The below is extracted from Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, with thanks to the publisher Haymarket Books for their permission.
On 12 April 1865, the American Civil War officially came to an end when the Union Army accepted the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy on the steps of a courthouse in Appomattox, Virginia. The Union Army, led by 200,000 Black soldiers, had destroyed the institution of slavery; as a result of their victory, Black people were now to be no longer property but citizens of the United States. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, the first declaration of civil rights in the United States, stated that:
citizens of every race and color, without regard to any previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude, shall have the same right, in every State and Territory in the United States … to full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property, as is enjoyed by white citizens.
There was no ambiguity that the war had buried chattel slavery once and for all. Days after the surrender of the Confederacy, Abraham Lincoln rode into Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the slaveholders, where he stood upon the stairs of the former Confederate capitol building and told a large gathering crowd of Black people days into their freedom,
In reference to you, colored people, let me say God has made you free. Although you have been deprived of your God-given rights by your socalled Masters, you are now as free as I am, and if those that claim to be your superiors do not know that you are free, take the sword and bayonet and teach them that you are – for God created all men free, giving to each the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. *
One hundred and fifty years later, on April 12, 2015, at nine in the morning, 217 miles north of the Appomattox courthouse, Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year-old Black man, was arrested by the Baltimore police. His only apparent crime was making eye contact with the police and then running away. Freddie Gray was loaded into a van. By the time he emerged forty-five minutes later, his voice box had been crushed, his neck snapped, and 80 per cent of his spinal cord severed.
The distance from the end of the Civil War, with the birth of Black citizenship and civil rights, to the state-sanctioned beating and torture of Freddie Gray constitutes the gap between formal equality before the law and the self-determination and self-possession inherent in actual freedom – the right to be free from oppression, the right to make determinations about your life free from duress, coercion, or threat of harm. Freedom in the United States has been elusive, contingent, and fraught with contradictions and unattainable promises – for almost everyone.
Black people were not freed into an American dream, but into what Malcolm X described as an ‘American nightmare’ of economic inequality and unchecked injustice. The full extent of this inequality was masked by racial terrorism. One hundred years after Emancipation, African Americans dismantled the last vestiges of legal discrimination with the civil rights movement, but the excitement of the movement quickly faded as American cities combusted with Black people who were angry and disillusioned at being locked out of accessing the riches of American society. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans participated in the uprisings in search of resolutions to the problems of lead poisoning, rat infestations, hunger and malnutrition, underemployment, poor schools, and persisting poverty. Where liberals and radicals often converged was in the demand that Blacks should have greater political control over their communities. For liberals, Black electoral politics was a sign of political maturity as the movement left the streets for the poll booth, urban governance, and community control. The problem was not ‘the system,’ it was exclusion from access to all that American society had to offer. Some radicals were also lured by the possibility of self-governance and community control. Indeed, it was a viable strategy, given that much of Black life was controlled by white elected officials and white-led institutions. The question remained: Could the machinery wielded in the oppression of Blacks now be retooled in the name of Black self-determination?
If freedom had in one era been imagined as inclusion in the mainstream of American society, including admittance to its political and financial institutions, then the last fifty years have yielded a mixed record. Indeed, since the last gasps of the Black insurgency in the 1970s, there are many measures of Black accomplishment and achievement in a country where Black people were never intended to survive as free people. Is there no greater symbol of a certain kind of Black accomplishment than a Black president? For those who consider mastery of American politics and Black political representation as the highest expressions of inclusion in the mainstream, then we are surely in the heyday of American ‘race relations.’ Yet, paradoxically, at a moment when African Americans have achieved what no rational person could have imagined when the Civil War ended, we have simultaneously entered a new period of Black protest, Black radicalization, and the birth of a new Black left.
