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The Unanswered Questions

When Anne Braden, who died last March 6, aged 81, began covering criminal justice for her hometown paper, the Louisville (Kentucky) Courier-Journal, in 1947, it did not take her long to conclude that the real story was not the trials she saw but the class- and race-based injustices perpetrated by the legal system itself. Very quickly she and her husband, Carl Braden, a labor reporter for the same paper, understood that the system of white supremacy underpinning the segregation and violent intimidation and repression of African Americans was at the heart of a system of social control that supported the rapacious capitalism of the post-Second World War South. White supremacy created the climate in which the steel, automobile, and textile industries exploited a low-wage work force in a union-free environment. Segregation kept sharecropping farm labor in much the same condition as it had been since the end of the Civil War.

The Bradens were among the few Southern whites who resisted these conditions. In 1954, confronting pernicious residential segregation, they bought a house in an all white Louisville suburb and transferred it to a black family. The response was immediate and severe: the home was bombed, mob violence ensued. The Bradens and five others were indicted for sedition and accused of causing the bombing to promote communism. Carl was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison, later reversed only on a technicality. Ann Braden’s 1958 book, The Wall Between (Monthly Review Press), a memoir of the case, was a runner-up for the National Book Award.

By this time, they had become full-time activists, working for the Southern Conference Education Fund. Anne edited its paper, The Southern Patriot, credited with bringing many whites to the civil rights cause. Throughout the 1960s they worked with Martin Luther King Jr., SNCC, and others in the Southern struggle. What follows first appeared in her book, The Southern Freedom Movement in Perspective (Monthly Review Press, 1965). Carl died in 1975, aged 60. For the last thirty years Anne was a militant in numerous local and national struggles for racial, economic, and social justice; in 2005, wheelchair-bound, she participated in a mass demonstration in Washington against the war in Iraq.—Ed.

A Marxist making his first visit South a few years ago sat in on a meeting of young civil rights workers. Later he said:

I’ve been in many meetings but I never saw people quite like these. No heroics, nobody talking to hear his own voice, people listening to each other, willing to sit long hours until a problem is solved. We’ve read about how revolutions in other countries make a new kind of person out of those who take part in them. I always wondered if it was true. Now I know it is.

A Christian minister who worked in Albany, Georgia, during the movement there tells this story:

It was hot and stifling; they were crowding people into jail cells like animals. There were 30 women in one tiny cell, and all day they had nothing to eat or drink. Finally in the evening, a jail trusty slipped them a single glass of water. Nobody grabbed it, nobody gulped. Slowly they passed it among them and each woman took a sip. I’ve been in many churches where they held something they called the communion service, and it didn’t mean a thing. To me, there in that jail cell, was the Holy Communion.

What the Marxist and the minister were commenting on, each in his own terms, describes the first and foremost accomplishment of the Southern freedom movement to date: it has created new people. Not all are saints, by any means, but they have been able to achieve a human level that is far beyond the norm in the society of the United States today.

The second solid accomplishment of the movement is that it has created a powerful social force, one of the few great mass movements in the nation’s history. It has pulled great numbers of people together, made them a cohesive force, and shaken the country.

And the third accomplishment is that the movement has achieved virtually all of the specific goals it has thus far set for itself: It desegregated the buses; it opened the lunch counters; it eliminated all-white waiting rooms; it desegregated the restaurants, theaters, hotels, and other public accommodations; and now it is winning the vote. Not all of these battles have been won everywhere, but in the main they have been achieved. This is something people who criticize the movement and stress its shortcomings forget. It has gotten everything it asked for so far. Maybe it has just not asked for enough.

When the thousands of freedom marchers entered into Montgomery on March 25, 1965, and walked through the streets where Montgomery Negroes live and then down Dexter Avenue to the state capitol of Alabama, suddenly there was dramatized all that is right and all that is wrong with the freedom movement.

Here where direct action was first practiced almost 10 years ago was the largest demonstration yet seen in the South for Negro freedom. Montgomery Negroes walked alone in 1955, but now on the same streets walked thousands from every corner of the nation, black and white, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, and atheist, young and old. This was a movement that people were willing to travel thousands of miles and to die for if necessary. It was a movement they were willing to spend long hours in unsung drudgery for. It was a movement that seemed to harness all that was best in America, and it was powerful.

Yet, as they walked through the streets of Montgomery, the marchers passed mute testimony to the oppression the civil rights movement has not yet touched; for most of Montgomery’s Negro population live in poverty, and many of the Negroes who came out to watch the march that day (and some to join it) came from dilapidated and primitive homes in the back alleys and the dirt streets.

