The Post-Movement Reaction

Black and white photo of Black family standing in front of Coke billboard

George Mitchell

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 1, "Behind Closed Doors." Find more from that issue here

American politics and culture have reverted to reactionary conservatism since 1968. Despite the rhetorical triumphs of Black Power, the influx of blacks into economic and political positions of privilege and the establishment of black studies curricula in Southern schools, a retreat from the political logic of the ’60s has developed. 

Both before and after Martin Luther King’s assassination, some of his key associates within SCLC and the NAACP privately refused to come to terms with his new political position, including his critique of the Vietnam War. Many continued to praise the King legacy publicly, but — as in the case of some of Malcolm X’s former followers — they privately denounced the international perspective and antiimperialist analysis implicit within Martin’s final speeches. The material realities of America, especially the military machine fueling its economy, forced Martin to abandon his older reformist ideas for a higher form of social and ethical criticism; yet many other leading integrationists could not, or would not, follow him. 

The fragmentation of the Movement increased as a host of SNCC activists retreated under the cover of the Black Power slogan into local and state politics, and entrepreneurial leaders like James Farmer and Floyd McKissick forged a Booker T. Washington-type alliance with the Nixon administration to boost black petty bourgeois power. 

While the number of blacks registered to vote in the South has climbed from 2 million in 1964 to 4 million today, the momentum of the Movement to achieve representative democracy between the races has ground to a halt. The masses of blacks in this region still do not hold the political power equal to their numbers. Black elected officials number 1,847 in the South, but that amounts to only 2.3 percent of the total number of elected officials in the region. Blacks constitute 20.5 percent of the South’s total population and make up popular majorities in over 100 counties, yet only 10 counties are effectively controlled by blacks. In 1978, only two black Congressmen were from the South, and both represented major metropolitan areas. 

Furthermore, this small elected elite, with few exceptions, represents not the interests of the black masses that were the essence of the Movement but the maturing black bourgeoisie and corporate interests in the New South. It tends to represent political philosophies to the right of their Northern counterparts; e.g., Barbara Jordan’s staunch and sincere defense of the character of John Connally at his milk fund trial; Andrew Young’s solitary black vote endorsing the 1973 appointment of Gerald Ford to the Vice Presidency. 

Like a number of black Republican politicians during the New South of the 1880s, many black Southern Democrats have today abandoned the political liberal-left within the Democratic Party, despite their rhetoric to the contrary, and have cemented an alliance with new representatives of the South’s upper class. The rapid rise of Barbara Jordan, Andrew Young, Ben Brown and other Southern black moderates signifies a basic shift from the tradition of whites-only politics; it also, and more importantly, signifies that the region’s ruling class has decided it can accommodate certain representatives of the Afro- American community into the governance of a new matrix of state power which supports accelerated capitalistic development in the region. The principles of the Movement for these black leaders have been transformed, abandoned or rationalized into the principles of the ruling corporate interests. 

The fundamental reason for these political developments is economic. The New South of today, like the original New South of the 1880s, depends for its growth upon finance capital and rapid commercial and industrial expansion. During the post- Reconstruction era, the capital influx came from New England and the Mid-Atlantic. Today the capital comes from the North, the West, all parts of the world, and from the South itself. Since the late 1960s, economists and corporate leaders alike have commented upon the “booster” character of the South’s modern economy. From 1960 to 1976, personal per capita income increased from $1,707 to $5,198, while industrial output of Southern factories leaped from $25.8 billion to $54.0 billion. During the recessions of the Nixon-Ford administrations, Southern business led the stock market revival. Conservative economist Elliot Janeway notes that “stock brokerage firms with national networks of branch offices report that the retail stampede to buy stocks began in the South. Its impact on Wall Street was to spread the word overnight: ‘When in New York, do as the Southerners do.’” 

Coinciding with the rapid expansion of commerce and industry in the New South has been a process of agrarian underdevelopment and the proletarianization of rural blacks. The small towns and villages of the picturesque, rural South lose their former share of the economic market to the massive metropolitan powers of Atlanta, Memphis, Birmingham, Houston, Charlotte and New Orleans. Rural life becomes increasingly dependent upon the eco-nomic, political and cultural initiatives of the metropolis. Agricultural employment steadily declines, the vital class of small farm owners erodes and black landownership disappears. From 1964 to 1974, 29 percent of all Southern farms ceased operations, a total of 454,000 fewer farms. The federal farm policies under Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford encouraged the destruction of the independent middle class farmer’s market resulting in a real decline in agricultural output in the region, from $8.3 billion in 1960 to $7.4 billion in 1976. Black farmers have been especially hard hit: their number has shrunk from 3,1 58,000 in 1950 to only 938,000 by 1970. The displaced farmer and farmhand have entered a burgeoning labor pool whose surplus and lack of organization has in turn heightened the influx of new industry to the region. 