No one knows what will come of this new political development, but many know the causes of its gestation. For, as much success as some African Americans have achieved, four million Black children live in poverty, one million Black people are incarcerated, and 240,000 Black people lost their homes as a result of the foreclosure crisis – resulting in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in Black savings. Never before in American history has a Black president presided over the misery of millions of Black people, the denial of the most basic standards for health, happiness, and basic humanity. Entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte Jr., recalled his last conversation with Martin Luther King Jr., in which King lamented, ‘I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply. . . . We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.’
The aspiration for Black liberation cannot be separated from what happens in the United States as a whole. Black life cannot be transformed while the rest of the country burns. The fires consuming the United States are stoked by the widespread alienation of low-wage and meaningless work, unaffordable rents, suffocating debt, and poverty. The essence of economic inequality is borne out in a simple fact: there are 400 billionaires in the United States and 45 million people living in poverty. These are not parallel facts; they are intersecting facts. There are 400 American billionaires because there are 45 million people living in poverty. Profit comes at the expense of the living wage. Corporate executives, university presidents, and capitalists in general are living the good life – because so many others are living a life of hardship.
The struggle for Black liberation, then, is not an abstract idea molded in isolation from the wider phenomenon of economic exploitation and inequality that pervades all of American society; it is intimately bound up with them. The struggle for Black liberation requires going beyond the standard narrative that Black people have come a long way but have a long way to go – which, of course, says nothing about where it is that we are actually trying to get to. It requires understanding the origins and nature of Black oppression and racism more generally. Most importantly, it requires a strategy, some sense of how we get from the current situation to the future. Perhaps at its most basic level, Black liberation implies a world where Black people can live in peace, without the constant threat of the social, economic, and political woes of a society that places almost no value on the vast majority of Black lives. It would mean living in a world where Black lives matter. While it is true that when Black people get free, everyone gets free, Black people in America cannot ‘get free’ alone. In that sense, Black liberation is bound up with the project of human liberation and social transformation.
This book opens with a long quote from an essay Martin Luther King Jr. published in 1969. In it, he writes that the Black struggle ‘reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.’ What would constitute the ‘radical reconstruction’ of American society? This was a central question confronting the Black movement at the end of the last period of mass struggle. King himself had come to locate the crises confronting the United States in the ‘triplets’ of ‘racism, materialism and militarism.’ King and hundreds of thousands of other angry Blacks, whites, and Latino as across the country were rapidly radicalizing in reaction to the hypocrisy, contradictions, and brutality of capitalism. From the ‘massive resistance’ of white supremacists led by the Democratic Party in the South to the expanding war in Vietnam, to the dense poverty exposed by waves of ghetto rebellions, the US government had become an emperor with no clothes.
This unfolding radicalization was not happening in isolation: it was part of a global rebellion against an old colonial order that was rapidly coming undone. During the course of World War II, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, Japan, and France all lost colonial possessions. After the war, in 1947, England went on to lose the British colony of India, which was partitioned into India and Pakistan. And 1960 became known as the ‘Year of Africa’ when seventeen African countries achieved independence from their colonial overlords. Decolonization was achieved in various ways, from ‘peaceful’ transference of power to armed nationalist struggles. The ensuing debates over the futures of postcolonial societies included arguments over how to transform export- based economies into ones that prioritized the needs of the local population. In several of these countries, the debates revolved around different interpretations of socialism. In many ways these debates were distorted, given the wide influence of the Soviet Union, a country that at one point had been socialist but by this period had been for many years a one-party authoritarian regime. The Soviet model of socialism was based on an extremely narrow, limited definition of ‘state ownership’. But who owned the state was an equally important question. There were other questions generated by those movements, including: how to win state power, political economy, and how all of this would contribute to economic development and self-determination after centuries of colonial ruin. Non-white, formerly colonized people around the world hailed socialism (defined in many ways) almost universally as the means for achieving their freedom and reconstructing state power in their own names.
