On 29 April, the mostly black South Central district of Los Angeles erupted in an outbreak of anger. Almost from the first hours, the National Guard were called in, soon followed by the Federal army. However, the sub-machine guns, armoured vehicles and tanks which took over the city centre failed to stop the riot which went on for the best part of four days. In the end 58 were killed among the rioters, 4000 injured and over 11,000 arrests were made, while hundreds of buildings were burnt down, making it the worst riot in the USA this century.
The spark that set South Central alight is well-known. A jury comprising ten whites, a Hispanic and a Filipino found four police officers not guilty of beating up a black motorist. To ensure that the selected jury would be sympathetic to the police, the trial had been moved to a white suburb where so many police live that it is nicknamed "Cop County". The year long proceedings were nothing but a legal farce.
Not that such incidents or the blatant injustice of the court decision are uncommon in Los Angeles or in America these days. Far from it. Only this time, the beating up had been recorded by a bystander on video and subsequently watched on TV by millions. The trial became a burning issue for the hundreds of thousands blacks and hispanics who, day in and day out, are at the receiving end of police brutality. And its outcome was enough to inflame an already tense situation.
The very strength and violence of the Los Angeles riot immediately brought about parallels with the ten-years-long wave of black inner-city revolt of the 60's, particularly with the 1965 riot in Watts, another Los Angeles district next to South Central. Bush's immediate reaction, calling in thousands of National Guards and soldiers still in their Desert Storm gear from the Gulf War, showed the government's fear that South Central could spark off yet another nightmare for the establishment, reminiscent of the 60's.
With hindsight, this may now look like an over-reaction. Maybe it was. After all, as it turned out, South Central 1992 was far from being Watts 1965. The riot did not have the wild fire character of the riots of the 60's. While there were confrontations with the police in a dozen other cities where curfews were imposed for several days, the rioting remained mostly confined to Los Angeles and there was little evidence of a militant mood anywhere else. And in Los Angeles itself, the riot died out after just a few days.
On the other hand, if the capitalist class chose not to take any chance, there were good reasons too. In particular the knowledge that, although, in many respects, the situation of the black population is different today from what it was in the 60's, it is not so different when it comes to the poor inner-cities. It may even be worse. The past decade of economic crisis has build up a powder keg which may well turn out to be even more potent than that of the 60's.
This is not to say that Los Angeles this year had the potential of the rebellions of the 60's. It is to say that the memories of the 60's, with the sudden intervention of the black poor as a decisive factor on the political scene, are still vivid among the capitalists. This is to say that the material conditions that shaped up the militancy and resilience of the black poor in the 60's are still there today and that Los Angeles is a reminder that the black poor could once again rise to question the social order of American capitalism.
For this was precisely what happened in the 1960's. The "Black Power" era, as it was called, was much more than the unending series of spontaneous riots which British newspapers recalled after the explosion in South Central. It was the high point of a movement which had developed over decades of struggle, embracing millions of people throughout the USA. In the midst of this movement, several generations of fighters emerged among the black population who were forced into direct confrontation with the repressive forces of the state, who went through the experience of the failure of all conciliatory attempts at obtaining reform and who eventually were driven to the conclusion that to gain freedom they would have to free society of all social oppression.
Their fights and experiences, spanning many years, crystallised in the development of organisations which expressed their growing radicalisation and established a tradition of militant organisation, represented by leaders like Malcolm X and by organisations like the Blak Panthers, which had no parallel at the time in the white American working class, nor in fact in any of the world's rich industrialised countries. If the wave of black rebellion of the 60's had such a social leverage, it was due to the will to fight in the ghettoes but also to the existence of these thousands of activists, many of whom themselves came from the ghettoes, and of their organisations.
The strength of the movement was such that it influenced a generation of activists worldwide. Thus the Irish Civil Rights Movement was built from 1967 onwards following the example of the black American civil rights movement. And as far away as in Israel, the newly-arrived Jewish immigrants from North Africa expressed their rebellion against the social oppression in Israeli society by setting up their own "Black Panthers" party.
For us, revolutionary communists, the black movement of the 60's in the USA is of paramount importance, if only because it is the only mass revolutionary movement in an industrialised country since World War II. How this movement and its fighters were shaped, the experiences they went through and the lessons of their own failure, are part of our heritage.
WWII and after: the rise of the civil rights movement
In 1945 more than a million black US servicemen, along with their fellow white GIs, streamed home after the end of World War II. During the war, blacks had been formed into combat units, albeit segregated and with mainly white officers. They had also participated in thousands of spontaneous rebellions ranging from the individual protest to the mini-riot against the perceived injustice of segregation. Sent on ahead by the white military chiefs in order to draw sniper fire during the advance through Germany, some had more than got their own back by shooting their officers in the course of battle. At least this is the construction that War Department statisticians were forced to draw when they sought explanation for the high number of fatal accidents amongst the black units led by white officers....
