Carving a niche in the system

Lee Sustar describes the background to the rise of Black elected officials in the '70s.

The History of Black America

THE BLACK urban rebellions in Northern cities from 1964 to 1968 were both a rejection of both the Democratic Party machines that ran most large cities and a symbol of the sentiment among Blacks that more would be needed to achieve an end to racism than the strategies of the civil rights movement. Black nationalism seized the political initiative in these years, with its militant struggles for better housing, jobs and an end to racist police violence.

But even at the peak of the movement, the state--through the vehicle of the Democratic Party--attempted to reassert its control over the Black community, even where Black neighborhoods had literally become ungovernable. By opening their doors to a new layer of Black politicians, the Democrats turned the popular nationalist demand for "community control" into support for mainstream electoral campaigns.

Sometimes, the new Black candidates appealed to the nationalist sentiments of voters and portrayed their campaigns as part of the struggle for community control. The result was the demobilization of politicized Black workers--and the accommodation of Black officeholders to the austerity programs of city governments beset by fiscal crisis.

There were attempts to build an independent Black alternative to the Democrats. But these were devastated by government repression. The Black Panther Party, for example, was subjected to a savage campaign of raids, harassment and murder.

This made the emphasis on local community work appear more "realistic" to many Black activists. But the cross-class alliances implicit in Black nationalism and the ambiguity of "community control" also left the movement vulnerable to co-optation by the Democratic Party.

The idea of Black community control and an independent "Black economy" had emerged historically out of a pessimism about the possibility of a working-class struggle that could win gains for Blacks and whites at the same time. In particular, this strategy seemed to offer an alternative to the meager or nonexistent government services and overpriced private stores that predominated in the Black community.

The Panthers' own "survival programs," such as free breakfasts for Black schoolchildren, were a left-wing variant of a Black nationalist tradition that included Marcus Garvey's Black Star business ventures in the 1920s and the Nation of Islam's network of restaurants and shops in the 1950s.

One of Socialist Worker's earliest features was a monthly series on the history of the African American struggle in the U.S., from slavery to the present day.
All articles in this series

Others interpreted "community control" as building an independent Black electoral machine. Although Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton called for "independent politics" in their 1967 book Black Power, this didn't necessarily imply a break with the Democrats.

"The power must be in the community, and emanate from there," Carmichael and Hamilton wrote. "The Black politicians must stop being representatives of 'downtown' machines, whatever the cost might be in terms of lost patronage and holiday handouts." This did not require a break from the Democrats, only a tougher stand within the party.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

ONE OF the first attempts to use "community control" to sidetrack Black rebellion into electoral politics was the Ford Foundation's intervention in Cleveland's 1967 mayoral election. Carl Stokes, a veteran Democratic state representative, had narrowly lost the 1965 election. But 1966 had seen a massive Black rebellion in Cleveland's Hough section, and the subsequent growth of the city's Black nationalist movement alarmed the authorities.

"It was the prediction of new violence in the city that led to our first staff visits there in March," said Ford Foundation director McGeorge Bundy. The foundation channeled $175,000 through the Cleveland chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) for a voter registration drive among Blacks for the 1967 elections, and Stokes announced he would run again.

After defeating the Democratic incumbent in the primary, Stokes faced Republican Seth Taft, a "moderate" who publicly disavowed the racist backlash vote, but privately attempted to mobilize it. A pro-Taft letter sent by the presidents of 22 ethnic clubs told traditionally Democratic white voters that a vote for Taft in this election would be a way of "protecting our way of life" and "safeguarding our liberty."

A large Black turnout enabled Stokes to win by a wide margin. But Black Clevelanders soon found out that the new mayor was more interested in making deals with the Democratic machine than in the progress of the movement. Only two of Stokes' first 10 appointments went to Blacks.

The new mayor hired 67-year-old right-winger Michael Blackwell as police chief--a shock to Blacks who had endured days of police terror during the Hough rebellion. In his first speech as chief, Blackwell attacked the Supreme Court and state laws as too liberal and blamed "publicity-seeking clergy and beatniks" for "crippling law enforcement."

Blackwell's raving increased racial tensions in the city, and Black nationalist groups prepared to defend themselves from racist attacks. In an effort to keep the peace, Stokes joined a July 21, 1968 march to commemorate the second anniversary of the Hough rebellion, alongside rifle-toting members of the Black Nationalists of New Libya.

Two days later, the Black Nationalists of New Libya were in a shootout with Cleveland police and the Ohio National Guard, sparking a rebellion that lasted five days. Seven people, three of them cops, were killed; fifteen people, 11 of them officers, were injured.

The confrontation had come as Stokes received an FBI report that Black militants had planned to assassinate him and other Black liberals. Stokes had ordered police surveillance of New Libyan leader Fred Ahmed Evans. When he was captured, Evans claimed his group's weapons were purchased with funds obtained from Stokes' neighborhood redevelopment program.

Despite the sensation over Evans' allegations, Stokes' commitment to "law and order" won him the renewed backing of local business, the media and national Democrats for his reelection campaign of 1969. At the same time, Stokes cynically used the specter of a racist backlash to mobilize the Black voters alienated by the shootout. "Fear is the one weapon that will effectively increase the turnout of Black voters in this election," Stokes' aides wrote in a document called "Blueprint for Victory."

Nevertheless, the Stokes administration had met the Ford Foundation's goal of transforming what had been a dynamic local Black movement into passive supporters of the local establishment.

The bitter experience of the Stokes administration was repeated in city after city in the following decades. Black mayors' efforts to meet "fiscal responsibilities" resulted in devastating attacks on workers and the poor. And Stokes' showdown with Black militants was echoed in Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode's 1985 assault on the MOVE organization, whose home and headquarters was firebombed.

But as the movements of the 1960s and '70s went into retreat and mainstream politics swung to the right and toward racism, most Blacks continued to see the election of Black officials as the best way to defend their interests. It was just as certain, however, that the politicians who benefited from the drive for Black unity would be unable or unwilling to improve the lives of those who elected them.

This article first appeared in the March 1988 issue of Socialist Worker.