Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

In Defense of the Right to Self-Determination


I went south in the fall of 1960, deep into Jim Crowland, to observe the freedom struggle. I was confronted with this new wonderful spirit rising throughout Dixie-this determination to break the chains of bondage and the spirit of valor of a people who just a few years ago were submissive peons in civilization’s no-man’s land. Daily, I saw the old myths about Afro-Americans being incapable of unity and action exploded. –From “Negroes With Guns” by Robert F. Williams

The 1960s marked a new high tide in the Afro-American people’s resistance against the exploitation and oppression of U.S. imperialism.

The revolt was sparked and fought its first major battles in the Deep South, homeland of the Black nation; but it soon advanced, wave upon wave, until it enveloped all the large concentrations of Black people in the North and West. Here the struggle took on even more massive proportions, and by the end of the decade spontaneous armed insurrections had shaken every major urban center in the U.S.

The situation was unprecedented in U.S. history. Never before had the ruling class been confronted with the fact of waging a war of aggression a-gainst a national liberation movement abroad while, at the same time, having to divert a section of its armed forces to suppress a national liberation struggle within its own borders.

Nor did the Afro-American people and the Vietnamese people fight their battles alone. Their struggles brought to the surface and rubbed raw all the contradictions and impending crises of U.S. bourgeois society. In growing numbers and in various ways, white students and youth, women and the working people as a whole intensified their struggle against monopoly capital and, in varying degrees, reasserted their unity with the Afro-American people’s cause. As Mao Tse-tung summed it up in 1968:

The Afro-American struggle is not only a struggle waged by the exploited and oppressed Black people for freedom and emancipation, it is also a new clarion call to all the exploited and oppressed people of the United States to fight against the barbarous rule of the monopoly capitalist class... The Black masses and the masses of white working people in the United States share common interests and have common objectives to struggle for. Therefore, the Afro-American struggle is winning sympathy and support from increasing numbers of white people and progressives in the United States. The struggle of the Black people in the United States is bound to merge with the American workers’ movement and this will eventually end the criminal rule of the U.S. monopoly capitalist class.


The Black revolt of the 1960s was spurred by the contradictions of the previous decade. On one hand, the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school integration held forth the promise of full equality. Black reformist leaders in turn raised the slogan, “Free by ’63,” the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. In Montgomery, Ala., a Black woman worker, Rosa Parks, refused to step to the back of a bus, inspiring a mass struggle led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to end segregation on public transportation.

The ruling class of the Black Belt states, on the other hand, proclaimed their defiance of the Supreme Court decision and any moves toward Black equality. They instigated the organization of the “White Citizens’ Councils” and the reassertion of the Ku Klux Klan and its racist terror. The federal government, for its part, provided an example of two-faced tactics by both conciliating anti-Black violence and working to sabotage the Black struggle with “tokenism.”

But the stage had been set for struggle and neither terror nor token reforms would hold it back. Despite the protestations of liberal reformism, the fact was that the contradiction between the imperialists and the masses of the Afro-American people was a profound class contradiction, irreconcilable and antagonistic. President Lyndon Johnson indicated the dilemma in a 1965 speech at Howard University:

“These are proud and impressive achievements,” said LBJ of a number of token gains. “But they only tell the story of a growing middle class minority, steadily narrowing the gap between them and their white counterparts. But for the great majority of Negro America-the poor, the unemployed, the uprooted and dispossessed-there is a grimmer story. They are still another nation. Despite the court orders and the laws, the victories and speeches, for them the walls are rising and the gulf is widening... Moreover, the isolation of Negro from white communities is increasing, rather than diminishing, as Negroes crowd into the central cities–becoming a city within a city.”


The action that opened the floodgates was initiated by four Black students on Feb. 1, 1960, in Greensboro, N.C. The youths sat-in at a segregated lunch counter and asked to be served. Before the battle subsided 10 years later, millions had taken direct action, tens of thousands were jailed, and hundreds slain, including many Black leaders. Every class and strata among the Afro-American people had come to the fore and had had its capacity for leadership, or the lack of it, tested in struggle.

Greensboro had an electrifying effect across the South. “In a matter of days,” wrote Howard Zinn in “SNCC: The New Abolitionists,” “the idea leaped to other cities in North Carolina. During the next two weeks, sit-ins spread to 15 cities in five Southern states. Within the following year, over 50,000 people–most were Negroes, some were white–had participated in one kind of demonstration or another in a hundred cities, and over 3600 demonstrators spent time in jail.”

The most militant of the student youth, organized in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, took the struggle to its next level by integrating themselves with the masses of Black workers, sharecroppers and farm laborers deep in the heart of the Black nation. As Zinn comments on a SNCC campaign in Albany, Ga., in the Black Belt counties:

Albany was picked for a voter registration campaign for the same reasons Mississippi was chosen: educated Negro youngsters from the border states of the South wanted to return, it seemed, to the source of their people’s agony, to that area which was the heart of the slave plantation system, in order to cleanse it once and for all time...

Two months later Albany was the scene of unprecedented mass arrests in the first large-scale Negro uprising since the Montgomery bus boycott. It became the prototype for demonstrations that later rocked Birmingham and dozens of other cities throughout the nation. It represented a permanent turn from the lunch counter and the bus terminal to the streets, from hit-and-run tactics by students and professional civil rights workers to populist rebellion by lower-class Negroes.

