Abayomi Azikiwe
Feb 28, 2018 · 21 min read

Counterinsurgency, Rebellion and Revolution from 1968 to 2018

Overcoming government repression through shaping a transformative movement

By AbayomiAzikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
Saturday February 24, 2018
African American History Month Series №5
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Note: This address was delivered at the Annual Detroit African American History Month Forum held on February 24, 2018. The gathering was chaired by Kelley Carmichael of Workers World Party Detroit branch. Other speakers were Yvonne Jones of the Detroit Active and Retired Employees Association (DAREA) and the Moratorium NOW! Coalition; Carolyn Baker, a national organizer for the Poor People’s Campaign; and MondSankara, a youth organizer for the Detroit branch of Workers World Party. The program was sponsored by Workers World Party Detroit branch.
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We are gathered once again this year to celebrate and reflect upon the gallant history of the African American people. There is much to recognize from years past while at the same time a renewed commitment to the struggle for liberation is more than apparent in the current epoch.

Just yesterday, February 23, represented the 150th birthday of Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the leading intellectual and organizational figures to emerge during the 19th century and extending his contributions well into the 20th century. Dr. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868 only three years after the conclusion of the Civil War. He would make his transition in Accra, Ghana on August 28, 1963, some 95 years later.

In 1963, the Republic of Ghana was headed by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the founder of the Convention People’s Party (CPP), at the time the vanguard of the African Revolution sweeping the continent and indeed the world. Nkrumah and the CPP forged linkages between the African revolutionaries from throughout the international community.

Republic of Ghana President Dr. Kwame Nkrumah with the Du Bois’ in Accra during July 1960.

Dr. Du Bois and his second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, were invited to Ghana to play a leading role in the process of building Pan-Africanism and Socialism. Dr. Du Bois was appointed as the Director of the Secretariat for the Encyclopedia Africana. This was a monumental research project designed to reconstruct the history of Africa from the perspective of the people themselves.

There could not have been anyone more equipped in regard to academic training and experience other than Dr. Du Bois to lead such an endeavor. Having graduated from the Historically Black University of Fisk in the late 1880s and later Harvard, Du Bois had then traveled to Germany where he studied the social sciences in the European country which played such a critical role in shaping the fields of sociology, economics, political science, philosophy and history.

He would later return to Harvard for his doctoral work being awarded a Ph.D in history in 1896, the first African American to accomplish this task. His dissertation was on the Suppression of the African Slave Trade from the 17th through the 19th century. The research conducted by him at Harvard would guide his mission over the next seven decades.

Nonetheless, because Dr. Du Bois was a Black man he could not teach at any of the Ivy League or other white universities of the day. He wound up at Wilberforce College in Ohio, another HBCU and then at Atlanta University in Georgia.

Even at this there were problems due to the interference of ruling class interests in the segregated higher educational system. Dr. Du Bois saw the HBCU as providing an avenue for the training of new generations of African Americans in their protracted struggle for full equality and self-determination.

As a result of his ideas which were at variance with the state governments and private foundations which provided funding for the HBCUs, he eventually would leave Atlanta University in 1906, not returning to teaching until 1944. His years spanning from the first decade of the 20th century through World War II were filled with various accomplishments including the participation in what is considered the First Pan-African Conference in London during 1900; the co-founding of the Niagara Movement in 1905 eventually leading to the beginning of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

In 1910, Dr. Du Bois founded Crisis magazine where he would serve as its editor until 1934. He was the convener of the Pan-African Congresses held in 1919, 1921, and 1923 in Western Europe and then the Fourth of such gatherings in New York City in 1927, where African American women such as Addie B. Hunton would provide the organizational and financial support which in essence saved the movement despite the doubts harbored by Du Bois himself.

Dr. Du Bois would influence countless numbers of African American scholars and activists during this period. One of which was Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950) of Virginia, who would also graduate from Harvard in history and go on to make his pioneering contributions related to the documentation and popularization of African and African American history.

Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro (African American) Life and History in 1915. The following year he initiated the Journal of Negro History. Then in 1926, he launched Negro History Week in February. This would eventually be extended to Black History Month in 1976, winning recognition from the federal government some 42 years ago at the height of a movement in the latter decades of the 20th century aimed at extending and expanding the research of Du Bois, Woodson and others in African world historical and social scientific studies.

This review of the contributions of African American historians, social scientists and journalists are essential in understanding how we view the world today. Prior to the advent of these luminaries, the fields of historical and social scientific studies were largely dominated, and remain today even still, by whites who are sympathetic to the racist, segregationist, capitalist and imperialist perspectives on these disciplines.

