The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

A Revival of the Civil Rights Movement?

Apr 30, 1987

Two recent attacks show that black people in the United States are still, in 1987, denied the simple right to be in certain areas of this country and still face violence at the hands of racists. The first incident took place at the end of December in New York City. Three black men, walking through the predominantly white neighborhood of Howard Beach after their car had broken down, were set upon by a gang of young white men. A dozen racists brutally attacked the black men with baseball bats and clubs, then chased one of them directly into expressway traffic where he was run over and killed.

Although the attack was denounced by city authorities, no one was immediately charged with murder. Instead, one of the surviving victims was treated by the police and the district attorney as though he was going to be charged with another crime, while every one of the gang was released. It was not until six weeks later, after a series of protests and demonstrations, that indictments for murder were finally handed down.

The second incident took place in rural Georgia. In January of this year, when a group of 75 people tried to march through all-white Forsyth County in honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday, they were met by a mob of over 400, led by the Ku Klux Klan and other avowed white racists like former Georgia Governor Lester Maddox. A number of demonstrators were injured when they were attacked with sticks and bottles. The local police force did little to stop the attack; when they intervened, it was only to carry the demonstrators out of the area.

One week later, a demonstration estimated to be as large as 30,000 people returned to Forsyth County to protest against the racist violence. Confronting such a large demonstration, led by nationally known figures and a number of leading state politicians, the authorities apparently did not want to let the KKK create a nationally televised mess in Forsyth. Some 3,000 police and soldiers from the National Guard were sent out by the governor of Georgia to separate the demonstrators from the 1,000 racist hecklers who rallied on the sidelines of the march route.

These two incidents, which are symbolic of many others which may not receive the same national attention, underline the situation that confronts black people today. Even though the black struggle of the 1950s and 1960s tore down the legal barriers of Jim Crow segregation and did away with many aspects of informal discrimination; even though this movement put an end to much of the daily violence used against black people by the state and by racists; the fact remains that black people in this country are still denied basic democratic rights, in fact, if not in law. Black people still face the threat of violent attack simply because they are black. This is the situation in the United States today, a situation which, under current circumstances, could be aggravated by the economic crisis.

Quite obviously, this inequality and injustice is still felt bitterly by the black population. Despite the relative calm and quiet of the black population over the last decade, there is a permanent potential for a new outburst, or even a mobilization, against this situation. That means the leaders and the organizations of the black community permanently face the question of how to direct or use this potential.

A New Layer of Black Politicians ...

Those at the head of these two demonstrations were mostly political figures and religious leaders tied to the Democratic Party. There were Democratic politicians like Mayor Andrew Young and City Councilman Hosea Williams of Atlanta, U.S. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, or the lawyer Vernon Mason who ran unsuccessfully for office in New York as a Democrat. Then there were those from religious and civil rights organizations which more or less directly support the Democratic Party, people like Coretta Scott King and the leaders of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Gary Hart, one of the leading candidates for the Democratic Party’s last presidential nomination, marched at the head of the Forsyth demonstration, symbolizing the links between all these people and the Democratic Party.

Links between the Democratic Party and the leaders of the civil rights movement certainly existed during the 1950s and 1960s. But what is new is the existence of a sizable layer of black Democratic officials directly integrated into the political system and into the state apparatus. This is one result of the black movement. In 1963, there were only 100 black elected officials in the entire country. As of the end of 1986, the number had jumped to 6,424. There are over 280 black mayors, including in four of the six largest cities in the country Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit as well as in other major cities around the country, such as Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Atlanta, Newark, and Birmingham. Ten years ago there was only one black police chief. Now there are over sixty, including in four of the six largest cities in the country. There are now twenty black representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives, a number of whom have become chairmen of House committees, that is, leading figures in the national Democratic Party. In the 1984 primaries for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, the candidacy of Jesse Jackson was something more than the symbolic one of a previous black candidate.

... And a New Black Bourgeois Layer

This development in the political field reflects the more general growth of a black bourgeoisie over the past twenty years. Compared to that of the broader society, the black bourgeoisie remains small in all areas. For example, all the major black corporations combined could be purchased by Mobil Oil Corporation with its liquid assets. The number of black professionals relative to the size of the black population is only about half of what it is in the white population. And, despite the spectacular growth in the number of black elected officials, they still represent only slightly more than one percent of all elected officials.

