The following article is based on a talk given at a June 14 Workers World Party forum in New York. Hales is a WW contributing editor and a People’s Power Assembly Movement organizer.
The revolution can’t be elected, but elections can be helpful to the progressive and the revolutionary struggles. Some on the left will simply trumpet the first part of the above sentence. Others will view bourgeois elections as a place to raise a socialist agenda but may not seriously consider the possibility of winning and what an actual victory means in terms of pursuing and fighting for a progressive agenda, how to strengthen a mass base and/or what it means for a revolutionary to administer the bourgeois state.
Elections, or “universal suffrage is thus the gauge of the maturity of the working class.” Fredericks Engels wrote these words, which remain true today, in his 1884 groundbreaking book, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.” Engels states further, “It [universal suffrage] cannot and never will be anything more in the modern state; but that is enough,” and this, too, is true.
In Venezuela, there have been successive electoral victories of progressive governments led by president Hugo Chávez, a valiant anti-imperialist and pro-socialist leader who tragically died after a long battle with cancer this past March. Behind those victories were the forward-moving social movements that supported and deepened the ongoing revolutionary process in Venezuela; the same social movements that overturned a short-lived fascist coup in April of 2002. And, the same mass movements, armed with a pro-socialist ideology, will ultimately need to expropriate the private property of the Venezuelan ruling class and smash their capitalist state.
The U.S. is a far cry from Venezuela, a country with a political structure that benefited an oligarchy that was beholden to imperialist interests, primarily the U.S.
There are many historical examples of progressive political candidates who ran on a progressive platform or were buttressed by a political movement of oppressed nationalities or by a general upsurge of workers and the oppressed. However, the recent Jackson, Miss., mayoral election victory of outgoing Black City Councilperson Chokwe Lumumba provides an opportunity for revolutionaries and progressive people not only to analyze what the victory means for Jackson, the Black Belt South, all oppressed peoples and in general but also raises the specter of the need to defend Lumumba and the people of Jackson, a city that is 80 percent Black, from right-wing reaction.
Lumumba is a long-time revolutionary Black nationalist; an attorney for freedom fighter, Assata Shakur; the former second vice-president of the Republic of New Afrika; and the co-founder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.
When writing about the developments in Jackson, past and present, it is essential for revolutionaries to understand what’s happening there and to be grounded in an understanding of the national question [the superexploitation of whole nations and their resources by imperialism] and the right of oppressed people to self-determination.
Origins of imperialist U.S.
The U.S. has eclipsed former Czarist Russia as “the prison house of nations.” Within the borders of the U.S. and in its colonies [under the guise of “commonwealth” nations] like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands along with colonies that have been incorporated as states but are not part of the contiguous U.S. like Hawaii and Alaska, are many nations of Indigenous people, Mexican people in the southwest U.S., Black people and other oppressed peoples who because of colonization, war, political domination and/or economic strangulation have migrated to the U.S.
Black people can trace their lineage to many distinct nationalities that have differing cultures and languages. Black people have been forged into one nation through the process of slavery, where particular cultural and linguistic differences were stripped away by the lash and other genocidal practices. Jim Crow and continuing oppression and repression have created a national identity stemming from a shared historical experience, including culture.
Jackson, Miss., epitomizes the entire history of the U.S. and the seed for the U.S. capital development. This history includes the war against the Native people of the Mississippi area — Choctaw, Chickasaw, Tunica-Biloxi and Natchez and others — by the Spaniards, the French, the British, and then by the U.S. colonialists, to the brutality of forced removal and slavery followed by the crushed hopes of Black people due to the counterrevolutionary compromise between the former slavocracy and the capitalist government. Soon afterwards came the removal of Union troops from the South, which brought an abrupt end to Radical Reconstruction in 1877, resulting in an incomplete bourgeois revolution. Black people in the former slave states saw their democratic rights violently denied by fascistic paramilitaries formed by former Confederate soldiers and officers who were allowed to return to the South with their weaponry.
The short period of Reconstruction saw many Black farmers procure land to develop, including in Mississippi. This development arose from the sharecropping system, which was a step above chattel slavery and existed until the major battles of the Civil Rights era.
Sharecropping expanded even more after the depression of 1893, brought on by overproduction of farming in the South, because of the breakup of large plantations, and in the Midwest but also rapid capitalist growth of manufacturing primarily in the North.
