C.L.R. James 1949

Road Ahead in Negro Struggle

Source: Fourth International, Vol.X No.6, June 1949, pp. 175-180, signed J. Meyer [C.L.R. James];
Transcribed: by Daniel Gaido.

In the April issue of Fourth International, we pointed out that the Truman administration had made an important shift in its attitude toward the Negro question. It had taken over from the radical movement the denunciation of Jim Crow. It had set out seriously to find a political base among the Negro intelligentsia – the “Talented Tenth.” The capitulation of the Democratic Party on civil rights will not weaken, but will strengthen the drive to convert the “Talented Tenth” into stooges of the Truman administration and American capitalism. This policy is a maneuver of the administration but, as we stated in the first article. It is not a mere maneuver. It has deep roots in the past history of the country and in the developing class conflicts, in the United States and the world at large.

Anyone who followed the details of the filibuster fiasco could not fail to have been struck by the hysterical conduct of Walter White, secretary of the NAACP. On the other hand, no less marked was the placid attitude of Lester Granger, executive secretary of the Urban League. Like the gesture of the administration toward social equality, these attitudes and the politics they represent were but reflections in the leadership of transformations which are taking place in the Urban League and the NAACP. They are the direct result of rapidly developing class forces and conflicts in the United States.

At a moment like this it is imperative to bear in mind the historical perspective. It must never be forgotten that the initial force which prepared the ground for the projection of Negro rights into the social and political life of the country was the proletariat through the organization of the CIO. It did this in two ways. First by the mere organization of this mighty movement of the working class, the proletariat struck such a blow at a bankrupt social system that it precipitated struggles in every section of the oppressed population. But more specifically the CIO itself undertook campaigns from above and from below to win the confidence of Negro workers in industry.

In Cayton and Mitchell’s Black Workers and the New Unions can be read the epic story of, for example, the organization of the steel union. Here is one incident taken from an organizer’s report:

“... held a couple of bingo games and a dance all of which Negroes attended in force with their ladies. At the dance, held in the lower section of the city near the Negro district, there were no restrictions. Dancing was mixed, racially and sexually, Whites with Negro partners. I danced with a Negro girl myself. Negroes enjoyed themselves immensely and there were no kicks from the whites. This lodge will soon have a picnic which will also be mixed.”

From their side Negro petty-bourgeois leaders and advanced Negro workers also took the initiative. Thus was accomplished the greatest work for the righting of wrongs to the Negro since the Civil War. Cayton and Mitchell are categorical:

“There is no doubt that the national officers of the unions were disinclined to make a serious effort to include Negroes in all of the union locals. (But) it is evident that the rank and file members of the union attempted to cope with the situation in a courageous and straightforward fashion ... seldom in the history of the American labor movement has there been a more genuine and straightforward attempt by white workers to join bands with Negroes in spite of the supineness of their national officers.” (p.189.)

Together black and white workers inscribed a radical policy of non-discrimination against Negroes into the program and perspectives of the CIO.

But, though progress has been made far exceeding that in any other section of the population, the CIO leadership has not carried out its promises. The Negroes themselves waited for a few years but from 1940 onward, with the March on Washington Committee, they have engaged in a series of magnificent struggles on their own initiative which hake lifted their cause to the central position it now occupies in national politics.

Reinspiring this movement within the USA has been the demagogic propaganda for democracy which the American bourgeoisie was compelled to undertake in order to whip up support for its conflict with German imperialism. The “cold war” with Russia has not lessened but increased this demagogy so dangerous to its proponents. The Negro question is an ulcer in the American internal organization which makes American bourgeois society vulnerable not only at home but over the five continents. When Wallace fastened upon the Negro question, the Truman administration realized that a new step was necessary. Roosevelt’s platitudes and Mrs. Roosevelt’s hand-shaking would no longer suffice.

But behind this projection of the Negro question into the very forefront of national politics and international propaganda is a national awakening of tremendous sweep and scope.

During the past, decade a series of writings on the Negro question by Richard Wright, Lillian Smith, Gunnar Myrdal and others has taken the country by storm. The liberal white petty bourgeoisie is mobilizing itself on the Negro question more than on all other social and political questions.