Nonetheless, there has been a significant growth of the petty bourgeoisie relative to the whole black population. The percentage of the black population completing four full years of college has increased from six per cent in 1970 to over thirteen per cent by 1982, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Occupational data shows that those who are either self-employed, or in the managerial, technical or professional fields now constitute nearly fifteen percent of the black employed labor force. This figure is more than double what it was in 1960.

The growth of this black petty bourgeoisie is translated into improved conditions of life, which is demonstrated by the family income data. According to a 1987 National Urban League report, the number of black families with an income of over $35,000 in constant 1985 dollars has increased from 19.7 per cent in 1970 to 25.8 per cent in 1985.

Nonetheless, despite the increase in the numbers of this black petty bourgeoisie, and the improvements in their standards of living, they still live in a society that remains racist to the core. Despite their new positions and affluence, there are still many areas in the country where this petty bourgeoisie must fear racist violence like that in Howard Beach. Some of them might have the wealth to buy half the land in Forsyth County, yet they still can’t go there without fear of the KKK. This explains the bitterness of the black petty bourgeoisie despite all the improvements; they must be ready in some circumstances to try to organize a response to incidents like those of the past few months, as was the case with the black Democratic politicians in Atlanta who initiated the march on Forsyth.

The Majority Still on the Lowest Rung of the Society

Certainly the remnants of open segregation which are felt by the black petty bourgeoisie are felt more severely by the whole black population, which lacks the money to buffer themselves. But at the same time, the black masses confront racist oppression in many directly economic ways. Black workers still remain trapped overall within the lowest layers of the proletariat, facing the worst conditions and the lowest wages. The black masses make up a disproportionate share of the reserve army of the unemployed and consequently, also of the poor. According to the government’s gross unemployment index, which includes discouraged and involuntary part-time workers, the current jobless rate in the black population is about 28 per cent, compared to about 12 per cent for the whole population. The rate for those between 16 and 24 years of age approaches 60 per cent. Today some 34 per cent of the black population in this country lives below the government’s official poverty level.

Thus, the position of the majority of the black population is very precarious. People are thrown in and out of work, and in and out of poverty, with the fluctuations of the economy. This pattern can be seen in the government’s figures for those in the black population living below the poverty level. In 1959, 55 per cent of the black population was living in poverty; by 1970 it had dropped to 34 per cent; in 1971 it reached the low point of 29 per cent; then it rose to 34 per cent by 1984. Thirty-seven per cent of black families were receiving incomes under $10,000 in constant 1985 dollars in 1970; the number increased to 49 per cent by 1983; improving only slightly, with a drop to 44 percent with the recovery in 1985.

The oppression faced by the black masses is completely intertwined with their position in class society. Because they are black, they have been trapped within the lowest rungs of the society; because they occupy this position, they are society’s first victims at every turn.

For the black workers and other poor layers of the black population, the fight against racial oppression cannot be separated from the fight against capitalist exploitation. For them, there is no separation between racial oppression and capitalist exploitation, which are intertwined and nourish each other.

The Role of the Black Democrats

As representatives of the black community, as leaders of the struggle against racism, the black politicians speak in the name of all black people. But as Democrats holding positions in the system, they act like the other bourgeois politicians, that is, as defenders of a system which weighs on the poor and the working class. They oppose the interests of the black poor and the black workers, just as they oppose the whole working class, black and white. At the same time, they bring the black masses into the fold of the Democratic Party, helping to raise or maintain their illusions that change is possible within the electoral system.

Take the example of Harold Washington, the current mayor of Chicago, who plays on the feelings of the black population. He says they have to vote for him in order to defeat racism, which his white opponent encourages. In this way he tries to assure his reelection. It is also a way to focus the concerns of black people on the elections in a city where the situation for the poor has not changed under his administration, where the workers and poor have faced cuts in social services, where ten per cent of the municipal workers have been laid off, where public housing has been left to deteriorate ... while the wealthy of Chicago’s Gold Coast have fared very well. It all comes down to keeping the votes and the hopes of black people resting on the Democratic Party in a city which has been dominated for decades by this same Democratic Party. Yet Chicago remains, even with a black mayor, one of the cities in which segregated housing patterns and levels of racial discrimination are among the highest in the United States.

It is precisely on this latter situation that Washington plays. He tries to cover over the attacks he has made on the poor black population by claiming that he is prevented from doing otherwise because of what the prior administration (Democratic, as he himself is) did. He claims those who dominate the City Council (also Democrats) block what he wants to do.

