Free the Land: An Interview with Chokwe Lumumba
Issue 14: A World to Win
by Bhaskar Sunkara
CHOKWE LUMUMBA 1947-2014
(PHOTO BY Trip Burns / Jackson Free Press)
In his last interview, Chokwe Lumumba discusses popular power and the past and future of revolutionary struggle in the American South.
Chokwe Lumumba’s dilemma was simple: how to be a revolutionary in a Mississippi the popular imagination would paint as anything but.
It was a mission that seemed bound to alienate and polarize long before he became mayor of Jackson, home to a State Capitol building that flies a defiant Confederate battle flag and a City Hall built by slave labor.
But when I went to Jackson to profile the newly elected Lumumba last year and in my conversations with Mississippians throughout this year, I was shocked at how hard it was to find someone who didn’t like him. Mainstream politicians like Rickey Cole, chairman of the state Democratic Party, and his staff were keen to show solidarity with Jackson’s new administration. They talked about Lumumba’s honor and integrity, whatever their political differences. After the mayor’s death in February at the age of sixty-six, Cole called him “a man by the people, of the people, and for the people.”
Even city business leaders like Ben Allen, president of Downtown Jackson Partners, expressed surprise during Lumumba’s administration about how clear, open, and efficient his first few months in office had been. Hampered by a lack of city revenue and hostility at the state level, Lumumba had just passed a one-cent local sales tax to fund Jackson’s infrastructure. The taps ran brown and many roads were in disrepair when I visited the city, and the Environmental Protection Agency had threatened action if waste systems weren’t upgraded. There was nothing especially radical about the tax, except for the fact that Lumumba took his case to the people, explaining the situation and winning consent for the measure in a referendum.
It gave a new resonance to the “sewer socialist” tradition that administered public office for generations in Milwaukee and elsewhere in the twentieth century. But there were signs that if the mayor and his Malcolm X Grassroots Movement stayed in power, the deepening of their revolution would attract something of a counterrevolution in response.
Lumumba was born in Detroit as Edwin Finley Taliaferro. He saw racism growing up, from all-white restaurants in Dearborn that wouldn’t serve his family to housing and job discrimination in the inner city. It instilled a level of social consciousness in the young man, consciousness that would only grow as he absorbed the era’s images: Emmett Till’s battered teenaged corpse, street battles and sit-ins, and, most formatively, the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Like so many other black youth, he was radicalized. Adopting his “free name” from a Central African ethnic group and slain Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba, Chokwe put ambitions of becoming a lawyer on hold to join the fight. He was attracted to the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) movement, which had roots in Detroit but relocated to Jackson. They wanted a new nation in the African-American majority counties of the Southeast.
In 1971, Lumumba joined them in Jackson — where, as in other cities in Mississippi, blacks had little political representation and nostalgia for Jim Crow was still strong. In August of that same year, local police and FBI agents raided the RNA compound. In the ensuing gun battle, during which Lumumba was not present, a police officer was killed and another, along with a federal agent, was wounded. Eleven New Afrika members were arrested. In the aftermath, Lumumba moved back to Detroit, finishing law school at Wayne State University in 1975 before finding his way back to Jackson a decade later.
But Lumumba’s was not the tale of a radical coming to terms with society as it exists, like so many from the New Left. His legal career was radical and often controversial. He took on a host of high-profile cases, including those of Fulani Sunni Ali, rapper Tupac Shakur, and former Black Panther Party members Geronimo Pratt and Assata Shakur.
He never renounced the goal of black self-determination or apologized for his activism during his Republic of New Afrika years. Lumumba told me in the interview below that only his tactics had changed in light of the new political avenues now open to black militants in the South.
“At that time, in the seventies, we were locked out of government completely,” he said. “We were actually victims of government violence, so we protected ourselves against that repression.”
Today, the situation is different. From Tunica, in northwest Mississippi, to Wilkerson County, in the southwest, there are eighteen predominantly black counties in the state that have in the last few decades finally been able break the domination of white officeholders. Lumumba saw this as only the start of the deep transformation that the region needed.
“One of the routes to that self-determination,” he told me, “is to use the governmental slots in order to accumulate the political power that we can, and then to demand more, and to build more.” But he was quick to portray his movement as an inclusive socialist one. “This is not a ‘hate whitey’ movement. This is not some kind of a reactionary nationalist movement.”
Lumumba and the activists who rallied around his campaigns hoped to establish two planks of political power: one based on people’s assemblies and another on a solidarity economy, built on a network of worker-owned cooperatives. The assemblies were, for the moment, purely advisory. They started in Ward 2, while he was a councilman, but spread after his election as mayor.
