployment, the mass incarceration or the police brutality that are the everyday realities of life for black Americans.

Liberal Pacifism vs. Armed Self-Defense

I do want to make the point that the civil rights movement really was a mass movement, and it defined a whole generation of young people, black and white. You could watch TV and hundreds of thousands of black people marching for the right to vote or the right to use public facilities and then see them set upon by police dogs, fire hoses, tear gas and every kind of police brutality and mob violence. The book Local People, The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi by John Ditmer gives you a visceral sense of how many local black people were killed fighting for civil rights. NAACPer Medgar Evers, killed in 1963, was the best known, but only one of many. The eruption of black struggle shattered the Cold War/McCarthyite climate of the early 1950s and set the stage for the New Left student radicalism of the 1960s.

When I was 17, I decided I should get involved and joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in late 1963 or early 1964 in San Francisco. I participated in various mass demos protesting racist job discrimination—at the Sheraton Palace Hotel, at Lucky's (now Albertsons) and on Auto Row. Now I wonder about that last one—for the right of blacks to be car salesmen? But these demos drew thousands because there was ferment in the North as well as the South. In the summer of 1965 I decided to go down South for the second Freedom Summer. In its mass support, in the aspirations for freedom and equality which it generated among black people, and in bringing into existence a whole generation of young radicals, the civil rights movement had a revolutionary potential. It was this potential that the liberals and reformists derailed.

Let me start with the Montgomery bus boycott that ensued when Rosa Parks courageously refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus in 1955. The figure who Rosa Parks turned to first and who first dominated the Montgomery action was not a preacher but a longtime trade unionist, E.D. Nixon of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (and the NAACP). MLK came to the fore for security reasons, presumably as someone who was more educated-sounding and generally more respectable.

Under the influence of Bayard Rustin, MLK came to embrace pacifism and nonviolence. Bayard Rustin was also influential in helping King and others set up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) on the basis of pacifist "direct action." King wrote, "We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we will not obey your evil laws. We will soon wear you down by pure capacity to suffer."

As a moral philosophy, this is disgusting. But the real point is that this was a political strategy. King and the SCLC looked to the Northern liberals of the Democratic Party, the federal government, the federal courts and federal troops to come to the aid of black people in the South. When later the question of nonviolence versus the right to armed self-defense was debated, it wasn't really the question "Do you have the right to defend your family against the Klan" but whether you were for armed self-defense for a mass movement which embraced millions and was confronting the capitalist state.

It was a debate that revealed your attitude toward "the system" or the "white power structure" or whatever other terms were current for the American capitalist state. "Armed self-defense" was really a way to say that you had the right to revolution, the right to overthrow the white racist government which oppressed black people. MLK was really pledging allegiance to the government. So nonviolence versus armed self-defense became the way the question of reform versus revolution was posed in the civil rights movement.

The buses were integrated in Montgomery after the long bus boycott, and King was riding high on his pacifism and "soul force." But Montgomery blacks were left to face the racist backlash, courageously, but tactically and politically disarmed. The KKK came out of their holes, black churches were bombed, buses were burned. Even King's house was dynamited. But angry blacks who rose to King's defense were told by King to love their enemies. Rosa Parks was blacklisted and hounded out of Montgomery, eventually moving to Detroit where she worked for black Democrat John Conyers.

SNCC and "Black Power"

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was a youth group that emerged out of the lunch counter sit-in movement which swept Southern black campuses in 1960. It was formed under the auspices of King's SCLC. It accepted nonviolence in its founding statement, as their name indicates. The initial goal was formal, legal equality, or "Northernizing the South," and they started with the same strategy as King. You know: have a nonviolent demonstration, get your head beat in by racist Southern sheriffs, scandalize the nation, force the federal government to send in the troops. So SNCC activists started out with the illusion that the U.S. government was on their side. But they soon learned the truth the hard way.

As Marxists, we know that the bourgeois state is not neutral but an organ for the oppression of the working class and the black masses by the capitalist class. The essence of the state is armed bodies of men—cops, prisons, courts, National Guard and army—used by the ruling class to suppress the working class. As SNCC's organizing among the black masses repeatedly brought things to the flash point, the government rushed in their black sellouts to cool it down, their CIA agents to co-opt it, their courts to indict it, and their troops to crush it.

From Little Rock in 1957 to Birmingham in 1963, federal troops were only brought in when black people began to defend themselves and fight back. When the troops were brought in to "protect" the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, they were conveniently withdrawn as the protesters reached Montgomery, leaving the marchers to make the return journey defenseless in the face of beatings and shootings. Through bitter experience, SNCC activists learned that white liberal leaders like the Kennedys and Hubert Humphrey were a lot closer to the Southern Democrats—Dixiecrats like Senator Eastland from Mississippi—than they were to the civil rights activists.

