In a period where nationalism and racism are intensifying, workers and the oppressed can learn from the tactics of Civil Rights hero Robert F. Williams.
The current era seems to be one where an impending pogrom is waiting to explode in a rise of racial violence in the name of defending a white supremacist order. Clickbait site Cracked recently put out an article arguing that a literal civil war is impending.Trump and his mass rallies implicitly pander to white identitarianism, while the “alt-right” subculture grows in the media spotlight despite how little on the ground impact it has. And of course there are right-wing militias, which are nothing new but have been on the rise over the years. The paranoid side of me does want to agree that we’re heading straight to civil war and are doomed for good. Yet one must keep to a sober analysis no matter how intense a topic may be.
Rather than a Second American Civil War, as the far-right Florida lawyer and failed libertarian senate candidate Augustus Sol Invictus calls for, we are far more likely to see a form of “Jim Crow 2.0,” a regression in a sense to pre-civil right movement racial attitudes and a generalized atmosphere of anti-black violence. While directly racist laws may not be taken up, law enforcement in general and court systems could become even more corrupt than they already are and essentially turn a blind eye to or even endorse lynchings and rapes of black Americans. Jim Crow, while based in legal inequalities, was also upheld by a whole culture of violence that went unchecked by bourgeois legal institutions. Paramilitary groups like the KKK enforced their “invisible empire” of racial subjugation while local politicians proudly celebrated the racist legacy of the Confederacy.
Systematic violence through the rape and murder of countless ordinary blacks was the order of the day in Jim Crow times, and even legal landmarks like Brown vs. Board of Education didn’t abolish this culture of regularized violence. To truly end Jim Crow, a Civil Rights movement that mobilized millions of blacks was necessary. Black resistance to Jim Crow began the day Jim Crow instated, but the ability to resist was greatly limited by the severity of repression from white reactionaries. These reactionaries were embedded in the local and state governments in the South. Local governments with reactionary local politicians promoted an ideology of decentralization to fortify their power in communities against progresses made in federal government, selling a whole mythos of the Confederacy as fighting in the name of self-determination and freedom rather than slavery. And to further reinforce the Jim Crow regime, a culture of patriarchal dominance expressed in fears of race mixing became the norm of the day.
Liberals, holding to a belief that American democracy is a story of moving towards perfection through trial and error, would never imagine that racism in the US could regress to Jim Crow levels. They assume that our democratic system has evolved enough to prevent this from happening. Sure, some liberals think Trump is throwing the USA into full fascism, but the general liberal narrative of history is one of linear progress. The claims that Trump is a full fledged brownshirt are not without motivation towards fear-mongering. Yet a more dynamic understanding of history admits the regressions are possible and that there is no natural tendency for society to evolve towards universal ideals. Rather, liberal capitalism produces its own underbelly of reaction, and a return to the day where racial pogroms like the Red Summer of 1919 can occur isn’t out of the question. This is not to be alarmist, but to accept the possibility and reject liberal narratives that “society has evolved past that”.
If US society does move into a state of generalized racial violence and pogroms, this “Jim Crow 2.0” will differ in key ways. One, it would no longer be a geographic phenomenon confined the south; the entire country of the USA would be a battleground that white identitarians would contest for. The Confederate flag is flown in the North, not just the South, and many white supremacists look to the Northwest US as the location of their future ethno-state (see Northwest Imperative). It would also be a racial order that dehumanizes blacks, latinos, and Muslims as outsiders to the “white race”.
The election of Trump is not a cause but merely a symptom of the general trend towards nationalism and therefore racism in the USA (and beyond). But the rise of Trump has created a sense of panic in the left, with voluntaristic calls for direct action with no organizational basis being made so that “Trump is stopped before he’s inaugurated”. One may then say we are being glib about the problems being posed to non-whites, when rather our position on how to fight racist violence is merely the same as it was before: armed self-defense. If people really want to fight against the racial violence of modern capitalism, getting a gun and being trained is a good first step. Communist Gun Clubs, where we could learn basic skills of using weapons and armed self-defense, could become a basis for future workers militias that will fight all forms of reactionaries, whether scabs, cops, religious fundamentalists or blackshirts. But beyond this we recognize the need for racially oppressed groups to form self-defense organizations to defend their lives and democratic rights. The historical figure of Robert F. Williams was a classic example of this tactic being put into action.
