First Published: Progressive Labor Vol. 5, No. 1, October 1965
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Louisville, Ky.–A new stage in the southern Freedom Movement is virtually upon us. This new stage will be marked by the growing realization that struggle within the established political institutions while useful for agitational and organizational purposes cannot achieve a meaningful improvement in the conditions of black people in America. This new stage will not merely involve the transformation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party into a third “Farmer-Labor” type party (to a large extent, this transformation is already completed). It will involve the creation and expansion of completely new kinds of political and economic institutions. These institutions will stand outside of and in opposition to the established political and economic institutions of the country. In a word, they will be revolutionary institutions. Moreover, this new stage will mark the transition for the entire country from a non-revolutionary period directly into a pre-revolutionary period.
To the black people of the south, the right to vote is almost something holy. Black people have registered and voted in unprecedented numbers, in spite of a reign of racist terror that has been surpassed only in openly fascist countries. In the last presidential elections, black votes unquestionably carried many southern states for the Johnson-Humphrey ticket Black people are running for (and winning) local and state offices both as Democrats and as independents in numbers that have no parallel since the earliest days of Reconstruction. The southern Freedom Movement has become political; the present stage can be defined as one in which the political drive for Freedom Now is a drive for control (or failing that, strong influence in) of the capitalist state machinery in the South.
This stage has culminated in two key developments: (1) The victorious campaign waged by SNCC Communications Director Julian Bond for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives (136th District); and (2) The final stages of the MFDP campaign for free elections in Mississippi (this, of course, includes the challenge still pending in the Congress as this articles is being written).
Julian Bond won the Democratic Party primary race in Atlanta’s 136th District against a Negro clergyman. Bond ran on a platform calling for a $2 an hour minimum wage, improved urban renewal programs, repeal of the Georgia “right-to-work” law, and an end to the literacy test for Georgia voters. In the general election of June 16th, Bond defeated his Republican opponent by better than a six-to-one ratio.
Bond’s campaign was unusual in two respects: (1) His campaign was run along the same lines as SNCC’s rural organizing practices. Bond and his staff (largely SNCC people) held meetings in which people were invited to come and talk about what they needed and wanted; Bond and his organizers visited hundreds of homes to talk over people’s needs personally; and (2) Bond’s campaign, because it is the first successful SNCC work in the urban South has stimulated a desire to engage in this kind of electoral activity throughout the urban South.; Many “movement people” will be watching closely to see if Bond can use his position in the Georgia House of Representatives to advance the cause of Freedom Now, or whether the state apparatus will try to buy Bond off or simply ignore his efforts. The successes and failures of Bond’s term in office win do much to determine the outlook of the southern activists in the Freedom Movement.
If Bond can be said to represent the height of the “old southern politics” (not in terms of platform, but in terms of methods), the “new politics” of the South is represented by, of course, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The MFDP began as the “loyal Democrats” of the Atlantic City Democratic Convention and, when rejected by the national Democratic Party at the personal request of Lyndon Johnson, proceeded to move leftwards at an ever increasing speed. As each more radical demand was denounced as irresponsible and rejected, the MFDP has put forward still more radical demands.
The challenge protesting the seating of the regular Mississippi delegation in the House of Representatives has broadened under the stimulus of Johnson’s Voting Bill to a demand for completely new and free elections from top to bottom in Mississippi. MFDP spokesmen point out that even if Johnson’s bill is passed, it will be up to four years at the earliest before racist local office holders in Mississippi can be deposed in regular elections. Thus the passage of Johnson’s bill (which makes legal discrimination illegal) merely invites the Mississippi racists to resort to extralegal (that is, terroristic) means to prevent black people from voting. This whole thing is an excellent example of the dialectical quality of capitalist “reforms”–a bill which seeks to carry out the program of “good liberals” and outlaw legal forms of discrimination which will result in a vast increase of extra-legal forms of discrimination and a wave of terror to boot!
MFDP attorney William Kunstler has drawn up an amendment to the Johnson Voting Bill providing for free elections from top to bottom in Mississippi (and presumably elsewhere in the South). Kunstler’s amendment has been introduced but its fate is doubtful, especially in view of Johnson’s appointment of racist James Coleman as a judge in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Coleman has said: “I do not now favor the Negro voting in Mississippi. He is wholly unprepared to assume this responsibility.” Johnson has appointed this man to sit second only to the Supreme Court to “enforce” his Voting Bill. Thus the Johnson cronies in Congress can be expected to give short shrift to Kunstler’s amendment.
