As we reflect upon recent tragic events in the United States, let us recall our history, for we can understand the present only if we understand the historical developments that created present dynamics. In examining the history of race relations in the United States, we learn an important lesson: when conflicts are not truly resolved, they re-express themselves.
European conquest of vast regions of America, Asia and Africa from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries was driven by a quest for raw materials and markets. The imposition of colonial structures on the conquered nations and peoples created a vast peripheral region in a capitalist world-economy, a periphery that functioned to provide cheap raw materials on a foundation of forced labor. The exportation of raw materials from the periphery would provide the foundation for the agricultural and industrial modernization of the core.
One particular manifestation of this global system of forced labor, which nearly everywhere was extremely harsh, was African slave labor in the Americas. African slaves were forcibly transported to America and forced to work, under threat of death and brutal physical punishment, in the plantations of the Caribbean, Brazil, and the US South, where they produced sugar, cotton, and coffee.
As slavery and slave societies evolved, there emerged variations. Among the English-speaking colonizers in America, in contrast to the Spanish, Portuguese and French colonies, there was much less of a tendency to mix and reproduce with slaves. And when the English did mix, they automatically categorized mixed-race offspring as part of the black population. So in the English slave societies, like the US South, there was a much clearer demarcation between blacks and whites than was occurring in the evolution of the Latin Caribbean, where there were three racial categories (whites, blacks, and mulattoes) and blurred lines among them.
Everywhere slaves rebelled and escaped, creating a fear of blacks among whites, who must have felt subconsciously that black violence against them would be just retribution. Blacks, including freed and escaped slaves, also were active and leading participants in the abolitionist movement. The dynamics of black political participation varied in each nation, in accordance with particular conditions, including variations in the relation between the struggle for black rights and the struggles for national liberation and the rights of women.
In the case of the United States, abolitionism and women’s rights emerged as causes championed by progressive sectors in the 1850s. With the defeat of the Southern planter class in the Civil War, the stage was set for a political alliance between the Northern industrial elite and Radical Republicanism in the reconstruction of the South on the basis of the political and civil rights of the freedmen. However, full citizenship for the emancipated slaves required not only the protection of political and civil rights but also the distribution of land. A proposal for the distribution of forty acres of land to emancipated slaves was before the Congress, but it was not approved. If it had been enacted in the late 1860s, a time when family farming was still economically viable, it would have made possible the emergence of a black agricultural middle class. Instead, a tenant farming system emerged, in which the freedman were superexploited by the planter class, now reconstituted as a landlord-merchant class that both owned land and controlled local trade. W.E.B. DuBois called it “economic slavery.”
Once the Northern industrial elite secured control of the federal government, it abandoned the Reconstruction project, leaving southern blacks to the fate of the forces marshalled by the landlord-merchant class. The result was the emergence of Jim Crow, a political-economic-cultural system characterized by: legally sanctioned racial segregation, the systemic denial of the political and civil rights of blacks, the economic slavery of tenant farming, and unofficially sanctioned violence against blacks for purposes of social control. Jim Crow ruled the South from 1876 to 1965, and it was responsible for the diffusion of racist assumptions and sentiments among whites and a profound cultural separation between whites and blacks.
During World War I, blacks migrated from the South to the urban North in significant numbers, pushed by the decline of the system of cotton tenant farming in the South and pulled by job opportunities created by the war. In the North, the rights to vote and hold public office were protected, but key civil rights were not. Housing was restricted to a designated section of the city; and there was not equal employment opportunity, so that a clear racial hierarchy and segregation in employment emerged. The “black ghetto,” although overcrowded and poorer than white society, had its virtues: it was a vibrant multi-class society that housed musicians and writers, and a thriving urban black culture emerged.
The movement for the protection of African-American rights emerged in the urban North in the post-World War I era, for urban life provided possibilities for communication and organization. During the 1920s, expanding black membership led to black leadership of the NAACP, which originally had been established in 1908 by white liberals who were horrified by lynching. W.E.B DuBois became editor of Crisis, the NAACP review, thus becoming an important African-American public intellectual. Influenced by world-wide debate concerning the disposition of the German colonies in Africa, the NAACP during the 1920s had a global and Pan-Africanist perspective. Similarly, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, which had a wide following, also had a Pan-Africanist view. During the 1930s, with the decline of the Africa debate in the international arena and with the increasing electoral presence of blacks in key Electoral College states of the North, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund shifted attention to legal and constitutional challenges to the segregated system of education in the South. These efforts, led by Thurgood Marshall, who later became a US Supreme Court justice, culminated in the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which struck down segregation in schools as a violation of the Constitution.
During this period of 1917 to 1954, the urbanization of blacks in the South established conditions for the development of movement organizations in southern cities. Black urbanization strengthened black churches, colleges, and protest organizations in black southern society. A dynamic interrelation emerged, with black colleges educating an independent class of pastors influenced by tendencies of liberation theology, who provided moral legitimation and strategic support for protest and movement activities.
Since its origins in the post-World War I era, the African-American movement had formulated a comprehensive vision of democracy as including not only civil and political rights but also social and economic rights, such as adequate housing, nutrition, education, and standard of living. And it included the concept that the African colonies were entitled by right to independence. But national and international dynamics of the 1950s favored a strategy that focused on the denial of political and civil rights in the South, utilizing non-violent mass action. Thus the African-American movement came to be known as the “Civil Rights Movement,” and often there was the mistaken impression that it began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56.
