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The Civil Rights Movement

June 10, 2019

"Luther King's policy is summed up in one of his radio speeches:


"Kick me, I'll love you anyway; spit on me and I'll continue to love you".


 - Alarma number 10 (second issue), July 1967 (Alarma= the publication of Fomento Obrero Revolucionario)


The civil rights movement in the U.S. is often represented as a movement against racial discrimination and segregation that fought for the rights of a "black community" that shares homogeneous interests. But since there is no such thing as a homogenous community of "black people" that shares the same interests, the reality of the history of the civil rights movement is much more complex than commonly supposed. 



Why was the civil rights movement led by religious leaders?


Workers as a whole - not just black workers - suffered the most from the devastating effects of racial discrimination and segregation.


But they weren’t its only victims. Racial segregation and discrimination prevented black-owned businesses from expanding their markets and made it impossible for the black petty-bourgeoisie to move up the social ladder by joining the ranks of state bureaucracy and politics. It was this black petty-bourgeoisie, particularly the clergy, that led and set the objectives of the movement.



The black clergy, who had played a leading role in Southern politics in the Reconstruction period, had begun to see themselves removed from the center of the scene around a decade later, with the laws of Jim Crow. These laws, which continued to be promulgated throughout the South by Democratic governments, established segregation in everyday life, succeeded in inhibiting the black vote and with it the ascendant power of the black petty-bourgeoisie. But the clergy were only affected in a relative sense. After all, parishes were the only social institution in which blacks could participate collectively without generating excessive political suspicion. Far from being persecuted, the clergy were allowed political power as recognized mediators in the neighborhoods and towns of descendants of former slaves. Abolishing racial barriers did not only appear to these pastors, shepherds, as a logical demand of their flock. The language of civil rights was established in a terrain of demands accepted by its counterparts in the political apparatus, systematizing and giving a global discourse to a set of aspirations that were autonomous till then.[1] Moreover, in the context of the Cold War, "civil rights" were aligned with the discourse of the "free world" in the face of the tyranny of so-called "communism" of Stalinism.


Trade Unions and the Civil Rights Movement


Weakened since the end of the war, American unions were conditioned by a system of organizational funding that fell almost exclusively on the dues of their members. The unions needed to demonstrate, in order to maintain its strength, that collective bargaining could guarantee better wages and conditions for their members than for non-members.


Given the limitations of the state agencies that were intended to address discrimination, the Department of Labor (DOL) and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the extension and enforcement of legal equality between whites and blacks by the state was carried out through the use of the courts. The movement's attorneys were financially encouraged by Congress to seek and win litigation cases. Thanks to new powers granted to them by Congress, they could be paid by third parties when their own clients could not pay and win a large amount of money in damages. Within that framework, the discourse and legal claims of the civil rights movement could only be carried out at the expense of the unions. Why?


  1. Continuing the process of Taft-Hartley, where the closed-shops were threatened, discriminatory unions were fought against in the courts (and unions that were defined as discriminatory for not meeting a racial quota) by being denied closed-shops.[2]

  2. Because the closed-shops were threatened: Incentives to union membership were being eliminated while the bargaining positions of the companies became more radical, as they feared that any agreement with the workers of a union would end up being extended to all the workers of the company.

  3. If this were not enough, civil rights groups like the National Urban League historically encouraged black workers to act as scabs against union strikes when the union was discriminatory, thus hoping to regain a demographic weight lost during the war in favor, among others, of white women mobilized to the factories as part of the war effort. "We advise Negroes in seeking affiliation with any organized labor group to observe caution. We advise them to take jobs as strikebreakers only where the union affected has excluded colored men from membership".[3]

  4. Another example is the way in which seniority was challenged, in lawsuits against companies, civil rights lawyers argued that that "last hired, first fired" perpetuated racial discrimination because the union workers who stayed the longest were mostly white. It was an argument similar to the one feminism uses today to sustain the "wage gap" slogan. "To remedy the NLRA’s inadequacy on civil rights, federal courts used Title VII law, the Fourteenth Amendment, and even tort law to take broader powers away from unions and the Board altogether – powers that were often critical to union power such as seniority and hiring autonomy". [4]

That's not counting the fact that unions were financially drained by losing lawsuits for not meeting racial quotas. Even in situations where unions gave in and signed consent agreements, unions had to shell out millions of dollars in the settlement.[5]


Did the courts do this out of an ideological commitment to civil rights? No. In fact, civil rights cases were enormously lucrative and took place in a context in which they were not considered a threat to social order. On the contrary, civil rights were seen as a way of homogenizing conditions of exploitation, placing workers under the banner of the "free nation" in the face of the "tyranny" of communism, and appeasing a discontented and rebellious petty-bourgeoisie.


Under pressure from the courts, the unions eventually enforced racial quotas. The pressure to integrate black workers and end segregation at work was never a struggle for worker unity, but a wake-up call to unions, which had stopped playing a progressive role since World War I, to integrate black workers within the framework of the state... even though it created contradictions for them with their own funding model.


Nothing to do with "values"


The attitude to civil rights of the different sectors of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie did not depend on their differing "values", but on their cost structure and market expectations.


