Preparing the Black Rebellion – The Inter-War Years
The Civil Rights Movement spanned 25 years. It was the largest mobilization of Blacks, and one of the biggest movements in US history.
In one way or another, it influenced the lives of every Black American. It reached Blacks as far afield as Africa, Europe and the Caribbean. It stirred new forms of music and dance. Above all, it changed the way we saw ourselves. Today we are proud to be Black.
Although it appeared to be a sudden development, events in the inter-war period had prepared this huge rebellion.
400,000 Black soldiers returned home after World War One. They refused to live under the old conditions of racist America.
Slavery had been abolished but for Blacks, America was still a place dominated by race hatred and oppression. Ten southern states had laws prohibiting the mixing of races in transport facilities including railways, ferries and steamboats.
From 1908, Atlanta had racially segregated elevators. Taxicabs were segregated in Mississippi, Jacksonville, Florida and Birmingham, Alabama. In Atlanta it was illegal for white and Black baseball clubs to play within two blocks of each other. In 1930, a law passed in Birmingham made it “an offence for Blacks and whites to be in the company of each other at checkers or dominoes.”
In most southern states, restaurants, bars, toilets, parks and public facilities were strictly segregated. In effect this meant that Blacks could not socially congregate since the only decent facilities were reserved for whites.
Today these laws may appear farcical but for Afro-Americans they were no joke. Jim Crow (the popular term for racial segregation) was not just legalistic, it was a dynamic and violent caste system vigorously enforced by the state. Its ideology of white racial superiority gave birth to crazed lynch-mobs – a means of forcibly “keeping Blacks in their place”. But war, the mother of revolution, gave Blacks, particularly the soldiers, a new determination to fight these indignities.
Dr. Moton (successor to the “Uncle Tom” Booker T. Washington Tuskegee movement) was sent to France by President Wilson to “issue certain warnings to Black troops”. He told them “they must not expect the same democracy they had experienced in France” and “they should return contented with the same status they had before experiencing democracy abroad.”
These warnings fell on deaf ears. Between 1918 and 1919 huge strikes involving Blacks broke out across America. To organize these struggles effectively Black workers were clamoring to join the unions. But against the protests of many union branches, the racist leaders of the American Federation of Labor – AFL barred Blacks and non-craft labor from membership.
This policy played right into the hands of big business. The employers would often but in non-union labor to break strikes which were organized by the AFL. The wages of those in the unions were also depressed to what the bosses called “Negro pay.” This was possible because of the availability of cheap labor from the non-unionized workforce.
Black Americans were left isolated and at the mercy of rejuvenated lynch mobs which were unleashed to check the Black rebellion. All this was after many had died in what they were told was a war to make the world safe.
But Blacks were fighting back. In the early to mid 1920s a new spirit of “Negro self-assertion” led to the formation of several Black Nationalist and separatist organizations. The largest of these was the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) led by Marcus Garvey.
Black separatism was not typical of the Black movement in America. Garvey’s movement, for instance, acquired a mass following only when other forms of struggle were cut off – particularly entry into the unions.
The UNIA developed in the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan which in 1925 claimed a membership of 4-5 million whites. Moreover, white America was enjoying its biggest boom (the roaring 20s) while there was still mass unemployment amongst Blacks which increased during 1929-33 depression. With fascism on the horizon in Europe, Garvey’s back to Africa movement expressed a yearning to literally flee the misery of racial oppression in America.
To stem the rising Black revolt the US administration encouraged the growth of a small Black middle class (a policy which was further developed in the late sixties and early seventies).
President Roosevelt appointed small groups of Black lawyers and journalists to hold posts within his government. Their mouthpiece was the now expanding Black press. The St. Louis Argus, the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier were all Black papers subsidized by the Pullman Railway Company. This whole machinery was mustered to agitate against Black radicals, especially union organizers.
In 1934 the American Federation of Labor met in San Francisco on the eve of a general strike in that city. Huge rows on the question of organizing non-craft labor and particularly Blacks broke out at the conference. The subsequent split led to the formation of a new union, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
The leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who had formed close links with the big employers during the depression immediately declared they were “opposed to all unions”.
Lester Granger, head of the Black organization, The Urban League, warned Blacks against “jubilantly rushing towards what they assume to be a new day for labor and a new organization to take the place of the AFL.”
