Workers Vanguard No. 956
9 April 2010
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
The Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement
Break with the Democrats!
For a Revolutionary Workers Party!
We print below a Black History Month Forum given in the musicians union hall in New York City on February 20 by Workers Vanguard Editorial Board member Paul Cone.
With pictures of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie—the fathers of bebop jazz—looking upon us I thought it would be appropriate to recall a short story called “Bop,” first published in 1949 by the great writer Langston Hughes. Through his character, Jesse B. Semple, Hughes describes the origins of bebop. According to Semple, it’s “From the police beating Negroes’ heads. Every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club, that old club says, ‘BOP! BOP!...BE-BOP!...MOP!...BOP!’... That’s where Be-Bop came from, beaten right out of some Negro’s head into them horns and saxophones and piano keys that plays it.”
That was written on the cusp of the civil rights movement. With some modifications, Semple’s observations are no less applicable today. The billy club has been replaced by the retractable truncheon, the revolver has been replaced by the semiautomatic and the cops have added the Taser stun gun to their arsenal. In the first nine months of last year, nearly half a million men, women and children were subjected to the degrading “stop and frisk” by New York City cops—84 percent of them black or Hispanic. As Hughes’ character, Semple, pointed out, “White folks do not get their heads beat just for being white. But me—a cop is liable to grab me almost any time and beat my head—just for being colored.”
Welcome to our Black History Month forum. We study the history—often buried—of the struggles for black freedom, which are strategic for the American socialist revolution. Our pamphlet series is named Black History and the Class Struggle precisely to express the inextricable link between the emancipation of the proletariat and the fight for the liberation of black people in the U.S.
We meet here today a little over a year after Barack Obama became the first black president of the U.S.—the Commander-in-Chief of the most rapacious imperialist power on the planet. Obama governs on behalf of the capitalist class, whose rule is maintained on the bedrock of black oppression. Obama’s election was hailed by bourgeois pundits and reformist “socialists” alike as the realization of Martin Luther King’s “dream”—a dream that, as King put it in his famous speech at the 1963 March on Washington, was “deeply rooted in the American dream.” Malcolm X saw things quite differently: “I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy.... I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare” (“The Ballot or the Bullet,” 3 April 1964).
While Wall Street barons wash down lobster dinners with 25-year-old single malt Scotch—paid for by government bailouts—the past year has seen the devastation of the lives of many workers: the loss of jobs, homes, savings and medical coverage, hitting the black population disproportionately hard. I work near 125th Street in Harlem and regularly pass an ever-increasing number of apparently homeless and obviously desperate people asking for help to buy a cup of coffee or some food; blaring from the loudspeakers set up by merchants is Obama’s voice boasting of “change we can believe in.”
Obama has beefed up the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, threatened crippling sanctions against Iran; he has built on the police-state measures implemented first by Bill Clinton and enhanced by George W. Bush in the name of the “war on terrorism,” and escalated attacks and repression against immigrants. Before the election, the Spartacist League declared: “McCain, Obama: Class Enemies of Workers, Oppressed” (WV No. 923, 24 October 2008). We gave no support to any bourgeois candidate, Democrat, Republican or Green like Cynthia McKinney, a former Democratic Party Congresswoman supported by reformists like the Workers World Party.
Just as the reformists’ forebears followed King to John F. Kennedy’s Oval Office, today’s reformists deliver their followers to Obama’s doorstep. Workers World (27 November 2008) proclaimed Obama’s election “a triumph for the Black masses and all the oppressed.” Today, Larry Holmes still recalls the “shock and elation” while watching Obama’s inauguration (Workers World, 18 February). The International Socialist Organization (ISO) enthused in their Socialist Worker (21 January 2009): “Obama’s victory convinced large numbers of people of some basic sentiments at the heart of the great struggles of the past—that something different is possible, and that what we do matters.” To the extent they have any influence, what the reformists do is prop up illusions in the capitalist Democratic Party.
The Demise of Jim Crow
The title of this forum is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not narrowly about the Cold War. I want to try to explain a bit the context in which the mass struggles for civil rights took place. In the Programmatic Statement of the Spartacist League, we wrote regarding the civil rights movement:
“The bourgeoisie eventually acquiesced to the demand for legal equality in the South, both because Jim Crow segregation had grown anachronistic and because it was 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 the Third World.”
And that is roughly what I will be talking about. But not yet.
As Marxists, we see the motor force of history as the struggle between oppressor classes—today, the capitalist class, which owns the means of production like the banks, land and factories—and the oppressed classes. Under capitalism, this is the proletariat, workers who have nothing but their labor power, which they sell to the capitalists in order to live. Capitalism is an irrational system based on production for profit, born “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” as Marx put it in his classic work Capital (1867). The capitalist rulers, who claim the banner of “freedom” and “civilization,” have carried out mass murder and torture on an immense scale in their drive to secure world markets, cheap labor and raw materials. And history has shown that this system cannot be made to be more humane or the imperialist rulers more peace-loving. Nor can capitalism provide for the needs of the world’s masses, despite the vast wealth it possesses.
In order to preserve their class rule, the tiny capitalist class has at its disposal the vast powers of the state—which at its core is made up of the army, cops and courts—and means of ideological subjugation through the schools, press and religion. The capitalist state cannot be reformed to serve the interests of workers and the oppressed. On the road to revolution, it must be smashed by the revolutionary proletariat, and a workers government established in its place.
A key prop of capitalism is to keep the working class divided along ethnic and racial lines, which in this country means foremost the segregation of black people. We fight for black freedom on the program of revolutionary integrationism: while the working class must fight against all instances of racist oppression and discrimination, genuine equality for black people in the U.S. will only come about through the smashing of capitalism, preparing the road to an egalitarian socialist order. This perspective is counterposed to liberal integration, which is premised on the utopian notion that equality for black people can be attained within the confines of this capitalist society founded on black oppression. It is also counterposed to go-it-alone black nationalism—a petty-bourgeois ideology of despair which at bottom accepts the racist status quo.
Freedom for blacks in the U.S. will not come about without a socialist revolution. And there will be no socialist revolution without the working class taking up the fight for black freedom. As Karl Marx wrote shortly after the Civil War, “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”
Our model is the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky that led the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. This was the greatest victory for the working people of the world: it gave the program of proletarian revolution flesh and blood. The proletariat seized political power and created a workers state based on soviets (workers councils). The young workers state eliminated laws discriminating against women and homosexuals and recognized the right to self-determination of the many peoples oppressed under tsarist/capitalist rule. The Soviet government proclaimed the right of working people to jobs, health care, housing and education.
The Russian Revolution was not made solely for Russia, but was seen as the opening shot of a necessarily international struggle of labor against the rule of capital. It was an inspiration to the oppressed masses of the world and had a direct impact on the struggle of black people in the U.S. The American rulers have always seen a connection between the Russian Revolution and the struggles of black people in the U.S.—and rightly so. The Bolshevik Revolution was popular among wide layers of urban blacks and even among moderate black newspapers and organizations. The Messenger, published by prominent Socialist Party member A. Philip Randolph, who would later become a vicious anti-Communist, captured this sentiment with articles like, “We Want More Bolshevik Patriotism” (May-June 1919).
It was the intervention by the Communist International in the 1920s that turned the attention of the American Communists to the necessity of special work among the oppressed black population—a sharp break from the practice of the earlier socialist movement. After the Russian Revolution, J. Edgar Hoover railed that “a certain class of Negro leaders” had shown “an outspoken advocacy of the Bolsheviki or Soviet doctrines,” had been “openly, defiantly assertive” of their “own equality or even superiority” and had demanded “social equality” (quoted in Robert Goldstein, Political Repression in Modern America: 1870 to the Present ). The government immediately put together an apparatus of surveillance, harassment and terror that would be a model for the later FBI COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program) in the 1950s through the 1970s. COINTELPRO meant massive wiretapping, burglaries and surveillance against even tame civil rights leaders like King, and the killings of 38 members of the Black Panther Party and imprisonment of hundreds more. As Martin Dies, head of the witchhunting House Committee on Un-American Affairs declared in the mid 1940s, “Moscow realizes that it cannot revolutionize the United States unless the Negro can be won over to the Communist cause” (quoted in Gerald Horne, Black and Red: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War ).
