Wednesday Jun 19

Backlash and Its Consequences

Editor’s Note: In a period of resistance in the United States and rising crowds greeting early candidates in anger with the Trump presidency and rage fueling hopes for the 2020 election. Miller reminds that as we surge forward, we have to learn the lessons from history, including the fight for racial justice, and be prepared for backlash, if we move faster than we have organized the broadest base of support.

Preface To Our Times

On Friday, June 17, 1966, at a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael’s use of “black power” went viral in the nation’s media. In fact, Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) “field secretaries” (organizers) had earlier used the term, and from late 1961 to 1965 SNCC had been building black power without the slogan when it added voter registration and community organizing to its nonviolent direct action desegregation campaigns (interstate commerce and public accommodations). During that period, SNCC had embedded itself in poor black communities across the Deep South’s Black Belt—counties with 80% and up African-American population—earning the trust of local people, and slowly building a base for independent political action.

During roughly the same period, broad national support for civil rights existed. In 1962, ’63 and ’64, Friends of SNCC, the organization’s northern support arm, raised over half a million dollars from hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of supporters at concerts, house parties, large public speaking events, tables set up on college campuses, direct mail, big donors and an annual celebrity dinner put on by entertainer Harry Belafonte—a figure whose key role in the movement deserves greater attention and credit.

When an alert went out from SNCC’s national headquarters in Atlanta, Friends of SNCC mobilized political pressure on their members of Congress, the Justice Department and other Federal agencies. Within the establishment, SNCC had important allies among Republicans and Democrats in Congress, within the Justice Department and elsewhere.

In the 1964 race for the presidency, Democrat Lyndon Johnson overwhelmingly defeated conservative Republican Barry Goldwater, who won only his home state of Arizona and the old Confederacy states in the south. 1964 saw also the passage of the Civil Rights Act, followed in 1965 by the Voting Rights Act, supported by Democratic and Republican members of Congress.

The earlier 1957 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, provided for Justice Department intervention if civil rights workers were arrested while engaged in voter registration activities. Justice Department attorney John Doar, himself a Republican and Eisenhower appointee who was retained by the new Kennedy Democratic Administration, responded when voting rights workers were jailed.

Earned Insurgency

No two periods in history are alike. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons from one time that can be applied to another. In a 2007 YouTube discussion, Bob Moses, legendary director of SNCC’s Mississippi Project, called what SNCC developed an “earned insurgency”.

“My point about insurgency,” said Moses, “is that we need to have insurgencies to have democracy. In the ‘60s, the sit-ins were insurgencies; the sit-inners were insurgents; they earned their insurgency by people beating up on them, by dressing up in suits and ties so that they could present themselves to the country so that the country could see them. In Mississippi, we earned our insurgency with local people. We’d get knocked down, and we’d get back up; we didn’t run; we didn’t abandon the local people. We earned our insurgency with the country: the children of the country came to Mississippi for the Summer Project of 1964. We were asking people to risk their lives, so we had to show them that we were actually also willing to do that ourselves.”

Danger Signs

There were cautionary notes playing as well. A 2015 retrospective look at the period by the Pew Research Center notes, “Gallup reported in February 1965 that,
when asked about the Civil Rights Act specifically, 42% overall believed the federal government was moving too fast in guaranteeing ‘Negro’ voting rights and the right of ‘Negroes’ (the term used in the question) to be served in public places such as restaurants, hotels and theaters, while just 25% thought it was not moving fast enough.”

A strong majority supported the 1965 Selma-Montgomery voting rights march. But in the poll that counts most, the 1966 midterm election, there was
the largest shift in the post World War 2 era of House of Representatives seats from one party to the other: Democrat to Republican.

In 1966, the Congressional Quarterly reported, “The Republican party reasserted itself as a major force in American politics by capturing eight new Governorships, three new seats in the U.S. Senate and 47 additional U.S. House seats in the Nov. 8 elections. In a striking comeback from its devastating defeat of 1964, the GOP elected enough new Governors to give it control of 25 of the 50 states with a majority of the nation’s population. The Senate and House gains left the party still short of a majority but in a position of new power and relevance on the national scene.”


