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Class and the civil rights movement

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Fifty years after the start of the Montgomery bus boycott, historian Brian Kelly examines how class politics shaped the struggle for black civil rights in the US
Issue 1980
Repression in Alabama – police using dogs on a civil rights protester in 1963
Repression in Alabama – police using dogs on a civil rights protester in 1963

Surely one of the most nauseating spectacles in an era that has provided us with so many was the “civil rights tour” that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hosted for her partner-in-war-crimes Jack Straw in late October. During it, they had the incredible cheek to invoke the history of the black freedom struggle to rationalise their ongoing slaughter in Iraq.

The narrative of the civil rights struggle has been repackaged in recent years by the US elite, distorted beyond recognition to make it seem as if its sole purpose had been to make it possible for individual African Americans like Rice and Colin Powell to break through to enter the ruling class.

But this version of the past is false. It hollows out the core of the freedom struggle in the South and overlooks the racist opposition to reform that emanated from the corporate right throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

People the world over are familiar with the indignities that black Southerners were forced to endure during the century or so dominated by Jim Crow.

They attended separate, mostly ramshackle schools, could not drink from the same water fountains, use the same toilet facilities, or enjoy equal access to public transportation with whites. Most were deprived of the vote, and the penalties for not demonstrating sufficient deference to whites were often lethal.

As late as 1954, the young black Chicago teenager Emmett Till was lynched while visiting relatives in Mississippi for the simple offence of answering back to a white shopkeeper. Like so many before him, Till’s killers were acquitted by an all-white jury.

Segregation, disfranchisement and the brutality were the outward manifestations of a social system that rested on the exploitation of black labour.

Slavery had been abolished in the South after the Union victory in the Civil War in 1865 and Reconstruction had offered freed people and poor whites their first taste of democracy. By 1877 Southern conservatives had climbed back to power under the banner of “restoring white supremacy”.


The consequences for those emancipated just 12 years earlier were devastating. “The slave went free,” black historian WEB DuBois later put it, “stood for a brief moment in the sun, then moved back again toward slavery.” Jim Crow was imposed on the South in the 1890s. Its aim was to ensure that those on the bottom could not challenge their “new slavery”.

The next half century was punctured by flashes of localised rebellion. But for the most part black Southerners felt powerless to challenge the social order. Millions escaped northward to industrial cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit.

The small black middle class that grew up in cities like Birmingham used their relationships with white elites to carve out space and prosperity for themselves, often looking down upon the black working class as the “dregs of the race”. In the 1930s and 1940s, black workers radicalised by the Great Depression flocked to the new industrial unions of the CIO, joining the Communist Party (CP) and other left organisations in substantial numbers.

The argument the CP popularised – that racial oppression could only be uprooted through a frontal assault on its economic foundations – enjoyed wide currency among radicalised black workers. Throughout the 1940s the black working class led the fight for racial equality.

The campaign of mass civil disobedience that began to take shape in the post-war period emerged at an extraordinary juncture. The anti-Communist purges of the McCarthy era targeted radicalised black and white workers.

The left-led unions in the CIO, which had been in the forefront of anti-racist activism, were purged from the new national trade union federation, the AFL-CIO, and black and white left wing militants were driven out of the unions.

When the civil rights struggle re?emerged in the mid-1950s it was led initially by middle class organisations.

In place of a strategy that insisted on the connection between racial equality and workers’ struggles, early leaders like Martin Luther King aimed to appeal to white America’s “moral conscience”, hoping that they might convince a section of the nation’s elite to ditch segregation.

King and others faced a continual challenge within the ranks of the new movement. Those most willing to fight were overwhelmingly working class African Americans.

Rosa Parks was a seamstress, one of many black workers who had joined the ranks of the National Association for the Advancement for Coloured People in the late 1940s and 1950s. The key organiser of the Montgomery campaign, ED Nixon, was a longtime trade unionist.

