The problem of white backlash in American politics isn’t new. Every instance of black political advancement—Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, or Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency—has provoked it. Backlash politics define moments in American history when white identity, threatened by the advance of African American civil, political, or economic rights, reasserts itself in ways that go beyond naked racism. Both Reconstruction and the late 1960s were defined by such appeals to white identity politics, and included calls to clean up governments that seemed, at least in the eyes of many white Americans, to cater too much to the interests of African Americans. We saw this in the nearly century-long condemnation of Reconstruction-era governments that tried to secure black civil rights. We witnessed it once more in the late 1960s in calls for “law and order” and denunciation of the War on Poverty’s attempts to help the black poor.
Today, we’re seeing it again. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent piece in the Atlantic, “The First White President,” is an eloquent meditation on the topic. “To Trump,” Coates wrote, “whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power.” In other words, Coates argues that the backlash to African American progress is premised on maintaining the edifice of white supremacy upon which, he believes, American political life rests. But in contrast to Coates’s vision of an immutable white supremacy and the accompanying sense of powerlessness it can inflict on its victims, we should remember that African Americans have always found ways to resist this American impulse and come up with new political solutions.
Three books can remind us how. Fifty years ago, African American intellectuals, deeply concerned with the white backlash politics of the late 1960s, tried to answer many of the questions the left is grappling with again today. Harold Cruse’s Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s Black Power, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Where Do We Go From Here—all published in 1967—analyzed the backlash against black Americans in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. All agreed that these laws, while major achievements for African Americans, were not enough to vanquish racism in American society. The perspectives these authors offered, each shaped by their individual ideological outlooks on American culture and society, have much to teach us today.
Creating a black cultural base: Harold Cruse
Harold Cruse’s Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was the brainchild of a man who had spent many years organizing within, and later jousting with, the American left. Born in 1916, Cruse joined the Communist Party of the United States in 1947, just as McCarthyism was taking hold. By the sixties, however, Cruse had left the party, feeling that it stifled his creativity, and became a cultural critic. His participation in the 1965 founding of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem, alongside Amiri Baraka (then still called Leroi Jones), was proof of the driving impulse behind Cruse’s most famous argument—that black Americans needed to take control of their own cultural institutions to have true freedom and self-determination in American society. This meant, according to Cruse, coming to terms with how American black people were—and moving beyond the embrace of black nationalism, as was the case with the Black Power movement in the late sixties. Building new cultural institutions was a way both to respond to white backlash and to create a cultural base for African Americans.
Cruse’s analysis was twofold. First, he argued that African Americans needed to develop their own art and culture. Without it, he believed, there was no way to imagine a better world for black people. “In advanced societies,” Cruse wrote in Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, “it is not the race politicians or the ‘rights’ leaders who create the new ideas and the new images of life and man.” To Cruse, that task was left to the artist, and in the black community, most artists in the 1960s were failing to do just this. Until African-American intellectuals and cultural leaders realized that, Cruse believed, there was little hope for genuine black political and cultural power to be gained.
While such debates mustn’t consume the left, they provide an opportunity to address racism not only in political and economic terms, but also in the cultural sphere. Today’s debates about Confederate monuments certainly spring to mind here—in demanding they be taken down, or by fighting to demand new monuments to African-American heroes of the past, activists dare to dream of both a different past and a fresh future.
While the bulk of Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is devoted to critiquing black intellectuals and black art, Cruse also felt that African-American intellectuals had failed to grapple with searing economic problems plaguing black people across the country. Acknowledging the disparity in pay between African-American and white citizens (a fact that both the Carmichael/Hamilton and King books also address), Cruse felt that the creation of an unabashedly black art-form had to follow the creation of a black political economy. He wanted to move beyond both Marxism—which by the mid-1960s he was harshly critical of—and the haphazard attempts at black nationalist self-help economics, proposed by Marcus Garvey. Cruse believed that neither took into account the uniquely American context of black political problems.
