What Can We Learn from 1967’s Summer of Love to Help Us Through Our Current Political Nightmare?

Danny Goldberg discusses his new book about a magical and often misunderstood era in U.S. history.

Photo Credit: Radharani / Shutterstock

Editor’s Note: Danny Goldberg is the modern version of the Renaissance man. He has a long and colorful history as an activist, author and influential music executive. Goldberg came of age at the height of the hippie era in 1967, experiencing the powerful and haunting mix of excitement, hope, experimentation and despair. He captures it all in vibrant detail and political nuance in his newest book, In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea (Akashic Books). AlterNet’s executive editor Don Hazen interviewed Goldberg in his offices at Gold Village Entertainment on July 12.

Don Hazen: Let’s start by addressing what lessons we can learn from 1967. In the book, ‘In Search of the Lost Chord,’ there is a lot about that classic split between the hippies and the radicals. And is that a Bernie/Hillary split? Is that split still with us? How do you look back 50 years and apply it today?

Danny Goldberg: Well, there are things to learn to do, and things to learn not to do, from the ’60s. A major feature of the Be-In, in January 1967 that led to event of the Summer of Love, was that it was a “gathering of the tribes” to try to address that split.

There were also serious divides within the civil rights movement. Stokely Carmichael and Adam Clayton Powell sometimes mocked Martin Luther King publicly and questioned his non-violent strategy. On the other hand, when Martin King came out against the war, the NAACP board voted 60-0 to condemn him for that position because they feared pissing off President Johnson.

There were splits in the peace movement between the pacifists and non-pacifists; among those who focused on replacing LBJ with an anti-war Democrat there was bitter resentment between many of those who preferred Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy supporters.

DH: And the Digger critique of Abbie Hoffman was what?He was not ‘lefty enough’?

DG: It was that the Diggers were committed to anonymity and Abbie was the opposite of that. There’s no question Abbie Hoffman was a self-promoter, but on the other hand he had the ability to popularize radical ideas in a way no one else could. The Diggers saw themselves as the conscience of all these movements.

DH: And Peter Coyote was a Digger, right?

DG: Yes, Coyote was one of the thought leaders. The Diggers organized the free concerts near Haight-Ashbury. They made and gave free meals to hundreds of people. They ran a “free store.” They came from the experimental theater world and did a lot public displays that challenged conventional thinking.

They had a mimeograph machine, and distributed circulars in the neighborhood, and when the Black Panthers started in Oakland, the Diggers lent them the machine for the first three issues of their newspaper.

But they also had a self-righteousness that judged almost everyone else in the counterculture adversely. They had a commitment to ideals that were distinct from people that were more commercially minded, so hip capitalism was one of their targets. They also had a jaundiced view of Tim Leary. They were often confrontational with radical political groups that they felt were too mired in old ideology. In some ways, they were the forerunner of the most intolerant anarchists of the Occupy period. But they also had the creativity to create some of the purest expressions of countercultural idealism.

DH: Let’s step back for a second and ask you to explain how people should really understand the hippie idea, and what if any of it could be applied to solving the problems we are confronting today.

DG: The question I ask myself a lot, as I’ve been talking about the book, is: What difference does something that happened 50 years ago matter? Other than nostalgia (which I don’t think is a completely bad thing) the relevance depends on the extent that there are values that are not driven by the 24-hour news cycle or by who’s president, but endure from generation to generation, basic concepts about what it is to be a human being. To me, the hippie idea was a spiritual movement at its core, even though the word hippie and the external symbols like tie dye or long hair or hip language like “groovy” or “far out” or “cool, man,” soon became passé.

DH: Don’t forget the peace sign.

DG: Yes, the peace sign, too—all of these things were quickly drained of meaning because of commercialization, the media magnifying glass, predators, etc. I understand why the punk generation that came along 10 or 15 years later had contempt for it, because they weren’t reacting to the experience I had; they were reacting to the cartoon version of it. I’m sure if I were of that generation, I would have been a punk also, because it was all about trying to seek integrity, authenticity, and meaning.

But to me, the hippie moment was a critique of materialism. Ayn Rand’s philosophy was just as pernicious in the ’60s as it is today, or maybe the way to say it’s just as pernicious today as it was then.

DH: Is there any model of a counterculture theme or anti-materialistic vision that’s applicable today, anything like ‘back to the land’? Because the country is so split. The differences are just enormous. Even the way of thinking.

DG: The thing I keep hoping is that the meeting place is spirituality, because I do think that most people who identify as Christians are sincere about it. Even though many of the right-wing American leaders who exploit them seem quite removed from the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, Pope Francis is a compelling and powerful moral and spiritual voice who, to me, evokes counterculture values as much as he does Catholic tradition. Some of the attitudes of conservative evangelicals are primarily tribal. But I think that the words of Jesus Christ are so powerful that they can have unintended effects; the idea of loving thy neighbor as thyself is essentially the same as hippie idea.

In researching 1967, one thing that blew my mind was reading some of the speeches of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, neither of whom, as far as I know, ever took LSD. They both wore suits and had short hair and didn’t identify as hippies in any way.

DH: No dashikis for Martin Luther King.

DG: And no love beads for Bobby Kennedy… But they came to the same meeting place in terms of the ideal that there’s more to life than just money. Kennedy gave this great speech about how the gross national product measures everything except the things that are most important in life. And King, in sermon after sermon, talked about the inner world, of man as a spirit and as a soul. Of course he coupled this with an ethical code which required activism in an immoral world.

So it is my hope is that there is a critical mass of people who see themselves as being in different tribes, but who in their souls share some values that could create some kind of a moral clarity in the country.

The other big thing, I think, in terms of changing the politics of the country now, is to focus on young people, because that’s also a similarity with the ’60s. You’ve got this gigantic generation, the biggest generation since the Baby Boom generation, and more progressive. Those of us who were against the war were never a majority until way later when the whole country turned against the war by the mid-’70s. But the proportion of younger people who voted for Bernie, the proportion of younger people who vote Democrat, is very, very high.

DH: Let’s go back to the spiritual theme. The heroes of your book are really Ram Dass and Allen Ginsberg. I’m interested in how you think that Allen Ginsberg and Ram Dass were able to carry that message, and whether it’s succeeded in beginning inside the culture, or the culture just went all materialist.

DG: I think it’s a mixed bag. One of the things about being older is knowing that I have more life behind me than in front of me, and it’s quite clear that the odds of all the problems of America or the Western world being solved in my lifetime is extremely low. The rapid success of the civil rights movement on certain issues and the explosive spread of hip images and rock and roll, I created a set of expectations regarding timing that were not realistic. But the fact that everything’s not perfect or close to perfect doesn’t mean that all the efforts to advance the species are a failure; it means that history is to be looked at in terms of hundreds or thousands of years, not just one generation.

In terms of the individual lives, I think Ram Dass is exemplary. He’s been committed to service. The money from Be Here Now went to his foundation that he and Wavy Gravy among others set up that has helped cure blindness in millions of people in third-world countries.

DH: I read a review of your book on the Be Here Now network. I never knew that existed.

DG: It’s a podcast network that is a spin-off that is associated with the foundation that is built up around Ram Dass and run by Raghu Markus. I do a podcast on it called Rock and Roles.

DH: Let’s talk about the riots, and segue from Martin Luther King to Detroit and to Newark and what a huge impact the uprisings had on the black community. We do not seem to have made much progress on race in this country. The riots of 1967 seem to have been a product of somewhat raised expectations from civil rights and the poverty program. Today, the black community has very little expectations. That might be a reason why white males are dying at a much higher rate than blacks and Latinomen,because their reality is more accepted.

DG: The scale dwarfs anything that’s happened since. In Detroit there were 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed. And much havoc in other cities as well.

Not everyone called them riots—they were called rebellions, revolts. They were usually triggered by police violence. But the tinder box of frustration, poverty, oppression was so great, and the raised expectations were followed by only marginal improvement especially in the North where the problems was “de facto” segregation that wasn’t fixed by the civil rights bill. Before he was killed, King had become a much more radical and complicated thinker as the years went by and he saw the complexity of the legacy of racism.

DH: What else from the ’60s is applicable in the Trump era?

DG: Number one, ease up on tribalism on our side.

DH: Yeah, well, tribalism’s natural for corruption. And also for loyalty and protection.

DG: True. It’s incredibly seductive, because it feels good. It’s why people join gangs.

DH: Nepotism is one of the most powerful forces in the world. Taking care of your own, your family. Everyone protects their family, or else they’re thought of as having bad character.

DG: Taking care of your own family isn’t the problem. Doing it in a way that hurts other people’s families is what is immoral. The Mafia will claim you have no choice. The Mafia is the ultimate Ayn Rand entity.

DH: So, 1967 is the year that you picked, but ’68, ’69 and ’70 also were huge years for me: 1969 was Woodstock, of course. 1970 was Kent State and Cambodia and the biggest student rebellion ever. It seems to me that the reverberations of 1967 just kept rolling along in different ways. And ofcoursethere’s Altamont versus Woodstock.

DG: Well, I think it’s about the balance, and that’s the conceit of the title, In Search of the Lost Chord, that there were these different notes and relationship to them, and it’s about the balance of the energies. Things got darker in ’68 with the assassinations of King and Kennedy. Another inflection point was the decline of Haight-Ashbury. There was a community in ’65 and ’66 and the beginning of ’67, it was a model of an alternative lifestyle that couldn’t survive the glare of the media. The media definitely killed it. There was actually a formal ceremony in Haight-Ashbury called Death of the Hippie in October ’67. And the drugs got worse very quickly.

DH: The brown acid.

DG: Yes, some of the LSD sold by less than idealistic dealers was mixed with speed. Pure speed, then as now, brought out the worst in people. Heroin, then as now, destroyed lives. So even though shards of countercultural idealism cropped up in places well into the ’70s, the peak was already in the rearview mirror. Even the purest kind of LSD had limits in its value to people.

I’m someone who is very happy with my memories of LSD trips. I’ve never had a bad trip, thank god, but it became like seeing the same movie too many times. It’s been decades and I have no plans to take it again.

DH: Yeah, it doesn’t tell you how to figure things out.

DG: Yeah, at the end of the book, I quote Peter Coyote saying that LSD is like a helicopter that takes you to the top of the mountain, but then it brings you back down again, so if you actually want to live on the top of the mountain, it’s a lifetime of work to get up there, not a helicopter ride.

DH: But the hippie period triggered a lot of things such as the back-to-the-land movement and the Grateful Dead, right?

DG: Absolutely. There are still reverberations from that period that continue to this day. Environmentalism had antecedents with people like Thoreau, but its explosion as a mass movement was the direct outgrowth of hippie culture. Many of the creators of a lot of the internet in the ’90s, including Steve Jobs, took psychedelics. On the political side, there is a direct line from the civil rights and anti-war movements to feminism, the gay rights movement, CodePink, Occupy Wall Street, and many aspects of the Sanders campaign.

In the spiritual realm, in 1967, Richard Alpert, the fired Harvard professor who was Tim Leary’s protégé in popularizing LSD, went to India, met his guru Neem Karoli Baba, was renamed Ram Dass, wrote the book Be Here Now, a major catalyst of the New Age movement. And in 1967 the Beatles, who were the most famous musicians in the world, were introduced to meditation, which overnight went from being a word known primarily in monasteries and theology departments to being part of the language of pop culture.

DH: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, right?

DG: Yeah, the Maharishi was the first one that became a public figure when they visited him, but almost immediately afterwards, George Harrison and John Lennon became interested in the so-called Hare Krishna guru, Swami Bhaktivedanta.

