The roots of American racism 3: Civil war to civil rights

In the third of four articles, Bill Crane examines the origins of racism in the United States. Here he looks at how the racist segregation of Jim Crow was implemented in the 1890s and then abolished by the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.


In the second article in this series on the origins of American racism, we saw the massive revolutionary changes in race relations that accompanied the Civil War and its aftermath. A coalition of black slaves in the South, white plebeians in the North, industrial capital, and the federal government united to smash the planter ruling class of the Confederacy and put an end the abhorrent system of plantation slavery.

This was a huge step forward not only for blacks, but for all people of the US. Its impact, however, was contradictory. The Civil War was an example of what Marx termed a bourgeois revolution, which led from one form of exploitation – slavery –  to another, although less brutal and coercive – the system of wage labour. This was indeed a revolutionary change in American society. But the ideology of race could adapt and thrive outside of a slave system.

The coalition that defeated the South did not last long after its victory. Northern capital, its dominance assured, abandoned Southern blacks to the tender mercies of their former masters. The freedmen were pushed backwards into less coercive, but equally racist, forms of bondage. The consolidation of the racist system of laws referred to as “Jim Crow,” and its destruction in a renewed cycle of black self-emancipation, is the subject of this article.

The Strange Career of Jim Crow

Freed blacks in the south continued to work the land as they had under conditions of slavery. The black question in the US thus continued to be deeply enmeshed with the agrarian question. The sharecropping system established after the fall of the Confederacy, though it had begun as a compromise that mainly favoured the freedmen, over time became a disguised wage-labour relationship benefiting their former masters as well as Northern merchant capital. The vast majority of blacks, around a third of the region’s population, continued to farm in the “black belt,” named for its characteristically rich soil, stretching from Virginia southwest in an arc towards Texas.

However this system affected white as well as black. Before the Civil War the vast majority of white farmers in the South, who owned no slaves, eked out their subsistence at the margins of the plantation economy. The planters never trusted the motivations of these poor whites but their system needed support from the lower classes, and so they had actively solicited them to uphold white supremacy. But the end of slavery and the emerging agrarian transition had the effect of throwing these independent white farmers into a position little different from most blacks.

JimCrowInDurhamNCThe radical faction of the Republican Party during Reconstruction understood the potential of this class just as well as the planters. Republican propaganda during this period encouraged the white farmer to “be a man” and stand up to the planter aristocracy which had always held him in contempt by claiming his right to public services including debtor relief, hospitals, roads and a system of free public schooling.

In the medium term however, a coalition of black and white farmers did not emerge. The planter elite was able to reassert its power by terror against the freedmen and stoking the fears of the white lower classes about a black takeover. It was able to roll back most of the gains blacks had made, counting on the benign neglect of the North. The planters liked to flatter themselves that the South they ruled over was not so different from the old South, in which their fabulously wealthy forefathers lived a genteel and aristocratic lifestyle supported by legions of supposedly happy black slaves. But they maintained this renewed power only in the South. Never again would planters dominate the federal government, or indeed have any sway over its policy at all.

Furthermore, the territory they ruled over was in total thrall to the North. Steven Hahn has argued that the South in this period was a de facto colony of the northern US. It was increasingly backward, a territory with little industry or any kind of economic dynamism. “King Cotton” still sat in his throne, but his fortunes kept declining in the world market. The economic picture of the South was a faithful replica of its political and social backwardness.

This system did not go unchallenged for long. In the 1890s, Populism emerged as a powerful movement of white and black farmers in response to a worldwide economic depression. Populists were elected to office in Southern states on a platform that called for the lowering of interest, expansion of public services, public ownership of utilities like the railroads, an eight-hour day and an end to vagrancy laws.

Populism’s appeal rested on cross-racial class solidarity, the first time this would be a significant aspect of lowe-class struggle in the history of the US. Its most articulate spokesman, Tom Watson, declared to black and white alike: “You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both.” Blacks were common among the candidates the Populists fielded for office.

The People’s Party was a deadly threat to the planter class. As they had done in the period of Reconstruction, they responded to it with the tools of their trade: fraud at the ballot box, terror in the fields and raising the spectre of black domination in the press. Their campaign created a viciously racist atmosphere resulting in mob violence in the cities as well as the country.

