Oppression breeds resistance
Published Mar 14, 2009 8:47 AM
“The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be
taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch
below the surface.”
“A People’s History of the United States”
Resistance is the byproduct of oppression. With the first inkling of
exploitation and oppression come the seeds of struggle to throw off those who
would exploit and oppress.
In the Western Hemisphere, resistance to colonization began shortly after the
arrival of Columbus, when the aims of his expedition became clear.
The story of the Western Hemisphere is one of the genocide of Indigenous
people, from the very northern regions to the most southern, but also of the
theft of land, the rape and the enslavement of African people.
From early Indigenous resistance to colonization, to the rebellion in 1516 of
Indigenous slaves aboard a Spanish galleon, to one of the first recorded
African slave rebellions in North America—the 1712 New York
rebellion—the history of the Americas is filled with open, violent
But in relatively recent history the turbulent period most recalled took place
in the second half of the 20th century.
The struggle for civil rights is characterized as a nonviolent movement.
However, it also employed other tactics, including armed self-defense against
racist violence and police.
In the South, ultraright racist violence against free Blacks began immediately
after slavery officially ended. Hundreds if not thousands of free Blacks were
killed in 1865 alone. Carl Schurz, a German-born Northerner, who would later
become secretary of the Interior and oversee the Office of Indian Affairs,
pushing forward an agenda of forcing Indigenous people into Bantustans,
documented the lynchings in his 1865 “Report on the Condition of the
In the report he wrote: “The number of murders and assaults perpetrated
upon Negroes is very great; we can form only an approximate estimate of what is
going on in those parts of the South which are not closely garrisoned, and from
which no regular reports are received, by what occurs under the very eyes of
our military authorities. As to my personal experience, I will only mention
that during my two days sojourn at Atlanta, one Negro was stabbed with fatal
effect on the street, and three were poisoned, one of whom died. While I was at
Montgomery, one Negro was cut across the throat evidently with intent to kill,
and another was shot, but both escaped with their lives. Several papers
attached to this report give an account of the number of capital cases that
occurred at certain places during a certain period of time. It is a sad fact
that the perpetration of those acts is not confined to that class of people
which might be called the rabble.”
Schurz would later go on to help found the “Liberal Republicans,”
who advocated the removal of federal troops from the South and self-government
for Southern states. With the Compromise of 1877 and the Posse Comitatus Act of
1878, Reconstruction officially ended and federal troops were removed from the
Paramilitary groups like the White League—allied with the Southern
Democratic Party—which had already begun to spring up before
Reconstruction, flourished when federal troops were removed. The Ku Klux Klan,
founded in 1865 by Confederates, grew along with it.
The pbs.org Web site gives an account of an action by the White League:
“On April 13, 1873, violence erupted in Colfax, Louisiana. The White
League, a paramilitary group intent on securing white rule in Louisiana,
clashed with Louisiana’s almost all-black state militia. The resulting
death toll was staggering. Only three members of the White League died. But
some one hundred black men were killed in the encounter.”
Violence against other oppressed people was just as intense. Indigenous people
faced continued aggression and attempts to wipe out their population, steal
their land and push them off land they had inhabited since long before the
first settlers arrived in North America.
The massacre of Native people at Wounded Knee occurred in 1890 and over 300
people, mostly women, children and elderly people, were brutally killed by
The federal government and local militias launched brutal assaults to force
Native peoples off their land and waged countless wars, from those against the
Seminole and Creek, fought mainly in Florida, to the theft of half of Mexico to
The conditions of war and oppression and repression continue to this day, but
in the latter half of the 20th century, after hundreds of years of slavery,
genocide and oppression, outright rebellions broke out in which the most
oppressed used violence in self-defense.
Robert F. Williams was a strong advocate of self-defense who wrote
“Negroes with Guns” and the pamphlet “Listen
Brother”—to convince Black men not to fight in Vietnam. Williams
started the journal “The Crusader” and was president of the NAACP
chapter in Monroe, N.C., where he led many struggles against segregation.
When Black homes became targets of nighttime Klan attacks, he organized armed
defense squads. Williams fled to Cuba in 1961 after trumped-up charges of
“kidnapping” were filed against him and others in Monroe who had
actually taken in an elderly white couple for a few hours to protect them
during a tense standoff in the streets. The white couple was unhurt. It was the
Black community that was being threatened by white racists.
It was another clear illustration that the U.S. government opposed the right of
the oppressed to defend themselves, while abetting racist violence.
Williams said, “It is a universally known fact that the power structure
of the racist USA is rabidly opposed to self-defense on the part of our
Next: More on the history of the open struggle of the oppressed.
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