The resistance to the civil rights movement also cannot be caricatured by reducing it to terrorist groups like the KKK, the expression of an insecure and angry white rural petty-bourgeoisie, terrified in the face of the most sordid lumpenization. American leftism represents white-supremacist resistance to civil rights as the expression of a "racist mob" of white workers, concealing the petty-bourgeois nature of such resistance, in order to present the proletariat as a reactionary class that has a material interest in maintaining "privilege" and not in creating a truly human world.


In reality, not only was resistance fundamentally petty-bourgeois, but the corporations and landowners who opposed the civil rights movement did so not because of their "southern culture" or fundamental racism, but because they had a material interest in segregation. In Birmingham, for example, employers associated with the steel industry, who benefited from the division of workers and the low wages it produced, and who were also less vulnerable to the disruptions caused by boycotts, resisted equality between workers of different races as much as they could, simply because they were not going to accept paying higher wages for no reason. When, in New Orleans in 1960, the state repressed student protests against segregation, it did not do so out of "racism" but because that racism expressed the pressure of the 22 counties that depended on labor-intensive cotton farming that saw the end of segregation as an immediate pressure on costs.


In the same way, the companies that supported or adapted to civil rights were not "defenders of humanity", but companies that suffered more costs than benefits from segregation. Consumer boycotts in Greensboro, North Carolina, were enough to "convince" downtown merchants. And in general, the service businessmen, the real estate companies and the set of companies that saw an opportunity in the rise of the black petty-bourgeoisie, embraced integration.[6]


Black Workers


The same discourse that equates the KKK to white workers is that which represents black workers as slaves of the black petty-bourgeoisie, who "must" be "represented" by it and who cannot, or should not, plant demands that differ from their own. For example, the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968 or the Atlanta strike in 1970, when black sanitation workers went on strike and their jobs were threatened by a white mayor, was supported by civil rights leaders because they were able to easily represent it as a racial conflict: a black-white conflict that reinforced the racialist discourse of the black petty-bourgeoisie. In 1977, however, the lie of a "black community" was exposed when Atlanta's first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, sent scabs to replace striking workers.




The big lie of the civil rights movement


In reality, the racial mystique of white supremacism and black racialism have the same logic and objective as any identitarianism: to affirm the existence of "communities", political subjects ("whites", "blacks", "women"...) with interests above the classes, small "sacred unions" of certain bourgeois sectors (white bourgeoisie, black, feminine...) with the "corresponding" workers. They serve to divide the proletariat and weaken its ability to act as a class.



As Alarma reported in 1967,


"The black American movement has entered a new phase. Retained or diverted, at the beginning, by non-violence and religion, it could and should be expected to undergo a radical evolution, towards forms of combat that include violence, yes, but violence as an organized development of the struggle of the exploited class against the exploiter. Violence has come into being because it is forced by the living conditions of Black people as well as by a large part of the white population and the stupidity of racial power [black power]. But the revolutionary class factor is still completely absent. Thus, violence leads to riots which, however widespread, have more of a character of revenge than a struggle for specific objectives.


The idea of black power - if you can call it an idea - has gained much ground in recent months, but it will prove as negative as Luther King's plaintive Christian militancy. Luther King's policy can be summed up in one of his radio speeches:


"Kick me, I'll love you anyway; spit on me and I'll continue to love you".


Both attitudes come from the same inability to address the solution of the problem in the immediate, current, American and world historical development. Indeed, a territory populated and governed by blacks, whether as one more State within the United States or as an independent nation, is unrealistic for many reasons. But, supposing it to be feasible, it would leave workers in much worse economic conditions than the present ones. Workers, furthermore, constitute the overwhelming majority of the population of color in the United States. Now, the real problem to be solved begins there, with the workers, and that problem is neither exclusive of the blacks, nor can it be solved except as the power of the working class as a whole, without distinction of race. It is also what coincides with the social needs in the U.S. and in the world". 


Alarm 10 (second series), July 1967







Written by Workers' Offensive, edited by Nuevo Curso (with some minor additions and edits made by Workers' Offensive) 





[1] Sue E. S. Crawford, Laura R. Olson, Christian Clergy in American Politics (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 2001)


[2] Paul Frymer, Black and Blue: African Americans, the Labor Movement, and the Decline of the Democratic Party (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008), 29-30, 65-66


[3] Jane Voogd, Race Riots and Resistance: The Red Summer of 1919 (New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2008), 68


[4] Furthermore, "In a series of cases, the Court responded to class-action lawsuits by holding that union members subjected to discrimination could receive seniority credit based on the time of their initial application, that unions were liable even when they shared blame with employers, and that plaintiffs who had not formally applied for jobs would be granted standing to file lawsuits in courts, thus easing the way for potential litigants to challenge seniority rules…Weber, a white production worker, complained that he was not selected to participate in the program [training program for unskilled workers that would set aside 50 percent of available trainee space for African Americans] despite having greater seniority than the African Americans that were chosen. In the majority decision, Justice Brennan held that Title VII allowed for affirmative action in training programs that could effectively trump existing seniority systems". Paul Frymer, Black and Blue: African Americans, the Labor Movement, and the Decline of the Democratic Party (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008), 87-88


[5] Ibid, 89-92


[6] Luders, Joseph. “The Economics of Movement Success: Business Responses to Civil Rights Mobilization.” American Journal of Sociology 111, no. 4 (2006): 963-98. doi:10. 1086/498632.


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