George Rawick

The American Negro Movement

(Spring 1964)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.16, Spring 1964, pp.16-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

1. American Crisis

A powerful force began to be felt in the world, the power of the Negro people in the United States, when, in the nineteen-fifties, a new movement against segregation and discrimination started in such places as Montgomery, Alabama, Tallahassee, Florida, Fayetteville, Tennessee, Albany, Georgia, and Monroe, North Carolina. And since May of 1963 when the movement entered the streets of modern society, into the industrial city of Birmingham, Alabama, everyone in the United States became aware that something new was occurring.

When in May in Birmingham, the entire Negro working class of this steel-producing city burst into dramatic conflict with ‘Bull’ O’Conner’s stormtroopers defending American apartheid; when in June, a quarter of a million people, most of them Negroes, took over downtown Detroit for a massive demonstration demanding ‘jobs and equality’ and where the Negro leaders attacked even the liberal labour bureaucrat Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers Union for being too moderate [1]; when in July, the Negro workers of New York and Boston and Philadelphia challenged the right of white bosses and of white-controlled unions and of white workers to deny them equal job rights; when in August school authorities and administrators of Chicago were challenged by demonstrators demanding school integration in the north as well as the south; and when on 28 August, way over 300,000 people demonstrated in Washington, DC for ‘Jobs and Freedom’ [2], the whole world knew that something startling and monumental was happening. When President Kennedy was murdered, despite all the feeble efforts of the Dallas police and the American ruling class to place the blame somehow on Fidel Castro’s ‘insane supporters’ and therefore draw attention away from the crisis in American society, everyone throughout the world knew that this was an event that was connected somehow with the events in Montgomery and Albany, in Monroe and Tallahassee, in Birmingham, in Detroit, in New York, in Boston, in Philadelphia, in Chicago, and Washington, DC. This murder of a king occurred with almost an inexorable reality for it was only another sign that the times were out of joint, that crisis was upon the land.

This new urban working-class Negro movement has come about as a result of a major change in American life. There are slightly more than nineteen million Negroes in the United States out of a total population of approximately 185 millions, or approximately 10.5 per cent of the population. Almost seventy-five per cent are today urban dwellers as over against twenty-two per cent in 1900. Moreover, in 1900, 90 per cent of the Negroes in the United States lived in the South. By 1963, only 58 per cent were still in the South and the majority of them were in towns and cities. Almost all rural Negroes today live in the South; in the North the Negro is everywhere the typical inhabitant of the largest cities. [3]

The struggle that has emerged from this new social relationship is not a struggle simply of a racial minority demanding civil rights. The problems that the urban Negro faces are, in fact, no different in kind, but only in degree, than those faced by white workers. Slums and squalor, poverty and exploitation, ignorance, fear, and unemployment, juvenile delinquency, family disorganisation, and a higher rate of mental illness than displayed by the middle classes, inadequate education, sanitation, and medical care, are the common lot not only of the fifty million American poor, white, Negro, American Indian, and Mexican, but of many millions more who live on the fringe of the poor, always fearful of being thrown down deeper into the pit of poverty. Indeed, the Negro movement and the new awareness of poverty in America have come together, and they both coincide with the increasing evidence that American capitalism is unable to maintain full employment, that the tendency for the rate of profit to decline has reasserted itself. This current Negro movement is one that is involved with every aspect of American capitalist society and at the same time is the vanguard of the forces that are pushing forward in that society, of the forces of an emerging new society. It directly challenges American capitalism at many points, being directly involved with jobs and automation, poverty and income distribution, production and who shall control production. It challenges American foreign policy in many different ways – from its tendency to identify with the African revolution to its readiness to understand the imperialist nature of American capitalism.

And it challenges official American society in that the Negro masses do not believe the myths and shibboleths of American capitalism, most particularly its central claims of ‘equality of opportunity’, ‘equal justice for all under law’, and ‘the highest standard of living in the world.’ These myths have absolutely no reality for the Negro people.

The grinding poverty, unredeemed by the welfare state – there is hardly anything that can be called the welfare state in the United States, hardly anything like English national assistance, no social medicine, the poor having to rely on private and public charity, relatively little public-financed low-rental housing – of the American Negro people is a fact acknowledged by anyone who has spent two hours in any American city. The police brutality against the Negro in American cities, probably much worse in New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles, than in the heart of the southern states, is a well-acknowledged fact. [4] That Negroes are the last hired and the first fired in all of American society, that only a few ever achieve jobs that require special training, and that even university-educated Negroes more often than not can find employment only in positions that require much less training and education, are commonplaces of American knowledge. [5]

2. A Working-Class Tradition

When today in the United States Negroes struggle with a vigour and commitment that is unknown at present to the white working class, they are following the model created by the whole American working class in its periods of great struggle. It is only within the context of the history of the struggles of the entire American working class, a history of class conflict in which American workers pitted themselves directly against American capitalism with a ferocity and militancy that cannot be rivalled by the working class of any other modern capitalist society, that the Negro movement can be understood. In the eighteen-seventies, the early American working class, grown-up overnight in the Civil War, was engaged in a struggle with capital, set off by capital’s first major attempt to demonstrate its power by wage-cuts during the depression following 1873. Mammoth pitched battles were fought on the railroads, in the steel mills, and in the coal mines of America, battles in which hundreds of workers lost their lives. In the eighteen-eighties and eighteen-nineties this struggle continued and spread. It included the strikes in the copper, silver, and lead mines of the Rocky Mountain States, in many finished goods industries, the struggle against the Homestead Works of Andrew Carnegie in which workers and private agents of management fought it out with guns, and the struggle of the American Railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs to organize all American railway workers, a struggle that led to a virtual general strike against the combined might of the bosses and the Federal government and army. In the first decade of the twentieth century in the struggles of the coal miners and garment workers and the formation of the socialist and revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World in the copper, lead, iron, and silver mines, the lumber-camps as well as in New England textile towns, and upon the ships and docks, the conflict took on even greater militancy. [6] The nineteen-twenties were for the American working class not a period of social conservatism and complacency. It was ushered

