Taking back Black history from the 1%
Karl Marx said in 1845: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”
Marxist theory applies to all contemporary issues, including the unfinished revolution known as Black Reconstruction, an outgrowth of the Civil War. Marx characterized that war as a struggle between two social systems — slavery and capitalism — which could no longer exist side by side. In supporting the North, he said in his famous work “Capital” that “Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded.”
Black Reconstruction represented the aspirations of millions of formerly enslaved people to win bourgeois democratic rights. This radical period was violently cut short by a terrorist counterrevolution, led by the former slavocracy with complicity from the federal government.
Black History Month is an important concession, rooted in this ongoing liberation struggle, but it has been reduced to a shameful tool for making profits at all costs by the 1%.
Take this example: “Henry Ford recognized the value of a skilled workforce — regardless of race. And when Ford became the first major corporation to pay African-American workers equal pay for equal work, it helped give birth to the Black middle class.” (“Black History and Ads Don’t Mix, Activists Say,” Washington Post, Feb. 23, 2005)
What they don’t say is that Ford founded the segregated cities of “Inkster” for Black workers and “Dearborn” for whites, presently an Arab and Muslim immigrant city. Ford was also a well-known Nazi sympathizer.
Many Fortune 500 corporations, including those which employ low-wage workers or are non-union, exploit Black History Month — like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and Walmart.
History books have demonized militant anti-slavery fighters like Nat Turner and John Brown as “fanatical.” Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser, who led heroic rebellions against their slave masters, are marginalized or erased from bourgeois history. Marcus Garvey, the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association — a 1-million-strong worldwide organization that promoted the Back to Africa movement — was politically targeted because he dared to promote the right of Black people to separate from their racist oppressors. Defending this right on the part of the movement shows class solidarity based on the struggle against racism and national oppression.
Bourgeois historians downplay the historical role of African-American women like Ida B. Wells, a leader of the anti-lynching struggle, and Civil Rights pioneers Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer. Joann Robinson of the Women’s Political Council, which organized the historic Montgomery bus boycott, wrote: “The Women’s Political Council will not wait for Mrs. [Rosa] Parks’ consent to call for a boycott of city buses. On Dec. 2, 1955, the women of Montgomery will call for a boycott to take place on Monday, Dec. 5.”
Linking anti-racist, class solidarity
The legacies of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X have been co-opted. While being on opposite sides of the political and ideological barricades, they both supported reparations for people of African descent. Both were expanding their world view by linking economic and political issues, while exposing capitalism as a system. They were equally targets of the FBI’s repressive COINTELPRO, leading to their assassinations.
Before Malcolm X was developing an anti-imperialist perspective, he advocated the right to self-defense to win national liberation, which was the basis for his “By Any Means Necessary” message. The Black Panthers credit Malcolm X for their view of the right to armed self-defense in relationship to police repression. The Panthers exposed the inability of the capitalist government to meet the needs of the Black community by establishing free breakfast programs, free health care clinics, free liberation schools and much more.
In King’s speech in 1967 — “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” — he condemned the U.S. as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” He also stated, “When the bombs are dropped in Vietnam, they explode in our communities.” He called for the U.S. to pay reparations to the Vietnamese.
Revolutionaries and activists should use historic events like Black History Month, International Women’s Day, May Day and Gay Pride to help push forward class unity.
The historic election of the first Black president in 2008 did not signal a post-racial society. Capitalist relations are more entrenched today than before, due to the irreversible global capitalist crisis. Black people, like immigrants, remain a super-exploited sector within an exploited working class.
It is important to support the ongoing struggle for Black liberation within the overall goal of overthrowing capitalist relations inside the U.S. and replacing them with a socialist society based on meeting the needs of human beings and the planet and winning full democratic rights.
To quote the great anti-slavery fighter, Frederick Douglass, “Without struggle, there is no progress.
This article is based on a speech given at Black History Month forums in Detroit and New York City in February 2014. To see the podcast, go to workers.org.