Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X at the US capitol building

The Democratic Party & the African Movement

Everyone has seen the iconic picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and El Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X) shaking hands and smiling. That picture took place on March 26, 1964, on the floor of the U.S. capitol . Both men were there for the same reason. The Civil Rights Act was being debated on the floor of the U.S. Senate. 

Malcolm was there to gather information to support his political view that the fact the 1964 Civil Rights Bill had to even be created in the first place was proper evidence of its worthlessness. That 1964 act sought to provide the same “rights” that the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the 1870 15th Amendment of the U.S. constitution were supposed to provide to the African masses, but hadn’t as of 1964 (or 2022 for that matter). 

Malcolm and Martin’s meeting on the capital floor wasn’t planned, it was spontaneous. They had a few moments of interaction and that was it. The two of them had never met before that and they would never meet again. Malcolm of course, continued in developing his international Pan-Africanist focused work (after leaving the Nation of Islam). This work led him to strengthen relationships with revolutionary Pan-African leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Ture, Gamal Abdul Nasser, etc. As we know, his work was cut short on February 21, 1965, less than a year after his one-time meeting with Dr. King.

The focus of this piece is on the work King was doing at the capitol building in March of 1964. Although, as has been stated, everyone knows of the picture of King and Malcolm, most people don’t give much thought as to what either of them was doing there that day, especially King. It’s critical to understand King’s purpose because today in 2022 and beyond, most Africans and other people within the U.S. who believe that the U.S. capitalist system can be reformed to provide justice for people oppressed under this backward system, believe that this can be accomplished through the current bourgeois model. That model is people voting for candidates and issues in local, state, and national elections. The continuing theme in this sick scenario is that every election, the masses of people will be told that this election is the most important one. Political leaders will be marched out. One may even show up at your door. And when they do, they will preach to you about how important the election is to preserve our “rights.”  For anyone who doesn’t respond positively to this, you will be bombarded with judgment and pronouncements about how you are betraying your ancestors by refusing to participate in the U.S. capitalist electoral process. The logic behind this strange approach is rooted in the firm belief that this capitalist process is the absolute only methodology available to oppressed people to address our suffering conditions.

These elections happen every two and four years. Each of them is the “most important one ever.” And, historically, as it relates to the Democratic Party since the mid 1940s, the African masses vote upwards of 95% or better for the Democrats. In fact, you cannot find a Democratic president since Kennedy’s victory in 1960 who would have won without the reliable support of the African masses.

Unfortunately, once these capitalist politicians, from Kennedy through Obama, to Biden, get in office, the question becomes what mechanism do we have to hold them accountable to fulfill our interests? In 2020, Biden campaigned strongly to get the African vote. He and Kamala Harris won and declared that the African masses put them there so they would have our backs. When and how has that happened? Even now, a full year after they were elected, the bourgeoisie bureaucracy is debating voting rights/suppression in the racist southern states of the U.S. The exact same issue that the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were supposed to be enacted to address. Now, there are some who would respond to the question about Biden/Harris/Democratic Party by attempting to argue that the Republican Party plays the role of sabotage which prevents any progress from happening, but this is also a strange argument because the Republican Party has played that role for the last 80 years and yet, in the 60s, there was still legislation created like the acts mentioned previously. Acts that most of the supporters of bourgeois electoral politics continuously point to as validation of their approach.

This brings us back to what King was doing at the capitol in March of 1964. King’s role at the capitol was to apply in-person pressure to members of the U.S. Senate to vote in favor of the Civil Rights Bill. On that day, King met with multiple senators from both political parties. His objective in doing that was to remind them that he was there as the voice of a movement. A mass civil rights movement that, the year before, had demonstrated its strength by assembling 250,000 people at that same U.S. capitol building for the historic March on Washington. The same movement that was challenging segregation laws in the Jim Crow South and slowly, but surely, knocking them down. The same movement that had organized in 1964 (through the work of the legendary Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee – SNCC) and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) which effectively challenged the white supremacist hegemony within the Democratic Party (that broke down the segregation within the Democratic and Republican parties that paved the way for Harris, Obama, Stacey Abrams, etc.)

King represented a mass movement and his role on March 26, 1964 at the U.S. capitol was to remind those bourgeois politicians that if they didn’t stand up for us, we would mobilize against them. As revolutionary Pan-Africanists, we are not arguing that this was and is the most effective way for us as a people to move, but our point is, if you are going to promote reform politics within the capitalist system, you don’t have a logical argument to suggest that any progress whatsoever can ever be made through that approach without a mass movement to serve as the political strength to back those efforts.

Today, unlike in the 60s, no such movement exists. Today there is no mass movement such as the one represented by King and others on March 26, 1964, pushing to hold those people in elected office accountable to us. Today, all you have is a completely subjective hope and desire that the Democratic Party and those within it, who are beholden to capitalist corporations, can somehow find it within themselves to prioritize your interests above all the money coming in by the millions from those corporations. A continuing and naïve belief on our part is that appealing to the morality of this system will bring justice to us when the system has been unquestionably clear for quite some time that it doesn’t possess a single shred of morality. That’s why there isn’t any material proof that today’s approach is moving us forward. That’s why no progress has been made against mass incarceration since it was proliferated during the 90s. No serious progress against health disparities as the pandemic clearly illustrates. No serious progress toward ending police terrorism against the African masses and other oppressed communities.

This piece is primarily an observation for those who love to let us know they are opposed to revolution (although they have no idea what revolution is) and instead are always going to stick with capitalist reform. Our message to you is if you stick with reform, spend the necessary time to learn from the practices of Dr. King and others who understood then, as we fail to understand now, that Frederick Douglass was 100% correct when he said “power concedes nothing without a demand!”  No movement, no power. 

Revolutionaries know how to engage in mobilization work (reform work) and organization work. Every effort made to organize oppressed people makes the conditions for revolution stronger, so any true revolutionary would see the necessity to help reformists build stronger reformist movements. But the desire to do so must exist for the people who claim to want to see positive changes inside of the capitalist system. Until those people are willing to recognize that the collective struggle that our ancestors engaged in during the 60s is our proven cultural method to make progress, and that the individualist practice of just voting will never accomplish such (without a movement back it), we will continue to be exploited by the Democratic Party, while being systemically ignored by the Republican Party. The masses of our people continue to suffer. To make the point clear, if you participate in the capitalist electoral process, but you are not an active part of an organization working to build movement, then you are without question, a significant part of the problem.

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Ahjamu Umi is revolutionary organizer with the All African People's Revolutionary Party, adviser, and liberation literature author.