Apr 30, 1987
The movement of black people, which was so dominant a part of American political life for the better part of thirty years, has receded to the point that we are now marking its last important anniversaries as historic events. The prison revolt at Attica, which attested to the potential the black movement had to pull after it the poor, Hispanics all the oppressed was also an announcement of the beginning of the end of that movement. Attica was 1971, more than fifteen years ago.
By the time of Attica, this black movement had accomplished what might have seemed impossible in 1947, when returning veterans of World War II were lynched because they no longer had the acquiescent manner demanded of black people in the South. Such a movement would have seemed impossible even as late as 1955, when a black man was lynched in Mississippi because he had registered to vote and 21 others were killed by racists in that same state. Within a few years the black struggle had torn down the legal recognition of segregation in the South and the worst aspects of its more insidious, institutionalized version in the North. Black people showed that when the rulers of this society fear a social movement sufficiently, they can be brought to overturn long-standing social ills, to change the face of society.
The impact the struggle of black people had on their own place in this society can be measured in stark terms. The number of black people registered to vote in the South, which had stood at 250,000 in 1940, increased to 3.5 million by 1971. The average income of a black family increased from 40% of that of a white family to 65% in 1975. Certainly part of that change was accounted for by the movement of black people from rural areas into the cities. Part was also accounted for by the opening up of jobs hitherto practically closed to blacks: better paying jobs in heavy industry, as well as construction and white collar jobs. There was also a significant change in the educational system, so that today there are proportionately more black students in the junior colleges, colleges, and universities, taken together, than there are white. Public lynchings, which were once registered in dozens per years, now have virtually disappeared from the scene.
These changes were produced by a massive social movement, one which shook American society. It was a movement which engaged several generations of black people in the fight. Before it was over, the struggle of black people to free themselves from the shackles forged on them by a racist society which had legalized their oppression touched essentially all parts of the country: the big cities of the South, as well as its small towns and even rural areas; the Northern ghettos; the schools; the prisons; the armed forces; the industrial cities and their factories every sector where black people were concentrated.
Although the struggle of black people modified the disadvantageous position to which they had historically been subjected in this country, it did not overcome it. The improved access to jobs did not erase the still enormous difference which remained between black and white incomes; it could not, for the simple reason that most black people are workers. In fact the disproportion has become greater in the years since 1975, as the black workers were forced to pay the cost of the economic crisis, along with other layers of the working class, and at the same time more severely than the rest of the working class. The black movement itself finally foundered on its inability to overcome the basic social inequality produced by a society divided into classes.
Was something more possible for this massive social movement than such an end? Were there possibilities not realized because of limits that came essentially not out of the situation, but out of the movement itself the goals it set for itself, the organizations which gave it direction? Were there possibilities that might have been realized with different goals, different organizations?
If we, revolutionary communists, ask these questions, it is not because we want to enter into a debate on a point of history, but because this is a question likely to be raised again, given the continued racist oppression to which the black masses are subjected.
As far back as World War II, there had been signs that black people, given first place when it came to sacrificing for the war, were not willing to continue to be treated as “second class citizens” in every other regard. A series of struggles during the war years gave proof of that determination: the organizing of the famous 1941 “March on Washington,” canceled at the last minute when Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Fair Employment Practices Commission; the resistance within the army during the war; the defense made by black people against the cops and marauding bands of whites during the race riots of 1943.
The end of the war, with the return of black veterans into the “Jim Crow” South, saw a number of struggles, which, if they still remained isolated, were nonetheless widespread. In the border states, there were sit-ins, voter registration drives and the first freedom rides. In the Deep South, a city-wide bus boycott by blacks in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, successfully desegregated that city’s bus system in 1953.
Essentially, the first goals of the black movement revolved around the overturning of the Jim Crow laws, the legally imposed segregation under which black people lived in the South. Those who first enunciated the movement’s goals called on black people to direct their efforts to influence the government, especially the federal government, to bring about these changes; to bring the federal authorities to enforce, on a recalcitrant South, the “law of the land.” They never said to the black masses that the government would be forced into action only if it felt the pressure of the determination and the massive mobilization of black people. Instead they did everything they could to channel the struggles within a very narrow, legal framework. They argued that the federal authorities could be changed by the pressure of “moral suasion.” It was this argument which later became known as “Non-violent Resistance.”