And all this opened up a wellspring of a zillion different spiritual paths explored by people in the mass culture, some of the bogus but some real. The I Chingwent from selling a couple of thousand copies a year to 50,000-100,000 a year, and was quoted in numerous rock lyrics. A lot of younger people were relieved that you don’t have to choose between the religion you were born into or purely secular materialism. There were lanes you could go down to try to integrate the idea of identifying yourself as a spirit without having to be enmeshed in the hierarchy of rules and structures that seemed irrelevant to a modern life. Some people found transcendence in mainstream religions, but a lot of us didn’t find it there.

DH: Is there something that you want the world to know about this book that you’re not getting out there?

DG: Well, the main thing about the book is its complexity. There were so many things happening all at the same time. It’s a mosaic of a couple hundred pieces, and there were another couple of thousand that I couldn’t deal with because I didn’t have the time or the wisdom to do it. I feel guilty dumbing it down sometimes.

DH: Somebody in the book said that New York was always two years later, but you said by ’67 it had caught up. Is that really true?

DG: Ken Kesey said that to Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

There was this sense of you had this magical thing that no one else had. When it was the province of universities and psychiatrists and people that were authorized to experiment with it, it was very limited. But once it was illegal in late 1966, it became easy to get. High school in New York kids couldn’t get acid in 1964, but could in ’67.

DH: They had no Summer of Love in New York.

DG: I don’t know, man. It was nice to be young there then. That’s the year I graduated from high school.

There was a Be-In in Easter of ’67. There were these things that Bob Fass would organize, this Fly-In and sweeping up streets on the Lower East Side. It was a bit darker than the Bay Area, but we had the peace and love thing going too for a minute.

DH: I was both a hippie and a radical and most of my hippie friends were not so political, and most of my radical friends had disdain for drugs. And then there was, within SDS, the progressive labor faction, the ones that cut their hair off and went to the factories and worked.

DG: But there were people who struggled to bridge the divide. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Paul Krassner—all had dual citizenship.

DH: Abbie Hoffman was one of our best political strategists. I traveled to Nicaragua with him and then I spent some time with him in Zihuatanejo. But I saw his dark side, too, which obviously led to his death. He was amazing. He was a manic depressive, yeah. And when he was manic, there was just no one, no one, who could compete with him as a speaker, as a thinker, a strategist, a performer.

DG: I think he’s a little underrated by history because the depression became more part of the story. Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and of course Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison had tragically premature deaths. On the other hand, the people I dedicated the book to—Paul Krassner, Wavy Gravy and Ram Dass—didn’t self-destruct, and continued to live righteous lives with real consistency about who they said they were as younger people, as did Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Peter Coyote and many others who are not famous, but who are worthy role models.

So overall, it certainly is a mixed bag. I have a romantic view of it, but hopefully not a delusional view of it.

DH: Well, that’s a good way to stop: A romantic but not delusional view.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

Danny Goldberg is the author of In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea (Akashic Books) and is the president of Gold Village Entertainment, whose clients include Steve Earle, Against Me!, and Peaches.



How the movement brought down a president

Eric Ruder describes how the movement against the U.S. war on Vietnam gained strength, handing the empire its most bitter defeat.

Members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War on the march

Members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War on the march

THE OPENING weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency have been a whirlwind of reactionary executive orders, revelations about contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials, open warfare between the White House and U.S. intelligence services, and Trump’s furious attacks on the media for printing leaks from his administration.

And then there are the protests.

There was the Women’s March on Washington, with sister demonstrations across the country and around the world. In the following days, there were spontaneous eruptions in opposition to Trump’s bigoted executive orders targeting Muslims and the undocumented.

As Trump’s approval ratings sink further, there’s speculation that Trump could be impeached. It’s still far-fetched–but not as far as it used to be, according to British bookies, who doubled the likelihood to nearly 50 percent that Trump would be out of office before his first term was up.

All this begs the question: What would it really take to bring down Donald Trump? To answer it, it’s worth looking back four decades to the last–and only–time a president was forced to resign. What factors compelled Richard Nixon to leave office in disgrace in 1974?

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THE IMMEDIATE crisis that triggered Nixon’s eventual resignation was the attempt by the White House to cover up its role in the burglary of the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C.,

Five men carrying bugging devices and a large wad of cash were caught in the middle of the night in the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in the Watergate complex. Four of the men had ties to the CIA and had also taken part in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.

When the ties between the burglars and Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) became public, the wheels were set in motion toward impeachment.

But the larger context of the Watergate scandal is essential to understanding Nixon’s downfall.

In his book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, author Tom Wells cites the recollections of Roger Morris, a National Security Council staffer under Nixon. “Watergate–the whole generic beast–is a product of the administration’s insecurity and paranoia fed by the war in Southeast Asia and by an inability to cope with that dissent, and [by] these perceptions of dissent widening around it in an almost conspiratorial way,” said Morris.

In fact, the scandal was driven by “excessive concern over the political impact of demonstrators,” a desperate bid to stem leaks from the White House (sound familiar?), and “an insatiable appetite for political intelligence,” according to the testimony by John Dean, a Nixon operative, before the Senate committee that investigated Watergate.

The same men who broke into Watergate also broke into the home of Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon employee who leaked the Pentagon Papers exposing U.S. war strategy in Vietnam, in an unsuccessful bid to stop further leaks to the press from him.

Thus, a full recounting of Nixon’s downfall must start with the story of how an antiwar movement that had begun as a tiny minority barely a decade earlier grew to involve practically every strata of American society.

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THOUGH THE antiwar movement began in the mid-1960s with handfuls of activists debating what if anything could be done to protest the war, the Black freedom struggle of the previous decade served as a beacon of inspiration.

The civil rights movement had already shown that dedicated masses of people had the power to arouse public outrage and mobilize sufficient pressure to bring change, even in the face of government intransigence.

There were three main elements that ultimately led to the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and Nixon’s unraveling: the Vietnamese resistance to the U.S. military machine, the revolt of U.S. soldiers and sailors within the military machine itself, and the popular mobilizations that spread from campuses into society at large.

In a 1965 speech, Malcolm X captured in his typically blunt style the bravery and resilience of the Vietnamese resistance to the American war drive. “Little rice farmers, peasants, with a rifle–up against all the highly mechanized weapons of warfare–jets, napalm, battleships, everything else, and they can’t put those rice farmers back where they want them,” he said. “Somebody’s waking up.”

As Joel Geier explained in a 2000 article “Vietnam: The Soldiers’ Revolt” in the International Socialist Review, the U.S. military couldn’t devise a strategy to defeat Vietnam’s guerrilla fighters, who carried out hit-and-run on American targets by night and melted back into the countryside and their roles as peasant farmers during the day.

In this form of guerrilla war, there were no fixed targets, no set battlegrounds, and there was no territory to take. With that in mind, the Pentagon designed a counterinsurgency strategy called “search and destroy.” Without fixed battlegrounds, combat success was judged by the number of NLF [National Liberation Front] troops killed–the body count…For each enemy killed, for every body counted, soldiers got three-day passes and officers received medals and promotions. This reduced the war from fighting for “the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese” to no larger purpose than killing.

In January 1968, the NLF and the North Vietnamese Army deployed a combined force of some 70,000 and fought to win the national capital of Saigon, along with the capital cities of 34 provinces. Relying on broad popular support to maintain the element of surprise, the Tet Offensive dealt a major political blow to the American war effort, even if it failed to achieve lasting military results.

The scale of the uprising against the U.S. military and the South Vietnamese government demonstrated before the eyes of the world that all the talk out about collapsing support for the NLF and a war effort on the verge of breakthrough success was simply lies.

Though the U.S. eventually rebuffed the offensive, the military relied on the utmost brutality to do so, using the same scorched-earth tactics in the cities that it had used to crush resistance in the countryside.

According to Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves, the U.S. counteroffensive left more than 125,000 homeless in Saigon and unleashed “an astonishing 600 tons of bombs, plus barrages from artillery and tank cannons” in the southern city Hue, destroying 80 percent of its built structures. More than 14,000 civilians were killed, mainly by U.S. fire, and some 627,000 became homeless.

Though it didn’t become public until a year and a half later, the My Lai Massacre, in which a company of U.S. soldiers massacred hundreds of unarmed villagers, came to stand as the most shocking atrocity in a war full of shocking atrocities. It was carried out six weeks into the U.S. counteroffensive against Tet.

The counteroffensive also produced an especially harrowing turn of phrase that captured the essence of the U.S. war strategy. The commanding officer in charge of recapturing Ben Tre in Kien Hoa province explained the absolute devastation of the town to reporters by saying, “We had to destroy the town to save it.”

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U.S. SOLDIERS also absorbed the meaning of Tet, stepping up their own resistance to the U.S. war drive in response. After all, if the war wasn’t winnable, why should any soldier risk his life to fight it?

If U.S. soldiers had, prior to Tet, turned their officers’ commands to “search and destroy” into missions to “search and avoid,” many turned to outright disobedience after the invasion.

By June 1971, the Armed Forces Journal reported that the ranks were in a state of open revolt:

Our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near-mutinous…[C]onditions [exist] among American forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by…the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917.

Whole units began discussing and debating the war among themselves, and some ended up deciding en masse to refuse to go on patrols. Black soldiers–emboldened by the civil rights movement, yet assigned to the most dangerous tasks by racist commanding officers–were particularly drawn to the growing revolt within the U.S. military.

As disaffection grew, some soldiers targeted gung-ho officers looking to enhance their opportunities by upping their number of kills with aggressive patrols rather than the Vietnamese resistance. By some estimates, 25 percent or more of the officers and noncommissioned officers killed in Vietnam lost their lives to “fragging”–which took its name from the fragmentation grenades rolled under a commanding officer’s bunk.

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THE REVOLT in the ranks of the U.S. military was decisive in U.S. military leaders reaching the conclusion that they couldn’t continue to prosecute the war. But that revolt would have been unthinkable without the massive civilian antiwar movement, which helped to expose the doublespeak of the American government and military.

The movement also built GI coffeehouses and an entire counter-narrative to the lies regularly emanating from the Pentagon to show soldiers who refused to fight that they could find a whole community ready and willing to support them.

The first acts of the antiwar movement had been a series of teach-ins on college campuses in the spring of 1965 that drew thousands of students into discussions about the war just as Democratic President Lyndon Johnson ordered stepped-up bombing of North Vietnam and the first U.S. ground troops landed in South Vietnam.

At the teach-ins, which initially featured debates with Johnson administration officials until the officials stopped showing up because they failed to convince anyone, antiwar faculty and students engaged thousands of students.

The teach-ins focused attention on the many contradictions of the U.S. war effort–killing poor peasants in the name of peace, propping up despised dictators in the name of “spreading democracy,” destroying villages in order to save them.

On October 15, 1969, some 2 million people participated in hundreds of local actions across the U.S. Many large cities had rallies of tens of thousands, while students wore armbands on campuses. A month later on November 15, the largest demonstration in U.S. history up to that point took place in Washington, D.C., drawing between 500,000 and 750,000 people.

The White House carefully managed media perceptions, asserting that Nixon paid no attention to the protests and had spent the afternoon watching college football. But as later investigations by journalists and historians revealed, Nixon was distraught over the size of the mobilizations.

“The demonstrators had been more successful than they realized, pushing Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger away from plans to greatly escalate the war, possibly even to the point of using nuclear weapons, and back toward their ‘Vietnamization’ strategy of propping up the Saigon regime,” author Gerald Nicosia wrote in Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement.

