Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

In Defense of the Right to Self-Determination


What are some of the special features of the concrete conditions facing the Afro-American people in the Black Belt South today?

Nearly 5 million Black people still live there, a figure comprising about 20% of the Black population of the entire country and about 43% of the Black population of the entire South.

A key feature of the area is its poverty. Nearly half of all Black people in the rural South make less than $3000 per year. The median family income of a Black family in South Carolina, for instance, is $3000. By way of contrast, the median income of a Black family living in Illinois is $6000, or twice as much.

In the South as a whole the median annual income of a Black family in 1970 was $5226, while that of a white family was $9240 or 43% more. Outside the South the median Black family got about $7800 while the white family got about $10,600 or about 25% more.

These figures alone tell an old story about the relationship between national oppression and class exploitation. The moral is a simple one: the greater the inequality between Black and white, the poorer are the living conditions of both Black and white. This is a truth that refutes any argument claiming that white chauvinism and discrimination against Blacks is in the class interests of the masses of white workers.

The Deep South also leads the country in infant mortality and illiteracy. It has also become a haven for runaway shops from the North, the owners of which are fleeing unionization and seeking superprofits from the cheap labor of the rural reserve army of the Black unemployed. These are typical features of an oppressed nation and it is not uncommon to see new factories being constructed in small Black Belt towns alongside old plantations that maintain the sharecropping system.

About 4.5 million Black people in the South live in rural areas and small towns, and most of these are in the Black Belt. Also, on the average, Blacks are still a majority of the rural population in the Black Belt and a 30% minority in the Black Belt’s urban areas. Thus, while whites are an overall 60% majority in the region, they are mainly concentrated in the cities. In the South as a whole, some 56% live in metropolitan areas. In the U.S. as a whole, 75% of Blacks live in metropolitan areas.

These figures show a special feature of the Black Belt. Blacks living outside the area are mainly urban dwellers while Blacks within it mainly live in or near rural small towns.


A second feature is the region’s class composition. While the Black peasantry is less than 5% of the Black labor force in the entire country, the vast majority of these live in the Black Belt. In the U.S. today, there are 72,000 Black farm owners, 18,000 Black tenant farmers, 168,000 Black farm laborers and about 200,000 Black pulpwood cutters. Together with their families, these Black toilers comprise a peasant population of around 1 million.

These people are still working the land that has been worked by the Afro-American people for centuries. In the Black Belt today the land question and the necessity of a worker-peasant alliance are living, vital issues for both the Black united front and the proletarian revolution.

It is obviously true that Southern agriculture has undergone vast changes in the areas of mechanization and diversification in recent decades and that the Black farm population has drastically declined. One set of figures alone tells the story: In 1920 only 1% of all farms in the South had tractors; in 1960, more than 60% did so. This shows the shift from labor-intensive to capital-intensive farming.

But one decisive factor remains unchanged. In the Black Belt the majority of those who work the land are Black while the landowners who profit from their labor are white. What is more, even where farm workers are paid a wage, this capitalist production relation is superimposed on the more backward, semifeudal forms of debt bondage and peonage, which in turn are still enforced through lynching, chain gangs, vagrancy laws and prison contract labor.

It is true that a minority of Black Belt plantations today are still set up on the old-style sharecropping system. Many plantations have driven cropper families from the land and replaced them with wage workers. Others have taken a route noted by Harry Haywood in his 1959 pamphlet, “Toward a Revolutionary Position on the Negro Question,” where he quotes the Jan. 27, 1956 issue of U.S. News and World Report:

Speaking of the Delta & Pine Land Co. of Scott, Miss., the biggest row crop operation in the U.S., which holds 38,000 acres, of which 24,000 are under cultivation, it says:

’Once the company had 16,000 acres in cotton, employed 1000 tenant families, averaging five members each, and used 1200 mules. Now only 7899 acres are in cotton. The rest of the land is planted in corn, rice, alfalfa, hay sorghum, oats and barley and in grass for pasturage. The company has 15 mules and 200 tractors. It is producing 1500 fed-out steers for market this year... (it now uses) about 425 families.’

It is pertinent to note here that the drop in number of families on the above plantation corresponds approximately to the average drop in number of sharecroppers in Mississippi. Pertinent here, however, is that this mechanized, diversified operation still relies basically upon 425 tenant families, and not upon agricultural laborers.

The recent series in the Guardian on the national question argues that the mechanization and capital-intensification of Southern agriculture is “the most important change of all” in the objective conditions of the Afro-American people in the Black Belt, a change that has done away with the existence of a Black nation and consequently its right to self-determination.

But despite this change, one essential feature stands out. As long as imperialism and the conditions indicated above persist, Southern agriculture will remain rooted in national oppression, with its attendant semifeudal aspects, as well as in class exploitation.

Nonetheless the development of Southern agriculture does imply certain changes and shifts in emphasis of the immediate program of a Marxist-Leninist party for the special conditions in the Deep South. While basic demands like self-determination and state unity for the Black Belt would remain, the importance of unionization of farm labor and the confiscation and collectivization of agribusiness would increase. The interests of Black farm owners would still be defended and they would still be urged to form cooperatives (as some are doing now), but the specific weight of this aspect would be lessened.


It is not correct to take the view that because agricultural workers are a small percentage of the labor force, they are therefore relatively unimportant. The role that the struggle of the United Farm Workers union has played in recent years, even with the weaknesses of its leadership, should give some indication that the political impact of a struggle, especially against backward, semifeudal conditions, can reach far beyond what the numbers involved would seem to imply.