Following the retrenchment of Democratic majorities in the Southern legislatures, the planters moved to completely disenfranchise blacks. This having been done, Jim Crow swept quickly across the region. The infamous Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson found that systemic racism, in the form of segregation of everything from public schools to public water fountains was constitutional under the doctrine of “separate but equal.” But under the surface lay profound social tensions that would eventually erupt into a new cycle of resistance.

The US labour movement, which had gotten a running start as Reconstruction ended, was after the defeat of Populism the best chance for united white and black action to smash racism. But its promise was to be indefinitely deferred. The form of workers’ organisation that set deepest roots in the US was the conservative craft unionism of the AFL led by Samuel Gompers. It sought to protect the privileged wages and benefits of skilled workers against the invasion of their crafts by workers lower down in the food chain, such as blacks and immigrants.

American socialism could also have been a source of solidarity and hope to blacks. Founded originally by German immigrants after the Civil War, American socialism won large support among Italians, Poles, Russians, Jews and other immigrant groups from Europe, all of whom were newly arrived to America and were thought of as “less white” than the native born, as well as the white workers of the Midwest.

The Socialist Party in the era of Eugene V. Debs was immensely popular among American workers. However it contained within its ranks both revolutionary class fighters and the petty bourgeois advocates of “sewer socialism.” The latter included some of the most vicious racists to be found anywhere in American political life. Black radicals such as Hubert Harrison and W.E.B. Du Bois argued in vain against the hard or soft racists in the SP, who championed segregated party locals in the South and were opposed to Asian immigration.

Both the tight system of social control that was Jim Crow and the failure of the labour and socialist movements to offer black people solidarity explains why until the mid-twentieth century, the black movement looked inward. Much like they had under slavery, blacks never accepted the renewed system that proclaimed them racially inferior and liable to be barred from public space, to have their mouths shut and even be killed if local whites found them too “uppity.”

The period from the very late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth holds the origins of what we now know as “Black Nationalism.” There was a wide spectrum of views within it. Some, like Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute, thought the way forward was to gradually build up power and wealth within the black community by founding the institutions that would support this, soliciting what white support could be gained along the way. Radicals like Du Bois found Washington’s approach servile and demeaning.

The most popular trend of radical Black Nationalism, however, was that of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born speaker and entrepreneur who preached a millenarian “return to Africa.” His ambitious plans to redeem Africa for the black race through the foundation of a powerful chain of enterprises connecting blacks in the US, Caribbean and Latin America even won over socialists like Du Bois. Long after his conviction for fraud, following which he lost most of his influence, the building up of a separate capitalist economy to serve their community would remain an appealing goal to black radicals who saw no end to racism in sight.

Regardless of its numerous contradictions, it was the period of Jim Crow in the South that led to the establishment of a black leadership. The ministers of the black church as part of a small but growing intellectual caste and a number of black businessmen all served their apprenticeships in race consciousness and activism. They comprised the human material that proved capable of again challenging and overthrowing a racist system a century after the end of slavery.

A Change is Gonna Come

Social and economic changes at work in the South since the beginning of the century made the time right for a renewed black movement. Many decades after their defeat in the Civil War, the states of the former Confederacy were on the doorstep of modernity. Northern industry finally entered the south, seeking the low setup and cheap labour costs that could not be found at home. Blacks (and whites) whose ancestors had worked the land since the eighteenth century poured into the southern cities where jobs at the new textile mills could be found.

The new era in the South also brought profound changes in southern agriculture, which was finally incorporated into the national economy and transformed along capitalist lines. Capitalist agriculture has always expelled the masses of producers from the land. Many thousands of Southern blacks left their homes to settle in the northern cities of New York, Boston, Chicago and many others. Here, they found a society which, while not having the same legal prohibitions, was every bit as racist as the South they had left. In Chicago for example, blacks were settled in the filthy, crowded and even highly flammable tenements that constituted affordable housing. This is the origin of the inner city “ghetto.” The black worker was part of a caste that both worked much longer hours and was paid much less than the equivalent labour of a white worker.