On the national level, Jesse Jackson plays a similar role. By presenting himself as the presidential candidate of the minorities, he assures himself a place in the political establishment. He also resuscitates the hopes and illusions of a number of black people, a great many of whom had started to turn their backs on the Democratic Party and on the American political system as a whole.

Once in office, all these politicians have shown what interests they really represent and defend. While Jackson has escaped tarnishing his image up until now by not having been in office, the examples have continued to multiply over this last decade.

Last year, in both Detroit and Philadelphia, black mayors forced concessionary contracts on the workers, most of whom were black, and then tried to break strikes when workers resisted. In Atlanta, the base of many leaders of the Forsyth march, the same thing happened in 1977, under Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson. Shortly after he took office thanks in part to the support of black workers he fired 900 black sanitation workers when they went out on strike against a proposed new contract.

These black Democrats have helped to impose concessions on other workers also. In Detroit, where the majority of the population and of the working class is black, Coleman Young used the weight of his office against workers to help get concessions for the auto companies, all in the name of saving the city for everyone. Young played the key role in pushing through the removal of some 10,000 working class people half of whom were black as well as many thousands of jobs from an area of the city that General Motors wanted for a new factory. And he now proposes to do the same thing for Chrysler. In Atlanta, the city administration, which said there were not sufficient funds for the workers or for the poor, nonetheless managed to subsidize the Peach Tree complex for the big real estate investors.

We have seen these black politicians also direct the forces of order against the population. In 1985, Mayor Wilson Goode of Philadelphia ordered the delivery of an aerial incendiary bomb on a house where members of MOVE, a marginal black sect, lived. The resulting fire killed eleven people inside and burnt down a whole black working class neighborhood in the process.

Those who function as part of the state apparatus, be they black or white, have a job to do. That job is to make the system work by maintaining order, the class order underlying capitalist exploitation.

A By-Product of the Movement of the Sixties

The example of Detroit illustrates clearly how the black movement of the 1960s produced an important layer of the black petty bourgeoisie which was integrated into the political establishment, usually around the Democratic Party. Some of these people had come from the movement itself.

Coleman Young, the current mayor of Detroit, rode into office in 1973 on the strength of the black movement, after the massive 1967 rebellion in the city. The city administration, which was white, was unable during these years to maintain its control. The use of the police, who were also predominantly white, against the population, and especially the use of a special police force group called STRESS, provoked the black community, even in some cases to an armed reaction. And it did nothing to bring the situation back under control. Young came into office on the promise to hold the police in check. After taking office, he appointed a black police chief and did away with the hated STRESS force. The credit Young gained by such changes gave him the means to play a role in cooling the black revolt. He was able in 1974 to go into the streets, using his personal prestige to quench the flames of a new riot which had sprung up after a racist killing.

Over the years, Young has used his prestige, which has been waning recently, to impose a permanent curfew on young people, to justify police brutality, and to impose steadily deteriorating living conditions on the city’s residents. Today Young continues to head a city with a new STRESS-type special forces unit, but one run by a black chief of police with many black officers.

In Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s there were a number of radial nationalist lawyers, the most important of whom was Kenneth Cockrell. Cockrell made his reputation by successfully defending a number of people whose cases in ordinary times might have resulted in convictions. The most famous of these was Hayward Brown, who was brought to trial thirteen different times on different charges, because he had killed several cops when he and others were campaigning against dope in the black community. His case was representative of the time, of a situation when the black population was protesting its conditions and was ready to fight back in the streets. Brown was acquitted each time by juries which finally included black people as their majority. Cockrell used the fame these cases gave him to call on people to transform the city council and the courts, by electing him and his allies, as if this would defend their interests. Today this council and the judicial system, both predominantly black, defend the class system just as before.

In Detroit, at the same time period, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers played an important role in organizing and leading fights of black workers who had gained real access to the auto industry only after the riot of 1967. The League carried on a fight against racism in both the workplace and in the union. But with what goals? As part of a response to the anger of black workers who were subjected daily to the racist attitudes of white foremen, the League successfully pushed management to integrate its ranks. The League carried on fights to open up the unions for black representatives as well.

Today, the plants and offices of Detroit are filled with black frontline supervisors, including some people from the League who took positions they had helped to open up. The black supervisors do their duty just like anyone else, pushing the current horrifying speedup on the whole work force, black and white.

The local union structures are filled with black representatives and officers as well, including some former members of the League here, too. But once inside the union apparatus, what different policy did these people have to propose to the workers? In many cases, the black bureaucrats are now used as front men to justify the concessions the UAW is helping to impose on a work force which in Detroit is predominantly black. Some of those once in the League now occupy positions in the union, but for the mass of black workers, things remain the same.

All of these people, from the elected officials and lawyers to the supervisors and union officials, have a kind of double stance in relation to the black masses. On the one hand they appear as the representatives of the black population confronting the common problems they face as black people in a racist society. They use their militant past, or, if not that, at least the fact that they are black, to argue to the black masses that the way for black people to fight is to put them in positions of influence and power. But the very fact of being integrated into the structures of bourgeois society and having roles to play to maintain those structures, brings them in opposition to the black masses when the problems at hand are those embedded in class exploitation.

What took place with the black movement of the 1950s and 1960s is in many ways analogous to what happened to the workers movement of the 1930s. In both situations, powerful movements coming out of the popular layers in society, determined enough to stand up to the state, and even in some ways questioning the right of those who ruled to rule, nonetheless did not put an end to the bourgeois domination of society. Those movements ended up being channeled back within the confines of bourgeois society and then halted.

The policies of the American bourgeoisie confronting these two movements were similar. The American bourgeoisie used the wealth it possessed as the head of the richest imperialism in the world to concede new gains to the population, or at least to those sections of it which were mobilized. It accepted unionization of the unskilled in the 1930s, and it removed the barriers of legal segregation in the 1960s. As a result of the black movement, a part of the black working class gained industrial jobs for the first time, and new possibilities opened to the black petty bourgeoisie. At the same time, the bourgeoisie co-opted many of the leaders of these movements or at least those who were not fired, imprisoned or killed making them the official cadres of this society, integrating them into its political system and into its state apparatus. Out of the black movement, the bourgeoisie fostered the growth of a layer of black politicians to play the role the trade union bureaucracy played in relation to the workers’ movement: that is, to be the means by which the movement was channeled safely back within the confines of the existing social order.

A Caricature of the Sixties

Today, some black politicians, speaking as the representatives of the interests of all black people, call for another civil rights movement. Today, two decades after the civil rights movement largely accomplished its goals to overcome legal segregation and legal discrimination, such a proposal has a very different meaning than did the movement in the past, whatever the limits of that movement. In fact, what is proposed by those who make references to the civil rights movements is a caricature of that movement. Symbolic of this is the proposal by Benjamin Chavis, Jr. (a well-known black activist who was imprisoned for his anti-segregationist activities in the South) to organize a “reverse freedom ride” from the South to Chicago in order to support Washington’s candidacy. Proposals like this only serve to tie the black masses more strongly to the Democratic Party.

Symbolic marches, like those in Forsyth or in New York, are not like the battles that some of these same politicians may have found themselves at the head of in the 1960s when the black masses took to the streets in anger. Politicians like Andrew Young and Hosea Williams always opposed a real mobilization of the workers and the poor. They were the ones who argued for the movement to keep within its legalistic bounds. They were the ones who tried to convince the black masses not to go into the streets in the mid to late 1960s; that is, they opposed the very aspect of the movement which brought the American ruling class finally to get rid of legal segregation. Even before such a mobilization appears today, these black politicians fear it, because it holds the potential to get beyond their control and to threaten their positions. For this reason, in Forsyth they were concerned to keep the march contained and under their order; the presence of 3,000 troops served a double-edged purpose.

It is not an accident that these proposals are being made by people who today are thoroughly integrated within the political structures of this system. They would try to use any struggle of the black masses to further essentially the interests of the black petty bourgeoisie, to give themselves a push further up the social ladder of this society: that is, further separated from the mass of the black population who face only a deterioration of their lives.

When a new black struggle develops, when the black workers and poor want to fight against every aspect of their oppression, it is essential that their fight not fall under the leadership of the black petty bourgeoisie. It is necessary for the black masses to break with those politicians who would tie them to the Democratic Party, or some other bourgeois political formation, who would limit their struggle within the confines of class society.

The black masses will need to build up their own independent class organization; one that can give expression to and lead a fight for the interests of the black workers and poor; one that links the fight against racial oppression with the fight against the exploitation that weighs heavily on the black masses.

One of the results of the black struggle was to bring black workers in big numbers into the very core of modern industry, into the large factories, into the big industrial cities. This position in production gives black workers a real force. It can give them a base of power from which they could pull behind them the rest of the working class in a battle that could overcome the limits of both the 1960s and the 1930s.

If the changes brought about in the past twenty years have given new possibilities to the black petty bourgeoisie, they have also done the same for the black working class.

Reprinted from Class Struggle #8

April 1987