The 1954 Supreme Court decision forbidding legal segregation in the schools was a recognition of an already existing movement threatening to go beyond these limits.
Nonetheless, at the time that decision was used to reinforce the view that moral suasion worked.
These methods of the movement in its early stages were understandable, given those who first gave the movement its direction: the ministers of the black churches in the South, the only organizations which had a real existence under the apartheid-like system of legal segregation; the lawyers who headed the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and who gave it, at least on the national level, its legalistic approach; or the unionists, particularly those coming from the social democratic unions, whose goal was to bring pressure to bear on the Democrats, to make their party more responsive to the cries of black people. Such pressure, according to the unionists, forced Roosevelt to be more responsive to the workers during the struggles of the 1930s.
Despite this polite, legalistic stance, the black masses even then harbored a deep suspicion of white society and its governmental structures. Even in those early years, returning black veterans in the South organized other young blacks to refuse military service. At the same time, the Nation of Islam (Black Muslims) developed an influence and built up an organization in the Northern ghettos while speaking out against the “White Devils.”
Drawing on what had gone before, the movement in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955-56 gave an impetus to still other struggles throughout the South. What started as a protest against segregated buses was transformed into a year-long mobilization of the black community against a whole range of grievances. The committee put together to organize the boycott of public transportation found itself at the heart of a city-wide organization which provided alternate travel and dealt with the range of problems raised by the boycott. Almost the whole black community of Montgomery mobilized for the boycott. Daily mass meetings in Montgomery drew from 200 to 300 people, and many more than that when something important was happening.
The victory gained in Montgomery undoubtedly reinforced the morale of black people all over the South; they started to organize similar protests in other cities. The struggle in the South took more massively organized form. What might have started as simple protests against a particular wrong the segregation of the buses, the lack of equal accommodations for eating, the lack of a safe swimming pool for black youngsters ended by engaging massive numbers of people in a real struggle. They learned to meet and build up their own organizations, carrying out numerous activities required to maintain their protests in the face of determined resistance; people began to defend their own meetings and activities. Repeatedly, the segregation governments of the South were forced to meet with representatives of the black people whose struggles forced a kind of de facto recognition of their existence. Long before the desegregation laws were thrown out formally, black people had placed themselves at the front of the political stage.
By the end of 1956, the governments of 21 other Southern cities, facing boycotts, and undoubtedly remembering the mobilization in Montgomery, had desegregated their bus systems.
The easier victories which followed Montgomery, combined with the rulings then beginning to come out of the federal courts, reinforced the view that the movement could attain its goals by carrying out the kinds of temperate actions and court procedures which gained allies and supporters, activities that carefully stayed within the framework of the normal bourgeois laws, if not the “laws” of segregation.
There were, however, already violent examples of the disastrous nature of “non-violence,” as this approach was misappropriately named. In Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, a handful of black children were sent into the midst of a howling mob of racists in the hope that the federal troops would protect them, hopes disappointed when the troops not only didn’t protect them, but drew their bayonets to prevent the youngsters from entering the school. And when the troops were withdrawn, the children were left to face the mob alone.
And there were already those who turned their backs on this “non-violence,” which left black people subjected to the violence of both the organized racists and the state apparatus, without any means of defense. Throughout the South, ordinary black people tried to organize at least an informal defense of their own communities. The armed self-defense in Monroe, North Carolina, which gained national publicity because one of the organizers, Robert Williams, was forced to flee the country when the federal authorities joined in the hunt for him, was only the best known example of this activity. In the same period, Muslims in both Harlem and Detroit prevented the cops from entering their mosques, making a demonstration which gained them enormous sympathy in the Northern ghettos. By 1960, the Nation of Islam numbered tens of thousands of militants, often drawn from the poorest, most desperate layers of the black population.
Nonetheless, in the last years of the 1950s, the view most commonly put forth by the organized black movement was that segregation could be brought down through moral suasion, if the movement continued to expand, keeping the moral issue in front of the country.
Martin Luther King, Jr., put at the head of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) when it was formed in 1957, rationalized this view in his discussion of the Montgomery boycott: “First it must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist .... For while the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and his emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong .... A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding .... A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil .... A fourth point that characterizes nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back. `Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood,’ Gandhi said to his countrymen .... A fifth point concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him,” from Stride Toward Freedom: the Montgomery Story, by M.L. King, Jr.