The roots of this go very deep into the past. Between 1830 and the opening of the Civil War, the petty bourgeoisie in the United States underwent a ferment on education, prison reform, women’s rights, prohibition, and other good causes until finally its best forces concentrated on abolition of slavery. Today it is baffled by the perpetual threat of war; it is unable to orient itself clearly on issues such as the Taft-Hartley Act, which poses the problems of class conflict in their sharpest form; it is torn between its desire to defend democratic rights and the treacherous use of the concept of democracy by the Stalinists. But in civil rights for Negroes, the petty bourgeoisie sees one issue which is transparently clear. Here, it thinks, something can be done.

Today students on campuses all over the country from Texas to Maine are alive on the Negro question. Bryn Mawr and Vassar declare that they cordially invite Negro students. Howard University, Yale and Smith exchange social visits of men and women students over week-ends. The student council of Rutgers recommended that any honorary fraternity which practices discrimination be barred from the campus. The students at City College, New York, carried out a militant strike against anti-Semitic and anti-Negro members of the staff. Students at Pennsylvania State College threw picket lines around the town’s six barber shops to secure haircuts for Negro students. Many Southern university white students deride the ridiculous regulations which segregate Negroes.

Activity of Middle-Class Liberals

Equally striking is the growth of new organizations and the militancy of old ones. We can mention only a few.

The Bureau for Intercultural Education, an organization of some years’ standing, has successfully fought segregation in the schools of its home town, Gary, Indiana, the scene of painful demonstrations by white children against Negro children in 1945. It has branched out in Philadelphia, Westchester County, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Detroit.

On March 29th in Nassau County, Long Island, 1300 women jammed an auditorium to hear Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt speak on what could be done in Long Island communities to erase racial and religious prejudice. The press report vividly recalls similar meetings in the decades before 1861.

The YWCA at their National Convention in San Francisco in March made a serious attempt to integrate Negroes into the organization “as never before.” Leo B. Marsh, spokesman for the program service staff of the Young Men’s Christian’s Association, has issued a program which would “revolutionize” the YMCA attitude toward Negroes.

Father Charles Carow, after fighting alone for three years in the American Bowling Congress against the exclusion of Negroes, has seen the fight reach a stage at Atlantic City this year where he says he can now leave it to the membership.

The South is not immune. Petty-bourgeois organizations of all kinds on Negro discrimination have sprung up with recent years. A “Legislative Assembly to End Discrimination and Segregation,” under the sponsorship of Americans for Democratic Action, held a two-day “off-the-record” session in Washington at the end of February, with 1,200 delegates from 28 states.

It would be a grievous error not to recognize in all this a powerful and sincere response to a long-standing and shameful social evil. It is by such stages that classes respond to the deepening social crisis. But the petty bourgeoisie is not homogeneous. It has no political method of its own but borrows either from the bourgeoisie ck the proletariat. Unless the working class intervenes decisively, a petty-bourgeois upsurge from the very beginning provides an opportunity for ambitious demagogues and more far-seeing representatives of capitalism recognize the danger of allowing these movements to get into the hands of revolutionary Marxists.

This is precisely what is happening.

Fifty prominent Americans, including Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Bishop G. Bromley Oxman, John Dewey and Pearl Buck, called upon the President to carry out the recommendations of his own Civil Rights Commission. Another group visited the President with a similar project. It included Herbert Bayard Swope and General Patterson, one of the highest ranking officials in the War Department during the war. Algernon Black of the Ethical Culture Society has organized a New York State Committee on Discrimination in Housing.

Mrs. Gardner Cowles, the Associate Editor of Look, accepts the chairmanship of the permanent Women’s Division of the Urban League Fund with the statement that she proposes to “harness ... professional women everywhere” to the drive. Perhaps the most significant aspect in the leadership of this whole nationwide movement is the role being played by Jewish organizations and the Catholic Church. The figure who symbolizes the politics of this stratum is Mrs. Roosevelt who does not hesitate to say that righting of Negro wrongs is in the forefront of the battle against communism at home and abroad.

When the Negro Levi Jackson was appointed captain of Yale’s football team, the press hailed the event as if it were a second emancipation proclamation. Life did a picture-story on students at Howard, the Negro university. It commented on the similarity of attitude between the students at Howard and those at Yale. Presumably until the visit, Life believed or expected its readers to believe that Howard students had affinities with Atlanta and Sing-Sing. As for the films, no less than five pictures on the Negro question are now being made in Hollywood.

