James Boggs :: 7. Rebels with a Cause

When people talk about how many Russians were killed behind the Iron Curtain in the concentration camps, it doesn't move American Negroes at all. The reason is very simple. The same thing happened to them in this country. White American workers didn't have to go through what the Russian workers went through under Stalin because the Negroes went through it for them on the cotton plantations of the South. Every immigrant who walked off the gangplank to make his way in the land of opportunity was climbing onto the Negroes' backs. For the United States is not like any other country which has built itself up on the basis of slavery. This country committed the most unpardonable crime of all. After freeing the slaves, it then segregated them off on the basis of color as inferior to the rest of the population, both in law and in fact. For this crime the United States will occupy a position in the annals of history comparable only to that occupied by Hitler Germany for the crimes it committed against the Jews. But Hitler lasted only twelve years during which he killed 6 million Jews. The crime of the United States has lasted over a century.

To this day, the American nation celebrates the Civil War and records it as a war to free the slaves. But in the eyes of Negroes the Civil War was the war which made it possible for the United States to be industrialized, the war which resulted in the Bargain of 1877 between Northern capital and Southern landed aristocracy, which left the former slaves living and working under a caste system as brutal as that of slavery itself.

Following the Civil War and a brief period of Reconstruction during which Negroes enjoyed their newly won freedoms, the North made its infamous deal with the South. According to this deal, the South could go its way, using the Negroes as sharecroppers on the cotton plantations. In return, the North got from King Cotton much of the capital it needed for industrialization, both through export of cotton to England and from its own textile mills. This Bargain of 1877 was never recorded, but it ranks with the other more famous compromises on principle which have distinguished the United States in its relation to slavery.

The Negro question in the United States has therefore never been purely a question of race, nor is it purely a question of race today. Class, race, and nation are all involved. The American nation has become the giant of industry that it is today on the backs of the Negroes. The working class has from the very beginning been divided. The white workers were an aristocracy which benefited first and always from the exploitation of the Negroes, and in between by the exploitation of each new wave of immigrants.

What has made the problem of the socialist revolution in the United States so complicated and difficult for American Marxists is the fact that there has been no mass party of labor in this country as in the industrialized countries of Western Europe. What American Marxists have failed to understand is that in Western Europe the mass parties of labor were formed and were able to endure not only because of the working-class struggle against capital but also because the workers struggled against the landed aristocracy. During this same period no mass party of labor arose here because the workers, as long as they could go their way settling on the free lands of the West and working as free labor in the new industries of the East, were ready to allow the landed aristocracy of the South to exploit the Negroes. Thus the concept of "Black and White, Unite and Fight" has never had any basis in fact in this country: the blacks and whites were never struggling for the same things nor were they united in the same cause even when they were fighting side by side.

When the Civil War ended with the Negroes being returned to serfdom, it was the first major defeat of the class struggle in the United States. From that time on, Americans, including the radicals among them, have regarded the Negro question as a race question. Before the Civil War, Negro struggles were called rebellions and revolts. But after the Civil War and the formal emancipation of the Negroes, any violent action by Negroes was just called a "race riot" even when these actions were based on economic grounds, such as jobs, housing, or prices.

So long have the American people lived with this contradiction that it has become a way of life for them. That is why the question of what the Negro struggle really represents, what should be done about it, what is right and what is wrong, is shaking the United States more than any other issue. Why should America fight to free the world when America is itself not free? Why did America fight the last war for democracy when America itself does not have democracy? How can Americans really be for the freedom of Africa when they are not for freedom inside the United States? How can Americans be for freedom and equality the world over when they do not practice freedom and equality at home? How can Americans say they are for parliamentary democracy and free elections abroad when they do not have parliamentary democracy and free elections at home? How can America give advice to countries all over the whole world on how to solve their problems when it cannot solve its own problems? Why does America claim to want to give so much economic progress to everybody else when it finds it so hard to give economic progress to its own colored citizens? How can Americans say they have a free society when the question of where to eat and where not to eat, where to ride and where not to ride on buses, streetcars, and trains, in order to avoid the Negro haunts the average American white before he even leaves his house in the morning?

