Jul 2, 2007
Forty years ago this month, the black mobilization reached its peak in the uprisings of Detroit and Newark.
After years of waiting on the courts, the legislatures and the politicians to deliver on their promises, the black population had begun to move into the streets in the mid-l960s, openly to contest with the police for control over their own neighborhoods. After years of seeing what “non-violence” produced, they were no longer ready to leave the other side free to use violence, without preparing to use violence in their own defense.
There had already been rebellions in Birmingham in 1963, Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant and North Philadelphia in 1964, Watts in 1965, Cleveland in 1966. But the rebellions of 1967 raised the struggle to another level.
As opposed to the earlier rebellions, which were confined to small areas of bigger cities, the ones of 1967 spread to engulf a much larger part of each city. In Detroit especially, the mobilization was so widespread as to force the authorities to withdraw their military forces from most parts of the city. Poor and working class black people were joined in the streets by poor whites who occupied some of the same areas and suffered under some of the same police violence.
Moreover, the rebellions spread spontaneously from Detroit and Newark into a vast array of cities. Some were like Northern New Jersey, Plainfield and New Brunswick, which were right near Newark; or Flint, Toledo and Pontiac, near Detroit. But overall, more than 100 cities that summer were confronted by people in the streets.
The people who went into the streets certainly suffered casualties. At least 43 people were killed in Detroit, most of them by cops, National Guard or Airborne troops. In Newark, with its much smaller population, the casualty toll reached at least 23 people.
But whatever the casualties were in those uprisings, those rebellions changed the face of this racist society in a solid fashion. They did not, of course, get rid of racism, which is so inextricably linked with capitalist exploitation of the working class, that it cannot be done away with until capitalism itself is rooted out.
But what those rebellions did do was to eliminate the worst, most obvious facts of racist oppression. No longer were the racists free to do as they wanted, forcing black people to get off the sidewalk, to take seats in the back of the bus – and don’t believe that because that wasn’t the law in the North, it wasn’t the custom. No longer could the police march with impunity through the black community. The police learned that they too could pay a very big price. No longer could the politicians ignore completely the needs of the black neighborhoods for city service. No longer could the big corporations relegate black workers to ONLY the worst and lowest-paid jobs. And the cowardly racists who had long hid behind the hoods of the KKK crawled off into their holes like the vermin they were. Their violence held sway only because there had been no massive response from those they intended to make their victims.
The working class as a whole, black, white, Hispanic, benefitted from the rebellions. Those rebellions forced the capitalists to cede ground on every level. Wages went up. Social programs were improved or started: not only welfare, but also unemployment benefits, workers’ comp, Medicare and Medicaid.
Those rebellions, whatever toll they took on the areas where they occurred, took a much bigger toll on the orderly functioning of capitalist society. For a period, the capitalists did not want to enter into an open contest with the people in the streets. They ordered changes in their own society.
It was the courage of those people who went into the streets 40 years ago which accomplished this. If many of those gains are being unwound today, they can be reconquered by the same means that won them in the l960s.