Workers Vanguard No. 1166
29 November 2019
Down With School Segregation, Legacy of Slavery!
We print below, edited for publication, the second part of a presentation by comrade L. Singer at a Spartacist League forum held in Chicago on October 26. The talk was first given in Brooklyn. Part One appeared in WV No. 1165 (15 November).
Most of the first free public schools in the South were established after the Civil War and during Radical Reconstruction, the turbulent decade of Southern interracial bourgeois democracy. The freedmen and their white allies were protected by federal troops, many of them black. The Reconstruction Acts, passed by Congress in 1867, mandated the military occupation of the ex-Confederate states and provided for universal common school education. The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868; this stated that everybody born in the U.S. was a citizen, invalidating the Dred Scott decision. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, granting the right to vote to all male citizens. Black people who served in the Union Army were among the principal leaders of Reconstruction governments and fought tenaciously against segregation.
Thousands of public schools were built, to the enormous benefit of black people and poor whites, although the schools largely remained segregated by race. Some 1,500 schools were built in Texas alone by 1872, and by 1875 half of all children in Mississippi, Florida and South Carolina were attending school. The freedmen’s drive for education for themselves and their children was insatiable, as it was viewed as a path out of conditions of servitude. Thousands of Northern teachers, black and white, flocked to the South to aid the freedmen and were themselves often the target of violence by racists.
There were some attempts to desegregate schools. One effort was led by Robert Smalls, who had earned fame as a slave in 1862 by commandeering a heavily armed Confederate ship in Charleston harbor. He delivered it to the Union fleet, bringing himself and 16 other slaves to freedom. After the war, Smalls was elected to the new South Carolina government. He pushed through legislation to desegregate schools in the state. But when the first black student entered the University of South Carolina, the teachers resigned and the entire student body left the school! In New Orleans in the early 1870s, there was even a brief experiment with integrated public schools. In January 1866, the New Orleans Tribune, the first black daily newspaper in the U.S., published the headline: “All children, without discrimination, will sit together.”
But widespread and violent opposition to “race mixing” ensured that the majority of Southern schools were segregated, and it goes without saying that the black schools were inferior. While abolitionists opposed the heinous institution of slavery, many saw full equality for black people as a whole different matter. As I noted earlier, prior to the Civil War, systematic segregation had taken root in the North, where a fight against the color line was also waged. Radical abolitionist Charles Sumner, in every Congressional session from 1870 until his death four years later, fought against Jim Crow, which he termed “the last tinge of slavery.” Civil War hero Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson was ejected from a local school board in 1869 for demanding an end to segregated schools in Rhode Island.
Frederick Douglass powerfully argued the case for integration, especially as a basis for unity of poor whites and blacks against their common enemy: “The cunning ex-slaveholder sets those who should be his enemies to fighting each other and thus diverts attention from himself. Educate the colored children and white children together in your day and night schools throughout the South, and they will learn to know each other better, and be better able to cooperate for mutual benefit.”
Reconstruction was the first attempt in this country to create a society in which black and white people were equal citizens—which flew in the face of all U.S. history. While Reconstruction is usually viewed as an issue of black and white, the defeat of the slavocracy also accentuated class differences among Southern whites. Democratic Party appeals to white supremacy were a way to block unity between poor whites and blacks. There was no real labor movement in the U.S. before the Civil War. However, it came on the scene afterwards; strikes and other labor protests became widespread. By 1868, the federal government conceded the eight-hour day to federal workers. Karl Marx captured the scene in the first volume of Capital (1867):
“In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California.”
It was a highly combative labor movement, and that combativity reached its height in the Great Rail Strike of 1877. The crushing of that strike coincided with the final undoing of Reconstruction. Some of the federal troops removed from the South were sent against the rail workers, an early example of how labor rights and black rights are intertwined. The growth of labor militancy in the U.S. and internationally helped persuade Northern capitalists that their class interests, which had led them into the Civil War to destroy the Southern slave system, now compelled opposition to the demands of the black freedmen, as well as to the struggles of the working class.