They were completely ignored and 500,000 Black workers signed up to join the CIO. By 1950, over 1,500,000 Black Americans were organized into unions. These Blacks were to play a critical role in the civil rights movement which developed after World War Two.
Their impact on the movement was immediate. The leadership of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (a union of Black railway porters) planned to stage a national march on Washington against discriminatory hiring practices in defense industries.
The date was set for July 1941. Huge Black rallies were held in union halls and churches across America. By April, the Negro March on Washington had 50,000 fully paid-up members.
The march itself never took place. The government gave in to the central demand, a law banning racial discrimination in federal war production factories.
This was an important victory. It boosted the confidence of Blacks and was a trial run which prepared the immense organizational skills that proved invaluable to the Black movement of the 50s and 60s.
But it was a mistake to cancel the march as a whole string of demands for ending segregation at work remained unfulfilled. And as a show of strength by Afro-Americans the demonstration would have dealt a severe blow to Jim Crowism.
World War Two had marked a new stage for the Black struggle in America. Over 3 million Black people registered for the armed services and half a million served in the Pacific, Africa and Europe in racially segregated units.
At home the war economy drew Blacks into the northern factories. The migratory process that began in the First World War accelerated during the Second. Between 1941 and 1946 a million Blacks left the south for the north. The war further diminished the Black rural population and increased their concentration in key northern cities.
So at the end of the war, Blacks were organized into unions, the population was less dispersed and they had notched up their first victory with just the threat of mass action. India, Africa and China were in the throes of rebellion. These developments had a profound effect on the consciousness of Black Americans.
The same determination not to return to the old conditions which gripped Black America after the First World War returned after the Second World War. As soon as the war ended a spate of protests broke out in the south over segregation in transport facilities. The first major battle was the now famous Montgomery bus boycott.
The Opening Shots
Montgomery, Alabama, 1955. Mrs. Rosa Parks, a Black widow in her early 50s, refuses an order to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. She is dragged off the bus and is fined $10. It was the first time ever that a Black person had been charged with violating the city’s segregation laws.
Even though 70% of Montgomery’s bus passengers were Black, the white drivers continuously harassed and insulted them with calls of “nigger” and “ape”. They particularly singled out Black women for their racist jibes.
They made Blacks pay at the front and then board at the back. Behind the first four rows stood a sign which read “Whites Only“. If all these seats were take, a white person had the right to demand that Blacks in the next row gave up their seats.
Rosa Parks had boarded the bus and sat behind the whites section. When asked to give up her seat she refused. She said she was tired from work and tired of giving in.
Her brother, Ed Nixon was a Brotherhood union organizer. He approached Montgomery’s most famous preacher, Martin Luther King and impressed upon him the need to organize a mass bus boycott.
Nixon told King: “We got to make it clear to the white folks we ain’t taking this type of thing any longer.” King agreed. He organized the ministers to alert their congregations to the boycott. At a meeting to launch the boycott, King declared “the clock on the wall read about midnight but the clock in our souls read it was daybreak.” On December 5 the boycott began.
The boycott was 100% effective. Not a single passenger stood at the bus stops, just gangs of youth cheering :no riders today”.
The racists counter-attacked. They carried out eight bombings in the course of the campaign. This time Blacks were not going to be cowed into submission. A group of white reporters approached a middle aged Black woman making her now daily trek to work and asked, “Why are you walking?” She replied “For me, my children and my grandchildren.”
The White House became increasingly alarmed as boycotts spread through the south. After six months the Supreme Court made segregation illegal. But the boycott continued until after almost a year, the state of Alabama finally agreed to desegregate the buses.
This victory triggered a protest movement that would shake the very foundations of white supremacy in the southern states of America. The ensuing struggle threw up forms of resistance and new militant Black organizations.
The preacher, Martin Luther King, was a brave and courageous fighter who quickly emerged as the most important leader of the civil rights revolution. The churches were the only places where Blacks could freely congregate. They were not just religious centers but a place where all the issues in the Black community were discussed.
As the struggle progressed, political discussion took over the Black church services. On third of the southern protest leaders were preachers. This was why pacifism was the main strategy adopted in the early period of the civil rights movement. King developed the principle of non-violence. He said:
“We must say to our white brothers all over the south who try to keep us down: we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering.”
