From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya: Marxist-Humanist Archives
News & Letters, June 2001

Freedom Riders challenge homegrown totalitarianism

Editor's Note

Young men and women set out to integrate interstate transportation in the South in spring 1961. The "Freedom Riders" confronted attacks by racist vigilantes with the collusion of local police and the FBI (See Editorial, page 8). Fortieth anniversary celebrations of the Freedom Rides took place in cities around the country last month, including a reenactment of the original rides.

Raya Dunayevskaya wrote the July 4, 1961 editorial in NEWS & LETTERS, reprinted here, in response to the new page of freedom written by the Freedom Riders and the counterrevolutionary history of laws used against movements in the U.S. It's original title was "The State of Civil Rights, U.S.A., 1961.

Mary Hamilton and other Freedom Riders wrote in NEWS & LETTERS of their experiences on the Freedom Rides and in the jails where they found new allies, including Woman Power Unlimited. Dunayevskaya's editorial and the Freedom Riders' stories were published in FREEDOM RIDERS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES, available in THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, 3414. Footnotes are the editor's.

July 4, 1961

Two events, one in the Deep South, and the other in the capitol, disclose the shocking state of civil liberties in the United States, marking us as a nation on the road to totalitarianism.


The jailing of 227 Freedom Riders in Jackson, Miss. has focused the world spotlight on the jungle law that rules the South. It reveals equally clearly the willful impotence of the federal government to enforce the law of the land on desegregated interstate travel. The federal officials claimed that they were "helpless" in the present situation. At the same time the attorney general had the effrontery to ask for a "cooling off period" by the Freedom Riders who were brave enough to challenge the Southern bigots. We suggest that the attorney general [Robert Kennedy] test for himself the coolness of a Mississippi jail during the long, hot summer.


Allegedly at the opposite pole from the white supremacists stands the U. S. Supreme Court. Nearly 200 years after the Declaration of Independence, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, the Supreme Court at long last ruled for desegregation in education.* As was clear, however, from its "due dispatch" loophole, the South was granted enormous leeway to disregard the ruling. Far from charting a course for human rights, the present Supreme Court differs in no fundamental respect from the nine old men who sat on that bench in order to waylay much of the New Deal legislation.

The shaky majority (5-4), by which some liberal rulings are handed down is quickly dissipated the moment the atmosphere emanating from the White House changes, at which time the majority shifts to the opposite end.

This has been the case ever since the president of the United States, at the time of the invasion of Cuba,** had declared that "the deeper struggle" is not with arms, but with "subversion." He promptly tried to subvert the freedom of the press. The majority of these nine old men on the Supreme Court caught the spirit at once, and they tried to subvert our constitutional freedom of thought with the new rulings on the Smith and McCarran Acts.***

Thus, from both the side of the bigoted states righters, and the United States Supreme Court a course of action is established; by failure to enforce federal law in the face of local prejudice, and by legal decision in face of presidential ire, the machinery of totalitarianism is set in motion, and the democratic processes of the United States and precious liberties under the Constitution are made a dead letter. The United States is rushing headlong to be the "equal" of Russia in thought control.

Justice Douglas said in his dissent:

"Nothing but beliefs are on trial in this case. They are unpopular and to most of us revolting. But they are nonetheless ideas or dogmas of faith within the broad framework of the First Amendment. "What we lose by majority vot e today may be reclaimed at a future time when the fear of advocacy, dissent and non-conformity no longer cast a shadow over us."

The learned justice didn't specify when, in the future, "the fear of advocacy, dissent and non-conformity" will no longer "cast a shadow over us." Unfortunately Supreme Court decisions are not easily reversed unless the people show in no uncertain terms that they do not mean to have their freedom tampered with.


The majority of the bourgeois press noisily approved the reactionary Supreme Court rulings. The few papers that dissented-and the powerful NEW YORK TIMES did mildly dissent-still misled the American public as to the facts about the Smith Act. The impression was given that the issue at stake is "Communism." The Smith Act does not single out Communists and defines "forcible overthrow" so loosely that no act is required to set it into motion. It can be and in fact is, applied to any opponent of the ideas of the powers that be. Thus both in Arkansas and Louisiana it was used to try to compel the NAACP to turn over its membership list to KKK-inspired rulers, if not to lynchbent mobs.

The paper that lays claim to covering "all the news that's fit to print" didn't see fit to print the facts about the first application of the Smith Act. It cited 1948 as the year, whereas in fact it was 1941. It talked of its use against the Communist Party, whereas in fact the Smith Act was first used not against the Communists. On the contrary, with the connivance of the Communists, it was used against the Trotskyists and militant trade unionists clearing out corruption and do-nothingness on the part of their bureaucratic overlords in the Minneapolis Teamsters Local 544.