Once again, there arose the opportunity of united class fightback against racism. The renewed American labour movement led by the CIO had led victorious battles both in the north and the south by scrapping the segregated locals and class-collaboration of the AFL. Ultimately, however, it was not fit for purpose. Operation Dixie, the CIO leadership’s plan to organise the South, ran into the barriers erected by Jim Crow, the Taft-Hartley Act and the anti-communist witch hunts which were all firmly at home in the South. It was scrapped for the sake of a continued alliance with the Democratic Party and eventual union with the AFL.

But change could not be halted by the subjective failure of the labour movement to challenge racism. Southern blacks lived under a system that was increasingly anachronistic as compared to the rest of the US and indeed the world. Every year that extended planter rule eroded the foundations on which it was built.

The New Deal and the Second World War, in which thousands of blacks soldiers served, contributed to the formation of a new generation which was unwilling to live with the burdens that the legacy of slavery had placed on their shoulders. The entry of business in the South had formed a white middle class which had no objective interest in planter rule or Jim Crow racism, and could be subject to pressure on that front. The Democratic Party was increasingly swayed by the voice of business rather than that of the planter aristocracy. And by the end of the 1940s, black resentment had reached the boiling point.

Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round

The Civil Rights movement in the United States emerged at a period of what Marxists would recognise as a pre-revolutionary crisis in the South. The planter class, which had held onto a highly diluted form of their power, found it increasingly difficult to stand against the changes in America at large, while the black population was increasingly unwilling to be ruled “in the old way” of Jim Crow. This was especially true since the Communist-led anti-racist mobilisations of the 1930s, and since the return of black veterans who, having fought against fascism and experienced qualitatively lower levels of racism in France and Britain, came back determined to force the pace of change.

Behind the moves forward made throughout the 1950s in the black cause was a self-conscious leadership with a deliberate strategy to end Jim Crow. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organisation founded by moderate black intellectuals in 1909, was the centre of black struggle during this period. It deliberately attacked Jim Crow along the lines where it was weakest and where repression could attract the sympathy of Northern liberals and the federal government.

They attacked segregation in the courts first, hoping to facilitate a process of peaceful change. In 1954, the NAACP won the first major ruling against Jim Crow when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Completely reversing the stand it had taken half a century earlier, the Court found that separate educational facilities for black and white students were inherently unequal and ordered their integration. Black communities across the South were electrified.

But implementation of Brown, ordered by the Court to take place ‘with all deliberate speed,’ was delayed and left up to individual states and cities. White notables, as they had many times before when threatened with black insurgency, responded pre-emptively with ferocious violence. In Mississippi, white supremacists murdered teenager Emmitt Till in an attempt to send a clear message that any perceived insubordination on the part of blacks would be punished by the harshest means. Hundreds of incidents of this kind were reported across the South from 1950-55. But more and more blacks refused to be intimidated.

Rosa_Parks_BookingThe NAACP settled in and prepared for a long war of position against the forces of segregation. In the summer of 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white person. Parks was a field organiser for the NAACP, the local organisation of whicg had scored a number of victories in the city of late, including a voter-registration drive and the desegregation of public water fountains. They decided that the moment was right to transition to the more militant method of a boycott campaign.

Montgomery’s campaign found the voice and the leader it needed in the young minister Martin Luther King, Jr. It was in the course of the struggle in Montgomery that he developed the program of non-violent resistance he later became so widely known for. Influenced by Henry David Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi in differing measures, he found that militant non-cooperation with the rule of segregation suited the mood of blacks in the city, while the images of vicious repression of black demonstrations ordered by police chief “Bull” Connor when broadcast across the country roused the sympathy and outrage of many Northern whites.

From 1955 onwards, Jim Crow cracked up along its fault lines. Black activists seized the initiative with Montgomery-inspired programs of direct action. They faced the stubborn resistance of planters and their allies who constituted the White Citizens Councils, and the racist violence of the Klan in collaboration with the state (frequently this was the same thing).