The struggle in the 1950s culminated in a new law: the Civil Rights Act. This was rightly dismissed by the movement as a token measure, designed more to take the steam out of the movement rather than seriously address the problem of civil rights. Thus, far from appeasing the movement, the 1957 Act served to embolden it.
The whole of the south quickly became a seething cauldron of revolt. In city after city, Blacks were rising up to challenge the laws of racial segregation.
An early flashpoint came in 1957, when the Little Rock, Arkansas school board agreed to comply with a court order demanding that the city’s central high school admit Black students. When a group of Black students finally attempted to enter the school they were pelted with bricks and stones by a white mob.
In 1957, Martin Luther King launched the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Although its leaders were mainly preachers, the SCLC supported direct acts of civil disobedience, in sharp contrast to the Black organizations which had previously dominated Black politics in the south.
In 1960, four Black students from North Carolina marched into a Woolworth’s white-only canteen and refused to leave until they were served. Their audacity had an immediate effect. Hundreds of young Blacks started to invade white lunch counters, steadfastly remaining seated until served or physically evicted by the state police.
These sit-ins were important because they signaled the entry of the youth into struggle. Young Blacks in the south had grown up in an age of struggle. Inspired by the liberation movements sweeping Africa and Asia, the new generation would not be cowed. They were ready to fight for their own liberation.
King invited the students to organize themselves into a youth wing of the SCLC. They declined and instead created their own organization, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The students defended the politics of non-violence but unlike the SCLC, non-violence was seen as a political tactic rather than a principle founded on religious belief. The crucial differences revealed in outline some of the divisions that were to emerge later within the civil rights movement over vital questions of strategy and tactics.
King believed that non-violence would win support from white liberal opinion in the United States. He placed considerable faith in the Kennedys and the Democratic Party. The reality, however, was that the Democratic Party establishment in Washington, then as now, acted at every stage as a brake on the movement.
The attempts of the Kennedys to persuade the SCLC to call off protests and demonstrations often brought King into conflict with the younger militants. On one occasion, the president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, claimed that the civil rights agitation was embarrassing the Administration and called for a “cooling off period”.
“Doesn’t the Attorney General know that we’ve been embarrassed all our lives?” was the reply of one militant. Another, James Farmer, leader of the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) said: “We’ve been cooling off for a hundred years. If we got any cooler, we’d be in deep freeze.” Mass action, rather than words, would eventually compel the Democratic administration to act.
A year after the sit-ins began, CORE launched the famous freedom rides to challenge segregation at bus stations.
In May 1961, groups of freedom riders, Black and white, boarded two buses in Washington DC and set off towards New Orleans. On route, in Anniston, Alabama, the first bus was surrounded by a white mob and set on fire. The passengers only just managed to escape before the whole bus was engulfed in flames. The second bus escaped and went on to the city of Birmingham. There the riders were attacked and beaten by a mob of Klansmen wielding lead pipes and bicycle chains.
The freedom riders came under attack in many other cities but they remained absolutely firm and so too did the campaign of mass sit-ins. Important victories were won. Lunch counters were desegregated in over 150 cities and Robert Kennedy was eventually forced to order the Interstate Commission to end segregation on the buses.
Birmingham, Alabama, would see some of the worst violence. Just before launching to a group of his closest aids: “I have to tell you that in my judgment, some people sitting in this room today will not come back alive from this campaign.”
Thousands of school children took part in the marches and demonstrations in this bastion of white supremacy. But the state police showed little mercy. “So long as I’m po-leece commissioner in Birmingham, the niggers and the white folks ain’t gon’ segregate together in this man’s town” declared police chief, Bull Conner.
In one of the first marches, made up of school kids, the police fired water cannon and unleashed dogs into the crowd. “look at those niggers run” sneered the satisfied police chief. But still the children came. The marches grew larger by the day.
The spirit of the times was magnificently dramatized when television cameras recorded a brief exchange between a policeman and a young Black girl: “What do you want?” the policeman asked. Staring him straight in the face the girl replied: “Freedom!”
At the height of the Birmingham events over 3,000 Blacks were in jail, the largest number ever imprisoned at any time in the history of the movement. But thousands more were still on the streets. Demonstrations had to be dispersed without any arrests – the jails were already full!
