Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement

Black Lives Matter: A New Take on an Old Struggle
by Elisabeth Wichser

After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers on May 25, millions took to the streets around the world to voice their outrage that yet another black person was murdered for the crime of existing in a racist society. After protesting for several days on end—oftentimes facing the exact police brutality they were protesting—charges were finally brought against the four officers that oversaw Floyd’s execution. 

Yet, even as the ruling class attempts to placate justifiably angry citizens with these charges and a few petty reforms, the broad movement coalescing around the slogan, “Black Lives Matter,” continues to hold protests and marches. We, the Independent Socialist Group and our sister organizations around the world, have enthusiastically supported and been active in these protests, turning out participants, calling protests, and bringing fighting working-class ideas and methods to the movement to discuss. Emboldened by the charges brought against George Floyd’s murderers, the movement is demanding justice for other murdered black people like Breanna Taylor, who was shot in her bed during a “no-knock” police raid, and Elijah McClain, who was killed by cops in Aurora, Colorado. The future is unclear. Will these protests take the next necessary step and attempt to take political power by organizing the working class as a whole? Or will they be shut down and misled by the Democratic Party like other movements before them? 

One of the roles of a socialist organization like the Independent Socialist Group is to help function as the memory of the working class. While corporate media and school textbooks teach us a sanitized version of history which is sympathetic to the ruling class and their interests, it is one of our most essential duties to remember the battles we have fought, the losses we have suffered, and victories we have won as a united working class. As socialists, we place a lot of emphasis on the analysis of history in order to decide what actions we should take today. It is clear that our actions must tackle the systemic roots of racism inherent in the capitalist system—a task that will require serious organizing for a prolonged fight.

As we move further into an incredible period of struggles against racism and police brutality, and for the rights of the oppressed and diverse working class, we must learn all we can from our history and win significant material changes to the way people live. The lessons of the civil rights movement have never been more relevant to us. This is the time to return to and rediscover the true history of popular struggle in the 20th century, and use this knowledge to fight for justice, equity, and socialist change! 

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the 1941 March on Washington 

Even as there are mass global protests against police brutality, acts of police violence against innocent people continue. Take for example an Atlanta police officer murdering a man for sleeping in his car or police officers in Buffalo shoving a 75-year-old protestor to the ground. These events remind us that the movement cannot stop fighting until all our demands are met. A few concessions to the movement like the Minneapolis City Council discussing disbanding the police or Mayor DeBlasio cutting $1 billion of the NYPD’s $6 billion budget is not a reason to stop fighting, especially while the bloody status quo continues. 

Capitalism has relied on racially-based slavery, racial segregation, and discrimination to not only exploit and oppress black people but also to divide the working class. A. Phillip Randolph, organizer of the attempted 1941 March on Washington to desegregate the military, was a leading spokesperson for class consciousness, trade unionism, and socialism within the black community. Starting in 1917 amidst the destruction of WWI and the promise of the Russian Revolution, Randolph began speaking in Harlem about the power held in the working class and the need for a socialist economic and political system to fully rid the world of racism. Many black workers were radicalized by this message, some of whom were porters at the Pullman company. 

The all-black service staff of the Pullman sleeper cars relied largely on tips and were required to travel over 400 miles a month to receive enough pay to survive on. They approached Randolph to enlist his help in their unionization effort. At the time, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was extremely discriminatory so these workers instead formed their own union in 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), with the socialist ideas expressed by Randolph. By uniting in a union, the porters were able to increase wages and improve conditions. 

Randolph once said,

“The essence of trade unionism is social uplift. The labor movement has been the haven for the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor.”

The workers of the BSCP realized that their struggle against poor working conditions and low pay was similar to the struggle of white unionists and that uniting along class lines would empower both black and white workers. Many rank-and-file white American Federation of Labor (AFL) unionists also recognized the need for a multi-racial working-class struggle. But unfortunately, the labor movement was not and is not immune to pressures of racism. The BSCP had to struggle to get certified within the ranks of the AFL, eventually succeeding after 10 years of fighting. Their victory represented a step forward in desegregating large labor federations.

