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International Socialist Review, Winter 1963


The Future of the Negro Struggle

A Symposium

Answers to Questions


From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.2, Spring 1963, pp.59-61.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


(One of the questions asked of Rev. Cleage by the first speaker from the floor concerned the attitude of the Negro movement toward the struggle for peace.)

REV. CLEAGE: Personally I am opposed to war, any kind of war. I am especially opposed to atomic war which threatens the very existence of civilization and mankind. I think that most Negro people are opposed to war. I think that Negro people are liberal in the sense that their oppression has led them to have an awareness of social problems and an identification with suffering people everywhere. The immediate problem that the Negro faces takes precedence over every other problem. The Negro is opposed to war, but I don’t think that the Negro is going to subordinate his struggle for first class citizenship, for becoming what he hopes to become, to the war against war. I was in San Francisco during the second world war when all the radicals in California were yelling for the Negro to keep quiet and wait until the war was over, that it was no time to be talking about Negro rights during a war. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. I think the time to talk about Negro rights is now, and if they drop the bomb while we’re talking, my last hope will be that we’re integrated in the blast.

Our struggle is not a struggle which negates the struggle against war. I think, in a sense, you recognize the fact that your struggle against war puts you on the side of our struggle against oppression. And, in a sense, our struggle against oppression puts us on the side of those who struggle against war. But our struggle against oppression is paramount. If there is any world left, we want to be free in it.

(A speaker who identified himself as a Black Nationalist, opposing integration and favoring separation, asked what the small socialist movement had to offer black people, and why Debs Hall has pictures on the wall only of white men – Marx, Trotsky, Debs.)

GEORGE BREITMAN: The question was about the relation between the independent Negro movement and the revolutionary socialist movement. First, however, I’d like to comment on Rev. Cleage’s remark that during the war all the radical groups he heard in San Francisco advised the Negroes to subordinate their struggle to the war effort. I want to say that Rev. Cleage evidently didn’t hear what the Socialist Workers Party had to say during World War II. Because the Socialist Workers Party was that section of the radical movement which insisted that the Negro struggle should not be subordinated, and which fought against the Jim Crow system and made the fight against it a paramount issue from the beginning to the end of the war.

The question was about the relations between the two movements and what the socialist movement has to offer to the Negro people. Now, certainly in terms of numbers, which is the way the question was posed, the revolutionary socialist movement is much smaller today than the Negro movement. But what is involved is more than numbers, what’s involved is a question of ideas, of program, of a program that is concerned with the relation of forces between Negroes and other sections of the population. Socialists are opposed to the Jim Crow system for the same reasons that Negro people are opposed to it and for other reasons, not only because it oppresses Negroes but also because it hurts white workers. We don’t consider the development of an independent, militant, mass Negro organization as being in contradiction with that movement also working with whatever allies are available ...

(Interruption by questioner, who asked why black people should ally themselves with white workers when the latter are prejudiced.)

There is no intention whatever on our part to deny that a majority of the white people in this country are prejudiced. If the situation as it is now were to continue forever, then our program would have no application. But we believe that things change, and that the thinking of the white workers will change too. Not today, not tomorrow completely, but we think they will respond to certain needs of their own, to certain pressures, international and national pressures, including those that result from the action of an independent Negro movement. That is one of the things we are trying to do – to help educate white workers to understand that their real interests are similar to those of the Negro people.

Now there are two main reasons why white workers are prejudiced. One is that they do have certain advantages from the Jim Crow system; it gives them certain privileges. But these privileges and advantages are nowhere near as great as they think they are, and in addition the Jim Crow system affects them adversely too. It distracts them from the struggle for their real objectives, aims and interests; the divisions between white and Negro workers hurt them both as members of the working class. The other reason why white workers are prejudiced is that they too have been brainwashed for a long time. They too have been subjected to the racist propaganda of the ruling class. We don’t think that this propaganda is always going to be effective. We think that the workers will be able to shake off its effects in the course of fighting for their own needs. The Negro people have been brainwashed for centuries, no group has been brainwashed for a longer time. Yet we see now that they have been able to throw off the effects of this brainwashing, declare their independence and start off on a new road. If Negroes can do it, if Negroes can overcome the pernicious effects of brainwashing, then we say it’s also possible for white workers to do it.

Therefore, when we talk about the future, we are not talking about the working class as it is today, with the kind of leaders it has today; we expect that the working class will change, as a result of its own experience and the pressure of its own needs. And the kind of alliance we predict for the future, and advocate and fight for, is not an alliance between prejudiced white workers and Negroes, but of Negroes with those white workers who have shaken off the ideas of the ruling class, including the racist prejudices that the ruling class persistently fosters and inculcates, and who recognize the necessity of working together with the Negro people for their common aims.

The question was also asked about the hall here, why do we put up pictures of white people? We put up pictures of these working class leaders because of the program they represent, not because of their race, and we will put up the pictures of other leaders who represent the program which we are trying to convince the American people will lead them to liberation, equality and peace.

(A question about the usefulness of electing non-radical Negroes to office was asked by a member of the audience who also pointed out that he had served in the armed forces under a Negro officer who was no better than white officers.)

