The great struggle for justice by the African-American people of Ferguson, Mo., comes after a white cop there gunned down young Michael Brown. Witnesses say the 18-year-old was unarmed and calling “Don’t shoot” with his hands in the air when officer Darren Wilson repeatedly shot and killed him.
It was the last straw. But the roots of this struggle go far back, through centuries of suffering, murder, degradation and torture of Black people at the hands of the slave-owner ruling class of Missouri. That is why this atrocity has struck such a nerve and led to a rebellion by the people of this small city adjacent to St. Louis.
By the time of the Civil War, St. Louis was an important and affluent port at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Most of the hard jobs — on the docks, in domestic service and in the fields — were done by Black people for little or no pay.
St. Louis was a center for the buying and selling of enslaved Africans. Whole families were put on the auction block. Children and their parents were sold off to the highest bidder, often to be separated from each other for life.
Cruelty of the most barbaric sort was inflicted on any who dared to resist or just displease the slave master. A news story from that period tells of a woman in St. Louis who was whipped — to death — by her owner for having lost a set of keys.
In 1861, 11 Southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy. While the underlying struggle was over whether slavery would be allowed in the territories being settled in the West, President Abraham Lincoln did not address the question of slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on Jan. 1, 1863. Then, for the first time, the Union government pledged freedom for the enslaved people.
This prompted some 180,000 Black men and some women to run away from their “masters” and find their way to the Union Army. While many were still not allowed to bear arms, those who did, like Harriet Tubman, performed heroically, turning the tide of many crucial battles in the Civil War.
But Missouri was exempted from the 1863 Proclamation. You see, while a slave state, it was not officially in rebellion against the federal government.
It took another two years — just months before the South surrendered and the war ended — for Lincoln to issue an Emancipation Proclamation for Missouri. This gives you an idea of how deeply entrenched the slave-owning class was in that state’s economy and politics.
The struggle against slavery had a revolutionary effect, not just in the United States but around the world. In Britain, the labor movement came out strongly to keep their government from intervening in the war on the side of the Confederacy — which the textile industrialists were urging. Karl Marx was one of the speakers at a London rally of some 3,000 workers in 1864 who sided with the North, even though they were losing thousands of jobs in Britain’s textile mills due to a Northern embargo of Southern cotton.
The war ended chattel slavery in the U.S. — but the revolution of the oppressed Black masses for liberation from the most ferocious oppression was never completed. The Northern industrialists and bankers who came out on top made a rotten compromise in the 1870s with the moneyed men of the South. The latter got to keep their lands and their money to set up a new form of racist oppression. Reconstruction was undercut by the withdrawal of Union soldiers from the South.
Thus began a reign of terror that has lasted in some degree up to the modern era, despite the victories of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements to end segregation and open up schools, jobs and neighborhoods to the descendants of those who had endured the whips and chains of slavery.
Think of this unfinished revolution when you see those images of armored personnel carriers, helicopters and machine guns occupying the town of Ferguson in the same way that U.S. troops are sent abroad to defend the interests of U.S. oil companies.
Think of what life could have been like in this country — in small cities like Ferguson or bigger ones like Oakland, Calif., Detroit and New Orleans — if the power of the brutal master class had really been broken and the promise of land and freedom honored for those who fought to end the most vile form of exploitation ever devised.
Think of this unfinished revolution when you see the statistics on Black poverty, on rates of incarceration and stop-and-frisk, and on the staggering growth of income inequality that has diminished the quality of life of most workers, but those of color the most.
We all need a new social revolution, one that topples the class of oligarchs and makes the working people the collective owners of all we have built. But we also need to give 100 percent support to the struggle to end racist national oppression — that poisonous weed inherited from slavery and colonialism, that undermines class unity and denies the most basic democratic rights to tens of millions of people in this country.
End the occupation of Ferguson! Victory to those fighting for real liberation!