Tag Archives: politics

The Civil Rights Movement and the Black Freedom Struggle

The following is the final paper I wrote for a course on the Civil Rights Movement.

      American political history is, in its most basic form, a history of struggle between those who experience the full benefits of citizenship and those who are left out of the American experiment. This struggle of “haves” and “have-nots” means legal, social, and economic demands are levied against the ruling classes constantly, with the Black Freedom Struggle representing an important phase of the broader conflict of American history. The Civil Rights Movement was one of the most important steps forward in equalizing the legal rights of black citizens in the United States, but it must be understood under the critical lens of progress, understanding that the Civil Rights Movement did not end the Black Freedom Struggle in the United States. With the shift to the right in American politics leading up to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, much of the struggle between American “haves” and “have-nots” was set back, including the struggle of black people. This rightward shift opened up a new space of economic and social demands to be made by black people, which are still being made today.

The successes of the Civil Rights Movement were primarily in the legal sphere, with leaders like Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King Jr. making clear the disparity in legal rights between whites and blacks in the U.S. The work of the movement in Mississippi, for example, was primarily focused on achieving equal voting rights for black people. Activists, black and white, traveled to Mississippi in order to register African Americans to vote. This was intended to highlight the vast gap between black and white people in the South in terms of their access to the most basic right Americans have as citizens of a democracy, the right to vote. (Carson et al. 1991, 170-171) The demands of mainstream activists in the SCLC and SNCC tended to be legal in nature, and leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many of the important victories in the struggle for black freedom were victories for equal rights. The division between the legal challenges of the Civil Rights Movement and the social, legal, and economic demands of the radicals was in its infancy in the 1930’s, but it was already visible in the class divisions within the NAACP. (Fairclough 2001, 182-183) Black people less directly affected by the plight of poverty and economic inequality had less interest in demanding fundamental societal changes in these areas, instead they sought legal victories and slow, legislative change.

This interest in legal and civil rights was the special focus of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, with economic questions taking a backseat due to cold war concerns about the radical labor movements which were once to close to the black freedom struggle. (Ransby 2003, 161) Even radical activists like Huey P. Newton focused on the disparities in Constitutional rights between African Americans and whites before later tackling the social and economic conditions of the black community. Influenced by Bobby Seale, Newton and his supporters carried guns to their protests, an act meant to “intimidate the authorities,” and to demonstrate the disconnect in legal rights between citizens of the same country, who supposedly all had the right to carry weapons in self-defense. (Newton 1973, 113) This was a clear departure from what the most radical activists would have been most interested in accomplishing 20 or 30 years earlier.

Since the Civil Rights Movement was so closely tied to legal and civil rights, the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 represented the culmination of the movement’s efforts toward legal equality. In this sense, the movement can be said to have been “successful” in terms of the goals it established for itself. The equalization of legal rights and access to certain social accommodations for black people, at least on paper, was achieved by the end of the 1960’s. The broader Black Freedom Struggle was far from finished with the end of the Civil Rights Movement, however, with equality of social and economic opportunity never being fully secured for African Americans. The goals of the radical black freedom movements in the 1930’s and 40’s, and the efforts of the radical labor movement, were never accomplished in America. The material conditions of black people remain substantially inferior to those of whites, despite the legislative accomplishments of the 1960’s.

Division in the Democratic Party and disillusionment with Democratic leadership during the period of stagflation in the 1970’s, along with a general unhappiness with liberal policy among more conservative Americans, led to a hard right shift in American politics. People, especially white people, felt their voices were not being heard in government, and many Southern Democrats were turning toward the Republican party in response to the Democrats’ support of the Civil Rights Movement. The active pursual of the “Southern Strategy” to turn the South toward the Republican party also directed America to the political right. Conservative voters, seeing themselves as a “silent majority,” forced right-wing leaders like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan into power, without regard for how such a rightward turn might affect the least well-off members of American society. Liberal leaders like Jimmy Carter were kept from accomplishing much, with the Carter administration only managing to slow the destruction of the New Deal social safety net, failing to meaningfully reverse the trend. This shift marked the rise of neoliberalism as the leading position in American politics and economic policy, as change which would have profound effects on poor and black people.