It is likewise important to grasp the fact that the semifeudal aspects of the oppression of the plantation system are not limited to sharecroppers or the rural areas, or only to the past and not the present. As Haywood points out:

Of course, one must not fail to note that while the sharecropper status represents the purest survival of the old slave relationships, all categories of Negroes in Southern agriculture are, either directly or indirectly, decisively conditioned by these social relics of slavery which have long since been adapted to the needs of monopoly capitalism. The shadow of the plantation proscribes strict limits for the development of the neighboring Negro tenant and owner, keeping him ever at the disadvantage in relation to the white competitor. As renter or owner he is restricted to inferior land, denied equal commercial and banking services. The Negro workers no less find conditions for the most part predetermined by the status of the Negro in agriculture. He is often still tied to the land, either directly as an agricultural wage laborer, or indirectly as a worker in the primary agricultural processing industries (ginning, logging, saw milling, cane mills, etc.). Even where he may move one step away into industry proper, he is generally restricted as a production worker to the heaviest, most dangerous and dirtiest work such as in the extractive industries (mining, smelting, fishing).

An example of this today is the growing Southern pulpwood industry, which encompasses an estimated 250,000 woodcutters, about 80% of whom are Black. Many of these woodcutters are from sharecropping families or were sharecroppers themselves. Like the cotton sharecropper, they still obtain their equipment (saws, trucks, etc.) from the company on credit. They usually work alone on woodland that is not their own and the companies often discriminate against hiring them or members of their families in the lumber mills. The result is that they are kept in a form of debt bondage–only instead of chopping cotton they are chopping wood–and growing numbers are getting organized today across the Black Belt in the Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association to protest and fight these conditions.


The shadow of the plantation is also reflected in certain features of the political system in the Deep South. Despite the gains of the civil rights movement, the Black Belt still contains the largest nonvoting section of the Black population. Even among those registered to vote in the last election, 53% gave as their reason for not voting that they were “unable to go to the polls,” a category that covers over the prevalence of a lynch-law atmosphere of repression. Less than 12 years ago, the results of the 1964 Goldwater-Johnson election partially revealed the political reality of the Black Belt. In county after county with a Black majority population, two features stood out. First, less than 3% of Blacks of voting age were registered to vote. Second, Goldwater won the election with majorities of 90%.

Today it is still the giant banks and corporations headed by the Rockefellers and Mellons, in alliance with reactionary landowners like Sen. James Eastland (D-Miss.), that rule the South. The Black bourgeoisie, much of which operates in the South, is pitifully small and weak. The Black upper class is described in an article by Lloyd Hogan appearing in the Nov. 1974 issue of Current Histories:

On the basis of the 1970 Census Special Reports and the 1969 Census Survey of the minority-owned business, it is estimated that there are not more than 4000 Black families, consisting of some 15,000 individuals, who own viable commercial farms or business firms and whose main livelihood derives from profits, interests, dividends, rents and so on earned from ownership of these enterprises.

It is also estimated that not more than 200,000 Black families, consisting of some 650,000 individuals, are self-employed in small and marginal farms and businesses. For these families, the income derived from these businesses consists primarily of wages for their own labor. They employ little, if any, paid labor outside their own families.

The remaining 6 million Black families, consisting of some 21.7 million individuals, earn their living primarily from the sale of their work skills. Thus, the laboring Black population consists of more than 96% of the total Black population. (About 10% of this “laboring Black population” consists of the Black intelligentsia and other middle strata. Thus the Black working class comprises more than 85% of the entire Black labor force, a higher proportion than among the general population of the U.S.).

A report by the Urban League based on 1972 statistics rounds out the picture of the Black upper class. Black business grossed an annual S7 billion–a drop in the bucket compared with the U.S. economy as a whole. They comprised only 1% of all businesses, only 2% of them were incorporated and only 20% had salaried workers. Some 98% were sole proprietorships or partnerships.

While these figures indicate that class differentiation, a Black market and exchange between town and country in the Deep South still persist among the Afro-American people, the common economic life thus formed is extremely weak, especially in comparison with the U.S. economy. But even in this sense, it is still similar to the subjugated and restricted economic life of many of the small oppressed nations.


This bourgeoisie is nonetheless politically active and strives to promote its economic interests, mainly through the institution of the Black church. As Earl Ofari points out in “The Myth of Black Capitalism”:

By the 1930s, the Black church had become a main agent for promoting the interests of a few select business enterprises belonging to the Black elite. . . Categorically stated, the Black church, from the lofty position it has consistently occupied in both the spiritual consciousness and the physical life of the Black masses, has been able to control more of the Black community’s miniscule financial resources than any other type of single or collective Black business enterprise.”

Where this aspect of Black economic life takes its most nationalist form is in the holdings and economic ventures of the Nation of Islam, which include attempts to develop a land base in the Deep South. Where it has been most overtly political is in the campaigns of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose main concentration is in the South.

All these factors, then, are only a broad outline of some of the key objective conditions of the Afro-American people, both in the nation in the Black Belt and among the national minority communities in the North and West. Contrary to the recent series in the Guardian, these features are not ignored or dismissed by those who genuinely uphold the right of self-determination for the Black nation. In fact just the opposite is the case. It is those who grasp this theory who are in a position to use it to both accurately sum up the lessons of the past and guide the actions of the revolutionary movement in the present.