As a tribute to the African Blood Brotherhood I am re-posting this article on my blog. The history of the ABB and the role of African Americans in the socialist movement should be of the utmost importance for all to research. -Carlito Rovira
The African Blood Brotherhood and the Proletarianization of Blacks in Amerika
By Comrade Tom Big Warrior (2010)
Reprinted from Right On! #1
The African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption (ABB) was the first Marxist, Revolutionary Black Nationalist organization in Amerika. Founded in 1917, it grew rapidly during the wave of white racist riots known as the “Red Summer of 1919,“ the ABB was a secret, armed, community self-defense-oriented society headquartered in Harlem.
Many of the “Blood Brothers” were combat vets who had fought in France in World War I. Many were workers, conscious of their proletarian class exploitation and oppression in capitalist society, as well as their caste oppression as “Negroes,” and national oppression as members of a nation of a new type defined by color and refined by slavery, terror and segregation.
The Nation of New Afrikans in Amerika, which was then a peasant nation concentrated in the cotton-producing “Black-Belt South,” was also evolving into a proletarian nation in the industrial centers and defined urban ghettos. The white riots were pogroms directed at these ghettos, which were expanding with the “Great Migration” from the South to the North and the West that had been encouraged by the need for industrial workers during the World War. Many of the white rioters were also returned war vets. There was also a big resurgence of the KKK at this time that peaked in the mid-1920s.
The urban Black proletarian had to be tough to survive. They were consigned to the dirtiest, most menial and demeaning jobs, and there was brutal competition for these jobs. The ghettos were overcrowded and transient, and Black on Black violence was rampant. Rubes from the country were sheep to slaughter for the lumpen criminals who preyed on them, and they kept coming as mechanization was displacing share-cropping in the South. Black workers quickly learned that whites who were not racist against them were probably class-conscious and Socialist. Militant unions like the IWW brought together workers of all ethnic backgrounds. But the core of leadership of the ABB was part of another migration from the Caribbean to the U.S., and particularly to Harlem.
The African Blood Brotherhood was the brain-child of Cyril Briggs, a light-skinned native of the Caribbean island of Nevis, where he was born in 1887. He migrated to New York on July 4th, 1905 and joined a growing community of West Indian Blacks in the city. That was the year of the first attempted revolution in Russia in which the Leninist Bolsheviks played a conspicuous role. The successful October Revolution of 1917 sent a shock wave around the world that was felt by oppressed people everywhere.
Lenin particularly had a lot to say to the colored peoples of the colonial and semi-colonial countries and directly to the Black people in Amerika. Eventually, the ABB was absorbed into the underground communist Workers Party of America (WPA) which evolved into the CPUSA. The communist party founded by the Russian Federation declared its stance on the Negro Question in 1920: “The Communist Party will carry on agitation among Negro workers to unite them with all class conscious workers.”
Leninism distinguished itself from earlier Marxism by its conscious commitment to the national liberation struggles of the colonial and subject peoples which Lenin recognized to be closely linked to the World Proletarian Socialist Revolution. The class conscious ABB veterans and West Indians shared an understanding of a wider world of exploitation and oppression than the “Jim Crow” South and the ghetto street corner, the world of global capitalist-imperialist empire and world proletarian socialist revolution – a world illuminated by Leninism.
The ABB was committed to the liberation of Afrika and the whole of the Afrikan Diaspora from white world supremacy and capitalist-imperialism and saw the necessity of overthrowing this system to end the racist oppression of Black people and other people of color. As the immediacy of defending the oppressed Black communities from the violence of vigilante white mobs subsided, the ABB comrades began to see more and more the need to win white comrades to fight against white racism in the overall workers movement and all strata of society and prepare the U.S. for proletarian socialist revolution.
Former ABB members formed the core of the CPUSA’s Black cadre, and they were rigorous in opposing white racism in the Party and the unions and mass organizations influenced by the Communist Party. In the 1920s & 30s, the Communist Party initiated work in the South, including forming sharecropper unions uniting both Black and poor whites and unions among southern textile workers.
This was the CP’s most revolutionary period – though it tended towards “left economism” and “dual unionism” — and a period when many Blacks were first exposed to Communist ideology and organization. The “Harlem Renaissance” saw a flowering of Black consciousness and culture, and most of the artists and intellectuals involved were strongly influenced by Marxism-Leninism and leftist ideas.
The World War had shaken things up and raised Black expectations. Most expected progressive changes after the war and were disappointed and frustrated by the resurgence of KKK activity and overall reactionary backlash that swept white Amerika. Large numbers turned to the new Communist Party looking for direction.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born on January 24, 1874 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. He was a Black Puerto Rican scholar, historian, author and activist, who devoted his entire life to compiling vast collections of writings and art documenting significant events in Black history.
When Schomburg was just 8 years old he was told by a school teacher that Black people had no history. This assertion naturally bothered him for a long time. But as he gradually grew older, Schomburg found the teacher’s claim to make absolutely no sense. That encounter became Schomburg’s motivation which led him to set out and prove wrong such racist notions.
African chattel slavery also touched upon Puerto Rico, which became the consequence of Spanish colonialism in both Africa and Latin America. In 1527 the first slave revolt in Puerto Rico was among the bloodiest in the Western Hemisphere.
Despite the numerous contributions Schomburg made to the preservation of Black-Latino history, like many others he was not immune to anti-Black discrimination. Throughout his entire life, Schomburg experienced blatant racism, sadly within the Puerto Rican community as well.
Colorism, as an extension of white supremacy, often permeated conversations about “Los prietos” (the dark ones), “Pelo bueno y pelo malo” (good hair and bad hair), and so on. As in the United States, the not-so-hidden practices of racism has also existed in Puerto Rico and all of Latin America.
Arturo Schomburg was instrumental in documenting the role of African people in the cultural development of the Puerto Rican nation. The psychic, spirituality, linguistics, diet, music and dance of Puerto Rico pointed to the contributions made by Africans. Schomburg proudly identified as an Afroborinqueño (Afro-Puerto Rican).
Harlem Renaissance & Puerto Rico’s independence struggle
Schomburg became a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance. He collaborated with famous individuals like Langston Hughes, Alain Leroy Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois and other pillars of that movement. The Harlem Renaissance succeeded in challenging the ideological facets of white supremacy through the literary, visual and performing arts. It was an exciting and enlightening period in history for the African diaspora, following the struggles to end the horrors of slavery.
Thanks to the powerful momentum inspired by Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Black people now had relative freedom to develop culturally, economically and politically in the surroundings of a white racist society. This was the setting in which Arturo Schomburg was able to make his contributions to Black history.
Before moving to New York City, at 17 years old, Schomburg was a leader in the secret Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico. This organization was created several years before Schomburg’s birth for launching the 1868 anti-slavery & pro-independence revolt known as El Grito De Lares. Although the attempt to rid Spanish colonialism failed, the Revolutionary Committee continued to exist clandestinely.
Throughout his life Schomburg remained a firm advocate for Puerto Rico’s independence. In fact, he was the founder of Las Dos Alas (The Two Wings), an organization in New York City devoted to the independence cause of Puerto Rico and Cuba. In 1895 Schomburg partook in a meeting with other freedom fighters like Manuel Besosa and Juan de Mata Terreforte at the Chimney Corner Hall to discuss and approve what became today’s official Puerto Rican Flag.
But as the 19th Century came to a close with the U.S. military invasion and occupation of both Cuba and Puerto Rico, these conditions caused the independence movement in both countries to enter a period of stagnation. As a result, Schomburg and other like-minded activists who resided outside of Cuba and Puerto Rico, began to re-vise their activities based on the change in the climate of imperialism.
Schomburg’s shift in central focus
As the persecution of Black people in the United States intensified, with the extension of Jim Crow laws, lynching and white racist riots presenting a dangerous and menacing setting, coupled by Schomburg’s childhood memory of a demeaning comment made to him by a school teacher, raised his commitment to the idea of affirming the validity and truth of Black history.
