Manning Marable’s Race, Reform and Rebellion is a most solid history of struggle and resistance over the past sixty years.
The title reflected the general historical parallels between the “first Reconstruction” following the U.S. Civil War, occurring from 1865 to 1877, and the dramatic political struggles represented by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Both of these turbulent phases of U.S. history were periods of intense political conflicts and ideological debates about the future of African American people within U.S. democracy. (vii)
Manning Marable pulls no punches either.
More than any other modern nation in the world, with the possible exception of South Africa, the United States developed from the beginning a unique socio-economic structure and a political apparatus which was simultaneously racist, stubbornly capitalist, and committed to a limited form of bourgeois democracy: a racist/capitalist state. (4)
This is a brilliant and detailed book, so I’ve just pulled out some of my favourite facts and quotes from it, but highlighted Marable’s divisions of history, and his characterisations of each period, giving what he argues is the flow of recent movement.
I still haven’t read W.E.B. Du Bois on this, I am still promising to make this failing good. But to turn to Marable’s work, there is some awesomeness in here as background to more modern struggle. Like the fact that in 1865, in Washington D.C., Sojourner Truth led a boycott of public transportation facilities to protest segregated street cars.
In 1865, the first bus boycott.
Again it highlights how many rights were erased over a period of only a few years — that we have not been steadily moving forward as I feel we are taught, but catching up to a period just after the Civil War. In Alabama, 181,000 blacks were eligible to vote in 1900, two years later there were only 3,000 registered black voters.
How in the hell does this sit with notions of democracy? Understand this, and much becomes clear I think. Marable writes:
The Jim Crow system of racial exploitation was, like slavery, both a caste/ racial order for regimenting cultural and political relations, and an economic structure which facilitated the superexploitation of blacks’ labor power. Unlike slavery, Jim Crow was much more clearly capitalistic, since white owners of factories did not have to purchase entire black families in order to obtain the service of a single wage-earner. However, in both caste/ racial relations, both systems were dependent on the omnipresence of violence or coercion. (10)
Quotes W. E. B. Du Bois — such an incredible quote, and the best possible explanation of why standpoint theory is important:
This the American black man knows: his fight here is a fight to the finish. Either he dies or he wins. If he wins it will be by no subterfuge or evasion of amalgamation. He will enter modern civilization in America as a black man on terms of perfect and unlimited equality with any white man, or he will enter not at all. Either extermination root and branch or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This is the last great battle of the West.
— from Black Reconstruction, p 703 (p 11)
I know I am more interesting in continuation, in how movements grow and build off of the work of the past, with the support of elders in the struggle. I look at the lives of people like Ella Baker, organisations like the Highlander and SCEF and how important they were over decades. Look at all of the many people and institutions in place making the Montgomery Boycott possible, for example, and that it really sprang out of the active work of women’s groups and Jo Ann Robinson, as well as some leadership from E.D. Nixon as claimed here. This means I am a little wary of claims that there was little popular protest for segregation between the end of WWII and the Montgomery County bus boycott in December 1955 — and for this reason also little studied. I think maybe now we realise we didn’t know how much protest there was because it was little studied, but by that I don’t mean to lessen the impact of the repression brought during this period or deny there was a huge increase in the mid-50s:
The impact of the Cold War, the anti-communist purges and near-totalitarian social environment, had a devastating impact upon the cause of blacks’ civil rights and civil liberties. (17)
I didn’t know or had forgotten that in 1944, Blacks in South Carolina formed the Progressive Democratic Party to challenge white democrats, had organized chapters in 39 of state’s 46 counties. Carried some momentum after the war. Marable argues it had slowed down by early 1950s, still an important early movement.
I also can’t say how nice it is to see the damage of anti-communism spelled out:
In the face of growing racist opposition, the NAACP counseled continued reliance upon the Truman administration, legal challenges to segregation laws, and a general policy which spurned direct action. The failure and tragedy of this conservative approach to social change was in its parochial vision and tacit acceptance of the Cold War politics. By refusing to work with Marxists, the NAACP lost the most principled anti-racist organizers and activists… The anti-communist impulse even affect CORE, to its detriment. (25)
Marable describes how CORE had ‘all but ceased to exist’ by 1954, after the red scare. (26) It would continue to be haunted by a fear of communism. Marable looks as well to the impact of the government’s prosecution of Du Bois. Despite his acquittal all his works were removed from libraries and universities. He had his passport withheld by the State department. During it all,
The NAACP Legal Defense lawyers made no overtures to provide assistance. The central office contacted NAACP local chapters with strongly worded advice about “not touching” Du Bois’s case. (27)
It makes me so frustrated to read, even now distanced as I am. I am glad this was said:
By serving as the “left wing of McCarthyism,” Randolph, White and other Negro leaders retarded the black movement for a decade or more. (31)
There must be more analysis of this turn to the right…but then having read Walter White’s autobiography it is perhaps not altogether surprising.
