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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.”
—Howard Zinn
“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 struggle.

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 South.”

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 South.

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 federal troops.

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 expand slavery.

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 people.”

Next: More on the history of the open struggle of the oppressed.