Many historical accounts for example of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction discussed these important periods from the perspective of the slave holders. There were notions that the Confederacy was largely concerned about “state’s rights” and that the Reconstruction period was discredited by the promotion of “incompetent and corrupt” Black politicians.

Such a method of thinking rationalizes the founding of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866 in Tennessee as a mechanism utilized to restore the honor of the southern planters and to protect the “sanctity of white womanhood, etc.” Segregation, commonly known as Jim Crow, was necessary to restrain the African American people and was “beneficial” for both races.

Frederick Douglass was a leading figure in the struggle against slavery and in favor of Reconstruction.

A series of laws were enacted to reverse the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution along with the Civil Rights Acts passed from 1866 to 1875. “Separate but Equal” public accommodations was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in its infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896.

The Lessons of 1968: Liberation and Social Transformation

Now let us move ahead to 1968 some 100 years after the birth of Dr. Du Bois and the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment which ostensibly granted “citizenship rights” to the African people in the U.S. Although a new series of favorable Civil Rights rulings in the federal courts had been handed down along with legislation passed in the Congress which once again abolished legalized segregation, by 1968 it was quite obvious that more vigorous action was required.

The most advanced elements in the African American liberation struggle such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) co-founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), started by youth involved in the protest movement growing out of the HBCU of the 1960s, had not only taken positions in opposition to the genocidal war against the people of Vietnam waged by the Democratic administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, they had also recognized the pressing need to transform American society at his core. Vietnam was a by-product of the imperialist system of globalized capitalist exploitation, the internationalization of white supremacy and the imperative by the ruling class to stop Socialism and Communism at all costs.

No matter how many false characterizations of the trajectory of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, by early 1968 it became quite obvious that an outright victory over the National Liberation Front (NLF) and Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North was not realizable. The Tet Offensive beginning in February broke the back of Pentagon forces in occupied South Vietnam and smashed the myth of the invincibility of American military superiority.

The last campaign of MLK was launched in late 1967 and early 1968 prior to his assassination in Memphis on April 4.

Opposition to the war had become widespread the year before in 1967, when Dr. King joined SNCC in publically repudiating the war. On April 15, 1967, both SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael and Dr. King joined over 125,000 people in the march on the United Nations demanding a unilateral ceasefire by Washington. A petition was delivered to Ralph Bunche and U Thant after the demonstration signed by leading figures within the antiwar movement.

Dr. King, SNCC and other progressive forces linked the struggle against racism and national oppression with the demand to end both the Vietnam War as well as the eradication of poverty which disproportionately affected People of Color communities. By 1967–68, urban rebellions were raging throughout the country. Detroit was the scene of the largest Black Rebellion in July 1967 reshaping the role of the liberation movement and the state response to this domestic insurgency.

In 1967, rebellions struck over 160 cities throughout the U.S. The government instituted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Counter-intelligence Program Black Nationalist Hate Groups destabilization program under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover. At this time President Johnson through his Attorney General Ramsey Clarke approved hard-hitting measures to disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize the African American liberation movement in the U.S.

Dr. King’s response was to build a Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) to address the question of jobs and income. The project was announced in late 1967 and work immediately began aimed at mobilizing thousands from across the U.S. to come to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1968. People would occupy areas in close proximity to the White House and Capitol Hill demanding immediate policy measures to achieve full employment, a guaranteed annual income and the implementation of national health insurance. The program of the PPC called for the investment of billions within the central cities and rural areas devastated by poverty and social neglect.

In a statement during a SCLC retreat in May 1967, Dr. King said: “I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights…[W]hen we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that for the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement…That after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution…In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.” (https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/index.php/poor-peoples-campaign-1968/)

There was the demand for the construction of new housing and schools within livable communities designed to lift tens of millions out of poverty and underdevelopment. This of course could not be achieved without the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Vietnam.

Consequently, despite the false narratives surrounding the legacy of Dr. King in the modern context where the corporate media attempts to portray him only as a “dreamer” and religious figure, during the last two years of his life, he was totally alienated from the liberal Johnson administration. This is important for us today to reemphasize since with this being a midterm election year many people will be coming among us advocating the dropping of all mass initiatives and the placing of our focus on electing Democrats to public office.

This did not work in the 1960s when the capitalist system was much stronger than in the second decade of the 21st century. It clearly will not be successful in this period when the ruling class is demanding even more of the productive capacity and surplus deriving from the labor of the working masses.

