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A Marxist Scholar Analyzes the American Legal System

 

In the following article Professor Malik Simba, an historian at California State University, Fresno describes his professional and personal odyssey that led to the writing of his book, Black Marxism and American Constitutionalism: From the Colonial Background through the Ascendancy of Barack Obama and the Dilemma of Black Lives Matter (Third Edition).

I am a Marxist historian.  I use Marxist analysis, which argues that class struggle is the locomotion of history.  That theory, I believe, facilitates a critical understanding of the American Constitution and the American legal system and is the analysis which informs the writing of my book, Black Marxism and American Constitutionalism: From the Colonial Background through the Ascendancy of Barack Obama and the Dilemma of Black Lives Matter.  I embrace Marxist analysis because I believe it best answers critical questions about the nature of American law and the American judicial system which affect the lives of thousands of African Americans on a daily basis.  My embrace of Marxian analysis evolved from my own reading and study of Marxist and non-Marxist texts on history, American constitutionalism, and the American judicial system.  It also grew from a series of experiences over my life that have led me to question the commitment of the American legal system to equal justice for all.

I have always been fascinated with the concept of justice and equality.  I was born in Lexington, Kentucky in the era of overt racial segregation.  I can still remember my when my mother stood protectively close to my siblings and me whenever we went downtown because she knew we would be subject to verbal assault by white shoppers and store owners.  When we moved to Denver, Colorado in 1954 my family entered a city which supposedly had avoided the racial discrimination and violence that marked Kentucky and the rest of the South.  Nonetheless, I still vividly recall my first encounter with racist police when I was 12 years old.  That encounter was intimidating and violent.

While playing in the alley behind our home, my friends and I exploded illegal firecrackers.  All of a sudden a police car raced up the alley.  As I bolted through a neighbor's yard one of the officers spotted me and said, “Stop or I will shoot.” I immediately complied.  He dragged me back to the alley where his fellow officer had rounded up my friends.  He and the other officers lined us up against a fence.  At that point he hit me in my stomach while shouting, “I am not out here to chase down little niggers.”  As far as he was concerned I was guilty and he used summary justice to inflict immediate punishment.  

My high school years also affected my growing awareness of race but they introduced me to the contradictions of class as well.  My family lived on Race Street in Denver, which at the time was an option area meaning students who lived there could attend either East High School, the “white school,” or Manuel Arts High School, the “black school.”  My parents selected East High School for their children because of its high academic standards.  Since I was a star athlete, many of my junior high friends felt I had betrayed them and the black community by attending East High which included students from some of the wealthiest areas of the city. My mind grappled with race and class consciousness as I attended an upper class white school while living in a working class black neighborhood.  I straddled the two worlds.  At East High I developed close relations with a cadre of friends from various backgrounds.  We styled ourselves the “United Nations.” All of my neighborhood friends were black.  

Straddling the racial and class divide was dangerous especially when it was overlaid against the gender dynamics then surrounding interracial dating.   In 1966 a black man I knew as a high school athlete a few years earlier who had just returned from a tour in Vietnam, took his white girlfriend to a movie in downtown Denver.  While watching the movie, a demented white racist pulled a gun and shot him in the back of the head killing him instantly.  The gunman was sentenced to a psychiatric institution.  

I attended the University of Southern Colorado between 1968 and 1970 which corresponded with the apex of the black power movement.  I helped organize the Black Action Association (BAA) in Pueblo, Colorado. With the support of the Chicanos for Action (CFA) we helped desegregate various businesses within Pueblo.  Our activities, however, led to tense confrontations with campus authorities.  In 1969 United States prosecutors indicted fourteen students, including me, for violating the federal law against inciting campus disorders. The Pueblo 14, as we were soon called, were defended by young, idealist, and often Marxist lawyers fresh from UCLA law school.  Eventually, after a series of courtroom hearings, all charges were dropped.  Whatever the specific law violated, we were convinced that our organizing for racial justice was the real reason for the indictments.  By 1970 I had deep suspicion of the law and the legal system that was predicated on it.  The law purported to stand for freedom, equality, and justice but it seemingly was used to protect racial and class privilege.  I was not a Marxist at that moment but one does not have to be a Marxist to understand the contradictions between the law and justice.

I began my graduate studies at the University of Minnesota where I developed my first scholarly understanding of race, law, and society.  My mentor, legal historian Paul Murphy, introduced me to a wide variety of readings in English and American constitutional history.   His mentoring helped me to understand that Constitutionalism was driven more by social class than logic.   I recall Lawrence Friedman’s observation in A History of American Law that law “. . . does the bidding of those whose hands are on the controls” of the machinery of law.  Leonard Levy’s scholarship revealed how judicial reasoning was also a product of class and racial bias.  His Against the Law: The Nixon Court and Criminal Justice, and Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side, furthered my receptivity to a Marxist interpretation of American Law. Yet it was after reading Julius Lester’s Look Out Whitey, Black Power Gon’ Get Your Mama that I began to fully understand the complete failure of the law as an instrument of justice.  Lester’s discussion of racism in American history concluded with his critique of how federalism prevented the F.B.I. from protecting civil rights workers from racist state law enforcement officials in the South during the 1960s civil rights movement.  It was a powerful indictment of the deeply flawed legal system.

