The recent exchanges between Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cedric Johnson, and Brian Jones are part of a growing discussion about the exploitation, exclusion, and oppression of black people in the US. Centrally concerned with questions of race and class, these debates draw on a distinguished intellectual pedigree that includes scholars like Cedric Robinson, whose concept of “racial capitalism” emphasizes how “the development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions.”
Black freedom struggles, acting on this analysis without necessarily giving it the same name, have placed employment and economic sustenance at the core of their agenda since at least Reconstruction. Indeed, arguably no social force in American society has fought as strenuously for these goals as the multifaceted black left.
The Black Panther Party and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin did not agree on many things in 1967, but they both thought the government should ensure that everyone who wanted a job had one. The recent calls for guaranteed employment from both the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the Black Youth Project 100 affirm and continue this long history.
Few of these political formations, however, have framed such demands as an end goal; the fight for employment and economic sustenance has always been part of a broader struggle for social transformation.
When C. L. R. James reflected on the importance of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, he highlighted a crucial insight that would inform black freedom movements even after Reconstruction’s defeat: black people during that seminal period, James wrote, “had tried to carry out ideas that went beyond the prevailing conceptions of bourgeois democracy.”
James’s comments came in the late 1940s, after Henry Wallace’s 1948 Progressive Party campaign had been roundly beaten and when the possibilities for welfare state expansion were waning. Yet what James identified in Du Bois’s book is worth reconsidering: black freedom struggles have historically been at the heart of efforts to expand democracy, to use the power of the vote to transform the capitalist state into an institution that provides material benefits for all.
In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois argued that the abolition of enslavement was only a partial one. Full abolition required “abolition democracy” — the simultaneous process of negating violence and oppression, and winning transitional, concrete gains that enlarged the boundaries of freedom and democracy.
Creating institutions that enabled economic survival was crucial. “How was their freedom to be made a fact?” Du Bois asked. “They must have the protection of law . . . They must have land; they must have education.” One formerly enslaved person in Texas, Anthony Wayne, posed the question of governmental priorities starkly. Why, he demanded, had “Congress appropriated land by the million acres to pet railroad schemes . . . did they not aid poor Anthony and his people starving in rags?” Such aspirations and demands for safety and social provisions, grounded in the struggles of Reconstruction, offer a parallel genealogy of welfare state development and social democracy to that of Bismarck’s Germany.
In the decades after Reconstruction was overthrown and Jim Crow imposed, the struggles of the Reconstruction period — for safety under the law and against economic and political inequalities — continued to frame the analysis of the black left. T. Thomas Fortune, a leading black journalist, wrote in 1884 that “the future struggle in the South will be, not between white men and Black men, but between capital and labor, landlord and tenant.”
The grotesque intrusion of Jim Crow segregation and lynchings negated that prediction. As journalist Ida B. Wells observed, lynching operated as a continuum between police and lynch mobs — a key public-private partnership to re-establish racial, gendered, and class hierarchies. These lynchings often targeted black people who navigated the cruelties of capitalism by forming successful businesses — as was the case with the lynchings of her friends in Memphis, which catalyzed Wells’s journalism and activism.
During the same period, black people were developing producer and consumer cooperatives as a means to reduce the power of the market over their lives. By 1907, Du Bois counted at least 154 black co-ops and mutual aid societies, which served as a basis for collective wealth and community stability in the face of the violent Jim Crow order.
The Great Depression presented new challenges and opportunities for those animated by the abolition-democratic vision. While the federal government’s increased role in social-welfare provision was a hard-fought gain, it included racist and patriarchal exclusions and upheld an earlier tradition of welfare state development that granted power to local officials — specifically the power to exclude black people.
Recognizing as much, the National Negro Congress (NNC) sought to democratize the New Deal and stamp out its regressive elements. Many of those at the NNC’s 1935 inaugural conference at Howard University understood that, as Ralph Bunche put it, “the dilemma of the New Deal . . . reflects the basic dilemma of capitalism.” For Bunche, this meant that while the New Deal attempted to “establish a new equilibrium in the social structure,” it bore the mark of racism. And this could be an Achilles heel for left movements.
