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International Socialist Review, Spring 1964


Bernard Mandel

The Freedom Struggle: Revolt to Revolution


Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.25 No.2, Spring 1964, pp.42-44, 63.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


BERNARD MANDEL is a native of Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of the book Labor, Free and Slave: Workingmen and the Anti-Slavery Movement in the United States, and of numerous articles in scholarly journals and labor periodicals. He is president of the Cleveland Negro History Association and is author of the recently published biography: Samuel Gompers, published by The Antioch Press. (See Book Review Section.)

* * *

THE TERMS “Negro revolt” and “Negro revolution” are now used widely and loosely by both protagonists and opponents of the liberation struggle to describe the present stage of the movement. Usually they are employed indiscriminately and interchangeably, not only without distinguishing between them, but without differentiating them from previous levels of the movement except in degree of intensity or urgency. It is of more than theoretical interest that this question be clarified, for on one’s understanding of this depends his orientation toward the future unfolding of the struggle and the direction to be taken in developing it to its speediest and most complete fulfillment.

The modern freedom movement had its origin in the Niagara Movement, initiated in 1905 by William Monroe Trotter and William E. B. DuBois. This was a crucial point in the history of the Afro-Americans because it marked the beginning of a counter-offensive after a generation of demoralization, despair, and retreat.

In 1876 the Republican party – the corrupt tool of the Northern capitalists – betrayed the freedom to the mercies of the Southern landlords and merchants. Immediately the Negro peasantry was reduced to a status only nominally different from that of chattel slavery – instead of belonging to individual masters, they were the property of the whole planter class. Repressed by a genocidal policy of lynch law, Ku Klux Klan terror, and the “justice” of the white men’s laws and courts, the sport of every policeman and any depraved white man, they were disarmed, disfranchised, and deprived of every right supposedly guaranteed by the War Amendments. Tangled in the meshes of serfdom, debt peonage, and the chain gang; jim crowed, humiliated, denied an education, ravished by sickness and hunger, they became voiceless drudges growing cotton for Yankee and Southern textile mills in which they were not allowed to work.

The symbol of the Negroes’ degradation was Booker T. Washington. He was the only recognized “spokesman” of the race, having been elected to this role by the white masters of the nation. Washington preached to the black workers a message of labor, docility, thrift, loyalty to the boss, and restraint from any demands for equal educational opportunity, poltical and civil rights, or – dictum horribilis – social equality. Begging white philanthropists for crumbs to support his vocational school at Tuskegee, Alabama, he promised to train a laboring class that would serve faithfully and would not strike. He got his crumbs; and in addition, the power to determine how all charity for Negro schools would be distributed, what Negroes would get the few federal jobs dispensed by the Republican party, and extensive control over the Negro press of the country. He was a faithful agent of the capitalist class, helping to keep “his people” in their appointed place.

Change In Leadership

For a decade, Washington’s “leadership” was almost unchallenged. But the depths of oppression had been reached as American imperialism, bloated with stolen riches and lording it over the colonial peoples of Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, girded the structure of exploitation and oppression with “legal” props which were sanctioned by the United States Supreme Court.

Then a man came forward and raised the cry, “No more!” DuBois, Trotter, and other Negro intellectuals unfurled the banner of protest, rejected Washington’s program of accommodation and submission, and launched the campaign for equal rights. The Niagara Movement demanded the suffrage, the abolition of all racial discrimination and the jim crow system; equal opportunity to jobs, and an end of peonage, free and compulsory elementary education and equal access to the high schools and colleges, trade and technical schools; equal treatment in the courts and the abolition of the chain gang, the opportunity to live in decent homes and localities, and “eternal protest and persistent manly agitation” for “every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil and social.”

Four years later a group of white liberals and socialists organized the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and DuBois brought the Niagara Movement into it (Trotter did not go along, distrusting the dominant white leadership). The NAACP won many advances in its first half century: a sharp reduction in lynchings, legal victories in the courts against residential segregation and the restrictive covenant, against the grandfather clause and the white primary, against the exclusion of Negroes from juries, and in the past decade against segregation in schools, public carriers, and in the Northern states in other places of public accommodation. Above all, it made the civil rights question a national isjue, keeping it constantly in the public view.

