Republic of New Africa, League of Revolutionary Black Workers
In the last chapter, we examined the theoretical development of the concept of black cultural revolution in the programs, practices and perspectives of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), Us, and the Black Panther Party (BPP). Both RAM and Us grounded their theoretical orientations and organizational activities in a conception of black cultural revolution as articulated by Malcolm X, while directly or indirectly following aspects of Cruse thesis. These groups were challenged on theoretical grounds by the BPP, which viewed revolutionary culture emerging from revolutionary struggle itself, contradicting Malcolm X’s thesis on the importance of black cultural revolution while comporting with Boggs’s orientation. All of them accepted to some degree Haywood’s Black Belt and/or Cruse’s domestic colonialism thesis in their conception of the black nation’s relationship with the white supremacist American state. The relationship between the black and white nations was viewed as a sort of imperialist relationship, which allowed a more theoretically accommodating association between the black American freedom struggle and anticolonial struggles abroad, and at the outset of the BPM, this was more reflective of Cruse’s thesis, which, in that respect, was a non-Marxist variant of Haywood’s. As the BPM progressed, a Marxist—although not explicitly “Haywoodian”—perspective on domestic colonialism became ascendant among BPM revolutionists, epitomized in RAM, the BPP, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), and the Congress of African Peoples (CAP). Each of these organizations faced difficulties promoting a plausible and identifiably cultural agent for black liberation, and specifically one that could fuse the economic and political interests of black people to mobilize collective protest and organize rebellion. Instead, they undertook initiatives and created some modest institutions to channel black grievances, but these were often ad hoc, following more emphatically political, economic, or cultural paths that rarely merged in a politico-economic-cultural synthesis to guide the revolution that they sought. Although these groups advocated black political revolution, and began to appreciate the importance of culture in the revolution(s) they envisioned, they integrated cultural factors poorly in their revolutionary theses.
In fact, even advocates of black cultural revolution often did not appreciate the revolutionary potential of black culture manifest in the religiously inspired working-class character of many black Americans who were mobilizing in the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) and the incipient Black Power Movement (BPM). Too often, they argued that individuals had to abandon the church or repudiate their religious advocacy in order to engage in revolutionary struggle, which, ironically, had emerged largely from initiatives rooted in the Black Church. The exemplar and main progenitor of the BPM, Malcolm X, also advocated and projected such a spiritually infused grassroots orientation. One result or reflection of this theoretical and empirical lacuna was that BPM revolutionists generally failed to confront the centrality of the Black Church to the black liberation struggle and the reality that the CRM had demonstrated that blacks could build and sustain a viable movement for social change while remaining in the church. The exception to this myopia in the BPM was the Shrine of the Black Madonna.
The denigration of the Black Church and important aspects of black spirituality reflected the deeper problem of prominent BPM groups, which, while evoking Malcolm X as their chief protagonist and architect, often didn’t ground their socio-politico-economic analyses, practices, and programs in Malcolm’s more developed reflections on revolution that he proffered during his last months, opting instead to privilege his more familiar, and flawed, earlier conceptions of revolution, which he had either dramatically modified or wholly abandoned. For example, Malcolm’s focus on revolutionary violence was adopted most notably by the BPP, but the BPP didn’t seem to appreciate his corresponding arguments about “bloodless revolution” and disparaged his thesis on cultural revolution, almost wholesale. Malcolm’s focus on black cultural revolution was adopted most notably by Us, but Us exacerbated Malcolm’s reverse civilizationism in its promotion of an African cultural atavism. Malcolm’s critique of capitalist exploitation was adopted by the BPP, but the BPP largely ignored Malcolm’s challenge to movement sexism, as did almost all of the BPM organizations. In another sense, though, these groups took aspects of Malcolm’s theses farther than he had. For example, RAM integrated a Northern strategy to complement the Southern strategy of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other prominent CRM organizations, which Malcolm only began during his final months; Us formulated a regime of African culture to institutionalize an African American culture that Malcolm agreed was largely absent in black America; and the BPP supported a UN plebiscite, armed patrols to monitor the police, and the organization of “the grassroots”—in this case, lumpenproletarians—such as Malcolm had begun in earnest in the Nation of Islam (NOI). Two aspects of Malcolm’s thesis in particular were developed by his followers beyond what Malcolm had accomplished or, in some cases, even envisioned: (1) his focus on land as the basis of independence; and (2) his insistence on black reparations. No black power organization developed these two aspects of Malcolm’s thesis into its theoretical and programmatic approach more than the Republic of New Africa (RNA).
The RNA premised its organization, and its revolutionary thesis and program of action, explicitly on what it referred to as the “Malcolm X Doctrine.” They largely derived this “doctrine from Malcolm’s “Message to the Grassroots” speech, which argued, inter alia, that land was the basis of independence, revolution was based on land, and revolution involved bloodshed; and his “Ballot or the Bullet” speech, which emphasized the usefulness of an electoral strategy to achieve black self-determination politically, balanced with a guerrilla warfare strategy to seize power in the case of white racist repression and intransigence. The common thread in this phase of Malcolm’s theoretical development was his call for UN intervention in the human rights struggle of African Americans; and his view that the black revolt in the United States was part of a worldwide revolution linked closely to the freedom struggles against Western colonialism occurring throughout the third world. The RNA stitched these threads into a novel tapestry of black revolution in the United States during the black power era.
The (Provisional Government of the) Republic of New Africa
The RNA emerged from the Black Government Conference in March 1968, which was held at several sites in Detroit, including Rev. Albert Cleage’s Central Congregational Church, which would become the Shrine of the Black Madonna. The conference was convened by the Malcolm X Society, which was formed shortly after Malcolm’s assassination by former members of the Group on Advanced Leadership (GOAL), which had sponsored Malcolm’s famous “Message to the Grassroots” presentation in November 1963, his “Ballot or the Bullet” speech of April 1964, and his “Last Message” of February 1965, all in Detroit. Comprised of Malcolm’s supporters and acolytes, the RNA was largely the brainchild of two noted black nationalists in Detroit, who were biological brothers originally from Philadelphia. At the time of the RNA’s founding, Milton Henry was an Army veteran, a friend of Malcolm X who had accompanied him on one of his trips to Africa, and a lawyer in the Detroit suburb of Pontiac, Michigan; and his younger brother Richard was a journalist who at the time was a technical writer with the Army’s Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, just outside of Detroit. The brothers took the names Gaidi and Imari Obadele, respectively, and were instrumental in the organization of both GOAL and the Malcolm X Society.1
GOAL was a broad-based organization centered on issues of black self-determination, while the Malcolm X Society overlapped in membership with GOAL and consisted mainly of those black nationalists intent on putting their vision of Malcolm’s political program into practice. GOAL included Rev. Cleage, James and Grace Lee Boggs, the Henrys, activists, students, and workers affiliated with UHURU, RAM, and SNCC, and those who would become instrumental in the LRBW, the Detroit chapter of the BPP, and subsequently the RNA. While GOAL represented a variety of radical, reformist, and progressive tendencies in Detroit from its founding in 1961, including the motive force for the Freedom Now Party (FNP), the Malcolm X Society was organized shortly after his assassination to put into place what its members saw as Malcolm’s revolutionary vision. It was the Henrys’ brainchild, and it provided the main theoretical thrust of the Black Government Conference aimed at establishing a sovereign presence of black Americans in the United States: a black territorial state. To that end, conference attendees in Detroit produced a Declaration of Independence, which Queen Mother Moore was the first to sign, a Constitution, and the framework for a provisional government that included Robert F. Williams (who was exiled in China at the time), as First President, Milton Henry (Gaidi), First Vice President, Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, Second Vice President, Richard Henry (Imari), Minister of Information, Queen Mother Moore, Minister of Health and Welfare, Herman Ferguson, Minister of Education, William Grant, Minister of State and Foreign Affairs, H. Rap Brown (Jamil Al Amin), Minister of Defense, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Maulana Karenga and Nana Oserjiman Adefunmi, Co-Ministers of Culture, Joan Franklin, Minister of Justice, Raymond Willis, Minister of Finance, Obaboa Awolo (Ed Bradley), Treasurer, Muhammad Ahmad, Minister without Portfolio or Special Ambassador.
Although major figures of the BPM were associated with the RNA, its chief theorist was Imari Obadele. The RNA’s theoretical framework for black revolution in the United States reflected its broader ideological program of self-determination, which was self-consciously rooted in what the group referred to as “the Malcolm X Doctrine.” The doctrine had been outlined in Obadele’s War in America: The Malcolm X Doctrine (1968) and was the centerpiece of the “New African Creed,” which “citizens” of the Republic recited, and which read in part:
i believe in the Malcolm X Doctrine: that We must organize upon this land, and hold a plebiscite, to tell the world by a vote that We are free and our land independent, and that, after the vote, We must stand ready to defend ourselves, establishing the nation beyond contradiction.2
The three initial objectives of the RNA were for reparations, land, and the holding of referenda among blacks to resolve their citizenship. These included: (1) a $300 billion initial payment from the U.S. government to descendants of enslaved blacks; (2) the establishment of a sovereign, independent, black majority country comprised of five states of the historic Black Belt, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina (and adjacent black majority counties in Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Florida); and (3) a UN-supervised plebiscite among blacks to determine their preferences either for citizenship in the New African republic, full citizenship in a multiracial democratic United States, or emigration to Africa or some other territory.
As an organization, RNA members were advocates of African socialism reflected in the Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere’s ujamaa, but they did not embrace Marxism explicitly; rather, the RNA adopted Haywood’s conception of the Black Belt as articulated by Malcolm. The support for the Black Belt thesis emanated from previous groups that influenced the Malcolm X Society (the precursor to the RNA), including several led by Adefunmi, Moore, and Williams that focused on the Black Belt territory as well as reparations. Queen Mother Audley Moore was especially influential; as a Garveyite and member of the CPUSA, she advocated Haywood’s Black Belt thesis before leaving the Party when it abandoned this position by the 1950s. Her black nationalism fused Garvey’s territorial claims with the Black Belt thesis in a framework centered on the domestic and international aspects of black self-determination—evoking Cuffee’s eighteenth-century dual colonization scheme. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Moore, the Harlem-based head of the Universal Association of Ethiopian Women, was the most prominent advocate of African American reparations. In 1957 and 1959, she attempted to present a petition to the UN, arguing for both land and reparations for black Americans, including $200 billion to monetarily compensate for four hundred years of slavery. Before Elijah Muhammad had put his initial demand for land in his national newspaper in 1960, it was Moore who had directly influenced Malcolm X concerning reparations (see chapter 1). The Malcolm X Society adopted her focus on reparations and, following suit, so did the RNA.
For the RNA, reparations took the form of both a monetary allotment of several hundred billion dollars as well as a dispensation of what they considered the national territory of black Americans, the Black Belt states noted above, as the land upon which to establish their sovereign nation. Unlike many of the BPM organizations advocating armed struggle, the RNA, which began in the North, moved South in order to press its claims. When neither money nor land was forthcoming, they advocated an electoral strategy in districts in the South where blacks were concentrated, to use the ballot to elect officials sympathetic to “New Africanism” until these locales could declare their independence and incorporate into the New African state. Where the electoral strategy was met with repression, the RNA advocated “people’s war” in order to liberate the “national territory.” Obadele (1972, p. 26) emphasized that the RNA’s “objective is not to overthrow the United States but to create our own nation,” consisting not of “fifty states, or twenty-five states, or even ten states—though by a rule of independence for unjust enrichment we are entitled to all the wealth of the American nation,” but only “five states, taken together, the poorest states in the nation, the states with the most black people in them, a mere one-tenth of the states in the Union,” which he seemed convinced was an “area which the white American—with some 170 million of his number living outside of the area—is most likely to give up when he is forced to the point where giving up something will be a necessity.”
Seemingly absent from his consideration was that this was the land for which the United States had fought its bloodiest war, the Civil War. The point was not lost on Obadele who saw as a compromise exchange for the cession of the “national territory” the RNA’s willingness to concede the cities of the North and West in which blacks were concentrated (i.e., the “subjugated territory”) although they were, technically, part of his conception of the Black Belt (as they were for Haywood). He argued that the RNA was not “naive enough to believe that in this violent, racist United States” its allies such as Detroit congressman John Conyers “will be successful in achieving laws which effect a peaceful plebiscite and the peaceful ceding of the land to New Africa”; therefore, the RNA needed to use the peaceful interregnum to “prepare for war,” including “the creation of an over-ground army, properly motivated, properly equipped, and able to meet and succeed at the kind of combat which may be forced upon us” (Obadele, 1972, p. 31). Operationally, the RNA’s overground armed force, the Black Legion, was tasked to engage U.S. armed forces mobilized against it in the national territory and an underground force, associated with insurrectionists such as those who had participated in the Newark and Detroit rebellions of 1967, would be tasked to launch guerilla reprisals in the North in support of the Black Legion’s efforts in the South. The RNA referred to these irregulars in the North as a “second strike capability,” and the effectiveness of their strategy relied on the capacity of blacks in U.S. cities (the “subjugated territory”) to come to the aid of RNA armed forces. These efforts in the national and subjugated territories would not lead to the overthrow of the U.S. government but would be sufficiently taxing to compel the United States to sue for peace and grant the secession of lands to the RNA. The peoples’ war strategy was reminiscent of Haywood’s support for black self-determination in the Black Belt, including secession, but in its formulation the RNA’s plan was more evocative of Robert Williams’s (1964) abortive guerilla warfare strategy for black liberation.
In addition, the RNA—more than any other organization in the BPM—promoted the issue of reparations, which they viewed as central to the development of New Africa and a basic premise of its political platform. It rested its claims for black reparations in both constitutional and international law. Through their leading theoreticians and jurists, Gaidi Obadele, Imari Obadele, Audley Moore, and, later, Chokwe Lumumba, Adjoa Aeyitoro, and Nkechi Taifa they provided political, legal, and moral justifications for their claims. The RNA argued that when originally freed from their enslavement by the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which eradicated chattel slavery, African Americans’ status in the law was as descendants of kidnapped Africans, and thereupon they should have been granted the choice of returning to Africa, establishing a new independent nation among themselves in the United States (or elsewhere), or becoming full and unfettered U.S. citizens in a multiracial democracy. Instead, in the RNA’s view, the Fourteenth Amendment imposed U.S. citizenship on them, in what should have been a grant or offer of citizenship that, by definition, could be accepted or rejected; but newly manumitted slaves were not given this fundamental choice. Further, what was imposed was not full and unfettered citizenship in any meaningful sense, but instead a tenuous and nominal citizenship without any compensation in land or the granting of meaningful political, economic, or social rights. Not surprisingly, even this ephemeral citizenship would be set aside within nine years with the overthrow of Reconstruction in the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877. Obadele explains it this way:
Following the Thirteenth Amendment, four natural options were the basic right of the African. First, he did, of course, have a right, if he wished it, to be an American citizen. Second, he had a right to return to Africa or go to another country—if he could arrange his acceptance. Finally, he had a right (based on a claim to land superior to the European’s, subordinate to the Indian’s) to set up an independent nation of his own. (1972, p. 28)
These “four fundamental consequences of freedom” would be the centerpiece of RNA theorizing on black liberation and its practical programs toward that end. The RNA pressed its right to establish an independent nation in the five contiguous Black Belt states of the former Confederacy that, for them, comprised the Republic of New Africa. They argued that this land not only constituted the national homeland of the descendants of enslaved African Americans—and as such was their inheritance, but its dispensation to the progeny of the former slaves served as an initial form of reparations to African Americans. Added to it were reparations that included a monetary allotment and technical assistance to allow the newly created Republic to become self-sustaining.
The RNA advocated the rights of blacks to support any of these options, which was evident in its call for a plebiscite among them to determine their preferred course of action. The RNA plebiscite was not the one that Malcolm called for, which was a petition for the UN to vote to have oversight of the failure of the U.S. government to ensure the human rights of African Americans given the persistence of de jure white supremacism in Jim Crow and de facto white supremacist repression and terrorism of black Americans, and Malcolm’s plebiscite wasn’t focused on secession, as such. The RNA plebiscite was also different from the call by the BPP; although Huey Newton (1995, 98) recognized the RNA’s right to its claims, including secession, he opposed the timing of the RNA’s plebiscite rather than its substance. The BPP argued that the plebiscite should only be undertaken after the liberation of the black domestic colony—thus, after the black politico-military revolution they envisioned. In contrast, the RNA favored—at least theoretically—a plebiscite prior to such a revolution.
In practice, it wasn’t clear whether the plebiscite should precede or follow the establishment of a presence in the “national homeland,” because part of the RNA’s later claim upon its movement south was the need to establish its sovereignty in the “Kush District” (a 15,000 square mile contiguous heavily black populated territory predominantly in western Mississippi, but stretching from Memphis to Louisiana) by a plebiscite to be conducted there, which presupposes a presence in the South, which it did not begin to create in earnest until 1970. On the other hand, the logic at the founding of the RNA and in its Declaration of Independence was that those “New Africans” who had assembled in Detroit in March 1968 were affirming through a plebiscite that they were choosing for themselves the option denied their ancestors and rejecting the Fourteenth Amendment offer of citizenship and accepting their rights to separate statehood in the yet to be established Republic of New Africa. Further, before moving its national headquarters to the South, the RNA attempted in Ocean Hill-Brownsville to conduct a plebiscite among Brooklyn’s black community, who were already engaged in efforts for community control (as well as similar undertakings in Detroit and other cities), which suggests that the RNA recognized that a plebiscite could be conducted prior to establishing a presence in the South. It appears that, at least theoretically if not in practice, given that the plebiscite would establish the raison d’être for either the establishment of a separate state and/or the necessity of armed struggle to secure such a state, it had to occur prior to the establishment of sovereignty or the granting of reparations. This view was supported by Obadele’s (1970, p. 74) argument in Revolution and Nation Building, in which he stated that the RNA’s approach “entails campaigns for consent, followed by plebiscites, followed by defense of our land.”