Others had received their training in the CP, and as the movement spread it found that while much of the black establishment was determined to keep it at arms length, it was the sharecroppers and domestics, bus drivers and ind-ustrial workers who were most willing to put their lives on the line.

The coal miners and iron foundry workers who guarded Birmingham’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth when his life was under threat from racists were deeply religious in some ways, but none of them had any respect for clerics who turned their backs on the struggle.

Mississippi activists recall that it was only after the movement began to score successes in the mid-1960s that “established ministers and well-to-do businessmen attempted to jump on the bandwagon”.


Ultimately, “when it became clear that the movement was going to bear fruit,” historian Charles Payne concludes, “those who had worked hardest to make it happen were pushed aside.”

King spent the early 1960s until his assassination in 1968 attempting to straddle the contradictions between a gradualist strategy, endorsed by the liberal Democratic party establishment and aimed at fracturing elite consensus around segregation, and the militancy increasingly evident among the movement’s young and working class grassroots.

In Birmingham, for instance, King complained that he stood between “two opposing forces in the Negro community” – an accommodationist black establishment and young militants.

Faced with widespread brutality and federal government indifference, young blacks organised in the Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Commitee began to grope for a way out of the impasse.

In the absence of the left wing radicalism that had driven the struggle in the 1940s, and faced with a conservative trade union movement that backed away from challenging white racism, those fed up with gradualism dismissed the possibility of building a multiracial and working class fightback. They gravitated toward black nationalism.

The main fault lines that emerged were between advocates of black power like Stokely Carmichael and the gradualists who occupied the middle ground. Neither side in the heated debates that erupted within the movement in the mid-1960s could point a way out.

The gradualists were having the ground pulled out from under them by a federal government anxious to bring the protests to a halt and willing to concede just enough to bring that about.

Black power, which marked an important break with the accommodationist tradition, was rhetorically militant and in some places helped galvanise those frustrated with the slow pace of change. But, with few exceptions, it proved incapable or uninterested in giving a lead to black workers in confronting the inequality they faced at every turn.

Despite the political shortcomings of the movement, black workers lifted by the sprit of the protest movement asserted themselves anyway.

In Birmingham, a core of black industrial workers organised twice weekly meetings where they would study union rule books and union contracts, looking for ways to push forward the struggle in their workplaces.

They would meet after weekly mass meetings to discuss “labour’s untold story” and decide strategy. More than 1,000 of the poorest paid workers in the impoverished Mississippi Delta organised into unions and struck for a minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, and free medical care.

But the most dramatic expression of black working class militancy came in Memphis in 1968. Sanitation workers walked off the job after two of their colleagues were crushed to death seeking shelter from the rain in a garbage truck. National Guardsmen were deployed throughout the city, and the racist mayor refused to negotiate a union contract until forced to do so.

The Memphis strike reintroduced, briefly but magnificently, the possibility of building an alternative both to the gradualist strategy being pushed by the mainstream and to the separatist turn away from mass mobilisation.

It reaffirmed the perspective of many who had been on the losing end in internal debates several years earlier that the black working class, those who felt most keenly the harsh injustices of racism in the US, could take a lead in pushing forward a struggle. This would not only attack the outworkings of Jim Crow, but would expose and confront directly the systemic causes of racism and inequality in the US.

In the end, faced with the explosions that convulsed the northern ghettoes after King’s assassination during the strike, a badly shaken US ruling class employed both the carrot and the stick to hammer out a new accommodation with the most moderate elements in the movement, increasingly referred as the “civil rights establishment”.

The arrangement buried legal segregation for good. It opened up sections of corporate America to a handful of blacks and made room for others in local and national politics. But it left intact the economic system that keeps the overwhelming majority of African Americans – the black working class – languishing in conditions little removed from those they and their parents fought to overcome a generation ago.

The “fire next time” cannot avoid a reckoning with the new face of inequality in the US.

Brian Kelly is a senior lecturer in history at Queen’s University Belfast and is the author of the award-winning Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908-21.

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