Mississippi has had truly universal suffrage for only a little more than a generation. Yet Lumumba wanted to foster a democratic culture that was not just representative, but participatory. Inviting people to voice their grievances in town halls and have a say in the distribution of public resources was part of that commitment. But he had loftier ambitions: over time, he wanted the new organs of people’s power, absolute and direct democracy, to replace existing structures.
He didn’t even think that his government could be equated with “people’s power.” “That’s still a struggle to be achieved; that’s a goal to be reached. That’s not where we are now,” Lumumba cautioned.
The solidarity economy schemes were just as ambitious. While keenly aware of and open about the limits of political and economic experimentation on the local level — and seeing his new administration’s efforts as transitional — Lumumba wanted to use city contracts and economic leverage to foster worker ownership. Invoking the Ujamaa concept of former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, he hoped to transform a full 10 percent of Jackson’s economy into cooperatives by the end of his first term alone. The administration had been planning for months to debate and explore their options with activists and outside experts at a “Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference” in May.
It was less about spearheading a revolution from above than creating a climate of radical thought and experimentation that could take on dynamics of its own. In the meantime, even Jackson’s moderates were won over by clean and efficient government and Lumumba’s easy charm and humor.
That support would have been needed. Activists within the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement worried that if they went too far too fast, the state legislature could limit self-governance in Jackson, maybe even place the city under trusteeship. What’s more, both sides knew that the honeymoon period with downtown developers couldn’t last either. Real economic and political transformation requires taking power away from those not keen on relinquishing it.
This interview was conducted with Lumumba in February 2014, several days before he died from heart failure. For the Left, a few lessons in particular should be drawn from it. Lumumba governed to inspire movements from below, not to administer austerity. There need not be a contradiction between holding office, even executive office, and building a radical opposition.
Lumumba navigated these waters successfully despite the fact that he ran as a Democrat. Utilizing open primaries — a peculiarity of the American system — may not be the best route for socialists in northern cities where liberal machines still dominate and neutralize insurgencies from within, but it can make tactical sense elsewhere.
Nowhere is that truer than in states such as Mississippi. One of the most progressive voting blocs in the country is in the so-called Black Belt: the African-American majority counties that stretch across the Southeast. Without sufficient progressive numbers statewide to swing states in the electoral college or to elect anyone but local officials, these constituencies are ignored by presidential-cycle-minded national liberals. They shouldn’t be by socialists and all those committed to building militant currents among the most oppressed.
Success doesn’t come easy. But Lumumba and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement showed how years of disciplined work “serving the people,” including politicized relief work after Hurricane Katrina, could pay off in the electoral arena and how those victories could expand rather than restrict popular power.
We’ll need many more efforts like it in the years to come to end class and racial exploitation. And that’s the only way fit to commemorate a comrade as astounding as Chokwe Lumumba.
Sunkara: You came to Jackson in the early 1970s — what was the political climate in the city like at the time?
Lumumba: When I came to Jackson in March 1971, it was just about six to eight months after two Jackson State University students — James Earl Green and Phillip Lafayette Gibbs — had been killed on the campus.
The Civil Rights Movement rocked the foundation of the white-supremacist government and culture in the South. And across Mississippi, a lot of good work was spearheaded by Fannie Lou Hamer, Vernon Dahmer, Medgar Evers and others. In 1964, they helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. That party, in the early seventies, had a profound effect on the state Democratic Party. It was forced, for instance, to mandate that half of its delegates would have to be black and half be women.
So the Civil Rights Movement had significant gains, but repression was still extreme. Discrimination on jobs was commonplace. Even though the Civil Rights Movement had pretty much nationally won acceptance of the idea that Mississippi apartheid, or Jim Crow, as it was called, had to go, in the state there was still resistance to it. It was clear that even where access had come to universities and to restaurants, that was not associated with access to power — economic or political — for blacks.
There were very few blacks that were political officials — none in Mississippi’s major cities, and only some in small towns. Economically, it was still pretty much a white supremacist system. Rich whites owned production and blacks and others were relegated to the fringes.
At the same time, we still faced intimidation from right-wing forces. Klansmen populated police departments, and so on.
Around the country, a lot of black people’s movements had moved from the phase of just merely turning the other cheek in the face of attacks and egregious repression to actually declaring the right to self-defense, under the inspiration of Malcolm X. And that certainly was the position that we took, which inevitably led to clashes between those who were used to preying on blacks — and particularly movement blacks, like civil rights organizers — without any kind of response, and our determination to say that we weren’t going to be victimized.
