The Black Freedom Movement and Chris Hedges’ Misuse of History

“We want freedom now, but we’re not going to get it saying ‘We Shall Overcome.’  We’ve got to fight until we overcome.” — Malcolm X

“A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt.  A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On the night of January 18, 1958, the Ku Klux Klan, which the previous week had held cross-burnings on the lawns of a mixed-race couple and of a Lumbee Indian family who had moved into a white neighborhood, tried to hold a rally against race “mongrelization” in Robeson County, North Carolina.  But when the fifty Klan members showed up, they were confronted with ten times that many Lumbee Indians led by World War II veterans and armed with stick and guns.  Shots were fired, and the Klansmen scattered in fright through the woods and swamps never to return.  The same year of 1958, a couple of counties away in Monroe, North Carolina, another World War II vet, the local NAACP head Robert F. Williams, was also organizing armed defense against the Klan.  Williams would later write a memoir about his experiences entitled Negroes with Guns.  A few years later, in the Deep South, some other ex-soldiers formed the Deacons for Defense and Justice to furnish armed protection from racists for that part of the movement who were engaged in sit-ins and other forms of non-violent resistance.  (A movie has been made about the Deacons for Defense.)

Certainly most school kids in this country know a little bit about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and perhaps Thurgood Marshall.  They should!  But do they know anything about any of the above?  That’s because the history of the Black Freedom Movement AKA Civil Rights Movement is presented as a sweet little feel-good fairy tale somewhat along these lines: There were once bad white people down South (we don’t hear much if at all in this fairy tale about the white racists in the North) who were all too willing to unleash violence in the form of shootings, beatings, fire hoses, dogs, and jailings — the horrors of lynching are rarely mentioned — against anybody of the wrong color who was thought to be the least bit “uppity,” not to mention those who might have wanted to rock the segregationist boat.  It was a tough uphill struggle.  But the story has a happy and uplifting ending: Due to the actions of people like King and Parks, we are able to live today in a country with freedom and justice for all — because the power of non-violence and of loving your fellow man was all that was really needed, along with a good dollop of courage.  Goodness (and being well-mannered and well-groomed and always remembering to turn the other cheek) was able to triumph over Evil.

We’ll leave aside the question of why this movement history is generally retold in such a selective and disarming kind of way and the question of whether this country has truly gained full and genuine racial equality.  Not only does the school kids’ fairy tale leave out the exceptional circumstances of the Cold War during the 1950s and 60s — when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were vying to appeal to the colored peoples of the newly-independent colonial countries — that gave peaceful protest in this country more leverage than it has ever had before or since; but also, in reality, the Black Freedom Movement had always proceeded on two tracks — two tracks that were both necessary for its success.  One freedom path was always angry and militant and it did not eschew the use of force, if necessary.  We can go all the way back to the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War.  In 1829 David Walker, a free black man in Boston issued an “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World.”  In this incendiary pamphlet, Walker went beyond the usual moral criticisms of slavery; he denounced America for its hypocrisy, especially singling out Thomas Jefferson, and suggested that slaves might rebel against their masters if the country did not start living up to its professions of all men being created equal.  This was too much for the white liberal humanitarians of the day.  William Lloyd Garrison, the great abolitionist newspaper editor who had condemned slavery as the greatest sin of the age and demanded immediate emancipation and national repentance, decried what Walker had said.  Garrison lectured the men and women in bondage that, rather than rising up in revolt, they should suffer evil “unresistingly,” as had Jesus and his apostles, in the expectation that divine justice would come.  Walker was a devoutly religious man himself who likewise believed in the inevitability of divine justice, but he also believed that “you must go to work and prepare the way of the Lord.”

Walker’s “Appeal,” followed in 1831 by the slave revolt in Virginia led by Nat Turner, reverberated throughout the South for slaves and slave-owners alike.  Southern whites totally freaked, trying to suppress the “Appeal” from reaching slaves — Walker used black sailors to smuggle it into the South — and enacting new laws forbidding slaves from being taught to read and write.  The next no-holds- barred black radical after Walker (who died in 1830) was Henry Highland Garnet, who addressed the National Negro Convention in Buffalo in 1843 and issued an outright call for slaves to rebel.  “Arise, arise!  Strike for your lives and liberties.  Now is the day and hour.”  Again, this was too much for the “moral suasion” (pacifist) abolitionists including Frederick Douglass.  But, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Douglass changed his mind and argued that it might be justifiable to kill a slave catcher to save an escaped slave from being taken back into slavery.  And Douglass, along with a number of prominent white abolitionists, became secret supporters of John Brown‘s bold plan to take the fight to the South by attacking the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia — an act which catalyzed the Civil War and ended slavery as many African-Americans, free and slave, took up arms.  For southern slave-owners, this was the feared apocalyptic slave rebellion.

