Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

The October League (M-L)

The Struggle for Black Liberation and Socialist Revolution

Resolution of the Third National Congress of the October League (Marxist-Leninist)

4. Contemporary Black Liberation Movement

You don’t need to go to the employers alone, it is the government itself, the government of America that is responsible for the oppression and exploitation and degradation of Black people in this country. And you should drop it in their lap. This government has failed the Negro. This so-called democracy has failed the Negro. And all of these white liberals have definitely failed the Negro.[1]

The 1960’s witnessed the greatest Afro-American rebellion of the imperialist period. It confirmed the revolutionary thesis that Blacks will continue to develop their national movement as an integral but distinct part of the U.S. revolution with a goal of autonomous political power.

This new awakening of the Afro-American people erupted into a nationwide mass movement, evoking the greatest domestic crisis of the twentieth century. The development of the Black movement became the focal point for the major contradictions in U.S. society, the most urgent, immediate and pressing question facing the ruling class and the revolutionary forces.

First developing as a civil rights struggle against Jim Crow, it increasingly took on a nationalist character, culminating in the Black Power movement of the 1960’s. It projected into the heart of U.S. society, the demands of the unfinished democratic revolution of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the Black Belt.

In a decade of mass movement, which saw demonstrations and uprisings in virtually every ghetto in the country, the Afro-American people put all existing programs for Black freedom to the test. Their struggle revealed the total bankruptcy of peaceful integration, the “Free By ’63” program of the old reformist leaders and their supporters in the revisionist CPUSA. In the course of fighting for this program, the masses learned that legal equality was meaningless without political power to enforce it.

The Black upsurge had as its inspiration the anti-imperialist revolutions of the Third World and, domestically, the combined influences of the failure of legal democratic integration and the catastrophic deterioration of the economic position of the Black masses, both absolute and relative to whites.

Much of the movement’s strength, its growing momentum and impact, lies in its unity with the anti-imperialist movements in the Third World. This world-wide revolution of color broke the age-old feeling of isolation of the Black movement, transforming it from an internal isolated struggle against an apparently “invincible” ruling class into a component part of a world-wide revolutionary struggle against a common imperialist enemy.

U.S. defeats in China, Vietnam and Cuba had exploded the myth of U.S. invincibility and engendered hope and inspiration (essential elements in the Black rebellion) of ultimate victory. As Malcolm X put it, “We may be a minority within the country, but we are a majority in the world.”

Black power militants, in developing theory and programs for the U.S. Black movement, increasingly drew upon the best experiences of their allies in the Third World.


History will record that the stage for the Black uprisings was set in 1954, the year of the Supreme Court Decision outlawing school segregation. This decision, historic in its effects upon the future of the Black movement, was a tactical concession forced by the rising movement at home and especially by criticism of Jim Crow from Third World and socialist countries. NAACP leaders, however, hailed the decision as a vindication of their legalistic policies. In fact, it began to awaken mass criticism of these policies, since the federal government gave hard-core Southern reactionaries the opportunity to organize and unleash the most planned and purposeful campaign of anti-Black terror since the defeat of Reconstruction.

In response, the Black movement in the South burst out from under the wraps of the old elite leadership of the NAACP, and took on a mass character, defying segregation laws and directly attacking the Jim Crow system. The spark was ignited in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955-56 under the leadership of Martin Luther King. The flames spread. In the summer of 1960, students, spearheaded by SNCC, began sit-in demonstrations which swept the South. In 1961, freedom riders under the leadership of CORE took over the spotlight and won national support in a campaign to integrate transportation facilities. In the spring of 1963, the struggle reached a high point in the Battle of Birmingham, and from there leaped over regional boundaries and spread throughout the country, uniting various classes and strata of Black people behind the slogan of “Freedom Now.” The spiralling militancy of the people was expressed in picketing, boycotts, sit-ins, pray-ins, lie-ins, precipitating a national crisis which deeply affected all areas of U.S. life, economic, social, political and cultural.

Alarm bordering on panic struck the ruling class. Time Magazine (6/6/63) expressed fear that the civil rights movement “will crash beyond the framework of passive resistance into new dangerous dimensions.”[2] U.S. efforts to maintain its colonial effort in the Third World were threatened as racist police with electric prodding irons, dogs, high pressure hoses, etc., provoked anger throughout the world.

The alarm of white ruling circles was reflected among the top leadership of the NAACP reformists. In order to maintain their role as ”honest brokers” between the Black masses and the white rulers, they had been forced to grant some autonomy to the Southern dissident group led by King, with its policy of direct mass action. But King was faced with a growing challenge from the more radical elements of the movement, especially the youth of SNCC, sections of CORE and the NAACP youth–the shock troops of the revolt. In situations like the heroic, but unsuccessful battle of Albany, Ga., the moral and political bankruptcy of making non-violence a principle was revealed. At the same time, even the victories that were won in desegregation and legal reforms produced no improvement in the conditions of the masses of poor and working Blacks. In the 15-year period between 1949 and 1964, the median annual income for non-white families increased from $1650 to $3800. The median for whites increased from $3200 to more than $6800 during the same period. The disparity between white and non-white annual income in 1949 had been less than $1600. By 1964, the gap was more than $3000.[3]

These experiences cast doubt on the whole program of peaceful integration. Even though the civil rights phase of the movement continued after Birmingham (March on Washington, Mississippi Summer Project, Civil Rights Act, Selma, Voting Rights Act), the masses’ rejection of peaceful integration was apparent in the growing wave of ghetto rebellions: 24 in ’64-’65, 38 in ’66, 128 in ’67, and 131 in the first half of 1968.


“Black Power” became the rallying cry of these uprisings because it summed up the main lesson learned by the masses during the civil rights phase of the movement; legal rights mean nothing without political power to enforce them. “Black Power” expressed the growing consciousness of Afro-Americans that they are an oppressed nation whose road to equality lies through self-government and that they should become the controlling force in the areas of their major concentration–in the urban ghettos of the North as well as the Black Belt area of the South.

The emergence of Black Power as a mass slogan signalized a fundamental turning point in the modern Afro-American liberation struggle, carrying it to the threshold of a new phase. It marked a basic shift in content and direction of the movement from civil rights to national liberation, with a corresponding realignment of social forces. It indicated that the Black revolt had crashed beyond the limited goals set by the old guard reformist assimilationist leadership of the NAACP and associates, beyond the strictures of Rev. King’s non-violent holding operation, into channels leading to direct confrontation with the main enemy–the “white power” oligarchy of the imperialists. Inevitably, this struggle moved towards conscious juncture with the anti-imperialist revolutions in the Third World.

The character of the confrontation toward which Blacks headed was clearly national-revolutionary. Its vehicle was a new and indigenous grassroots nationalism, upsurging from the poor and working masses of the urban ghettos and the poor and dispossessed farmers of the Black Belt, reflecting their strivings to break out of the bind of racist economic and cultural subjugation, to establish for themselves the dignity of a free and equal people.

Afro-Americans were caught up in an assertive drive for a viable, collective identity adapted to the peculiar conditions of their development in the U.S. and their African background and to recover a cultural heritage shaped by over 300 years of chattel slavery and a century of partial freedom. This quest for identity as a people in its own right led ever greater segments of the Afro-American community to a fundamental reassessment of their actual status as an oppressed nation–virtual captives in the metropolitan heartland of one of the world’s most powerful and predatory imperialist powers. It also led them to express their political and moral affinity with the emergent nations of the Third World, especially those of Africa.

A growing body of young Black radical intellectuals assumed an active role in fostering the new nationalism. Their efforts, reflecting the spirit of the masses, produced anew cultural renaissance surpassing that of the 1920’s. The vanguard of the new nationalism was an angry, alienated Black youth–a proud and sensitive young generation who refused to stagnate and die in a system which sought to destroy them.

This upsurge also spurred the political development of the Black proletariat. Such organizations as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, signalled the rising force and influence of Blacks in the working-class movement as a whole. This early Black Power movement also led to the development of anti-imperialist organizations such as the Black Panther Party, the African Liberation Support Committee and others.

The above developments led to a mass defection from the old NAACP leadership which became morally and politically isolated from the masses. The trend of Black Power nationalism rose to dominate the Black community in the new phase of the struggle. Importantly, this new nationalism differed from the old, orthodox varieties–the Garvey movement and its latter-day spiritual descendents, the Black Muslims.

Unlike these, the new nationalism calls not for escapist withdrawal, but to fight it out right here, where Blacks live.

The leadership of the Black Power movement, while having a profound and positive effect on the struggles of the Black masses, displayed its own major weakness–that of being primarily based in Black intelligentsia and petit-bourgeoisie. Its own class outlook led it to downplay the necessity to bring forward the masses of Black workers into leadership of the movement. It also deeply underestimated the potential strength in unity with the overall workers’ movement in achieving the aims of the national struggle. These weaknesses contributed to the ability of the U.S. imperialists to temporarily “cool out” the Black upsurge, by employing both reformist and narrow nationalist schemes.