It is not that nothing has been accomplished in Montgomery since 1955. The restaurants are open, hotels are open, the Greyhound bus station has only one waiting room, token desegregation has started in the schools—all things that 10 years ago many people white and black would have said were impossible in Montgomery.

But none of this alters the fact that the movement has not yet touched the things most Negroes need most: a decent place to live and the income to live adequately.

A Montgomery Negro leader, describing conditions there just a few months before the giant march, noted that if a Negro father was earning $40 a week he was doing well. Jobs for Negroes above the menial level are virtually non-existent. Most working women are in domestic service, making $16 to $18 a week.

And these conditions, in varying degrees, are what prevail in Negro communities across the South—and in much of the rest of the country.

This does not mean the freedom movement has failed. It only means its work has just begun.

Now the question is how can it go on from here, how can the powerful momentum it has built be directed to solving some of the basic problems that plague society?

This is a question which alert civil rights activists are well aware of. For several years it has been the subject of discussion anywhere people in the movement meet.

“Of what advantage is it to the Negro,” asked Martin Luther King Jr. in his address to the 1964 SCLC convention, “to establish that he can be served in integrated restaurants or accommodated in integrated hotels if he is bound to the kind of financial servitude which will not allow him to take a vacation or even take his wife out to dinner?….What will it profit him to be able to send his children to an integrated school if the family income is insufficient to buy them school clothes?”

“What is at stake,” Jim Forman told a meeting in the Alabama Black Belt early in 1965, “is political power. But it’s more than political. It’s economic exploitation. You make $18 a week and the white man makes $65 a week. So now we have to demonstrate, but we also have to organize. Like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party….You’ve got to hold these meetings where you can talk about economics and politics as well as your spiritual well-being.”

The problems the freedom movement is up against are essentially the same problems that confront the whole society—only more so. The movement leaders know that too. It was King who also noted that although a greater percentage of Negroes than whites live in poverty, 78 percent of the nation’s poverty-stricken families are white (by the government’s measuring rod of an under-$3,000-a-year income, which is unrealistically low).

Many people in the freedom movement also realize that programs like President Johnson’s “war on poverty” are in the category of going to fight an enemy army with a pea-shooter. The new government programs may get a few jobless young men off the streets temporarily and into a Job Corps; they may do something toward providing preschool training in slum areas, etc. But they are not going to change the basic conditions of men’s lives. And as a matter of fact, unless people organize independently to exercise control over these programs and make them their own, these federal efforts are likely to become channels through which existing corrupt political structures can keep control of the very people who are supposed to benefit from them.

Something more basic is needed, and many active people sense that too. SNCC workers at a 1969 conference heard one of the strategists of the nonviolent movement, Bayard Rustin, say: “When we asked for the right to ride the buses in dignity in Montgomery, we could—with a certain amount of social dislocation—get what we asked, because the seats were available. When we asked for the right to eat in a restaurant we could get that too, because there was room in the restaurant. But with jobs it’s different. We are not going to get that which does not exist, and the jobs do not exist.”

But despite such discussions—and there have been many of them—no one has yet found a way to bring to bear on these problems the tremendous power of the freedom movement.

In the absence of a program big enough to meet the needs that many sense, there are some obvious pitfalls that a social movement encounters. In the July 1962, issue of Harper’s Magazine, John Fischer, its editor, wrote a much-discussed article on what he called the need for a “first-class citizens’ council” among Negroes. He said that the civil rights battle was virtually won (in 1962, he said this, no less) and that there was need for Negro leaders to recognize the great educational and cultural lag among masses of Negroes and do something about them. Although Fischer disclaimed such notions, the article definitely smacked of the idea that the Negro must “raise” himself to a certain level in order to “earn” the right to freedom. Civil rights leaders were infuriated and said so in numerous forums. Yet over the past three years, a rather curious thing has happened: the civil rights movement in some places is coming very close to doing what Fischer advocated. Tutorial programs in the slums, day nurseries for working mothers, youth programs designed to combat juvenile delinquency are very much “the thing” now both South and North. Often they are sponsored by civil right groups; or people formerly active in civil rights work have drifted into them.

In the absence of any real change in society, such programs may be needed, but unless they are tied to an organized effort through which people can move to take control of their own destiny their value even to the individual affected is doubtful. For example, the freedom schools in Mississippi opened new horizons for many people because through them people found their way to the Freedom Democratic Party; this gave them a political voice in a movement that was trying to change the society that had thwarted them. A tutorial project in a slum, unrelated to any freedom movement, may be just a dead end, even for its participants. One of the most significant sociological facts that has come to light in the freedom movement is that wherever a direct action project has gripped an entire community (from Montgomery to Birmingham) both juvenile delinquency and crime in the Negro community have fallen to virtually zero. People fighting for basic changes in their lives have a reason to live and a reason to learn. Can these drives ever be created artificially?

