Turning Black Power into Black capitalism

Lee Sustar describes another wing of Black nationalism as the 1960s went on.

The History of Black America

THE UPSURGE of Black nationalism in the 1960s is usually associated with revolutionary groups like the Black Panther Party. But alongside such left-wing groups, another Black nationalist tendency defined "Black Power" in explicitly capitalist terms, looking to "Buy Black" campaigns along with electoral campaigns as the keys to winning social and political power.

There ideas were eventually adopted by many Black radicals of the 1960s as they reconciled themselves with the Democratic Party in the 1970s and 1980s.

This conservative approach, which has roots in the "Black capitalist" ideas of the 19th century leaders like Booker T. Washington, was in the late 1960s articulated by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Director Roy Innis, who argued that Blacks must build a "nation within a nation" and develop "Black control of capitalist instruments."

CORE's interpretation of Black Power was rewarded by Democratic and Republican politicians who sought to incorporate a layer of Blacks into the state machinery in the hope that it would help to quell the Black rebellions that swept U.S. cities from 1964 through1968.

CORE was hardly the first major civil rights organization to advocate working within the system. The NAACP and the Urban League had done so for decades. But CORE had earlier rejected the legalistic, gradual approach of these groups in favor of nonviolent direct action to challenge Jim Crow segregation in the South. By the mid-1960s, CORE's membership had abandoned non-violence and embraced Black nationalism--which made its turn to the right all the more useful to the authorities.

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CORE BEGAN in 1942 as an offshoot of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist group led by the ex-socialist preacher A.J. Muste. CORE's founder, the son of a Black preacher and a social democrat, James Farmer, drew up a plan for a national movement to challenge segregation with a nonviolent strategy derived from Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Dormant through much of the 1950s, CORE had great success following the sit-ins at segregated lunch counters by Black college students in Greensboro, N.C., in early 1960. CORE leaders rushed to North Carolina, where they were successful in recruiting Black students. In 1961, Farmer, by then CORE's national director, announced an attempt to desegregate Greyhound and Trailways busses in the Deep South.

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Modeled on CORE's "journey of reconciliation" of 1947, the new "Freedom Rides," met with a brutal reception from an Alabama mob, thrusting CORE into the national spotlight. After racists firebombed a bus while others beat its occupants. CORE members were forced to abandon the ride.

But activists form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) continued the trip from Birmingham to Montgomery, Ala. Farmer and other CORE members joined the Freedom Ride from Montgomery to Jackson, Miss., where they filed the jails rather than pay fines for trying to use the "whites only" bus station facilities.

Suddenly, CORE and Farmer were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, momentarily eclipsing even the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

As a national spokesman, Farmer boosted CORE's militant image by being one of the few established Black leaders who would debate Black nationalist Malcolm X. In 1964, Farmer outraged the Democratic Party as the only one of the "Big Six" civil rights leaders to reject President Johnson's call for a moratorium on Black demonstrations. Johnson was afraid that his support for civil rights legislation would create a "white backlash" that would harm his chances in the presidential election that year.

That summer, three CORE members were murdered in Mississippi. Countless others had been beaten and the threat of lynching was constant. Along with SNCC, CORE had become known as the shock troops of the civil rights movement.

In this period, Farmer tried to inoculate CORE against the rising influence of Black nationalism by stressing the importance of Black identity and removing whites from key positions of leadership. The success of the Freedom Rides attracted Black militants who did not share the group's pacifist views. Left-wing CORE branches, such as the one in Brooklyn, rejected the tactic of nonviolence altogether.

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YET BY 1965, CORE was in decline, losing membership and locked in a debate over limiting the role of whites in the organization, or perhaps expelling them altogether. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Jim Crow was at least legally dead, and many CORE membership felt that group needed a new "power base" in the Black neighborhoods of Northern cities.

Where sit-ins and other action had challenged southern legal segregation, fighting Northern racism was much more complicated. The civil rights movement had scarcely affected the conditions facing Northern Black workers, and the white liberals who helped finance the Southern struggle usually opposed organizing in the North. Many CORE members came to agree with Malcolm X that only a nationalist all-Black movement could achieve Black liberation.

But a turn to Black nationalism did not necessarily mean confronting capitalism as the source of Black oppression.

In 1966, shortly after Farmer's resignation as director, CORE supported SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael's call for Black Power, but CORE leader Floyd McKissick gave the phrase a more conservative interpretation. While arguing that CORE did not need the financial support of white liberals, McKissick and his successor Roy Innis continued to accept government grants to replace the liberals' contributions.

In 1968 Innis declared CORE to be a Black nationalist and separatist organization. But the group continued to work for Black Democratic candidates. Many left-wingers left the organization, including the entire Brooklyn branch. In practice, the slogan Black Power was more about a strategy for achieving an all-Black movement than about who would wield power and to what end.

For Innis, the middle class was the natural leadership of the nationalist movement. Black political strength would be based on the economic power of Black-owned business. "Direct action" was abandoned.

So while some Black nationalist groups attempted to build revolutionary organizations, CORE accepted a 1968 grant from the Ford Foundation to work for Carl Stokes' mayoral campaign in Cleveland. A year later, James Farmer took a job in the right-wing Nixon administration to win Black influence in government, even as Nixon's FBI mounted a repressive campaign against Black militants. Nixon himself used the phrase Black Power to argue for government grants for Black-owned businesses.

By the early 1970s, CORE existed in name only, and Innis likewise supported Republicans, even running as a Republican political candidate. Black nationalism typically did not shift so far toward accommodation with the system. But the ideas that put CORE in the conservative wing of the Black movement in the late 1960s were echoed in the 1970s and after, with the efforts of a minority of better-off Blacks to build businesses and run for political office.

This article first appeared in the April 1987 issue of Socialist Worker.