Ridiculing the racist fables about the origins and history of Black people became Schomburg’s central focus. His noble quest eventually proved the extent of white supremacy’s corruption and baseless reasoning for existing.
Once in New York City, and for the remainder of his life, Schomburg collected large amounts of materials relevant to the history of Africa and the African diaspora. His work unavoidably brought to light the falsehood of white historians who interpreted the history of human social development strictly from a European perspective, thus concealing what are the African people’s pivotal role in that process.
Although Arturo Schomburg never proclaimed to be a revolutionary, his academic achievements coupled with such fervent passion to preserve and protect the historic culture of the Diaspora shows otherwise. Long after his death, Schomburg’s accomplishments continue to shatter racist myths.
His devotion to raise Black history to its rightful grandeur contributed immensely to the ideological struggle against white supremacy, thus, adding to the majestic qualities of Black nationalism.
Moreover, Schomburg was a consistent leader of debunking the dangerous narratives of racial superiority that ushered in social Darwinism and Eugenics. These world perspectives were often used by capitalists to politically hinder and divide working class people.
The vast and beautiful collection of literature and art materials he compiled throughout his life are permanently housed at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center For Research of Black Culture, located at 515 Malcolm X Blvd, in Harlem, NYC.
Arturo Afonso Schomburg shall be remembered for his bold intellectual defiance and as a hero of the oppressed. His lifelong contributions has strengthen the legitimacy of Puerto Rico’s independence cause as well as the historical struggle for Black liberation. Schomburg’s’ life embodied the epitome of Black & Puerto Rican solidarity.
In a coordinated effort between the Illinois State Attorney’s Office, Cook County Police Department, the Chicago Police Department and the FBI, a heavily armed assault was launched in the early morning hours on Fred Hampton’s residence. With a vicious sense of racist hatred and no regard for human life, the police fired their weapons at will through a wall separating the hallway from the apartment. The two revolutionaries were killed.
In the days that followed, law enforcement officials were quick to reinvent the facts. They claimed that the occupants of the apartment fired guns at police. Their story never held water. Evidence gathered from the forensic investigation and other inquiries pointed exclusively to police savagery in the attack.
The shaping of a leader
Like millions of African Americans, Hampton’s parents left the South during the Great Migration of the 1930’s to look for a better life and flee the constant threat of racist terror. They settled in Maywood, Ill., a suburb of Chicago where they worked at the Argo Starch Company.
Hampton was attracted to books, and took it upon himself to read the speeches and writings of Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, Joan Elbert, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and others. He gained a reputation for his knowledge of Black history and began to sense the need for struggle.
As a student at Proviso East High School, he noticed that most of the students who failed were Black. Hampton began to speak out against the school administration for not providing tutoring and remedial programs for students. He was also critical of the fact that the faculty and administration were all white when one-fourth of the student body was Black.
Hampton challenged the school’s exclusive racist practice of nominating only white girls to compete for “Miss Homecoming Queen.” He organized a protest, walk-out and school boycott. As a result, the following year Black female students were included in this contest.
Fred Hampton was respected by white and Black students alike. The year after he graduated from Proviso East, a school administrator requested his help to calm racial tensions among students.
An event that likely affected the young Fred Hampton, much as it affected most of Chicago’s Black community, was the 1955 gruesome lynching of Emmett Till. The 14-year-old Till was visiting family in Mississippi when he was abducted and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till was the son of family friends and neighbors of the Hamptons.
While Hampton was in the NAACP, the Black Panther Party was opening chapters across the country and becoming a prominent force in the Black liberation struggle. Hampton began to absorb and understand the revolutionary content of the Panthers’ political perspective, and joined. He soon demonstrated his leadership abilities and became deputy chairman of the party’s Illinois chapter.
His disposition and skills as a speaker earned Hampton a moral authority. His political achievements included brokering peace with the supposed “street gangs” of Chicago, amongst them the Puerto Rican group the Young Lords. Hampton was instrumental in transforming the Young Lords into a revolutionary political organization.
The white, racist U.S. ruling class was appalled. How dare the descendants of African slaves call themselves socialists and aim to achieve Black people’s right to reparations! Even more daring was the Black Panther Party’s call for the overthrow of capitalism—a demand the ruling class could never tolerate. Their ability to forge unity in struggle was a threat in itself.
All this was happening while resentment for the war in Vietnam was on the rise. The men of privilege and wealth, with a stake in preserving the imperialist system, grew apprehensive the more it became apparent that a mass revolutionary movement was arising.
Hampton valued the need for a multinational revolutionary struggle, and organized the original Rainbow Coalition comprised of the I Wor Kuen of the Asian community, the Brown Berets of the Mexican community, the poor white workers of the Young Patriots, the Young Lords and the Black Panthers. The Black Panther Party set standards for waging struggle. Their enthusiastic projection of socialism allowed many to envision its relevance to African Americans and other oppressed nationalities.
Operation COINTELPRO, an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program, was established in the mid-1950’s to deter the development of any movement deemed a threat to the existing social, economic and political order. It remained secret until 1971, when anti-repression activists broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pa., and confiscated files revealing the hidden operation.
As the Civil Rights movement advanced—galvanizing strength from all sectors of the population, breaking the despicable Jim Crow laws and compelling the U.S. Congress to pass other progressive legislation—the FBI increasingly turned its attention to the Black liberation struggle.
The slanderous editorials against the Panthers in the capitalist-owned mass media, combined with Hoover’s frequent verbal attacks, reflected the wishes of the ruling class who sought the complete destruction of the Black Panther Party and the ideals it embodied. Internal FBI memos show that the government had a special interest in Hampton’s political activities and his associations; Chicago police were encouraged by the FBI to find a way to lock up Hampton.
These circumstances compelled the government to destroy the Black Panther Party.
“The greatest threat to national security”
The Black Panther Party openly advocated for socialist revolution, and openly supported the Chinese and Cuban revolutions. The Panthers’ breakfast program for children, among other social programs, underlined their commitment to meet the needs of communities that received nothing but oppression and neglect from the government.
Prior to Hampton’s death, police raided the Panthers’ Chicago office on three separate occasions. William O’Neal, Fred Hampton’s bodyguard, was a police informant who was instructed to draw up a floor plan of the targeted apartment weeks earlier. Law enforcement used the information gathered by O’Neal to murder Hampton.
The staunch anti-capitalist stance of these young revolutionaries who declared themselves Marxist-Leninists made them the target of the most ruthless, racist elements in power. On numerous occasions, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover expressed a special disdain for the Black struggle, particularly towards Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Many were not surprised when Hoover declared the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to national security.”
Hampton’s murder was part of a pattern of police raids, false imprisonment and executions of Black Panthers. COINTELPRO documents proved that assassination of Black leaders was among its aims. Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party had to be eliminated simply because they had touched upon capitalism’s greatest weakness—the decisiveness and strength that a multi-national movement has in a battle against this system.
The Black Panther Party arose from the struggles of the African American people, historically the most oppressed and exploited group in the United States. They symbolized hope and received the greatest affection. They attributed Black oppression to the capitalist system, and dared to pick up arms against the state. The militancy and defiance of these young revolutionaries deeply impacted the Civil Rights and socialist movements.
Hampton and the Black Panthers believed all would benefit if the banner of the struggle against racism and national oppression was taken up by the white masses as their own. Hampton knew that it was possible to smash the racial barriers created by capitalism to divide and conquer the working class. His confidence was based on the strong belief that this system provides the motivation for all to unite and engage in revolutionary struggle.
Long live the memory of Fred Hampton & Mark Clark!
THE U.S. MILITARY REFLECTS THE RACISM IN CAPITALISM
African Americans’ role in the military during the Civil War was wholly progressive. Indeed, Black soldiers had a vital stake in smashing the hideous system of slavery.
While President Abraham Lincoln often expressed his indifference to the issue of emancipation, he was forced to recognize the absolute necessity of arming African Americans.
