Apr 30, 1982
It has been 15 years since the ghetto rebellions of 1967, in many ways the year when the black movement reached its high point. The important social and economic changes won indicate the strength of that movement.
The black movement was a reaction to the very harsh oppression suffered by black people in this country. From the period of slavery on, they suffered from a permanently depressed standard of living and a very high level of violence directed against them. They were forced to live in constant fear of barbarity and violence; of having their security subject to the whim of those who despised them; of being subjected to a hostile population, police, and courts.
And yet, over a period of less than 30 years, from about 1940 to 1970, a significant change took place. In that period, the standard of living of black people rose from 41 per cent to 60 per cent of white people, which shows how far the movement had come – but still how far it had to go. Life expectancy among black people rose from 53 years to 65 years. In 1940, 250,000 black people in the entire country were registered to vote. As late at 1960, only 20 per cent of black people were registered to vote; by 1972, their numbers had increased to 62 per cent. By the 1970s, black mayors were elected in many of the major cities of both the north and the south. In 1930, 27, 000 black people were enrolled in college; by 1970, half a million were enrolled.
The Civil Rights movement stopped the worst kind of violence directed against black people; lynchings, which had been the mark of their oppression, for all practical purposes, disappeared.
These changes were won because there was a vast and deep social movement that battered away at the racist structure of society for almost 30 years. Historians usually like to say that the Civil Rights movement dates from the Supreme Court decision of 1954 that outlawed the legal doctrine of “separate but equal.” It is as if 9 judges of the Supreme Court, out of their benevolence and wisdom, were the inspiration of the civil rights movement. In fact, the Supreme Court decision (just like the various court decisions, executive decisions, special civil rights commissions findings, and laws passed subsequently) was merely an acknowledgment of a movement that had come into existence in the 1940’s. President Franklin Roosevelt signed an Executive Order in 1941 that established the Fair Employment Practices Committee only after the government was threatened, on the eve of entering World War II, by a massive march on Washington led by A. Philip Randolph.
This threatened march was an indication of a growing movement that could not be diverted just because Roosevelt signed a piece of paper. During the war, there were more than one million black soldiers inducted into the military. Many fought against the segregation of the army. The army was forced to make some concessions during the war, integrating one officer’s training school.
In 1943, there was a riot in Harlem different than the race riots during and after World War I which victimized black people. In Harlem, a racist incident sparked black people to attack the symbols of racism, the police stations, and to burn down white-owned businesses in their community. After the war, although the Ku Klux Klan grew, the black soldiers who returned formed a core of resistance strong enough to prevent wholesale violent attacks by racist mobs.
Throughout the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, black people thrust the issue of equal rights forward. It was this issue that helped split the Democratic party during the 1948 presidential election. The fact that in 1948 Truman felt compelled to support the call for a civil rights bill, as the way to keep the traditional coalition of the Democratic party from being pulled over to Henry Wallace, was an indication of the strength of the black movement by that time.
By 1955 the civil rights movement dominated the headlines with the Montgomery bus boycott. Montgomery was the most prominent of local battles already simmering in the South, in the cities such as Tallahassee, Birmingham, and Tuskegee. The movement went up against the tremendous violent opposition by the police, the courts, from the so-called respectable white citizen’s councils that sprang up and the less respectable but very active Ku Klux Klan. Despite the legal and extra-legal violence thrown at it, the movement did not die. In fact, it showed further resolve and became broader. An increasing impatience accounted for the rising tempo of mass action in the late 1950’s. A new level of struggle was reached with the student sit-in’s, begun in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, and the Freedom Rides of 1961 and 1962. The movement for integration in Birmingham in 1963 marked another new plateau with the audacity of taking on Bull Connor’s “Johannesburg” and vanquishing it. The campaign included an unprecedented children’s crusade that met with a savage police response. The bombing of the motel where Martin Luther King was staying was answered by a night of rioting. The victory in Birmingham was followed by another bombing, this one taking the lives of four young black girls. In the struggle of Birmingham, the unemployed and working poor took a more active role, impatience multiplied, and disobedience was hardly civil. As the struggle in Birmingham ended, further racial disorder swept across much of the country.
