Intro to Afro-American Studies


Black Power and the U.S. Political System

Toward a Paradigm of Unity in Afro-American Studies

LOGIC OF CHANGE Social Cohesion Traditional Africa - Slavery - Rural Life - Urban Life
Social Disruption - Slave Trade - Emancipation - Migrations -
UNITS OF ANALYSIS Ideology A1 B1 C1 D1 E1 F1 G1
Nationality A2 B2 C2 D2 E2 F2 G2
Class A3 B3 C3 D3 E3 F3 G3
Race A4 B4 C4 D4 E4 F4 G4


It's got to be the ballot or the bullet. The ballot or the bullet. If you're afraid to use an expression like that, you should get on out of the country, you should get back in the cotton patch, you should get back in the alley. They get all the Negro vote, and after they get it, the Negro gets nothing in return.

Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks, 1965.

Seek ye the political kingdom, and all else will come unto you.

Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana: The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah, 1959.


Black people have always viewed politics and the struggle for political power as one of the most important paths to liberation. Black voters have been important in the election of major white officials for a long time, especially at the national level since the 1960s. There has also been an increase in the number of Black mayors and other elected officials, and more appointments at the federal, state, and local levels. But the problems that Black people face in the United States - unemployment, inflation, decaying cities, poor health care, police brutality, and many others - are no closer to solution now than they, were before the increase in Black political officials. In fact, the situation for the masses is getting worse not better.

How are we to approach the political dimension of the Black experience? Generally, legal relations - the law and the government (state) - reflect existing power (class) relations. That is, the law, has always served the interests of that class which dominates or rules the society at any particular time. Government is an arena of the struggle for power and wealth that is going on at all times. The government served the slaveowners and under capitalism it serves the capitalists. These fundamental laws of U.S. politics can help us to understand the role that the government has historically played in (and against) the struggle for Black liberation.


In the political arena, this struggle has changed forms as the main political problem facing Black people has changed. During the slave experience, Black people fought to be defined by the political system as human. In the rural period, the main political fight was for civil rights (for voting, office-holding, etc.). During the, urban period, Black people have had legally defined equal opportunity but still face a disproportionate burden of poverty and racist discrimination in all areas of life.


Because slavery was so important to the economic development of this country, the protection of the institution of slavery for the slaveowners and the regulation of the slaves assumed the highest priority of governmental bodies - federal, state, and local. Thus, beginning with Virginia in 1661, many colonial state governments passed laws which defined Black people as sub-humans. They put them into the same category as "working beasts, animals of any kind, stock, furniture, plate, books, and so forth," as Maryland's law stated. These laws recognizing the slavery of Blacks passed in southern states, like South Carolina (1682) and Georgia (1749), and in northern states - Massachusetts (1641), Connecticut (1650), Rhode Island (1652), and New York (1665).

The absolute necessity of controlling slaves through laws of repression is best illustrated by the slave codes passed by northern and southern states. These codes regulated many aspects of slave life - travel, marriage, religion, etc. The most important function, however, was to maintain the slave production system of forced labor.

The interest of state traders and slaveowners was reflected in all of the laws of the period. When the Declaration of Independence was drafted in 1776, New England slave-trading merchants joined with southern slaveowners to delete a passage condemning slave trading, despite the opening assertion that "all men are created equal."  Similarly, when the U.S. Constitution was drawn up in 1788,it  was clear that there was a greater concern for property rights than human rights.



Three different provisions in the Constitution upheld the institution of slavery, thereby reflecting the interest of slave traders and slaveowners: 1) the importation of slaves was legalized for at least twenty more years, after which Congress could, if it wished, pass a law prohibiting it; 2) fugitive slaves had to be turned over to slaveowners who claimed them; 3) Blacks in slavery were to be regarded as three-fifths of a person. This "three-fifths compromise" grew out of a dispute between outherners and northerners over representation and taxation. The South wanted to count slaves for purposes of increasing representation in Congress, but it did not want to count them for purposes of determining direct taxes. Northerners saw this as an obvious attempt to increase the power of the South while escaping its fair share of taxes. The three-fifths compromise which resulted served the political and economic interests of whites from both region. All of these provisions strengthened the rights of the slaveowners and laid the legal basis for the dehumanization of the masses of Black people. (After the 1793 invention of the cotton gin spurred cotton production and increased the need for slave labor, a significant, though unsuccessful, movement developed to amend the Constitution and permit slave trading after 1808.)

