When I first came across Manning Marable’s writing around 20 years ago, I had just come badly unstuck addressing a Socialist Workers Party meeting on the US Civil Rights Movement.
A comrade approached me afterwards, gave me a book, and said, “I think you ought to read this. It will help you.” She was right. Marable’s Race, Reform and Rebellion is a brilliant history of the fight against racism in the US.
It weaves together accounts of the crucial moments of struggle with little known episodes to give a picture of a society where to stand for justice was to make an enemy of the whole system.
Against a background of state-sanctioned discrimination in the Deep South, and black ghettos in the “enlightened” North, Marable describes the way the mid-1950s student sit-ins drew on earlier radical traditions.
In the 1930s, the Communist Party led a movement which combined anti-racism with working class struggle, and which terrified America’s rulers.
To try to combat this, the bosses orchestrated a campaign of terror against the “reds”.
When asked by other activists to explain why there was so little struggle against segregation in the years immediately following the Second World War, Marable responded by asking why so few had researched the period.
If they did, he charged, they would have found that the “paranoid mood of anti-Communist America made it difficult for any reasonable movement to exist”.
Given the background, it is no surprise that the early years of the Civil Rights Movement were characterised by shows of patriotism.
Marable describes the way that campaign meetings held in black churches would always end with the singing of the national anthem.
In return for their loyalty, Democratic Party politicians offered a legislative programme to ensure blacks had the right to vote and the first moves to outlaw segregation. But by 1963 this alliance was starting to come undone.
Democrats worried about losing the votes of Southern racists, while civil rights activists grew angry at the slow pace of change.
The movement’s leaders, such as Martin Luther King, attempted to combine mass civil disobedience with appeals to the government.
But from the wings came more radical voices, chief among them
Malcolm X (see below). They were now in the ascendancy among younger activists.
They believed, Marable wrote, “If [president] Johnson persisted in sending young black men to die in an Asian war [Vietnam], his administration would have to be toppled.
“If non-violence could not win the white racists to biracial democracy and justice, then their brutal terror would have to be met, blow for blow.
“If equality was impossible within the political economy of American capitalism, that system… would have to be overturned.
“No more compromises; no more betrayals by Negro moderates. Rebellion would supplant reform.”
In the springs and summers of 1964 to 1968, black uprisings swept almost every major US city.
New organisations came out of this rebellion, based primarily among the black and poor of the Northern ghettos, rather than the “segregated South”. These included the Black Panther Party and the Revolutionary Union Movements in Detroit.
Unlike most “respectable” academics, Marable indentified closely with these radical challenges. He was impressed by their heroism in the face of state violence—and he sympathised with their focus on class.
Marable described himself as a socialist, although he was sympathetic to those who adapted a “nationalist” approach that saw a common interest among all black people. But he understood the way that class creates differing needs and interests—even among those who share the same oppression.
The understanding of this division became even more crucial by the early 1970s as the state moved to co-opt the black middle class into its structures in the hope of blunting radical challenges.
Many civil rights activists were convinced that the period of marching was over and that the struggle must move on to the electoral terrain.
In 1969, there were just over 1,000 black elected officials in the US.
By 1975 this had more than tripled. Marable cites the groundbreaking election of black mayor Carl B Stokes in Cleveland, Ohio, to illustrate the double-edged nature of the victory.
Stokes’s election was hailed by the left and those who wanted to rejuvenate the inner cities. But, as industries closed and wealthier inhabitants moved away, Ohio was in financial crisis.
Stokes was forced into confrontation with thousands of city workers, black and white, many of whom had earlier greeted his victory.
Marable highlighted the contradiction facing those who attempted to run a system that was based on racism and exploitation.
Race, Reform and Rebellion was written in the 1980s, years of retreat for the workers’ and black liberation movements. But Marable was convinced of the need to record the struggle’s high points and its degeneration.
He was an activist and a scholar who wrote a dozen books on the fight against racism in the belief that debating the past and analysing the present would help the fight for the future.
“History’s greatest dangers are waiting for those who fail to learn its lessons,” he wrote.
“Any oppressed people who abandon the knowledge of their own protest history, or who fail to analyse its lessons, will only perpetuate their domination by others.”