We came in peace, but we came prepared.
Given this context, during the 1970s, you were a supporter of the Republic of New Afrika movement. How do you reflect on this period in your activism? Have your political views shifted at all in regards to black self-determination and the methods in which it can be achieved?
My view on self-determination is the same. First of all, it’s a fundamental right for all people — not just black people. I’d say that what has changed are the tactics, and somewhat the strategy, for reaching that goal.
In the seventies, we were locked out of government completely. We were actually victims of government violence, so we protected ourselves against that repression. But since that time, particularly in Jackson, where I am now the mayor, the population changed. The city is now 85 percent black. Many of those people have worked together with us as we fought for rights for our youth, political prisoners, the victims of racism, the prosecution of the murder of Medgar Evers, and so on.
We’ve been able to politicize the growing black population in Jackson, and in the state. We now have not just an 85 percent black population, but a black population prepared to elect progressive leadership.
The tactical change here is that we now can elect black people into government, particularly into local governments and county-wide governments. And we have a whole region called the Kush region, as we’ve named it, on the western part of Mississippi — everywhere from Tunica, which is the northwest, all the way down to Wilkinson County, which is southwest, and everywhere in between those two points. A contiguous land mass of 18 different counties; 17 of them are predominantly black. Only one of them, Warren County, is about 47 percent black.
In those areas, the population has been now for some time electing black sheriffs, black mayors, black city council people, et cetera. So what we have determined is that one of the routes to that self-determination is to use the governmental slots in order to accumulate the political power that we can, and then to demand more, and to build more, and even to build more statewide as the leverage for our position so we can launch an effort for more statewide control and participation by the black population.
I think it is important to say here, because I know some people will mischaracterize this, that this is not a “hate whitey” movement; this is not some kind of a reactionary nationalist movement. This is a movement that is geared toward winning the right of self-determination. It is our view that where you have a majority-black population, they have the right to have the majority of political power, to exercise the majority of the economic power and social power, to build that kind of influence. And at the same time they have a responsibility to make sure that the resources of society are equally available to all residents, whether they be white, Hispanic, Indian, and so on and so forth — particularly Indian, I would say. But all folks.
Last year, in an interview with the Jackson Free Press, Jackson’s police chief, Lindsey Horton, inadvertently laid out a pretty vulgar Marxist view of policing. He said that policing goes back to the biblical days — you can’t have a civilized society with haves and have-nots without the have-nots trying to take from the haves. Policing defends property.
How does administering these repressive parts of the state in Jackson clash with the movement’s values? What, if anything, can be done to change the nature of policing in Jackson, considering we’ll probably be living in a class society for a little while longer?
There have been a lot of contradictions in our struggle, and this is just another one. There are many stages of struggle that have contradictions in them. As a lawyer, people used to call me the “revolutionary lawyer” because I served political prisoners, took on causes for resistance and helped the movement move forward in many different ways. But nothing could be more of an oxymoron than a “revolutionary lawyer,” because the law itself is a reactionary thing in the United States, which has been set up, in many instances, by the people who keep us oppressed. There’s no question about that.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a lawyer, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t serve the people as a lawyer, and that you can’t fight for people’s rights as a lawyer, and that you can’t do all you can in order to change the situation. It’s the same thing in this position as mayor. And in fact, we think I can do more in this position than I could as a lawyer.
We’ve made sure that Lindsey Horton is in line with our vision that we are working to change the situation between haves and have-nots in order to bring up people who are have-nots and put them in a position where they will be equally respected in this society, where the social forces in this society will respect their equality and that, therefore, would reduce crime. Jobs and other programs reduce the need for crime. I don’t think that Mr. Horton is where I am on the issue, and he doesn’t have the background that I have, but I do believe that’s one of the obligations I have, to try to teach those who are in my administration the points that are important to the transition of society.
So, yes, we still run into some behavior which is problematic in terms of our march forward to create a revolutionary culture down here, to create a culture that challenges all repression and all types of exploitation — and the struggle against that manifests itself in many different ways — but I think so far, we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the response that we’ve gotten from people.
However, just because the people were ready to step forward and say, “Oh, I want to make that change,” does not mean that all the people who voted have a thorough understanding of what that change is, or how we’ve got to go about that change. And the same is true for all the people who work for the government.
You just alluded to your work as a cofounder of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the movement’s role in your election. How do you see the relationship between the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and your position now as mayor of Jackson? Have there been measures to maintain the independence of the movement? Is it hard to govern without demobilizing the activists and the energy that actually got you in office? Or do you not see a contradiction between having a grassroots movement and also holding executive power?
