1. Forcing “Democracy” on Native Amerikans
We don’t have to look across the world to confront neo-colonialism, since some of the most sophisticated examples are right here. The New Deal reforms on the Native Amerikan reservations during the 1930s are a classic case of neo-colonial strategy. The U.S. Empire has always had a special problem with the Indian nations, in that their varied ways of life were often communistic. As the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs said in 1838: “Common property and civilization cannot coexist.” (1) The U.S. Government enacted a genocidal campaign to erase Indian culture – including prison schools for Indian children, suppression of Indian institutions, economy and religion. And still the Indian nations and peoples survived, resisted, endured. An A.I.M. comrade has pointed out:
The Founding Fathers of the United States equated capitalism with civilization. They had to, given their mentality; to them civilization meant their society, which was a capitalist society. Therefore, from the earliest times the wars against Indians were not only to take over the land but also to squash the threatening example of Indian communism. Jefferson was not the only man of his time to advocate imposing a capitalistic and possessive society on Indians as a way to civilize them. The ‘bad example’ was a real threat; the reason the Eastern Indian Nations from Florida to New York State and from the Atlantic to Ohio and Louisiana are today so racially mixed is because indentured servants, landless poor whites, escaped black slaves, chose our societies over the white society that oppressed them.
Beginning in the 1890s we have been ‘red-baited’ and branded as ‘commies’ in Congress (see the Congressional Record) and in the executive boards of churches. That was a very strong weapon in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and in the Oklahoma area any Indian ‘traditional’ who was an organizer was called a communist or even a ‘Wobbly’.
So we have always defined our struggle not only as a struggle for land but also a struggle to retain our cultural values. Those values are communistic values. Our societies were and are communistic societies. The U.S. Government has always understood that very well. It has not branded us all these years as communists because we try to form labor unions or because we hung out with the IWW or the Communist Party, but because the U.S. Government correctly identified our political system. It did not make that a public issue because that would have been dangerous, and because it has been far more efficient to say that we are savages and primitive. (2)
Not only did the Indian nations resist, but this resistance included the determined refusal of many Indians to give up their collective land. This rejection of capitalism was a hindrance for the oil corporations, the mineral interests, and the ranchers. Characteristically, the New Deal decided, in the words of the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, that: “…the Indian if given the right opportunities could do what the government had failed to do: He could arrange a place for himself and his customs in this modern America.” (3)
The New Deal pacification program for the reservations was to give Indians capitalistic “democracy” and “self-government.” Under the direction of the U.S. Government, bourgeois democratic (i.e. undemocratic) “tribal governments” were set up, with settleristic “tribal constitutions,” paid elected officials and new layers of Indian civil servants. In other words, Indians would be given their own capitalistic reservation governments to do from within what the settler conquests had been unable to completely succeed at from the outside.
This neo-colonial strategy was led by a young, liberal anthropologist, John Collier, who had been appointed U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933 to reform the reservation system. Unlike the openly hostile and repressive pronouncements of his predecessors, Collier spoke sweetly of how much he respected Indian culture and how much Indians should be “freed” to change themselves. Honeyed words, indeed, covering up for a new assault:
In the past, the government tried to encourage economic independence and initiative by the allotment system, giving each Indian a portion of land and the right to dispose of it. As a result, of the 138,000 acres which Indians possessed in 1887 they have lost all but 47,000 acres, and the lost area includes the land that was most valuable. Further, the government sought to give the Indian the schooling of whites, teaching him to despise his old customs and habits as barbaric…
We have proposed in opposition to such a policy to recognize and respect the Indian as he is. We think he must be so accepted before he can be assisted to become something else… (4)
There is the smooth talk of the welfare administrator and the colonial official in those words. Notice that the old law gave Indians only one “right” – the right to sell their land to the settlers. Having worked that strategy to its limits, the U.S. Empire now needed to switch strategies in order to keep exploiting the rest of the reservation lands. Now Washington would pose as the protector of Indian culture in order to change Indians into “something else.” Officially, Indian culture would become another respected “ethnic” remnant, like St. Patrick’s Day parades, that would add “color” to settler society. But instead of Indian sovereignty, culture, economy and national development, “tribal government” was local government according to the rules of capitalist culture. It was a partial reorganization of reservation life to capitalism.
The 1934 Wheeler-Howard Act repealed the 1887 Allotment Act, authorized elections to pass new “tribal constitutions” to set up the new neo-colonial reservation governments, established a $10 million loan fund to support the new governments, and officially gave Indians preference for employment with the U.S. Indian Service.
The campaign to twist Indian arms to accept this new arrangement was very heavy. U.S. Commissioner Collier himself admitted that while the government had the power to force the reservations to accept these bourgeois governments, for the strategy to work at least some number of Indians had to be persuaded to voluntarily take it in. Large numbers of Indians were hired to work in the Indian Service – their numbers reaching 40% of the total employees by 1935. 19,000 Indians were hired to work in various Federal programs, while an additional 14,000 worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps relief camps. Close to 20% of all adult Indians were temporarily employed by the Federal Government.
The distrust and resistance were considerable. The N.Y. Times commented: “This difficulty has been recognized by the creation by the Indian Office of an organizational unit of field agents and special men who will cooperate with tribal councils, business committees and special tribal commissions in framing the constitutions now permitted.” Still, some 54 reservations, with 85,000 Indians, voted against the new “tribal governments.”
History has proved that the main economic function of the neo-colonial reservation governments has been to lease away (usually at bargain prices) the mineral, grazing and water rights to the settlers. Great amounts of natural resources are involved. A very conservative Euro-Amerikan estimate said:
Indian lands are estimated to contain up to 13 per cent of the nation’s coal reserves, 3 per cent of its oil and gas, and significant amounts of other minerals including uranium and phosphate.
Instead of the old practice of individual sale of small plots of land – which could be blocked by an Indian’s refusal to sell – the new, capitalistic “tribal governments” signed wholesale mineral rights leases with major corporations. The Navaho “tribal government,” led by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, signed leases as late as the 1960s that gave away Navaho coal for a mere 2% of its market value. So the impact of the 1930s “self-government” reforms was to step up the economic exploitation of Indian nations.
At Pine Ridge the Sioux families were encouraged to end their subsistence farming and move off their land and into government-built housing projects – and then lease their “useless” land to the settler businessmen. Those Euro-Amerikan ranchers pay an average of $3 per acre each year to possess Indian land (far cheaper than buying it). While the Sioux who insist on staying on their land are deliberately denied water, electricity, seed and livestock, so as to pressure them into leaving their land (the Euro- Amerikan ranchers who use Indian land receive constant government aid and subsidies). Control of the land and its resources still remains a steady preoccupation to the settler Empire.
Even most of the food production of the Indian Nations is taken by settlers. In 1968 the Bureau of Indian Affairs said that the reservations produced then $170 million annually in agriculture, hunting and fishing. Of this total the B.I.A. estimated that Indians only consumed $20 million worth, while receiving another $16 million in rent. 75% of the total reservation food production was owned by settlers. (5)
U.S. imperialism literally created bourgeois Indian governments on the reservations to give it what it wanted and to disrupt from within the national culture. These are governments led by the Dick Wilsons and Peter MacDonalds, of elements whose capitalistic ideology and income was tied to collaboration with the larger capitalist world. It is also telling that those professional Indians whose well-being is dependent upon foundation grants and government programs (such as Vine Deloria, Jr., author of the best-selling book, Custer Died For Your Sins) praise the Collier reorganization of the ’30s as the best thing that ever happened to them.
When Native Amerikans overcome the neo-colonial rule and assert their sovereignty against U.S. imperialism (as A.I.M. has) then the fixed ballot box is reinforced by assassination, frame-ups and even massive military repression. The U.S. military moved in 1972 to prop up the neo-colonial Dick Wilson regime at Pine Ridge, just as in Zaire the neo-colonial Mobutu regime had to be rescued in both 1977 and 1978 by airborne French Foreign Legionnaires and Belgian paratroopers.
2. The Rise of the Afrikan Nation
“The white boss man said we was making a war on them and was going to take the government, but we was organizing for bread.” – One of the Camp Hill, Alabama sharecropper defendants, 1931.
The New Afrikan national struggle moved decisively into the modern period during the 1920s and 1930s. It was a key indication of this development that thousands of Afrikan communists took up the liberation struggle in those years – years in which many Afrikan workers and intellectuals dedicated themselves to the goal of an independent and socialist Afrikan Nation. The masses themselves intensified their political activities and grew increasingly nationalistic. In this period nationalism started visibly shouldering aside all other political tendencies in the struggle for the allegiance of the oppressed Afrikan masses. Armed self-defense activity spread among the masses. This was a critical time in the rise of the Afrikan Nation. And a critical time, therefore, for U.S. imperialism.
There is an incorrect tendency to confine the discussion of Afrikan nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s to the well-known Garvey movement, as though it was the sole manifestation of nationalist consciousness. The Garvey movement (whose specific impact we shall cover at a later point) was but the point of the emerging politics of the Afrikan Nation. In labor, in national culture, in struggles for the land, in raising the goal of socialism, in all areas of political life a great explosion of previously pent-up national consciousness took place among Afrikans in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a time of major political offensives, and of embryonic nation-building.
This outbreak of militant Afrikan anti-colonialism did not go unnoticed by the U.S. Empire. Even outside the National Territory itself, U.S. imperialism was increasingly concerned about this activity. One 1930s report on “Radicalism Among New York Negroes” noted:
The place of the Negro as a decisive minority in the political life in America received increasing attention during the early post-war years. The Department of Justice issued a twenty-seven page report on ‘Radicalism and Sedition Among Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications’ and the New York State Lusk Committee for the Investigation of Seditious Activities published a complete chapter in its report entitled, ‘Radicalism Among Negroes.’ The general anti-labor, anti-radical offensive of government and employers … was also levelled at the trade union and radical activities of the Negro people. For a time censorship of Negro periodicals became so complete that even the mildly liberal magazine ‘Crisis,’ (of the NAACP – ed.) edited by W.E. Burghardt DuBois, was held up in the mails during May 1919. In August 1918, the editors of ‘The Messenger’ (the Afrikan trade-union magazine of A. Philip Randolph – ed.) were jailed for three days and second-class mailing privileges were denied the magazine.(8)
Marcus Moziah Garvey, black nationalist leader of the twenties, is led to prison
The revisionists in general and the Euro-Amerikan “Left” in particular have falsely portrayed the Afrikan people within the U.S. Empire as having no independent revolutionary struggle at that time, but only a “civil rights” struggle. Falsely they picture Afrikan labor and Afrikan socialism as only existing as “minority” parts of the Euro-Amerikan labor and social-democratic movements. While the history of Afrikan politics lies far beyond the scope of this paper, it is necessary to briefly show why U.S. imperialism was threatened by Afrikan anti-colonialism in the 1920s and 1930s. What is central is to grasp the revolutionary nationalist character of Afrikan political trends.
In 1921 the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), the first modern Afrikan communist organization in the U.S. Empire, was formed in New York City. Defining itself as a “revolutionary secret order,” the ABB raised the goal of liberating and bringing socialism to the Afrikan Nation in the Black Belt South. The Brotherhood soon claimed 2,500 members in fifty-six “posts” throughout the Empire. Most of these members were proletarians (as were most of the Garvey movement activists) – miners in Virginia, railroad workers in Chicago, garment workers in New York, etc. These Afrikan communists focused heavily on education work and on “immediate protection purposes,” organizing armed self-defense units against the KKK revival that was sweeping the Empire. Soon the police and press spotlighted the Brotherhood as the supposed secret organizers of Afrikan armed activity during the Tulsa, Oklahoma “riots.” (9)
The birth of modern Afrikan communism within the U.S. Empire was the most clear-cut and irrefutable evidence that the Afrikan Nation was starting to rise. It was significant that this new organization of Afrikan communists without hesitation proclaimed the goal of socialism through national liberation and independence. The existence of a socialist-minded vanguard naturally implied that at the base of that peak the masses of Afrikans were pushing upwards, awakening politically, creating new possibilities.
Much of the present written accounts of Afrikan politics in this period centers around events in the refugee communities of the North – the “Harlem Renaissance,” tenants’ organizations fighting evictions in the Chicago ghetto, Afrikan participation in union drives in Cleveland and Detroit, and so on. All these struggles and events were indeed important parts of the developing political awareness. But they were not the whole of what was happening. The intensity and full scope of the Afrikan struggle can only be accurately seen when we also see the southern region of the U.S. Empire, and particularly the National Territory itself. There, under the terroristic armed rule of the settler occupation, the Afrikan Revolution started to develop despite the most bitterly difficult conditions.
While Euro-Amerikan trade-unionism has always tried to restrict Afrikan labor’s political role, no propaganda could change the basic fact that in the South, Afrikan labor was the primary factor in labor struggles. Notice that we say that Afrikan labor was the “primary factor” – not “minority” partners, not passive “students” awaiting the lead of Euro-Amerikan trade-unionism, and certainly not just “supporters” of white trade-unionism. In the South, Afrikan labor was the leading force for class struggle. But that class struggle was part of the New Afrikan liberation struggle.
Starting in the early 1920s Afrikan labor in the South struck out in a remarkable series of union organizing struggles. This was part of the same explosion of Afrikan consciousness that also produced the Garvey movement, the great breakthroughs in Afrikan culture and the Afrikan communist movement. These things were not completely separate, but linked expressions of the same historic political upheaval of the whole oppressed Afrikan Nation.
