Charlottesville and the Unfinished Work of the Civil Rights Movement
Statement by the Socialist Organizer National Committee
(1) The killing of Heather Heyer, a young counter-demonstrator in Charlottesville, Va., and the political crisis that has swept the country in its aftermath began with the decision by the city’s mayor to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee. This action brought to light the unresolved legacy of the Civil War and of the period of Radical Reconstruction that followed immediately thereafter.
Let us not forget that Radical Reconstruction went very far in establishing real equality between the white working poor and the recently freed Black slaves, with the adoption of progressive social measures that began to call into question capitalist rule. Land began to be redistributed to recently freed Black slaves. Black politicians were elected to state governments. The promise of “Forty Acres and a Mule” for every Black family was in the air.
But at the end of the day, Radical Reconstruction was crushed brutally by the alliance between the Northern capitalist class, which had emerged victorious from the Civil War, and a significant sector of the slave-owning class in the South. It was an alliance against freed Black slaves and against the unity between Blacks and the white working poor that was challenging the existing order. It was an alliance against democracy as such. “Forty Acres and a Mule” was betrayed.
To forge this counter-revolutionary alliance, it was necessary for the Northern capitalists to make a “deal” with its Southern allies, and to grant a whole series of concessions that allowed greater autonomy to the Southern states to impose segregation, enact all the heinous Jim Crow laws, and enable the Ku Klux Klan to lynch thousands upon thousands of Black people who dared to rise up against Jim Crow.
The hundreds of symbols (statues, flags, memorials) of the vanquished Confederacy that are still visible across the South today, glorifying the slave-owners and their legacy, are among those concessions granted to the Southern states by the representatives of the Northern capitalists. Tearing down those symbols has galvanized every wing of the white-supremacy movement, including the president of the United States, into action today. But it has done far more than this: It has posed the question of extirpating institutionalized racism at its core once and for all.
As Glen Ford, executive director of Black Agenda Report, wrote in his column on August 21: “If the legacy of slavery is to be excised root and branch, then nothing less than the most profound social transformation is in order. Why stop with statues of long dead men?” What is needed, Ford continued, is to purge the nation “of the poisoned fruit of their racist perversion.”
But who will carry out this unfinished work? Russian revolutionist V.I. Lenin answered this question more than 100 years ago, when he explained that it was the task of the working classes around the world to take up the fight to complete revolutions that had come to a halt along the way — and that, for example, it was up to the French working class to champion the unfinished work of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions of 1848 and 1871. So too must the Black working class in the United States, in alliance with progressive sectors of white workers, complete the unfinished work of the Civil War.
(2) The issues that arise and reappear today around Charlottesville also evoke, as Sister Colia Clark rightly points out, the unfinished work of the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and ’60s.
In an interview with The Organizer newspaper in April 2015, Sister Clark, an organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordi- nating Committee (SNCC) in Alabama and Mississippi in the early 1960s, noted the following:
“Our powerful and determined struggle as Black people won the Civil Right Bill and the Voting Rights Act; we smashed key pillars of Jim Crow. But these victories are merely a piece of our legacy. The March on Washington in 1963 had two pieces, and the Black Power piece has not been completed.
“Black Power opens up the whole issue of finishing the unfinished work of the March on Washington in 1963. This is what will give Blacks our humanity back. We can then call ourselves Black for the first time in hundreds of years and feel pride. We can call ourselves Black and not have our insides turn and twist and feel that we are nothing.”
It took the courage and determination of young Black militants like Sister Clark to impose desegregation in universities, schools, and public restrooms — and to win the right to vote. The U.S. ruling class, fearing a widespread social explosion that could challenge its class domination (given the convergence of the Civil Rights Movement and the massive movement of youth against the war in Vietnam) chose to cut its losses and heed the demands of the March on Washington.
But, as Sister Clark pointed out, institutionalized racism was not excised. Black Power — that is Black self-determination — was not won. Today, more than 50 years after the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, the pendulum has swung back in a reactionary direction with the advent of the “New Jim Crow” — that is, the prison-industrial complex in which more Blacks are incarcerated, many of them performing slave labor for some of the main U.S. transnational corporations, than there were Blacks working as slaves on the plantations at the time of the Civil War.
(3) Capitalist rule in the United States, from the very beginning, has used, developed, and promoted institutional racism as a major element of its domination. Institutional racism pitted the upper sectors of the working class — the white workers’ aristocracy — against the Black working class. This privileged white layer was made to feel threatened whenever Black workers made gains. Institutional racism divided the working class in the interests of the bosses and their hired hands.
