From racial division to class unity
|At the same time that new tools were laying the foundation to restructure the American color question, broader economic changes were setting the conditions for molding its development.
The invention and widespread use of the mechanical cotton picker destroyed the planter-sharecropper relationship which was the material foundation for the system of segregation and lynch law that characterized the political and economic system of the South for almost eighty years. The modern Freedom Movement was born from the migrations, war-time experiences and the release of millions from the bondage of the sharecropping system. At the same time, a new grouping of Northern financial capitalists were in a life and death battle against the right-wing Republicans and their powerful ally, the entrenched, reactionary Southern politicians. They could not defeat the right-wing Republicans without defeating these "Dixiecrats," as they were called. This could only be done by enfranchising the African Americans in the South. Thus it appeared as if the government of the liberal Republican Eisenhower and the liberal Democrat Kennedy came in on the side of the African Americans. As with the first Reconstruction, the rulers made use of the changed economic conditions and the momentum of the freedom struggle to advance their own goals. Only this time, the goal was to establish U.S. dominance within the post-war world economy. As always, the route went through the South. Through the use of federal troops, the courts and various other means at its disposal, the government helped create favorable conditions for the Freedom Movement to carry out its struggle. Fed by the historical aspirations for equality, this reborn movement stepped into the breach to finish off the old system of political and social control that sharecropping had long supported and the mechanical cotton picker had destroyed.
By the end of World War II, the United States alone among nations was equipped to press its position on the world stage. With the exception of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. had escaped the ravages of war on its own territory. Every Allied nation owed it money. The economies and infrastructures of every other country involved in the conflict - victors as well as vanquished - stood in ruins. There were untold riches to be gained in rebuilding the world's economies, in exploiting the markets of colonial economies striving for national freedom, in the oil fields of the Middle East, and in the system of credit, loans and monetary policies that would make it all possible. The U.S., in the position to dictate the terms of capitalist reconstruction, required that all financial systems favor its interests and operate under its control and that former colonies of allies and enemies alike be opened to U.S. investment. At home, U.S. industrial capacity and investment had to be expanded to supply the needs of labor and industry in these new markets.
The South, with its legacy of low wages, racial division and anti-union legislation was, as in the past, considered a crucial component in this overall strategy. U.S. politicians and the bankers and financiers who were positioning themselves to take advantage of the millions to be made in international investment and new markets did not care one way or the other about justice or equality. But they did understand that if greater investment and increased production were to be made possible in the South, the labor force had to be reorganized. Not only did the sheer mass of laborers required mean that African American workers needed to work in factories right alongside whites, but potential investors did not find it cost-efficient to provide segregated facilities (which, for instance, involved doing twice as much plumbing) or to support segregated public services (two school systems, for instance). As President Truman observed, "Segregation is...economically wasteful for private business." The system of legal segregation became the target as financiers and politicians from the Truman presidency, through Eisenhower, and into the Kennedy and Johnson administrations moved to guarantee the ground for the expansion of U.S. capital into the rest of the world.
Just as in the years after the Civil War, powerful economic and political forces had to be confronted and conquered for these transformations to occur. There's little doubt that the political arrangements in the South had served the ruling class very well. Segregation, disenfranchisement and extra-legal terror had provided a suitably cheap workforce for almost a century. A block of Southern senators - whom this system made virtually impossible to remove - stood at the apex of this political structure. Through it, they controlled not only Southern politics but, thanks to their seniority and their positions at the head of powerful Congressional committees, the entire country. That's why the slogan of these senators and the interests they represented was "Segregation yesterday, segregation today, segregation forever." The first step in preparing the United States to assume global power was breaking the political back of this Southern segregationist power bloc in the Congress.
