By Eric Jenkins and Ryan Watson, Socialist Alternative Black Caucus.
The 1960s were an epoch of mass struggle of the working class and oppressed communities around the world. The future of American capitalism was rattled by the massive social movements of the Black working class at the height of the Civil Rights movement and Black Power. Young Black people en masse were organizing against the Jim/Jane Crow social order in the heart of the South and in the ghettos of the North.
This struggle clarified in the minds of many of these young Black militants, most of whom came from working-class backgrounds, how racism and capitalism are intertwined with one another. Many identified with the anti-colonial revolutions taking place around the world, and the heroic resistance against US imperialism in Vietnam. This development in the consciousness of Black militants found expression in the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), created by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. A titanic force within this party, and one whose legacy we defend, was Fred Hampton, the Chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party.
Fred Hampton: The Revolutionary Socialist
Fred Hampton was born on August 30, 1948. His family was one of the thousands of Black working-class and poor people who left the Jim/Jane Crow South in what was known as the “Great Migration.” Black workers and families traveled north to the urban manufacturing and textile centers across the country to escape Jim Crow poverty, violence, and racial oppression. However, what awaited them was Jim Crow in its Northern, urban expression. Living in cramped neighborhoods – created through a process of de facto segregation called “redlining” – faced with police brutality, and being forced to work low-wage non-union jobs drove many of these same Black working-class families to join in an open struggle against racism and exploitation.
Fred Hampton grew up in a working class home in Maywood, a suburb of Chicago. He became a star athlete and student activist, leading marches and walk-outs against racism in high school, organizing for community centers in poor Black neighborhoods in and around Chicago, and feeding young people through food programs.
After attending a MLK Jr. rally, Hampton joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He began to practice public speaking, and wanted to study law as a means to more effectively challenge the impunity of law enforcement’s power. This process of discovery, in the context of upheaval around the world, pushed Hampton towards more revolutionary conclusions.
He joined the BPP for its revolutionary politics and program at 20 years old in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War and just after the assassination of MLK. The Chicago Police Department’s violent repression of the Democratic National Convention protests led Hampton and the Chicago BPP to initiate the Rainbow Coalition, a coalition of the multi-racial poor and oppressed united to challenge the racist one-party state machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley and the wider political and economic system.
The core of the Rainbow Coalition consisted of the BPP and the Puerto Rican street gang turned political organization the Young Lords. The BPP also began political work with the Young Patriots of Uptown, an organization made up of poor, white southerners. He pointed to their shared conditions of poverty and the need to unite in fighting an unfair economic and political system. His powerful approach succeeded in cutting across the white southerners’ racism, utilizing class struggle language to point to their shared interests
Fred Hampton’s approach of genuine revolutionary integration put a target on his back. And in one of the most devastating moments in the modern Black liberation movement, Fred Hampton was murdered during an FBI raid on his home on December 4, 1969. He was asleep in his bed with his pregnant girlfriend by his side. This was the price to be paid for daring to build a multiracial struggle against poverty, exploitation, and oppression.
What Made Fred Hampton Unique?
Fred Hampton’s emphasis on multiracial, working-class struggle and creating mass organizations wasn’t shared completely in the Black Panther Party. With the constant white supremacist attacks on Black communities, the onslaught of the Vietnam War, and the crushing of mass Civil Rights and anti-war protests – there was immense pressure on the BPP. They understood that capitalism wasn’t the answer, but some of their leaders were skeptical that the working class as a whole could unite in a struggle for a new system.
This skepticism about the possibility of multiracial class struggle fed into the view that was common in the “New Left” that the more oppressed a person is, the more revolutionary that person becomes. Huey Newton focused on the most marginalized sections of the working class, the poor, unemployed, and those forced to commit crime to survive.
It’s undeniable that these layers of society produce heroic fighters of the working class and poor. But the united working class is the force that can actually shut down capitalism, and more importantly, lead in the construction of a socialist society. The fact is without us, nothing would get built, made, served, cared for, cleaned, or moved. Fred Hampton never missed an opportunity to point out these basic facts.
The Struggle for Socialist Leadership Today
In the absence of an ongoing mass movement following the George Floyd rebellion rooted in the working class, the informal leadership of the struggle for Black freedom has been left to the NGOs and nonprofits.
The notion of class struggle tactics is broadly antithetical to these types of organizations, often led by well-meaning middle-class people. NGOs like Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation (BLMGNF) are in a rat race for constant donations from millionaires and billionaires looking for tax write-offs, making them fundamentally unreliable allies to ordinary working-class Black people.
These organizations are tied by a thousand threads to the Democratic Party which has repeatedly refused to take up the demands that would make a meaningful difference to Black working class people (Medicare for All, cancellation of student and medical debt, free universal childcare, etc.). Despite using “woke” slogans and pulling performative stunts like kneeling in Kente cloth, leading figures in the Democratic Party (including notorious Black misleader Jim Clyburn) are heavily supported by multi-billionaire corporations and the political establishment.
We need leaders of the Black freedom struggle prepared to name capitalism as the root of racist oppression, and leaders who understand – as Fred Hampton did – that working people can organize to end the system. We need to rebuild mass organizations rooted in the Black working class that are armed with a program that can mobilize people into collective action and chart a path toward a socialist society.
A Program For Black Liberation and Socialism
- End racist policing! Immediately fire and prosecute all cops who have committed violent or racist attacks. End the militarization of police. Put policing under the control of democratically-elected civilian boards. These should have real teeth, including power over hiring and firing policies, reviewing budget priorities, and the power to subpoena.
- A union in every workplace! Unions have historically been the best tool to decrease the pay gap between Black and white workers. The struggle to unionize Amazon, and all other non-union workplaces, demonstrates the potential for multiracial struggles against corporations.
- Public investment in a massive green jobs program with a living wage. With this, we can employ millions while combating climate catastrophe, which disproportionately affects the poor, the Black, and the brown. We need permanently affordable, high-quality housing built with union labor.
- No to the billionaires’ divide-and-rule tactics! An antiracist struggle has to actively take up the right wing’s racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ attacks; only the bosses and the ruling class stand to win from divisions.
- We Need Medicare for All! Black women are three to four times more likely to experience a pregnancy-related death than white women. Black children have a 500% higher death rate from asthma than white children. Beyond just Medicare for All, we need to take the multi-trillion dollar pharmaceutical industry into democratic, public ownership.
- Build Mass Organizations of Struggle! Rebuild mass organizations of the Black working class, in conjunction with a multiracial working-class struggle in the workplaces and streets. All of this requires that we build a new working-class party that doesn’t answer to the billionaire class.