These black soldiers had been fighting in countries where there was no formal segregation and where they were welcome as American soldiers. They came back from the war expecting to be treated as equal by the government for whose interests they had fought and many had died. Instead they returned home to a segregated land where little appeared to have changed.
They drew their own conclusions: they were expected to die in order to restore "freedom" and "democracy" abroad but they could not have the same freedom in their own country. For many, such injustice was unacceptable and they set about trying to change the situation.
In fact sections of the black population had already begun to move during the war. On the eve of the USA's entry into the war, the threat of a civil rights march on Washington demanding jobs for black workers in the booming defence industries, had embarrassed President Roosevelt into establishing a Fair Employment Practices Committee. This had enabled black people to get jobs on the assembly lines in Detroit building jeeps and tanks, to work in the shipyards in Oakland and New York and so on.
Segregation in a public swimming pool preventing young black GIs home on leave from having a dip, sparked off the Detroit riots in 1943. The white cops shooting of a black serviceman in Harlem in 1944 provoked a sharp response: police stations were attacked and white-owned businesses were burnt down. Malcolm X, then living in Harlem, recalled how a Chinese restaurant was spared when the rioters saw the owners's notice "Me colored too" and convulsed themselves laughing...
So both at home in the cities and abroad in the military the attitude of the blacks had started to change. In the South many homecomers experienced a resurgence of the hooded, white-robed, cross-burning Ku Klux Klan. Fortified by their military training, the black war veterans were able to form groups strong enough to prevent wholesale attacks by racists. The lynch mobs were held in check. In the Border states (Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Arkansas) there were sit-ins at segregated cafes and public places, voter registration drives and the first freedom rides on the buses - that is blacks claiming the right to sit in the front or the middle of the bus and not automatically vacate their place to a white person or huddle in the rear. This anticipated what was to happen throughout the South a few years later.
By the mid-50s, a national black civil rights movement had emerged. It was mainly centered around the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Its leaders were mostly middle-class - writers, lawyers, Church ministers, etc.. This moderate leadership advocated the use of "moral persuasion", a strategy which would later be called "non-violent revolution". They were at best liberals, deeply hostile to any idea of social change and committed to keeping the movement within the legal framework of American society.
On the face of it, the 1954 Supreme Court decision forbidding legal segregation in schools seemed to vindicate the "moral persuasion" approach. In any case it was certainly used by the leadership of the civil rights movement to support the illusion that segregation could be ended using legal channels.
But in reality, this decision changed nothing. It merely reaffirmed the American Constitution which had been amended specifically to include blacks nearly a century earlier. If initially it raised some hopes, they were quickly dashed. Ten years after the Supreme Court ruling 96% of black children still attended segregated schools....
From non-violence to confrontation
In December 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a protest against segregated buses turned into a year-long struggle of the black community over a whole range of grievances. Daily meetings of 2-300, many more when a big crisis was brewing, met to decide alternative travel arrangements and deal with the problems thrown up by the boycott, like for example loss of employment and food shortages. In the end, despite violent opposition from the police, the courts and so-called respectable White Citizen's Councils - to say nothing of the less respectable but very active Ku Klux Klan - the bus companies were forced to desegregate.
Their victory in Montgomery reinforced the morale of black people all over the South. They took up many local grievances. By the end of 1956, 21 Southern cities had desegregated buses as the authorities were trying to head off trouble.
While involving the active participation of tens of thousands and frequent physical confrontation with the police, these successes could still be claimed as victories for "moderation". After all, according to SCLC leader Martin Luther King, non-violent resistance was «not a method for cowards».
On the other hand, the more resistance grew in scope and size, the more black people could feel their own strength, the less tolerable were the casualties of non-violent tactics. And there were many such casualties. There was the case in 1955 of the black man in Mississipi who was lynched merely because he had registered to vote. Or the tragedy at Little Rock, Arkansas where a handful of black children were sent into the middle of a howling mob of racists in the hope that federal troops would protect them as they made their way to school. Not only did the troops fail to protect them but they also drew their bayonets to prevent them entering the school and eventually abandoned the children to face the mob alone....
It was events such as these which boosted the resolve of people like James Forman, a Korean war veteran and future associate of the Black Panthers Party, «to do something about this damn crazy system that would permit such a thing, even if it meant "burning it up"».
By 1960 the movement had started to spread outside the large cities of the South into the more rural areas. Here resistance by racists was strongest and local black people often did not have the forces to confront them. Organised groups of civil rights activists, many of them students, came to help from the nearby cities - the "Freedom Riders" as they called themselves. Starting from the famous 1960 sit-in by black students of "whites only" lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina, students in the university towns across the South began occupying segregated facilities of all kinds. The sit-in movement spread rapidly to at least 70 other cities in the Border states and the South West as well as the Deep South.