The protests grew even more intense in response to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in early 1970, which sparked a student strike. The police and National Guard were called out to confront student protesters.

On May 4, the National Guard killed four and wounded nine students at Kent State University in Ohio. Ten days later, city and state police killed two students and wounded 12 at Jackson State, a historically Black college in Mississippi.

Rage at the killings of unarmed students further accelerated the outpouring of antiwar protests. All told, some 8 million students took part in strikes that affected 1,350 colleges in May alone. “Faculty and administrators joined students in active dissent, and 536 campuses were shut down completely, 51 for the rest of the academic year,” wrote Wells in The War Within.

Two years later, Nixon would win reelection in the 1972 election, driving the antiwar movement and other activists into a state of near-total despair. Yet the internal strife and generalized sense of crisis surrounding the administration led a paranoid president to embrace a scorched-earth war strategy–in Vietnam, against the press and against his political rivals, both real and perceived.

Combined with the lack of any strategy to avoid military defeat, the U.S. war in Vietnam metastasized a Cold-War era confrontation with a marginal player into a military and political crisis that dealt a defeat to the world’s main superpower–and ultimately brought down the world’s most powerful head of state.


Black culture isn’t the problem – systemic inequality is

Bill Clinton isn’t the first person to blame ‘black-on-black crime’ for higher poverty and prison rates among black Americans

Protester Rosco Farmer is corralled in the back of the auditorium by civil affairs officers near the end of former President Bill Clinton rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Thursday, April 7, 2016, in Philadelphia. Bill Clinton was interrupted by people in the crowd holding signs reading “Clinton crime bill destroyed our communities” and “Welfare reform increased poverty.” (Ed Hille/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP) PHIX OUT; TV OUT; MAGS OUT; NEWARK OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT
Though murder rates were higher in the 1960s, no one would argue that those organizers should have put the march on Selma on the back burner to focus on black-on-black violence back then. Photograph: Ed Hille/AP

The idea that it is black folks and our supposedly immoral and savage culture that creates our disproportionate rates of poverty and imprisonment is everywhere: cop shows, news media, movies set in black neighborhoods and high-school social studies classes have all perpetuated this misconception. And some are now using this old, false idea to disparage Black Lives Matter, saying that the real problem facing black communities isn’t police violence, racist oppression or economic exploitation but “black-on-black crime”. We hear this all over the place, from news columnists to Ray Lewis to Rudy Giuliani – and, most recently, reiterated by Bill Clinton.

It’s asinine, this argument that modern civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter should stop talking about actual problems in favor of apocryphal ones. During the civil rights movement there was much more homicide in the black community than there is now — black-on-black crime is shrinking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that from 1950 to 2013 the percentage of black men who became homicide victims dropped by a third, and for black women the percentage was cut in half.

Though murder rates were higher in the 1960s, no one in their right mind today would argue that those organizers should have put the march on Selma or the Montgomery bus boycott on the back burner to focus on black-on-black violence back then. We shouldn’t pressure today’s activists to do this either.

Yet the myth of black-on-black crime has enormous staying power. It’s no surprise that this kind of argument is so common among the likes of conservative media, Donald Trump and the police, but false hysteria about black-on-black crime has also been absorbed by liberals and black community leaders. Even Spike Lee took this stance in his recent film Chi-Raq, showing a Chicago minister telling a huge crowd that the fight against black-on-black violence is “our Selma”.

We’ve been duped. When black neighborhoods are compared with white neighborhoods of similar income levels, you see similar rates of crime. The fallacy of comparing white neighborhoods with black neighborhoods is in lumping together together wealthy and upper-middle-class neighborhoods (categories that not many black folks are in) with middle- and low-income ones. But that’s not how the world works. Poor white people in Memphis aren’t kicking it with rich ones in Bel Air.

Explaining crime and poverty as a result of black behavioral choice, further, disguises ways that both are caused by capitalism. Recasting systemic inequality as cultural choice suggests that black people aren’t determined enough – that it’s their own fault they remain in poverty. Out of economic deprivation comes violence – not because poor people have bad attitudes or cultural deficiencies, but because without a real economic safety net, the machinations required for survival can involve illegal business. And whereas legal business has the police to physically enforce the laws that govern it, disputes and agreements in illegal businesses are settled and enforced by the practitioners themselves.

The argument also regurgitates the same old disproven beliefs about crime, saying that stricter gun laws would decrease violence. Calls for gun legislation are actually calls for stricter policing and more police violence in black communities: gun control laws give police more powers to arrest – and we know that these policies will be racist in their implementation. Imagine stop-and-frisk in white neighborhoods: it ain’t gonna happen. The rate of weapons arrests is multiple times higher in the black community, even though blacks are half as likely as whites to own a gun.

The myth of black crime as cover for racist violence is nothing new. In 1906 Atlanta newspapers created a fake “Negro crime wave” which culminated in the state militia and county police going door to door in a raid of every single black home in order to confiscate guns. People were beaten and murdered along the way. In the following decades, similar media-created “Negro crime waves” in Washington, New York and other cities led to the repression of black communities that follows this kind of story.

The only thing that will stop murders in black neighborhoods, or in any neighborhoods, is a higher standard of living, not laws that will be enforced through a racist lens. Economic improvement will happen only through a mass radical movement to create a system in which the people democratically control the wealth that we create with our labor.

The next time you hear someone try to shame black community activists and reinforce the myth of the black criminal, remember that it’s an old story and a fake story. And it’s time for us to move on.


Remembering the bravery of Rosa Parks, on the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott

“Finally, we demanded, ‘Let my people go’”

On Dec. 5, the first day of the boycott, the buses were nearly empty of black people. And so it was for 382 days


"Finally, we demanded, ‘Let my people go'": Remembering the bravery of Rosa Parks, on the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott
(Credit: AP/Gene Herrick)

Going to Jail

After being escorted into city hall, Parks laughed to herself. “Who would have thought that little Rosa McCauley—whose friends teased her for being such a goody Two-shoes in her dainty white gloves—would ever become a convicted criminal, much less a subversive worthy of police apprehension, in the eyes of the state of Alabama?” Upon getting to the jail, she requested her phone call. Thirsty, she asked for water but was refused; the water was “for whites only.” “Can you imagine how it feels to want a drink of water and be in hand’s reach of water and not be permitted to drink?” Parks wrote later. Finally, a policeman brought her some water.

They asked her if she was drunk. She was not. She recalled not being “happy at all” or particularly frightened but found the arrest “very much annoying to me” as she thought of all the NAACP work she had to do. That evening she didn’t feel like history was being made but felt profoundly irritated by her arrest, which seemed a detour from the week’s more pressing political tasks.

She repeatedly asked for a phone call. Finally, she was allowed to telephone her family. Her mother answered and upon hearing that Rosa had been arrested, worriedly inquired, “Did they beat you?” Both her mother and Raymond were horrified to learn she was in jail, but Rosa assured her mother she had not been beaten. She then asked to talk to Raymond who promised to “‘be there in a few minutes.’ He didn’t have a car, so I knew it would be longer.” Home making dinner, Raymond was angry that no one had informed him of Rosa’s arrest. According to Rosa, “There was one man who was on the bus, he lived next door to where we lived, and he could have if he’d wanted to, gotten off the bus to let my husband know that I was arrested. My husband thinks kind of hard of him for not at least telling him.”

While in jail, Parks struck up a conversation with her cellmate, who had been in jail for nearly two months. The woman had picked up a hatchet against a boyfriend who had struck her—and, with no money for bail, was unable to let her family know where she was. Parks promised to try to get in touch with the woman’s family. Then abruptly the warden came to get her, but she hadn’t taken the paper where her cellmate had written down the phone numbers. The woman threw the small paper down the stairs as Parks left, and she surreptitiously picked it up. “The first thing I did the morning after I went to jail was to call the number the woman in the cell with me had written down on that crumpled piece of paper.” Parks reached the woman’s brother. A few days later, she saw the woman on the street looking much better.

Nixon had gone down to the jail with Clifford and Virginia Durr. The Durrs had no money, and Nixon put up the $100 bail. But he wanted the white couple to go with him to ensure the police actually released Parks after taking the bail money. Around 9:30 p.m., Parks walked out of jail to greet her friends. Virginia was struck by her appearance: “It was terrible to see her coming down through the bars, because . . . she was an exceedingly fine-looking woman and very neatly dressed and such a lady in every way—so genteel and so extremely well-mannered and quiet. It was just awful to see her being led down by a matron.” With tears in her eyes, Durr embraced her and was struck by how Mrs. Parks was “calm as she could be, not cheerful, but extremely calm.” As they were leaving, Raymond appeared with a bail bondsman, so Rosa rode home with him.

Nixon, the Durrs, and the Parkses convened in the Parkses’ Cleveland Courts apartment to talk over the next step. They drank coffee and discussed matters until about eleven that night. Clifford Durr thought he could get the charges dismissed if she wanted him to, because there had not been an open seat for Parks to move to. But Nixon saw this as the bigger opportunity they had been waiting for to launch an attack on bus segregation. “Mr. Durr’s right,” Nixon explained, “it’ll be a long and hard struggle. It’ll cost a lot of money. But we’ll get the NAACP behind it, I promise you that. It won’t cost you and Mr. Parks anything but time and misery. But I think it will be worth all the time and misery.” Nixon talked and talked, answering questions and explaining what he saw as the possibilities. Parks knew she never would ride the segregated bus again but had to consider making a public case and step into the line of attack.

Raymond did not initially agree. He “was pretty angry,” Rosa recalled. “He thought it would be as difficult to get people to support me as a test case as it had been to develop a test case out of Claudette Colvin’s experience.” They discussed and debated the question for a while. After an hour or two, the Durrs left, but Nixon stayed for a while longer. “In the end, Parks, and my mother supported the idea. They were against segregation and were willing to fight it.” With decades of political experience, Raymond Parks understood the physical and economic dangers this stand entailed and the difficulties he, his wife, and other activists had faced in building a unified mass movement. The community had not stood together for long in previous cases, particularly in Colvin’s, so Raymond worried. The economic and physical violence unleashed on protesting blacks, along with class divisions within the black community, had made a mass movement near impossible in the past. There would certainly be a price to pay for that resistance, and Raymond worried for the safety, physical and emotional, of his wife.

Virginia later highlighted Raymond’s reluctance, casting it differently than Rosa did. “He kept saying over and over again, ‘Rosa, the white folks will kill you. Rosa, the white folks will kill you.’ It was like a background chorus, to hear the poor man, who was white as he could be himself, for a black man, saying ‘Rosa, the white folks will kill you.’ I don’t remember her being reluctant.” Historians have latched on to Virginia’s version of Raymond’s reluctance. But there is a certain racialized and gendered cast to Virginia’s explanation— something emasculating in her description of Raymond’s fear and the ways she explicitly marked his light skin. It is unlikely that the Durrs had ever visited the Parks apartment socially before, and they did not know Raymond. So the unusualness of the circumstances likely affected how Virginia experienced and remembered the evening. E. D. Nixon provided no such description of Raymond.