There were also moments of intense drama. On one of the biggest demonstrations, Connor shouted an order to the firemen: “Turn on the hoses”. His men just stood there, as if paralyzed. “Damn it! Turn on the hoses.” They still refused. Some broke down in tears. The triumphant marchers proceeded unhindered through the cordon singing at the top of their voices.
It wasn’t long before it dawned on the city’s business community that the movement could not be beaten. Sid Smyer, a local businessman, declared: “I am a segregationist from bottom to top gentlemen, you see what’s happening. We’ve got to do something.” Thus a group of businessmen decided to go over the heads of Conner and the city authorities and started negotiations.
Jim Crow was in retreat but Blacks were still denied equal rights. Racism and police brutality still reigned supreme, north and south. Within the civil rights movement, young militants who had thrown themselves into the frontline of battle had become critical of King and the strategy of passive resistance. They were no longer prepared to act as cannon fodder. If and when attacked, they were ready to fight back.
Differences also emerged over the movement’s attitude towards the Democratic Party. Significantly, Martin Luther King had himself begun to stress the importance of building an alliance between the Black movement and those organized in the trade unions. But by now the youth were beginning to challenge the SCLC’s and King’s domination of the movement.
This generation had gained experience in the heat of the battle. They were not encumbered by the religious sensibilities of the past. They were of an entirely different mettle. Conscious of their own strength, they were ready to raise the struggle onto a new, higher level. The American state power was about to find itself confronted with an entirely new kind of politics. It was called Black Power!
The Rise of Black Power
1963 was probably the most crucial year for the Black rebellion which was sweeping America in the 1960s. That year saw protests in 115 cities across 11 states. Ten protesters had given their lives, thousands more were injured. More than 20,000 were arrested. After a fierce battle there was a victory against segregation in Alabama. The year culminated in a gigantic march of 250,000 on Washington to force the passing of a new Civil Rights Act of far greater scope and content than previous legislation. It was the biggest demonstration of African Americans in History.
This mobilization was a huge achievement for the movement. But its very success raised searching questions about what had been achieved so far and how best to take the struggle further.
While the movement had been successful in removing some of the most blatant forms of segregation in transport, at the lunch counters and in public facilities, in many other areas of Black life things had actually worsened.
More African Americans were in segregated schools in 1964 than in 1954. There was more unemployment and housing had become more segregated than in 1954. Black people had actually become poorer.
Even as King delivered his now famous speech from the Lincoln memorial to the Washington marchers, not everyone shared his dream of integration.
Anne Mood was at the demonstration. She recalls:
“I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers to discover we had dreamers instead of leaders leading us. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton, Mississippi, we never had time to sleep much less to dream”
Malcolm X said later:
“While they’re dreaming, our people are living a nightmare.”
Before the march, King and Rustin had pressurized John Lewis of SNCC to change his speech which they felt was too critical of the Kennedy administration.
Kennedy’s flirtation with the civil rights movement was based on a desire to partially tackle obvious segregation but only to soften the protests which were a source of instability and embarrassment to American imperialism.
The US was after waging a war in Vietnam under the banner of human rights and democracy and threatening Cuba with more of the same. Meanwhile rioting had already taken place in Rochester, Pennsylvania and Harlem.
King wrote in 1963:
“We shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.”
But this strategy of non-violence came under increasing strain as white resistance stiffened.
In June 1963, Medger Evars, the moderate leader of the NAACP in Mississippi was murdered in front of his own home. In the summer of 1964 a voter registration campaign was launched, six Blacks were murdered and 1,000 arrested.
That same summer, 30 buildings were bombed and 36 Black churches burnt out. In August 1964, the bodies of three freedom riders were found in Mississippi; the two white men had been shot, the Black man had been chain-whipped and then mutilated.
In Gransville, Louisiana, the sheriff presided over the savage beating of the leader of the NAACP youth council by organized racists. Racist attacks were widely reported in every southern town.
Moreover, white racists made spectacular electoral gains across the board in the south. Goldwater, an avid opponent of the civil rights bill, became the first Republican candidate to win the votes of all electoral colleges in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana.
Lester Maddox, the crazed leader of Georgians Unwilling To Surrender (GUTS) and the White Citizens Council was elected governor of Georgia.
