The long struggle for Black voting rights
By Monica Moorehead, Workers World, 2 October 1997
[The following is exerpted from a speech delivered by Workers World Party National Committee member Monica Moorehead at a Workers World meeting on Sept. 19.]
What is the significance of Al Sharpton's candidacy for New York mayor?
Sharpton's campaign has raised pertinent issues relevant to the African American and other oppressed communities-- police brutality, jobs, layoffs, etc. He is a social pariah as far as Wall Street is concerned. And if you want to be mayor of a city like New York--the bastion of worldwide finance capital--you have to be embraced by Wall Street bankers and investors.
From an ideological point of view, Sharpton reflects a certain kind of Black nationalism that aims at winning democratic rights for Black people within a capitalist democracy.
These rights consist mainly of political representation within the electoral arena--a right denied to Black people since slavery and the undermining of Reconstruction over a century ago.
Reconstruction lasted for about a decade following the Civil War. The slavocracy had been militarily defeated by the Union Army troops of the Northern industrialists. During the era of Reconstruction that followed, Black people carried out a democratic revolution to gain the land.
This was truly a revolutionary period. The Black masses in the South were trying to rise above the feudal-like conditions caused by slavery. They demanded from the capitalist North the right of each former slave to 40 acres and a mule, as well as education and formal equality.
The White House at the time was occupied by pro-slavery President Andrew Johnson. Johnson allied himself with the former slavocracy to carry out a counter-revolution against the newly freed slaves, who were not only making legal demands for land but were also carrying out armed insurrections and land seizures--like in the Sea Islands of Georgia. The Northern army that supposedly freed the slaves was used to put down these rebellions.
Thousands of slaves had escaped slavery to join the Union army. They saw this as their ticket to freedom. But the Civil War was really a class war between two diametrically opposed systems--slavery and capitalism. The capitalist system of wage slavery won out over chattel slavery because the latter system was historically outmoded.
The Northern army did not smash the former slavemasters-- it only drove them underground, allowing them to rearm and regroup. In fact, the Johnson government was instrumental in upholding the Black Codes--laws passed by the ex-plantation masters to keep the estimated four million ex-slaves from owning the land. This forced many to go back to work on the plantations or seize the land by armed force.
In order to turn back the counter-revolutionary Black Codes, Black people participated in Constitutional Conventions throughout the South, and for the first time were able to vote for their own representatives. In many instances, the Black representatives were still outnumbered by whites. But in South Carolina and Louisiana, the legislatures were predominantly Black.
They represented the left wing of the Southern parliaments. They initiated and passed land laws benefiting both Black and poor white people against the plantation owners.
Unfortunately, the poor white farmers, who had also been exploited by the large plantation owners, were not a class- conscious group and did not show the same kind of solidarity with the former slaves--their natural allies. This complicity gave the green light for the former slavocracy to organize clandestine terrorist organizations to attack meetings of Black representatives and progressive whites.
The final blow to Reconstruction came when the Union Army was withdrawn from the South beginning in 1876. This marked a decisive betrayal, ushering in a new stage of outright reaction. The Black people were forced into a situation of semi-slavery. They and the revolutionary institutions they fought so hard for were now left defenseless by those they thought were their Northern friends. The KKK was becoming an instrument of state terror on behalf of the repressive capitalist state apparatus.
The violent end of Reconstruction, which happened so abruptly and prematurely, set the stage for the Supreme Court to legalize segregation in 1896 with the Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling. There followed thousands of lynchings, especially in the South. Black people migrated to the North to escape the wrath of lynchings and abject poverty, but many white-dominated unions denied these unskilled Black workers the right to join their ranks. This unfortunate development set back the struggle for multinational unity for many years.
But with each new period of reaction and racist terror came a response of fighting back and mass resistance under leaders like W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Huey P. Newton and Malcolm X, to name but a few.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, with its sit-ins at lunch counters, freedom rides and marches, propelled Congress to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It legally guaranteed Black and Latino people the right to political representation--a right long enjoyed by whites. Today the Voting Rights Act has been eroded by a number of Supreme Court and lower court rulings on redistricting charging "reverse discrimination" against whites.
We have to view the attacks on Sharpton within the context of what happened to Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., to Mayor Eddie Hatcher in Mississippi, what is happening to Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun in Illinois and Rep. Cynthia McKinney from Georgia--all targeted by the racist ruling class because they dared to carry forth the fight for political representation.
What is our Party's position on the Sharpton campaign? Sharpton is not carrying out a revolutionary campaign. It is not an anti-capitalist campaign as was our 1996 presidential campaign, which showed that elections don't change conditions, only mass movements and struggles do. But its essence is thoroughly progressive, anti-racist and therefore defendable when under attack.
The Sharpton campaign is an embodiment of the struggle against national oppression.
Our Party will continue to fight for the right to self- determination and full political equality for all the oppressed. But only a socialist society based on meeting human needs, not capitalist greed, can build a lasting bridge of solidarity between workers of all nationalities, women and men, gay, transgendered and straight.
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