Workers Vanguard No. 1119
6 October 2017
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
Race, Class and American Populism
We print below the conclusion of an article based on a March 5 Spartacist League Black History forum presentation by Brian Manning in Oakland. Part One appeared in WV No. 1118 (22 September).
Up until the aftermath of the Civil War, trade unions in the U.S. had been very weak. In 1869, some four years after the war ended, a group that became known as the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor was founded, one of the country’s earliest national labor organizations. Unlike the farmers’ alliances and other populist groups, the Knights of Labor was a proletarian organization. In addition to white male workers, it organized women and black people, including in the South.
The Knights of Labor’s membership pledge stated that it meant “no antagonism to capital.” At the same time, its founding leader, Uriah Stephens, also called for the complete emancipation of working people “from the thralldom and loss of wage slavery” and placed great emphasis on solidarity. Their motto was “An injury to one is the concern of all,” a slogan later adapted by the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) in the early 20th century.
The Knights’ leadership under Terence V. Powderly, who succeeded Stephens in 1879, was opposed to strikes. But as is often the case, the rank and file thought differently. In 1885, the Knights of Labor won a strike against the Wabash Railroad, part of the southwestern system controlled by the railroad baron Jay Gould. Union members on other railways refused to operate any train with Wabash cars. The union men won a surprising and unprecedented victory, leading to a major increase in the membership rolls of the Knights. By June 1886, the national membership had increased from about 100,000 to over 700,000. Gould then provoked a strike and crushed the Knights on his railroads the next year. But the 1885 victory enhanced the union’s authority.
In this period, the South experienced rapid development in cotton, tobacco, iron and steel production, textile and furniture manufacturing, coal mining and lumbering. The workforce was mostly composed of native white Southerners, but particularly in coal mining, lumbering and iron and steel production there was a large component of black workers. The Knights originally established a foothold in urban areas but eventually spread out to more rural areas.
Knights of Labor and
The leadership of the Knights was derived from Northern (anti-slavery) abolitionists. Powderly thought that both the abolitionists and organized labor were “revolutionary in their character...[their] ends in view were the same, viz.: The freedom of the man who worked” (quoted in Melton Alonza McLaurin, The Knights of Labor in the South ). The Knights of Labor leadership had several ways of dealing with the race question in the South, sometimes trying to circumvent it, saying it was just an economic issue, and at other times directly confronting it. These positions were outlined by historian Philip S. Foner in his book, Organized Labor and the Black Worker: 1619-1973:
“Two tendencies were apparent in the attitude of the Knights of Labor toward the Negro. One was reflected in the widespread evidence of unity in strikes, labor demonstrations, picnics, assembly halls, and the election of blacks to office in predominantly white locals. Nothing like this had ever occurred before in the American labor movement. The other tendency was the reluctance of the leadership to antagonize Knights who were not prepared to grant equality to black members and its unwillingness to take steps to eliminate restrictions barring Negroes from entrance to industry and apprenticeships.”
In 1886, there were 60,000 black members of the Knights, mostly in the South. Most of them were in all-black locals, but there were a few integrated ones as well. All told, there were nearly 2,000 Knights of Labor assemblies or locals organized in the South. They were organized, as the Knights said, “irrespective of party, race, and sex.” But as much as the Knights sought to recruit black and women workers, they had a reactionary position against Chinese workers, and sometimes expressed that position in violent actions.
One story captures the contradictory quality of the Knights and Powderly on anti-black racism. During the Knights’ 1886 General Assembly in Richmond, Virginia, the New York delegation left a hotel when one of its black members was refused admittance. When Powderly heard of this, he had the black member, Frank J. Ferrell, introduce him on the stage of the convention. Ferrell said that the Knights sought the “abolition of those distinctions which are maintained by creed or color” and that Powderly was a man “above the superstitions which are involved in these distinctions.” After the meeting, the New York delegation went down the road and integrated a theater. At the same time, Powderly wrote a letter to the Richmond Dispatch in which he sought to mollify his Southern critics: “I have no wish to interfere with the social relations which exist between the races of the South.... There need be no further cause for alarm. The colored representatives to this convention will not intrude where they are not wanted, and the time-honored laws of social equality will be allowed to slumber undisturbed.”
Nonetheless, many Southern blacks rushed into the Knights of Labor because they were landless and barred from many industries and sought the dignity that membership in the Knights provided. But even within their organization the Knights were not always able to overcome racial divisions. In 1887, black iron workers in Birmingham went on strike, but their white counterparts refused to support them. The state organization of the Knights ordered the white iron workers to go out on strike, which they reluctantly did. But there was so much disgruntlement that the Knights had to call off the strike.