And George Wallace, governor of Alabama, proclaimed at his inauguration ceremony in January 1963:
“From the cradle of the Confederacy, the very heart of the Anglo-Saxon southland, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say: ‘Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!'”
It was clear that the pacifist approach was completely ineffectual in changing the attitudes of stubborn white racists in the south.
SNCC and CORE, which had a larger youth membership than SCLC or the NAACP, were at the forefront of the protests and so took the brunt of the attacks. It was in these organizations where King’s tactics received their sharpest criticism.
But it was more than just a dissatisfaction with the method of non-violence. At question here was the whole strategy of integration. Matters came to a head in 1965 in Selma, Alabama where a Black man, Jimmy Lee Jackson, was beaten to death by policemen while trying to protect his mother.
On the protest march, 2,000 non-violent demonstrators were mercilessly beaten by state troopers and police. King led a second march. To everyone’s surprise, when the demonstration reached the Alabama police, King ordered the marchers to turn back.
He had made a secret agreement with Johnson’s attorney general that there would be no confrontation with the state police. In anger, shocked SNCC leaders and others walked back singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”
Martin Luther King was not consciously selling out. He believed that what he was doing was the most effective way to achieve liberation for Black Americans. It was his genuine intentions, his honesty and his willpower which would later play a part in offering a serious challenge to the American system.
But for the moment, he seemed out of step with the growing radical elements in the movement who did not agree that the road to equality was through changing the hearts and minds of racist America.
In September 1964, eleven leaders of SNCC traveled to Africa to meet with leaders of newly independent Black countries. They also met Malcolm X who seemed to be offering African Americans a militant alternative.
“This whole phony effort at integration” said Malcolm “is no solution. Because the most you can do with this phony effort… is to put out some token integration.”
“Integration in America is hypocrisy in its rawest form.”
“With complete racial separation, however, Blacks would not have to beg the system for jobs, food and clothing.”
But it was never clear, least of all to the leaders of SNCC and CORE, how this was to be achieved. Most blacks now lived in the cities, a consequence of huge migrations from the south into the northern factories during the two world wars.
The idea of a separate state or states for Black Americans would be very difficult to attain. And even if it were possible, it would be isolated in the midst of the most powerful capitalist country in the world. To the vast majority of African Americans it was not a viable alternative.
However, there was a feeling that at least the movement should deliver more empowerment to the Black people. Being able to sit next to whites at a lunch counter was one thing, but having the money to buy enough food was quite another.
It was out of this that the slogan of “Black Power” was raised. Moves in this direction were already afoot within the organized movement.
In 1964, many Blacks forced white members of CORE to resign their posts as chairs of local chapters. By the end of 1964, CORE’s membership became for the first time Black. SNCC was also moving in a similar direction.
The slogan, Black Power, also fulfilled an important psychological need to a people whose history had been denied them. For a people who had suffered hundreds of years of humiliation and indignity, it was a time of confidence, time to be Black and proud.
This development coincided with huge uprisings in every city with a significant Black population. In August 1965, the Watts district of Los Angeles exploded into a race riot lasting five days. The riot left 35 people dead (28 of them were Black) and over 1,000 injured.
Detroit was to follow in 1967, where 47 people were killed, 2,000 injured and 2,700 businesses were destroyed. Almost every major US city was hit by race riots. Across America, from 1964 to 1972, 250 people were killed in riots and 10,000 seriously injured.
After these events, there was no way that the civil rights movement could exist the way it did before. The riots accelerated the growing radicalism and added a few further nails in the coffin of non-violence. The slogan of Black Power gained further notoriety when SNCC activists, Stokely Carmichael and Willy Ricks shouted it on the protest march for James Meredith who was gunned down whilst walking from Memphis to Jackson.
McKissick, one of the leaders of CORE, gave an embodiment of Black Power with which many identified:
“1966 shall be remembered as the year we left our imposed status of Negroes and became Black men. When Black men realized their full weight in society, their dignity, their beauty and power.”
King on the other hand observes:
“There are positive aspects of Black Power, which are compatible with what we have sought to do in the civil rights movement” but “its negative values prevent it from having the substance and program to become the basic strategy of the civil rights movement.
“Beneath all the satisfaction of a gratifying slogan, Black Power is a nihilistic philosophy born out of the conviction that the Negro cannot win.”
By 1967, however, Black Power had become the dominant ideology within the radical wing of the civil rights movement. In polls, the majority of African Americans expressed sympathy with the slogan of Black Power.
With a history of racial brutalization and self-denial, Black Americans were rediscovering their history and culture and exuding pride in their Blackness.
There was an explosion in radical Black music with artists like Curtis Mayfield and “Power to the People”, James Brown and “Say it Loud I’m Black and Proud” and Bob Marley with “Young, Gifted and Black”. Even the form of music was given a new boost of energy with deep heartful soul to upbeat hard-hitting funk.
A new breed of Black poets and playwrights were born in this era, of which perhaps the two most popular were the poet Leroi Jones (Imama Amri Baraka) and the writer Don L. Lee.
But the Political driving force of Black Power was its rejection of the approach adopted by the leaders of the civil rights movement: of gradual integration, of accommodation with the US administration and big business, conducted through the tactics of non-violence.
By 1968 the leadership of CORE and SNCC were taken over by the advocates of Black Power.
But to the majority of African Americans, including the activists in the movement, it was never clear what Black Power really meant. This was not just a question of definition. To offer a way forward to the struggle, particularly in the middle of a huge movement, concepts had to be concrete.
In essence, Black Power expressed a mood of defiance rather than a philosophy with a worked out program for change. It was a sign that the movement was in a profound transition. From the fight against blatant racial segregation and denial of democratic rights, to a fight for housing, jobs, education and an end to Black people’s grinding and humiliating poverty.
To begin on this road would require a fundamental challenge to the American capitalist system. In an attempt to head off this growing radicalism the American administration moved swiftly and introduced spending programs in the inner cities.
Although these programs were largely window dressing, they were part of a conscious policy to expand the Black middle class in order to give some African Americans a stake in the system.
The idea of Black Power became a radical cover for some Blacks aspiring for individual advancement. According to the Black historian Manning Marable:
“Black Power quickly became the cornerstone of conservative forces.” The first major Black Power conference was held in Newark, New Jersey, in July 1967 and was organized by a Black Republican, Nathan Wright.
The conference was housed in a plush, white-owned hotel and attracted 1,300 mostly middle-class Black professionals. It concluded with a statement to the effect that Black Power connoted getting a “fair share” of American capitalism.
The second conference was co-sponsored by a white corporation, Clariol. Its president who addressed the conference gave a hearty endorsement of Black Power.
Even Richard Nixon was now happy to endorse Black Power. He said in 1968:
“Much of the Black militant talk these days is actually in terms far closer to the doctrines of free enterprise” and that his policies would be orientated towards “Black ownership… Black opportunity and yes, Black Power.”
Nixon’s speech was welcomed by major corporations including America’s rich man’s paper, The Wall Street Journal. Moreover, it was supported by McKissick and Inns – the leaders of SNCC and CORE! These former Black Power militants were moving closer towards the outlook of the American ruling class but the debate on Black Power had not finished yet. Meanwhile, the movement continued with King, the “pacifist”, fiercely opposing the policies of the American administration.
The Hour of Reckoning
Martin Luther King was still the number one leader of the civil rights movement. On February 25, 1967, King gave his first speech entirely devoted to Vietnam.
“We must combine the fervor of the civil rights movement with the peace movement. We must demonstrate, teach and preach until the very foundations of our nation are shaken.”
This set him on a collision course with Lyndon Johnson’s administration.
At this point, many other civil rights leaders distanced themselves from King. But by 1967, relatively twice as many Black soldiers as white soldiers were fighting and dying in Vietnam. Whitney Young, leader of the NAACP and Roy Wilkins of the Urban League criticized King for attacking Johnson who in their eyes “was the best president the Black man ever had”.
Newspapers and journals which previously sung his non-violent praises told him in effect “to mind his own business” and “concentrate on civil rights”.
Unperturbed, by April, King was leading a 125,000 strong anti-Vietnam march to the UN building in New York.
But it was not just the Vietnam question. While on a tour in Chicago ghettos, King was booed as he preached to a group of youths. This had never happened to him before. He recalled:
“I went home that night with an ugly feeling… for twelve years I, and others like me had held out radiant promises of progress. Their hopes had soared. They were booing because they felt we were unable to deliver on our promises.”
“The struggle” he said, “was in a different phase in which Negroes sought an end to economic exploitation and racism itself.”
David Halberstam, a journalist close to King, noted that:
“King was closer to Malcolm X now than anybody would ever have anticipated five years before.”
King also told Halberstam that “For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the south… now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”
To do this would require “the nationalization of vital industries, guaranteed income for impoverished Americans and an end to the slums.”
Not surprisingly, under the orders of Lyndon Johnson, the FBI stepped up its activities against King and launched COINTELPRO activities against the SCLC.
Although never disbanding the tactic of non-violence, King gave it an interesting twist.
“Gentlemen” he said, speaking to his advisers in November 1967, “we are going to take this movement and we are going to reach out to poor people in all directions in this country… to enlarge this campaign into something bigger than just a civil rights movement for Negroes.”
He intended to launch a “broad attack against class-based economic and social discrimination of which Negroes were the worst victims, but not the only victims.” He spoke of causing “major, massive dislocations at government buildings and installations.”
Bayard Rustin, veteran civil rights activist and one of King’s closest aids said that “King was getting up a class movement against the national and economic power structure, which included not just Washington but the powerful corporations and business moguls of capitalism itself.” In short, said Bernard Lee to King and his advisers, “what the powers of the country will kill you for.”
This was in February 1968. On February 23 he appeared in Carnegie Hall to pay tribute to the Black socialist W. E. B. Du Bois. By March 22 he was leading a protest of predominantly Black garbage workers in Memphis for union recognition and better pay.
With death threats mounting, King gave what was to be his last public speech at a rally in Mason Temple in Memphis. He recounted that “the masses were rising up in South Africa, in Kenya and Ghana, in New York City, Atlanta, Jackson and Memphis and everywhere their cry was the same: ‘We want to be free.'”
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead… I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I am not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. And I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
The next day, April 4, 1968, at 6:08pm, he was shot on the balcony of his hotel in Memphis by a white man, James Earl Ray. The movement was in shock. It had lost one of its finest leaders. But the fight would continue.
As his death was announced, rioting broke out in major cities throughout the US.
Meanwhile, in Oakland, two young men were in the process of building an organization which by the late sixties would become the most influential revolutionary organization in America. They were Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Their organization was called The Black Panthers.
A Legacy for Liberation
The death of King proved to be a severe blow and yet another turning point for the civil rights movement. For many Blacks, King personified their struggle, and his death seemed to disorientate the movement.
This was particularly the case with the leadership King left behind. For a while they staggered aimlessly from event to event and were extremely reluctant to organize the kind of civil disobedience which in his last days, King felt was necessary to challenge the root of Black people’s oppression: the American capitalist system. For instance, King’s plan for a mass mobilization of poor people marching on the White House was half-heartedly organized.
Moreover, the weak-kneed approach adopted by the leadership to the Johnson administration failed to inspire the growing layers of radical African American youth. The march was therefore a flop and the Poor Peoples Campaign slowly died out.
Meanwhile, in Oakland, California, two young men, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, in the back room of a local community center had drawn up a ten point program and founded what was to become the largest and perhaps most well known revolutionary party in America, the Black Panther Party.
It was founded in 1966 and by 1971 it had 45 chapters and 5,000 full-time workers. With socialism as their guiding principle, they initiated hundreds of community programs and commanded the respect and support of the majority of African Americans in the cities. “We were” says Bobby Seale, “making Malcolm X’s philosophical polemics come alive.”
J. Edgar Hoover, the then director of the FBI said that the Panthers “were the most serious threat to the internal security of the United States.”
But the Panthers were coming to fruition at a time when the “mainstream” civil rights movement was ebbing. Also, they did not sufficiently politically organize and educate the huge support they had outside the party.
Hence they did not create a sustained mass movement to replace the muddled reformist leadership of the official civil rights protest.
The subsiding struggle gave the American administration room to deal with the situation with a combination of brutal repression and apparent reform.
Those who could not be bought off were killed. In 1969 alone, 25 Panthers were murdered by police and 749 jailed or arrested. The offices of several Black radical groups were raided, and their members were imprisoned on trumped up charges.
The legendary George Jackson, who was sentenced at the age of 18 to one year to life for a $70 robbery and was later to be given the title Field Marshall of the Black Panther Party, was executed by guards at San Quentin prison in August 1971.