When we think about the early organizing struggles of the United Mine Workers Union in the Southern Appalachian coal fields, we are led to picture in our minds “poor white” hillbilly miners walking picket lines with rifles in hands. This is just more settleristic propaganda. The fact is that modern unionism in the Southern Appalachian coal fields came from a “Black thing” – manned, launched and led by Afrikan workers in their 1920s political explosion. In both the initial 1908 strike and the great 1920-1921 strikes in the Alabama coal fields the majority of strikers were Afrikan. In fact, in the main 1920-1921 strikes fully 76% of the striking miners were Afrikan. Those were Afrikan strikes. Much of the severe anti-unionism and violent repression of strikes in the 1920s South was linked by the imperialists to the need to stop the rising of Afrikans. (10)
Even outside of Alabama the coal miners’ union often depended upon Afrikan struggle. One Afrikan miner who worked in the mines of Mercer County, West Virginia for forty-three years recalls: “The white man was scared to join the union at first around here. The Black man took the organizing jobs and set it up. We went into the bushes and met in secret; and we had all the key offices. A few of the white miners would slip around and come to our meetings. After they found out that the company wasn’t going to run them away, why they began to appear more often. And quite naturally, when they became the majority, they elected who they wanted for their presidents, vice presidents, and treasurers. They left a few jobs as secretaries for the Negroes. But at the beginning, most all of the main offices in the locals were held by Negroes.” (11)
The offensive was not merely about job issues, but was a political outbreak spread among Afrikan workers in general. In 1919 thousands of Afrikan workers in the South formed the National Brotherhood Workers, a common Afrikan workers union centered among the dock, shipyard and railroad workers in Norfolk and Newport News, Virginia. In 1923 Afrikan postal workers in Washington, D.C. formed their own union, the National Alliance of Postal Employees. This offensive of Afrikan labor advanced throughout the 1920s and 1930s. (12)
In the mines, in the Birmingham steel mills, on the docks, the power in the South of Afrikan labor was being unchained. So much information about these struggles, so much of this story, has been obscured and put aside. The role of Afrikan labor in shaking the Empire in those years was much larger than most believe. This is no accident, for the main sources for U.S. labor history have been the various works of the Euro-Amerikan “Left.” These works all have in common an oppressor nation chauvinism. In this regard such supposedly conflicting “left” writings as the CPUSA’s Labor’s Untold Story (by Boyer and Marais), the Weather Underground Organizations Prairie Fire, the syndicalist labor history book Strike! (by J. Brecher) or the Red Papers of the Revolutionary Union (now RCP) all commit the same distortions.
The revisionists take apart, in their mis-history, what was one great tidal wave of anti-colonial rising by oppressed Afrikans. The pieces of history are then scattered so as to leave no visible sign of the giant stature of that Afrikan development. Some pieces are “bleached” (stripped of their national character) and “annexed” by the Euro-Amerikan radicals as part of their own history. The history of Afrikan industrial workers in the North suffered this fate. Some pieces, such as the militant sharecropper struggle and the leading role of Afrikan coal miners in the Appalachian South, have been buried.
Matters as a whole are distorted to shrink the Afrikan story. To take one example: the struggle around the Scottsboro Boys (the Afrikan teenagers framed for allegedly raping two settler girls) is always brought up, while the wide-spread excitement and unity in the 1930s over the defense cases of armed Afrikans who fought their settler oppressors is never mentioned. This is just part of the general distortion of de-emphasizing the intense rising in the Afrikan South itself. And its nationalist character. Indeed, many of the most widely used Black Studies texts – such as the Bracey, Meier & Rudwick Black Nationalism in America or the Huggins, Kilson & Fox Key Issues in the Afro-American Experience – assure us that by 1930 Afrikans in the U.S. had lost interest in nationalism. Nationalism, they tell us, was just a passing phase back then.
On the contrary, we must underline the fact that the struggles of Afrikan labor were and are part of the political history of the entire Afrikan nation, and can only be correctly understood in that context. Those Afrikan labor struggles were far more important than we have been told. In the major 1936-1937 U.S. seamen’s strike, for example, Afrikan sailors played the decisive role in reaching victory. That was the strike that finally won union rights on all East Coast U.S. shipping. Led by Ferdinand Smith, the Jamaican socialist who was vice-president of the National Maritime Union (NMU-CIO), the 20,000 Afrikan seamen who were the majority of the workers in the shipping industry of the Southern and Gulf Coast ports, shut down those ports completely until the employers gave in. (13) Afrikan labor was gathering a mightly force in the South, on its own National Territory.
The colonial contradictions became most intensified when these peoples’ struggles caught fire in the cotton fields, among the great oppressed mass of Afrikan tenants and sharecroppers. There the rawest nerve of the Euro-Amerikan settler occupation was touched, since the struggle was fundamentally over the land. Revisionism has tried in its mis-history to picture these sharecropper struggles as minor conflicts in a backward sector of agriculture, allegedly marginal to the main arena of struggle in auto, steel and the rest of Northern heavy industry. The sharecropper and tenant struggles were central, however, because they involved the main laboring force of the Afrikan Nation and because they were fought over the land. That’s why these struggles were fought out at gunpoint.
The Afrikan sharecroppers and tenant farmers struggles did not – and could not – take the public mass dimensions of Northern union organization. Smoldering under the heavy-handed lynch rule of the settler occupation, the Afrikan plantation struggles would suddenly break the surface in an intense confrontation. While the issues were couched in the forms of pay, rest hours, tenants’ rights, etc., the underlying issue of contention was the imperialist slavery of colonial oppression. Unlike the industrial struggles in the coal mines or steel mills, the Afrikan struggle on the land immediately and directly threatened the very fabric of Euro-Amerikan society in the South. For that reason they were met by unrestrained settler violence – backed up by the imperialist state.
In July 1931 the U.S. Empire was electrified by the news that a secret organization of Afrikan sharecroppers had been uncovered in Camp Hills, Alabama. Even worse (from the settler viewpoint) was the fact that these sharecroppers had engaged in a shoot-out with the local sheriff and his planter deputies. At a time when an Afrikan man in the South would take his life in his hands just in raising his voice to a local settler, this outbreak created settler panic throughout the colony. Especially when it became known that the sharecroppers had brought in Afrikan communist organizers.
The Alabama Sharecroppers Union had begun secretly organizing in Tallapoosa County in May of 1931. Within a month they had gathered over 700 members. Under settler-colonial rule, this effort was, of course, conspiratorial; members were not only pledged to secrecy, but sworn to execute any Afrikan who betrayed the struggle to the settlers. Nevertheless it was felt necessary to risk security in order to rally sentiment behind the planned strike. Weekly mass meetings were begun, as secretly as possible, at nights in a local church. But these stirrings had alerted the police forces. At the sharecroppers’ second mass meeting on July 15, 1931, the gathering was discovered and attacked by armed settlers. Tallapoosa County Sheriff Young and a force of planter deputies broke into the meeting right at the beginning, beating and cursing. Only the drawn gun held by the chairman of the meeting allowed people to escape.
The next night, after a feverish day of gathering settler reinforcements, Sheriff and an enlarged group of 200 armed settlers went “night-riding” to prevent a planned Afrikan meeting and to assassinate the leaders.
The settlers first targeted Ralph Gray, one of the most militant sharecroppers and one of the main organizers. Gray, who had been out on guard that night, was shot down without parley by the settlers as soon as he was identified. Badly wounded, he told his compatriots that he had emptied his shotgun at the enemy, but had become too weak to reload and continue fighting. The settler mob left, satisfied that Gray had been finished off. Hours later, hearing that the wounded sharecropper had been brought home by car still alive, the settlers regathered and attacked his house. Gray was killed and his wife’s head was fractured by a beating. But a defense guard of Afrikans hidden in the nearby field sniped at the invading settlers; Sheriff Young was “critically wounded” and a deputy was also shot. (14)
This unexpected organized resistance by Afrikans pushed the settlers into a frenzy of counter-insurgency. Taft Holmes, one of the arrested sharecroppers, said after his release: “They blew up the car Gray was brought home in. They arrested people wherever they found them, at home, in the store, on the road, anywhere. All the white bosses was a sheriff that day and whenever they seen a colored man they arrested him or beat him up. I was put in jail Friday evening. The boys who were put in Friday morning was beat up bad to make them tell – but none of them told.” Even those mass arrests, general terrorism and killings failed to break the Afrikan stuggle on the land. (15)
We can understand why when we look at Ralph Gray himself. His role in the struggle grew out of his own oppression, of his own rejection of the all-embracing colonial occupation suffocating him. Gray had called on his brothers and sisters to refuse to do plantation labor for the then-prevailing wages in Tallapoosa County – 50 cents per day for Afrikan men, 40 cents per day for Afrikan women. He and his wife would work over the state line in Georgia, where plantation wages were slightly higher, leaving the oldest son home to care for their chickens and pigs.
In effect Gray had started a strike of Afrikan plantation labor, urging everyone to withhold their labor until the settlers raised wages. So Sheriff Young singled Gray out; he told Gray that he and his family had to come out and chop cotton on the Sheriff’s farm. Obviously if Gray submitted then the attempted strike would be undercut. Gray refused. (16) Then Gray had a fistfight with his landlord; while the Grays owned their own shack, they had to rent farmland from the local mail carrier, Mr. Langly. Incidentally, this was very common. Not only the planters and middle classes, but even the “working class” settlers in the Afrikan colony were “bosses” over the Afrikan colonial subjects. Many landless settlers themselves rented farmland from the banks and the planters, which they then had worked by Afrikan sharecroppers or day laborers.
While Afrikan sharecroppers were in theory eligible for New Deal farm loans for seed and fertilizer, the common practice in the South was for the settler landlords to just take the money. When Ralph Gray’s check arrived his landlord (who was also the postman) had him sign it under the pretext that he’d deliver it to the bank for Gray. Of course, the settler just kept the money himself. Gray finally waited for Langly at the mailbox and they got into a fistfight. Gray was a marked man because he was standing up. The colonial oppression was so suffocating that despite any dangers the Ralph Grays of the Afrikan Nation were moving towards revolution. (17) That’s why the embattled sharecroppers secretly wrote away to the communists and asked their help.
Afrikans were picking up the gun. That should tell us something about their political direction. Even defense trials of individual Afrikan sharecroppers who had resorted to arms continued to draw attention throughout this period. The Odell Waller case in 1942 created newspaper headlines and demonstrations throughout the U.S. Empire. The Richmond Times-Dispatch said: “The most celebrated case in Virginia criminal annals … Odell Waller’s case is being watched with interest by groups of whites and Negroes in every State of the Union.” (18) Waller shot and killed his settler landlord, who had seized the Waller family’s entire wheat crop for himself. It’s interesting that the landlord, Oscar Davis, was not a landowner, but a poor white who had Afrikan sharecroppers work part of his rented land for him.
In the Waller case the New York Times editorially called for commuting his execution on tactical grounds: “The faith of colored people in their country is deeply involved in what happens to Odell Waller… Our enemies would like to break down this faith. If Governor Darden grants the desired commutation he will be helping his country’s reputation among all the dark-skinned and yellow-skinned peoples.” (19) Waller was executed.
In these defense cases the connection to the larger anti-colonial issues was readily apparent. In the Tee Davis defense case in Edmondson, Arkansas (right across the river from Memphis, Tenn.) in 1943, the Afrikan tenant farmer was sentenced to ten years in prison for defending his family’s house against settlers breaking in. Allegedly searching for stolen goods, the freshly deputized settlers were harassing Afrikan families. When Davis refused to open his door to unidentified white men, a settler “deputy” started breaking it down. When the “deputy” kicked in the bottom of the door, Tee Davis started shooting through the door to scare them off. (20)
That harassment was not just spontaneous “racism,” but a campaign to drive Afrikans there off the land. That area in Crittenden County had been an Afrikan stronghold after the Civil War. Crittenden was the last county in Arkansas in the 19th century to have Afrikan sheriffs and county officials. Edmondson itself was established as an all-Afrikan town in that period with the entire population, stores, real estate and farmland being Afrikan. Finally, the planters managed to organize a major armed attack on the town. Many of its people were driven out and the Afrikan leaders were deported from the State. Most of the Afrikan land and homes were stolen by the planters. Desiring only a limited number of Afrikans to work the occupied land as laborers, the local capitalists used terror to keep the population down and to stop any Afrikans who tried to own land.
It should be evident that behind these Afrikan sharecropper and tenant struggles loomed the larger issue and the larger rising. Despite the savage counterattacks by the settler garrison the Afrikan struggle refused to quiet down. In Alabama the 1931 mass arrests, terror and assassinations failed to exterminate the Sharecroppers Union. The next year another shoot-out took place in Tallapoosa County. On December 19, 1932 the planter deputies killed four Afrikans in an attack on their organization. The brief battle was so intense that the settler attackers were forced to withdraw after they ran low on ammunition. (Four deputies were slightly wounded by Afrikan return fire.) Five Afrikans were sentenced to 12 to 15 years in the state penitentiary for the shoot-out. (21) As late as 1935 the Alabama Sharecroppers Union was leading almost 3,000 cotton sharecroppers on a strike that had begun in bloody Lowndes County on August 19, 1935. (22) Armed confrontations on a small scale were taking place throughout the South.