Mass arrests caused jails to be filled up with students. This became an almost privileged tactic for students: they could not be sacked from their jobs and they avoided having to find bail money. Besides, using a tactic that went back to the heroic days of the American labour movement at the turn of the century, the paralysing of the jails put pressure on the local authorities. The SNCC (Student Non-violent Co-ordinating Committee) grew out of this. It reflected the impatience of militant black youth for whom there was no space in the already existing organisations. But, even so, from its inception, the SNCC was firmly under SCLC control. While voter registration drives and freedom rides exposed black students to murderous KKK thugs - either attacks in the night or even public lynchings -, it did not, however, lead to a change of philosophy - non-violence was still the order of the day. As Martin Luther King quoting Gandhi had said, «Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom».
Another watershed was reached in 1963 at Birmingham, Alabama. As in Montgomery, in 1955, a massive struggle developed which was to continue for many months. No longer were the black demands just for desegregation of the buses, but for the removal altogether of the colour bar and the full integration of all facilities. Bull Connor, the infamous former police chief, then "Commissioner of Public Safety", was an implacable opponent and relished the opportunity of giving the young blacks in the forefront of the movement a hiding they would never forget. Daily demonstrations often resulting in confrontations became the norm. The police were tied down and business suffered.
The results were nothing short of spectacular: when 700 teenagers were arrested on May 2, the streets began to fill up. Thousands more were arrested over the next few days. Children faced police dogs and fire hoses in the streets. Fighting began to break out as black people refused to take abuse hurled by racist onlookers. Business in the city virtually halted. Business leaders quickly agreed to enough of the demands of the demonstrators to take the struggle off the streets. The agreement was imposed on the political leaders of the city. Connor was removed from office.
It was to avoid losing control of such a dynamic movement that Martin Luther King endorsed the new tactics instead of carrying on preaching obedience to the courts. For, even if the agreement reached barely scratched the surface of the black community's complaints, the fact that such a formidable opponent as Connor could be humiliated showed the power that black people were beginning to feel.
The black urban rebellion
On 10 May 1963, the Birmingham agreement was signed. The very same night Martin Luther King's city headquarter was bombed. Immediately, thousands of blacks poured into the streets. That night ushered in the urban rebellion. It was to be followed in quick succession by riots in Jackson, Mississipi when another civil rights activist, Medgar Evans, was assassinated and in Cambridge, Maryland when whites attacked black demonstrators.
Such rioting was condemned by the moderate leadership: it would drive so-called white "moderates" into the hands of the racists, they said. They feared that President Kennedy's civil rights bill, then being prepared, would be defeated. And when Kennedy asked them to discipline a massive civil rights march on Washington planned for the late summer, the moderate leaders got finances from 65 corporations and foundations to ensure that the march would remain peaceful. In fact the march, with its 250,000 demonstrators, passed off peacefully. It was not the "angry riptide" planned in the bars and meeting halls by many of those blacks up and down the country who intended to be there. As Malcolm X explains in his autobiography, its sudden endorsement by the President and the appearance of white money to fund expenses, had worked. Moderates, black and white, dominated the speakers' platform. The angry out-of-town blacks who arrived in their battered cars were outnumbered by the well-offs, black and liberal white. As Malcolm X, who was himself kept away from the platform, wrote later: «Who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lilypad park pools, with gospels and guitars and "I Have a Dream" speeches?»
A few months later, following a wave of Birmingham-like demonstrations and civil disruptions campaigns reaching over 150 Southern towns, the long talked about Civil Rights Act was finally passed early in 1964. In law the new act did little more than repeat what had already been in the Constitution for almost a century - except that this had never been enforced. On the political level it was an acknowledgement of the new balance of forces created by the black population's struggles. But first and foremost it was an attempt by the Kennedy administration, and supported by the moderate civil rights leaders, to defuse an explosive situation by reintegrating the issues involved into the framework of the greatly discredited legal system.
As it turned out, it was the intervention of the black poor from the ghettoes of the Northern and Western industrial cities which defeated Kennedy's attempt and ruined the hopes of the moderate leadership.
By throwing their enormous social weight into the struggle, the huge black ghettoes gave a wholly new impetus to the movement. And by bringing into it their higher political awareness and their own fighting traditions, part of which had been shaped by the struggles of the American working class, they also changed the nature of the movement.
If, in the Southern states, the moderate civil rights leaders still managed to retain some credibility for achieving changes in the law, there could be no question of this in the ghettoes of the Northern and Western states.
Here legal segregation did not exist. But the black poor of the large industrial cities, who were at the receiving end of a comprehensive system which involved a totally illegal racial segregation and a perfectly legal social segregation, could have few illusions about the Civil Rights Act or any change in the law for that matter. Here no lynch-mobs existed but the cops sent out to quell demonstrators and rioters were often as trigger-happy as any bunch of rednecks from the South. The brutality of the police, its overwhelming presence and its constant harassment shaped the feelings of the urban poor towards the state and its legality. Once the rebellion started spreading to the North, it was bound to become more radical.