So it was that within six years SNCC would enrage the liberal establishment by calling for "black power," and shortly thereafter H. Rap Brown, the last chairman of SNCC, would be proclaiming that "violence is as American as cherry pie." It is useful here to make a comparison between Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and SNCC. SDS started out as the student group of the League for Industrial Democracy. Moribund by 1960, the LID had served as a handmaiden of the U.S. government in the left and labor movement. Populated by "State Department socialists" such as Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington, the LID also counted among its members Victor and Walter Reuther—social-democratic anti-Communists personifying the link between the labor movement and the Democratic Party—and Bayard Rustin.

Under the impact of the Vietnam War, SDS dropped its anti-communist clause, started organizing against the war, became anti-imperialist as they understood it, opposed to the Democratic Party at least empirically, with many moving toward Maoism. Needless to say, LID disowned them. Similarly, the SCLC was also pretty appalled by what they had given birth to in SNCC. And as I give a few examples of the conflicts, you will notice that the same names keep turning up—MLK, of course, but also Walter Reuther, Bayard Rustin, Hubert Humphrey, A. Philip Randolph.

In 1961-62, SNCC organized black people in Albany, Georgia, in a very popular, all-sided attack on segregation. It would really heat up, and then MLK would come in for a weekend and, to the dismay of the SNCC activists, declare a truce. It was really getting heavy; the KKK was mobilizing, etc. It came to a head when the cops attacked a rally outside a black church and black youth began to fight back by throwing bricks and bottles. King declared a "day of penance" for the horrible crime of black people actually daring to defend themselves against police brutality; SNCC refused to condemn the action and started referring to King as "De Lawd." It was not meant as a compliment.

In 1963 at the famous March on Washington, SNCC saw how the whole liberal establishment and particularly the liberal wing of the trade-union bureaucracy were used to keep the lid on the civil rights movement. James Forman, an early head of SNCC, in his autobiography The Making of Black Revolutionaries commented bitterly: "Originally planned as a march for jobs and freedom, with the emphasis on black people and their demands, the March on Washington of 1963 turned into a victory celebration for the Kennedy administration and its supporters." He went on: "The sellout leadership of the March on Washington was playing patsy with the Kennedy administration as part of the whole liberal-labor politics of Rustin, Wilkins, Randolph, Reuther, King, the Catholic and Protestant hierarchy."

It was this group, after Kennedy read them the riot act, that put pressure on SNCC chairman John Lewis to tone down his criticism of the Democrats, which he did. Here is his conclusion, which got censored: "We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence." He also had to delete a section that referred to marching through the South "the way Sherman did," even though he insisted this time it be nonviolent. I guess they thought even the mention of General William T. Sherman's name might alienate the Dixiecrats that the Kennedy administration was trying so hard to keep in the Democratic Party.

So the whole thing was changed into a giant liberal prayerfest, channeling the masses back into the Democratic Party while the U.S. government filmed the event for foreign consumption to prove how democratic the U.S. was. This was an important aspect: Jim Crow and the well-publicized racist violence in the South had become an embarrassment overseas as American imperialism sought to posture as the champion of "democracy" in the Cold War, particularly in competition with the Soviet Union in Africa and Asia. It was this, and the fact that Jim Crow segregation had become an anachronism, that made the U.S. government eventually acquiesce to the demand for legal equality in the South—but not without a lot of hard-fought struggle.

"I Have a Nightmare"

Although at this point they could censor SNCC, they sure couldn't censor Malcolm X, who contemptuously referred to the March on Washington as "a picnic, a circus" and, most famously, "the Farce on Washington." In our statement on Malcolm X's assassination that we printed in Spartacist (No. 4, May-June 1965; reprinted in WV No. 997, 2 March), we referred to him as a "heroic and tragic figure." He was never a Marxist and saw society as race-divided, rather than class-divided. Not surprisingly given his background, he had no understanding of the strategic role of the working class and the vanguard role to be played by the black proletariat. As well, he commenced his public life in the Muslim movement with all its irrational religiosity and racial mysticism. But he became the American truth-teller, who with passionate oratory exposed the hypocrisy and lies of both capitalist parties and advocated the right of armed self-defense.

In response to MLK's bleating about "I have a dream," Malcolm said: "And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare" ("The Ballot or the Bullet"). He spoke for many in SNCC. By the time Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, many civil rights activists did not mourn for this chief of U.S. imperialism, who had ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and sent the Green Berets to Vietnam. They agreed with Malcolm, who had the guts to say that it was a case of the "chickens coming home to roost."

It is interesting that it is particularly Malcolm's trenchant criticism of the American system that makes Manning Marable in his biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, most uncomfortable. Marable calls Malcolm's remarks on the Kennedy assassination "offensive" and his remarks on the March on Washington a "gross distortion of the facts." Marable has a photo of Malcolm X observing a joint session of the New York State Legislature. It is captioned: "As his political thought developed, Malcolm came to believe that blacks could work within the system to improve their lives." This is Manning Marable, social democrat, not Malcolm X. Marable's overall conclusion is that Malcolm "became an icon of black encouragement" and this came to be expressed "in the successful electoral bid of Barack Obama in 2008. Malcolm truly anticipated that the black electorate could potentially be the balance of power in a divided white republic." [For our review of this book, see "Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Liberal's 'Reinvention'," Parts One and Two, WV Nos. 997 and 998, 2 March and 16 March.]