“The competitive exploitation of any significant part of the population . . . would frustrate . . . efforts towards recovery. The poverty of the Negro is an ever-present obstacle to the prosperity of the dominant population,” Bunche warned.
But the NNC also understood the potential of the moment they were in, with the federal government taking on a more active role in labor-management relations and the economy more generally. Among many other demands, the NNC urged the incorporation of domestic and agricultural workers into the Social Security Act and the demolition of the boundaries imposed on Keynesian policies by the segregationist Dixiecrats and their allies.
The following decade, World War II demonstrated to many on the black left what types of social changes were possible in a moment of low unemployment and softened economic competition. In a July 1944 speech at Fisk University, leading black trade unionist Willard Townsend outlined the lessons of the war years, and the potential of the postwar period: “Full employment in the post war period will not remove racial tensions. It will, however, set the economic stage for effective educational programs designed to reduce the frequency and intensity of one of the basic causes of race conflict.”
Townsend and many on the black left understood that in order to launch a large-scale antiracist effort, they would need an accommodating political economy. The Great Depression had shown that shared economic calamity would not negate racist violence. Quite the opposite: an economy of scarcity could provoke labor competition and catalyze racist violence. This made the pursuit of social-democratic reforms like a job guarantee all the more appealing.
In this sense, providing employment for all was one facet of an expansive strategy to make black lives matter. But winning such gains proved difficult. The Democratic Party’s segregationist wing helped stymie the 1945 full-employment bill, demonstrating how stifling democracy for black people went hand in hand with suppressing welfare state development and social-democratic reforms.
The black left continued to advance a program of economic and racial justice through the 1950s. The National Negro Labor Council was one of the most important groups fighting for anti-discrimination measures in employment, and asserting that ending Jim Crow was central to the labor struggle.
While branded a Communist front, the NNLC also housed a variety of trade unionists and fellow travelers. At its height, during the early part of the decade, it boasted upwards of five thousand members. Women in the NNLC were particularly important in crafting the organization’s vision. As historian Dayo Gore notes, they articulated a “more expansive labor politics . . . [that] insisted that trade unions should view the political struggles for African American civil rights and women’s equality as key labor issues.”
But the Cold War took a toll on the NNLC. Its destruction in 1956 effected what one historian has called the “nadir of black radicalism.”
An organization more of the socialist left than the communist left emerged in the late 1950s: A. Philip Randolph’s Negro American Labor Council. Like the NNLC, the NALC was intent on undermining the power of racism in both the trade union movement and labor markets. Antiracist struggle was in the best interest of all workers, Randolph argued: “labor has failed to learn the lesson of unity . . . The price organized labor pays for the failure to learn this lesson of the unity of workers, regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin, is evident by the present labor situation in the South.”
As unemployment surged above 10 percent for black workers after the 1957–58 recession, Randolph and the NALC focused on the problems of unemployment and automation.
This attention helped provide momentum for what would become the 1963 March on Washington — a march whose full title was, tellingly, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As Randolph set to work in the early 1960s, he invoked the “spirit of Abolition democracy” to argue that NALC must confront the “major historical mission” of expanding the bounds of liberalism. Liberalism, he suggested, was “in collapse . . . its voice is timid and too afraid.”
Randolph argued that the organization’s dual mission was to affirm and actualize the bourgeois revolutions’ political rights (which had been denied to black people), while “prepar[ing] the way for the revolutions in economic rights.” The experience of enslavement — being construed and treated as property — gave black people the “spiritual preparation” to abolish private property and bring socialism into being, Randolph wrote.
Armed with this political analysis, Randolph helped organize the March on Washington. A job guarantee was the chief demand for the demonstration, which saw 250,000 people march and hold signs reading, “Civil Rights Plus Full Employment Equals Freedom.”
