1863 depiction of planning for the Nat Turner uprising
In the month of February, the McCarthy Library celebrates Black History Month. This year's theme, as designated by the originating organization, the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH), is Black Resistance.
Historicizing Black Resistance in the United States
Revolutionary Black resistance has a long tradition. The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and the sustained protests across the U.S. that have followed have taken many Americans by surprise. For others -- especially those who are black, indigenous, and people of color -- these tragic deaths at the hands of police (or those acting on their behalf) serve as another unwelcome reminder of the long history of violent racism and gripping inequalities that ignite their calls for justice and change.
Much of the class wealth of the United States was obtained through the labor of enslaved African Americans. In the late twentieth century, historians began to focus on the experiences of slaves themselves to better understand how they coped with hardship and how they managed to undermine the system of slavery in subtle ways and reclaim the humanity stolen from them. A rich trove of evidence can be found in the American Social History Project's Slavery and Resistance primary source collection. (*Use the arrows on the right to expand out the Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Teaching Materials and additional resources available).
Note: the following is adapted from sections of a talk given by Michaela Warnsley at the New York City virtual organizing conference, "Stop the War on Black America: Organizing to Win" on August 9, 2020:
Slavery and Jim Crow met with armed resistance
Slavery, redlining, Jim Crow segregation and outright theft were grave social injustices leveled against African Americans. Repression will always breed resistance: against this barbaric, systemic exploitation has continued a long tradition of Black liberation struggles. Courageous armed rebellions took place countless times against slavery with famous examples including the uprisings led by Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey. These freedom fighters aimed to directly smash the structures that oppressed them, burning down plantations and struggling for liberation by any means necessary.
Many were able to carve out freedom by creating free "maroon" communities, such as at Paquesen ("Great Dismal Swamp") between North Carolina and Virginia, or the thousands-strong liberated territory of Palmares in Brazil. These communities tried to create ways of life outside of the U.S. capitalist system that had enslaved them.
Oppressed nations united together in this struggle as well, with a famous example bring the Black Seminole communities in Florida, where African and Native peoples fought together against the U.S. capitalist, settler-colonial system - and continue today. So common was Black and Native solidarity and resistance that state legislatures attempted several times to outlaw Black and Native people from even interacting out of fear for what revolutionary resistance might arise.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, supposedly abolishing slavery (thought it would continue in other forms such as mass incarceration) began the period of Reconstruction in the south. Although this period saw much radical action and growth in Black political power, it was also met with abandonment by the North, who for example, had promised 40 acres and a mule to freed Black people, but instead gave reparations to the slaveholding ruling class. Reconstruction's end in 1877 was followed by a 'nadir' era that was the historical peak of lynching and race riots throughout the U.S. "Jim Crow" laws sought to maintain white supremacy and the social structure underpinning the continued exploitation of the Black nation for profit.
Radical resistance to this renewed oppression continued. Farmers began organizing sharecroppers' unions, some of them of mixed-race, defying the divide-and-conquer strategy and combating terror from groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Waves of revolutionary spirit and organization continued through the early 1900s. Groups like the socialist African Blood Brotherhood would take on Marxism as a useful tool, as they called for armed self-defense and resistance. Figures like the long-lived Pan African anti-imperialist W.E.B. DuBois would bridge waves, as we see that the bravery and fierce determination of past freedom fighters set the stage for the revolutionary and civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Civil rights sets the stage for revolutionary struggle
The multi-racial civil rights movement was a protracted struggle that not only challenged Jim Crow, but systematically worked to eradicate racism. The abolition of Jim Crow proved that Black leadership could lead to fundamental change.
During the mid to late 1960s, many in the civil rights movement shifted their tactical orientation to armed self defense. This was influenced by many factors, but the actions and contributions of figures such as Malcom X and Robert F. Williams and The Deacons for Self Defense played key roles. Though mainstream history often pits “good” non-violent activists against revolutionary figures, their struggles were deeply interconnected, and spoke to different needs in the Black communities.
Reflecting on the roots of Black August allows us to trace this period and its legacy today. The month’s celebration comes from the history of George Jackson, field marshal of the Black Panther Party who was imprisoned for the rest of his life at 19 years old, where he continued to organize, study and write. His younger brother Jonathan Jackson led an armed attack in August 1971 as an attempt to to liberate George and other prisoners; a year later, George was assassinated by a prison guard. His legacy sparked a wave of radical organizing inside the prison system, most notably the Attia Uprising where inmates seized control of the prison for four days. Black August was born in 1979 in the San Quentin prison where George Jackson was held, commemorating the previous decade of courageous prison struggle, as well as the centuries of Black resistance that preceded it. Revolutionaries such as our late PSL comrade Joe Little (veteran of the Attica uprising) continued this struggle up to today.
Black radical tradition of today
The Black radical tradition continues today, not just as a key component in furthering the struggle, but also exposing capitalism’s critical flaws. The lessons that we draw from these past struggles stem from their powerful influence. They have laid the foundation, but it is up to our generation to pave the way for long-lasting systemic change beyond reform. If the BPP has taught us anything, it is that rebellions give rise to revolutionaries. Revolutionaries are simply organizers dedicated to studying revolutionary theory and fighting for revolutionary change.
Today when we say “Black Lives Matter!” we are echoing the calls of warriors before us and claiming that tradition as our present and future. We can see in the radical actions of protesters the same spirit of revolutionary self-defense that Nat Turner and countless others had. Today’s renewed organizing to care for our communities while building the struggle echoes efforts like the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program, or the survival of maroon communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the ills of a society that was already sick to begin with, as most cities saw the worst of unemployment, homelessness, and rising death rates; especially for its Black population but the government’s inaction and despicable display of putting profits over the needs of people was a major factor leading our class to get into the streets and into action. This movement will not fade away quietly, and our class is ready for change.
Liberation, not reform
Reforms will not change the capitalist system. The masses need more than just policy change or the election of a new president. During the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri uprising, it was the Obama administration that deployed the military to quell the rebellion: pepper spray, rubber bullets and physical brute force injured many protesters. Flint, Michigan still does not have clean drinking water now during a pandemic. The 2015 Baltimore, MD, uprising sparked by the murder of Freddie Grey was met with militarized police and mass arrests.
More and more members of the working class are waking up to how much this broken system is not made for them. They see we need a new system in place, and it is our duty to replace it. But our oppressors are organized. So we too must continue to organize, as the revolutionaries who came before us did. We must study and learn. A revolutionary movement is the only way forward.