There were, of course, many Euro-Amerikan sharecroppers and tenants as well in the South. Most of them were extremely poor, a poverty whose roots lay in the original defeat of their abortive Confederate nation. For them the possible path of class conscious struggle was visible.
A unique union, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, was formed in Tyronza, Arkansas in 1934 to follow this path. The STFU was started by two Southern Euro-Amerikan Social-Democrats – H.L. Mitchell (who owned a dry cleaners) and Henry East (a gas station operator). Their union involved many thousands of sharecroppers, tried several major strikes, and was notable in the upper rural South of that time for being heavily “integrated.” Briefly, the STFU was even a part of the national CIO (before splits between settler radicals led to its ouster), and had the same prominent role in official 1930s U.S. unionism that the farmworkers (UFW) does in today’s AFL-CIO.
The STFU failed politically because it could not resolve the relationship between oppressor and oppressed nations, could find no other basis for workers’ unity other than reformism under oppressor nation domination. How wide the gulf really was on the land can be seen from an incident in Oklahoma. STFU leader H.L. Mitchell had gone to Durant, Okla. on an organizing drive. Addressing a group of Choctaw Indian farm workers, Mitchell called on them to “get organized” by joining the STFU. The Choctaw leader simply ended the discussion by saying: “Indian already organized. When white man and Black man get ready to take back the land, we join them.” (23)
The STFU’s integrationism was just an effort to harness and use the militancy of the Afrikan masses to fight battles the poor whites could not sustain themselves. The Afrikan tenants and sharecroppers were the hard-core strength of the STFU, their steadfastness alone permitting enough organizations to hold together so that the poor whites had something to cling to. H.L. Mitchell (who always insisted on settler control of the union) himself had to admit that: “Intimidation moves were generally more successful against the whites than the Negroes. The latter have more sense of organization and the value of organization, a greater sense of solidarity.” (24)
Even this social-democratic union could not successfully absorb and tame the nationalist energy of its Afrikan members. The primary organizer for the STFU in its formative years was its Afrikan vice-president, the Rev. E.B. McKinney. McKinney related to the STFU and its radical Euro-Amerikans only to the exact degree that he felt Afrikans thereby gained in self-organization and political strength. This rural preacher turned out to be both much better educated than most of the settler union activists and an Afrikan nationalist. One historian remarks: “Though willing to work with whites, he was race-conscious, having been influenced by Marcus Garvey’s Negro nationalism, and ‘his people’ remained primarily the Negro union members.” (25)
Badly wounded by U.S. imperialism’s terroristic counter-blows, the Afrikan sharecropper struggle in the late 1930s continued to search for new directions. As late as 1939 there was considerable agitation. That year Rev. McKinney quit the STFU in protest, saying that: “The Negro is the goat of the STFU.” All thirteen Afrikan tenant farmer union locals in Arkansas quit the STFU and joined the rival CIO union as a group. These Afrikan sharecroppers were trying to take advantage of Euro-Amerikan labor factional in-fighting, playing those factions off against each other attempting to find a situation with the most resources and leverage for themselves.
In January 1939 thousands of dispossessed, landless Afrikan sharecroppers in Southeastern Missouri took to the highways in a major demonstration. To dramatize their demand for bread and land, the sharecroppers set up a “tent city” lining the roadsides of a national highway. This protest, which lasted for months, caught empire-wide attention and was an early fore-runner to the 1960s “freedom marches” and other such actions. It was a very visible sign of the struggle of Afrikans to resist leaving their lands, to resist imperialist dispossession. (26)
Practice showed that the Afrikan sharecropper and tenant labor struggles not only had a class character but were part of a larger national struggle. They were anti-colonial struggles having the goal of removing the bootheel of settler occupation off of Afrikan life and land. In this stirring the Afrikan masses – rural as well as urban, sharecroppers as well as steelworkers – were creating new forms of organization, trying mass struggles of varied kinds, and taking steps toward revolution. Again, it is important to recognize the meaning of the reality that Afrikans were picking up the gun. And raising the need for socialist liberation.
This gradually developing struggle was against U.S. imperialism and had a revolutionary direction. In the ‘Thirties Afrikan communism grew, taking root not only in the refugee ghettos of the North but in the South as well. Primarily this political activity took form within the Communist Party U.S.A. (which the ABB had joined). While we can recognize the CPUSA finally as a settleristic party of revisionism, it is important to see that in the Deep South at that time the CPUSA was predominantly an underground organization of Afrikan revolutionaries. The CPUSA was accepted not only because of its labor and legal defense activities, but because in that period the CPUSA was opening espousing independence for the oppressed Afrikan Nation.
Hosea Hudson, an Afrikan steelworker who played a major role in the CPUSA in Alabama in the 1930s, points out that the party of his personal experience was in reality an Afrikan organization: “Up in the top years, in ’33, ’34, ’35, the party in Birmingham and Alabama was dominated by Negroes. At one time we had estimated around Birmingham about six or seven hundred members. And in the whole state of Alabama it was considered about 1,000 members. We had only a few whites, and I mean a few whites.”
So that in the Afrikan Nation not just a small intellectual vanguard, not just a handful, but a significant number of Afrikans were illegally organizing for socialist revolution and national liberation. Hudson makes it plain that Afrikan communists then had very explicit ideas about their eventually leading a freed and sovereign Afrikan Nation in the South.
Our struggle was around many outstanding issues in our party program in the whole South: 1) Full economic, political and social equality to the Negro people and the right of self-determination of the Negro people in the Black Belt … When we got together, we discussed and we read the Liberator. The Party put out this newspaper, the Liberator … It was always carrying something about the liberation of Black people, something about Africa, something about the South, Scottsboro, etc., etc.
We’d compare, we’d talk about the right of self-determination. We discussed the whole question of if we established a government, what role we comrades would play, about the relationship of the white, of the poor white, of the farmers, etc. in this area.
If you had a government in the South – they’d give you the right of self-determination in the Black Belt – you got whites there. What would you do with the whites? We say the whites would be recognized on the basis of their percentage, represented on all bodies and all committees. But the Negroes at all times would be in the majority … (27)
It’s revealing that at that time – when Afrikan communism had easily as much strength and numbers in the South as it did in the 1970s – they had a nationalist program. The goal of national independence very clearly made sense to the grass roots. And at that time in the early 1930s the overwhelming majority of Afrikan communists in the South were proletarians.
As we put back together some of the pieces of the New Afrikan story, we see even in incomplete outline that this struggle had indeed renewed itself and entered the modern period. The Afrikan proletariat had stood up, particularly in the South, and had spear-headed new industrial unionism campaigns (with or without the alliances with white workers). On the plantations the masses were star- ting to organize. Spontaneous resistance to the settler-colonial occupation was breaking out. The most politically conscious of all these were becoming communists, with Afrikan communism rapidly growing and taking on its vanguard role. Thousands of Afrikans stepped forward in those years to commit themselves to armed revolution, self-government through independence for the Afrikan Nation, and socialism. This was a program that had won respect amongst Afrikan people, particularly in the South.
The political horizons for Afrikans had opened wide in those years. It is especially important to understand that masses of Afrikans viewed themselves as part of a world struggle, that their aims and concerns encompassed but went far beyond immediate economic issues. Nothing proved this more clearly than the spontaneous mass movement to support Ethiopia in its war against Italian imperialism.
In October 1935 the Italian Empire invaded Ethiopia in a drive to expand its North Afrikan colonies (which at that time included Somali, Eritrea and Libya). Italian imperialists were especially glad at that new invasion since it gave them a chance to avenge their humiliating defeat at Adowa in 1896. Ethiopia was then, however feudalistic its society, the only actually independent nation left in Afrika. It had remained independent for the only possible reason, because it had repeatedly maintained its national integrity and had militarily repulsed European intrusions. The early Portuguese slavers had been driven off.
Even when the Italian Army, 40,000 soldiers armed with rifle and artillery, invaded Ethiopia in 1896, the Ethiopian nation defeated them. These Italian divisions were surrounded and wiped out at Adowa by Emperor Menelik’s 250,000 Ethiopian soldiers. The humbled Italian Empire was forced after Adowa to publicly recognize the Ethiopian borders and even to pay the Ethiopian government heavy cash reparations. So in 1935, after some years of preparatory border incidents, the Mussolini regime eagerly sent its tank divisions and airplane squadrons slicing into Ethiopia.
Afrikans within the U.S. Empire reacted instantly in a great uproar of anger and solidarity. Journalist Roi Ottley pointed out that there had been “no event in recent times that stirred the rank-and-file of Negroes more than the Italo-Ethiopian War.” It is important to grasp the full and exact significance of this political upheaval. All over the Afrikan continent and in the “New World” Afrikans were being oppressed by the European colonial powers. Why then did this one case call forth such special attention from Afrikans in the U.S. Empire? Because it involved the principle of national rights for Afrikans, the defense of Afrikan nationhood.
Even the moderate political forces rallied around this most basic issue to the nationally oppressed. (28) Even someone such as Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, could angrily write: “Italy, brazenly, has set fire under the powder keg of white arrogance and greed which seems destined to become an act of suicide for the so-called white world.” At its 1935 national convention the NAACP assailed “the imperialistic selfishness of all nations in their shameless aggression upon the sovereignty of other nations…”
The defense of Afrikan nationhood was primary in everyone’s mind. Dr. L.K. Williams, President of the National Baptist Convention, told a mass rally: “We do not want to see the last black empire in Afrika lose its independence and culture…” The Fraternal Council of Negro Churches, representing the major Afrikan denominations, issued an official resolution saying: “Americans of African descent are deeply stirred in their attitudes and sympathies for Ethiopia, a Negroid people, who represent almost the only remaining example of independent government by the black race on the continent of Africa…” So the concern was broadly shared by the Afrikan Nation as a whole – not just by some strata or some political sectors.
The support movement took many forms. Clearly the leading group in the mass mobilization was the Garvey Movement’s United Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.). This was, we should recall, the same nationalist organization that prominent academic historians now assure us was abandoned and unimportant at that time.
Captain A.L. King, head of the U.N.I.A. in New York, was the chairman of the united Afrikan support committee. J.A. Rogers, the leading intellectual of the Garvey movement in the U.S., was the main propagandist and educator for the support movement. The Afrikan united front committee involved not only the UNIA and other nationalist organizations, but the CPUSA, church leaders, Afrikan college groupings, and so on. Within several months after the invasion the Friends of Ethiopia had 106 local branches both North and South. There were mass church meetings, rallies, marches of thousands and picket lines outside Italian government offices.
The national character of the movement was underlined by the fact that virtually to the last person Afrikans boycotted the well-funded and Euro-Amerikan-run international relief efforts. The American Red Cross admitted that Afrikans refused to join its Ethiopian aid campaign; Afrikans insisted on their own all-Afrikan campaign that was highly political. The political counterattack by U.S. imperialism struck at this point. Somehow the rumor kept spreading that the Ethiopians thought of themselves as “Caucasian” and that they allegedly viewed Afrikans (most especially in the U.S. Empire) with contempt. There was a demoralizing confusion from this rumor.
To expose this lie representatives of the Ethiopian came to the U.S. At a packed Harlem meeting of 3,000 at Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.’s Baptist Church, Ethiopian envoy Tasfaye invoked the solidarity oppressed Afrikan peoples: “It is said that we despise Negroes. In the first place, you are not Negroes. Who told you that you were Negroes? You are the sons and daughters of Africa, your motherland, which calls YOU now to aid her last surviving free black people.”
The “Volunteer Movement” arose spontaneously throughout the Nation. Thousands upon thousands of Afrikans volunteered to go fight in Ethiopia. The Black Legion established a military training camp in rural New York, and its leaders urged Afrikans to prepare to renounce U.S. citizenship. While the “Volunteer Movement” was blocked by U.S. imperialism, its popular nature shows how powerful were the potential forces being expressed through the Ethiopian support issue. The two Afrikans from the U.S. Empire who did fight in Ethiopia (both fighter pilots) were heroes back home, whose adventures were widely followed by the Afrikan press.
The conflict was fought out in miniature on the streets of Jersey City, Brooklyn and Harlem between Afrikans and pro-fascist Italian immigrants. The night of August 11, 1935 over a thousand Afrikans and Italians fought with baseball bats and rocks on the streets of Jersey City. On October 4, 1935 (the day after the main invasion began) thousands of Afrikans attacked Italian shops in Harlem and Brooklyn. On the streets the masses of ordinary Afrikans viewed their fight and the fight in Ethiopia as very close.
It’s indicative that in 1936 a late-night street corner rally of the African Patriotic League, called to protest Italian mass executions of Ethiopian patriots, rapidly turned into an attack on the police. Smashing Italian store windows, the crowd of 400 Afrikans marched down Lenox Ave. in Harlem looking for a particular policeman who made a point of arresting nationalists. In the mass fighting with police that followed, the New York police started shooting after the determined crowd charged them to successfully free one of their number who had been arrested. (29) Ethiopia was close to home.
The great outpouring of nationalist sentiment that accompanied the Ethiopian war was, we must emphasize, widespread throughout the U.S. Empire. One New Orleans resident wrote to the Courier that the Ethiopian crisis proved that “…the time is here for the Negro to begin to look for the higher things in life – a flag of his own, a government of his own and complete liberty.” This was the developing consciousness that so threatened U.S. imperialism.
