Monday, December 12, 2016

The Counterrevolution That Preceded The Non Violent Civil Rights Movement

As people around the nation wonder how their communities and causes will be affected by the Presidency of Donald Trump, it is important to remember a time not that long ago when a similar attack was launched on efforts to challenge patterns of white supremacy and class inequality which have done so much to shape our history.
The time was the late 1940's during the beginning years of the Cold War. The winds of change were blowing through the South. Multiracial trade unions in places like Memphis, Bessemer Alabama, and Winston Salem were starting to bring white and black workers together improve living standards for both, while coalitions of civil rights groups and the left were challenging restrictions on voting and launching law suits against segregated schools. There were even grass roots movement challenging lynching and the sexual abuse of Black women, also led by the left.
But in response to fears of desegregation coupled with the anti-Communist hysteria inspired by the Cold War, a resurgent white supremacist movement swept through the Southern states, taking the form of a new mass movement called "the White Citizens Councils." Virtually every  civil rights and pro labor initiative in the South came under attack. Multiracial unions were destroyed, weakened, or forced into silence. Interracial organizations with left wing influence were suppressed, their leaders called before Congressional committees to expose "Communist ties." Dissenters were harassed, imprisoned, forced to leave the South, or quarantined in their own homes.
The damage was great. People like Rosa Parks, a militant anti-rape activist and voter registration organizer had to go underground, resurfacing as the "sweet old Black lady" of Montgomery Bus Boycott fame. My hero and mentor Rev Claude Williams, a prophetic voice of interracial unionism in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Alabama, had crosses burned on his lawn, his dogs shots and killed, and death threats made so often he could not hold interracial meetings at his Alabama farm for nearly 15 years, until the non violent civil rights movement opened up space.
It took a whole new generation of protesters, coming from the Black church and the Black colleges, using the untested philosophy of non violent direct action, to restore the momentum for social change that had been created by the labor movement and the left in the late 1940's
I say this to remind us of two things
1. We have experienced counterrevolution before. It is brutal, ugly and can extract a terrible price on people and movements
2. The counterrevolution will ultimately fail. New forces will arise to move history forward again
Let us not underestimate the difficulties that await us. But let us not give in to forces of resignation and defeat. Justice will ultimately prevail if we stay true to our values and beliefs.

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