Socialist Worker

United States—a history of revolts against racism

Alongside a terrible history of vicious racism in the US, there is a tradition of militant anti-racism. Yuri Prasad looks back at when black and white people have fought back together against the system

Issue No. 2708

Black car workers in Detroit in 1968

Black car workers in Detroit in 1968


All capitalist societies are racist and oppressive, but the US appears uniquely vicious. 

A country that was built on the blood of conquest and slavery seems trapped in history, unable to escape its past.

But for as long as there has been US racism, there has also been a tradition of militant anti-racism. And, at its highest points, workers and the poor have been the motor powering it forwards.

Barely two decades after US independence in the name of liberty, black revolutionaries in Richmond, Virginia, hatched a plan to overthrow the state’s racist regime. 

In the loosely multiracial underworld of urban artisans, a slave blacksmith named Gabriel Prosser plotted in 1800. 

Gabriel and his conspirators assembled a small army and planned to march on Richmond in three columns under the banner of “Liberty or Death”.Crossing bridges, they would then seize the treasury and arsenal and take the governor hostage.

Gabriel and his mostly black army wanted to end slavery, but wanted most of all a republican revolution. 

Their chosen enemies were the merchants that exploited black and white labour. Gabriel expected “the poor white people” and “the most redoubtable republicans” to join him, and he would kill the rest.

But a combination of terrible weather, which washed away the town’s bridges and roads, white terror and black betrayal saw the attempt defeated. Captured revolutionaries showed no remorse, and instead invoked the US Founding Father George Washington in their defence.

“I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice in their cause,” said one as he was killed. 

The idea that slaves would desire ­anything more than personal freedom was news to many in authority. That these rebels wanted to follow the ideals of the French Revolution of 1789, they found astounding.

The biggest challenge to racism that century came after the American Civil War in the 1870s. With the old ­slave-owning Southern ruling class broken and defeated, freed slaves and poor whites together forged a new society amid the ruins of war.

Racism and class solidarity in history of the US South
Racism and class solidarity in history of the US South
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The period, known as the Radical Reconstruction, saw voting rights extended to all. Hundreds of people, who until recently were someone’s “property”, now found ­themselves elected to high office.

Many states opted for a racially mixed public school system. And farmers forged their own left wing Populist movement in a bid to wrestle the power from the rich.

One of its leading members, Tom Watson, appealed to black and white unity. “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,” he said. 

“You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars you both.”

But by the 1890s the old ruling class was rebuilding. To fully restore themselves, they needed to reinstall racism in order to break Populism. 

The rich brought together various militia to form the Ku Klux Klan and a reign of terror fell upon the Reconstruction and wore down Populism.

The Southern old guard instituted new “Jim Crow” laws designed to segregate black from white. Even the ­poorest white farmer was told they were part of a superior race to which no black was equal.

The memory of freedom and unity faded, but a new generation of radicals would invoke it decades later.

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. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars you both

Tom Watson of the Populist movement 

As industrial production gave rise to huge mills, factories and mines across the South, a new wave of trade unionism spread. With this came strikes, and with strikes, the question whether black workers could join the union.

While some unions refused black workers, more welcoming workers’ organisations also sprung up. 

By the 1920s, mass strikes were becoming more common and some involved black and white workers.

Bosses were quick to blame stoppages on Communists—and for once there was some truth in the accusation. 

The recently formed Communist Party USA was firmly committed both to fighting racism and to industrial militancy.

The Communists made their name in anti-racism in the defence of the Scottsboro Boys. 

In 1931, nine young black men, aged 13 to 21, were falsely convicted of the rape of two white women in Alabama. Authorities rushed a trial before an all-white jury, knowing a guilty verdict was a formality. This form of “legal lynching” was widespread in “Southern Justice”.

Frenzy

In the racist frenzy that followed, mainstream black organisations all but washed their hands of the Scottsboro Boys.

But the Communists saw a chance to expose US racism to the world—and the opportunity to build a multi-racial defence campaign.

They toured families of the convicted men from city to city, going from street meetings to black churches to union branches and beyond. When they organised protest marches in Harlem, the police beat the Communists bloody.

The sight of so many badly wounded whites in the blackest area of New York was a revelation to many. 

Topple statues that are monuments to racism
Topple statues that are monuments to racism
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And it convinced some that the Communist claim that white workers could be broken from chauvinism was in fact true.

As the editor of the New York black newspaper, The Amsterdam News, declared, “I was suspicious of these gift-bearing Reds… lest they should rise to power on the backs of American Negroes and then leave them to their fate.

“The victory thus far of the Communists in the Scottsboro case… the fight they are putting up for coloured and white ­farmers in Alabama… strike forcefully at the wrongs suffered by the Negro today.” 

After many years campaigning, the charges against four of the nine were dropped and none now faced the death penalty. 

The campaign had been vital to keeping them alive.

Many of the tactics Communists used—such as ­sit-in, boycotts and pickets—would later become hallmarks of Civil Rights campaigns in the 1960s. 

Unions, and many ­well-known worker activists played a prominent role in this new movement. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s that ­workers’ battles came centre stage.

The spirit of Black Power and urban rebellion found an expression in the heart of the industrial US, Detroit.

Groups of revolutionary black workers in the city’s car plants felt that riots did not take full advantage of the specific power that they had to stop the flow of profits. 

At the Dodge plant, they formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (Drum) and their aim was to combine Black Power with workers’ power.

Drum was formed to fight discrimination, both in and outside the factory—and was prepared to use unofficial strikes to achieve its goals. The initiative spread from one firm to another.

Not only could Drum’s strikes hit profits, they were much safer compared to the strategy of street warfare that others in the Black Power movement advocated. 

Workers bring more than just numbers to protests
Workers bring more than just numbers to protests
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Not one member of Drum was shot, put on trial or jailed.

But inside Drum there were tensions between socialists and black nationalists over white workers. During wildcat strikes most Drum members refused to give leaflets to white workers, even if they had honoured their picket lines.

This allowed bosses to divide the resistance. 

Drum petered out as Black Power went into decline. 

But the official UAW union was forced to allow black workers to become shop stewards and shop convenors. These vignettes are just a small picture of the way radical ­anti-racism sought to combine the power of workers with a militant struggle against racism.

On the protests and uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, black and white people have flooded the streets together. 

And some organised groups of workers have shown their solidarity. 

The uprisings are part of that rich tradition of unity. These examples should inspire us to take on the system and uproot oppression. 

They show us that it is both possible and necessary to break the hold of prejudice. 

And when we do so, we strike fear in the heart of bosses and their racist, capitalist system. 


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