Issue 180 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

The promised land

Mass student protests in the US in the 1960s aimed to fight racial segregation. As Chris Bambery explains, the protests also drew in thousands of workers and radicalised a whole generation
Student power--boycotting General Electric, 1970
Student power--boycotting General Electric, 1970

Thirty years ago thousands of American students, mostly from comfortable white middle class homes, gave up their summer vacations to go South into Mississippi and other former slave states. They went to challenge the racial segregation which equalled virtual apartheid. Others went into the slums of the Northern industrial cities to build community organisations and education projects.

The years 1964-65 were the high water mark of American liberalism. President Lyndon B Johnson got Congress to pass the Civil Rights Bill and a year later the Voting Rights Act was made law. Johnson announced a War On Poverty as part of a move towards what he termed 'the Great Society'.

The organisations which would spawn the New Left were at their peak. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were spearheading Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) provided the young idealistic students who went South and into the Northern slums. The Free Speech Movement erupted at the University of California in Berkeley over the administration's ban on political meetings and stalls. It ushered in a wave of campus unrest which burned for a decade.

What unfolded was a process of disillusionment with any hope of reforming American society and a process of radicalisation. The young blacks at the centre of SNCC and CORE would move away from the ideas of non-violence and Martin Luther King towards the revolutionary ideas of Black Power and the Black Panthers. SDS would explode in a debate involving tens of thousands of young people who were groping towards revolutionary politics.

At the beginning of the 1960s the assumption was that the civil rights movement could herald a new coalition between liberals and the trade union movement which would either create an equivalent to Britain's Labour Party or transform the existing Democratic Party. Trade union leaders like Walter Reuther of the United Automobile Workers helped fund the activities of SDS, CORE and SNCC and threw their efforts behind Martin Luther King. Thousands of rank and file workers joined King's March on Washington. The demonstrators' songs illustrated the link between the trade unions and the civil rights movement. Thousands joined in revised versions of Which Side Are You On and Hallelujah I'm A Bum (changed to Hallelujah I'm a Travellin'). Even Freedom Train a Comin' was adapted from Union Train a Comin'!

In September 1963 hundreds of members of the United Packinghouse Workers came to Washington to meet with civil rights leaders. CORE leader James Farmer led them in a song discovered by left wing folk singers on a picket line in the 1940s, We Shall Overcome.

Later more than 60 members of the teaching union (more than half from New York City) went to Mississippi to teach black youngsters during Freedom Summer. In San Francisco dockers, teamsters, teachers and construction workers joined with CORE to fight racial segregation and discrimination at the prestigious Palace Hotel. This helped trigger the free speech fight at Berkeley just across the bay.

After sit-ins began against segregation, trade unionists picketed or called sympathy strikes at companies like Woolworth's. Packinghouse workers joined pickets of the company's stores with placards declaring 'If You Support Woolworth's Here, You Support Segregation in the South!' In New York 800 members of the Garment Workers' Union turned out on a single afternoon.

Student activists demonstrated their solidarity with labour when New York newspaper workers struck in 1962. A year later in Wisconsin students organised a boycott of a car dealership chain involved in a dispute with the UAW, in New York they backed striking retail and hospital workers and in Oregon students joined auto workers on the picket line.

Peter B Levy's The New Left and Labour in the 1960s charts the uneasy relationship between the new generation of revolutionaries which was emerging and the trade unions. The breakdown of the alliance between trade union officialdom and SNCC, CORE and SDS came over the two burning questions of the decade--black liberation and the Vietnam War. The unions were extremely right wing and conservative.

Many SDS leaders were 'red diaper babies', sons and daughters of Communists and radicals who had been involved in the strike waves and factory occupations of the 1930s and 1940s. Then the Communist Party had grown to 100,000 and hundreds of thousands of American workers experienced interracial solidarity as they fought to win union organisation.

But any working class continuity with that tradition was broken by the anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s spearheaded by Senator McCarthy. The American ruling class, aided by the dominant union leaders, helped create an ideological climate in which left wing views of any shade were sidelined.

At the beginning of the 1960s the leaders of the American unions backed the new student groupings because they seemed to share their distaste for Communism.

As early as 1964 a turning point was reached at that year's Democratic Party convention, when 68 pro-civil rights Freedom Democrats challenged the right of 68 whites elected on the basis of segregation to represent the state. The union leaders were desperate to see President Johnson elected at all costs and didn't want to upset the Democrats' apple cart. Walter Reuther threatened Martin Luther King with withdrawal of financial support unless the Freedom Democrats backed down. This incident was held up by Stokeley Carmichael and James Farmer of CORE as proving the need for blacks to organise their own separate power base.

