As the Cuban Revolution took power and consolidated itself, the black revolution was raging in the United States. At first glance, it would appear that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the apostle of non-violence, and Fidel Castro, the commander-in-chief of a guerrilla army, would have little in common. However, this obvious difference between these two exceptional personalities is to a considerable extent a reflection of the different social and political contexts of the movements that they led. In Cuba, armed struggle was a politically intelligent and effective strategy for the popular taking of political power, but such a strategy would never be politically effective in the United States, for various reasons. Moreover, the U.S. ideological context gave emphasis to reform, the pressuring of elites for change; rather than popular revolution, the taking of political power by the people. During the 1960s, Dr. King evolved to become a Third World revolutionary in every respect, except for one: he did not arrive to the conclusion that the movement must seek to take political power. King’s reformist approach was a reflection of his social context, yet he was continually evolving, deepening his understanding of the structures of domination and of the possibilities for the movement. I believe that, had his life not been tragically cut short at the age of 39, Dr. King would have arrived to understand the need for him to lead a multiracial popular movement that sought to take political power.
So there were evident differences between Martin and Fidel, reflecting their different social contexts. However, this being acknowledged, we also should be aware that Martin’s proposals in the period 1966-1968 concerning race and poverty were similar to the revolutionary project forged and led by Fidel. By that time, the movement had attained, on the basis of the mass struggle of 1955 to 1965, legal and political recognition of fundamental civil and political rights and the elimination of de jure segregation. But Martin was aware of the limitations of the movement and its gains. The support of white allies in those achievements had been equivocating, and they for the most part were not prepared to support the movement in its next stage of struggle, which King understood as a quest for the protection of social and economic rights of blacks. This required a more fundamental structural transformation, inasmuch as the continuing denial of social and economic rights was rooted in social structures established in the previous era of blatant discrimination, segregation, and exclusion.
In this context, Martin advocated integrated education, and with respect to large cities, he proposed the development of “educational parks” to bring pupils together from various sections of the city. As we have seen, this was the approach of revolutionary Cuba, which, in addition to developing universal, integrated public education, also developed in some zones educational parks, which it called “school cities.” Martin, of course, could only propose; his movement had not brought revolutionary leadership to power. Revolutionary Cuba, in contrast, could implement its vision in practice. And political events would enable it to go even further than initially planned. Taking advantage of the fact that the Cuban Catholic Church discredited itself by its association with counterrevolutionary, unpatriotic, and terrorist activities, the Cuban Revolution was able to eliminate the structurally racist distinction between public and private schools by nationalizing the private schools and incorporating their personnel and their physical plants into the system of public education.
For both Martin and Fidel, integrated education was strategy for uprooting racial prejudices. However, it also was a strategy for expanding educational and occupational opportunities and raising the socioeconomic status of African descendants. Moreover, both conceived this goal of protecting the social and economic rights of blacks as a dimension of a larger vision of social and economic transformation, which was proposed in universal terms. Martin developed the “Poor People’s Campaign,” forged by the poor, including blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and whites; seeking programs for all who were poor, regardless of race or ethnicity. Similarly, revolutionary Cuba, as we have seen, developed programs, strategies, and laws that sought to benefit all whose social and economic rights were denied, without reference to race, even though the majority of the beneficiaries were black and mixed race.
There was, to be sure, a difference between reformist context in the USA and revolutionary context of Cuba. The “Poor People’s Campaign” was designed to apply political pressure on the government with respect to its “War on Poverty;” whereas Fidel, before the taking of power, promised that the programs would be implemented when the Movement takes power, and once in power, the he led the government in delivering on the promises. Nonetheless, both Martin and Fidel were formulating a program of social and economic transformation that would involve the protection of the social and economic rights of all, regardless of race and ethnicity, and that would disproportionately benefit Afro-descendants.
Even though both Martin and Fidel wanted to attend to the social and economic needs of blacks, both wanted to downplay the racial character of the proposal, not wanting to undermine necessary white support. Martin, for example, considered the slogan “black power” to be politically unwise, even though he viewed it as an important concept, pointing to the need for black empowerment. But he considered the slogan frightening and confusing to whites, with whom a popular movement must be formed. Fidel, as we have seen, made his proposals for economic and social transformation with minimal mentioning of race, not wanting to inflame racist sentiments that he knew were beneath the surface among the white population, including humble persons of modest means who had economic interests in supporting progressive change.