The high rate of industrialization, the destruction of the independent black farming class, and the underdeveloped consciousness of labor in the South directly contributed to the conservative character of the New South’s black politicians. The proletarianization process has isolated black religious and traditional community leaders whose base was the farmer and farmhand. The new urban-based leaders have largely ignored the position of a new class of black workers in the region’s political economy. Under this leadership, the attention the Movement placed upon the narrow political struggle for integration and equal opportunity obscured the more fundamental economic and social problems operating on the black South until it was too late. King may have recognized these truths as he struggled to help the organization of black sanitation workers in Memphis. But even today, the black leaders of the New South have yet to grasp the new position of black laborers in the region’s political economy, and they have yet to confront the racist mechanisms that thwart the development of a new progressive base among black and white workers in the region. Instead, they have allied with the employers who “provide jobs” for the displaced agrarian population and, in exchange for token favors, have helped them manipulate government power — with everything from right-to- work laws to regulation of branch banking — for the capitalists’ interests. 

The entrance of blacks into Southern politics coincides with the expansion of state institutional forms. Southern governments during previous New South periods were seldom more than petty courthouse committees of Black Belt plantation owners and/or the lawyers of industry. But the New South of the ’70s has experienced an astonishing growth in state bureaucracies which itself manifests key elements and contradictions within the region’s political economy. The rapid underdevelopment of the rural South required new state sponsored welfare agencies. And the rapid industrialization of the urban centers and influx of a new first-generation working class called for state government intervention similar to the New Deal programs of the ’30s. Even as conservative a politician as George Wallace resorted to big government policies to balance the demands of industrial developers, old-line county politicians and black integrationists: the class interests of all these groups were reconciled through an expanding network of government services. During his administrations, Wallace supervised the construction of 15 trade schools, 14 junior colleges and the largest highway expansion program in the state’s history. The state bureaucracy tripled in size under his administration; the proportion of Alabama residents employed in public welfare programs, about 34 percent, reached the second highest in the nation. Wallace and other vocal segregationists (like Louisiana’s Risley Triche, Georgia’s Herman Talmadge,and South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond) have openly renounced their racist rhetoric and legislation of only 10 years ago and now demand that their state governments keep up with the rising expectations of black constituents by creating the infrastructure of incentives and services for rapid economic growth. 

Within this context, a new generation of opportunistic black politicians have been elevated to powerful positions due to their clientele relationships with the regional bourgeois interests. The challenge of the Movement has given way to compromise. The black middle class and segments of the white ruling class provided critical financial support to constitutional reformers like King, Young and Jesse Jackson of SCLC, Farmer and McKissick of CORE, and John Lewis of SNCC. But as the political struggle gained major successes, radicals like Malcolm X, James Forman and others in SNCC, and theoreticians like James Boggs pointed the way toward social revolution — a frightening spectre of permanent struggle and cultural transformation which neither the black nor white establishment could accept. The popular, massive struggles in the streets died down gradually as the political system granted certain concessions — and after many important black radicals were imprisoned, bought out or assassinated. 

The reformed state governments of the New South are now dominated by a group of white moderates who bring new management techniques to the massive state bureaucracies and who project a “progressive” image of the state’s democratic policy-making apparatus and services to blacks and the poor. This new breed of white politicians — led by Terry Sanford of North Carolina, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, Edwin Edwards of Louisiana, John West of South Carolina, William Walker of Mississippi — has been especially adroit at defining for the citizenry a new rationale for state power. Through public statements and actions, they have established the legitimacy for the directions of the New South: the acceptance of civil rights legislation, the integration of many public schools and policy councils, the influx of heavy industry, the expansion of commercialism, and the decline of the agrarian influence on state legislatures. They have thus helped consolidate the white and black masses behind the capitalistic development of the region. This New South creed is explained and promulgated through new educational institutions, electronic and print media, and cultural programs. Behind the rhetoric of reform, the state expands its influence into every aspect of cultural life. 

