As He Died To Make Men Holy Let Us Die To Make Men Free
February 15, 2018 10:25 AM   Subscribe

Black and Red: a history of the post World War 1 African-American socialist movement

Related: The Black Belt Communists (Jacobin) Hammer And Hoe: a history of the Alabama Communist Party (project Muse, PDF)
posted by The Whelk (6 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, man, this is lovely. As I read down it, I'm a touch startled so far that the virulent racism of Woodrow Wilson's entire administration hasn't come up--but hey, there's time yet.
posted by sciatrix at 10:43 AM on February 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

While this is a great post, I would like to add that African American involvement in radical labor unions actually pre-dates the war, with nationally prominent organizers such as Benjamin Fletcher (IWW, Local 8, Philadelphia)

The IWW was one of the only organizations to oppose the AFL-type racial segregation, writing it into the Constitution of 1905 - as their first principle: "No workingman or woman shall be excluded from membership in local unions because of creed or color."

And of course, it demonstrates the long history of the FBI in interference in labor organizations:
Improving race relations was recognised as a top priority by Fletcher and other union members. With a disunited workforce, organisers reasoned that working class solidarity would be impossible. Consequently employers could get away with more. To prevent their bosses from taking advantage of divide and rule tactics, IWW dockworkers sponsored anti-racist forums to educate members. Additionally IWW picnics were held for workers and their families to socialise with the intention of building camaraderie.

Unfortunately this was also a highpoint of working class solidarity on the docks. Industry’s drive to enter into World War I and their campaign to create a national mood for class collaboration, xenophobic scapegoating, and the repeal of civil rights was a success on their part.

In early September the newly created FBI vandalised IWW offices across the country, stealing membership records on the false pretext that the union was on the side of the Axis nations and was plotting to render America weaker.

Later that same month Fletcher was arrested for "conspiring to strike" - an act labelled by the boss press as treason. Fletcher was detained with hundreds of other Wobblies who all faced a myriad of charges ranging from speaking out against the war, dodging the draft, refusing to sign no strike contracts with their bosses, and engaging in "criminal syndicalism" - a law enacted by some states that aimed to outlaw the IWW as an organisation all together.
posted by corb at 11:02 AM on February 15, 2018 [14 favorites]

Earlier today I ran across this recent Smithsonian Side Door podcast (25 min) about the 1921 Tulsa race riot.

More in Wiki's article Red Summer, which includes a Chronology of all the cities that had race riots in 1919. The Tulsa riot destroyed what was then known as the Black Wall Street. Seems Tulsa has only come to terms with it in the last decade.
posted by Twang at 12:25 PM on February 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

There's also a very interesting history of black union organizing in Galveston in the late 19th century, led in large part by Norris Wright Cuney, the great black political leader of late 19th century Texas. At the time, Galveston was a major port city, and the longshoremen there performed pretty vital work for the Gulf, and especially the Texas cotton industry. The port was very segregated, and white unions excluded black workers, but Cuney was able to organize alternative unions with a great deal of bargaining power on their own. I'm still reading about it (the book Biracial Unions on Galveston's Waterfront, 1865-1925), but what I gather is that the black and white unions eventually started coordinating efforts, especially after the major changes brought about by the 1900 hurricane and the decline of the cotton industry.

I don't know about an explicit relationship between these black unions and socialism - Cuney himself was a Republican - but I figured it was worth mentioning as an interesting example of early black union organizing in Jim Crow Texas.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 2:38 PM on February 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

To be fair, Cuney would have been a Reconstruction-era Republican, which was a very very different sort of thing than a modern Democrat--even with respect to ties to socialism. I suspect from his union organizing work that Cuney would not have been particularly disapproving of the concept of socialism and/or communism, although I'm not sure he ever encountered them or spoke about them that we know of during his life.

Note that Reconstructionists--and as a Black Southerner in politics, Cuney was absolutely a Reconstructionist--were heavily in favor of more federal involvement in the South, more restrictions on the rights of the ex-Confederate rebellious states, and generally in favor of federal oversight making Reconstruction actually address the systematic and structural inequalities that hurt Black Americans before and after the war. The election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 broke the back of Reconstruction and would have seriously hurt Cuney's ability to act politically as an elected representative or in formal legislative circles, but he would still have been able to mobilize some of the same factions of the Republican party that had backed Reconstruction strongly in the first place throughout most of his organizing years.

tl;dr: I wouldn't remotely think that Cuney's Republican status given the years in which he got his start as a political organizer would necessarily mean jack all about his feelings about federal involvement. His Republican Party was as night and day with our modern Republican Party, and to be frank you can say the same thing about the Democratic Party.
posted by sciatrix at 9:16 AM on February 16, 2018

Podcast on this topic! By the creators!
posted by The Whelk at 9:34 AM on February 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

« Older "i see this post more than i see my own family"   |   Gorilla dating, is it love or science? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments