Remarks of Gerald Horne
2013 Human Rights Awards
Chicago Illinois, June 15, 2013
It is difficult to overestimate my pleasure in returning to Chicago. When Clarice Durham and Ted Pearson reached out to me, I accepted quickly not giving either an opportunity to change their minds. I was sufficiently taciturn to avoid confessing that I would have paid them to come to Chicago to speak to an audience of political activists and progressive minded people.
This is because Chicago historically has been in the vanguard of progressive change, going back to the times of the Haymarket martyrs whose sacrifice bequeathed to us the 8 hour day and May Day itself, the international workers’ holiday. It was also in Chicago that the heroic Ida B. Wells-Barnett led a trailblazing crusade against lynching that has provided us with a template for struggle that exists to this very day: Southern Solidarity and International Solidarity. Southern solidarity in that the place where slavery was most persistent was also the place where lynching was most prevalent and where today anti-union sentiment is the strongest and that no progress nationally is secure unless we break the back of reaction in Dixie—and that in order to do this, we will have to enlist our friends in the international community. Wells-Barnett realized this when in the 1890s she took her crusade against lynching—which disproportionately occurred in Dixie—to the shores of London. Wells-Barnett also did not ignore the all important class question as she realized that the scourge that was lynching did not exclude Negroes who were affluent or powerful; in fact, the white supremacists disproportionately targeted this group, not least since their very existence undermined the fundamentals of white supremacy itself.
It was also in Chicago that African-Americans began to take flight, a development that ultimately marked a great leap forward in the struggle against global and domestic fascism. One can glimpse that of which I speak by perusing the neglected 1930s novel by George Schuyler, Black Empire, which featured Negro pilots bombing racists in Mississippi and colonialists in London. It was approximately 95 years ago that a young woman of color from Texas, Bessie Coleman, moved to Chicago where she was befriended by the publisher of the Chicago Defender, Robert Abbott, who financed her successful effort to be trained as an airline pilot in France. It was Coleman who inspired a future generation of black pilots including John Robinson of Chicago who migrated to Ethiopia in the mid-1930s where he played a pivotal role as a fighter pilot in the war against Italian fascism, then went on to serve as a founder of Ethiopian Airways, to this day one of the leading carriers on the continent. Robinson was hailed by thousands upon returning to Chicago after his return from East Africa in the 1930s, then was hailed by thousands more when he perished in an air crash in Ethiopia in the 1950s—one of the few individuals to be celebrated on two continents.
Robinson, however, was not alone. James Peck, was a Black American pilot who fought during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s alongside the progressive forces—including many Mexicanos and Puerto Riquenos–in one of the most important conflicts of the 20th century; he was also a great writer and his book, published in 1940, ‘Armies with Wings’ is one of the few accounts published to this day telling how it feels to kill from the air—a work that could usefully be consulted by drone operators today.
Because those like Robinson and Peck did not shrink from fighting fascism abroad, we were placed in an advantageous position to confront fascism’s close cousin—Jim Crow at home. That was the value of internationalism, which Robinson and Peck and countless others then recognized.
Many of you here know of or knew William Patterson who served as leader of two of the predecessor organizations of the Alliance. I speak of the International Labor Defense and the Civil Rights Congress. The Alliance has followed fruitfully in Patterson’s footsteps and Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s footsteps, with their tireless labor to free the Wilmington 10 named after. Wilmington, North Carolina—a former port of entry for enslaved Africans—and, not coincidentally, a state with perhaps the lowest trade union membership in the nation. It was Patterson who popularized the cause of the Scottsboro 9, black youth in Alabama headed for the electric chair until the ILD’s intervention which led to demonstrations globally—Moscow, Paris, Johannesburg, Melbourne, Havana—in solidarity with African-Americans and it was this global pressure that set the stage for the crumbling of Jim Crow in the 1950s. It was also Patterson who in his “We Charge Genocide” petition took the cause of beleaguered African Americans to the United Nations in 1951, placing the U.S. ruling elite in the dock of public opinion and it was this kind of pressure that too led to the crumbling of Jim Cow.