Here again, you’re good at asking questions that present contradictions, but you certainly identified one there. It was a contradiction that was raised in Detroit when they elected their first black mayor, Coleman Young, who had some history of fighting for the labor movement and for the rights of our people. It raised itself in Chicago when Harold Washington was elected, and it’s true for some cities. And it may be nowhere more manifested than right here in the city of Jackson. There is a tendency — this is what creates the contradiction — for movement groups and protest groups and other activists who are trying to get revolutionary change to put their movement on hold and to rely exclusively on the mayor and the mayor’s staff to get things done for the people.
That’s a mistake. Our administration has very little more control over the economic realities of our society than we did before we got in these positions. We have some technical control over those things — or technical influence, let’s put it that way. But not real control — and especially in a city setting, as opposed to being in charge of the whole state. The contradictions exist. So what you have to do is, you have to tell the folks they have to be steadfast. You have to teach them that it’s important to have someone in office who’s trying to fight for the right things.
That’s necessary, but not sufficient. It’s not sufficient to win our struggle. We need to encourage the whole population to become involved in the movement for change.
To foster that kind of involvement, you’ve encouraged the creation of people’s assemblies. Do you envision direct democracy of this type just augmenting traditional representative offices, or one day replacing them?
The people’s assembly is a body where the people challenge government, ask government questions, get informed by government, and protest government when necessary. And that’s a movement that we support, and we to continue to support, to tell people that government is totally in their hands — and that’s on all levels: federal, state, and local.
The assembly should represent all things that don’t currently represent the people’s authority. And in many instances, that will be some of the elected government. And some of the bureaucratic structures. So I think the people should become more and more involved in reforming and changing the structures that surround them and the people that surround them — determining who handles structures, and how they should be elected, and who should be elected — until the people’s power becomes the same as, becomes simultaneous with, the development of government.
Now what does that mean? Does that mean that you have to have something different in terms of the name of the government, something different in structures? It’s probably going to mean that. That’s going to be for the people to decide. But right now, I don’t think it would be truthful to say, even though we are building a people’s government, that our government at this time is simultaneous with, and the exact same as, people’s power.
That’s still a struggle to be achieved; that’s a goal to be reached. That’s not where we are now.
You described the type of economy you’d like to build in Jackson as a “solidarity economy.” You’ve mentioned worker-owned co-ops and banks, community land trusts, and participatory budgeting. How is this progressing considering the fact that you are, as you mentioned, running a city where you can’t deficit-finance like we could at the national level?
Yes, there are limitations to what we can accomplish. We know that the problem is that too few people control too many of the resources that people live on, and that’s why you have your big gap between haves and have-nots.
What can we do in order to change that situation? Well, from the mayor’s position, a number of these companies want to get local contracts from us. We can create rules, and that’s what we’ve done. Jackson’s open for business, but if you’re going to do business in Jackson, then we say, “Look, you’re going to have to employ the people of Jackson.” And we say that over 50 percent of your subcontracting has to go out to what they call minorities — I don’t really agree with that term, but we’ll use it for the time being. It could mean Native American contractors; it could mean various other people like that. So that’s something to help begin some change.
However, that’s not comprehensive enough, because it leaves out a lot of the private sector who do not come through government in order to get their contracts, and the people employed by these businesses. We are a city, and I don’t want you to mistake us, yet, for a revolutionary state or some other place. We can’t seize corporations and turn them over to the people. We can’t do that. So that’s one of the limitations.
And secondly, we can have influence on trying to stop these corporations from discriminating on various different levels, because we can it make it uncomfortable for them. But we don’t have the ability to police that completely, because we’re just a city.
What did the movement look like before you were elected, either during the campaign or before it, in terms of community work building some sort of presence in the city?
That’s a good question. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement was created here in Jackson in 1990, and it was predated by some other work you have already referred to — the Republic of New Afrika — that started here back in 1971. So over the years, a lot of work has been done. But more importantly, since 1990, we have been engaged in a lot of youth programs. We have literally been involved in helping hundreds of youths go to college who would not have gone to college, and probably would not have finished high school, had it not been for us. We have run programs where they’ve learned about their cultural heritage, where they’ve gotten aid and assistance in the academic world, where they’ve had a chance to learn drama, and so many other things — and where they really became stand-up figures in their community.