By the end of the 1960s, many Black revolutionaries took for granted that African Americans were a colonized population within the United States. In the book Black Power, Carmichael and Hamilton said as much: ‘Black people in this country form a “colony,” and it is not in the interest of the colonial power to liberate them. Black people are legal citizens of the United States with, for the most part, the same legal rights as other citizens. Yet they stand as colonial subjects in relation to white society.’ This idea was popular because it seemed an accurate way to describe the relationship between the impoverished, largely Black urban cores in the midst of much whiter, larger metropolitan areas. Colonialism could also explain the financially predatory relationship of business to Black communities, which was almost wholly organized around extraction, with little to no investment. All of these descriptions made sense of Black oppression and exploitation and seemed to fit with what was happening to Black and Brown people all over the globe. As Stokely Carmichael wrote, ‘Black Power cannot be isolated from the African Revolution. It can only be comprehended within the context of the African Revolution. Thus with Black Power . . . came an intensification as the African Revolution from Watts to Soweto went into the phase of the armed struggle.’
It was, however, inaccurate to describe Black Americans’ relationship to the United States as colonial, despite these obvious similarities. The profits reaped from the exploitation of Black
urban dwellers were not insignificant, but neither were they the important revenue streams back to the American ‘metropole.’ The outflow of capital from the inner city worked almost exclusively to the benefit of the layer of business owners directly involved in economically exploitative relationships with the urban ghetto, such as bankers and real-estate agents. This was not a motor of American capitalism compared to the cotton, rubber, sugar, and mineral extraction and trade that had fueled colonial empires for hundreds of years.
Being an oppressed minority population does not necessarily mean being colonial subjects. Calling Black people a colonized people drew the Black struggle into the global rebellion against the ‘colonial oppressors.’ Malcolm X spoke to this when he recognized that it was ‘incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of Black against white, or as purely an American problem. Rather, we are seeing today a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.’ Placing the Black rebellion within the context of the ‘African Revolution’ defied the idea that Black people were a ‘minority’ population fighting on their own in the belly of the beast. The identification of the Black struggle with the anticolonial movement also reintroduced interpretations of socialism back into the Black movement. There had been thousands of Black socialists, communists, and other anticapitalists in the United States for years, but the anticommunist witch hunt led by the federal government had largely destroyed any links between the socialist movement of the 1930s and the new wave of struggle in the 1960s.
By the end of the 1960s, socialism was once again on the table as a legitimate alternative to the ‘evil triplets’ King worried about. Most Black radicals were gravitating toward some conceptualization of socialism. It was easy to see why, considering how exposed the crimes of capitalism were. The United States had been experiencing years of economic growth, yet poverty, underemployment, and substandard housing were still the norm for Black and Brown people. In a speech Malcolm X gave at the founding of his Organization of Afro-American Unity, he said:
I’m telling you we do it because we live in one of the rottenest countries that has ever existed on this earth. It’s the system that is rotten; we have a rotten system. It’s a system of exploitation, a political and economic system of exploitation, of outright humiliation, degradation, discrimination – all of the negative things that you can run into, you have run into under this system that disguises itself as a democracy. … And you run around here getting ready to get drafted and go someplace and defend it. Someone needs to crack you upside your head.
He would go on to name that system:
All of the countries that are emerging today from under the shackles of colonialism are turning toward socialism. I don’t think it’s an accident. Most of the countries that were colonial powers were capitalist countries and the last bulwark of capitalism today is America and it’s impossible for a white person today to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find a person without racism and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is socialism.
Similarly, King, near the end of his life, connected the ‘fire’ burning down the house of America to the inequities rooted deep in the country’s political economy. In 1967, King was reckoning with several questions that pierced the heart of American injustice:
‘Where do we go from here,’ that we honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?’†
Black women were also connecting the system of capitalism to the hardship their families experienced. Black women who had been active in the civil rights movement went on to form the Third World Women’s Alliance in 1968. By the early 1970s they published the Black Women’s Manifesto, which analyzed racism and sexism in the movement and more generally: ‘The system of capitalism (and its afterbirth . . . racism) under which we all live, has attempted by many devious ways and means to destroy the humanity of black people. This has meant an outrageous assault on every black man, woman and child who resides in the United States.’ Some of the women involved in the Third World Women’s Alliance would also go on to form the Combahee River Collective. They too would link the oppression of Blacks and women to capitalism:
We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation … Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.