Robert F. Williams would become the leader of the Mabel, NC chapter of the NAACP and organized a black militia to fight against the Klan, much to the dislike of moderates in the Civil Rights movement. Williams was a WWII veteran and shared the skills he accumulated with his fellows to fight back against the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils. This was shown to have quite a high level of efficacy; by simply being armed black militias were able to scare Klansmen out of action. More working class in composition than other NAACP chapters, Williams’ chapter became controversial within the Civil Rights Movement. He butted heads with MLK himself, with Williams accusing Martin Luther King’s’ strategy of Civil Disobedience to be simply leading to the deaths of fighters for black rights.
Williams would get international attention through his involvement in the 1958 Kissing Case, where two black children below the age of ten were sentenced for sexual molestation because a white girl kissed them. The Monroe NAACP would take on this case in the courts and in the streets, organizing protests and even getting the international press involved. While the supposed criminals were pardoned because of popular pressure, Klan members sought to take the law into their own hands, burning crosses in front of their houses. Williams was able to organize self-defense militias to prevent violent reprisal, something the state could not be counted on doing.
Not easily pegged down as a political thinker by labels, Williams would form his own ideology from elements of black nationalism, marxism, and radical republicanism. He thought the idea of a separate black nation-state was a fool’s errand but also thought marxism made the mistake of putting class before race. Unimpressed with the rigid Marxism of the CPUSA, Williams did make a lasting friendship with the Trotskyist SWP who covered his activities in detail in their newspaper, The Militant.
Williams would eventually flee the USA, a “refugee of racial tyranny” in his own words (the entire story is well articulated by Williams in this interview). Falsely accused of kidnapping for attempting to protect a white couple from an angry mob, he went to Cuba who accepted him for political asylum. From Cuba he would broadcast a radio show for blacks in the south and publish a paper The Crusader but found that the Cuban government was limiting his work and was not as committed to anti-racism in deed as they were in word. He came to similar conclusions about Maoist China, where he also stayed in his years of political asylum. By 1975 Williams had returned to America to reunite with his wife who had returned in 1969, and was pardoned of his crimes in court. He spent the rest of his life mostly writing an unpublished autobiography.
Williams represented the tactical power of armed self-defense as a tool against reactionaries of all stripes. He was not the inventor of this tactic, which was rooted in traditions from the very beginning of the black freedom movement that sprung out of emancipation. Black militias were formed to fight against white reaction from the very beginning of Reconstruction, and in some cases unity with poor whites was achieved. As nationalism becomes more and more of a force in politics such militias may become necessary. As believers in the disbandment of the police and the military, we should support any such efforts that bring us closer to the formation of the people’s militia that will replace them.
This strategy, of forming defense militias and temporarily uniting with other working class forces for temporary battles is an application of the tactic of the united front from below. This is to be counterposed to the policy of bourgeois anti-fascism, the “people’s front”, where a coalition of liberals, leftists, and everyone else dedicated to constitutionalism form an alternative government to the rightists. Today’s equivalent to the advocates of the people’s front are leftists who believe we must unite with the democratic party to defeat Trump. Others believe in spontaneous revolt now, making empty calls for general strikes or insurrection. In contradiction to both approaches the question of “how to fight reaction” must be understood through the greater task of building working class political institutions with lasting power in the long term. The people’s front may have defeated fascism with the help of the Allies in WWII, but by then fascist regimes had extinguished the strong workers movements where they took power. We cannot let ourselves have faith in either liberal saviors or spontaneous revolt.
Building a movement purely on the basis of anti-fascism or opposition to the far-right or X elected demagogue is a strategic dead end. Rather we need to build a powerful class movement that will be forthright in defending itself and others from the far-right. The need for minorities to defend themselves has increased, and we point to the example of Robert F. Williams as an example of this in action. By becoming a threat to the capitalist order and defending the gains of the workers movement and democratic rights through force if necessary, we fight the far-right in a way that doesn’t assert loyalty to the liberal order.
For further reading on Williams, check out his own book Negros With Guns and Timothy Tyson’s biography Radio Free Dixie.