We’ve also defended a lot of people who were the victims of racial abuse. We’ve done that all over the state. And that helped our situation. We helped thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors. We literally sent tons of material aid to Gulf Coast survivors of Katrina, and we created political programs, political projects, and political organizations in order to fight the abuses that the Katrina residents were suffering.
As you know, Katrina happened in 2005. My first election to anything was in 2009, when we ran for City Council. We were also engaged in a lot of work to straighten out specific communities — building a garden, for instance, to help food flow for some people, and really for the idea of bringing people in the community together.
And we aligned ourselves with a lot of the civil rights organizations here who are working on many projects. A lot of them had to do with the so-called criminal justice system. So many people going to prison — not only those who are being wrongly convicted, but those who became sensitive to the problem that America wasn’t really providing, and that Mississippi’s system wasn’t providing, the opportunity for a number of young people to grow up in a healthy social environment.
We united with a very progressive ACLU movement in Mississippi at the time, with the NAACP, who worked on many of these projects, and with a number of other people and organizations that were dealing with the prison situation. Fifty prisoners had been killed in jail over a five-year period in the state. So we got involved in that project and exposed that in several instances they were not all victims of suicide as had been claimed. There was some skullduggery going on.
Those are some of the things, off the top of my head, that I can tell you about that we were working on at the time of our election. And of course we were building the people’s assembly before I got elected mayor.
Do you see your success in Jackson as being indicative of a model that could work nationally? I know the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement organizes across the state, and elsewhere in the South, but have you sought national alliances with other left groups?
The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement definitely seeks alliances with other groups, and the idea of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement is to build a movement of what we call a new Afrikan people. And a new Afrikan people is the same thing as black people, or so-called “African-American people.” But it’s also to build a movement of people, period. In other words, to create a positive, progressive movement across the borders of the United States and internationally.
We fully understand that there’s no freedom for us unless there’s freedom for everybody. Martin Luther King said that at one point, and I think it’s very true. So we seek different kinds of relationships, and we want to spread the things that we are doing, which we think are useful and can help people in other places. Of course, people are going to have to organize and plan based on the conditions in their own areas.
But the people’s assembly is something we recommend, and actually, the people’s assembly is something we borrowed from elsewhere. Our use of the assembly really comes from Katrina, with the destruction of New Orleans. There was a survivors’ assembly created in order to try to help folks in the New Orleans area and in the Gulf Coast area to reclaim their land and their jobs and their educational status. We facilitated that from Jackson, which is about two and a half hours away from the Gulf Coast. But we later decided that we would create an assembly for ourselves in order to advance our political objectives, so we wouldn’t wind up in a situation like the folks did down in New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast.
But yes, we certainly think that’s a model that can be exported and work for others across the country.
What has the response been from the Right in Jackson and Mississippi as a whole? Obviously, you’re contending with a hostile and very conservative state legislature.
The New Afrikan Independence Movement — which the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement is a part of, and is preceded by the Republic of Afrika and others — has been hated by the Right. We may be the most hated group by the Right, historically. And that was reflected in the way we got elected. During the election process, those communities that are more identified with the right wing voted almost unanimously for the other candidate.
I didn’t get many of those votes at all. In fact, there was one precinct where I got three votes. But fortunately, we got overwhelming support from the majority of the city, from people who benefited from our long struggle against repression, as opposed to people who felt threatened by that long struggle. However, I would like to suggest something: since I’ve been elected, even though those forces still exist which would oppose us, we have been getting overwhelming support, initially, from all sectors of the community.
I’m sure we’re not getting it from the Tea Party, or the extreme right — don’t get me wrong. But I’m saying that clearly there are white people in the city who were persuaded by Tea Party right-wingers and others that we were the devil, who are now realizing that is not true. And they see the logic in what we’re talking about, and we seem to be getting their support.
Now, there’s a lot to that, and some other time we can both talk about it and dissect it, and I’m sure there are going to be some strains in that relationship from time to time as people have difficulty understanding the sacrifices that they have to make in order to get a really revolutionary, changed society, and the other things that are involved in our transition. But as of right now, we’re actually in a period where we’re getting overwhelming support from across the city.
As an example, we just put a referendum on the ballot and got 91 percent support. That means that we got support from every segment of the community, and the referendum had to do with work that we need to do to repair the infrastructure of our city. That’s good for us, because we’re going to march on ideas which ultimately do help everybody, not just the black population. So I think we’re on a little bit of a honeymoon still, and I’m sure there will be a lot of political struggle in the future.
But as long as we can stay on the right side of it, keep the good ideas, and not get politically reactionary, then I think that ultimately — I’m sure that ultimately — we will win.