Thus, the sequence that the RNA was undertaking was: the declaration of a government of New Africa; proselytizing among blacks regarding the virtues of New African citizenship; conducting a plebiscite among black Americans to determine their citizenship in New Africa, the United States, or another option; the physical independence of the “national homeland” through either an electoral strategy to insinuate New African political power at the local level and “expanding sovereignty” throughout the national territory or an armed struggle for this territory if the ceding of land was not forthcoming; and the granting of monetary reparations. The timing of the plebiscite, in particular, had huge implications for the RNA’s theory of black revolution in the United States, as we’ll show below.
Obadele invoked black Americans’ right of jus soli (the right of the soil), the right of anyone born on the territory of a country to claim citizenship in that country, in contrast to the right of jus sanguinus (the right of the blood), in which citizenship is a function of one’s parentage rather than one’s place of birth, to provide the legal justifications for the citizenship and subsequent reparations claims of black Americans. Obadele noted that, at manumission,
the African, whose freedom was now acknowledged by his former slave-masters through the Thirteenth Amendment, was not on this soil because he or his parents had come here of their own free will. . . . Rather the African—standing forth now as a free man because the Thirteenth Amendment forbade whites (who had the power, not the right), to continue slavery—was on American soil as a result of having been kidnapped and brought here AGAINST his will. (1970, p. 27; original emphasis)
For Obadele, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment the rule of jus soli “demanded” that the United States “not deny to this African, born on American soil, American citizenship—IF THE AFRICAN WANTED IT” (ibid., p. 29; original emphasis). Obadele emphasized that
[t]his last condition is crucial: the African, his freedom now acknowledged by persons who heretofore had wrongfully and illegally (under international law) held him in slavery by force, was entitled, as a free man to decide for himself what he wanted to do—whether he wished to be an American citizen or follow some other course. (ibid.)
Obadele viewed the rule of jus soli as “protecting the kidnapped African from being left without any citizenship” while simultaneously imposing “upon America the obligation to offer the African (born on American soil) American citizenship”; but, importantly “it could not impose upon the African—a victim of kidnapping and wrongful transportation—an obligation to accept such citizenship.” With respect to the latter, Obadele averred that “[s]uch an imposition would affront justice, by conspiring with the kidnappers and illegal transporters, and wipe out the free man’s newly acquired freedom” (1970, p. 28). For Obadele, and members of the RNA, the Fourteenth Amendment is not legally a “grant” of citizenship, but only an “offer” of citizenship. Further, as a sincere offer, the United States had the obligation and “the power to create the mechanism—a plebiscite—whereby the African could make an informed decision, an informed acceptance or rejection of the offer of American citizenship” (ibid.). In such a context, and under such an obligation, “Congress could pass whatever law was necessary to make real the offer” (ibid.), and “[t]he first ‘appropriate legislation’ required at that moment—and still required—was that which would make possible for the now-free African an informed, free choice, an informed acceptance or rejection of the citizenship offer” (ibid.).3
Obadele deduced that following passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed chattel slavery, “four natural options were the basic right of the African,” and here he outlined the “four fundamental consequences of freedom” for Africans enslaved in the United States, as noted above. For him, “TOWERING above all the other juridical requirements” that confronted both newly manumitted Africans in the United States and U.S. citizens in general, “was the requirement to make real the opportunity for choice, for self-determination” (1970, p. 28; original emphasis). Pursuant to making such a monumental choice, “the African was entitled to full and accurate information as to his status and the principles of international law appropriate to his situation,” a requirement all the more pressing given that “the African had been victim of a long-term, intense slavery policy aimed at assuring his illiteracy, dehumanizing him as a group, and de-personalizing him as an individual” (ibid.). Nevertheless, “[t]he education offered him after the Thirteenth Amendment confirmed the policy of dehumanization,” and “[i]t was continued in American educational institutions” such that even up to the present “the education of the African in America seeks to base African self-esteem on how well the African assimilates white American folkways and values—a hardly more palatable de-personalization than that which occurred during slavery” (ibid.).
Following manumission, the African was not advised of “his rights under international law,” which suggested “that there was no option open to him other than American citizenship,” and as a result “he was co-opted into spending his political energies in organizing and participating in constitutional conventions and then voting for the legislatures which subsequently approved the Fourteenth Amendment” (Obadele, 1970, pp. 28–29). Notwithstanding many Africans for whom “[t]he pull of nationalism was strong” and who resisted “resubordination,” in the event, “the presentation of the Fourteenth Amendment to state legislatures for whose members the African had voted, and the Amendment’s subsequent approval by these legislatures, could in no sense be considered a plebiscite” (ibid., p. 29). According to Obadele, given that “adequate and accurate information for the advice given the freedman was so bad it amounts to fraud,” what ensued amounted to “a second stealing of our birthright,” as Africans were not afforded “a chance to choose among the four options: (1) U.S. citizenship, (2) return to Africa, (3) emigration to another country, and (4) the creation of a new African nation on American soil” (ibid.). The existence of the RNA, Obadele asserted, “means, among other things, that a large body of Africans in America now has accurate information as to our status and our rights under international law,” and they were intent on acting on the information and exercising their rights fully (ibid.).
Just as apparent, in Obadele’s reasoning the U.S. government “still has the obligation under Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment to ‘enforce’ Section One (the offer of citizenship) in the only way it could be rightfully ‘enforced’—by authorizing U.S. participation in a plebiscite” facilitating black Americans’ “self-determined acceptance or rejection of the offer of citizenship” (1970, p. 29). He noted that “[t]here are important ramifications” of this requirement given that “[a]dequate and accurate information” is “fundamental to an informed decision,” therefore, it’s
incumbent upon the [United States], which heretofore used its great resources to misinform Africans in America about our status, options, and rights under international law, to make available to the Republic (and to those representing the other neglected options, emigration to Africa or some other place) the airways and other media for dissemination of information. (ibid.)
He acknowledged that “[t]he terms must be worked out on a mutual basis” in order “to remove the severe technical handicap which U.S. power (flowing out of a white racist theft of and subsequent monopoly of wealth) imposes on those competing for the attention of the African mind in an atmosphere essentially controlled by white American nationalists” (ibid., p. 29). For Obadele, “[a] genuine plebiscite implies that if people vote against U.S. citizenship, the means must be provided to facilitate whatever decision they do make. Thus, persons who vote to return to Africa or to emigrate elsewhere must have the means to do so” (ibid.). For those who might misconstrue the motivations for the RNA’s demands, Obadele concluded:
We are the descendants of Africans wrongfully kidnapped and brought here by whites with the explicit complicity of the U.S. government and every arm of the United States law-making and law-enforcing machinery. The kidnapping was a wrongful act for which our ancestors and we as their heirs are entitled to damages. The enslavement was a wrongful act, for which our ancestors and we as their heirs are entitled to damages. The stealing of our labor was a wrongful act, as was the cultural genocide we suffered. We are entitled to damages—to reparations. The compensations we speak of are owed to us. (ibid.)
Notwithstanding the legal merits of the RNA’s reparations claim, for the moment, what is telling about the RNA’s theoretical justification for black revolution in the United States is that their main argument assumes that such a revolution is necessitated by U.S. resistance to nonviolent—in this sense, electoral—strategies to achieve their independence goals. Further, the argument appreciates the contingent role of revolution as a means to achieve their political objective. It also seems to take little notice of several major implications of the logic of its revolutionary thesis that undermine its effectiveness as a strategy. For example, according to Obadele, the dissemination of information regarding the “four fundamental consequences of freedom” such that African Americans could make informed choices on their political relationship to the United States—the sine qua non of the RNA’s program, practice, and social theory—was incumbent upon the provision of media and the airways for such purposes. This was a huge undertaking, which ramified beyond what Obadele and the RNA leadership seemed to appreciate. In fact, the magnitude of the effort required to accomplish it entailed what Cruse characterized as capturing and democratizing the cultural apparatus of the United States. That is, this single aspect of the RNA’s thesis seemed to require a black cultural revolution. The RNA seemed oblivious to this implication of their program. In fact, although the RNA maintained a Minister of Culture—three of them originally, Adefunmi, Karenga, and Baraka—and the group appropriated aspects of what they considered “traditional” African dress and practices (e.g., the dashiki, African names, polygamy), their appreciation of the concept and necessity of cultural revolution in their doctrine was superficial and limited to broad though insufficiently theorized initiatives to “unbrainwash” black Americans from what was viewed as a “slave mentality.”
The salience of cultural revolution to the RNA’s thesis is even more evident when we consider that in Revolution and Nation-Building, Obadele (1970, p. 13) argued that blacks shared a common culture rooted in shared experiences, lifestyles, language (one distinct from American English), and common suffering. He added that “out of our attempt to build a good life in this land, we have made a distinct literature, created distinct songs, developed common habits of living.” Given white supremacist repression over centuries, Obadele recognized the importation of self-defeating and pathological tendencies among far too many blacks; thus, he saw the need for “reconstructing” the “black personality” and black Americans “as a people” (ibid., pp. 70, 71). Later, Obadele (1975, p. ix–x) asserted that the black American is “a de-culturized minority in the midst of a land-possessive, racist, white majority who brook for us no ideal except assimilation (and who steadfastly make the realization of this ideal impossible).” Fleshing out the implications of this cultural stasis on the acceptability of the RNA program to the black masses, he argued that like other “oppressed people who have been de-culturized by their oppressor,” blacks “tend to seek the path of least resistance in their struggle against oppression,” which, among other things, makes it “difficult to gauge the actual appeal of the concept of land and independence to the black masses” (ibid., p. ix). This “deculturizing” was such that Obadele railed against the “ ‘nigger’ life-style,” which he argued blacks had “created in reaction to slave status, oppression, and cultural deprivation . . . all over America” (ibid., p. 27).
It was this vortex of cultural imperialism that the RNA confronted in its attempt to appeal to blacks to support its program. Given the “mis-education of the Negro,” to borrow Woodson’s apt characterization, the RNA would rely on the provision of the mass media to the service of “re-educating” blacks regarding their rights born of their peculiar history in the United States. What the RNA did not seem to adequately appreciate was that this provision they sought in order to facilitate their plebiscite would entail a revolution itself. Thus, Newton and the BPP were correct in their opposition to the timing of the plebiscite—but for the wrong reason: a revolution would have to precede the plebiscite, but instead of a politico-military revolution, a cultural one. In the context of what the RNA proposed—to this extent, at least—RAM and Us were correct that a cultural revolution would have to precede a politico-military revolution, but Us focused on the wrong culture, a contrived atavistic African culture that Karenga and Us largely constructed, instead of a historically enduring contemporary African American culture that black Americans actually practiced.
It was clear that the provision of media and the airways to the RNA in order to disseminate information on blacks’ rights and responsibilities with respect to their citizenship claims was a massive undertaking of “re-education.” As noted above, it was commensurate with Cruse’s call for the “democratization of the cultural apparatus,” whose seizure he viewed necessitated a revolution itself, while Obadele seemed to assume that it would be attained by mutual consent with little attention paid to the type of leverage blacks would have to wield in order to achieve it (1975, p. 239). In essence, Obadele’s thesis seemed to require a cultural revolution to facilitate its primary mechanism (i.e., the plebiscite) to establish its raison d’être (its representation as a provisional government in its national territory), but the RNA leadership did not appreciate the gravity or extent of its implications for their broader program and revolutionary thesis. Among the reasons that the magnitude and centrality of black cultural revolution were poorly envisaged by the RNA was that, following Malcolm, it adopted a reverse civilizationist orientation toward black American culture, which left it ill-equipped on a theoretical level to address the increasingly urbanized and working-class culture that was prominent among black Americans in both Northern and Southern black communities, especially those whom the RNA was attempting to mobilize. The contradictions regarding black culture were becoming apparent at a time when the RNA’s two most informed and articulate theorists on the subject—two of its initial three Ministers of Culture, Baraka and Karenga—were only distantly involved with the organization. Baraka was consumed with CFUN in Newark and Karenga with the Us-Panther conflict in L.A.; nevertheless, it’s not likely that either could have turned the RNA toward a more constructive or Crusian analysis of black culture and cultural revolution, given that both Baraka and Karenga were devoted to the cultural atavism of kawaida at the time. The remaining Minister of Culture, Adefunmi, was also entrenched in reverse civilizationism in his promotion of “traditional” Yoruba culture. Black cultural revolution for each of them was associated with a “return” to a traditional communal—often myopic and reactionary—conception of African culture rather than a modern, cosmopolitan African American culture, which was the focus of Du Bois, Locke, Haywood, (Claudia) Jones, and Cruse, among others.
As it was, the RNA’s position raised the question of what form of struggle would that “provision” of “media and airwaves” to “unbrainwash a whole generation” of black people entail, as Malcolm remarked. Given that it seemed to require, at minimum, what Cruse viewed as a cultural revolution, then the organization should have emphasized this aspect of its nation building along with the importance of the land, reparations, and armed struggle aspects of its program. To be sure, the RNA inculcated issues of black culture in its political education courses, but much of this was oriented to kawaida precepts with its reverse civilizationist focus (e.g., through incorporation of the nguzo saba), which formed the bedrock of its identification with a “New African” personality. This was wedded to a collectivist orientation drawing from Julius Nyerere’s ujamaa (socialism), which was better suited to a third world agrarian context. Absent was a consideration of the magnitude of the preparation necessary prior to the plebiscite to undo centuries of conditioning among blacks, exacerbated by the fact that “American capitalism’s technological advances in mass cultural media—films, radio, and music records, etc.—was a new capitalistic feature to replace Marx’s ‘religion’ as the real modern opium of the people” (Cruse, 1968, p. 136). What should have been evident and better theorized was that the processes of black cultural revolution would affect this crucial phase of development toward the black plebiscite that the RNA envisioned. Ironically, it was a central thesis of Karenga’s kawaida thesis that the RNA nominally subscribed to which argued that cultural revolution had to precede political revolution because, inter alia, without the former, blacks would be unable as a people to make self-determined choices regarding their political objectives. Among such political choices, it’s hard to imagine a more exacting and significant one than to determine the political destiny of black America. In light of this, the necessary work to prepare the populace for the plebiscite would have to be a massive national educational undertaking. But the RNA did not seem to appreciate the magnitude of the mobilization required for an informed vote by the black masses who they hoped would participate in the plebiscite, nor did they seem to recognize the need to theorize the requisites for such a mobilization in their broader thesis on revolution. This lacuna was not only a problem of theory but of program, and it severely undermined the RNA’s organization building and its popular appeal.
Had the parameters of black cultural revolution been better understood, it is likely that the RNA would not have had such a sanguine view of the likelihood that the provision by the U.S. government of what amounted to the “cultural apparatus” of the United States to black America—in effect, democratizing or nationalizing its mass media—could be worked out on a “mutual basis,” or quickly. Given that the subsequent choice of the “unbrainwashed” black masses would provide the raison d’être for the establishment of the Republic of New Africa, then it was essential that the democratization of the cultural apparatus, that is, the process that would facilitate the “unbrainwashing,” take place before the plebiscite; however, the plebiscite was necessary to establish the viability of the Republic, given that without it, it’s not clear whether the idea of an independent republic would actually be supported by blacks to the extent that they would choose citizenship in the Republic over the other options. Given the demands of waging a successful black cultural revolution prior to undertaking the plebiscite, which would ostensibly bring the Republic into being, it is apparent that the RNA did not take adequate account of the time and effort necessary to do the “unbrainwashing” that a successful plebiscite would require. Further, considering the requisites for the plebiscite with respect to putting the cultural apparatus of the United States in the service of a revolutionary black American project, then it doesn’t take much to appreciate that if nonviolent direct action to desegregate public institutions and facilities had led to the white racist violence that had accompanied the CRM, the demands to capture, democratize, and nationalize the mass media and communications systems of the United States would unleash white violence on an even greater scale. Thus, the RNA’s “people’s war” may not have been required only in the aftermath of the establishment of the Republic or upon the initial occupation of the “national territory” in the South; it would most likely be necessary prior to the plebiscite. In sum, the absence of a theory of black cultural revolution exposed contradictions in the strategy and logic of the RNA program.