Thus what began as a class issue and was made into a race issue by the simple act of separating off the Negroes on the basis of color, has now in fact become a national issue, the great, the pervasive, the All-American question that is shaking up every organization, every institution, and every individual inside America and affecting the relationships of all these to the rest of the world: labor, the professions, the church, the courts, the armed forces, industry, employment, transportation, the family, marriage, schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, government on all levels, police, firemen, social welfare, political parties, press, TV, radio, movies, sports. The list is endless.

In the period following the Bargain of 1877, the Negro question remained dormant. Although this period was characterized by most brutal and shameful beatings, lynchings, and rape (worse than before the Civil War because now things were supposed to be different), Americans found it possible to look the other way. All that the Abolitionists had talked about and exposed in the prewar period was drowned out in the thunderous expansion of American industry and the shifting of the class struggle to the railroads and new industries created as a result of the war.

The first serious eruption of violence between whites and Negroes came in the big riot of 1908 in Springfield, Illinois. This in turn led to the birth of the NAACP, an organization formed by Negro intellectuals to defend Negro rights. The First World War and the crisis of American capitalism propelled into the urban centers and the United States Army many Negroes who brought with them all the questions and grievances which up to then had been silenced by the police state in the South. It was at this juncture that Negroes began to discover the many "ifs" and "buts" of American democracy. Up to this point they had been considering "Up North" a haven, revering Abe Lincoln and the Republican Party as their benefactors, putting the Yankee on a pedestal as the fighter for their freedom. Their disillusionment with Northern democracy continues to smoulder in every Negro who has settled up North after knowing life in the South.

The clash between their expectations and the harsh realities of life in the North, plus the blow that they sensed had been dealt to Western Civilization by the First World War and the Russian Revolution, created the mass basis for the Garvey movement, which at its height is estimated to have attracted anywhere from one to six million Negroes, and forced the people of the United States for the first time since the Civil War to face the reality of the Negroes as a force. This reality was never to leave them completely again.

After the First World War the Northern ghettos began to swell as those Negroes in the South who could eke out enough money to make the trip continued to migrate to the North. In 1931, simultaneously with the Depression, the Scottsboro Case, involving the legal lynching by the Southern courts of nine young Negro boys, raised the Negro question once again to the status of a major issue not only in the United States but throughout the world. But Negroes were still on the defensive. During the Depression more thousands of Negroes, displaced by the mechanization of the farms, flocked into the cities both North and South. Here they took every advantage of the social reforms of the New Deal.

During the 1930's the CIO erupted, and the pattern which had been created by American capitalism in the Civil War repeated itself. To save the Union, Lincoln had freed the slaves. Now to save the union, Negroes were admitted into it, lest the capitalists use them as strikebreakers and scabs. But this was not too difficult for the unions to do. There were not too many Negroes in industry anyway, except at Ford (which was not unionized until 1941) and in steel where the Negroes did the heaviest and most menial work out of which the immigrants had been upgraded. The bulk of the Negroes were unemployed and on relief.

With the coming of the Second World War, Negroes up North made use of the opportunity created by the weakness of American capitalism to organize the March on Washington movement. Out of this movement came Executive Order 8802, opening up jobs in defense industries to Negroes. Negroes did not give credit for this Order to Roosevelt and the American government. Far from it. Recognizing that America and its allies had their backs to the wall in their struggle with Hitler and Tojo, Negroes said that Hitler and Tojo, by creating the war which made the Americans give them jobs in industry, had done more for them in four years than Uncle Sam had done in 300 years.

Working in industry, fighting inside the armed forces, the Negroes now began to seize upon all the weaknesses of American capitalism. This led to a series of riots in army camps and major cities in the North which reached their peak at the height of the war in the year 1943. Only when the official records of the Armed Services are made public will Americans know how many hundreds of revolts took place among the Negro soldiers and sailors during the Second World War.

Inside the plants of the war industries the newly employed Negro workers carried on an offensive battle against both management and the white workers, forcing the white workers to face up to the idiocies of their prejudices and making them admit for the first time that Negroes could perform or learn all the operations of American production which the world had been led to believe could only be done by the superior whites. On the union floor, Negro workers raised problems which the white workers and the union had never before had to face, often causing splits inside the union and among the workers on the issues of human rights and human behavior.

