Monday, February 16, 2015

Black History Month Pt 1

It always used to bother me at work that every Black History Month which was well celebrated in the public sector workplace was never about the incredible contribution black workers, black labor, made to the history of the US in the face of the most brutal oppression.  It was usually about black artists, inventors, famous people etc. These should be celebrated of course. And if Martin Luther King or especially Malcolm X were prominent, it was as carnival figures devoid of politics.  So I wrote this piece 15 years ago and handed it out, left it on the tables etc. I did that every year in a very diverse blue collar work environment.  After I retired I used to send it out to lists I was on and I don't do it any more as I thought I probably would write it differently. But on re-reading it I wouldn't change much, it still reflects my views in general.  As we haven't had anything up for BHM this will suffice.  There is a part two I'll put up later. Richard Mellor

Black History Month

8Memphis sanitation strike 1969. MLK was murdered while supporting this strike
February is Black History month and union members and workers in general should consider the tremendous role that African Americans have played in the struggle for civil and democratic rights.  Inventors and the accomplishments of individuals are important but what is more important than the individual is the movement that lies behind them and their social impact. The way Black History is presented ignores the collective struggle of black working people focusing instead on the contributions of individuals (only made possible by the collective struggle) and the success of black capitalism.  It is a sanitized version of history.

Of course, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X stand out as two of the giants of American history in general and African American history in particular.  These two individuals arose during a period of social upheaval in this country, a time when the very foundation of an inherently savage and racist state was threatened by a mass movement of a huge segment of the population.  Both these individuals were, in their different ways, voices of this movement.  Both very political people, hounded by the FBI and the state and eventually, as many believe including this writer, murdered by it; in Malcom X's case with the apparent cooperation of now Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan.  Malcolm X and Dr. King, due to their popularity among the black population, as well as the white, have been reluctantly accepted and given holidays etc. to commemorate their names.  Their political development, what they actually stood for, particularly in the case of Malcolm X, has been sanitized. 

It is impossible in such a short space to give an historical account of the role of African Americans in the Labor and working class movement.  But two recent figures, one unknown to many and one well known, must also stand out.  E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks.  E.D. Nixon was in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters AFL-CIO and through his Union activism had learned many organizational skills which he used as president of the Montgomery, Alabama NAACP.  Rosa Parks, was secretary of this chapter and eventually ended up working as Nixon's secretary. It was Brother Nixon who made bond for Rosa Parks when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.  It was E.D. Nixon, trade unionist and member of the Sleeping Car Porters Union that decided that Rosa Parks' case was the perfect case for a boycott of the Montgomery buses.  This was the spark that in many ways is seen as the beginning of the civil rights movement that changed U.S. society and the world forever.

Despite views to the contrary, Rosa Parks was not this meek lady who just happened to be too tired to get up out of her seat one day.  Her life in the South had prepared her many times for moments like these and as she said, "I had almost a life history of being rebellious about being mistreated because of my color."  E. D. Nixon made another historic decision that was to influence history and the life of one individual in particular. While listening to a guest speaker for the NAACP at the state teachers college he commented to his friend after the speech that, " know, that guy made a heck of a speech."   That "guy " was Martin Luther King, and it was Nixon who recommended King for the presidency of the Montgomery Improvement Association responsible for running the boycott.

The history of African American workers in the struggle for equality for all people is impressive.  Many were often forced at gun-point to cross picket lines by agents of the employers or the police who were representing the employers. This was done by the employers to increase racial tension and division among the white and black workers, as they do today but much more subtly.  Black workers often found themselves with nowhere to go as they were abused by the employers and excluded from the Unions on the basis of their color. From the Colored National labor Union of the 1870's to the present day, African American workers organizations have fought for equality for all workers.  The struggle against segregated unions was something all workers should thank them for as we have all benefited from it.

It is no accident that perhaps the greatest American leader of the modern era, Malcolm X was assassinated at a period in his life when he spoke for unity across color lines as opposed to a period when he supported segregation and made viscous attacks on white people in general with no class distinctions but solely along racial lines. Though hated by the establishment in his early years, the role he was playing of dividing workers along color lines was much more acceptable than his calls for unity toward the end of his life as his thinking changed and he took a more class approach to politics.

When both he and Martin Luther King moved closer to the Trade Union movement (King was killed while supporting an AFSCME Picket line and Malcolm X was speaking more often at Union functions) they became a bigger threat. After all, these were the organizations of predominantly white workers.  Support from liberal middle class whites was one thing, but white workers looking to black leaders, particularly ones who attacked the system itself, was unacceptable.  The failure of the Labor leadership to combat racism correctly is exemplified by their failure to win Malcolm X. I believe he was at one time in the UAW, and had the Unions fought racism in an aggressive and militant way he would undoubtedly have been attracted to them.  Instead, the Nation of Islam despite its sectarian and non-class approach, but vocal attacks on racism, offered him what appeared to be a legitimate explanation of the horror and history that was his life and the life of many of his people here in the U.S. 

Malcolm X clearly had a global view before his death.  He formed the Organization for Afro American Unity and said in Feb. 1967:

"Any kind of movement for freedom of Black people based solely within the confines of America is absolutely doomed to fail.  So one of the first steps by those of us in the Organization of Afro American Unity was to come up with a program that would make our grievances international and make the world see that our problem was no longer a Negro problem or an American problem but a human problem.  A problem for humanity. And a problem which should be attacked by all elements of humanity."

And on many of the mainstream Black leaders of the time who, like many today have found comfortable niches for themselves in the system, cozying up to rich whites with power or like those that kiss up to the white employers while attacking white workers, he said:

"And these hand-picked Negroes were given big positions and then they were used to open up their mouths and tell the world, "Look at how much progress we're making." He should say, look at how much progress he is making.  For while these hand-picked Negroes were eating high on the hog, rubbing elbows with white folk, sitting in Washington, D.C., the masses of black people in this country continued to live in the slum and in the ghetto.  The masses of Black people in this country remain unemployed and the masses of Black people in this country continue to go to the worst schools and get the worst education."

Malcolm X was assassinated as he was developing his thinking more and more along lines that included all workers in the struggle for justice. Had he not been cut down so early in life, it is quite possible that so many of us would have come to love and respect him as the great individual that he was and it is entirely possible he could have influenced greatly, the direction of the Labor movement for the better.

Of course, US capitalism has thrived on racism and oppression. It's in the nature of the system. And part of this is to seek to repress every aspect of culture that is not under big business’ control, including that culture that comes from the experience of black Americans. This also means trying to belittle the role that black people in general and as individuals have played in this country. It's important to counter this subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) racist propaganda. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that the other side of the equation is that all oppressed people -- that is, all working class people -- have more in common than any workers do with any capitalists. And just as white capitalists try to bind white workers to them, try to convince them they are on the same side because they are white skinned, so do the black capitalists with regard to black workers-- the better to exploit us all. 

For more reading on the History of African Americans and the labor movement
see, Philip Foner, "Organized Labor and the Black Worker".
Indignant heart by Charles Denby
Negroes with Guns by Robert F Williams
And on the civil rights movement, the excellent, "My Soul is Rested"
Interviews with many of the participants by Howell Raines.

Richard Mellor
South Area Service Center

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