Backlash was at work! We should pay attention. While civil rights was not the only issue contributing to the shift, it was a major one.

Backlash is a reaction. We acted. People reacted. Saul Alinsky notably said of tactics, “The action is in the reaction.” As Moses explained our action, we were attentive to this idea. But our attention strayed. For us then backlash, or reaction, took many forms that weakened and undermined the freedom struggle. Writ large, backlash turned the optimism of the early-to-mid 1960s into either the fury of disillusionment or the despair of withdrawal from a world that seemed impossible to change.

In SNCC, to talk of backlash was selling out. Attempts to understand what was happening with white middle class supporters who were backing away from SNCC, with white working class ethnics who were rapidly becoming foes and soon became “Reagan Democrats”, and with politicians whose doors were no longer open to us were dismissed.

Our rhetoric grew shriller while our base in the Deep South eroded—as did our support nationally. Our isolation both from our base in the black belt of the Deep South and from our allies in the north increased, and our tactics that contributed to this isolation were amplified setting in motion continuing defeats, and a downward spiral from which the organization never recovered.

As SNCC unraveled and its isolation increased, people who had been part of the community and political organizations it had played a central role in creating moved away from it. A telling response to the new rhetoric came from Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi Delta plantation worker who was fired from her job, had her house shot into when she tried to register to vote, and who went on to become a national spokesperson for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She told a SNCC worker, “We don’t understand what you all are talkin’ about.” At the SNCC meeting that voted the handful of remaining whites out of the organization, she came up to me crying and said, “Mike, I just don’t understand them.”

While our tactics contributed to our isolation, two other reaction tactics were imposed upon us—cooptation and repression. In Mississippi, the Freedom Democratic Party (FDP) was challenged by moderate Democrats who enjoyed patronage and other support from the Johnson Administration. By 1968, when new rules for delegate representation at the Democratic Party Convention were in place, the FDP was in no position to avail itself of their benefits. Instead, FDP’s delegates were only a quarter of the 50/50 black and white delegation (they were half of the black half) seated at that gathering.

While cooptation used status (appointments), limited power, programs (construction and other program funding) and flattery to woo people away from SNCC, the FBI’s counter intelligence program infiltrated and disrupted it internally. In the south, FBI agents were often in direct communication with local police, sheriffs, state police and, in some cases, the KKK--- providing them information on civil rights movement activities.

Within SNCC, rumors circulated about who might be an FBI infiltrator or agent provocateur. A militant nationalist caucus developed in the Atlanta, GA project.
Integrationist, Marxist and various kinds of nationalist theories and ideas vied with one another for dominance, each claiming to provide the required ideology to give us an understanding of who and what we were, and where we stood in the United States. None of them provided a clear picture of our concrete situation, what was possible given where we were, and how we could build from what was possible to what was desired. That repression, cooptation and divide and conquer tactics were used against us should not have been a surprise. Indeed, our own analysis of both political parties should have told us they were coming.

Righteousness about the opposition’s strategies and tactics was necessary but not sufficient to defuse it. Self-righteousness, which all-too-frequently was our posture, is self-defeating. As Bob Moses noted, sufficiency requires a powerful organization of the people who are the constituency of a struggle, a strategy that will organize the majority of the American people to at least passively support that struggle, and allies inside the system capable of positively responding to it.


The Difficulty SNCC Faced, and Applications to Today

To avoid backlash and reaction that is bigger than what SNCC could in turn respond to, the organization would have had to juggle what in retrospect I think of as very difficult, but not impossible, terrain. Those difficulties to our current situation and the hopes now unleashed by the mid-term Blue Wave in the House of Representatives, and the fears created by the specifics of Donald Trump and the general triumph of neoliberalism in the past 50 or so years.

The central question, then and now, is how to avoid overpowering backlash, and, failing that, deal with and reverse it when it threatens to arise. For SNCC in those days the question was too big. We did not have the experience to overcome what we confronted. We lacked a continuity of radical small “d” democratic tradition to sustain us in the darker times, provide us an understanding of the specifics of our context and struggle, and shape a strategy to reverse the forces unleashed upon us.