The engagement—or lack of engagement—with the issues attendant to the necessity of black cultural revolution left the RNA’s broader argument untethered to its constituent claims. The reparations claim was not only tied to the residence of blacks on U.S. soil (jus soli), but also their claims “of the blood” (jus sanguinus) as progeny of kidnapped and enslaved people made chattel. But the land and blood claims had been torn asunder not only by the horrific trans-Atlantic slave trade, roughly 250 years in bondage, and another century of lynch law and Jim Crow, but also by the cultural imperialism that white supremacism imposed on black America. In such a context, “choice” was as meaningless as “consent” in the coercive, asymmetrical power relationships that defined black America’s relationship to the white-dominated U.S. state, market, and society. At minimum, the cultural domination of white supremacism on blacks’ minds had to be lifted before they could vote with their feet regarding their sovereign interests. So, at that point, what was needed was a mechanism and/or process to facilitate such cultural liberation, but the RNA took much too seriously the façade of their own state, or “provisional government,” which existed in name only. That is, Obadele proposed to use his nominal “state” to create a “New African” national identity among black Americans where it largely did not exist—even among many, if not most, black nationalists. New Africans would then perform as a vanguard, comprising those who already understood the four fundamental consequences of freedom. Failing to effectively theorize black cultural revolution beyond the acquisition of African names, language, dress, religion, hairstyles, etc., the RNA plunged headlong into the creation of the Republic ahead of the masses who were much too rooted in their African American culture to identify with the superficial Africanisms that the RNA endorsed, or, in the absence of a successful cultural transformation, which the RNA supported, insufficiently “unbrainwashed” to follow the RNA vanguard.
At the heart of the problem was the RNA’s reverse civilizationism, which was evident most regrettably in its adoption of polygamy in July 1971.4 The latter rested on a rationale that not only enshrined sexist practices rooted in “traditionalism.” but promoted them to an ideal (i.e., New Marriage). It rested on a rationale that was internally illogical, presuming that because census data supposedly revealed roughly 1.5 million more women than men in the United States between the ages of fifteen and fifty-four, then men should be allowed to have more than one wife in order to absorb this “surplus of women.” Failing to make the case why a woman has to exist only as a wife or mother, the RNA’s “New Marriage” was a “solution” to a “problem” that didn’t exist. Further, such practices would clearly distance the RNA from the black communities of the U.S. South that they were trying to rally to their cause, given that they were often politically progressive but socially conservative and not likely to countenance polygamy as a policy or practice. It was also illegal.
Relatedly, the agricultural collectivism that was the hallmark of ujamaa socialism that the RNA borrowed from Nyerere’s Tanzania may have evoked unwittingly the long-loathed sharecropping land tenure practices among the Southern residents of Kush District. In fact, the reference to the territory as Kush seemed misdirected insofar as it evoked an ancient African kingdom (although mentioned in the Bible as “Cush”) instead of an obvious black American referent that might have engendered a sympathetic response from black Mississippians, such as the Harriet Tubman District, Hiram Revels District, or even the Nat Turner District. Moreover, although the RNA’s leaders were not antireligion—some, such as Milton Henry, were quite religious (years later, he would become a Christian minister), and others were religiously eclectic; nevertheless, their spirituality did not appear as “Christian-friendly” as it evolved, especially given the influence of its culture ministers’ respective foci on kawaida, which was adamantly anti-Christian, or traditional Yoruba religion. The upshot of such policies and practices was that the RNA, led by many seasoned veterans of a range of civil rights, human rights, grassroots, electoral, and black power organizations, arrived in what should have been the sociopolitically fertile climate of post–Voting Rights Act black Mississippi, by their names, dress, conception of marriage, religious advocacy, and economic program unnecessarily distanced themselves from many potential local allies. As a result of reverse civilizationism, the cultural bonds that should have tied these Northern blacks to their Southern kin separated them.
With such a disconnect between New African culture and local black Mississippi customs, it surely didn’t help that by the time of their arrival the RNA already had been implicated—through no fault of their own—with violent resistance, if not open revolution; but what was clearly detrimental to their cause was that the RNA couched this violent resistance in terms that sounded to a Southern ear eerily reminiscent of secessionism. Centering their legitimate reparations claim on the acquisition of five separate Southern states, the RNA’s “free the land” argument nestled as perilously close to the language of Southern secession as it did to black reclamation. While it could not be confused with a form of neo-Confederacy rhetoric in blackface, it was not beyond the odious aspect of such an association for most Americans; nevertheless, at minimum, it probably exacerbated what should have been a clear alliance among many Southern black veterans of the U.S. military who might have been responsive to the presence of fellow veterans such as Robert Williams and Milton Henry in the group—especially given the concentration of U.S. military bases in the South—but were less likely to identify with efforts that connoted secession in almost any respect, given the negative aspects of what it evoked for many Southern blacks.
At the core of these problems was the RNA’s neglect of the uniquely American aspects of black oppression. Ignoring black American cultural orientations and trends, it borrowed too heavily from a largely imagined, constructed “traditional” African aesthetic and material culture that needlessly distanced it from the lifestyles, customs, and practices of their local communities. In so doing the RNA undermined its most potent argument for reparations, which rested on an unequivocal black American cultural claim for which the RNA provided important legal support. Without a practicable mechanism/institution through which it could leverage its reparations claims, however, it was reduced to making moral/legal/ethical appeals that relied on either concessions to black protest from a U.S. government that the RNA admitted was white supremacist, politically repressive, warmongering, and bloodthirsty or concessions to black victory in a prolonged “people’s war” waged by the RNA and its allies. Given that the latter was highly unlikely—the RNA was having difficulty even resisting local police forces—what was left was the normative appeal for reparations, which, while meaningful, was little more than a petition for redress rather than a path for revolution. In effect, the RNA had a powerful reparations claim without a meaningful strategy to acquire it.
Moreover, without a more expansive cultural program rooted in the major cultural institution of the black community, the Black Church, the RNA’s initiatives in Mississippi floundered before they were able to develop social networks that might have strengthened their ties to the political machinery of the local community, which could have provided cover for its broader initiatives. Its often antagonistic opposition to the ideology of the increasingly influential integrationist civil rights organizations of the Deep South, even as the CRM was yielding to an emerging BPM, limited the RNA’s influence among those sectors of the black community that might otherwise have provided support. This distance between the RNA and the broader black community was further widened by the RNA’s open advocacy of both armed self-defense and “peoples’ war.” In addition, its failure to develop an electoral strategy along the lines of Malcolm’s implicit call for proportional representation in the Kush District limited its ability to utilize electoral advantages in black-dominated electoral districts. As noted above, although the RNA drew on Haywood’s Black Belt thesis, its program was not Marxist, and was even anti-Marxist at times, which brought it into fraternal dispute with Marxist groups such as the BPP, and in general conflict with the Marxist White Left. Relatedly, the RNA’s intellectual distancing from analyses such as Haywood’s that focused on organizing the peasantariat of the Black Belt may have contributed to its lack of coordination and development of the political interests of black sharecroppers and other rural and urban elements who were central to its plans for political transformation of the counties of the Black Belt as well as for armed resistance in the South.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, the RNA’s biggest challenge was the presence of federal, state, and local police forces who utilized COINTELPRO to illegally disrupt, discredit, incarcerate, and kill members of the RNA and other BPM groups (and CRM groups as well). Such illegal actions against the RNA began in earnest on the first anniversary of the group’s founding when local police forces attacked members of the group congregating at Revered C. L. Franklin’s (Aretha Franklin’s father) New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. In the shootout that resulted, one policeman was killed and two others were wounded. The police raided the church and rounded up, beat, and jailed some two hundred attendees on charges related to open warrants of murder. The intervention of African American judge (and future U.S. Congressman) George Crockett, who convened court in the police precinct where the congregation of the church was being held, resulted in the dismissal of charges against nearly all of them. The subsequent trial of the alleged shooters resulted in their acquittal, but no police were charged for their attack on the church sanctuary.
Several years later, FBI raids on two RNA locations in Mississippi resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of what became known as the RNA-11, which included Obadele. An internal dispute emerged over the feasibility of the RNA functioning with its president serving a multiyear prison term, and the group split between those continuing to follow Obadele and another group under the leadership of one of Obadele’s heretofore most trusted and dedicated lieutenants, RNA Second Vice President, attorney Chokwe Lumumba, called the New African Peoples Organization (NAPO). Lumumba would be involved in several high-profile legal cases, ranging from those of musician and RNA member Bilal Sunni Ali, alleged BLA members involved in a shootout with police arising from the robbery of a Brink’s truck in Nyack, New York, and rap artist, and son of BPP member Afeni Shakur, Tupac Shakur. He also was a co-founder of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA). Obadele served five years of a twelve-year prison term that resulted from trumped-up charges of conspiracy to assault a federal agent (in fact, it was the RNA members who had been attacked by federal, state, and local agents and police forces). Upon his release, he was reelected as leader of the RNA, becoming co-president with Dara Abubakari, and led efforts to free political prisoners while continuing to advocate for black reparations. He and Lumumba had reconciled their differences years before and continued to work together in their organizations. In 2013, Lumumba won election as mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, as a “Fannie Lou Hamer Democrat” but died in office less than a year into his term.5 The RNA and NAPO continue as organizations, and they have an influential offshoot, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM).6
The primary theoretical shortcoming of the RNA was that it treated Malcolm X’s revolutionary thesis as a completed intellectual project that only needed to be implemented as a program. As a result, the RNA did not challenge either Malcolm’s reverse civilizationism or his undeveloped cultural revolution thesis. In effect, the RNA’s program faltered where its thesis faltered: it misunderstood the need for a black cultural revolution to realize its objectives. And while it developed a compelling legal argument for black reparations, it did not wed this claim to an established institution rooted in black communities (e.g., the Black Church, a black political party, a black labor union, etc.) that could serve as a mechanism through which the RNA might leverage its claims under threat of meaningful repercussions on U.S. society. A contemporaneous Detroit-based group would organize around black labor unions in the automotive plants, which could be leveraged to realize the objectives of the BPM, and from Chrysler’s Dodge Main Assembly plant a group of black workers emerged making claims centered on the liberation of black labor. They called themselves the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), and they would become one of the most important organizations of the BPM, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW).
The League of Revolutionary Black Workers
While groups such as RAM, Us, and the BPP incorporated some form of socialism into their black nationalist theses—and both RAM and the BPP became explicitly Marxist—the LRBW originated as a self-proclaimed black Marxist organization. The League’s program fused the two main foci of Malcolm’s revolutionary thesis: the black revolution in the United States and the worldwide revolution abroad. The former drew on Malcolm’s black nationalism, which included an incipient class analysis, though one not explicitly Marxist, and a thesis on black cultural revolution, and the latter focused on emulating anticolonial liberation struggles throughout the world. Where RAM, Us, and the BPP attempted to build expressly on Malcolm’s black nationalist thrust, the LRBW from its origins focused equally on Malcolm’s differentiation between field Negroes and house Negroes. Malcolm’s field Negroes were the “grassroots,” the masses of blacks “catching hell,” who were increasingly orienting themselves toward revolution. The League attempted to subsume Malcolm’s black nationalism in a Marxist formulation, and what resulted was an organization, although short-lived, that had a profound impact on both the BPM and on Marxist Leninist organizing in the United States. In fact, although the Black Panther Party was the most popular organization of the BPM that was guided by Marxist precepts, the LRBW might have been the most promising.
What made the LRBW promising was that its strategy for black revolution focused on the need to organize a national general strike spearheaded by black industrial workers and their community allies. In this respect, the LRBW, unlike most other major organizations of the BPM, was aligning itself with the strategy that black Americans had employed in the Slave Revolution that overthrew chattel slavery. Considering the uniqueness of the LRBW’s approach and its importance to the overall thesis of this work, we’ll more fully examine its broader program and how its general strike strategy functioned in it, and then situate it in the broader discussion of black cultural revolution.
The League’s Genesis and Program
Although both were Marxist, one of the most important distinctions between the BPP and the League is that while the BPP promoted the lumpenproletariat as the vanguard of the revolution, the LRBW saw the proletariat as the vanguard. The LRBW focused on organizing black industrial workers at “the point of production”—primarily, the auto plants that dominated the politico-economic landscape of Detroit and formed the manufacturing core of U.S. industrial production, which was central to U.S. international economic hegemony. The LRBW viewed U.S. society as “racist, capitalist, and imperialist by nature” and “aggressively expansive, exploitative, and oppressive.” The LRBW argued that with its power of “financial penetration, backed up by a worldwide military regime,” the United States exercised “control of the resources, wealth and labor of the capitalist world” and “use[d] the most barbarous methods of warfare and subversion to maintain its billions of dollars in profit” (LRBW, 1997 , pp. 189–190). The LRBW dedicated itself “to waging a relentless struggle against racism, capitalism, and imperialism” to liberate “black people in the confines of the United States,” while contributing to “the liberation of all oppressed people in the world” (ibid., p. 189). Its short range objective was “to secure state power with the control of the means of production in the hands of the workers under the leadership of the most advanced section of the working class, the black working class vanguard” (ibid., p. 191), while its “long range objective [wa]s to create a society free of race, sex, class, and national oppression, founded on the humanitarian principle of from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (ibid.).
The League was established in 1969, in Highland Park, Michigan, which, along with Hamtramck, is one of two independent municipalities enclaved within the boundaries of Detroit. From its inception, the League viewed itself as an umbrella group of workers’ organizations, and as “a black Marxist-Leninist party, designed to liberate black people, dedicated to leading the workers’ struggle” in the United States “and resolved to wage a relentless struggle against imperialism” (1997 , p. 191). League members were not doctrinaire Marxists—most were not Marxists at all—and membership was comprised of workers, students, community activists, intellectuals, and professionals from an array of protest and organizational backgrounds and tendencies in Detroit at the time. Nevertheless, in its “General Program” the League defined itself as a group “guided by the principles of Marxism-Leninism” (ibid.), which it arrived at from analyses of the “concrete realities” of the condition of black people, especially black workers, in the United States (ibid.).
The League argued that, given their location in the heart of industrial production in the United States, black workers had the greatest potential to bring the U.S. economy—the most powerful economy in the world and the hub of global capitalist imperialist power—to a standstill. Given this unmatched power as a class, black workers were the most promising base from which to organize and develop the BPM toward a successful political revolution. Although the League developed and coordinated ties with the broader community beyond industrial workers and including lumpenproletarians, it rejected the contention, most popularly advocated by the BPP, that successful black liberation in the United States was contingent on mobilizing the lumpen, so in this respect the League, at its founding, advocated more orthodox Marxism. Further, the socialization of the industrial workplace, including the routinization of production procedures, the rationalization of work schedules, the privileging of coordination and teamwork, and the general discipline of the shop floor, imparted to industrial workers a sense of discipline and coordination that could be effectively applied to the organization of social movements as well. This had been demonstrated in the previous labor movements that were such a rich part of Detroit’s history in the twentieth century, and especially the history of black Detroiters, whose Great Migration from the economically devastated, white racist terrorist–infested, agricultural South was compelled, in part, by automobile manufacturer Henry Ford’s offer of a five dollars a day wage in 1914.
The LRBW “emerged specifically, out of the failure of the white labor movement to address itself to the racist work conditions and to the general inhumane conditions of black people” (LRBW, 1997 , p. 190) and it situated this failure within a broader domestic and global system of race and class oppression. The League noted that the historic and ongoing oppression of black peoples and black workers creates “a privileged status for white people and white workers,” while “the imperialist oppression and exploitation of the world creates a privileged status for the people and workers of the U.S.” The LRBW acknowledged that “systems of privilege” gave “white labor a huge stake in the imperialist system,” rendering “white labor unable and unfit to lead the working class in the U.S” (ibid., p. 189). The League noted that “the white labor movement has failed to deal with the worsening conditions of black workers and the key role of black workers in the economy and the working class” (ibid.).
Conceptually, the League argued that the “black community is virtually a black working class,” which “comprise[s] the backbone of the productive process in this country” and which has “produced goods under the most inhumane conditions.” In its view, the “black community is comprised of industrial workers, social service workers, our gallant youth, and many ad hoc community groups” (ibid.). Thus, although focusing on black industrial workers as the vanguard of a socialist revolution, the League was emphatic that it “relate[d] to the total black community,” and it asserted that “[o]ur duty is to plan the most feasible means to insure freedom and justice for the liberation of black people based on the concrete conditions” they faced. The LRBW undertook “the task of training [black] people for leadership and other special capacities that make a viable organization,” but it was not interested in focusing solely on “a single issue” or “talking about reforms in the system”; its primary concern was with “the seizure of state power” (ibid., pp. 190–191).
The General Program of the League included six objectives: (1) organizing black workers “on the broadest possible scale” into the League; (2) “politicizing and educating” blacks on the “nature of racism, capitalism, and imperialism” through League programs, media, and publications; (3) supporting the construction of a “broad economic base” within black communities to support revolutionary struggle; (4) developing a broad-based self-defense organization within the black community; (5) waging “unceasing struggles” in support of black workers and the broader black community; and, (6) “[f]orming principled alliances and coalitions, on the broadest possible base, with other oppressed minorities, organizations, movements, and forces, black or white, which struggle against the evils of racism, capitalism, and imperialism” (LRBW, 1997 , p. 191). As expressed in its foundational documents, the League’s programs, practices, and political thrust differentiated it noticeably from most groups of the BPM. For example, Ernie Mkalimoto Allen (1997, p. 75), who had been in RAM before joining the League, points out that “[t]he LRBW’s approach differed in several ways from those of other black organizations seeking civil and social rights.” Instead of addressing the diverse aspects of black oppression, it focused on the “specific sector” that had “the greatest potential for effecting ultimate political and social change”; instead of focusing on “the local police as the principle enemy of the black community,” which often resulted in deadly and futile encounters, it viewed it “as only one important aspect of class rule,” although it took “concrete steps to combat police oppression”; and instead of a piecemeal approach to resolving “the social problems of blacks,” it “envisioned the creation of a socialist society in the United States in which all forms of exploitation . . . would be eliminated forever” (ibid.; original emphasis).
