The following is a short book summary followed by an analysis. This piece is the opinion of the author only and does not represent the views of any organization to which they belong.
This piece was originally published on Medium.
Julian Hayter’s invaluable book, The Dream is Lost, provides the first monograph-length study (excluding several capable works which cover a much longer time period, including Rights for a Season) of the annexation crisis and the events surrounding it since Rutledge M Dennis and John V Moeser’s Politics of Annexation: Oligarchic Power in a Southern City in 1982. The Dream is Lost, however, also includes additional background that a slim volume like Politics of Annexation did not flesh out, and benefits from decades of hindsight in a way that Moeser and Dennis, writing so soon after the events described, could not.
Hayter insists that Richmond skipped the “protest” phase of the Civil Rights Movement (a notion that would surely surprise quite a few Virginia Union University (VUU) students and East End Neighborhood Association members!) and went straight to (electoral) politics. The Richmond Crusade for Voters, a middle class group, led the charge to the polls. When the Crusade was formed in 1956, the main impediment to Black suffrage was an onerous poll tax. The Crusade fought back by raising funds to pay the poll tax for indigent Richmonders and by going through Black communities on election day with speakers and megaphones exhorting residents to vote and excoriating those who did not. Numbers of registered voters skyrocketed and participation in city elections grew.
But, notes Hayter, “[t]he Crusade may have championed democracy, but it was not organized democratically…its decision-making process was almost entirely in the hands of its middle-class members.” Crusade brass determined for whom members would vote, and the organization’s committee in charge of selecting candidates would release their list of endorsements on the Sunday prior to the election (!), leaving little time for working class members to organize an opposition to the leadership’s slate.
Crusade priorities had initially centered on having Black voters cast their ballots as a bloc for progressive white candidates (be they Democrat or Republican), but, after a strong performance in the 1960 councilmanic election, the Crusade aimed for a more ambitious goal — winning a black majority council (BMC) in the capital of Jim Crow Virginia. In 1964, the Crusade saw its first Black candidate, B.A. “Sonny” Cephas, elected to City Hall along with several white candidates the Crusade had endorsed. After the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s poll tax, the Crusade earned even greater successes, including the election of Henry Marsh, an outspoken civil rights champion, to City Council, along with two other African-Americans. Henry Carwile, a white progressive, joined his Crusade comrades.
Political defeats tailed closely behind electoral triumphs. Much of the Black middle and working classes were disgusted when a police review board proposal (already a compromise — the board would consist of zero members elected by the public, five selected by the City Council, and four police officers appointed by the city) was voted down 7–2, with Crusaders Cephas and Mundle siding with the white conservatives against Marsh and Carwile. Richmond Forward, the faction of the white right, rammed through legislation to run a new expressway through Randolph and Oregon Hill, sending residents to overcrowded public housing in East End and Southside. Route 64 had similarly destroyed the Navy Hill neighborhood without creating enough public housing to equal or exceed homes destroyed years earlier. It seemed as though too little had changed with Crusaders unable to counter the schemes of the white conservative Council majority.
Sensing the urgency of the Crusade’s plan to achieve a BMC, RF sought to annex portions of Henrico County containing tens of thousands of white voters. After five years (1961–1966) of tussling with Henrico residents, courts, and the Virginia General Assembly, the plan fell through. Richmond Forward’s successor, the Team of Progress, turned its gaze South to Chesterfield.
This plan to dilute the Black vote didn’t go unnoticed. Curtis Holt, a disabled former construction worker who founded a tenant association in Creighton Court, opposed the plan absolutely; the middle class leadership of the Crusade backed annexation, but demanded a switch from at-large Council elections to a ward-based system with enough majority-Black districts to ensure proportional representation. After a tumultuous legal battle that left Holt and some of his poor supporters at odds with the well-to-do Crusade leaders, Richmond annexed some 40,000 white residents of Chesterfield in 1970 (prior to this, the area West of Forest Hill Ave. was not part of the city). Responding to Holt’s charges of voter dilution, the Supreme Court issued an injunction preventing the city from holding new councilmanic elections until it had adopted a ward system. This wasn’t accomplished until 1977, meaning that the 1970 City Council was in power for the better part of a decade without standing for reelection!