Black soldiers soon became feared by the Southern slave-owning class. Their tenacity, skill and valor as soldiers proved decisive to the North winning the Civil War. For instance, when General Ulysses S. Grant was sent to fight Gen. Robert E. Lee’s military forces in Virginia, he requested Black regiments as his principal shock troops.
Then there was Harriet Tubman. A former slave, she became an intelligence officer for the Union Army, operating behind enemy lines. Tubman’s courage made possible the capture of Confederate garrisons and by working with the “Underground Railroad” she led hundreds of slaves to their freedom.
But Tubman’s boldest and most successful mission is when she led many Black Union soldiers on the daring raid at Combahee Ferry on June 1863. In this courageous action Tubman and Black soldiers under her command were able to free 700 slaves while under fire from charging Confederate troops.
The Civil War was the last time African Americans had a positive stake in a U.S. war’s outcome. It was the only time in U.S. history when the interest of the capitalist class coincided with the aspirations of Black people.
After the Confederacy was militarily defeated “colored” volunteer units of the U.S. military were disbanded. All told, 200,000 African Americans served in the Army and Navy. Thirty thousand Blacks in uniform died in combat.
After African Americans were betrayed during Reconstruction, they were further undermined and impoverished when the South was overrun by capital investments in manufacturing, lumber and agriculture. The capitalist rulers began to cast their eyes abroad.
By 1870 four regiments of Black troops were re-organized, but were used for the vicious campaign to annihilate tribal Indigenous nations in the “Indian Wars” of the West and Southwest United States. In 1898 all four of these re-organized Black regiments were sent to be among the invading forces in the Spanish-American War. African American soldiers were used for conquering other oppressed people. The U.S. became a world imperialist power.
BLACK SOLDIERS IN THE IMPERIALIST ERA
The mysterious explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana, Cuba on Feb. 18, 1898, served as an excuse for Washington officials to declare war on Spain. The U.S. invaded the Spanish colonies of the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, colonizing them anew. The Monroe Doctrine had already reserved all of Latin America and the Caribbean to be exploited exclusively by U.S. capitalists.
In 1899 under the leadership of Aguinaldo, the Filipino people furiously fought the new invaders. They inflicted many casualties on the U.S. Army, which falsely claimed to be “helping the people’s quest for freedom.” The U.S. government retaliated by slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Filipino women, men and children.
This genocide was not passively accepted inside the United States, as mainstream historians contend. The Anti-Imperialist League held many mass protests in major cities throughout this country.
Significant anti-war sentiment was also expressed widely in the Black community. The Black press as well as other representatives of the African American people vigorously denounced the war. The great historian, socialist and African American leader W.E.B. Du Bois played a notable role in this anti-war movement.
Most important, Black resistance surfaced inside the U.S. military. Four Black regiments sent to fight in the Philippines established a bond with the Native people there, who also were dark-skinned. These Black troops resented white officers and soldiers describing Filpinos with the same racist slurs applied to African Americans in the United States.
Filipino insurgents appealed to Black soldiers not to fight on the side of U.S. imperialism. Posters denouncing racist lynchings in the United States were placed throughout the islands, as a show of Filipino solidarity with African Americans. This political agitation helped lead to many Black troops deserting the U.S. military.
Some of these African Americans soldiers went over to the other side, joining the Filipino guerrilla army. The most notable was David Fagan, formerly of the 24th Infantry Division. The Filipino freedom fighters so respected Fagan that he was made a commander in their army. David Fagan’s example demonstrates how unity among different oppressed people is possible.
BLACK RESISTANCE & IMPERIALIST WAR
In the post-Reconstruction period, as Jim Crow laws re-introduced the “Black Codes” throughout the South, top military officials were contemptuous to the idea of having large numbers of African American recruits. But in 1917 President Woodrow Wilson conveniently signed the Selective Service Law. The U.S. entered World War 1.
The two world wars in Europe created circumstances that demanded the recruitment of large numbers of soldiers. African Americans were now accompanied by Puerto Ricans, Indigenous, and Mexican Americans as oppressed nationalities looked upon as cannon fodder. Military recruits from these sectors of society faced disproportionate casualty statistics while continuing to confront racist segregation, discrimination and violence, during and after their service.
Although African Americans made an exerted effort to prove their bravery and diligence as soldiers during war they were unable to escape discriminatory practices and customs deemed “normal” in the United States. An example was the Tuskegee Airmen, known as the “Red Tails.” These African American pilots proved their bravery and skills during World War 2 in aerial combat with Germany’s Luftwaffe. Until the end of the war they were denied recognition to avoid acknowledging that they were Black.
On June 24, 1943 racism within the U.S. military showed its ugly head once again. But this time the dignity and defiance of Black people also showed it’s face in the form of armed resistance at theBattle of Bamber Bridge.
England did not have racist segregation laws like the United States. Black soldiers were embraced in social settings by British citizens. However, white U.S. military officers, especially those from southern states, objected to racial interactions involving Black servicemen under their command.
In one particular instance military police were sent to Bamber Bridge, in the township of Lancashire to absurdly enforce segregation laws. African American soldiers from the 1511th Quartermaster Truck Regiment were abruptly confronted by MP’s in pubs and restaurants. Before long a deadly clash ensued between Black and White men wearing the same uniform.
AFRICAN AMERICANS & THE VIETNAM WAR
By the second half of the 1960’s the Civil Rights movement began to gather widespread approval and support while anti-war sentiments grew in response to U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. Washington and Pentagon officials had unleashed a massive military campaign in an attempt to crush the Vietnamese revolution, which defeated the French in 1954.
The outcry opposing this war increased in Black and Brown communities, especially due to the aggressive political agitation of the Black Panther Party and Dr. Martin Luther King’s open condemnation of the war in 1968. Growing resistance to the military draft paralleled the rise of the Black power movement. Black and Brown resentment to racism was now accompanied by widespread opposition to conscription.
The Vietnam War was the first U.S. military incursion where units were no longer racially segregated. However, white racist die-hearts among officers and enlisted soldiers continued with their traditional outlook towards Black and Brown people.
In addition to mistreatment, Black and Latino soldiers were usually ordered to carry out life threatening tasks, usually suicide missions. Although they comprised less than 30% of the U.S. population combined at the time their death toll was 3 out of 5 killed in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese understood quite well the plight of Black people in the United States and sympathized with their struggles against racist oppression. In 1924 Vietnam’s iconic revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh wrote his famous pamphlet titled “On Lynching and the Ku Klux Klan” which served as a condemnation of the racism in U.S. society and outlined the commonalities between the Black and Vietnamese liberation struggles.
It was no coincidence when Vietnamese insurgents (National Liberation Front) released Black and Brown G.I.’s captured in battle. After having political exchanges with the prisoners Black and Brown soldiers were usually released and not held as POW’s.
As the war intensified many Black and Brown soldiers rebelled by collectively refusing to obey orders, and in many cases causing injury or death to white officers themselves. In every objective sense the rebelliousness of Black and Brown servicemen, along with the spread of the anti-war movement at home, aided the Vietnamese liberation struggle in its quest to rid U.S. imperialism.
Being aware of internal friction and demoralization within the U.S. military while the Vietnamese People’s Army and the National Liberation Front gained the upper hand militarily, compelled U.S. rulers to withdraw from that war in 1975.
Throughout the history of Black people serving in the U.S. military there has never been a period where they were free of the same racist oppression they faced in civilian life. The U.S. Armed Forces were created to preserve a system of inequality and for securing U.S. domination throughout the world. The U.S. military’s ideological guide is also based on what has justified Black oppression since it began — white supremacy.
Since the Civil War the presence of Black people in the military has presented a paradox to U.S. rulers. Out of necessity government and Pentagon officials welcomed the enlistment of people of color while fearing the possibility that the skills they learned would eventually be used against this system in revolutionary struggle. And understandably so.