This brief stroll down memory lane is illustrative of the themes that I present to you this evening—not only Southern solidarity and global solidarity as a precondition to domestic advance but also militant struggle as a precondition to advance.
In some ways, just as in the days of Wells-Barnett and Patterson and Robinson and Peck, Chicago once more is leading the way showing the rest of us how to dig our way out of the hole that the right wing has dug for us. All of us need to study carefully the example provided by the Chicago Teachers Union and President Karen Lewis and the parents and students allied with them in their recent struggle to bar the closing of 50 public schools, the largest mass shutdown of public schools in the history of this nation, which will displace thousands of our children. It was 9 year old Asean Johnson who has crystallized the sentiment that should animate this century when he led the crowd in chanting “education is our right, that is why we have to fight.”
As any good union does, the CTU is fighting for the interests of all of us. As a college professor I know that the right-wing for some reason sees those like myself as an enemy which is why they are moving aggressively to enroll tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of college students in internet classes, which will downsize dramatically faculty jobs while improving the bottom line of private colleges and universities, while decimating the public sector. Progressive leadership in faculty unions are now studying carefully the militant example of Karen Lewis and the CTU in order to preserve jobs and foil the destruction of higher education.
Nevertheless, we would be mistaken if we were to see this Chicago catastrophe—these massive school closings– as solely unique to this Midwestern metropolis for it is apparent that the U.S. ruling elite feels that if it can compel Progressive Chicago to surrender—the city that produced the Haymarket Martyrs and Wells-Barnett and Patterson-it will be that much easier to get St. Louis and Milwaukee and Kansas City and the entire nation to surrender. Just as Apple Computer has incorporated in Ireland to avoid taxes and makes its products in China, it is evident that U.S. corporations feel that the U.S working class is not as necessary as it once was and what Apple and a good deal of the Fortune 500 need is basically a governmental apparatus that will protect its interests in trade disputes and knock down tariff walls to allow for global penetration of its products, while these corporate renegades can exploit cheap labor abroad. With such a scenario, an educated workforce is not the top priority of a good deal of the Fortune 500 corporations. And just as these corporations are seeking to exploit labor abroad against our interests, we must rally abroad not just to help the downtrodden overseas but also to insure our own survival. Indeed, one can draw a straight line from the predatory policies of these corporations to these catastrophic school closings to the ongoing outrage that is the Cook County Jail and the evolution of what has been termed the “prison industrial complex.”
Chicago also has captured national and global headlines due to another unfortunate trend. I speak of the gunplay and carnage on the streets, which delivers the equivalent of a Columbine and an Aurora and a Newtown, Connecticut on a regular basis. How is it that handguns are allowed to flood our streets and be delivered into the hands of young people in particular? Let me respond to that question by asking another question: how can Chicago expect a reasonable interpretation of the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution when your neighbors are represented by the likes of Mitch Mc Connell and Bob Corker and Roy Blount, Senatorial Dinosaurs all? How can Chicago ever be secure when it has retrograde neighbors in Kentucky and Tennessee and Missouri? How can Howard Morgan ever be free unless we are able to push back vigorously against the white supremacist and reactionary ideology that is centered in Dixie but also, like a weed, has grown into our local gardens here. Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois may think he’s on the side of the angels since he joined Dick Durbin on the gun control vote in April 2013 in Congress but as long as Mark Kirk votes—as he is bound to do—for Mitch McConnell, the master of obstruction and obfuscation as Senate leader, he will have blood on his hands. Tonight I make only request from those assembled here: please do everything in your power to make sure that Mark Kirk is granted a well-deserved retirement in 2016.