From the beginning, the young Russian workers state was surrounded and besieged by hostile capitalist countries. The Revolution prevailed in a bloody civil war against the counterrevolutionaries and the forces of 14 invading capitalist powers. But the poverty, backwardness and isolation of the country, especially following the defeat of the 1923 German Revolution, laid the ground for the development of a bureaucratic caste, led by Stalin, which expropriated political power from the working class. The nationalist outlook of the bureaucracy was given expression in Stalin’s proclamation in the fall of 1924 of the anti-Marxist “theory” that socialism—a classless, egalitarian society based on material abundance—could be built in a single country, and a backward one at that. In practice, “socialism in one country” came to mean opposition to the perspective of workers revolution internationally and accommodation to world imperialism—leading to the sellout of revolutionary opportunities—and in particular the propping up of capitalist rule in West Europe after World War II.
Despite the profoundly deforming bureaucratic means employed by the Stalinist regime, which undermined the Bolshevik Revolution’s gains, state ownership of the means of production and economic planning made possible the transformation of what had been an impoverished, backward, largely peasant country into an industrial and military powerhouse within the span of two decades. The Soviet Union provided a military counterweight to U.S. imperialism, making possible the survival of overturns of capitalism in East Europe and the social revolutions in China, North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam.
We fought to the end to defend the Soviet degenerated workers state against imperialism and counterrevolution, while at the same time fighting for a proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist misrulers and restore the working class to political power. Today, we continue to defend the remaining deformed workers states of China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea. The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92 was a world historic defeat, not merely for the working people of the former Soviet Union but also for the international working class. The collapse of the USSR has meant U.S./NATO imperialist slaughter from the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan—accompanied by devastating attacks on the workers and oppressed minorities domestically.
The Civil Rights Movement
We study past struggles—victories and defeats—in order to politically arm ourselves and the proletariat for future battles. There are very few historical conjunctures in which a small Marxist propaganda group with a few hundred members could within a few years have transformed itself into a workers party leading a significant section of the proletariat. The South in the early 1960s offered such a rare opportunity.
The mass mobilization of black people in the Southern civil rights movement, and the subsequent Northern ghetto rebellions, disrupted and challenged the racist American bourgeois order. It shattered the anti-Communist consensus and it paved the road for the mass protest movements that followed—against the U.S. dirty war in Vietnam, for the rights of women, gays, students and others.
The civil rights movement achieved important—though partial—gains for black people largely in the realm of formal democratic rights whose main beneficiaries have been a thin layer of the black petty bourgeoisie. Public facilities were desegregated, black people won the right to register to vote in the South, and mandated school segregation was outlawed. But the liberal-led civil rights movement did not and could not challenge the root cause of black oppression. The hellish conditions of ghetto life—the mass chronic unemployment, racist cop terror, crumbling schools, poverty and hunger (the “American nightmare”)—which remain the lot of the mass of black people nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights Act was adopted are rooted in American capitalism. The civil rights movement smashed its head against this fact when it swept out of the South and into the North in the mid 1960s.
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 King—was to pressure the Democratic Party administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to grant formal, legal equality to blacks in the South. Walter Reuther’s United Auto Workers (UAW) and Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—assisted by elements of the decomposing American social democracy like Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington as well as by the Stalinized Communist Party (CP)—worked to keep the civil rights movement within the confines of bourgeois reformism and the Democratic Party. And this they did very well. Ultimately, millions of youth, whose opposition to racist oppression and growing animosity toward U.S. imperialist depredations were leading them to seek revolutionary solutions, were channeled into the Democratic Party of racism and war. In his classic work in defense of the Bolshevik Revolution, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (1918) Lenin nailed Karl Kautsky, the granddaddy of the later social democrats and reformists:
“Even in the most democratic bourgeois state the oppressed people at every step encounter the crying contradiction between the formal equality proclaimed by the ‘democracy’ of the capitalists and the thousands of real limitations and subterfuges which turn the proletarians into wage-slaves. It is precisely this contradiction that is opening the eyes of the people to the rottenness, mendacity and hypocrisy of capitalism. It is this contradiction that the agitators and propagandists of socialism are constantly exposing to the people, in order to prepare them for revolution! And now that the era of revolution has begun, Kautsky turns his back upon it and begins to extol the charms of moribund bourgeois democracy.”