The League’s program initially emerged from efforts to organize black workers in various revolutionary union movements (RUMs), of which the most significant were the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), the Eldon Revolutionary Union Movement (ELRUM), and the Ford Revolutionary Union Movement (FRUM). LRBW executive board member John Watson (1969, p. 3) noted in To the Point of Production that “[o]ur analysis tells us that the basic power of black people lies at the point of production, that the basic power we have is our power as workers,” and “[a]s workers, as black workers, we have historically been, and are now, essential elements in the American economic sense.” He acknowledged that this approach was different from those that focus on “organiz[ing] the so-called ‘brother on the street,’ ” and that although the League was not opposed to such approaches “without a more solid base such as that which the working class represents,” they viewed this type of organizing as “generally a pretty long, stretched-out, and futile development” (ibid., p. 4). For the League, “the best way to organize black people into a powerful unit is to organize them in the factories in which they are working,” because, they were convinced, black workers “have the power to completely close down the American economic system” (ibid.). Watson notes that an additional strength in organizing industrial workers is that in a single factory there might be ten thousand people facing “the same brutal conditions under the same system from the same bastards every day, eight hours a day, ten hours a day, six or seven days a week”; however, “[w]hen you go out into the community, the interests of the people . . . more than likely are going to be much more greatly dispersed than the interests of the workers are,” so that “[j]ust in terms of expediency there are greater possibilities in the organization of the plant” (ibid.).
Although the League’s primary focus was on organizing the workers in the auto plants, Watson was emphatic that “it is absolutely essential that the workers have some sort of support from outside of the factory” (1969, pp. 2–3). This emphasis was evident in the League’s (1970, p. 554) constitution, which stated:
We must act swiftly to help organize DRUM type organizations wherever there are Black workers, be it in Lynn Townsend’s kitchen, the White House, White Castle, Ford Rouge, the Mississippi Delta, the plains of Wyoming, the mines of Bolivia, the rubber plantations of Indonesia, the oil fields of Biafra, or the Chrysler plant in South Africa.
Watson (1969, p. 4) acknowledged that the “kinds of actions that can be taken (in the community) are not as effectively damaging to the ruling class as the kinds of actions that can be taken in the plant.” For example, “when you close down Hamtramck Assembly Plant, you do a number of things automatically. If you close it down for a day you cost Chrysler corporation 1,000 cars,” which “means the loss of a sizeable sum of money” (ibid.). In addition, “when you close down a large automobile plant, you automatically can mobilize the people in the streets, 5,000 or 10,000 at a single blow” (ibid.). This is considerably more people than organizers could garner going “house to house” (ibid.). Moreover, he adds, given that “workers are not people who live in factories 24 hours a day”—“[t]hey all go home and live somewhere in the community”—then, “[i]t’s almost an inevitable and simultaneous development that as factory workers begin to get organized, support elements within the community are also organized” (ibid.).
Thus, the League viewed “the point of production as the major and primary sector of the society which ha[d] to be organized” and, secondarily, “the community [which] should be organized in conjunction with that development” (1969, p. 4). Therefore, in concert with its initiatives among industrial workers in the plants, the League “quickly embarked on a program of expansion into community organizing, film production, and legal defense, as well as the establishment of a small printing plant and a bookstore” (Allen, 1997, p. 75). The importance of these “support elements within the community” was emphasized by executive board member, Kenneth Cockrel:
[W]hen you talk about the league expanding into what is called community work . . . it simply recognized . . . a broader political definition of . . . workers. And it was also an objective understanding of the fact that workers leave the plant and have to go somewhere. They live where we live so it become[s] eminently sensible, as well as objectively desirable, to have organizations that relate to workers within a context outside of the plant . . . so that we can generate the kind of support that we need in order to support the struggles inside the plant. (Geshwender & Jeffries, 2006, p. 145)
League members in their daily experience as workers in Detroit’s automotive plants and its associated industries knew firsthand their oppressive conditions, including backbreaking work and arbitrary discipline that blacks were routinely subjected to by both white management and the white unions to which they paid dues. The auto industry offered relatively high wages for its workers, and to some degree may be said to have exploited all of its workers; however, Georgakas and Surkin (1975, p. 35) note that black workers in Detroit’s auto plants “invariably got the worst and most dangerous jobs: the foundry, the body shop, and engine assembly, jobs requiring the greatest physical exertion and jobs which were the noisiest, dirtiest, and most dangerous in the plant.” Thus,
The exploitation experienced by all workers was compounded for black workers by the institutional racism which pervaded every aspect of factory life. Dodge Main [the Chrysler plant in Hamtramck] was typical: 99 percent of all skilled tradesmen were white, and 90 percent of all skilled apprentices were white. All the better jobs were overwhelmingly dominated by whites, and when whites did have difficult jobs, there were often two workers assigned to a task that a black worker was expected to do alone. (ibid.)
These problems were exacerbated by the arbitrary speedup of the assembly line, and this exploitation was not only evident in hiring, job placement, and work assignments, but in the strategic racist firing process employed by the auto companies. For example,
Blacks were further abused by the 90-day rule, under which workers could be dismissed at will before coming under full contract protection. The companies made it a practice to fire hundreds of workers per week, creating a rotating and permanent pool of insecure job seekers. The UAW . . . received a $20 initial fee and $21 in dues for each 89-day worker. The companies also received poverty program fees for the purpose of “training” parolees and welfare recipients. These individuals were often blacks and they were usually put on the least desirable jobs. Any protest could mean an end to government aid and possibly a return to prison. (Georgakas & Surkin, 1975, p. 35)
Yet black workers were increasingly participating in protest, and often in novel ways. For example, General Baker, a worker at Chrysler’s Dodge Main assembly plant, located in predominantly Polish American Hamtramck who, along with other future members of the League, Luke Tripp, John Williams, John Watson, Gwen Kemp, and Charles Johnson were among a cohort of young black activists in the city who were members of the group UHURU, a RAM-affiliated, student-led organization at Wayne State University in the heart of the city that had formed in 1963 and had gained attention when they organized against police brutality in the police murder of Cynthia Scott and the use of public funds in Detroit’s attempt to secure the summer Olympic Games of 1968. In 1966, Baker, along with Glanton Dowdell and Rufus Griffin, was charged with carrying concealed weapons during a disturbance on the east side of Detroit—the so-called Kercheval Riot (Georgakas & Surkin, 1975, p. 23). General Baker gained national attention when he penned a scathing letter to his draft board refusing to appear to be considered for service in the Vietnam War on the basis of the racism and imperialism of the United States and the illegality of the war. Baker ( 1970, p. 506) was proud, adamant, and direct in responding to his draft letter:
You stand before me . . . With all of this blood . . . dripping from your fangs . . . White man, listen to me. . . . You ask me if I am qualified to join an army of FOOLS, ASSASSINS and MORAL DELINQUENTS who are not worthy of being called men! . . . My fight is for Freedom: UHURU, LIBERTAD, HALAUGA, and HARAMBEE! Therefore, when the call is made to free South Africa; when the call is made to liberate Latin America . . . when the call is made to free the black delta areas of Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, when the call is made to FREE 12TH STREET HERE IN DETROIT!: when these calls are made, send for me for these shall be Historical Struggles in which it shall be an honor to serve! (ibid., pp. 506–507; original emphasis)
Baker’s activism was reflective of the depth of political consciousness among many young black Detroiters during the apex of the BPM, and, notably, the race and class consciousness of these activists seemed to be intensifying even more, especially following the Detroit rebellion of 1967. Like most Detroiters, many of Detroit’s black workers were deeply affected by the rebellion and many of them participated in it as well. Arrested during the rebellion, General Baker noted that in the police lockup he saw many of his co-workers from the plant who had also been arrested. The confluence of race and class in black autoworkers’ consciousness was not a new development, but it was intensified in the climate of the BPM and the expanding Vietnam War.
In this context, it was not lost on black workers that even as they suffered the racism of the shop floor, they were essential to the production of the most sought-after highly valued finished goods for the domestic and global market, American automobiles. The auto industry was the leading sector of U.S. production, and the United States was the most industrialized country in the world. The speedup of the assembly line, these workers knew implicitly, was driven not simply by the need for production for domestic consumption but increasingly for export to foreign markets. Both processes seemed to be driven by the greed of corporate owners in collusion with union bosses intent on extracting the maximum surplus value from their workers. Thus, in their everyday experience they appreciated, materially, the reach of domestic and international capitalism, which they associated with the exploitation of workers like themselves, at home and abroad, and the hub of this activity was the United States. Searching for a paradigm through which they could struggle, many of the workers who would form the League embraced the most prominent radical critique of capitalism: Marxism.
At the same time, League members recognized the special role of blacks in U.S. economic development. Eschewing reverse civilizationism or any glorianna approach to African or African American history, the League noted the unique position of African Americans as the only people who had been chattel (property) in the United States. Enslaved Africans had provided the essential unpaid labor and production to fuel both the Industrial Revolution and U.S. ascendance to superpower status. In addition, both slavery and post-slavery racial oppression had incubated a sense of national consciousness among black Americans that was distinctive from, but not unrelated to, a sense of class consciousness. In the 1960s, these former human chattel now occupied a position at one of the most important loci of industrial production in the United States: the automobile factories.
Like other BPM organizations, the League framed the condition of black Americans in terms of domestic colonialism. They acknowledged that blacks manifested a sense of national consciousness from their struggles as a racial out-caste, while their super-exploitation as workers, mirroring that of colonial laborers in Africa and Asia, bred a sense of class consciousness as well. This dual consciousness reflecting the racial and class dimensions of black oppression was exemplified in the African American domestic colonial worker. For the LRBW, these black proletarians constituted a critical element of the industrial working class, just as Haywood (1948) had argued. Now heavily concentrated in the cities where factories were located, positioned at the hub of industrial production in the most industrialized sector of the leading industrialized country in the world, blacks could leverage considerable power through coordinated action.
For example, through a coordinated series of strikes they could halt domestic production and bring U.S. automobile manufacturing to a halt, which had the potential to escalate to a general strike as it spread to other sectors, generating a “crisis of capitalism” by exposing a chink in the imperialist armor that revolutionaries could exploit. In some ways, the League’s practice of establishing and coordinating the RUMs in industries and service sectors was analogous to the CRM’s boycott strategy, but instead of simply withholding their patronage/consumption to create financial losses, by withholding their labor/production blacks could shut down production in important sectors of industry where their labor was critical. Therefore, although a demographic minority, blacks could leverage their disproportionate presence in important areas in industrial production to achieve their broader political-social-economic objectives. In the RUMs, the League had arrived at a practical and reproducible organizational tool for exercising black power. No other major organization of the BPM had devised a more competent, focused, and deliberate strategy for a legitimate attack by black Americans on U.S. power.
League members recognized the importance of a general strike strategy from the organization’s inception. In his 1969 interview, John Watson (1969, p. 9) asserted that “[w]e have some definite conceptions of how the revolution is going to be accomplished in this country,” and it involved “a protracted and intensive struggle,” which “would inevitably lead to a general strike.” He was explicit that “we have to think in terms of being able to have [a] national general strike” (ibid., p. 10). He was convinced that the strikers and their supporters would face massive retaliation and repression, which he thought would approximate what Detroiters had faced in their “unorganized general strike” of the rebellion of 1967. He expected that the agents of the ruling class “would probably try to garrison off the community and starve us out” (ibid.). Facing starvation, the revolutionary organization “would have no choice but to call for the workers to go back into the factories and assume control of the means of production and distribution” in order to feed the community and the workers, and in “[a]ssuming control of the means of production,” they would achieve “the first stage of assuming state power” (ibid.).“[F]rom the escalation of this type of struggle and from the reaction of the ruling class to it” would develop “an overall revolutionary movement which will forever overthrow capitalism and imperialism and racism” (ibid.).
While there were elements of this strategy that required further development and coordination, from its inception the League had in mind a strategy grounded in that of the only successful black revolution in the United States: the General Strike of the U.S. Civil War that Du Bois had historicized in Black Reconstruction. Such a proposal by black workers in the hub of automotive manufacturing in the United States was bound to have popular appeal, as well. Part of the appeal of the League’s program derived from the fact that it fused two tendencies evident in revolutionary politics in Detroit at the time. Detroit had long been a bastion of both black nationalist and black labor organizing since well before the CRM, and the League drew from and synthesized these two orientations (Boyd 2017). The younger cohort of League activists were workers, students, artists, intellectuals, and unemployed, who were politicized by the conditions of black Detroit, which was a haven of activism, and particularly by the preachments and programs of international and national leaders ranging from Fidel Castro (members of UHURU had participated in a trip to Cuba in 1961) to Malcolm X (who had been the assistant minister of Detroit’s NOI Mosque #1) and Robert Williams, as well as prominent Detroit-based activists Rosa Parks (who had moved to Detroit in 1957 and continued her activism),7 James and Grace Lee Boggs, Albert Cleage, Milton and Richard Henry, labor organizer and reparations activist Chris Alston, and for a short period, Harry Haywood, who lived in Detroit briefly during the 1960s.
As committed as they were to black liberation, the youthful cohort, which would ultimately form the core of the League, were eclectic in their theoretical orientations, drawing from Detroit’s rich radical traditions in black nationalist struggles and the labor movement. Black activism in Detroit often focused on critiques of white racism both in the city government—especially in the police department, the public schools, and in public housing—and throughout the private sector in real estate, retail trade, public accommodations, and employment, and with respect to the latter, especially racism among management and unions in the automotive industry. Thus, Detroit’s black revolutionists often appreciated race and class dynamics in ways that were not as contradictory as in regions that lacked a concentrated black industrial working class. The LRBW drew from the Motor City’s industrial traditions to ground itself in a specific form of radicalism that addressed the factors highlighted by Cruse, the Boggses, and Haywood in novel ways, and in so doing, it formed the most potent revolutionary black American labor initiative of the postwar era. The League’s nationalist and class orientation encouraged a dual strategy to free the black domestic colony through a black worker–led socialist revolution in the United States, in concert with a more extensive socialist revolution to eradicate Western imperialism abroad, which would free oppressed peoples globally.
The institutional elements of what would become the LRBW emerged from a varied and concerted, though initially uncoordinated, set of protest actions inside and outside the auto plants in and around Detroit, which eventuated in the establishment of the first and most influential of the RUMs, DRUM. The immediate impetus for these initiatives was the Detroit rebellion of 1967, which was the deadliest and most destructive of the urban insurrections that comprised the “Long Hot Summers” that swept major cities of the United States from Watts in 1965 to Washington, D.C., in 1968. The rebellion followed less than a week after a similar insurrection in Newark, which, prior to Detroit’s, had been the most destructive of the rebellions of the BPM. The Detroit rebellion was the apex of a crescendo in the magnitude of urban civil disturbances throughout the United States; and the scale of the uprising was surpassed among standard lists of “riots” only by the New York City draft riots during the U.S. Civil War, some of the worst riots of Red Summer following World War I (and later by the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion).8 As in previous rebellions of the era, the intense repression by the local and state police forces, including elements of the state’s National Guard in Detroit, augmented by a task force of the U.S. Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps with brigades from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, was epitomized in the police murder of three unarmed black teenagers (Fred Temple, Carl Cooper, and Aubrey Pollard) at the Algiers Motel and the National Guard killing by .50 caliber machine gun fire of four-year-old Tanya Blanding as she huddled in her home, led many Detroiters, especially many black youths, to rally to join various protest organizations in the city.9 Many future members of the League participated in the Detroit rebellion and among those were several who developed a radical community newspaper, the Inner City Voice (ICV). The ICV was a key locus of the organizing that would lead to the creation of the League. Georgakas and Surkin (1975, p. 17) note that “[v]irtually all the individuals who later emerged as the leadership of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers worked on ICV.” Thus, while the rebellion was both an expression of and a motivation for radical organization among black youths in Detroit, the institutional apparatus that merged the initiatives among black youths inside the plants and outside of them was the ICV.
Finally Got the News ‘Bout How Our Dues Are Being Used: Our Thing Is DRUM!
The first issue of ICV was published in October 1967, just three months after the rebellion. In its first year, ICV had a monthly press run of ten thousand copies (Georgakas & Surkin, 1975, p. 17). The editors insisted that “[o]nly a people who are strong, unified, armed, and know the enemy can carry on the struggles which lay ahead of us. . . . The Revolution must continue” (ibid., p. 16). The ICV’s stated purpose was to serve as a “vehicle for political organization, education, and change” by providing “a positive response to The Great Rebellion, elaborating, clarifying, and articulating what was already in the streets.” Its masthead read “Detroit’s Black Community Newspaper” and “The Voice of the Revolution.” Moreover, “ICV was not like the alternate-culture newspapers of that period,” that is, “[i]ts editors did not see its function simply as one of a principled opposition to the dominant culture,” but as “a vehicle for political organization, education, and change” (ibid.). One of its first editorials asserted:
In the July Rebellion we administered a beating to the behind of the white power structure, but apparently our message didn’t get over. . . . We are still working, still working too hard, getting paid too little, living in bad housing, sending our kids to substandard schools, paying too much for groceries, and treated like dogs by the police. We still don’t own anything and don’t control anything. . . . In other words, we are still being systematically exploited by the system and still have the responsibility to break the back of that system. (ibid.)