The capitalist system in decay has now targeted the gains and working conditions of the white skilled working class, closing factories throughout the Rust Belt and laying off millions of workers. Institutionalized racism has been wielded yet again with fraudulent arguments to scapegoat Black “welfare cheats” and undocumented immigrants (deemed “illegal”) for the ills of a capitalist economy that is incapable of addressing the basic needs of the working class majority, including skilled white workers.
Capitalist politicians in both major parties would like to reduce the issue of racism to one of individual prejudice. The vast majority of them have jumped on the “anti-Neo-Nazi” bandwagon while continuing to defend police killings of Blacks, fueling the schools-to-prison pipeline, and upholding the countless means through which institutionalized racism, at all levels, carries out its dirty work.
The fact is that U.S. capitalism is threatened at its core when the myriad mechanisms of the institutional racist division are threatened, because they are a key component of its particular mode of domination, linked to the particular history of the United States.
This gives its full revolutionary content to the slogan of “Black Lives Matter”—whatever the political limitations of the leadership of this movement. To say that Black lives matter is an act of accusation against the U.S. capitalist class and against a system that cultivates the most backward and reactionary prejudices based on the idea that only white lives matter — which happens to be one of the main slogans of the white supremacists today.
Without a doubt, there are large profoundly reactionary and conservative sectors in the United States that provide a possible social basis for the development of a fascist movement in the United States. But it is a fact today, confirmed by numerous surveys, that a large majority of Americans, including workers, reject the divisive schemes borne from institutionalized racism.
(4) This current situation would not exist were it not for the historical bankruptcy of the misleaders of the workers’ movement on the question of the struggle against racism and segregation. The roots of this bankruptcy can be found in the AFL-CIO leadership’s allegiance to the Democratic Party, the party of racism and the Southern Dixiecrats. The leaders of the trade unions have traditionally cultivated the most reactionary prejudices of the working-class aristocracy.
It follows that the slogans of Black Party and Labor Party, which raise the question of breaking with the twin parties of the bosses, are more than ever at the heart of the entire political situation.
Socialist Organizer stands in continuity with the political positions on the Black question developed by the SWP in close collaboration with Leon Trotsky — particularly the SWP’s 1963 “Freedom Now” resolution.
Basing itself on what Trotsky described as the “dialectical development of the Black struggle for self-determination,” the SWP’s 1963 resolution stated that Blacks as such would have to “divide” from the white workers and form their own independent political party in order to then “unite with the white working class in the overall struggle against capitalism.”
The resolution noted that “while the Black population is predominantly proletarian, the Black people are more than just another heavily exploited section of the working class, and the Black movement is more than just a part of the general working class movement. As an oppressed nationality … their position in society is special, their consciousness is influenced by racial and national, as well as class factors.”
The 1963 resolution goes on to note that “the labor and Black movements march along their own paths,” but it went on to underline the fact that they [the Black and labor movements] march to a common destination, and the freedom of the Blacks from oppression and of the workers from exploitation can be achieved only through the victory of their common struggle against capitalism. … Blacks cannot win their goal of equality without an alliance with the working class.”
Noting further on that the “tempos of development of the two movements are uneven,” the SWP resolution stressed the need for “Blacks to … first unite in their own party” in order that they could be able to “bring about an alliance of equals, where they [the Blacks] can be reasonably sure that their demands and needs cannot be neglected or betrayed by their allies.”
Finally, the resolution pointed out that there is no contradiction between advocating a Black Party and advocating a Labor Party: “Our support of such a Black Party in no way conflicts with our … continued advocacy of a Labor Party. On the contrary, we believe that a Black Party and a Labor Party would find much in common from the very beginning, would work closely together for common ends, and would tend in the course of common activity to establish close organizational ties or even merge into a single or federated party.”
In fact, the SWP resolution states elsewhere, if a Black Party were to be formed first, it would be a major spur for the development of a Labor Party: “The creation of a Black Party running its own candidates would rock the whole political structure to its foundation. … Advocates of a labor break with the old parties would get a bigger and better hearing from the ranks. Thus the creation of a Black Party would benefit not only the Blacks but also their present and potential allies.”
This strategic orientation is as valid today as it was in 1963.
(5) The fallout of the Charlottesville counter-protest and killing has reached the highest levels of government and could be the nail in the coffin of Donald Trump’s presidency — a presidency that can only be understood as the expression of the impasse of a capitalist system in its death agony and of a two-party system that is more and more repudiated by the working-class majority.
Trump not only revealed his true colors (supporting the white supremacists responsible for the death of the young woman), he also highlighted with his numerous flip-flops his mental instability and total incompetence in leading the ship of State.
This was the reason given by the CEOs of the major corporations to explain why they bolted from Trump’s many advisory councils. All had supported Trump and financed his presidential campaign — just as they financed the campaign of Hillary Clinton. Their resignations from Trump’s councils expressed the growing sentiment that Trump must go to preserve the system as a whole.
An opinion piece published in the August 21 Washington Post quotes Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who said that Trump “has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence” needed in a president. This indictment was significant because Corker, a Trump ally, chairs the Foreign Relations Committee. Corker said he feared that “our nation is going to go through great peril” and called for “radical change” at the White House.
(6) Today, the working class is facing a very grave situation. Gains wrested through bitter struggle are on the chopping block. The right of Black people to vote is under assault in state after state through redistricting and countless other ploys. Privatization of public services is expelling millions of workers, especially Black workers, from the organized workforce. Immigrant workers are being rounded up and deported in greater numbers than ever, and a massive Wall of Shame to span the entire U.S.-Mexican border is being planned. And the list goes on.
This is why action-oriented labor-community coalitions are needed to enjoin the struggle to preserve and expand workers’ rights with the struggle to preserve and expand democratic rights. The 13-million-strong labor movement needs to champion these struggles by raising and fighting for demands such as:
– A $15 minimum wage and a union,
– The right to a trade union without conditions; Stop the federal “Right to Work” law,
– Single-payer healthcare now,
– Defend and expand public education,
– A massive public works program, at union scale and under union contracts,
– Tear down the Wall of Shame, Not one more deportation,
– Down with the racists and the Klux Klux Klan,
– Stop police killings of Blacks and Latinos,
– Stop the endless wars! Money for jobs and public services!
This would open the way for a genuine independent labor movement, a leverage point for the youth, for Blacks, for immigrants, and for all the oppressed sectors of the working class.
Though heavily weakened by its subordination to the Democratic Party, the labor movement still has the potential to turn things around in the interests of the working class and all the oppressed.
(7) Across the country, white supremacists — with the support of police departments, politicians, and the president of the United States himself — are organizing public rallies to promote their racist and reactionary agenda. In some cases these actions are “protected” by their own armed militias.
One such neo-Nazi assembly will take place August 26 in San Francisco. An important union in the history of this city, ILWU Local 10, has called for a mass demonstration and assembly at Crissy Field, where the white supremacists will be gathering. The union’s call reads as follows:
“Whereas, the fascists, the KKK, Nazis and other white supremacists rallied and marched by torchlight in Charlottesville, whipping up lynch mob terror with racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic slogans, and
“Whereas, that attack resulted in one anti-racist counter-demonstrator murdered and many others injured when one of the fascist bullies ran them down with a car, and
“Whereas, President Trump’s whitewashing this violent, deadly fascist and racist attack saying ‘both sides are to blame’, and his attacking anti-racists for opposing Confederate statues that honor slavery adds fuel to the fire of racist violence, and
“Whereas, the Klan, Nazis and other racist terrorists represent a deadly threat to African Americans, Latinos and immigrants, as well as Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ people among many others, and directly to members of our union and the labor movement as a whole, and
“Whereas, the fascist ‘Patriot Prayer’ group that staged violent racist provocations in Portland, Oregon and elsewhere, attracting Nazi and other violent white supremacists, has announced it will rally on Crissy Field on Saturday August 26, and
“Whereas, far from a matter of ‘free speech’, the racist and fascist provocations are a deadly menace as shown in Portland on May 26 when a Nazi murdered two men and almost killed a third for defending two young African American women he was menacing; and our sisters and brothers in the Portland labor movement answered racist terror with the power of workers solidarity, mobilizing members of 14 unions against the fascist/racist rally there on June 4, and
“Whereas, ILWU Local 10 has a long and proud history of standing up against racism, fascism and bigotry and using our union power to do so; on May Day 2015 we shut down Bay Area ports and marched followed by thousands to Oscar Grant Plaza demanding an end to police terror against African Americans and others; the San Francisco Bay Area is a union stronghold and we will not allow labor-hating white supremacists to bring their lynch mob terror here,
“Therefore, ILWU Local 10 in the best tradition of our union that fought these right-wingers in the Big Strike of 1934, will not work on that day and instead march to Crissy Field to stop the racist, fascist intimidation in our hometown and invite all unions and antiracist and antifascist organizations to join us defending unions, racial minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women and all the oppressed.”
In our view, this statement by ILWU Local 10 points the way forward!
— August 22, 2017