The Organizers and Leaders

A wide range of experience characterized SNCC’s organizing staff, ranging from veterans of the black liberation struggle to teen-agers just leaving high school or dropping out of college to join the movement. None of us was prepared for the “long march through the institutions” that is required for transformational change in this country. That preparation demands what I call “radical patience”. While demands for justice cannot be compromised, we have to recognize that there will be many, many steps to “Freedom Now”, and that these steps will require compromise. We were unprepared for the major defeat visited upon us when the 1964 Democratic Party Convention refused to replace the racist delegation from Mississippi with the newly-formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).

In retrospect, I believe a different strategy was required. MFDP should have followed a path parallel to that of the official Democratic Party, one that included greater use of economic boycotts and mutual aid (coops, credit unions, buying clubs), as well as continuing voter registration and political participation, to sustain it.

A lengthy retreat (a week or longer) at Highlander Center, facilitated by Myles Horton, Ella Baker and other respected seniors, should have taken place. It could have been a time for reflection, analysis, healing, celebration of what had been accomplished, resolve and furloughs for those who should have left the field. Some of those directly engaged (most of my time was in a SNCC northern support office), who constantly faced violence and the threat of it, needed a time out. Some were experiencing PTSD and needed to get out of the field. African-American psychologist Alvin Poussaint and others were distressed to see the levels of PTSD experienced by some SNCC field secretaries.

In the search for an explanation of why we were losing, and why our numbers were shrinking, we turned on one another. Sectarianism replaced the understanding that we will not overcome our adversaries if we cannot formulate a lowest significant common denominator program that allows us to work together. These reinforced each other in the downward spiral that led to isolation, the disappearance of the movement and two of its major organizations (CORE and SNCC), and a substantial diminution of a third (SCLC, once headed by Martin Luther King, now almost unknown), and despair and episodic outbursts in the form of riots that were optimistically called insurrections.

My lesson: ideology, as the term is generally used today is not sufficient. While a general analysis and framework of values is required to explain and sustain those deeply engaged in organizing for transformational change, the specifics of power analysis demand both more and less than a general ideology. They were absent.

The Base

The movement unleashed pent-up frustration with and internalized anger at the slavery-by-another-name circumstances of the Deep South. But expectations were beyond what we could deliver in the near-term. The civil rights alliance was too broad for the economic justice program required to provide a minimum of security and meaningful work for the millions of black poor who lived in the Black Belt. At a minimum, a combination of the more radical parts of Roosevelt’s New Deal and a broad program of cooperatives was necessary.

Building the people power to accomplish such a program required and requires interim victories. We did not focus much on them; we should have. Focus today on the big battles of our time to the exclusion of victories along the way runs the risk of disillusionment and withdrawal from activism. We have seen that over and over again when electoral victories fail to achieve on promises made or hopes dreamed. No one better embodies that than Barack Obama.

To move people from episodic turnouts to vote or show up at major demonstrations to continuing engagement requires organization, not simply mobilization. And sustained organization requires small and medium victories that provide continuing evidence for the efficacy of collective action.

Broader Public Allies

As our base eroded, so did our wider group of supporters. Allies disappeared. Funding from supporters took a disastrous plunge. Political support activities we once could count on evaporated. Ears that were once open to our persuasion closed; doors that were once open shut.

In Bob Moses account of the sit-inners “earned insurgency”, nonviolence, dress and manner were important to how they presented themselves to the country. In a time when excessive rhetoric abounds, we need to pay attention.

As allies in the general population shrank, so did allies within the system disappear. A rule of our politics should be the lowest significant common denominator program to say where we stand, tactics that divide our opposition while winning public supporters, and rhetoric that persuades rather than dissuades. Too often, it appears a contradictory rule is at work.


We didn’t think the States Attorney in Chicago would instigate the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton. Yanos Varoufakis, Greek Fnance Minister in the radical Syriza government, didn’t think the Troika (European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund) would insist on imposing a ruthless austerity on Greece in order to get the money to pay the banks whose loans were responsible for the Greek economic crisis in the first place.

We were astounded when discovery procedures in an unrelated local Chicago court case uncovered the infiltration of Organization for a Better Austin (a local community organization that was fighting red-lining) by a Red Squad cop. To make matters worse, he ran for, and won, office in the organization.