By 1960, the movement had begun to spread outside the bigger cities of the South, where black people had some basic organization, into the rural areas where the resistance by racists was the most fierce. It was there, where local people often did not have the forces to confront the racists directly, that the students took the lead. Starting from the famous 1960 sit-in of lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, students in the university towns across the South, most of which were small, began to occupy segregated facilities of all kinds. The movement spread quickly. Within two months of the start of the Greensboro sit-in, sit-ins had started in at least 70 other cities, mostly in the Deep South, but some also in the border states, and even in the Southwest.
During the sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee, the students arrested refused bail. All across the South, the jails began to fill. This became an almost privileged tactic of the student movement, a means to tie up the state apparatus, as well as a way to avoid the problem of raising money for bail.
Out of the sit-in movement, a new organization was formed in 1961: SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). The militants of SNCC, drawn from the university campuses rather than from the churches or the NAACP, reflected the impatience of the younger black people. As SNCC began to grow, it directed its activities to voter registration drives in progress throughout the South.
At the same time, Northern students were attracted to the Freedom Rides organized by CORE (Congress on Racial Equality). The Freedom Riders, as they were called, took the interstate buses into the Deep South, refusing to accept the segregated seating patterns demanded practically as soon as the buses rolled out of Washington, D.C.
Perhaps it required the selflessness, as well as the impatience, of the students to venture deep into Klan territory. At any rate, this work they carried out, particularly the voter registration drives in rural areas, brought them the gravest dangers. It was there the most militants fell, victims sometimes of public lynchings, more often of murderous gangs who set upon them at night.
Despite the willingness of the students to confront such dangers, despite their impatience, SNCC kept essentially to the same goals held by the already existing, more moderately paced older organizations. SNCC’s founding statement of purpose announced, “We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our faith and the manner of our action.” In fact, SNCC had been sponsored by activists in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a means of influencing those young people who felt the existing organizations were going too slowly.
Like Montgomery in 1955, Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 saw a massive mobilization of the black community, and, like Montgomery, it was a movement which continued for months. But the intervening eight years had produced changes in the consciousness of the black population. In Montgomery in 1955, the tactics of those who led the movement had been to call on the black population to boycott that is, not to ride the buses, not to patronize the white stores. Those tactics seemed to accord with what the black population was ready to do.
But by 1963, the black people of Birmingham were pushing past those kind of passive tactics. Martin Luther King felt the pressure of a movement threatening to go around him; he was stung by the defeat of the Albany, Georgia march he led because he had refused to disobey a federal court order against demonstrations. So in Birmingham, in order not to be pushed aside, King had to go along with a fight which brought people massively into the streets. There were three solid months of daily demonstrations in one part of Birmingham or another, tying up the police who were never sure where the day’s demonstration would be, and, more importantly, interfering with business.
The victory over Bull Connor, the infamous former police chief, and then mayor of Birmingham, was ensured precisely because the movement went outside those bounds of respectability and concern for allies which had marked so much of what had preceded it. When 700 teenagers were arrested on May 2, the streets began to fill up. Thousands more were arrested over the next several days. Children faced police dogs and fire hoses in the streets. Fighting began to break out as black people refused to take the abuse hurled by racist white by-standers. Business, already severely affected, came practically to a halt. The heads of the Birmingham business community quickly tried to engineer an agreement, acceding to enough of the demands of the black people in order to take the struggle out of the streets. That agreement was openly imposed on the political leaders of Birmingham. In the process, Bull Connor, who earlier had refused to give up office, was removed as the head of the city government. If the agreement itself barely touched the surface of the black community’s complaints, nonetheless the fact that an open racist such as Connor could be defeated showed the power that black people were beginning to feel.
Sections of the black population were no longer willing to suffer quietly without answering back against their attackers. That change was apparent the night of the settlement in Birmingham, after the headquarters of King was bombed. Black people, especially the young people, poured into the streets of Birmingham, despite the entreaties of those around King.
That night, May 10, 1963, ushered in the urban riots. It was to be followed in quick succession by smaller riots in Jackson, Mississippi, when Medgar Evers was assassinated, and in Cambridge, Maryland, when whites attacked black demonstrators.