Activists of a variety of ideological tendencies gravitated toward ICV. As a result, ICV challenged the major political, economic, and social institutions of white oppression in black communities in Detroit and beyond. Georgakas and Surkin (1975, p. 17) note that “[t]he people who put out ICV were not newcomers to struggle,” nor were they “underground journalists of the type which produced hundreds of periodicals during the late sixties. Their collective experience included every major black revolutionary movement of the previous decade,” including SNCC, the FNP, UHURU, and RAM. “Some of them had been part of a group which defied the State Department ban on travel to Cuba in 1964, and some of them had had personal conversations with Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.” Thus, the articles, essays, and editorials showed the influence of Malcolm and Che; it reproduced articles from Robert Williams’s The Crusader; it reprinted speeches by C. L. R. James; and it included a regular column by James Boggs. The “unifying ingredient” in the ICV “was the sharp emphasis on defining the strategy and tactics of the ongoing black liberation struggle and how it might prefigure and trigger a second American revolution” (ibid., pp. 18–19).
Of the core group of black activists who contributed to ICV, one of the most respected was the aforementioned General Baker, who was a member of UHURU. The core of what would become the LRBW emerged from UHURU. According to former RAM leader Muhammad Ahmad (2007, p. 242), UHURU was a “revolutionary black nationalist/socialist action cadre” whose youthful members had close relations with older activists of a range of ideologies such as the black nationalists Milton and Richard Henry and Rev. Cleage, former Trotskyists James and Grace Lee Boggs, and Marxists Chris Alston and Harry Haywood, among others. UHURU members studied Malcolm X and Robert Williams, but also Marx, Lenin, Mao, Fanon, and Che. They considered themselves black Marxist-Leninists who were inspired by the liberation struggle in Africa as well as the Cuban and Chinese revolutions. UHURU members Luke Tripp, John Williams, John Watson, Gwen Kemp, Charles Johnson, and General Baker had gained attention in 1963 during the protest regarding the use of public funds in Detroit’s attempt to host a future summer Olympics, and Baker gained national attention after his draft refusal.
Future LRBW executive board member Mike Hamlin notes that Baker “began to pull together a group of workers who began to meet in the offices of the Inner City Voice” (Georgakas & Surkin, 1975, pp. 23–24). Members of ICV united with Baker and other workers who had initiated a wildcat strike on May 2, 1968, at the Dodge Main plant in response to a speedup of the assembly lines. At Dodge Main, more than 80 percent of the workers were black, but only 2 percent of the foremen and shop stewards, which was indicative of the long-standing racist promotion policies of Chrysler management as well as the UAW, bearing truth to DRUM’s chant: “UAW means U Ain’t White.” Approximately three thousand workers were involved in this wildcat strike, and although it had been initiated by a multiracial coalition of workers, including men and women, punishment was meted out disproportionately to black workers.10 In fact, all the fired strikers were rehired except General Baker and Bennie Tate. At ICV, Baker and other black workers met to discuss politically organizing the black autoworkers, which he and others had been attempting since the early 1960s. Baker was among several attendees who sensed that the Detroit rebellion had rejuvenated a sense of labor activism among blacks in the plants and inspired them toward guiding the broader black liberation struggle in Detroit and throughout the United States. As a result, Baker, Tate, and seven other workers from Dodge Main, along with the editors of the ICV, formed DRUM.
In the preamble to its constitution, DRUM proclaimed:
We the super-exploited black workers at Chrysler’s Hamtramck Assembly Plant recognize the historic role that we must play and the grave responsibility that is ours in the struggle for the liberation of black people in racist U.S.A. and people of color around the world from the yoke of oppression that holds all of us in the chains of slavery to this country’s racist exploitative system. . . . Throughout our history, black workers, first slaves and later as pseudo-freedmen, have been in the vanguard of potentially successful revolutionary struggles both in all black movements as well as in integrated efforts. These movements failed because they were betrayed from within or . . . by the white leadership exploiting the racist nature of the white workers they led. . . . [W]e have learned our lesson from history and we shall not fail. . . . [W]e who are the hope of black people and oppressed people everywhere dedicate ourselves to the cause of liberation to build the world anew, realizing that only a struggle led by black workers can triumph over our powerful reactionary enemy. (LRBW, 1970, pp. 551–552)
DRUM argued that “[o]ur sole objective is to break the bonds of white racist control over the lives and destiny of black workers,” understanding that “when we successfully carry out this mammoth task, relief will be brought to people all over the world oppressed by our common enemy,” although “[w]ith stakes so high the enemy will undoubtedly resist with great ferocity” (ibid., pp. 553, 552). Thus, they challenged that
[w]e must gear ourselves in the days ahead toward getting rid of the racist, tyrannical, and unrepresentative UAW as representation for black workers, so that with this enemy out of the way we can deal directly with our main adversary, the white racist management of Chrysler Corporation. (ibid., p. 552)
DRUM distributed an eponymous weekly newsletter in the plant, which addressed the main concerns of workers, including the deplorable, extremely hazardous, and often inhumane work conditions in the plant, as well as the racism of both the plant supervisors and administrators with respect to hiring, job placement, and especially discipline. DRUM challenged the racism of the leadership of the UAW, and was intent on developing the political consciousness of the black workers. In its first issue, DRUM “reviewed the wildcat strike,” which it argued was caused by “a speedup in production,” and it “described the harshness of the penalties meted out to Black strikers; accused the company of racist hiring practices, and included a memorial tribute to Malcolm X” (Geschwender & Jeffries, 2006, p. 139). The second issue assailed black union officials for failing to represent the rank and file and to stand up to white union officials and management. One black worker lamented: “It seems as though every time the white power structure is shaken another grinning and shuffling Uncle Tom will come running to their rescue” (ibid., p. 140). The issue posed the following nine questions under the heading “Have you ever wondered why?”:
(1) 95% of all foremen in the plants are whites; (2) 99% of all the general foremen are white; (3) 100% of all plant superintendents are white; (4) 90% of all skilled tradesmen are white; (5) 90% of all apprentices are white; (6) that systematically all of the easier jobs are held by whites; (7) whenever whites are on harder jobs, they have helpers; (8) when Black workers miss a day from work they are required to bring 2 doctors’ excuses as to why they missed work; (9) that seniority is also a racist concept, since black workers were systematically denied employment for years at this plant. (ibid.)
DRUM proposed remedies to address these conditions, including the immediate promotion of roughly sixty blacks to positions of foreman, general foreman, and plant superintendent, and called for the recruitment of all security guards, plant physicians, and half of the nursing staff from the black community and the appointment of a black person as the head of Chrysler’s board of directors. It also proposed a separate organization of black workers apart from the UAW and argued that black workers had as much right as skilled workers to a separate contract negotiated directly with management. The third issue of DRUM raised the contradiction of black workers’ union dues being used to support the UAW’s endorsement of the annual Detroit police field day. The Detroit police was viewed largely as an occupying armed force in the black community. For example, in 1963 alone, among “nearly five hundred cases of police-inflicted injuries,” well over half “were in the five predominantly Black precinct areas” in a city with barely 30 percent black population at the time (Geschwender & Jeffries, 2006, p. 143). The issue of police brutality had only heightened after the rebellion, and “The UAW endorsement of the field day was therefore seen as further evidence of an alliance between the UAW leadership and a ‘racist’ police department” (ibid., p. 140).
DRUM organized various actions in the plants, and one of the largest and most important was the wildcat strike of July 7, 1968, which occurred almost exactly a year after the Detroit rebellion. The strike focused on the often atrocious working conditions in the plant and the unwillingness and inability of the UAW to respond to and represent the interests and needs of black auto workers from whom they took union dues. The wildcat strike and rally brought black workers and community members together—including blacks of various ideological stripes and white radicals as well. DRUM viewed it as a success and, building on it, organized several other successful actions and events directed against both Detroit’s auto industry and the UAW.
DRUM and ICV attracted radical activists who would make strong contributions to the LRBW. For example, while working at the West Central Organization (WCO), Marian Kramer was recruited to help type articles for ICV. A prominent Detroit activist, she had worked with SNCC in the South and was associated with Detroit’s Black Panther Party—as were several League members. Kramer had organized tenants’ unions, worked with the Westside Mothers, a welfare rights group, and organized against police brutality and urban renewal/removal. Kramer notes that when “[t]he printers in the city refused to print the ICV” they decided “to take over The South End, Wayne State [University]’s student newspaper, and continue to get the word out concerning the situation at the plants, the communities, and the students in the inner city of Detroit. Some of our people enrolled at school and became staff of the paper” (Mast, 1994, p. 93). One ICV staffer and DRUM supporter, John Watson, used his position as a Wayne State University (WSU) student to gain the editorship of The South End, which was not only WSU’s student newspaper but the third-largest daily publication in Michigan. During the academic year, 1968–69, under Watson’s leadership, The South End was refocused to reflect the interests of DRUM, black student activists, and Detroit’s black community. Two ICV staffers and future leaders of the League, Luke Tripp and Mike Hamlin, joined the paper as paid staff. The efforts at the The South End were especially facilitated by the work of Kramer, Cassandra Smith, Edna Watson, Dorothy Duberry, Diane Bernard, and Gracie Wooten who “played tremendous roles in the paper” (ibid.). Indicative of the paper’s new focus, Watson placed two black panthers on the masthead of the collegiate daily, below which it read: “One conscious worker is worth a 100 students.” Luke Tripp’s lead story in The South End of January 23, 1969, read: “D.R.U.M.—VANGUARD OF THE BLACK REVOLUTION.”
DRUM’s wildcat strike and rally at Dodge Main of the previous July had led to the development of other “revolutionary union movements” (RUMs) both within and outside of the auto industry. For example, the Ford Revolutionary Union Movement (FRUM) organized in Ford’s gigantic Rouge plant in Dearborn, and the Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement (ELRUM) was organized in Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant. Both FRUM and ELRUM carried out militant and often successful strike actions at their respective plants, and both began their own newsletters.11 JARUM was organized at the Jefferson Avenue Assembly plant, MARUM was organized at the Mack Avenue plant, CADRUM was organized at the Cadillac Fleetwood plant, DRUM II was organized at Dodge Truck plant, and MERUM at the Mound Road Engine plant. RUMs also spread beyond the auto industry to include workers at the United Parcel Service (UPRUM), health workers (HRUM), workers at Detroit’s Lafayette Clinic (LARUM), and workers at Detroit’s major evening daily, The Detroit News (NEWRUM).
As these initiatives spread, the League was formed in June 1969 as a central organization to provide leadership and coordination for the RUMs, as well as the community-based efforts of the ICV and campus-based activists at The South End,12 and to integrate their efforts into a more concerted and broader struggle for a black worker–led revolution. The League consisted of from sixty to eighty central members, which “functioned as an integrative body coordinating general policy, political education, and strategies for its various components” (Geschwender & Jeffries, 2006, p. 142). It was headed by an executive board (EB) that included General Baker, Ken Cockrel, Mike Hamlin, Luke Tripp, John Watson, John Williams, and Chuck Wooten. As will become clearer below, only two of them were active autoworkers (Baker and Wooten) and notably absent were any of the women leaders such as Marian Kramer, Edna Watson, Gracie Wooten, Dorothy Duberry, Diane Bernard, and Cassandra Smith, who conducted and coordinated much of the work inside and outside of the plants.
The League’s Dual Strategy
Marian Kramer notes that in early discussions on the focus of League organizing, “[o]ne faction said that the focus should be in the plants, at the point of production. I said, ‘Yes, but all those men got to come back into the community; they live somewhere. We’ve got to be organizing in both places” (Mast, 1994, p. 104). Kramer’s perspective was adopted and the League pursued a dual strategy of organizing in the plants and in the community. Thus, although League members would initially emphasize organizing inside the plants at the point of production, as EB member Mike Hamlin asserts, the League was compelled to “broaden our contacts within the community” because “[w]e needed support to continue the struggle” (Georgakas & Surkin, 1975, p. 87). Hamlin thought the League “should build several kinds of resources to serve the struggle,” including “a printing operation, a legal apparatus, and stepped up political education.” Pursuant to those objectives, “[t]he League began to recruit large numbers of students and professionals,” but, Hamlin lamented, “I think that our understanding of proletarian consciousness at that time was very low, and we did not do a good job of transforming the understanding of our new members. We were held together by personal loyalties rather than ideology” (ibid.). Hamlin viewed “[c]ommunity organizing and industrial organizing a[s] linked up”—“[t]hey go together”—and he was convinced that the “working class should lead the community effort” (ibid.).
The emphasis that the League’s leadership put on such community-based efforts is evident in its acquisition of the editorship of The South End; its leadership in community control initiatives associated with the WCO and its offshoot, the Parents and Students for Community Control (PASCC), which was centered on the city’s planned decentralization of its public schools; its assistance and coordination with the black student unions in several Detroit high schools through the Black Student United Front (BSUF); its coalition with white radicals, progressives, and liberals in the Motor City Labor League (MCLL) and its associated bookstore; and, probably most fatefully, its involvement with the Black Economic Development Conference (BEDC). BEDC was an initiative of the Inter-Religious Foundation for Community Organizations (IFCO), and at its meeting in April 1969 in Detroit, attendees proposed that it become an initiative to create a national organization. The organization, among other things, would provide a source of funding for the League, but tied its leadership to James Forman, the former leader of SNCC, who had played an important role in establishing links between the BEDC and members of the League’s executive board. Forman was fresh from a short-lived association with the Panthers and seized upon the initiative of the League as a new organizational base. Through the BEDC, Forman proposed a “Black Manifesto,” which he famously read while disrupting religious services at New York’s Riverside Church and demanding a half-billion dollars from white religious institutions for reparations for black Americans. Most religious organizations ignored these “demands,” but IFCO provided nominal funding for some BEDC initiatives, which still were “considerably more than most radical groups had to work with” (Georgakas & Surkin, 1975, p. 96).
The resources made available to the League through BEDC raised concerns among leaders such as General Baker about both the influence of the ideology of those who provided the money as well as their commitment to the organization of industrial workers in the plants. Where the community efforts clearly complemented the in-plant organizing there was less controversy. For example, the League leadership supported the International Black Appeal (IBA), which was a national tax-exempt charity that union members could support through tax-deductible donations directly from their paychecks, utilizing a check-off system similar to the annual Torch Drive or the United Jewish Appeal. When approached, the UAW was less hostile to this plan than League members had initially expected, which may have reflected the union’s view that the IBA was a first step at incorporating the League under its aegis. For the League, the IBA represented a potentially major source of financial support to provide for a strike fund for picketing and/or fired workers and their families, especially “if it was funneled to friendly charitable agencies that could hire fired workers and support strikers” (ibid., p. 97); “If each of the 250,000 black members of the UAW gave only $1 a month,” then the League would have a monthly income of $250,000 (ibid.). Other initiatives facilitated by BEDC funding, such as that which gave rise to Black Star Publishing, were also broadly supported when focused mainly on helping to publish the newsletters and periodicals of the RUMs and other League components and to train League members in these skills. However, when Black Star moved into films, fissures began to emerge among the leadership and rank and file about the usefulness of the League’s limited resources for out-of-plant activities.
The first production of Black Star, the influential film about the League titled Finally Got the News, was skilled, insightful, and a testament to the League’s organizational efforts and programmatic focus; its practical and theoretical farsightedness and its appeals to workers and broader community members demonstrated the League’s ability to utilize popular media to articulate and promote its political and organizational message to increase its appeal and extend its influence. Finally Got the News may have been the only professional-quality documentary film produced by a BPM revolutionary organization featuring the members themselves presenting its programs and objectives, with images, sounds, and commentary unadulterated by the control or censoring of mainstream media. In effect, it was one of the most effective propaganda vehicles produced in the BPM. It was the equivalent of The Battle of Algiers of the BPM. No other major BPM organization produced an educational and recruitment tool of this quality utilizing film on its own terms. In essence, Finally Got the News was a nascent attempt by the League to extend their challenge at the “point of industrial production” in the workplace to one at the “point of cultural production” in the community. In this sense, it represented one of the most sophisticated and effective attempts to adopt Cruse’s approach of targeting the cultural system in the BPM.
Unfortunately, the League’s success with Finally Got the News was not repeated in subsequent projects, which focused on tangential issues. For example, under Watson’s direction, Black Star planned additional movies, such as one focusing on Rosa Luxemburg, for which Watson sought assistance from Jane Fonda, who suggested that funds might be better spent on a project with more direct relevance to the organizing of black industrial workers and their community supporters. Other projects led Watson to travel to Italy to seek additional support, which distanced him even farther from League activities in Detroit and drew greater attention to the fact that such efforts seemed irrelevant to the needs of the in-plant organization of black workers.
