Mass resistance of an unprecedented level will be required to reverse the current crisis, blunt the forces of racism and save Black folk from the ravages of capitalism. Martin Luther King over forty years ago, as the nation plunged deeper into war in Vietnam and poverty at home, spoke of `the fierce urgency of now’. There was, he insisted, such a thing as being too late. “Procrastination” he declared, “is still the thief of time.” Like then, we, as a people, are faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. In the broad sweep of history, finally, there are no acceptable excuses for being too late. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, war in Iraq and Afganistan, economic stagnation, recession, poverty and homelessness are a bitches brew of tragedy and suffering. Hopelessness, alienation and wretchedness define the psychological landscape. The 2008 election of Barack Obama, the first African American President, based on hope is now producing its opposite. The question is now what do we do and where are we going.
Yet to fully understand these events and what we must now do, the legacy of struggle we inherit must be grasped. In particular, the current historic moment demands we understand the meaning of the lives and works of W.E.B DuBois, Paul Robeson, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. This is decisive if we are to move forward and overcome the many obstacles that we confront.
THE PROBLEM OF THE COLOR LINE
W.E.B DuBois in 1903 presciently proclaimed, “The problem of the twentieth century will be the problem of the color line.” By which he meant that the problem of this century (and now the twenty first) is the problem of the emancipation of close to 5 billion people from racial and colonial oppression. DuBois extended this logic in his monumental historical study Black Reconstruction. There he showed that the failure of the US nation to solve the problem of the color line after slavery and the fact that the white elite opted for Jim Crow segregation threw the nation and Black folk back towards slavery. He theorized that had the white poor united with the black former slaves and had forty acres and a mule been extended to Blacks the nation’s history in the twentieth century would have been profoundly different. However, racism and capitalism, he showed, became inextricably united. Ultimately DuBois argued capitalism would not reform itself and would have to be fundamentally transformed. African Americans, however, could not, and should not be asked to, wait upon whites to join them in common actions against racism. They must, under even the best circumstances be prepared to adopt what he called a nation within a nation strategy: whereby Blacks would develop economic, social and political resistance through cooperatives and collective and joint political and economic enterprises. He said the foundation for this was already laid in the Black churches and colleges. What was lacking was the full commitment of the Black intelligentsia–the so-called talented tenth.
In 1927 he made his first trip to the Soviet Union and was impressed with how a backward nation could leap forward. He would be similarly impressed with his later visit to China. After his trip to the Soviet Union he insisted, “If what I’ve seen is Bolshevism, than I am a Bolshevik.” What impressed him was the ability of a nation to collectively plan industrialization and cooperative agriculture.
By the time of the Cold War and McCarthyism in the 1950’s DuBois’s peace, anti-colonial and race militancy had brought him up against the most reactionary forces in the US. He was arrested in 1952 for opposition to the Korean War. In protest of this blatantly anti-democratic action by the US government he said, “Blessed are the peace makers for they shall be called Communists. Is that praise for the Communist, or condemnation for the peacemakers?” After almost 90 years of activism and scholarship he joined the Communist Party of the USA. Writing to the party he said: “capitalism cannot reform itself” and must, therefore, be replaced by socialism.
ROBESON: TRIBUNE OF THE MASSES
Paul Robeson was a mighty tribune of the Black masses. This year is the centenary of his birth. Robeson put his enormous intellect and artistic talent at the service of the struggle for Black liberation. He was by training a lawyer. The son of a former slave, he would become one of this century’s great actors and concert artists. He was a four-lettered athlete at Rutgers University and graduated at the top of his class. Paul Robeson emerged as a unique twentieth century Renaissance human being– with capabilities in the arts, science, literature, athletics and political struggles.
Robeson (viewed by DuBois as a son, having lost his son in Atlanta in 1900) applied DuBois’s fundamental insights and theoretical conclusions to mass movements. He called for a united front of the international forces fighting for democracy and peace. Believing that fascism constituted the greatest danger to humanity, he also recognized that at the heart of fascism is racism. Moreover, he saw the defense of the Soviet Union against Nazism during World War II, and later US imperialism during the Cold War, as vital to the defense of the national liberation struggles of the peoples of Africa and Asia. He also advanced the idea that the defense of the rights of working people required a fight to uphold the rights of each of its racial and national components. In this respect he advanced DuBois’s concept of the centrality of African Americans to all struggles for democracy in the Unites States.