3. To Disrupt the Nation
It was only against the rise of the Afrikan Nation that we could see, in brilliant detail, how the U.S. Empire wove together the net of counter-insurgency. We know that a period that began around World War I and which continued through the 1930s, a period in which Afrikan nationalism militantly took hold of the masses, ended in the 1940s with the triumph of pro-imperialist integrationism as the dominant political philosophy in the Afrikan communities. U.S. counter-insurgency was the hidden factor in this paradoxical outcome.
In the Philippine War of 1898-1901 the U.S. Empire openly spoke of its counter-insurgency strategy. The same was true in Vietnam in the 1960s. But in the Afrikan colony of the 1930’s U.S. counter-insurgency was concealed. It was none the less real, none the less genocidal for having been done without public announcements. It is when we view what happened in this light, as components of a strategy of counter-insurgency, that the political events suddenly come into full focus.
Usually counter-insurgency involves three principal components:
Violent suppression or extermination of the revolutionary cadre and organizations
Paralyzing the mass struggle itself through genocidal population regroupment.
Substituting pro-imperialist bourgeois leadership and institutions for patriotic leadership and institutions within the colonial society.
The terroristic suppression of Afrikan militants in the South has been discussed, and in any case should be well understood. What has been less discussed are the other two parts.
In Mao Zedong’s famous analogy, the guerrillas in People’s War are “fish” while the masses are the “sea” that both sustains and conceals them. Population regroupment (in the C.I.A.’s terminology) strategy seeks to dry up that “sea” by literally uprooting the masses and disrupting the whole social fabric of the oppressed nation. In Vietnam the strategy resulted in the widespread chemical poisoning of crops and forest land, the depopulation of key areas, and the involuntary movement of one-third of the total South Vietnamese population off their lands to “protected hamlets” and “refugee centers” (i.e. the C.I.A.’s reservations for Vietnamese). These blows only show how great an effort, what magnitude of resources, is expended on imperialist counter-insurgency.
In response to growing political unrest, the U.S. Empire moved inexorably to drive Afrikans off the land, out of industry, and force them into exile. The New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt, the major banks and corporations, and the main Euro-Amerikan political and social organizations (unions, political parties, etc.) worked together to destroy the economic base of the Afrikan Nation, to separate Afrikans from their lands, and to thus destabilize and gradually depopulate the Afrikan communities in and adjacent to the National Territory. One history of U.S. welfare programs notes:
…many New Deal programs ran roughshod over the most destitute. Federal agricultural policy, for example, was designed to raise farm prices by taking land out of cultivation, an action that also took many tenant farmers and sharecroppers out of the economy. The National Recovery Administration, seeking to placate organized employers and organized labor, permitted racial differentials in wages to be maintained. The Tennessee Valley Authority deferred to local prejudice by not hiring Blacks. All this was done not unknowingly, but rather out of concern for building a broad base for the new programs. It was left to FERA (Federal Emergency Relief Act) to succor the casualties of the New Deal’s pragmatic policies. Since Blacks got little from (or were actually harmed by) most programs, 30 per cent of the Black population ended up on the direct relief rolls by January 1935. (30)
Just as the 30% of the South Vietnamese people were forcibly made dependent upon direct U.S. handouts in the 1960s in order just to eat, so 30% of the Afrikan people in the U.S. were similarly reduced by 1935. But not for long. That was only the first stage. In the second, relief was turned over to the local planter governments, who proceeded to force Afrikans off the relief rolls to drive them out of the region. That history of U.S. welfare continues:
Under pressure from Southern congressmen, any wording that might have been interpreted as constraining the states from racial discrimination in welfare was deleted from the Social Security Act of 1935. The Southern states then proceeded to use the free hand they had been given to keep Blacks off the rolls. (31)
It is important to see that Afrikans were not just the victims of discrimination and blind economic circumstances (“last hired, first fired,” etc.). Africans were the targets of imperialist New Deal policy. We must remember that the archaic, parasitic Euro-Amerikan planter capitalists were on the verge of final bankruptcy and literal dissolution in the early years of the Depression. Further, despite the 1929 Depression there was in fact relatively little agricultural unemployment among Afrikans in the rich Mississippi River cotton land of the Delta (the Kush) until the winter of 1933-34. (32) Then these two facts were suddenly reversed.
These agricultural workers paid $8.00 apiece to be driven by truck to a work camp at Bridgeton, New Jersey, in 1942. (source)
The New Deal’s 1934 Agricultural Adjustment Act rescued the ruined planter capitalists, giving them cash subsidies so that they could hold on to the land and continue serving as U.S. imperialism’s overseers in the Afrikan South.* But those U.S. imperialist subsidies literally gave the planters cash for each sharecropper and tenant farmer they forced off the plantation. The primary effect, then, was to forcibly de-stabilize and eventually depopulate the rural Afrikan communities. One 1935 evaluation of the A.A.A. program by the lawyer for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union pointed out:
Before its passage most of the plantations of the south were heavily mortgaged. It was freely prophesied that the plantation system was breaking down under its own weight and that the great plantations would soon be broken up into small farms, owned by the people who cultivate them… but by federal aid the plantation system of the South is more strongly entrenched than it had been for years.
However, this is not the most significant effect of the federal aid. By it cotton acreage was reduced about 40 per cent, and something like 40 per cent of the tenants were displaced…” (33)
[*Interestingly enough, the 1934 AAA and the entire program was administered by FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace. This man was later to become the darling of the CPUSA, and the 1948 Presidential candidate of the CPUSA-led “Progressive Party.”]
This displacement was also taking place in the factories and even the coal field, where (as we noted in the previous section) Afrikan workers had played a leading role in militant unionization. As the coal mines of the South gradually became unionized during the 1930s, Afrikan miners and their families were driven out by the tens of thousands. The large coal companies and the United Mine Workers Union (UMW-CIO), while they had class differences, had oppressor nation unity. The imperialists had decided to drive rebellious Afrikan labor out of the Southern coal fields, and the pro-imperialist CIO unions eagerly cooperated. Between 1930 and 1940 the percentage of Afrikan miners in the five Southern Appalachian states (Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky) was deliberately cut from 23% to 16%. (34) And it would keep on being cut year after year, regardless of economic boom or bust.
The drive by capital to strike down Afrikan labor, to force the colonial masses out of the main economy, intensified throughout the 1930s. Between 1930-36 some 50% of all Afrikan skilled workers were pushed out of their jobs. (35) Careful observers at that time made the point that this was not caused by the Depression alone, but clearly reflected a strategy used by imperialism against the Afrikan Nation as a whole. W.E.B. DuBois said in the main address of the 1933 Fisk University commencement ceremony:
We do not know that American Negroes will survive. There are sinister signs about us, antecedent to and unconnected with the Great Depression. The organized might of industry North and South is relegating the Negro to the edge of survival and using him as a labor reservoir on starvation wage…” (36)
In the fields tens of thousands of Afrikan farm families during the 1930s were driven not only off the land, but out of the South altogether. As we have seen, this was clearly not the result of “blind economic circumstances,” but was the genocidal result of imperialist policy (as enacted by the most liberal settler administration in U.S. history). The social disruption and de-population were no less significant for Afrikans than for other dispersed colonial peoples, such as the Palestinians.
The militant struggle on the land and the turn of Afrikan workers toward revolution was not only blunted by violent repression; increasingly the Afrikan masses were involuntarily dispersed, scattered into the refugee camps of the Northern ghettoes, removed from established positions in industries and trades that were an irreplaceable part of the modern Nation. It was not just a matter of dollars, important as income is to the oppressed; what was happening ravaged the national culture. The “sea” of Afrikan society was stricken at its material base.
4. Neo-Colonialism & Leadership
The U.S. Empire has had a long and successful history of applying neo-colonialism to hold down the oppressed. In Latin America and in New Afrika during the mid-1800s the U.S. Empire utilized neo-colonialism prior even to the advent of world imperialism. But in the 1920s and early 1930s U.S. imperialism’s neo-colonial instruments lost control over the Afrikan masses. In order to re-establish pro-imperialist leadership over Afrikan politics, U.S. imperialism had to forge new neo-colonial instruments. These neo-colonial instruments were not only traditional but also radical and even socialistic in outward form, and had the special task of controlling the modern forces of Afrikan trade-unionism and Afrikan socialism that had arisen so widely.
We should remember that the essence of neocolonialism is an outward form of national self- determination and popular democracy concealing a submissive relationship with imperialism on the part of the new bourgeois forces. As Amilcar Cabral pointed out almost twenty years ago concerning neo-colonialism:
The objective of the imperialist countries was to prevent the enlargement of the socialist camp, to liberate the reactionary forces in our countries which were being stifled by colonialism and to enable these forces to ally themselves with the international bourgeoisie. The fundamental idea was to create a bourgeoisie where one did not exist, in order specifically to strengthen the imperialist and the capitalist camp.” (37)
The U.S. Empire had literally done exactly that in the 1870s. The neo-colonial stage known as Black Reconstruction had qualitatively changed and enlarged the New Afrikan petit-bourgeoisie. This class, even in defeat by the Euro-Amerikan planter capitalists, were to a degree held up by and patronized by U.S. imperialism – and they retained like a religion their loyalty and dependence upon the Federal government. Washington, D.C. was their Mecca or Rome. Indeed, the Federal Government was for many years the prime employer of the Afrikan petit-bourgeoisie.
Many Afrikan politicians of the 19th Century were consoled by Federal patronage jobs for the lost glories of Reconstruction. U.S. Senator Blanche Bruce from Mississippi was the last Afrikan in the Senate. When his term ended in 1881, Mississippi politics were back under planter control and he was replaced. For his loyal example the Empire awarded him the position in Washington of U.S. Register of the Treasury (for the next thirty-two years that post would be reserved for loyal Afrikan leaders). Even Frederick Douglass was not immune to the ideological bent of his class. He was appointed U.S. Mar- shall for the District of Columbia, and later in his life was U.S. Consul to Haiti. Small wonder that the former radical abolitionist spent years preaching how Afrikans should always remain loyal to the Republican Party, Northern capital and the Federal Government.
By 1892 the Federal offices in Washington employed some 1,500 Afrikans. While most of these jobs were as cleaning women and the lowliest of clerks, a trickle of professional and official positions were reserved for hand-picked Afrikan petit-bourgeois leaders. Washington, D.C. was then the “capitol” in exile of Afrikans, the center of “Negro society.”‘ Some eight bureaucratic positions with status eventually were reserved for them: D.C. Municipal Judge, Register of the Treasury, Deputy Register, Assistant District Attorney for D.C., Auditor of the Navy Department, Chief Surgeon at D.C. Freedman’s Hospital, Collector of Customs at Georgetown and U.S. Assistant Attorney-General.
In 1913 a journalist light-heartedly labelled these eight “the Black Cabinet.” But what began in jest was eagerly taken up by petit-bourgeois Afrikans in seriousness. The custom began of regarding the “Black Cabinet” as the representatives to the U.S. Government of the whole Afrikan population within the U.S. So a petit-bourgeois Afrikan national leadership had been created which was, in fact, both employed by and solely picked by the imperialist government. (38)
At this time the most prominent Afrikan in these circles, standing in reality even above the “Black Cabinet,” was Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute. Washington was viewed by the imperialists as their chief Afrikan advisor, and served them as a leading propagandist and apologist for white supremacy and colonialism. In return, any Afrikan who sought position or funds from the imperialists had to be approved by him. During the Theodore Roosevelt and Taft Administrations even the “Black Cabinet” appointments were cleared first with him. Washington had great fame and, acting for the Empire, some influence over Afrikan education, newspapers, community institutions, and so on. But, of course, neither he nor the other imperialist-selected Afrikan leaders represented the will of the masses.
At the end of World War I an anti-colonial movement of incredible vigor burst forth – seemingly almost overnight – that rejected both the U.S. Empire and the bourgeois leadership that it had installed for Afrikans. This was the historic movement touched off and led by the Jamaican Marcus Garvey. Even its enemies conceded that the Afrikan masses were expressing their deep desires through this rebellious movement of Afrikan nationalism.
The Garvey movement at its peak in the early 1920s was the greatest outbreak of Afrikan political activity since the Civil War. It said that Afrikans could find their liberation in building a new, modern Afrikan Nation of their own back on the soil of the Afrikan continent. The proposed Nation would eventually unite and protect Afrikans everywhere – in the U.S. Empire and the West Indies as well as on the Afrikan continent itself.
This new nation would expand to liberate all Afrika from colonialism and unite it into one continental Afrikan Power. There Afrikans would shape their own destiny in great industries, universities, agricultural cooperatives and cultural institutions of their own. As a beginning toward the day, Garveyism organized national institutions here in all spheres of life. However modest, these medical, religious, military, economic and other organizations were designed to develop Afrikan self-reliance and national independence. If Garveyism suffered from practical short-comings, nevertheless its imposing sweep of vision expressed the burning national aspirations of the suppressed Afrikan peoples (and not only within the U.S., but worldwide).
Booker T. Washington in his office at Tuskegee Institute (1906). (source)
Garveyism’s great contribution consisted of the fact that it raised high for all to see a vision of Afrikan life that was completely self-reliant, built around their own national economy and culture, that waited on no European to “accept” them or “emancipate” them, that was dependent solely on Afrikan energies and will. In this Garveyism was expressing the strongest desires of the Afrikan masses. It is no accident that Garveyism and its successor, the Nation of Islam, were the two largest outbreaks of Afrikan activity and organization-building within the continental Empire of our century. Even such a self-admitted “skeptic” as Richard Wright was profoundly moved by Garveyism in his youth:
The one group I met during those exploring days whose lives enthralled me was the Garveyites, an organization of black men and women who were forlornly seeking to return to Africa. Theirs was a passionate rejection of America, for they sensed with that directness of which only the simple are capable that they had no chance to live a full human life in America. Their lives were not cluttered with ideas in which they could only half believe; they could not create illusions which made them think they were living when they were not; their daily lives were too nakedly harsh to permit of camouflage. I understood their emotions, for I partly shared them.