When oppressed and exploited people find common ground in their quest for freedom unity can be established, as what occurred in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War and in other instances where Black soldiers were sent to shed blood. Social movements throughout U.S. history have proven that oppressors are only as strong as we allow them to be. Those who occupy the position of power need us more than we need them.
Working class people of all races and nationalities in this country comprise the majority and are in the position to put a stop to the chaos that now exist. Such is what will lay the basis for ending Black oppression and the reign of U.S. imperialism. It is the only way that we can bring into existence a world without continual war and suffering.
Of the events in African American history that bourgeois historians and apologists of slavery tend to dread is the Nat Turner Rebellion. This monumental chapter in Black history occurred on August 21, 1831 at the Belmont Plantation in Southampton County, Virginia. Since then Nat Turner’s name symbolizes defiance for African Americans but for white privilege it continues to be a moment in history that torments the imagination.
White supremacy’s preferred narrative of that rebellion is overemphasizing the violence inflicted on the slave owning families. False interpretations of that history aim to project slavers as victims and insidiously criminalize the justified rage of Black people, both in the pass and present.
To understand why this slave revolt was one of the bloodiest in U.S. history it is necessary to have a grasp of the horrific experiences the African American people endured under that system.
Great Britain perceived the Thirteen Colonies as their goose that laid golden eggs, and valued them more than all of its conquered territories throughout the globe. Of all the countries where slavery was practiced it was in the United States where this system became the most lucrative and brutal.
The rapid economic accumulation of wealth created from enslaved labor allowed the United States to develop into the giant capitalist bastion it is today. The enormous financial power that derived from the harshest circumstances of human suffering compelled the rulers to develop a set of ideas which ultimately served as their ideological justification for Black oppression — White supremacy.
Despite the glorification of the “old South” by the mainstream Black people were subjected to extreme forms of degradation, beatings, castration, torture, murder, and the rape of women, men and children alike. Black families lived under constant fear of being separated; Without warning children, mothers and fathers were sold to other slave plantations. In addition, among the most shocking and heinous acts committed by slave owners as a sport and for punishing insubordinate slaves was having their children tossed in rivers to be killed by crocodiles.
The gall of bourgeois historians who dare to make false judgement while minimizing the crimes inflicted on Black people. The blame for the not-so-pleasant details of slave uprisings falls strictly on those who firmly preserved the cruelty that came with this centuries-long system. Black people have historically been driven to use force as a means to end their suffering.
No uprising in history has ever been pretty. When a subjugated people realizes that struggle is the only path to freedom there are no guarantees that bloodshed will be absent from the equation. Tyrants have always reserved the right to use violence, as a way to preserve their power. For oppressed people breaking away from the yoke of their plight has always been achieved by whatever means available to them.
Although Nat Turner was traumatized from abuses since childhood he managed to develop strong leadership qualities which allowed him to develop and serve as preacher among the slaves. According to his supposed “confession” made after his capture, to a Southampton attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray, Turner stated that he had received a message from God commanding him to lead the slaves in an uprising.
On the evening of August 21, 1831, Under the leadership of Nat Turner numerous slaves abruptly began to rebel. They ran to the supply sheds to arm themselves with work tools used for toiling the land. With weapons in hand the enslaved laborers proceeded throughout the plantation to bludgeon and stab to death the well-armed overseers.
The intensity of the revolt continued with Nat Turner and his followers entering the hated resident mansion which symbolized the depth of their oppression as slaves. It was there where all members of the privileged White slave owning family were killed.
A state of panic widely consumed the White populace of Virginia and neighboring states, as the Black insurgents were hunted by bands of racist vigilantes. Unfortunately, by October 30th all of the insurrectionists were captured and put on a showcase trial.
On November 11, 1831 Nat Turner and 56 of his followers were executed and about 200 non-participants of the revolt from neighboring plantations were beaten and tortured. The repressive decrees implemented throughout the South were intense which lasted until the Civil War.
As if killing Turner and his followers were not enough to satisfy the frenzied vindictiveness of slavers, the bodies of the martyrs were gruesomely chopped to pieces, burned and used to make oil and glue. In the aftermath whites proved to be psychologically impacted, they became increasingly fearful of Black people. New repressive measures were instituted throughout the South with harsher laws that restricted the movement of slaves and free Blacks alike.
Nat Turner contributed to the rising momentum of that period which popularized the use of armed force against that vile institution. By all accounts Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831 inspired John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, which triggered the momentous political storm that resulted in the Civil War of 1861-1865 and the overthrow of the slave-owning class.
The Attempt to destroy slavery by the slaves themselves is of the utmost significance. This event will continue to inspire today’s anti-racist struggles as we continue to grapple with the historical consequences of slavery in the modern era.
Although the rebellion was suppressed, with the martyrs tortured and executed, this history continues to inspire a yearning for freedom in the present period. The legacy of this slave revolt added to Black traditions that brought into being other heroic examples like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, the African Blood Brotherhood, Malcolm X, Black Panther Party, and today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
History has given Nat Turner the noble title of revolutionary, during his lifetime. A future revolutionary struggle in the United States will surely bring about a broad desire for erecting statues and monuments dedicated to the memory of freedom fighters like Nat Turner. Giving the highest tribute to men and women who fought for Black liberation will be part and parcel of realizing the demand for reparations.
Among the historical demands of the African American liberation struggle viewed with the utmost contempt by the capitalist class is the demand for reparations. At least 12 million Africans were kidnapped and taken to the Americas in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The demand for reparations is based on the outright theft, degradation and genocide of the African American population during the hundreds of years of slavery in the United States. It is based on the continued impact of this period that lasts to this day in the form of systematic racism and inequality experienced by the Black community throughout the country.
It is also based on the continued benefits the U.S. capitalist class still derives from the wealth extracted from Black labor during the period of chattel slavery.
Unlike the human bondage of slavery in antiquity, African chattel slavery arose in the 15th century based on the expansion of capitalism. The exploitation of the labor of millions of African slaves allowed the then-infant European capitalist economies to achieve a level of growth never before seen by any social system.
Chattel slavery began around 1441 when armed Portuguese “explorers” captured Africans and shipped them to Europe. Once Christopher Columbus made his infamous intrusion into the Western Hemisphere, chattel slavery expanded and lasted well into the second half of the 19th century. This system formed the economic basis of deeply embedded racist ideology among people of European descent in the United States.
The initial process of rapid capital accumulation, a requirement for capitalist economic development, was accomplished by the European capitalist classes from the wealth created by enslaved Black labor and the massive theft of gold and other wealth from the Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere also victims of genocide.
Today, bourgeois historians try to exonerate or distance the capitalist class from complicity in the brutal system of chattel slavery. But slavery, while not based on the “free” wage labor associated with capitalism, was inextricably bound to the development of capitalism. Slavery became an inseparable appendage of rising capitalism until its abolition in the 19th century.
The wealth accumulated from slave labor strengthened capitalist industries and commerce. Textile industries, agriculture and shipbuilding prospered as a result of cheaper goods and raw materials obtained by enslaved African labor. The more Black slavery expanded, the more it became an impetus for capitalist economic development not only in the United States, where slavery was strongest, but throughout the world.
But what was first a tremendous stimulant for capitalist economic growth ultimately became an economic depressant in the United States. The slave-based plantation economy in the South competed directly with the growing manufacturing economy in the north, based on “free labor.”
The competition between these social systems was the basis for the U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865. African chattel slavery in the United States was the most lucrative of all.
Slavery was abolished after the Civil War. But the impact of that brutal system of exploitation remained, both in the wealth of the U.S. ruling class and the devastation and continued racist oppression of the Black population.
The colossal wealth today, amounting to trillions of dollars, is boasted about in stock market reports by the world’s richest corporations like FleetBoston Financial, the railroad firm CSX and the Aetna insurance company. These entities owe their growth to the brutally exploited labor of millions of African people.