The heroic African-American journey from Montgomery to Selma during the period 1955 to 1965 is well known to the people of the United States, black and white. It was the time of the emergence of Dr. Martin Luther King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. It was a time of courage, self-sacrifice, heroism, and eloquent oratory. It culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which marked the definitive end of the Jim Crow system of the South and blatant forms of discrimination in US society.
But there were other components to the story that are less known, and our ignorance of them is central to our problems today. The process of attaining political and civil rights was full of conflicts and contradictions that led to a distrust of white progressives among young black activists. Black youth active in the protests naively had believed that mass action exposing the undemocratic and brutal character of the Jim Crow system would quickly bring the “good” white liberals from the North to the support of the movement. But it was not so. Many white liberals equivocated in their support of the civil rights movement, and the federal government was reluctant to intervene to protect civil rights workers from violence. The federal government did not decisively act until 1964 and 1965, when the momentum of the movement had created a national and international climate of opinion that made such action unavoidable.
Disappointed with white allies, black activists turned inward, vowing to develop separate black organizations. It was not the first time in the history of the African-American movement that the conduct of white progressives had stimulated separatist tendencies, and the dynamic would deepen in the period 1966 to 1972.
Nevertheless, in spite of the equivocation and violence that attended the process, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 represented important gains, won by the heroism of the African-American movement. However, at this historic movement, the difference in the perspectives of whites and blacks became even clearer. To most whites, the gains of the Civil Rights Movement meant that the struggle was completed, that blacks had attained what they wanted. But for the African-American movement, it was a partial victory. From the beginning, the African-American movement had sought the protection of social and economic as well as civil and political rights. So from the perspective of the movement, the historic moment now required a decisive step forward in pursuit of social and economic rights. And the movement found that, more than equivocation, most white allies completely disappeared.
In response to this profound disappointment, the movement beginning in 1966 divided into two directions, and both encountered difficulties. The first direction was the turn to black power, which was symbolized by the assassinated Black Nationalist leader Malcolm X, and which was announced dramatically by Stokely Carmichael at a rally on June 16, 1966 in Greenwood, Mississippi. Black power advocated black control of the institutions of black society, and it called for the development of an alternative black-led political party, black economic enterprises supported by the black community, and separate black cultural institutions (see “Black community control” 5/10/2015).
The black power movement was greeted with a systemic police repression that involved the concerted action of federal, state, and local law enforcement officials, a phenomenon rarely discussed in the US popular discourse. By 1972, many African-American leaders had been killed or placed in prison, or they had left the country. Only leaders who took the moderate path of seeking power through electoral politics within the Democratic Party survived the repression.
The political project of black power, and its intellectual variant, Black Nationalism, offered a profound analysis of US society from a global perspective. It discerned the role of European colonial domination in creating the modern world and global inequalities, and it interpreted white-black relations in the United States as a particular national manifestation of a global relation between the colonizer and the colonized. It advocated the alliance of blacks in the United States with the African and Third World movements and governments of national liberation. It equivocated with respect to alliance with white progressives in the United States.
Whites needed to learn from the teachings of Black Nationalism, for they revealed the colonial foundation of the modern world-system, which was obscured by popular discourse and by the bureaucratic character of higher education. But most whites did not encounter Black Nationalism and take seriously its insights. A few did, such as the young white activists who formed an anti-imperialist tendency within the student/anti-war movement, including the Weatherman faction of the Students for a Democratic Society. However, white society by and large, including white progressives, did not come to understand Black Nationalist insights.
The second direction in the movement was spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although Black Nationalism had pervasive influence in the African-American movement from 1966 to 1972, King proposed a different strategy, namely, that of alliance with the white, Latino, and indigenous poor on a basis of common economic interests. His efforts culminated in the SCLC Poor Peoples’ Campaign of 1969. However, the strategy of a multi-ethnic alliance among the poor confronted the same problem that had stimulated the turn to black power, namely, the lack of support by whites for a democratic restructuring of US society. The charismatic leadership of King represented the most potent unifying force for overcoming this obstacle. But his assassination brought to an end hope for a popular movement that united blacks and whites in a coalition that sought the protection of social and economic rights and that advocated a foreign policy of cooperation with the nations and movements of the Third World.
The prevailing view in the United States today is that the “Civil Right Movement” attained the protection of the political and civil rights of all citizens, regardless of race or ethnicity. But this superficial view is challenged by a more comprehensive study of the development of the African-American movement, in which we can come to understand that that the movement was unable to attain two important historic demands: the protection of the social and economic rights of all citizens; and a foreign policy of cooperation with the peoples of the world in the construction of a just and more democratic world-system. With its goals only partially attained, the movement came to an end, forced into silence by police repression, white rejection, exhaustion, and the possibility of a moderate alternative in the form of electoral politics.
Thus, for the second time in the history of the American republic, the nation cast aside the hopes and aspirations of black society. White rejection of fundamental historic goals of the African-American movement was to have profound consequences for the development of race relations in the United States from 1972 to the present, as we will explore in subsequent posts.
McKelvey, Charles. 1994. The African-American Movement: From Pan-Africanism to the Rainbow Coalition. Bayside, New York: General Hall.