The Garveyites had embraced a totally racialistic outlook which endowed them with a dignity that I had never seen before in Negroes. On the walls of their dingy flats were maps of Africa and India and Japan, pictures of Japanese generals and admirals, portraits of Marcus Garvey in gaudy regalia, the faces of colored men and women from all parts of the world. I gave no credence to the ideology of Garveyism; it was, rather, the emotional dynamics of its adherents that evoked my admiration. Those Garveyites I knew could never understand why I liked them but would never follow them, and I pitied them too much to tell them that they could never achieve their goal…
It was when the Garveyites spoke fervently of building their own country, of someday living within the boundaries of a culture of their own making, that I sensed the passionate hunger of their lives, that I caught a glimpse of the potential strength of the American Negro.
The Garvey Movement’s ambitious economic ventures – in particular the ill-fated Black Star ship line – became centers of controversy. There is no doubt, however, that at the time they were often considered as very difficult but necessary steps for Afrikan progress. Even W.E.B. DuBois of the N.A.A.C.P., who was one of Garvey’s favorite targets for scorn as “a white man’s nigger,” initially spoke out in favor of Garvey’s program (but not his personal leadership):
…the main lines of the Garvey plan are perfectly feasible. What he is trying to say and do is this: American Negroes can, by accumulating and ministering their own capital, organize industry, join the black centers of the South Atlantic by commercial enterprise and in this way ultimately redeem Africa as a fit and free home for black men. This is true. It is feasible… The plan is not original with Garvey but he had popularized it, made it a living, vocal ideal and swept thousands with him with intense belief in the possible accomplishment of the ideal. (39)
To the extent that Garveyism was naive about capitalism (which it obviously was) this was a stage of development widely shared by its critics as well. Garveyism’s weakness was that it saw in capitalism – the form of social organization of the colonizer – the instruments that Afrikans could use to free themselves. So that the essence of nation-building was expressed in forms precisely paralleling those of European society – businesses, churches, Black Cross, etc., etc. Garveyism’s predilection for Western titles of nobility (“Duke of Nigeria”) and full-dress European court uniforms was but a symptom of this. While this made the concept of independent Afrikan nationhood instantly understandable, it also was a contradiction and a blind alley.
Millions of Afrikans responded to the call of Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.), read its newspaper The Negro World, bought stock in its Afrikan business ventures, came out to its meetings and rallies. In 1920 some 50,000 Afrikans marched in a mass U.N.I.A. rally in Harlem. Garvey claimed 4.5 million members for the U.N.I.A. His critics charged that an examination of the U.N.I.A.’s public financial reports revealed that the Garvey Movement had “only” 90,000 members of whom “only” 20,000 were paid up at that time in dues. The U.N.I.A. was so overwhelming that its critics could try to belittle it by saying that it had “only” 90,000 members. (40)
The U.N.I.A.’s international effect was very profound. Claude McKay reminds us that: “In the interior of West Africa new legends arose of an African who had been lost in America, but would return to save his people.” (41) On the Nigerian coast Afrikans would light great bonfires, sleeping on the beaches, waiting to guide in the ships of “Moses Garvey.” Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam both said that Garvey had been an important “inspiration” for them.
Clements Kadalie, whose 250,000 member Industrial & Commerical Workers Union (ICU) was the first Afrikan working class political organization in Azania, said that he had been much influenced by the U.N.I.A. In British Kenya the separationist KiKuyu Christians brought in U.N.I.A. ministers from the U.S. to train and ordain their own first ministers – and it was from these congregations that much of the Kenya Land & Freedom Army (called “Mau-Mau” by the British) would come a generation later. The Garvey Movement, in Nkrumah’s words, “raised the banner of African liberation” on three continents. (42)
In Haiti U.S. Marines violently put down the U.N.I.A. In Costa Rica and Cuba the United Fruit Company used police power to repress it. George Padmore, a bitter opponent of Garvey, recounts that:
In certain places the punishment for being seen with a Negro World was five years at hard labor, and in French Dahomey it was life imprisonment. It was suppressed in such places as Trinidad, British Guiana, Barbados, etc., in the West Indies and all French, Portuguese, Belgian, and some of the British colonies of Africa.
In the continental U.S. the Garvey Movement was met with varying degrees of repression (Malcolm X’s father, we should recall, was assassinated by the KKK because he was an organizer for the U.N.I.A.) But overall U.S. imperialism moved against this surprising upsurge with some care. After several of Garvey’s former lieutenants were suborned by the U.S. Government, the imperialists had Garvey arrested for alleged mail fraud.
This tactic of posing Garvey as a common criminal was conceived by none other than J. Edgar Hoover, who at that time was a rising F.B.I. official. In an Oct. 11, 1919 memorandum Hoover noted that Garvey was: “Agitating the negro movement. Unfortunately, however, he has not as yet violated any federal law. It occurs to me, however, from the attached clipping that there might be some proceeding against him for fraud in connection with his Black Star Line…” (43) Eventually Garvey was convicted, imprisoned in Atlanta Federal Prison and later deported in 1927. The door, however, had been opened.
What was most apparent was that the old, conservative, imperialist-sponsored Afrikan leadership had been shoved aside and left behind by this outbreak. They could no longer even pretend to lead or control the Afrikan people. It is significant that even the liberal, Civil Rights integrationists had been overshadowed by the new militant nationalism.
This was a time of rich ideological struggle and transformation in the Afrikan Nation. That, however, is not the precise focus of our investigation. What we are looking at is the neo-colonial relationship between the forming petit-bourgeois Civil Rights leadership and U.S. imperialism. We are analyzing how in a time of mass unrest and the beginnings of rebellion among Afrikans, U.S. imperialism helped promote a neo-colonial Afrikan leadership that in outward form was integrationist, protest-oriented, radical and even “socialist.”
The political attack against the Garvey Movement within the Afrikan Nation was most aggressively spearheaded by a young Afrikan “socialist” and labor organizer, Asa Philip Randolph (who used only his first initial “A.”). Since those years of the early 1920s Randolph, even then one of the leading Afrikan radical intellectuals, would grow in stature and influence. A. Philip Randolph became the organizer, and then the President, of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He would become for decades the most important Afrikan union leader, eventually rising to be the only Afrikan member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council. As the leader of the historic 1941 March On Washington Movement, he was credited with forcing the Federal Government to desegregate industry.
To most today Randolph is at best a dim name somehow associated with dusty events in the past. In 1969 he had an 80th birthday dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, where he was personally congratulated not only by Coretta King and other Afrikan notables, but by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and AFL-CIO President George Meany. It’s hard for activists today to view him as anything but another of the faceless Uncle Toms.
This greatly underestimates his historic role. To grasp how useful he was to the U.S. Empire we have to see that the young A. Philip Randolph was a radical star in the Afrikan community. He was an angry, provocative troublemaker with an image as bold as a James Forman or a Cesar Chavez. Randolph published the first socialist Afrikan journal aimed at workers, promoting Afrikan unionism. The Messenger carried the motto “The Only Radical Negro Magazine In America,” and had 45,000 readers. He was arrested and briefly held by Federal authorities for speaking out against World War I. The New York State Legislature’s investigative committee called him “the most dangerous Negro in America.” Randolph did his work inside the Afrikan struggle, as a radical mass leader (not as a conservative-talking conciliator sitting in a fancy office somewhere).
His long tenure as the lone recognized Afrikan leader on a “national level” in the AFL-CIO was so striking that it led the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to query in an article why “The absence of Negro trade-union leadership. 85% of Negroes are working people. Some 2,000,000 are in trade unions, but in 50 years we have produced only one national leader – A. Philip Randolph.” (44) This is a question whose answer will become apparent to us.
At the beginning of Randolph’s political career, this ambitious young intellectual was taken in and helped by the U.N.I.A. Garvey appointed him as head of the U.N.I.A. delegation to the League of Nations conference at the end of World War I (Randolph was denied a U.S. passport and was unable to go). When Randolph and his close associate Chandler Owen needed assistance for the Messenger, the U.N.I.A. provided them with offices in the Harlem building that it owned. (45) The U.N.I.A. attempted to be broadly encouraging to Afrikan ventures, even those of a socialist nature, so long as they were Afrikan-run and oriented.
A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), president and general organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. (source)
W. E. B. Dubois seated in his office at The Crisis (source)
Randolph’s integrationism and ambition led him to break with the U.N.I.A. It was not, we should emphasize, only a political struggle within Afrikan ranks alone. The U.S. oppressor nation was also involved in the dispute. While Randolph and his fellow integrationists, totally impressed with the might of the U.S. Empire, never believed that national liberation could succeed, they feared that the growing mass agitation would antagonize settlers. To these neo-colonialists, settler “good-will” and patronage was more important than almost anything. Further, Randolph’s immediate career as a would-be labor leader was threatened by Garveyism’s hold on the Afrikan masses.
Randolph and his associates were fanatically determined to destroy Garvey and the U.N.I.A. at any cost. They pursued this end using any and every means. In their magazine, the Messenger, Garvey was sneeringly referred to as “monumental monkey” and “supreme Negro Jamaican jackass.” Randolph’s near-racist rhetoric reflected his assertion that Garvey was an “alien” West Indian and not a true “American Negro.” National speaking tours with the NAACP for a ”Garvey Must Go” campaign failed. (46)
In a telling move, Randolph – the supposed “socialist” – and his integrationist allies turned to the U.S. Empire for help. They openly encouraged the repression of the U.N.I.A. In early January 1923 this grouping became alarmed when the chief Government witness against Garvey in his coming mail fraud trial was killed. This traitor, Rev. J.W. Easton of New Orleans, had formerly been a leader in the U.N.I.A., but had been ousted for embezzlement. The dying Easton had allegedly identified his assailants as two workers, a longshoreman and a painter, who were U.N.I.A. security cadre.
The anti-Garvey grouping was seized with fear that they themselves would be corrected for their treasonous collaboration with the State. On January 15, 1923, constituting themselves as a “Committee of Eight,” they wrote to U.S. Attorney General Daugherty begging him to strike down the Afrikan nationalists without any delay. This historic letter is informative:
Dear Sir; (1) As the chief law enforcement officer of the nation, we wish to call your attention to a heretofore unconsidered menace to a harmonious race relations. There are in our midst certain Negro criminals and potential murderers, both foreign and American born, who are moved and actuated by intense hatred of the white race. These undesirables continually proclaim that all white people are enemies to the Negro. They have become so fanatical that they have threatened and attempted the death of their opponents…
(2) The movement known as the Universal Negro Improvement Association has done much to stimulate the violent temper of this dangerous movement. Its President and moving spirit is one Marcus Garvey, an unscrupulous demagogue, who has ceaselessly and assiduously sought to spread among Negroes distrust and hatred of all white people.
(5) The U.N.I.A. is chiefly composed of the most primitive and ignorant element of West Indian and American Negroes…
(25) For the above reasons we advocate that the Attorney General use his full influence completely to disband and extirpate this vicious movement, and that he vigorously and speedily push the government’s case against Marcus Garvey for using the mails to defraud … its future meetings should be carefully watched by officers of the law and infractions promptly and severely punished. (47)
The eight who signed this slavish appeal (Randolph dishonestly professed to know nothing about it) were:
Chandler Owen – Co-editor of the Messenger and Randolph’s closest political associate
William Pickens – Field Secretary of the NAACP
Robert Bagnall – NAACP Director of Branches
Robert Abbott – Publisher of the Chicago Defender
Julia Coleman – “Hair-Vim” cosmetics company
John Nail – Real estate broker
George W. Harris – N.Y. City Councilman, editor of the newspaper New York News
Harry Pace – Pace Phonograph Company
It is useful to examine this move. In practice it turned out that Randolph’s grouping of moderate “socialists” – supposedly dedicated to overthrowing capitalism – were blocked with the liberal, pro-capitalist petit-bourgeois elements of the NAACP, and with the marginal Afrikan business interests who fed off the degradation of colonial oppression. And that in practice all these elements looked upon the U.S. Empire as their ultimate protector – against their own people.
While it was obviously true that Randolph was an agent of U.S. imperialism, it wasn’t true that he was a simple tool just following orders, such as a police informer might be. To understand neo-colonialism we have to see that Randolph represented a certain class viewpoint – the viewpoint of a Munoz Marin in Puerto Rico or the young Mike Masaoka in the Japanese-American national minority. This is a viewpoint of the section of the petit-bourgeois that sees advancement and progress not from leaving the struggle, but from coopting it and using it as a bargaining tool in winning concessions from the Empire in return for loyal submission. It is only a seeming paradox that these activist petit-bourgeois elements encouraged – and needed – both democratic struggles and violent repression. They are the leaders that U.S. imperialism promotes to ensure that even Third-World protest and organization is ultimately loyal to it.