Black and white farmers lost their farms, but in the South the political superstructure had enshrined racist Jim Crow as the law of the land with the infamous U.S. Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson ruling in 1898. Black people were not only disenfranchised from voting in the South by the use of literacy tests and poll taxes but were forced to live under apartheid conditions in the North and South.
The Black Codes that were adopted and written into the constitutions of all the former slave-holding states also declared that a Black person, arrested for not being able to prove employment, or for not having money in his/her pocket or other arbitrary reasons, could be sentenced to work for white landowners for free; slavery by another name. Not even Black children were exempt from the racist laws.
Lynchings forced migration
The white paramilitaries like the Klu Klux Klan, the Red Shirts and later the White Citizens Councils and the John Birch Society — co-founded by Fred Koch, of Koch Industries and father to Charles and David Koch, who helped bankroll the Tea Party movement and Americans for Prosperity — terrorized and murdered thousands of Black people. These lynchings deepened the disenfranchisement of Black people.
The great Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, wrote to the 5th Congress of the Communist International in 1924: “It is well-known that the Black race is the most oppressed and the most exploited of the human family. It is well-known that the spread of capitalism and the discovery of the New World had as an immediate result the rebirth of slavery, which was for centuries a scourge for the Negroes and a bitter disgrace for mankind. What everyone does not perhaps know is that after sixty-five years of so-called emancipation, American Negroes still endure atrocious moral and material sufferings, of which the most cruel and horrible is the custom of lynching.” (Ho Chi Minh on Revolution, 1967)
Official records say that 3,437 lynchings of Black people occurred between 1882 and 1951. In 1892 alone, there were 161 Black people lynched. Georgia recorded the most, Mississippi was second, then Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama and Arkansas. Many have felt that the number was far too low because of the criteria set for determining if a person was lynched. One of the criteria was that three or more persons be found to be involved.
Those murdered in the many racist white riots were not generally included in the overall numbers of lynchings. The two most notorious such events were the 1921 white massacre of Black people in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Okla., and the 1898 coup in Wilmington, N.C., which supplanted a progressive white and Black city government. Official records say only 30 Black people were killed and unofficial records say that more than 100 Black persons were massacred.
According to Ben Chaney, brother of slain civil rights organizer James Chaney, while investigators were looking for the bodies of his brother, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, nine other bodies were found in the same earthen dam.
The most well-known cases of lynchings that occurred in Mississippi are those of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in 1964; 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955; and Medgar Evers, a NAACP field organizer assassinated in Jackson in 1963.
Julius Eric Thompson wrote in “Lynchings in Mississippi: A history 1865-1965” that nearly one in 10 lynchings occurred in Mississippi and that there were more than 500 total. Most, he says, resulted in no convictions and in many there was not even a trial.
The effect of such a terrorist campaign, along with scant economic opportunities and social services, led to the first mass migration of Black people before World War I from the South to the North, not only to escape the violence and disenfranchisement but to secure jobs in the manufacturing sector in the North.
Black people constituted more than half of the population in Mississippi and South Carolina and more than 40 percent in most of the other former enslaving states. From 1910, when the migration began, to 1970, the Black population in Mississippi decreased from 56 percent to 37 percent. In total, in 1970, 47 percent of Black people lived outside of the South.
Oppression breeds resistance
Before examining the current trend in migration and conditions, which help shed light on the important election of Chokwe Lumumba, the image of a docile people that is projected in history books and is unfortunately an all-too-familiar sentiment about Black people who experienced such brutal conditions, is inaccurate.
As Karl Marx and Frederick Engels stated in the Communist Manifesto, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers.” This also pertains to slavery. While it was in the interests of the burgeoning financial capitalists and industrialists to defeat the slavocracy, U.S. history is rife with rebellions of all oppressed people against their oppressors and intolerable conditions, and it is no different with enslaved people.
Twenty-six rebellions of enslaved Black people have been recorded to have occurred in Mississippi. Black people participated in the rebellion of Indigenous people led by the Natchez nation in 1731, and orchestrated slowdowns and work stoppages. There were some instances of slave masters being killed.
This kind of militant resistance was carried forth by the Deacons for Defense and Justice, which had chapters in Mississippi, during the 1960s, to the brilliant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer and Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate, Fannie Lou Hamer, who went to the 1964 Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City demanding the right to representation for the Black masses in Mississippi.
The victory of Chokwe Lumumba on June 4, eight days before the 50th year since the murder of Medgar Evers, should be seen in light of the historic struggle of Black people in Mississippi, but also nationally.