Many SNCC activists started wearing "I have a Nightmare" buttons after that. In 1964, SNCC had students, mostly white, come down from the North for the first Freedom Summer to help organize a voter registration drive. As Clayborne Carson makes clear in his definitive book on SNCC, In Struggle, the Kennedy administration tried to persuade civil rights groups, including SNCC, to move away from direct action and do voter registration. They even used liberal anti-Communists like the CIA-connected Allard Lowenstein to try to keep the movement within mainstream politics and isolate and redbait the militants. (We had an excellent obituary for Lowenstein called "No Tears for Allard Lowenstein!" [WV No. 253, 4 April 1980].)

But in the end the voter registration drive hardly had the effect the liberals were expecting. In Mississippi, it was very dangerous; this was the summer Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were killed. SNCC organized 80,000 blacks who were refused the right to vote to sign protest ballots. SNCC took these protest ballots and formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). With Fannie Lou Hamer, a local woman at the head of it, they tried to get seated at the 1964 Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City in place of the all-white Jim Crow delegation from Mississippi.

They really got shafted—and not just by the Dixiecrat Southerners either, but more particularly by the Northern liberals. The MFDP was offered a rotten compromise whereby it would get two at-large seats and the entire Dixiecrat delegation would be seated. The list of usual suspects—King, Reuther, Rustin—was there to browbeat SNCC and the MFDP into accepting the compromise. Lyndon Johnson even offered Hubert Humphrey, who was considered a great liberal (we referred to him as a "liberal rat" in the WV obituary), the vice-presidential nomination if he could keep the MFDP from getting seated.

This time SNCC and the MFDP weren't going to be intimidated, and they turned the deal down flat. James Forman of SNCC, who was there, came to this conclusion: "No longer was there any hope, among those who still had it, that the federal government would change the situation in the Deep South." Malcolm X spoke eloquently to the illusions in the Democratic Party when he said, "Either party you align yourself with is suicide because both parties are criminal. Both parties are responsible for the criminal condition that exists."

SWP's Criminal Abstentionism

One SNCC project that resulted from the growing disillusionment with the Democratic Party was the attempt to organize an independent party in Lowndes County, Alabama, called the Black Panther Party. Although narrowly based on a single impoverished county, it was important because it was organized in opposition to the Democrats and openly advocated armed self-defense. This inspired the Black Panthers in Oakland, California. It also helped inspire the Spartacist League's call for a "Freedom-Labor Party," which took this a step further by attempting to link the exploding black struggle to the power of labor.

After the debacle at the Democratic National Convention, SNCC went into a prolonged political crisis. They rejected liberalism as they understood it but had no coherent program to replace it. It was around this time that I went to Mississippi for the second Freedom Summer in 1965. Not surprisingly, it was politically confusing and frustrating. At first I thought it was just my project in Gulfport that was disorganized, but in retrospect it was clear that SNCC was politically coming apart at the seams.

There was a lot of discussion about confronting the underlying economic and social reality of black oppression, North and South, but no consensus on how to do that. Like many others, I believed that black oppression was an integral part of "the system," but the only two answers I heard in SNCC were MLK liberalism or an incoherent black nationalist separatism. Being a red-diaper baby, I knew the answer had to have something to do with Marxism, but of a more radical kind than my parents' stodgy, pro-Democratic Party Communist Party (CP) variety. I would have been so happy to meet a real Marxist who understood how black oppression fit into capitalism and had a revolutionary strategy for its overturn. Indeed, after that summer I began to hang out in Berkeley checking out the left groups. I will comment that the CP was never on my list. I knew very little about their history and their betrayal of black struggle, particularly during WWII, but I knew they supported the Democratic Party and that was enough for me.

The absence of the left in the Southern civil rights movement was far from accidental and had, indeed, been a major element in the fight by the Revolutionary Tendency (RT, forerunner of the Spartacist League) in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). In the U.S. at the time of the civil rights movement, the SWP was the only organization, at least formally, with an authentically revolutionary program based on Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. However, by the early 1960s, ground down by the isolation and McCarthyite witchhunting of the 1950s, the SWP had lost its revolutionary bearings. The party's qualitative departure from its erstwhile revolutionary working-class politics began around 1960, when it slid into the role of uncritical cheerleaders for the petty-bourgeois radical-nationalist leadership of the Cuban Revolution. The SWP thus abandoned the centrality of the working class and the necessity of building Trotskyist parties in every country.

