Racism continues to blight the US—as shown by the killing of Trayvon Martin last year. So it is often common sense for black people to organise separately to end their oppression.
But at high points of the struggle, black activists have learned from experience that they gain more by working alongside white workers.
Separatist ideas have come to dominate at times when there is no wider radical movement—or when that movement has been hamstrung by its inability to break from racist ideas.
For example, the black socialist Hubert Harrison was an organiser in the Socialist Party before the First World War.
But the party’s patronising attitude and links to segregationists in the South undermined him. He was edged out of the party after demanding it challenged its own racism.
He asked, “Is it to be the white half of the working class against the black half, or all of the working class? Can we hope to triumph over capitalism with one half of the working class against us?”
A strike wave across the US in 1919, part of the tide of struggle after the Russian Revolution, was defeated largely by dividing workers along racial lines.
This was when militant black people looked to Marcus Garvey, who called for black separation.
At its peak his organisation claimed two million members. At a time of intensifying racism it demanded black pride. But it rapidly waned because it lacked practical solutions to racism.
The picture was different in the 1930s. The Communist Party actively concentrated on anti-racist work and showed a practical alternative—black and white unity in the workplace.
For them, this did not mean abandoning wider struggles. It was the Communists who built the campaign to defend the black Scottsboro Boys who had been framed for rape, when black-led groups would not take it up.
Many people, black and white, were drawn into struggle during the Great Depression.
There were disagreements about what could be achieved, but no significant black group felt it necessary to work on their own, without whites.
The movement brought many gains. But it was smashed in the anti‑Communist witch hunts of the McCarthyite Cold War.
The Civil Rights movement emerged in the 1950s. Martin Luther King’s movement resuscitated radicalism in the US. But when it was at its height it steered away from class politics.
In April 1963 white church minsters denounced King for his “impatience”. King wrote back from jail, saying the biggest obstacle to change was not the bigot, but the “white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice”.
He came to call for black and white workers to fight together rather than looking to such fair-weather allies.
The more revolutionary Malcolm X gained support because he gave voice to poor black people in the ghettoes of the northern states, who were still oppressed even though they had “civil rights”.
The young black people who made a revolutionary demand for Black Power were moving beyond the civil rights movement.
It is a tragedy of the US revolutionary movement in the 1960s that it took its lead from fragmented organisations.
Unlike the 1930s, black radicals felt they had no choice but to organise separately in the Black Panther Party.
Even where black workers saw the importance of workplace struggle, as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in Detroit did, it did not seem obvious to them that they should strike alongside white workers on the same production lines.
Struggles in the US have not since returned to the heights of this period. One thing that has changed is the growth of a small section of the black population who have interests in common with the ruling class.
A new movement cannot look to black people like Barack Obama to make gains for black workers. It will have to look to unity with other working class groups.