There is the class composition of white reaction:
In 1955-59, White Citizens’ Councils were initiated in almost every southern city, comprised chiefly of middle-to-upper income whites in business, white-collar professionals and the clergy, who vigorously opposed desegregation. (42)
And then one of the more useful characterisations of black nationalism over time that I have read:
Since the 1850s, a significant portion of the African American people have tended to support the ideals of black nationalism, defined here in part, as a rejection of racial integration; a desire to develop all-black socio-economic institutions; an affinity for the cultural and political heritage of black Africa; a commitment to create all-black political structures to fight against white racism; a deep reluctance to participate in coalitions which involved a white majority; the advocacy of armed self-defense of the black community; and in religion and culture, an ethos and spirituality which consciously rejected the imposition of white western dogmas. At certain historical moments, such as in the 1850s and the 1920s, a majority of the black working class, rural farmers and the poor were in their political and social behavior extremely nationalistic. (53)
Brilliant. It encompasses Marcus Garvey, of course, later dominated by the the Nation of Islam. A brief note on the genius of Malcolm (Marable’s book on Malcolm X also high on to-read list)
Malcolm X made the simple distinction between desegregation and integration which Farmer, Rudolph, Wilkins, Marshall and other Negro leaders could never grasp. “It is not a case of [dark mankind] wanting integration or separation, it is a case of wanting freedom, justice, and equality. It is not integration that Negroes in America want, it is human dignity. (55 — Malcolm X and James Farmer, ‘separation or Integration: A Debate’ Dialogue Magazine 2 (May 1962))
Anyway, on to Marable’s descriptions of the Phases of the Second Reconstruction:
We Shall Overcome 1960-1965
The Second Reconstruction actually began in earnest on the afternoon of 1 February 1960. (59)
He dates this from the first sit in, by students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, Joseph McNeil, David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Izell Blair.
Black Power 1965-1970
This witnessed a key theoretical and strategic movement, partially embodied in King’s move in 1966 away from reform, towards an understanding:
that America’s political economy of capitalism had to be transformed, that the Civil Rights Movement’s old goals of voter education, registration, and desegregated public facilities were only a beginning step… (101)
For Manning 4 pivotal factors explained the rapid collapse of the Jim Crow system during the 1950s and 1960s:
(1) the outbreak of the Cold War…which resulted in international pressures for American governments to abandon support for their undemocratic and irrational policies of racial domination;
(2) the independence from European colonial rule of Caribbean and African states…
(3) the great migration of five million African American sharecroppers and working people from the South into the urban ghettoes of the Midwest and Northeast between 1940 and 1970, a migration that transformed the political character of urban society and deeply influenced the patterns of American popular cuture, sports, education and social relations; and
(4) most important, the growth of popular democratic resistance movements, led by King and thousands of local activists, that used the nonviolent, direct-action protest techniques of Mohandas Gandhi’s satyagraha. (210)
Black Rebellion: Zenith and Decline 1970-1976
An interesting return to class here, I like that the intersectionlity is highlighted here:
Most historians fail to observe that the massive efforts waged for desegregation and, to a lesser extent, for Black Power, were basically workers’ movement. Black workers had comprised the great majority of those who had sacrificed during the local battles to uprrot Jim Crow. (112)
Again there is noted the move of Bayard Rustin and A Phillip Randolph to the right of labor over the 1960s, but interesting in the ways that this opened up space for new leadership in the movement, challenge and change.
There is the 1972 Gary Convention — the largest black political convention in U.S. history. Marable sees this as the zenith. About 3000 delegates attended from all strands of the movement, as well a total of around 12,000 people over the whole of its course. He writes:
The collective vision of the convention represented a desire to seize electoral control of America’s major cities, to move the black masses from the politics of desegregation to the politics of real empowerment, ultimately to create their own independent black political party.
What almost no nationalists and only a very few BEOs recognized before maneuvering for political power were the many structural crises which confronted America’s major cities. (121)
Some of the flowering of this could be found in the documents collected in Eyes on the Prize, some of the sterling work and words of new black mayors. But Marable notes that no one then knew the real condition of the finances of the cities, what the fate of these efforts would eventually be.
This was part of the decline, and then there was white reaction. A campaign around ‘law-and-order’ by Nixon and friends, because
‘It was clear that many white American shad to be prepared ideologically to accept the massive violation of civil liberties, the denial of human rights, and the illegal executions which were necessary to blunt the rhetoric and reality of black militancy.(124)
They more than succeeded.
From Protest to Politics: The Retreat of the Second Reconstruction 1976-1982
This is just sad and depressing. I stopped wondering why we are nostalgic for the 60s and 70s a while ago, after reading Angela Davis’s autobiography where she is so sure the revolution will come any day, after reading book after book full of people who believed a new world was possible and was on its way. I don’t think anyone in my generation could really believe that, though perhaps today’s youth are managing.
