A Chronicle of Struggle

Against the Current, No. 204, January/February 2020

Derrick Morrison

Moving Against the System
The 1968 Congress of Black Writers and the Making of Global Consciousness
Edited and introduced by David Austin
London, UK: Pluto Press, 2018, $14.50 paperback.

WHAT WAS THE October 11-14, 1968 Congress of Black Writers?

Sponsored by Black students at McGill University in Montreal and aided by their counterparts at the Sir George Williams campus, it was a conference that brought together leading African diaspora militants of the Left.

Subtitles on the flyer promoting the gathering read, “Towards the Second Emancipation, The Dynamics of Black Liberation.” (76). More than just a writers’ conference, its revolutionary political character was duly noted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — the FBI of Canada. (1)

Alvin Poussaint, C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, Richard B. Moore, Harry Edwards, James Forman, and Stokely Carmichael were the main speakers. Taking a phrase from Edwards as this volume’s title, Moving Against the System, David Austin, an Afro-Canadian professor at John Abbott College, has assembled, edited and introduced the major Congress speeches.

In my view, one cannot deal with 1968, the Caribbean, Black Power, or the Vietnam war without starting with Cuba — the earthquake of the political revolution that shook the world — and I find that to be the thread that runs through the major contributions. More specifically, how to apply the lessons of the Cuban Revolution to the Caribbean keeps emerging as the key feature of the conference.

Walter Rodney, the prominent Guyanese Marxist historian, personifies that discussion, and we can see it further in his subsequent political development. Moreover, the concrete realization of the importance of those lessons would occur in the case of the Grenadian revolution a decade later.

At the time of the conference, many of the Caribbean islands were still British colonies, so the participants faced the question of whether they would be forced to take the Jamaican road — formal independence within a limited civil democratic framework — or could they aim for independence combined with social revolution?

Revolutionary Changes

When former Trotskyist C.L.R. James intervened, he gave the following explanation: “So, what is there about the Cuban Revolution that I want you to know? Number one: after ten years, it is today stronger than ever it was before. [Applause] …the English Revolution, they cut off Charles I’s head in 1649, and that was a decisive point — decisive for his head and decisive for the revolution. [Laughter] Ten years afterward” — with Charles II on the throne — “royalty came back, monarchy did not.” Because of the revolution, Parliament was still a power in the land, an irreversible transformation.

C.L.R. continued that the French Revolution of 1789 “had accomplished miracles by 1794. By 1799 they had descended into the grip of Napoleon Bonaparte, the First Consul…. In the Russian Revolution of 1917, by 1927 everything that was Leninist was wiped away. The Cuban Revolution is the first of the great revolutions that, after ten years, is stronger than it was at the beginning.  [Applause]” (92)

As Walter Rodney asserted, before 1959 “in a certain part of Havana after a certain hour you were liable to be shot, guilty of being black…. Now, in Cuba today, barriers to entering certain buildings, certain eating houses, and that sort of thing have completely disappeared. Juan Almeida, one of the members of the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party, is a black man who was involved in the struggle from the time of the Sierra Maestra with Fidel Castro….

“And we find in Cuba today more genuine interest in the African Revolution…than there exists in Jamaica, which is a place 95 percent black, because the black people of Jamaica are still involved [in,] and are dominated under, imperialist relations. So that is Cuba and that is Jamaica.” (129, 130)

In Stokely Carmichael’s view, although “Fidel Castro fought in the Sierra Maestra for several years,”  the Cuban revolution “did not start until Fidel walked into Havana with guns in his hand, Che on his side, and said, ‘This day I claim this country for the masses of Cuban people.’ Then the revolution began….[Applause] So, you can’t talk about revolution until you have seized power.” (219)

Carmichael had spoken in Havana the year before at the Organization of Latin American Solidarity (OLAS) conference. And in 1966 the Cuban government organized an assembly called the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America, OSPAAL.

The focal point, the example to emulate for anti-colonial fighters, was Vietnam. The people there demonstrated that not only was resistance possible, but battles could be won if mobilization and organization were deep enough. The Vietnamese Tet offensive in early 1968, the ghetto rebellions in Newark and Detroit in the summer of 1967, and the growing worldwide anti-Vietnam war movement, based in the United States, were proving that the U.S. military machine was not invincible.

