The Political Economy of Struggle

William Bryce

Early 20th century Southern Black farmers. Library of Congress

Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement
By Jack M. Bloom
Indiana University Press, 2019,
Second edition,
380 pages, $32 paperback.

THE SECOND EDITION of Jack Bloom’s book is a welcome addition to the huge body of work documenting the Civil Rights Movement, its actions and history. Bloom’s book has been in print since first published in 1987, a rare feat in the competitive world of academic publishing.

The book is widely used in college classes and is among the works most cited by other scholars. Its quality is acknowledged by two prestigious awards, the C. Wright Mills Second Award Winning Book 1987 and “Outstanding Book Award,” Gustafus Myers Center.

The Black Lives Matter movement today has piqued interest in the Black community’s story. The University of California Press alone lists eight new books on related topics. Yet even those widely read in the field will appreciate Bloom’s jargon-free, historical, class-based analysis of the Civil Rights struggle.

Many books that examine social movements look either at the structures and structural changes that make movements possible or, in some accounts, inevitable; or, they look at the ways people’s consciousness is changed and they are mobilized for action. This book looks at both.

The first half of the book examines with some precision how class interests — specifically those of the plantation class that had ruled the country and which after the Civil War, through a conflict that lasted for the remaining decades of the nineteenth century, continued to rule the South.

The antebellum southern system of white supremacy had developed to serve the interests of the agrarian master class, plantation owners. Planters’ pre-Civil War wealth was based on “king cotton” and the cheap labor of their slaves. The profits accruing to plantation owners were unprecedented in the history of the country.

It is no accident that Senator Calhoun’s ideas legitimizing slavery — “property primacy” — are echoed in today’s anti-democracy arguments popularized by libertarians David Koch and John Buchanan (these are detailed in Nancy Maclean’s book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the  Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America).

In a chapter called “The Old Order Changes” Bloom argues that the decimation of the war, migration patterns, new technology, few banks and a collapse in commodity prices combined to birth a new system. A coalition of large landowners and merchants came together creating the system known as “sharecropping.”

Bloom calls the merchant/landowner coalition a new bourgeoisie. Busily organizing and funding friendly politicians and Klan enforcers, their first order of business was disenfranchising Blacks and poor whites while holding them in debt servitude.

Bloom estimates that the poll tax, while aimed at preventing the Black vote, also disenfranchised more than 25% of poor whites. Whom you talked to, how you talked, whom you looked at, where you walked, worshiped or worked was determined by the system of white supremacy and your “place” in it. Not knowing your “place” or being “uppity” was a very serious matter.

The merchant/planter new bourgeoisie were clearly a minority. Any talk of democracy was very threatening to them. Whenever Black and white small farmers, sharecroppers, farm workers or later manufacturing workers united, the elite immediately mobilized their divide and conquer strategy to save themselves from an organized workforce.

“White supremacy” was the banner under which they reorganized, even though what that slogan meant was in reality the dominance of the ruling class and the subordination of other whites, as well as the Black population.

In the 20th century dominance of that class would be undermined through the Great Depression and World War II by the rise of manufacturing and commerce, so that the Southern economic elite was structurally split. At the same time, a white middle class developed that had its own interests.

The book shows how the changes in political economy that took place in the South brought about a shift in power from the old agrarian ruling class to the new business class. These changes did not alter racial policies or dynamics, but they opened new possibilities for a Black freedom struggle — if they could find a way to act collectively for their own benefit.

The Fate of Reconstruction

What about the post-Civil War Reconstruction? Even today many Americans are still confused by the propaganda campaign slavery’s apologists mounted after Union troops were withdrawn in 1877, following a “compromise” that settled the chaotic contested 1876 election.

Slavery’s apologists calling themselves “redeemers” were very active politically, suppressing the vote of Blacks and poor whites. Redeemers were aided by the thirty thousand strong Daughters of the Confederacy who influenced everything from school curriculum to popular films like “Birth of a Nation.”

To “Redeemers” the northern occupation of the south was oppressive and corrupt. In reality early Reconstruction evidenced reform, innovation and a flowering of democracy. Poor whites and Blacks formed coalitions around issues like roads and pioneered programs of public education.

Reconstruction was a genuine mass popular movement that if successfully completed, could have changed the course of racial and social U.S. history.

In Mississippi a coalition of Black and white small farmers tried to overturn the lien laws. In Virginia there was a new party called the Re-adjusters. The Re-adjusters stepped over the line when they began appealing to Black farmers. This seriously challenged an old order struggling to reassert itself after the withdrawal of federal troops.

White supremacy rode to the rescue with its doctrine of “divide and conquer.” Sowing division was used over and over again: against the populists in the 1890s, against union organizing in the 1930s.

All attempts to bring people together were a danger to the “southern way of life.” (When anti-communism was added to white supremacy during the Cold War the elite were handed a new divisive tool.)