While at the University of Minnesota I also was introduced to lives of Marxist revolutionaries within African Liberation Movements through my classes in African and Latin American history.  I read works that applied Marxist analysis to various historical periods including Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery. Finally, I read American Negro Slave Revolts and other works by Herbert Aptheker, one of the leading Marxist historians in the United States at the time, a scholar, who like his mentor and inspiration, W.E.B. DuBois, had devoted his professional life to understanding race in the United States.    

Personal experience, however, continued to guide me toward an understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of the justice system.  While in graduate school I taught at the Urban League Street Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Street Academy was part of a national network of institutions created to educate inner city youth including high school dropouts. One of my students, a promising young musician named Lennard Hill, came face to face with the justice system when in 1974 he was accused of raping a white woman.  Lennard declared his innocence and there appeared to be enough evidence to acquit him if his case went to trial.  I believed in his innocence as did most of the students and teachers at the Street Academy.  We organized a “Free Lennard Hill” campaign which we thought would put pressure on the justice system to ensure that this young black man received a fair trial.  We organized much of the local inner city black community around the campaign.  Nonetheless Lennard was brought to trial, quickly convicted, and sentenced to five years in prison. To many of us it seemed that both the laws of Minnesota and the officials administering those laws, the police, the prosecutors and the judges, worked in opposition to justice for the youth of the inner city.  I wanted to understand why.  I felt I had found the answer in the skewed relationship of race and social class to justice.  By the time I left the University of Minnesota in 1976 with a Ph.D. in history, I was a Marxist historian.

My evolution as a Marxist legal scholar continued after I began my teaching career at SUNY-Binghamton (now the University of Binghamton).  Despite the usual charges from political conservatives that universities are run by leftists, Marxist scholars are not often welcomed even at the most progressive institutions of higher education. Fortunately, the professor who hired me at Binghamton was Cedric Robinson, author of the noted work, Black Marxism.  Thus I had a supportive academic environment that allowed me to develop my views.  I eagerly read the work of Joao Reis, the Brazilian-born Marxist historian of slavery in his nation, whom I had met as a fellow graduate student at Minnesota.  His research changed the way the world viewed black bondage in his nation.  Through his work, as well as our earlier conversations as graduate students, I developed a more nuanced understanding of dialectical materialism and the inherent contradictions within class stratified societies.   

In 1976, I met John McClendon III, while I was teaching at SUNY-Binghamton.  John had in his possession and had read the entire collected works of Marx and Engels.  One day when the apartment above John’s flooded, I rushed over to help him save his collection.  As we reshelved books I began to borrow and read for the first time the actual words that inspired a global movement that had changed the world. John would soon become my best friend and closest scholarly colleague.  He helped me further refine and apply Marxist theory to my thinking and writing. While in Binghamton John and I joined the Robert Hooks Defense Committee which supported one of my students who was charged with killing two white men.  Hooks claimed self-defense and Binghamton police testified on his behalf.  Still an all-white jury convicted Robert Hooks and the judge sentenced him to seven years in prison.

My close comradeship with John and our long discussions on Marxist theory guided me in developing the major themes in the book.  I argue that law functions as both an ideology and a force of coercion.  As such law was used to during the founding of the United States in the 1770s as an instrument of class rule and domination. Moreover, racism was a hegemonic cultural force directing both the institution of slavery and the legal apparatus that supported it.  Even after slavery was destroyed in 1865, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative interpretation of law perpetuated and expanded racism during the post Civil-War era leading to a series of legal and political compromises orchestrated by the reactionary reconciliation between Northern and Southern ruling classes at the turn of the 20th century.  The American political and legal system to this day is the result of these compromises.

Ultimately Black Marxism and American Constitutionalism is an attempt via Marxist analysis to peel back the mask of the law and reveal how it actually functions in a society based on capitalism buttressed by racism.  The law rationalizes a false sense of equality by ostensibly forbidding rich and poor from stealing bread but it also subtly allows that if bread is stolen, it is easier to be guilty and rich rather than innocent and poor. 

Sources:
Malik Simba, Black Marxism and American Constitutionalism: From the Colonial Background through the Ascendancy of Barack Obama and the Dilemma of Black Lives Matter (Dubuque: Kendell Hunt Publishing, 2016); John McClendon, III, C.L.R. James's Notes on Dialectics: Left Hegelianism or Marxist-Leninism (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2005); Joao Reis, Slave Rebellions in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

Contributor(s):

California State University, Fresno

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