Riding on this victory, Randolph helped lead the efforts for a March on Washington, calling for a “militant mass” to pressure the government into desegregating the military. This was a new, radical tactic for the time—the call for a grassroots, working-class led mass movement against segregation was met with huge support. It was estimated that over 100,000 people would march on Washington. Yet a week before the march, President Roosevelt conceded to the movement, signing Executive Order 8802 which banned discrimination in the defense industries and the march was canceled. While this was a victory, it was a mistake to cancel the march; if just organizing a march forced an executive order, imagine what could have happened if it went forward!

Though the attempts to organize the 1941 march were successful in bringing about some change and laying the groundwork for future movements, it stopped short of its full potential. With experiences of racism enduring despite such victories, we know that the movement can’t stop until we achieve fundamental, systemic change. This will require uniting labor unions, community groups, and others in a centralized movement fighting for socialism. Already efforts are being made to link the Black Lives Matter struggle with unions: the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) closed numerous ports on the West Coast to fight police brutality and racism on Juneteenth. Bus drivers in the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) in Minneapolis and New York City refused to obey police orders to transport arrested protestors to jail using city buses. More unions must follow this example because the most effective way to achieve change is to stop the profits of the capitalist class until they concede.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

The incredible 13-month Montgomery Bus Boycott shows the current movement that it must be organized to sustain itself as long as it takes to achieve real change. Fighting the systemic roots of racism will require a marathon, not a sprint. As Leon Trotsky—one of the key leaders of the 1917 Russian revolution—once said,

“Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

We cannot let our hunger for real change dissipate; instead, we must concentrate it through a united coalition of community organizations, progressive groups, and labor unions—independent of the two capitalist parties—to sustain the momentum of the movement. 

The Montgomery Bus Boycott is one of the most successful examples of a sustained, fighting movement that brought about lasting change. Without the serious organizational efforts of A. Philip Randolph, the NAACP, and the Montgomery Improvement Association, the boycott could not have lasted for over a year. Because of this movement, the courts ruled that segregation on public transportation was a violation of the Constitution. 

Over the last 60 years, the history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, like the histories of many struggles of the civil rights era, has been twisted by our history books. As children, we are told that Rosa Parks, a tired seamstress, was sitting in the front of the bus and when she was told to move to the back, she simply had had enough and refused. In reality, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was almost a year in the making. Rosa Parks was an activist, a leader in her local NAACP, and had attended the Highlander Folk School, an educational center for workers and civil rights influenced by the Communist Party. She played an important role in the bus boycotts, and this was far from an individual, spontaneous action.

King and Kennedy 

Despite the passage of numerous progressive reforms, the gains of the civil rights movement are slowly being chipped away by Congress and the courts. In 2013, for example, the Supreme Court struck down the main clause in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, stating that it was out of date, therefore allowing states to implement barriers to vote in predominantly black areas. By 2018, nearly 1,000 voting stations had closed, the majority of which were in southern black communities. Without uprooting this rotten system, we cannot safeguard the reforms of today from the attacks of tomorrow. 

By working within the system for so long, many civil rights leaders began to accept the methods of the system, specifically incremental, legal reform. We cannot let our movement be channeled into the system by the Democratic Party or other forces that seek to pacify the movement. Even Bernie Sanders, who only a year ago was calling for a movement against the billionaire class, has not only endorsed the racist presidential candidate Joe Biden but has also called for an increase in funding for the police.

Another great civil rights leader whose history has been revised, Martin Luther King Jr., helped lead various civil rights actions, perhaps most famously culminating in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On August 28, 1963, 250,000 people from around the country, predominantly black workers and youth, gathered in front of the Lincoln memorial to demand an end to Jim Crow segregation including in education, voting, healthcare, jobs, and housing. 

Although he originally ignored the civil rights movement, by the time the March on Washington occurred, John F. Kennedy began paying attention. His administration originally urged the movement to use tactics more friendly to the establishment like lobbying in Congress and in courts. But after hearing how successful and militant the movement was, Kennedy made sure that the march’s organizers would not allow speakers to criticize his administration’s previous negligence. A leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), John Lewis, was forced to change his speech at the last minute, though some criticism of the Kennedy administration and the Democratic Party still shone through. Lewis asked, “Where is our party? Where is the party that will make it unnecessary for us to march on Washington? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham?” Over time, Lewis was successfully co-opted by the political establishment and is now serving his 17th term as a Democrat in the House of Representatives. 