Despite the tenacious struggles of a few courageous white Radical Republicans like Sumner and his House colleague Thaddeus Stevens, as well as black leaders like Douglass, Reconstruction was defeated. The withdrawal of the last Union troops with the Compromise of 1877 made clear that Northern capital was interested in consolidating the economic advantages of its victory over the Confederacy, not in black rights. Left defenseless before their former owners, black people were driven out of government and off their land as Reconstruction regimes were smashed by naked racist terror.
A number of Supreme Court decisions, taken together, legally codified the end of Reconstruction. They also demonstrated that the courts are part of the bourgeois state machine, whose purpose is to defend capitalist class rule against the exploited and oppressed, regardless of which bourgeois party holds power. The core of the state consists of the police, army and prisons, as well as the courts. In 1883, the Supreme Court struck down the 1875 Civil Rights Act as unconstitutional. That Act, passed in honor of Sumner the year after his death, was a watered-down version of a bill he had proposed to promote integration. In 1896, the Court affirmed segregation as the law of the land in the Plessy decision. Homer Plessy, a man of mixed-race ancestry, sued in Louisiana after he was arrested for trying to sit in the “white section” of a train. The Court declared that if black people regard separate facilities as racial discrimination, it’s because they choose to interpret them as such, i.e., it’s all in their heads.
Arguing that segregation violates no part of the Constitution or its amendments, the Plessy ruling allowed separate treatment by race so long as it was supposedly equal. In Brown v. Board of Education: Caste, Culture, and the Constitution (2003), authors Robert Cottrol, Raymond Diamond and Leland Ware note: “At its zenith this system of segregation would turn Negroes into a group of American untouchables, ritually separated from the dominant white population in almost every observable facet of daily existence.” Laws were put into effect throughout the South mandating separate seating on buses, separate water fountains, separate bathrooms, separate schools, separate Bibles to swear on in court. Laws echoing those that existed in the time of slavery were passed that forbade white teachers from teaching black children.
It is out of the ashes of the defeat of Reconstruction that Booker T. Washington arose as the voice of accommodation to Jim Crow segregation. Washington disparaged Reconstruction and blamed black people for their own oppression, deeming them “unfit” for “high-minded” professions. In periods of defeat, like now, echoes are heard of Washington’s gospel of self-help, appealing to black youth to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps—in other words, to accept the racist status quo and look to the white rulers for patronage.
Heroic struggles erupted in the 1950s and ’60s that aimed to end the formal legal inequalities imposed on black people. Brown v. Board of Education struck down the doctrine of “separate but equal” for schools. But there was immediate and often violent resistance to desegregation, and foot-dragging by the federal government. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, starting in 1959 all public schools were shut down for five years to prevent integration. White kids got vouchers paid for by public funds to attend private schools; the black kids got nothing.
Fundamentally, the civil rights movement did not remedy the systemic racial oppression at the core of U.S. capitalism. Its liberal leadership, exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr., sought legal reforms through pressuring the capitalist Democrats and courts, the same forces maintaining de facto segregation outside the South. In the North, there were no laws forbidding black people to eat at the same lunch counters as whites; but the unwritten laws of American capitalist exploitation kept black people a “last hired, first fired,” doubly oppressed race-color caste. In 1965, the great writer James Baldwin remarked: “De facto segregation means Negroes are segregated, but nobody did it.”
In 1954, addressing how the Brown decision applied to segregation in New York City, the school superintendent insisted, “We have natural segregation here—it’s accidental.” Today, we hear that a lot, too. School officials in the North argued against using the word “segregation” on the grounds that segregation is deliberate—“racial imbalance” was the preferred term. The same thing is heard today, along with “lack of diversity.” While there was some struggle for school desegregation in the mid to late 1950s, it was in the early 1960s that larger struggles broke out.
