Black History Month
A History of Oppression and Resistance Part 2: From Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement
Revolution #037, March 5, 2006, posted at revcom.us
This is the text-only from a photo spread in Revolution. Get a copy of this issue of the newspaper to see the powerful images in this article.
To isolate and defeat the southern slaveowners, the northern capitalists had to promise the slaves their freedom and had to promise them (and poorer whites in the South) that they would get land and rights when the war was won. For a few years after the Civil War, some parts of these promises were kept, but even then the U.S. government used its federal troops to put down Black people (and poor whites who sometimes joined with them) who tried to get their promises paid in full. And before long, Black people were forced back onto the same plantations they had slaved on.
The northern capitalists had gotten what they wanted and needed out of the Civil War: domination over the whole country and greater openings for the expansion of their capitalist system. Equality for Black people and an end to the plantation system—keeping the promises made during the Civil War—was in conflict with these capitalists' interests. So the promises were broken and brutal force was used to keep Black people poor, exploited, segregated and discriminated against, treated like peons on the plantations, now under the ultimate control and domination of the capitalists.
The masses of Black people were exploited as sharecroppers and farm laborers, still working for The Man from "can't see in the morning till can't see at night." They were held down by debt they could never seem to get out of, and they were terrorized by scum like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and a whole set of laws and codes—all working to chain them in new ways to the plantation system.
It was not until World War 2—nearly 100 years after the Civil War—that a basic change began to be brought about in the situation of Black people in the U.S. Millions of Blacks went from a rural life to an urban setting. They went from being peasants (tied to the land as sharecroppers and poor farm owners) to being mainly proletarians—not tied to any one place or any one job but forced to live by selling their labor power (their ability to work) to the capitalists, or going unemployed if the capitalists could not get enough gold by working these proletarians.
The biggest change came in the years after World War 2. Southern agriculture was drastically changed. Tractors were brought in on a large scale, and mechanized methods of planting and picking were also introduced in a big way. Machines were replacing human labor and patterns of land ownership were being changed. Millions of Black people were uprooted from the land and pushed toward the cities by the "invisible hand" of capitalism and its supreme commandment: profit, and more profit. Before, the interests of the capitalists dictated that Black people be forced and terrorized to remain on the southern plantations. Now, these same capitalist interests dictated that Black people leave the southern farmlands.
On the basis of these economic changes, certain political and social changes had to be brought about also. Segregation was brought under fire. Battles were waged, and barriers were knocked down. Black people could no longer be legally denied the right to vote or to eat in the same restaurants or even use the same bathrooms and drinking fountains as white people.
The gains of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s were the result of great struggle and sacrifice—they were won—they were not a "gift" from the "high and mighty." And more, what the capitalists up top did give in to—the changes that they did come across with—were those changes that were most in line with their own interests and needs, or that posed the least threat to their whole system.
The US ruling class was faced with a massive, militant struggle. They were faced with the danger that this struggle would continue to explode all out of control, especially as the Civil Rights movement gave way to a revolutionary Black Liberation movement in the late 1960s.