By 1970, the Black Panther Party, an unabashed revolutionary socialist organization, was the largest and most influential Black revolutionary organization, with more than 5,000 members and forty-five chapters. In 1971, the Panthers’ newspaper, the Black Panther, reached its peak circulation at 250,000 papers a week – a reach far beyond their membership. Ordinary Blacks reading the paper would have found the Panthers’ outline for Black liberation mapped out with their ‘Ten-Point Program.’ Among their many demands were an end ‘to the robbery by the capitalists of our Black community,’ ‘decent housing fit for the shelter of human beings,’ ‘an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people,’ and ‘land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.’
Anticapitalism filtered into every aspect of Black life, including the workplace. In 1968, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, made up of former Black students and Black autoworkers in Detroit, made similar references. An organizer from that group, John Watson, said in 1968,
To struggle in our own interests means that the Black people of the ghetto must struggle to overthrow white capitalism. The struggle against capitalism is world wide [sic] and the revolutionary struggle of the ghetto is crucial and essential in the over all [sic] world revolution. If the Koreans and Vietnamese can overthrow imperialism in Asia, then Asia will be free. But if the Black Revolution can overthrow capitalism and imperialism in the US, then the whole world will be freed. This, then, is our role.
By the end of the 1960s, there was widespread understanding that the capitalist economy was responsible for Black hardship and that socialism was an alternative way to organize society. Organizations that called for the overthrow of the government, like the Black Panthers, were so popular that in 1969 FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared that ‘the Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country.’ The popularity of the Panthers – in concert with successive years of ghetto rebellions – compelled the economic and political elite to create more space for the development of a Black middle class, but for the majority the questions of inequality and injustice remained largely unresolved.
Given the widespread advocacy of socialism, in one form or another, at the end of the last Black insurgency, it is almost odd when socialism is dismissed as incapable of explaining racism or Black oppression. Political commentator Tim Wise published in 2010 a typical critique on his blog:
Left activists often marginalize people of color by operating from a framework of extreme class reductionism, which holds that the ‘real’ issue is class, not race, that “the only color that matters is green,” and that issues like racism are mere ‘identity politics,’ which should take a backseat to promoting class-based universalism and programs to help working people. This reductionism, by ignoring the way that even middle class and affluent people of color face racism and color-based discrimination (and by presuming that low-income folks of color and low-income whites are equally oppressed, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary) reinforces white denial, privileges white perspectivism and dismisses the lived reality of people of color. Even more . . . it ignores perhaps the most important political lesson regarding the interplay of race and class: namely, that the biggest reason why there is so little working-class consciousness and unity in the United States (and thus, why class-based programs to uplift all in need are so much weaker here than in the rest of the industrialized world), is precisely because of racism and the way that white racism has been deliberately inculcated among white working folks. Only by confronting that directly (rather than sidestepping it as class reductionists seek to do) can we ever hope to build cross-racial, class based coalitions. In other words, for the policies favored by the class reductionist to work – be they social democrats or Marxists – or even to come into being, racism and white supremacy must be challenged directly.
Specificity always helps to illuminate the issues, but Wise lumps several categories of people together, only to reduce their ideas and political activity to downplaying or ignoring racism. Folding ‘the left,’ ‘activists,’ ‘social democrats,’ and ‘Marxists’ together and describing them collectively as privileging ‘white perspectives’ while dismissing ‘the lived reality of people of color’ obscures more than it clarifies. For one, there are important distinctions among those with a political analysis and framework for understanding the world and those who show up at demonstrations. There is also an embedded assumption that ‘the left’ is white and effectively ignores racism – a curious assumption, given the clear historical support and affiliation with socialism and socialists among African Americans quoted above. How did socialism go from being the greatest threat to the federal government (as it called the revolutionary socialist Black Panthers) to being perceived as ‘white’ and marginal to the struggles of ‘people of color’?