When the war was over, the Negroes did not return to the farms as they had done in large numbers after the First World War. They had established themselves in industry and in Northern communities, and in many plants had built up seniority while white workers were losing it by moving from plant to plant.

In the South the whites started again the old intimidation that had been launched after the First World War. The Klan was reborn and a series of bombings and lynchings erupted from Florida to Mississippi in a campaign to put back in his place this Negro who, having seen another world in the army and in industry, was determined never to be tied down again. In 1948 President Truman, recognizing the growing political strength of the Negroes in the Northern cities, fought and won the election on a program of civil rights, despite the split-away of the Dixiecrats in Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Alabama. By now the national government was on the defensive, both in the world and at home. The Cold War was under way and the familiar American pattern was repeating itself. "To save the free world from Communism" the United States was now ready to yield some rights to its Negro citizens.

In 1954 the Supreme Court handed down its famous decision regarding school desegregation, repudiating the old ruling that separate schools could be equal. The Court expected the desegregation to take place only "with all deliberate speed." Instead, Negro parents in the South began to organize and mobilize to send their children to formerly all-white schools, even in the face of hostile mobs bent upon upholding the familiar ways of American life and ready to spit and jeer at little children to do so. Then 14-year old Emmett Till from Chicago was brutally lynched in Mississippi and his kidnappers and murderers were let off scot-free in the courts. The flood tide of Negro revolt that had been dammed up for so long began to burst. For the first time Negroes were ready for an offensive against white society. Hitherto their actions had been defensive. Now there would come a series of offensive actions with staggering momentum, one right after the other. Going from the defensive to the offensive, the Negroes now constituted a revolutionary force completely different from that of the immigrant workers, each group of which had been assimilated into the American Way of Life.

In 1955-1956 the Montgomery bus boycott became an international issue as an entire community organized itself to boycott public transportation until the buses were desegregated according to Federal law. In the border states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and in Washington, D.C., Negro parents were determined not to be put off by white mobs, and Eisenhower had to send Federal troops to Little Rock to uphold the Supreme Court decision.

Meanwhile, as the sleeping giant of Africa began to waken, the Negro people, who up to that time had been somewhat ashamed of their ancestry, instead began to feel ashamed that, living in the most advanced country in the world, they were so far behind their African brothers in achieving freedom. For the first time the Negroes began to appreciate that although they are a minority in the United States they are a majority in the world, and that what in the United States is portrayed as a race question is on a world scale the question of the rights of the majority of the human race.

In 1960 the Negro offensive took a new step forward. The sit-in movement started, astonishing Negroes who had migrated North in the belief that Southern Negroes would never rise up and fight for their rights. The student sit-in movement aimed at taking and enforcing equal rights in restaurants, stores, libraries, movies, beaches, parks, and all other public places in the South. Unlike any previous Negro movement, it aimed at creating the issue, provoking it. The Negro students were not just in the courts arguing the law, as the NAACP had been doing for so many years. They were making and enforcing it themselves, on the spot.

These Negro students were the sons and daughters of Negroes who fought and worked during the war, taught their children what their own parents had not taught them—that they were inferior to no one and had the same rights as any American—and now sent them to college to prepare for their equality. Their movement created pandemonium in the whole apparatus of the Southern courts—local courts, appeals courts, federal courts contradicted each other right and left, often in the presence of hundreds of Negroes who jammed the court-rooms. As the movement enlisted support and participation from thousands of white students on Southern and Northern campuses, pandemonium also began to be created in the relations of these youths to their parents. In 1961 the movement took on national scope with mixed groups of Freedom Riders converging on Deep South cities from both North and South.

Negro youth employed the non-violent tactics that had been evolved by Martin Luther King in the Montgomery boycott. These tactics were extremely effective insofar as they enabled the youth to take the initiative in a disciplined manner, achieve cooperation between white and Negro youth, and dramatize the realities of Southern justice. But the white mobs in the South responded with violence, and it was these mobs who were upheld by the Southern authorities as they restored order by hosing the students, throwing tear gas at them, arresting and jailing them, convicting them of breaking the law, and fining or imprisoning them.