Those first brief fights in the streets presaged what was to come. The traditional leaders of the black movement proclaimed that the riots would hurt the cause of black people; they said the riots would drive the “moderates” into the arms of the racists, thus ensuring the defeat of the latest civil rights bill being brought before Congress.
By 1963, those who headed the NAACP, SCLC, the Urban League, CORE, the traditional leaders of the movement, were finding themselves bypassed in the streets. On that May night in Birmingham, when Wyatt Walker, King’s associate in SCLC, tried to tell the crowd to go home, he was shouted down. Demonstrators cried: “Tell that to Bull Connor. This is what non-violence gets you.” In Jackson, Mississippi, those who tried to quiet the crowds heard, “The only way to stop evil here is to have a revolution. Somebody has got to die.”
When President Kennedy, fearing that the proposed 1963 March on Washington might get out of hand, called on the organizers to cancel it, they told him the realities of the situation: “The Negroes are already in the streets.” A. Philip Randolph informed the president, “It is very likely impossible to get them off. If they are bound to be in the streets in any case, is it not better that they be led by organizations dedicated to civil rights and disciplined by struggle rather than to leave them to other leaders who care neither about civil rights nor about non-violence? If the civil rights leadership were to call the Negroes off the streets, it is problematic whether they would come.” James Farmer of CORE reinforced Randolph’s argument: “We would be in a difficult if not untenable position if we called the street demonstrations off and then were defeated in the legislative battle. The result would be that frustration would grow into violence and would demand new leadership.” King said that the march could serve “as a non-violent channel of legitimate discontents.”
It was to this that Malcolm X answered: “Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms ... to keep us under control, keep us passive and peaceful and nonviolent.... This is the way it is with the white man in America. He’s a wolf and you’re sheep. Any time a shepherd, a pastor, teaches you and me not to run from the white man and, at the same time, teaches us not to fight the white man, he’s a traitor to you and me. Don’t lay down a life all by itself. No, preserve your life. It’s the best thing you’ve got. And if you’ve got to give it up, let it be even-steven.”
When Malcolm X argued in this fashion at the Grass Roots Conference organized in Detroit in 1963, he was reflecting changes in the consciousness of an important fraction of the black population.
Within ten weeks of the victory in Birmingham, similar demonstrations and civil disruption campaigns were underway in over 150 Southern cities. Nothing else reached the scale of Birmingham. But the determination shown in the streets of Birmingham, when it began to spread to cities all over the country, opened doors in the rest of the South. The barriers of segregation were beginning to fall.
And it gave the final push to the long-talked-about Civil Rights Act which was finally passed in early 1964. On the legal level, the new act did little more than repeat what had already been federal law for almost a century, law never enforced. But on the political level, it was an acknowledgement of the changes black people were enforcing by means of their struggles. It was also a symbol of the desire of the America bourgeoisie that its state appear to give to the black people what in fact they themselves were taking.
Even as the law was being passed, sizable layers of the black population had already turned their backs on the hope that a bill passed in Washington could change their situation. The black masses looked at a society wherein most of the problems they faced remained untouched by the slow, painstaking process of wresting one victory at a time. That point was made more clear when the struggle began to spread to the North, where there were no Jim Crow laws, no legal restrictions, and yet where the fight was essentially to gain the same things which were being fought for in the South where segregation had the weight of law. Meanwhile, the victories, as insignificant as many of them were, were being paid for in blood, almost all of it, as King asked for, the blood of black people. Within four months of the settlement in Birmingham, four little girls lay dead, the victims of a Klan bomb planted in a major black church in Birmingham. By the time the Mississippi Summer Project came to an end in 1964, it was not only Chaney, Shwerner and Goodman who had been lynched. Thirty black people were known to have been killed by whites in Mississippi in the first eight months of the year. The lynchings in the South found their counterpart in the legal lynchings carried out by the cops in the North. The black masses were being forced to assimilate the bitter lessons of the “non-violent” struggle.
Almost as soon as the Civil Rights Bill passed, black people took to the streets in Harlem. While those who had led the movement up until then decried the riot in Harlem as doing damage to the cause, black masses in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Rochester, New York; in Jersey City, Elizabeth and Paterson, New Jersey; and in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania took to the streets.