Of course when people took to the streets in Harlem and cities around New York, almost before the ink was dry on the Civil Rights Act, the moderate leadership voiced their opposition. But the days of the moderates were over. Many black people felt they had taken too much lying down. The cost of non-violence was too high a price to pay.
The following years were dominated by the rebellions on the streets. 1965 saw Watts and five other major revolts. In 1966 there were 21 major riots, the biggest ones being in Cleveland and Chicago. 1967 saw 41 major riots, including those in Cincinnati, Tampa, Atlanta, Buffalo and Newark which spread to thirteen other New Jersey cities, and Detroit which spread to eight other cities in Michigan and Ohio. There were smaller riots in 150 other cities. Then, in 1968, came the highest point of the movement of urban rebellion when nearly 200 cities went up almost simultaneously in response to the murder of Martin Luther King, with millions of ghetto dwellers flooding the streets all at the same time.
Not all these revolts had the same importance. But the major ones all shared the same pattern: they all started in response to some police brutality, with thousands of youth taking to the streets who were soon joined more or less by the whole community. In Detroit, for instance, the riot was sparked off by the police raiding a black after-hours drinking spot called the "Blind Pig" and attempting to lock up the 82 customers. Within a few hours over five thousand rioters were in the streets, fighting the police, setting buildings on fire and generally smashing everything they could lay their hands on in the downtown slum area. Among them were a significant number of whites as was shown by the fact that out of the 43 rioters who were killed, 10 were whites from downtown Detroit. And it took the authorities four full days of street battles using no less than 10,000 soldiers, paratroopers and National guards to restore control over the city centre.
After the 1968 high point, however, the urban rebellion receded. Though for several years rebellion continued in the jails which were crowded out by thousands of young rioters and became the last battlefield of the movement.
Radical black nationalism: the Black Muslims
The radicalisation of the black movement in the 60's was reflected in the changes in its leadership and organisations. From the early years of the decade, the "moral persuasion" leaders, while remaining dominant, ceased to be the only option available to those who wanted to fight.
In opposition to the legalistically-minded pro-integration approach of the moderate leadership, there were radical traditions going back as far as the early years of the century. The strongest among these was probably that of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914. Within a few years he had established the first mass movement of black Americans. Garvey's approach had been based on a mixture of pan-African nationalism, mysticism, and crooked populism, for instance using his influence to develop a network of black businesses in which part of the leadership of the movement had vested personal interests.
But above all, Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement had created a sense of identity, of pride and of strength among a whole generation of black people, including among the poorest. Garvey had eventually been deported and his over one-million strong organisation had collapsed amidst a wave of corruption scandals. But the sense of solidarity and strength stemming from these years created an indelible impression on many blacks in America at that time. Malcolm X's father was a Garvey supporter, as his son recalled: «The image of my father which made me proudest was his crusading and militantly campaigning with the words of Marcus Garvey. As young as I was then, I knew from what I overheard that he was saying something that made him a "tough" man. I remember an old lady grinning and saying to my father, "You're scaring these white folks to death!"». So scared in fact that white racists murdered the militant preacher when his son was only six years old.
After Garvey, others had picked up his nationalist and separatist ideas when he had left them. Ever since the 1930s in Detroit, the heart of the USA's motor industry and one of the largest black ghettoes, the Nation of Islam had been arguing for black separation rather than integration.
The Nation of Islam (or Black Muslims, as they were often called by other people) was an organisation loosely based on the Muslim religion but with some rather special features. It considered all whites to be "devils" who had used trickery and deceit to gain world supremacy, so successfully that the black man had been brainwashed into thinking himself inferior.
The Black Muslims aimed at promoting the dignity and self-respect of all black people. However poor, its militants made a point of being smartly dressed and waged a relentless fight against alcohol, drugs and prostitution, not in the name of morals but in the name of dignity. It called for equal rights and equal opportunities for blacks in America. But it opposed integration and called for one or more states to be given over to the black population so that they could pursue separate development. Thus it was a black nationalist organisation.
The Black Muslims operated amongst some of the poorest black neighbourhoods in the urban areas. They also had a network of contacts inside many gaols in the Northeast and the Midwest. Malcolm X was recruited in prison at the age of 27, after an eventful career as dope dealer and burglar. In an organisation which laid great stress on personal behaviour and habits, he was the prime example of someone who had rejected his previous way of life. What the organisation had succeeded in doing was giving back people their self-respect - in a society in which blacks had been treated as the lowest of the low for generation after generation. Thus, from his first visit to a Nation of Islam Temple, Malcolm X recalled: «I had never dreamed of anything like that atmosphere among black people who had learnt to be proud they were black, who had learned to love other black people instead of being jealous and suspicious.»