Once again, the ruling class used the aspirations of African Americans to further its own interests. The ruling class did not conjure up the Freedom Movement of the 1950s and 1960s - that was a product of the ongoing struggle of African Americans for equality, now given fresh life by the conditions after the war. For a brief historical moment, however, the aims of this movement intersected with those of the ruling class as it sought the conditions for modern industrial expansion into the South. For their part, the ruling class sought to use the movement for desegregation as the battering ram with which to attack the entrenched Southern political and economic power structure. As in other periods of American history, they were careful to fight the battle in such a way as to preserve the ultimate weapon - racial division backed by social privilege and white unity across class lines.
The modern Freedom Movement began in the early 1950s with the legal maneuvering in the courts directed at striking down Southern Jim Crow laws. Dismantling Jim Crow practices required more than court actions, and thus the movement passed into the stage of mass protest characterized by boycotts, picketing, sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations. The ruling class was prepared to condone a certain level of confrontation in order to rapidly prepare the way for Southern industrialization. Each round of mass protest and violence was used to reinforce legal and legislative measures directed against segregation. The 1956-57 Montgomery bus boycott was soon followed by President Eisenhower's use of troops to desegregate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas and the establishment of the Civil Rights Commission. Following the wave of sit-ins in restaurants and lunch counters throughout the South, Congress passed the 1960 Civil Rights Act and the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered the desegregation of all interstate railroad and bus facilities.
A movement of millions can be used. It can even be manipulated. But its course can never be completely orchestrated nor stopped dead in its path. As the forward motion of the movement began to take it beyond the struggle for civil rights it began to transform itself into a movement expressing the demands of African American workers to go beyond the elimination of segregation and to raise the demand of full political equality - "one man, one vote" - for open housing, and for equality of employment. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were further testament to the strength of the movement.
The process of transforming these political alignments was violent and bloody. The Dixiecrats - the group of leading Southern senators and their supporters-led the charge on the political front. In concert with the White Citizens Councils - a "well financed political pressure group whose members included many elected officials, business leaders, civil leaders and professional people" which was formed in 1954 to fight desegregation - the Dixiecrats were able to mobilize throughout the South to resist desegregation. They promoted their "Southern Manifesto" which upheld "the dual system of government which has enabled us to achieve our greatness," and formed their own States Rights Party, whose battle cry of "states rights" was a thinly veiled cover for their total commitment to white supremacy and all the advantages it brought to them. (One of the most virulent Dixiecrats, Strom Thurmond, who ran for President on the States Rights ticket in 1948, is still in the Senate today, and without having changed an iota of his ideology.)
These political moves were backed up by an onslaught of vicious propaganda and the widespread use of violence against African-Americans and those whites who stood with them. White Citizens Councils developed a formidable propaganda machine, publishing and desseminating thousands of inexpensive white supremacist books and pamphlets. Many of them were written by established scientists, writers and journalists. The ideas of what became known as "scientific racism" - particularly the IQ tests that claimed to prove that African Americans were less intelligent than whites - were widely disseminated throughout both the South and the North and given voice in a variety of recognized and popular mainstream publications.
Violence was rampant and virtually unrestrained throughout the South. Lynchings, torture and beatings once again became commonplace. The Ku Klux Klan was revived in the wake of the 1963 March on Washington. Martin Luther King - even more dangerous to the ruling class as he began to speak out about the economic oppression of all workers - was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis. Violence was by no means reserved for civil rights workers and their leaders, black and white. It was mobilized throughout the Southern communities to terrorize everyone into silence and submission to the white supremacist order.
As the movement came North, the violent resistance to equality came along with it. As the end of de jure segregation in the South was achieved, the attempt to integrate Northern schools, jobs and housing no longer served the interests of the ruling class. The government forces that had seemed in alliance with the Freedom Movement went on the attack to insure that the system of white supremacy - and the capitalism it supported - remained intact. Leaders were picked off one by one - jailed, beaten, or assassinated. In December 1969, Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clarke died at the hands of the police, shot in their beds while still asleep. No one knows how many more leaders of the Freedom Movement were eliminated in such ways. But between the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 and the murders of Hampton and Clarke, literally hundreds were shot by the police, and scores died.
©1998 Speakers for a New America Books
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Last updated 4/27/15