To really unpack that history would involve understanding the extent of the repression the federal government exacted against its ‘internal enemy’ as a way to break their influence among ordinary African Americans. It would also involve taking the politics of the Panthers seriously, as well as the political debates that ensued across the revolutionary left of the 1960s and 1970s over where to build their groups, how to build, and among what audience. To be sure, there were deep internecine battles over how to move forward, but the least charitable way to describe these debates is to reduce many differing political viewpoints and organizations into the generic category of ‘class reductionist left activist.’ The revolutionary left today is mostly white and tiny, but today’s reality must be firmly situated in a history of massive repression, including imprisonment and state-sanctioned murder, as well as in intense political debates over strategy, tactics, and political perspectives. As to the political content of Wise’s critique, most revolutionary socialists would agree that the most significant challenge to the development of class consciousness in the United States isracism and that, without a struggle against racism, there is no hope for fundamentally changing this country. It is true that the most well-known socialist-identified person in the United States is Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who exemplifies most of what Wise is criticizing more generally in the left. But Sanders is a United States senator who has spent decades rubbing shoulders with the powerful elite. Sanders is reluctant and almost uncomfortable discussing the specific ways that racism adds another burden onto the existing oppression Black workers and the poor face. Thus, Sanders essentially argues that addressing economic inequality is the best way to combat racism. It is an old argument from the right wing of the socialist movement that was challenged and denounced by its left wing – the wing that became the Communist Party after the Russian Revolution in 1917.
The Russian Revolution gave life to an international communist movement that was much further to the left than the old Socialist Party. The emergence of revolutionary communism in the 1920s and 1930s overlapped with the rapidly developing radicalization of African Americans. Blacks were referring to themselves as ‘New Negroes,’ as opposed to the old, victimized Negroes of the Jim Crow South. These ‘new’ Blacks were imbued with the confidence of living in big cities, finally out from under the surveillance and intimidation of Jim Crow. They were emboldened by their brethren having fought in the ‘Great War,’ which President Woodrow Wilson described as an American war fought in the name of democracy. They were also embittered by the contradiction that America made public appeals to democracy while racist whites initiated pogroms across the North.
Within this overheating political cauldron, there were different Black political responses. The followers of Marcus Garvey argued that Blacks should triumphantly return to Africa. Black radicalism also flourished. The African Blood Brotherhood was small but influential in its espousal of both socialist and nationalist politics. The Communist Party (CP) also became a political pole of attraction and recruited many of the best Black revolutionaries of the era, who actively transformed the party’s political perspective on its work among African Americans. As historian Robin D. G. Kelley has argued, ‘If the Third International . . . proved more sympathetic and sensitive to the racial nature of American class struggle, it is largely because Black folk made it so . . . advocating a radical fusion of socialism and “race politics.”’ When Black writer and literary giant Claude McKay traveled as a delegate to the Communist International in 1922, he reported:
In associating with the comrades of America, I have found demonstrations of prejudice on the various occasions when the white and black comrades had to get together, and this is the greatest obstacle that the Communists of America have got to overcome – the fact that they first have got to emancipate themselves from the ideas they entertained toward Negroes before they can be able to reach the Negroes with any kind of radical propaganda.‡
The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin directly intervened in the American CP and argued that the party should immediately begin to agitate politically among African Americans.
The shift in orientation was sharp and dramatic. Whereas the founding convention of the CP in 1919 merely stated that the ‘racial oppression of the Negro is simply the expression of his economic bondage and oppression, each intensifying the other,’ by 1921, after Lenin’s involvement on the question, the CP now declared:
The Negro workers in American are exploited and oppressed more ruthlessly than any other group. The history of the Southern Negro is the history of a reign of terror – of persecution, rape and murder. . . . Because of the anti-Negro policies of organized labor, the Negro has despaired of aid from this source, and he has either been driven into the camp of labor’s enemies, or has been compelled to develop purely racial organizations which seek purely racial aims. The Workers Party will support the Negroes in their struggle for Liberation, and will help them in their fight for economic, political and social equality. . . . Its task will be to destroy altogether the barrier of race prejudice that has been used to keep apart the Black and white workers, and bind them into a solid union of revolutionary forces for the overthrow of our common enemy.§
By the early 1940s, thousands of Blacks had joined the CP.