With Malcolm X out of prison and active, membership began to grow rapidly. Not that it was all plain sailing. As the ex-drugs dealer combed the Detroit ghetto bars in the early years, he often found his fellow blacks too numbed to respond. And even amongst those who did, less than half would turn up to the following temple meeting.
As numbers grew, so did activities. The organisation expanded from just Detroit and Chicago to other cities all over the country. A well-trained but unarmed self-defence militia called "Fruit of Islam" attracted many recruits. Members observed the same strict moral guidelines. They guarded meetings and the temples when services were being held. On several occasions they physically prevented police from entering premises. Each time the police backed down: they didn't want to risk a confrontation. Such organisation and discipline had a strengthening effect on people's morale.
In 1957 Malcolm X started a newspaper. Using a second-hand camera to take photos and a printer that he had found, he was able to produce a small monthly newssheet about the Nation of Islam. This was then sold by fellow militants on the streets. Less than ten years later its successor was selling more than one million copies a week all over America.
Thus the Black Muslims became a formidable organisation in the big, industrial cities where large numbers of blacks were concentrated. They had achieved an image of uncompromising toughness which was very different from anything previously achieved by any black group. Unlike the moral persuasion leaders they did not ask for favours, they demanded a square deal - or else!
The evolution of Malcolm X
The radicalism of the Black Muslims had limitations however, particularly when it came to the social and political order. In the tradition of Garvey's movement, they advocated the setting up of black businesses where ordinary blacks could go along and shop, in other words the development of a black bourgeoisie to take over from the white capitalists. Nor did they challenge the existing political framework. While demanding separation for American blacks, they expected the white-dominated state to oblige at some point and never questioned who was ruling America. In this respect the Black Muslims' leadership were not all that different from the moderates' view of the future. They shared the NAACP leaders' deep anti-communism. And even their apparent toughness was not flawless since, on at least one well-known occasion, when a mosque was attacked by the police in Watts, Los Angeles, the Fruit of Islam were prevented by the leadership from fighting back.
In the long run therefore, in terms of the perspective offered to the black poor, the verbal radicalism of the Black Muslims did not amount to much more than the moderate talk of Martin Luther King.
Malcolm X had always opposed the attempts at integration, however well meaning. He said quite simply that it was a formula for glossing over the real problems. Middle-class blacks could get what they wanted, namely to escape from the ghetto. But the poor blacks, who formed the vast majority and were the backbone of the Black Muslims movement, would continue to be left to stew. He had already noticed the moderation in practice of its leader, Elijah Muhammad, at the time of the attack on the Los Angeles mosque. Malcolm X himself had started moving away from the reformism and narrow nationalism of the Black Muslims.
In 1963 he reluctantly broke with Elijah Muhammad and soon set up his own organisation, the Organisation of Afro-American Unity. Thereafter Malcolm X laid much more emphasis on self-defence, political education and the common factors which united the struggle of black Americans against the US state with the struggle of the national liberation movements, black or otherwise, who were fighting US imperialism in the Third World. And, for him, religion ceased to have the paramount symbolic importance it had for the Black Muslims.
Above all, Malcolm X raised the banner of what was to become shortly the "Black Power" movement: «In 1964, it's time for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for; what we're supposed to get when we cast a ballot; and that if we don't cast a ballot, it's going to end up in a situation where we're going to have to cast a bullet. It's either a ballot or a bullet.» And he added, criticizing the limitations of the black movement so far: «So how does anybody sound talking about the Negro in America waging some "revolution"? Yes, he is condemning a system but he's not trying to overturn the system or to destroy it. The Negro's so-called "revolt" is merely an asking to be accepted into the existing system!". In effect, Malcolm X started raising the question of who ruled American society. The future of the American blacks could no longer be separated from the question of political power.
Had Malcolm X not been murdered on 22 February 1965, he might have emerged as a revolutionary leader who saw that the blacks could never achieve real freedom until the roots of their oppression, that is capitalism, had been destroyed too. As it was, Malcolm X continued to be a powerful influence on the black movement. His main legacy was of a black nationalist - but one who was the most uncompromising opponent of white-dominated America and for him, that included the capitalist system. By the time he was murdered, Malcolm X had already shaped the outlook of a number of younger black activists who were to become the marching wing of the American black rebellion by initiating the black power era.
The slogan "Black Power" came initially from the title of a book by Richard Wright, a famous American black novelist who had been a Communist Party member in the 1930s. But what it really meant for the radicalised black youth was simply that the struggle was no longer about demanding new rights and new laws for black people, which only ever benefitted a small minority anyway; no, the struggle was about the poor blacks taking their lives into their own hands and taking power for themselves. This, after all, was only taking to a logical conclusion those ideas expressed by Malcolm X in the last period before his death.
With so many blacks, particularly young ones, in prison at any one time, the prisons became a hotbed of political activity. Nationalist writers such as Malcolm X, Franz Fanon and Mao Tse Tung were eagerly read but also Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. Many young blacks, given long sentences for rioting as well as for petty crimes, came to view themselves as political prisoners, victims of an unjust system. And when they eventually came out, they immediately proceeded to look for organisations which, in their view, were really out to fight.