But like any system of exploitation, slavery also provoked the aspirations of the Black masses for justice and compensation. The demand for reparations is an expression of these aspirations to benefit from the vast wealth that millions of enslaved people produced.
The exact formulation of the demand for reparations has varied over the many phases of the Black liberation struggle through the era of slavery itself, the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War, to the present day. But whatever the form in which the demand has manifested, it has always expressed the collective desire of African Americans to be compensated for the criminal exploitation they endured as an enslaved people.
`Forty acres and a mule’
During the Civil War, the southern slave-owning class held a special hatred for the northern general William Tecumseh Sherman. In 1864 and 1865, Sherman led an army of Black and white Union soldiers marching through South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Along the way, he ordered the total destruction of munitions factories, crops, railroad yards, clothing mills, warehouses and other targets to deny resources to the Confederacy. It was an effective measure of psychological warfare aimed at all who resisted the will of the Union Army.
On Jan. 11, 1865, Sherman met with leaders of the Black community in Savannah, Georgia. Most of them were former slaves. The spokesperson of the Black leaders was 67-year-old Garrison Frazier, who was born a slave in North Carolina.
Frazier gave voice to the aspirations of the millions of African Americans who had just been released from slavery as a result of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land,” Frazier told the Union general.
These African Americans were a principal factor in Sherman’s decision to issue Special Field Order 15 on Jan. 15, 1865. That military order provided 40,000 former slaves with 400,000 acres of land confiscated from the defeated slave owners. It is believed to have been the origin of the demand for “40 acres and a mule.
For the first time, a representative of the northern capitalist class had recognized, in a limited way, the rights of former slaves to receive some form of compensation for their centuries of oppression. And while the order was issued for tactical purposes by the northern capitalist government in its campaign against the southern slavocracy, it provided a glimpse of what the oppressed Black nation could achieve in a full-blown social revolution.
Reversal of Civil War gains
Hopes for real economic reparations for former slaves were short-lived. The immediate needs of the northern ruling class in crushing their southern competitors were replaced by the overall goal of stifling the aspirations of the oppressed Black masses. Sherman himself went on to unleash U.S. government terror against the Native American people.
The overthrown slave owners were enlisted as allies in this project. Former members of the Confederacy engaged in counter-revolutionary activities, setting up the terrorist Ku Klux Klan to roll back the gains of the postwar period of Radical Reconstruction.
One of Andrew Johnson’s first acts as president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was to rescind Special Field Order 15, returning the old land titles to their former owners. Throughout Johnson’s presidency, he vetoed every proposal that granted land to former slaves in the southern states and the western frontier.
Radical Republicans made other attempts to pass legislation compensating former slaves, such as providing pensions for the former slaves. These bills met fierce opposition in Congress; none survived.
As the United States entered the 20th century as a rising imperialist power, it became ever clearer that the capitalist class’ motives during the Civil War had nothing to do with genuine Black emancipation. Instead of receiving reparations, African Americans were the constant target of disenfranchisement, persecution and racist terror.
The struggle to win reparations for African Americans diminished in the earlier part of the 20th century, largely overshadowed by the necessary struggles against lynching and KKK terror. At the height of the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 60s, reparations once again became a central demand of the Black liberation struggle. The Black Panther Party, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Nation of Islam and others reintroduced the demand for reparations, often in militant and defiant ways.
The complicity of white people in Black oppression can only be rectified when they raise the banner of Black liberation as their very own.
During the course of the mass civil rights and Black liberation movements, the U.S. government was forced to allow some progressive legislation. In particular, voting rights, expanded welfare programs and some elements of affirmative action were achieved although all of them are under constant attack.
The question of property rights
But throughout this period, all sectors of the U.S. ruling class have been hostile to any form of reparations to the African American community. The reason is simple: The demand raises the question of property rights. The bottom-line function of the U.S. government is to preserve capitalist property against all demands from those without property.
Economics is the lifeblood that allows for human social development. Destroying, hindering or depriving a people of an economic means of life is an essential step for an oppressor in carrying out the business of subjugation. This is why the capitalist class is hostile toward any reference to reparations.
Of course, the capitalist rulers never hesitate to demand reparations in the form of financial compensation when it comes to their own property or interests. For example, they still whine about property that was expropriated by the Cuban people after the 1959 revolution.
Ruling-class commentators and pundits try to use bourgeois legality in arguing that African slaves are no longer living and that the claim for reparations should not apply to their descendants. But the wealth created by slave labor became the foundation of many U.S. corporations, and was the basis for the rise of the U.S. capitalist class: the railroad conglomerate CSX, Aetna, JP Morgan Chase, Westpoint Stevens, Union Pacific and Brown University, to name just a few.
It is by that bourgeois legality that the wealth created by the slaves and appropriated by the slave owners has continued in the form of corporate wealth and passed down through inheritance laws to families and individuals.
Under the legal codes of capitalism, the debt owed to the ancestors of the vast majority of African Americans in the United States today should be recognized by the same inheritance laws by which the rich have benefited. The denial of these rights is another example of the racist disenfranchisement of the Black nation in the United States.
What will reparations look like?
Of course, the concrete expression of how reparations should be granted has generated discussion and debate, even among advocates of reparations. For example, some call for reparations in the form of material incentives such as funds for education programs.
At a September 2000 forum sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus and initiated by Rep. John Conyers, Congressperson Tony Hall supported a call for a panel to study the call for reparations. “I would hope that it would consider among many things, investments in human capital for scholarships, for a museum like Congressman [John] Lewis has proposed, for things that would improve the future of slaves’ descendants,” he testified.
The Black Panther Party placed reparations at the center of their political perspective. Hall, who is white, articulated a modest message. He had sponsored legislation calling on Congress to issue a formal apology for slavery something that the U.S. government has never done. The version of reparations he described is one designed to be tolerated by some sector of the capitalist class itself.
Activist and author Sam Anderson, representing the Black Radical Congress at the same 2000 panel, projected a more radical vision of the movement for reparations. “[A] comprehensive reparations campaign embraces all of our sites of struggle and areas of concerns,” he said. Anderson laid out a program of fighting for free health care, debt cancellation both for the Black community in the United States as well as African nations and freedom for political prisoners. “A reparations campaign is fundamentally anti-racist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist,” he said.
Reparations and Socialism
Throughout the decades that the demand for reparations has been raised, it is clear that the ruling class is vehemently opposed to any form of economic redress for the descendants of victims of slavery. Every effort to make the most moderate version of reparations is rejected out of hand.
Every effort of groups like the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and others deserves the support of all working people of every nationality. Solidarity among the working class means recognizing the right of oppressed nations to real redress for the exploitation of centuries.
Reparations for African Americans automatically means the expropriation of the capitalist class. In short, taking back the wealth, and everything connected to it, that the rulers stole from oppressed and exploited people since their existence first began.
Socialists and revolutionaries concern themselves with raising the anti-capitalist essence of the demand for reparations, making it a central theme for the revolution in this country. For anyone to claim that they are “socialist” but are either ambiguous or opposed to reparations are in essence promoting a sham version of “socialism.”
Given the dynamics of the class struggle in the United States and the extreme reliance on racism by the ruling class, reparations for the oppressed automatically imply the expropriation of the capitalist class.
The demand for African American reparations has wide-ranging implications with regard to the history and social structure that prevails in this society.
It is a demand that has been taken up around the world by other oppressed nationalities. In fact, reparations for Native American people after the U.S. genocidal campaign, for Mexican people for the conquest of territory, for the Puerto Rican people, for more than a century of U.S. colonialism, for Cuba, Palestine, Haiti, Venezuela and so on. These and more are part and parcel of the U.S. working-class program for socialist revolution.
REPARATIONS FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS & ALL OPPRESSED PEOPLE, NOW!
On May 19, 1925, an admirable and resolute revolutionary figure was born in Omaha, Nebraska. This figure, who would achieve prominence in the liberation struggle of the African American masses, would go down in history as Malcolm X.
Malcolm X addresses a crowd in Harlem in 1963.