Portions of the introductory notes were first published in the Nation.
When the Union’s the Enemy: An Interview with Cleo Silvers
by Andrew Elrod
Cleo Silvers, a former organizer with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, discusses racism in the labor movement.
In 1973, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health issued a report on the auto industry estimating that workplace diseases alone were responsible for about sixty-five deaths a workday — more than 16,000 a year.
The numbers were shocking, but they gave some explanation for the dramatic upsurge in wildcat actions over the preceding half-decade — what historian Jeremy Brecher calls the “labor dimension of the Vietnam War era revolt.” The report also substantiated a claim made thereafter by labor activists: the number of autoworkers killed and injured surpassed the number of American soldiers killed and maimed in any year in the Vietnam War.
In the five years after 1968, workplace grievances inundated the union bureaucracy as newfound expectations of decency and dignity invigorated a generation of American industrial workers. The New York Times reported that the young workers entering the labor force were “better educated and want treatment as equals from the bosses” were opposed to “work they think hurts their health or safety, even though old-timers have done the same work for years,” and “want fast changes and sometimes bypass their own union leaders and start wildcat strikes.”
In the auto plants of Detroit, where an all-white management and union leadership confronted a darkening workforce, these grievances often assumed a racial edge. Of all the rank-and-file caucuses that formed in this tumultuous period, perhaps none was more militant than the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
Founded in 1969 to unify several black caucuses that sprouted up amid a strike wave, the League worked to organize independent black power within the labor movement for the explicit purpose of socialist revolution. A far-fetched goal to twenty-first century American ears, in that raucous denouement of the New Left, the League — and its short-lived national equivalent, the Black Workers Congress — advanced its cause in the political space opened by the UAW’s shortcomings on working conditions and racial inequality.
For black autoworkers, upward mobility in the plant was a rarity; as Nelson Lichtenstein writes in his biography of Walter Reuther, “Black workers called the skilled trades ‘the Deep South’ of the UAW.” And though most auto work was dangerous, it was black workers who bore the brunt of the industry’s hazardous tasks. In his 1976 book Auto Work and Its Discontents, labor activist B.J. Widick quotes one company official as saying, “[S]ome jobs white folks will not do; so they have to take niggers in… It shortens their lives, it cuts them down but they’re just niggers.”
Despite its work funding the Freedom Riders and the March on Washington, the UAW was guilty of its own institutional racism. By 1962, it had failed to elect a single black member to its twenty-two-person executive board, despite the fact that African-Americans by then composed a quarter of the Detroit membership. By 1968, there were still just two. Locked out of union leadership, their workplace grievances ignored, many activists turned to organizing wildcat actions.
This was the context in which the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was born. Though it would quickly collapse amid competing visions of black power, the League’s emergence underscored both the institutional limits of the post-war labor movement, especially in regards to race, and the consequence of that failure: a generation of activists alienated from their union. As Lichtenstein notes, “whatever their politics, DRUM’s [a League precursor] founding cohort constituted the same species of ideologically motivated cadre who had animated the UAW in its heroic youth.” Rather than incorporate this cohort, the UAW rejected their racial grievances and condoned managerial repression of shop-floor agitation.
One of these cadre was Cleo Silvers, a former social worker with VISTA in Harlem who had organized with the Black Panthers and Young Lords before turning to independent rank-and-file organizing. I recently spoke with Cleo about her time with the Revolutionary Union Movements in both New York and Detroit during the early 1970s.
You came to New York City as a social worker with VISTA, after which you began working at Lincoln Hospital. How did you end up in Detroit organizing autoworkers?
I met Jim [Forman] and several other friends in the process of the work that I was doing with HRUM, the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement, which was about organizing independent organizations of workers in the health care industry. That came from the struggles initiated at Gouverneur Hospital, at Lincoln Hospital, and several other hospitals in New York City.
The major struggle for hospital workers was around the issues of increasing education needs of the workers, bettering working conditions, and, not only that, the workers in the hospital industry also fought around patient issues.
HRUM actually began as a result of the Think Lincoln Committee, which was a coalition of community people, members of the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party concerned with hospital conditions. At the time I was a community mental health worker at Lincoln Hospital, which was so bad that people would be left in the emergency room for 72 hours and not be seen.
If you didn’t speak English it was almost impossible for you — they didn’t have translators — it was almost impossible for you to speak to your doctor. A woman who came to the hospital for a saline abortion was killed on the surgery table. There were people who went in for surgery and had the wrong kidney extracted. The people felt in the community that they were being used as guinea pigs.