The Black‑Jewish alliance had special meaning for Robeson. Robeson’s thinking and practice with respect to Blacks and Jews is of special importance in the 1990’s. As he put it, there is a “significant relationship of the Jewish people’s interests with those of the Negro people.” While upholding this vital principle, he would hasten to add, “the cause of democracy, the rights of all other minorities are inseparably linked with the liberation struggles of the Negro people.” While the descendants of American slavery and of the early Jewish settlers would inevitably develop along different paths, there were, he would assert, ” in all the diverse strands which make up the web of American history… direct threads which link the interests of the Negro and Jewish people from earliest times.” For Robeson, these common interests were deepened as a consequence of the Nazi Holocaust. He saw anti‑Semitism as a form of national oppression, akin to, though not as intense as institutional racism. Moreover, while Robeson supported the rights of the Jewish people to a homeland, he did not abandon his firm stance that the Jewish people’s rights did not supercede those of the Palestinian people, who also had a right to a homeland and statehood. Robeson, as the political situation in the Middle East developed, was forced to differentiated between right wing Jewish nationalism– called Zionism– and the Jewish people. He believed that Zionism, which increasingly took on a racist and colonial essence, undermined the Black -Jewish alliance.
His criticisms of Zionism in no way deterred him from the path of solidarity with progressive Jewish forces. Employing his mighty voice at Carnegie Hall in 1947 at a commemoration for the Jewish victims of Nazism he sang the Kol Nidra (the Jewish Song for the Dead) with such passion that many in attendance said that even the walls wept.
THE HEROIC MALCOLM X
As youth in prison in the mid 1940″s Malcolm X had two living heroes, Elijah Muhammad and Paul Robeson. Emerging from prison at the height of the Cold War and McCarthyism and when progressive forces were under attack, it was the Nation of Islam that Malcolm joined. However, by 1960 his views began to resemble Paul Robeson’s. While he did not meet Robeson until 1964, only months before he was assassinated, he had come to the conclusion that Robeson’s heroic stance had answers that he and millions like him sought. Like Paul Robeson and William L. Patterson, Malcolm X worked to bring the case of the African American people before the UN General Assembly and the World Court. But more, he was seeking ways to unite his efforts with the Civil Rights Movement and other progressives, including the Communist Party. Speaking to the Oxford Union Society in December 1964, he said, “I for one will join in with anyone, I don’t care what color you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.” Ultimately Malcolm threw his lot with the oppressed and e4xploited on a world scale. He applauded the Chinese Revolution and praised the Vietnamese resistance to US aggression. He was a defender of African and Asian unity; demanding that in politics, especially on a world scale, it would be wrong and counterproductive to make religion a precondition for unity.
KING AND THE REVOLUTIONARY CHOICE
Martin Luther King Jr. contended that the Civil Rights alliance could be the basis for forging a united people’s movement against war, racism and poverty. At the heart of this alliance was the Black‑labor alliance. As King put it, “If the Negro wins, labor wins.” Immediately after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 he focused the movement upon urban poverty and the war in Vietnam. He declared that the US government was “the major purveyor of violence on the planet”. And that the fate of the nation rested on whether the people’s movements could defeat the forces of war, exploitation and racism. This remains true today. He defined the military industrial complex as the chief purveyor of racism and the principal enemy of the poor. And condemned the brutal irony of a government which could send Black, Brown, white,Yellow and Red youth to fight and die together in foreign adventures, but could not seat them together in the same school.
By 1967 King was calling for the “restructuring of the whole of American society.” He said, “You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, `Who owns the oil?”…`Who owns the iron ore?” Martin Luther King at the end of his life concluded, “These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression. And out of the womb of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.” He went on, “Our only hope today is in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit.” He called upon the American people to get on the right side of the world revolution. Speaking at Carnegie Hall only months before his assassination, he commemorated the life of W.E.B DuBois. He noted that DuBois had been a radical all of his life. DuBois, King insisted, chose the revolutionary path. This choice was not only legitimate, but, in the end, noble and praiseworthy. Like DuBois, Robeson and Malcolm, King made the choice for revolution as the solution to what in 1903 DuBois defined as the problem of the twentieth century. A problem that had become inextricably united with capitalism itself.
In this African American history month it is proper to pay tribute to the legacy and contributions of DuBois, Robeson, Malcolm and King. We also recognize that it was logical that the most significant leaders of the African American people in this century chose a revolutionary path. They provide a profound model for our people as we strive to achieve a new stage of struggle and unity.