Rosa contextualized Raymond’s response: “He was concerned about the way I was treated like any husband would be.” Fifty-two years old on that December evening, Raymond had a long history of activism. He had known people, as had Rosa, who were killed for their stands against racial injustice— and was even more soul weary than Rosa. He had experienced the ways people grew uncertain and movements crumbled under the immense pressure of white backlash. Virginia did not acknowledge the ways Raymond’s own activist experience came to bear that evening, let alone the responsibility he likely felt in trying to protect Rosa from the hardship that pursuing the case publicly would entail. For Rosa, faced with the possibility of retaliation against the entire family, it needed to be a communal decision. Talking to a coworker the next day, Raymond continued to worry that he and Rosa would be killed because of her arrest. Later that weekend, Rosa asked Virginia to speak at an NAACP meeting. She agreed to do so but “trembled at the thought of it being in the papers the next morning.” Even as a middle-class white woman, Durr feared public exposure of her beliefs. In interviews long after the boycott, Durr talked about how terrifying this period was. In 1954, she and Clifford had been red-baited for their civil rights beliefs and their connections to the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), and she had been called before Senator James Eastland’s Internal Security subcommittee and “expos[ed] . . . as a nigger-loving Communist.” She refused to answer questions—making national headlines as she stood silent before Eastland, occasionally powdering her nose. Despite their important contributions behind the scenes, the Durrs, in fact, often avoided situations where they would be publicly identified for their civil rights work. When Alabama State professor Lawrence Reddick decided to write a book on the boycott in 1956 and wanted to include description of the Durrs’ role, Virginia Durr said no. She explained her decision to a friend, “[Letting ourselves] be written up as having played a part, however it may seem to History, simply means that our tenuous hold here is lost for good. . . . I hated to have to tell him that History cannot feed your children or pay their school bills.” And yet, Virginia was unable to extrapolate her own fears about economic and physical retaliation to Raymond and rendered his fears for Rosa and his family’s safety unmanly.

Nixon knew Rosa Parks “wasn’t afraid” and that once she committed to things, she did not waver: “If Mrs. Parks says yes, hell could freeze but she wouldn’t change.” After talking with her mother and Raymond, who both came around to her taking this stand, Parks agreed. Later that evening, she called Fred Gray and asked him to provide her legal representation. Gray recalled that from that moment, “my days of having little to do in my fledgling law practice were over.”

Boycott: A Community Responds

“God provided me with the strength I needed at the precise time when conditions were ripe for change,” Parks observed. This was not some lucky happenstance. Rosa Parks and her colleagues had labored for years to seed the ground for a movement to grow in Montgomery, and those efforts had made the conditions ripe for a movement. In Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King observed that Parks had “been tracked down by the Zeitgeist.”

She wasn’t “planted” there by the NAACP, or any other organization; she was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn.

Parks’s arrest proved the last straw for many in Montgomery—the “rightness” of the moment created by the people of Montgomery in the years previous to Parks’s bus stand and over the next 382 days of the boycott.

As Parks herself would note, “Many people cannot relate to the feelings of frustration that we, as black people, felt in the 1950s. . . . But because we went along with it then did not mean that we would let it go on forever. . . It was a long time coming, but finally, as a group, we demanded, ‘Let my people go.’” Her arrest would provide the impetus. Because she “had been active in the NAACP ever since she was grown,” Horton explained, Parks was “a perfect case . . . somebody whom everybody had confidence in, in Montgomery. Some person who people respected to provide the basis on which you could build a movement.”

* * *

Preaching the Word

On Sunday, King evoked the “awful silence of God,” calling on his congregation to join the one-day boycott to challenge “the iron feet of oppression.” Other black ministers across the city followed suit. Not only did the ministers’ participation in the boycott provide an important mechanism for disseminating news of the protest in a space free of white control, it also provided some protection from charges of red-baiting.

One white minister also joined the call. On Friday, Parks spoke with Reverend Graetz, whose church, Trinity Lutheran, sat next door to the Cleveland Court projects. Robert Graetz had assumed the pastorship of the black Trinity Lutheran Church in 1955, and he and his wife had been viewed as racial oddities since moving to Montgomery from Ohio. The Graetzes sat in the “black” section at the movies. Local whites shunned them in stores. Graetz had heard of the arrest and plans for the boycott but as a white man (even though he ministered to a black congregation) was having trouble getting much information on the events. So he called one of his closest black acquaintances, Rosa Parks, who used his church for her Youth Council meetings. “I just heard that someone was arrested on one of the buses Thursday,” he said to her.

“That’s right, Pastor Graetz,” Parks replied.

“And that we’re supposed to boycott the buses on Monday to protest.”

“That’s right, Pastor Graetz.”

“Do you know anything about it?”

“Yes, Pastor Graetz.”

“Do you know who was arrested?”

“Yes, Pastor Graetz,”

“Well, who was it?”

There was a moment of silence.

Then in a quiet voice she replied, “It was me, Pastor Graetz.”

That Sunday, like the Reverends King and Abernathy, Reverend Graetz stood in his pulpit and gave a Christian interpretation of Parks’s arrest and the impending one-day boycott. He told his black congregation of his plans to participate in the boycott and to make his own car available to help shuttle people around town, and urged his congregation to do the same.

On Saturday, Parks hosted the already-planned NAACP Youth Council workshop at Alabama State College. Only five young people came. Having devoted a great deal of effort to set up the workshop, she was extremely discouraged by the turnout and increasingly anxious about what Monday would bring.


That Monday, people woke up early. Martin and Coretta King were dressed by 5:30 a.m. Martin believed if 60 percent of the black community stayed off the bus, the protest would be a success. A bus rolled by nearly empty of black passengers; another bus passed empty. They were elated. Nearly every black person in Montgomery had stayed off the bus. It was a magisterial sight: the sidewalks and streets of Montgomery filled with black men, women, and children walking, waiting, offering rides to people they knew or had never met. “It was really surprising,” Georgia Gilmore, a cook and midwife who in the days to come would emerge as a key organizer and fund raiser, recalled. “We thought well maybe some of the people would continue to ride the bus. But after all, they had been mistreated and been mistreated in so many different ways until I guess they were tired and they just decided that they just wouldn’t ride.”

“Gratifying” and “unbelievable” were the words Parks used to describe the sight that Monday morning—the way people “were willing to make the sacrifice to let it be known that they would be free from this oppression.” The reaction far surpassed anything she had ever seen. For Parks, this movement had been long in coming, but that December morning it had arrived. “As I look back on those days, it’s just like a dream. The only thing that bothered me was that we waited so long to make this protest.”

In a 1966 interview, Parks asserted that her most vivid memory from the entire year of the boycott was waking up December 5, looking out, and seeing the buses “almost completely empty.” Robinson explained the “hopeful, even prayerful” feeling that greeted the morning. Most people had not slept well, afraid the one-day action would fail and “the proud black leaders of the boycott would be the laughingstock of the town.” But this was not to be. “A quality of hope and joy” marked the day, Durr wrote a friend. Montgomery Advertiser reporter Azbell described the mood as “solemn” and noted no black people spoke to white people.

Parks dressed carefully for her court hearing: “a straight, long-sleeved black dress with a white collar and cuffs, a small black velvet hat with pearls across the top, and a charcoal-gray coat.” She carried a black purse, and wore white gloves. Mrs. Parks well understood the importance of image to this protest, and she chose her outfit to reflect a dignified and proud citizenship, an in-your-face challenge to the degradation that segregation had long proffered. Rosa and Raymond Parks and E. D. Nixon assembled at Fred Gray’s law office at 8 a.m. to figure out the last-minute details and then walked the block and a half over to the courthouse. “I was not especially nervous,” Parks recalled.

“I knew what I had to do.”

Hundreds of people stood outside court and packed the corridors of the courthouse by 8:30 that morning to demonstrate their support. A number of the members of Parks’s Youth Council skipped school to attend. Upon hearing the news, Mary Frances, one of Parks’s Youth Council members, observed, “They’ve messed with the wrong one now,” turning it into a small chant. The crowd cheered when she entered the building and called out their willingness to help with whatever she needed. For Nixon, the turnout was astonishing. In the twenty-five years he had been organizing, “I never saw a black man in court unless he was being tried, or some of his close friends or relatives.” Up and down the street, “from sidewalk to sidewalk,” it was clear that a new spirit had been brought forth in Montgomery. “The morning of December 5, 1955,” Nixon proclaimed, “the black man was reborn.” Parks felt an enormous sense of relief. The assembled multitude buoyed her spirits: “Whatever my individual desires were to be free. I was not alone. There were many others who felt the same way.”

Judge John Scott heard Parks’s case in City Recorder’s Court. The courtroom itself was segregated, with blacks on one side and whites on the other. Parks, Gray, and the city prosecutor stood. The trial lasted less than thirty minutes. “It was a very emotional experience,” Gray recalled, “because, not only was I representing Mrs. Parks as her attorney, but we were friends. In addition, this was my first case with a large audience. . . . Was I nervous? Maybe a little. Was I determined? You bet.”

At the hearing, the prosecutor moved to change the warrant, charging Parks with violating state law rather than city ordinance (since Montgomery ordinances did not allow people to be asked to give up their seat if another was not available). Gray objected, but the judge allowed it. Parks did not testify. Blake did, as did two white witnesses, one of whom said there was a seat in the back that Parks refused to take, directly contradicting Blake’s testimony that all the seats had been full. Parks was found guilty and fined fourteen dollars.

Gray entered her appeal.

Gray and Parks stayed behind to do some paperwork, but Nixon joined the crowd on the street. “If you don’t bring her out in a few minutes,” people yelled, “we’re coming in after her.” Delighted by the boldness, Nixon thought to himself, “It was the first time I had seen so much courage among our people!” Still, he worried the police were looking for any excuse to react. After Parks came out of the building, he addressed the crowd, “’See this man out here with this sawed-off shotgun? Don’t give him a chance to use it. . . . I’m gonna ask you all to quietly move from around this police station now; Mrs. Parks has been convicted and we have appealed it, and I’ve put her in the car . . . As you move, don’t even throw a cigarette butt, or don’t spit on the sidewalk or nothing.” Given the surge of militancy, seasoned organizers like Nixon wanted to protect and nurture it.

Activists in Montgomery’s black community had long worried that it would be impossible to unify the community around a particular action. It was “almost unbelievable,” Parks noted, how successful the one-day protest had been. Parks saw one of her Youth Council members and asked why she had not attended the Saturday workshop. The young woman told her that she had been passing out leaflets about Monday’s protest. Though Parks did not frame it this way, these young people had learned her lessons well: “They were wise enough to see . . . it was more important to stand on the street corners and pass these papers out to everyone who passed then to sit in a meeting and listen to someone speak.”

After her trial, Parks didn’t go to work but returned to Fred Gray’s law office. She wanted to be helpful. He asked her to answer the phone, something he occasionally had her do, and then left for a meeting with King, Abernathy, and Nixon. “The people were calling to talk to me but I never told them who I was,” Parks admitted decades later. “They didn’t know my voice so I just took the messages.”

This moment reveals one of the paradoxes of Mrs. Parks’s own choices about her role in the movement. Parks was a shy person and a political organizer who believed in collective action over individual celebrity. These traits combined to produce the mixture of action and reticence that would characterize her public role in the days and years to come. Over the course of the boycott, she would participate in dozens of programs when she saw it as a way to further the protest. (And over the next half century, this would grow to include thousands of appearances.) But time and again, she actively avoided the spotlight and sometimes obscured the role she was actually playing. So Parks did not sit around in Gray’s office or go home to rest or go back to work that Monday afternoon. She wanted to be useful, so she answered the phone since many people were calling with questions about the protest. But she did not tell the callers who she was. That erasure would have costs, though; Rosa Parks’s own life exemplified many of the currents of African American protest in the twentieth century, but she would come to be known for a “simple act” on a single day. She would stay back, anonymously answering phones, confined to a gender-specific role, while decisions were being made on the leadership of the protest.