Detroit activists Emergency Town Hall meeting held on March 2, 2014 called by the Moratorium NOW! Coalition during the imposed Detroit bankruptcy.

Our situation in Detroit is symptomatic of the current crises impacting the cities. This city has been run by Democrats for decades yet they continue to accept the Republican policies of “trickle-down economics.” We have the phenomenon of local tax captures, theft of state revenue sharing monies, the redirecting of federal funds designed to assist the people being used against them, and the eradication of any semblance of bourgeois democratic rights for the people.

The Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike and the Assassination of Dr. King

Only days after the launching of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike was launched by 1,300 African American men seeking recognition through the American Federation of State, Municipal and Country Employees (AFSMCE) Local 1733. The union had been organized several years before. However, the city administration in Memphis refused to negotiate a contract that would result in wage increases and decent working conditions.

On February 1, two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a defective garbage truck. Workers had been complaining for years about the hazardous conditions under which they toiled on a daily basis. The city administration took no concrete actions to improve safety on the job and the deaths of these workers served to inflame tensions and embolden the workers.

No real benefits were allocated to the families of Cole and Walker. The workers held a meeting on February 11 calling for a work stoppage until recognition was granted. Mayor Henry Loeb, a businessman turned politician who had just taken office, refused to negotiate with the sanitation workers and their union leaders. Loeb even declared that it was illegal for public service workers to strike in Memphis.

Nonetheless, the workers walked off the job paralyzing the city’s garbage collection process leaving mountains of refuge in the streets. Soon enough a crisis was created in this southern city.

Dr. King came to Memphis four weeks after this demonstration on Feb. 22 was attacked by police.

The Memphis City Council made some attempts to end the strike which proved inadequate and unacceptable to the workers. When over 1,000 sanitation workers took to the streets of downtown Memphis on February 22 in a protest action along Main Street, they were attacked by the police with clubs and mace. These repressive measures only hardened their position and served to mobilize community-wide and national support for the strike.

Interestingly enough, the national union leadership of AFSCME headed at the time by Jerry Wurf, suggested to the African American workers that they end the strike amid this escalation in repressive tactics by the police. This was rejected outright by the workers and the community. The strike forged forward throughout February and into mid-March when Dr. King agreed to come to Memphis and deliver a speech to the workers and their supporters at the aegis of the strike support committee (COME) headed by James Lawson.

Lawson, a minister, was a veteran of the Civil Rights movement. In Nashville, Tennessee during the 1959–1960, he conducted trainings on civil disobedience preparing African American students for the launching of the sit-ins and freedom rides of 1960–1961. Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt University during this time because of his activism.

Dr. King was in the process of mobilizing people for the PPC in March 1968. Only days before going to Memphis on March 18, he had spoken at Grosse Pointe High School on the question of the “Other America” on March 14, outlining a program to eliminate poverty and racism. He would also deliver his last Lent sermon at Central United Methodist Church on the following day, March 15.

The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and the citywide mobilization were clearly in line with the aims and objectives of the PPC. Here was a signature struggle which combined the plight of low-wage workers with the fight against institutional racism and state repression.

A victory in Memphis would provide the necessary impetus and momentum in taking the PPC to Washington D.C. in the following weeks. The alliance between the Civil Rights Movement and Labor would be of profound significance in exposing the duplicity of the Democratic Party threatening its electoral base in an election year when the disastrous results of the Vietnam War was plain for all to witness.

Black Panther Party leaders Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael in 1968.

1968 was also the “Year of the Heroic Guerrilla” in honor of the martyred Che Ernesto Guevara who had been killed at the beckoning of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) the previous year in Bolivia. As the urban rebellions became more violent each summer, 1968 was anticipated to be an even more revolutionary year. There were plans for a boycott of the Olympics by African American athletes. A nationwide campaign to free Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton, awaiting trial for the murder of a white police officer in Oakland, California, had galvanized youth throughout the country. People in African American communities across the U.S. were breaking with the inferiority complexes which were imposed by the system of national oppression and institutional racism. A strong emphasis was being placed on national pride and the study of African American and African history and culture.

League of Revolutionary Black Workers youth demonstrating in the streets.

In Detroit, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) was founded leading so-called wildcat strikes in the automobile plants, threatening the system of capitalism at the point of production. DRUM and later the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) saw the African American working class as the vanguard of the revolutionary movement due to their strategic position within industry.

Meanwhile a series of events in Memphis would illustrate the institutional resistance to change not only in the South but throughout the country. After the call by Dr. King and the Memphis strike support committee for a general work stoppage on March 28, a march through the central city erupted in violence. Windows were broken and police moved in an effort to suppress the crowd of thousands.

That evening Memphis Mayor Loeb requested the intervention of the National Guard amid vicious attacks by local police resulting in beatings, arrests and the execution death of 16-year-old Larry Payne. Thousands of armed troops were seen on the streets of the city the following day in an effort to prevent further unrest. However, the demonstrations by the sanitation workers continued.

An entry from the King Encyclopedia from Stanford University chronicled the situation in Memphis during this period as follows: “Memphis city officials estimated that 22,000 students skipped school that day (March 28) to participate in the demonstration. King arrived late and found a massive crowd on the brink of chaos. Lawson and King led the march together but quickly called off the demonstration as violence began to erupt. King was whisked away to a nearby hotel, and Lawson told the mass of people to turn around and go back to the church. In the chaos that followed, downtown shops were looted, and a 16-year-old was shot and killed by a policeman. Police followed demonstrators back to the Clayborn Temple, entered the church, released tear gas inside the sanctuary, and clubbed people as they lay on the floor to get fresh air.” (http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_memphis_sanitation_workers_strike_1968/)

This same report continues recounting that: “Loeb called for martial law and brought in 4,000 National Guard troops. The following day, over 200 striking workers continued their daily march, carrying signs that read, ‘I Am a Man’. At a news conference held before he returned to Atlanta, King said that he had been unaware of the divisions within the community, particularly of the presence of a black youth group committed to ‘Black Power’ called the Invaders, who were accused of starting the violence. King considered not returning to Memphis, but decided that if the nonviolent struggle for economic justice was going to succeed it would be necessary to follow through with the movement there. After a divisive meeting on 30 March, SCLC staff agreed to support King’s return to Memphis. He arrived on 3 April and was persuaded to speak by a crowd of dedicated sanitation workers who had braved another storm to hear him. A weary King preached about his own mortality, telling the group, ‘Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now… I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land’.“

Dr. King leading march through downtown Memphis on March 28, 1968, just one week before his assassination.

The following day Dr. King was gunned down while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel near downtown Memphis at around 6:00pm. Once the news broke nationally, demonstrations and mass rebellions erupted throughout the country.

In Washington, D.C. where the PPC was scheduled to begin in a matter of weeks, the community erupted in rebellion. Students walked out of school while thousands of people attacked businesses and other symbols of the status-quo. Federal troops were ordered into the nation’s capital to take up positions at strategic locations including the White House and the Capitol building.

During the days to come over 125 cities erupted in rebellions. Washington, D.C. and Chicago were the hardest hit. However, unrest took place in Baltimore, Pittsburg, Detroit and other cities. Tens of thousands of national guardsmen and federal troops were deployed throughout the country in an attempt to restore order.

Whither the Poor People’s Campaign?

Despite the assassination of Dr. King and the subsequent rebellions, the PPC organizing continued. The mobilization was delayed by several weeks however it did commence by late April and early May of 1968.

Under the leadership of Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Vice President of SCLC under Dr. King, approximately 1,500- 3,000 people established a tent city on the grounds near the Capitol and the White House. The PPC was designed to forge an alliance between African Americans, Mexicans, Indigenous peoples and poor whites.

Abolishing poverty demonstration in 1968 is still relevant today.

According to the website of the renewed PPC, which is coordinating the events for this year, “The Campaign (of 1968) was organized into three phases. The first was to construct a shantytown, to become known as Resurrection City, on the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. With permits from the National Park Service, Resurrection City was to house anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 Campaign participants. Additional participants would be housed in other group and family residences around the metropolitan area. The next phase was to begin public demonstrations, mass nonviolent civil disobedience, and mass arrests to protest the plight of poverty in this country. The third and final phase of the Campaign was to launch a nationwide boycott of major industries and shopping areas to prompt business leaders to pressure Congress into meeting the demands of the Campaign.”(https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/index.php/poor-peoples-campaign-1968/)

However, after less than two months the tent city was not able to sustain itself. Divisions within the leadership of the Campaign compounded by pressure from the City of Washington and federal government led to its dissolution. The largest mobilization was held on June 19, 1968 when 50,000 people came to Washington to support the Tent City.

An Economic Bill of Rights was put forward on June 19 calling for a recommitment to the Full Employment Act of 1946 and legislation to immediately create at least one million socially useful career jobs in public service. The adoption of the pending housing and urban development act of 1968. To repeal the 90th Congress’s punitive welfare restrictions in the 1967 Social Security Act. The extension to all farm workers the rights guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act–to organize agricultural labor unions. The restoration of budget cuts for bilingual education, Head Start, summer jobs, Economic Opportunity Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Acts.

Although the PPC was not successful in winning its objectives, the demands remain relevant to the struggle today inside the U.S. Our task is to see these efforts through to their realization in the 21st century.

Significance of 1968 to 2018

The objective social conditions of African Americans and other oppressed nations are still dire in 2018, some five decades after the Memphis strike, the assassination of Dr. King and the PPC. In many ways things are worse from the standpoint that many of the communities which were the anchors for the building of a resistance movement in the South, North and West, have been systematically destabilized and demographically drained.

After the concluding years of the Vietnam War there were other problems which were directly linked to the economic restructuring of the world economic system. Facing the potential for the suspension of direct military interventions in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the U.S. capitalist system sought methods of maintaining and enhancing its profit-making capacities.

Detroit Black Rebellion of August 1975 took place amid a severe recession along Livernois Avenue on the West Side.

Real wages went in precipitous decline beginning in the mid-to-late 1970s even within the previously industrial sectors. Manufacturing and mining facilities in the areas of steel, auto, and energy production lost millions of jobs. Many of these jobs went into the Southern U.S. while others were taken off shore where the potential for greater returns on investments existed.

One impact of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s through the 1970s was to raise expectations across a broad spectrum of society. Other oppressed nations and marginalized groups demanded their rights aimed at securing gender equity, disability rights, an end to LGBTQ bigotry and exclusion along with addressing problems of grievance redress within the workplace for the entire proletariat.

This process continued all through the 1980s as well when even white collar employees were also subjected to downsizing and wage cuts. In part this was a result of a continuing scientific-technological revolution in manufacturing and service sectors. However, much work remained to be done within the U.S. Classrooms were overcrowded, the environmental degradation of the central cities needed to be corrected, healthcare facilities and workers were being eroded, while the lack of healthy foods and recreation was the order of the day. Instead, the prison population increased by 500 percent between 1980 and today. Imperialist wars attracted young people in search of salaries, careers and educational opportunities. These genocidal interventions have resulted in the deaths of millions and the displacement of tens of millions more both internally and as refugees. Over the last few years the United Nations Refugee Agency has said that the number dislocated people is the highest of any period since the conclusion of World War II.

The reconstruction of the urban, suburban and rural areas has still not been carried out after repeated promises of both Republican and Democratic administrations over the previous four decades. The rhetoric of the administration of President Donald Trump about infrastructural repair inside the country will remain elusive due to the super-exploitative imperatives of the ruling class.

Mass demonstration organized by Moratorium NOW! outside federal court in downtown Detroit against the imposed bankruptcy during 2013–2014.

Here in Detroit we have borne the brunt of the economic crisis. During the first decade of the 21st century, the city was the first victim nationally of predatory lending by the financial institutions. This was done in housing and municipal services. Our schools were systematically plundered by the banks with the legal backing of state governments and city administrations.

A contrived imposition of emergency management and bankruptcy was designed to expropriate even more wealth from the African American and working class of the city. The coveted pension funds and public assets were seized upon by the banks and their enablers in the state and federal courts.

Why We Need a Revolutionary Party

The only way in which we can reverse this situation is through organizational development which brings together the most dedicated segments of the population under a program of action that is aimed at targeting those responsible for the crisis. We have read the works of Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin, the founder of the Bolshevik Party, who in his classic work “Imperialism: The Highest State of Capitalism” identifies international finance capital as the principal enemy of the working class and the nationally oppressed on a global scale.

Detroit anti-imperialist demonstration against the U.S. bombing of Syria in April 2017.

African Americans must be mobilized politically outside the stifling confines of the Democratic and Republican parties. Socialism is the only solution to the problems of institutional racism and exploitation by the billionaire ruling class.

In conclusion, we want to quote from an essay by Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois who wrote in April 1953 in the Monthly Review that: “The United States, with its existing social structure, cannot today abolish the color line despite its promises. It cannot stop injustice in the courts based on color and race. Above all, it cannot stop the exploitation of black workers by white capital, especially in the newest South. White North America beyond the urge of sound economics is persistently driving black folk toward socialism. It is the United States which is straining every effort to enslave Asia and Africa, and educated and well-to-do black Americans are coming to know this just as well as anybody. They may delay their reaction; they may hold ominous silence. But in the end, if this pressure keeps up, they will join the march to economic emancipation, because otherwise they cannot themselves be free.”

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