This had an impact on some of the older organisations, in particular the SNCC which started taking a more radical stand. But already, a number of more radical groups had developped across the country, most of them around the need for black activists to arm themselves in order to organise the self-defence of the community. Some of these groups had already been noticeable in some of the urban uprisings, particular in Watts, Detroit and Newark, by organising sniper squads which fired back at the police and the army to slow them down. Such were, for instance, the Revolutionary Action Movement in Detroit, the Deacons in Louisiana, the Black Guards in New York.
One of these mainly local groups was to gain prominence and considerable influence - the Black Panthers Party of Self-Defence, known usually as the Black Panthers. It was set up in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, two former SNCC activists based in Oakland, an industrial suburb of San Francisco. Using a special feature of Californian law that allowed anyone to carry loaded weapons provided they were in full view, the Black Panthers set out to challenge the notorious brutality of the police. They organised squads of uniformed activists equipped with loaded shotguns and pistols. Each squad would patrol a district of the Bay area either on foot or by car, and intervene whenever they spotted some cops stopping a black person. The squad would then stand at a legal 15 feet distance from the arrested person and read out to him a summary of his legal rights - all this with their loaded weapons conspicuously in full view of the "pigs" as the Panthers called the police. Faced with such a convincing argument, no cop ever dared to push his luck... But it certainly drove them mad!
For the Black Panthers, this was simply a practical and effective way of implementing in the here and now the concept of Black Power. But there was also more to it, as was expressed in their founding programme. Its first point, for instance, read: «We want freedom, we want power to determine the destiny of our community»; and its third point added: «We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black community». And the conscious choice made by the Black Panthers of orientating their activity towards the black poor in the ghetto, and of involving them in protecting their own community from the police, was consistent with this programme.
Just as the Black Muslims had earned their prestige in the ghetto from their toughness, so, too, did the Black Panthers. Probably the most audacious and, for many whites at least, shocking thing they did was to appear in the Assembly of the Californian state parliament at Sacramento fully armed, a symbolic gesture which won them even more prestige in the ghettoes. Except that behind the appearence of self-defence, they were demonstrating to the poor blacks that the issue of power was no longer cloud cuckooland stuff but that the poor could arm themselves in order to achieve their aims.
The Black Panthers broke new grounds in others ways too, in particular in their attitude to other communities. Bobby Seale expressed this when he wrote that «alliances between poor oppressed peoples work out readily. It is the poor oppressed people who have to dictate their political desires and needs, and explain what should be done and what not». These alliances worked with Hispanic groups but also with the Young Patriots - a group in the poor white communities. In this respect the Black Panthers made a clean, sharp break from the anti-white policies of previous radical black nationalist currents.
The radicalisation of the mid-60s came not just in the direction taken by the Black Panthers. It was seen, too, in Detroit in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a workplace-based organisation.
The dominance of the car industry in Detroit had created political traditions in the local working class which were unknown in most other American cities. These had been created by the long fight for the unionisation of the car industry. This had led to the big strikes of the 30's and early 40's and the formation of the UAW, the United Auto Workers, in which Communist Party activists had played a prominent role. Also in some of the factories, a number of older white workers had played a full part in the bloody fight against the Ku Klux Klan, alongside their black union mates.
This politicisation together with the militant union traditions of the car factories provided the basis for the development on the shopfloor of groups of black union activists who attempted to fight against the segregation enforced in practice both by the bosses and the union bureaucrats, while at the same time carrying on their fight against day-to-day exploitation.
A number of these groups emerged in the Detroit area from 1968 onwards. One of them, ELRUM (Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement), which was based on the main Chrysler gear and axle plant, came to prominence for organising a strike among black workers which threatened to bring all Chrysler plants to a halt.
In 1969, all these factory groups which had developed in a number of plants in the Detroit area, came together to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. One of its founders, Mike Hamlin, described the basis of the new groups as follows: «We came to believe that the working class had to make the revolution, had to lead the revolution, and that we had to concentrate our energies on workers. We didn't really understand what making a revolution entailed, what a proletarian revolution was, how it took shape, and how it developed.»
Hamlin's own assessment of the League gives us an idea of its shortcomings. Its organisation remained poor, lacked elementary discipline and proved incapable of giving a political education to its membership, let alone a political perspective. It remained plagued with a form of black populism inherited from the old radical nationalist currents, which was expressed in a systematic refusal to have anything to do with white workers, even when it came to a stoppage on the shopfloor. Although some white workers worked with the League in the plants, they really had to fight for any understanding. As to its long term political perspectives, the League relied on the rather naive old idea that a general strike is all that is needed to bring down capitalism.
