American Socialists: Study the Civil Rights Movement

Socialists in the US are more likely to be experts on the Russian Revolution than the American civil rights movement. That’s a mistake: this homegrown revolution is a strategic guidebook for winning social change today.

Martin Luther King Jr with his wife Coretta Scott King (both center, right), at a voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery, March 1965. (William Lovelace / Daily Express / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

In the last years of his life, following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Act, Martin Luther King’s speeches and writings took on increasingly radical tones. By 1967, he was telling organizers that “the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society” and “the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

King’s commitment to pushing beyond legal rights to win full social, economic, and political equality had long animated him. The idea that, as he put it in 1967, “something is wrong with the economic system of our nation . . . something is wrong with capitalism,” was not new. Yet it remains remarkable that, by the end of the 1960s, the most important leader of the most successful US social movement of the twentieth century — one that toppled a vicious social order doggedly backed by some of the most powerful elites in American society — was a democratic socialist.

That fact, attested in a library’s worth of King biographies and scholarship on the civil rights movement, should be something of an obsession for the contemporary left. Yet today, socialists in the United States are often more apt to study revolutions in Russia or China than the massive social transformation in our own country just sixty years ago.

For some, the omission comes from an understandable urge to emphasize the persistence of racism in America — how could the movement have been transformative if we still see so many ills around us? For others, the civil rights movement seems decidedly moderate compared to the raised fists of Black Power activists or the revolutionary Marxism of the Black Panthers (despite the pervasive presence of leftists in the civil rights movement and the failure of these other groups to win any social transformation comparable to the death of Jim Crow).

Whatever the reason, downplaying the civil rights movement as a strategic guidebook for US socialists today is a mistake. To put it bluntly, we should think more about the Birmingham campaign than the Bolsheviks.

And when we do, we come away with at least three lessons: the centrality of social structural change to the emergence and effectiveness of mass movements; the importance of strategizing, rather than moralizing; and the need to consciously drive wedges within and among elites.

Structural Shifts

At the heart of the civil rights movement was a cohort of dedicated activists who displayed unparalleled bravery in the face of violent opposition. The images of protesters staring down vicious attacks, steadfastly clinging to nonviolence, are iconic for a reason.

Yet the courage and moral clarity of movement activists aren’t enough to explain the movement’s emergence, let alone its success. If righteousness in the face of injustice were enough to compel large numbers of people to engage in dangerous, and sometimes deadly, protest actions, then the movement would have broken out decades earlier.

What changed? Why did the authoritarian fortress of Jim Crow begin to wobble in the face of mass protest? The answer, as Doug McAdam argues in his seminal book on the movement, had to do with underlying economic and political shifts: first, the crisis and decline of the plantation cotton economy, and second, the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural to the urban South, and then to the urban North and West. These tectonic changes disrupted traditional power structures, providing an opening for mass black insurgency.

The population shift from rural to urban, for example, greatly strengthened the black church, which played a central role in organizing the movement. Rural churches, funded by poor black sharecroppers, could rarely afford to pay a full-time minister. One 1930s study found that 72 percent of rural black churches only held services once or twice a month; most relied on visiting preachers.

Bayard Rustin and Cleveland Robinson, deputy director and chairman of the administrative committee for the 1963 March on Washington, respectively, August 7, 1963. (Orlando Fernandez / Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

In the cities, where higher population density created larger congregations, and a small black middle class could contribute more resources, the churches were a considerably more potent institution. The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, from which Martin Luther King Jr led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, could employ King as a full-time pastor, provide substantial meeting space for organizing, and generally foster the social cohesion that came from a large, well-organized congregation.

At the same time an opening developed for African Americans to demand their rights, the decline of the southern cotton economy loosened the political grip of the plantation elite. Large-scale movement to northern cities where the rules of Jim Crow didn’t hold — in 1940, the percentage of the black voting-age population registered to vote in Mississippi was 0.3 percent, while in Alabama and Louisiana it was 0.4 percent — gave millions of black Americans the franchise for the first time. Long excluded from political power, the black masses had finally gained a modicum of leverage to assert their interests.

Strategizing, Not Moralizing

Moral indignation fueled the movement. But tactical creativity and strategic ingenuity provided the ballast. The major groups that powered the civil rights struggle — well known by their acronyms, NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality), and SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) — had a brilliant understanding of media dynamics, public perception, and disruptive protest. Many of the most talented organizers, from E. D. Nixon in Montgomery to Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin at the SCLC, had gained this understanding from their experiences with the labor and socialist left in the 1930s and 1940s.

Using — and consciously spreading — sit-ins, freedom rides, and other forms of civil disobedience, they deployed mass, nonviolent direct action to spotlight the systematic oppression that African Americans faced in the South, bringing the harsh realities of Jim Crow into the living rooms of Americans across the country. Media coverage of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Birmingham campaign dramatized the brutal gap between the nation’s professed commitment to freedom and equality and the racial tyranny of the South. As public sentiment turned against segregation, the civil rights movement’s success in garnering widespread support placed mounting pressure on the federal government to intervene.