A. Philip Randolph’s career makes us recall Cabral’s warning that: “imperialism is quite prepared to change both its men and its tactics in order to perpetuate itself… it will kill its own puppets when they no longer serve its purposes. If need be, it will even create a kind of socialism, which people may soon start calling ‘neosocialism.'” (48)
Randolph became a leading advocate of all-Afrikan unionism and political organizations. He publicly argued against integrated Civil Rights organizations, such as the NAACP, on the grounds that only Afrikans should decide how their struggle was conducted. But his goal was only to weld Afrikans together as a bloc so that he and his fellow pro-imperialist leaders could demand a price from the U.S. Empire in return for Afrikan submission. Randolph’s integrationistic “socialism” was used to fill a void, to ideologically portray a far-off, glittering social vision to Afrikan workers that didn’t relate to national liberation or breaking away from the U.S. Empire.
Randolph had been indoctrinated in Euro-Amerikan social-democracy and settler unionism. That is, he shared the Euro-Amerikan reformist view on how social betterment for Afrikans should take place. Randolph argued that Afrikans could be protected by unionism and Civil Rights if they carefully convinced settlers of their nonviolent submissiveness and their desire to be ruled by Euro-Amerikans. While the Messenger abused both communism and nationalism in print in the most vulgar and crude ways, towards A.F.L. President Samuel Gompers – who was a segregationist, an open advocate of white supremacy and a public spokesman of the doctrine of the “racial” inferiority of Afrikans – Randolph was never less than humble and praising. In 1924, when Gompers died, the Messenger excused him as a “diplomatically silent” friend. Randolph feared and hated the Garvey Movement, not because of its faults, but because of its virtues.
BSCP strike notice. Detroit, June 7, 1928. Original in Chicago Historical Society.
All this is made abundantly clear by Randolph’s relationship to Gomper’s successor, A.F.L. President William Green. Morehouse College Professor Brailsford Brazeal admitted in his laudatory 1946 book on the Porter’s Union: “Randolph, although a socialist, had by this time convinced Green that pullman porters were anxious to demonstrate that the Negro would help to further the program of American workers through conventional channels. Randolph had condemned the Communists and their tactics in the Messenger… â€œAll this must have reaffirmed Green’s convictions that here were the man and the organization that could serve as an instrument for rallying Negro workers under the hegemony of the Federation.” (49)
Bayard Rustin, Randolph’s leading disciple, has said of him: “…he realized that separatism, whether espoused by Marcus Garvey or latter day nationalists, is grounded in fantasy and myth despite its emotional appeal to an oppressed people … Black people, he realized, could never advance without the good feelings and assistance of many whites.” (50)
And now we can see the answer to the question that Dr. King raised.
There was only one A. Philip Randolph because U.S. imperialism only wanted one. Randolph was pushed forward and made a big leader by his Euro-Amerikan mentors. When we look at his magazine, the Messenger, during the years when it was fighting Garveyism, we see in issue after issue large “solidarity” advertisement; paid for by the Euro-Amerikan radicals who ran the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. Social-democratic settler labor was indirectly subsidizing Randolph to attack nationalism from within the Afrikan Nation – to be their agent and do what they from the outside could not. His whole career was similarly aided and arranged. Imperialism needed its own militant-sounding Afrikan leaders.
A. Philip Randolph’s actual record as President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters is instructive. He and Chandler Owen were approached by a committee of porters, who were looking for an Afrikan intellectual who could help them to organize a union. The porters’ previous attempts had been clumsy. Several efforts had been smashed by the company in a series of firings. Randolph took up the opportunity, and in 1925 the union was formed. The Messenger became the official journal of the Brotherhood.
In terms of leading labor struggles, Randolph was a peculiar “success.” After years of difficult building, the new 7,000 member union had called for a coast-to-coast Pullman strike in 1928. A mood of tense anticipation was prevalent among the porters. Knowing that the settler train crews wouldn’t honor their strike and would try to roll the trains anyway, large groups of Afrikan workers began arming themselves and preparing to take over the rail yards in Oakland and on the East Coast.
Randolph was upset, for he had never really intended to lead a strike. He had not prepared for one, and had told union associates that it was all a bluff. He felt certain that the Federal Mediation Board would step in and arrange a negotiated settlement – just as they did for the Euro-Amerikan railroad Brotherhoods. As a precaution Randolph had even had a White House meeting with President Coolidge and told him of his secret hopes for a Government-sponsored settlement. But as the strike deadline neared, the Federal Government refused to intervene. The imperialists were unwilling to publicly admit that an Afrikan union could force a “national emergency.”
As a desperate hope, Randolph then went begging to A.F.L. President William Green. In a last-minute meeting he implored Green for A.F.L. support of the porters’ strike, getting the settler railroads Brotherhoods to close down the trains. Green told him that: “The public isn’t ready to accept a strike by Negroes.” He told Randolph to give up and call off the strike. Randolph sadly obeyed. On the eve of the first coast-to-coast strike of Afrikan railroad workers the word went out to go back to work, to offer no resistance to the companies.
Disillusioned and confused, the Afrikan porters left the union by the thousands. Two-thirds of the union’s 7,000 members quit in the next few months. Randolph’s only plan was for them to wait and wait until Euro-Amerikans decided to finally approve of them. Many porters were fired by the triumphant company, knowing that Randolph had left them defenseless. Dues slowed to a trickle, and even the Messenger stopped appearing. A. Philip Randolph had won acceptance from the A.F.L. leadership but the workers who had followed him paid the bill. And he had succeeded in defusing a potentially explosive struggle of Afrikan workers.
Randolph’s vindication came with the New Deal, with the entry into State power of liberal Democratic Party politicians who understood him and why he was so useful. In 1937 the National Labor Relations Board ordered the Pullman Company to recognize the Brotherhood and give in to its main demands (during this same period, we should note, Afrikan nationalists in the North who were trying to form unions independent from Euro-Amerikan unionism were subjected to both legal and police disruption.) Under the imperialist-ordered settlement porters’ wages went up by 30%, while working hours were cut. Randolph was promoted as the very successful leader of an all-Afrikan union, who had gotten his members sizeable rewards in wages and working conditions.
His greatest hour of fame lay still ahead – the 1941 March On Washington Movement, when for one month Randolph was the most important Afrikan in the U.S. This was the event that ensured him a place as a national leader of Afrikans for the U.S. Empire. Instead of Booker T. Washington, an avowed “socialist” labor leader was now meeting and advising at the White House.
So a new, militant nationalism and a new, protest-oriented integrationism engaged in ideological struggle for leadership of the Afrikan masses. It was not, however, a symmetrical struggle or an equal one (struggle rarely is). The insurgent nationalism had the far greater share of popular support, particularly from the laboring masses. It was also true that Afrikan revolutionaries of that time had not yet developed successful strategies for liberation. The Civil Rights integrationists, however slim their own forces, had the powerful resources of the oppressor nation backing their play. The full range of forces, from the U.S. Department of Justice and the police to the foundations, the social-democrats and the settler trade unions, all worked in their various ways to promote the hegemony of a modernized, neo-colonial leadership allied to the U.S. Empire.
BSCP strike cancellation flyer, Detroit, June 8, 1928. Original in Chicago Historical Society.
5. World War II and “Americanization”
World War II marks a definite point at which national movements of the oppressed within the U.S. Empire were thrown back, and the growing hegemony of neo-colonial politics firmly established. At home this neo-colonialism took the well-prepared form of “Americanization” – of offering and forcing the colonially oppressed to assume supposed “citizenship” in the U.S. Empire in place of national liberation. Of course, while the “Americanization” of the European immigrants during the World War I period meant that they voluntarily became settlers and Euro-Amerikans, the “Americanization” of the colonially oppressed meant involuntary confinement as supposed “minorities” camped on the edges of settler society. This was the ultimate in Civil Rights.
The global war and the U.S. Empire’s expansion moved in a new stage in colonial relations. On the one hand, the liberal Roosevelt Administration had gone out of its way to try to convince Third-World peoples that the New Deal was their “friend” and protector. This was done in a manner by now very familiar to us.
New Deal Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was an aggressive patron of Civil Rights. Ickes was, in fact, the former President of the Chicago NAACP chapter. He and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the President’s wife, arranged for Afrikan intellectuals and professionals to get Federal appointments. The practices of the “lynchbelt South” were sympathetically deplored. In the urban North welfare programs were opened up for Afrikans, and by 1934 some 52% – a majority – of the Afrikan refugee population in the North were on relief. (52) This act was smoothly performed. Pollster Samuel Lubell described how it looked to many petit-bourgeois Afrikans who supported the New Deal:
To the younger Negroes the WPA and relief mean not only material aid but a guaranty that no longer must they work at any salary given them, that they are entitled – they emphasize the word – to a living wage. Through the WPA, Harlem’s Negroes have had opened to them white-collar opportunities which before had been shut, such as the music and art and writers’ projects. Negroes, too, remember that Mrs. Roosevelt visited Harlem personally, that President Roosevelt has appointed more Negroes to administrative positions… than any President before him. Each time Roosevelt makes such an appointment, the Amsterdam News, Harlem’s leading newspaper, headlines it in 72-point type. Every young Negro gets a vicarious thrill thinking, ‘There may be a chance up there for me.’ (53)
While the liberal Roosevelt Administration kept up a steady propaganda campaign throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, claiming to be “the best friend Negroes ever had,” the period was a time of savage attacks to destabilize the Afrikan Nation. There was a conspicuous deindustrialization of Afrikan employment, as they were pushed out of the main imperialist economy.
Two vigorous ladies acted as F.D.R.’s deputies in Negro affairs – Mary McLeod Bethune, a forthright educator who served in the “Black Cabinet,” and Eleanor Roosevelt.
For awhile it appeared on the surface as though Afrikans were simply victims of the Depression, suffering a heightened version of the commonly-shared joblessness. But by 1940 the voices of DuBois and others who pointed out a genocidal pattern were proven right. In 1940 and 1941 the Depression finally broke. The war in Europe in 1939 had brought new orders for steel, munitions, ships, trucks and other industrial products. Factories were adding shifts for the first time in years, and Euro-Amerikan unemployment was going down rapidly throughout the last half of 1940 and in 1941.
Afrikans were barred from the new production, however. Their industrial employment was going down as more and more new jobs opened up. Corporation after corporation issued public statements that their new plants would be 100% Euro-Amerikan. Led by Colt Firearms, Consolidated Aircraft, Chrysler Corporation, North American Aviation and similar industrial giants, Corporate Amerika openly was saying that patriotism required keeping Afrikans out. Imperialism itself well recognized the boundary between oppressor and oppressed nations. After the war began the Anaconda Company’s wire and steel division in New York ordered a bar on hiring laborers from enemy countries – “‘No Italians, Germans, or Negros.” (54) Colonial Afrikans were untrustworthy from the viewpoint of imperialism.
The U.S. Government itself reflected this genocidal program once we go past the White House’s propaganda campaign. Between October 1940 and April 1941, the Afrikan percentage of those placed in factory jobs by the U.S. Employment Service dropped by over half, from a mere 5.4% down to only 2.5%. (55) The U.S. Navy instituted a new policy in its shipyards wherein all “Negro” workers would have to wear an arm badge with a big letter “N.” The Navy rejected an NAACP protest that the “N” badges were just like “the labels used by the Nazis to designate Jews.” In May 1941 Chairman Arthur Altmeyer of the Social Security Board issued an official statement that the Board would continue to support white supremacy. (56)
The liberal, pro-imperialist Afrikan leadership were being pushed to the wall. They had urged Afrikans to remain loyal to the settler Empire and had increasingly little to show for it. While they had taken swift advantage of both repression and the internal contradictions of the nationalist movement to gain a political predominance over Afrikan communities, their top position was unsteady.
Many signs indicated that the nationalist political current was strong on the streets, at the grass-roots of the Nation. In 1933 the “Jobs For Negroes Movement” spread from Chicago to Harlem. Surprising as it may sound today, many of the community’s jobs were held by Euro-Amerikans.* In the retail stores (which were mostly Euro-Amerikan owned) all the sales clerks, cashiers, managers and secretaries were Euro-Amerikans. Even 75% of the bartenders in Harlem were settlers. Although all the customers were Afrikan and the stores were in the Afrikan community, even the most pathetic white-collar job was reserved for a Euro-Amerikan only. Particularly under the grim conditions of the Depression, many in the community had angrily pointed out this contradiction. (57)
[*This was before desegregation, while Afrikans still did their shopping, dining out, etc. in their own community.]
A nationalist campaign sprung up around this issue in Harlem, led by a “street-corner agitator” named Sufi Abdul Hamd (sn Eugene Brown). The Sufi was a self- taught Pan-Afrikanist and a teacher of Eastern mystic philosophy. In retrospect it may appear unusual that such a lone political figure could play such an important role, but this only underscores the tremendous leadership vacuum that existed. Together with a core of unemployed college students the Sufi had recruited, he organized the picketing and illegal boycotts of Harlem stores. The campaign continued for five years, with merchant after merchant having to compromise and hire Afrikans.
During these years the “Jobs for Negroes Movement” was illegal, subjected to court injunctions and arrests, as well as the opposition of both the liberal Civil Rights leadership (NAACP, Urban League, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., etc.) and the CIO and CPUSA. (58) For years only the small, grass-roots nationalist groups fought for more jobs in a jobless community. While both the CPUSA and the Harlem churches started “Jobs” committees, these carefully obeyed the law and did nothing except try to divert support from the nationalist struggle.