The Urban League is proposing gigantic government-sponsored development programs in Negro communities. But can such programs be truly meaningful when they are built from the top down? Those administering the present antipoverty program claim they are trying to tackle this problem by involving “poor people themselves” in the planning at every level. But will this work when the impetus still comes from the top? Most of the development programs now being projected for Negro communities (and poor white ones) South as well as North are tied to the present power structure either through the federal government or through private foundations which are an integral part of that structure. Can any such program—or any person, no matter how well intentioned, working for that structure—really encourage people to organize to take control of their own destiny? And short of that kind of organization, can people ever win freedom and dignity, or even bread?

It is easy for socialists to resolve this dilemma by simply saying that the answer obviously is socialism, and maybe it is. But to say just that is not enough either. People who advocate socialism need to come up with some specific answers to specific problems the freedom movement faces.

For example, what does socialism suggest as an answer for the Negroes in the Mississippi Delta? In addition to terror from the white man, they face a situation in which agricultural machines do the work now and their manpower is no longer needed; yet if they move to the cities—North, South, East, or West—they are not needed there either. And what about the people in the cities? Nobody likes slums, but nobody likes urban renewal either, for it tears down the slums and puts the people out—and where can they go that is any better? What would a socialist system do in this situation? What would a socialist system do about the growing ghettos of the South—as white people flee to the suburbs and Negroes stay confined in the inner city (as in the North) and the schools resegregate?

Socialists somewhere are probably discussing these questions, but such discussion seldom penetrates civil rights circles. In its 1963 summer issue, Studies on the Left published an article entitled “Socialism: The Forbidden Word,” by Staughton Lynd, one of the most profound thinkers who is writing about the movement. His thesis was that the years of McCarthyism had so stifled discussion in this country that most people feared to talk about socialism or had never heard enough about it to be able to talk about it intelligently. He said that not only the civil rights movement but other social movements were reaching a dead end because of this lack. He proposed that the concepts of socialism be dusted off for normal conversation and given an airing again.

Today the word “socialism” is not quite so forbidden, and one often hears it on the lips of some active young people in the freedom movement. But the years when it was forbidden took their toll. Many who claim they want socialism cannot really define it. They are disgusted with the way things are, they are against the “establishment” that exists—and socialism, somewhat mysterious and still somewhat forbidden fruit, seems like a good thing to be for. This is still not a program, and not the kind of concept that a sustained movement can be built around.

Furthermore, as a result of the years when discussion of socialism was considered almost treason, many intelligent people (including many in the freedom movement) are sincerely convinced that socialist answers cannot be applied without imposition of a new kind of slavery. Those who believe otherwise and advocate socialism need to initiate discussion and debate as to how exactly they propose to establish a socialist system.

One of the healthiest things about the Southern movement, especially the student part of it, is the way in which it has encouraged grassroots leadership and independent thinking on the part of people in the various localities. SNCC organizers, for example, make almost a fetish of their determination not to impose their ideas on a community. Because of fear that the “intellectuals” will control those without formal education, there was even recently a proposal that no one with more than an eighth-grade education be allowed on the SNCC governing body. This didn’t pass, but it indicates the mood. With this kind of atmosphere it is utterly unthinkable that any socialist with complete blueprints for the new world could impose his ideas full-blown on the Southern movement.

But what could happen is that more socialist ideas could get into the general atmosphere, more socialist answers to specific problems of the South into discussions large and small. This would surely be all to the good, for it would stimulate discussion of the basic nature of our social order and what needs to be done about it. As and when various ideas on that question permeate the movement, people will take hold of them, refine them, adapt them, make them suit their needs. What finally emerges might very well be some thing new and different from the precise answers of traditional socialism—and it could be better.

No one need think it is going to be smooth sailing to open up free discussion of ideas like socialism. There are many pressures to encourage continued silence. One must look at the last 20 years whole: the anticommunist hysteria of the postwar period, the investigations, the jailings, the lists, and the restrictive laws were all part of a pattern created by people who do not want things to change and do not want control of society to slip out of their own hands. It was for this that they silenced the country. The Negro revolt, starting in 1955, broke through this silence simply because the craving for freedom could not be stilled. The forces that want to maintain the status quo could not stop this revolt, so they moved to contain it; they have tried to dilute it, divert it, satisfy it with concessions before it forced an overhaul of the entire society.

