The Peculiar History of the United States: Slavery, “States’ Rights” and the Federal Government

by Bob Avakian

August 18, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


Editor’s note: Attorney General Eric Holder has been deployed to Ferguson, MO to try to dampen the courageous uprising against the police murder of Michael Brown. Both in relation to that, but because it reveals essential truth behind illusions about the Federal Government’s role in relation to the oppression of Black people, we are sharing the following excerpt from Birds Cannot Give Birth to Crocodiles, But Humanity Can Soar Beyond the Horizon by Bob Avakian.


The Peculiar History of the United States: Slavery, "States' Rights" and the Federal Government

And there is, along with this, the peculiar phenomenon in the history of the U.S. that—especially in the period after the Civil War, and particularly in the period of the New Deal with Roosevelt in the 1930s, and then again with Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s—the federal government has played the role of stepping in not only to, in effect, "save this system from itself" but more specifically to prevent certain local or state governments from carrying out acts which, in the context of the country and the world overall, might be injurious to the interests of the ruling class as a whole. For example, it is the federal government which—even under Eisenhower, a Republican president—sent troops to Little Rock in the 1950s, when there was a revolt on the part of the state government in Arkansas against the integration of the schools. The same thing happened in regard to George Wallace when, as the openly white supremacist governor of Alabama, he tried to prevent integration in that state in the 1960s.

In general, it has been the federal government that has made concessions to oppressed and "marginalized" people in this country. That has been the form in which those concessions have largely been made—the federal government acting to do this, frequently in opposition to local and state governments and the more particular interests they represent.

This is one of the reasons why in the U.S. the fascist movements that have developed have a strong anti-federal government posture—that whole "anti-Washington" thing, and the assertion of "states' rights," in opposition to the federal government as the embodiment of all evil. This, to a large extent, is an expression of the particular role of the federal government in relation to the state governments in the history, and even in the present time, within the U.S. As I'll speak to more fully later, in talking about some of these fascist movements, it is perfectly fine with them for the federal government to spend lots of money, and even to go into great debt, to wage wars and for other purposes which are in line with how these forces see their interests; but to them it is an abomination for the federal government to do anything, spend any money or act in any other way, to make concessions to groups to which these people see themselves in opposition and antagonism. In fact, those drawn to these fascist movements in particular—although, unfortunately, this is a broader phenomenon in American society—have to a large degree defined themselves, in a real sense, in opposition to oppressed people in the U.S., especially Black people. This is essential to their identity as white Americans.

So this is a peculiar phenomenon that we should understand about the history of this country, the exercise of state power by the ruling classes and the conflicts within that—and why it is that many of the oppressed see, and are encouraged to see, the federal government as the recourse of last resort. It is a common occurrence, for example, that when the police murder somebody—and, as we know, the victims of this police murder are overwhelmingly Black people, as well as Latinos—and, as almost always happens, the police get away with this (either they are not charged with a crime at all, and it is simply declared "justifiable homicide," or in the rare cases where they are accused of a crime and tried, the trial is generally a farce, with the judge, openly or at least in the content of legal rulings, siding with the cop or cops on trial, and the prosecution conducting its case on terms and in a way that makes an acquittal more likely, as we saw yet again recently in the case of the cold-blooded murder of Oscar Grant in Oakland) there is then a call for the federal government to step in and prosecute the cop (or cops) involved for violation of the civil rights of the person who was murdered. It is important to understand the particularities, and the complexities, of this in order to be able to correctly "navigate" these contradictions and win people to see the real forces and interests involved, what the fundamental relations are, what the real problem is, and what the real solution is.


Read the entire work, Birds Cannot Give Birth to Crocodiles, But Humanity Can Soar Beyond the Horizon by Bob Avakian online here, or download the e-book here.


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