Jul 27, 2020
In the same week, C.T. Vivian, John Lewis and Charles Evers died. It marks the passing of two generations in the struggle for civil rights waged by the black population from World War II up to the mid-1960s. That struggle shows how very much a population can accomplish when it has thrown itself without reservation into a struggle to reform the existing capitalist system. But it also shows the limits that restrict its accomplishments when that system is left in place.
C.T. Vivian and Charles Evers were of the older generation, that generation that served in the military in World War II and then in the Korean War. Coming back from the wars, many of the black soldiers who had risked and seen their comrades give up their lives, supposedly to defend “democracy” abroad, would no longer settle for the demeaning and circumscribed lives that the system known as “Jim Crow” had imposed on the black population for almost a century. It was slavery by another name.
At the same time, their military training had given them the organizational discipline they needed to take on the violence that imposed Jim Crow, north and south. They were no longer going to sit back while “night-riders” lynched black men, something Charles Evers and his brother Medgar had physically witnessed when Charles was only 10 years old, and Medgar seven.
They knew that fleeing North was not an answer. If the North was somewhat more “liberal,” there were still large parts of the North, Michigan and Indiana, for example, where the Ku Klux Klan carried out terror to prevent the black population simply from exercising the rights that everyone in this country expected were theirs.
John Lewis was of the generation that entered their teens just as the first big struggles were breaking out in the South. They had witnessed their elders—people like C.T. Vivian—taking part in “sit-ins,” demanding service in “whites-only” establishments, sit-ins that broke out first in the North in places like southern Illinois. They witnessed what had already become a growing mobilization of the black population to boycott segregated facilities: especially buses in Southern cities like Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1953 and, then, Montgomery, Alabama in 1955.
The black population itself was beginning to tear down all the obscene rules which circumscribed the daily lives of black people: sit in the back of the bus, don’t drink from this water fountain, don’t go in the front entrance, pick up your take-out food at the back door where the restaurant throws out its garbage, get out of town before nightfall.
Eager to take part as they were, John Lewis and his generation also knew what they faced. They had engraved in their memories the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955. When Emmett Till was killed for stepping over one of the unwritten rules of the segregated South, John Lewis was his same age, 14.
John Lewis was of the generation that picked up the baton, and carried the fight down into the most dangerous parts of the rural South. His first important struggle had come in Nashville, Tennessee, when he and others took seats in “white only” restaurants—restaurants owned by big name companies like Kresge’s and Woolworth’s. Trained in the discipline of “non-violence” by C.T. Vivian and his generation, they endured not only racists screaming at them, spitting on them, dumping hot coffee on their laps, they also endured cigarette butts being put out on their bare arms. They demonstrated their commitment under the most difficult circumstances.
John Lewis became one of the original “Freedom Riders,” 13 people, black and white, who took interstate buses from Northern cities into the very deepest part of the South. Their first courageous action inspired hundreds more activists, black and white, to make the same trip. On every ride, the Freedom Riders faced not only beatings, but also the firebombing of buses when they were inside.
By their own commitment to “passive disobedience,” they intended to force the federal government to enforce court rulings that supposedly had torn down the segregated rules on interstate travel.
The fight aimed at much more than tearing down the indignity of segregation laws. They mobilized to obtain the right to vote, the most basic of rights in what was supposed to be a “democracy.” In fact, the freed black (male) population had supposedly gained the right to vote in 1870, with the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. But that right had been removed in practice by all the Jim Crow laws and practices whose simple aim was to prevent black people from ever setting foot in a voting booth.
One of the founding members of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee, John Lewis was part of those teams of young people throughout the deep South who worked to bring people in to register to vote. Turned away, beaten, sometimes killed for their temerity in daring to try to register, all those ordinary people, many of them sharecroppers, ultimately changed the rural South forever.
John Lewis put himself in the first line of a march calling for a federal voting law in 1965. The march was met by Alabama state troopers, who beat many of the participants, including Lewis, nearly senseless. The beatings that flashed around the world on TV stoked the outrage that gave the final push for the“voting rights act,” which speeded through Congress and was signed only five months later.
Lewis, and the many hundreds or even thousands more like him, were part of that movement that believed that by moral example they could change the behavior of racists who despised them.
They may not have changed the despicable racism that had infected whole generations of whites, but their determination, courage and unwillingness to give up eventually brought large numbers of black people into the struggle, all through the South. And that is what drove the racists back.
Their struggle did not overcome the overt racism that always runs just below the surface in this society, and sometimes sits right on top. Above all, it did not get rid of the institutional racism that still condemns the mass of the black population to more joblessness, to jobs with lower income, to less access to real education, less access to decent medical care, to more imprisonment—and what could only come out of that, to a greater number of people killed by cops—a racism built into the very functioning of capitalism itself.
The problem was, that movement left the system in place. The vote was able to put people like John Lewis in Congress, pushing aside people who openly bragged about their membership in the Ku Klux Klan. That already was momentous.
Charles Evers, who came back South when his brother Medgar was assassinated in 1963 by racists, was elected mayor of a small town in Mississippi by “hands that once picked cotton”—the first black person to be elected in Mississippi since the end of Reconstruction. His election in the deepest of the Deep South, opened the way for hundreds, then thousands of small towns to be run by black officials put in place by the vote of those once denied it.
Charles Evers was also a wealthy businessman, someone held up as an example for the black population to emulate.
Those symbols were important for many people. But the politicians still functioned within a capitalist society that expected its political class to respect the needs of capital, including its ability to exploit the laboring population, and that means the large majority of the black population. The businessmen themselves were able to survive only if they carried out exploitation of their workers, whoever they were, black or white.
The roads laid out by the new class of black politicians and the expanded class of black businessmen did not lead the black population out of the trap of capitalist society.
Looking at the situation today, it may be easy for some people who have never really engaged themselves in a wide struggle of the population to believe that what activists like John Lewis accomplished wasn’t worth much. They couldn’t be more wrong.
The generation that John Lewis came to speak for and symbolize was fighting for a reform of the capitalist system that organizes this country. It was this commitment to “reform” that set the limit of what could be accomplished.
But the massive struggle that Lewis symbolizes changed the face not only of the South, but of this country, forever. It got rid of the indignity of Jim Crow laws. It put the vote into “hands that had picked cotton.” It put black labor into the position it has today, at the very center of the working class.
We might have wished that the massive struggle as it unfolded would have seen the system they were trying to reform for what it was—the major impediment that condemns the black population to continuing unequal treatment. We might have wished that this massive struggle took upon itself the goal to overthrow capitalism.
It did not. But those who in the future will fight to do exactly that will know that they owe an enormous debt to what the generation of Lewis did do—to engage a whole population in the struggle that rooted out Jim Crow, slavery by another name.