Congress, the President, the Supreme Court, and governmental bodies at the state and local levels all served the interest of slaveowners. The Supreme Court, which was dominated by southerners, was particularly useful to slaveowners in the pre-Civil War period when their power was being challenged. In 1859, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that Black people "had no rights that the white man was bound to respect." This decision ruled that slaves who managed to get to one of the non-slave states were not free, but should be returned to the slave master. It also deprived free Blacks (both in non-slave and slave states) of citizenship rights under the U.S. Constitution. This decision led to attempts to enslave free Blacks and resulted in increased resistance to slavery.

Frederick Douglass, who had been invited to give a Fourth of July speech in 1852, outlined what a sham U.S. democracy really was:


Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?...

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common - The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?...

Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery - the great sin and shame of America!...

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brassfronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy - a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.


In 1776, British colonialism was the main problem facing the American colonies and this united northern industrial capitalists and merchants with the slaveowners of the South into the common cause of the American Revolution. By the 1850s, however, this had changed. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 had revitalized the Cotton Kingdom; cotton production increased from 3,000 bales in 1770 to 1.35 million bales in 1840 (a bale = 1,000 pounds). Also between 1790 and 1830, northern industry, especially cotton textiles, made rapid advances because of new inventions and production techniques. The South, however, continued to prefer England as the market for its cotton and as the source of manufactured goods. This restricted the growth of northern factories and of the northern industrial capitalists.



Thus, two wings of the ruling class representing two different kinds of property and social systems - slave and industrial - came more and more into open conflict. This economic conflict was the basis of the slavery-related political struggles during the pre-Civil War period. The conflict involved such important issues as whether the tariffs (fees) charged on imports and exports would be high (so northern textile capitalists could keep the South's cotton in the United States and keep British manufactured goods out). Another question was whether new states admitted into the union' would be slave states (which would increase the political power of the South) or free states. This latter issue was at the root of several important political compromises which sought a peaceful solution to this growing conflict. But such compromises (e.g., Missouri Compromise in 1820) were insufficient. Only the Civil War could resolve whether the northern industrial capitalists or the slaveowners of the South would dominate the federal government and use it as an instrument to further their very different and opposed economic interests. The northern industrial capitalists won.


Emancipating the slaves was an historical and political necessity, the only way in which the northern capitalists could defeat their slaveowning enemies in the Civil War. But solving one problem often leads to other problems. While emancipation gave the North important Black allies in beating the South, it also upset the labor system in the South and unleashed a powerful movement to establish full democratic rights. Genuine democracy (not bourgeois or capitalist democracy where everyone can vote but the rich continue to rule) would have restricted some of the activities of the wealthy northern capitalists. Thus, reestablishing a system of labor in the South became one immediate aim of government during the Reconstruction period. Reconstructing a political system under the firm control of the northern capitalists became the other.



The "Black Codes" clearly illustrate how state and local governments reestablished the labor system. The purpose of these "Black Codes" was to institute new conditions of exploitation as similar to slavery as possible. Mississippi was so bold as to almost completely re-enact its old "Slave Code." W. E. B. DuBois summarized the workings of the Black Codes in Black Reconstruction in America:

...the Black Codes were deliberately designed to take advantage of every misfortune of the Negro. Negroes were liable to a slave trade under the guise of vagrancy and apprenticeship laws; to make the best labor contracts, Negroes must leave the old plantations and seek better terms: but if caught wandering in search of work, and thus unemployed and without a home, this was vagrancy, and the victim could be whipped and sold into slavery. In the turmoil of war, children were separated from parents, or parents unable to support them properly. These children could be sold into slavery, and "the former owner of said minors shall have the preference."  Negroes could come into court as witnesses only in cases in which Negroes were involved. And even then, they must make their appeal to a jury and judge who would believe the word of any white man in preference to that of any Negro on pain of losing office and caste.

