Civil rights and the U.S. revolution

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Civil rights and the U.S. revolution


The Montgomery bus boycott began in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.
The Montgomery bus boycott began in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.

The modern Civil Rights movement burst onto the scene with the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama that began Dec. 5, 1955. Nine years later, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. The Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965, one year later. Legal apartheid in the United States was formally ended.

This remarkable chapter in U.S. history should really be known as the Civil Rights revolution, rather than the Civil Rights movement. It was not a revolution in the sense of a seizure of power. The apartheid police state that existed in the South was dismantled by the U.S. capitalist political establishment through the use of legislation and court decisions. The concessions were a way of preventing an increasingly militant and conscious movement from passing over to outright revolution.

Nevertheless, the outcome of the Civil Rights movement is comparable in magnitude to a political revolution. It was an uprising from below, lasting over a decade, which led to a profound restructuring of the political superstructure in the United States.

To finish the Civil Rights revolution—to achieve real equality, not only in the realm of law but also in all aspects of life—a further social revolution is required. It would push far beyond the bounds of formal equality by liberating the wealth of society and using it to meet people’s needs. That cannot happen short of a social revolution.

The U.S. capitalists, whose political and economic power derives directly from the unpaid labor of Black people it enslaved for over three hundred years, will not agree to true equality without a fierce struggle. Like all ruling classes in history, they are prepared to use limitless violence and repression against the people to maintain their hoarding of society’s wealth.

Social revolution is the only antidote to the enduring and growing poverty that shackles the multinational and multi-ethnic working class. It is the program of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

There have been three revolutions in U.S. history: the American Revolution of 1775-1783, the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865, and the modern Civil Rights movement. The first revolution was a political revolution, altering the political superstructure. The colonial ruling class achieved independence from the British monarchy, but the social relations within the colonies stayed the same. The slavocracy remained as the owning class, while the enslaved African people remained chattel.

The U.S. Civil War is not described in history textbooks as a revolution at all. But this was indeed a social revolution: property relations changed. The enslavement of human beings ended. The slave owners were deprived of their “property.”

This fact became blurred, however, by the political resuscitation of the slavocracy by the northern capitalist class. In 1876, the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction was replaced by a regime of KKK-terror and apartheid. The former slave owners erected a racist police state in all areas of the former Confederacy. While the racist counter-revolution of 1876 could not resurrect the institution of slavery, it did resurrect the slave-owning ruling class of the South, now on the basis of capitalist property relations.

All three revolutions in United States history have remained within the confines of capitalist property relations. The next revolution will end capitalist property relations.

Consciousness lags

If one were to judge the prospects for a new revolution in the United States based on the current political consciousness of the people, on the current “ideology” of the working class, it would seem that the prospects are remote. It is seen as so remote, in fact, that the subject is rarely discussed in public and never in the mass media. Those who promote the necessity of revolutionary change are ridiculed as dreamers detached from reality.

Even though the capitalists are taking U.S. workers and their wages, pensions, health care benefits and jobs and driving them straight into the ground, you don’t hear union leaders in the U.S. talk about the need for a revolution to drive the capitalists into the ground. Capitalist property rights are treated as sacrosanct today as were the slavocracy’s property rights until 1863. This is portrayed as the “natural order.” All ruling-class establishments in history—be they the Caesars of ancient Rome, the feudal monarchs in 18th century Europe, the Mandarins in China, or the U.S. corporate elites today—make sure that society is “convinced” that their possession of wealth and political power is as it must be.

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx wrote, “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” Basing his ideas on historical materialism, Marx further elaborated his conception in a short preface to his “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” written in 1859. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being,” he wrote, “but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

Human consciousness, including political consciousness, is perhaps the most conservative aspect in the historical process. Revolutions don’t start because of the “advanced consciousness” of the participants who start the revolutionary process. Consciousness changes and grows in the struggle, based on the conditions of life.

How human beings live—their “social being,” to use Marx’s phrase—is rooted in the old society, where the dominant ideas are the ideas of the ruling class. Revolutionary consciousness cannot become dominant without revolutionary struggle. Political consciousness emerges, changes dramatically, and becomes radicalized as a consequence of the struggle. The struggle erupts and fighting begins not because of consciousness but because people are compelled to defend themselves from social, economic and political assaults coming from class society.

The struggle against oppression leads to new consciousness. The formation of this new consciousness is dynamic. It builds slowly and imperceptibly over a long period of time before mass struggle erupts. The routine of the old social order, permeated with fear and the force of habit in everyday life, holds back political consciousness—that is, until the struggle itself shatters the conservative mold. Millions of people become energized, looking for new answers, as their own struggle puts them at the center of the political stage.

The Montgomery bus boycott

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that segregated bus on Dec. 1, 1955, she would have had no way to know that her action would be the spark that ignited the largest mass movement in U.S. history. What were the circumstances that led to her refusal to give up her seat for which she was arrested?

In Montgomery, Jim Crow laws prohibited Blacks and whites from occupying the same row on a bus. Rosa Parks had been seated with three other Black passengers in the first row of the rear section of the bus reserved for African Americans. When the four rows ahead of her filled and a white man remained standing, the driver asked Parks and the three others to clear the row so that the white passenger could sit. The three others complied, but Rosa Parks refused, and she was arrested.

In other words, Rosa Parks was already sitting in the back of the bus. She was arrested when she refused the added indignity of giving up that seat so that a white man could legally sit in an unoccupied seat next to her.

Claybourne Carson, writing in this issue of Socialism and Liberation, notes when Martin Luther King, Jr. first spoke at a mass meeting in Montgomery, Ala., after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man, the demand of the boycott struggle was not yet for full desegregation of the buses. It was a protest of the way Rosa Parks was treated.