The beginning of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) hails from that meeting Gray went to the first afternoon of the boycott, which neither Parks nor Robinson attended. Indeed, while WPC members, churchwomen, and domestic workers would make up the bulk of the boycott’s organizational infrastructure, the leadership (most of whom had their own cars and did not ride the bus) was overwhelmingly male. When some of the clergy at the meeting sought to conceal their identities, Nixon responded angrily that they lacked the courage of Mrs. Parks and were acting like “scared boys.” “Where are the men?” he challenged. Nixon took up a highly gendered language chastising the ministers and telling them they needed to catch up to the community. “We need to turn history around and stop hiding behind these women who do all the work for us. I say we stand out there in the open and hold our heads high.” He then threatened to take the microphone and tell their congregations that these clergy were “too cowardly to stand up on their feet and be counted.” King, entering late, agreed, willing to step forward publicly. King was elected to lead the new organization—his name put forward by Rufus Lewis, in part because King was his pastor and in part because he disliked Nixon and feared the militant porter would become the president of the new organization. Others supported the young minister in part because when the protest failed, they would not be blamed. The only woman elected was Erma Dungee as financial secretary. The group drew up three demands: first-come, first-served seating (where blacks would sit starting from the back and whites from the front but no one would be asked to move); respectful, courteous service; and the hiring of black bus drivers.

When asked a decade later whom she would have picked to be the leader, Parks explained that she did not know: “I don’t know if I would have had any particular choice. I had met [King] . . . a number of times and heard him speak. And as far as I was concerned, he was well suited for this particular role because he was, as you said, young, eloquent and, as far as I know, well liked in the community. . . . But I don’t think I would have wanted to have been the one to have selected any one person at the time.” Implicit in Parks’s comment (“any one person”) and her reluctance to affirm that she too would have picked King, or conversely Nixon, is her experience within an organizing tradition, exemplified by Highlander, that was wary of picking a single leader. Exemplified by her mentors Ella Baker and Septima Clark, the political community Parks came out of encouraged broad-based structures of decision making and leadership as a way to sustain a mass movement.

Excerpted from “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” by Jeanne Theoharis (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Jeanne Theoharis is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York

False Flag Change: History, the Confederate Flag, Obama and the Deeper American Racism


As the reigning corporate United States media and politics culture responds to a terrible racist atrocity by questioning the political correctness of the Confederate Flag and logo across the South, it is a good time to reflect on the different levels at which race and racism operate in post-Civil Rights America. One level appears at the nation’s discursive and symbolic surface. It is about language, imagery, personnel, and representation. It has a lot to do with the color of faces in high and/or publically viewed places and positions.

Recent calls and acts to remove the Confederate Flag and emblem from public and commercial spaces in the U.S. South are excellent examples of race running at this surface level. The flag and logo have long been seen by many Americans, including now (in the wake of the Confederate symbol-waring Dylan Roof’s murder of nine Black parishioners in a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina) the nation’s first technically Black president, as too undeniably connected to slavery and Jim Crow oppression to keep a respectable place in mainstream U.S. culture.

The Deeper Racism Lives On

A different level of race and racism has to do with how the nation’s daily capitalist institutions, social structures, and ideologies function. Here we are talking about how labor markets, the financial sector, the real estate industry, the educational system, the criminal justice complex, the military state, the corporate system, and capitalism more broadly capitalism work to deepen, maintain, and/or reduce racial oppression and inequality.

At the first, surface and symbolic level, racism has experienced significant defeats in the United States since the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the middle and late 1950s. Public bigotry has been largely defeated in the nation’s corporate-crafted public culture. Prejudiced whites face public humiliation when they voice openly racist sentiments in a nation that took “Whites Only” signs down half a century ago. Favorably presented Black faces are visible in high and highly public places across the national media and political landscape. The United States, the land of slavery, put a Black family in the White House six years and eight months ago. The new attack on the Confederate Flag is another moment in this long Civil Rights revolution over public-symbolic racism.

At the deeper, more covert institutional and societal level, however, racism is alive and well. It has not been liquidated beneath the public and representational surface – not by a long shot. It involves the more impersonal and (to be fair) the more invisible operation of social and institutional forces and processes in ways that “just happen” but nonetheless serve to reproduce Black disadvantage in the labor market and numerous other sectors of American life. These processes are so ingrained in the social, political, and institutional sinews of capitalist America that they are taken for granted – barely noticed by the mainstream media and other social commentators. This deeper racism includes widely documented racial bias in real estate sales and rental and home lending; the funding of schools largely on the basis of local property wealth; the excessive use of high-stakes standardized test-based neo-Dickensian “drill” and grill curriculum and related zero-tolerance disciplinary practices in predominantly black public schools; the concentration of black children into over-crowded and hyper-segregated ghetto schools where a highly disproportionate share of the kids are deeply poor; rampant and widely documented racial discrimination in hiring and promotion; the racist “War on Drugs” and the related campaign of racially hyper-disparate mass black incarceration and criminal marking. The technically color-blind stigma of a felony record is “the New N word” for millions of Black Americans subject to numerous “new Jim Crow” barriers to employment, housing, educational and other opportunities.

A Card Table Analogy

A critical and underestimated part of the grave societal racism that lives on beneath the selection of a Black Supreme Court Justice or a Black Secretary of State, the election of a Black U.S. President, or the taking down of the Confederate Flag from a Southern state capitol is the steadfast refusal of the white majority nation to acknowledge that the long (multi-century) history of Black chattel slavery – the vicious racist and torture system the Confederacy arose to defend and that the Confederate Flag celebrates – and its Jim Crow aftermath are intimately related to the nation’s stark racial disparities (see below) today. The refusal stands in cold denial of basic historical reality. Consider the following analogy advanced by the Black American political scientist Roy L. Brooks nearly two decades ago:

“Two persons – one white and the other black – are playing a game of poker. The game has been in progress for some 300 years. One player – the white one – has been cheating during much of this time, but now announces: ‘from this day forward, there will be a new game with new players and no more cheating.’ Hopeful but suspicious, the black player responds, ‘that’s great. I’ve been waiting to hear you say that for 300 years. Let me ask you, what are you going to do with all those poker chips that you have stacked up on your side of the table all these years?’ ‘Well,’ said the white player, somewhat bewildered by the question, ‘they are going to stay right here, of course.’ ‘That’s unfair,’ snaps the black player. ‘The new white player will benefit from your past cheating. Where’s the equality in that?’ ‘But you can’t realistically expect me to redistribute the poker chips along racial lines when we are trying to move away from considerations of race and when the future offers no guarantees to anyone,’ insists the white player. ‘And surely,’ he continues, ‘redistributing the poker chips would punish individuals for something they did not do. Punish me, not the innocents!’ Emotionally exhausted, the black player answers, ‘but the innocents will reap a racial windfall.’”

Seen against the backdrop of Brooks’ living “racial windfall,” there is something significantly racist about the widespread mainstream “post-racial” white assumption that the white majority United States owes Black American nothing really in the way of special, ongoing reparation for the steep and singular Black disadvantages that have resulted from centuries of overt, explicitly racist, and truly brutal oppression and exploitation.

Forget for a moment that American capitalism is still permeated with institutional and societal (and still no tiny degree of cultural) racism. Put aside the basic and important fact that the game is not being played fairly, with genuinely color-blind, “post-racial” rules. As Brooks’ card table metaphor reminds us, even if U.S. capitalism was being conducted without racial discrimination (as both players in Brooks’ analogy seem to falsely assume), there would still be the question of “all those poker chips” that whites – yes, rich whites in particular – have “stacked up on [their] side of the table all these years.”

Brooks’ surplus “chips” are not quaintly irrelevant hangovers from “days gone by.” They are living, accumulated weapons of racial inequality in the present and future. As anyone who studies capitalism in a smart and honest way knows, what economic actors get from the present and future so-called “free market” is very much about what and how much they bring to that market from the past. And what whites and blacks bring from the living past to the supposedly “color-blind” and “equal opportunity” market of the post-Civil Rights era (wherein the dominant neoliberal authorities and ideology purport to have gone beyond “considerations of race”) is still and quite naturally and significantly shaped by not-so “ancient” decades and centuries of explicit racial oppression.

Given what is well known about the relationship between historically accumulated resources and current and future success, the very distinction between past and present racism ought to be considered part of the ideological superstructure of contemporary white supremacy.

Priceless: The Half Barely Told

There’s no way to put a precise dollar amount on the value added to American capitalism by the Black human beings who provided the critical human raw material for the giant whipping machine that was British North American and US chattel slavery. Their blood-drenched contribution was, to quote the old MasterCard commercial, priceless. As the historian Edward Baptist has suggested in his brilliant volumeThe Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014), Americans’ tendency to see slavery as a quaint and archaic “pre-modern institution” that had nothing to do with the United States’ rise to wealth and power is deeply mistaken. Contrary to what many abolitionists thought in the 19th century, the savagery and torture perpetrated against slaves in the South was about much more than sadism and psychopathy on the part of slave traders, owners, and drivers.  Slavery, Baptist demonstrates was an incredibly cost-efficient method for extracting surplus value from human beings, far superior in that regard to “free” (wage) labor in the onerous work of planting, tending, and harvesting cotton. It was an especially brutal form of capitalism, driven by ruthless yet economically “rational” torture along with a dehumanizing ideology of racism.

It wasn’t just the South, home to the four wealthiest US states on the eve of the Civil War, where investors profited handsomely from the forced cotton labor of Black slaves. By the 1840s, Baptist shows, the “free labor North” had “built a complex industrialized economy on the backs of enslaved people and their highly profitable cotton labor.”  Cotton picked by southern slaves provided the critical cheap raw material for early Northern industrialization and the formation of a new Northern wage-earning populace with money to purchase new and basic commodities. At the same time, the rapidly expanding slavery frontier provided a major market for early Northern manufactured goods: clothes, hats, cotton collection bags, axes, shoes, and much more. Numerous infant industries, technologies and markets spun off from the textile-based industrial revolution in the North.  Along the way, shipment of cotton to England (the world’s leading industrial power) produced fortunes for Northern merchants and innovative new financial instruments and methods were developed to provide capital for, and speculate on, the slavery-based cotton boom. All told, Baptist calculates, by 1836 nearly half the nation’s economy activity derived directly and indirectly from the roughly 1 million Black slaves (just 6 percent of the national population)  who toiled on the nation’ southern cotton frontier.

Geographical section aside, The Half Has Never Been Told shows that “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich” decades before the Civil War. The US owes much of its wealth and treasure precisely to the super-exploited labor of Black chattel in the 19th century. Capitalist cotton slavery was how United States seized control of the lucrative the world market for cotton, the critical raw material for the Industrial Revolution, emerging thereby as a rich and influential nation in the world capitalist system by the second third of the 19th century:

“From 1783, at the end of the American Revolution to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over, and all this expansion produced a powerful nation…white enslavers were able to force enslaved African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people. Their practices transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time, as it was the key material during the first century of the industrial revolution.  The returns from cotton monopolypowered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization.” (emphasis added)

After short-lived and half-hearted reformist and democratic experiments under northern Union Army occupation during the Reconstruction era (1866-1877), Black cotton servitude was resurrected across what became known as the Jim Crow South. The last thing that Black ex-slaves wanted to do after slavery was go back to work under white rule in Southern cotton fields. But, as the historical sociologist Stephen Steinberg noted thirty-four years ago,

“Though the Civil War had ended slavery, the underlying economic functions that slavery had served were unchanged, and a surrogate system of compulsory paid labor developed in its place…ex-slaves…were forced to struggle for survival as wage laborers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers in southern agriculture. Once again, black paid the price and carried the burden of the nation’s need for cheap and abundant cotton.” Untold thousands of Black Americans died at the hands of white terrorists and authorities, both private and public, to keep Black lives yoked to cotton toiling for a pittance or worse under white owners during the long Jim Crow era – this for the sake of national U.S. capitalism, not just regional exploiters. With all due respect to that great Canadian Neil Young, it was never just about “Southern [white] Man.”

