Forging Change, Breaking Chains

Against the Current, No. 145, March/April 2010

George Lipsitz

Grassroots at the Gateway:
Class Politics & Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-1975
By Clarence Lang
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009, 324 pages,
$28.95 paperback.

REMEMBERING AND FORGETTING are not only things that people do; they are things that are done to them. In our time, the Black freedom movement of the mid-20th century is now both well remembered and selectively forgotten.

In museums and memorials, in civic celebrations and schoolbooks, in punditry and many different forms of popular culture, rhetorical fabrication undermines historical investigation. We are encouraged to forget that the civil rights movement was part of a broader Black freedom struggle that sought class justice and the radical reorganization of society itself.

Popular memorials constantly recall the campaigns to desegregate lunch counters and open voting booths, but ignore collective mass mobilizations for jobs and justice. The common-sense memory of the Black freedom movement that prevails in our society translates collective challenges to unjust structural and systemic power as largely therapeutic exercises that purged the nation of its prejudices.

In Grassroots at the Gateway, Clarence Lang makes a greatly needed contribution to helping us remember what we have been led to forget. This well researched, engagingly written and carefully argued book demonstrates the centrality of working-class politics to the Black freedom struggle in St. Louis in the mid-20th century. He reminds us that in many important ways, the civil rights struggle was a class struggle.

Lang shows how Black workers in St. Louis used the civil rights movement to pursue access to stable high-wage jobs, to challenge the prerogatives of management, to defend themselves against the effects of automation, and to increase their community’s overall social wage. For the Black workers at the center of Lang’s study, the civil rights movement was a node in a network of a broader freedom struggle that went beyond merely desegregating public accommodations and securing the right to vote.

Like other Black working-class activists in that era in cities across the country (notably Detroit, Michigan; Cambridge, Maryland; Bogalusa, Louisiana; and Memphis, Tennessee), Black activists in St. Louis viewed race-based mobilization as a way of advancing their class interests, as a mechanism for promoting the democratization of many different social spheres in society including the point of production.

Because most Blacks share a linked fate no matter what their class position, cross-class coalitions were essential forms of struggle for the Black freedom movement. The forces that necessitated working-class participation in cross-class coalitions might have watered down the class content of their struggle. Lang shows instead that the opposite happened: that the importance of the working class in shaping coalitional politics in Black St. Louis infused the city’s African-American political culture with a significant degree of class consciousness.

At the same time, Black worker activism on picket lines, on the job, and in union halls produced an exuberant and renewed militancy that reached across racial and class lines.

Working-Class Grassroots

Grassroots at the Gateway helps us rethink the histories of both the civil rights movement and the labor movement. As in most cities, middle-class professionals, preachers and entrepreneurs dominated leadership positions in the mainstream civil rights organizations in St. Louis. But as early as the 1930s and 1940s, these leaders came to depend upon their base in the Black working class to be a presence on picket lines, to vote as a bloc, to appear at mass meetings and rallies.

Defense production for World War II attracted additional new rural migrants to the city, increasing the numerical size of the Black working class but also infusing the community’s meeting places, organizations and political mobilizations with a strong working-class tinge.

White supremacists in St. Louis unwittingly augmented the relative power of the working class inside the Black community. Housing segregation, political suppression and economic segmentation combined to prevent Black elites from moving away from the Black poor, from running for office outside the ghetto, from doing business with anyone other than their customers in Black neighborhoods.

Especially in the 1960s, working-class Black activists used these factors to pull their community’s leadership into campaigns to desegregate employment in banks, at construction sites and in factories, to challenge discriminatory promotion practices, and to make unified class-conscious responses to police brutality, educational inequality and environmental racism.

Protests led by Black workers in St. Louis produced victories of national significance. They won commitments to desegregating construction crews on federally funded projects, secured one of the first federally mandated affirmative action programs in the building trades, won caps on the percentage of income that public housing tenants were required to pay in rent, and pressured the city government to pass and enforce one of the first comprehensive local laws in the nation against lead poisoning.

Lang attends to the specificities of life in St. Louis in this era for both what they enabled and what they inhibited. He does an especially good job identifying and explaining the role that race played in influencing in nearly all aspects of local life, how it shaped fissures and faction fights among different groups including members of the business elite represented by the Civic Progress organization, ambitious politicians, and even the city’s hard-core white supremacists active in the White Citizens Council.

Lang’s arguments demonstrate that race in St. Louis almost never existed as an isolated social or political category, that race functioned as a frame used to interpret nearly every dimension of local social life, from demographic and economic changes to decisions about zoning, planning, urban renewal, transportation, education, recreation and law enforcement.

Recovering the Historical View

Lang’s study may come as something of a surprise to readers who think they already know the history of the civil rights movement well. Unlike Greensboro, Birmingham, Harlem or Watts, St. Louis is not enshrined in popular memory as a site of anti-racist struggle. Activists in St. Louis did not need mass campaigns to win the right to vote. They did not suffer attacks from police dogs or high pressure hoses.

St. Louis did not have a mass insurrection with the resulting repression and military occupation that took place in Newark, Detroit and other northern cities. The movement in St. Louis produced no single charismatic leader. No local activist organization went on to establish a national presence.

Yet the dynamics that Lang discovers in St. Louis happened in many other places and they are crucial for understanding the full significance of the Black freedom struggle and the role of the working class within it.

