MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events


U.S. Civil Rights Movement

The struggle of non-whites in the U.S. against the racial exploitation and genocide of whites dates back to 1492 and continues uninterrupted up to the present day. In the late 1950s, standing on the foundation of many former struggles, a civil rights movement began that was similar in some ways to the abolitionist struggles during the U.S. civil war; i.e. predominately made up of Afro-Americans struggling against oppression. While the abolitionists remained reformist and non-violent throughout, the civil rights movement, in part, started non-violent and reformist, but developed in time into a fully militant revolutionary movement.

While important steps toward the abolition of outright slavery had been taken in the period after the Civil War, the notorious Jim Crow Law still institutionalized segregation in schools and other public facilities up until 1954. During the war, Afro-Americans had been drawn into the army and the defence industries, and laws were passed outlawing discrimination against Blacks in these areas. After the War, Afro-Americans found themselves working in large numbers in the rapidly expanding manufacturing industries and played a central role in re-organising and rebuilding the trade union movement, which had been decimated by the government during the Great Depression. Strategically positioned in an increasingly militant organised working class, U.S. Blacks were in a position to confront institutionalized racism.

In May 1954, a successful Supreme Court challenge by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held segregation to be unconstitutional. This decision set off a mass movement of Afro-Americans, later also attracting some active participation by young hispanic, asian, native, and white radicals, some of whom had been radicalized in the Peace Movement of the 1950-60s.

On December 1 1955, a black woman, Rosa Parks, was arrested for refusing to move to the African section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and blacks staged a one-day boycott of the bus system to protest her arrest. Local Baptist minister, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., joined the struggle and fused the movement with spiritual power and proposed moral guidance. Although he never proclaimed himself a Communist, he instead used the term "Socialized Democrat", some of his closest advisors were members of the Communist Party (before it's decimation by the McCarhty purges). With his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), he went on to build a mass movement, which successfully forced the desegregation of the Mongomery bus service, and spread rapidly to other states. However, by 1960, the movement had still not succeeded in desegregating schools and colleges in the South. King preached peace and dreamt of freedom – while a young man named Malcolm X explained: "While King was having a dream, the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare."

The National Liberation Movement, which was spreading like a bushfire across Asia and Africa at this time, was a source of inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1960, emulating tactics applied by Gandhi in the India struggle against the British Raj, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) launched the sit-in movement, at the segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. The SNCC focused on organising groups to achieve structural change, trying to build indigenous leaders instead of imposing outside strong personalities from above. Supermarkets, libraries, movie theatres were targeted as the movement swept across the country. The SNCC refused to bar anyone based on political ideology, much unlike the SCLC which was constantly on guard against communist accusations.

In May 1961 the Freedom Rides began, with blacks and some whites breaking down segregated interstate transportation. Tens of thousands of students participated, many thousands were arrested and brutally beaten and terrorized. The movement culminated in August 1963 with a march on Washington, in support of civil-rights legislation coming before Congress. John F Kennedy had been put into power in 1961 on a promise to deliver Civil Rights legislation, but never moved an inch forward on this, meeting his assassination sooner in November 1963. It was at this time that the brilliant young Malcolm X became censured by the Nation of Islam, after he explained that Kennedy had received what he had coming to him, after all the assassinations he had ordered on other heads of state, and all the wars he had started and tried to start; the "chickens [were now] coming home to roost". Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam on March 8, 1964, and created his own movement, the Muslim Mosque, Inc. Malcolm further joined the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), which had no religious or ideological criteria, a step Malcolm felt was critical to building a real revolutionary movement; converting the struggle from civil rights into one of human rights. Malcolm explained that racism is "not a Negro problem, nor an American problem. This is a world problem, a problem of humanity." Malcolm's charismatic and empowering speeches had tremendous radicalizing and inspirational effect on all who have heard him, and soon the Nation of Islam and the U.S. government built a plan to assassinate Malcolm. He was shot dead on February 21, 1965, while reading the charter of the OAAU to a packed speaking hall in Harlem.

After massive pressure from Afro-American struggles, the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, forbidding discrimination in public accommodation and in 1965 by the Voting Rights Act, outlawing the tactics used in the South to disenfranchise black voters. But racism and racial oppression continued without hesitation, and minorities exploded into action during the Watts rebellions in the summer of 1965, following Malcolm's death. Two years later huge rebellions exploded in Detroit and Newark, being put down after massive police and military intervention. King himself began to wonder how worthy and effective the cause of non-violence was, when whites offered only token legislation after tremendous pressure and struggles fraught with brutality against blacks – legislation that was at best enforced in the most half-assed of ways. What emerged from these struggles, and made up part of the legacy of Malcolm X, was Black Power.

In 1966, in the words of Malcolm X a year earlier,it was clear that "Whites can help us, but they can't join us. There can be no black/white unity, until there is first some black unity. We cannot think of being acceptable to others, until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves." From the ashes of Malcolm X came the fiery Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, formed in 1966 to combat police brutality and promote black power. The Panthers both stood vigilant armed watch over police who entered their communities, while they setup breakfast programmes for school children, and a variety of other community outreach programmes. The Panthers lacked one of the most outstanding aspects of Malcolm X however: his moral integrity. Soon the state corrupted the Party from within, drawing its members into drug addiction, in-fighting, and reformism.

See CLR James' The Historical Development of the Negro in the United States.