Speaking of Symbols…

Perhaps people who care about racial justice should talk about down the United States Flag as well as the Confederate one. As the Black historian Gerald Horne has shown in his provocative book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States (NYU Press, 2014), the nation that invented the Star Spangled Banner (SSB) broke off from England largely because of its propertied elite’s reasonable fear that North American Black chattel slavery could not survive and expand under the continued rule of the British Empire. The Declaration of Independence contained no criticism of North American slavery (though it did accuse King George of “excit[ing] domestic insurrections amongst us”). The U.S. Constitution sanctioned and defended the vicious institution of slavery. Exactly 76 years after U.S. independence was declared and 9 years before the Confederate Flag was first flown, the great Black escaped slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass reflected on “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”As Douglass answered in the shadow of the SSB:

“a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.”

Reading Douglass’s famous and bitter oration again as I do each year on July 4th, I was reminded of Patrick Campbell’s painting New Age of Slavery, which was inspired by the police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and went viral last December:


Thin also of the millions of Native Americans and persons abroad who have died and suffered subjugation under the “hollow mockery” of the SSB.

At the same time, if the Confederate Flag is going to come down, should Confederate names and symbols perhaps also disappear from other public spaces in the region? As the New York Times noted recently, “Black people across the South live on streets named for heroes of the side of the Civil War that opposed the end to slavery.” The region is rife with Confederate war memorials, along with numerous public and private buildings, parks, and other places bear the names of former rich slave-owners and Confederates. What about the offensive presence of that vicious Indian-killer and southern slaver Andrew Jackson on the U.S. $20 bill, or for that matter the wealthy slave-owner George Washington on the $1 bill and the liberal slave-owner Thomas Jefferson (the great revolutionary who worried about “domestic insurrections” in North America) on the $5 bill?

“History Belongs in a Museum”

Symbols aside, Baptist’s book and other recent volumes documenting the centrality of cotton slavery to the United States’ emergence as a powerful player in the world system raise the question of what Black America is owed today for the richly capitalist crime of slavery. What sort and amount of reparations are due in light of the fact that the United States owes its rise to wealth and power to Black slaves who suffered unimaginable misery and ordeal under the torments of cotton slavery between the American Revolution and the American Civil War?

As Baptist muses with irony, “if the worst thing about slavery was that it denied African Americans the liberal rights of citizens, one must merely offer them the title of citizen – even elect one of them president – to make amends.  Then the issue will be put to rest forever.” If we look honestly at the scale and (more importantly) the pivotal historical significance of the wealth stolen from African Americans, we are talking about reparations and that is something that America appears to be institutionally and ideologically incapable of addressing in a forthright and substantive way. We raise the question of reparations – yes, the “R word” that can’t be uttered in polite “post-racial” company.

Take down the Confederate Flag? “Fine. Should have been long ago.” Deal truthfully and significantly with – and advance compensation for – the profits made, the crimes committed, and the long and living price imposed on Black Americans by the multiple-centuries system of Black chattel slavery that the Confederacy fought to defend and indefinitely prolong? “Forget it. Get real. Get over it. Move on. Nothing more to see here. Put the flag in a closet and stop whining.”

Driving in my car a couple weeks ago I heard some white authority in Charleston say (in a very deep South Carolina accent) that the flag should come down because it’s a piece of “history and there’s a place for history, History belongs in the museum.” For some folks, taking down the Confederate Flag is a way of pushing Slavery and Jim Crow yet further down Orwerll’s memory hole. And for many liberals, it’s an all-too welcome diversion from taking on the killer racist police and mass incarceration state.couple of weeks ago I heard some older white authority figure (I did not catch his name or title) in Charleston say (in a deep South Carolina) accent that the Confederate banner should come down because “it’s a piece of history and there’s a place for history. History,” the elite Caucasian intoned, “belongs in the museum.”

For some right-wing folks, taking down the Confederate Flag is a way of pushing the all-too living historical relevance of slavery and Jim Crow further down Orwell’s memory hole. That history is too transparently related to contemporary racial oppression in a time when Black Americans are locked up en masse and murdered by police on an all too regular basis.

For many milquetoast liberal and progressive civil rights sorts (including Black middle- and upper-class Urban Leaguers and NAACP members), it should be added, the flag issue is an all-too safe and welcome diversion from the difficult grassroots struggle and work required to take down the contemporary racist police, apartheid, and mass incarceration state – living and substantive legacies of chattel slavery.

Symbolic Change, Cloaking, and White Self-Congratulation

It is tempting, perhaps, to see contemporary America’s split race decision – progressive victory on the surface level of race and continuing defeat on the deeper societal, institutional, and historical level of race – as a case of glass half-empty versus glass half-full. “Let’s celebrate the victory on Level 1 racism and build on that triumph to move forward against Level 2 racism”… right? Not so fast. It’s more complicated than that. For, perversely enough, the deeper level of racism may actually be deepened by Level 1 Civil Rights victories insofar as those victories and achievements have served to encourage the great toxic illusion that, as Derrick Bell once put it, “the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races.” It’s hard to blame millions of white people for believing that racism is dead in America when U.S. public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration and equality ideals and paeans to the nation’s purported remarkable progress towards achieving it and when we regularly celebrate great American victories over Level 1 racism (particularly over the open racial segregation and terror of the South). As the black law professor Sheryl Cashin noted in 2004, five years before the existence of a first black U.S. president, there are [now] enough examples of successful middle- and upper-class class African-Americans “to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity…The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; [that] the issue now is individual effort . . . The odd black family on the block or the Oprah effect — examples of stratospheric black success,” Cashin wrote, “feed these misperceptions, even as relatively few whites live among and interact daily with blacks of their own standing.” One of the many ways in which Obama’s presidency has been problematic for the causes of racial justice is the way it has proved to be something of a last nail in the coffin for many white Americans’ already weak willingness to acknowledge that racism is still a major problem for Black Americans.

This is something that Martin Luther King, Jr. anticipated to some degree. “Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves,” King noted in 1967, “on what little progress [black Americans] have made. I’m sure,” King opined, “that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Most white people are so removed from the life of the average Negro,” King added, “here has been little to challenge that assumption.” (Note the importance of segregated experience in the observations of both professor Cashin and Dr. King. The media image of black triumph and equality trumps the reality of persistent racial inequality in white minds so easily thanks in part to the simple fact that whites have little regular contact with actual, ordinary black Americans and little understanding of the very different separate and unequal ways in which most Blacks’ experience life in the United States. This is one of many ways in spatial and residential segregation – still quite pronounced in the U.S. – matters a great deal.)

“A Reminder of Systemic Oppression and Racial Subjugation”

Like the election and re-election of President Obama, the takedown of the Confederate Flag carries with it the risk of providing deadly “post-racial” cloaking for the nation’s deeper societal, institutional, and ideological racism. How appropriate in that regard it is to hear the deeply conservative and neoliberal Obama (for whom the notion of reparations is both ideologically and pragmatically unthinkable) call in his funeral oration at the stricken Charleston church for the final takedown of the Southern slave confederacy’s flag and symbol:

“For too long, we were blind to the pain that the Confederate Flag stirred into many of our citizens. (Applause). It is true a flag did not cause these murders. But as people from all walks of life, Republicans and Democrats, now acknowledge, including [South Carolina’s right wing and objectively racist] Governor [Nikki] Haley, whose recent eloquence on the subject is worthy of praise…(Applause)…as we all have to acknowledge, the flag has always been represented more than just ancestral pride (Applause). For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression (Applause)…and racial subjugation (Applause). We see that now. Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness. It would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong (Applause). The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people, was wrong. It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races, striving to form a more perfect union. By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace. (Applause)”

In his oration, Obama said that the murdered minister and state senator Clem Pinckney “embodied the idea that Christian faith demands deeds and not just words.”

Obama was right, of course, to observe that the Confederate Flag represents slavery, Jim Crow, and opposition to the great Civil Rights Movement that arose more than half a century ago. But what, really, are the “amazing changes” that have pushed the U.S. towards a “more perfect union,” racially speaking, in recent decades? Obama was referring mainly to the rise of a certain number of Black faces into high and public places, none more notable than his ascendency into the White House. But beneath the surface change, as Obama knows all too well, the Black poverty and unemployment rates remain double that of the white rates and Black median household wealth has fallen to less than one twentieth of white media household wealth. Blacks make up more than 40 percent of the nation’s globally and historically unmatched population of prisoners and a third of Black men are marked with the crippling lifelong stigma of a felony record. A shocking 38 percent of Black children are growing up at less than the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level. The poverty rate among Black children is more than twice as high as that of white children.

White America repeatedly congratulates itself over its readiness to shed open public bigotry and make symbolic statements against racism like electing a Black president (though it should be noted that Obama has never won a majority of the national white electorate despite his best efforts to not seem “too Black” and concerned with racial justice) and taking down the Confederate Flag. Meanwhile, these savage racial disparities persist and even deepen thanks to the underlying societal, institutional, historical, and political-economic racism that churns on behind the curtain of an officially color blind and, yes, politically correct media and politics culture.

In her speech calling for the removal of the Confederate Flag (which she called “a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past” for “many”) from the grounds of the South Carolina state capital, that state’s right wing Republican Governor Nikki Haley said that “we have made incredible progress in South Carolina on racial issues.” There is surely some basis for that statement at the surface level, in the racial composition of the state’s legislature and evening broadcast news teams and the like. But underneath all that, damn near half (44%) of South Carolina’s Black children are growing up in officially poor families, compared to roughly a sixth (16%) of the state’s white children. While Blacks make up 28 percent of South Carolina’s population, they comprise 62% of the state’s 22,000 prisoners. The state’s Black poverty rate (28%) is nearly three times as high as its white population’s poverty rate (10%).

Such glaring racial disparities reflect the long living legacy and price of chattel slavery, inextricably intertwined past and present with the nation’s amoral profits system. Slavery may perhaps qualify as the nation’s “Original Sin,” as Obama called it from the pulpit in Charleston, but it was, as Baptist shows, an integral, highly profitable, and driving force in the so-called free market system – capitalism – that Obama has upheld as the source of the United States’ supposed “unmatched prosperity.” And today, as in the nation’s early development, America’s not-so “color blind” capitalism remains inseparably bound up with deeply entrenched and egregiously under-acknowledged structures, institutions, and ideologies of racial oppression and inequality.

Obama’s Curious Case for Keeping the Confederate Flag Flying

Listening to Obama’s Charleston speech and hearing my fellow Caucasian Americans talk about the supposed over-ness of U.S. racism and the purportedly ancient and “long ago” nature of slavery and Jim Crow – and hence about the supposed personal and cultural responsibility of Blacks themselves for their position at the bottom of the nation’s steep class hierarchies – I almost wonder if the Confederate Flag ought not stay put. After all, the President says the flag is “a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.”   He says that taking it down is a “modest balm for unhealed wounds.” Constantly barraged with reactionary neoliberal messaging on how poor and working class people and especially poor and working class people of color supposedly created their own difficult situations in the “land of the free” (the ever more savagely unequal and openly plutocratic nation that happens to be leading prison state and military force in world history), Americans of all colors could use some good reminders of “systemic oppression and racial subjugation.” They need to be reminded of such oppression both in the past and in the present – and of the intimate relationship between past oppression and racial subjugation and present systemic oppression and racial subjugation.

The Real Issue to be Faced

When it comes to “deeds and not just words,” moreover, they don’t need a symbolic “modest balm.” “A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years,” the great democratic socialist Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in 1967 (as violence erupted across the nation’s largely jobless northern ghettoes) “will ‘thingify’ them – make them things. Therefore they will exploit them, and poor people generally, economically. And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together.” That all being no less true 48 years later, and with capitalism now bringing livable ecology to the edge of ruin, the people need deep systemic change along the lines of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the “real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters (like the color or gender of a president): “the radical reconstruction of society itself.”


Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)


Selma and the legacy of the US civil rights movement

Martin Marches

9 March 2015

Over the weekend, President Barack Obama headed an official 50th anniversary commemoration of “Bloody Sunday.” On that day, March 7, 1965, hundreds of civil rights marchers demanding the right to vote were set upon and beaten by police as they marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma, Alabama, heading for the state capital, Montgomery.

Obama’s ceremony was a political farce, a state-sanctioned exercise aimed at sanctifying a corrupt apparatus with the blood of those who made great sacrifices—in many cases, the ultimate sacrifice—as part of the civil rights movement. While many thousands of ordinary people attended, the commemoration was presided over by representatives of the corporate and financial elite, including 100 members of Congress of both parties, as well as George W. Bush, who left office the most despised president in US history.

The event was designed to obscure the significance of Selma, the civil rights movement as a whole, and the trajectory of American politics during the five decades since.

The repression meted out on “Bloody Sunday” was one episode in a campaign of police violence aimed at crushing protests against the system of Jim Crow segregation in the American South. Southern blacks faced a raft of discriminatory measures, such as the poll tax, that effectively disenfranchised them.

While the specific aim of the civil rights movement was to end racial discrimination, it was part of a wave of social conflict that engulfed the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. It came only a few decades after the explosive battles out of which the industrial unions were formed in the 1930s. It was followed by powerful workers’ strikes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the urban rebellions against discrimination and poverty, and the mass protest movement against the Vietnam War.

American capitalism was in deep crisis. The underlying momentum for the civil rights movement was imparted by the immense social struggles of the working class. The masses of workers and youth, black and white, who participated in the civil rights struggle saw it as one component of a broader social movement, carried out in the face of bitter resistance from the ruling class and its political representatives.

The form the struggle took was complicated, however, by the abstention of the AFL-CIO trade unions, politically aligned with the Democratic Party and American imperialism. The Democrats, based at the time on an alliance between northern liberals and southern racists, worked for a protracted period to undermine all attempts to end legally enforced racial segregation. The unions avoided any actions that would disrupt their political alliance with the Democrats, including blocking efforts to organize black workers in the south.

In the face of the social upheavals of the period, however, the American ruling class reluctantly moved to grant legal reforms, including those enshrined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson five months after Selma. A number of significant social reforms were also enacted during this period, including Medicare and other anti-poverty programs.

The reforms wrenched from the ruling class during the 1960s, however, marked the last gasp of liberal reformism in the United States. The American ruling class responded to the deepening crisis of the capitalist system with a two-pronged strategy. Beginning in the 1970s and escalating in the 1980s, it carried out an unrelenting assault on the working class. Jobs were destroyed, living standards were driven down, public services were slashed.

To better carry out this offensive, the ruling class worked deliberately to integrate a small minority of the African American population into positions of power and privilege. Particularly after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—who, while remaining within the framework of the Democratic Party, had begun to focus his attention increasingly on the issues of social inequality and war—a section of the civil rights establishment was brought into the apparatus of state power. This included the likes of Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and John Lewis, now a congressman, who was among the leaders of the 1965 Selma march.

During his 1968 election campaign, Richard Nixon called for giving a section of the African American population a “piece of the action.” As president, he initiated a program of “black capitalism.” He signed an executive order to form the Office of Minority Business Enterprise in March 1969, declaring that its aim was to “demonstrate that blacks, Mexican Americans, and others can participate in a growing economy on the basis of equal opportunity at the top of the ladder as well as on its lower rungs.”

Affirmative action, promoted by the Republican Nixon and then adopted as a central plank of the Democratic Party program, was aimed at bringing forward—in business, the military, local government, the police and academia—a privileged layer that would identify with American capitalism and facilitate the assault on the working class as a whole. Black nationalism became an ideological means for the restructuring of class rule on the basis of identity politics.

What have been the consequences of these policies? While the system of Jim Crow segregation was ended, the social position of the majority of black workers today is worse today than 50 years ago. According to official statistics, a third of African Americans live in poverty and hunger. Unemployment and underemployment are pervasive, in the northern states as much as, or even more, than in the south.

These conditions are fundamentally an expression not of racism, as claimed by the Democrats and their periphery, when they acknowledge the social crisis at all, but of class oppression.

This is evident in Selma itself. The town’s population has fallen sharply over the past 50 years, while median income is a shocking $22,418, one half of the already low figure for the state of Alabama as a whole. Even by the government’s own insultingly low threshold for poverty, 41.9 percent of Selma falls below it.

All of this is overseen by an African American mayor and police chief, and a City Council and school board that are overwhelmingly African American in composition.

Selma is hardly unique. The poverty rate in the city of Detroit, which has lost almost two-thirds of its population in recent decades, is even higher than in Selma. The city has been run by a predominantly African American political establishment for decades. A similar dynamic is repeated in city after city throughout the United States.

Obama, the first African American president, represents something of a culmination of these processes. The lies and demagogy in Obama’s Selma speech cannot conceal the huge class gulf between the government he heads and the self-sacrificing workers and youth who led the fight for civil rights. They fought for equality. He represents privilege.

In his remarks, Obama quoted the immortal words from the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal,” but he presides over a level of inequality previously unheard of in American history.

While Obama spoke of the need to “honor the courage of ordinary Americans willing to endure billy clubs and the chastening rod, tear gas and the trampling hoof,” he stands at the apex of a military-intelligence-police apparatus of immense brutality, which carries out a virtual reign of terror against working class youth of all races.

Just last week, the Obama administration announced its decision not to charge the police officer who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri last August. Over the weekend, another unarmed young man was shot dead in cold blood by police in Madison, Wisconsin.

In his Selma speech, Obama noted the abysmal turnout of one-third or less of eligible voters in recent elections. “What’s our excuse today for not voting?” he asked.

He did not, and could not, answer, but there is a powerful “excuse.” Through bitter experience, millions of workers are beginning to conclude that there is no difference between the two big business parties, nor, for that matter, between the big business politicians of whatever skin color.

Perhaps the biggest lie of all is Obama’s claim, echoed by the many liberal and “left” organizations orbiting the Democratic Party, that the “unfinished business” of the civil rights movement is defined by race.

At the time of the Selma marches, systematic, state-sanctioned racism was a major factor of American political life. Even then, however, racism was subordinate to, and a product of, class rule. It was used as a means of dividing workers and preventing a unified struggle against the capitalist system.

In relation to the explosive class battles of the time, the trade unions, the civil rights establishment, the array of middle class organizations worked to obscure the fundamental class issues and maintain the political domination of the ruling class and its political representatives. The basic question then was the need to forge a revolutionary leadership to unite the working class against the root cause of repression, inequality and war—the capitalist system itself.

Fifty years later, the fundamental class questions are all the more evident. While racism still exists and plays a role in American life, it is now accompanied by the state-sanctioned identity politics that serve a similar purpose: to pit workers against one another and block a united movement of the working class. As we enter a new period of working class upsurge, the burning question remains that of leadership. The “unfinished business” of Selma is the building of the revolutionary leadership of the working class needed to carry out the socialist reorganization of society.

Fred Mazelis and Joseph Kishore



Why There Is No Massive Antiwar Movement in America


What’s missing is any sense of connection to the government, or that we the people matter.

Well, it’s one, two, three, look at that amputee,
At least it’s below the knee,
Could have been worse, you see.
Well, it’s true your kids look at you differently,
But you came in an ambulance instead of a hearse,
That’s the phrase of the trade,
It could have been worse.

— First verse of a Vietnam-era song written by U.S. Air Force medic Bob Boardman off Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”

There was the old American lefty paper, the Guardian, and the Village Voice, which beat the Sixties into the world, and its later imitators like the Boston Phoenix. There was Liberation News Service, the Rat in New York, the Great Speckled Bird in Atlanta, the Old Mole in Boston, the distinctly psychedelic Chicago SeedLeviathanViet-Report, and the L.A. Free Press, as well as that Texas paper whose name I long ago forgot that was partial to armadillo cartoons. And they existed, in the 1960s and early 1970s, amid a jostling crowd of hundreds of “underground” newspapers — all quite aboveground but the word sounded so romantic in that political moment.  There were G.I. antiwar papers by the score and high school rags by the hundreds in an “alternate” universe of opposition that somehow made the rounds by mail or got passed on hand-to-hand in a now almost unimaginable world of interpersonal social networking that preceded the Internet by decades. And then, of course, there was I.F. Stone’s Weekly (1953-1971): one dedicated journalist, 19 years, every word his own (except, of course, for the endless foolishness he mined from the reams of official documentation produced in Washington, Vietnam, and elsewhere).

I can remember the arrival of that newsletter, though I no longer know whether I subscribed myself or simply shared someone else’s copy. In a time when being young was supposed to be glorious, Stone was old — my parents’ age — but still we waited on his words. It helped to have someone from a previous generation confirm in nuts and bolts ways that the issue that swept so many of us away, the Vietnam War, was indeed an American atrocity.

The Call to Service

They say you can’t go home again, but recently, almost 44 years after I saw my last issue of theWeekly — Stone was 64 when he closed up shop; I was 27 — I found the full archive of them, all 19 years, online, and began reading him all over again. It brought back a dizzying time in which we felt “liberated” from so much that we had been brought up to believe and — though we wouldn’t have understood it that way then — angered and forlorn by the loss as well. That included the John Wayne version of America in which, at the end of any war film, as the Marine Corps Hymn welled up, American troops advanced to a justified victory that would make the world a better place. It also included a far kinder-hearted but allied vision of a country, a government, that was truly ours, and to which we owed — and one dreamed of offering — some form of service.  That was deeply engrained in us, which was why when, in his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy so famously called on us to serve, the response was so powerful. (“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”) Soon after, my future wife went into the Peace Corps like tens of thousands of other young Americans, while I dreamed, as I had from childhood, of becoming a diplomat in order to represent our country abroad.

And that sense of service to country ran so deep that when the first oppositional movements of the era arose, particularly the Civil Rights Movement, the impulse to serve was essential to them, as it clearly was to I.F. Stone. The discovery that under your country’s shining veneer lay a series of nightmares might have changed how that sense of obligation was applied, but it didn’t change the impulse. Not at all.