Instead, he became a proponent of the “cooperative commonwealth,” first promoted by W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1940 autobiography Dusk of Dawn. Cruse felt that this went sufficiently beyond capitalism and European-style socialism to address the unique economic and political challenges faced by African Americans. The cooperative commonwealth would have combined black economic self-reliance with a larger national system of local cooperatives and radical economic democracy. An example of what Cruse is talking about can already today be seen in Jackson, Mississippi, where the adherents of Chokwe Lumumba’s radical brand of People’s Assemblies and “self-managed enterprises” are beginning to build a “solidarity economy” (now under the leadership of Chokwe Antar Lumumba, son of the elder Lumumba, who was elected mayor of Jackson this summer).
Cruse also felt that the left—in his case the Communist Party and allied organizations, as well as fellow travelers such as Paul Robeson—had time and again let down African Americans. Left-wing African Americans, argued Cruse, were too often cut off from the rest of black America. While Cruse’s critiques of the left in Crisis can often be scattershot (his attacks on Jewish Communists for having too much power over African American radicals, are one example) he was right to point out that African-American intellectuals could not claim, in any way, leadership of a broad-based movement. As today’s left attempts to build just such a movement in the Trump era, it’s useful to keep Cruse’s caution in mind: intellectuals can offer advice and analyze local, national, and international issues, but if we ever find ourselves too far away from the needs of the average citizen, the left risks further alienation from the very people we purport to help.
From protest to politics: Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton
Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s book, Black Power, on the other hand, tried to address how to transform Carmichael’s already-legendary demand for black power, made in Greenwood, Mississippi in June 1966, into a tangible political program. The admonition from Bayard Rustin for black Americans to go “from protest to politics,” the title of his 1965 Commentary essay, loomed large over Black Power. For Rustin, African Americans joining a Democratic Party–backed coalition of liberals, unions, and other groups was the only way forward. This was especially important in an age of white backlash, as building multiracial coalitions that emphasized economic justice was, in Rustin’s eyes, the only way to hold together the rapidly fracturing New Deal–coalition of African Americans and white unionized workers. Carmichael and Hamilton disagreed, arguing that African Americans were not powerful enough to become equal partners in any political coalition. While they agreed that coalition building was necessary in a multiracial republic like the United States, they did not agree to the terms Rustin and others had laid out. They wanted “to establish the grounds on which we feel political coalitions can be viable.”
The grounds they referred to, in this case, were a political power base that could serve as a deciding factor in local, state, and national elections. Carmichael and Hamilton did not just want black faces in high places, either. They believed that it was not enough just to have African-American politicians represented in office—those politicians needed to actually serve the interests of the black community. The book itself would use both contemporary events and American history to buttress the thesis of Carmichael and Hamilton: that such forms of black solidarity in the political arena was the only way forward for African Americans to gain a proper and equal share of political and economic power.
Carmichael’s own experience with small-d democratic politics in the South before 1967 is a useful lesson in this regard. Carmichael, as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early sixties, went down South numerous times to participate in voter registration campaigns. He remembered all too well—and wrote about in Black Power—the failure of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the 1964 Democratic National Convention to unseat white supremacist members of the Mississippi Democratic Party. Later, as part of the Lowndes County Freedom Party, based in Alabama in 1965, Carmichael worked hard to help previously disenfranchised black citizens learn about the democratic process. Carmichael’s experiences with the failure of coalition politics were not just theoretical. They were, in every sense, a reflection of many black activists’ distaste for the repeated failures of Democratic politicians, from the local level to the presidency, to deliver on their promises to loyal black voters.