in by general strikes in West Coast cities, strikes which involved the entire working class of these cities and which even looked to the Bolshevik Revolution as a source of inspiration. [7] It continued with the great steel strike of 1919 and 1920, the bloody battles of garment workers to maintain their unions, the insurgency of the American labour movement which in 1924 refused to support either the Democratic or Republican parties and made its first great effort to engage in independent politics. It supported the candidacy of Senator Robert LaFollette, the Wisconsin agrarian radical, on a radical, democratic platform for the presidency. There were great struggles to unionise textile workers in the South and finished-goods workers in the East in 1925, 1926, 1927, and 1928, strikes which were met with ferocious armed attack. [8]

The entire revolutionary and class struggle tradition of the American working class came to fruition in the struggles of the nineteen-thirties in the general strikes in such cities as Minneapolis, San Francisco, Toledo, and Akron and through the sit-down strikes in which workers, many of whom had been educated in the radical and revolutionary movement, occupied the bosses’ factories and would not leave or produce until the union was recognised as the collective-bargaining agent. [9] Out of these struggles came the new industrial unions of the CIO in the auto, electrical, rubber, steel, and farm equipment industries, as well as in a dozen or more other fields. [10]

The failure of the American working class to turn directly to political action was not a mark of its backwardness. Rather, it was the sign that through industrial unions workers in the United States were able to gain the high standard of living that is envied throughout the world. And this was not due simply to American productivity and technology and capital accumulation – although they all were there – but to the activity of the working class itself. The American worker, moulded in a society without that legitimation of wide class difference given in older societies with aristocracies, revolted against all forces that try to keep him suppressed, with an indignation and ferocity that stemmed from the fact that he had never thought for a moment that it was proper for him to be subordinate to any man. The American worker never thinks of himself as anything but the equal of every other man in the world, and he constantly tells the world, ‘And don’t you forget that brother.’ In terms of socialist consciousness, the European working class is more advanced than the American. In terms of victories won and an experience which has taught it how to struggle against capitalism – even without knowing in so many words that they were doing that – the American working class has had its own revolutionary experience.

All of this history of the American working class is coming to a boil in the Negro movement. When Negroes in the United States organise mass demonstrations, sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, refusing to leave before their demands are won, begin to develop local political independence and use it as a lever to gain their demands, when they ignore the law that protects segregation, and when they say to the whole world, ‘We are anyone’s equal and don’t you forget that brother’ they are utilising the techniques of the American working class of which they are a part.

The Negro movement is part of the general movement of the American working class, a class produced and developed by the most advanced industrial capitalism in the history of mankind. When the Negro movement emerges today it is linked with the entire development of American society. It follows the model created by the whole American working class – and then advances the struggle to new heights.

The current Negro movement is the first battalion of the forces that are pushing against official society in the United States. And it is not by accident that the youth, the women, the disaffected white collar workers and professionals look hopefully to Negro music and art and the vitality they sense in Negro life. They increasingly come to understand that American Negroes are not backward, they are, as James Baldwin has in fact insisted, the most advanced people in American society. The new Negro movement is not a movement of peasants, it is a movement of highly urban peopel who are outside of official American life and have the sophistication and insight that comes from that position in modern society.

The heart of the current Negro demand is to gain those things for himself that has been gained by those sectors of the white working class which organised under the CIO. But each generation must further enlarge its gains or the processes of capitalism guarantee that the position of the working class will deteriorate as the consequence of technological change and the introduction of further exploitation to meet the situation created by the falling rate of profit. Therefore, the Negro in the United States demands, must demand, a great deal more than workers did in the nineteen-thirties. For even those Negroes who profited from the victories of the CIO, and there were many who did, now know that there is a threat to what they won, that what they won was only part of what they needed. They know that the very structure of the unions they helped build, now bureaucrat-ised and utilised to discipline the working class, provide efficient plant operation, and organise workers to vote for the Democratic Party, helps exclude them from the more skilled and better paying jobs, and prevents any effort being made to organise the millions of unskilled workers in the South and in the service industries, so many of whom are non-white. Thus, a fundamental relationship between the Negro movement and the working class is established: today the American Negro working class is pulling and pushing the entire American working class.

3. Negroes and the Labour Movement

From the very beginning of settlement in North America, the Negro has been an integral part of the working class. Moreover, from the very beginning of the history of that settlement in North America, the white population, rural and urban, both accepted the postulate of the natural inferiority of the Negro as some sort of Divine Law, and suffered the consequences, unknown to themselves, of having this false consciousness distort their view of reality and make it difficult for them to change that reality. Consequently, the Negro movement today challenges white society to remove its own appendix, useless but an integral part of the body, and to do so without any anaesthetic. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when most of the population were engaged in farming, Negroes made up a majority of the non-agricultural working class, as well as of the rural proletariat. [11] This left a deep imprint upon a society in which until the Civil War everyone except Negroes had a genuine opportunity to leave the eastern coast and become farmers upon what seemed the endless expanse of virgin and fertile land. Indeed, until at least the eighteen-seventies, the most vigorous and active people in the United States, whether native born or immigrant, left the eastern coast and went into small commercial farming or into mine-prospecting, mining and lumbering. [12]

It was not until the eighteen-forties that a sizeable majority of the American working class was white. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early part of the nineteenth centuries Negro slaves in the main carried out all the crafts needed for maintenance of the plantation economy, such as carpenters, coopers, stonemasons, millers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, spinners, weavers, dock-hands and longshoremen, teamsters and sailors, as well as their tasks as agricultural field workers. [13]

In Virginia the Negro population was 47 per cent of the whole by the American Revolution, which clearly means that of the working class, Negroes comprised more than two thirds in the tidewater regions but less than half of the working class in what is now West Virginia (not to become separate from Virginia until the Civil War). [14] In South Carolina, by 1775, the Negro population outnumbered the whites by almost two to one. [15] While the percentage of Negro workers was smaller in North Carolina, nevertheless here too over one half of the working class was Negro, and a similar relationship existed in Maryland. Moreover, not only were slaves used as non-agricultural workers, often being hired out by their masters to someone else, the master, of course being paid a rent for his property, but the 275,000 Southern Negro freedmen (Negroes who had been freed by their masters or who had purchased their freedom or were the offspring of white women and Negro men, or their descendants) were all workers. [16]

In the North there were fewer Negro workers. But before the 1820s, the majority of household servants, of longshoremen, of porters, and of American sailors (although the majority of sailors on American ships were foreign whites) were Negroes, and Negroes were employed in significant numbers in handicraft industries, in foundries, spinning and weaving, and other artisanry. [17]

And it was in this period that the relationship of white and black workers in America was forged. By the eighteen-thirties when the first beginnings of a modern industrial system can be seen, the relationship was fully developed: slave-owners and employers profited by exploiting Negro slaves and freedmen whose labour cost much less than that of white labour and white workers resented Negro workers because of this. A few statistics tell the story: a pre-Civil War factory near Columbia, South Carolina, reported the average cost per year of its slave operatives at 75 dollars and that of its free white operatives at a minimum of 106 dollars [18]; in 1865 there were 100,000 Negro mechanics in the South, as compared to 20,000 white ones. [19] The Southern poor whites resented the Negro not only because Negroes competed with them but because they saw Negroes as inferiors because they were different and because they seemed to accept being slaves, the details of Negro slave revolts being rather obscured from their understanding or their ignorance being worked over by the master-class. In a discussion between President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, and himself a Southern poor white who had supported the Union but was no friend of the Negro, and a delegation of Negro leaders, led by the greatest of abolitionists, the ex-slave Frederick Douglass, Johnson claimed that the reasons the poor whites hated Negroes was that Negroes preferred to work for former slave owners after the abolition of slavery rather than for poor white farmers. Douglass replied that this was because the poor whites, living on the margin of subsistence, treated Negroes worse and had been those hired by the slave owners as slave catchers, slave drivers and overseers.

Moreover, Douglass declared, ‘The hostility between the whites and blacks is easily explained. It has its roots and sap in the relation of slavery and was incited on both sides by the cunning of the slave masters. These masters secured their ascendency over the poor whites and the blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each.’ [20] The poor whites, denied an opportunity to enter non-agricultural employment, were either pushed into the poor lands of the Appalachians, and the poor clay soils of Northern Louisiana, Northern Alabama, and of Arkansas, creating that culture of poverty and deprivation known as ‘hillbilly’, ‘redneck’ and ‘cracker’. [21] Or, like the family of Abraham Lincoln, they left the South and migrated into Southern Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. In 1857, one of the most perceptive of the poor whites, Hilton Helper, in a book called The Impending Crisis, while still filled with racist sentiments, called for the abolition of slavery, because slave labour had allowed for the further exploitation and worsening of the condition of the Southern poor white. [22]

The situation in the North was somewhat different but essentially was one in which either Negroes were used to drive wages down or whites succeeded in keeping Negroes out of the area. In places such as Philadelphia where in 1820, according to W.E.B. DuBois, a large proportion, perhaps a majority of the artisans of the city were coloured, the white artisans struggled to get the Negroes excluded from the skilled trades and eventually drove many Negroes from the city as a result of a series of riots. [23]

Anti-Negro sentiment was strongest among those hundreds of thousands of Irish workers who were dumped on the eastern sea coast of the United States in the eighteen-forties and fifties, as they were on Liverpool, starving, penniless, and without previous experience in industrial employment. Without even the few pennies needed to take a train westward or to purchase land, and without either skills or any tradition of organisation, the Irish fought bitterly with the Negroes for the lowest paying jobs. [24] The hostility of the Irish working-men to the Negroes was further intensified during the Civil War when the employers, most of them young bourgeois on-the-make, who had been able to purchase their way out of the army, a matter which caused great resentment among the working-class, brought in Negroes immediately released from slavery as strikebreakers. [25]

The German-American workers generally were less prone to anti-Negro violence or attitudes. However, while it is true that in some degree this was due to their socialist ideology and their greater consciousness, for the most part it is attributable to the fact that they were highly skilled workers – and Negroes were in no position to compete with them. [26]

After the Civil War, a brief attempt was made to unite the white and Negro working-class in the first effort at a national labour organisation, the National Labour Union, led by William Sylvis. Negro leaders such as Frederick Douglass urged Negroes to join unions and affiliate with the NLU. But while Sylvis had declared ‘What is wanted then, is for every union to help inculcate the grand, enobling idea that the interests of labour are one ... that there is but one dividing line – that which separates mankind into two great classes, the class that labours and the class that lives by others’ labours ...’, the local trade unions refused participation to Negroes. The NLU then turned to a policy of organising Negroes into separate locals, but by then the Negro leadership had turned away from the NLU. [27] From this moment of disillusionment with the National Labour Union, until just before World War One, the Negro leadership looked to either Negro self-help in the form of producers’ cooperatives and Negro business ventures or an alliance with white capital, from which it hoped to gain support for Negro education in return for continued support to the Republican Party, now no longer the party of Lincoln and the Radicals, but the party of Big Business.

In the eighteen-seventies and eighteen-eighties there were further efforts made to unite black and white labour, particularly because Negro workers brought directly from the rural South were being used as strike-breakers throughout the nation. The Knights of Labour, the fraternal organisation of American labour, attempted to unite black and white labour, and had the support of many Negroes who demonstrated amazing class solidarity with their white brothers when the issues were made clear to them. [28] For example, in a Southern Ohio coal strike in the eighteen-seventies a majority of Negro strike-breakers who had been imported from the rural South left the mine as a result of the appeals of John Siney of the National Miners’ Union. As late as 1893, there were remarkable examples of Negro-white solidarity in the South, first forged in the radical agrarian Populist movement. [29] But these efforts to create Negro-white unity failed – and white workers continued to climb on the backs of black labour.

The early American Federation of Labour gave lip-service to the idea of uniting black and white workers, but in fact it quickly succumbed to the demands of its constituent craft unions and locals to exclude Negroes. But this was due to the very basis of the type of craft-organisation that the AFL represented. The AFL was primarily composed of unions of skilled workers who deliberately excluded others from their union in the effort to gain control over the job market. If the ideology and organisation of business-unionism with its fear of the competition of newcomers caused the exclusion of white labour from trade unions, it was no surprise when in the same way Negro workers were excluded. After all, Negroes were almost all unskilled workers and the craft-unions fought to protect their skilled members from competing with such workers. [30] By the eighteen-nineties, it became a commonplace of American unionism that the unions were by constitutional provision or by practice for whites only. Even the radical American Railway Union, founded and led by Eugene V Debs, the great American Socialist, had a constitutional provision which excluded Negroes and while Debs did not like it, it was not a matter upon which he spent a great deal of time. [31] Consequently, the American Negro working class was separated from the white working class from the beginning of industrial capitalism in the United States and until the nineteen-thirties was allowed to develop on its own and separate from the white working class. When, during World War One, mass migration of Negroes into the urban centres of the North began, Negroes were increasingly used as strike-breakers. The great steel strike of 1919 was partially broken by Negroes, who had never heard of a union, who were brought in as strike-breakers. The American Federation of Labour tried to patch something up that would allow for the inclusion of Negroes but as long as the labour movement was committed to the craft organisation of workers and opposed industrial unionism, Negroes would be excluded. [32] When in the nineteen-thirties, the Congress of Industrial Organisations was formed, it for the first time in American trade union history included Negro workers without distinction. It was necessary for it to do so because management had learned in the previous two decades that the employment of Negroes helped inhibit unionism and divide the working class. Indeed, the very presence of a reserve industrial army of Negro workers called forth the organisation of the Congress of Industrial Organisations, for the AFL unions were not able to protect the jobs of its skilled white members while this labour pool existed outside of the labour movement.

The inclusion of Negro workers side by side with white workers was not the mark of some change in the ideology of most American workers. They remained racist ideologically – but even southern-born workers in Detroit’s auto-factories, among the most militant of the builders of the United Automobile Workers’ Union, understood that if Negro workers were not organised, the union would fail. Henry Ford had known this when at the great River Rouge plant he employed Negroes as a matter of policy in order to keep unionism out of the plant, Negro workers fought white workers in a pitched battle in 1939 when white workers tried to prevent them from continuing work during a strike for union recognition. Only when the union leadership through the aid of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People appealed directly to the Negro workers and promised them effective integration into the union did the Negroes come out on strike and join the union. Negroes very readily joined unions when they were genuinely given an opportunity to do so. [33]

But despite this breakthrough in basic production, the unions did not push forward beyond this point. The drive to organise the American South, pushed after World War Two, floundered upon the fact that racism divided white and Negro workers in the South – and upon the fact that the growing bureaucratisation of the CIO made the labour leaders less than enthusiastic to bother to organise previously unorganised workers. Indeed, they were afraid of organising Negro workers in the unskilled and service industries because the union movement would have had to devise new and more radical techniques and strategies in order to meet the problems presented – techniques which would have had to be political and which would have challenged American capitalism. Consequently, they chose in effect ossification and stagnation rather than meeting the challenge of the Negro working class. As a result the American trade union movement has been totally unable and really unwilling to meet the impact of automation, automation which since 1957 has created a permanent pool of at least five million unemployed according to official figures – and probably considerably more if account is taken of all those young people who are kept out of the work force, older people and women who are forced out of the work force, and workers being employed part-time at low paying jobs. Now the American Negro working class has taken the initiative away from the labour bureaucracy and has struck out on its own independent development in a manner that upsets the entire American status quo.

4. Possibilities and Alternatives

Whether the American working class as a whole will sufficiently respond to the Negro challenge remains to be seen. That it does somewhat respond even at present is common knowledge among anyone close to the American unions. There has been no series of events that have so shaken the American working class in recent years as has this Negro movement. Of this there can be no question. Every white worker knows that either a victory for Negroes will mean that white workers would share more equitably the burden of unemployment – or that something will have to be done to end unemployment. And, although the American worker may not be conscious of that fact, the ‘something’ can only be some new movement of the entire American working class, a movement that will go far beyond the CIO of the nineteen-thirties in challenging capitalism.

There is no guarantee at all that this conflict must lead to a wider conflict. It is possible that the American bourgeoisie can by granting job equality to those Negroes with sufficient training – and even include some training for Negroes in the bargain – and by compensating in some way the white workers for their loss of privilege decapitate the movement, siphon off part of the discontent. Indeed, the tendency in liberal circles is to treat the Negro question as increasingly one that has nothing to do with class, but rather as a pure civil rights movement, a movement that will grant a group previously denied such an opportunity, ‘equality of opportunity’, ‘equal justice under law’, and a share in the highest standard of living in the world. While this might well satisfy sectors of the American Negro population, and is the greatest danger facing the Negro movement in the United States, it will not, of course, meet the needs of the majority of Negroes.

But one thing remains certain – that if the Negro struggle is defeated – it will be defeated in the midst of a general reactionary development in the United States. To stop this the Negro struggle must become even more radical in its demands, its form of organisation, and its actions. For unless the Negro working class, the one active progressive force at present in American society, goes forward, all of American society will continue to slide toward barbarism, towards an increasingly authoritarian solution to the crisis of capitalism. Those purported left-liberal friends of the Negro and progress in the United States who counsel the Negro movement to develop ‘a careful strategy’ designed to keep together ‘labour, Negro, and ethnic groups’, one which in their opinion would be based on the reduction of the arms budget, a programme which they argue could also appeal to small property owners and small business and industry, offer advice which if adopted will prove disastrous to both black and white working-class people. [34] For not only is the programme the typical liberal Utopia, which proposes a measure which everyone in his right mind would be for without understanding that it can be achieved only through a revolutionary transformation of society, but it cannot solve the problems of the Negro working class. For the success of the Negro movement depends upon its ability to challenge the white working class to enter a struggle for jobs, a struggle that will be directed against capital’s prerogatives.

Moreover, the programme makes no sense because the white working class – not only its leaders – will not move behind such a programme for it proposes that the solution of the problems of the working class in modern society is at some place far away from the factory floor. Those liberals, labour bureaucrats, and tired and frightened Socialists who have tied their hopes to ‘political realignment within the Democratic Party’ give the Negroes and the white working class counsel that can only divide them. For if the Negroes adopt this programme, they scuttle their own programme and their demands for FREEDOM NOW, and if the white working class adopts this programme it abandons a struggle for a solution to the absolute control over production exercised by capital. And this would be to abandon the possibility of any solution in the near future to the crisis of American society, for all its problems including those of unemployment and poverty, involved as they are with management’s right to introduce new technology and new productive schedules, to choose overtime instead of spreading the work in order to meet demand and so forth, are simply facets of the question of who controls production. As long as capital is in the position to automate at will, alter production schedules to suit itself, and use overtime instead of a shorter work week to achieve production goals, there will be unemployment and poverty in America, as well as the back-breaking speed-up in production and alienation from a satisfying productive life.

5. Negritude and the Class Struggle

To understand the Negro question in the United States as one aspect, and a crucial aspect at that, of the development of the American working class, is accurate but does not yet supply the reason for seeing the Negro movement as a revolutionary development. For it is not only an aspect of the working class’s development – it also has a particular and uniquely Negro side of its development. To fail to see this altogether is to fall prey to every reformist and liberalist illusion about the Negro movement. To see this but to fail to see it accurately is to see only a part of the whole and to mistake it for the whole. The Negro people in the United States have had a unique experience, unique both in comparison with the rest of the American working class, and unique in comparison with descendants of slaves brought from Africa in such places as the West Indies and Latin America. It is this unique experience that sets the limits in which Negroes today struggle and provides the conditions of that struggle. It is this experience which guaranteed that the Negro movement would be an independent movement, following out its own development, and only in an independent manner feeding into the whole development of the American working class.

Men struggle to meet and overcome the difficulties that they are confronted by with those tools and weapons that are available to them. They do not struggle in the ways advocated for them by men from the outside, although at times the activities of such ‘leaders’ can be important in confusing the issues and making it more difficult for people to find out what they have to do. While all mass movements have leaders, these leaders if they are to have anything other than a disruptive effect, must come from within the movement, must be thrown up by it. Thus, the working-class movement has been often confused by ‘leaders’ from the outside but it has always been led by leaders from its ranks. This is not to say that such leaders are always or even usually adequate for we know this not to be the case. But it is to say that it is the only way that a people can ever find its way to adequate self-expression and self-activity. The crucial point is that people struggle with the weapons at hand. And this is as true for the Negro working class in the United States as it is for the white working class. However, there is one crucial difference: the Negro working class has at its command certain weapons not available to the white working class while at the same time having virtually all those possessed by the white working class. For the Negro working class has had a unique historical experience in America and while it is this historical experience of segregation that the current movement aims to overcome, it is in part with weapons that were forged and could only have been forged under slavery and segregation. The American Negro, having been denied access to American civilisation on terms of equality with white workers, has not been able to merge into the general culture the way the major immigrant groups have. On the other hand, they have not been able to preserve intact their African culture – indeed, that African culture has less holistic reality in the United States than in other parts of the New World where the descendents of Africans compose the overwhelming majority of the population. Denied full access to the general culture, unable to maintain their African culture intact, the American Negro has developed his own culture – different in kind and in quality from any other ever known in the world – using elements and meanings given from the African past and the past of slavery and segregation, in combination with elements taken from the general civilisation. One element of that culture is the utilisation of a myth about the African origins of American Negroes in order to have a useable past from which to fight. This myth was exploited by many different tendencies among American Negroes from the eighteenth century to the present. The Negro church called itself the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Negro fraternal orders evoked images of Abyssinia. The most important single volume on American Negro history, written by a Negro historian, Professor John Hope Franklin of the University of Chicago, begins with a chapter on the great Egyptian civilisation which he sees as having been African. [35] In the nineteen-twenties, the Negro struggle in the United States was in large part expressed in the movement led by the West Indian Marcus Garvey who called among other things for a return to Africa. Many joined Garvey’s movement but hardly anyone went to Africa. [36] In the past two decades, the myth has found its home in the Black Muslim movement which looks to some sort of African return – and short of that, an’American Negro state in the New World with close ties to Africa. Negro intellectuals look toward the African experience since the beginning of the African Revolution for inspiration, some indeed adopt African costume and dress. [37] [38] But none of this indicates that the American Negro is African nor, on the other hand, is it simply a delusion that should be patiently and patronisingly explained away. For, in all of these ways, American Negroes have found tools with which to struggle and to fight – not to return to Africa but for themselves in the United States.

It is this experience of finding a base from which to struggle for a way to live in the United States that has become the reality of that which has been called negritude. And this tool or weapon of struggle which is negritude is real, for when an idea takes hold of the human brain it becomes a material fact. The doctrine of negritude discovers in the African experience something very positive that is necessary for human civilisation. This might be referred to as the close inter-personal world of the tribal society – for it is not only among Negroes that we find these ideas but among tribal people everywhere. Indeed, it is the world in which the alienation of man from his fellow men, from the world and from nature has not been made, in which man, not cut off from himself, is able to sense and feel the basic and underlying realities of human experience directly and to allow them to possess him.

In the appendix to the new edition of his wonderful work Black Jacobins, C L R James introduces us to the poem, published in 1939, by the black West Indian poet from the French colony of Martinique, Aimé Césaire, entitled Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Statement of a Return to the Country Where I was Born). This poem catches the essence of what negritude is. Césaire writes,

’... my Negritude is not a stone, its deafness a sounding board for the noises of the day
my Negritude is not a mere spot of dead water on the dead eye of the earth
my Negritude is no tower, no cathedral
it cleaves into the red flesh of the teeming earth
it cleaves into the glowing flesh of the heavens
it penetrates the seamless bondage of my unbending patience

Horrah for those who never invented anything
for those who never explored anything
for those who never mastered anything

but who, possessed, give themselves up to the essence of each thing
ignorant of the coverings but possessed by the pulse of things
indifferent to mastering but taking the chances of the world ...’

But the poet continues that now the work of Africa has become part of the work of all men. James sums it up [39]:

‘The work of man is not finished. Therefore the future of the African is not to continue not discovering anything. The monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force, is possessed by no race, certainly not by those who possess Negritude. Negritude is what one race brings to the common rendezvous where all will strive for the new world of the poet’s vision. The vision of the poet is not economic or politics, it is poetic, sui generis, true unto itself and needing no other truth. But it would be the most vulgar racism not to see here a poetic incarnation of Marx’s famous sentence, “The real history of humanity will begin.”’

The Negro writers in the United States have been exploring negritude for some time. When in the past American writers had looked for negritude, they had looked to Africa – and they had come home hurt and almost empty-handed. For the American Negro was not an African – but he had to go to Africa to discover that. The West Indian born but American-bred Negro poet and Marxist Claud McKay gives evidence of the history of the American Negroes search for negritude. At the end of World War One, in his poem, On a Primitive Canoe, he yearned for the time ‘Long, long ago in a dim unknown land’ where men created an African canoe which thrilled him ‘more than the handsome boat’ that bore him ‘o’er the wild Atlantic ways.’ But this return to Africa was not to be. [40] In his poem Outcast, written in the next year, McKay declares [41]:

‘For the dim regions whence my fathers came
My spirit, bondaged by the body, longs.
Words felt, but never heard, my lips would frame;
My soul would sing forgotten jungle songs.
I would go back to darkness and to peace,
But the great western world holds me in fee,
And I may never hope for full release
While to its alien gods I bend my knee.
Something in me is lost, forever lost,
Some vital thing has gone out of my heart,
And I must walk the way of life a ghost
Among the sons of earth a thing apart;
For I was born, far from my native clime,
Under the white man’s menace, out of time.’

Countee Cullen, the Negro lyrical poet, manifested the same dilemma. In his poem Heritage he writes: [42]

‘One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinamon tree,
What is Africa to me?’

And yet Africa kept intruding upon him and he heard,

’Though I cram against my ear
My thumbs, and keep them there,
Great drums beating through the air.’

Even though he ‘belongs to Jesus Christ’ and heathen gods were naught to him, nevertheless his heart grew sick and faltered ‘wishing he I served were black.’ He temporarily resolves the controversy by an artificial return to Africa, by consciously fashioning dark gods, for need ‘sometimes shapes a human creed.’ And yet despite this he still was left with the original dilemma – of believing in the call of Africa and yet knowing that he could not respond to it [43]:

‘All day long and all night through
One thing only must I do:
Quench my pride and cool my blood,
Lest I perish in the flood.
Lest a hidden ember set
Timber that I thought was wet
Burning like the dryest flax.
Melting like the merest wax,
Lest the grave restore its dead.
Not yet has my heart or hand
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized.’

Langston Hughes went one step beyond: after looking for Africa, he found Harlem and he found Chicago’s South Side Negro ghetto of which he has written ever since in his poetry about Harlem and in his ‘Simple’ Stories. [44] But his has been a talent and consciousness that has not been able to reach out through the Negro world to the general human experience. Hughes first turned to Africa [45]:

‘So long
So far away
Is Africa.
Not even memories alive
Save those that history books create,
Save those that songs
Beat back into the blood –
Beat out of blood with words and sung
In strange un-Negro tongue –
So long,
So far away,
Is Africa.’

Richard Wright went as far as any American Negro writer could go in dealing with negritude and the American Negro reality in the absence of a massive movement of American Negroes which would make everything clear. His works expressed the anger, the potential violence, the humour and pathos, at times even a bit of the warmth and gentleness of American Negro life. They hovered on the edge of a revolutionary understanding although that understanding was abstract for it happened out of the context of a mass Negro movement and through the agency of those two corrupters of the American revolutionary movement, Stalinism and official Trotskyism. He reversed the journey taken by McKay, Cullen, and Hughes – and he went from the United States toward Africa at the end of his life. But his work Black Power, an attempt to understand the African Revolution, indicated that he was too engrossed in seeking for a solution to the problem of the American Negro in Africa to comprehend the African reality.

In James Baldwin, the new consciousness is complete, for Baldwin lived in the midst of that massive Negro movement denied to Richard Wright. Baldwin looks directly to the American Negro and not to Africa and in doing so he finds not only himself and a path for the American Negro, but great things about the human condition itself. And in so doing he becomes the first American Negro writer to transcend, to go through and beyond, the purely Negro experience, just as the present Negro movement in fact transcends and overcomes being ‘just’ a Negro movement. For Baldwin discovers negritude not in Africa but among American Negroes themselves. In that wonderful essay, The Fire Next Time, he gives expression to the new consciousness in the following paragraph [46]:

’This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bones; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible – this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover what they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and, indeed, no church, can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakeable. This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath appearances, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind the words. If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne. And at this level of experience one’s bitterness begins to be palatable, and hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry. The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school. It demands great force and great cunning continually to assault the mighty and indifferent fortress of white supremacy, as Negroes in this country have done so long. It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your children to hate. The Negro boys and girls who are facing mobs today come out of a long line of improbable aristocrats – the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced. I say “this country” because their frame of reference was totally American. They were hewing out of the mountain of white supremacy the stone of their individuality.’

This is not simply a literary man’s exercise. It is indeed a literal reality that Baldwin describes. Under slavery, the American Negro instead of becoming a brutalised and infantilised creature as certain of the neo-conservative theorists would have it, built a community and culture out of the remnants of the African past and out of the American experience, its meanings infused with the sense of life of African tribal society, reinforced and made whole again by the American experience, made whole in such a way that what emerged was only possible to have occurred in the American environment.

It was out of this experience that the American Negro slave revolts came, revolts in which Negro exhorters, carrying on the traditions of African religious leaders, were the leaders of the major Negro revolts and in which the midnight swamp meetings of the ‘African cult’, a religious meeting with Christian trappings and African meanings related to initiation ceremonies, were the places from which the revolts would begin. [47] In the account of slave revolt after slave revolt we learn that the leader, such as Nat Turner, the leader of the most important of the revolts, the Southampton conspiracy of 1831, was an exhorter, the direct descendent of an African religious leader, and that the revolt began in an all-night religious ‘sing’. [48]

It was these same ‘African cult’ meetings that were the way stations of the Underground Railway of the eighteen-forties and eighteen-fifties from which Negro slaves made their way North following the North Star to Freedom and it was through such meetings that the magnificent runaway slave Harriet Tubman made her way on her dozens of trips back into the South to bring her people, often as many as two dozen at a time, to freedom. [49] And it was these meetings that during the Civil War provided needed military intelligence to Marse’ Abe Lincoln’s armies. [50]

If anyone doubts human vitality and human ability to withstand persecution and grow, let him read the accounts of the lives of slaves which were published during the eighteen-forties and eighteen-fifties [51] and let him read the personal testimony of hundreds of former slaves gathered in the ten thousand manuscript pages of the Slave Narrative Collective of the Federal Writers’ Project, in which the American government, in the nineteen-thirties, provided funds for interviewing as many ex-slaves as could be located. A selection of the narratives has been made and published by the folklore editor of the Federal Writers’ Project who directed the project, B.A. Botkin, in a volume entitled Lay My Burden Down, A Folk History of Slavery. [52]

It was out of the life and the community portrayed in the Slave Narrative Collection that the modern Negro community grew and it is within the traditions of that experience that the present Negro movement takes place. Those who think that the American Negro is simply like every other American, except that he is more persecuted and exploited, and those who think that American Negroes will follow the banner of ‘a separate Negro nation’, are unable and unwilling to understand the experience of the Negro in America or to listen to the sounds of the Negro movement, sounds that are American and that at the same time transcend America, sounds that speak for the Negro people and for all others who are exploited.

Unless one understands this about the Negro people which is both an ancient people and a most modern one, one cannot understand why the Reverend Martin Luther King is the leader of the American Negro revolt, despite the fact that he, left to his own devices, would probably accept less than total freedom now. Martin Luther King is the leader as long as he can listen to the voice of the Negro people and express its attitudes accurately, and not for a moment longer. He is not simply another preacher manipulating words, he is the genuine spokesman of the Negro masses in America. He speaks in the ancient terms of Negro religion and his message is the most modern, revolutionary one to be heard today in America, modern and revolutionary because it talks not only in behalf of the Negro movement but in behalf of all humanity.

When Martin Luther King ended his mighty address before the hundreds of thousands assembled in front of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial and the tens of millions who listened on their radios and television sets that great late August day of 1963 with the words, ‘Let us work and march and love and stand tall together until that day has come when we can join hands and sing, “Free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, we are free at last”,’ [53] these were words of redemption. Redemption not only for the American Negro but for all Americans and indeed for all mankind, for only from such struggle as the American Negro movement represents can that redemption come. In that speech, the Reverend Martin Luther King spoke the words of a revolutionary, perhaps without fully knowing it, when he exclaimed, ‘The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.’ [54] Those who struggle to continue to unleash this whirlwind will be those who shall be the heroes of free men and women – those others who counsel care and prudence and careful strategy, or who counsel separation, will be forgotten. For that is the logic of human history.


1. The press was amazingly silent about the Detroit demonstrations, apparently afraid of handling the subject. The estimate here given of the numbers involved is based upon the observations of many participants; the ‘official’ figure of the Detroit Police Department was 150,000; the organisers of the demonstration had originally hoped for only 100,000.

2. While the official figure for the Washington demonstration was ‘over 210,000’, this figure included only the train, bus and airplane reservations counted the day before the March, did not include those who came by automobile or through last-minute decisions, and did not include the participation of the local Washington DC population, over one half of which is Negro.

3. The Economic Situation of Negroes in the United States, United States Information Service (American Embassy, London 1962), p.4.

4. See, for example, documentation of police brutality against Negroes in Chicago in a pamphlet published by the Chicago chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1959.

5. Op. cit., United States Information Service, pp.6-7.

6. Good accounts of the struggles of the American working class are contained in American Labour Struggles, Samuel Yellen; and in Labour Movements, Selig Perlman and Philip Taft, Volume 4 of History of Labour in the United States, 1896-1932, edited by John R. Commons and associates.

7. See The Lean Years, A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933, Irving Bernstein, New York, 1960, for an excellent account of the difficult struggles of the nineteen-twenties.

8. Ibid.

9. The Age of Roosevelt, Vols.I & II, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., New York 1955 & 1957; The UAW and Walter Reuther, Irving Howe and B.J. Widick, New York 1949.

10. Ibid.

11. Government and Labour in Early America, Richard Morris, New York 1946, pp.36-37.

12. There has been considerable debate about the impact of the frontier experience upon the development of the American working class. It is impossible within the confines of this article to substantiate our view and it should only be noted that this is a subject of much controversy.

13. Op. cit., Morris; The Black Worker, The Negro and the Labour Movement, Sterling D. Spero & Abram L. Harris, New York 1931.

14. Op. cit., Morris, p.37.

15. Ibid.

16. Op. cit., Spero & Harris, p.3.

17. Ibid., pp.3-15.

18. Ibid., p.10.

19. Ibid., p.16.

20. Ibid., pp.4-5.

21. Origins of the Class Struggle in Louisiana, Roger W. Shugg, 1939.

22. The Impending Crisis, Hinton Rowen Helper, 1857.

23. The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. DuBois, 1896, p.33.

24. Op. cit., Spero & Harris, p.13.

25. The story of the draft riots has been told many times, the best recent account being in North of Slavery, Leon Litwack. It should be emphasised that the Irish-American workers lashed out against Negroes only after they had met the class-privilege of the employers who were able to purchase substitutes to serve their military term. At the beginning of the war, these same Irish workers, as was true of the population at large, rushed to join the army and had high hopes that the war would be one that would lead to widespread social reform and greater freedom. There is much need for a study that will describe the process whereby as war-profiteering and the new capitalism took the place of the first outburst of social idealism, the white working class became disillusioned with the war, and how it was that consequently Negroes came to fill the ranks of the union army after 1863 and carried the burden of the war thereafter.

26. Op. cit., Spero & Harris, pp.13-14.

27. Ibid., pp.23-35.

28. Ibid., pp.39-47.

29. The Strange Career of Jim Crow, C. Vann Woodward, New York 1955, passim.

30. Op. cit., Spero & Harris, pp.47, 87-115.

31. See The Bending Cross, Ray Ginger, republished as Eugene V. Debs: A Biography, Collier Books, 1962, pp.106-7.

32. Op. cit., Spero & Harris, pp.137-146.

33. Op. cit., Howe & Widick.

34. There is no point in getting involved in endless polemic with the authors of the particular article which is the basis for this discussion and I have, therefore, refrained from any direct citation.

35. From Slavery To Freedom, John Hope Franklin, New York 1956, pp.3-10.

36. Black Moses, the Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Edmund D. Cronon, Madison, Wisconsin 1955.

37. Black Nationalism, A Search for an Identity in America, Essien-Udom, Chicago 1962.

38. Ibid.

39. The Black Jacobins, Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, C.L.R. James, 2nd edition revised, New York, Vintage Books paperback, pp.399-401. The entire book is of the greatest significance for the understanding of the Negro question, most particularly the new Appendix to this second edition.

40. Harlem Shadows, Claude McKay, New York 1922, p.36.

41. Ibid., p.45.

42. The New Negro, ed. Alain Locke, New York 1925, pp.129-132.

43. The Negro Caravan, ed. Sterling Brown, New York 1941, pp.357-360.

44. See The Big Sea, Langston Hughes, New York 1940.

45. The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949, ed. Langston Hughes & Arna Bontemps, New York 1949, pp.105-106.

46. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, London 1963, pp.105-6.

47. See Essays in the History of the American Negro, Herbert Aptheker, New York 1945, pp.48-50; American Negro Slave Revolts, Herbert Aptheker, New York 1943, passim.

48. Ibid.

49. Autobiography, Harriet Tubman, republished New York 1962.

50. The Negro in the Civil War, Benjamin Quarles, Boston 1953, passim.

51. See Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave, William Wells Brown, London 1849; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Frederick Douglass, many editions, including two paperback editions published in 1962 and 1963; Army Life in a Black Regiment, Thomas W. Higginson, originally published in 1870, a paperback edition was published by Colliers Books in 1962.

52. Lay My Burden Down, A Folk History of Slavery, ed. B.A. Botkin, Chicago 1945, paperback edition 1958.

53. The Michigan Chronicle, Saturday, 7 September 1963.

54. Ibid.


Last updated on 13.8.2007