The same year there was an uprising by 1,300 predominantly Black and Puerto Rican inmates of Attica prison. Treated like animals, the prisoners were demanding the basics of life, “adequate food, clothing and shelter.”
Hundreds of National Guardsmen and police stormed the prison killing 29 inmates and the ten guards who were being held hostage. Even pacifist protesters were not spared. In March 1972, civil rights activist Reverend Ban Chavis, eight black students and one white woman were arrested for allegedly burning a grocery store.
A jury comprising self-contested members of the Ku Klux Klan found the ten guilty, and they were sentenced to a total of 282 years.
The other side of the strategy of the American ruling class was firstly to buy off a section of the civil rights leadership and then to sponsor the expansion of the Black middle class.
Disguised as a reform, this was an attempt to promote a layer of Blacks who, having a stake in the system, would promote the ideas of that system. Affirmative Action programs, for example, created new, relatively high paid jobs for some Black workers.
Hence in the early 1970s, the earnings of the top 5% of the Black workforce increased by 32%. Between 1969 and 1977 the total number of Black business increased from 163,000 to 231,195, and between 1970 and 1975, twenty-four Black-owned banks were established.
The number of Blacks entering universities increased from 75,000 in 1950 to 660,000 by 1976.
While in and of themselves, these gains should be welcomed, they were never on offer to the majority of Black Americans. In fact, they were devised by the American ruling class as an attempt to cut off the Black rebellion.
Moreover, these gains were extremely fragile and many were easily wiped away under the Ronald Reagan administration. Meanwhile, there was a huge shift away from the radicalism of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and even King by the leaders of the movement.
Bayard Rustin and Philip Randolph, former black militants in the trade unions, felt that “racism was no longer a problem in the labor movement.” Rustin called on Black workers to “stop griping.” Two of King’s closest aids, Ralph Abbernathy and Hosea Williams publicly endorsed Ronald Reagan’s bid for the presidency.
Eldrige Cleaver, former Minister of Information of the Black Panther Party, ended up as a supporter of Nixon and a prominent activist in the right-wing evangelical movement. In fact, almost all of the former civil rights leaders were, in one form or another, sucked into national or local administrations or big business.
But conditions for the majority of Black Americans were worsening. This process has continued and today, African Americans are facing their worst social crisis since the ending of the Second World War.
So what did this huge Black revolt, spanning almost 30 years, achieve? It certainly smashed the Jim Crow segregation laws enacted in the south.
It gave Black Americans democratic rights which they were denied since the ending of reconstruction which followed the American civil war.
Most of all, it gave them a feeling of their own potential strength when they became organized. Not just in relation to their own communities but in the wider society. For it was their movement which sparked and fed the anti-Vietnam war protests forcing America to withdraw from South-East Asia.
It also led to the development of the women’s liberation struggle, workers’ struggles and student protest. It encouraged national liberation struggles in Africa, the Caribbean and in the Third World in general. And this was achieved for the most part without a worked out strategy and largely on a reformist basis on the part of the leadership.
The primary goal of the leaders was to attempt to find an equal place for Blacks within the structure of American capitalism. The problem is that American capitalism was founded on slavery and cheap Black labor and the corresponding ideology of vicious racism.
That ideology is still necessary for that system to justify the continual exploitation of the Third World and is a vital political tool to agitate during elections or times of economic crisis.
A small layer of middle-class Blacks have been able to improve their living standards since the Civil Rights Movement, but the vast majority of Blacks have not been able to improve their rotten living standards. Attempts to establish Black business or get managerial positions in American corporations or local administrations cannot adequately provide for the majority of Blacks within the racist confines of the system.
But a new generation of youth are growing up in America and Britain looking for a way out of their desperate situation.
In a way they are fortunate to have in the civil rights movement a rich history of struggle. They will pass through many stages but they will do so at a quicker pace than earlier generations. Panther aspires to build a movement in the best traditions of the Black struggle.
To deepen the revolutionary socialist perspectives and organization of the Black Panthers, to raise the consciousness of the Black and Asian population and build a powerful movement which would make a decisive contribution to our final liberation.
For us, this can be the only fitting legacy of the civil rights movement.
Colin De Freitas