Mar 16, 2015
August 7 was “Bloody Sunday,” the day 50 years ago that Alabama state troopers ambushed and violently attacked a peaceful march near Selma Alabama. Demonstrators were tear-gassed and beaten with clubs. One of the organizers of the march, Amelia Boynton, was savagely knocked to the ground. Lying unconscious on the bridge, she was kicked, her body further abused by county law enforcement. Nine days earlier, a state trooper had shot into another peaceful demonstration, killing civil rights activist and church deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson. Two days after “Bloody Sunday” another march set out from Selma, only to turn back when troopers threatened to attack again. Civil rights activist and Boston minister James Reeb was beaten to death that night by white racist vigilantes.
The politicians pretend that horror at this violence directed against peaceful protesters finally provoked Congress to act quickly. And it’s true, Congress, never known for speed, acted quickly. By August 6, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been introduced, gone through committee, voted on and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
But Congress was not reacting to the violence. Violence? There was an abundance, an overflow of violence all during the years when the black population was asking to have the same rights as other people, demonstrating peacefully for them. Thousands of peaceful people had been killed, tens of thousands injured permanently, untold numbers lynched, including by state troopers and other “guardians of order.” Where was Congress then?
No, Congress was not acting out of concern that violence rained down on those demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside of Selma. It was acting in response to anger in the black population threatening to explode.
After decades of demonstrating peacefully, paying an enormous price, the black population began to defend itself. In 1963, Birmingham Alabama was swept by an over-night rebellion after the SCLC headquarters was firebombed. In 1964, a rebellion against police who violently cleared the streets in Harlem spread to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and several New Jersey towns. Demonstrators in many cites began to echo the words of Malcolm X, who famously said: “You should never be non-violent unless you run into some non-violence.... Any time you know you’re within the law, within your legal rights, within your moral rights, in accord with justice, then die for what you believe in. But don’t die alone. Let your dying be reciprocal. This is what is meant by equality.”
Congress did what it always does when the population begins to move. It passed a meaningless piece of legislation, the Voting Rights Act.
Five days after it was passed, the people of Watts gave their verdict on it: they went out into the streets of Los Angeles, the first of the really massive and powerful revolts, echoed in five other cities. 1966: 21 major so-called “riots.” 1967: 41 major “riots.” The rebellion in Newark spread to 13 other New Jersey cities; the enormous one in Detroit spread to eight other cities in Michigan and Ohio. 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King: hundreds of thousands of people rose up in cities all over the country, almost immediately and simultaneously, reflecting the increasingly radicalized consciousness of a very wide part of the black population.
The black population was not “given” the right to vote: the black population took it through its own massive struggles. Those struggles imposed a rapid change in every field: jobs, wages, voting, housing, Social Security coverage, medical coverage – vast improvements that also improved the situation of most white workers. And those struggles forced the American capitalist class to decide it could no longer pursue its war in Viet Nam.
The face of the country was changed – for a while. But only for a while. The population, which had gained so much, may have believed the gains were permanent. They were not.
As struggles receded, so did the gains. Those gains may not all have been lost. Not yet. But the push of the capitalist class to increase the exploitation of black workers and more broadly of the whole working class is ripping every gain to shreds. Today, for example, more black people are denied the right to vote as the result of a great number of laws, which, acting together, prevent people from voting. Public school education is so destroyed that children come out of school unable to read, North and South.
The black population did not make gains by being a victim. They won them through struggle. What was won through struggle will be reconquered the same way.