In the mid-1960s, after President Kennedy rebuffed the march’s demands for jobs, Randolph, Rustin, and economist Leon Keyserling developed the Freedom Budget for All Americans, which called for nationalized health care, guaranteed jobs or income for all people, and the eradication of poverty, among other things.
Rustin also remained concerned about automation and the shifting nature of employment. Foreshadowing present-day conversations about technology-driven job loss and the future of work, Rustin wrote,
We have to redefine what work is now . . . we must recognize that the work of the young people is to develop their minds and skills for the benefit of society. There is no more sacred work. Therefore, I think that high school and college students who could not afford it should have not only their books paid for and their tuition paid — if necessary, get a salary in order to make it possible for them to consider their work school . . . as the machines take over various areas [of work and] the private sector of the economy is not capable of keeping people at work with dignity, then the public sector must come in and play a larger role.
The Freedom Budget offered a comprehensive plan to create social democracy in the US. While it emanated from the civil rights movement, it aimed to galvanize a broader left agenda and sought to expand the War on Poverty. During a discussion about cover art, for example, Keyserling and Rustin resisted using images of people who appeared “manifestly deprived, harassed, and poor.” Such images, the two noted, would “shrink the whole concept of the Freedom Budget.” (They settled instead on an image announcing their demands.)
In the mid-1960s, these ideas were well entrenched in the wide-ranging black freedom movement. One of Randolph’s inspirations for the Freedom Budget was the Urban League’s Marshall Plan proposal, which called for targeted investment in education and jobs in US cities amid both white flight and capital flight.
Such ideas gained purchase even outside the mainstream civil rights movement. The second point in the Black Panther Party’s “Ten Point Program,” for example, called for full employment. Similarly, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization’s candidate for tax assessor, Alice Moore, laid out her political vision for an audience at a packed campaign event at a local Baptist church: “my platform is tax the rich to feed the poor.”
Likewise, the National Welfare Rights Organization initiated a campaign for a “Guaranteed Adequate Income” a few years later. “NWRO,” the group explained, “is challenging the country to change its priorities from an emphasis on death and destruction to an emphasis on life and peace.” At the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, these policies again came to the fore. Approved resolutions included: a job for all who wanted one, a minimum wage of $3.13 per hour ($17.75 in 2015 dollars), and a guaranteed annual income of $6, 500 per year for a family of four ($36,857, adjusted for inflation).
Two years later, in May 1974, Coretta Scott King began organizing the Full Employment Action Council. The grouping of civil rights and labor leaders came together when unemployment was still relatively low (5.1 percent), but within a few months joblessness spiked. By the following May, as King and others rallied for what would become the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, 9 percent of the labor force was out of work.
The Problem of Subsistence
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s skepticism toward Bernie Sanders’s program is rooted in the developments of the Keynesian period, which relied upon redlining and racist and patriarchal credit allocation. Of course, these years also witnessed black freedom struggles for guaranteed jobs, a guaranteed annual income, and for other economic measures to ameliorate the ravages of capitalism. But despite the importance of cross-racial and cross-class political alliances in these struggles, many of their proposals did not receive the attention hindsight indicates they should have. They also, with few exceptions, went down in defeat.
Though weakened, the black left continued to advocate social-democratic demands into the 1980s and ’90s. The Full Employment Action Council kept plugging away, even as its aims drifted further and further outside the bounds of political possibility. And amid Clintonite austerity, groupings like the Black Radical Congress maintained demands for economic justice by calling for full employment and a guaranteed income. “We need a constitutional legal right to a job, as much as a right to vote,” the group said.
For more than a century, then, the black left has played an indispensable role in the movements and struggles for socialism and social democracy. Their abiding calls for jobs and income indicate the durability of abolition democracy and its social values, and its capacity to shape the current political moment.
As Du Bois argued, “once the problem of subsistence is met” — once “that democracy which first provides food, shelter and organized security” is established — it becomes possible to realize “the right to be different.” And “in this realm,” he wrote, “lies the real freedom.”