African American economic inequality was exacerbated in the 1970’s and 80’s when American politics turned rightward, leading up to Ronald Reagan’s presidency. This shift meant the application of neoliberal austerity measures against poor people in America, with black people being some of the hardest hit. Major cuts to public spending, especially in the area of social welfare programs and social safety net programs, meant that poor people were expected to pull themselves out of their conditions without assistance. The image of the “welfare queen,” usually depicted as an urban black woman abusing the welfare system, was proliferated in order to turn public opinion against social spending. Most recipients of public benefits were, and still are, white, but Presidents Nixon and Reagan both attempted to paint black people as the chief users and abusers of the welfare state. Despite the total falsity of this narrative, racial feelings among whites were used to destroy the systems of social security which had been built up since the New Deal and the Roosevelt administration in the 40’s. The new negative feelings toward black people among whites, along with the reduced support of the state for poor people, meant that the social and economic status of black people slid back substantially during this period.

Mass incarceration also became an issue under Nixon, whose instigation of the drug war specifically targeted black people and his political opponents, often one and the same group. Nixon pushed a message of “law and order,” meaning increased policing of urban black communities. This meant potentially racist and violent police were instructed to monitor and control the behavior of black people, leading to a disproportionate rate of arrests and abuse of black people by police. Reagan, with the help of his wife Nancy, pushed the “War on Drugs” to become a national political phenomenon in the 1980’s, to the extreme detriment of the, now heavily policed, black communities. The mass incarceration of black people, especially black men and fathers, combined with the defunding of social programs designed to help the poor and working classes, severely damaged the structure of the black family. (Class lecture, 12/7) Whereas in the first half of the 20th century, despite great inequality between blacks and whites, the black family unit was stable, the late 20th century saw it destabilized. This, and its broader effects on the economic status of black communities, was probably one of the greatest losses of the rightward turn of the 70’s and 80’s, leaving a permanent mark on the relationship between black people and the rest of American society.

Specific social programs, like affirmative action and public housing, were targeted by the Reagan administration, likely from a racial angle. Defunding of public housing as African Americans began to use such programs was extremely detrimental to the wellbeing of African American families. The already destabilized black family was thrown into further chaos by way of lack of decent housing. (Class lecture, 12/7) By framing the urban black mother as the “welfare queen,” neoliberal politicians and policymakers managed to push black people out of the systems of social support on which white people had been able to rely for almost 50 years. Additionally, black people were kept from taking advantage of programs like affirmative action, which made up for so many lost opportunities for black people, on the grounds that white people and politicians saw them as “unfair.” By depicting black people as atomistic individuals, in this specific case only, the idea that they could pull themselves out of poverty without help was popularized. The possibility of this was actually marginal, but it was solidified in the public imagination along with the implication that poor black people were “too lazy” to do it.

Right-wing social views, specifically on drugs and issues of race, did great damage to the place of African Americans in the U.S., and racism was enforced systemically, despite no legal provision for it anywhere on paper. Though this was partially related to the new War on Drugs and the right shift of politics, it was also a failure of the Civil Rights Movement in a certain sense. The lack of explicit economic demands, and the failure to prepare for continued systemic racism in a post-Jim Crow era, are distinct failures of the Civil Rights Movement. The arrival of “New Jim Crow,” in the form of mass incarceration, police abuses, and political marginalization, was the natural reaction of the racist white establishment to the arrival of new rights for black people; the reaction of the “haves” against the successful assertion of demands by the “have nots.”

If the hard-right turn of American politics in the 1970’s represented any kind of political gain for the Black Freedom Struggle, it was the realization that alternative means of resistance were needed for the next phase of the struggle, and that solidarity among black people, outside the state, was an essential component of liberation. The rise of the Black Power movement in the 70’s is related to the changes undergone in the way black people related to the government, and the way they thought about their place in American society. Even in the late 60’s the struggle turned, under leaders like Huey P. Newton, into a demand for social and economic power previously never accorded to black people. In a post-1964 world, Newton realized that the consciousness of African Americans needed to be raised and directed toward the assertion of power, not just the demand for rights. (Newton 1973, 176-180) Even with rights achieved on paper, without Black Power, those rights were largely worthless. Systemic forces could, and would, remove them again and send black people back to their previously second-class state. This shift to Black Power is partially a recognition that the struggle for black freedom, like the broader American struggle between the powerful and the marginalized, wouldn’t end in 1964, 1965, or 68. It was an ongoing social struggle which, in Newton’s view, tended toward revolutionary ends.

Huey P. Newton’s Black Panther Party, as part of this shift in consciousness, developed programs of mutual aid and social support, systems designed to keep impoverished black people fed, clothed, and educated, and to instigate consciousness and solidarity among the members of their communities. These programs were in direct response to the cutting of funding to New Deal and Great Society programs on which poor African Americans had previously relied. Because the gap in social safety net spending was so detrimental to black people, mutual aid efforts, outside the state, were the most effective way of holding the black community together in the face of neoliberalism. Efforts like the “Breakfast for Children Program” sought to bring support to the people and to spread the ideals of black power and pride in being a part of a black community. These programs were intended to make people “practice that theory [socialism] and inspect that theory,” according to Fred Hampton. (Carson et al. 1991, 505) In addition to serving the people, the Black Panthers were spreading consciousness to the people.