As to the Black Panthers, their main weakness was reflected in their single-minded insistence on building their organisation as a semi-military apparatus whose relationship with the population of the ghettoes was based on prestige and prowess rather than trust and consciousness. While they challenged the American ruling class, saying on behalf of the poor black masses, "If you don't give us what we want, we will burn down America.", they still sought to have a stake in the USA as it was. They did not go that stage further and say to the black masses, "In order to get what we want, we must burn it down". Whereas it is precisely such a step which would have been necessary to guarantee freedom to those millions of blacks at the bottom of the social heap for whom anything less meant the perpetuation of the old exploitation, at best in a milder form.
Both organisations collapsed in the early 70s, though for different reasons. In the case of the League, many of its most active members were sacked by the car companies and put on a blacklist. They thereby lost much of their influence in the only arena in which they ever had a consistent activity. And those of its members who managed to avoid the sack were often sucked into the union machinery or even into the car company's bureaucracy, if they took positions which supposedly aimed at protecting black workers rights.
As to the Black Panthers, they were mostly victims of state repression. The police had their revenge to take and wanted to set an example. Black Panther activists were pursued, constantly charged and often sentenced for crimes they could never have done. Many of them were killed in shoot-outs, legally or illegally. Their best-known leaders were forced underground or into exile abroad.
And yet, between the Black Panthers' boldness and determination to side with the poor blacks to the bitter end in fighting the system, and the attempts of the League to organise and use the strength of the black industrial working class to fight capitalist exploitation, all the ingredients for a revolutionary party were there. A revolutionary party that would have been the expression of the radical aspirations of the poor blacks, but which could have also pulled the white working class and the poor whites into the fight against capitalist exploitation.
The possibilities were there. None of the big cities riots of the mid-60's had been entirely black. In most of them poor whites had joined the black rebellion. In the prisons white and Hispanic prisoners joined in the prison revolts behind the blacks. The student anti-Vietnam war movement, the rekindling of militancy within the predominantly white working class, the growth of Puerto Rican and Chicano movements- all these drew strength and confidence from the black struggle. If the acknowledgement of black leadership was grudging - along the lines of "those blacks know how to fight" - how much more wholehearted might it have been in a situation where the poor blacks were openly and consciously fighting against social oppression?
This could have been the result if a group like the Black Panthers had been won over seriously to the idea of black workers taking the lead in the struggle of all workers against the state and the capitalist class.
And nor would the repercussions have been felt just in the USA. As it was, the ferment in the States had a direct bearing on the struggle of the nationalists in large parts of the Caribbean and Central America.
Such a transformation in the American black movement could only have resulted in revolutionary communist ideas gaining a strong influence within its ranks and eventually becoming a weapon in the hands of the poor blacks. The dynamism and determination shown by the rioting crowds who were relentlessly confronting the police could then have been given a new perspective. This could have led to a radicalisation of the white working class - as in fact was happening during this period - and become the vehicle of a wholly new message to the world working class: that, indeed, fifty years after the Russian Revolution, the working class taking power out of the hands of the capitalist oppressors was back on the agenda.
Unfortunately the fact is that no significant revolutionary communist organisation succeeded in gaining, or maybe even tried to gain, such an influence for its ideas among the poor blacks.
Twenty years since the end of the Black rebellion
The end of the 1960s and the beginning of the new decade saw an end to the struggles which had gone on and frequently raged during the previous quarter of a century. Under the repeated hammer blows of the mobilised black population, the legal framework of segregation in the South had cracked. And in the North discrimination, while by no means disappearing, ceased to be a source of daily misery. Blacks could enter restaurants, hotels or even the most exclusive sports club - provided they had the money to pay for it. As the majority did not, little on that front had effectively changed.
Probably the most striking gain for working class blacks was access to jobs in the large factories in the big Northern industrial cities. Until the Detroit riots of 1967, blacks were not hired for jobs on the line. Afterwards Ford's and General Motors set up hiring agencies in the ghettoes. Since the late 60s more black people have belonged to the mainstream of the American working class.
By the time of the presidential election in autumn, 1968 blacks faced few restrictions in registering to vote even in Mississippi, the most segregated of states in the Deep South. If they failed to do so in the same proportion as whites, it was probably because working class blacks saw little point in voting for candidates who were so obviously mere cogs in the machineries of the two big bourgeois parties - Republican or Democrat.
To stem the inner-city riots a massive programme of welfare benefits was introduced. Of course these benefits were not just available for blacks; poor whites and large numbers of middle class Americans who knew how to play the system also benefited. Nor did this exactly mean a period of peaceful prosperity for the American black. The poor were only slightly less poor while the rich kept getting richer. There was also the bitterness of seeing a section of the blacks, that is the emerging black middle class, running away with most of the prizes of that period. Not only that, but they were very often to become the direct oppressors of their fellow blacks.
