Monday, January 20, 2014

Past and future of Multiracial Coalitions--Some Thoughts on Power to the Poor

In the last few years, our understanding of the social movements of the sixties has been transformed by new scholarship that looks beyond familiar narratives of SDS and the civil rights movement in the South. Works like Penny Lewis’ Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks, Amy Sonnie and James Tracy’s  Hillibilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power and The Black Revolution on Campus by Martha Biondi have undermined notions that the movements in the sixties were largely bereft of class politics, or that identity was foregrounded in ways that marginalized economic struggles. In fact, identity and economic struggle were combined in innovative ways by groups not well represented by the existing labor movement. Not preserved in an amber of nostalgia like some highpoints of struggle, these struggles were nonetheless highly significant. The fact that they cannot be glibly classified as victories may in fact make them even more useful to understanding struggles in the present. Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974 by historian Gordon K. Mantler is a worthy addition to this literature. Focused on efforts to build multiracial alliances, mostly between African Americans and Mexican Americans, it highlights a number of these struggles, showing how assertions of identity, multiracial coalitions, and economic struggles could, for a time, all build together, rather than at the expense of each other.

The notion of multiracial coalitions, or “rainbow coalitions,” can seem natural, or a “no-brainer.” Until recently, the American polity largely excluded non-whites, and, to this day, whites constitute a large majority of the most privileged groups. On the other hand, less privileged, powerful and wealthy groups are also disproportionately non-white. Furthermore, whites are often racist against all those who do not look like them. At the same time, the position of poorer whites could conceivably be strenghthened through an alliance with people of color. However, the author identifies three concrete challenges to the scenario of inevitable multiracial coalitions. First, the history of different racial groups is quite varied, leading to different priorities in the present. Secondly, the evolution of struggle in the US led to an activist hierarchy in which African American leaders saw themselves as the leaders of all oppressed, sometimes folding other groups priorities into their own. Finally, the racial hierarchy in the US is not simply white and non-white. Racism against African Americans is more sharply posed, and other groups have sometimes acted to distance themselves from African Americans, in effect, asserting that they are not so far from whites. All of these emerged as concrete problems in efforts to build coalitions between African Americans and Mexican Americans. On the other hand, continued violence at the hands of police was a shared experience that facilitated unification.

When the book begins its narrative in the late fifties, struggles for economic justice are at a low ebb. Cold war red baiting pushed African American civil rights leaders to focus primarily on the need to dismantle Jim Crow in the South, rather than a broader agenda aimed at the more informal discrimination that constrained African Americans all over the country, let alone broader questions about the organization of the entire American political economy. A similar situation obtained in Mexican American organizations. In both cases, dread of being called communists pushed movements towards demands that liberals would be relatively comfortable with, while a broader rhetorical attack was taken off the table. However, as the movements began to grow in confidence, and to some degree encouraged by the labor movement, they began to reassert economic demands.This occurred even as civil rights legislation proposed at the federal focused largely on removing formal discrimination, rather than fully desegregating the labor and housing markets. The culmination of this phase was the March on Washington for Freedom and Economic Justice in 1963.

Like the early phase of the civil rights movement in general, the March and King’s dream speech have been incorporated into the consensus model of US history, where institutions bend just enough to incorporate legitimate demands. But in its day, the march occupied an uncertain space, endorsed by some Democratic politicians, but viewed by the media and the Kennedy administration with alarm. Marches on Washington were not the standard protest tactic they later became, and a lot of coverage focused on prospects of violence. Although the rally was peaceful, “the issues of jobs, economic freedom and poverty dominated the days program often through “tough, even harsh rhetoric.” (quoting the New York Times report at the time).” Notwithstanding the quote from the Times, the economic message was largely disappeared from reports on the march. Women were involved with encouraging and planning the march, but mostly excluded from the stage. To the extent that they attended, Mexican Americans did so as individuals or trade union members, since a Black-Brown alliance was not really yet on the agenda. In fact, one of the more conservative Mexican American organizations actually denounced the march, seeking to distance itself from the civil rights movement.

The two mightiest advocates of non-violence in their respective communities--Martin Luther King Jr and Cesar Chavez--never met. Chavez had more success building alliances with the predominantly white student movement than with African American civil rights organizations and placed his emphasis there. In general, Chavez does not loom large in Power to the Poor, as his focus on union organizing among farmworkers did not lend itself to a radical critique that would open up to broader alliances. Although the farm workers were allied with SNCC, it was whites in SNCC, increasingly isolated in a climate of Black nationalism, who provided the key linkages. For his part, King was skeptical of labor unions and their struggles for some time.