The carnage in the streets is simply a reflection of the carnage that takes place in police stations. You of Chicago—the Peoples Law Office in particular–also blazed a trail for the rest of us when you fought heroically against the Chicago Police Department and their notorious officer, Jon Burge, who forty years ago tortured Anthony Holmes using electric shock and suffocation while screaming racist insults at this African-American man. Holmes, was just one of 120 black men subjected to such abuse for decades. In fighting these cases, the Peoples Law Office has walked in the footsteps of William Patterson, who pioneered in implementing the idea that the key to victory was not only expert lawyering inside the courtroom but mobilized masses outside the courtroom. Indeed, we should view the Alliance, the Peoples Law Office and Jeff Baker and the Committee for a Better Chicago as part of a virtuous circle; for if we are to achieve an elected Civilian Police Accountability Council to crush the possibility of even more torture by police, it will require not just expert lawyering inside the courtroom but mobilized masses outside the courtroom.
The lawsuits and investigations that exposed police torture and other depredations reflected a number of relevant trends: Black Chicago was subjected to such abuse not least because Black Chicago is seen as a vanguard community for the nation as a whole, and on the principle that if you beat one slave you can keep the entire plantation in line, the idea was that if you could abuse Black Chicago you could more easily subdue Progressive Chicago and, thereby, subjugate the nation as a whole. And secondly, the kind of pressure placed on City Hall by the Alliance and its allies in the trenches, including forward-thinking attorneys and teachers, once again illustrated that Chicago continues to emulate Wells-Barnett and Patterson.
Of course, if we are to make progress, we will need to confront some inconvenient truths, for example why—from a membership viewpoint—the U.S. left is much weaker than its counterparts in Japan, Germany, France, Brazil and elsewhere. In short, we need a much deeper analysis of racism and politics if we are to be truly frontline fighters against racist and political repression.
Indeed, recently President Pepe Mujica of Uruguay—a former urban guerilla who spent years imprisoned—said that the US is a “frighteningly conservative” nation, a viewpoint shared widely in Latin America and the international community generally. Ironically, former GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole of Kansas echoed Mujica when he said today’s Republican Party would probably purge Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon as being insufficiently conservative.
Are President Mujica and Senator Dole correct? Did not we just defeat a determined attempt by “frighteningly conservative” forces to retake the White House and the U.S. Senate? Yes, we did but that was not enough. What we need to consider is that in a nation where economic power is wildly skewed on a class, race and gender basis, it makes sense not just to count votes but to weigh them. Surely, that is the clear implication of the Citizens United decision by the high court a few years ago. Union members generally tend to vote against the right wing but as the failed attempt to recall Gov. Scott Walker in neighboring Wisconsin suggested, this is not true to the same extent for the working class as a whole, nor the middle class and certainly not for the ruling elite. Once again, it is Dixie that sets the pace for the “frighteningly conservative” U.S. as a whole; thus, in Mississippi in a stunning cross class coalition that is replicated to a degree throughout Dixie, Euro-Americans routinely vote for the GOP by a 9 to 1 margin; in November 2012, Euro-Americans voted in the presidential race for the GOP by a record margin, with Mitt Romney garnering 60% of this sector. In the most “frighteningly conservative” vote ever rendered on this continent, a scant two decades ago—not coincidentally as the Soviet Union was collapsing—David Duke, an avowed Nazi and Ku Klansman won a substantial majority of the white vote in the Louisiana gubernatorial election. My friends how can we seriously discuss building a progressive movement in this nation when a heavy majority of white voters in Dixie across class lines are supporting “frighteningly conservative” candidates? Rich Trumka of the AFL-CIO made a good start in 2008 when during the midst of a heated election campaign he cautioned his constituency against falling for the poisonous seductiveness of white supremacy but we need more than a speech—no matter how eloquent and persuasive—we need a program to address systematically this pestilence. For the foreseeable future, we progressives must recognize that it is crucial—but insufficient—to simply mobilize for elections if we do not continue to organize after elections.
If we weighed votes—and not simply counted them—we would understand how and why the US invaded Iraq in 2003 despite millions protesting globally worldwide, including hundreds of thousands in this nation. If we weighed votes and not just counted them, we would understand why some of the most inflexible and resolute opponents of the present occupant of the White House, actually supported what I consider to be his most serious blunder—the bombing of Libya in 2011—which has unleashed a tidal wave of conservative religious radicalism coursing throughout the African continent as a whole but in particular in Mali and Niger and Nigeria, the continent’s giant.