In St. Louis, we see how racialized space functioned as a form of class oppression. Despite nationally recognized victories in the famous fair housing cases of Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), Jones v. Mayer (1968), and United States v. City of Black Jack (1973), the civil rights movement in St. Louis could not counter the legacy of restrictive covenants, racial zoning, mortgage redlining and mass displacements emanating from urban renewal and highway building projects. Racialized space reduced the social wage of Black workers and inhibited alliances with workers who were white.

In St. Louis, we see the limits of political strategies that treat race in isolation from class. In a valuable chapter that resonates with many of the arguments made by Cedric Johnson in From Revolutionaries to Race Leaders (2008), Lang shows the federal government and private foundations labored zealously to separate Black business and political leaders from their working-class base through funding policies that rewarded fealty to white interests.

At the same time, Lang also shows how even progressive and putatively anti-racist trade union leaders like Harold Gibbons and Ernest Calloway held unwavering allegiances to collaborationist and bureaucratic business unionism, allegiances that made them incapable of leading either Black or white workers in the fight for social justice.

Lang’s accomplishments in Grassroots at the Gateway need to be understood in the context of the difficulties that confront historians of the 20th-century Black freedom movement.

The same injustices and inequalities that made the freedom struggle necessary in the first place continue to shape the ways in which it has been described and interpreted by historians, journalists, fiction writers, filmmakers and politicians. The historical social movement that actually existed has been occluded by a retrospective rhetorical construction, stripped of its radical historical specificity.

In this retrospective reconstruction, collective and coordinated grassroots mass mobilizations are attributed solely to the appeal of charismatic leaders. Concessions that were granted grudgingly, and wrested from the beneficiaries of white supremacy through relentless struggle, are now treated as evidence of the elevated moral generosity of whites.

Misremembering the Movement

An historic movement for freedom, dignity and justice has been monstrously misremembered, mistranslated and misrepresented. Its very words and slogans circulate in lost, stolen and strange forms.

People who shouted “freedom now” in their own time become portrayed today as advocates of slow and gradual progress. The very same Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who insisted that because society had done something to the Negro, it was now obligated to do something for the Negro, is now portrayed as if he would be a contemporary opponent of affirmative action.

In his last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community Dr. King spelled out the ways that society needed to produce racial remedies for racial injuries, yet he is popularly misperceived today as someone who believed that race should never be used as a basis for social policies, even if those policies are necessary to challenge the ways in which racial projects unfairly skew opportunities and life chances.

As Vincent Harding noted many years ago, this retrospective rhetorical construction makes it seem as if all the Black freedom movement wanted to do was to desegregate the ranks of the pain inflictors of this world. The struggle that Dr. King described correctly as a radical effort to reconstruct all of society by challenging materialism, militarism and racism has been trivialized in its retrospective reconstruction as a parochial and self-interested effort by Blacks to become more like whites, to reap more rewards from the capitalist system.

Because of these retrospective reconstructions, the Black freedom struggle may well be the nation’s most celebrated yet least understood social movement. We are encouraged to celebrate something called the civil rights movement, but only by artificially separating it from the broader Black freedom struggle.

We are reminded of lunch counter sit-ins and voting rights campaigns, but discouraged from recalling Ella Baker’s words that the sit-ins concerned more than a hamburger, or that Fannie Lou Hamer saw voting rights as a first step toward winning decent wages, better working conditions, full employment\ and political power for workers like her.

We are encouraged to congratulate ourselves for living in a country that allows everyone equal opportunity to purchase a meal, but not to not allowed to ask too many questions about whether everyone has an equal opportunity to earn the wages needed to pay for that meal, or for that matter if they have an equal opportunity to own their own lunch counter.

We can breathe a sigh of relief every time the Voting Rights Act survives (even if in drastically curtailed form), as long as we do not inquire too vociferously if the drawing of district lines, the power of money in politics, and the dearth of democratic institutions leaves us with anyone for whom we might actually want to vote.

We commemorate Brown v. Board while ignoring how subsequent judicial rulings and legislation leave Black and Latino children isolated in underfunded and ill-equipped schools. We observe a national holiday that commemorates Dr. King and his relationship to the civil rights and voting rights acts of 1964 and 1965, but we rarely hear about his fervent opposition to the Vietnam War, his leadership of the multi-racial Poor People’s Campaign, or his final struggle in Memphis of behalf of striking sanitation workers.

These harsh realities coupled with the power and persuasiveness of Clarence Lang’s book can remind us that the Black freedom movement has suffered two distinct defeats. The first came in actual historical time, as part of what Kimberle Crenshaw calls the Age of Repudiation.

Despite the successful passage of civil rights laws and a series of progressive judicial rulings, white resistance triumphed. The backlash against the civil rights movement already evident in the Goldwater campaign of 1964 increasingly gathered strength through campaigns against desegregation, fair housing, affirmative action and other necessary civil rights remedies.

The second defeat for the movement, however, was equally destructive. It occurred not only in historical time, but also in historical thinking, in misleading and mendacious accounts of the Black freedom struggle, pretending that people demanding freedom from racial capitalism were really asking for “colorblind” freedom from enforcement of civil rights principles and laws. The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Louisville and Seattle school desegregation cases in 2007 is only one of the more recent and more egregious examples of this distortion of history.

It is a bleak reality that we confront, especially when compared to the freedom dreams and emancipatory actions of the workers at the center of Lang’s book. But they too faced daunting obstacles and discouraging circumstances.

Anyone interesting in righting the wrongs of the past and present will benefit greatly from the evidence and arguments that Lang presents, from the power of the good examples he brings into our purview, and from the political lessons to be learned about race and class from the Black freedom struggle in St. Louis between 1936 and 1975.

ATC 145, March-April 2010