The impact of these changes on black society has been particularly reactionary. The New South’s aesthetics negate, or attempt to replace, the Afro-American cultural heritage, the protest impulse evident with many phases of Southern black culture, and the Weltanschauung of the new urban working class. Despite the continued use of the word “black,” most black social and intellectual leaders in the South have quietly accommodated themselves to the new capitalistic realities and New South-style political roles. On the college campuses, radical black professors and administrators are being fired; black studies programs are abandoned; fraternity and sorority life has replaced an interest in political discussions. Clothing styles, mannerisms of speech and habits changed almost overnight. Afro-hair styles and dashikis gave way to bleached hair, surreal clothing and high heels. The blues and jazz, once an integral part of the political struggle of the ’60s, were replaced by blatantly sexist disco. Numerous activist journals and community newspapers initiated in the ’60s closed down for economic reasons. 

Perhaps the strongest single cultural change has occurred within the relations between men and women. The Civil Rights era in the South was a period of expanded sexual freedom. Women like Rosa Parks of Alabama and Fannie Lou Hamer of Mississippi assumed leadership roles in local desegregation struggles; black women of all ages ran for office, organized voter registration campaigns, gave political speeches and raised funds for civil rights activities. In recent years, however, an overwhelmingly black male cast seized the newly available state and county political offices. Southern black males have downplayed ERA legislation and have not campaigned aggressively for expanded state-supported abortion facilities and day-care centers. Instead, the traditional chauvinism inherent in the Southern ethos finds new expression within black middle-class-sponsored beauty pageants and debutante balls.

The expansion of the state and the pre-eminence of the bourgeois culture have only helped stagnate the region’s intellectual and cultural creativity. The South’s aggressive economic structure, from slave labor to entrepreneurial capitalism, has contributed to what journalist W.J. Cash termed “the savage ideal” 40 years ago. The culture of the white bourgeoisie — its love of material possessions, its lack of humanism and gross disrespect for life and ecology — has encouraged widespread social violence and a backward intellectual climate. More people are murdered per thousand in Savannah and Montgomery than in New York or Watts. The incidence of rape increased over 41 percent in North Carolina between 1969 and 1973, and by significant amounts in almost every Southern state. The “mind” of the South still represents the dregs of American academic and cultural achievement. In 1970, the South had only five percent of the nation’s leading graduate schools, according to a national survey. In spite of Wallace’s expansion of state-supported educational institutions, Alabama ranks at the very bottom of every national scale for education. The black college suffers from declining enrollments and severe financial difficulties, largely because of the desegregation of the region’s major white state-supported institutions. Many white and black radicals have fled to the North and West Coast in search of better working conditions, a freer academic climate and higher salaries. 

The possibility for social change within the conservative political economy of the New South now depends primarily upon the success of black activists and intellectuals in re-educating the dispossessed working people and the poor toward a new political consciousness of struggle, a consciousness based on class interests and an awareness of the historic use of racism to divide workers. 

The history of the relationship between black and white laborers in the South is, at best, ambiguous. Since the late nineteenth century, blacks have acquired the reputation as strike-breakers and scabs. The Negro laborer was viewed as a temporary source of cheap labor by white managers, and as such, seemed to pose a continuous threat to the direct economic interests of the white working class. There were numerous incidents, however, of black-white cooperation within the struggles of organized labor. For example, during the reorganization of the United Mine Workers in the 1930s, white coal miners in Alabama worked with black miners to establish a strong biracial base. By 1935, there were 23,000 UMW members in Alabama, 60 percent of whom were black. 

In the post-World War II South, biracial working class coalitions became virtually non-existent. When the Chattanooga Central Labor Union passed a resolution supporting school desegregation in the summer of 1955, nine individual locals issued counter-resolutions against their organization and in favor of white supremacy. Several locals left the union, declaring that the pro-integration resolution was “Communist inspired.” During the early 1960s, Local 12 of the United Rubber Workers at the Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama, typified many of the tensions over racial equality at the workplace. The white-dominated local refused to process grievances of black employees who protested against segregated dining facilities and Jim Crow restrictions within the plant. Black workers with many years of seniority were regularly laid off without pay, while white employees with less seniority were allowed to work. 

Few civil rights workers attempted to convert white trade unionists in the South to a favorable position on integration. The white working class voted for segregationist politicians, and union halls throughout the region were regularly used as meeting places for the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils. In a number of important union elections conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, black workers voted against the union and provided the margin of defeat. 