The abandonment of the fight for Marxist leadership of the black struggle in the U.S. was the domestic reflection. The SWP leadership willfully abstained from the civil rights movement while cheerleading from afar for both the liberal reformism of King and the reactionary separatism of the Nation of Islam. Against this, a 1963 RT document stated:

"The rising upsurge and militancy of the black revolt and the contradictory and confused, groping nature of what is now the left wing in the movement provide the revolutionary vanguard with fertile soil and many opportunities to plant the seeds of revolutionary socialism. Our task is to create a Trotskyist tendency in the broad left wing of the movement, while building that left wing…. We must consider non-intervention in the crisis of leadership a crime of the worst sort."

— "The Negro Struggle and the Crisis of Leadership," reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 (Revised)

It really was a crime, because the civil rights movement offered a short-lived opportunity for even a small revolutionary party to make a historic breakthrough. By the early 1960s, a large and growing current of young black militants was breaking to the left of the liberal reformism and pacifism of Martin Luther King but had not yet latched on to separatist ideology. These young militants were experienced in struggle and were leading a mass movement that included large numbers of black workers. Won to a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party, they could have changed the course of history. This was an opportunity missed.

Over the next year or so, members of the RT were expelled from the SWP. The early Spartacist tendency then actively intervened in the civil rights struggles in the South as well as the North, raising demands such as for a Freedom-Labor Party, for a Southern unionization drive backed by organized labor nationwide, and for armed self-defense against the Klan. Our forces, however, were very small and predominantly white. And the main body of young black activists was rapidly moving toward separatism.

Second Freedom Summer

Let me talk about some of my own experiences in Gulfport, Mississippi. Going to Mississippi and the Deep South was like entering a police state. I will not give the whole story of my trip down there except to say that hitchhiking part of the way there was not the smartest move. Anyhow, everywhere along the highways of Mississippi you would see big billboards urging you to join the White Citizens' Councils and preserve the Southern way of life. (The Citizens' Councils were basically Klansmen in suits.)

When I and the other young white woman with whom I was traveling got to New Orleans, we needed to find the bus station. She, being naive, asked a black teenager for directions. While he was politely answering this question, a big pickup truck drove up on the sidewalk, almost running a couple of people down, and this old white guy started shouting, "Is that boy bothering you?" and various other racist remarks. We just tried to calm him down and get ourselves and the black kid out of the situation in one piece. This gives you a sense of how hard the race lines were, and this was in downtown New Orleans, not rural Mississippi.

We didn't do much voter registration in Gulfport, having learned something from the previous year's Democratic Party Convention. We decided to concentrate on lunch counter sit-ins. When our integrated group wasn't served at a lunch counter, we organized demos, first a small one of our project members and then bigger and bigger ones of black youth, mostly teenagers, to demonstrate in front of the store. We were surrounded by a screaming racist mob. Each day our forces became bigger, but so did the mobs. The cops would come in their squad cars, which had Confederate flag license plates on the front, and laugh at the whole scene.

Luckily there was a longshore union in Gulfport, a segregated, black local of the International Longshoremen's Association. I heard there were negotiations with the union president, the mayor and the chief of police. The union president said that if we were killed or arrested, the longshoremen would go on strike and shut the port. Well, that worked! We weren't arrested or killed and the lunch counter began serving blacks.

I wish I could have met these longshoremen. They were just the power in the background, but I was impressed with them. SNCC didn't know what to do with them, but it seemed to me that there must be some left group out there who knew how to organize the power of labor. In the Spartacist League's successful anti-Klan united fronts, I saw that power consciously mobilized in the fight for black freedom.

"Every Dime Buys a Bullet"

When I was in Mississippi, pacifism was wearing pretty thin. First of all, the Los Angeles Watts upheaval broke out. Martin Luther King said that "as powerful a police force as possible" should be brought to L.A. to stop it. SNCC activists on my project cursed King for that. To SNCC members like me he was a sellout. James Forman commented that "the Mississippi Summer Project was clearly a popular struggle. It confirmed the absolute necessity for armed self-defense." We experienced that, too. Worried about the threats to our house in Gulfport, we moved out for a while. With another young white woman, I went to stay with a friendly black family. They kept insisting that there would be "no violence, no violence." When I looked around the room, I could see that every guy there was holding a rifle or a shotgun. I just thought, "Well, this is the kind of 'nonviolence' I'm for!"

The white SNCC worker I drove back to California with at the end of the summer had spent his time in the Mississippi Delta. They had encouraged black people to vote and assured them they would provide protection if they did. He spent every night up touring the black section of town with several guys and some shotguns watching for nightriders or Klansmen. As we have always said about gun control, "If guns are banned, only the cops and the Klan will have guns."

In fact, armed self-defense was considerably more popular than people now realize. There was the courageous Robert F. Williams, Marine veteran and author of Negroes With Guns, in Monroe, North Carolina, and the Louisiana-based Deacons for Defense and Justice. Williams, who as head of a local NAACP chapter organized armed self-defense against the Klan, was disowned by the national NAACP and hounded out of the country by the FBI. The Deacons for Defense also protected civil rights activists. The Spartacist League raised money for the Deacons for Defense, with the slogan "Every Dime Buys a Bullet."

