Monday, September 25, 2006

Activist Compares Civil Rights, Immigrants’ Movements


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The modern-day movement in the U.S. to protect the rights of immigrants and win amnesty and decent livings for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. could learn a great deal from both the successes and the failures of the African-American civil rights movement, veteran activist Joel Geier told a meeting sponsored by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) at the City Heights Recreation Center September 23. According to Geier, “The civil rights movement didn’t end racism in America, but it did make it impolite to be racist. Now the racism is coming out again.”

Even before Geier spoke, ISO members at the meeting discussed an action earlier that day that underscored his point. The ISO has been working in coalition with local groups in National City to make that community a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants, which would forbid National City police officers from working with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to conduct sweeps looking for undocumented immigrants. The anti-immigrant Minutemen scheduled a protest against the “sanctuary city” proposal for the morning of September 23 — and according to ISO members who attended, their counter-demonstration drew 200 people to the Minutemen’s 100.

“I’m sure most of you have heard of Elvira Arellano, who took sanctuary in a city building in Chicago and said, ‘I’ve learned from Rosa Parks, the law is wrong and I’m not going to the back of the bus,’” Geier said at the start of his speech. Throughout his talk Geier, an ISO member, told the familiar history of the civil rights movement but put his own revolutionary socialist “spin” on it, criticizing those parts of the movement that insisted on nonviolence and wanted to work with the Democratic Party and praising those who wanted to make the movement specifically and openly revolutionary and anti-capitalist.

According to Geier, though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, segregation remained in place without any challenge from activists until 1 1/2 years later, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white passenger and triggered a boycott of the bus system by African-Americans. “The whole Black community mobilized and organized car pools to break the segregation,” Geier said. “It started on December 1, 1955 and went on until December 14, 1956, 381 days in which you had to mobilize the population and keep spirits up. It went on until the city was about to go bankrupt and settled.”

Geier dated the existence of the civil rights movement from the 1956 bus boycott until the early 1970’s. He said its main lesson for activists today was that “it was a long struggle, and we have to commit to a long struggle. It’s a struggle in which there will be ups and downs, victories and defeats, and you have to build an organization that can withstand setbacks.” Geier noted that the civil rights movement didn’t have any major victories after Montgomery until four years later, when four Black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina mobilized and staged a sit-in to demand service at Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter.

“The next day,” Geier recalled, “there’s a little rally on campus and 12 more people join. In the next two to three months you’ve got a movement of 20,000 to 30,000 people involved in sit-ins and support actions.” At least part of the tactic’s effectiveness, he added, came from the fact that the students targeted a national chain — which meant that people in Northern cities, where there was racial prejudice but not overt, legislated segregation, could join in by staging support protests at Woolworth’s in their own communities. Geier called the Greensboro sit-ins “the start of the mass civil rights movement.”

Why did it take so long between Montgomery and Greensboro? According to Geier, “there were no real organizations to mobilize successful demonstrations. The existing organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League, were obstacles. The Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress and had since the 1930’s. They did not pass one civil rights bill [until 1957] or even an anti-lynching bill.” (Actually there had been two Congresses between 1932 and 1956 — 1947-48 and 1953-54 — that had been under Republican control; and even when the Democrats were nominally in charge, control really rested with the racist Southern “Dixiecrats” who chaired all the major Congressional committees. Later the “Dixiecrats” would shift from the Democratic to the Republican party, thereby moving political control of the South — and, eventually, control of Congress as well — to the Republicans.)

Aside from the absence of organizations in the African-American community to sustain a mass movement in the late 1950’s and the co-optation of the nascent movement by the Democratic Party, Geier also said there was “an enormous backlash after Brown” by white Southerners determined to maintain segregation. Geier noted the formation of White Citizens’ Councils throughout the South — essentially above-ground versions of the Ku Klux Klan — and the “Southern Manifesto” signed by 105 Southern Democrats (“Dixiecrats”) in Congress “pledging to block all civil rights bills.” Even a conservative African-American group like the NAACP was labeled a “subversive organization” in 12 Southern states, meaning that “people who belonged to it couldn’t be schoolteachers or work for the government” — at a time when those jobs represented almost the only hope for African-Americans to work their way up in the system.

“All the things the civil rights movement engaged in were illegal,” Geier stressed. “Segregation was the law, as it is today in Pennsylvania and Colorado (where city and state governments have passed laws discriminating against immigrants), and they were forsaking it and relying on themselves. The U.S. Supreme Court passed Brown but 10 years later 98 percent of Black kids in the South still went to segregated schools.” Geier said that the movement’s strategy was not only civil disobedience but what they called “social dislocation,” which essentially meant getting in the racists’ faces so often and in so many places that they couldn’t continue the system of segregation and would have to end it.

What this strategy needed to work, Geier said, was “the creation of organizations, of leadership, cadres, policies and strategies.” Eventually two direct-action civil rights organizations emerged: the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which grew out of the Greensboro sit-ins; and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an older group which was taken over by militants and adopted militant strategies and tactics. “Right now,” Geier added, “there are few organizations in the immigrant community, and most of them are impediments, aimed at lobbying and compromise.”