Malcolm was one of eight siblings, children of Louise Norton and Earl Little. Earl was an outspoken Baptist minister and a follower of the Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. His defiant character drew the attention of white racists like the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Legion. These thugs often harassed Malcolm’s family, and one evening their house was set on fire.
The 1920s were a decade that bourgeois historians describe as the “roaring twenties.” This is a false and vain glorification, considering that this period of capitalist prosperity meant something totally different for African Americans—who were the victims of widespread white mob lynching and other forms of racist terror.
In 1929, Malcolm’s family moved to Lansing, Michigan in pursuit of a safe and better life. But the family was not able to escape the racist violence. Earl Little was murdered, his body mutilated and found lying beneath a streetcar. Malcolm X always maintained that his father was the victim of a racist killing.
Malcolm was a studious child with ambitions to become a lawyer. One day, when Malcolm expressed his aspirations to a teacher, he was told that he would never become a lawyer because he was Black. This experience with racism disillusioned Malcolm and discouraged him from continuing school.This tragic event had a heavy impact on Malcolm’s family. Unable to cope with the emotional consequences of her husband’s death and the financial hardships involved in raising children alone, Louise Norton suffered a breakdown and was committed to a mental institution. The state took custody of all the children and placed them in separate foster care environments.
By the time Malcolm was a teenager, he made his way to New York City. He worked as a waiter for a period at the famous Small’s Paradise Club in Harlem. But he soon became a middleman for drugs, prostitution and other kinds of illegal activity.
In 1946, he and his closest friend Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis moved to Boston. They were both arrested and convicted for burglary shortly after. Malcolm was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The Nation of Islam
It was in prison where Malcolm began to become political. He became acquainted with the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm was attracted to the Muslim organization because it addressed the plight of racism and called for the right of African American people to have their own state.
Malcolm converted to Islam. Upon his release from prison in 1952, he became a devoted member of the NOI. It was at this point that he chose to repudiate his family name Little and instead use “X.” He considered the use of European names part of the legacy of chattel slavery. Black people were given the names of their slave masters to establish property ownership.
Elijah Muhammad was highly impressed with Malcolm X’s oratorical talents and charisma. Malcolm proved to be an important asset to the Muslim organization, and he became a ranking minister. Malcolm’s ability to draw the attention of many with his magnifying persona convinced the leadership to entrust him with the task of establishing NOI mosques in other U.S. cities.
Many viewed his captivating personality and the power of his imagery as surpassing the persuasiveness of Elijah Muhammad. People were drawn to rallies precisely to hear Malcolm X speak. His talents contributed to the astounding membership increase in the Nation of Islam from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963, according to the Malcolm X Estate.
‘No man should have so much power’
In one famous incident in 1957, before Malcolm X left the NOI, a member of the NOI was beaten by the police in Harlem and did not receive medical attention. Malcolm X demonstrated the power of a disciplined people’s campaign by marching members of the NOI to the police precinct. They stood in formation in front of the police station.
Malcolm insisted that the Black prisoner had a right to medical attention. Fearing a possible rebellion by the growing number of community residents who were emboldened by the Malcolm X’s leadership, the police brass agreed to obtain medical attention for the detainee. Thousands of Harlem residents followed the ambulance from the precinct to Harlem Hospital.
The police then ordered that the Muslim formation disperse. Malcolm very calmly but firmly explained to the police commander in charge that the crowd standing at attention did not recognize his authority and was not going to listen to his orders.
At that point, after ensuring that the beaten man was being treated, Malcolm gave a hand signal. With military discipline, the Muslims about-faced and marched away. The police commander was overheard saying to his subordinates, “no man should have that much power.”
In 1963, following the assassination of President John Kennedy, Elijah Muhammad instructed his followers to refrain from making public statements. He was concerned that any inflammatory statements could be used by the racist U.S. government to repress the NOI. But Malcolm could not resist demonstrating his disposition towards the rulers.
His blunt assessment—“the chickens have come home to roost”—was a widespread sentiment in the most oppressed communities, who had been shut out of the gains of the white capitalist United States. Kennedy was killed by the same violent methods that the power structure perpetrates on the conquered and oppressed.
But it was a shock to wide layers of the white population, unaccustomed to such a calm and critical assessment of U.S. society. The statement was used by a hysterical media to whip up a fear campaign against Malcolm and the Nation.
The statement infuriated the NOI leadership. Elijah Muhammad forbade Malcolm X from speaking publicly for 90 days.
Along with these organizational issues, political differences between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad became more difficult to reconcile.
Elijah Muhammad’s program was premised on the conservative notion of appeasement with the status quo. He sought to win legitimacy—but not on the basis of participating and giving leadership to the developing rebellious upsurge of the 1960s. He sought to promote a concept of Black capitalism, where the African American community would use the wealth it generated to enrich a Black elite that could ultimately compete with U.S. racist capitalism on its own terms—but would not compete with it until the elite was powerful enough.
Malcolm X, on the other hand, was attracted to the militancy of the civil rights movement. His approach was characterized by no compromise with the oppressors. His understanding of the depths of racism in the United States led him to conclude that the present system was inherently hostile to the interests of the African American people. Struggle was necessary to face the challenge. On every issue connected to the plight of the Black masses, he never hesitated to be critical in assessing the cruelty of the existing power structure.
In March 1964, after many bitter internal battles, Malcolm X severed his relationship with the NOI. He set up the Muslim Mosque, Inc. The same year, Malcolm traveled on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Coming in contact with Muslims of different races, including whites, was an experience that qualitatively changed his outlook towards race relations and the liberation struggle in the United States. For the first time, Malcolm saw a potential for a revolutionary struggle on the basis of a united front in this country. Upon his return, he again changed his name, to El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz.
Government inflames split
Malcolm X became the target of a number of assassination attempts, including the Feb. 14, 1965 firebombing of his home where he lived with his family, Betty Shabazz and their four daughters. When Malcolm publicly disclosed the reasoning for his departure from the NOI, the relationship with his former colleagues grew dangerously antagonistic.
Malcolm’s tremendous leadership and ability to project hope for the oppressed Black masses was undoubtedly under close watch by police and federal intelligence agencies. This scrutiny would have been in full swing after he met with Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro on Sept. 19, 1960, at the Hotel Theresa, in Harlem.
Malcolm suspected that the FBI and police kept him under very close watch, a suspicion that was proven correct in later years. He also suspected that the government was inflaming differences between the NOI and his organization. Malcolm was convinced that a scenario was being created that would lead to an attempt on his life.
On Feb. 21, 1965, in New York City’s Audubon Ballroom, three armed men approached Malcolm as he spoke on stage. The assassins repeatedly fired their weapons at close range, taking the life of the beloved and respected African American leader.
An example of militancy
Malcolm meets Fidel Castro in the Hotel Theresa in 1961.
Photo: Gamma Presse
There is no telling how Malcolm’s politics and tactics would have developed if he had not been assassinated. But one thing is certain: Malcolm X was a revolutionary. In the entire stretch of his political development, he demonstrated a quality of fierce hatred toward the status quo of racism and oppression. It was this trait that made him a militant and exemplary leader.
His impact was felt long after his death. Most notable, the Black Panther Party’s political line was heavily influenced by Malcolm’s defiant and revolutionary Black nationalism, as well as by Marxism-Leninism.
The struggle that ensued within the Nation of Islam between Malcolm X and his followers, on the one hand, and Elijah Muhammad and more bourgeois conservative elements, on the other, was essentially a struggle between forces who sought a revolutionary direction and those who desired to end oppression by mimicking the oppressors. This phenomenon has always existed in the movements of socially oppressed sectors.
Malcolm died when he was 39 years old. Although he lived a short life, he had a powerful impact on the African American and other revolutionary movements in the United States.
In particular, communists of all nationalities and others who strive to build a unified, revolutionary struggle learned from his powerful example of defiance against the grim reality of racism and alienation. They learned the need to build a unity based on respect for the revolutionary potential of the African American masses.