The head of the AFL-CIO (equivalent of the British TUC), George Meany, wrote attacking the Black Panthers and Stokeley Carmichael: 'I've got news for Mr Carmichael, the reputed author of the Black Power slogan. The Negro goons who go on racist rampages know exactly what Black Power means. To them it is the chance to go on a spree of violence with testimonial as a "freedom fighter" for a cover.'

Union leaders like Meany had turned their backs on fighting discrimination on the shopfloor and even within the unions. But even black union leaders joined in denouncing the revival of black nationalism. Yet at grass roots level it was a different story. DRUM, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, was formed among black car workers in the Detroit area. In early 1968 at a Ford plant in New Jersey black workers formed the United Black Brothers after the union refused to act over racial harassment and organised a sit down protest.

In May 1970 hard hatted construction workers marched through New York in support of President Nixon and the war in Vietnam. Long haired men passing by were set upon. This helped turn many radicals away from any idea that ordinary workers could be a force for change. Yet attitudes began to change as the realities of war came home to working class America. A majority of union members polled in May 1970, 53 percent, opposed both Nixon's extension of the war to Cambodia and the construction workers' rampage in New York.

Levy concludes: 'Contrary to the stereotype of "hard hats" as hawks, virtually every survey demonstrated that at any given time manual workers were just as likely to oppose the war as were youths, the archetypal doves.'

In the autumn of 1970, 63 percent of Detroit residents voted in a city wide referendum for immediate US withdrawal from Vietnam. These voters were overwhelmingly working class. By the end of 1971 Gallup polls showed 61 percent favoured withdrawal with trade union households supporting this view more than any other group except blacks.

The bodybags returning from Vietnam were overwhelmingly working class, and black. The costs of the war ended Johnson's War on Poverty and increased inflation hit wage packets. On 15 October 1969 the anti-war movement called for workers to strike and join a nationwide moratorium against the war. Levy suggests it might have been 'the single largest general strike' in US history. In New York 40 trade unions endorsed the protest. Local UAW officials led massive protests in the city and in Berkeley, while tens of thousands of trade unionists rallied in central Detroit.

A month later between 500,000 and 800,000 people demonstrated in Washington with another 250,000 protesting in San Francisco. Levy notes that, while students predominated, vast numbers of trade unionists were there joining in singing 'Give Peace a Chance'.

Across America 1969 and 1970 saw a major wave of industrial unrest, often involving unofficial, wildcat strikes. In the South former SNCC and SDS activists had helped organise and lead strikes at Levi Strauss plants (SDS chapters in New York, New Orleans and Atlanta gave support by staging strip-ins of their jeans), in Carolina textile plants, among Mississippi wood mills and Memphis sanitation workers.

Early in 1969 Standard Oil workers struck in California. The company obtained a court order limiting picket numbers. The strikers responded by asking for outside help. Students from San Francisco and Berkeley flocked to support them.

In October there was a strike lasting all winter at the giant General Electric. Across the country students organised collections of food and money, joined picket lines and took up the chant, 'Warmakers, Strikebreakers, Smash GE'. In the Boston area students stopped GE from recruiting on campus. When student radicals disrupted an address by the company's vice-president at Boston University they were met with a court injunction and club wielding police. A strike against the subsequent arrests and suspensions got the support of 10,000 students out of a total student body of 17,000.

In mid-1970 200,000 postal workers in New York defied a court injunction and federal law to walk out in defiance of their union leaders. The start of the college term in October 1970 coincided with the biggest walkout, by 400,000 General Motors workers. A former SDS leader organised 2,000 students in the Chicago area in support of the strike. In Los Angeles law students gave strikers free advice, students organised a strike benefit with Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie, and encouraged the Black Panthers to support strikers.

In this atmosphere tens of thousands of students rallied to left wing ideas.

American capitalism had to adjust to contain the insurgency of the 1970s. President Nixon was hustled off amidst scandal to be replaced by Gerald Ford and the Democrat Jimmy Carter. Carter signed an accord with union leaders to police their members, helped promote the rise of middle class blacks and implemented the monetarist policies carried on by Reagan and Bush in the 1980s.

The book ends not in lamenting the passing of the spirit of the 1960s but in hope. As Levy points out, the 1960s removed forever the America of 'coat hanger abortions, school prayer, atmospheric testing of atomic weapons, Jim Crow [institutionalised racial segregation], wanton imperialism, mandatory ROTC, dress codes, dormitory curfews, the draft, bomb shelters, strident (domestic) anti-Communism and legal sexual and racial discrimination in the workplace and housing market'.

Neither can America turn the clock back, whatever the sentimental twaddle like Forrest Gump peddled by Hollywood. Working class America carries all the scars and bitterness of the Reagan-Bush years. Peter Levy quotes Martin Luther King on the eve of his assassination:

The New Left and Labor in the 1960s by Peter Levy, 14.95 (from Bookmarks)

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