In part this “turn” was reflected in the composition of the SNCC staff. “If one were to generalize roughly about the SNCC staff in the Deep South,” says Zinn, “one would say they are young, they are Negro, they come from the South, their families are poor and of the working class, but they have been to college. Northern middle-class whites and Negroes are a minority.” Zinn also offers a political characterization of SNCC activists, a picture that is at once a tribute to their courage and an indictment of the revisionist Communist Party for its liquidation of its revolutionary line on the national question and its organization in the South.

“These are young radicals,” he says, “the word ’revolution’ occurs again and again in their speech. Yet they have no party, no ideology, no creed. They have no clear idea of a blueprint for a future society. But they know clearly that the values of present American society–and this goes beyond racism to class distinction, to commercialism, to profit-seeking, to the setting of religious or national barriers against human contact–are not for them.”


SNCC was not the only group in the South that had taken a revolutionary direction. In Monroe, N.C, one group predated it and held more advanced political views asserting the right of armed self-defense-the local NAACP chapter led by Robert F. Williams.

The NAACP in Monroe had previously been a small group of the upper-class Blacks in the area. But after 1954, it became a target of the Klan and all its members dropped out except for Williams and Dr. Albert E. Perry.

“I hated to give up on something so important as the NAACP,” explains Williams in “Negroes With Guns,” “so one day I walked into a Negro poolroom, interrupted a game by putting NAACP literature on the table and made a pitch. I recruited half of those present. This got our chapter off to a new start. We began a recruiting drive among laborers, farmers, domestic workers, the unemployed and any and all Negro people in the area. We ended up with a chapter that was unique in the whole NAACP because of its working-class composition and leadership that was not middle-class. Most important, we had a strong representation of returned veterans who were very militant and who didn’t scare easily.”

The Monroe NAACP, as a result, had two main features. First, it advocated, systematically organized, and practiced armed self-defense against the Ku Klux Klan in the area. The result was a dropping off of the racist terror despite increased civil rights activity. The second was the working-class orientation of its program. While it fought all symbols of Jim Crow, it stressed the fight for jobs, adequate welfare and an end to discrimination in industry. It also upheld internationalism and ran articles favorable to the Cuban revolution and the third world in its newsletter, The Crusader.

Similar organizations took shape in other Black Belt towns. One which spread over several states was the Deacons for Defense and Justice, an organized armed self-defense group that started in Bogalusa, La. Like the Monroe NAACP, it was based on Black veterans of the Korean War years. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was organized across that state by SNCC. Along with it was the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, also initiated by SNCC and comprised of rural farm laborers and sharecroppers.

By 1965 the Black Belt South was in the midst of a massive upheaval, the likes of which had not been seen since the days of Reconstruction. It was nonviolent in the main, but it also practiced armed self-defense. It was mainly led by reformists, particularly the Southern Black Church, organized by Dr. King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but it also produced an anti-imperialist, nationalist trend, represented by SNCC. It was mainly spontaneous, but it also produced many mass organizations.

But above all it mobilized the masses of the Afro-American people. Black workers, farmers, farm laborers, sharecroppers and the masses of women and youth had stood up in their homeland and against the fiercest repression, demanding the destruction of their chains of bondage.


The struggle was a school of revolutionary politics where the masses drew valuable lessons from their own experience. While Blacks of various classes could and did unite, it became clear that the “peaceful integrationism” of the NAACP reformists was inadequate to the task of winning Black freedom. As the outward symbols of Jim Crow fell, as advances were made in winning the right to vote, the lessons summed up by Lenin decades before came to the fore. As he stated in a 1916 article, ”A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism”:

Marxists know that democracy does not abolish class oppression, but only makes the class struggle clearer, broader, more open and sharper; and this is what we want. The more complete freedom of divorce is, the clearer it will be to the woman that the source of her ’domestic slavery’ is not the lack of rights, but capitalism. The more democratic the system of government is, the clearer it will be to the workers that the root of the evil is not the lack of rights, but capitalism. The more complete national equality is (and it is not complete without freedom of secession), the clearer it will be to the workers of the oppressed nation that it is not a question of the lack of rights, but capitalism. . . But unless these rights are proclaimed, unless a struggle for the immediate rights is waged, unless the masses are educated in the spirit of such a struggle, socialism is impossible.

Lenin posed the same question even more sharply in his 1919 article, “Soviet Power and the Status of Women”:

Equality between what sex and what other sex?

Between what nation and what other nation?

Between what class and what other class?

Freedom from what yoke, or from the yoke of what class? Freedom for what class?

Who ever speaks of politics, of democracy, of liberty, of equality, of socialism, and does not at the same time ask these questions, does not put them in the foreground, does not fight against concealing, hushing up and glossing over these questions, is of the worst enemies of the toilers, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, is a bitter opponent of the workers and peasants, is a servant of the landlords, tsars, capitalists.

These were living, burning questions posed within the southern civil rights battle, a movement which had deepened and had more clearly assumed the character of a national revolutionary upheaval. This was especially true as the demand for “Black Power” swept the South and then the entire country.