Democrats and Social Democrats
In Chicago, segregation of housing and schools was openly enforced by the Democratic Party machine of Richard J. Daley. When the school superintendent, Benjamin Willis, was pressured to address overcrowding at black schools, he ordered 100 mobile classrooms rather than busing black kids to white schools. There was a boycott by over 222,000 students in 1963 against the segregation embodied in these “Willis wagons.” The Chicago Tribune called the boycott and other protest a “reign of chaos” and denounced the organizers as “reckless” for pulling kids out of school. That might sound familiar: the current “progressive” Democratic mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has lobbed similar vitriol at teachers who are now on strike. Daley and the Chicago Democrats viciously resisted any attempt at integration and made sure that schools and housing would stay segregated, as they still are.
In NYC, the struggle for integration reached a fever pitch in the early 1960s amid tumultuous struggles for decent housing and jobs and against rampant cop terror. In 1964, massive school boycotts by black and Puerto Rican parents and students were among the country’s largest civil rights demonstrations on record. The first boycott was led by liberal Brooklyn minister Milton Galamison and Bayard Rustin, today an icon of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), who was already an expert in selling out struggles on behalf of the Democratic Party, which he wanted to “realign.” Some 460,000 students didn’t go to school. There was a racist backlash, with 10,000 white mothers, organized as “parents and taxpayers,” marching across the Brooklyn Bridge to denounce “busing.”
A second boycott was called, but this time Rustin wouldn’t support it, labeling it too militant. Liberal white organizations saw the boycott as an inappropriate tactic; the New York Times declared it a “violent, illegal approach of adult-encouraged truancy!” Notably, Malcolm X supported the boycott, observing: “You don’t have to go to Mississippi to find a segregated school system, we have it right here in New York City.”
White Democratic Party politicians and black Democrats in the civil rights movement abandoned the battle. The NYC teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), was led by Albert Shanker, an anti-Communist “democratic socialist” who ran the UFT like a business. He refused to have the union endorse the 1964 school boycott for integration.
The Spartacist League intervened into the boycott. When the struggle for black rights develops a mass character, it poses a direct threat to the capitalist system but cannot go forward without a revolutionary leadership. Our Spartacist article (No. 2, July-August 1964) stated that such a leadership would seek “to educate the black workers about the real nature of the Democratic Party of cold-war liberals, Southern racists, kept union leaders, and Uncle Toms in order to break up the system of two capitalist parties which perpetuates the status quo.”
This struggle was happening in the lead-up to the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Here we see the racist role of the Democrats in full effect. It was a Democratic Congressman from Brooklyn, Emanuel Celler, who enabled the incorporation of an amendment that the act could not be used to “overcome racial imbalance” in public schools. There was an anti-busing amendment as well, to stop “any official or court of the United States to issue any order seeking to achieve a racial balance in any school by requiring the transportation of pupils or students from one school to another…in order to achieve such racial balance.” So here you have the Democrats gutting the civil rights legislation they claimed to support in the abstract and upholding the segregation of Northern schools. This anti-busing amendment would be regularly cited in the Chicago Tribune to argue in defense of school segregation.
The civil rights movement mainly benefited a thin layer of middle-class black people, but it could not make a dent in the deep-seated oppression of the black ghetto masses. The formula of equal rights under the law provides no answer to the miserable conditions of black life entrenched in American capitalist society: joblessness, crumbling homes, overcrowded schools, racist cop terror. Fed up with these conditions, Harlem erupted in 1964 and Watts in 1965, as did ghettos across the country over the next three years. These upheavals were an expression of the bankruptcy of the liberal-led civil rights movement in the face of these social conditions.
There was a growth in black separatist sentiment, which did not and could not generate a program of struggle to get rid of racial oppression under capitalism. The black nationalists who raised “community control” made a virtue of the ingrained segregation that was seen as unchangeable. By the late 1960s, “community control” had become a major slogan used by the ruling class, mainly acting through the Democratic Party, to co-opt a layer of young black activists. Many of these activists, including those who voiced white-baiting separatist rhetoric, became overseers of the segregated black ghettos. The actual content of the “community control” slogan was an appeal for more black Democratic Party politicians, cops, judges and administrators. Since then, black mayors have been installed in one major city after another to help contain the discontent of the black masses, while presiding over cop terror and unleashing attacks on social programs and labor.