A more successful and enduring fusion of the League’s in-plant and out-of-plant initiatives was evident in the court cases involving the League’s lawyer, and executive board member, Ken Cockrel, including his successful defense of black auto worker James Johnson, who had killed a foreman and two co-workers (two whites and one black) at the Eldon Plant. In the trial, Cockrel successfully argued that the oppressive conditions of the auto plant and the virulent racism of its administrators had compelled Johnson’s actions—essentially putting Chrysler on trial (encouraging the slogan of the trial: “Chrysler pulled the trigger”). Cockrel also successfully defended members of the RNA following a shootout with Detroit police who had attacked Rev. C. L. Franklin’s (Aretha’s father) New Bethel Baptist Church during the RNA’s anniversary program. Although a Detroit policeman had been killed, Cockrel won the acquittal of RNA members Chaka Fuller, Rafael Viera, and Alfred 2X Hibbitt. Cockrel also defended Heyward Brown, who had joined revolutionaries Mark “Ibo” Bethune and John Percy Boyd to attack drug dealers in several of Detroit’s crime-ridden neighborhoods and as a result had become involved in shootouts with Detroit’s notorious STRESS (Stop The Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets) police decoy unit. STRESS was infamous for killing blacks and had a record of killing unarmed Detroiters that exceeded any other in the police department, which it achieved with impunity (Boyd 2003). Cockrel successfully put STRESS and the Detroit police on trial and held them accountable for their reign of terror among Detroit’s black community, and Brown was acquitted.
Cockrel’s successful legal strategies enhanced his stature in the city, and his association with the League and its larger projects increased the scope and relevance of the League in the eyes of many Detroiters, especially its auto workers, who appreciated the range of programs, policies, and practices within the plants and outside of them that the League promoted throughout the city. Moreover, the broader community came to embrace more of the League’s efforts and to support its challenge(s) to the racist political, economic, and social structures that dominated the city from the offices of the mayor and police commissioner to the auto companies to whom they constantly deferred13 and the UAW, which seemed more interested in doing the auto companies’ bidding when it came to workers in general, and to black workers, in particular. The League also challenged Detroit’s white supremacist media that supported and reinforced these glaringly racist interests.14
While there were clear positives associated with the League’s broader community efforts, there were negatives, as well—the main one being that the energy and resources of the League were being spread thin by some of the out-of-plant organizing just as increasing demands were being made by workers across Detroit, the Midwest, and beyond for in-plant organizing. The League was initially successful in assisting the development of RUMs, but their number expanded rapidly. This was not simply a result of League efforts, but of the local and largely independent efforts of workers in their own facilities; however, the demonstration effect of DRUM, ELRUM, and FRUM inspired much of what occurred among the other RUMs, and the League’s influence in those actions was pronounced. Just as apparent was the difficulty the League experienced in assisting the development of the other RUMs. The League assisted with quotidian tasks such as the production and distribution of the RUMs’ newsletters, but it was less successful at the broader coordination of the RUMs’ efforts, including several wildcat strikes. The latter exposed the League’s lack of preparedness in response to the range of management and union actions aimed at destroying the League.
These difficulties both reflected and were exacerbated by the absence of a dues-paying structure among League affiliates that would have provided a strike fund to support fired workers. The League weighed whether to legitimize the union structure that it, rightfully, disparaged by running candidates for union office. When Ron March, the DRUM candidate, failed to win an election runoff after an impressive showing in the election itself, it was clear that his defeat resulted from the UAW’s appeal to white and Polish American retirees regarding what they labeled the “black peril.” The runoff election also witnessed, according to DRUM members, Hamtramck police acting in concert with white UAW members in seizing ballots and rigging the results in favor of the white UAW candidate. Beyond electioneering “dirty tricks,” it was evident that the severity of the retributions both union and management directed toward RUM members necessitated an independent resource base within the League to financially support fired workers and provide them with legal assistance. If the League could not provide such support, then its efforts in the plants would be undermined by both the physical absence of fired League members from participation in in-plant organizing and the drain on its already limited financial resources as it attempted to provide support for fired members and their families in ad hoc fashion. An attrition strategy was just what management and the UAW were willing to employ against these black labor radicals, as they had for decades, and through its use they sought to either coopt or undermine the League’s efforts.
The subsequent repression that its members endured was a major factor in the League’s decline. The League contended that both management and the UAW employed methods that were legal, extralegal and at times blatantly illegal to undermine it, including selective firings, surveillance, electioneering, fraud, harassment, as well as physical assaults. The complicity of the UAW with management was captured in the spectacle of UAW’s top executives, including Douglas Fraser (who would become UAW president in 1977), leading a forceful termination of a wildcat strike by workers at Mack stamping plant in 1969 and taking pride in siding with management against its own striking workers, in a clear indication to even the most jaded observers that black workers’ closest liberal “allies” among organized labor could not be depended on for assistance, and demonstrating their open hostility to issues related to the interests of black workers. It didn’t help that instances such as these occurred as the League was experiencing rapid growth, exacerbating strains on its resources and tensions within its executive board and between the board and the general membership.
White union members, management, and whites in general were given a ready-made opportunity for opposing the LRBW’s challenge to their white supremacism, mismanagement, and exploitative practices that they exercised by red-baiting the avowedly Marxist organization. Actually, black workers—and an increasing number of whites—were aware that many of the LRBW’s complaints about the automakers and the UAW had merit, regardless of their association with Marxism. In the event, the LRBW might have profited from a strategy, like Castro’s (whom they studied) during and shortly after the Cuban Revolution, of concealing their Marxism until they had seized strategic objectives or accumulated more resources. The UAW collaborated with management to rid the plants of League workers and sympathizers, while providing superficial concessions to black representation by dispensing token union positions, which also had the effect of siphoning off some LRBW support in the plants. The upshot of these tactics of repression, collaboration, and cooptation was that LRBW members were often removed from the plants, which undermined the League’s major function of organizing plant workers.
An even larger strategic failure was the League’s apparent lack of appreciation for the declining influence of the black industrial proletariat during a period of deindustrialization, just as James Boggs (1963) had argued. But other problems associated with the League were internal and based in its need for an ideological compass to point its growing organization toward its revolutionary objectives. Executive board member Mike Hamlin admitted that the League “came to believe that the working class had to make the revolution, had to lead the revolution, and that we had to concentrate our energies on workers”; but, “[w]e didn’t really understand what making a revolution entailed, what a proletarian revolution was, how, it took shape, and how it developed” (Georgakas & Surkin, 1975, pp. 86–87). Divergent viewpoints on the preferred course of revolutionary struggle were inevitable, and they would give rise to prominent divisions within the League. These external and internal factors threatened to implode the LRBW unless it found a way to synthesize its contradictions into a coherent theoretical thrust and program of action; but instead of synthesis, the divisions became even more fractious and the League began to crumble under its own weight.
Synthesizing Ideological Tensions within the League
Allen (1979, p. 84) notes that the divisions within the League were “two-fold”: one was ideological, with one tendency “putting forward a general Marxist orientation” and “more amenable to working with white (mostly middle class) allies,” and the other more inclined toward black nationalism, which “tended to oppose such alliances.” He aligns Ken Cockrel, Mike Hamlin, Luke Tripp, John Watson, and John Williams with the first tendency and General Baker and Chuck Wooten with the second. Another division reflected a disagreement on strategy and tactics. According to Allen:
Nominally, all Executive Board members agree that the principle [sic] political task of the League was the organizing of black workers. . . . A highly pragmatic section of the leadership advocated expanding League activities into many spheres at the same time. . . . Another group favored a more coordinated expansion but also concerned themselves with the consolidation of existing organizational ventures. Finally, there were more people who tended to resist involvement in any activities that were not immediately connected with the direct organization of black workers in Detroit. Hamlin, Cockrel and Watson were identified with the first tendency, Tripp and Williams with the second; and Wooten and Baker with the third. (1979, pp. 84–85)
Allen adds that this “two-fold political division on the EB was to produce curious alignments and realignments among its members, depending on the specific issues involved” (ibid., p. 85). Georgakas and Surkin (1975) observe three dominant tendencies among the executive board: One faction, including Baker and Wooten, focused on in-plant organizing of RUMs and less on out-of-plant activities; another, focused on out-of-plant organizing, stressed building networks of community support, and incuded Hamlin, Watson, and Cockrel, who also viewed media, such as films and newspapers, as vital to educating workers and supporters; and one, represented by Tripp and Williams, focused on the development of the political consciousness of both workers in the plants and supporters outside the plants, emphasizing strengthening the League in Detroit before expanding to other cities. The third tendency represented a middle road between the other two—Allen’s “pragmatic section,” reflecting a concern that neither of the other two tendencies should be permitted to skew the League’s efforts too much in their preferred direction before a durable framework for a black revolutionary workers’ movement with broad-based community support had been established.
Consistent with the argument in Geschwender (1977), which was the first monograph on the League, Geschwender and Jeffries (2006, pp. 153–157) emphasize a different axis of conflict among the League’s leadership rooted in ideological strains, and note that the “failure to explicate a logically consistent model facilitating a cohesive direction for action was a constant source of strain within the organization” (ibid., p. 155). They argue that the League’s ideology was rooted in two contradictory tendencies (ibid., pp. 153–157). The first, the “capitalist exploitation model,” a Marxist framework, viewed blacks largely as super-exploited proletarians and posited the necessity for a socialist revolution to eradicate the capitalist oppression in the United States from which both racial and class oppression emanated. However, in the League’s model, the socialist revolution would be led by black proletarians as the vanguard because white workers were inveterate racists, whose transformation was incumbent upon their recognition of the objective conditions compelling them to class consciousness and solidarity with their fellow black workers. In contrast, League members also subscribed to the “colonial model,” which viewed blacks as a super-exploited domestic nationality whose liberation was incumbent upon waging a war of national liberation, such as those typified in the anticolonial wars of national liberation that dotted the Cold War landscape. It followed that “[a]cceptance of the colonial model logically entails cultural and revolutionary nationalism aimed at ultimate establishment of a separate Black political entity”; however, given that “[i]t is unlikely that Black workers could, by themselves, successfully bring about a socialist revolution,” then, “[t]hey need white workers as allies”; “[y]et it is these very white workers that the colonial model entails defining as an enemy” (ibid., p. 155). Thus, the “combined model,” which presumably was the one the League was operating under, was inherently contradictory because it “requires simultaneously working with and fighting against white workers” and “simultaneously working with and fighting against Black capitalists” (ibid.). The authors assert that “[i]t is undoubtedly possible to design a model that incorporates the desirable features of both models without requiring incompatible tactical lines of endeavor, but the [L]eague did not work this out” (ibid.). The authors also do not provide such a synthesis.
A related argument, first articulated by Geschwender (1977) and shared by Kadalie (2000), is Geschwender and Jeffries’s (2006, p. 156) contention that inconsistencies in the League’s competing ideologies were rooted in its “differentiated class composition,” which presumably “explains its attraction toward apparently contradictory ideological currents” (ibid.). This argument tends to essentialize and ossify the categories of intellectuals and workers in ways that ignore their often common roots in the socialization of blacks in Detroit, from which the League drew the lion’s share of its membership. For example, the authors assert that
[i]ntellectuals and workers have different life experiences that lead them to view the world differently. Black intellectuals and workers will share the experience of being Black in a racist society but will not experience their Blackness in an identical manner. They are likely to interpret the cause of Black oppression in terms of different conceptual and theoretical schemes. The conditions and organization of their work experiences also differ, and consequently they are likely to develop different orientations toward the need for, and value of, political education. (Geschwender & Jeffries, 2006, p. 156)
But in Detroit, this distinction was often more apparent than real. Workers and labor organizers were often intellectuals as well. Chris Alston and James Boggs are only two of the prominent Detroit black auto workers and labor organizers who were also noted Marxist intellectuals. Further, the practice of men and women workers providing intellectual guidance to movements by fusing work, social activism, and theory, focusing on the transformation of both work and society, was much more prevalent among blacks in Detroit’s industries than a casual engagement with this history would suggest. This is not to say that each black worker was an intellectual—far from it; but it is to challenge the view that “the experience of their Blackness” was inherently different for black intellectuals and black workers in Detroit during the BPM. Often, black intellectuals and black workers were one and the same.
In addition, the common perception of workers as belonging to the “working class” and intellectuals the “middle class” was challenged in black power era Detroit. Given the relatively higher wages of auto workers as compared to other employment sectors open to blacks, the “working class” in Detroit was often “middle class” economically, or at least lower-middle class; they were less likely to remain among the city’s poorest residents, such as those in Detroit’s public housing projects. Similarly, the “intellectuals” often had some college education but rarely college degrees or advanced graduate training. Many had left college to devote themselves to the CRM and BPM, or simply to support their families through work while attending college part-time. The confluence of these practices made WSU a hub of students and workers in the heart of Detroit, quite unlike what was occurring at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor or Michigan State University in East Lansing, or even at the private Jesuit University of Detroit on the northwest side of the city. As a result, the income of the “intellectuals” among Detroit’s activists often derived less from employment within an academic environment, as is implied by Geschwender and Jeffries’s dichotomy, and, to a lesser degree, Kadalie’s, but typically from the same kind of employment in the public sector related to local government (i.e., city, state, or federal jobs), teaching or support jobs in the Detroit Public Schools, general service sector jobs, retail trade, or work in the associated businesses of the auto industry. Thus, the distinction between black workers and black intellectuals rarely suggested an economic class stratification as commonly understood.15
The authors’ assumption rested on another dubious dichotomy separating auto workers from the black middle class in Detroit. Even those auto workers in the worst jobs in the paint shop, the foundry, and on the line earned wages that placed them firmly above the poverty line, and most with steady work were firmly situated in the black middle class. The impact of the auto industry on class differentiation in Detroit was such that by 1948 Detroit had among the highest per capita single-family home ownership in the United States, although these home owners were overwhelmingly white. Though in reality, the lives of black Detroiters were powerfully circumscribed by white racism, Detroit’s black population was itself similarly stratified by class as a function of the industrial wages of its auto workers. Importantly, even blacks without high school diplomas had access to the relatively higher wages in the factory than similarly situated blacks outside of the auto plants who were often compelled to the welfare rolls and AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and the city’s housing projects. As a result, black auto workers were a diverse lot in terms of economic class—if not social class. Economically, even poorer auto workers could ascend to the middle class—if home ownership, or at least occupancy in a single-family dwelling were the measure. In fact, for members of Detroit’s predominantly black housing projects, securing full-time work in the auto plant was typically a “ticket out” of the projects and its poverty.16
Further, instead of accepting the authors’ assertion that “Black workers will not readily be attracted into political education programs” because “[m]ost Black workers, especially in the auto industry, work long hours at demanding jobs” and thus, “do not have a great deal of time and energy to spend on political education classes,” one might consider that decades of Socialist and Communist Party organizing and their concomitant political education in black communities had demonstrated that black workers were as likely to respond to political education—even when associated with socialism and communism—as any other group of workers. This is not to disagree with the point that “auto workers work long hours” but to point out that effective political education speaks to the workers in ways that are not simply didactic but inspirational, uplifting, and reassuring as individual workers begin to associate themselves with a broader community of support and activism. In fact, a great deal of political education was occurring in the pews of churches every Sunday in black communities across the United States.
Another, more basic problem might have been the League’s political education teachers’ insufficient grounding in Marxist theory, especially that which addressed the historical development and contemporary conditions of the U.S. proletariat, coupled with the limited pedagogical skills of some League instructors. With respect to the latter, Geschwender and Jeffries (2006), following Georgakas and Surkin (1975) and Geschwender (1977), seem to lay the blame for the problems of political education at the feet of “black nationalists” in the League instead of the teachers of the Marxism-oriented political education classes, who typically were not associated with the black nationalist tendency among League leadership. This argument, like many of the suppositions from these analysts, should be weighed against the fact that influential DRUM and League members such as General Baker and Chuck Wooten, the two auto workers and in-plant members of the executive board who were most often associated with the “black nationalist” tendency, were not among the sources whom the authors drew on to develop their studies and inform their analyses, or at least not in direct interviews, while board members such as Watson, Hamlin, and Cockrel are heavily cited by them. Not surprisingly, when we examine Baker’s views on the political education classes, we see that he does not associate their shortcomings with any “tendency” but simply with the absence of an understanding of Marxism among the League’s founders, and the ineffectiveness of the teachers of the classes.17
For example, in his analysis of the LRBW drawn on his personal experience and interviews with Baker and Wooten, Muhammad Ahmad (2007, p. 270) notes that the League “was racked with a serious problem of uneven political development among its members.” He points out that “Luke Tripp first taught the classes on the basics of Marxism-Leninism,” and “not knowing how to break theory down into everyday language, would bore the workers, who often went to sleep in class.” Tripp was not associated with the black nationalist tendency. Executive board members seemed to have hoped that Forman would provide a quality Marxist theoretician among their teaching cadre, but they were disappointed. Reflecting on those years, in 2014 General Baker was more ecumenical in his critique of the League founders, including himself, who, he argued, had insufficient understanding of Marxism-Leninism at the time, which was both reflected in and exacerbated by the absence of competent instruction of the ideology in the political education classes.18 It was ironic that given the salience of Marxism in labor organizing in Detroit, the League did not have among their cadre, a pool of good teachers of Marxism.19 Reflecting on his experience as an LRBW central staff member, Ernest Allen notes that the problem with political education courses was their overreliance on materials taught from the experience of the Chinese and Vietnamese, when
what you needed and what we didn’t have at the time in [sic] which we still don’t really have adequately, was a literature that reflected the experience of black workers. That would bring the theory in but at the same time the historical examples would be that of black workers themselves so they could see themselves in it as well as learn about their own historical experiences. (Ahmad, 2007, p. 271)
Ahmad (ibid., pp. 270–271) adds that Allen “was brought in to teach the political education courses,” and “he broke it down plain and the workers enjoyed going to political education.” While League members seemed more receptive to Allen’s instruction, by the time of his instructing the political education classes the reticence of many members toward Marxist political education had become active resistance. Further, overwhelmed by the need to support the rapidly proliferating RUMs and to create support networks for fired strikers and their families, the time spent on Marxism seemed misplaced.