If you didn’t live through it, I think it’s hard to appreciate how tempestuous and volatile this period was, and how the struggle for black rights dominated domestic politics for over a decade. That era has become sanitized in movies, newspapers, books and the accounts of many of its participants—even former militants from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party, who are today comfortably ensconced in the Democratic Party.
Now I’ll confess, I was a bit young, only ten years old at the time of the March on Washington, for example, so I wasn’t a participant in these events like some of my comrades. A lot of my focus that year was on the upcoming Dodgers/Yankees World Series; the Dodgers swept them. But even at that age and younger, I was surrounded by the images of the assassination of Medgar Evers, Mississippi governor Ross Barnett blocking the steps of the University of Mississippi to blacks, the burning churches, the vilification of one of my childhood idols, Muhammad Ali, when he appeared with Malcolm X by his side after winning the heavyweight title. I recall the fear that Malcolm generated, seen in the eyes and heard in the voices of the bourgeois press corps and politicians, who in turn embraced the same conservative civil rights leaders whom they earlier castigated for wanting to move “too fast.” I also remember the cities in flames, starting with Harlem in 1964.
Largely ignored by accounts of that period is the ferment in the North, where black people had already attained the formal rights blacks in the South were fighting for. But discrimination in housing was public policy. In New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee and other cities of the North, black newcomers were forced into overcrowded ghettos, where they paid high rent for rat-infested slums; black children were sent to inferior schools, and black adults had few job opportunities and few, if any, public facilities. By 1962-63, there were as many protests in the North and West as in the South—for jobs, an end to segregated housing, and for school integration.
Fueling this rage was the grim reality that the economic advancement of much of the black working class—which came with wartime employment, U.S. industrial dominance and, most importantly, unionized jobs—was coming to an end. Between 1947 and 1963 Detroit lost 140,000 manufacturing jobs. In New York City, over 70,000 garment industry jobs were lost in the 1950s. The same was happening to meatpacking workers in Chicago and longshore, warehouse and shipbuilding workers in Baltimore, Newark, Oakland and Philadelphia. In large part this was because the capitalists were increasingly moving production to the South. Much of the industrial Northeast and Midwest was soon rendered rotting hulls. This was largely a product of the union tops’ failure to organize the South—a failure that stemmed from the anti-Communist purging of militant organizers during the Cold War, the union tops’ allegiance to the Democrats and failure to take up the fight for black rights.
On 13 May 1963, in solidarity with blacks in Birmingham, Alabama, who were fighting back against the racist terrorists and in protest against brutal cop terror in their city, some 3,000 black teenagers in Chicago pelted cops with bricks and bottles. In New York City, 1963 and 1964 saw thousands of Harlem tenants forming tenants councils, withholding rent and winning services and repairs from the slumlords. This was met with a vicious bourgeois campaign of racist hysteria. The purpose was, as we wrote at the time, “preparation and justification for the smashing, through police terror, of the coming stage of the Negro rights struggle” (“Negro Struggle in the North,” Spartacist No. 2, July-August 1964). In July of 1964, New York City cops exploited the protests against the police killing of 15-year-old James Powell to justify a full-scale offensive to smash every sign of these struggles. Such cop terror as that in Harlem would trigger many of the ghetto upheavals that took place in over 300 cities over the next three years. In New York, as the cops sealed off Harlem, we Spartacists launched the Harlem Solidarity Committee, which organized a protest of 1,000 in the garment district.
Adding to the civil rights movement’s turbulent character was the fact that activists were on a daily basis forced to confront and grapple with questions of where their movement was going. Such questions ultimately bring to the fore the nature of the capitalist state, class divisions in society, the “rottenness, mendacity and hypocrisy of capitalism”—leading to the heart of the question of reform vs. revolution. This played out in the first instance in the issue of armed self-defense or the strategy of “non-violence,” which was the calling card of King. For this, King won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. This prize itself has no noble history. It was also later awarded to such peace-loving people as Menachem Begin, Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and now Barack Obama.