In the next election, Crusade candidates swept five out of nine wards. At last, they had won a Black Majority Council. The new Council selected Marsh as the mayor and included newcomer Willie Dell, a Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) professor whose indefatigable anti-poverty activism, razor-sharp intelligence, and straight-talking brand of charisma endeared her to many of East End’s poor. The wind seemed to be at the Crusade’s back. It was not to be.
“The politics of Richmond are now controlled by Afro-Americans, [but its] economics [are] still controlled by white Americans”, lamented Maynard Jackson, Mayor of Atlanta (1974-1982, 1990-1994), who sailed to power on a wave of civil rights movement support, only to enact punishing neoliberal measures once in office. The campaign of obstruction and sabotage in Richmond was unrelenting — the press printed screed after screed against Marsh, white residents and white businesses left for the counties, leaving Marsh and his Crusaders with scant funds to rebuild and maintain homes and schools decaying from years of white neglect. Marsh felt he had little choice but to desperately pursue boondoggles to keep capital in Richmond — projects like shopping centers, the Project One disaster that gave Richmond an underutilized convention center on Broad and two overpriced hotels on either side, as well as the crumbling Coliseum, and Kanawha Plaza, the business center just West of Shockoe Slip on Cary with the hideous maritime statue.
White sabotage worked. Marsh failed to deliver an improved standard of living for the
working class, and many well-to-do Black voters were eager to elect a candidate who was able to work more comfortably with the city’s white business establishment to prevent further capital flight. In 1982 the white power structure threw money at Roy West, a Black conservative, running for Willie Dell’s seat. Overspent and awash in invective from the white press, Dell’s working class base in East End was demoralized, but her district also stretched into more prosperous Highland Park, whose middle-class Black voters were anxious to dump Dell’s combative, left-leaning platform in favor of West’s promises to closely work with the white elite. West won, was elected mayor, and proceeded to privilege the desires of the wealthy above the needs of the working poor. The forces of reaction had triumphed.
WHAT HAYTER LEAVES OUT:
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s concept of a “long Civil Rights Movement” has become one of the most influential lenses through which to view twentieth century Black history. Hall contended that many of the roots of the “classical” Civil Rights Movement lay not in events immediately preceding the Brown decision, but can be traced back even further — specifically to the upsurge in Black activism and labor militancy in the 1930s. As Glenda Gilmore, among others, have argued, this means acknowledging the Communist Party USA as an influential institution in the rise of Civil Rights. It wouldn’t take much stretching to fit Richmond into the long Civil Rights narrative. The city was the home to a Communist-influenced union involved in major struggles to weaken the color line in industry and improve wages and conditions for black workers, and Richmond hosted the first headquarters of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, a Civil Rights organization that would later inspire groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.
Unfortunately, Hayter misses an opportunity to provide a “long Civil Rights” history of Richmond by instead focusing almost exclusively on voting rights and electoralism. This undertaking necessarily involves writing out or minimizing crucial political context at the grassroots level. Where, for instance, does Hayter mention the East End Neighborhood Association, the working class Black group whose uncompromising boycott campaign desegregated more than a few stores? Why is the reference to the Creighton Court Civic Association only in passing as a minor biographical detail of Curtis Holt? By analyzing only electoral politics Hayter neglects the myriad of extra-parliamentary ways the Black freedom struggle that provided the context of the Crusade’s work operated, and that may have provided a different, more effective road to lasting change and real power.
We on the left sometimes exhibit a similar lack of perspicacity when we regard working and oppressed peoples’ power as primarily stemming from their status as voters. In so doing, we fail to acknowledge the full humanity and the full capacity of people to remake their world with an array of different tactics and strategies, many of which have a higher batting average than municipal elections.
Holt, Marsh, and other sincere advocates of progressive policies found themselves in a paradoxical situation — at the beginning of their journey, Richmond had a sizeable tax base, but Black residents had no electoral representation; later, Black residents won a majority on the City Council only to see funds (and therefore their ability to substantively support housing, education, and anti-poverty initiatives) massively depleted. Their voters realized this fact and became demoralized and demobilized, and their opponents seized on these failures in order to drive a wedge among Black voters, winning some of the middle class and small business owners to their agenda of neoliberal “reforms.” From Roy West to Wilder, Kaine, Jones, and Stoney, Richmond has seemed to have no alternative.