It is axiomatic that if you slam enough doors in a man’s face, he will (1) burn your house down and/or (2) go off and build his own home. For black people in the South, genuine freedom is impossible without utterly smashing and routing the racist stronghold on the region. If continually denied legal protection from racist terrorism, black people will finally take up arms to defend themselves (the emergence and rapid spreading of the Deacons for Defense and Justice is a clear casein point). If continually denied the protection of union organization because existing union locals are controlled by racists, Black People will proceed to form their own unions (the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union is a case in point). If continually denied the benefits of a decent education and the fruits of their cultural heritage by racist educational systems, black people will proceed and have proceeded to set up their own “Freedom Schools.” Finally, if black people are denied access to existing political institutions, it is inevitable that they will proceed to form their own. Hence the notion of a “counter-community.”
Liberals of both colors have denounced this idea as a “withdrawal, a perpetuation of segregation, a device for escaping the struggle for freedom.” This is, of course, flat nonsense. Rather than the isolated confrontation of a lunch-counter here, a few clerical jobs there, a momentary cessation of police murder somewhere else, the idea of “counter-community” involves the total organization of all the black people of Mississippi into a society which will confront and struggle with the existing and highly-organized racist society. Far from withdrawal, it potentially is the highest form of struggle; a struggle for the total elimination of both racists and racist institutions and their replacement by a revolutionary government with revolutionary institutions representing the black people (along with the 25 to 50 thousand poor whites that hopefully may be organized).
The “counter-community” will not come into existence without the most terrible opposition by the racist power structure locally and their bosses in Washington, D.C. An increase in terror and armed clashes can probably be expected before the end of 1966. There will be more Bogalusa’s!
The existing civil rights organizations now working in the South will be subjected to increasing strain and internal strife as the counter-community begins to be born. The Congress of Racial Equality (ostensibly non-violent) has been forced to endorse the principle of armed self-defense. At CORE’s recent national convention, militants passed a resolution condemning Johnson’s imperialist war in Vietnam; the resolution was defeated in a second vote after James Farmer rushed back to the floor to clamp the lid on. On the other side of the street, Martin Luther King, Jr. (noted trouble-shooter for the Justice Department who became famous for his sellout of the second Selma-Montgomery march last spring) has been compelled to take a stand against Johnson’s war (though he balanced his accounts by denouncing the militant Deacons for Defense and Justice).
SNCC, because it is closest to the Freedom Movement will suffer the most. Because of its principled refusal to put forward a revolutionary program for organizing the South (it prefers instead to base itself on the demands of the local movements and its organizers see themselves only as tools with which to create and build the young movements until they can stand on their own feet and develop their own programs), SNCC is particularly vulnerable to a witchhunting attack by the Johnson regime through HUAC, SISS, the Justice Department, the FBI, etc. At the same time, it will be under tremendous pressure to support the local movements which it helped bring into the world, even when these local movements begin to get extremely radical. The normal organizational and financial chaos will continue and probably get worse. Internal struggles within SNCC will probably continue and increase (there is no agreed-upon program, thus SNCC contains a fantastic hodge-podge of non-violent direct actionists, several varieties of Marxists, black nationalists, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists, pacifists, liberals and left-liberals, etc, etc, etc.).
Thus we will see a Freedom Movement with increasingly contradictory developments. Black people will continue to register to vote at an increasing rate (Mississippi and Alabama will lag furthest behind in this regard). More black people will run for local office (on the Democratic ticket in most cases) and more will win. Yet at the same time, the rise of the “counter-community” will continue and spread from Mississippi throughout the South. Violence will increase. Infant revolutionary institutions will be born and will spread throughout the South. There will not yet be one organization and the existing Freedom Movement may well be split into reformist and revolutionary wings before the struggle is ended. Finally, class conscious black Marxists will begin to be heard from in the south. And at long last, our country will begin to pass over from the long sleep and the dark night of reaction into the pre-revolutionary morning of awakening.