The Negro's access to the land was hindered and limited; his right to work was curtailed; his right of self-defense was taken away, when his right to bear arms was stopped; and his employment was virtually reduced to contract labor with penal servitude as a punishment for leaving his job. And in all cases, the judges of the Negro's guilt or innocence, rights and obligations were men who believed firmly, for the most part, that he had "no rights which a white man was bound to respect!"


While the federally sponsored Freedmen's Bureau conducted essential relief work among free slaves, its most important function, spelled out in Congressional legislation, was to organize and regulate a system of labor contracts, within the context of the emerging tenant system.

While this exploitative labor system was being established in the South, northerners were busy trying to consolidate their political victory. The importance of the ex-slaves to the North's strategy was reflected in the three Reconstruction Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These amendments abolished -slavery (the 13th), put the federal government behind the rights of the freed slaves (the 14th), and guaranteed Black males the right to vote (the 15th). A close reading of these amendments - for example, section 3 and, 4 of the 14th amendment - reveals that the amendments were also aimed at consolidating the defeat of the slaveowners by disfranchising and barring from office the leaders of the Confederacy or anyone who had voluntarily aided the Confederacy and by refusing to pay any of the debts the South had incurred during the war.



During this Reconstruction period, Black people fought for and won many democratic rights. Blacks voted and were elected to federal, state, and local political offices. Laws creating the first tax-supported public education system and other progressive measures were passed in legislation where Black people were in a majority (South Carolina) or played a leading role.

The next stage of the relationship of Black people to the U.S. government during the rural period was based on the changing interests of northern capitalists. The North had used their alliance with the ex-slaves to consolidate their victory over the southern slaveowners. The main problem now facing them was the disruption of the smooth and peaceful operation of capitalist exploitation by the newly enfranchised Blacks and a growing radical movement among workers, farmers, and small manufacturers. Thus, northern capitalists ended their alliance with Black people in the Hayes-Tilden Sellout of 1877. Federal troops were withdrawn from the South and political power was given back to the ex-slaveowners. This time northern capitalists were overseeing the entire process. As William Z. Foster pointed out:

The Northern bourgeoisie, who were beginning to develop monopoly capitalism, betrayed the Negro people by making a bargain with Southern reaction, because they had accomplished their major objectives through the revolution. That is, they had preserved the Union and smashed the menace of the cotton planters, thus forever removing them as a dangerous obstacle in their economic and political path. With this done, they had no further concern about the Negro people, except to make sure that they were kept in a position where the Northerners themselves could participate in their super-exploitation.

It was consistent with the "serve the rich" role the U.S. government was playing that these same federal troops were used to suppress the 1877 national railroad strike in which Black and white workers stood together.

In the late 1800s, the federal government gave over a billion acres of publicly-owned land to the railroads and to mining and land corporations but only a few acres to homesteaders. Millions of dollars of public funds were distributed to wealthy bondholders. Black and white farmers fought against this increasing domination of big business which resulted in low prices for farm products and high prices for transportation and manufactured goods. This farmers' revolt led to the Populist Movement, which elected local, state, and federal officials and almost won the U.S. presidency in 1896. These officials supported such radical policies, as public ownership of monopolized railroads, telegraphs, and telephones, an income tax system, and reforms to benefit workers.



The high level of militant unity which developed among Black and white farmers during the rural period was a significant threat to the ruling class. Thus, all branches of government participated in the repression of Black people and in maintaining them as a super-exploited sector among the workers on the farms and in the factories of the South. The Civil Rights Acts of 1870-71 were repealed in 1894. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled in PIessy v. Ferguson that segregation was legal under the rubric of separate but equal. It thereby legitimized the discrimination against Black people enacted by state governments in the South (e.g., the poll tax, grandfather clause, and the all-white primary - see Chapter 5).