The bosses especially targeted militant black workers for deadly violence. By 1887, the Knights had organized 10,000 cane workers in what was known as the Sugar Bowl of southern Louisiana—9,000 were black and 1,000 were white. That year sugar workers went on strike, demanding payment in cash (not scrip redeemable only at the plantation store) as well as an increase in their daily wages and payment every two weeks. The governor called in the militia—which was headed by former Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard—to drive the workers from their cabins on the plantations. Corralled into the black part of the town of Thibodaux, as many as 300 black strikers and their families were killed by white vigilantes. This was one of the deadliest attacks on a strike in American history. There was not another attempt to organize workers in Louisiana cane country for decades.
As more radical workers entered the Knights, the conservatism of the leadership, including its opposition to class struggle, hardened. The opposition of Powderly and other Knights leaders to “radical anarchists” became especially vehement after the 1887 execution of the Haymarket martyrs—anarchists and labor organizers who fought for the eight-hour day. As radical white workers left or were expelled from the Knights, the influence of those who held racist, anti-black views became more prevalent. In 1894, shortly before its final demise, the Knights of Labor, the same organization that had earlier fought to organize black workers, called for the deportation of black people to Liberia “or some other parts of Africa.”
In addition to the bosses’ concerted offensive against labor struggles, white prejudice played a big part in the downfall of the Knights of Labor. At bottom, this reflected its inability to counter the rise of racist reaction in the post-Reconstruction period. Nonetheless, militant labor struggles continued through the 1890s. A number of veterans of the Knights of Labor went on to support the formation of the People’s Party in 1892.
The People’s Party
Blocked in their attempts in the 1880s to win gains through social struggle, populists from the farmers’ alliances and other organizations turned toward the electoral system. Black and white Alliancemen joined in forming the People’s Party. The case for doing so was made most strongly by black people in the South who were desperate for some kind of relief—anything to undermine the Democrats. At People’s Party conventions, black members insisted on respectful treatment by white delegates, many of whom were their landlords. This alliance between the small exploiters and those they exploited reflected the irreconcilable class interests that would lead to the demise of the People’s Party.
In 1892, People’s Party delegates nominated James B. Weaver as their candidate for president and ratified a platform calling for government ownership of railroads, telegraphs and steamships; a progressive income tax; an eight-hour workday; paper money; a loan program. Most significantly, the People’s Party became an electoral vehicle that threatened to break up the Democratic Party’s political monopoly in the South. Weaver, who had been a brigadier general in the Union Army during the Civil War, was the target of all kinds of abuse by the Populists’ opponents in the South.
The contradictions that would eventually tear apart this populist alliance of black and white farmers were perhaps best illustrated in the person of Tom Watson. Watson was a white large landowner whose majority-black Tenth District was the center of Populist voting strength in Georgia in the 1890s. In his essay “The Negro Question in the South” (1892), Watson expressed racist views about black people. But the essay also showed that Watson had a pragmatic rationale for enlisting the support of black voters to defeat the Democrats. It was in this context that he pointed out that both Republicans and Democrats exploited racial antagonisms to maintain their rule. Referring to poor blacks and whites, Watson wrote:
“Now the People’s Party says to these two men, ‘You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both’.”
Watson ran for Congress in Georgia in 1892 and had a black Populist organizer, H.S. Doyle, who gave 63 speeches for him. When Doyle was threatened with lynching by a mob of Democrats, he fled to Watson’s house. Watson called out 2,000 armed white farmers to protect him. At the same time, Watson was no supporter of black equality; he told Doyle to sleep in the shed out back.
When the People’s Party repeatedly failed to unseat the Democrats in the South, Watson came to believe that the Democrats’ use of the bugaboo of black domination to scare whites away from the Populists could best be overcome by eliminating the black vote. In 1904, Watson offered to support Democrats seeking to amend the Georgia constitution to uphold white supremacy, in line with other Southern states that had disenfranchised black people. Watson went from defending the black vote and opposing lynching in the early 1890s to becoming a white-supremacist by the early 20th century—promoting anti-Jewish, anti-socialist, anti-Catholic and pro-KKK views in his magazine, The Jeffersonian.
Demonstrating the subordinate position of black people in the People’s Party, the 1892 ticket included no blacks, and only two of the 160 delegates to the Georgia state Populist convention were black, a far cry from the radical Republican regimes during Reconstruction. The white Populist leaders never stood for black social equality. Nonetheless, their appeals to black voters, who still could tip the vote in one direction or the other in the South, led to the People’s Party being disparaged as the “Negro Party,” much as the Republican Party had been known as the “black Republicans” a generation before.