At one point, the people on my project insisted that we talk to the FBI. As a red-diaper baby, I was horrified, but I couldn't convince my co-workers not to do it. I was always convinced that talking to them set us up for the bomb threats that made us have to move out and stay with the black family.

The illusions in the FBI were part of the illusions in the federal government. In fact, the FBI rode with the Klan! In the '60s, FBI informers held top-level leadership roles in the Klan. In 1965, nearly 2,000 of the FBI-estimated 10,000 Klan members were their own informants; that is one out of five! The Klan couldn't move without the FBI knowing it beforehand. They weren't there to disrupt the Klan; they were loyal dual members of both organizations.

The most notorious FBI "informant" in the Klan was Gary Rowe, who was involved in the infamous 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that killed four little black girls. He was also in the car, and may have been the actual triggerman who shot down civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo on the highway outside Selma, Alabama, after the troops were removed from the Selma-to-Montgomery march. This was government policy directed not just by J. Edgar Hoover but by liberals like Kennedy. As an arm of the state, the FBI's mission was to derail, disrupt and "neutralize" black and red organizations. And if that meant cooperation with the Klan, then that's what it meant.

Finally I will comment that one of the other SNCC projects I liked was a little library that we ran out of our small office. We had been sent a book collection by liberals in the North. Since the public library had only been open to blacks for one year in Gulfport, it was still pretty dangerous for a black person to go there. So our library was much appreciated and everyone was very careful to return the books. When things were slow, I read up on black history, trying to work my way through W.E.B. Du Bois on Reconstruction. I also read Booker T. Washington's autobiography. I had never heard of him before, but I was immediately horrified at his apologias for segregation and his opposition to the fight for equality. I announced to my fellow SNCC members that he was nothing but an Uncle Tom. For years I thought this was the basic position of leftists, black and white. Can you imagine my surprise to see that today black intellectuals are trying to rehabilitate Booker T. Washington? [See "'Separate but Equal' Poison: The Rehabilitation of Booker T. Washington," WV No. 1000, 13 April.]

Detroit: The Rise and Fall of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers

We print below the second part of a presentation by Spartacist League spokesman Diana Coleman at a February 25 forum in Los Angeles. Part One was printed in WV No. 1001 (27 April).

Up North, after the ghetto upheavals in Harlem and Watts, it became clear that the explosions were part of a pattern and not isolated events. It also became clear that Martin Luther King's "turn the other cheek" pacifism had no relevance to the embittered urban black masses. The Spartacist League was very active around the black question during this period, as you can see by perusing Spartacist Bound Volume No. 1.

In Harlem in 1964, only the reds defended the Harlem ghetto masses against what was in reality a police riot. Bill Epton of Progressive Labor Party, organizer of the militant Harlem Defense Committee, was witchhunted by a bourgeois hysteria campaign that included all the usual black leaders. At a mass rally in the New York garment district, called by the Spartacist-initiated Harlem Solidarity Committee, we attempted to mobilize the power of labor to defend the black masses. We called for removal of the rioting cops from the ghettos and recognition of the masses' right to defend themselves against the police occupation. Contrast that with MLK calling for the cops to go into Watts!

It was in Chicago that the liberal premises of the civil rights movement came most clearly into explosive collision with economic and social reality. Blacks in Northern ghettos already had the formal rights won by the civil rights movement in the South—"equality under the law" and "one man, one vote"—but that did not prevent them from being forced to live as second-class citizens. Underlying the forcible segregation of blacks at the bottom of American society today are primarily the workings of capitalist civil society and the market economy, reinforced by various laws which, while they don't mention blacks, are nonetheless consciously directed at blacks. For example: the restrictions of student enrollment in public schools to children living in the neighborhood where the school is located, the mass incarceration of young black men under the anti-drug laws, the phenomenon of "driving while black." The speed limit may be the same for everyone, but it isn't enforced the same for everyone!

The contradiction between formal legal equality and the pervasive social and economic inequality that black people are subject to is enforced centrally through systematic police terror and the race and class bias of the judicial system. As was made abundantly clear in Chicago, King and the rest of the liberal civil rights leadership got nowhere in the fight for "open housing" and had no program to fight the causes of racial discrimination, which are deeply rooted in the economic and social structure of capitalist society. These will not be dealt with by some new civil rights act, but only by socialist revolution.