To some extent, the separation between Southern black and white workers was manifested nationally by strained relations between civil rights leaders and trade unionists. Historian Philip Foner observed that “the courageous and militant blacks faced intimidation and repression, and the movement . . . was in constant need of funds and moral support. But the AFL-CIO gave neither.” 

Among the most influential proponents of the thesis of alliance between Negro integrationists and white labor was Martin Luther King. Speaking before a convention of the United Packinghouse Workers Union in 1957, Martin insisted that “organized labor can be one of the most powerful instruments in putting an end to discrimination and segregation.” Unfortunately, the labor establishment refused to accept this vanguard role. Some labor leaders like Walter Reuther gravitated toward the centrist-conservative factions within the Movement; the majority of them still accepted the historical image of the black laborer as innately inferior or as the perpetual scab. 

In the wake of the Movement, black and white worker relationships have remained relatively backward. The illusion of equal opportunity and the elevation of a limited number of black professionals into the business bureaucracy continues to dominate black and white consciousness. Even in the majority of the new Southern factories, blacks continue to be hired in unskilled or low paying positions. The racial privilege of whites continues to be a driving wedge that separates and alienates workers and forces white laborers into the waiting arms of white management. 

The area of the South with the worst record of interracial labor cooperation in recent decades remains the Black Belt. Despite the general growth of industrial development, manufacturing employment has steadily declined in the Black Belt. As Alabama’s industrial employment climbed from 1,040,126 in 1950 to 1,235,287 in 1970, Black Belt totals dropped from 136,059 to 105,504 in the same period. In Macon County, Alabama, for example, the total number of workers employed in industry in 1950 was 9,719. By 1960, the figure fell to 7,833, and by 1970 it was 7,213. In the most industrialized county of the Alabama Black Belt, Dallas County, total industrial employment dropped from 20,266 workers in 1950 to 18,776 in 1970. In this climate of decreasing jobs and rising unemployment, occurring within the social context of a Movement to halt de facto and de jure segregation in employment procedures, labor solidarity across the color line dissolved. White workers in the Black Belt clung desperately to their jobs, swallowed their complaints and kept their distance from union activities. In too many cases, these white workers blamed the move toward the desegregation of Southern society for their failure to attain individual and collective prosperity. 

For all these problems and contra- dictions, there are indications that the concurrent processes of urbanization, industrialization and the proletarianization of blacks has created the conditions for new interracial, working class alliances.The Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union is currently organizing the 450 workers at the J. P. Stevens mill in Montgomery. Despite Stevens’ promise that union activists would not be harassed, several pro-union employees were fired in 1976 and 1977. Others were harassed and coerced into resigning. Stevens workers in Montgomery have minimal health insurance and pension protection, and no parking, lunchroom or medical facilities. Sixty percent of the workers are black, but there is not a single black supervisor in the plant. These conditions are typical of any of the dozens of Stevens plants in the South. Despite these hardships, many workers have met in weekly meetings and are now on the verge of creating a visible local. White workers have begun to re-evaluate their traditional fears and racist notions and have moved toward the union’s self-consciously biracial posture. In doing so, they have begun to challenge the essence of Southern history. 

The history of humanity is no tidy series of predictable events, moving inextricably toward an inevitable social revolution or political upheaval. The Civil Rights Movement as a series of political confrontations against an archaic social institution was predictable but not inevitable. The present period of reaction and conservatism in the South, caused by many subjective and objective conditions, can not be understood apart from the important positive achievements of black people in previous decades, Jim Crow will never return as it once existed, nor will its crude indignities which crushed the humanity of its master class. In spite of contradictory leaders, compromising politicians, and an apathetic middle class, the black majority will never retreat from the substantial gains achieved during the 1950s and 1960s. The tradition of community organizing, picketing, boycotting and rallying still exists, and many blacks who were too young to participate actively in the Movement seem interested in re-establishing its activist ethos, if not its original organizational forms. 

The next Movement in the South must be grounded within Marxian theory if it hopes to successfully combat racism. Southern community organizers and black political activists have begun to realize the profound, historic, symbiotic relationship between capitalist economic development and white racism. A principled struggle against the residual structures of segregated society can become the basis for a deeper conflict against cultural underdevelopment and expanding economic exploitation. The future struggle against the causes of racism must be channeled through new, practical political institutions that owe their perspective to a materialist analysis of Southern life and labor. It seems probable that in the next decade this depressing and immensely contradictory period will produce the groundings for an even more successful democractic movement against economic inequality.