Meanwhile another road was being worked out by Negro workers, both in the North and in the South. In Monroe, North Carolina, the Negro community, under the leadership of Robert F. Williams, an ex-marine and former auto worker, armed itself to meet Ku Klux Klan violence with violence. In the big cities of the North—Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, Los Angeles—the Black Muslims began to consolidate and multiply, attracting to their ranks hundreds of thousands of the lowest layers of Negro workers—domestic servants, the unemployed made expendable by automation, and outcasts from society in the prisons and hospitals. Through the militant black nationalist philosophy of the Muslims, these Negroes are now being rehabilitated and their social personalities liberated, but not for integration into this society. The Black Muslims, whose membership consists only of Afro-Americans, emphasize the need for American Negroes to follow the example of the Africans. According to their philosophy, white society is doomed and the only hope for the black man is to cut himself off entirely from this doomed society, develop a citizenship of his own, taking for himself the "40 acres" promised but never given him after the Civil War, and preparing himself to defend his people against all white injustice and aggression.

With the growth of the Black Muslim movement and the emergence of the new Negroes in the South represented by the students and the Monroe community, the old Negro organizations like the NAACP have become a joke. NAACP, as Dick Gregory says, means Negroes who Are not Acting like Colored People. Whites who protest "But I belong to the NAACP," are laughed at for deluding themselves that they have thereby bought insurance against the coming explosions. Like the union, the NAACP at this stage of the struggle has been by-passed by harsh realities.

Antagonisms among Negroes themselves have grown as debate and disagreement have sharpened over methods of struggle; Negroes have begun to realize that they will also have to fight Negroes before they win their freedom. Not only that. Inside the CIO, which built its reputation on the solidarity of the workers, there has sprung up a new organization of Negro workers who have made it clear that when the Negro masses explode, the labor organizations cannot expect Negro unionists to defend labor against the Negroes, for labor itself has proved to be too much a part of the American Way of Life which has to be uprooted. Thus, at this point in American history when the labor movement is on the decline, the Negro movement is on the upsurge. The fact has to be faced that since 1955 the development and momentum of the Negro struggle have made the Negroes the one revolutionary force dominating the American scene. Today the whole nation and the world are aware of their striking force, from boycotts to sit-ins to wade-ins to Freedom Rides. Inside the United States there is widespread fear of the growing strength of the Black Muslims, described by Martin Luther King as the "extremist elements lurking in the wings." In the last half dozen years hundreds of organizations for Negro struggle have sprung up around specific issues, disbanding as speedily as they were formed when their objectives are achieved, and organizing anew when new problems require action. Among these, and growing in significance every day, are the parents' organizations in Northern cities which, through the issue of school redistricting, are challenging the whole social pattern of city and suburb, and of government of the black central city areas by white "absentee landlords," that has grown up since the war.

All this poses very fundamental questions not only for American society as a whole but for American revolutionaries. The old slogan "Black and White, Unite and Fight" has been proved false and obsolete, and the same is now happening to the assumption that Negroes can achieve their rights inside this society or without shaking up and revolutionizing the whole social structure. What is involved is not only the likelihood of open and armed revolt of the Negroes against the state power in the South. The Negroes are now posing before all the institutions of American society, and particularly those which are supposedly on their side (the labor organizations, the liberals, the old Negro organizations, and the Marxists), the same questions that have been posed by the Algerian Revolution to all of French society, with this difference that Algeria is outside France while the Negroes are right here inside America. But in the same way that, during the course of the Algerian Revolution, Algerians fought Frenchmen, and Algerians fought Algerians, and Frenchmen representing the national government eventually had to fight Frenchmen in Algeria, and the Algerians had to take over political power and now have to expropriate the property of Frenchmen—so in the United States the Negro revolt will lead to armed struggle between Negroes and whites, Negroes and Negroes, and Federal troops and armed civilians, and will have to move to political power and economic power. Already clashes between Federal troops and white civilians have been narrowly averted. The counter-revolution in the South may not yet be as well organized as the Secret Army Organization was in Algeria and France, but the attitudes, actions, and atrocities perpetrated by white civilians against Negroes are no different.