All these events are the background to understanding the 1968 New York City teachers strike. The administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay was trying to bust the public employee unions, which were quite combative in the mid 1960s. There was a transit strike in 1966, led by Mike Quill. On its eve, Quill famously ripped up an anti-strike court injunction. Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller announced that he was “determined that this should never happen again.” The Taylor Law banning public employee strikes was put in place in 1967. When sanitation workers struck in early 1968, Lindsay decided that the time had come to break the public-sector unions.
Teachers had gone on strike in 1967, defying the Taylor Law. A leaflet we put out on September 24 after that strike noted the “policy of ‘professionalism’ advocated by the UFT leadership has held the union largely aloof from many of the past struggles of the ghetto communities, widening the gap between teacher, student and parent. Such a situation [of UFT indifference combined with black nationalist calls for ‘keeping the schools open’] provides a ready excuse for the development of racist attitudes.”
The spark for the 1968 strike came when the newly appointed black superintendent of Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district fired union teachers in order to replace them with non-union ones. Lindsay and Rockefeller, in cahoots with the Ford Foundation, pulled out all the stops to bust the union by mobilizing black people and Latinos in the ghettos and barrios against the strike, using the demagogic call for “community control” of the schools. While politically denouncing Shanker, we stood with the union, which was at that time disproportionately Jewish, in its fight for survival. In our leaflet “New York City School Strike: Beware Liberal Union Busters!” (13 November 1968), we sought to link the struggles of the union movement to those of New York’s black and Puerto Rican working people. Most of the reformist left came out in support of outright strikebreaking, siding with the “community control” crowd.
A few years later, there was a teachers strike in Newark, New Jersey, that played out differently. In 1971, black Democratic mayor Kenneth Gibson attacked the teachers union. However, because the union had an integrated membership and a black woman president, the ensuing teachers strike had substantial support from the city’s black population. The Newark teachers strike exposed the anti-union purpose behind the rhetoric of “community control” that had been wielded three years earlier in an attempt to break the NYC teachers union.
Racist Mobs and
Liberals Defeat Busing
By the early to mid 1970s, the fight for school busing had become the front line in the fight for integration. The battle in Boston, a quintessential Democratic Party stronghold, took place almost 20 years after Brown and after every conceivable legal and political obstacle had been thrown up against integrating its schools. In 1974, a landmark Supreme Court decision prohibited busing black schoolchildren from Detroit to the suburbs, where the white schools were. This ruling set a precedent, including in Boston. The busing of black students there was purposely limited to neighborhoods like South Boston, known as Southie, which at the time was one of the poorest white areas outside of Appalachia. The aim was to pit poor and working-class whites against blacks. Again, demagogic politicians inflamed racist sentiments in these white ethnic enclaves under the watchwords of defend “neighborhood schools” and “stop forced busing.”
The Spartacist League intervened in Boston with a class-struggle program, calling to defend school busing as a minimal application of the elementary democratic right of black people to equality. We called to extend busing to the wealthier suburbs, so that poor kids, black and white, could have access to quality education. We called for quality, racially integrated housing and free universal higher education. While the NAACP and such craven reformists as the Socialist Workers Party called for federal troops to Boston, we fought for labor-black defense to stop racist mob attacks and protect black schoolchildren. We knew the defeat of busing in Boston would set the stage for further attacks against black people and for rolling back social gains more broadly, which it did.
All the metropolitan areas in the country with the most integrated schools had mandatory city-suburban busing plans. Most of these plans had been reversed or stopped by the 1990s. In 2007, the Supreme Court threw out school desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, enabling the overturn of others that remained across the country and eviscerating the Brown decision.
While busing was an inadequate solution to school segregation, it did not “fail” but was killed by an alliance of liberals in Congress and howling mobs of racists in the streets. The reformist left played its part in this defeat by channeling the fight to defend busing into faith in the Democrats and appeals for federal intervention.