A socialist perspective can provide us with the tools to see why the representation-vs.-money zero sum game is such a dead end, and the strategy we need to create real and lasting change and break out of this trap. We sometimes refer to elected officials as “people in power” or even refer to winning office as “taking power.” The example of Richmond in the 1960s through 1980s shows this to be sorely mistaken. Elected office represents a position, but the ability to shape the city, sabotage the Black Majority Council with no real resistance, and the ability to make money on the backs of working class Richmonders remained in the hands of the landlords, real estate interests, employers, VCU administration, and businesses. These interests — the capitalist class — still held power, and still will hold power even if we were to get a socialist majority in the next City Council election.
The only way leftwing officeholders can legislate change and keep it is if the power of the capitalist class is already weakened by the building of a working class counterpower outside of the state. The capitalist class in Richmond has amassed tremendous wealth, but they have a huge Achilles Heel — they depend almost totally on workers to generate their profits and to pay them rent, and they need placid social conditions to reap their ill-gotten gains in peace.
Before seeking electoral office, we need to help build a base — a militant, committed, organized, and ever-expanding section of Richmond workers who are able to push for higher wages, better conditions, and an end to harassment and discrimination; neighbors united to push back rent hikes, successfully demand landlords perform needed repairs, and crush our city’s well-oiled gentrification and eviction machines; students, parents, teachers, and staff ready to strike against Jason Kamras[a] and his puppetmaser Thomas Farrell[b] and their plans to bring DC style privatization schemes to Richmond, and against Michael Rao’s[c] quest to colonize more of the city under the banner of VCU; Women, non-binary, and trans people, people of color, and immigrants and their allies prepared to weaken institutionalized white supremacy, patriarchy, and other structures of oppression. Even then, capital will defend itself and use capital flight. For this reason, we should never see electoral contests as an end in themselves, even after we have won a base. Rather, winning elected office should be seen a temporary, supporting tactic in a broader strategy for the total overthrow of capitalism.
While our current context is unique in some respects, we have better lodestars to guide us than the electoral work of groups like the Crusade. In 1937, tobacco stemmers (many of whom were Black women) began to rise up against low wages, hazardous conditions, and a rigidly-enforced color line in the industry. Communists like Frances Grandison, Chris Alston, and James E. Jackson met with workers in Rev. Queen’s church on Leigh Street and helped the workers expand their strike wave to other plants. The next several years would see the founding of the Tobacco Stemmers Labor Union (TSLU), a radical, Communist-influenced organization that successfully organized for raised wages and won the 8-hour day in the dark, Satanic tobacco plants of Southside. Just as importantly, they pushed back against the color line in tobacco — for years, white business owners had misclassified challenging work as “unskilled” to justify paying Black workers less than their white counterparts. TSLU managed to reclassify Black workers in some plants as skilled or semi-skilled, narrowing the wage gap against white workers. While automation in tobacco, divide-and-conquer tactics by Richmond’s captains of industry, and co-optation by less radical, more Jim Crow unions would eventually frustrate TSLU and the Richmond Communists, their achievements for the working class were tangible and undeniable. With more foresight, a better analysis of changing industrial conditions, and more stubbornness towards co-optation by the AFL and the Democratic Party, the Communist assault on capitalism and Jim Crow could have lasted longer and reaped even greater gains.
Our movement shouldn’t be dogmatic. Electoral work can play a supporting role to organizing, but must be at most a distant second. We need to make major strides in basebuilding long before we can engage effectively and intelligently in the electoral arena, or else we will find ourselves in the same position as Willie Dell and Henry Marsh — forced to choose between minor legislative victories as the city crumbles, or openly enacting the will of the capitalists. Richmond is far from alone in having progressive politicians reduced to administering harmful neoliberal policies — Communists in France and labor parties in Australia, the UK, and elsewhere have formed governments which have genuflected to capital and cut needed social welfare policies for workers and the poor. Even groups that claim to balance basebuilding outside of elections with running for office too often privilege the latter over the former, as Kali Akuno’s recent criticisms of Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s Democratic mayorship in Jackson, Mississippi make clear.