The South, in relation to the northern part of the U.S., is, overall, a superexploited region. Some Southern states, even in the Southwest, have right-to-work laws and workers there are generally paid significantly less and denied to right to collective bargaining . Not much has changed in this respect from when Dr. King went to Memphis, Tenn., to support striking sanitation workers in 1968.
There has also been a buildup of manufacturing in the South, based on low wages. Recently, G.E. Transportation System opened a plant in Fort Worth, Texas, that competes with a plant in Erie, Pa. In fact, because the workers are paid less in Fort Worth, G.E. Transportation says that its Southern plant produces more revenue. Therefore, it projects laying off 950 workers at their Erie plant while expanding in Fort Worth.
Many auto manufacturers have located plants in the Black Belt region and in Mississippi specifically. Nissan and Toyota both have factories in Mississippi, including Nissan’s Canton plant, which employs more than 3,000 workers.
According to a Mississippi State University 2010 report, more than 140,000 workers are employed in manufacturing in the state.
Other states in the Black Belt region have seen similar growth. Manufacturing has been greatly contracted in the former industrial belt, and the workers that felt it the sharpest were Black. This has caused a migration of Black workers back to the southeastern region.
Even before the current capitalist crisis began in late 2007, the areas that saw the largest growth in Black population were in the South. This has been due not only to increased deindustrialization in areas that had and still have numerically predominant Black populations, but also because of gentrification, an intensification of police brutality and general repression in Black communities.
In 2012, eight of the 10 poorest states were in the Southeast and the poorest is Mississippi, where the per capita income is less than half of the national average. The state also ranks near the bottom in education, health care and has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, especially amongst Black people. In Jackson, 36 percent live below poverty and 10 percent live below 50 percent of the poverty rate.
The state of Mississippi is ranked third from the bottom on the U.S. Human Development Index.
Lumumba election: call for people’s power
The conditions for a movement in Mississippi have grown overripe and putrid. Though there might not necessarily yet be throngs in the streets in Mississippi, the Lumumba election is an indication of the maturity of the oppressed Black working class in Jackson. It also shows the consistency of the political work done there by the organizational and political forms that guided the popular program of Lumumba.
The Jackson People’s Assembly, an organization that meets every three months, grew out of the struggle for justice for the victims of the prevailing conditions before and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The assembly should be seen as the vehicle for helping to guide the mayoral victory and also Chokwe Lumumba’s City Council victory in 2009.
Lumumba’s political history did not scare away voters, nor did the bold and progressive Jackson Plan, which is reminiscent of the Republic of New Afrika’s program of the 1960s, calling for the establishment of an independent Black-led government in six former confederate states.
Though Lumumba came under vicious attack by the right wing for his history and militancy, it had little sway as he was elected with 87 percent of the vote in the general election.
Upon his win, Mayor-elect Lumumba questioned the validity of the anti-Indigenous Columbus Day holiday, gave an interview in support of Assata Shakur and highlighted the Jackson Plan: A Struggle for Self-Determination, Participatory Democracy and Economic Justice. The plan’s primary features include:
- Building People’s Assemblies
- Building a Network of Progressive Political Candidates
- Building a broad-based Solidarity Economy
It is difficult to know how things will develop. There are many factors to contend with, but the people of Jackson have made their choice. The bold initiatives laid out by the Jackson People’s Assemblies come from the historical experience of Black people in this country and in particular in Mississippi. It is an attempt to break with a structure and economic system that has built within it the special oppression of certain groups and divisions used as weapons for keeping working people from seeing a common foe.
It is the duty of progressives and revolutionaries to defend the process unfolding in Jackson and anywhere else it might spread. It signifies that though revolution may be further away than just over the horizon, there are sectors that are ready to struggle and fight in their own interest and are using the electoral arena to choose people who represent their aspirations.
This is not revolution but part of the struggle to empower oppressed and working people and combat the dominance of the twin capitalist parties, Democrats and Republicans, that have a virtual monopoly over the electoral arena.
The assembly movement is growing. The win by Chokwe Lumumba is evident of the significance and the power it has and can have.
As reactionary forces — those within the bourgeois government and outside of it — try to stall this movement, there is sure to grow more militant struggle to defend it and push it forward.
Go to http://mxgm.org/the-jackson-plan-a-struggle-for-self-determination-participatory-democracy-and-economic-justice/ to read the entire Jackson Plan. Chokwe Lumumba’s mayoral inauguration is on July 1.