Ralph Bunche, in his analysis of the political status of Blacks, described the effects of these moves to disfranchise Blacks:

Small wonder that the Negro, continually turned away from participation in the only real elections [primaries], and denied registration by "impartial" registrars, frequently made no effort to vote...

The severe rebuff given to the high hopes of Negroes in the period of reaction following Reconstruction led to disillusionment and ultimately to an attitude approaching resignation and fatalism. The last quarter of the nineteenth century was a period of decreasing political activity for Negroes, and black leaders sought to discover a new line and a new direction. This quickly took the form of a philosophy of conciliation, which involved a recognition of the supremacy of the dominant white population and of the inferior caste status of the Negro. The philosophy of the Negro in this period reveals itself as a somewhat strange admixture of futility and hope, and it was given its proper refinement through the lips of Booker T. Washington. The political aspirations of the Negro came to be regarded as chimerical, and he was directed to other channels of activity, such as the economic, in which he would be able through thrift, industry and vocational skill to win for himself strength and respect in the community. The Negro reluctantly accepted his removal from political affairs and attempted to make the best of it.




Some, of course, continued to struggle. The main fight of Black people during the rural period was to restore their fundamental civil rights, a struggle that continues today (as we will discuss further in Chapter 14).




The migration, urbanization, and proletarianization (factory work) of Black people beginning during World War I led to a dramatic transformation of all aspects of Black life. Black people became highly concentrated in urban areas and involved in most sectors of the industrial economy. Thus, a new basis for the political development of Black people was laid. Because U.S. imperialism needed Black workers in the northern industrial economy, the federal government was compelled to end the more blatant forms of oppression. However, it left the content of oppression intact. Black people were given some civil rights on paper, but they had to continue the fight for full equality in practice in the political and economic system. This became the main focus of struggle during the urban period.

Because of the mass protest movements and revolutionary struggles during the Great Depression (see Chapter 16), the federal government was forced to institute a system of social insurance (unemployment insurance, welfare, social security, etc.) and to recognize the right of workers to organize trade unions. Both of these benefited Black people who were mostly workers. Black people initiated plans for a massive March on Washington Movement to protest discrimination just as the United States geared up for World War II. A. Philip Randolph outlined the goals of the March on Washington Movement:

When this war ends, the people want something more than the dispersal of equality and power among individual citizens in a liberal, political democratic system. They demand with striking comparability the dispersal of equality and power among the citizen-workers in an economic democracy that will make certain the assurance of the good life - the more abundant life - in a warless world...

Thus our feet are set in the path toward [the long-range goal of] equality - economic, political and social and racial. Equality is the heart and essence of democracy, freedom and justice. Without equality of opportunity in industry, in labor unions, schools and colleges, government, politics and before the law, without equality in social relations and in all phases of human endeavor, the Negro is certain to be consigned to an inferior status. There must be no dual standards of justice, no dual rights, privileges, duties or responsibilities of citizenship. No dual forms of freedom...

But our nearer goals include the abolition of discrimination, segregation, and jim-crow in the Government, the Army, Navy, Air Corps, U.S. Marine, Coast Guard, Women's Auxiliary Army Corps and the Waves, and defense industries; the elimination of discrimination in hotels, restaurants, on public transportation conveyances, in educational, recreational, cultural, and amusement and entertainment places such as theaters, beaches and so forth.

We want the full works of citizenship with no reservations. We will accept nothing less.



For Randolph and others, the method of achieving these goals involved struggle on the part of the masses: "Therefore, if Negroes secure their goals, immediate and remote, they must win them and to win them they must fight, sacrifice, suffer, go to jail and, if need be, die for them. These rights will not be given. They must be taken."