The organizers of the bus boycott initially planned it as a one-day action, hoping to make a point by having a large part of the African American community refuse to ride the bus. But the struggle took on its own dynamic. At a meeting after the first day, organizers decided to continue the boycott. On the fourth day of the boycott, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders met with city officials and lawyers for the bus line with an offer for a mild desegregation plan of the buses, like ones that had been accepted in Baton Rouge, La., and Mobile, Ala.

But instead of coming to an agreement, the city and the racist establishment went on the offensive with arrests and intimidation. This time, the people stood their ground. New strategies designed to hold the movement back made the movement stronger.

With each passing day, the boycott movement grew. People began to feel their growing power. Confronted by the movement, the racists escalated their attacks. They carried out armed assaults, shootings and bombings. On January 30, 1956, Martin Luther King Jr.’s home was bombed. E.D. Nixon, another top leader of the boycott, had his home bombed on Feb. 1.

When the violence failed to quell the movement, the state indicted 89 people on an old law prohibiting boycotts. King was the first defendant. He was sentenced to spend 368 days in the state penitentiary or pay a heavy fine.

It was the racist ruling class’s violence and repression that stimulated the struggle to become wider, deeper and more conscious of its historical potential. New organizations formed, new tactics and strategies were employed, new leaders emerged. A new consciousness of resistance to Jim Crow apartheid took hold among the people, not just in Montgomery but everywhere. In turn, the resistance and heroism of the African American community was the catalyst that began to re-shape the social and political consciousness of a new generation of whites drawn into the civil rights and anti-racist struggles.

The African American residents of Montgomery did not ride the bus for one year. They walked and carpooled to work, to school, to shop. It was an amazing example of self-sacrifice and unity.

The boycott started to have an impact on sales and revenues of white-owned businesses in the downtown area. Even racist businessmen wanted to end the boycott. They formed an organization called the Men of Montgomery, which initiated direct talks with the boycott leaders hoping to reach a negotiated compromise settlement. The Black community might have accepted a partial settlement in the beginning, but no longer.

The boycott struggle went into federal court and then into the Supreme Court. In Nov. 1956, the Supreme Court upheld the federal court decision. Segregation on buses was declared unconstitutional.

The violence in Montgomery was far from over. When the African American community finally returned to ride the now integrated buses in late December, they were confronted by sniper fire at buses and a wave of terrorist bombings.

The Montgomery bus boycott was not the first struggle in the modern civil rights revolution. But it certainly was a catalyst and a turning point. The masses of people had become the central actors. Their mobilized power was the factor that changed the balance of forces. This, in turn, inspired others to take action. A new political consciousness swept the country.

The social revolution in the United States

The gains of the Civil Rights movement were historic. The overturning of the apartheid regime in the United States, and the other social conquests that followed, have shifted the political landscape forever.

Today, the system of capitalist property relations is seriously eroding the living conditions for the U.S. working class. Its negative impact on African American workers and Black communities is especially severe.

In the October issue of Socialism and Liberation, Caneisha Mills wrote:

“the number of people living in poverty had increased by 1.3 million in 2003, to 35.8 million people. The number of people without health insurance grew by 1.4 million during the same period, to nearly 45 million people.

“So it should be no surprise that infant mortality—the number of children dying before their first birthday—soared 8 percent in New York City in 2003. In some predominantly African American and Latino neighborhoods like Fort Greene in Brooklyn and Tremont in the Bronx, the infant mortality rate stood at close to 150 percent of the national average.”

The deteriorating condition of the U.S. working class is a consequence of a deep structural change in the era of fully globalized capitalism. It is not simply the result of the classic boom-bust cycle that causes regular recessions and depressions. The deterioration will continue unabated. Factories, offices and service providers are replacing skilled labor with machines and technologies. Higher-paid workers are being replaced with low-paid labor in the United States or abroad. Those who manage to keep their jobs face lowered wages and slashed health care benefits and pensions as a condition for employers not leaving or shutting down production.

For example, on Oct. 15 a federal court ordered U.S. Airways workers to take a 21 percent pay cut. IBM now employs 40 percent of its PC computer workforce in China. In every industry, the pattern of consolidations, mergers, layoffs, downsizing, outsourcing and benefit reductions prevails—even during the current period of economic “upturn.”

What will happen to the working class in the next major capitalist recession or depression, when unemployment jumps dramatically? Consumer credit now equals about 85 percent of the Gross National Product—up from 50 percent 20 years ago. The danger for U.S. workers by a major economic collapse in the United States—coming on top of the current structural economic realignment—exceeds any since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In early December, in a private closed-door meeting with financial managers, Morgan Stanley’s chief economist Stephen Roach described the odds of the U.S. avoiding an economic “Armageddon” at no better than one in ten. The media was barred from the meeting, but the Boston Herald newspaper obtained a copy of Roach’s presentation.

The U.S. working class is being decimated—before the onset of a major economic downturn. Its material conditions are worsening, and they will decline more dramatically as capitalism plunges society into a major economic contraction. Factories and offices will close and millions of people will lose their meager savings and equities. This plague will descend on society not because of a failure to produce but because the working class has produced more than the capitalists can sell at a profit. The crisis of so-called overproduction—a phenomenon unique to capitalism—coming on top of the existing structural crisis sets the stage for a new, historic class confrontation.

The Republicans and Democrats, twin parties of the ruling class, will seek a way out in a new imperialist war. The multi-national working class, despite the present lack of revolutionary consciousness, will be compelled to struggle.

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