King’s Chicago campaign, initiated in 1966, intended to bring the civil rights movement to the north. But it faced significant difficulties, notably Mayor Daley’s political machine and the hostility of working class whites. King wound up with a feeble agreement about open housing with Daley, who failed to implement it. Interestingly, King became open to seeing gang members as potential allies, an orientation much more associated with the Black Panthers than King. In the context of the Chicago campaign, the King-led SCLC first reached out to Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, both because of their proximity to black neighborhoods and the need for allies for the struggling campaign. The alliance was weak, however. This remained the case even as Puerto Ricans mobilized against police brutality and murder.

It is with the growing prominence of the Black Power movement and the anti-war movement that the push for multiracial coalitions begins in earnest. The identity basis of the former did not undermine the prospect of multiracial coalitions. Instead, its emphasis on white supremacy as the enemy led it towards an inclusive attitude towards other non-white oppressed groups, among them Mexican American Reies Tijerina Lopez’s land grant activism, which documented the theft of land by whites in the 1840s and called for redress, eventually moving towards a direct action approach. Another important activist was Corky Gonzalez, radicalized in the context of the War on Poverty and moving towards an anti-war stance. Both the Vietnam war and oppression by the police were unifying experiences for racial minorities at this time. Black Power spurred the assertiveness of other minorities in the context of multiracial coalitions. When African Americans succeeded in demanding fifty percent of representation at the first (and last) National Conference for New Politics in 1967, many white activists present were aghast, while some Mexican Americans were impressed by the discipline and power of the African Americans, and wished to emulate them.

Amidst growing radicalization, King introduced the idea for the Poor People’s Campaign which would unify poor people across divides of race and ethnicity, hoping to at least win a guaranteed income or universal employment legislation. But the experience of multiracial coalitions was so limited that it was a real struggle for SCLC to identify non-Black activists and organizations to reach out to. An additional concern was recruiting actual poor people, rather than simply organizers. Problems of paternalism towards non-Black groups and women persisted  although the campaign would ultimately highlight the struggles of both. King accepted the push for a guaranteed income from welfare rights activists, but this alienated labor unions who were focused on wage labor. In March 1968, in Atlanta, eighty plus representatives of non-black poor met in Atlanta for the Minority Group Conference, “the most unheralded triumph of King’s last weeks and the Poor People’s Campaign in general.” The group included Mexican Americans, Native Americans, representatives of poor whites in Appalachia. In his speech to the group, King raised the demand for land along with more familiar demands around poverty, discrimination and ending the war, binding his cause to that of Mexican Americans and Native Americans.  King’s embrace of the guaranteed income and land causes illustrates the way coalition work creates the opportunities for movement leaders to learn and expand their vision. Still, it was difficult for SCLC to loosen the reins of the campaign they had started. The campaign showed some promise, but also struggled to move forward. King’s decision to go to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers generated tensions in the SCLC as it was feared resources were being diverted from the Poor People’s Campaign. Furthermore, a major demonstration in Memphis turned violent as youth ripped the signs off sticks and used them to smash store windows. The negative publicity generated was used to tar the Poor People’s Campaign, and King considered calling it off.

The assassination of King in Memphis threatened to derail the campaign, but, in fact, allies rallied to the cause in its wake. Even some of those who had rejected non-violence by this point lent their support. “I felt that as my personal tribute to Dr. King that I would go ahead and do it” said Lauren Watson, a Black Panther from Denver. Continuing the work King had begun in Chicago, SCLC recruited street gangs into the campaign. With notable exceptions, after the assassination enthusiasm for the campaign increased among non-Black organizers. Media criticism was momentarily tempered. On the other hand, over 75 bills were introduced into congress to block the campaign. Although King believed the specifics of demands should remain vague, after his death, organizers began to canvas organizations for demands, eventually producing a forty-nine page document enumerating them. A committee of 100--one third steering committee members, two thirds poor people--arrived in Washington, delivering testimony to members of the liberal establishment, garnering positive attention,  and ultimately providing “the high water mark of racial unity” of the campaign.

