As the U.S. government celebrates black history month this February, the bosses’ media are painting Barack Obama’s presidency as the positive legacy of a pacifist civil rights movement. But the real history of the civil rights era is militant black workers rebelling, often violently, against racism.
This is the history of the international working class that the Progressive Labor Party celebrates every day in our fight to smash capitalism — the system that gave birth to racism and continues to profit from it.
The many gains of the civil rights era — the end of legal race segregation, free breakfast programs, jobs for blacks, affirmative action — were concessions won by militant, mass working-class struggle. The civil rights movement involved thousands of black workers heroically putting their lives on the line. Many, many were killed in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and throughout the South in the fight against racism. While the movement also involved whites, including some who died, the opening of freedom schools, marching against segregation, integrating lunch counters and other struggles brought the full force of the racist system down on those black workers who stood up and fought.
Obama is part of King’s legacy of misleading working-class anti-racists into the dead end of supporting the bosses’ politicians and laws. There was tremendous political struggle within the anti-racist movement in the 1960’s. At the famous 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom where King gave his “I have a dream” speech, King and other march organizers toned down a student’s speech attacking Kennedy, the Democrats, and the Civil Rights bill itself for failing to address police brutality, racist unemployment, and low wages.
This militancy wasn’t only, or even mainly, inside the organized movement. In 1965, police harassment of a black man sparked an anti-racist rebellion in Watts, California. King went to Watts and supported the armed cops and National Guard troops, while urging rebels to be peaceful. When his pacifism was rejected, King phoned President Lyndon Johnson (who had sent him to Watts) complaining about “all of these tones of violence from people out there in the Watts” (New York Times, 05/14/02). King’s last campaign to support 1,200 striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in the spring of 1968 is supposedly his most radical. But King fled the March 28th protest when a group of demonstrators, frustrated with pacifist leadership, smashed downtown store windows.
Black Workers’ Armed Struggle
Black workers’ militant and sometimes armed struggle won the victories that are credited to King. In 1964, the Louisiana-based Deacons for Defense emerged as an armed organization to defend non-violent civil rights workers and spread to 23 communities across the south. Their actions helped win integration battles and fight off racist terror from the police, the Ku Klux Klan, and racist white mobs (“The Deacons for Defense,” Lance Hill, 2004).
Then, in June 1964, the first mass big-city rebellion erupted in New York City’s Harlem when masses of black workers and youth took to the streets to protest a police murder of a black teenager. They marched through Harlem’s streets, displaying the front page of CHALLENGE as their “flag.” PLM (Progressive Labor Movement, forerunner of PLP) was the only organization to support the rebellion — all the reformist black leaders and the “Communist Party” tried to cool the rebels and attacked PLM. The latter was barred from Harlem but defied the ban and held a mass demonstration, which sent several in PLM to jail. This rebellion laid the basis for many to follow, including in Newark, NJ in 1967.
The Detroit rebellion of 1967 — sparked by police harassment of a party for returning black Vietnam veterans and suppressed by 82nd Airborne troops diverted from Vietnam — led directly to 10,000 jobs in the auto industry for black workers.
When King was assassinated in 1968, anti-racist rebellions flared up in hundreds of U.S. cities. These rebellions led to an increase in jobs for blacks, especially in the public sector, although unemployment and underemployment remained (and remains) higher for black workers than for white.
Black Politicians Have Never Served the Working Class
The U.S. bosses want us to focus on political victories for black politicians (like Obama) but these black bosses are part of the same racist ruling class that is responsible for the reversal of the civil rights gains and the racist conditions today.
Despite decades of black, Latino, and Native American mayors, governors and lawmakers, racism thrives by every indicator — higher incarceration rates, lower wages, more unemployment, higher home foreclosure rates, less access to health care and fewer education opportunities for black, Latino and Native American workers. Over and over cops get away with racist terror — such as the murders of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California and Sean Bell in Queens, New York — while Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton urge us to be peaceful and seek victory in courts that acquit or slap cops on the wrist.
Like King, Obama can only offer empty hope and promises. His role is to win anti-racists to support the racist ruling class.
In referring to the “muslim world” as a “clenched fist” Obama uses anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism to win U.S. workers to support oil wars in Afghanistan and continued occupation in Iraq, which have killed over one million Iraqis since 2003. (Opinion Research Business, Feb 2008). Obama constantly draws inspiration from racist slave-owning founding fathers who systematically committed genocide against Native Americans to increase their profits.
Obama will not wage the battle against racism. So, just as workers in the ‘60s did not rely on a servant of the ruling class to wage their battles, we can’t rely on the current servant to wage ours.
The gains won by our class in the ‘60s have been reversed. Those good-paying auto industry jobs won by black workers in Detroit have vanished. The mass anti-racist rebellions were good, but the crumbs given our class in response have been taken back. The fight against racism must take place within the context of fighting for communist revolution, the only outcome where workers can win power and establish a world free of capitalism and its racism.