The March on Washington that came on the heels of Birmingham was the largest protest
march up until that time, with over 250, 000 people. It was a non-violent appeal to the government for equal justice. In that sense, it was more than anything, a reminder of what the movement had been. But the black movement had stopped waiting for the government to move, and it was becoming more radical. Rioting broke out in Cambridge, Maryland several days before Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. Less than a month later, riots erupted in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant; then as summer wore on, the rioting spread to Rochester, New Jersey, Paterson, Elizabeth, and Philadelphia. It was the beginning of a series of riot-torn summers that lasted through 1968. 1967 was the most intense year, as nearly 150 riots broke out, with the largest being in Newark and Detroit. These riots were in fact urban insurrections. They marked the culmination and the height of the movement. They forced the government to speed up the ending of legal segregation and the bourgeoisie to give up economic concessions.
It was a broad social movement that stretched over almost 3 decades which won and enforced the significant gains made by black people. The length of time, the fact that the social battles took place in small towns and the largest cities all across the country, is the reflection of the determination and stamina of the literally millions upon millions of people who participated in them.
The fact that they took to the streets and, by their actions, disrupted the society either through mass civil disobedience in the early period or through urban insurrections in the later period, gave the movement its victory.
And yet, the victory was not complete. The simple demands for equal justice and equal
opportunity could not really be met by a class society which from its origins was built on racism.
The first wealth of this society originated in the slave trade and the slave system. After the demise of slavery, the growth of Southern agriculture was tied to sharecropping. As black people began to move into the cities, of both North and South, they formed the largest part of the reserve army of the unemployed and they occupied the worst, lowest paying jobs.
Faced with the victims of racism, who no longer accepted the miseries inflicted on them, the U.S. bourgeoisie altered the worst abuses of that racism. But it cannot do away with the exploitation that this system is founded on. And that class exploitation is the underlying cause of racism. It underlies the poverty of this society; it underlies the dangerous, unhealthy, low paying jobs; the slums; the rotten schools and the lack of health care.
The black population historically has been concentrated in the poorest layers of bourgeois society. And this society, in order to survive, needs not only to exploit and oppress most of the population, but also to put the burden of the oppression on special layers of the oppressed people. As long as this society remains the same, the biggest part of the black population has little possibility to escape this situation.
The bourgeoisie could get rid of segregation. But it did not get rid of the repression that goes hand-in-hand with devastating poverty. For black people, the only way to end racism is to end exploitation, that is, to overthrow the whole society.
The limitation of the black movement was that it never posed this perspective, that is, that to get rid of racism would mean to get rid of the class society. The most radical leaders, such as Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown, threatened the society that black people would destroy it – if the ills of racism were not done away with; but they did not draw the conclusion for the movement that it was necessary for black people to destroy the society in order to destroy racism. The most radical leaders of the black movement never put the question outside the framework of bourgeois society.
The riots of 1964-68 that broke out were actually the most radical expressions by the poorest and most exploited layers of the black population. They were an expression of rage and frustration and they showed that the most oppressed black people were ready to burn the hated society down. These urban insurrections were spontaneous outbursts that were carried out without a political goal. They were opposed, on the whole, by the black petty bourgeoisie and the leadership of almost all the civil rights and black organizations. The mass of the most oppressed wanted to go beyond the goals the movement had posed and beyond the methods it employed. But without political leadership they did not develop their own independent goals. The black movement, without a revolutionary consciousness, finally fought itself into a dead end and exhausted its possibilities. The movement fell back disoriented.
The disorientation was augmented by the fact that many changes were made, that the black movement had forced big concessions from the bourgeoisie. And these gains, at least on the surface, held out the possibility for further progress in the future.
These gains benefitted the black population as a whole, but they benefitted the different
classes in the black population in different ways. The black petty bourgeoisie came closest to realizing its goals. Segregation had restricted the petty bourgeoisie to very limited possibilities within the impoverished black community. The breaking down of segregation brought with it much greater social acceptance into bourgeois society and greater opportunities for new jobs in the professions, in corporations, and government. The end of segregation meant that the white political establishment that had governed the black community was obsolete and had to be replaced with political structures staffed by black people. The bourgeoisie opened the doors to thousands of black people, and a new layer was formed within the black community, a more privileged layer, which saw its interests tied to those of the bourgeoisie.