Hayter’s work ends on a depressing note — for the Richmond left in the 20th century, the decades-long quest for a Black Majority Council was achieved, only for them to realize too late that real power lies elsewhere, and the road to change must take a radically different route. The sun has set on this electoral path to “power,” but armed with our knowledge of the past we can bring a new dawn in Richmond by organizing for power from the ground up.
Moeser, John V., and Rutledge M. Dennis. Politics of Annexation: Oligarchic Power in a Southern City. Schenkman Books, 1982.
Randolph, Lewis A. and Gayle T. Tate. Rights for a Season: the Politics of Race, Class, and Gender in Richmond, Virginia. University of Tennessee Press, 2003
Julian, Hayter M. The Dream Is Lost: Voting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia. University Press of Kentucky, 2017
Love, Richard. “In Defiance of Custom and Tradition: Black Tobacco Workers and Labor Unions in Richmond, Virginia 1937–1941.” Labor History 35, no. 1 (1994)
Cooper, D.B., Ed. “It’s All About That Base: A Dossier on the Base-Building Trend.” March 16, 2018. https://theleftwind.wordpress.com/2018/03/16/its-all-about-that-base-a-dossier-on-the-base-building-trend/.
Willis, Samantha. “A Leader from Leigh St.” Richmond Magazine. June 28, 2016. https://richmondmagazine.com/news/features/a-leader-from-leigh-st/.
Weaver, Adam. ““Electoral Pursuits Have Veered Us Away”: Kali Akuno on Movement Lessons from Jackson.” Black Rose Anarchist Federation. April 18, 2018. http://blackrosefed.org/electoral-pursuits-have-veered-us-away-kali-akuno-on-movement-lessons-from-jackson/
QUESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE:
In this article I attempted to summarize a recent work of scholarship on Richmond and use it to analyze the prospects for electoral work at this current moment. Given these limited aims I left many questions unanswered or even unexamined, including: the relationship between Black conservatives and Richmond’s Civil Rights Movement and the city’s Black population more generally; the role of parties in electoral politics; and how we might concretely begin a radical, basebuilding strategy in Richmond today. I also chose to be brief in explaining the demise of the Communist Party in Richmond, which was concomitant with its fall from influence nationally. Needless to say, there is plenty of room for future research and analysis for Richmond organizers.
I also pushed some of the broader questions of socialist theory to the background, namely: how does the capitalist state function, and how should socialists engage it? My own view is that the state is a machine for the domination of one class by other classes (in our society, it is an instrument of capitalist rule over workers and oppressed people). Merely purchasing a grip on electoral organs of the state, in my opinion, does not greatly change the overall function of the state and does not provide as many opportunities for building working class power or improving material conditions for masses of people as some assume.
So how can socialists use elections? I’m still studying that problem, but my perspective is that we should not have illusions about assuming office and administering capitalism, but rather disrupting its function and undermining its legitimacy. Campaigns like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s Freedom Vote provide one topic for future study, as does the experience of the Russian Bolsheviks in the reactionary tsarist parliament, the Duma.
Though I have tabled those important subjects for inquiry, I hope I have shown that even to social democrats who view use of the electoral organs of the capitalist state as being the end point of the movement that we still have a lot of groundwork to do before we can even begin to think of achieving that goal.
[a] Jason Kamras is the new superintendent of Richmond Public Schools. He was a former Teach for America kid who became a leading quisling of DC school czar Michelle Rhee, attacking teachers and privatizing schools. He is the highest-paid superintendent in RPS history.)
[b] Thomas Farrell is the CEO of Dominion Energy, which is headquartered in Downtown Richmond. Farrell, who has no children in RPS and no background in education policy, served in the committee to select the new superintendent of the school system. Farrell made his fellow committee members sign a confidentiality agreement not to divulge details of the superintendent search to the public or even to the school board.)
[c] Michael Rao is the president of Virginia Commonwealth University. With compensation topping $900,000, Rao was the highest-paid public employee in Virginia in 2016. While administrative pay is high, VCU’s adjunct faculty and hourly staff make poverty wages, and while VCU continues to raise tuition, its endowment of more than a billion dollars is one of the 100 largest in the world. Rao has aggressively pursued real estate projects that have contributed to the destruction and gentrification of several Richmond neighborhoods, including Jackson Ward, once the heart of the Black community north of the James River.