I think that going forward, the U.S. left—with hopefully the Chicago left leading the way—has to make two serious adjustments if the powerful U.S. right is to be corralled. First, the left needs to pay more attention to the global correlation of forces, even when making a domestic analysis. Recall that most historians today agree that what helped to drive desegregation in the 1960s was the reality that the U.S. had difficulty in charging the USSR with human rights violations as long as apartheid reigned on these shores—thus, Jim Crow had to go, and it did, as our movement was able to take advantage of a favorable global climate.
Thus, today in assessing this small planet there are two trends here that must be addressed, seemingly contradictory: 1. the collapse of the socialist project in Europe and how that empowered capital vis-à-vis labor and how that shaped the response to the financial crisis of 2008, i.e. privatizing gain and collectivizing pain. Indeed, one of the reasons that cascading unrest has not accompanied the austerity regime imposed in the North Atlantic nations is precisely because of the ideological retreat that accompanied the collapse of the socialist project, which suggested to some that there was no meaningful left wing alternative to the status quo. 2. how the single minded focus on Moscow during the Cold War, led to overtures to Beijing, exemplified by Nixon’s journey there four decades ago, which led to massive foreign direct investment in China, creating today’s Asian juggernaut. This in turn has led to the rise of the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—and, particularly, the rise of China which—and according to recently deceased Nobel Laureate in Economics, Professor Robert Fogel of the University of Chicago—China will have an economy ten times the size of that of the U.S. within the lifetime of many of us, with monumental political consequences flowing from this. It is little wonder that a good deal of the U.S. population is confused when their leaders and intellectuals tell them that “Communism” was defeated, at a point when the most populous nation on the planet, which happens to be headed by a Communist Party, is in the process of surpassing the U.S. itself. This idea of “Communism” being dead is either an extreme example of Euro-centrism—i.e. if it happens in Europe that means it has happened in the world—or it is the most profound example of collective delusion since the Salem Witch Trials in late 17th century Massachusetts.
Now in response to China’s rise, Washington is increasing the danger by seeking to build up Japan as a counterweight again China by acquiescing to Tokyo’s military build-up and weakening of the yen to revive its economy—both of which have ominous implications for the perpetually sensitive Korean peninsula and should bring a shudder to all who recall December 7, 1941.
Part of this global analysis by we of the left should also include an analysis of the impact of the retreat of the socialist project in Eastern Europe on the ideology of Western Europe and, quite notably, Euro-Americans across class lines. Part of this analysis should also include the impact of the CIA’s largest covert intervention in its history—Afghanistan in the 1980s—and how that intervention weaponized religion, creating yet another “frighteningly conservative” force that was strengthened in Libya in 2011 and is being strengthened, as I speak, in Syria. It is unclear to me how this nation will ever address fruitfully the pressing issue of education and health care as long as reckless foreign adventures are pursued.
Having said that, the bottom line is that today—not least because of the rise of the BRICS– presents one of the most favorable global climates for domestic advance since the 1960s—the question is: how do we take advantage?
The second issue that we must engage concerns the history of this nation. In order to understand the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison, on death row, subjected to racist stop-and-frisk measures in New York City, and all the racist rest, one must understand 1865 and the Civil War ending with one of the largest uncompensated expropriations of private property in world history, in the person of formerly enslaved Africans, who were then living side by side by those whose property had been taken. (DO DEMO OF TAKING PRIVATE PROPERTY FROM AUDIENCE MEMBER AND ASKING HOW THEY WOULD RESPOND)
Likewise, one cannot understand the often hysterical opposition to the very idea of government itself by the “frighteningly conservative” right wing unless one acknowledges that it was government that expropriated their property without compensation. Of course, it is the government and public employee unions, e.g. the CTU, which have been more prone to protect and defend “minorities” which too has incurred the distaste of the right wing.