Huey P. Newton said in Revolutionary Suicide, “I do not think that life will change for the better without an assault on the Establishment, which goes on exploiting the wretched of the earth.” (Newton 1973, 3) Without a direct “assault” on the established forces of power, a militant demand for power to be given to the marginalized, real social change is impossible. This is the central failure of the Civil Rights Movement, in its legal victories it forgot that the empowerment of black people was the real goal. The movement was successful on the terms of the establishment, that is on the terms of the legal authority of a racist state, but it failed to bring about radical, fundamental social change. Equality before the law, and the true equality found in radical social change Newton describes in Revolutionary Suicide, are by no means the same thing.

The economic and social demands of the radical struggles in the 1930’s and 40’s remain to be achieved. (Ransby 2003, 155) A program of economic liberation which would repair the harm done by centuries of marginalization of black people must be the goal of the Black Freedom Struggle in the coming century. In light of increasing inequality of wealth and income for all Americans, especially African Americans, policy must be directed toward repairing the fabric of our society, and building a better, more inclusive, new one. The privileges of the ruling class must be abolished, and the benefits accorded to some individuals, and not others, must be equalized. Though the civil rights movement managed to achieve legal equality, the systems of oppression which still inhibit the success of black Americans must be broken up, and the gains made from these systems by white people must be reversed.

The future of the Black Freedom Struggle must be focused on addressing the lack of social and economic means for black people, and the lack of power for the black individual. Huey P. Newton references Friedrich Nietzsche’s Will to Power in his explanation of the purpose of a revolutionary, to work toward the expression of his purpose and power. Nietzsche’s ideas about the individual, in relation to large groups which seek to control him, are influential in Newton’s effort to shift consciousness among black people. “The rising level of consciousness,” says Newton, “led us [black people] to redefine ourselves. People once ashamed to be called Black now gladly accept the label, and our biological characteristics are a source of pride.” (Newton 1973, 172-173) Power and pride in oneself is both a Nietzschean value, and a revolutionary value. This is why the future struggle for black freedom must be about demanding power, and asserting pride in the individual black person, along with pride for the collective population of African Americans.

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is making substantially more radical demands on the establishment and ruling class to repair the damage done by the marginalization of black people, represents a vehicle for the future of the Black Freedom Struggle. Police violence, and the systemic racism inherent in the drug war, must be tackled head on. By joining hands against the corruption and harm the system does to the black community, Black Lives Matter activists are making it clear that they are opposed to the systems, built on hate, which have kept black people from achieving their full potential as american citizens. This seems to be the direction in which the struggle must move in order to carry on the broader struggle between the privileged and underprivileged classes in American society.

Carson, Clayborne. The Eyes on the Prize: Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches,and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 1954-1990. New York;Penguin, 1991. Print.

Fairclough, Adam. Better Day Coming. New York; Penguin, 2001. Print.
Newton, Huey P. Revolutionary Suicide. New York; Penguin, 1973. Print.

Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Miami; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Press, 2003. Print.


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Campaign Finance and American Democracy

athenian democracy

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, or FECA, was established with the express purpose of protecting the sanctity of American Democracy through careful regulation. Requiring and regulating the disclosure of campaign donations at the federal level and detailing the legal limits of campaign contributions served as the basis of a body of campaign finance law intended to protect the equality of influence of the individual American over the political system against the power of wealthy individuals and corporate groups. The FECA has since been challenged and weakened through a series of legal cases dealing with its relationship to the First Amendment and the nature of campaign contributions as a kind of political speech. The relationship between sensible campaign finance law and the freedom of speech of individuals donating to federal campaigns is a long and complex one. In terms of its practical application, the FECA has been largely neutered by the alteration of a variety of its provisions as a result of the cases surrounding it. In order to restore the power of the FECA to function effectively as the cornerstone of US campaign finance law, these altered provisions must be returned to their original state or altered in some way, allowing them to better function as limits on campaign spending.