In 1960, Trotskyist activists got a first-hand view of how the question of armed self-defense was perceived by student activists during a visit to Southern black campuses shortly after the student sit-in movement was launched at the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s in February. While the student militants were for peaceful picketing—perfectly correct as they were outnumbered—the influence of pacifist ideology was slight, and, notably, the students undertook self-defense measures to protect their campus and themselves from the racist terrorists.
Armed defense of meetings of black activists in the Klan-ridden South had been a well-established tradition, stemming not least from the efforts of the Communist Party to organize sharecroppers in the 1930s. This had been a necessary measure to make sure such gatherings took place without anybody being killed. This tradition however was anathema to the accommodationist wing of the civil rights movement led by King. Be clear: this question was not an issue of whether or not an individual whose home or family was under attack would repel the invaders. In a well-known 1959 statement, King himself acknowledged this basic human impulse. The issue was quite different. By pledging non-violence, the civil rights leaders were pledging allegiance to the white power structure, asserting that the movement could not go beyond the bounds set for it by the liberal wing of the ruling class represented by the Democratic Party. To say that the civil rights movement had the right to defend itself against racist terror was to say that you didn’t accept the rules of the capitalist ruling class and its racist “democracy.”
The ISO portrays King’s statement as part of a “debate” with black militant leader Robert F. Williams. This was no “debate.” King’s statement was used by the NAACP leadership in suspending Williams as president of the Monroe, North Carolina, chapter. Williams was targeted by the state and ultimately driven out of the country in 1961 for organizing black self-defense against KKK terror. To King’s argument that “violence” by black Americans “would be the greatest tragedy that could befall us,” Williams responded, “I am a man and I will walk upright as a man should. I will not crawl!” (quoted in Timothy B. Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, 1999). We defended Williams. In 1965, the SL initiated a fund-raising campaign for the defense of the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Bogalusa, Louisiana, who also organized armed self-defense. In doing so we advanced our class perspective—the revolutionary mobilization of the working class independent of the capitalist rulers.
During the civil rights movement, as government forces, not only the Southern municipalities but at the federal level, either stood by or facilitated the beatings of activists, the question of the nature of the capitalist state was brought to the fore. In part, dealing with such issues accounted for the receptivity among students to Marxist literature during that 1960 trip to the South I just referred to. Notable as well was the absence of the social democrats and Stalinists, which also provided openings for Marxists, and the distrust by many student activists of the adult leadership groups that acted as a brake on the movement—specifically including King and preachers identified with him.
The RT’s Fight for Revolutionary Integrationism
It is during these years that our organization originated as the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) opposition within the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). (Among the founders of the RT were the former editors of the Trotskyist Young Socialist, who had initiated a nationwide campaign of picket line protests at Woolworth’s in support of the Greensboro sit-in.) Our strategic perspective was to transform the left wing of the civil rights movement into a revolutionary workers party capable of leading much of the black working class and impoverished petty bourgeoisie in the South.
The SWP had for decades been the Trotskyist party in the U.S. It maintained a revolutionary course through the difficult World War II years and the immediate period thereafter. In 1941, under the thought-crime anti-Communist Smith Act, 18 Trotskyists and Minneapolis Teamsters leaders were sent to prison by the Roosevelt administration for their opposition to the imperialist slaughter of World War II. During the war, the SWP took up and publicized the defense cases of black soldiers victimized for opposition to Jim Crow segregation. In the aftermath of anti-black riots in Detroit in 1943, they fought for flying squadrons of union militants to stand ready to defend blacks menaced by racist mobs.
In contrast, following Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Stalinist CP hailed U.S. entry into World War II in December and worked overtime to enforce the trade-union bureaucracy’s “no strike” pledge. They demanded that the black masses forsake their struggle for equality in the interest of the imperialist war effort. The SWP viewed black liberation as the task of the working class as a whole, and intervened in the struggle against racial oppression with a militant integrationist perspective. The party won hundreds of black recruits, including a major breakthrough in Detroit. However, under the intense pressure of the Cold War period, most of them left the party over the next few years.
