Black August and the struggle for equality

BY:Lee Fazekas| August 30, 2023
Black August and the struggle for equality


What is Black August? At first, it was declared by Black political prisoners at San Quentin in 1979 as an annual commemoration to honor the lives of Jonathan and George Jackson, both murdered by the police during the month of August. Since then, it has expanded to commemorate Emancipation Day in the West Indies, the Watts uprisings in 1965, the Haitian Revolution, the birth of Marcus Garvey, Nat Turner’s righteous rebellion against slavery, and the birthday of Fred Hampton. It is, in short, in recognition of the history of Black struggle in the Western Hemisphere against colonialism, slavery, and anti-Black racism. This history of struggle is inseparable from the history of African Americans in general in the United States, and, indeed, from the history of the United States as a whole. That is because the struggle for African American equality is, at its heart, a foundational component of working class struggle in this country.

Black August is a militant call for mobilization. This is not a month commemorating history, because the battle is not over — indeed, facing the fascist threat, environmental collapse, the bloody military industrial complex, and the increasing difficulty to afford to live — this struggle is more pressing than ever. Since the summary executions of George and Jonathan Jackson in the early 1970’s, the prison population in the United States has swelled beyond the wildest nightmares of that generation of Black revolutionaries. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, African Americans make up 12% of the population, but make up 34% of the incarcerated population — the largest ethnic group represented in cages. A staggering 2,306 per 100,000 Black people in the United States were incarcerated in 2010.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 1974–2001, 22% of Black males — more than 1 in 5 — had ever been incarcerated. A Black man born in 1974 would have a 13.4% chance of being locked away from their communities, but Black men born in 2001 would see 32.2% of their cohort (1 in 3) put in cages. This stands in stark contrast to the rates of incarceration for white men of the same age, of whom 5.9% (1 in 17) would be incarcerated during their lifetimes.

Black August might also bring back memories of Black uprisings — the slave rebellion in Haiti and the rebellion against racist police in Watts being two concrete examples specifically honored this month. Such uprisings have routinely been met with violent repression — including military occupations, such as were called forth to suppress protests against racist police violence in Newark and Detroit in July of 1967. But struggles continue to be waged — including demonstrations of historic proportion against the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, for the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Korryn Gaines in 2016, of Freddie Gray in 2015, of Eric Garner in 2014, of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and too many others. Importantly, the mass democratic movement against racist police violence has involved increasing numbers of white youth, though there is still much work to do in this regard; a recent CIRCLE poll showed only 9% of white youth consider racism to be a top-line issue of concern.

The struggle for equality is a continuing struggle that connects protesters in the streets in 2013 and 2020 with militant revolutionaries fighting for justice hundreds of years ago. It is a struggle of fundamental importance today, just as it was for each generation of revolutionaries in the United States that has preceded.

Despite democratic gains for African Americans, the U.S. Census sees an 8% participation gap between African American and white eligible voters. For African Americans who were ever incarcerated, they are permanently unable to vote in states like Virginia and Kentucky, but also severely restricted in Idaho, Arizona, Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South and North Carolina, and Florida. The Sentencing Project counts more than 4.6 million Americans who are barred from voting due to felony convictions; 1 in 19 African Americans are unable to vote because of such restrictions. Despite two ballot referendums that passed seeking to expand the franchise, Florida continues to block 1.1 million people from voting, disenfranchising 1 out of every 7 Black men in the state.

These attacks on voting rights are basic to the extreme-right GOP’s hold on power in the U.S. Over 90% of African American voters routinely vote against Republicans. Any effort, therefore, to restrict Black voters’ access to the ballot represents an attack on every other section of the population. Workers of all races, nationalities and genders seeking the right to join or form a union or to raise the minimum wage, have a vested interest in fighting racist voter suppression. Likewise, all those in need of free access to safe abortions, to a quality education with an anti-racist curriculum, or to the right to marry whomever they love and seek gender affirming care, have an interest in defending and expanding the right to vote. White workers have a special responsibility to take on a leading role in the fight against racism, and they have a self-interest in doing so. As Marx wrote in the first volume of Capital, “Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the Black skin is branded.”

The struggle for Black liberation in the United States has always taken place across a variety of battlefields, implementing a diverse set of tactics, but towards one purpose: that of full racial equality. Marxists understand that capitalism in the United States was built on land stolen from indigenous nations and on the backs of enslaved Black people. It is therefore impossible to approach racial equality without also dismantling capitalism and building socialism; and it is likewise impossible to do that without uniting our multiracial working class. This is not a question of sequence or priority, but of dialectical and historical materialism.

The Communist Party rounded out Black August this year by mobilizing to D.C. for a March on Washington. Organized by the Drum Major Institute, which the King family heads, and the National Action Network, the rally and march was supported by major sections of the labor movement, and put a special emphasis on the struggle for voting rights and labor rights, 60 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. King saw clearly that the struggle for African American equality necessarily involved a critique of capitalism, war, and poverty. In light of the most recent attacks on the African American community — from the Supreme Court overturning affirmative action to the attacks on Black history in school boards across the country — it continues to be necessary to fight for working-class leadership in the struggle to realize MLK’s famous dream.

While a majority of the attendants of the 1963 march were African American, many tens of thousands of non-Black workers were also present, understanding that any attack against the African American community represents an against all people seeking to build a better world.

The struggle for full racial equality cannot be separated from the broader working class struggle. Indeed, close to 13% of all employed workers are Black (and nearly 38% are Black, Brown, and Asian), and 14% of all union members are African American. Reflecting this understanding, the AFL-CIO is helping to bring people to the march, and various unions representing teachers, healthcare workers, mail carriers, public sector employees, communications workers, miners, grocery workers, and other sectors are also putting in special efforts to mobilize their members.

Showing that the struggle for racial equality cannot be separated from the broader struggle for small-d democratic rights, women’s groups, Latino, AAPI, and Native American groups, LGBTQ organizations, Jewish, Sikh and Christian community groups, and reproductive justice, environmental and gun-control advocacy organizations were also present.

And, ever-present wherever our class is in struggle, the Communist Party USA was there as well.

As the official website stated, this Saturday in Washington was not merely be a commemoration of the movement led by Dr. King 60 years ago, but was organized to continue that fight. Likewise with Black August! Let’s honor the past by continuing the fight for racial equality in our workplaces, homes, and streets.

Image: March on Washington by NAACP (Facebook)


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