Because these protests weakened the attempt of U.S. imperialism to fight a war and grab a bigger share of the world, the federal government reacted with a series of executive orders to reduce racist discrimination: the Fair Employment Practices Committee (1941), the President's Committee on Civil Rights (1946), and the integration of the armed forces (1948). The mass protest activities continued, and limited measures restricting discrimination in housing and ending the all-white primaries also resulted.

Other avenues were also pursued. In 1951, the United Nations was petitioned on behalf of Black people in the United States:

The responsibility of being the first in history to charge the government of the United States of America with the crime of genocide is not one your petitioners take lightly. The responsibility is particularly grave when citizens must charge their own government with mass murder of its own nationals, with institutionalized oppression and persistent slaughter of the Negro people in the United States on a basis of "race," a crime abhorred by mankind and prohibited by the conscience of the world...

Seldom in human annals has so iniquitous a conspiracy been so gilded with the trappings of respectability. Seldom has mass murder on the score of "race" been so sanctified by law, so justified by those who demand free elections abroad even as they kill their fellow citizens who demand free elections at home. Never have so many individuals been so ruthlessly destroyed amid so many tributes to the sacredness of the individual. The distinctive trait of this genocide is a cant that mouths aphorisms of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence even as it kills...

Your petitioners will prove that the crime of which we complain is in fact genocide within the terms and meaning of the United Nations Convention providing for the prevention and punishment of this crime...

We shall offer proof of economic genocide, or in the words of the Convention, proof of "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its destruction in whole or in part."

Further we shall show a deliberate national oppression of these 15,000,000 Negro Americans on the basis of "race" to perpetuate these "conditions of life."  Negroes are the last hired and the first fired. They are forced into city ghettos or their rural equivalents. They are segregated legally or through sanctioned violence into filthy, disease-bearing housing, and deprived by law of adequate medical care and education. From birth to death, Negro Americans are humiliated and persecuted, in violation of the Charter and the Convention. They are forced by threat of violence and imprisonment into inferior, segregated accommodations, into jim crow busses, jim crow trains, jim crow hospitals, jim crow schools, jim crow theaters, jim crow restaurants, jim crow housing, and finally into jim crow cemeteries.

We shall prove that the object of this genocide, as of all genocide, is the perpetuation of economic and political power by the few through the destruction of political protest by the many. Its method is to demoralize and divide an entire nation; its end is to increase the profits and unchallenged control by a reactionary cliqueWe shall show that those responsible for this crime are not the humble but the so-called great, not the American people but their misleaders, not the convict but the robed judge, not the criminal but the police, not the spontaneous mob but organized terrorists licensed and approved by the state to incite to a Roman holiday.



All these efforts set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement and the massive political protests that forced a flurry of governmental action, starting with the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court which declared that discrimination against Black people was unconstitutional.

The 1960s was a high tide of struggle in the Black liberation movement. Two distinct trends developed among Black people in the political arena: one was reformist, the other revolutionary. The Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and the voter registration projects funded by monopoly capitalists increased the number of Black voters. This led to a greater emphasis on a reformist program for Black liberation. Electing Black politicians was seen as the most important way to achieve freedom for Black people. The number of these politicians increased on the local, state, and federal levels and such organizations as the Congressional Black Caucus and National Black Political Assembly were formed.

The Congressional Black Caucus is a coalition of Black Congresspersons who basically accepted the U.S. political and economic system. Louis Stokes, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, clearly articulated its reformist position:

We comprehend the game and we are determined to have some meaningful input in the decisions of the legislative branch of the federal government...

If we are to be effective, if we are going to make a meaningful contribution to minority citizens and this country, then it must be as legislators. This is the area in which we possess expertise - and it is within the halls of Congress that we must make this expertise felt.


Their purpose was to "move not against the current, but in fact with it, in seeking to make democracy what it ought to be for all Americans." Congressperson Ron Dellums (D, California) is the only registered socialist in Congress.