By the early 1960s, the SWP had lost its revolutionary bearings and tailed non-proletarian class forces, seen domestically in its policy of abstention from the Southern civil rights struggle and later embrace of black nationalism. By 1965 it had become a thoroughly reformist party. As opposed to the SWP majority, the RT fought the party’s criminal abstentionism and pointed out that the young radicals would not come to a Marxist program simply by virtue of their militancy—the intervention of a revolutionary party was necessary. Building a revolutionary vanguard necessarily meant participating in and building a revolutionary leadership in the current struggles of the working class. The RT fought inside the SWP for the party to seize the opportunity to recruit black Trotskyist cadres to their ranks. The RT put forward a series of demands linking the fight for black rights to broader struggles of the working class and addressing immediate needs such as organized self-defense and union organizing drives throughout the South.
Many SNCC activists were open to a revolutionary perspective. Shirley Stoute, a black member of the RT, received a personal invitation to work with SNCC in Atlanta, which the SWP majority had to accede to. Then they called her back to New York on a pretext a month later. After a bitter political fight over this and other questions, the RT was expelled from the SWP in 1963-64, going on to found the Spartacist League in 1966.
In an August 1963 document, “The Negro Struggle and the Crisis of Leadership,” the Revolutionary Tendency wrote: “We must consider non-intervention in the crisis of leadership a crime of the worst sort.” Had the SWP remained a revolutionary party and concentrated its forces in the Southern civil rights movement, it could have won to Trotskyism a large fraction of those young black radicals who eventually became black nationalists. After being expelled from the SWP, we intervened with our small forces in the civil rights movement in both the South and North. We called on militants to break with the Democratic Party. Our call for a Freedom Labor Party was an axis to link the exploding black struggle to the power of labor, North and South. As we elaborated in “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom,” adopted at the founding conference of the Spartacist League/U.S. in 1966:
“Ultimately their road to freedom lies only through struggle with the rest of the working class to abolish capitalism and establish in its place an egalitarian, socialist society.
“Yet the struggle of the Black people of this country for freedom, while part of the struggle of the working class as a whole, is more than that struggle. The Negro people are an oppressed race-color caste, in the main comprising the most exploited layer of the American working class . Because of their position as both the most oppressed and also the most conscious and experienced section, revolutionary black workers are slated to play an exceptional role in the coming American revolution .
“The victory of the socialist revolution in this country will be achieved through the united struggle of black and white workers under the leadership of the revolutionary vanguard party. In the course of this struggle unbreakable bonds will be forged between the two sections of the working class. The success of the struggle will place the Negro people in a position to insure at last the end of slavery, racism and super-exploitation.”
The Rise of the Civil Rights Movement
The civil rights movement did not just fall from the sky. The elimination of legal segregation cannot be portrayed as an idea whose time had come, as the fulfillment of American democracy’s supposed “moral mission,” as the realization of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence or, as Martin Luther King claimed, the cashing of a promissory note from the “founding fathers” to blacks whose ancestors were enslaved. As I mentioned earlier, the Jim Crow system, designed to control and terrorize blacks in the rural South, had become anachronistic—i.e., it no longer served the needs of the U.S. bourgeoisie. This is important to understand.
The Civil War, America’s second bourgeois revolution, had smashed the slave system, paving the way for the development of industrial capitalism in the U.S. as a whole. But after the betrayal of Reconstruction by the Northern bourgeoisie, “the Negro was left in the South in the indefinite position of semi-slavery, semi-serfdom and semi-wage slavery” as then-Trotskyist Max Shachtman put it in his 1933 piece “Communism and the Negro” (reprinted as Race and Revolution ). Sharecropping and tenancy formed the labor backbone of Southern agriculture. Sitting atop this was the system of Jim Crow, the systematic legal segregation of black people in the South enforced by legal and extralegal violence. It was designed to prevent blacks from voting, becoming educated or fighting for their rights. When blacks did challenge Jim Crow—either by personally refusing to follow its rules or, more rarely, by organizing against it—they faced racist terror, whether by the local sheriff or the Klan (who were often one and the same). At least 3,000 black people were lynched between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the dismantling of Jim Crow in the 1960s.
