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A History of Resistance

Martin Luther King Jr.’s last campaign was a battle for worker’s rights. His support of the Memphis Sanitation workers demand for fair wages and a union highlighted the essential connection between the struggle for African-American rights and the rights of working people. Furthermore, he and a coalition of civil rights and labor organizers were working on the Poor People’s Campaign, a march and occupation of Washington DC designed to put forth a new and fairer economics than the racially-influenced monopoly capitalism system in place then and now. In a manner that is not necessarily well understood by much of what is considered the Left in the United States, King’s work in his final year made crystal clear the link between white supremacy and the exploitation of working people by the capitalist class.

In doing so, King upset those forces invested in maintaining the falsehood that white workers in the US fared better because Black workers fared worse than they did. After all, the profiteers and the overseers/managers who performed their dirty work not only counted on white racism to keep the workers divided, they perpetrated that racism. This had been true since the beginning of the European invasion of the Americas. It had been refined in the fields and factories of the United States. Indeed, it was essential to the history of the nation.

Despite this essentiality, most US residents remained unaware of this aspect of US history. History books in school certainly never mentioned it. Even most labor histories only told the story of white workers and their struggles. One assumes that this was intentional in some cases and, in other cases, the result of the dominant narrative in the US—a narrative based in white supremacy. By the time King was assassinated in April 1968, fissures had begun appearing in that narrative. Mr. King’s lectures and sermons were part of the reason for those fissures. So were books by the likes of Herbert Aptheker and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture); and so was the activism of millions in the numerous movements for human rights, national liberation and against war. Yet, there was no single text, no one accessible work that presented US history from the perspective of the non-white worker. Consequently, many high school and college students whose understanding of their nation would have benefitted from such a book left school without any comprehensive exposure to this take on history.

This vacuum no longer exists thanks to writer, activist and historian Paul Ortiz. His newly published book An African American and Latinx History of the United States is a work that combines historical detail with a perspective that challenges the common narrative of US history. Part of a group of texts published by Boston’s Beacon Press that challenge conventional narratives (the most recent being Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States), Ortiz’s work draws on multiple sources that include historical Black newspapers, numerous historical texts, personal memories, and reminiscences and stories told to Ortiz while he and fellow researchers compiled narratives for different oral history projects.

Ortiz’s history relates events deemed important in conventional US histories (those championing the role played by European settlers and their descendants) like the Civil War and the New Deal. In his discussion of such moments he tells a more complete story. It is a story that points out how Black and Latinx working people were left out of many of the promises of the New Deal in order to ensure its passage by white supremacist congressmen. When this book discusses slavery in the US and the war that eventually destroyed that institution, it is a telling that properly emphasizes the leadership of the Black slaves and freedmen. It is the other events discussed in An African American and Latinx History of the United States that do the most to make this history unique, however. The fact that the first chapter is about the Haitian revolution makes this quite clear. While the rebellion of Toussaint L’Ouverture and his fellow Haitians is one that most histories of the European colonization of the Americas would like to forget, Ortiz’s highlighting of that struggle sets the tone for the rest of his book.

An African American and Latinx History of the United States is a historical refutation of the imperialist and white supremacist myths most US residents accept as fact and history. As Ortiz makes clear, such a history could not be written any other way, given that it is told through the words and perspective of the African American and Latino people of the United States. It also makes clear that these myths continue to do their work in maintaining the historical status quo in the present day. The educator Paulo Freire wrote in his most famous text The Pedagogy of the Oppressed the following words: “Looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they (the oppressed) are so that they can more wisely build the future.” Ortiz has assumed this understanding into his text. In doing so he has composed a work of liberation.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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