On May 9, 1800 one of the greatest representatives of oppressed and exploited people was born in Torrington, Connecticut. His name was John Brown.
John Brown did not perceive himself as a revolutionary, but was instead, according to him “doing the work of God”. However, his resolute stance against the widely accepted and legally sanctioned system of slavery made him in every sense a revolutionary.
Brown was a very religious man who saw the enslavement, torture and rape of Black people as an abomination of Christian beliefs and doctrine. The slave owning class used religion as an ideological pillar to justify their cruel practice, while most of organized religions were silent or supported slavery outright.
The exemplary acts of courage as well as the humanity John Brown exerted has secured him an eternal place of honor in the archives of the class struggle in the United States. His militant disposition towards the practices of this system contrasted tremendously from other abolitionists who tended to be non-threatening with their passive, reformist approach towards slavery.
John Brown sincerely believed that since slavery was upheld with violent force it was absolutely necessary to overthrow it with the same intention. He led a number of attacks such as the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie, in which slave owners and supporters of slavery were confronted for their heinous actions.
On October 16, 1859, Brown and a large group of men, that included two of his sons and former slaves, launched a raid at the U.S. Army Harper’s Ferry armory in Virginia. The site became known later in history as “John Brown’s Fort”. The plan was to capture the large stockpile of weapons and distribute them to Black people throughout the region in preparation for battle.
The legendary Harriet Tubman, who had intricate familiarity with the Harper’s Ferry region, provided Brown with detailed information about the armory. Harriet Tubman and John Brown had become friends and had great mutual respect for one another. Tubman eventually helped to recruit brave and willing men for Brown’s planned raid at Harper’s Ferry. As a ode to her leadership skills, Brown gave Tubman the nickname “General Tubman”.
Tragically, due to many tactical mistakes made by the liberators, the local militia of white citizens was allowed time to galvanized forces in response to the attack. Under the leadership of then U.S. Army Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee, they surrounded the armory. Soon after a bloody gun battle ensued for two days. Due to Robert E. Lee’s skills in military tactics and the superior weaponry of the U.S. Army, John Brown and his men were over taken and arrested despite many casualties on both sides.
John Brown’s eventual execution by hanging ultimately proved to be the beginning of the end for slavery in the United States. Brown succeeded in legitimizing the use of armed force as a viable option to end slavery. The story of John Brown and the Battle of Harper’s Ferry become a critical point in U.S. history, in which the country came to the opening gates of the Civil War.
Similarly, this courageous act was arguably mirrored by Cuba in the 1953 Attack on the Moncada Barracks led by Fidel Castro. Although both battles ended with the loss of many courageous fighters, each of these events ignited the flames of a revolution.
To this day, John Brown’s persona continues to be the target of vilification and ridiculed by bourgeois historians. Many historians depict Brown as fanatical and unstable. John Brown’s life is often distorted to seemingly discredit his passion for the abolitionist cause and dilute his relevance to American history, especially the circumstances of race relations today.
The ruling class in this country fear more than anything the prospect of mass rebellion. The Black struggle has inspired every oppressed and exploited sector of the population. It is no wonder why the Black Panther Party and other African American political expressions were targets of repression whenever they became recognized among broad sectors of the population.
It makes sense why those with power and wealth today would continue to dread the memory of John Brown as they would the contributions of revolutionaries such as Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Harriet Tubman, Lolita Lebron, Fidel Castro or V.I. Lenin.
John Brown was never critical nor was he defensive about the emancipation aspirations and self-identity of Black people. These sentiments which later on developed to become the ideological pillars of Black nationalism were deeply rooted in the horrific experiences of slavery. By all historical accounts, John Brown did his part to defend and enhance these sentiments.
Brown set the bar for White people to embrace their obligation to the fight for Black self-determination if they were to honestly consider themselves revolutionaries or socialists. White privilege also existed during John Brown’s lifetime in the form of slavery. Although conditions have somewhat changed from that era, the obligations of white progressives to fight white supremacy has not.
Claiming to be anti-racist is not enough if there is not action to match. In other words, being ‘anti-racist’ today means engaging in an uncompromising struggle against all forms of white privilege. Because of historical circumstances, there cannot be equal responsibility among the races.
In order for the first steps to be taken against racism in the U.S., the white population must raise the anti-racist banner as their very own. This disposition is precisely what John Brown was committed to live by. The standards required for white progressives in the struggle for fundamental change do not have to be re-created but updated based upon the blueprint established long ago by John Brown.
For the most part, no one ever expected such a barrage of condemnation against the super-star African American singing artist Beyonce for her performance during halftime at the 2016 Superbowl. It is an institutionalized extravagant sport event viewed by tens of millions of people throughout the United States.
The controversy began immediately after a dance troupe of about 50 women, with Beyonce at the helm, took center stage in a beautifully choreographed arrangement and dress attire that made references to the legendary Black Panther Party and Malcolm X. To many people nothing could have been a better tribute to the annual tradition of Black History Month (February) than to depict figures so symbolic in U.S. history.
But in order to understand why this performance became such a controversy we must first explore the causes that triggered it. Anyone who closely examines the norms of this violent “sport” will easily see how it tends to present itself as a feverish gladiator ritual. The definition of “sport” has been changed to mean inflicting bodily harm among high priced members of opposing teams and in some cases with permanent damage.
With military music bands playing and jet fighters flying high above the airspace of stadiums, the Superbowl has become an event that insidiously promotes a peculiar version of militarism. It accentuates sexism, white supremacy and big nation chauvinist arrogance – all of the not-so-hidden ideas that prevail in the general thinking of capitalist culture.
With this kind of historically rooted setting it came as no surprise when arch racists and notorious figures like New York State Representative Peter King and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani launched a barrage of attacks against the prominent Black female performer.
They were appalled that Beyonce would dare pay homage to heroic African American revolutionaries, even in the most minimized implicit manner. The vindictive outcry by these and other white supremacists has little to do with Beyonce or what they perceived as “offensive” during the halftime performance.
Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party and the mass upsurge that occurred during the 1960’s – 70’s, the height of the Civil Rights movement, continues to haunt the imagination of our oppressors to this day. Their apprehensions are attributed to the militant traditions of the African American masses which brought about the rise of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party.
The lessons that came as a result of those experiences are indisputably applicable in our reality today – and that is precisely what these villains fear. Blacks, Latinos, Indigenous and other people of color continue to be brutalized and murdered by the police across the United States.
Unlike the lies asserted by Guilliani and King it was the police who attacked, imprisoned and murdered Black Panthers in a criminal campaign organized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) known as Operation COINTELPRO. However, both Malcolm X and the BPP boldly advocated and practiced the right to use armed self-defense against the racist terror of the police in the Black community.
What the representatives of the ruling class are most upset about at Beyonce is that her Superbowl halftime performance reminded everyone of a period in U.S. history when Black people defiantly posed a threat to this racist system by galvanizing many sectors of the general population. This phenomena presented the potential for revolution in this country under the impact of the Black liberation struggle.
The role Black people played in the events of that period in history is something the ruling class can not forget or forgive. They will naturally dread the mere thought of a revolutionary upheaval until the day of their final doom.
The Black Panther Party believed in the right to armed self-defense from police terror.
This is why former Black Panther and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal has stated: “The tyrants, oppressors and racists who continue to hold political power in this country by using the most ruthless means can not afford a repeat of the 1960’s.”
The plight of Black people, from the 300 years of slavery, Jim Crow discrimination and the mass incarceration and police brutality today, are facts that our oppressors and those who benefit from white privilege and entitlement would like us to ignore and forget.
Regardless what Beyonce’s motives may have been she touched upon a vulnerability of white supremacist America and because of that she merits our applause and praise. If her halftime performance were a projection of jingoism, militarism or a glorification of white supremacy she would not have received the flack that she is now a target of.
