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Vol. 74/No. 39      October 18, 2010

Black struggle transformed
working class
Below we continue our installments from the recently published book Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. The excerpt is from the chapter “Malcolm X: Revolutionary Leader of the Working Class” based on a speech given by Barnes in Atlanta March 28, 1987. Copyright © 2009 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

Before World War II three-quarters of African Americans lived in the states of the old Confederacy, the majority of them in rural areas. That changed rapidly during the first half of the 1940s as a result of labor shortages in the war industries. Blacks moved off farms and out of small towns and migrated to cities in the North and West, as well as in the South. Refusing to bow to patriotic pressures to subordinate their struggle for equality to the capitalists’ war effort, they organized protests to fight their way into jobs in war production and other industries from which they had long been barred—struggles socialist workers championed, took part in, and covered widely in the Militant. By the mid-1960s more than half the Black population lived in the North, three-quarters in cities.

In a talk Malcolm gave in February 1965, just a few days before he was killed, he described the impact of this rapid urbanization and proletarianization on the city of Lansing, Michigan, where he spent much of his youth:

Up until the time of the war, you couldn’t get inside of a plant. I lived in Lansing, where Oldsmobile’s factory was and Reo’s [a now-defunct auto company]. There were about three [Blacks] in the whole plant and each one of them had a broom. They had education. They had gone to school. I think one had gone to college. But he was a “broomologist.”

Prior to World War II there were a lot of “broomologists” among the relatively small number of factory workers who were Black. Only in the steel mills, packinghouses, and coal mines were there substantial numbers of Blacks in the industrial work force at that time.

Malcolm continued:

When times got tough and there was a manpower shortage, then they let us in the factory. Not through any effort of our own. [Malcolm was wrong about that.] Not through any sudden moral awakening on their part. [He was dead right about that.] They needed us. They needed manpower. Any kind of manpower. And when they got desperate and in need, they opened up the factory door and let us in…. Then we began to learn how to run machines.

In 1933 the exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky made the accurate observation that on the whole in the United States at that time, no “common actions took place involving white and black workers.” There was no “class fraternization” between them, he said. What had been true since the defeat of Radical Reconstruction, however, had slowly begun to change after World War I, first with the extension of struggles by sharecroppers and tenant farmers across the South, and then with the rise of the mass social movement centered on the struggle to build industrial unions. Workers who were Black and workers who were white fought shoulder to shoulder in battles that established the unions making up the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The biggest changes came in the wake of World War II, however, especially under the powerful social and political impact of the Black rights struggles from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s. Common actions and class fraternization among workers regardless of skin color became more and more frequent in the course of strikes, organizing drives, and other battles.

The years following Malcolm’s assassination were also marked by revolutionary victories in the world. In 1975 Vietnamese liberation fighters defeated U.S. imperialism after a long and bloody war, reunifying their country. The Portuguese colonial empire, the last in Africa, was brought down in the mid-1970s, and Cuba’s twelve-year record of internationalist solidarity with the Angolan people in face of ongoing aggression by South African forces—backed by Washington—is today weakening the foundations of the apartheid regime as well. Workers and farmers governments were brought to power by popular revolutions in Grenada and Nicaragua in 1979, and we’ve learned rich political lessons by participating as partisans in those revolutions. The socialist revolution in Cuba is today deepening its proletarian internationalist course through what they call the Rectification Process.

For all these reasons and more, all of us are better equipped today to understand and act on the political conclusions Malcolm X was drawing at the end of his life. And that includes the many here tonight who never had the opportunity to see Malcolm, to meet with him, or to hear him speak.  
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