We set up a patient complaint table in the emergency room. This is how we really got to understand what the conditions were inside the hospital. Patients would come to us with their complaints, and we would document them and compile them until we had a stack of complaints that you would not believe. And it didn’t take us a long time to acquire that many coming from the people in the community. It was really a horrible set of conditions inside that hospital for the patient.
Were you a union member at this time?
I was a member of 1199, but 1199 saw us as a bunch of troublemakers inside the union. We were young. We were arrogant. We knew that we were right. We knew that what we were fighting for was something that was going to be positive for the community. It was going to be positive for our class, for the young people coming up behind us, because we were fighting for better conditions.
We were fighting for a more equal distribution of the resources in society in general. We were fighting for an end to police brutality. We were fighting for the basics — for the right to be treated as a human being, the franchise, the equal ability to have access to all the things the society has to offer. We were kind of tough guys, in the sense that we demanded that they hear us. We wouldn’t go into a union meeting and not be heard. If they refused to call on us we would just take over the microphone and make our case to the rank-and-file that was in attendance at the meeting.
In the process of building our organization, we had learned about DRUM and the League. We began doing political education, and we were beginning to recognize that the working class had a role in society that was greater than most people understood. I was the co-chair of HRUM, and during one of our meetings with Jim Forman and several of the League workers — at that time I believe they had developed into the Black Workers Congress — there was a vote that I should take my organizing skills that I developed here in New York City, with HRUM and with several of the other organizations, and go to Detroit and organize in the auto plants.
When I got to Detroit I got set up in the home of Mike Hamlin, who was the chairman of the League. I met and studied with the Central Committee, which included General Baker, John Watson, Ken Cockrel.
What sort of work was the League doing in Detroit?
One thing was the book clubs. The reason those book clubs were necessary was that there were lots and lots of white people who were activists who were interested in supporting the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Black Workers Congress, but of course if you weren’t black or a person of color you could not be in the organization.
The League got me a job. The companies would have these cattle calls for workers to come into different plants, based on what they needed. There happened to be, when I came into the city, a call for workers at Dodge Truck. I was taken over, and I got hired on at the Dodge Truck plant in Warren, Michigan, which is right outside Detroit.
The racial composition in the plant at that time was about 70 percent African-American. There were Arabs. A very strong Arab community in the Detroit metropolitan area. There were Latinos, but that was a very small group. So the struggle inside the plant took all kinds of turns.
There was one struggle that was very interesting between the Arabs and the African-Americans. The African-Americans used to call the Arabs “camel jockeys.” The activists, the Marxists, came together and began to encourage the black workers to recognize that if they don’t want to be called a nigger, then you don’t want to call those Arab workers, who are your comrades that are on this line working with us, camel jockeys. Slowly, we began to build very strong relationships, and when it came time to take a plant-wide action, all of the workers who we built relationships with were involved and supportive, and took action along with us.
What sorts of issues did people organize around?
There was the paint shop, where workers had very little to support their breathing. They didn’t have masks that were very good, and the masks were overused, and the workers were breathing in paint and of course dying as a result of breathing in this paint. Speedup was the other important thing.
I worked in two areas. It was a filthy job, where you put the frames onto the line, and then you have several bolts and nuts that you had to attach to the frame. My second job was installing brake fluid cups. Brake fluid is a corrosive, and it would corrode my hands and feet. They gave you one pair of vinyl gloves per week and one apron per week and one pair of boots, because the brake fluid was running onto the ground, and it would eat through that stuff.
And I had been harassed by foremen. You know, foremen’s thing with women, that’s another issue. There weren’t a lot of women in the plant, and those that were there were always being harassed, whether you were black or white or whatever. It was not unexpected for a foreman to come up to you and say, if you sleep with me I’ll give you a better job.
Were there any deaths at the plant?
Absolutely, yes. There were several. One worker was crushed by a huge motor. The motors are very, very big, and they are extremely heavy. The really big guys were responsible for moving the motor around and dropping it into the shell of the truck, and one guy got crushed by a motor. There were people that lost hands and other limbs on the line because management would never stop the line when they were asked. Sometimes you could get stuck, and the thing is to stop the line. But managers would not stop the line. And you would be fired immediately if you were a worker on the line and you stopped the line.
What was the union’s role at the plant?
The UAW actually had a low profile at Dodge Truck. They had their votes, they had their meetings. We attended a few meetings. But the work that we were doing, with so many workers, you start to build relationships with so many workers. We didn’t really have time to fool with the UAW. Some of them were like, “yeah the UAW, they’re not shit, they ain’t doin’ this or that.”