Certainly, there was a continuation of the kind of mobilizations which had dominated the scene up until then; there were the two Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965, and the Meredith march from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi in 1966. In the cities there were rent strikes, school boycotts, and demonstrations at job sites which excluded blacks. The voter registration projects continued, transformed in the process, in several places, into parallel structures to the racist Democratic Parties of the southern states. In Michigan, the Freedom Now Party was set up to create a black electoral party in order to bring pressure on the Democrats.
Nevertheless, the next years were dominated by the rebellions in the streets. Watts and five other major revolts took place in 1965. In 1966, there were 21 major riots, including the biggest ones in Cleveland and in Chicago. The year 1967 saw 41 major riots, including those in Cincinnati, Tampa, Atlanta, and Buffalo. The 1967 Newark riot spread to thirteen other new Jersey cities, and the 1967 Detroit rebellion spread to eight other cities in Michigan and Ohio. There were smaller riots in 150 other cities. In 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, thousands rose up in hundreds of cities almost simultaneously, reflecting the more radical consciousness of the black masses.
At the same time, the prisons were hotbeds of political activity, places where the poor and disadvantages came into contact with Malcolm, Fanon and Mao, of course, but also with Marx and Lenin and Trotsky. Many young blacks, incarcerated for economic crimes, came to view themselves as political prisoners, victims of an unjust system. This political ferment eventually produced the prison revolts which marked the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s.
What had started as a struggle of black people against the avowed racists, those who would openly, systematically and legally deny the whole black population any political rights, had become transformed into a movement wherein the black masses found themselves opposing their forces to that of the whole American state apparatus.
Under the pressure of the rebellions, new, more radical organizations, like the Black Panthers, RAM (Revolutionary Action Movement) and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, were being formed. And already existing organizations, like SNCC and CORE, converted to a more radical stance, symbolized by the cry for “Black Power” and often changing leaderships at the same time.
Many of the new leaders of the black movement followed in the radical nationalist footsteps of Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965. They agreed with the way he had presented the problem in 1964: “That’s why in 1964, it’s time now for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for; what we’re supposed to get when we cast a ballot; and that if we don’t cast a ballot, it’s going to end up in a situation where we’re going to have to cast a bullet. It’s either a ballot or a bullet.” In effect, they all threatened the American society, or the American ruling class: “If you don’t give us what we want, we will burn it down.” If.
But there was no one, at least no one who played any influential role in the black movement, who tried to address the black masses saying: “In order to get what we want, we must burn it down.” Even if a more radical layer was being pushed to the front, there was no one who prepared the black masses for the necessity of bringing bourgeois society to a halt, of using their numbers and their determination to do so. In fact, despite their militant stance and radical rhetoric, the nationalists were willing to leave stand the society at the root of the oppression of black people. What they wanted simply was a place in that society, especially for a new black bourgeois layer.
Malcolm X had expressed that clearly when he defined what the nationalists wanted: “The political philosophy of black nationalism means that the black man should control the politics and the politicians in his own community.... The economic philosophy of black nationalism is pure and simple. It only means that we should control the economy of our community. Why should white people be running all the stores in our community? Why should white people be running the banks of our community? Why should the economy of our community be in the hands of the white man? Why? If a black man can’t move his store into a white community, you tell me why a white man should move his store into a black community.... If we own the stores, if we operate the businesses, if we try and establish some industry in our own community, then we’re developing to the point where we are creating employment for our own kind.... The social philosophy of black nationalism only means that we have to get together and remove the evils, the vices, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other evils that are destroying the moral fiber of our community. We ourselves have to lift the level of our community, the standard of our community to a higher level, make our own society beautiful so that we will be satisfied in our own social circles and won’t be running around here trying to knock our way into a social circle where we’re not wanted.... Last but not least, I must say this concerning the great controversy over rifles and shotguns. The only thing that I’ve ever said is that in areas where the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and property of Negroes, it’s time for Negroes to defend themselves,” from “The Ballot or the Bullet”.
Those aspects of racial oppression tied to class exploitation were never addressed by the black organizations, neither civil rights nor nationalist, both of which sought essentially to overturn legal segregation and to find a more equal place for the more privileged layers of the black population, while accepting the underlying social divisions which oppressed the black masses.