The National Black Political Assembly was rooted in a very different set of assumptions. Convening in Gary, Indiana in 1972, delegates from grassroots organizations declared: "A Black political convention, indeed all truly black politics, must begin from this truth: The American system does not work for the masses of our people, and it cannot be made to work without radical fundamental change."  For those attending the National Black Political Convention, the United States was "a society built on the twin foundations. of white racism and white capitalism."  They maintained that "the only real choice for us is whether or not we will live by the truth we know, whether we will move to organize independently, move to struggle for fundamental transformation, for the creation of a new direction, towards a concern for the life and the meaning of Man."  The National Black Political Assembly which emerged from this convention, however, eventually betrayed its origins and these truths. It made the crucial error of allying itself with Black officials, who had exhausted their capacity to lead.  The National Black Political Assembly ultimately merely served as a bridge to lead people back into electoral and reformist politics.

Despite increasing numbers of Black politicians, there has been no real long-term improvement in conditions facing Black people. E. Franklin Frazier explained why in his study of the Black bourgeoisie:

The political leaders who have emerged as a consequence of the new role of Negroes in the political life of America are men and women with a purely middle-class outlook...Their political affiliation or leadership has no relation to the needs of the Negro masses.

Except in the case of a crisis such as that created by the Depression when the Negro masses changed their political affiliation, the Negro politician may even mobilize the masses to vote against their economic interests. In his role as leader, the Negro politician attempts to accommodate the demands of the Negro masses to his personal interests which are tied up with the political machines. He may secure the appointment of a few middle-class Negroes to positions in the municipal government. But when it comes to the fundamental interests of the Negro masses as regards employment, housing, and health, his position is determined by the political machine which represents the propertied classes of the white community.



At best, reformist politicians and electoral politics seek to achieve Black liberation without fundamental changes in U.S. capitalism and capitalist democracy, a system in which the few rich continue to rule. Electoral politics prevents the masses of people from seeing that those capitalists who dominate the U.S. economy also dominate the political process, regardless of which political party is in office.

For reformists, the ballot and the courts offer the solution to the problems of Black people. Dr. Ralph Bunche of Howard University warned in 1935:

The inherent fallacy of this belief rests in the failure to appreciate the fact that the instruments of the state are merely the reflections of the political and economic ideology of the dominant group, that the political arm of the state cannot be divorced from its prevailing economic structure, whose servant it must inevitably be.

He went on to amplify his point:

The confidence of the proponents of the political method of alleviation is based on the protection which they feel is offered all groups in the society by that sacred document the Constitution...This view ignores the quite significant fact that the Constitution is a very flexible instrument and that, in the nature of things, it cannot be anything more than the controlling elements in the American society wish it to be. In other words, this charter...can never be more than our legislatures, and, in the final analysis, our courts, wish it to be.

He also explained exactly why the courts failed to provide justice:

It is only inadvertently that the courts, like the legislatures, fail to reflect the dominant mass opinion. It must be futile, then, to expect these agencies of government to afford the Negro protection for rights which are denied to him by the popular will...In the first place, American experience affords too many proofs that laws and decisions contrary to the will of the majority cannot be, enforced. In the second place, the Supreme Court can effect no revolutionary changes in the economic order, and yet the status of the Negro, as that of other groups in the society, is fundamentally fixed by the functioning and the demands of that order. The very attitudes of the majority group which fix the Negro in his disadvantaged position are part and parcel of the American economic and political order.

By the 1960s, this sort of analysis was embraced by increasing numbers of Black people. The struggle in the 1960s produced a more militant and radical program for Black liberation. Many Black people pointed to the historical role that the entire political system has played in helping to exploit and oppress Black people and concluded as Malcolm X did: "This so-called democracy has failed Black people." Articulating the lessons of the struggle, Malcolm X declared in a speech in Cleveland in 1964:



This is not even a government that's based on democracy. It is not a government that is made up of representatives of the people. Half of the people in the South can't even vote...Half of the senators and congressmen who occupy these key positions in Washington, D.C., are there illegally, are there unconstitutionally...