American Marxists have tended to fall into the trap of thinking of the Negroes as Negroes, i.e. in race terms, when in fact the Negroes have been and are today the most oppressed and submerged sections of the workers, on whom has fallen most sharply the burden of unemployment due to automation. The Negroes have more economic grievances than any other section of American society. But in a country with the material abundance of the United States, economic grievances alone could not impart to their struggles all their revolutionary impact. The strength of the Negro cause and its power to shake up the social structure of the nation comes from the fact that in the Negro struggle all the questions of human rights and human relationships are posed. At the same time the American Negroes are most conscious of, and best able to time their actions in relation to, the crises and weaknesses of American capitalism, both at home and abroad.

American Marxists have also allowed themselves to fall into the trap of treating the question of violence and non-violence in the Negro struggle in a way that they would never dream of in relation to the class struggle. That is, they have toyed with the idea that the Negroes are a minority who might be massacred if they used other than non-violent methods. This is because American Marxists have always thought of the working class as white and have themselves discriminated against Negroes by hesitating to recognize them as workers.

Now they must face the fact that the Negro struggle in the United States is not just a race struggle. It is not something apart from and long antedating the final struggle for a classless society which is supposed to take place at some future time when American capitalist society is in total crisis.

The goal of the classless society is precisely what has been and is today at the heart of the Negro struggle. It is the Negroes who represent the revolutionary struggle for a classless society—not indeed the classless society of American folk-lore in which every individual is supposed to be able to climb to the top in order to exploit newcomers at the bottom. Every other section of the working class has been to one extent or another assimilated into this American Way of Life. Only the Negroes have been excluded from it and continue to be excluded from it, despite the frantic efforts of Kennedy & Co. to incorporate a chosen few Negroes at the top. It is this exclusion which has given the Negro struggle for a classless society its distinctive revolutionary character. For when the Negroes struggle for a classless society, they struggle that all men may be equal, in production, in consumption, in the community, in the courts, in the schools, in the universities, in transportation, in social activity, in government, and indeed in every sphere of American life.

American Marxists have never been able to grasp this because they have always thought that the social revolution in American must be led by white workers. They have also been afraid that if Negroes started violent revolutionary action, they would find the white workers lined up against them. Even when the Marxists have verbally repudiated the theory of "Black and White, Unite and Fight" this theory and these fears about Negro revolt have remained with them. But the crisis in the United States today and the corresponding momentum of the Negro struggle are such that it is obvious that Negroes are not going to consult whites, workers or not workers, before taking action. They will go their way, doing what they think they must do, taking what actions they feel they must take, and forcing the whites to make up their minds whether, when, and if they are coming along.

The chief need for all Americans is to recognize these facts and to be ready to take bold action along with Negroes, recognizing that the Negroes are the growing revolutionary force in the country, and that just as capitalist production has created new methods of production and new layers of workers, it has also produced new Negroes.

Many, including some Negroes, will say that they do not understand just what the Negroes are fighting for in this period. That is primarily because the Negro struggle, as an offensive social struggle, is only about eight years old. In those eight years the Negroes have been evolving their own strategy and tactics, not trying to fit into any preconceived pattern, using each and every method, non-violent resistance, violent resistance, moral suasion, economic boycotts, sit-ins, stand-ins, etc., sometimes confusing but more often clarifying the nature of the coming showdown.

Today, as a result of all these struggles, they are learning that their chief weakness is the lack of political power. They do not control one sheriff in the United States, North or South. They have no say about Federal troops, National Guards, city police, FBI, Interstate Commerce Commission, post office authorities, school boards, voting registration, employment commissions. Yet in every issue and in every sphere, and whatever methods they have used, they have found themselves directly up against the corrupt powers-that-be.

Up to now it has been unnatural for the Negroes to think in terms of black political power. Instead they have thought in terms of investing white politicians with power and then putting pressure on them to deal out justice to the Negroes. Now, to Negroes in the South, it is becoming clearly a question of investing blacks with power, and nobody knows this better than the whites who openly admit their fears that this is the inevitable result of Negro voting.

The struggle for black political power is a revolutionary struggle because, unlike the struggle for white power, it is the climax of a ceaseless struggle on the part of Negroes for human rights. Moreover, it comes in a period in the United States when the struggle for human relations rather than for material goods has become the chief task of human beings. The tragedy is that all Americans cannot recognize this and join in this struggle. But the very fact that most white Americans do not recognize it and are in fact opposed to it is what makes it a revolutionary struggle. Because it takes two sides to struggle, the revolution and the counter-revolution.