By the mid-1970s, the struggle of the black population was coming to an end. There were several factors which probably hastened its demise. In the first place, many of the original demands of the movement had been answered, if not completely. At the same time, the state apparatus was carrying out a vicious campaign of intimidation, even assassination, against the movement. Several hundred of its most determined militants were dead. Many hundreds more were in prison. Finally, the black masses, those who had carried the fight into the street, those who had brought the American bourgeoisie to cede what it probably thought never to have to give the black masses saw others taking the fruits of the struggle they had carried out against fire hoses, guns and tanks.
Could the black struggle have had another outcome than this one? Could it have overcome the social exploitation to which the black masses are subjected, and in so doing, finally put an end to all oppression, including racial oppression?
Today we have no way to know for sure, but there was certainly an enormous potential in the black movement which was not realized.
What was lacking was not determination nor militancy. What was lacking was for the poor black masses to have taken the head of the struggle: for them to have led the movement outside the bourgeois reformist goals laid down by those, whether ministers or radical nationalists, who stayed within the framework of class society; for them to have called on the rest of the oppressed to follow them.
Certainly, there were whole layers of this society who were influenced by the struggle of the black population, even when the black movement made no attempt to address those social layers.
Some of the most militant struggles of black people pulled white workers behind the lead of black people, directly into those struggles. This was what happened in Detroit, where whites participated alongside blacks in the 1967 rebellion, where one fifth of those killed by the police and army were white. The first casualty of the 1967 Detroit rebellion was a 45-year-old Polish worker, killed by the police for looting. Maybe Detroit was the most spectacular, but it pointed to possibilities not yet realized elsewhere. The prison revolts showed the same possibility: black prisoners, who were the most determined and the most conscious, were able to play the leading role in the struggle, bringing with them large numbers of white and Hispanic prisoners.
The force of the black movement served to encourage a whole series of other movements in the 1960s: the student anti-war movement; the Puerto Rican, Chicano, and Native American movements. And it probably contributed to the renewed militancy seen in American workplaces after the hiatus of the McCarthy period. The black struggle had given black workers confidence in their own power. It had also given white workers confidence, even if the confidence was grudging or envious or resentful. To the white workers of the 1960s and 1970s, the blacks were those who “knew how to fight”.
By taking the lead of the fight against racist oppression, the black workers had the possibility to address all these other layers of American society and thus to transform the fight against racial oppression into a social movement of all the oppressed. And not only in American society. The struggle of the black masses undoubtedly had an influence on the struggles in other countries, especially in the Caribbean and in Africa.
The opportunity lost in the 1960s was lost because there was no organization then which acted on the view that the proletarian revolution could be, at the same time, the solution to the problems confronting black people and the result of their fight. There was no one who tried to address black workers to give them a sense of the essential role they must play if the black movement were to get rid of the oppression faced by black people. There was no one who said to black workers: “If you want to overcome your unequal situation in this society, you must prepare yourselves to oppose its state apparatus, which is the real enforcer of your oppression.” There was no one who gave black workers the goal to organize themselves as workers, to put themselves at the head of the movement, in order to give it different aims. Even the most radical nationalist groups stayed within the framework of this society.
Those proletarian revolutionary groups then existing were small, with little influence in the mass struggle. At the beginning, of course, they were to the side of the black struggles, in great part, due to historic factors. Whether the struggle of black people gave the revolutionary groups a means to overcome their historic weakness, even up to the point of playing the leading role in that struggle, is another question. To accomplish that, they would have needed to raise the banner of socialist revolution, that is, to recruit to the positions of socialism, to build up an organization on that standpoint, and to devote all their efforts to do so. They were in a race against time. But the tendency of most of the existing groups at the time was to serve as cheerleaders for one or another of the more radical nationalist leaders, which took their efforts in quite another direction. People like Malcolm X, Robert Williams, H. Rap Brown whatever qualities of personal courage and devotion to the cause of black people they undoubtedly had were not people who defined a perspective that let the black masses escape from the trap the movement was in. Personal qualities are not enough. Finally, it is a question of which goals one gives the masses.
Maybe if the left had tried to give different goals to the black struggle and in order to do that, if the left had sought to build up a revolutionary organization in the midst of that struggle it might not have been able to change the final outcome. But in that case, we would have at least come out of that struggle with many more hundreds, even thousands, of black revolutionary socialist militants, formed and hardened militants who could have given the left in the United States a different weight than what it has today. And that was another opportunity lost by the revolutionary movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Reprinted from Class Struggle #8