Harry Edwards, who was behind the expressions by Black athletes of solidarity with the ghetto rebellions at the 1968 Olympic Games, observed, “In moving against the system, we recognize that, regardless of who he is, if he is upholding…the system, he is as guilty as any other criminal…and he should be treated as such…

“To lambaste honkies is a fruitless waste of time at this late date. Talk should be aimed at educating black people to the system as the enemy.” (200, 201) In this vein Edwards attacked the Democratic and Republican parties and extolled Malcolm X as one who told the truth about the system.

Civil Rights and Black Power

But we have to ask ourselves: What did the Congress of Black Writers really represent, and what role does it play in our long quest for social justice?

The Congress was a rough expression of that wing of what was called the Black Power movement that sought solutions to social inequality, not just civil inequality. It occurred in the midst of what Clyde Woods called “The Second Reconstruction, 1965-1977,” marked by “passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (the War on Poverty), the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968….”(1)

The first and third legislative pieces above signified U.S. government enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution, in other words the overthrow of Jim Crow — the lynchings, the segregation, the absolute denial of Black humanity.

Jim Crow was a negation of the rule of law, a negation of elementary civil democracy as defined by the Constitution. The contradiction of law in the North and West, versus no law in the South, fueled the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. Its victory brought to the surface a deeper contradiction — social inequality.

As stated by Dr. Martin Luther King in a 1967 address at Stanford University, “It’s more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions.

“It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality….”(2)

For some in the Civil Rights movement, given the horrendous effort required in the face of police beatings, jailings, and Klan killings of activists — the achievement of civil democracy in the South was enough.

Its deepening in the North and West, and the manifestation of new levels of civil equality at the ballot box — notably the November 1967 elections of Richard Hatcher and Carl Stokes as the mayors of Gary, Indiana and Cleveland, Ohio — seemed to open up a whole new playing field of opportunities and possibilities, especially in the Democratic Party.

However, the new situation actually facilitated King’s call for “genuine equality” and Carmichael’s cry for “Black Power.” Both demands went in the direction of a fight for social equality, a fight for social democracy.

Civil and Social Equality

When Walter Rodney contrasted Jamaica and Cuba, he was holding up one as an example of limited civil democracy and the other as an example of unbridled social democracy. Jamaica’s attainment of independence from the British in 1962 was a blow against global civil inequality; Cuba’s revolution in 1959 was a blow against global social inequality.

How to implement the Cuban example was an immediate issue for social justice activsts in the Caribbean and Latin America. In 1965 civil war broke out in the Dominican Republic. A “constitutionalist” wing of the army allied with, and armed, civilian groups in an effort to remove a military-backed government that had deposed the social-democratic president Juan Bosch in 1963.

U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, ever sensitive to any challenge to the system of social inequality that enriches the few and impoverishes the many, used the excuse of “communist dictatorship” and “another Cuba” to send in over 20,000 troops against the constitutionalist forces, and the revolution was derailed.

Walter Rodney became a central figure in the Caribbean. As a professor of African history at a University of the West Indies campus in Jamaica, he had a large audience for his speeches and articles. During the Montreal event Rodney was banned by the Jamaican government, setting off protests of students and urban youths in Kingston.(3)

It should be noted that Rodney, while working on his doctorate at the University of London, 1963-66, became part of a study group initiated by C.L.R., a socialist scholar and author of one of the best books on the Haitian slave revolt of 1791, Black Jacobins.(4) Rodney would later author a significant work of his own, published in 1972, How Europe Undeveloped Africa.

Rodney is said to have inspired “the most sustained expression of Black Power” to rock the Caribbean — in Trinidad-Tobago.(5) Through the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC), formed in the late 1960s, tens of thousands were mobilized in the months of February, March and April of 1970. In the course of suppressing the revolt, the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force split and the government hung by a thread.(6) “Order” was eventually restored.

Rodney, who also taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, developed the Working People’s Alliance in 1974 in his home country of Guyana. Dedicated to fighting for social equality, the group endured severe repression from the Guyanese government, ever mindful of the interests of its financial overlords in London and New York. Rodney was assassinated in June, 1980.(7)

Grenada and Nicaragua

One person not present at the Congress would eventually lead a movement that resulted in the actual seizure of political power and opening the door to social democracy, thus creating a “second Cuba” in the Caribbean.

