USA: the struggle of the workers’ movement against slavery and racism, part 4

Printer-friendly version

Raya Dunayevska with Charles Denby (part of the News and Letters group) and Etehl Dunbar, who contributed to Denby's book Indignant Heart. There are extracts from the book on libcom Testimony of a black worker - Charles Denby (

The third article of the series on the struggle of the workers’ movement against slavery and racism in the USA was concluded with the words: “The Communist Left was able to clarify the national question in general and therefore it was strongly opposed to any struggle for national liberation. But none of the Left Communist currents in the 1930s were able to develop a clear position on the ‘Negro Question’ in the US.” Despite all the efforts in the previous forty years, “At the time of the Second World War the workers’ movement still had no unambiguous and clear-cut position on how to intervene towards the resistance of black people against particular oppression and structural prejudice.”

The political organisations of the working class were thus not very well prepared to face the protests in the framework of the Civil Rights Movement between 1955 and 1963 or the extremely violent urban riots in the second half of the 1960s.

The first steps towards desegregation

Before World War II not much had changed with regard to racial discrimination at the local and state levels.  African-Americans were still barred from classrooms and bathrooms, from theatres and train cars, from juries and legislatures in many parts of the USA.

But before the involvement of the US in World War II Roosevelt signed an order in which he reaffirmed the policy “that there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defence industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin” [1]In the army segregation was still maintained. But as a result of a massive loss of soldiers the US army was forced to integrate African-Americans to fight alongside its regular units. Black soldiers were thus offered equal opportunities for sacrifice in World War II!

After the war this situation could not be reversed. Hence, President Truman ordered the complete desegregation of the US army in 1948. These decisions by Roosevelt and Truman - prompted by the needs of the war economy – also set in motion a push to end segregation in American society as a whole.

In the Northern States, at least, colour lines began to crumble

- in the world of entertainment: On the Town, a Broadway production created by Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins of 1944, had an integrated cast with white, black and Asian players;

- in public transport: in 1946 Irene Morgan, riding on a Greyhound bus that had set out from Virginia, refused to give her seat up to a white passenger. Her case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in her favour;

- in professional sports:  in 1947 the Brooklyn Dodgers added the first black basketball player to its white team, which was the signal for African-Americans to participate in the major professional sports;

- in education: Gregory Swanson became the first black student to attend the Virginia Law School in 1950. His case laid the foundation for desegregation at the University of Virginia.

The Civil Rights Movement

How did the existing political organisations of the proletariat respond to these developments? The Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) had betrayed proletarian internationalism by siding with the USSR and the Allies during World War II and thus had become a clear enemy of the working class. Together with the Workers’ Socialist Party (WSP)[2] the Workers’ Party (WP) of Shachtman, which included the Johnson-Forest Tendency (C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya), was the only organisation who remained loyal to the cause of the proletariat by denouncing both imperialist camps, which it considered as deadly enemies of the proletariat. 

After World War II the Johnson-Forest tendency, having left the WP and after a second short stay in the SWP, in 1951 started the Correspondence Publishing Committee (CPC) with a newspaper known as Correspondence. In the meantime (in 1949) the WP had changed its name to the Independent Socialist League (ISL), but continued the publication of The New International.  And, as their new names indicate, both tendencies had started to downplay (relativise) their role as a vanguard of the proletarian struggle.

In 1955 Raya Dunayevskaya broke with the CPC and with C.L.R. James and founded the News and Letters Committees (N&L) with News &Letters as their publication. Because of the incomplete break with Trotskyism N&L “brought with them considerable political baggage: a bourgeois position on the national question (support for self-determination and national liberation); a bourgeois position on the union question; workerist confusions on membership and organization; a confusion on the class nature of ‘mass’ movements; a penchant for tail­ing after the ‘masses’ in struggle.” (“News & Letters, A sad story of degeneration”, Internationalism 35, 1982)

N&L were created exactly six months before the protest that was considered as the start of the so-called Civil Rights Movement (CRM): the famous Bus Boycott in Montgomery Alabama.

During this first large-scale protest against segregated seating in Montgomery, African-Americans refused to ride city buses. The protest started at 5 December and the black leaders organised in the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), with Martin Luther King as its president, decided to continue the boycott until the city had met its demands. After a whole year of the boycott, on 20 December 1956 the demands were finally met.

A second important moment in this phase of the CRM was the organisation of so-called “sit-ins” in 1960 and the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The “sit-in campaigns” of 1960 consisted of black people occupying segregated restaurants until one was served. It started in Greensboro, North Carolina, when some 300 students joined the protest, sparking a movement of similar “sit-ins” by thousands of students at segregated establishments all over de country.

A third and last important moment of protest of the CRM was the “Walk to Freedom” March in Detroit on 23 June and the “Jobs and Freedom” March on Washington on 28 August 1963. Both marches, the greatest mobilisations against black segregation and deprivation ever in the history of the US, drew in a quarter of a million participants. The demonstration in Washington took place just one day after the death of W.E.B. DuBois.

After these massive demonstrations in 1963 the protests against the structural subordination of the black people took on a different turn, with a current influenced by a form of Islam (Nation of Islam), riots in several cities (Detroit, Watts, Newark), and black groups organised in armed units (Black Panthers).

News & Letters Committees

All the protests of the CRM were wholeheartedly supported by N&L. “NEWS & LETTERS COMMITTEES have participated in every phase of activity and struggle from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the March on Washington. (…) The massiveness of the resistance, the many sidedness of the demands for the Freedom NOW movement, the tremendous surge, courage and reason of this movement as against the barbarism of the Bull Connors [3] with their hounds, hoses and murders have totally changed the objective situation in the United States” [4].