The arguments which have been put forward in disarming parts of the FECA have been primarily based in an appeal to the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The implication here is that campaign donations act as a variety of political speech by donors, and are therefore protected by the Constitution. Because the Constitution protects “the rights of ‘life,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘property,’ and ‘equal protection’” for persons, (Clements, 70) the Constitutional question hinges on two important factors, the nature of the “personhood” of donors and whether the kind of influence campaign contributions can have represents a substantial detriment to the public good. The question of personhood deals with the rights of corporations to contribute fund in the same manner as individuals; and more importantly, the issue of harm to the public good draws into question the entire Constitutional argument of campaign contributions as protected speech. If, for example, the courts were to interpret the dangers of the influence of money in politics as sufficient to warrant a prudent legislative response, such donations would no longer be considered constitutionally protected, rather they would be a regulated variety of finance. The complexity of interpretation here has made the FECA an important part of the history of Supreme Court rulings in the 20th and 21st centuries. Both of these factors have been dealt with by the Supreme Court in relation to this issue, but it remains clear that the rulings handed down have weakened the FECA and fundamentally changed the structure of American campaign finance, as well as the electoral system by extension. A reexamination and alteration of the FECA and the rulings which have contributed to its current structure is essential to strengthening US campaign finance law.

Some of the most important alterations to the FECA must surround the limits placed on campaign contributions. Originally, these limits were introduced as part of the 1974 amendment to the FECA, but they have been heavily altered recently, allowing for a much greater degree of flexibility in the volume of money being donated to campaigns by individuals. Supreme Court cases like McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission have effectively removed the capacity for the Commission to act on the FECA’s provisions about limiting the number of contributions made by individuals. (Clements, 126) In this case, while the limitations on spending directly to candidates and committees remain the same, limits on total spending on the campaigns of all federal candidates have been lifted. By eliminating these limits, the Court has allowed individuals to contribute an unlimited total amount of money toward the election of federal candidates. The result of this change is an unnecessary expansion of the ability of individual donors to influence elections outside their own states. Overturning McCutcheon v. FEC would restore a certain standard limitation to this kind of spending, and it would restrict the spending of individuals to primarily the campaigns within their states. Individual donations, under a system structured in this way, would primarily serve to support the work of campaigns limited to certain areas of local interest, preventing wealthy donors from attempting to influence elections in a wide number of distant states. In order to make these kinds of localized contributions effective, overturning McCutcheon v FEC, which would limit total spending by individuals on federal campaigns, would have to be paired with a tightening of the limits on the total spending by the campaigns themselves.

The FECA currently allows for unlimited spending by campaigns on activities to increase voter turnout and spread the message of parties and candidates nationally. This is a part of the later Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo, which challenged the Constitutionality of contribution and expenditure limits found in certain 1974 provisions of the act. The court eventually upheld contribution limits, but expenditure limits were overturned as restrictions of the quality of campaign speech. (FEC) The issue with this provision, as it stands in light of Buckley v. Valeo, is that it incentivizes massive spending by campaigns, and it indirectly promotes the kind of large-scale “money-races” and “money-elections” which can be seen in modern elections by making a large budget an essential component of a successful campaign. Altering the FECA to limit all spending by individual campaigns would allow campaigns to focus their spending on targeted work, and it would equalize the field of competition in terms of the availability of money. Campaigns would, under these conditions, be forced to compete equally on the issues rather than campaign for money from other interests.

Further, cases like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission have fundamentally changed the way corporations are viewed in terms of their personhood and their ability to participate in campaign contributions. In this decision, the Supreme Court upheld the right of nonprofit corporations, like Citizens United, and individuals to unlimited political expenditures, but this decision also extended that right to labor unions and for-profit corporations. In terms of the Constitution, this case deals with the question of the nature of personhood as regards corporations. The question of what constitutes legal personhood is important in regards to the legal rights of corporate entities to contribute to campaigns nationally. Corporate legal personhood, a principle dating back to the 19th century, has been used to claim Constitutional protection of corporate speech, and by extension, donations. While the concept of this personhood is relatively old, the way it was upheld in the Citizens United decision represents a shift in that understanding and a strengthening of the value of corporate personhood in the 21st century. The relationship between corporations as “persons” and the Constitution has been strengthened by making individual people and corporate “persons” equal before the First Amendment.

Overturning Citizens United is essential to any kind of reform of the FECA. This alteration is not only practically important, in the sense that it will give the FEC greater power in regulating total political expenditures and the influence of corporations in politics, but also legally important because of the precedent set by the Citizens United decision. This decision establishes the relative equality of corporate legal personhood and the personhood of individuals. Whereas corporations previously acted as bodies of individuals acting with a single will, “persons,” now they are viewed in a similar light as individuals with full Constitutional rights and protections. By establishing this role for corporations, the court has fundamentally reshaped the way future legal decisions must view corporations and corporate money. This decision affects the way large corporate interests can interact with the political world, but it also affects all other cases in which those interests appeal to the first amendment for their protection. Beyond the world of campaign finance, this decision has the capacity to change legal interpretation surrounding advertising, financial and other regulation, and any other federal relationship with corporations. Giving corporations this level of personhood actually undermines the ability of individuals to govern themselves by subordinating the political power of the individual to that of larger groups and corporations. Justice Stevens’ dissent in the Citizens United decision pressed this point and argued for a distinction between human-beings and “persons” which would allow for federal regulation of corporations regardless of the First Amendment. (Clements, 14) Stevens saw the decision, and the resulting influx of corporate money into politics, as threats to an already imperfect American democracy. According to this thinking, making corporations “people” gives them a kind of power which they were previously denied outright, the power to shoot down federal regulation using the First Amendment.