There is a rather fascinating aside about Reverend Jones and the People’s Temple, which flirted with politics, with AIM, which registered and turned out voters in California. Then it relocated to a 3,000-acre estate in Guyana called ‘Jonestown’ with 1000 American citizens living there. Investigate by a Congressman, who was then murdered with his party then the whole camp committed suicide. This story has so many parallels with Ti West’s The Sacrament, which we watched not so long ago. But that is a digression.
There’s a decent discussion of problems with sexism, the prevalent view that racism was specially damaging to black manhood, which meant women needed to support their men rather than fight their own struggles. So this period did see a great flowering of black feminism, a true gift to struggle. Here there is discussion of bell hooks and Angela Davis, lights in a dark time.
There’s the growth of the Klan through the 1970s and into the 80s.
Then there’s the defection of Rev Abernathy and Hosea Williams to Reagan’s camp. That shit is crazy, I was too young to know just how crazy. This constant bleeding to the right.
Reaction: Black Society and Politics Diring Reagen Conservatism 1982-1990
This was a grim time, but there is some helping thinking through the larger picture behind what was happening here. The solidifying of class boundaries:
But opportunity in a capitalist society is always a function of social class position, which means ownership of capital, material resources, education and access to power. For the unemployed, the poor and those without marketable skills or resources, for those whose lives were circumscribed by illiteracy, disease and desperation, “race” continued to be a central factor in their marginal existence. (184)
The intersection of race and class. There is an interesting look at the difference between ethnicity and race. Ethnicity, Marable argues, ‘was derived from the cultural synthesis of the population’s African heritage and its experiences in American society…’, while on the other hand:
Race is a totally different dynamic, rooted in the structures of exploitation, power and privilege. “Race” is an artificial social construction, which was deliberately imposed on various subordinated groups of people at the outset of the expansion of European capitalism into the western hemisphere five centuries ago. the “racial” consciousness and discourse of the West was forged above the bowels of slave ships… (185)
So what does this mean then, for African Americans and others in the U.S.:
Race, therefore, is not an abstraction but an unequal relationship between social aggregates, which is also historically specific. the subordinated racial group finds itself divorced from the levers of power and authority within the socio-economic order. ..The racial group’s political status is marginal or peripheral, as full participation and legislative representation are blocked. Finally, racial categories are constantly reinforced in the behaviors and social expectations of all groups by the manipulation of social stereotypes and use of the legal system to carry out methods of coercion. (186)
And what does it mean for whites?
White power, privileges and prerogatives within the capitalist economy and the political and social system do exist. Whiteness is fundamentally an index of the continued patterns of exploitation of subordinated racial groups which create economic surpluses for privileged groups. to be “white” in racial terms essentially means that one’s life chances improve dramatically over those of nonwhites, in terms of access to credit, capital, quality housing, health care, political influence, ad equitable treatment in the criminal justice system. (186)
There is also this curious feeling that I have heard so often expressed in so many different ways — the most recent and the most brilliantly memorable being Paul Beatty’s The Sellout:
No black American could ever be “nostalgic” for Jim Crow. Nevertheless, the absence of a personal background of struggle casts a troubled shadow over the current generation of black Americans who are poorly equipped to grapple with the present complexities of racial and class domination. (188)
Marable argues the existence of two central crises in the 1980s and early 1990s — the external:
federal government’s retreat from equality and consolidation of mass conservatism.
All under Reagan. The internal?
the ordeal of the African American family, neighborhood, cultural and social institutions, caught in the vise of violence, crime, social destruction and drugs. (188)
The 1980s, he argues, saw a fundamental political shift:
for black Americans, the central political characteristic of the 1980s was the conservative reaction to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the apparent capitulation of both political parties to a more conservative and repressive social order. (194)
With a brief aside about Larouche (I had almost forgotten about him!), the reality of this shift must be faced:
In the 1980s, more than anything else, Reaganism represented a break with the half-century-old notion among both Democrats and Republicans that the state had a political and ethical obligation to reduce the vast chasm separating the society’s wealthiest classes from the poor and the unemployed. (203)
Into the Wilderness: the Twilight of the Second Reconstruction 1990-2001
God this period is grim, I know, because I’ve lived through it. I read through this section, got through it, continued on.
The New Racial Domain: The Politics of Racial Inequality
Things are continuing pretty badly. Marable flags up one of the key characteristics of our modern era:
The cardinal characteristic of the New Racial Domain of post-Second Reconstruction America was the hegemony of “color-blindness” and race-neutrality. (250)
This is one he talks much more about elsewhere. And with this we reach the end of the book, though not the struggle.
[Marable, Manning (2007) Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945-2006, 3rd edition. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.]