A few months ago, an early Democratic Party presidential debate included the spectacle of Kamala Harris, former California attorney general, going after Joe Biden for opposing busing for black schoolchildren. Of course, Biden supported racist anti-busing measures as a Senator from Delaware. But this criticism is pure hypocrisy coming from Harris. For one, the role played by Biden in killing busing was not his alone, but that of the Democratic Party as a whole. And while a younger Harris personally benefited from the busing program in Berkeley, California, she went on to bus thousands of black and Latino youth, only not to better schools but to prison hellholes.
A number of petty-bourgeois liberal writers have powerfully documented the segregated and horrible conditions of the majority of public schools in this country. But they all propose the same dead-end answer of a better capitalist government to change things, while putting the fundamental blame on racist backwardness among whites.
This is a deeply and viciously racist country. But backward consciousness is not the source of racial oppression, although it is part of sustaining the oppression and degradation of black people, Latinos and other minorities. Racial oppression fundamentally stems from the American capitalist system and division of the working class along racial lines. As veteran American Trotskyist Richard Fraser put it:
“Karl Marx proved conclusively, however, that it was not greed but property relations which make it possible for exploitation to exist. When applied to the Negro question, the theory of morality means that the root of the problem of discrimination and white supremacy is prejudice. This is the reigning theory of American liberalism and is the means by which the capitalists throw the responsibility for the Jim Crow system upon the population as a whole. If people weren’t prejudiced there would be no Negro problem. This contention is fundamentally false.”
—“The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution” (1953), printed in “In Memoriam—
Richard S. Fraser,” Prometheus
Research Series No. 3, August 1990
The capitalist rulers have profited immensely by sowing racial divisions, pitting white workers against blacks, Asians against blacks and Latinos, blacks against immigrants and so on. They want to mask the fact that the class division between the workers and the capitalists is the primary dividing line in this society. Truth is, racial oppression serves to deepen the exploitation of all workers. The horrific conditions of life that black and immigrant workers have long endured are increasingly faced by the working class as a whole.
Funding for education and other social services is always rationed in a way that purposely fans racial and ethnic tensions. De Blasio’s pseudo-attempt to get rid of the racist, elite NYC high school exam was fiercely opposed by some Asian parents, who bought into the bourgeoisie’s lie that “merit” is what gets one to the top. To this end, the rulers have long invoked the myth of the Asian “model minority” as yet another way to blame black people for their own oppression. Such pernicious stereotypes also disappear national and class differences among Asians. In NYC alone, some quarter-million Asians live in poverty. Asians are also a component part of labor in the city.
Asians, as well as Latinos and other predominantly non-white minorities, suffer oppression in capitalist America. However, as an intermediate layer, they navigate a society where the main racial divide is between black and white, and every institution is permeated by anti-black racism. Many Latino students in the U.S. attend deeply segregated and impoverished schools. In California, Latinos attend schools that are 84 percent non-white. There is also a whole history of segregation of Latinos on the basis of anti-Spanish discrimination, including “English only” schools.
In 1970, a federal district court ruled that the Brown decision applied to segregation of Mexican students in Texas. In response, Houston school officials classified Mexican students as “white” in order to place them in black schools and then declared those schools “integrated,” while leaving white schools untouched. The rights of workers, Latinos and Asians, black people and immigrants will either go forward together or fall back separately. That’s why we emphasize the fight for bilingual education as part of the struggle for free, quality, integrated education for all. Bilingual education, which is vital for all Spanish-speaking and immigrant children, would also benefit native English speakers.
For Free, Quality, Integrated Public Education for All!
Today, the blame for the lack of learning and for low test scores is cynically put on teachers and their unions. But over the last four decades, public education has come under sustained bipartisan assault, from extreme cutbacks to widespread school closures. The Obama administration led the pack in launching sweeping attacks on the public schools and the teachers unions packaged as education “reform,” which included a major expansion of the privately run charter industry.