Caravans to Washington to participate generated more publicity, but often reinforced stereotypical understandings. In particular, a mule train with fifteen mule driven wagons to demonstrate abject poverty in Mississippi garnered considerable interest. “The Eastern and Midwestern caravans, with their more diverse, urban constituencies, received far less attention.” The caravans themselves, particularly the Western one, were crucial sites for the development of multiracial coalitions. They were also sites where resentments and tensions among coalition partners surfaced. For example, Mexican Americans and Native Americans sometimes felt like their concerns were being pushed to the margins. When the Western caravan arrived, its members took up residence in the Hawthorne School, a liberal private school, rather than at Resurrection City, the encampment on the national mall. At the Hawthorne School, a more multicultural community emerged, and the most effective protests of the campaign were launched. Not only Mexican Americans, but also whites, African Americans from the West and Native Americans camped there. The facility was not segregated along racial lines, rather between single men and families. Unlike at Resurrection City, run bureaucratically by SCLC, women took the lead in preparing meals and organizing the space at Hawthorne, successfully producing community. The presence of poor whites helped dispel an analysis of poverty based on race, and instead encouraged a focus on capitalism. Violent repression of protests launched by this community, particularly a sit in at the Supreme Court focused on Indian fishing rights, drew people together. Among other things, the protest was also an assertion of the importance of the agenda of groups besides African Americans.

Meanwhile at Resurrection City, the population became more homogeneously African American, signifying an equation between African Americans and poverty campaign organizers had sought to dispel. Although imagined as an orderly micro-city, it proved difficult to live up to this plan in reality. A great deal of rain did not help. Jesse Jackson was charged with administering the city, but he was inexperienced in this sort of work. To turn attention away from the disorder of Resurrection City, SCLC played up Ralph Abernathy as the new civil rights leader, undermining the multicultural character of the campaign, and unintentionally calling attention to the absence of King, since Abernathy was no match as a charismatic leader. At the same time, Resurrection City became a community of sorts, and hosted a number of prominent entertainers, as well as efforts like the Many Races Soul Center and the Poor People’s University.  According to Mantler, many poor participants found the whole experience very empowering.

The poor people’s campaign had a bigger impact on individual participants than on structures of power or even movement organizations. It created a bigger stage, and more multicultural community, for people to interact in, enhancing the confidence of Mexican American participants, among others. Interactions at the Hawthorne School clarified parallels between the experiences of poor communities of different races. The campaign led to the marginalization of Reies Tijerina’s campaign for land, and a higher profile for Corky Gonzalez’ urban orientation, and the multiracial coalitions that lent itself to. Demonstrations that had a limited impact on the wider world at times had a powerful impact on participants, expanding people’s imagination of the possible.

Familiar tensions reared up around Solidarity Day, the largest march organized by the campaign. Bayard Rustin, a media favorite and key organizer of the earlier March on Washington, had to resign as organizer because his political sensibility was now out of touch with the bulk of activists. For example, he resisted calling for an end to the Vietnam War. But his replacement, the National Urban League’s Sterling Tucker, failed to include Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and welfare rights activists on the original list of speakers. They did, however, assert themselves and get on to the program, as did women. In both respects, more radical demands and more diverse speakers,  this marked a departure from the 1963 march. According to the Mantler, it was women’s speeches that stole the show. The media mostly negatively compared the smaller Solidarity Day to the earlier march.

Amidst media hype about alleged violence among participants, Resurrection City’s permit was not extended. Although police repression of the camp was met by civil disobedience, participation was limited with only 250 people arrested. The Hawthorne school failed to comply with city demands that it expel its guests, and demonstrations were, for a time, launched from there. A few efforts were made to create local resurrection cities elsewhere in the country without much success. Direct political results of the campaign included modest improvements in hunger policies, but nothing resembling the lofty talk with which it had been launched.

After the campaign, more multiracial coalitions were created, often fueled by participants in the Poor People’s Campaign. However, a more durable practice and belief was that the power base of each group must be strengthened to make the impact desired. In general, the campaign energized the Mexican American movement, which moved in a more cultural nationalist direction. Corky Gonzalez concluded that “Chicano strength relied on ethnic and racial unity and that, although poverty and oppression were shared by many people, blacks, Mexican Americans, and Indians defined justice differently.” When his organization took on questions of education, demands for greater attention to Mexican American history were not broadened to include African Americans. Furthermore, his organization opposed school desegregation because they did not want Chicano students bussed out of their neighborhoods. Although the connections made during the poor people’s campaign fueled the Chicano Youth Liberation Conference, in the final document, masculine, nationalist rhetoric marginalized possible grounds for multiracial coalitions.

For their part, among Black people there was a growing sense that African American identity was more powerful at unifying people than experiences of poverty. Surging Black nationalism helped elect more Black officeholders; it also reduced the focus on multiracial coalitions. The poor people’s campaign empowered women to speak up, but more in the context of African American struggle than in a general poor people’s movement. Throughout the campaign, the National Welfare Rights Organization had succeeded in staying focused on their issues, expanding the agenda of civil rights organizations. In practice, the NWRO was an overwhelmingly African American organization. Mexican American members, unable to impress upon the leadership the importance of language and citizenship status for understanding different experiences of welfare, went on to form the Chicano Welfare Rights Organization.