In March 1935 the smoldering anger over the genocidal pressures squeezing Afrikan life burst out in a spontaneous uprising. The early “Harlem Riot” saw tens of thousands of Afrikans taking over the streets for 3 days, attacking police and liberating the contents of stores. The liberal, pro-imperialist leadership were helpless and ignored by the people. Indeed, afterwards the Euro-Amerikan capitalists and politicians bitterly castigated their Afrikan allies for having failed to control the masses. Everyone agreed that the popular response to the nationalists’ “Jobs for Negroes” campaign was an important factor in the uprising.
The New York Times, in their obituary on Sufi Abdul Hamd, in 1938, gave hostile acknowldgement*:
The death of the Sufi ended a career that had affected Harlem more deeply than that of any other cult leader … Sufi put his followers on the picket line with placards saying ‘Buy Where You Can Work,’ in front of stores whose proprietors he accused of refusing to hire Negro help. He reached the height of his power in the Winter of 1934-35 and his picket lines were a sore trial to Harlem merchants. The tension that resulted from this, combined with other causes of friction, resulted in the fatal Harlem race riots of March 1936. (59)
[*It’s interesting that virtually all histories that mention the “Jobs” Movement credit its leadership solely to Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who for it first five years was a vocal opponent of its illegal boycotts. The nationalist role is never mentioned. This is even true of most historical accounts written by Afrikans (the contemporary account by Claude McKay is a notable exception). As late as 1941 the nationalists were still the cutting edge of the struggle.]
Imperialism’s response was to help their hand-picked Afrikan civil rights leaders take over the issue, with a big propaganda campaign picturing the liberal integrationists as the “militant leaders” who had supposedly won new jobs for jobless Afrikans. In 1938 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the “Jobs” boycotts finally legal. At this a big-name, integrationist coalition took over the “Jobs for Negroes” struggle in Harlem. The YMCA, the Urban League, the major Protestant denominations, the CIO, the CPUSA all joined to support the new leadership of the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. over the campaign. (60) Newspaper headlines and joyous victory celebrations greeted the wave of unprecedented agreements between Powell’s coalition and business. It appeared as though pro-imperialist integrationism was the key to bringing economic improvement to Harlem.
What was absolutely true was that while concessions were gained, Afrikans were being fronted off. An example was the “historic” 1938 pact between Powell’s coalition and the Uptown Chamber of Commerce, which was hailed in newspaper headlines. “Harlem Compact Gives Negroes Third of Jobs in Stores There.” But in the fine print there were no specific number of jobs promised. In return for agreeing to end all protests and boycotts, the coalition got a promise that Afrikans would eventually be hired for only one-third of the clerical jobs only in the Harlem stores – and even there only as replacements whenever Euro-Amerikan employees quit.
In a joint statement, Rev. Powell and Col. Philipp of the Chamber of Commerce said. “The settlement reached today is historic. It is the first agreement of its kind … and will help quiet unrest in Harlem because it is proof that white business leaders have a sympathetic interest in the economic problems of the colored race.” Even more to the point the N. Y. Times said that the pact was reached because of “years of racial uprisings.” (61) So whatever jobs were gained were really won by the Afrikan masses in violent uprising – and by the grass-roots nationalism which alone spoke to their needs and interests.
The tamed and carefully-controlled “Jobs” campaign was used to picture Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and other pro-imperialist leaders as “militants,” as leaders who really fought the “white power structure” and won all kinds of things for Afrikans. In 1941 Powell won a seat on the N.Y. City Council. His campaign was supported by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, the Republican Party and the radical American Labor Party. (Powell was a prominent member of this radical settler party.) In 1944 he became a U.S. Congressman, where he achieved national fame for leading a fight to desegregate Congressional facilities. In the press he was named “Mr. Civil Rights.”
There were small concessions and cosmetic victories, but there was still no change in the basic situation. Afrikans were still being driven off the land, out of the industrial economy. Their Nation was being de-stabilized. In 1938 the great, spontaneous movement over the Italo-Ethiopian War swept the dispersed Afrikan Nation. Nationalist politics again revived in the Afrikan mainstream. Walter White, head of the NAACP, wrote of 1941: “Discontent and bitterness were growing like wildfire among Negroes all over the Country.” (62)
The March On Washington Movement
In this situation, their backs against the wall, the integrationist leadership was forced to put pressure on their imperialist masters. The A. Philip Randolphs and the Roy Wilkins desperately needed some real concessions that they could take back to their community. They also saw that it was in a long-range sense in imperialism’s own interest to make concessions, to ease up, to give Afrikan neocolonial leadership a stronger hand against revolutionary sentiments. It was out of this crisis that the March On Washington Movement was born.
In early 1941 A. Philip Randolph, together with Walter White of the NAACP, called for a massive Afrikan demonstration in Washington, D.C. The goal was to force the New Deal to integrate the military, and to open up jobs in defense industry and federal agencies. Randolph said: “‘Black people will not get justice until the administration leaders in Washington see masses of Negroes – ten, twenty, fifty thousands – on the White House lawn.” This was to be the first Afrikan mass march on the Empire’s capitol. It was a confrontation between imperialism and its own Afrikan allies.
The March On Washington Movement issued a “Call to Negro America to march on Washington for jobs and equal participation in a national defense on July 1, 1941”:
Dear fellow Negro Americans, be not dismayed in these terrible times. You possess power, great power. Our problem is to hitch it up for action on the broadest, daring and most gigantic scale … shake up White America.
President Roosevelt ignored the M.O.W. demands. By June of 1941 there were strong signs that masses of Afrikans were preparing to come. Churches were chartering fleets of buses. Worried, the President’s wife and Mayor LaGuardia met with-Randolph in New York City, urging him to cancel the March. Mrs. Roosevelt told Randolph that there might be repression if the March took place. Besides, she said, “Such a march is impractical. You say you will be able to get 25,000 or more Negroes to come to Washington. Where will they stay, where will they eat?” Washington of 1941 was a Southern city, rigidly Jim Crow, with virtually no public facilities for “colored.”
Mrs. Roosevelt had laid down one threat; Randolph politely answered with another: “Why, they’ll stay in the hotels and eat in the restaurants.” Randolph was threatening a massive breaking of the Color Bar, crowds of Afrikans pushing into “white” areas all over the capital – and the resultant “race riots” as thousands of Afrikans and settler police clashed! The stakes were high, and the integrationist leaders were preparing to have an open confrontation. That alone should tell us how critical their situation was. The very next day the White House invited the M.O.W. leaders to come for negotiations on cancelling the March.
Randolph and Walter White met with President Roosevelt, who had brought in William Knudson, Chairman of General Motors, and Sidney Hillman of the CIO. The M.O.W. leaders rejected the offer of the usual study commission. Finally, on June 24, 1941, the White House offered to meet Randolph’s demands on employment. The next day Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 8802, which for the first time ordered: “…there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or Government…” For the first time a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) was set up to pretend to do something about job discrimination. Randolph called the March off in a network radio address.
The threat of touching off the Afrikan masses had produced a surprising turn-about in public imperialist policy. The breakthrough was credited to Randolph, who became Amerika’s officially-endorsed protest leader. He was showered with awards. The Amsterdam News said: “A. Philip Randolph, courageous champion of the rights of his people, takes the helm as the nation’s No. 1 Negro leader … already he is being ranked with the great Frederick Douglass.” (64)
As we know from the 1960s, these official promises of themselves mean very little in the way of real change. The gathering pressure from the masses below, the still unorganized militant nationalist sentiment building among the grass-roots, had crowded, pushed on U.S. imperialism. A nodal point was being reached. Notice was taken that Afrikans were not willing to be passively starved. Further, U.S. imperialism understood the meaning of the startling fact that even their chosen Afrikan allies could not shrug off the pressure from the Afrikan people on the streets, but had to either lead them into struggle or be left behind. Imperialism’s contradiction was that it had to both strike down the Afrikan Nation – and also grant sufficient concessions to the Afrikan masses in order to stave off rebellion.
We must remember that there was a strong, rising tide of Afrikan struggle. The armed sharecropper outbreaks on the National Territory, the violent uprising that took over Harlem for three days, the mass anger that finally forced even imperialism’s loyal Afrikan allies to make threats against it, all were convincing signs of even larger rebellion soon to come. Locked into a “rule-or-ruin” global war, could the U.S. Empire afford to also divert troops and energy to fight major colonial wars at home? This was the heat that finally bent even the iron rule of Empire.
The Need for Colonial Labor
This contradiction was resolved through the specific form of “Americanization” imperialism enforced on Afrikans. The genocidal campaign to change the population balance and repressively disrupt the Afrikan South would continue without letup – but the pill would be sugar-coated. In Northern exile Afrikans could suddenly get not only “democracy” but “integration” into middle-wage jobs in industrial production. The New Deal’s willingness to “integrate” imperialist industry was a 180-degree turn-about from previously existing policy, and was also a tardy recognition that the unprecedented demands of waging a global war required the recruitment of colonial labor on a vast scale. These jobs were no “gift” from White Amerika, but a necessity forced upon it both by threat of revolt and by the urgent needs of world conquest.
The transformation was dramatic. Robert C. Weaver, one of Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet,” wrote that the various rules that kept Afrikans out of industry were changed because: “…after Pearl Harbor they were too costly – too costly for a nation at war to afford.” (65) He noted further:
This occupational pattern was slowly changing by 1942. While the majority of new colored workers were entering unskilled and janitorial jobs, other Negroes were slowly finding jobs as welders, as riveters, and on other production operations … Negroes replaced white workers who formerly were employed as cooks, waiters, garage attendants … and who now entered defense work. (66)
Between 1942 and 1944 the percentage of industrial labor that was Afrikan tripled from 2.5% to 8%. By 1944 the numbers of Afrikan skilled craftsmen had suddenly doubled, as had the numbers of Afrikans in Federal civil service jobs. By 1945 the numbers of Afrikans in the AFL and CIO unions had gone up some 600%, to 1.25 million. As Afrikan families left sharecropping and day labor in the rural South and were forced up North, their incomes rose. Even the lowliest factory job in Detroit or Chicago paid better than the rural plantation. The real average incomes of Afrikan workers rose by 73% during 1939-1947, the largest gain in Afrikan income since the end of slavery. (67)
THE ATLANTA CONSTITUTION: ROOSEVELT DEMANDS ‘MORE CERTAIN JUSTICE’ TO HALT ‘COLLECTIVE MURDER’ BY LYNCH LAW
This was the material basis in mass life for neo- colonial “Americanization.” This sudden windfall of “white man’s wages” was for some a convincing argument that loyalty to the U.S. Empire made sense. It allowed A. Philip Randolph and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. to “prove” that their leadership paid off in cash – and that imperialist World War was “good” for Afrikans. And, of course, this process once again reinforced the neo-colonial ideology in which Third- World people are told that they must look to the Federal Government in Washington as their ultimate “friend” and protector. Roosevelt just replaced Lincoln on the altar. The process sugar-coated the forced exodus from the Afrikan South, and even allowed pro-imperialist propaganda to assert that the depopulation of the Afrikan Nation was a “benefit” to Afrikans.
This “integration” into the main industrial economy, however dramatic its effects, only directly reached a minority of the nationally oppressed. For the first time, however, some significant number of colonial workers could struggle for the “American” lifestyle, with houses, automobiles, appliances, consumer items, college education for the children, and so on. Again, this was a semi-European standard of living – a miniaturized version of that of Euro-Amerikans, but materially well above that of other colonial peoples in Latin Amerika, Asia and Afrika. Imperialism cared little that most of the nationally oppressed here did not have those middle-wage jobs or the new petit-bourgeois positions opened up by token integration. What was important to imperialism was that these inviting possibilities for some created ideological confusion, pro-imperialist tendencies, and social disunity. They also were a magnet to draw people to the Northern industrial centers and out of the National Territory.
The Dislocation of Imperialist War
Amerika’s colonies were forced to bear a heavy – and often disproportionate – share of the human cost of World War II. This was no accident. The Roosevelt Administration promoted this “Americanization” of the nationally oppressed, pushing and pulling as many Puerto Ricans, Indians, Asians, Chicano-Mexicanos, and Afrikans as possible to become involved in the U.S. war effort. Not only because we were needed as cannon fodder and war industry labor, but because mass participation in the war disrupted our communities and encouraged pro-imperialist loyalties.
Close to a million Afrikans alone served in the U.S. military during the 1940s. When we think about what it would have meant to subtract a million soldiers, sailors, and airmen from the Empire’s global efforts we can see how important colonial troops were. In many Third-World communities the war burdens were very disproportionate. The Chinese community in New York, being so heavily unmarried men due to immigration laws, saw 40% of its total population drafted into the military. (68) In colonial Puerto Rico the imperialist draft drained the island; many did not return. One Puerto Rican writer recalls of his small town:
I saw many bodies of young Puerto Ricans in coffins covered with the American flag. They were brought in by military vehicles and placed in living rooms where they were mourned and viewed. The mournings never ceased in Salsipuedes! Almost every day I was awakened by the moans and wails of widows, parents, grandparents, and orphans whose loved one had died ‘defending their country.’ (69)
The same was true in the Chicano-Mexicano Southwest. Acuna notes that: “The percentage of Chicanos who served in the armed forces was disproportionate to the percentage of Chicanos in the general population.” He further notes: “Chicanos, however, can readily remember how families proudly displayed banners with blue stars (each blue star representing a family member in the armed forces). Many families had as many as eight stars, with fathers, sons, and uncles all serving the U.S. war effort. Everyone recalls the absence of men between the ages of 17 through 30 in the barrios. As the war progressed, gold stars replaced the blue (gold representing men killed in action), giving the barrios the appearance of a sea of death.” (70)
Third-World people were told, in effect, that if they helped the U.S. Empire win its greatest war, then at long last they too would get a share of the “democracy” as a reward. In every oppressed nation and national minority, many elements mobilized to push this deal. We should note that those political forces most opposed to this ideological “Americanization” were driven under or rendered ineffective by severe repression.