Three protesters at a Woolworth sit-in, Durham, North Carolina, February 10, 1960. (State Archives of North Carolina via Wikimedia Commons)

This nonviolence wasn’tpassive,” and the protests themselves often weren’t popular. But they were always strategic. For example, the movement consciously used disruptive tactics to raise the costs of resistance for southern elites. Movement leaders understood early on that although racism was universal among white southern elites, different groups had different stakes in Jim Crow’s continued existence. Politicians whose reelection depended on black disenfranchisement had far more to lose from legal equality than storeowners in downtown areas. The movement thus sought to apply maximum pressure on the latter group to break the elite consensus behind Jim Crow.

Wyatt Walker, the SCLC’s key strategist during the 1963 Birmingham campaign, described the combination of a boycott with disruption of downtown areas through protest:

Black folk in cooperation or out of fear stayed out of downtown. The boost we got was that white husbands told their wives, “Don’t go downtown. . . . Too much trouble going on.” So that doubled the effect of our boycott . . . that’s what made [the merchants] decide they need to sit down and get some amelioration of this stranglehold we had on the downtown area.

Faced with this “stranglehold,” the merchants buckled only a month after the campaign’s launch. While Jim Crow politicians like Bull Connor continued to resist, the defection of the merchants broke segregation’s back in the Magic City. In addition to black churches, the civil rights movement leaned heavily on trade unions, which provided leadership, money, and mobilizing power. From the first local campaigns against segregation in the South, such as the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, unions like the largely black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters were essential sources of experienced organizers with strategic and tactics chops. At the national level, leading industrial unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Packinghouse Workers, the embodiment ofcivil rights unionism,” gave the movement crucial financial and organizational backing.

The trade unions’ role in civil rights organizing only intensified during the 1960s, as the movement gained steam and spread nationwide. The decade’s most famous action, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was sponsored by the UAW and brought out unprecedented numbers of union members.

King had always seen labor as a pillar of the struggle for freedom and equality, but in his final years the link between unions and civil rights became increasingly prominent in his speeches and writings. For King, who was assassinated in Memphis while supporting a garbage workers’ strike organized with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (a public sector union), organized labor was the single best vehicle for tipping the balance of wealth and power toward poor and working-class Americans, both white and black, and making the dream of the “beloved community” a reality.

Dividing Elites

Wielding civil disobedience, the movement members widened the rifts within the southern white elite and then eventually split it. They had the same ambition for the national Democratic Party, which was fractured between local southern Democrats who staunchly defended segregation and federal officials in Washington, who were under heat to address the mounting civil rights crisis.

As King explained in his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, any larger progressive political change in the United States depended on breaking the political might of the Dixiecrats. He argued that “the cohesive political structure of the South working through [its alliance with northern conservatives] enabled a minority of the population to imprint its ideology on the nation’s laws. This explains why the United States is still far behind European nations in all forms of social legislation.”

Leaders at the head of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. (National Archives at College Park via Wikimedia Commons)

The movement’s schismatic strategy, characterized by targeted actions and lobbying efforts, contributed to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Though the Democratic Party’s national platform had officially supported civil rights since 1948, verbal support had not been accompanied by any serious action for fear of tearing apart the party. As late as the beginning of 1963, Hubert Humphrey was still complaining “that the minute anyone brings up the issue of civil rights, he is branded as one seeking to divide the party and looked upon as a troublemaker.”

After the mobilizations of 1963, however, the political calculus of the Democratic Party leadership changed. President Lyndon B. Johnson threw his considerable political acumen behind the Civil Rights Act. In a meeting with a leading southern Democratic senator, who was working to stop the bill, Johnson told him bluntly: “I want this Civil Rights Bill passed and you nor no one else is going to stand in my way.” Johnson got his way, signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

The two bills sounded the death knell for Jim Crow. And they cracked open the Democratic Party, accelerating the departure of the segregationists and leaving it a party dominated by northern liberals.

Realignment did not, of course, deliver the social democracy for which King fought, for reasons too complicated to discuss here. But the power of the Dixiecrats was a major impediment to progressive change for much of the twentieth century — and by finding the fissures among political elites, and applying pressure to them, the movement helped remake the two-party system. No small feat.

Looking to MLK and the Civil Rights Movement

The culmination of civil rights protest, symbolized by the 1965 Selma march and the Voting Rights Act, marked a significant victory in the fight for democracy and freedom, even as King and others recognized the unfinished work of winning substantive social and economic equality. And today, the civil rights movement provides a strategic road map for socialists to navigate the complexities of contemporary struggles.

Three lessons stand out. First, leftists must identify the tectonic shifts in society that are opening new possibilities to organize and mobilize poor and working-class people. Second, moral outrage mustn’t cloud our capacity for hardheaded strategizing. We, too, must have a deep understanding of media dynamics, public perception, and disruptive protest, and unions must be at the center of that strategic vision. Finally, we must locate the schisms at the top of society that can be exploited and pried open.

This list is nowhere near exhaustive — ours is more an injunction to study the civil rights movement than a fully fleshed-out blueprint. But we are sure of one thing: to win social democracy in the United States, much less socialism, we must become more than mere novices in the history, politics, and legacy of the civil rights movement.