REV. CLEAGE: I gather the question had to do with my supporting middle-class Negroes for office. And whether or not they are actually going to stand for any basic change, is that it? (Interruption by questioner to explain.) At this point I’m not really concerned about whether a Negro who runs for Congress is going to be more socialistic than Dingell in the 15th Congressional District. All I want is Negro representation in the 15th Congressional District that’s going to fight for the things that the Negroes who live in the 15th Congressional District want. I want a Negro Congressman who is going to Congress and is going to fight for those things that the people in his district really want, and who’s going to represent them. So I wouldn’t expect that we were going to elect someone who was a revolutionary out of the 15th District to go to Congress. Because Negroes are not revolutionary in the traditional sense. We are merely concerned with oppression, and with doing away with oppression, and getting first-class citizenship. We want to send a man to Washington from the 15th Congressional District who’s going to make that possible – as far as it is within his power. We want to increase the total number of Negroes in Congress, so that when issues come up we have representation. I realize from your point of view that this certainly is not an ideal situation ... (Interrupted by questioner again.)

Oh, I get your point, you mean there are some sick Negroes. Yes, that’s true. I know any number of Negroes who are sick, who have middle class values of all kinds, who just do not identify with the Negro struggle, who are sick from top to bottom. If you had to serve under one in the Army, I sympathize with you. I sympathize, not because he was a Negro, because if you hadn’t had a sick Negro, you’d have had a sick white man. So you were going to have somebody sick over you anyway. I am still glad that you had a Negro.

(A three-way discussion took place on the floor between a Negro liberal, a Black Nationalist and a white trade unionist on the relations between whites and Negroes.)

REGINALD WILSON: It’s important to remember what the topic of the discussion was: it was the future of the Negro struggle. And in talking about the future of the Negro struggle, some of us projected the fact that nationalism among Negroes will rise, and rejection of whites will increase. Now, you don’t have to like this and you don’t have to approve of it, it will be a necessary part of the Negro seeing himself as a united and solid people. This is one of those aspects that are coming out, it’s coming out in the things that have been said from the floor, it’s coming out in the things that all nationalist and radical Negroes are projecting. This is going to be part of it – as a projection of the future of the Negro struggle. This is what the discussion is about. And many times in talking about people like Walter Bergman, people who are fine, dedicated people, we begin to lose sight of the total picture.

James Baldwin had an interview with Elijah Muhammad a few weeks ago and he wrote it up in a long article in the New Yorker magazine and one of the things he said in this article, among many other things, was that, well, I love a very few white people who are my friends and I think they love me and I may have to lay down my life for them – and isn’t love the most important thing? This is a very moving kind of a statement, this is a personal choice that he will have to make for himself, this is what he has to decide about his relationships to these people.

But in terms of what the Negro as a mass is doing, he has had 400 years of rejection and oppression. It is understandable that he will reject whites, even well-meaning and sympathetic whites. We must recognize this as part of the future of the Negro struggle. This is the thing you have to do, put it in its proper context. You don’t have to accept it as being a nice or a good thing, or what nice people are going to do. This is what is happening and it is happening all over. You find the Muslims rejecting the totality of white society, and they are correct in their rejection. You know, Negroes were blamed for the defeat of the Populist movement, they were blamed for the fact that workers are not organized in the South now, that they do not have labor unions in many places in the South. And they have been blamed for many other things in American society that have cause a division of solidarity between white and black. And so they are tired of it. They don’t want any of this any more. And they say: “We will make our own fight, our own movement, and if the whites want to help on the periphery, that is their own business.”

* * *

REV. CLEAGE: I share your hope for a world in which there is neither black nor white. In religion we have two concepts. One is eschatology, which has to do with the end, or latter days. You read in the Old Testament that the time will come when the lion and the lamb will lie down together and everything will be beautiful and perfect. This idea was always prevalent in both Judaism and Christianity, but it never did away with the prophetic utterance which had to do with the immediate moment. When Isaiah and Amos spoke, they spoke not of this latter day, when the lion and the lamb would lie together in peace and friendship, but of the immediate problems of the specific day.

I think we face here this kind of dilemma. Essentially I would feel sympathetic to both positions which have been enunciated here tonight. Certainly I accept the position of the gentleman who believes in everything black and woolly, and wants pictures of black men on the walls. We as Negroes need all the symbols. We should send to New York and get some of the pictures to put up here. We need them! But at the same time I understand the feeling that there are situations in which there are white people who are profoundly sympathetic, who make profound sacrifices for Negroes, and who seem to be completely out of the mainstream of the white man’s course of action. Certainly there must eventually come a day when we can all put our arms around each other in one happy world, in which there is neither black nor white, yellow nor red. That’s the kind of world we want.

But we can’t, as Negroes, wait until this great gettin’-up mornin’ when there is no black and no white, when there is no yellow and no red. We can’t wait for that morning to fight for our freedom. We need the immediate goal of black men fighting together for black men’s freedom, for all black men’s freedom. We have to have that now. It is a temporary state of affairs. We hope that it will not be the ultimate end, a world where there is black over here and white over here. But at this point it is inescapable because the Negro has been oppressed, subjected to all kinds of brainwashing and misuse. So if the Negro is to live with pride, he must stand up and fight and put aside the sentimental picture of a world which will some day come, and fight the problems which exist today.

Eschatology is good. We all want that kind of world. But it doesn’t exist today and the dream only confuses us. It only confuses the Negro to try to draw a line and every time he sees a white man to say, “Is this a good one or is this a bad one?” And then think of the vast array of choices in between: “How good is he and how bad is he? Is he all bad or is he just a little bit bad? At what point would he not go all the way with the Negro?” The old parable that Negroes have always used is that every white man gets off the train at some point. It’s just a question of what station. A whole lot of them get off when you ask if they would want their sister to marry a Negro. Some don’t get off even there. But the Negro with a skeptical air says, “Well, even if he didn’t get off that station, which is way down the line, there is a point at which he will get off.” So we realize that we are fighting a struggle and that in this struggle there are certain immediate things that have to be accomplished – a new self-image, a strategy of struggle, a unity of purpose. In this we’ll hurt some friends, and for this we apologize.

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