For the system could afford to pay for the changes needed to satisfy the aspirations of the black middle-class, including those of many civil rights leaders, for whom the two decades since the end of the struggle of the black population in the early 70s has been a period of successful career-building.
This is born out by the increasing numbers of black graduates. These went on to become professionals, local and national government officials, many of whom were involved in the new bodies set up to oversee the distribution of welfare benefits to the poor blacks, not to mention highly placed black union officials. Many of the mayors of America's biggest cities are black, including Tom Bradley, mayor of Los Angeles. Have they been willing, let alone able, to make a stand for their black electorate who have provided them with such easy livings? Not at all. They have been as active as officials anywhere else in slashing municipal expenses during a period of economic crisis. But it has strengthened the American bourgeoisie by placing this enlarged black middle class at their service. This is shown most visibly in the career to date of Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former associate of Martin Luther King.
The new opportunities for middle-class blacks and the financing of welfare improvements occurred at a time when America's economy was still expanding. By the end of the 1970s this was no longer the case. In the last 15 or so years it has been the working class who have borne the brunt of the cutbacks. Despite the struggles of the previous generation, it is black workers who have come off worst.
The cuts had already commenced while Jimmy Carter, supposedly the friend of the black people, was still president and while middle-class blacks were still making new advances. For instance in 1977 in Atlanta, Georgia, the city's recently elected, first black mayor took the responsibility for sacking 900 black sanitation workers when they came out on strike.
During the 80s and Reagan's presidency the screw really began to be turned. While tax breaks were extended for the rich, welfare programmes were slashed and blacks were forced to turn to crime in an unprecedented manner. Today more than one in four prison inmates is black, out of a prison population of well over a million....
As for those working in the big factories: just as in Britain the combination of recession and restructuring has led to a drastic reduction in jobs. With a jobless rate in the black community that is more than double that of the whole population, most blacks hold an extremely precarious position in American society.
Today it is no exaggeration to say that for millions of black people life has returned to the poverty and degradation of the 1960s, if not worse. Of course there is no comparison for the minority who have made it into the ranks of the middle class. It is worth pointing out, though, that the numbers of black doctors, lawyers and college professors has usually been exaggerated. In 1990 they had only 3, 3.2 and 4.5% respectively of these plum middle-class positions. Only amongst the ranks of the police officers where they hold 13.5% of positions do they exceed the proportion of blacks in the population as a whole (12%). And the fact that blacks are policing blacks in the inner-cities has a political significance!
Against such a gloomy background it is hardly surprising that the old Black Muslim movement has made something of a resurgence in recent years under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan. It has made its biggest impact in just those inner-city areas where it was able to intervene effectively over 30 years ago. With racism once again on the increase, the appearance of Fruit of Islam guards at meetings and ceremonies has given Farrakhan something of the image of a latter-day Malcolm X - a strong man who will take no nonsense from the white trash.
But the analogy does not really warrant too much comparison. In reality the Nation of Islam today is a caricature of the same organisation 30 years ago. The language employed by Farrakhan is only a device to win himself a large enough black following in order to command respect within the Democratic Party in which he is apparently seeking a final political resting place. To do this he reemphasizes the worst sides of the old Nation of Islam, in particular the racist, anti-semitic sloganising. The fact that a Farrakhan can claim to speak on behalf of the poor blacks without any significant current challenging him, probably means that most of the generation of activists who went through the experiences of the 60s have given up the fight.
Today, as was shown last month in Los Angeles, a time bomb is still ticking away. The poor blacks have not lost their capacity for anger. And the more the capitalist class increases the pressure on the poor, the greater the explosive potential of the urban ghettoes will grow.
The fact is that capitalism is proving just as incapable of freeing the USA from racial injustice as it is incapable of solving so many other problems worldwide, whether they are economic in the rich countries, existential as in the starvation of the Third World or old fashioned nationalistic as in Central Europe.
The American black movement probably went as far as it could in putting pressure on capitalism to give in to its demand for equal rights, short of overthrowing it. The lesson and the best tribute to those who fought and often gave their lives to the movement are clear enough. Nothing short of a social revolution will rid the poor blacks of the double oppression of being both racially oppressed and exploited economically.
The Farrakhans and the Jesse Jacksons in the USA, just like the self-proclaimed black leaders of the Bernie Grant-type in Britain, who are trying to use the frustration of black minorities to boost their own careers and reinforce the present system, are their worst enemies. The only reliable ally of the oppressed minorities is the working class, both black and white, not because workers are naturally anti-racist, which they are not, but because they make up the only force in society which has no vested interest in perpetuating a system that needs to keep the lid tight on all the oppressed.
These are the lessons of the blacks struggles in America. At the time the absence of a voice opening up the perspective of a proletarian revolution in front of the poor blacks, meant that their efforts and sacrifices were wasted. It is up to revolutionary communists today to ensure that when another mass rebellion of the oppressed erupts in the USA or elsewhere, the voice of the proletarian revolution is loud enough to be heard.