What could make an activist so dangerous that the FBI would need to assassinate him in his sleep at the age of 21? That’s what happened to Fred Hampton of the Chicago Black Panther Party in 1969. What could make a singer such a threat that the US government would deny him the right to travel or perform? That’s what they did to the singer/scholar/athlete/actor Paul Robeson.
What made these men so dangerous? They were able to unite people of different races and ethnicities on the basis of class, the unity our rulers fear more than anything else. When 0.1% of the people control everything, while maybe 20% prosper, and the rest struggle to survive, the rulers’ power absolutely depends on keeping people divided. They’re happy with racial conflict; they know they can win that by turning people against each other, but in a class war they would be overwhelmed. So, they work full time on both the Left and Right to keep the subject focused on race.
Hampton and Robeson powerfully challenged that narrative, and people listened. Hampton said in 1968, “The Panthers’ struggle is primarily about class. We’re not going to fight racism with racism. We fight racism with solidarity. We don’t fight capitalism with Black capitalism; we fight capitalism with socialism.”
As a leader of an armed revolutionary group, Hampton got the attention of young people in Black, Latino, Native, and White communities. He pulled together (at the age of 19!) the Rainbow Coalition of Revolutionary Solidarity, uniting the Panthers with the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the Appalachian Young Patriots organizations. They worked to end gang violence, which they believed the city government promoted to gain support for law enforcement.
Similarly, Robeson uplifted the cause of workers in England, Ireland, Africa, and the US. On more than one occasion, he won White worker support for Black workers’ fights against racism. He once wrote, “my people are not the only ones oppressed…Whether people weave, build, pick cotton, or dig in the mine, they understand each other in the common language of work, suffering and protest…The problem of the Negro people is generally a problem of working people.” People listened to his powerful presence and his truthful ideas. That is why he had to be suppressed.
Is anybody talking like Robeson and Hampton now? In a world where corporate media makes politics all about race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and age, can working class solidarity overcome these divisions and win? Some, including Bernie Sanders’ supporters, think it can. In an article December 10 in the New York Times, Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, details the broad and deep support Senator Sanders has from Black, Latino, and White workers. “He has tapped into the anger,” she writes, “and bitterness coursing through the lives of regular people who have found it increasingly impossible to make ends meet in this grossly unequal society. Without cynicism or the typical racist explanations that blame African-Americans and Latino immigrants for their own financial hardship, Mr. Sanders blames capitalism.”
Maybe comparing this old white guy with Hampton or Robeson is too much. Obviously, Sanders hasn’t shown the physical courage or had the core personal experience of oppression that those heroic Black leaders had. He is not a revolutionary; he is a reformer who relies on electoral politics. But where he does resemble Robeson and Hampton is his ability to unite the multiracial working class. According to Taylor, “the Sanders campaign has transformed into a tribune of the oppressed and marginalized, a powerful platform to amplify the experiences of this multiracial contingent.”
Here’s a fact that we should not ignore. Sanders is the top recipient for donations by teachers, farmers, servers, social workers, retail workers, construction workers, truckers, nurses and drivers. His donors’ most common employers are Starbucks, Amazon and Walmart. Think about that. This is the base for working-class power; it also overlaps Trump’s base.
No wonder the rulers are scared and using all their identity tricks to discredit Sanders. They say his campaign is too White, too male, too Anglo, while the data shows he has the strongest support among Latinos and younger African Americans of any candidate. Talented young people of color are running his campaign. Women of color are his most prominent representatives.
He also has strong rank-and-file military support. According to historian and long-serving US veteran Stan Goff, “A recent study by Foreign Policy-dot-com showed that Senator Bernie Sanders is far and away the most frequent recipient of individual contributions from active duty military members…. Rich people don’t enlist. Working class people do. Someone who wants to leave the military right now has to factor in the free medical care for the service member and family which will be lost upon separation. Medicare For All has traction there. A federal jobs program has traction.”
So, class struggle and race struggle are not mutually incompatible. But, what about the White conservatives who go ga-ga for President Trump? The ones who are armed and angry at American decline and their newfound poverty and blame immigrants for it? There is evidence that, for some of those people, even those long infected with racism, class issues can change their mind. A well-publicized example was the true story of C.P. Ellis, poor son of a North Carolina millworker who became Exalted Cyclops of the Durham, NC Ku Klux Klan. He said the Klan gave meaning to his life and that of hundreds of other impoverished White men. But, as detailed in the book and movie The Best of Enemies, over the course of two weeks’ forced interaction with Black activists who recognized the class-based sufferings they shared, Lewis came to realize who his real friends were. He tore up his KKK card and much of his old life to do what was best for his people, becoming a union organizer, uniting with his class brothers and sisters.
Was C.P. Ellis a special case? Although he reached out to his Klan buddies, none of them joined him in his changed attitude. Perhaps he only learned because of the courageous outreach of Black activist Ann Atwater, who wouldn’t give up on him. According to Osha Gray Davidson, who wrote The Best of Enemies, 100 years of racist propaganda had most poor Whites convinced that their problems came from “Negroes, Jews, and Communists.” Only a few, like Ellis, could step back and see how they were being used against their own interests by wealthy White racists, The same dynamic still works, as shown by Trump’s popularity among White people. How many white supporters will join their class and give up Trump for Sanders? Based on polls, it seems quite a few are ready to make that switch.
Not an election, a movement
If this was just about an election, Sanders’ popularity and the surge of class consciousness wouldn’t mean much. American elections are heavily fixed by voter suppression and voting machine manipulation. After decades of excluding African-American, Latino, and youth voters by dropping them from voter rolls and closing their polling stations, the rulers have moved into excluding White working class voters with programs like Cross Check, which deletes voters who have the same name as other voters, even in other states, and through mailout programs that require voters to confirm they have the same address they last voted from, or be purged. Naturally, poorer people are more likely to have moved, and why should moving disqualify one from voting?
Up against this vote suppression, and the immensely hackable electronic voting machines owned and operated by right-wing corporations, and the media boycott of all Bernie news that isn’t critical of him, Sanders may not have much chance of actually winning. But Bernie himself says his campaign is less about winning an election than building a multi-racial working-class movement. People will need to be in the streets, running for local offices, possibly striking their jobs (which Sanders supports,) or picking up guns (which he wouldn’t.) Even so, the billionaires have shown no intention to listen, but if the people are joined by the military rank-and-file, maybe the rulers would have to at least make some concessions.
Social democratic reforms like health care and housing for everyone are obviously not fantasies; most of the rich countries of the world (and many of the not-so-rich) have them to some degree. We could, too, but as Senator Sanders says, “We have to get beyond the alleged conflict between fighting racial injustice versus fighting economic injustice. We must deal with both. We need to end institutional racism, end poverty, end militarism, and create a government that works for all of us.” Paul Robeson and Fred Hampton might agree. We don’t have their voices anymore, so we will have to speak for them.