So, when Hubert Humphrey forced the civil rights plank into the Democratic platform last summer, when the Truman administration and General Motors and Dupont make gestures to the Negro intelligentsia, these are not incidental actions but expressions of changing social forces.

This kind of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois political leadership is primarily concerned not with the Negro masses but with the Negro petty bourgeoisie. Let us observe the procedure of one of these Negro leaders, Lester Granger, executive secretary of the Urban League, during the recent filibuster. Early in February Granger informed the people of Los Angeles of the great progress that was being made in Negro-white relations in the country, particularly in the navy. He serves in a committee for the integration of Negroes into the navy and was able to report that now there were five Negro commissioned officers in that branch of the service.

When on March 1st several Negro organizations condemned the flagrant discrimination of the New York Board of Regents and opposed the proposal to transfer administrative control of the State University to this body, Granger said that the Urban League had not condemned the proposed transfer because “assurances from the Board ... that the wants of minority groups will not be neglected will diminish anxieties.”

The Best of All Possible Worlds – for Granger

Granger reported on February 20th at the annual meeting of the Urban League in Detroit that there had been an increase in the number of people in the South who wanted bad conditions corrected. The situation in the South was made worse by the “scarcity” of good Housing. There just weren’t houses to go around. He had good words for the International Harvester Company in Memphis and the Ford Motor Company in Atlanta for hiring, upgrading and training Negro workers.

Nothing is more typical than his attitude toward the struggle over the filibuster. Senator Brooks Hays of Arkansas offered a compromise which amounted to little more than leaving the righting of Negro wrongs to the South. Granger described Brooks Hays as a scholar and a gentleman and a true statesman on the Negro question. He was the founder of the Urban League branch in Little Rock, Arkansas. The problem was whether the Negro leaders had the courage to accept statesmanship of the type exhibited by Brooks Hays.

One of his fellow-columnists in the Amsterdam News denounced the Urban League as being in the hands of conservative whites. Granger tolerantly invited him not to stay outside and talk but to join the organization. But Granger felt the sting of the charge that the Urban League was not concerned with the Negro masses. On April 30, he came back to the charge.

Mass action, he proved, was impossible. No such thing could exist. “The concept of ‘mass action’ by a group so diverse and split in so many ways as is our American Negro population-that concept is spurious.” Some Negroes are businessmen, but businessmen are divided into successful businessmen and some who have the hope of being successful. (He leaves out those who are, not successful, those who have no hope of being successful, and, in these psychoanalytic days; those who hope not to be successful.) He gives a few more classifications and then concludes “... the list of variations and diversities could be extended indefinitely ...” Therefore he asks: “How then is anyone going to make an appeal to ‘the Negro masses’?” All this is taking place while the eyes of the country are fastened upon the struggle in Congress.

Inasmuch as there are no Negro masses to appeal to he has turned instead to white capitalists. In the April article, we showed that the Urban League is now the intermediary between General Motors, American Tel. and Tel., General Electric, Dupont, and the Negro intelligentsia, selected members of whom are being placed in unsegregated white-collar jobs.

A few months ago the Urban League in New York gave a great fund-raising ball at which Winthrop Rockefeller and party turned up with one of the best of the Life photographers. Rockefeller is a Republican. A few weeks later another fund-raising party for the Urban League took place, this time at the house of Mayor O’Dwyer, the Democrat. Mrs. Gardner Cowles was present with some of the “professional women”; among the participants was a Vanderbilt. The Urban League has found its place. It is the direct agent of the big bourgeoisie among the Negro people.

Walter White Attacks – With Phone Messages

Very different was the picture presented by Walter White during the same period. When “the fight” began, we were informed by the press, White moved into Washington to be on the spot. So a great general leaves General Headquarters and goes into the front line where the battle is being decided.

In his column in the Chicago Defender, White tells us how at the crucial moment in “the fight” 57 “key persons” from various parts of the country responded to the call of the NAACP and came to “buttonhole senators.” Again during “the most crucial stages” of “the fight,” it was inoperative to telephone to “key persons” to let them know how their senators were betraying the cause. You get the impression of White personally telephoning to hundreds of “key people” all over the country. Finally White bitterly upbraided the treachery of the high command of the Democratic Party, the climax being a ferocious quarrel with McGrath, Democratic national chairman.

The frenzy of White is due first to the fact that the NAACP is a mass organization whose membership runs into the hundreds of thousands. It can be divided into two groups-the South and outside the South. In the South it is a militant organization. Countless daily actions of resistance, defiance and heroism are carried out by Southern Negroes under the banner of the NAACP, while its legal division has been winning cases giving Negroes the right to vote, Negro veterans with pistols at their sides organize and lead the voters to the booths and stand there to protect them.

But outside the South the NAACP, under the leadership of Negro lawyers, doctors, undertakers, teachers and the rest who ran it in the old days is now outmoded in many areas. In Detroit, for example, where there are nearly 50,000 members on the books, not one monthly membership meeting was held during the whole of 1948.

These organizations do little or nothing because, owing to the shift in class relations in the Negro community and the high tension over Negro rights, if they attempted to do anything serious to carry on mass activity they would be overwhelmed by the Negro masses. The dominant social force in the Negro community of Detroit, for instance, is the Negro workers. Politically it is more sophisticated than the petty bourgeoisie-after years of experience in the caucuses of the unions the Negro workers understand more about politics than the petty bourgeoisie. There is the main basis for a militant mass organization above the Mason and Dixon line. But the national leadership is terrified of the perspective of mass organization and mass action. They are afraid of the masses and afraid of the Stalinists, although class-collaboration methods are by no means unacceptable to the latter.

White therefore put everything the organization had into lobbying, which is the traditional method of the NAACP. He failed miserably. He now has to face the NAACP convention in July at Los Angeles which must take stock of the bankruptcy of maneuvering with capitalist politicians. In this critical situation the Stalinists are moving in, and such have been their successes that the NAACP, organ, Crisis, has published and reissued in leaflet form a special warning to the NAACP membership.

There is however one apparent road out for the NAACP leadership-collaboration with the labor bureaucracy. In Detroit, Walter Reuther and his machine maintain close relations with the titular functionaries and leaders of Negro organizations, Negroes are incorporated into his bureaucracy as a matter of policy. Reuther and Philip Murray are on the national board of the NAACP. But its desertion of the fight against the filibuster demonstrated how unreliable an ally the labor bureaucracy is. Enmeshed in the machinery of the capitalist government and servile to capitalist politics, the top brass of the unions can be counted on for little more than lip-service in the struggle for civil rights.

A close alliance with the labor movement is a prerequisite for any real progress toward complete emancipation of the Negro people. To be effective, however, this alliance must be based on a program of mass action and independent working-class politics-that is upon a program diametrically opposed to the philosophy and politics of the trade union bureaucracy.

Fundamental Re-evaluation Necessary

At this moment it is necessary for the masses of the Negro people, as well as those who propose to lead them, above all to examine the past ruthlessly as the first step toward any new efforts. It should be obvious that a new stage has been reached. The old type of politics which suited the activity of the NAACP during the last ten years is a complete failure. The masses of the people are trying to reorient themselves. All are asking: what to do next? What fundamental changes are necessary for the development of a struggle that will not end fn the catastrophic and demoralizing results we have seen in the 81st Congress?

We must begin by taking a historical view, for both the past and the future of the United States are symbolized in the stage now reached in the struggle for Negro rights. The bourgeoisie is very well aware of the fact that all the social forces of the nation are involved, North and South.

Jonathan Daniels, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, and National Democratic Committeeman for North Carolina, has recently given unimpeachable evidence of what is taking place in the South.

“Thoughtful Southerners,” he writes, “now that even though reactionaries and old guard forces gain control here and there in the South, they are sitting on an explosive situation. The South is seething below the lid and a great liberal leadership will come out of the South.”

His perspectives are absurd, a great liberal leadership can come from nowhere except out of the grave. But in his recognition of the fact that the country is once more in the throes of a crisis similar to that of the Civil War, this southerner is perfectly right.

We can learn something by looking at today in the light of yesterday. In 1836-1860 it was the petty bourgeoisie which took the lead in the social regeneration of the country. In the last crucial decade, 1850-1860, it fought militant struggles and it battled over the return of fugitive slaves.

Individual states passed laws refusing to accept the compromises worked out in and out of Congress between the merchants of the North and the planters of the South. But even then, where so large a section of the petty bourgeoisie was radicalized in its own right, the battle for revolutionary and not reformist politics had to be fought.

It was fought by the Abolitionist movement. This movement had its origin in the slave rebellions in the South; it was sustained and kept on the revolutionary road by the free Negroes in the North and the escaped slaves; by great propagandists like Frederick Douglass; activists like Harriet Tubman and thousands of nameless ones who braved the dangers of escape; by men like Wendell Phillips, Garrett Smith and John Brown, men who would not compromise with the existing social order. They fought all attempts to turn the idealism of the petty bourgeoisie into channels of compromise and adaptation to purely parliamentary politics and maneuver.

A Historical Parallel and Its Lessons

Today nearly a century after, the size, social weight and importance of the classes and their political representatives re far different from what they were, but in their origins, their past and their growth we can see the broad outlines of contemporary policy. Today the petty-bourgeois upsurge has been the consequence not the cause of the intervention of the proletariat. The petty-bourgeois committees and organizations, YMCA, YWCA, the Jewish Congress, the Catholic organizations, the labor leadership, the demagogy of the Democratic left wing, their collaboration with the labor leadership, all are at substituting themselves for militant proletarian struggle, at deflecting the petty-bourgeois masses and subordinating them to the politics of Truman and Humphrey. The fiasco of the 81st Congress on civil rights shows where that leads. The choice between the fat contented purrs of Granger and the screeches and howls of protest of White is no choice at all.

The militant Negro workers, the Negro petty-bourgeois intellectuals, the labor militants, the revolutionary Marxists have their task clear-cut before them. It is to perform in the twentieth century the task that the Abolitionists performed in the nineteenth-to struggle for a correct program of action and to prevent the revolutionary forces from being corrupted by reaction.

In the nineteenth century the petty bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class. Today it is the proletariat. If the Negro people in the North today are so developed that the bourgeoisie can find a caste, exemplified by Granger and White to do its work, on the other hand the Negro mass movement is infinitely more powerful today than it was before the Civil War.

If the mass of Negroes in the South before the Civil War, despite their handicaps could exercise so powerful an influence upon national politics, today, increasingly organized with white workers in the labor movement, they are a source of inexhaustible strength and inspiration to the struggle for civil rights.

If in the period of the Civil War, the interests of the Northern proletariat were only indirectly concerned with the defeat of the Southern slave-owners, today the proletariat is a national force, and the struggle for Negro civil rights is already quite obviously but one engagement in the great battle between labor and capital for the future of American society. By militant struggle for Negro rights, those who aspire to lead the Negro masses can play a powerful role in national politics. They can defeat the Stalinists and their perpetual attempts to use Negro wrongs for their own corrupt purposes.

A Strategy That Will Be Decisive

But to do this they must know where they stand, must orient themselves in relation to the class forces as they are today. With such an orientation the existing Negro organizations can have a great future before them. They can lend the struggle for Negro equality and win it in action; they can expose those who are seeking to corrupt the progressive impulses of the petty bourgeoisie, and best of all, they can stimulate the proletariat to enter upon the scene once more and resume the struggle on a far higher plane than in the great days of the CIO to which we referred earlier.

Once the strategic line is clear, tactics and concrete policy will not be difficult to work out. And that general strategic line must be: to fight the compromisers at all times without mercy; to bring the case above all before the workers, the fundamental revolutionary force of the nation; to adopt the methods of that social class which from its very position in society must carry the struggle through to the end: to win the collaboration of the most advanced elements in the country by militant mass struggle. The mere proposal to march on Washington in 1940 did more than all the mighty efforts to elect Truman and the frenzied lobbying of Walter White. We have to do in regard to the great masses of the people and organized labor what the Abolitionists, what Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips did in relation to the middle class a hundred years ago in their struggle for the defeat of slavery and the transformation of the nation.

That is the task. All the energy, activity and sacrifices which will now be proposed as a cover-up for the failure of the efforts of the last ten years will end in a still more disastrous failure unless a strenuous effort is made to take a fundamental position that corresponds to the realities of the Negro struggle in the politics of the country today. Without this we are doomed to the spoon-fed tail-wagging of a Granger or the futile yelps of Walter White against the kicks of an arrogant master.


Last updated on: 11 April 2009