The FBI tapped Martin Luther King’s phone and discovered he was having an affair with an SCLC associate. The Agency sent King anonymous letters telling him he should resign or be exposed for his philandering.

Caution requires that we assume the potential for the worst, and articulate its possibility. Better later to be called a nay-sayer or paranoid than not to have said nay and had to live with the consequences.

Capital Strike

Backlash is not limited to subtle forms of co-optation or blatant forms of repression. The one to be most feared should we ever reach the power to make its use likely is a capital strike. In the face of a capital strike, the necessary action to counter that reaction is to take over the economy, at least temporarily until new rules of the game can be established. Faced with that choice, the Greek government backed off; so did Francois Mitterrand in France; of course Obama did.

Despite widespread anger at the banks for the home loan crisis they caused, and the recession that followed, institutions “too big to fail” were bailed out rather than placed in receivership. The latter result requires mass organization and deeply involved people, not consumer voters who show up every two years at the polls. Only a contemporary equivalent in depth of base to what the industrial unions had at their height of organization in the 1930s can put spine in the backs of politicians who will have to confront capital.

Uneven Development

There is a fourth consideration I would add to the three Bob Moses presents. The public allies he spoke of were white middle class. But another sector of the white population was largely ignored in those days: white ethnics in the north and the white poor in the Deep South and Appalachia. A transformational program requires a strategy that includes a majority of the American people. Achieving such a strategy will stretch the limits of radical patience because it will take years to undo damage done in the past by dismissal of this part of the American people. Is it possible to develop such a program and strategy?

Writing in 1970 in a New York Times “op-ed” column, a young Polish-American woman leader of the Southeast Community Organization in Baltimore (SECO)—one of the few organizations in the country to defeat the Federal bulldozer —reflected on what had happened in the previous few years;

“We are ‘near poor’ economically. No one listens to our problems…The status of manual labor has been denigrated to the point where men are often embarrassed to say they are plumbers or tugboat operators. This robs men of the pride in their work and themselves…The ethnic American is losing ground economically.”

The writer was Barbara Mikulski, soon to be elected to the House, and later to the Senate. It should have been an alarm to the aforementioned left/radical /progressives. With few exceptions, it wasn’t. She continued:

“Government is further polarizing people by the creation of myths that black needs are being met. Thus the ethnic worker is fooled into thinking that the blacks are getting everything. Old prejudices and new fears are ignited. The two groups end up fighting each other…What results is angry confrontation for tokens when there should be an alliance for a whole new Agenda for America … When he looks to government for help, he finds that his political representatives are not interested.”

Mikulski also had a strategy by which these divided groups might become allies:

“This [Agenda for America] would be created if black and white [add Latino and others] organized separately in their own communities for their own needs and came together to form an alliance based on mutual issues, interdependence and respect. This alliance would develop new strategies for community organization and political restructuring. From this, the new Agenda for America would be generated…”

I would add the necessity of building relationships of mutual confidence, respect and affinity. Without a program that could deliver on the issues identified by Mikulski, results in the black community were frustration, anger and withdrawal. Among important parts of the white working class, the results were frustration, anger, and a turn to the right—backlash.

The Big Picture

We need to understand the specific terrain of this system so that our long-range strategy is equal to the task of transforming it, and creating a real democracy. Our intermediate strategy and tactics must give us the greatest chance for avoiding backlash and, when it comes, as it almost inevitably will because we never control all contingencies, dealing with it in a context of deeply trusting horizontal relationships that are carefully nourished and developed across historic lines of division.

More broadly, to successfully dismantle the oligarchy-plutocracy that now governs and challenge its neoliberal ideology requires building majority support for a social agenda that recognizes the uniqueness and particular interests of each of the identities comprising it, an economic agenda that provides economic security and advancement for all, a foreign policy agenda that connects empire abroad to problems at home, an environmental agenda that refuses to make working class and poor people pay for transition to a green economy, and an organizational agenda that rebuilds the strong civil society (voluntary associations) that is the necessary underpinning of justice in any issue arena, as well as the necessary condition for a real democracy.

Mike Miller directs ORGANIZE Training Center. For more information visit

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