Maurice Bishop of Grenada was in London studying to get his law degree in 1968. As Jorge Heine remarked, “Trinidad’s 1970 ‘February revolution’ coincided with his passing through Port of Spain [capital of Trinidad] on his way back to St. George’s [capital of Grenada], and the recent law school graduate soon found himself leading demonstrations in solidarity with Trinidadian black power supporters.”(8)

While setting up his law practice, Bishop and other activists extended solidarity to a group of nurses protesting abominable conditions in the general hospital.(9) Out of these activities came the Movement for the Assemblies of the People, MAP, in 1972.(10)

During the same year, Unison Whiteman and others joined with small farmers and agricultural workers to form the Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education, and Liberation, JEWEL.(11) At a conference on March 1, 1973 the groups united to form the New Jewel Movement.

Grenada was a British colony and Eric Gairy was prime minister in the colonial legislature.

In June 1973 the NJM called a People’s Convention on Independence — 10,000 attended, a most explosive event in a country of about 100,000 people. Ten percent of the population of any country attending a political event calls for more than just a heads up. In November of the same year the NJM convened a People’s Congress elsewhere on the island, attracting again 10,000 people.(12)

When Grenada got its political independence in February of 1974, it was in the midst of a three-month general strike called by civil forces opposed to the repressive policies of Gairy. In general elections held in December of 1976, Bishop was catapulted into the position of leader of the parliamentary opposition.

The Gairy era ended “in the valley of True Blue, where on March 13, 1979 the armed wing of the NJM overpowered Gairy’s army while the prime minister was on his way to New York for a United Nations meeting.”(13)

 Furthermore, the “NJM seizure of power cannot be understood as a Blanquist coup de main led by a small group of conspirators. If that had been the case, the enormous outpouring of support that followed Maurice Bishop’s radio address announcing the establishment of the PRG would be incomprehensible.”(14)

The formation of the People’s Revolu­tionary Government, PRG, with Maurice Bishop as prime minister, is a very important chapter in the history of the struggles of the wretched of the earth, a chapter that should be studied and restudied. [In the tragic aftermath, the revolution collapsed in 1983 when Bishop and his companion Jacqueline Creft were assassinated along with other NJM activists in a violent factional coup, leading to the U.S. occupation of the island — ed.]

In the same year of 1979 the people of Nicaragua, led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), came to power on July 19 after the overthrow of the repressive regime of Somoza.(15)

Both revolutions opened the way to social democracy and substantial decolonization. And both governments were hated with much vitriol by the world-wide enforcers of social injustice seated in Washington, D.C., be they of the Democratic or Republican Party.

The fight for a social republic in the United States can only be enhanced by digesting the great social democratic experiments in Grenada, 1979-83, and Nicaragua, 1979-90. And as well, the ongoing effort toward social equality in Cuba must be addressed. This long history of struggle, with its triumphs and setbacks, is one framework in which to view the Congress of Black Writers, October 1968.

Notes

  1. Clyde Woods, Development Drowned and Reborn, The Blues and Bourbon Restorations in Post-Katrina New Orleans (Edited by Jordan T. Camp and Laura Pulido, The University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 2017), 180.
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  2. Woods, 190.
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  3. Vincent Harding, William Strickland, and Robert Hill, “Introduction,” in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Revised paperback edition 1981, Howard University Press, Washington, D.C.), xv.
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  4. Ibid., xiv.
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  5. Herman L. Bennett, “The Black Power February (1970) Revolution in Trinidad,” in Caribbean Freedom, Economy and Society from Emancipation to the Present, editors Hilary Beckles and Verene Shepherd (First American Edition, 1996, Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, NJ), 549.
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  6. Ibid., 555.
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  7. Harding, Strickland, and Hill, xiii.
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  8. Jorge Heine, “The Hero and the Apparachik: Charis­matic Leadership, Political Management, and Crisis in Revolutionary Grenada,” in A Revolution Aborted, The Lessons of Grenada, editor Jorge Heine (Pittsburgh, PA, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990, 1991), 219.
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  9. Arnaldo Hutchinson, “The Long Road to Freedom,” in Maurice Bishop Speaks, The Grenada Revolution, 1979-83, edited by Bruce Marcus and Michael Taber (Pathfinder Press, New York, NY, 1983), 9.
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  10. Tony Thorndike, “People’s Power in Theory and Practice,” in A Revolution Aborted, 30.
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  11. Ibid., 30.
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  12. Hutchinson, Bishop Speaks, 11.
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  13. Heine, A Revolution Aborted, 14.
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  14. Ibid., 14.
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  15. For a popular account see Adiós Muchachos, A Memoir of the Sandinista Revolution, Sergio Ramírez (Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2012.
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January-February 2020, ATC 204

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