Black activism was increasingly the province of a new generation, which had few illusions as to the nature of the state, the Democratic Party and Northern liberals. This was a “second wave” of civil rights activism, which displaced the leadership of King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The new organisations, most prominently the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) rode into the South on highly publicised “freedom rides” to challenge segregation through direct action, sitting down at segregated lunch counters and using white-only facilities.

All this alarmed the Kennedy administration, which sought to displace the energy of SNCC and CORE activists by calling for a “cooling off” period as a prelude to federal enforcement of civil rights law. Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother and attorney general, promised young activists to “get you a tax exemption” if they shifted their methods from direct action against Jim Crow to less militant voter registration campaigns.

When it finally arrived, the Civil Rights Act signed into law by the successor Johnson administration (and the 1965 Voting Rights Act) was forced by the refusal of any part of the black leadership to reduce their militancy. While SNCC and CORE made it impossible for the federal government and Northern liberals to ignore the continuation of Jim Crow and the violence of planter supremacy in its death agony, King, the SCLC and the NAACP targeted Southern business in the cities where it had been softened by the boycott campaigns and increasingly saw its interests as opposed to the archaic racism of the White Citizens’ Councils.

The achievement of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, while being the capstone of the movement up to that time, was really just the beginning. Blacks still struggled against the noncompliance of Southern cities with orders to desegregate. Planter rule died its final death in the 1960s, and Jim Crow along with it, but these struggles were not essentially complete until the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, the locus of black struggle shifted toward the cities of the North. Here, blacks faced similar methods of brutal racist coercion – and importantly, here they would not be bound by illusions of reform.

Black Power and Resistance in the North

The burgeoning black communities of the northern US had long lived without the expectation of rescue from the federal government or white liberal allies. They experienced widespread discrimination when it came to housing, sitting in a restaurant or even walking in a public park, like the relatives they had left behind in the South. Yet as Jack Bloom writes:

These indignities were not state-sanctioned; they did not have the systematic use of police power behind them; they were not ubiquitous. There was no class whose well-being depended on the total subordination of blacks, as was the case in the South. In many ways, blacks were free from the overt oppression they had left…

But Northern blacks frequently stated that they preferred the South, because there they at least “knew where they stood.” This expression meant that while the ideology in the North was one of equality, the reality was quite different.

It was because of these conditions that Malcolm X said, “Long as you’re south of the Canadian border, you’re south.'” Malcolm had come to prominence as the leader of the Nation of Islam. This religious nationalist movement was the product of its founder Elijah (Poole) Muhammad’s eccentric blend of Islam and mystical black nationalism, and grew quickly in the 1950s on the ground that the wave of Garveyism had retreated from by calling for the building up of black institutions as a precursor to the complete separation of the nation of “the Asiatic Blackman” from white America.

The Nation’s belief system offered much to recommend it to black people tired of the conservatism of some Christian ministers who preached reconciliation with racism, and in its historical views an empowering view of black history. But it was fundamentally conservative. Malcolm and others who wanted to confront American racism head-on found themselves outside of the circle.

After embracing orthodox Islam, Malcolm in the brief period before his death became the foremost spokesperson of the emerging “black power” movement. This was based on two contemporary trends. The first was the growing frustration of CORE and SNCC militants with more conservative trends in the mainstream black movement as the Civil Rights Act approached ratification. This was the framework of Stokeley Carmichael, leader of SNCC, when he proclaimed “black power” in a speech in Mississippi in 1966.

The second was the wave of “ghetto riots” that swept the North. These events in many ways were the ones that opened the current era of black resistance to racism. Harlem erupted in revolt when a white police officer shot a black teenager in the summer of 1964, and riots quickly spread to cities in the rest of New York and New Jersey. In Los Angeles a year later, 12,000 National Guardsmen were used to quell an urban insurrection. Even this was surpassed by the Detroit riots of 1967. Directly at stake was the increasing frustration with a system that could only seem to make cosmetic changes. They were not “riots” but rebellions against the prejudice of Northern whites and the systemic discrimination blacks faced in these cities, and their impact was often deliberately planned and executed.