The result of previous decades of challenges and alterations to the FECA has been its weakening, and with it a weakened system of campaign finance law. Beyond the restoration of previously removed portions of the act and the overturning of important decisions surrounding it, certain provisions could be added to strengthen the campaign finance system moving forward. The power of Super-PACs in light of Citizens United is huge, and they must be regulated and controlled in a more effective way. These organizations allow large donations of money which effectively go directly to campaigns. In this sense, the presence of Super-PACs totally negates any other limits on total campaign contributions by creating a method for donating unlimited amounts of funds. The volume of funding coming into campaigns through this method has the added effect of making it nearly impossible to stage a grassroots resistance to corporate power. Democracy with Super-PACs is effectively controlled by corporate interests with very little potential federal oversight or popular resistance. Categorizing Super-PACs as a separate kind of organization under the FECA, a kind which can be regulated by the FEC, would make it feasible to place contribution limits directly on the Super-PACs themselves. This alteration could be one way of undoing some of the damage of Citizens United by providing substantial regulations for Super-PACs and equalizing corporate donors and extremely wealthy donors with the donations of small, individual citizens.

The danger of a weakened FEC and campaign finance system is that American democracy will be weakened along with it. The capacity for corporations and wealthy donors to influence the outcome of elections totally reshapes the way our democracy functions by placing final decision-making power in the hands of a relatively small number of Americans. Functional democracy requires broad participation in order to prevent a decay into a plutocratic oligarchy. Fundamental changes must be made to both the FECA and to the broader legal decisions surrounding it. With these changes, the FEC will be able to more effectively regulate the behavior of campaigns, major donors, and corporations as they relate to American electoral politics. In total, the freedom of speech and Constitutional rights of individuals can be effectively maintained while also reasonably limiting the spending of federal campaigns and the power of corporations and large interests to control the outcome of major elections.

Works Cited
Clements, Jeffrey. Corporations Are Not People. Berrett Koehler, 2014. Print.
Federal Election Commission. “The Federal Election Campaign Laws: A Short History.” FEC. N.d. Web.
Foltz, Philipp. The Age of Pericles. 1853. Image.
McChesney, Robert. Dollarocracy. Nation Books, 2013. Print.
Schweizer, Peter. Extortion. HMH, 2013. Print.

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The elder statesman

Still bows after a lifetime

To mortality

-The Cave Troll (Michael Sweeney)


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Free Speech

     Free speech is an issue which gets a lot of attention from the fringe, but is rarely seriously dealt with by those whose right to speak freely is always well respected. In an AP US History class, my teacher was discussing the Bill of Rights, and the discussion of free speech for unpopular opinions obviously surfaced. I was surprised to hear so many people saying that they didn’t think unpopular groups deserved to have the right to speak or assemble.

      The Westboro Baptist Church came up, among other groups, and the teacher said that no one would be upset if somehow they lost their right to say the things they say. I was first confused by his extremely loose interpretation of the first amendment, but I would not in fact be glad to hear that their rights had been usurped. I am fully in support of gay rights and gay marriage because I feel it isn’t anyone’s business but those involved with the marriage (I also oppose the idea of the federal government infringing on state business), but I also think that someone who wants to criticize my view should be able to.

      I am not claiming some kind of slippery-slope argument whereby the government will take all our rights if they are allowed to take the rights of the extremists, I simply believe that everyone should be able to say what they want, short of (possibly including) libel. Freedom of speech is something that most people take for granted because they do not use it. Those of us who speak our minds on the internet to be viewed by five or ten people are just barely using this freedom. I speak from the standpoint of an American, but most reasonably developed societies have similar, if not identical, ideas on this subject.

      By ignoring the potential of our ability to speak our minds to the government, our religions, our employers, or one another, we are throwing away the right to guide our way of life and its growth. Free speech and reasonable, productive dialogue go hand-in-hand, and maybe the lack of respect for free speech is what is leading to the decline of reasoned dialogue on both the internet and the national (and international) stage.

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