Did N&L support these protests without any reserves and any critique? No! N&L tried to encourage and defend the self-activity of the masses against the attempts of the leaders to contain it. They systematically denounced not only the leadership of the unions but also the Negro leaders for their cooperation with the establishment - the government and the management - and of being on the side of the status quo and not on the side of radical change.

In an article of January 1956 they pointed to the widening gap between the black leaders and the lower ranks of the movement. On the leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) they wrote for instance that they are “lawyers, politicians, politically inclined ministers and professional organizational men. Their passion of the leadership of the NAACP for human justice has been dulled by political ambition for election and appointments. The so-called Negro leaders are [therefore] trying to stifle any direct action on the part of the Negro masses [5].

In a statement of September 1963 the National Editorial Board of N&L concluded that the labour leaders “have neither helped upgrade Negro workers nor accorded them leading union posts commensurate with numbers or skill, nor have they done anything to enable the white rank-and-file to participate in the Negro struggle as an integral part of their common continuing struggle against management.” In its turn “The Negro leadership is listening more to Kennedy's civil rights measures than to the full aspirations of the mass movement” [6].

For N&L the CRM, or in any case its Freedom Now offspring, had the potential to be revolutionary, to challenge capitalist rule and to become “central to the global struggle for a new society”[7]. But the movement did not fulfil its promises, for it “combined reason and activity only to the extent of the immediate demands of desegregation, and not to the ultimate of total freedom from class society”[8], a flaw that N&L attributed to the “conservative” policy of the union and black leaders. In other words N&L criticised the CRM for remaining within the confines of the capitalist system, while all conditions were supposedly there to go beyond them.

N&L would have been able to take a much clearer position if they had paid more attention to the lessons of the revolutionary wave of 1917-1923 and other working class uprisings, such as the one in Hungary 1956. In the case of the latter uprising they had already written that the Hungarian soldiers have joined the workers who form the leading core of the revolution”[9]. In other words: “the decisive force of the revolution remained” not youth as such, not women in general, not any other layer in society, but the working class organised in the Workers’ Councils” [10].

While the workers’ councils were key to the mass uprising in Hungary, such workers’ councils were completely absent from the struggle against the oppression and segregation of black people in the USA; and yet N&L talked without any reluctance about the “ever-expanding Negro revolution” that was now facing a “White counter-revolution”[11].

All in all the position of N&L was radical in words, but did not go to the roots, because it did not seriously consider what it means that the working class is the only revolutionary class in capitalist society. N&L paid lip service to the working class as the agent of social revolution, but in practice they were acting to fragment the working class into a series of social categories which were by their very nature composed of different and even antagonistic social classes. This is the reason for their slide towards the view that the grassroots protests of black people (not even the black workers!) was a potentially revolutionary struggle, appealing to the Freedom Now movement to be expanded and deepened so that it leads to the total reconstruction of society on new human beginnings”[12].

In fact N&L’s position was dangerous for the proletarian struggle, because in their attempt to contribute to the lifting of the colour line, they blurred the class line, the fundamental contradiction between the working class and the ruling class. In 1848 Marx had already emphasised the importance of the working class fighting for its autonomy as a class; even in a period when it was still possible to support the bourgeois revolution against feudalism, it was still vital for the workers to avoid being submerged in the demands and organisations of other classes and strata.  

The struggle for equal or civil rights takes place entirely on the terrain of bourgeois democracy. This is not the terrain of the working class, and in the epoch of capitalist decadence it has lost all progressive content. Participation in such bourgeois mobilisations not only undermines the proletariat’s consciousness of itself as a class but also weakens its capacity to organise itself as an autonomous force, and ultimately to fight for a fundamental change of the existing mode of production which can lay the foundations of another society that is really free of oppression and segregation. And N&L have never been able to understand this[13].

In the next article we intend to explain our position on the riots against police violence that took place in the second half of the 1960s. These riots were the most serious and widespread in the history of the USA: in more than 750 riots, 228 people were killed and more than 10,000 injured. The aim of the article is to respond to the views put forward by the Bordigist groups about these riots and to Bordiga’s thesis that this sudden tearing away of the veil of legal fictions and democratic hypocrisy [is] a harbinger of victory”[14].

Dennis, 2021-12-27

[2] This Party, which was created in 1916, had already defended an internationalist position during World War I under the name of Socialist Party of the United States (SPUS). It was aligned to the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

[3] Eugene “Bull” Conners was the Director of Public Safety of Birmingham Alabama, the most segregated city in the country.

[4]The Freedom Now Movement”, News & Letters, August-September 1963.

[6]The Freedom Now Movement”, News & Letters, August-September 1963.

[9]Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Hungary”, News & Letters, 13 November 1956.

[10] Raya Dunayevskaya, “Spontaneity of action and organization of thought: In memoriam of the Hungarian Revolution”, Weekly Political Letter, 17 September1961. 

[11]A Long Way To Go On Civil Rights”, News & Letters, November 1963.

[13] The incapacity to understand that participation in such bourgeois mobilisations undermines the conditions for the autonomous struggle of the proletariat derives to a large extent from the counter-revolutionary heritage of Trotskyism, which has made it too difficult for the comrades of N&L to evolve in a positive sense. The deformations of the parent organisations (SWP and WP) have proved too strong.


Communists and the "race" question