In War and Peace

The Negroes’ experience in the First World War advanced their determination to achieve equality: breaking the white supremacist taboos in France, proving their manhood on the battlefields in the war “to make the world safe for democracy,” and smarting under the discrimination and insults received in the army and at home, they returned from war determined, as DuBois wrote, to “marshall every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” (The FBI declared in 1919 that the Negro leadership was Bolshevistic, because of its “more open expression” of demands for equality and its “ill-governed reaction” to race riots – that is, the Negroes fought back.)

In the early ’20s the Negro masses were aroused as never before by Marcus Garvey’s program for the “return” of all Negroes to Africa where they would establish a politically and economically independent black empire. While this venture was doomed to failure, Garvey’s dynamic, militant, and showy propaganda and organizing campaign raised the level of national consciousness, race pride, and self-assertion to new heights.

At the same time, the “Harlem Renaissance” was under way, giving the “New Negro” a multitude of new voices. Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, and Countee Cullen expressed the angers and hopes of the young generation, their growing self-consciousness and pride, and their radicalization. It was, as Locke put it, a movement of “spiritual emancipation.”

A few years earlier, Carter G. Woodson had founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, beginning the rectification of the racist writing of Negro history that had dominated American “scholarship” for two centuries. The Journal of Negro History became the organ for a generation of young Negro and white humanist (mostly Marxist) scholars who rewrote the tragic and heroic history of black America, helping to dispel the monstrous distortions which, like the rest of America’s white culture, were calculated to brand the Negro people with the stamp of inferiority.

Important New Changes

Since 1915, two phenomena of immense importance in the development of the freedom struggle had been taking place. Spurred by the industrialization of the South and the war boom of Northern industry, the Negro population began moving from the plantation to the city and from the South to the North. At the beginning of the century the American Negro was a Southern peasantry, 90% of them living in the South and the vast majority of them working in agriculture, mostly as sharecroppers. By 1940 over a fourth of the Negroes were in the North, practically all urban-based; and in 1960 half the Negroes lived in the North and even the Southern Negroes were almost 50% urban.

These developments were of tremendous significance. In the first place, the “Negro question” was transformed from a Southern problem to a national one. Second, the urbanization of the Negroes welded them into compact masses who could be more easily reached and organized by civil rights groups, Negro organizations and institutions, and the Negro press. Third, the proletarianization of the Negroes freed millions of them from the peasant mentality of resignation and from the direct tyranny of the planter and the sheriff which made protest almost impossible. It introduced large numbers of Negroes into the organized labor movement (stimulated by A. Philip Randolph’s Negro American Labor Council and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters), giving many their first experiences in organized struggle and their first awareness of social and class consciousness.

These experiences prepared them for the great unionization campaigns of the CIO in the 1930s. Breaking away from the reactionary labor bureaucracy of the AFL which for half a century had ignored, jim crowed, and discriminated against the Negro workers, the CIO for the first time brought them into the mainstream of the labor struggle in the mass production industries, and in doing so forced the AFL unions to adopt a somewhat less restrictive policy. As a result, Negroes today constitute about one tenth of the union membership in the United States, divided about equally between the former AFL and CIO unions.

THE NEW DEAL era was electrifying in other ways as well. The Negroes shared in the sense of social struggle that permeated the decade, entered the struggle against lynch law in the Scottsboro and Angelo Herndon cases, joined with whites in fighting for relief and jobs, joined the sharecroppers’ union by the thousands, broke their old allegiance to the Republican party, and took a giant step toward unification of the freedom struggle through the formation of the National Negro Congress.

Then came World War II. The experiences of the first war were multiplied manyfold: a million Negro men and women fought against fascism in Europe, Asia, and North Africa – in the navy and air force as well as the army, as fighting men as well as laborers and drivers, and increasingly in integrated units. The migration to the cities and to the North was stepped up, and Negroes entered many industrial jobs formerly closed to them, aided by the War Labor Board’s order for equal pay and Roosevelt’s executive order on fair employment practices which was forced on him by Randolph’s threat to mobilize 50,000 Negro workers for a march on Washington.

Following the war, the freedom struggle received a tremendous impetus from the upsurge of the colonial revolutions against imperialism and the broadening of the socialist revolution in China and Cuba. The emergence of Africa and Asia from colonial slavery to the center of the arena of the international struggle for freedom was an inspiration to black America, whose identification with their African brothers had been strengthened by DuBois’ thirty-year agitation for Pan-Africanism, Garvey’s back-to-Africa campaign, and the fight against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. The socialist revolution, sweeping up the colored peoples of the world, was also an inspiration, particularly Cuba’s swift abolition of racial segregation and discrimination. It also gave great assistance to the American Negro’s struggle for equal rights, as the American ruling class had to calculate the effect of its racist policies on the masses of submerged people who were being increasingly attracted to socialism as the road to freedom.

* * *

The struggles and advances of the first half of the twentieth century only served to underscore the fact that the Negroes were still an oppressed and exploited people, penned in slum ghettoes, confined largely to menial jobs and domestic service, victims of police brutality, their children condemned to die at twice the rate of white children, given inferior education, denied the vote in the South, and daily insulted by the jim crow system and a culture permeated with white supremacism. To growing numbers of Negroes it was becoming evident that laws, court decisions, or agreements between white politicians and Negro leaders were resulting in, at best, illusory tokenism and disheartening gradualism and at worst, an actual deterioration in conditions (increase in unemployment, widening of the gap between the income of whites and Negroes, repressive legislation against civil rights activities).

Obviously, new methods of struggle were necessary: direct action by the people themselves. When the Montgomery bus boycott was successfully waged in 1955-56, the Negro revolt was on. This was followed in 1960 by the student sit-ins for desegregation of lunch counters, by the freedom rides of ‘61 to integrate the bus depots, and a wide range of demonstrations in ‘63: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, picketing and lie-ins for jobs at construction sites in Philadelphia and New York, the school boycott and mass demonstrations in Chicago, rent strikes in New York and Cleveland, and protest demonstrations against discrimination and segregation in Birmingham, Alabama; Cambridge, Maryland; Plaquemine, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi; and over a thousand other cities in thirty states.

Some New Ingredients

There are several characteristics of this movement which give it its quality of revolt as distinguished from the earlier protest movement. First, and most important, is that it involves mass action, in contrast to the earlier movements, which consisted largely of legal battles in the courts, lobbying, and conferences with public officials. Until 1955, the civil rights movement was a leadership movement, and the leadership was predominantly middle class and included many whites or was influenced by the views and interests of white financial contributors. The struggle has to a large extent been transferred from the courts to the streets.

Second, many of the current demonstrations are designed to remove injustices by direct confrontation with the offenders. For example, the NAACP had won a court ruling against segregated bus stations in 1958, but it was largely a dead letter until the freedom riders compelled compliance by direct action; many of the on-site job demonstrations were similarly efforts to force employers and unions to observe municipal ordinances against discrimination on public projects; rent strikes are compelling adherence to unenforced building codes. This represents not only resentment against the slowness and tokenism of legal procedures, but a loss of faith in the accepted “democratic” way of redressing grievances and in the willingness of government to enact or even enforce their own laws.

Third, the Negro revolt is a manifestation of rebellion against the older organizations and their conservative leadership. The sit-ins were started more or less spontaneously, and the students called on the Congress of Racial Equality, not the NAACP, for assistance. The freedom rides were initiated and conducted mainly by CORE, which is seriously challenging the NAACP for national leadership. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which grew out of the sit-ins, has become one of the most militant and effective freedom organizations. Scores of new organizations have sprung up in cities all over the country, putting forward new leaders, new programs, and new methods of struggle.

An associated feature of this revolt against the old leadership is the determination to reject white leadership. Experience has indicated that, while many white allies have proved steadfast and many Negroes untrustworthy, in general the more white leadership there is the more inclined an organization is to be conciliatory and to sell out. The movement has reached a stage where the black freedom fighters insist on developing their own programs and having their own spokesmen. This has proved beneficial in many ways: it has helped to bring forward a cadre of new young Negro leaders, it has strengthened their self-confidence, and it has been more effective in winning demands because the whites who have had to confront Negro spokesmen have been more ready to recognize them as representatives of their people who mean business.