The imperialists, struggling desperately to salvage their deteriorating position abroad, were haunted by the spectre of the Black nationalists at home, blaming them for the breakdown in law and order and economic life. McGeorge Bundy articulated their view in 1966: “If Blacks burn the cities, the white man’s companies will have to take the losses.”[4] It was the new focus of the Black revolt, its militant internationalist, anti-imperialist character, which forced the bourgeoisie to act in new ways. No longer could they rely on old stalwarts like Roy Wilkins and Bayard Rustin. It now became necessary to buy off a section of the ghetto bourgeoisie (not just businessmen, but professionals, poverty project leaders, Black studies professors, newly hired lower management and token upper management) and the elite intelligentsia which spoke for them (Nathan Wright, Roy Innis, etc.)

Led by Bundy’s Ford Foundation, they bought off CORE’S leadership wholesale: McKissick moved to Ford’s Metropolitan Applied Research Center and Innis relied on Harvard’s Kennedy Institute of Politics to define “self-determination” for him–community development corporations and tax incentives for investors in the ghetto. Similarly, the Black Power Conferences were financed by corporate capital including Benjamin Wright of Clairol, brother of conference organizer, Nathan Wright.

Besides buying off the elite, the ruling class began a stepped-up policy of piecemeal concessions to contain and reverse the revolutionary trend by buying up and corrupting potential and actual community leaders and sowing reformist illusions.

In these efforts, the imperialists met halfway the traditional ghetto bourgeoisie and the new business and professional middle class. The Black Power movement had united these groups with poor and working Blacks; at first, class conflicts were submerged. But soon top imperialist leaders were singing the old siren song of Black capitalism: In 1968, Richard Nixon said, ”What most of the militants are asking is not separation, but to be included in–not as supplicants, but as owners, as entrepreneurs–to have a share of the wealth and a piece of the action.”[5] Sections of the ghetto entrepreneurs and professionals were ready to misuse the collective strength of the Black community to get “a piece of the action.”

The crisis and ebbing of the Black Power nationalist movement which occurred was precipitated by the rise of this bourgeois nationalist, and thoroughly reformist trend backed by the imperialists. This new elite moved systematically to take over the movement, sap its revolutionary potential and restrict it to goals which U.S. capitalism was willing to concede. In this they were aided by a growing apparatus of repression (police, FBI, National Guard, Army, new laws) which murdered, jailed and suppressed many less cooperative leaders.


They were also aided by the miserable failure of the CP to rally the entire labor movement to support the Black struggle. Left to the leadership of the chauvinist labor aristocracy in the AFL-CIO, sharp divisions were sown among Black and white workers, in clear contrast to the unity built by the party in the 1930’s.

Without a genuine communist party, the leadership of the Black Power movement did not develop a strong working-class outlook and had no revolutionary theory. They failed to make a class analysis of the Black community, overestimated the unity between the Black masses and the Black bourgeoisie and underestimated the need for unity with white workers.

If there had been a party with a correct line during this period, much of the spontaneity and bourgeois nationalism could have been combatted. Undoubtedly, the ruling class could still have split the Black Power movement, but the left wing would not have been nearly liquidated as an organized force in the Black community. The communist forces could have come out of the ’60s with developed cadres rooted in the community with credibility among the masses.

If the CP hadn’t liquidated communist work in the South and in the factories, the 1960’s would have seen a consolidated proletarian force emerge in the Black Belt and the ghettos.

But the Black revolt was nevertheless an enormous breakthrough against national oppression on a wide front. It shaped a nationalist consciousness among the Black masses that can never be eradicated under capitalism. From among both Black and white participants of this movement came hundreds of the communists presently engaged in the building of the new communist party.

The events of the 1960’sand the current situation in the U.S. have vividly demonstrated in practice that the material basis for Afro-American national oppression continues to be the existence of these people as an oppressed nation within the country. U.S. imperialism has been unable to complete the democratic tasks of Reconstruction. That task has been left for the working class and its party, in alliance with the oppressed nationalities.


[1] Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks, p. 31.

[2] Time Magazine, June, 1963.

[3] Nathan Wright Jr., The Black Power Revolt, p. 121.

[4] Robert C. Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America, p. 72.

[5] Ibid., p. 229-230