The bourgeoisie also gave concessions to the black working class, as job opportunities were opened up. Black workers were no longer restricted to jobs in the service industries and the jobs that paid the minimum wage. Especially after the riots swept the cities, doors hitherto firmly closed to black workers, were miraculously opened by some of the giant corporations. In Detroit for example, after the 1967 riot, the auto companies opened hiring halls in the middle of the black ghetto and rushed to hire black workers. Black workers were allowed into many portions of the main stream of the industrial working class, although the more privileged layers, like skilled trades and construction, were usually still out of reach. As a result of the black movement, many black workers saw their incomes jump. It was more possible to avoid living on the edge of financial disaster – at least temporarily.
Finally, even the lumpenized sections of the black population won gains. Throughout the 1960’s, the system of relief and welfare was expanded. Food stamps and Medicaid were created. And money was pumped into ADC and welfare in order to alleviate to a certain degree the worst miseries of the poorest sections of the population.
But within the framework of this society these gains had an uneven effect on the population. They accentuated the class difference withing the black population. The petty bourgeoisie has benefitted the most and has been integrated more into the society.
When the bourgeoisie made the economic and political concessions to the black movement at the end of the 1960’s, it represented them as being just the beginning of what capitalism had to offer, that the progress would continue, and that eventually black people would achieve full equality. This turned out to be one more false promise. Starting with the economic crisis of 1974-75, many of the economic gains won by the black movement began to be eroded. The average black family’s income stood at 62% of white income in 1975. By 1979 it already slipped to 57%
The economic crisis has also had a different effect on the different classes of black people. It has meant that the poorest layers of the black population have been hit first and hardest, and they have lost part of the economic gains won during the movement.
Over the last 7 years, welfare benefits fell behind inflation by more than 25%. And Reagan’s budget cuts have fallen the heaviest on the very poorest, as thousands have lost government benefits. Next to be affected by the economic crisis were black workers, who because they have generally been the last hired, have also been the first to lose their jobs. Black unemployment has already skyrocketed to an official rate of over 17 per cent. Those who have kept their jobs, have either been thrown back to the worst jobs, or have at the very least suffered as the rest of the working class suffered – through pay cuts and worsening job conditions.
The petty bourgeoisie has so far been the most insulated from the effects of the economic crisis. Where they have been hurt has been that the contraction of the economy has closed off further opportunities for the few people who had the chance to get into the class, for those who perhaps could have advanced.
What possibilities does the future hold? To a great degree it depends on what black
people do. Certainly, so long as capitalist society remains, the only means to make gains or to protect what was won in the past is through the willingness to fight. If, over the last years, many of the gains have begun to be eroded, it is due to two factors – the crisis in capitalism, but also the fact that there is no black movement any more to challenge the bourgeoisie when it tries to impose sacrifices. In the future, if the crisis worsens, the bourgeoisie will continue to try to protect itself at the expense of other layers of the population. This means especially black people, given their position. Although each worsening stage of the crisis will be felt by the different layers of the black population, it will be felt at a different pace and intensity. Finally, all of the gains of the past could be wiped out by the bourgeoisie. And if the crisis becomes very severe, the bourgeoisie could resort to fascism to make black people the scapegoats for the crisis,
just as the Jews in Germany were the scapegoats during Hitler’s rule. For the German Jews this meant extermination. The only real guarantee that bourgeois society holds for black people is that at any moment they could lose all that they have won in the past – and more.
In the past, black people have fought to protect themselves from the onslaughts of this racist society; one result of that fight has been the emergence within the black population of a strong black working class. Because black workers have been among the first to feel the consequences of the crisis, and because they have felt it the hardest, they could also be the first to begin to take on the struggle.
Under these circumstances, the black section of the working class could play a leading, revolutionary role. Black workers are in a position to address the rest of the black population on the need to tear down the society which is at the basis of their racist oppression. And as black workers they could also address the rest of the working class, and show, through their fight, the common interests of the working class to destroy the bourgeoisie, and build a society without exploitation and oppression of the working class.
Racism, which has created a more oppressed layer of the working class, has thus created a section of the working class which has often been more militant. The black workers could lead both the fight against racism and the class struggle that will overthrow the bourgeoisie.