Steve Rhodes
Photo: Steve Rhodes, flickr

The “riots” nevertheless had the effect of finally shattering the coalition that had accomplished civil rights, which comprised the black middle and working classes North and South, Northern white liberals and the federal government. Continuing the project of civil rights meant forming a new coalition, as Martin Luther King, Jr. realised. He launched a “Poor People’s Campaign” that aimed for “an economic bill of rights” for all Americans regardless of race in coalition with organised labour. The last speech he gave before his death at the hands of white supremacist James Earl Ray was in support of striking black sanitation workers in Tennessee.

As temperatures rose to the boiling point, more and more of the black vanguard began to look for answers outside of the achievement of formally equal rights. The cadres of Black Power increasingly turned to left politics, seeing in the anticolonial wars in from Africa to Vietnam and in Maoist China an unabashedly revolutionary way to confront white and western supremacy on a world scale. Such were the “black against empire” members of the Black Panthers, and such was the Revolutionary Union Movement of black auto workers that originated in Detroit. The end of the 1960s into the 1970s was the most inspiring and beautiful time of militant black resistance the United States has yet experienced. Its destruction under the ferocious assault of state repression would lay the basis for the current form of American racism, “colourblind” neoliberal racism.

Civil Rights in Perspective

The Civil Rights movement, like the Civil War, was an era of black resistance to systemic racism that shook the foundations of the United States and marks a qualitatively different period in race relations. Like the Civil War, it was accomplished through a coalition of forces that included blacks, Northern whites, and the federal government, though these latter two’s cooperation was often hesitant. It differed from the Civil War’s impact in that being limited in its achievements primarily to the South, it was not a social revolution like the former, but a period of protracted reform by the state accomplished through a huge amount of resistance from below. It put paid to the archaic system of planter domination in the South a century after its material basis in slavery had disappeared.

Importantly, the signal of black revolt raised the prospect of revolt by all oppressed peoples in the US. Civil rights and radical groups formed around combatting the oppression of women, LGBT people, American Indians, Chicanos (Mexican-Americans) and a whole host of other movements during the sixties that demanded respect and equality were formed in direct inspiration from the black struggle. Black oppression is a fundamental social fulcrum of American society, and this means that black struggles are always potentially explosive and happen in implicit conflict with the system of American capitalism that is buoyed by racism. This was shown many times in the sixties and seventies.

This was especially the case in the best-remembered social movement of the late sixties, that of the student left. Black struggle running up against the limits of American capitalism to ameliorate their oppression was translated directly into a far-reaching critique of that system on the campuses. It also contributed to a revival of rank-and-file union organisation, which challenged the sclerotic organs of business unionism with the militant struggles led by black workers and those who followed them.

The middle-class leadership of the NAACP and other black organisations, which had rose to such prominence under King, found that their main goals were achieved. Black children could enter school and university alongside white students without fear of reprisal. Along with the death of Jim Crow it became unacceptable for overt racist ideology to claim a place in the public sphere. A small black capitalist class emerged, while the substantial black middle class had its place assured, and a layer of black workers claimed relatively well-remunerated careers in public service and industry that had been denied them before the achievement of formally equal rights.

For the first time since Reconstruction black mayors, state representatives and Congressmen were elected to office across the country, North and South. This social layer was absorbed into the Democratic Party, which had completed its transition from the organisation of the planter aristocracy to the more people-oriented, at least on its face, of the two parties of American capitalism. But their integration into the American political class at the local, state and national levels came with a price. From the activists demanding equality they became the shock absorbers of black resistance to a system that remained fundamentally unequal. The black worker-revolutionary James Boggs was one of the earliest to realise this:

Any future development of the black community must start from the bottom up, not the top down. The people at the very bottom of the black community, the chief victims of capitalist exploitation, cannot be delivered from their bottom position by black exploitation… These “untouchables” have no property they can call their own and absolutely no reason to believe they will ever acquire any. The only future before them is in the prisons or the streets. They are the ones who have sparked the urban rebellions. Yet, up to now, after each rebellion they have been excluded from participation, while middle-class blacks have presumed to speak for them and to extract petty concessions that have uplifted these blacks but left the “untouchables” out in the cold.

The revolt of these “untouchables” against intolerable conditions of centuries of accumulated racism, from Ferguson to New York, will be the subject of the final article.



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