Again, the parallels with today cannot be missed. Barack Obama’s stance on a variety of policies that especially affected African Americans, from the economy to healthcare, frustrated numerous black intellectuals. Carmichael’s description of the betrayal of the MFDP bears mentioning here: “To rely on the absolute assistance of external, liberal, labor forces was not a wise procedure.” This is a reminder of the continuing friction within the party, and among African Americans, about the many economic indicators that showed the black middle and working classes suffering a great deal, despite the presence of a liberal African American in the White House. At the same time, the Democratic Party’s larger failure to turn out black voters in 2016—to give them some motivation to vote for Hillary Clinton—played a role in her surprising defeat. Black political leaders today must remind the Democratic Party that their loyalty is no longer to be taken for granted. Running more openly progressive black candidates for statehouses and city councils will wake up the Democratic Party and make it more responsive to African Americans. The political independence shown by leaders such as Chokwe Antar Lumumba of Mississippi, khalid kamau of Atlanta, or Randall Woodfin of Birmingham, suggests ways forward.
Equality, not tranquility: Martin Luther King, Jr.
In a sense, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s own book served as both a response to Cruse and Carmichael, and a larger appeal to the American left. Where Do We Go From Here? was the last of King’s books that explained his positions on a wide range of issues. But while the other books were written during the beginning and the height of the civil rights movement, Where Do We Go From Here? was written against the backdrop of Black Power, the Vietnam War, and a deepening sense among King and other left-wing activists of the connections between war overseas and violent repression at home. King also, more than Cruse, Carmichael, or Hamilton, most clearly understood the long-lasting salience of white backlash.
King argued that it was the “surfacing of old prejudices, hostilities and ambivalences that have always been there.” Continuing, King wrote,
The white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation. . . . for the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country even today is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists.
In today’s context, Ta-Nehisi Coates has similarly argued that white supremacy is central to American history, something he has received considerable pushback for. King, however, pushed for activists to not only continue fighting white supremacy, but to find solidarity with other groups of people—including poorer whites and white liberals—to fight injustice.
Where Cruse emphasized control of black art, and where Carmichael and Hamilton talked about how to gain political power, King worried that much, much more had to be done to end racism. King feared that white backlash was evidence that white Americans were simply not willing to do more than the bare minimum for African Americans. “White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation,” King wrote early in the book, “but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination.” It was not enough for white citizens to be galvanized by the brutality of Southern sheriffs or the Ku Klux Klan. Outrage had to lead to action against economic injustices too, problems that King was aware much of white America refused to see.
King’s book includes an update to an oft-quoted statement he wrote as part of his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He argued that white liberals preferred tranquility to equality and could not afford to fall into the trap of “apathy and indifference” to the problems of African Americans. No doubt this could apply to today as well—liberals across the color line risk being dispirited by Donald Trump’s daily actions and the relative powerlessness of the Democratic Party in Congress and in numerous statehouses. King’s vision serves as a clarion call for creating a broad left-liberal coalition: liberals and leftists are going to have to together craft a new political project that can overcome not only Trumpism, but the last forty years of reversals suffered working people on a wide range of political fronts.
These men had serious disagreements. King proposed political alliances, whereas Carmichael and Hamilton—while acknowledging the need for political coalition building at some point—were not so quick to call for them. Cruse was dismissive of much of the Black Power movement to which Carmichael was so integral, but King (after initially criticizing the group in the summer of 1966) sought to understand and assuage the anger of young black men and women taking up the call of Black Power. Coalition building still matters today. Predictions of an “emerging Democratic majority,” or the belief that “demographics are destiny,” have been proven to be tragically wrong. A truly progressive majority, that can stand the test of time beyond a presidential election, will need the active and vibrant participation of African Americans.
These books aren’t perfect. They were all written right as the second wave of feminism was taking off in the United States—so they largely leave out gender in their analysis of the problems of American culture, economics, and politics. But all three books still have much to teach us about the relationship between African Americans and their government. African Americans have always provided the left with its most searing critiques of American society. But African Americans have also, time and again, given the left—and the rest of the nation—the most clear-eyed understanding of America’s highest ideals.
Robert Greene is a PhD candidate in History at the University of South Carolina, who studies American intellectual history and Southern political history. He has been published in Dissent, In These Times, and Scalawag, and is the book review editor of the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians.