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Vol. 74/No. 6      February 15, 2010

The untold history of
Blacks’ fight for land
(feature article)
The following is the fourth installment in a series of excerpts the Militant is running from Pathfinder Press’s latest book, Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. We encourage our readers to buy, read, and discuss the book. This excerpt is from the chapter titled “Jim Crow, the Confederate Battle Flag, and the Fight for Land,” which is from a talk Barnes gave to a socialist conference in 2001.

Communist workers must take seriously the history of current struggles by farmers who are Black. We need to recognize their place in an ongoing continuity reaching back to the U.S. Civil War and Radical Reconstruction—the Second American Revolution—and the decades of reaction that followed in the countryside, towns, and cities across the South.

Many of these farmers are fighting to continue cultivating land that their kin have farmed for generations. For a Black family in the U.S. South to have held onto land for that long means that previous generations fought and survived the lynch-mob terror of organized white-supremacist night riders that continued, and often accelerated, in the wake of the defeat of post-Civil War Radical Reconstruction. This came closer to fascist violence on a broad scale, and over an extended period, than anything else ever seen in this country.

In the decade following the defeat of the slavocracy in 1865, the rising northern industrial bourgeoisie—now reknitting links with powerful landholding, commercial, and emerging manufacturing interests across the South—settled once and for all that it had no intention of meeting the aspirations of freed slaves for the radical land reform captured by the popular demand for “forty acres and a mule.” Doing so, first of all, would have deprived these exploiters of a cheap supply of jobless laborers. What’s more, the bourgeoisie correctly feared that an alliance of free farmers, Black and white, together with the growing manufacturing and machinofacturing working class in the cities, could pose a strong challenge to intensifying exploitation in town and country, North and South.  
Defeat of Radical Reconstruction
In 1877 the U.S. rulers withdrew federal troops from the states of the old Confederacy. These troops had been the armed force of last resort standing between the freed Black toilers, on the one hand, and gangs of well-armed reactionary vigilantes, on the other. Throughout the closing decades of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, successive generations of organizations such as the Knights of the White Camelia, the White League, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens’ Councils, and many others—named, unnamed, or renamed—carried out an unrelenting reign of terror against the Black population in the South.

This systematic violence helped the capitalists drive toilers who were Black into virtual peonage as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, and made it possible for Jim Crow segregation to be imposed and codified into state law in one southern state after another. These gangs were also organized to break the spirit of any class-conscious worker or farmer anywhere in the South who wasn’t Black—“nigger lovers”—and to prevent them from linking arms with toilers who were Black in common struggles for land, for public education, for cheap credit and railway rates, for labor union rights, or anything else in the interests of the oppressed and exploited. Anti-Catholic, anti-Chinese, and anti-Semitic prejudice and discrimination reached new heights… .

As we work alongside farmers who are fighting to stay on the land, we should know this history—our history. The land isn’t just a way to make a living. Nor is it just a symbol. The current resistance is often a link in battles that go back more than a century and a quarter. Together with fights by workers and the labor movement, these hard-fought battles by generations of farmers helped hold off some of the most reactionary consequences of the defeat of Radical Reconstruction that would have set back, much further than they did, the struggles of working people in the United States. And they helped make possible a new wave of struggle decades later, North and South, that by the end of the 1960s had brought the Jim Crow system crashing down.

The battles for Black freedom in rural counties, small towns, and cities across the South, and extending to the North, helped in turn to transform the possibilities for workers and farmers alike throughout this country, and throughout other parts of the world under assault by Washington. The conquests of this mass proletarian-based movement laid a foundation, among other things, for a common struggle with common demands by working farmers in the United States today, as part of a fighting worker-farmer alliance resisting the profit-driven course of the capitalist class. It attracted, politicized, and gave courage to several generations of youth who would provide the energy for struggles against the Vietnam War, against discrimination in all government employment and the armed forces, for the defense and extension of civil liberties and civil rights, for women’s emancipation, and for an accompanying broad political radicalization.  
Fight to bury Confederate battle flag
The results of history remain alive for us, unresolved contradictions that never completely go away so long as the class questions posed by giant social and political conflicts remain unsettled and have yet to become a weapon in the hands of militants today. The full consequences of the defeat of Radical Reconstruction will only be uprooted following the victory of a proletarian revolution in this country. That’s why struggles over state governments displaying the Confederate battle flag, or over statues or holidays in tribute to political or military leaders of the slaveholders’ rebellion, continue to have weight in the class struggle many decades—indeed almost a century and a half—after it was routed in a bloody civil war… .

When displayed today, that flag is an emblem of, and encouragement to, reactionary forces who are determined to preserve as much as they can of the consequences of a bloody counterrevolution that shaped the trajectory of the U.S. class struggle in the twentieth century. It is a rallying point for forces who are acting on that determination. It is a symbol of the fight by deadly enemies of labor to turn back the gains of the civil rights movement and to divide and weaken the working class in this country. It is the flag of cowards on the highways, assaulting the dignity of Blacks day in and day out with stickers and medallions on their rearview mirrors, windows, and bumpers. It is the banner under which, only a few years ago, brutal and bloody assaults against Blacks were launched. And, most important, it remains a banner under which such assaults—against African Americans, immigrants, Jews, abortion clinics, gays, and other targets of reaction—often are and will be launched until the capitalist roots of that Dixie rag are ripped out of the ground by the toilers of this country and replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat.
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