In the period leading up to World War II, the politics of communism became the dominant political framework for most of the nonwhite world as hundreds of millions of people of color across the globe were inspired by Lenin’s writings on the right of oppressed nations to fight for their own freedom. Lenin wrote:
The proletariat must struggle against the enforced retention of oppressed nations within the bounds of the given state. . . . The proletariat must demand freedom of political separation for the colonies and nations oppressed by ‘their own’ nation. Otherwise, the internationalism of the proletariat would be nothing but empty words; neither confidence nor class solidarity would be possible between the workers of the oppressed and the oppressor nations. . . . On the other hand, the socialists of the oppressed nation must, in particular, defend and implement the full and unconditional unity, including organizational unity, of the workers of the oppressed nation and those of the oppressor nation. Without this it is impossible to defend the independent policy of the proletariat and their class solidarity with the proletariat of other countries.¶
Through the period of the Popular Front (the name for the strategy Lenin describes), the CP maintained its popularity among African Americans and many of the oppressed. But over time, the constantly shifting, contradictory positions of the CP and Soviet Union, which were now led by the increasingly tyrannical Josef Stalin, led to a mass exodus from the party after the war. In the United States during the war, the CP had embraced the Democratic Party and called for unity against Hitler at all costs. Its conclusion that American Blacks should therefore downplay the continuing fight against racial inequality would eventually erode the ranks of the CP’s Black membership. But the foibles of the CP should not be conflated with the validity of anticapitalism and socialism as political theories that inform and guide the struggle for Black liberation. C. L. R. James, a Black revolutionary from the Caribbean and a collaborator of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, continued to develop Marxist theory and its relationship to the Black struggle when he wrote in 1948 – years before the emergence of the civil rights movement – about the dynamics of the Black movement and its impact on the class struggle in general:
We say, number one, that the Negro struggle, the independent Negro struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is traveling with great speed and vigor. We say, number two, that this independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party. We say, number three, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a great contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism. In this way we challenge directly any attempt to subordinate or to push to the rear the social and political significance of the independent Negro struggle for democratic rights.**
James’ observations still resonate, especially in the context of today’s movement. The Black movement is an independent force that has its own timing, logic, and perspective based on the history of racism and oppression in this country.
It is also the case that when the Black movement goes into motion, it destabilizes all political life in the United States. King argued that the Black movement ‘forc[es] America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It . . . expos[es] the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws.’ The oppression of Black workers exposes the foundational lie of the United States as a free and democratic society more than that of any other group, with the exception of the Indigenous population. The political activism and rebellion of Black people bring that lie to the surface for all to see, throwing into question the actual nature of US society. White workers have always followed the lead of Black workers. The militant strike wave I described in chapter 2 was certainly influenced by the Black freedom struggle that had provided a powerful example of organizing and resistance for white workers in the union movement to follow. For this reason, far from being marginal to the struggles of Black people, socialists have always been at the center of those movements—from the struggle to save the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s, to Bayard Rustin’s role in organizing the 1963 March on Washington, to the Black Panther Party’s organizing against police brutality. At the height of McCarthyism, socialists and communists were so identified with the antiracist movement that antiracist organizing was automatically assumed to be the work of communists.
Thank you to Haymarket Books for allowing us to use this extract from Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
* From W.E.B. Du Bois and David Levering Lewis, Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880
† Quoted in Jack M. Bloom, Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement
‡ From Wayne F. Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance:A Biography
§ From Philip Sheldon Foner and James S. Allen, American Communism and BlackAmericans: A Documentary History, 1919-1929
¶ From V.I. Lenin and Doug Lorimer, Marxism and Nationalism
** From C.L.R. James, ‘The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the US’