Among the advocates of this “reform” are some of America’s biggest billionaires and venture capitalists, like Bill Gates and Sam Walton. Cornell University professor Noliwe Rooks, in her book Cutting School (2017), usefully details how increased privatization of the public schools is a way to slash the cost of educating poor and minority youth and at the same time enables individual capitalists to make lots of money. She writes: “Charter schools,…vouchers, virtual schools, and an alternatively certified, non-unionized teaching force represent the bulk of the contemporary solutions offered as cures for what ails communities that are upward of 80 percent Black and Latino.”
Out of desperation over the awful state of inner-city public schools, many black and Latino parents have been manipulated into thinking that charter schools are some kind of answer. In fact, the overwhelmingly non-union charters are even more segregated than the public schools and are notorious for vicious discipline and excluding non-English speakers and disabled students. We call for class struggle to destroy the charter industry through bringing its teachers and staff into the public schools and the unions. An important step in this direction would be for labor to organize the existing charters, as has already happened in some cases. Teachers at recently unionized charters in Chicago have engaged in strike action; unity in struggle of Chicago public school and charter teachers would give a big boost to further organizing drives.
There has been a series of teachers strikes across the country, beginning in West Virginia a year and a half ago up through Chicago today. These walkouts over better pay and conditions found wide support as well as some expressions of solidarity from other unions. But the potential impact of these battles has largely been wasted by the trade-union officialdom that ties the unions to the same Democratic Party that has been attacking them and devastating public education.
An article on the Chicago teachers strike in the DSA-sponsored Jacobin was titled “It’s Chicago Educators Versus the Ruling Class” (23 October). However, it declares, “Following Sanders’s lead, Harris, Warren, and Biden, have expressed support for union demands, exposing [Chicago mayor Lori] Lightfoot’s pro-big business economic program”—as though these other Democrats don’t have a pro-big business program. They all are capitalist politicians upholding viciously racist U.S. imperialism.
Every child across the country, whatever their background, deserves to attend a school with the same level of resources now allocated to the elite NYC high schools. The same filthy rich ruling class attacking public education and teachers unions from L.A. to Chicago to NYC has been waging a broader one-sided class war against working people in this country. From auto workers in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Flint, Michigan, to transit and sanitation workers in NYC and Chicago, the multiracial working class has every interest in fighting for free, quality, integrated public education for all, up to and including the universities!
But it will take a leap in consciousness and organization for the proletariat to bring its power to bear in this fight, which must be linked to the struggle for its own freedom from capitalist wage slavery. Key to this task is building a revolutionary, internationalist workers party that will politically combat those like the DSA and the reformist Socialist Alternative that push support to the same old racist capitalist Democratic Party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, as well as Nancy Pelosi and Biden. This support has only led to defeats for the oppressed and blocks the road to liberation.
Our model is Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party, which led the working class to power in the Russian Revolution of October 1917. That revolution was a beacon for the workers and oppressed around the world and sent shivers down the U.S. bourgeoisie’s spine. Tsarist Russia had been, in Lenin’s words, a “prison house of peoples” of many oppressed nations and national minorities. By building a revolutionary party based on the social power of the workers, with a clear political program opposing capitalist exploitation, national oppression and all forms of Great Russian chauvinism, the Bolsheviks were able to shatter the old order. They sought to truly provide education to the masses and to do away with the bourgeois distinction between mental and manual labor.
Our task in the U.S. is to build a party like the Bolsheviks, with a heavily black and Latino leadership, that mobilizes all workers to fight black oppression. Communist leadership and interracial class struggle can break down racial and ethnic divisions within the working class. A revolutionary workers party, acting as a tribune of all the oppressed, can bring together the power of labor with the anger of the ghettos and barrios in order to smash this entire system of racist capitalist oppression and bring about workers rule. A socialist revolution will finish the unfinished tasks of the Civil War, achieving freedom and equality for black people in this country. It will take nothing less to realize such a basic demand as, “All children, without discrimination, will sit together”!