So we see, then, important parallels between Martin and Fidel: integration education; attention to social and economic rights of all, regardless of race and ethnicity; and politically intelligent sensitivity to the anxieties that change is bound to produce among whites.
Malcolm X proposed in a different direction, reflecting Malcolm’s social base in the urban North, where there existed large segregated black communities. Rather than integration, Malcolm called for black community control. The problem, for Malcolm, was not that blacks and whites were separated, but that whites controlled the institutions of the black community. Malcolm’s central concept in 1964-1965 was black control of the institutions of the black community. Declaring himself a Black Nationalist, he proclaimed that “Black nationalism only means that you will control the politics and the economic and social institutions of your community. Black nationalism only means that all the institutions of your community will be under your control.”
Malcolm’s formulation was aggressive. It reflected the bitter experience of a family victimized by white violence and callousness. But Malcolm, like Martin, was evolving. He increasingly came to appreciate the global context of the African-American experience, and he increasingly reflected on the universal implications of his understanding, with respect to Africa and the Third World, with which he identified; and with respect to white society, with which he more and more was oriented toward dialogue.
The different visions of Malcolm and Martin were not contradictory. Rather, they reflected different social bases, and as such, they were complementary. Indeed, the concept of integrated education, so central to the transforming visions of Martin and Fidel, confronted various practical problems in the context of the de facto housing segregation of the urban North. Malcom’s vision of black community control made good practical sense in the urban North.
The concept of black community control need not be formulated in a hostile way that implies rejection of the larger society or its values, even though it necessarily would include critique of the negative consequences of white intervention in the black community. It could be developed as universal proposal for greater local control of schools, with less state bureaucratic interference, always with the provision that all schools must educate with respect to the fundamental values of the nation, including the rejection of racial prejudices. The idea of local control has had historic resonance among whites, and it would give space for black control of black schools (as well as police).
Thus, Malcolm and Martin formulated complementary proposals, which could be synthesized into a comprehensive vision. Local community control of schools, with integrated schooling in zones characterized by integrated housing, or adjacent segregated housing. National commitment to extensive funding for education in all zones, seeking to expand opportunities for all. Programs for the protection of the social and economic rights of all, regardless of race. And projections of a foreign policy of cooperation with the nations of the Third World, seeking to overcome underdevelopment and poverty in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, in order to expand world commerce and to develop a more politically stable world.
The Martin/Malcom vision had the basis for universal appeal, that is, the possibility of obtaining support among whites, because it promised benefits to whites, including greater protection of their social and economic rights, greater control over the education of their children, and greater possibilities economic development and for a more stable world. White majority support for such a project is politically attainable, even as whites continue to be prejudiced.
There can be no doubt that during the 1960s, the great majority of whites continued to have racial prejudices. This is evident in their reluctant and ambivalent embracement of the laws for the protection of political and civil rights, their tolerance of violence against black movement leaders, and their refusal to engage the next stage of the movement, announced by Dr. King, toward the protection of the social and economic rights of all, regardless of race. This parallels the situation that Fidel faced in 1959, at the time of the triumph of the Revolution, in that significant numbers of white Cubans continued to have racial prejudices. Fidel’s approach was, in the short run, to work around the problem, by presenting programs as benefitting all Cubans in need, regardless of race; and in the long run, through integrated universal public education and political education.
But things developed differently in the United States, in a context in which the two exceptional African-American leaders had been assassinated, Malcom in 1965, and Dr. King in 1968. With white resistance to the new stage of struggle announced by Dr. King, and angry with the unreliability and inconsistency of white allies in the struggle for political and civil rights, the African-American movement turned to black power.
Without question, there were many positive aspects of black power and Black Nationalism. They invoked Malcolm’s concept of black control of the black community. They discerned the colonial foundation of the modern global order, thus conceiving the U.S. black movement as part of a global movement, allied with anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia and anti-imperialist struggles in Latin America.
However, in strategic terms, the turn to black power as a slogan was a political error. Martin was right, it was a slogan that frightened and confused whites. It undermined the attaining of the popular unity necessary for the taking of political power by the people. In contrast, the complementary Martin-Malcolm vision, if reasonably and intelligently developed and explained, could have provided the theoretical foundation for popular unity, working around and eventually undermining surviving white racism, eventually culminating in a scientifically informed and politically mature formulation. But the black power slogan had an exclusionist messages with respect to whites, and it could only deepen the already deep divide between whites and blacks.