Geier also said “there was a confusion in terms of ideas” in the civil rights movement as it organized. “The people had mixed consciousness; they were militant and willing to break the law, but they also had both liberal and conservative ideas. The conservative ideas they had were nonviolence and ‘Christian love,’ and the liberal idea was to support liberal Democrats. A decade later, these same people were revolutionaries against imperialism and capitalism. Forty percent of all Blacks under 30 [in the early 1970’s] identified with the Black Panther Party. What changed people was the struggles of the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, Albany, Birmingham, Selma. In struggle, people get bolder, more confident, more militant.”

This, Geier explained, is one of the principal lessons the immigration rights activists of today have to learn from the civil rights movement. “People were more confident on May 2” — the day after the nationwide general strike of Latinos — “than they were on April 25 or May 25,” Geier said. He also stressed the need for immigrant rights activists to remain clear on what they want — amnesty, a “path to citizenship” and a living wage for all immigrants in the U.S., documented or not — and resist the temptation to “compromise” and accept the so-called “moderate” bill in the U.S. Senate, which would continue fencing and militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border, set up a guest-worker program which (according to Geier) would just repeat the abuses of the bracero program of the 1940’s and 1950’s, and only allow a handful of the undocumented immigrants currently here a “path to citizenship.”

Returning to his history of the civil rights movement, Geier said that “by 1964 you had a cadre of activists, 30,000 to 50,000 people, who had been politically educated by the struggles. There were a lot of key questions they had to confront, and which moved them Left. The first was nonviolence: is it a principle or a tactic? Should you engage in self-defense or not? Not that many people would agree to sign up for a movement in which they couldn’t defend themselves, especially when three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi by the police. Every civil rights organizer got a gun and didn’t drive at night without it. At a demonstration, there would be peaceful, nonviolent demonstrators, and then within the crowd there’d be people with guns called Deacons for Defense.”

The other two questions they had to resolve were their relationship with the Democratic Party and the whole question of “integration” as the movement’s goal. According to Geier, the militant civil rights activists definitively rejected the Democrats after the party turned down the challenge of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which went to the 1964 Democratic convention with a full slate of delegates and a demand that the party unseat the white racist Dixiecrat delegation from Mississippi and let them represent Mississippi instead. When the party offered the Freedom Democrats only two non-voting “at-large” seats on the convention floor — and moderate African-American activists, including Martin Luther King, advised the Freedom Democrats to accept the “compromise” — “it led to an enormous split within the civil rights movement over whether it was fighting for Blacks or more concerned about the electoral needs of the Democratic Party,” Geier explained.

As for “integration” as a goal, the movement started to grapple with the question of “do we want to integrate with the racists?” precisely when the Viet Nam war was being escalated and not only Black but white and, eventually, Latino activists started to move Left after being radicalized by the war the liberal Democrats then running the U.S. government were waging against Viet Nam. The civil rights movement was also confronting the current economic stagnation in Black America — “in 1960 Blacks made 53 percent of what whites did and in 1964 it was 54 percent” — and there were riots in over 200 American cities, which Geier described as “urban uprisings” which “created a radical Black consciousness” and gave rise to the phase in the movement known as “Black Power.”

“Black Power” itself led to four responses, Geier said. One was the liberal response of having middle-class African-Americans work their way up through the political structure of the Democratic Party and ultimately run for and win elective office. One was the conservative response of “Black capitalism,” which called on African-Americans to start businesses (usually very small ones since that was all the capital they could raise) and work their way up in the corporate system. One was a movement for “community control” of the schools and police in African-American neighborhoods — which, Geier explained, ignored the fact that the police and schools were still dependent on funding from white governments, and that money could be pulled from any school system or police department under nominal Black control.

The fourth response was “revolutionary consciousness,” which led to the formation of the Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the late 1960’s. Though generally supportive of these groups’ goals, Geier was critical of their lack of structure. “They were organizations without clear cadres or political strategies,” he said. “The Panthers went from 35 people in 1967 to 30,000 in 1969, and the government developed a two-pronged strategy against them: the carrot and the stick. The carrot was yielding on the ‘community control’ issues, and the stick was repression, shooting and killing people. Without a stable leadership program, they were quickly snuffed out.”

Geier acknowledged the difference between conditions in the late 1960’s and now. Then, he said, the U.S. was in the middle of “a period of extraordinary economic prosperity” and the Black militants believed the white working classes were content with their lot and uninterested in radical social change, while today “the immigrant rights demonstrations are those of the worst paid and most exploited” workers in the U.S. But he also pointed to similarities, especially in the use of racism as a tool to keep American working people fighting each other instead of the capitalists. He warned that if there’s another recession, there’s a real possibility of “mass deportations” of immigrant workers “unless American workers realize that the immigrants’ issues are their issues” and white workers join with workers of color to demand decent wages and working conditions for all.