Analysts of the League do not suggest how their major contending perspectives on its ideology could be fused. This is what Du Bois and Haywood had undertaken in the 1930s, what Cruse and Boggs had attempted near the outset of the CRM, and what Malcolm had begun to struggle with on the cusp of the BPM. Harry Haywood had proposed such a fusion of black nationalism and Marxism rooted in a Marxist teleology and Haywood had lived for a time with John Watson in Detroit during DRUM’s tenure. In fact, there were two such prominent fusions, one emphasizing a Marxist dimension and the other a black nationalist dimension but both attempting to ground its theoretical synthesis in African American political, economic, and social development. Both focused on addressing the racial oppression of blacks and the class oppression of the proletariat. Given that blacks are exploited by both race and class, and in the most powerful country in the world, then, in that context, they face not only the hostility of the white capitalist class but of white workers as well. Black proletarians might play a leading role in ending the super-exploitation of black people consistent with the conception of blacks as a black nation but also consistent with a Marxist conception of the proletariat of the nation liberating itself from its bourgeoisie, thereby characterizing more of a comprador class in a dependency relationship with metropolitan capital, represented by the white ruling class of the United States. Just as Marx encouraged an alliance of English workers with their fellow Irish proletarians, whom they often disparaged in ethnocentric if not “racialist” terms, whites should be encouraged to ally with revolutionary black proletarians; yet, in the United States, as the Slave Revolution implied, this alliance need not be with white proletarians, who, during the BPM, not only were not revolutionary as a class but were vicious racists and opponents of black union members, black workers, and black people in general.
The League’s practice raised the issue of who constituted the relevant sector of the black community beyond the proletariat that would serve as a complementary revolutionary force and who occupied the respective revolutionary sector in the white community, if any. The BPP’s white “mother country radicals” were poorly fitted into their professed Marxist formulation, and similarly, whites were integrated rather uncomfortably within the League’s “black Marxism.” For example, while the League’s community work included alliances and coalitions with white groups such as the Motor City Labor League, in-plant organizing focused specifically on black workers. The latter, racially focused strategy was anathema to the emerging ideological purists among the League’s executive board, who increasingly viewed themselves as Marxists rather than black Marxists and embraced alliances with whites—often including petit bourgeois, liberal, and radical whites–while eschewing similar cross-class alliances with black petit bourgeois and liberals. At the same time, alliances with whites, both petit bourgeois and proletarian, were opposed by those favoring race-based alliances. Kadalie (2000, p. 212) argues that the contention regarding the relative salience of race and class was not irreconcilable, but when their implications for alliances and coalitions created tactical contradictions, the executive board did not adequately address them. For him, this was less an ideological problem than one of organizational leadership and structure, since it was clear to him that the issue was not whether the League should have done organizational work with the black petite bourgeoisie at the expense of working with the black proletariat, given the reality “that some work needed to be done within the petit-bourgeoisie [sic]” (ibid., pp. 212–213). Kadalie (ibid.) implicates the cumbersome institutional structure of the League, which did not facilitate the amelioration of the dispute largely because the executive board was undemocratic, unwieldy, unresponsive, and unwilling to seriously consider legitimate critiques or calls for reforms of its internal decision-making practices.
As noted in chapter 4, Du Bois had resolved the most contentious aspects of the race/class tension in black American liberation struggles by demonstrating that black class stratification did not generate the class antagonisms that Marxism anticipates because the black proletariat (and peasantariat) were not exploited by a black bourgeoisie or black petite bourgeoisie; rather, they were mainly employed, and super-exploited, by a white bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie. Thus, interclass race-based organizations were more salient than interracial class-based ones because the principal axis of exploitation for black Americans was race and not class. He pointed out that the black bourgeoisie did not function as a national bourgeoisie in a Marxist sense since it possessed little capital and was not the primary exploiter of black labor. The black bourgeoisie had hardly ever employed even a miniscule percentage of black workers, and likely even less so by the BPM era. The black bourgeoisie had not even developed as a managerial class, much less a class of owners of capital, until the benefits began to accrue to middle-class blacks from the CRM. Even this incipient managerial class consisted less of private business owners—i.e., a petite bourgeoisie—than salaried workers in the public sphere, mainly in local, state, and federal government agencies. Without a black bourgeoisie in a Marxist sense, it followed that the class differences between it and the black working class did not manifest the class antagonisms that Marxism anticipates, and therefore organization for black liberation would correspondingly proceed along race lines more than class lines. There were class differences in black communities, and even more so by the BPM; however, they still didn’t generate the class contradictions that Marxism predicts, mainly because neither the black bourgeoisie nor the petite bourgeoisie were the primary exploiters of black labor, which was the class position of white capitalists, and as Du Bois insisted, white organized labor as well. It followed that the League should take as its primary emphasis organizing intraracially across classes in black communities, and secondarily concern itself with organizing interracially as the situation presented itself (e.g., in the historic case with the white Union Army). What Du Bois had observed during the Great Depression was no less apparent in the BPM; thus, his analysis was no less accurate.
Beyond Du Bois’s arguments, the League might have addressed its ideological tensions using Haywood’s Black Belt thesis before they became so disputatious. That the executive board didn’t attempt such an approach is surprising given that Haywood resided in Detroit briefly during the League era, staying with executive board member John Watson, and he could have provided intellectual guidance to orient the parties before they became estranged. However, it appears that the board had not considered Haywood’s thesis as a synthesis of their contrasting ideological views because, surprisingly, they hadn’t examined Haywood’s works sufficiently. As a result, there was little synthesis of the League’s practice with the “third trend” that Haywood had promoted in RAM’s Soul Book in 1967 and had specifically associated with the initiatives of DRUM even prior to the formal establishment of the League. One result of the failure to achieve a theoretical synthesis was that the League did not privilege organizing RUMs among black workers in the Black Belt, which should have been a locus of revolutionary organizing, according to Haywood. Such organizing was likely to have been both more contentious and, potentially, more auspicious given the rising political efficacy of black Southern communities in light of the CRM and the likelihood that any appeal for assistance to these same communities would translate the political gains of the CRM into economic benefits in one of the most hostile labor climates in the United States. Such an orientation was much more promising than the RNA’s program. Moreover, it might appeal to the interests of not only the agricultural workers but the black petite bourgeoisie in the region, and thereby encourage the further expansion of the successful civil rights efforts of SNCC, SCLC and CORE into the economic domain by using the tool of labor, which was a prominent part of the liberal coalition that had rallied to it during the CRM. The contradictions that the League raised with regard to industrial labor were even greater when applied to black agricultural workers in the South, as well as the black industrial and service workers in Southern cities, and the prospects for League success were promising in the South given the shifting focus of key civil rights organizers in the region. It’s important to remember that Martin L. King’s assassination in Memphis had occurred during his visit to the city at the behest of striking sanitation workers.
In fact, it was the use of the boycott, a type of strike, that ushered in the CRM in the first place. By building on the infrastructural latticework as well as the methods used to build the movement for voting rights in the rural areas of the South, and applying them to its urban centers, then, in conjunction with student activists, black labor leaders could organize sharecroppers as well as industrial workers in targeted labor actions throughout the Black Belt. In this way, the predominantly Northern-based League, having expanded into the South, offered the possibility, through its RUMs, of concerted strike actions across industries in both the North and the South simultaneously. In the event, the League did not develop a “Southern strategy,” as the Black Belt thesis implied, nor did it extend its organizational efforts to the South. It is ironic that of the two Detroit-based black power organizations, the League and the RNA, the former, with its focus on organizing black workers, thus complementing the political program of the CRM with an economic thrust grounded in the region’s earlier, albeit limited, unionization (e.g., the Alabama Sharecroppers Union, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union), would choose not to go South to organize its poor disfranchised fellow black workers, while the RNA, which required blacks to consider themselves as New Africans, with a program that was largely detached from the everyday reality of poor disfranchised black Southern workers, chose to go South and present themselves as dashiki-clad, revolutionary polygamists.20
The League’s focus on organizing in plants and companies in and around predominantly Northern cities where the black presence was pronounced was more in accord with Boggs’s thesis of the “City as the Black Man’s Land” than Haywood’s. But Boggs’s broader thesis regarding the impact of automation and cybernation on the U.S. politico-economy suggested that the League’s in-plant organizing would yield diminishing returns as the plants became increasingly desensitized to strikes and shutdowns because they grew less reliant on large numbers of workers—especially unskilled black workers—to operate them. Instead, the strikes at the plants needed to be carried out not simply to shut down production, but in concert with targeted actions in black and nonblack communities utilizing the out-of-plant initiatives the League had developed to shut down the major operations of the cities. Although Boggs didn’t seem to appreciate this, to its credit the League’s program was amenable to a general strike strategy, such as was being carried out in Paris in 1968.
Clearly, the United States was not going to be revolutionized by a direct attack on its military forces by black insurgents utilizing a guerrilla strategy, or by any other military strategy that was being considered at the time for that matter, regardless of the fantastic claims made by black and white militants who not only were unprepared to engage U.S. military forces, but were being waylaid by local police and sheriffs in armed confrontations (e.g., the NOI, RAM, Us, the BPP, the RNA) that often placed more of a burden on black communities by creating the need to organize and fund “Free _____” campaigns to secure the release of those imprisoned (e.g., “Free Huey,” “Free Angela”). Both Cruse and the League were correct that the key to black liberation was to target a critical point in U.S. society. For Cruse, that was the “weakest point,” which he saw as the cultural front, and for the League it was the “point of production.” In fact, these two worked hand in hand, and the League was better prepared than any other organization of the BPM to effect a strategy that fused the two in its focus on both in-plant and out-of-plant organizing. That is, the LRBW’s strategy implied the necessity of simultaneously targeting both the point of industrial production as well as the point of cultural production, and this was a replication of the strategy of the Slave Revolution of the Civil War, which the League’s predecessors had waged a century before.
For example, one can imagine a League plan targeting a specific automotive plant such as Eldon Gear and Axle in Detroit, which was crucial to Chrysler auto production throughout the United States because it was the company’s sole provider of axles for all of its cars. Eldon employed more than four thousand workers, of whom 70 percent were black, and it had been cited for more than 150 safety violations and was the site of the Johnson shooting discussed above. ELRUM was a strong presence in the plant. A strike at Eldon would generate a strong media response. but the Detroit news media were largely racist and did the Big Four’s bidding in much of their reporting, so key to the plan were the other RUMs in the various other, non-automotive industries, including the city’s major daily The Detroit News, the more conservative of the city’s two major daily newspapers. NEWRUM would have to strike to shut down the production of The Detroit News and in this way provide a greater exposure for The South End, under the editorship of executive board member John Watson, and sympathetic coverage of the Eldon strike. At the same time, other selected RUMs would strike in both automotive and associated industries throughout the city and surrounding areas. Support would be provided by the community assets the League had developed in its out-of-plant organizing, including screenings of Finally Got the News by sympathetic churches, student organizations, unions, lodges, and other voluntary organizations to provide political education and garner popular support. Then, the Association of Black Students at Wayne State University would strike in coordination with a walkout of students from Northwestern and Northern high schools, both of which had staged walkout protests before and were sites of the League’s organizing students in the BSUF. The students at other major universities in the area, including the University of Michigan, where black student protest was high, SDS had been founded and the Port Huron Statement written, and the first “teach-in” against the Vietnam War had been held, and Michigan State University, also a site of black student protest and Weather Underground organizing, would be part of this coordinated effort, as a result attracting white allies in support of a “creeping” general strike in the Detroit metropolitan area. The initial demands of the industrial workers (and those in other sectors) could be focused on redress of their immediate concerns with white racist practices and policies related to working conditions, as well as tied into enduring, unresolved issues of racist discrimination and exploitation tracing back to the previous century. Sympathetic media would highlight these connections in their reporting, reinforcing the continuity that bound present conditions to their historic roots.
The pattern might be repeated in other selected cities of the North, coordinated by the League’s executive board. Concurrently, in the South, the “creeping general strike” would be initiated by either tenant farmers or industrial or service workers—RUMs having been organized among each group—and would extend to the campuses of the historically black colleges and universities. Then, as in the North, key opposition media would be targeted for strike action, so that the League’s and more sympathetic media’s depiction of the strikes could be projected. The introduction of high school students and white college students would be pivotal, as well. Even more than in the North, sympathetic churches in the South would serve as sites of coordinating networks of community-based initiatives. With such extensive coordination, the United States would face a “creeping general strike” throughout the main sectors—industrial, agricultural, and service—of its economy, whose demands would address not only the rights of workers in those sectors, but the duties and obligations of the public and private institutions to the black communities that they were sworn to serve. The demands raised would include not only the recognition of workers’ and students’ rights but the distribution of resources. Just as important would be reconciling contemporary and historic claims to damages. The creeping general strikes emerging simultaneously in the North and South would converge into one national general strike and culminate in the ultimate demand of these striking black workers and their community supporters for reparations for slavery and Jim Crow.
Both the Northern and Southern actions would generate responses from local police forces and the mobilization of the National Guard, especially to restore activity in key production sectors. The most critical issues would be based on the level of repression that these forces would wield in order to end the general strike and the extent to which the RUMs were prepared to hold the line on the strikes and the occupation of the strike sites, the latter a function of their operational preparedness and the nature of any white (or black) worker opposition, the degree and extent of support from non-RUM-affiliated industries, the resoluteness of the support from within black communities, and the degree of division in white communities (especially within the armed forces). In the event, the United States would face a situation similar to France in 1968, although involving a much larger territory and, given the already existing sociopolitical cleavages in the populace regarding the Vietnam War, possibly a more volatile domestic situation, with no DeGaulle on the horizon for the U.S. government to call in to resolve the crisis.21 The League’s general strike would have to be well planned, meticulously coordinated, and prolonged across months, if not years. It could not be a single event. As difficult as it would be to plan and organize, it was still more feasible and promising than what other BPM revolutionists were proposing.
Following our argument on the relationship between cultural and political revolution, the Du Bois-Locke synthesis, and the example of the Slave Revolution, a general strike of this orientation and magnitude would entail not only a focus on the black urban proletarians of the North and the black agrarians of the South, but on the cultural integument that wedded the political objectives of black national self-determination to black labor’s class-based demands for economic resources. The glue binding these two into a coherent whole was the cultural claim that blacks could unify behind, but it also raised the potential issue of the “crisis of industrial capitalism” in the United States. That is, what was required was a cultural claim that had major political and economic implications, one, following Locke’s thesis, which would be rooted in demands for cultural democracy but would implicate political and economic democracy as well. The ramifications of these interactions would create the desired revolutionary outcome: racial democracy, which would transform the United States into a multiracial democracy in political, economic, and social terms. As noted above, the major cultural claim of blacks that had the potential to ramify in this way was/is reparations for the black descendants of U.S. slavery and Jim Crow. Although myriad factors might generate local initiatives and result in mass strikes coordinated by the separate RUMs situated in various industries and institutions, the culmination and coordination of these in a general strike would have as its major objective securing black reparations.
Full and judicious reparations for blacks would entail not simply a redistribution of the resources of the U.S. economy; it would first require a reconsideration of the basis of equality among black and white Americans though the elevation of the rights of blacks, as a people, to the fruits of their own labor and the obligation of the U.S. government to recognize these rights based on their equality as “cultural” equals in a collective sense, rather than simply the political, economic, and social rights of individual blacks. That is, the “legal standing” of the descendants of blacks made chattel by slavery and oppressed by Jim Crow requires recognition of their cultural equality as a people, not simply as individuals. Such recognition necessitates not simply making them whole as individual citizens but, given that these individuals comprise a specifically targeted group, a nation, whose human rights were violated collectively as a racially distinct people and the crimes against them committed by the United States and its agents, then the United States and its agents were required to provide reparations for the political, economic, and social harm they inflicted.
Herein lies the importance of a reparations strategy, in light of Locke’s thesis: reparation would have to be manifest across cultural as well as political, economic, and social spheres, because part of what was denied African Americans was their cultural practices, preferences, and often their cultural products. Understanding the depths of that would require an educational process not only for black Americans, but even more so for nonblack, specifically white, Americans. This cultural education would be required to force the U.S. populace to appreciate the impact of the depredations suffered by black Americans at the hands of white racists and their institutions. In that process, white Americans and their racism would be challenged. That is, this cultural education would necessitate a type of cultural revolution among white Americans to bring them to appreciate the need to redress the “crimes against humanity” of white supremacism in the United States and therefore lead them to reject ongoing and future white racist criminality and prevent the need for future reparations. Thus, reparations, as an issue, would ramify not only as a claim for political rights and economic resources, but as a cultural claim whose provision would also transform the major educational institutions of U.S. society. An approach focused on democratizing the cultural apparatus is subsumed in such a reparations strategy, and so is one focused on generating “the crisis of U.S. capitalism” insofar as the economic redistribution of resources to blacks would not only include the land claims from Reconstruction and the “ex-slave bounties and pensions,” but also the socio-politico-economic damages wrought by Jim Crow. Whatever form the latter might take, it would involve a massive redistribution of wealth—including the transfer of land in the United States to its largest racial minority and, as a result, would have, at minimum, the impact on the U.S. economy of permanently lifting the poorest black Americans out of poverty.