So, what I'm trying to impress upon you, in essence, is this: You and I in America are faced not with a segregationist conspiracy, we're faced with a government conspiracy... You don't have anybody putting blocks in your path but people who are a part of the government. The same government that you go abroad to fight for and die for is the government that is in a conspiracy to deprive you of your voting rights, deprive you of your economic opportunities, deprive you of decent housing, deprive you of decent education. You don't need to go to the employer alone, it is the government itself, the government of America, that is responsible for the oppression and exploitation and degradation of black people in this country...This government has failed the Negro.

It was on this basis that the revolutionary sector of the Black liberation movement emerged and struggled for basic and fundamental changes in U.S. society and attracted widespread support in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Black Panther Party was perhaps the most visible in the struggle during those years. By 1970, the Panthers were calling for a new constitution:

For us, the case is absolutely clear: Black people have no future within the present structure of power and authority in the United States under the present Constitution. For us, also, the alternatives are absolutely clear: the present structure of power and authority in the United States must be radically changed or we, as a people, must extricate ourselves from entanglement with the United States...


We call upon the American people to rise up, repudiate, and restrain the forces of fascism that are now rampant in the land and which are the only real obstacles standing between us and a rational resolution of the national crisis.

We believe that Black people are not the only group within America that stands in need of a new Constitution. Other oppressed ethnic groups, the youth of America, Women, young men who are slaughtered as cannon fodder in mad, avaricious wars of aggression, our neglected elderly people all have an interest in a new Constitution that will guarantee us a society in which Human Rights are supreme and Justice is assured to every man, woman, and child within its jurisdiction. For it is only through this means that America, as a nation, can live together in peace with our brothers and sisters the world over.  Only through this means can the present character of America, the purveyor of exploitation, misery, death, and wanton destruction all over the planet earth, be changed.


The Black Panthers did not just propose the formation of a new constitution. Throughout this period, they engaged in an all-encompassing revolutionary struggle. The government's reaction was to set about to systematically destroy the Panthers, killing some, imprisoning others. The 1970s witnessed increasing governmental repression.

More recently the Bakke case and other cases involving attacks on affirmative action reveal that the government is again orchestrating the efforts of the ruling class to reverse the gains of the Black liberation struggle. Learning the lessons of the last years of struggle (especially since 1954), more and more Black people now see the dead-end nature of reformist politics. More and more Black people also see the futility of relying on the existing government to solve the many problems facing Black people, problems which that same government has helped to create. It is our view that only a fundamental and basic revolutionary change in the existing political system will guarantee the democratic rights and freedom that Black people and the masses of people in the United States have fought for since the American Revolution.


Civil rights/Black Codes Human rights/Slave Codes 
Equal rights Law/Legal relations
Genocide Supreme Court
Government Three-fifths compromise
Hayes-Tilden betrayal  Voting 


1. What protection did slaves get from the U.S. Constitution? How and why was slavery supported?

2. What were the three Reconstruction Amendments? What obstacles to voting did Blacks face during the rural period?

3. Compare the political meaning of the March on Washington movement (1941), the genocide petition to the United Nations (1951), and the Constitutional Convention called by the Black Panther Party (1970).

4. What are the strengths and weaknesses of an electoral approach to Black liberation? Why has an increased number of Black elected officials not ended the exploitation and oppression that the masses of Black people have faced?



I. Rod Bush edl, The New Black Vote: Politics and Power in Four American Cities . San Francisco: Synthesis Publications, 1984.

2. Walton Hanes, Jr.,  Black Politics. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincot, 1972.

3. Albert Karnig and Susan Welch, Black Representation and Urban Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

4. Ira Katznelson, Black Men, White Cities. New York: Oxford  University Press, 1973.

5. Michael Preston, Lenneal Henderson, and Paul Puryear, eds., The New Black Politics. New York: Longman, 1982.



 SNCC , early 1960s

263 -264
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