Today, we must ask ourselves the same questions. In cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Minneapolis, Democrats run the local government. So why have the atrocious acts of police brutality against Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Geroge Floyd, and others, happened in these cities? If the Democratic Party were serious about fighting racism and police brutality, these cities would be free from these problems. In reality, they are some of the worst epicenters of police violence and systemic racism. We need our own party, one made of and by the working class that will unapologetically fight for what we need.

By the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. had drawn the conclusion that the only way to achieve real change was by uprooting capitalism. In 1966 in a speech to his staff, MLK stated,

“[W]e are saying that something is wrong… with capitalism… There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward democratic socialism.”

Under capitalism, we have had to fight tooth and nail to win even the most simple civil rights legislation. MLK recognized that only a socialist economic system could address economic inequality and oppression in addition to racial oppression. 

Malcolm X 

Malcolm X, a revolutionary thinker and speaker, exposed the role of the two-party system in perpetuating racism, particularly condemning the Democratic Party as a dead-end and co-opter of social movements. Malcolm criticized the U.S. claiming to spread “freedom” abroad while it was domestically oppressing black people. He sought to link the civil rights struggle in the U.S. to the international struggle against oppression. By uniting anti-capitalists, anti-imperialists, the most oppressed, and the youth of the “third world” with those in the U.S., he strengthened the struggle for liberation from political and economic oppression. His political journey, from black separatism to advocating for a multi-racial movement against capitalism and imperialism still inspires to this day. 

After being radicalized by growing up in poverty and the racist murder of his activist father, Malcolm X became one of the leaders in the religion, Nation of Islam (NOI). The NOI advocated black separatism—the idea that the only way to solve racism was to create a separate society only for black people to rid themselves of the “white devil.” As equal rights activists in the South, particularly young activists, engaged in mass protests, boycotts, and marches, they were met with brutal repression from the police and the Ku Klux Klan. Many began to turn toward black nationalism and black separatism, believing it the only way to successfully stop racism. Malcolm X criticized the 1963 March on Washington, calling it the “Farce on Washington,” because of how watered-down the demands had become thanks to the Kennedy administration’s pressure. Eventually, he had a falling out with the leader of the NOI over tactics and was expelled. While taking the Hajj to Mecca, Malcolm X toured North Africa and met many leaders who fought against colonial oppression. He noted that many of these leaders embraced broadly socialist views. 

Upon returning to the U.S., Malcolm X had moved to an anti-capitalist position, favoring multi-racial, international struggle over black nationalism. He found the root of racism not to be in white people as a whole, but rather in the capitalist system that pitted worker against worker in the race to obtain artificially scarce resources. In his last public speech at Columbia in 1965, he stated, “It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of Black against white, or as a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.” He also began to criticize the Democrats and Republicans, not only for initially ignoring the civil rights movement, but also for their reliance on each other to maintain the status quo. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he states: 

…‘liberalism’ means ‘Let’s keep the knee-grows in their place—but tell them we’ll treat them a little better, let’s fool them more, with more promises.’ With these choices, I felt that the American black man only needed to choose which one to be eaten by, the liberal ‘fox’ or the conservative ‘wolf’—because both of them would eat him.

What Way Forward?

The struggles of the civil rights movement are inspiring because of their successes in bringing about change. Yet despite their landmark victories for the black working class, oppression has not ended. It has simply changed forms. First slavery, then Jim Crow apartheid, and now the mass incarceration system. The only way to get rid of oppression for good is to get rid of the system that requires oppression, inequality, and suffering: capitalism. To do this, we must look toward the key lessons of the original civil rights movement. We must build organizations, including our own multi-racial party of the working class, that will continue to fight even after the first few concessions are made. We cannot let the current uprising be co-opted by forces that seek to silence the movement—most notably, NGOs and the Democratic Party. Systemic change is possible. The first step toward building a successful campaign against racism, sexism, and capitalism is to arm ourselves with the lessons of history. 

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Image Credit: Leffler, Warren K., photographer / Public domain