But the point was that the UAW only fought for you if you were in the plant and your hand got cut off, then they would come and stop the line, you know, negotiate with management, that kind of thing. Or the workers in the paint shop decided, this is too much today. We’re breathing in too much of the fumes from the paint, we’re not going to do this anymore. Then the union would come down and try to negotiate with the workers to go back to work.
Did you witness a lot of shop floor activism disciplined by the union?
How did that go?
They would be like, you know, “you guys are fuckin’ up!” And really that’s what they’d tell you. And we’d say, “you’re fucking up by not demanding quality conditions, decent conditions, for us, for the workers. So don’t come over here tellin’ us we’re fuckin’ up. That’s not us, that’s you.” So there was back and forth all the time between us.
Were you aware of the work the union had done to support the Civil Rights Movement?
That’s before the period in which the League of Revolutionary Black Workers took place. So yes they did progressive things, but that was way back in the Civil Rights Movement. You see, the development of the League came on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, as a result of workers not wanting to be nonviolent, and recognizing that it was important to organize on a class basis. The Civil Rights Movement was done on a racial basis. The struggle for equality and justice inside a town like Detroit was fully based on working class awareness.
What sorts of actions did the workers take against poor conditions?
There were heat walkouts, several every year. In the summer inside the plant it would get up to 120 degrees, and our position was that once the temperature was over 120 degrees that is not a place for human beings to be working in.
Management would not shut the plant down. They would expect us to continue to work. But even workers who didn’t agree with us did not want to be working in [a] 120 degree auto plant. It wasn’t that difficult. We would go all around the plant and say, “It’s very hot today, once it hits 120 degrees we’re all leaving.” Everybody would leave. Who wants to be there? It was led by us, the young members of the League, the young black workers, and supported very heavily by the Arab workers, and some of the white workers too.
That’s the other thing that was going on. When you are working in a place like an auto plant, it is very difficult to maintain prejudice, because we’re all in the same boat, we’re all doing the same thing, and you get to discuss. “Here I’m standing next to you on the line.” “Well I don’t like you!” “Why you don’t like me? We have to care about each other!” And you have to watch each other’s back.
So that’s one of the most important things. You want to see prejudice and racism obliterate itself? Give a group of people a job to do where they have to share the responsibility and the labor. I think that’s one of the great things I learned inside the auto plant.
EDITOR & PUBLISHER
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Publisher Bhaskar Sunkara
Categories Politics, Culture
First issue Winter 2011
Country United States
Based in New York
Jacobin is a quarterly "magazine of culture and polemic" based in New York. Its self-styled raison d’être is as a "leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture". The publication began as an online magazine released in September 2010, but expanded into a print journal later that year. Jacobin has been described by its publisher as a radical publication, "largely the product of a younger generation not quite as tied to the Cold War paradigms that sustained the old leftist intellectual milieus like Dissent or New Politics."
The New York Times ran a profile of Bhaskar Sunkara, the founding editor and publisher of Jacobin in January 2013, commenting on the publication's unexpected success and engagement with mainstream liberalism. In a 2013 article for Tablet Magazine, Michelle Goldberg discussed Jacobin as part of a revival of interest in Marxism among young intellectuals.
Earlier in 2013, "Jacobin Books" was announced, a partnership with Verso Books and Random House. A collection of essays by Jacobin contributors is also slated to be published by Henry Holt and Company in 2014. "Class Action: An Activist Teacher’s Handbook," produced in conjunction with the Chicago Teachers Union's CORE Caucus and Jacobin was distributed to trade union activists in the sixteen cities in the United States and Canada.
Prominent Jacobin contributors include Bob Herbert, Yanis Varoufakis, and Hilary Wainwright.
Jump up ^ "About". Jacobin. Retrieved 2014-06-19.
Jump up ^ "Bookforum". Bookforum. Retrieved 4/1/2011.
Jump up ^ "Boston Review".
Jump up ^ "No Short-Cuts: Interview with the Jacobin". Idiom magazine.
Jump up ^ "A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream". New York Times.
Jump up ^ Michelle Goldberg. "A Generation of Intellectuals Shaped by 2008 Crash Rescues Marx From History’s Dustbin". Tablet.
Jump up ^ Verso. "Jacobin Books series".
Jump up ^ Jacobin. "Class Action: An Activist Teacher’s Handbook".
"A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream", Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times, 20 January 2013
Boston Review on Jacobin
"New York literary magazines – start spreading the news", Hermione Hoby, The Observer, 5 January 2013