Civil Rights leaders fell all over themselves in urging their people to go kill and die for the U.S. Empire. The rhetorical contortions were amazing. A. Philip Randolph, the supposed socialist, said that Afrikans should enlist in the admittedly unjust war in order to reform it! He admitted that: “This is not a war for freedom … It is a war between the imperialism of Fascism and Nazism and the imperialism of monopoly capitalistic democracy.” But, he told Afrikan workers, by getting an integrated war effort “the people can make it a peoples’ revolution.” (71) An avowed pacifist and advocate of total Afrikan nonviolence in the U.S., Randolph nevertheless said that it was right for Afrikans to fight in Asia and Europe.
Following the same “Two Front War” thesis, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. enthusiastically agreed that the Japanese attack on “our” base at Pearl Harbor forced Afrikans to fight – so long as the Government was going to give them integration:
On December 7, 1941, America for the first time in its history entered upon two wars simultaneously. One was a world war and the other a civil war. One was to be a bloody fight for the preservation and extension of democracy on a world basis – the other a bloodless revolution within these shores against a bastard democracy.
The sneak attack of the Japanese upon our mid-Pacific base was no more vicious than the open attacks that had been waged consistently for four hundred years against the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. (72)
Taking part in the imperialist war was praised as patriotic – not only to the U.S. but to “the race.” By Asians or Chicano-Mexicanos or Afrikans serving in the U.S. military we were supposedly helping our peoples “earn” full citizenship rights by “proving” our loyalty to Amerika. So the war period saw strange contradictions.
Perhaps the sharpest irony of the “win your freedom” game was that of Japanese-Amerikans. We were drafted right out of the U.S. concentration camps and told that our willingness to fight for U.S. imperialism would show whether or not our people were “disloyal.” The all-Japanese military unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, was used by the U.S. Army as disposable shock troops to be thrown into every bloody situation in Europe. The 442nd had over 9,000 Purple Hearts awarded for a 3,000-soldier unit.
Ordered to break through and rescue the “Lost Battalion” of Texas National Guard settlers cut off and surrounded by the German Army in France, the 442nd took more casualties than the number of settler G.I.s saved. One Nisei sergeant remembers how K Company of the 442nd “went in with 187 men and when we got to the Texans, there were 17 of us left. I was in command, because all the officers were gone. But I Company was down to 8 men.” (73)
The political effects of the war were not simple. It definitely marked the end of one period and the start of another. The Depression had been replaced by the fruits of military victory – high employment fueled by new world markets and U.S. international supremacy. The massive dislocation of the war, coming after the harsh repression of the 1930’s and the war period itself, and the jet-propelled rise of neo-colonial “citizenship” had definitely side-tracked many people. Acuna writes of the Chicano-Mexicano movement:
…much of the momentum of the movement of the 1930’s was lost. Many Chicano leaders entered the armed forces; many were killed; others, when they returned, were frankly tired of crusades … Understandably, during the war and when they returned, many Chicano veterans were proud of their records. They believed that they were entitled to all the benefits and rights of U.S. citizenship. A sort of euphoria settled among many Chicanos, with only a few realizing that the community had to reorganize … Many Chicanos believed the propaganda emanating from World War II about brotherhood and democracy in the United States. They thought that they had won their rights as U.S. citizens. For a time, the G.I. Bill of Rights lulled many Chicanos into complacency, with many taking advantage of education and housing benefits…
Many Chicanos, because of their involvement in the armed forces, realized that they would never return to Mexico… Many also became superpatriots who did not want to be identified with the collective community. In the urban barrio, many parents, remembering their own tribulations, taught their children only English. Middle-class organizations and, for that matter, civic organizations became increasingly integrationist in the face of the Red-baiting of the 1950’s. (74)
The neo-colonial pacification that came out of the WWII years was not a calm, but the stillness that came after devastation. We must remember how, once again, in the Deep South returning Afrikan G.I.s were singled out for assassination by the KKK. In the Chicano-Mexicano Southwest the Empire conducted a genocidal mass deportation drive of unequaled severity. Even the savage immigration raids and deportations of the New Deal were outdone by the new imperialist offensive after WWII.
Believing that the war-time labor shortage had permitted “too many” Chicano-Mexicanos to live inside the occupied territories, the Empire started a gigantic military campaign to partially depopulate and terrorize the Southwest. Under the cover of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act, a reign of armed terror descended upon the Chicano-Mexicano communities. This was CIA population regroupment strategy in textbook form.
Command of the campaign was held by INS Commissioner Lt. General Joseph Swing (an open racist and a veteran of Gen. Pershing’s U.S. expedition into Mexico in 1916). Swing organized a series of barrio sweeps, with pedestrians stopped and homes broken into; often without hearing or any bourgeois legal formalities, the selected Mexicanos would be taken at gunpoint to trains and deported. Homes were broken up and communities terrorized. Some with valid residency papers and U.S. “citizenship” were deported. Others, suspected of being revolutionaries, were arrested for “immigration” offenses. Virtually all the militant Chicano-Mexicano labor activists were victims of this campaign.
The overall numbers are staggering. In 1953 Swing’s paramilitary units deported 875,000 Mexicanos. In 1954 the number seized and deported was 1,035,282 – more than were deported throughout the 1930s. Even in 1955 and 1956, after the main job was done, 256,000 and 90,000 Mexicanos respectively were deported. How massive this was can be seen from the fact that in 1941 an estimated 2.7 million Chicano-Mexicanos lived in the U.S.-occupied territories, while the 1953-56 population regroupment drive uprooted and deported 2.2 million Chicano-Mexicanos. This was the fruit of “The War for Democracy.”
The Chinese community, which had been largely spared during WWII, was the target of a new repressive campaign. The U.S. Empire had discovered that the imperialist contradictions of World War had helped communism and national liberation advance. Long sought-after China had stood up and brushed off the clutching hands of U.S. imperialism. In 1945 over 50,000 U.S. Marines landed in China to take over Peking, the Kailan coal mines and the North China railroad lines. By 1946 there were over 120,000 G.I.s in China, backing up the reactionary Kuomintang armies. The Red Army and the Chinese people swept these forces away.
During the war years the Empire had professed friendship towards the Chinese community, since China itself was an Allied nation in the war against Japan. Now the situation reversed itself: Japan was the new U.S. “junior partner” in Asia, while Communist China was hated and feared by imperialism. The FBI and INS moved against the Chinese community, breaking up patriotic and class organizations.
The main patriotic mass organization of the 1930s and 1940s, the Chinese Hand Laundry Association, was destroyed. The popular China Youth Club, which had fought gambling, drugs and sexism by introducing a modern community life, was forcibly dissolved as a “communist front.” China Daily News, which had been the leading patriotic newspaper, lost most of its advertising and readers. In a frameup, the newspaper’s manager was imprisoned under the Federal “Trading With the Enemy Act” because the newspaper had accepted an advertisement from the Bank of China. The supposedly “silent” Chinese community had actually been a stronghold of activity for national liberation and socialism – and was silenced. (75)
Imperialist Civil Rights
It is also true that this genocidal campaign illustrated how well neo-colonial “Americanization” served imperialism. Once, in the early years of the century, oppressed Mexicano and Japanese workers shared the hardships of the fields, and naturally shared labor organizing drives. In the abortive 1915 Texas uprising to establish a Chicano-Mexicano Nation, Japanese were recognized as not only allies but as citizens of the to-be-liberated nation. But by the 1950’s this had changed. Civil Rights had replaced the unity of the oppressed.
The Japanese-Amerikan national minority had been politically broken by the repression of World War II. Uprooted and recombined into scattered concentration camps, we had faced an intense physical and psychological terrorism. The resistance and defiance, even while in the hands of the enemy, was considerable. Many of the camp inmates refused to sign U.S. loyalty oaths. Demonstrations took place behind barbed wire. Some 10% were under even harsher incarceration at the Tule Lake Camp for dissidents and resisters. But this popular current of resistance had no strategic direction to advance along.
The main dissenting political views had been crushed. Some Japanese rejected U.S. “citizenship” and the oppressor nation that had imprisoned them, but sought their identity by looking backwards towards the Japanese Empire. Clandestine pro-Imperial groups and propaganda flourished. Claims of U.S. military advances were denied and the day of Japanese Imperial victory eagerly looked forward to. The unconditional Japanese surrender in 1945, plus the news of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, made a vain hope out of this perspective.
The other major dissenting view was communism. A number of young Japanese college students and union activists had joined the CPUSA during the 1930’s. Japanese-Amerikan communists had been very active in CIO organizing drives in the fish canneries, in opposing the Imperial invasion of China, and in rallying people to fight anti-Asian oppression. All this had been smashed on Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor happened. In a panic to assure their fellow Euro-Amerikans that the CPUSA was loyally “American,” this revisionist party came out in full support of the government’s concentration camp program for Japanese-Amerikans. Even further, the CPUSA ordered its Japanese-Amerikan members to rally the community for its own imprisonment – and then publicly expelled all its Japanese-Amerikan members to show White Amerika that even the “Communists” were against the “Japs.” Communism was completely discredited for an entire generation inside the Japanese-Amerikan community.
Leadership of the community was left completely in the hands of the pro-imperialist Japanese-Amerikan Citizens League (JACL), which for forty years has been the main civil rights organizaton. The JACL, in the name of those who suffered in the concentration camps, publicly called for and lobbied for the passage of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration & Nationality Act. This was in the best tradition of “Americanization,” and, for that matter, of Civil Rights.
In 1952 A. Philip Randolph was saying that civil rights meant that Afrikans should go to Korea and help U.S. imperialism kill Asians – provided that the Empire gave them equal wages. In the same way, in 1952 the JACL was saying that so long as Japanese-Amerikans got some benefits from it, white supremacist de-population of the Chicano-Mexicano communities was fine. This is the sewer philosophy of “I’ve Got Mine.”
Having mutilated themselves to fit into Babylon, the JACL is even quite proud of what they did. U.S. Senator Pat McCarran (D-Nevada) was a white supremacist, and a known Mexican-hater. He devised his new immigration law to genocidally cut down Third-World population in general (and Chicano-Mexicanos in specific). He warned White Amerika that unless they restricted Third-World population “we will, in the course of a generation or so, change the ethnic and cultural composition of this nation.” In his crusade for settler purity he joined forces with Congressman Francis Walter, the Chairman of the rabid House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). (76)
Congressman Walter was, of course, a fanatical anti-Communist. Led by Mike Masaoka, the JACL developed a close relationship to Congressman Walter. In any case, JACL leader Bill Hosokawa called Walter “a strong friend of the JACL. The JACL eventually gave Walter a special award. Walter and McCarran added clauses in their repressive legislation giving some concessions to Asians – primarily ending the 1924 Oriental Exclusion Act – which made it possible for non-citizen Japanese to become U.S. citizens. With this the JACL was glad to help sponsor this vicious legislation and give cover to the reactionary wing of U.S. imperialism. Hosokawa, who has been a senior editor for the Denver Post, writes that the final passage of this repressive law was “a supreme triumph” of the JACL. (77) Two million Mexicano men, women, and children, victims of “Migra” terror raids, saw very well whose “triumph” that was.
That’s why the shallow rhetoric that says all Third-World people automatically “unite against racism” is dangerously untrue. Pro-imperialist Civil Rights is a pawn in the crimes of the Empire against the oppressed nations. The example of the JACL was just the opening wedge of a strategic process in which the Empire was promoting Asians as a “buffer” between settlers and the oppressed nations. We can see this in daily life, by the numbers of Asian professionals and small retailers entering the inner city. This process began, however, with Japanese-Amerikans in the years right after World War II.
A Pause and a Beginning
It may have appeared to some in those years that the U.S. Empire had consolidated its Fortress Amerika, that it had won “a supreme triumph.” But the streams of national consciousness ran deep within the colonial masses. If the Adam Clayton Powells and the Roy Wilkins occupied the public mainstream of Afrikan politics, we can see that nationalism was only forced down out of sight. It still lived in the grass-roots and continued to develop. This pause was historically necessary, since anti-colonial struggles and leaders of the 1920s and 1930s had many strengths, but did not yet have programs for liberation that could successfully lead the masses. Now we can see that this was a stage in development, in opening up new doors. And so we can also see literally everywhere we choose to look, the “seeds beneath the snow.”
An Afrikan G.I. named Robert Williams went home from Asia to Monroe, North Carolina, having learned something about self-defense and world politics. In Los Angeles in the early ’40’s Chicano teenagers formed the Pachuco youth sub-culture, flaunting “Zoot suits” and openly rejecting Euro-Amerikan culture. Chicano-Mexicano historians now see the defiant Pachuco movement as “the first large current within the Chicano movement towards separatism.” An Afrikan ex-convict and draft resister was building the “Nation of the Lost-Found.” The revolutionary explosions of the 1960s had their seeds, in countless ways, in the submerged but not lost gains and developments of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
Haki Kweli Shakur ATC-NAPLA NAIM 11-8-51ADM 16