In 1966, Stokely Carmichael, newly elected as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), raised the demand for "Black Power." This call electrified young radicals from the Jim Crow South to the ghettos of the North. We noted at the time that the Black Power slogan "represents the repudiation of tokenism, liberal tutelage, reliance on the federal government, and the non-violent philosophy of moral suasion" ("Black Power—Class Power," reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 5 [Revised], "What Strategy for Black Liberation? Trotskyism vs. Black Nationalism" [September 1978]). But we also warned that "'black power' must be clearly defined in class, not racial terms, for otherwise the 'black power' movement may become the black wing of the Democratic Party in the South" ("Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom," Spartacist supplement, May-June 1967, reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9, "Basic Documents of the Spartacist League"). This was prophetic, not only for the South but for the North, too.

Without the intervention of conscious communists fighting for a program of revolutionary integrationism and proletarian socialism, black militants turned away from MLK liberalism and embraced the dead end of black separatism. Most of these black nationalists quickly re-entered the fold of mainstream bourgeois politics, becoming administrators of the various poverty programs and supporters of local black Democrats. The Black Panthers and the Detroit League of Revolutionary Black Workers were considerably more radical, but both were deeply contradictory, for Marxism and black nationalism do not a coherent program make.

Detroit: Black Workers and the UAW

We have written a lot about the Panthers, so today I want to talk about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit. Actually, there is one very good article about the League in Marxist Bulletin No. 5R called "Soul Power or Workers Power?" Detroit: I Do Mind Dying is still the best book to read on the subject. Unlike other black nationalist groups, the League insisted on the centrality of the working class and organizing at "the point of production." But this only made their internal contradictions more explosive. It is necessary to understand a couple of things about Detroit to understand why the League developed there.

Detroit, like Chicago, was a big destination for blacks during the "Great Migration" out of the Jim Crow South to what they hoped would be a better life in the North. It was still pretty hard. First courted by Henry Ford as a counterforce to unionism, most blacks refused to scab and joined the union. After World War II, blacks were a real presence in the auto plants and city. But it was still a highly segregated city, with blacks forced into substandard housing, rotten schools and the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the plants.

The book Race Against Liberalism by David M. Lewis-Colman gives a vivid picture of how Walter Reuther, United Auto Workers (UAW) president, with his social-democratic past, purged the union of Communist Party supporters and radicals of all varieties, black and white, working in tandem with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). This included putting the giant Local 600 at Ford River Rouge in receivership in the early 1950s. Lewis-Colman writes:

"On March 14, two days after HUAC left Detroit, Reuther moved to neutralize the dissident local.... Reuther spent much of his presentation presenting evidence of communist domination of Local 600. He described the local's anti-Korean War stance as a response to the dictates of the Communist party and suggested that an aerial picture of the River Rouge plant printed in Ford Facts [the local newsletter] was evidence of espionage. At the end of the lengthy meeting, the executive board voted unanimously to take control of Local 600 and soon dismissed or suspended many of its leading Negro-caucus activists and their white progressive allies."

Lewis-Colman goes on, "In the late 1940's as the cold war intensified, Reuther became increasingly focused on civil rights and concerned about the race issue in the union. Like many liberal anti-Communists, Reuther believed that racism had become an effective issue for Communists." It was an issue he sought to deflect by giving support to Martin Luther King's pacifist liberalism in the South, while not dealing in the slightest with racist practices in the Detroit auto plants or in the UAW itself.

This situation led the few aspiring black bureaucrats in the '50s to set up an opportunist formation called the Trade Union Leadership Council, which involved people like venerable social democrat A. Philip Randolph (amazing how the same names keep coming up). They raised the question of discrimination, while keeping everything well within the context of liberal pressure politics. As our article in MB No. 5R says, "The combination of Reuther's hypocritical liberalism and the impotent pressure-group politics of King and the black bureaucrats provided fertile ground for the spawning of more militant black nationalist political currents and organizations."

The anti-cop ghetto upheaval in Detroit in the summer of 1967 was one of the biggest and bloodiest of that period. Geronimo Pratt, who died recently, was a framed-up former leader of the Black Panther Party whom the Spartacist League and Partisan Defense Committee defended for many years and who was freed after an outrageous 27 years in jail. With few job opportunities, at age 17 Geronimo had joined the Army. After his first tour of duty in Vietnam with the 82nd Airborne, they were sent to Detroit to quell the ghetto rebellion. It is said that military hardware was soon finding its way to the ghetto. Pratt recalled that his unit, which was 60-70 percent black, was supportive of the besieged ghetto. So they were sent back to Vietnam as a not-so-subtle punishment. This is an illustration of the Achilles' heel of American imperialism: a heavily black and brown army is unlikely to be very loyal to the capitalist class and state when there is real social struggle in the country.

Then there were the horrendous conditions in these old, decrepit auto plants, now with a heavily black workforce. Racism from foremen was common, as was speed-up, industrial injuries, etc., etc. The title of the book, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying came from a Detroit blues song of the '60s which starts, "Please, Mr. Foreman, slow down your assembly line. No, I don't mind workin', but I do mind dyin'."

To give you an example, in 1970 at the Eldon Ave. Chrysler plant, one of the most dangerous plants, a black worker who had been fired flipped out and shot dead two foremen and a white co-worker. When I worked at the Post Office, we used to call this "going postal." In any case, Ken Cockrel, a black lawyer and member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, defended him, blaming the deaths on the working conditions at Chrysler and this worker's lifetime experiences of racism. As a climax to the trial, Cockrel took the entire jury on a tour of the plant so they could see the conditions for themselves. The jury was so horrified they found the worker not responsible for his acts, and he was awarded workman's compensation for the injuries done to him by Chrysler! When I was in Detroit in 1973 when we set up a local there, people were still talking about this.

Vacuum of Leadership

After the upheaval of 1967, a group of young black nationalists, centered at Wayne State University, coalesced around a community oriented newspaper, the Inner City Voice. Some of this initial group had been around the ex-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP), while others came from a Maoist background. Comrade Don Alexander recounts having met one of these guys, John Watson, abroad somewhat later. Watson told him that he and some of the others had attended a number of SWP Friday night Militant Forums in Detroit. They had been quite impressed with the SWP, but the SWP, far from trying to recruit them, told them to go off and form their own black political party. They were much influenced by this and did so.

Let me make the point that this gross idea that the SWP was a white party and shouldn't recruit blacks was the corollary to the SWP's refusal to intervene in SNCC. Here's what the Revolutionary Tendency wrote in the document "For Black Trotskyism" [reprinted in MB No. 5R and excerpted in this issue] in counterposition to the SWP majority in 1963: "The meaning of the line of the PC [Political Committee] draft is that we are not interested in recruiting these people to our white party because we have the revolutionary socialist program for the section of the working class of which we are the vanguard, and they (Negro militants) must lead their own struggle, although we would like to have fraternal relations with them. This is the meaning of the PC draft. To the concept of the white party must be counterposed the concept of the revolutionary party." Indeed, for only an integrated revolutionary party can lead the socialist revolution in the U.S.

This grouping around the Inner City Voice was held together by a vague but militant determination to form a "black Marxist-Leninist party." Maintaining their adherence to nationalism, they nevertheless saw that black workers played a key role in the American economy and working class. Black workers, they reasoned, would give their movement a more stable base than the lumpenproletariat to whom the Panthers oriented.

The Inner City Voice soon attracted a group of young black militants at the Chrysler Hamtramck assembly plant, Dodge Main, and these militants formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, or DRUM. A wildcat strike over speed-up in May 1968 involving both black and white workers resulted in racist disciplinary actions being applied overwhelming to black workers.

Coming off of that, DRUM led a successful boycott of nearby bars that wouldn't hire blacks, led another three-day wildcat strike, held a rally of 3,000 workers in the plant parking lot and established itself as the leadership of the 60 percent black workforce at Dodge Main. They contested a local union election and almost won, even though the election was totally rigged. Soon word of DRUM's audacity spread to other plants. ELRUM was formed at Eldon Ave. Chrysler and a number of other groups were formed at other auto plants and even at United Parcel Service (UPRUM). Based on the apparent strength of DRUM and ELRUM, the Inner City Voice cadres moved to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in early 1969.

There was a vacuum, and they filled it. But the key question is always program. DRUM called for rehiring fired workers, entry of blacks into skilled trades, against speed-up and unsafe conditions and denounced the betrayals of UAW officials, etc. That's all fine and good, but a lot of their demands were totally unsupportable. Let me give some examples: DRUM demanded 50 black foremen, ten black general foremen, a black plant manager; that "a black brother be appointed as head of the board of directors of Chrysler Corporation," "50 percent of all plant protection guards be black, and that every time a black worker is removed from plant premises that he be led by a black brother"; that all black workers immediately stop paying union dues. These are demands that have to do with getting a few more "black faces in high places" and nothing to do with organizing proletarian struggle. It tells you a lot that DRUM could consider a black director of Chrysler or a black security guard to be a "brother"!

Some white workers did respect the picket lines and did want to work with DRUM, but DRUM consciously avoided organizing them, seeing them as the recipients of "white skin privilege" who had "a huge stake in the imperialist system." This is false. White, black and Latino workers have a common interest in overthrowing capitalism, but you have to fight to bring this consciousness to the proletariat. The theory of "white skin privilege" was a cover for evading the difficult task of uniting the entire proletariat around a revolutionary program. Especially in Detroit of that time, while there were older, conservative white workers, there were also young white workers who didn't like the war in Vietnam, had run into Students for a Democratic Society in junior college, and so on.

Black Nationalist Dead End

Then there was the dual union approach, which threatened to pull black workers out of the UAW altogether. As we have stated in the Spartacist League/U.S. Programmatic Statement:

"At bottom black nationalism is an expression of hopelessness stemming from defeat, reflecting despair over prospects for integrated class struggle and labor taking up the fight for black rights. The chief responsibility for this lies on the shoulders of the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy, which has time and again refused to mobilize the social power of the multiracial working class in struggle against racist discrimination and terror."

What was needed was a class-struggle opposition to the sellout bureaucracy, not a rejection of the union as a whole. Dual-unionist in principle, the League's caucuses nevertheless vacillated in their conceptions of whether or not it was permissible to work within the UAW. Sometimes they emphasized the commonality of black and white workers; that side of things comes across more in, for example, the movie about the League, Finally Got the News. But here is the ending of the much-quoted anonymous poem that came out of the DRUM struggles: "U.A.W. is scum/OUR THING IS DRUM!!!!"

Like black nationalist groups generally, the League was bad on the woman question. There were activist women in the League, but they didn't play leadership roles. Wanting an arena they could run, women League members set up a group for women hospital workers but disbanded it when it didn't get the necessary backing from the League. And some League men actually referred to the woman activists as the IWW—the Ignorant Women of the World.

Even as the League was formed in 1969, there began to be conflicting orientations within the leadership: whether to expand into the community or orient toward a pan-industry workers organization; whether to be a union-type formation or a cadre group. The inability to square a nationalist orientation with the realities of class struggle in the plants led to a turn toward the black community. The League split in 1971, with both sides espousing nationalism. The community-oriented wing of Ken Cockrel, after a sojourn in the Black Workers Congress, moved toward Democratic Party politics, giving support to black Democrat Coleman Young. Cockrel was on the Detroit City Council and had aspirations to be mayor but died before he could run. His widow has been on the Detroit city council as has his son, who was also Detroit mayor at one point.

The more workerist wing of the League—General Baker and others—joined the Stalinist Communist League of Nelson Peery, with its crackpot theory of the Negro nation in the Deep South, and formed the Communist Labor Party (CLP). We set up an SL local in Detroit in 1973. It would have been good if we could have been there earlier; maybe we could have won over some of the League. But setting up a Detroit local required the recruitment of a hundred or so New Leftists to Trotskyism. I liked Detroit; there was a whole series of wildcat strikes in the summer of 1973, lots of left groups to argue with, and Workers Vanguard sold well. The level of political understanding was higher back then. I remember selling WV at an auto plant and a young black guy came up to me very purposefully and said, "I read the Vanguard and I have a dictionary, too; but I can't find 'Pabloism' in it. So what does it mean?"

In 1976, General Baker ran as a Communist Labor Party candidate for the Michigan state congress. It couldn't have been much of a communist campaign, because I distinctly remember seeing a big election billboard in Detroit that said "General Baker, democrat" and then arguing with the CLP about it. When he ran in 1978, although still a CLPer, it was explicitly on the Democratic Party ticket. Despite the anti-UAW fulminations of the League, he became a UAW bureaucrat. In a photo that ran with an article in 2011, General Baker is smiling broadly as he receives a UAW award for those who "exemplify the teaching and life" of, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King.

In 1979, five anti-Klan protesters were shot down in cold blood by the Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina. This was shown on national TV. As always, the FBI was involved. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was involved, and the local police knew not to get there until the fascist death squad had made a leisurely departure but in plenty of time to arrest the surviving wounded victims. When the Klan said they were going to celebrate this atrocity in black, working-class Detroit, the Spartacist League organized our first labor/black mobilization to stop the Klan. It was small but successful, and the Klan didn't march.

The black Democratic mayor, Coleman Young, tried to ban it, Ken Cockrel on the City Council refused to take a position on it, the big shots of the UAW refused to endorse the rally. But auto workers and black youth still turned out. In a real way, this integrated rally (about two-thirds black) against the Klan, built by the Marxist Spartacist League, was a refutation of both King's reformist program of looking to the government and the League's nationalist views on white skin privilege.

Today Detroit is a wasteland with no jobs, a shrinking population and whole areas going to weeds and rubble. The UAW, thanks to the massive betrayals of the labor bureaucrats, is only a shadow of itself, and there's right-wing talk about legislation to make Michigan a "right to work" state. But there is still a proletariat in this country and internationally and the class contradictions haven't gone away. Capitalism cannot help but breed class struggle. In Longview, Washington, we have seen longshoremen battling the company with militant tactics not seen for decades in this country: mass picketing facing down cops, ports in the region shut down, grain dumped out on the tracks, etc. We look forward to more of the same, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Our study of the civil rights period is critical to exposing those who have been obstacles to the development of revolutionary consciousness. So let me conclude by again citing the Programmatic Statement of the Spartacist League/U.S.:

"The proletariat is the only revolutionary class in modern society. Only the revolutionary conquest of power by the multiracial working class, emancipating the proletariat from the system of wage slavery, can end imperialist barbarity and achieve the long-betrayed promise of black freedom. We seek to build the Leninist vanguard party which is the necessary instrument for infusing the working class with this understanding, transforming it from a class in itself—simply defined by its relationship to the means of production—to a class for itself, fully conscious of its historic task to seize state power and reorganize society."

We urge you to join us in this struggle.

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