Black people in the U.S. constitute a race-color caste integrated into the capitalist economy at its lower rungs while socially segregated. As historic Trotskyist leader Richard S. Fraser noted:
“Discrimination and prejudice in the rest of the United States derives directly from the southern system, feeds upon it, and like racial discrimination throughout the world is completely dependent upon it.... In every possible way it [the capitalist class] perpetuates the division of the working class by establishing throughout the entire nation the basic reciprocal relations between discrimination, segregation and prejudice which are so successful in the South.”
—“The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution” (1953), reprinted in “In Memoriam—Richard S. Fraser: An Appreciation and Selection of His Work,” Prometheus Research Series No. 3, August 1990
Fraser added, “the scar of race antagonism” serves to fortify and stabilize “the structure of American capitalism by dividing the population into hostile racial groups, who find it difficult to get together in defense of their common interests against the master class.”
The industrial needs of both world wars, and the murderous terror blacks faced in the South, led to mass emigration out of the South and into Northern and Western industrial centers. Rural sharecroppers were transformed into proletarians in modern mass production industries. Following the strikes in the 1930s that formed the CIO labor federation, black workers were integrated into powerful industrial unions.
At the same time, by the 1930s, Southern agriculture in this most advanced capitalist country was still economically backward, retaining significant remnants of the slave system. In search of cheaper labor markets, and to accommodate the economic needs of World War II, American capitalism had been forced to abandon its earlier conception of the agrarian South as mainly a source of raw materials and very limited industrial development. By the Depression, textile, iron, coal, steel and chemical industries had been developing in the South. The urbanization and industrialization of the American South during and after World War II created large concentrations of black workers, and proletarianized poor agrarian and middle-class whites. This created a clear identity of interests between white and black exploited industrial workers, establishing conditions for the emergence of broader class struggle and the struggle for black freedom. The practice of landlords and sheriffs picking up isolated tenants, sharecroppers or black transients at will, and forcing them into the prison slave-labor system (powerfully depicted in the book Slavery by Another Name  by Douglas A. Blackmon) was not very effective when dealing with black workers concentrated in factories—particularly if organized into unions.
For black people, the Deep South in the early 1950s remained a racist totalitarian police state. When black soldiers came back from integrated units in the Korean War, they swore they would no longer submit to Jim Crow. The emergence of a mass movement of blacks in the South that not only protested but also defied racist legality posed a problem for the Northern bourgeoisie, which controlled the federal government. They could either go along with the suppression of the civil rights movement by the Southern state authorities and local governments, or they could utilize the federal government to favor policies that would introduce to the South the same bourgeois-democratic norms that existed in the rest of the country.
Dominant sections of the Northern bourgeoisie concentrated in the Democratic Party opted for the latter. They would use the federal government to pressure, but not compel, their Southern class brethren to grant democratic rights to blacks. The Eisenhower and Kennedy/Johnson administrations engaged in a continual series of compromises between the civil rights movement and Southern authorities. At the same time they did very little to prevent the violent suppression of civil rights activists by the Southern authorities and sometimes collaborated in that suppression. For instance, when asked what the government would do about attacks on civil rights activists, Kennedy answered, “We’ll do what we always do. Nothing.”
It is to this wing of the bourgeoisie that the leaders of the civil rights movement shackled the fight for black freedom. The bourgeoisie could acquiesce to partial gains for blacks—desegregation of public facilities, voter registration, as well as a degree of school integration—as these did not undermine their class rule. Moreover, continued denial of civil rights to blacks in the South was a liability to the ambitions of U.S. imperialism internationally. In short order, as the federal government granted civil rights concessions, the NAACP and other civil rights organizations and celebrities would be signing on to the Cold War against the Soviet Union and anti-communist witchhunts at home—even as they found themselves in the gun sights of the McCarthyites, HUAC and their Southern replicas.
[TO BE CONTINUED]