Ultimately, black power and Black Nationalism waned, to considerable extent brought to an end by the combined repression of national and local law enforcement agencies. The focus in the 1970s turned to black political participation, taking advantage of the gains of the previous decade with respect to political and civil rights. Inasmuch as this political activity was not based on an alternative vision and was developed within the context of established, elite dominated structures, it involved an implicit accommodation to the established political-economic order.
In the 1980s, Jesse Jackson synthesized the insights of King’s Poor People’s Campaign and Black Nationalism, thus forging the politically intelligent concept of the Rainbow Coalition. Jackson’s presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988 had important political gains. But more work needed to be done after 1988. To wit, the development of the Rainbow Coalition as a mass organization in cities and towns throughout the nation, with candidates for local offices and for the federal congress. But the Rainbow Coalition lack the capacity and the political will to assume a leadership role in the next necessary stage of struggle.
Meanwhile, black academics have focused on what Fidel called “subjective discrimination,” that is, the survival of prejudicial attitudes among whites, even though mainstream political discourse and civil rights law affirm the formal political and civil rights of all, regardless of race. Concepts like institutional discrimination and laissez-faire racism emerged. This focus has relatively limited implications, in that it does not propose programs for the protection of social and economic rights, for local control of community institutions, or for an anti-imperialist projection in foreign policy. It focuses on the unfortunate fact that many whites have racist perceptions and assumptions, without formulating a program for a new stage of struggle for structural change and subjective transformation. In the final analysis, the focus of black academics on surviving forms of racism is a retreat from the complementary Martin-Malcolm vision for a more just world; it implicitly embraces a narrow program in defense of the interests of the black middle class, which fits in well with the turn in progressive political discourse to identity politics.
With the retreat from the vision of the charismatic leaders of the 1960s, black socioeconomic gains have been minimal. The basic national indicators of socioeconomic inequalities with respect to race are essentially the same today as they were in 1965, even as some black individuals have attained prominence and celebrity status in politics, entertainment, and news broadcasting. This reflects that fact that, except for the Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s, which failed to develop itself as a mass organization, the focus of black leaders and intellectuals has been on diversity, surviving forms of racism, and affirmative action, thus promoting a project of particular interest to the black middle class.
There is need today to recapture and reformulate the complementary vision of Martin and Malcolm, our lost charismatic leaders. We need to forge a popular coalition, in which all actively participate as a united revolutionary subject, in spite of cultural differences. A popular coalition that seeks to take political power on the basis of a program for the protection of social and economic rights of all; and for a foreign policy that cooperates with the peoples and nations of the world in the quest for a just and sustainable world-system.
As black progress and the progressive movement in the United States stagnated after 1972, revolutionary Cuba moved forward, registering significant gains with respect to the social integration of the races, forging a single united people, whose unity enabled the people to resist the multiple efforts of the global powers to derail its revolution. Revolutionary Cuba was able to significantly reduce racial inequality, and to enormously expand the educational and occupational opportunities for all, such that the children and grandchildren of sugar workers, dockworkers, and maids would become professionals in a variety of fields. In no small measure, these gains were made possible by the constant political presence and insights of a charismatic leader. We should appreciate the universal value of his teachings, and study them. And we should study as well the teachings of Martin and Malcolm. It might help us to rediscover our lost road.
Castro, Fidel. 2006. Cien Horas con Fidel: Conversaciones con Ignacio Ramonet. La Habana: Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado. [English translation: Ramonet, Ignacio. 2009. Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography. Scribner.
__________. 2007. Fidel Castro: Selección de documentos, entrevistas y artículos (1952-56). La Habana: Editora Política.
__________. 2014. History Will Absolve Me: Speech at the Court of Appeals of Santiago de Cuba, October 16, 1953. La Habana: Editora Política.
__________. 2016. Un Objetivo, Un Pensamiento, Tomo I. La Habana: Editora Política.
Clarke, John Henrik. Ed. 1969. Malcolm X: The Man and His Times. Toronto: Collier.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1958. Stride toward Freedom. New York: Harper & Row.
__________. 1964. Why We Can’t Wait. New York: Harper & Row.
__________. 1967. “Beyond Vietnam.” Speech to Clergy and Laity Concerned About the War in Vietnam, Riverside Church, April 4. The King Papers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Non-Violent Social Change, Atlanta, Georgia.
__________. 1968. Where Do We Go from Here? New York: Bantan Books.
Malcolm X. 1965. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. With the assistance of Alex Haley. New York: Grove Press.