Importantly, the demands would not simply be focused on providing blacks a “bigger piece of the pie,” but of transforming the pie itself. Thus, politically, reparations would not call for blacks to enjoy political “rights” under the present political system but, recognizing that blacks would not be effectively enfranchised under the existing majority rule systems (ranging from seniority systems to redistricting and gerrymandering of black populated districts), systems would have to be devised to provide weighted or plural voting such that black representation would be secured against white electoral tyranny (e.g., through gerrymandering). This would involve a reconsideration of the democratic ideal that has underwritten, through “majority rule,” white racial majority tyranny. The establishment of the political rights of blacks raises the question of the nature of “representative” democracy in the United States and, as a result, suggests challenges to the ways voting rights are extended to citizens, as well as the notion of one person, one vote, the privileging of the two-party system (or even political parties themselves) in elections, and institutions that do not reflect actual “representative” democracy, such as the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College. The establishment of the social rights of blacks is even more extensive.
I emphasize these points to be clear that the reparations strategy suggested by black cultural revolution is one that focuses on reparations as a claim that would require drastic transformations of the U.S. political, economic and social systems. The revolutionists in the League coordinating the RUMs that controlled the diverse industries, institutions, and organizations of society through their strike actions and supported by those who remain as support elements within community-based institutions, would not relent until these changes were enacted. One tactic to utilize the leverage of the workers at their work sites—be they industrial plants, farms, transportation facilities, or schools—would be to open up production, distribution, or administration to limited sectors or areas in which their demands were met, in order to extend the range of their support, and also to increase the cleavage between their real and potential adversaries. Most importantly, however, the success of the general strike would turn on the strikers’ ability to organize RUMs, sympathizers, or factions in the U.S. armed forces, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement bodies.
Among the important distinctions between a League strategy for reparations, as outlined, and the poorly conceived and executed Black Manifesto of Forman, or even the much better conceived legal arguments of the RNA, is that in the context of a nationwide general strike the League’s demands for reparations would not only raise this fundamental unresolved issue of social justice in the U.S. body politic, but also as an organization of black workers, its standing to make such a claim would be unassailable. More importantly, during a general strike, black workers would be demanding reparations in a context in which automotive production in the United States was stymied. Thus, unlike Forman and the BEDC, which had a weak legal argument for reparations and little if any leverage over the U.S. government to obtain them, or the RNA, which had a strong legal argument for reparations but very little leverage over the government to obtain them, the League, during a general strike, would represent a powerful historical and legal claim for reparations, reinforced by tremendous leverage to obtain them.
As noted above, the key to the issue of reparations was not only its historical and legal basis, but that it was/is a culturally based political issue that had important economic implications. Importantly, such a culture-based claim of black Americans would call the question of the commitment of prospective white American (and other minority) allies to the issues of social justice that they ostensibly supported. In fact, a reasonable assumption was that the success of a black cultural revolution, as developed here, was likely either to stimulate or be contingent on a concurrent white cultural revolution, as well. The latter would transform, by seriously weakening, if not overthrowing the cultural system of white supremacism in the context of expanding protests and related discussions of the case for black reparations, while establishing and institutionalizing processes legitimizing among whites the political, economic, and social demands that blacks were making. The spearhead of such a transformation would be white revolutionist allies themselves. Just as important was the prospective role these white allies might play in demobilizing the rightist and racist elements in their communities, especially but not exclusively among the military and police forces. During the Vietnam War, a general strike with the objective of challenging if not wholly overturning white supremacism, coupled with a demand for reparations, in a context where whites were undergoing a cultural revolution of their own had the potential to divide white America in ways that would only further accentuate the League’s leverage. Seen in this light, the general strike of the BPM would parallel the General Strike of the Civil War, although it was less clear whether it might generate a political revolution that could be resolved violently, nonviolently, or through a combination of both—or whether it could be resolved at all.
Clearly, no BPM organization advanced along this theoretical and programmatic path—and I am not suggesting that such a program would have reached fruition if it had been pursued—but with its strategy of organizing black workers and targeting strikes at the “point of production” initially in the automotive plants, establishing RUMs throughout a variety of other industries, organizing students and intellectuals, developing independent media, and building community-based institutional supports, the short-lived LRBW came the closest of any organization to succeeding along this path to black liberation in the Black Power era. This becomes evident when we strip the League’s strategy of its lexical veneer and it is revealed as focused on achieving a mass strike to shut down production in the automotive industry and, through its impact on related industries, bring the U.S. economy to a halt. Sugrue (2018, p. 2) estimates that “[b]y the midtwentieth century, one in every six working Americans was employed directly or indirectly by the automobile industry, and Detroit was its epicenter.” Such a strike would lead to massive losses of wealth within the U.S. economy, losses that would ripple throughout the heavily integrated political economies of the West. Corresponding strikes in other unionized industries, service sectors, among agricultural and domestic workers, and among students on both high school and college campuses would generate a general strike. The general strike would allow the League to exert leverage on the government to accede to the demands in its six-point general program, and at the point of its maximum leverage the general strike would demand reparations for blacks, with all the political, economic, and social implications that such a demand would generate.
The League’s political education classes would have benefited from drawing on Du Bois’s thesis rooted in the history of African Americans rather than poorly fitting paradigms from nineteenth-century Europe or contemporary Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Du Bois’s analysis from Black Reconstruction demonstrated how black laborers had successfully prosecuted a revolution that transformed the United States, so the issue of whether as a class they could be revolutionary was moot. Further, it indicated that the League’s organization of workers at the point of production was historically grounded and logistically promising in light of African American history. It would also have been obvious that the League’s revolutionary forebears drew on transformed slave religion to provide ideological motivation for their insurgency. Thus, religion was not necessarily the “opiate of the people,” but rather the “adrenaline of the slave,” stimulating them to initiate the General Strike, to join the Union forces, and to fight for their freedom in the Slave Revolution of the Civil War.
Du Bois’s thesis also demonstrated that organization outside the workplace, that is, in the community, was also essential inasmuch as elements of the black petite bourgeoisie (intellectuals, students, church members) had shown themselves willing to pursue revolutionary objectives, historically in the General Strike and contemporaneously in the BPM, and might be considered as analogous to those Northern blacks who joined the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), free blacks in the South, slaves who abandoned the plantations or just stopped working. In light of the latter, Du Bois’s thesis converged with the League’s focus on out-of-plant organizing through media and inuniversities and high schools. Thus, drawing from Du Bois might have revealed and reinforced the importance of the League’s dual strategy and demonstrated its convergence with previous strategies pursued for black liberation, as epitomized in the General Strike. Moreover, it would have shown that there was no contradiction in following a dual strategy; in fact, that was the pattern undertaken in the only successful revolution that paralleled what was being attempted in the BPM.
A divergence between Du Bois’s and the League’s perspectives was the institutional locus of revolutionary change each proposed. For the former, it would center on the most powerful cultural institution in the black community, the Black Church, and for the League it was the industrial workplace. Actually, Du Bois’s exposition in Black Reconstruction demonstrates that it was changes in slave religion that motivated enslaved and free black labor to pursue the General Strike, and that in this way the revolutionary initiative emerged from both the community, represented by slave religion, and the workplace, through slave hiring. Thus, what Du Bois’s analysis showed was what the League practiced: a focus on organizing in the workplace and in important community institutions. A synthesis of both implied that the locus of revolutionary change for blacks would need to be both localized in the workplace and, concurrently, grounded in black cultural institutions, utilizing media to keep the networks in each well connected and coordinated. Stated differently, the League’s focus on the “point of industrial production” in the workplace should have been balanced by a focus on the “point of cultural production” in the community. Their bold challenge to a sector of industrial production in the United States, where among the most highly valued finished goods were produced, should have been complemented by a “challenge [to] free enterprise at its weakest link in the production chain, where no tangible commodities are produced” (Cruse, 1968, pp. 112–113), namely, the cultural system, beginning with black communities. In practice, the League’s Finally Got the News was emblematic of attempts at the latter. Such a theoretical synthesis was absent from the League’s program because the executive board and other important elements of leadership failed to appreciate the cultural aspects of black revolution, which they might have garnered by drawing on African American revolutionary antecedents.
Relatedly, because of its Marxist orientation the League did not seriously develop the religion-based aspect of Du Bois’s thesis in Black Reconstruction or the related role of slave hiring in the slave revolts and like most BPM revolutionists, they were altogether unaware of Locke’s thesis. Although the League’s focus on community organization was exceptional, it failed to provide the social networks that black churches could supply from both within and across local black communities. Most importantly, black churches would have been essential for the League’s Southern strategy, for without their participation the League’s attempt at black unionization in the South would likely go the way of the CIO’s abortive Operation Dixie.22 In the event, the League’s reliance on analyses that were inattentive to black revolutionary processes in the United States contributed to unnecessary tensions between two perspectives that were, in fact, complementary (i.e., the in-plant and out-of-plant initiatives), whose synthesis might have made moot the larger dispute between those who privileged organizing among an interracial proletariat that hardly existed in Detroit (or, arguably, anywhere else in the United States) and was antagonistic to mobilizing black workers and communities where it did exist, and those who focused on a black proletariat that was mobilizing inside industrial plants and across classes in black communities.
The League’s organizing of the RUMs was the core activity preliminary to the anticipated general strike, and its efforts in media and community work were incipient attempts at a cultural transformation that would focus not on some esoteric “traditional African” or “spontaneously revolutionary” blackness but on the concrete conditions and reality of black workers and the modern, predominantly urban culture they practiced and drew upon for their strength, insights, and day-to-day interactions. The League failed to appreciate that it was not at the forefront of a Marxian revolution in the United States, of the sort presaged in the Bolshevik Revolution; rather, it stood on the cusp of a black revolution in the United States that had been presaged in the actions of its enslaved ancestors and the cultural revolution they undertook, which had generated the successful political revolution they had fought in the U.S. Civil War, a century earlier.
In this chapter, we have examined two major organizations of the BPM that promulgated in one form or another a thesis of black cultural revolution. First, the RNA proffered a thesis self-consciously wedded to Malcolm’s arguments regarding land as the basis of independence and the importance of revolution to establish a black sovereign nation. An important implication of Malcolm’s thesis was that blacks had the right to make claims on the states that comprised the historic Black Belt and to demand reparations in order to establish and sustain a sovereign New African nation in the U.S. South. The RNA focused its attention on the liberation of the five contiguous states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, where blacks had long settled. They made a salient historical, political, legal, and moral argument that reparations were owed to the black descendants of enslaved Africans, who constituted the New African population. In the event that reparations were not forthcoming, they advocated a “people’s war” against the United States in order to liberate New Africa. Unlike many of the national groups that advocated armed struggle in the BPM, the RNA, which began in the North, moved South in order to press its claims. The RNA appointed several ministers of culture and incorporated the concept of cultural revolution into their doctrine. Although it drew on Haywood’s Black Belt thesis, its program was not Marxist. Moreover, without a more expansive cultural program rooted in the major cultural institution of the black community, namely, the Black Church, the RNA’s initiatives in Mississippi, for example, foundered before they were able to develop the social networks that might have strengthened their ties to the political machinery of the local communities, and their intellectual distancing from analyses such as Haywood’s, which focused on organizing the rural peasantariat of the Black Belt, may have contributed to their lack of coordination and failure to develop the political interests of the black sharecroppers and other rural constituents who were central to their plans not only for the revolutionary transformation of the counties of the Black Belt but for the development of armed resistance in the South.
Contemporaneous to the development of the RNA in Detroit was the emergence of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. What the League created is probably as important as it is ignored in any discussion of black power theory in the United States, but most important for the analysis here is that it proposed a theory and plan for black revolution, which included a general strike strategy. The League concentrated on organizing workers, and in many ways it was the most prominent black power organization that reflected Haywood’s thesis. Unlike the BPP, the League insisted that the black working class, the proletariat, was the vanguard of the black revolution because alone as a class it held this position of power at “the point of production.” The League sought to leverage this power into concessions from the auto companies to address the immediate demands of black workers and also to realize the broader objective of revolutionary change in the United States. The League focused mainly on developing independent black industrial unions, beginning in the automobile industry in Detroit, but it also incorporated a focus on community-based organizations, ranging from student-led initiatives in high schools and universities (including appropriating the editorship of the third-largest daily newspaper in the state of Michigan), and popular media (including publication of a radical newspaper), to the creation of anti-police-brutality organizations, parent-based school-decentralization organizations, welfare rights groups, and tenants’ rights groups. Their dual strategy focused on in-plant organizing and out-of-plant organizing designed to culminate in a general strike that would shut down strategic sites of industrial production in the United States, and compel the government’s concessions to the League’s demands.
The League embraced the call for black reparations and the liberation of the Black Belt; however, where Haywood had focused on black sharecroppers in the South as the key to liberating the Black Belt, the League’s focus was on the North, and it had great difficulty penetrating the South. The League failed to fuse its class and race-based analyses into a coherent theory to guide its strategy and orient its members and supporters around a consistent program and plan of action, and as a result, it devolved into sectarianism. Nevertheless, of the organizations within the BPM, it was the League that probably came closest to progressing towards a black cultural revolution as it had been historicized by Du Bois, theorized by Locke, and proposed by Cruse; unfortunately, it could not be fitted into the Marxist frame the League attempted to construct for it and, ultimately, the organization imploded under the weight of its varied and increasingly fissiparous ideological and organizational components.
Although neither the RNA nor the League explicitly developed theses on black cultural revolution, their individual programs were clearly informed by—and would’ve benefited by further development of—such theses. However, other black nationalists of the era focused more directly on the necessity for black cultural revolution in their theses as well as their programs, and two in particular, which we examine in the next chapter, grew to become among the most influential black nationalist revolutionist organizations of the era: the Congress of African People (CAP) and the Shrine of the Black Madonna (PAOCC).
1. Karenga suggested the name “Imadi” to Richard, who confused the “d” sound in Swahili with an “r.” He preferred “Imari” to “Imadi,” and retained it as his name for the rest of his life.
2. New Africans emphasize collectives over individuals; so they capitalize the “w” in “We” and use a lowercase “i” for the personal pronoun, I.
3. Obadele notes that “Section Five says: The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article” (p. 28).
4. This policy was not a result of Karenga’s influence directly, since he had been removed from his post as Minister of Culture in the aftermath of the UCLA shootout, and probably didn’t result from Baraka either since CAP had rejected many of the sexist “traditions” associated with kawaida.
5. His son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, eventually succeeded him as mayor of Jackson.
6. For a recent example, Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, reportedly was associated with the MXGM.
7. In Detroit, Rosa Parks aligned with black nationalists. She praised Malcolm X, supported the FNP, and, following the Detroit Rebellion, worked with the RNA and the LRBW on issues of police brutality, serving on the people’s tribunal investigating the police murders at the Algiers Motel (see Hersey, 1968). She worked to free political prisoners Joan Little and Gary Tyler well after the BPM.
8. The Detroit Rebellion resulted in forty-three dead, more than one thousand injured, over seven thousand arrests, and over two thousand buildings destroyed (Sugrue, 1996).
9. None of the white Detroit policemen (Ronald August, Robert Paille, David Senak) or the white Michigan National Guardsmen (Mortimer J. LeBlanc) were convicted of these killings—even those who admitted killing their black victim(s).
10. Georgakas (2002) notes that “[w]ith one exception, the first Dodge wildcat strike was not reported nationally. The exception was the Wall Street Journal.”
11. Some LRBW members maintain that if the ELRUM strike had lasted another day that it would have shut down Chrysler’s car production, since Eldon was its only axle plant in the United States.
12. The League initially published a newsletter, The Spear, but ICV became its official newspaper.
13. Cockrel remained widely popular after the League folded; he was elected to the city council and was the heir apparent to Mayor Coleman Young before his untimely death in 1989.
14. For example, after CBS reporter Joe Weaver refused to leave Watson’s office after being denied an interview, he claimed he’d been accosted. His bogus charges were thrown out of court (Georgakas & Surkin, 1975).
15. One might argue that intellectuals are more likely to be petite bourgeoisie and workers proletarian, but this is still a procrustean fit to the reality of black Detroiters during the BPM.
16. The key is full-time work because managers colluded with the white unions to schedule the hiring and firing of black workers so that they would not secure the benefits of full-time employment.
17. Conversations with the author.
18. Conversations with the author.
19. James and Grace Lee Boggs’s (1974) analysis of twentieth-century revolutions provided the kind of accessible intellectual presentation and synthesis that was often missing from BPM discourse.
20. The LRBW would need to suppress the atheism of Marxism to organize Southern blacks.
21. Since the Vietnam War had undermined popular support for the U.S. military, even the aging Eisenhower might not have been able to play such a role; regardless, he died in March 1969.
22. Operation Dixie was the failed CIO campaign to unionize the South from 1946 to 1953, which targeted twelve Southern states, focusing mainly on the textile industry; but after outlays of one million dollars and the deployment of more than two hundred organizers, it could not overcome the racism of Southern white workers, even though unionization promised to increase their wages, or that of white business owners and law enforcement, who were committed to the maintenance of Jim Crow and the cheap labor supply that it ensured. The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, competition from the AFL, red baiting, and the rise of the Dixiecrats also contributed to its defeat (see Griffith, 1988).