After the Poor People’s Campaign wrapped up, SCLC was unable to regain the stature it had before King was assassinated. Protests at the major political conventions made little impact. In Chicago, the Mule Train was again assembled, and anti-war protesters huddled behind it as they approached the convention center. However, the police waited for the mules to pass before unleashing violence against the anti-war protesters, ironically signalling the declining significance of SCLC. SCLC had some success refocusing on labor struggles in the South, including one at a hospital in Charleston South Carolina. The campaign highlighted both a labor-civil rights coalition, and a mostly female workforce, themes that would be more significant to labor over the next few decades. The struggle both accelerated organizing at hospitals nationwide, and empowered the Black community in Charleston beyond the workplace. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, played an important role, fusing civil rights concerns and a gender analysis. However, SCLC continued on under Abernathy, rather than opening itself to leadership by women. A weakened SCLC was no longer able to generate coalition partners among Mexican Americans and welfare rights organizations who did not see any urgency in allying with this organization.

Jesse Jackson emerged from the Poor People’s Campaign with his reputation strengthened, catapulting from being “a mildly effective local leader in Chicago to a national civil rights star.”   Jackson returned to Chicago to launch Operation Breadbasket, which sought to expand private-sector employment for African Americans. The organization pressured retailers to hire more African Americans. Breadbasket had some success pressuring the Illinois legislature and governor around poverty related issues. A potential alliance with the UFW around the grape boycott, however, proved difficult. The boycott was mostly supported in Chicago by progressive white organizations and Chicano organizations. Breadbaskets priorities of increasing private sector jobs for African Americans were very different from the UFW’s. Indeed, supporting the grape boycott would have voided agreements Breadbasket had made with some employers such as retail stores. Jackson showed little enthusiasm for a campaign he had not launched himself.

Jackson had more success increasing the power of African Americans in relation to the Daley machine, more so on the south side than in the poorest neighborhoods of the west side, where some regarded him as simply the new Booker T. Washington and set about building their own organizations, most notably the Black Panthers under Fred Hampton. A Rainbow Coalition between Black Panthers, Young Patriots (a white group) and the Young Lords was active throughout 1969 trying to shift power from the Daley machine to “all power to the people.” The Panthers’ Rainbow Coalition reminded some of the Poor People’s Campaign. Yet that coalition proved thin and unstable. Again problems of different priorities surfaced, as Latinos were more concerned than African Americans about the threat of urban renewal. Furthermore, there was intense harassment from the police, culminating in the killing of Hampton. Although at first this triggered renewed commitment to the coalition, it ultimately further weakened it.

Jesse Jackson emerged stronger, and flirted with a bid for mayor, but ultimately did not follow up. Tensions increased between Jackson and the SCLC leadership of Abernathy, frustrated that Jackson only focused on his base in Chicago rather than going nationwide. Ultimately, this led to a split, further weakening SCLC, with Jackson renaming his organization PUSH. Unlike Abernathy, Jackson participated in the National Black Political Convention in 1972, a tremendous show of unity among black elected officials and other luminaries, but one which also continued the drift away from multiracial coalitions. The idea of a third party was repudiated. Instead, there was focus on reforming the Democratic Party, leading to the famously diverse convention of 1972. “By achieving this, African Americans ensured that a multiracial fight against poverty would not be abandoned completely in the years to come.”

In the conclusion, the author notes some of the benefits that came from much maligned identity politics, including greater political voice for African Americans and Mexican Americans. Most importantly, he notes that “distinct identities were--and still are--inherent to the concept of coalition, antipoverty or otherwise.” The identity based movements were able to launch multiracial electoral campaigns in the 70s and 80s, such as that of Harold Washington for mayor of Chicago. On the other hand, such electoral movements have not been able to reverse the direction of US politics.  