When he was the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy said a revealing thing during mass demonstrations against segregation in 1963. He said that racial problems in the South were easier to solve than those in the North because the demands were simpler—open public accommodations, etc.—and that these things could be granted and a “valve released.” The day when it was that simple has now passed, and the same forces that created a witch hunt 20 years ago can be expected to revive it now—and indeed they are doing so. They cannot undo the last 10 years, they cannot destroy the freedom movement, but they can try to divide it and they are trying. The new attacks on SNCC and the Freedom Democratic Party are part of this. The silence of some supposed liberals in the face of plans by the House Un-American Activities Committee to investigate the Ku Klux Klan along with what they call “extremism” in the civil rights movement (the “plague on both your houses” approach) is another manifestation.

All of this is to be expected. As Jim Forman says, “We are trying to take their power away from them; you expect to be hit in the head.” The question is whether enough people will see through the subtle atmosphere of fear created by the banning of words and concepts like socialism, will see the need to break through the fetters this time and bring such concepts out into the open sunlight so that all ideas can be examined, will see the need to look for the causes as well as the effects of second-class citizenship, will see that when you set up forbidden areas of thought you choke off all creative thought and thus surround your movement with a maze of dead-end streets.

There are also internal pressures in the movement that discourage serious consideration of ideas like socialism. The most active and militant people in the South, especially the young people, tend to shy away from big concepts and what they may consider proposals for final answers.

The most committed young people who go into social action today tend to prefer projects where they work closely with a relatively small number of people. They like to teach in a Southern freedom school, or organize councils of the unemployed in a Northern slum. Their object, they will tell you, is to find and develop local leaders, to help these people find themselves and organize to establish their own control over the decisions that affect their lives.

When Howard Zinn told the 1963 SNCC conference that they must face the fact that even the ballot would not give people much power, the solution he offered was to build up what he called “centers of power outside the official political mechanism” able to exert pressure on the social structure, and that is exactly what SNCC has been busy doing. All of this makes for a very healthy grassroots movement. But if you ask the people who are busy building these “pockets of power,” as some SNCC people call them, what their ultimate goal is—just what “decisions that affect their lives” the people they are organizing are eventually going to be called on to make—many of them would rather not talk about it.

Partly this results from the organizers’ fear that they will try to force their opinions on the people they are working with. It also reflects their rejection of most of the established social reform movements in the country. Young activists who take this position (and there are great numbers of them) tend to have no use for what they call “coalition politics.”

The proponents of “coalition politics” within the civil rights movement favor an alliance among the civil rights organizations, labor movement, church and so-called liberal forces to bring economic changes in the country. Bayard Rustin advocates something like this—and some young people who say that contact with Rustin or his ideas was the first radical influence in their lives now consider him a conservative force. SCLC tends to lean in the coalition direction—although some younger people on the SCLC staff reject it, as do many more among SNCC workers. In the view of these people, the groups with which the proposed “coalition” is suggested are themselves a part of the corrupt system and cannot therefore be allies for the building of something new. These young people prefer to start from scratch, with grassroots people who can shape their own forms for political and social change.

Yet many of them, after rejecting the possibility of an alliance with existing groups to work toward broad social goals, go on to reject establishing any broad goals of their own. So their refusal to give serious consideration to answers such as socialism reflects also a basic distrust of big solutions. Perhaps they acquired an unconscious sense of caution by hearing tales of an older generation of radicals who staked their lives on a belief in the perfectibility of man under socialism and then were cruelly disillusioned when perfection did not come. Or perhaps they reflect the mood of a generation that has been told so long about how complex is the world they live in that they no longer want to look at it all in a piece. We have here the paradox of a strange sort of cynicism in some of the most idealistic people one can imagine. They seem to feel, although many don’t articulate it, that there probably are no big answers to society’s problems, and that one must accept this, that the most an individual can do is build something creative and democratic in the corner that he can see and be a part of. This is not the thinking of everyone in the active Southern movement, but it is more prevalent than many people suppose; and it is, to one degree or another, the thinking of most of the people who are working the hardest and sacrificing the most.

One can admire their commitment, one can agree that the building of “pockets of power” is tremendously important. But is it ultimately enough? You can talk about new values and a new society, but some day don’t you have to spell out the shape of it?

Is it possible that the moral fire of the freedom movement can yet be merged with a clear vision of a new social order for the nation? Is it possible that the great dream of human dignity can yet be tied to some hard and real understanding of economic systems and what they do to men? Is it possible that the passion of the freedom movement for the development of the individual can yet be combined with an overall plan that can hold a hope of freedom for all people? Is it possible that the determination of the young people to place power on a base of grassroots democracy can be achieved along with a rational economic order? Is it possible that enough people can glimpse such visions to mount a great crusade for them?

It may well be, to paraphrase the poet, that all of this is “not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend.”

2006, Volume 58, Issue 02 (June)
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