Serious challenges to the status quo will be met with panic and repression
THE widespread assumption of the Civil Rights era–that the removal of artificial racial barriers would result in automatic integration of Blacks into all aspects of American life–turned out to be incorrect. Sixty-two years after Rosa Parks refused to obey local segregation law on a city bus, Blacks as a group have still not achieved full equality. We cannot even rely on the American government for basic humane treatment.
Most Blacks have simply sought to enjoy the fruits of American society as it exists, but their quest for liberation cannot be satisfied within the framework of existing social, political, and economic relations. Blacks find themselves stymied by obstacles of far greater magnitude than the legal barriers of Jim Crow — obstacles that are the result of the entire society’s failure to meet not only the needs of Blacks, but humans generally.
In taking a hard look at how the Civil Rights movement transitioned from a protest movement to a political movement, we can discern certain lessons for the Black Lives Matter movement at this precarious moment today. The most important is that eradicating racial oppression ultimately requires struggle against oppression in all its forms; diverse coalitions offer the most promising strategy for the fight ahead. But so far unfortunately, the main direction of activists today seeking racial equality has been to shrink from the dangerous implications of restructuring America’s economic systems. Too often, their focus has instead been on simpler, more comfortable ways out such as protesting, for example, for the release of a video or the arrest of a police officer.
Protest can bring awareness to a problem that is being ignored or minimized, provide people who are angry and frustrated with racial oppression an outlet to channel their energies, and even force a resignation every once in a while. But institutional patterns and practices will not change unless protesters go beyond rallying, marching, and what usually amounts to empty slogans. The function of activists is to translate protest into organized action, which has the chance to develop and to transcend immediate needs and aspirations toward a radical reconstruction of society. This is the case today, to an unprecedented extent. The intensive indoctrination and pervasive nature of social inequality calls for intensive counter-education and organization. It also calls for knowing where we have been, in order to know where we are going.
Bayard Rustin, a close associate of Martin Luther King Jr. and a leading tactician of the Civil Rights Movement, wrote a little known article, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” for Commentary in February 1964. In his visionary article, Rustin provides a framework for looking at the Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1964 and how that movement was evolving from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement–an evolution many supporters of Black Lives Matter are now calling for.
“In a highly industrialized, 20th century civilization,” Rustin wrote, “we hit Jim Crow precisely where it was most anachronistic, dispensable, and vulnerable–in hotels, lunch counters, bus terminals, libraries, swimming pools, and the like.” In those forms, Jim Crow did not impede the flow of commerce in the broadest sense. It was, instead, a nuisance to America as the country emerged from World War II as the self-proclaimed citadel of democracy and preeminent purveyor of individual freedoms.
Direct-action tactics like sit-ins and freedom rides helped bring down the legal foundations of white supremacy in America. However, Rustin recognized that in desegregating public accommodations, “Blacks affected institutions which were relatively peripheral both to the American socioeconomic order and to the fundamental conditions of life of Black people”–a fact registered by millions of other Black people whose material conditions did not change.
Not long after the first flush of sit-ins, several developments took place that complicated the Civil Rights Movement: the first was the shifting focus of the movement in the South, symbolized by the founding of the Alabama-based Lowndes County Freedom Organization, the original Black Panther Party, which called for building independent Black institutions or power bases; the second was the spread of the movement from the South to the North and West, where Black people were engaging in insurrection in hundreds of cities; third was the expansion of the movement’s base to Black communities where revolt was always minutes away.
It was these shifts that began to transform peripheral demands of desegregating public accommodations into wider expectations for social change. Blacks began to seek advances in employment, housing, schooling, the elimination of police powers, and so forth. The movement expanded its vision beyond race relations to economic and political relations–or in the words of civil rights giant Ella Baker, “The struggle is bigger than eating a hamburger at a white counter.”
Of the many valuable analyses of the Civil Rights Movement, one is the rising need to expose and critique conflations of capitalism with democracy, while also diagnosing this formulation’s role in suppressing the exploration of alternative economic arrangements in struggles against white supremacy, domination, and exploitation. Even Martin Luther King came around to this line of thinking. In his last Sunday sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” he told the congregation, “There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today… it is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle. The disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic.”
King and others began to ask, In whose interests did prevailing systems of domination and exploitation operate? Asking who benefits and who pays for prevailing practices helped expose hierarchical relationships as well as hidden advantages and penalties in a purportedly fair and neutral system. Whites locked Blacks out of positions that would allow their collective rather than token economic and social advancement. It was in this environment the Black Power movement coalesced, and new heroes emerged: Huey P. Newton, George Jackson, and Assata Shakur, for example–people who considered themselves not reformers, but revolutionaries.
The term revolutionary, as I am using it, and as Rustin and others used it before me, refers to the rapid qualitative transformation of fundamental institutions. Structural change is the only way to rid American society of the ideology of racial inequality–the law cannot do it. The people must do it for themselves. They must become revolutionaries and refuse to accept traditional roles of protesting for a few superficial concessions, while also pushing back against calls for moderation. By organizing to win an ambitious restructuring of society, Black people and their allies are more likely to transform into the material base needed to build programs (critical literacy, media literacy, political theory, political economy and human rights advocacy) and more likely to support such a radical restructuring.
It is argued today, as it was decades ago, that protesters should “choose” only those techniques, tactics, and language which does not inconvenience the people and institutions they are protesting against. But it is not possible to limit the scope and range of protest to what the police and the rest of the criminal apparatus will bear without a reaction.
When bewildered members of the media, members of the political establishment, and people who were leaders in an era that has come and gone ask why demonstrators refuse to “peacefully” petition the state to stop police from brutalizing and murdering Black people, they announce their alienation from the masses whose cause they claim to support. As long as this alienation remains, Americans unaffected by state terrorism will be irritated and inconvenienced by any meaningful activity to end it. Even a racially optimistic movement like Black Lives Matter–with many white participants and organized around legislative reforms–continues to be characterized as a hate group by the state. The result is that people who suffer from oppression are placed on the defensive, and blamed for their own suffering.
Black people and their allies no longer feel, if they ever did, that they should demonstrate and protest using only methods and levels of intensity acceptable to those they demonstrate and protest against in order for their demonstrations and protests to be considered legitimate. No one ought to expect the transition from a system of injustice to a system of social justice to occur without personal and social trauma visiting all parties involved. In the face of growing anger and frustration, many Americans will react to the intensification of social unrest by warning protesters not to go too far and not to alienate liberals who have, if timidly, supported them.
But there is no such thing as mass activity, of any form, that does not endanger the status quo. All serious challenges will be met with panic and repression. We must think about the hard demands of complex strategy in order to translate the goals of race, class, gender, and sexual equality into a desired social reality. Demonstrators and protesters must have imagination and daring, and they must assume the risk of real social change. Without serious risks and the many forms of turbulence inevitably associated with genuine social change, there will be none.