THESE ARE all characteristics of a revolt. Do they constitute a revolutionary process? Not yet, although there are revolutionary implications and tendencies in some of these developments, and undoubtedly the revolt will become a revolutionary movement. But in order for this to happen the revolt will not only have to become more militant and involve larger masses of the people; it will also have to adopt a revolutionary perspective with regard to ultimate objectives. This might be clarified by examining the use of the term “white power structure.” In the past few years this expression has become so universally employed in the civil rights movement as to be almost a cliche. The most conservative Negro spokesmen roll it off their tongues glibly. This in itself is an indication of the higher level of understanding at the basis of the revolt, but there are two important things to be noted concerning it.

In the first place, the term itself is vague. To some people it means the government and its agencies, the employers, the union bureaucracies that have become part of the corporate economy, the banks, the landlords, the mass media and other spokesmen or ideologists of the Establishment. To others it has a much narrower connotation: those individuals in current command of any agency or organization being confronted in a particular struggle. Some do and some do not attach significance to the word “structure” in the phrase: the latter regard the various components of the system as merely all of a kind (that is, people with prejudices), while the former recognize that the capitalists are the head and fount that controls and directs the whole interlocking complex of special interests which profit from the system of Negro exploitation and oppression. Finally, the word “white” is variously understood: while the power structure is unquestionably dominated by whites, many if not most of those who use the term have not yet achieved a realization of the fact that a large part of the old Negro “leadership,” like the reactionary union bureaucrats, are themselves a part of the power structure and are serving its interests by helping to retard the tempo, style, and direction of the freedom fight.

The second point about the term “white power structure” is that strategy and objectives flow from one’s conception of the meaning of the term. The narrower interpretation of it implies that in order to win the equal rights struggle, the immediate and apparent opponents of a particular issue must be confronted with a countervailing power in order to force them to surrender. Or in some cases, it is believed, demands may be won by replacing one set of individuals by a more moderate group (e.g., Mayor Boutwell for Bull Connor in Birmingham). One after another battle will thus be won until final victory is achieved; the power structure will be defeated but still intact. A more sophisticated understanding of the power structure dictates a totally different approach: the whole structure must be uprooted and transformed; a change of personnel in the power structure will not basically remedy the situation, nor will any given number of piecemeal concessions.

The fact is that every demand yet raised by the civil rights movement could be secured within the framework of the present social system – although their achievement would certainly weaken it and the power structure which controls it. And when those demands are won, the Negro masses will still be subject to massive and chronic unemployment, low wages, inadequate housing and rent robbery, an archaic educational system, inadequate health and medical services, and the constant threat of depression, fascism, and imperialist war, to say nothing of a whole culture that is degraded, commercialized and corrupt. As a militant Cleveland freedom fighter put it, “I’ll still be black.”

Furthermore, it will likely become apparent to the liberation struggle as it unfolds that the power structure not only resists its demands but is the root, the constant generative source of racial oppression. For the jim crow system is, above all, a means of maintaining the Negroes as a class of cheap laborers and, beyond that, an instrument for keeping the working class divided with the ideology of white supremacy. Therefore, so long as capitalism survives, racism will be perpetuated in our economic, social, political, and cultural institutions, because it is an integral part of American capitalism, as it has been for three centuries.

While the capitalist system remains, it will produce its power structure and all the props that help to sustain it. The Negro revolt will emerge into revolution, then, when the Negro masses adopt the perspective of struggle against the system, and not merely against the power structure which controls it. This will undoubtedly be accompanied by, and effected through, many changes in the structure of the movement itself. For one thing, it will mean not only a repudiation of the conservative leaders in the Negro organizations, but a sharp struggle against them, for at least portions of the Negro bourgeoisie, and the “moderate” spokesmen who represent them, will undoubtedly become openly hostile to the liberation struggle as it becomes revolutionary.

It will mean new types of organizations to broaden the scope and objectives of the struggle, of which the Freedom Now Party or a similar political party may be a leading and crucial element.

It will mean new methods of struggle, such as political action, wholesale sabotage of the economic and political structure, and the general strike.

It will mean closer collaboration with the world colonial, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist revolution.

It will mean some form of alliance with radical groups or parties, and perhaps eventual merger with them.

Either these developments will take place and liberation will be won; or the Negro revolt will peter out in a sickening acquiescence in tokenism and TVism; or the rebellion will be drowned in blood.

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