For me, the chapters on the Poor People’s Campaign resonated most powerfully. As an effort to revitalize a movement through an encampment, it bears a striking resemblance, with marked differences, to Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street set up an encampment in New York City, the financial capital of the US, away from the center of government that activists mostly believed had completely failed them. The Poor People’s Campaign set up on the mall in Washington DC, signifying a still existing, if fraying relationship with liberals within the federal government. Occupy Wall Street was an attempt to enact horizontalism, while the encampment of the Poor People’s Campaign was run in a top down fashion by SCLC. Occupy Wall Street struggled to affirm that it was not only for White people, while the Poor People’s Campaign struggled with an image that it was only for African Americans. Neither of these images was entirely fair, although there was some truth to them, particularly in describing the people at the core of the encampments. Although “What is our one demand?” was an early slogan of OWS, no demands were ever formalized. The Poor People’s Campaign had forty-nine pages of demands, with five thematic areas. Yet in both cases, there were accusations in the media that the protests were too unfocused, although in retrospect it is hard to see what the problem was in either case.  Perhaps most crucially, OWS did spark the hoped for movement, generating over a thousand Occupy groups nationwide and large, exuberant protests in major cities. The Poor People’s Campaign, put simply, did not, and plans to follow up with campaigns in forty cities were scaled back. This probably had to do with changing times, and constituencies. The Poor People’s Campaign came near the end of a period of liberal inclusiveness, where the federal government tried to manage the expansion of consumer society. In other words, it spoke for those still left out. OWS spoke for a middle class terrified that the social contract it anticipated had been destroyed, as decades of neoliberalism seems to have produced little more than an expanding class of debtors.  On the other hand, Occupy vanished almost as quickly as it appeared, leaving a slogan (“We are the 99%!”), loose networks, and many memories. Although the Poor People’s Campaign seems to have been a more obvious failure, it also produced memories that helped push activists along later. The success or failure of social movements is rarely as self-evident as the score of a football game.

As noted earlier, the movements described in Power to the Poor do not lend themselves to the misty fog of nostalgia that envelops movements of the sixties. Readers may also find the dichotomies that often organize thinking about movements eroded. For example, Martin Luther King, the paragon of nonviolence, was increasingly curious about how to relate to street gangs, a direction of inquiry more associated with the Black Panthers. On the other hand, some Black Panthers participated in the Poor People’s Campaign. The division between economic and identity oriented struggles, a division which generates endless amounts of hand-wringing among the contemporary left, looks blurry in historical perspective. In their heyday, these movements were both assertions of identity and challenges to economic power. Finally, a binary opposition between successful and failed movements is also difficult to sustain. The March on Washington in 1963 is often held up in amber as a perfect moment, but it is worth highlighting that the economic concerns organizers hoped to highlight were marginalized. The Poor People’s Campaign, if it is spoken about at all, is often referred to as indicating the increasing difficulty of the civil rights movement to find its footing in the late sixties. But it also constituted something of a breakthrough, however imperfect, in the construction of multiracial coalitions, and left a powerful impact on participants.

If one were to bring the story of Power to the Poor up to date, I think three developments would loom large: the Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988, the L.A. riots of 1992, and the US Social Forums in 2007 and 2010. Although very different in character, each brought together people from multiple races and highlighted issues of poverty and inequality. Furthermore, each was centered in African American initiatives--Jackson, who made the phrase “rainbow coalition” a feature of American life, was a leader who attempted to bridge the gap between civil rights and black power. The L.A. riots erupted in response to the verdict in the trial of police officers who had beaten Rodney King, but soon substantial numbers of Latinos and whites were participating as well. The largely unheralded US Social Forum was rooted in community groups, often with roots among African Americans, and has held meetings in Detroit and Atlanta, an implicit rebuke of bastions of predominantly white progressivism like Boston and the Bay Area. It revived the multiracial coalition of the Poor People’s Campaign, and, equally importantly, revived the imperative of including participation from poor people, making for a fairly stark contrast with other gatherings of the US left.

In the last decade or so, the most prominent mobilizations have been the anti-war protests, associated with left parties and made up of predominantly white participants, the immigrants rights movement, largely Latino, and OWS, associated with anarchist tendencies that also draw mostly white people. Emergent movements of low wage workers and against “The New Jim Crow” have a lot of potential to revive the multiracial coalitions. After all, low wage workers constitute a rainbow of people. While “the New Jim Crow” draws its reference from racism against African Americans, just in the last year, there have been protests against police murders of Latinos in Anaheim, Santa Rosa, and Durham, a white homeless man in Fullerton, and the death of a white gay man in custody in New Haven. Oppression by the police remains a unifying experience across Black-Brown racial lines, and now one might also expect Muslims to join such a coalition, as well as greater awareness of police harassment of gender non-conformists. The Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, a challenge to the dominance of the state government by the far right, led by the NAACP but channelling a variety of demands, might also be mentioned. The question of multiracial coalitions remains critical in a country where class and racial divisions still overlap a great deal.

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