The Movement Rises

The book’s second part begins with the difficult conditions in which Black people were forced to live under white supremacy, and how they were made to feel inferior. Then, as they began to struggle for their rights, they cast off these feelings and grew and developed new ideas and new capacities.

Their efforts to make changes, in the sit-ins and freedom rides at first, changed themselves and the society in which they lived. The book follows the struggle through African Americans’ efforts to gain voting rights and the conflicts that took place between them and the federal government, between the federal government and the state governments, and how activists were forced to choose which of these authorities they would accept.

The book also examines the differences between Black communities in the South and the North, how the differences they faced brought about different ideologies, and the limitations of what was possible at that time, given the class and racial configurations.

While the changes that Black people demanded in the South for dignity and rights were possible to attain, the changes in material inequality they sought in the North were not.

Bloom has a unique ability to pick quotes and stories that are multi-layered and drive the point home. For example when describing the role of Black students in early lunch counter sit-ins he describes a situation where by the third day of protest whites were getting more violent and desperate. They recruited tough young gang members to attack and beat the protesters.

Forewarned, the protesters were led that day by a large group of star athletes. The protesters were confronted by the young toughs who demanded “Who do you think you are?” The students responded “We are the Union Army.” The protest continued.

This second edition adds a lot of information on the Freedom Rides, on how a new Black leadership was able to emerge to take on the racial system, and goes into more depth considering the dialogue between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and the development of both of their thinking.

It lays out their differences, reflecting the respective situation facing the freedom struggles in the South and the North, showing how their ideas grew closer as each of them approached their assassinations.

In explaining the evolution of Malcolm X’s ideas, Bloom chooses the words of movement icon John Lewis, who spoke of meeting Malcolm in Nairobi Kenya and of Malcolm using the word “imperialism” for the first time.

Lewis recalled how Malcolm “talked about the need to shift our focus both among one another and between us and the white community, from race to class. He said that was the root of our problems, not just in America but all over the world.

“He saw the great powers, such as the Soviet Union and the United States, using the poor people of whatever race, for their governments’ own imperialistic ends. That is the word he kept repeating ‘imperialistic.’”

Bloom discusses the evolution of Dr. King’s ideas as well. With U.S. society today facing an unprecedented crisis and protests exceeding anything since the 1960s, King’s words are more relevant than ever:

“For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society — a little change here and little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you have got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”

Malcolm X and Dr. King were in Bloom’s words “groping towards a solution that emphasized class.” Typically, Bloom has the quote that nails it from King: “We are dealing with class issues… Something is wrong with the economic system of our nation, something is wrong with capitalism… There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move towards a democratic socialism.”

A final observation comes from a chapter entitled “The Defeat of White Power and the Emergence of the ‘New Negro’ in the South.” This chapter tells the story of the psychological impact of organizing for change and its ability to create a new person.

The emergence of a “New Negro” was first written about in 1920s Harlem. A large stable urban community with its own businesses, schools and infrastructure does not have the same vulnerabilities as isolated farmers in the south. It would be several decades before demographic and economic changes in the south made Black southerners less vulnerable to economic intimidation or terror.

“The success in Montgomery, Little Rock and elsewhere helped to create a new elan and leadership,” Bloom notes. As this leadership challenged the existing order more and more, anger emerged at white liberals’ and the federal governments’ faltering support.

This created a realization that the Black community would have to set its own course. In the decades ahead, “the impulse toward direct action would take hold.” Participation in direct action that wins change transforms people like nothing else.

Revising Conclusions

In a new “Afterword” for this edition, the author reconsiders and corrects some of the early optimism of the first edition’s conclusion about achieving a “second Reconstruction.”

Rather, the New Right has used race to build the present Republican Party — a party that can no longer legitimately claim to be “the party of Lincoln” — and has made itself a place where white supremacists can be comfortable.

The people who were attracted by the party’s “southern strategy” are also the people who made Trump the party’s nominee. He has been fulfilling the role they sought. The author projects another book to examine “class, race and the rise of the right” in the context of the broader sweep of U.S. history.

Jack Bloom is a product of a lifetime of struggles for justice. From his early days at Berkeley to his time in Detroit helping UAW members fighting for union democracy Bloom is in the thick of social justice causes. He was one of the six faculty members fired at the University of Detroit for their political beliefs and activities.

Disclosure: I was one of Professor Bloom’s students. We occupied the administration building on behalf of those who were fired. Jack Bloom was by far the best college instructor I ever had.

As distinguished professor at Stanford, Doug McAdam, testified:

“Books that significantly reorient fields of study are rare. Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement did just that for the study of the civil rights movement when it first appeared in 1987. Rarer still are books that seem just as relevant 40 years later. As the new material in the 2nd edition of the book makes clear, Class, Race, and the Civil Rights Movement, belongs in this second select group as well.”

November-December 2020, ATC 209

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