Clearly, the seven years that THE NEW YORK TIMES is willing to bury in its morgue are not for purposes of "letting the dead bury the dead," but for purposes of letting the dead bury the living. The living were not informed either of the facts of the first application of the Smith Act, or of the fact that it was under the "inspiration" of Dan Tobin's gangster leadership of the Teamsters Union who resented and feared democratization, that the Roosevelt administration railroaded the Trotskyists and Teamster militant trade unionists to jail. So much for the first application of the Smith Act.

The Trotskyists were not powerful enough to compel the Supreme Court to review their case. The Communists, when it was applied to them, were powerful enough to win a Supreme Court ruling. At that time (1957) the Court tried to limit its approval of the act, by interpreting "advocacy of violent overthrow" to mean not "the mere abstract doctrine of forcible overthrow," but actual "incitement to action." THE NEW YORK TIMES of June 7, 1961, accepts the claim at face value, adding however:

"The sustaining of the Smith Act's membership clause, and the setting in motion of the ponderous Internal Security Act, can only serve again to divert public attention to the virtually non-existent internal Communist threat. The real Communist challenge is from abroad; and the sooner Americans get over the idea that we can solve the problem by persecuting the tattered remnants of American communism at home, the better able we will all be to face the really hard decisions, and hard problems posed by the genuine menace of communism pushing outward from China and the Soviet Union."

This linking of the Smith Act, which has nothing to say of "the Communist challenge from abroad," with the McCarran Internal Security Act, which does, in its preamble, mention Russian Communism, is once again to mislead the public. We do not mean to say that the McCarran Act is any less a perversion of Amendment I to the Constitution [freedom of speech] than is the Smith Act.

We are disentangling the two in order to prove why, with what malice aforethought, the American Communists were not tried under the McCarran Act, but under the Smith Act. This was done in order to set a precedent against genuine working class opponents of capitalist ideas, or even against those who stand for equal rights for American Negroes, as was the case with the Southern states' use of the Smith Act against the NAACP.

The Supreme Court was compelled to throw that case out. In the present instance, however, the FBI, the administration, the Supreme Court (and, not so incidentally, the press) did all in their power to force an identity between the Marxist theory of liberation, and its opposite, the Communist practice of enslavement.

Thereby they achieved a veritable conspiracy with Russian Communism, which for its own purposes has usurped the name of Marxism.


President [John] Kennedy likes words, moving words that speak of freedom. He likes them for ceremonial occasions, like July 4th perorations; he likes them at summit meetings to compete with the Communist use of them; and he likes them for luring the newly emergent African nations into the "Western" camp. On such occasions he speaks of our nation as one "born of revolution." He becomes so passionate an advocate of the freedom of speech, the press, assembly, that he becomes audacious enough to quote from the great American Abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, who, in fighting the government and the paid press for tolerating slavery, had declared in his LIBERATOR: "I am in earnest. I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard."

The one thing that President Kennedy failed to say was the truth about himself-that he was tolerating the jailing of the Freedom Riders; that he had created the atmosphere for the new reactionary Supreme Court rulings subverting the First Amendment to the Constitution; that his brother, far from asking for a "cooling off period" when these decisions were handed down, hastened to announce their immediate application. He was stayed from this course only by the restraint, hypocritical though that was, of Justice Felix Frankfurter, who granted the Communist Party petition for a rehearing in the fall.

Obviously, all too obviously, President Kennedy liked only the "sound" of the words of freedom, not their practice.

The deprivation of our civil rights, North and South, and the shackling of free minds have nothing whatever to do with the fight against "Communism." On the contrary, it is the true breeding ground of all totalitarianisms-Communist, Hitlerite, or KKK-inspired private enterprisers. When private capitalism begins to compete with Communist state-capitalism in devising ever-new ways of thought control, it can be only because the foundation of both is the same and so is their purpose: to repress the working people.

Capitalism, private or state, has been moving from crises to wars and back again ever since its birth. In our age of oneworldedness, it has the added purpose of single world domination even at the insane expense of a nuclear holocaust that may spell out the end of civilization altogether. Beware then of those who would fight against totalitarianism abroad by embarking on totalitarian ways at home.

The fight against totalitarianism can be won only by Freedom Fighters, who "do not equivocate" in their struggles against discrimination and exploitation, and therefore can exorcise "the shadow cast" over our land. The Freedom Fighters of our epoch, as of the epoch of William Lloyd Garrison, will be heard.

Picture: Freedom Riders site at a lunch counter in bus station in Montgomery, Ala., the first time station was integrated, May 24, 1961.


* Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 declared segregated schools unconstitutional.

** The Bay of Pigs invasion by the U.S. in 1961.

*** The Smith Act, 1940, made it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. The McCarran Internal Security Act (1950) allowed for exclusion of radicals from the country.

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