Racism is a term that I and many of you use to describe this state of affairs but in a sense it is too limited in that the plight of African-Americans in particular is also grounded in their perceived former class status, i.e. being slaves in North America. Thus, a founder of this organization, Angela Y. Davis, speaks in the new book, ‘Dreaming of French’, how growing up in Jim Crow Birmingham she would flummox Jim Crow merchants by speaking French and then being treated differently. The leading black lawyer of 20th Century Philadelphia, Raymond Pace Alexander, has spoken similarly. During the 1960s, the State Department proposed providing badges to visiting African diplomats and students that would signal they were not African American so that they would not be accorded the indignities of Jim Crow. In the movie of Illinois native, Richard Pryor, ‘Bingo Long’, which concerns Negro baseball players, in one scene they pretend to speak a foreign language so they will not be subjected to the indignities of Jim Crow. Now, if racism were solely at issue, the ability to speak a foreign language to escape the ravages of Jim Crow would not be at issue. But what is at issue in these cases, is being identified with North American Africans who fought against slavery—and won—and whose freedom meant substantial financial loss for a powerful slaveholding class, whose descendants and ideological soulmates have decided that we should be punished until the end of time as a result.
While examining this nation’s history, the U.S. left should not stop there. We should also ask why it was that after 1776 the resultant USA replaced the former colonial master in London as the captain of the international slave trade, as they perfected a kind of imperialism of slavery, as U.S. nationals are largely responsible for the fact that Brazil has the largest population of African descent, other than Nigeria, and why London in turn became the headquarters of the movement to abolish slavery. Or why it was that, by an order of magnitude, more Africans fought alongside the redcoats in 1776 than fought against them.
These are delicate questions I know. I have found that trying to discuss the ugly reality of this nation’s slave trading origins—even with friends on the left–is as difficult as trying to tell a four year old that there is no such thing as Santa Claus: This is so, though the U.S. left prides itself on its evaluation of what it has seen as the positive and negative qualities of the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution.
We need to realize that our interpretations of history change. Patterson acknowledged this in the early 1970s when he said of the BPP that, of course, their view of reality then would be different than his generation’s, not least since his generation had changed profoundly the reality that the BPP generation confronted. That is, it was possible for the younger generation to see further, not only because they were standing on Patterson’s shoulders but also because Patterson and company had cleared away the mist of distortion. Du Bois recognized this when in his magisterial book, ‘Black Reconstruction’, he radically reappraised the period following the U.S. Civil War.
If we are to respond to President Mujica’s claim that this nation is “frighteningly conservative” and, better still, build a progressive movement that undermines this contention, we must not only reassess the global correlation of forces, we must also reassess the history of this republic. Surely, we will not want to imitate the fictional intellectual who says, “I know what you are saying is true in reality—but the question is it true in theory.” I think our grandchildren will probably include that even referring to 1776 as an “Incomplete Revolution”, is probably too generous—unless you argue that enhanced rights for Europeans following the proclamation of apartheid in South Africa in 1948 was an “Incomplete Revolution” providing a template for the extension of rights to Africans.
Nevertheless, whatever one’s view of the past, we can all agree that our view of the future must ingest fully the lessons bequeathed to us by Wells-Barnett—Southern solidarity and global solidarity. How can we free Howard Morgan when one of our closest neighbors is Mitch McConnell of Kentucky? How can we free Howard Morgan unless we make his name known not only in the halls of Congress but also in the halls of the United Nations and the halls of the Organization of American States? Here we must draw upon the experience of Lisa Brock, whose connections in Cuba based on her trailblazing book on this island could be extremely helpful in building the global movement the present moment demands. How can we free Howard Morgan unless we make his place inordinate pressure on Mayor Emmanuel and the Board of Aldermen and the leaders of Cook County and Springfield alike? How can we free Howard Morgan unless we have an active trade union brigade similar to those organized in the 1930s to free the Scottsboro 9?
My friends, we have a lot of work ahead of us but I am confident that we will win. I am confident because Chicago continues to be in the vanguard of progressivism, at the point of the spear in the attack on “frighteningly conservative” forces, in a line of march led by Karen Lewis and Lisa Brock and Jeff Baker and the Peoples Law Office, all following in the giant footsteps of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and William Patterson—THANK YOU.