In the first half of the 20th Century, of course, we had the radical black nationalist Marcus Garvey and his numerous followers and the Communist Party which launched the international campaigns to save Angelo Herndon and the Scottsboro Boys.  As Glenda Gilmore has detailed in her excellent recent book on the deeper radical roots of the Civil Rights Movement, the sometimes underground organizing work of the Communist Party and other hard-core left-wing radicals in the South was a key ingredient to what was able to happen subsequently in Montgomery and elsewhere.  Yet, as I discover repeatedly as a college teacher with my students who express surprise at learning about these things (and then turning in some cases to anger about never being told before), practically none of this history is included in the fairy tale fed to American school children and the general public.

The current controversy over strategy and tactics in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, spurred by Chris Hedges‘s ill-informed, poorly-researched essay in TruthDig setting up the “Black Bloc” as a supposedly mindlessly-violent, window-breaking anarchist strawman to promote his moralizing pacifist agenda, is an echo of earlier movement differences and debates.  Although Hedges has been known to waffle, expressing support for rioting in Greece, Hedges seems to think that any kind of militant actions here are ipso facto “violent” and thus illegitimate.  Hedges (as well as others like him) likes to wrap his politics in the mantle of Martin Luther King (along with Gandhi’s).  But King, while following his own heartfelt path and despite his own strong philosophical differences with them, as far as I know was never once publicly critical of those within the Black Freedom Movement like Malcolm X who espoused the need for a more militant in-your-face approach.  Martin was able to understand where people like Malcolm were coming from, given the severe history of racist repression in the black community.  Many of our youth of all colors today, in this hollow materialistic capitalist world which is busy destroying the planet, also feel the same fury and uncompromising determination to stand up to Evil.

During the Sixties, it was these two paths together, sometimes at odds but mutually reinforcing each other, the one personified by King and the other personified by Malcolm X (and subsequently by the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, by H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael) — in a social change movement consisting not only of sit-ins, freedom rides, and boycotts but also of massive urban ghetto rebellions (starting in Harlem in 1964 followed by Watts in 1965 and Newark and Detroit in 1967) — that enabled significant change to happen.  (For some of the latter history, see the new Swedish-made Black Power Mixtape documentary.)  Malcolm on his visit to Selma, Alabama in 1965 to show support for the movement there and for King who had been jailed, spoke frankly to how this was a sort of good-cop/bad-cop approach.  If the white racists did not want to deal reasonably with King, then beware; the alternative was having to deal with people like himself.  (On the Malcolm-King relationship, see the fine new biography of Malcolm by Manning Marable.)  Some members of the ruling elite got the message — King had told Kennedy on a visit to the White House that the black masses were losing their patience with him — and the Civil Rights Acts went through.

We could find similar parallels in the Women’s and Gay Liberation and the environmental movements where those who were in favor of using step-by-step means appealing to those in power to do the right thing and those calling for the System to be dismantled lock, stock, and barrel “by any means necessary” (Malcolm’s language) — the equivalent of today’s “diversity of tactics” — were able to deliver a one-two punch and make changes happen, if not necessarily to bring about an all-around revolution that the militants (and some of the pacifists like King himself at the end) desired.  We radicals can generally appreciate the sometime usefulness of liberals and their reformist approach — Malcolm X supported the black voter registration drives in the South — although considering them naive on the nature of who really rules America and what ultimately needs to be done.  Too bad liberals like Hedges seem to find it difficult to reciprocate the appreciation and sometimes even want to act like “peace police” against those who are more radical and want to push the envelope further.

This is not to advocate “violence” — non-violent direct action seems to be the best tactical choice under most current circumstances except when there is a need to defend ourselves against Oakland-style police brutality — but it is to affirm the angry, impassioned side or path which we also need to win short-term gains against inequality and corruption as well as to build for the revolutionary future.

Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.

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