The fighting example of this proletarian movement transformed the consciousness of millions throughout the United StatesBlack and white, North and South. It dealt a major blow to the divisions in the U.S. working class along color lines that the capitalist rulers had been able to impose for decades after the defeat of Radical Reconstruction in 1877.
This article is the last in a three-part series on the leading role of Black workers in working-class struggles in the United States. The first installment focused on the rise and overthrow of Radical Reconstruction following the Civil War. The second reviewed the role of Black workers in the social movement that forged the industrial unions in the United States.
The civil rights movement was marked by sustained mass challenges to the Jim Crow system in the South that drew millions of Black workers, farmers, and youth into combat.
The movement against Jim Crow originated in the battles against discrimination that Blacks waged during World War II (see article in the October 29 issue). These struggles were strengthened by the fact that over previous decades millions of Blacks had migrated from rural areas in the South to the urban centers, swelling the ranks of the industrial working class. The fight for Black freedom was also boosted by the exploding anticolonial revolutions in the world.
From Montgomery to Birmingham
The first victorious battle was waged in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1955-56 the Black population there organized a nearly 13-month boycott of the public bus system to protest institutionalized segregation in public transportation. In December 1956, the boycott ended when a federal injunction forced the city to end segregation in busing.
A year later, the attention of the world focused on Little Rock, Arkansas, where the segregationist state government deployed National Guard troops to block nine Black youths from integrating an all-white public high school. To head off a mass battle, the Eisenhower administration sent the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to allow the nine to attend class.
In 1960 a broad movement of student sit-ins at lunch counters and restaurants swept the South. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded that year in the heat of these struggles.
The next year, the Congress on Racial Equality spearheaded the Freedom Rides. In face of brutal Ku Klux Klan and racist mob attacks, they sent integrated buses of civil rights campaigners into the South to challenge segregation in interstate busing.
In the spring of 1963, one of the great battles of the movement unfolded in Birmingham to bring an end to discrimination in hiring and public facilities in the citys downtown. After five weeks of sustained demonstrations, the Birmingham jails were filled to over-capacity. Thousands of schoolchildren defied the riot police, dogs, and high-pressure hoses and continued to march until they won their demands.
Movement leaders organized a march on Washington for August 28 of that year that drew more than a quarter of a million people.
As mass campaigns continued in the South, explosions of protest rocked the Black community in northern cities. Rebellions erupted in Harlem in 1964, Watts in 1965, Chicago in 1966, and Newark and Detroit in 1967.
In 1968, I am a man was the rallying cry of a strike in Memphis, Tennessee, by sanitation workers, most of whom were Black. This victorious strike created the largest union local in that city. A day after addressing the striking workers, Martin Luther King was assassinated, on April 4, 1968.
His death touched off a wave of rebellions in more than 100 U.S. cities.
The Ku Klux Klan and other segregationist forces staged brutal, and often deadly, assaults on movement leaders and foot soldiers. In response, armed self-defense of Black communities played a critical and underappreciated role in the movement.
One example of this was the Deacons For Defense in Louisiana. Founded in 1964 in the town of Jonesboro, by the end of 1966 there were 21 chapters with several hundred members in Louisiana and Mississippi. The Deacons were at the center of the battles to desegregate Louisiana and helped deal a powerful blow to the Ku Klux Klan in that state.
From its inception, working-class leaders played a central role in the movement. One outstanding example was the Montgomery bus boycott, whose mastermind and organizer was a railroad porter named E.D. Nixon, a leader of the NAACP in Alabama and a regional leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
When Rosa Parks, an NAACP activist and seamstress, was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, Nixon initiated calls to local preachers and arranged the planning meeting that eventually brought the young Rev. Martin Luther King into the struggle.
Malcolm X emerged during this period as a proletarian revolutionary leader of world-class stature. He placed the battle for Black rights in the context of a world revolutionary strugglethe anticolonial struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The Black revolution is sweeping Asia, is sweeping Africa, is rearing its head in Latin America, Malcolm said in a November 1963 talk to a predominantly Black audience in Detroit. The Cuban Revolutionthats a revolution . They overturned the system. Revolution is in Asia, revolution is in Africa, and the white man is screaming because he sees revolution in Latin America. How do you think hell react to you when you learn what a real revolution is?
Efforts to organize Black political action independent of the twin capitalist parties, the Democrats and Republicans, was also part of this movement. The Freedom Now Party was launched in 1963 and ran a campaign in Michigan and other cities the next year, and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization ran for county office in Alabama in 1966. Malcolm X was an uncompromising opponent of support to the Democrats or Republicans.
The civil rights movement carried out elements of a social revolution in the South. Following a decade of mass actions the movement dealt the decisive defeat to Jim Crow. The passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts in 1964 and 1965 codified these gains won on the battlefield.
The urban rebellions in the later half of the 1960s reflected the depth of the political radicalization the movement produced. The capitalist rulers made further concessions in an effort to stem the tide. These gains benefited the entire working class, leading to expanded funding for education, pensions, medical care, and other forms of social insurance. Gains were also made in broader democratic rights, from freedom of association to the right to privacy.
The movement was an inspiration and motor force of the youth radicalization of the 1960s, the womens liberation movement in the 1970s, and renewed struggles by Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, and other oppressed peoples for their rights. Its lessons and history remain an important weapon in the hands of working people.
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