An example of revolutionary defiance and militancy
By Carlito Rovira
Fifty years ago, in October 1966, the Black Panther Party was born. It is one of the highlights in the history of the U.S. revolutionary movement, and the Black liberation struggle in particular.
Young African Americans dared to stand up and challenge the reins of the capitalist state, to the point of arming themselves to demand an end to Black oppression. Their vision of Black emancipation evolved into a vision of the liberation of all oppressed people and the smashing of the capitalist system.
The U.S. government, terrified by the potential for revolution and the influence these Black leaders and freedom fighters were gaining, resorted to the most extreme violence to destroy the BPP. It is a campaign that is still felt today.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, as the party was first called, was formed in Oakland, Calif., by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The name—and the famous panther logo—came from the Lowndes Country Freedom Organization in Alabama, that which organized for independent Black political action with the help of Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The formation of the Black Panther Party was the culmination of a resistance movement over the long history that characterizes the oppression of African Americans in the United States, from the lashes of slavery to the beatings and murders by the police in modern times. It grew up in the aftermath of the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X—a powerful voice for militant Black self-determination and liberation. It drew inspiration from the Deacons for Defense and Justice, organized for African American self-defense against racist Klan and police terror in the South.
The Panthers recognized the need for an organization that was capable of addressing the racist violence that the Black masses faced. Every gain being made by the Civil Rights movement was being matched by violence and lynching by racist cops and the Ku Klux Klan, in the North and South alike.
The Right to Armed Self-Defense
The Panthers won respect and admiration for their militancy and defiance in the face of the racist police state. For example, less than a year after their founding, on May 2, 1967, a group of 30 Black Panthers walked into the California state capitol building armed with shotguns and automatic rifles. The armed but peaceful demonstration was to protest the Mulford Act, aimed at prohibiting citizens from carrying firearms on their persons or in their vehicles.
As the Panthers walked towards the entrance of the capitol building, they were approached by television and other news media. They used the occasion to call upon African Americans everywhere to arm themselves against the systematic brutality and terror practiced by the power structure.
But the party’s efforts went far beyond their call for armed self-defense and their patrols of racist cops. They also carried out consistent community work, gaining the confidence of the people not only in the Black community but among other oppressed nationalities as well.
Panther chapters sprung up in the African American communities of major cities from coast to coast. Wherever they established branches, they tried to set up outreach programs like free breakfast for children and free clothing drives. They used every one of these opportunities to expose the avaricious nature of the rich and powerful who exist at the expense of the poor.
The Panthers were influenced by Malcolm X’s rejection of “turn the other cheek” pacifism for the Black liberation struggle, as well as by the socialist movement in the United States and around the world. Their “Black Power” salute combined with street corner sales of Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Books” of quotations.
The international situation during this period also contributed to the birth of the Panthers. The 1949 Chinese Revolution, the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the Vietnamese Revolution and the heroic struggle of south Vietnam’s National Liberation Front against U.S. imperialism, along with the other national liberation struggles in Africa, Latin America and Asia had a great impact in inspiring revolutionaries in the United States, including the Black Panthers.
Their militancy and revolutionary politics quickly put them in the center of the African American liberation struggle, as well as in the growing mass movements that were sweeping the country.
Capitalism Is The Problem
More and more, the party put the blame for the plight of the African American people on the capitalist system. It rejected the view that the problems of racism could be solved within the confines of the exploitative system, or that it was possible to accumulate enough capital in the Black community to rival capitalism with “Black capital.” Instead, Panther speakers called for socialist revolution within the context of the Civil Rights era.
Their uncompromisingly revolutionary and anti-capitalist stance was the most prominent in what became a new trend within the Black liberation struggle of the 1950s and 1960s.
As part of the political training of its membership, the BPP studied Marxist literature like the Communist Manifesto and the writings of Mao Zedong.
The Black Panther Party was a disciplined and organized revolutionary political entity. The Panthers put forward the need for professional, organizational sophistication in building a revolutionary political party.
While the party’s Ten-Point Program reflected its political views and line of march, it was the membership rules that ensured the internal discipline of the organization. Membership rules touched a range of matters, including mandatory collective study of revolutionary theory; respect for women inside and outside the BPP; and respect for the property of the poor.
Revolutionary Multinational Alliances
The Panthers advocated a united front of revolutionary organizations to guarantee the success of a revolutionary struggle in the United States. Their organizing efforts extended to Puerto Rican, Chicano, Asian, other nationally oppressed people., and the white working class.
They forged alliances of various kinds, such as with the American Indian Movement and Cesar Chavez and the farm workers’ movement. The Panthers stood in solidarity with the struggle for women’s equality, especially supporting those sectors of the women’s movement that were anti-imperialist and anti-racist. To the surprise of many, on the heels of the Stonewall rebellion, Panther leader Huey P. Newton publicly supported the struggle to end gay and lesbian oppression.
The Panthers perspective was toward building a multinational alliance of revolutionary organizations. Their most notable effort was the Rainbow Coalition, organized in June 1969 in Chicago by Panther leader Fred Hampton, which consisted of the Black Panther Party; the Young Lords, a U.S. organization of Puerto Rican revolutionary youth; and organizations representing Chicanos, Asians, and poor whites. Hampton’s vision was to eventually merge these allied organizations into a single revolutionary entity, to forge a revolutionary organization with representation from the full spectrum of the working class.
Wherever their agitation work was conducted, on the streets, in on campuses, or at public events, the Panthers upheld the principle of solidarity with the liberation movements in the oppressed and colonized countries. At the height of the Vietnam War, the Black Panther leadership made an open gesture of internationalism by offering to send party members to fight alongside the National Liberation Front in their struggle against U.S imperialism.
Fierce U.S. Repression
Faced with the Black Panther Party’s tremendous growth and revolutionary orientation, the U.S. government struck back. It organized a massive political-military campaign, involving the FBI and police departments around the country, to destroy the Panthers’ leadership.
In a now- well-documented campaign called “Operation: COINTELPRO, or Counter Intelligence Program,” the FBI orchestrated covert operations—personally overseen by FBI Director director J. Edgar Hoover—to provoke conflicts between the Black Panthers and other organizations. They employed a network of infiltrators and provocateurs to disrupt the party’s discipline and leadership.
Police attacks were common. Cops routinely raided party offices and the homes of Panther members. Dozens of Panthers were killed outright, often in cold blood. The most notable of these cop assassinations was the Dec. 4, 1969, murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago while he slept. He was 21 years old.
Dozens more Panther members and leaders spent years in prison. The campaign to jail Panther leaders and activists long outlived the organization itself. Mumia Abu-Jamal, who at 16- years -old had been the Minister minister of Information in the party’s Philadelphia branch, was framed up and sentenced to death in 1981. He has been in prison ever since despite a worldwide effort calling for his release.
The Black Panther Party ultimately could not withstand the government onslaught. The combined police attacks and covert operations compounded internal differences. Unable to withstand the tremendous repression, by the mid-1970s the Black Panther Party was essentially defunct.
Lessons for today
Bourgeois historians often try to downplay the role of the state in the destruction of the Panthers. At best, they point to the Panthers as a lesson to revolutionaries, especially from the oppressed nationalities: Do not dare to struggle, you can not stand up to the power of the capitalist state.
Revolutionaries draw different lessons. The rulers were not then and are not now invincible. The fact that the U.S. government relentlessly attacked the Panthers before they had a chance to steel the discipline of their rank and file only points to the need to build disciplined organizations of professional revolutionaries today in preparation for the battles to come.
As long as capitalist oppression exists, the rise of revolutionary movements, like the one that gave rise to the Black Panther Party, is a historical certainty. The Panthers showed that revolutionary ideology and organization, embraced by the most oppressed sectors of the working class, is what the ruling class fears the most.
Everything they did and the sacrifices they made will not be in vain. Eventually, those who aim, in the sincerest sense, for socialism, Black emancipation and the liberation of all oppressed people in the United States must embrace that history and strive to emulate their courage and revolutionary spirit.