In his writing, Stone was calm, civil, thoughtful, fact-based, and still presented an American world that looked shockingly unlike the one you could read about in what wasn’t yet called “the mainstream media” or could see on the nightly network news. (Your TV still had only 13 channels, without a zapper in sight.) A researcher par excellence, Stone, like the rest of us, lacked the ability to see into the future, which meant that some of his fears (“World War III”) as well as his dreams never came true.  But on the American present of that time, he was remarkably on target. Rereading some of his work so many decades later set me thinking about the similarities and differences between that moment of eternal war in Indochina and the present endless war on terror.

Among the eeriest things about reading Stone’s Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia coverage, 14 years into the next century, is how resonantly familiar so much of what he wrote still seems, how twenty-first-century it all is.  It turns out that the national security state hasn’t just been repeating things they’ve doneunsuccessfully for the last 13 years, but for the last 60.  Let me offer just a few examples from his newsletter.  I think you’ll get the idea.

* With last June’s collapse of the American-trained and -armed Iraqi army and recent revelations about its 50,000 “ghost soldiers” in mind, here’s Stone on the Laotian army in January 1961: “It is the highest paid army in Asia and variously estimated (the canny Laotians have never let us know the exact numbers, perhaps lest we check on how much the military payroll is diverted into the pockets of a few leaders) at from 23,000 to 30,000.  Yet it has never been able to stand up against handfuls of guerrillas and even a few determined battalions like those mustered by Captain Kong Le.”

* On ISIS’s offensive in Iraq last year, or the 9/11 attacks, or just about any other development you want to mention in our wars since then, our gargantuan bureaucracy of 17 expanding intelligence outfits has repeatedly been caught short, so consider Stone’s comments on the Tet Offensive of February 1968.  At a time when America’s top commander in Vietnam had repeatedly assured Americans that the Vietnamese enemy was losing, the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (the “Vietcong”) launched attacks on just about every major town and city in South Vietnam, including the U.S. Embassy in Saigon: “We still don’t know what hit us.  The debris is not all in Saigon and Hue.  The world’s biggest intelligence apparatus was caught by surprise.”

* On our drone assassination and other air campaigns as a global war not on, but for — i.e., to recruit — terrorists, including our present bombing campaignsin Iraq and Syria, here’s Stone in February 1968: “When the bodies are really counted, it will be seen that one of the major casualties was our delusion about victory by air power: all that boom-boom did not keep the enemy from showing up at Langvei with tanks… The whole country is slowly being burnt down to ‘save it.’  To apply scorched-earth tactics to one’s own country is heroic; to apply it to a country one claims to be saving is brutal and cowardly… It is we who rally the people to the other side.” And here he is again in May 1970: “Nowhere has air power, however overwhelming and unchallenged, been able to win a war.”

Demobilizing Americans

And so it goes reading Stone today.  But if much in the American way of war remains dismally familiar some five decades later, one thing of major significance has changed, something you can see regularly in I.F. Stone’s Weekly but not in our present world.  Thirteen years after our set of disastrous wars started, where is the massive antiwar movement, including an army in near revolt and a Congress with significant critics in significant positions?

Think of it this way: in 1968, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was J. William Fulbright, a man who came to oppose U.S. policy in Vietnam and wrote a book about this country titled The Arrogance of Power (a phrase no senator who hoped to stay in Washington in 2015 would apply to the U.S.).  The head of the Senate Armed Services Committee today: John McCain.  ‘Nuff said.

In the last six decades, the American national security state has succeeded strikingly at only one thing (other than turning itself into a growth industry): it freed itself of us and of Congress.  In the years following the Vietnam War, the American people were effectively demobilized, shorn of that sense of service to country, while war was privatized and the citizen soldier replaced by an “all-volunteer” force and a host of paid contractors working for warrior corporations.  Post-9/11, the citizenry was urged to pay as much attention as possible to “our troops,” or “warriors,” and next to none to the wars they were fighting.  Today, the official role of a national security state, bigger and more powerful than in the Vietnam era, is to make Americans “safe” from terror.  In a world of war-making that has disappeared into the shadows and a Washington in which just about all information is now classified and shrouded in secrecy, the only way to be “safe” and “secure” as a citizen is, by definition, to be ignorant, to know as little as possible about what “our” government is doing in our name.  This helps explain why, in the Obama years, the only crime in official Washington is leaking orwhistleblowing; that is, letting the public in on something that we, the people, aren’t supposed to know about the workings of “our” government.

In 1973, President Richard Nixon ended the draft, a move meant to bring arebellious citizen’s army under control.  Since then, in a host of ways, our leaders have managed to sideline the citizenry, replacing the urge to serve with a sense of cynicism about government (which has morphed into many things, including, on the right, the Tea Party movement).  As a result, those leaders have been freed from us and from just about all congressional oversight and so have been able to do what they damn well pleased.  In practice, this has meant doing the same dumb, brutal, militarized things over and over again.  From the repetitive stupidity of twenty-first-century American foreign — that is, war — policy, you might draw the conclusion (though they won’t) that the citizenry, even in revolt, has something crucial to teach the state.

Serving the Country in Opposition

Nonetheless, this demobilization of us should be seen for what it is: a remarkable achievement.  It means that you have to be of a certain age (call me “I.F. Pebble”) even to remember what that urge to serve felt like, especially once it went into opposition on a massive scale. I.F. Stone was an early model for just that.  In those years, I was, too, and there was nothing special about me.  Untold numbers of Americans like me, military and civilian, engaged in such acts and thought of them as service to country.  Though they obviously didn’t fit the normal definition of American “patriotism,” they came from the same place.

In April 1968, not so many months after the Tet Offensive, I went with two close friends to a rally on Boston Common organized by an anti-draft group called the Resistance.  There, the three of us turned in our draft cards.  I went in jacket and tie because I wanted to make the point that we weren’t hippy radicals.  We were serious Americans turning our backs on a war from hell being pursued by a country transforming itself before our eyes into our worst nightmare.

Even all these years later, I can still remember the remarkable sense of exhilaration, even freedom, involved and also the fear.  (In those years, being a relatively meek and law-abiding guy, I often found myself beyond my comfort zone, and so a little — or more than a little — scared.)  Similarly, the next year, a gutsy young woman who was a co-worker and I — I had, by then, dropped out of graduate school and was working at an “underground” movement print shop — drove two unnerved and unnerving Green Beret deserters to Canada.  Admittedly, when they began pretend-machine-gunning the countryside we were passing through, I was unsettled, and when they pulled out dope (no drugs had been the agreed-upon rule on a trip in which we were to cross the Canadian border), I was ready to be anywhere else but in that car.  Still, whatever my anxieties, I had no doubt about why I was doing what I was doing, or about the importance of helping American soldiers who no longer wanted to take part in a terrible war.

Finally, in 1971, an Air Force medic named Bob Boardman, angered by the stream of American war wounded coming home, snuck me into his medical unit at Travis Air Force Base in northern California.  There, though without any experience as a reporter, I “interviewed” a bunch of wigged-out, angry guys with stumps for arms or legs, who were “antiwar” in all sorts of complex, unexpected, and outraged ways.  It couldn’t have been grimmer or more searing or more moving, and I went home, wrote up a three-part series on what I had seen and heard, and sold it to Pacific News Service, a small antiwar outfit in San Francisco (where I would subsequently go to work).

None of this would have been most Americans’ idea of service, even then.  But it was mine.  I felt that my government had betrayed me, and that it was my duty as a citizen to do whatever I could to change its ways (as, in fact, I still do).  And so, in some upside-down, inside-out way, I maintained a connection to and a perverse faith in that government, or our ability to force change on it, as the Civil Rights Movement had done.

That, I suspect, is what’s gone missing in much of our American world and just bringing back the draft, often suggested as one answer to our war-making problems, would be no ultimate solution.  It would undoubtedly change the make-up of the U.S. military somewhat.  However, what’s missing in action isn’t the draft, but a faith in the idea of service to country, the essence of what once would have been defined as patriotism.  At an even more basic level, what may be gone is the very idea of the active citizen, not to speak of the democracy that went with such a conception of citizenship, as opposed to our present bizarro world of multi-billion-dollar 1% elections.

If, so many years into the disastrous war on terror, the Afghan War that never ends, and most recently Iraq War 3.0 and Syria War 1.0, there is no significant antiwar movement in this country, you can thank the only fit of brilliance the national security state has displayed.  It successfully drummed us out of service.  The sole task it left to Americans, 40 years after the Vietnam War ended, was the ludicrous one of repeatedly thanking the troops for theirservice, something that would have been inconceivable in the 1950s or 1960s because you would, in essence, have been thanking yourself.

Missing in Action

Here are I.F. Stone’s last words from the penultimate paragraph of the final issue of his newsletter:

“No one could have been happier than I have been with theWeekly.  To give a little comfort to the oppressed, to write the truth exactly as I saw it, to make no compromises other than those of quality imposed by my own inadequacies, to be free to follow no master other than my own compulsions, to live up to my idealized image of what a true newspaperman should be, and still be able to make a living for my family — what more could a man ask?”

Here is the last verse that medic wrote in 1971 for his angry song (the first of which led off this piece):

But it’s seven, eight, nine,
Well, he finally died,
Tried to keep him alive,
but he lost the will to survive.
The agony that his life would have been,
Well, you say to yourself as you load up the hearse,
At least, it’s over this way, it could have been worse.

And here are a few words the extremely solemn 23-year-old Tom Engelhardt wrote to the dean of his school on rejecting a National Defense Fellowship grant to study China in April 1968.  (The “General Hershey” I refer to was the director of the Selective Service System which had issued a memo, printed in 1967 by the SDS publication New Left Notes, on “channeling” American manpower where it could best help the state achieve its ends.):

“On the morning of April 3, at the Boston Common, I turned in my draft card.  I felt this to be a reply to three different types of ‘channeling’ which I saw as affecting my own life.  First of all, it was a reply to General Hershey’s statement that manpower channeling ‘is the American or indirect way of achieving what is done by direction in foreign countries where choice is not permitted.’  I disassociated myself from the draft system, which was flagrantly attempting to make me live a life without freedom…

“Finally, I entered into resistance against an American government which was, with the help of the men provided by the draft, attempting the most serious type of ‘channeling’ outside our own country.  This is especially obvious in Vietnam where it denies the people of South Vietnam the opportunity to consider viable alternatives to their present government.  Moreover, as that attempt at ‘channeling’ (or, as it is called, ‘Winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people’) met opposition, the American government, through its armed forces, committed acts of such unbelievable horror as to be unbearable to a thinking person.”

Stone’s sign-off, that medic’s song, and my letter all are documents from a time when Americans could be in opposition to, while also feeling in service to, their country.  In other words, they are documents from a lost world and so would, I suspect, have little meaning to the young of the present moment.  Can there be any question that today’s young are a volunteering crew, often gripped by the urge to help, to make this world of ours a better place?  Can you doubt as well that they are quite capable of rising to resist what’s increasingly grim in that terrible world, as the Occupy moment showed in 2011? Nor, I suspect, is the desire for a government that they could serve gone utterly, as indicated by the movement that formed around Barack Obama in his race for the presidency (and that he and his team essentially demobilized on entering the Oval Office).

What’s missing is any sense of connection to the government, any sense that it’s “ours” or that we the people matter.  In its place — and you can thank successive administrations for this — is the deepest sort of pessimism and cynicism about a national security state and war-making machine beyond our control.  And why protest what you can’t change?

[Note: Ron Unz of the Unz Review is archiving and posting a range of old publications, including all issues of I.F. Stone’s Weekly. This is indeed a remarkable service to the rest of us. To view the Weekly, click here. I.F. Stone’s family has also set up a website dedicated to the man and his work. To visit it, click here.]