The Defeat of Populism and Consolidation of Jim Crow
In the face of burgeoning support for the Populists, the Democrats tried different strategies. Some politicians co-opted the rhetoric of the People’s Party. In other places the Democrats openly stole votes, stuffed ballot boxes and intimidated voters. And as always, the Democrats played the race card, conjuring the specter of black domination to scare white voters away from the Populists. In the 1892 election, the Democrats carried the South and won the U.S. presidency. The People’s Party got only 8.5 percent of the national vote but carried five western states and won three governorships.
However, by 1896 the Populists had fused on the national level with the Democrats and did not run a presidential candidate that year. They supported the Democratic candidate, William Jennings Bryan, who gave his famous “Cross of Gold” speech calling for an end to the gold standard, which was a key demand for the Populists. This fusion was fatal for the Populists, leading to the decline of the movement. Black Populist delegates had opposed the fusion because they recognized that it would cement white racist hostility.
The prospect of a black-white alliance undermining their rule impelled Southern Democrats in the 1890s to further extend segregation into every aspect of life. Black people were increasingly disenfranchised through the amendment of state constitutions. In 1890, Mississippi established a lengthy residency requirement, a poll tax and literacy tests to be eligible to vote. Within two years, the number of black voters dropped from 190,000 to 8,615. The Mississippi Plan of constitutional disenfranchisement, including through outright racist terror, swept across the South. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court placed its imprimatur on the racist policy of segregation with its ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, upholding the segregation of railway cars in Louisiana.
By the opening of the 20th century, black voting rights had been virtually eliminated in the South, and legally sanctioned Jim Crow segregation was fully consolidated. For the next 50 years or more, the South remained this way under one-party, Democratic rule. The Northern bourgeoisie and Republican Party had by the turn of the century thoroughly embraced the white-supremacist ideology of the “white man’s burden,” which served as justification for the subjugation of the darker races in the U.S.’s new colonies. Ben Tillman, a racist Democratic politician from South Carolina, wrote at the time of the Spanish-American War of 1898:
“No Republican leader, not even [New York] Governor [Theodore] Roosevelt, will now dare to wave the bloody shirt and preach a crusade against the South’s treatment of the negro. The North has a bloody shirt of its own. Many thousands of them have been made into shrouds for murdered Filipinos, done to death because they were fighting for liberty.”
—quoted in C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1974)
Working-Class Power Is Key
A powerful example of the working class overcoming racial divisions was the New Orleans General Strike of 1892. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), which had been formed in 1881 and largely organized skilled, white, native-born workers, was compelled to lead the general strike, uniting skilled and unskilled, black and white workers, who were largely organized in segregated locals. The strike served to break down race prejudice among white workers.
In October, the Triple Alliance of scalesmen, packers and the largely black teamsters, numbering somewhere between two and three thousand, went on strike for a ten-hour day, overtime pay and a union shop. The bosses tried to break the strike by publishing stories about attacks by black strikers against local whites, but by November a general strike had begun. Forty-nine AFL unions went out, demanding union recognition, a closed shop, wage increases and shorter hours. While the unions did not attain a closed shop, they won other demands.
The general strike was a great demonstration of interracial labor solidarity in action. It showed that thousands of workers in the increasingly segregated Deep South could unite in common struggle, despite the efforts of the bosses to divide them by using anti-black prejudice. This was possible because workers have a common class interest in their struggles. However, economic struggles in and of themselves cannot achieve racial unity on a longer-term basis. For that it is necessary to have a class-struggle leadership that takes up the fight against black oppression and women’s oppression, and for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. Such a leadership would be based on the understanding that the workers and bosses do not share a common interest and that the capitalist system ultimately needs to be swept away through workers revolution.
A number of socialist leaders came out of the populist movements of the late 19th century, including Socialist Party (SP) leader Eugene V. Debs. Many of the activists who went on to form the Industrial Workers of the World had also been populist activists. These leaders came to recognize the social power of the working class as key. However, the SP and, initially, the Communist Party (CP) did not see the need for a program to address the dual oppression of black people as both workers and the victims of all-sided racism. In the case of the SP, some of its leaders were openly racist. And despite being an opponent of racism, Debs remained in the SP because he believed in building a party that encompassed all political currents in the workers movement, no matter how politically backward.
It was not until the intervention of the Communist International, established after the Bolshevik Revolution led by V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky in October 1917, that the early American Communists took up the struggle for black freedom. The Bolsheviks had developed their party in intense opposition to the Great Russian chauvinism of the tsar’s empire, and they understood that the struggles against national and other forms of special (i.e., non-class) oppression could be powerful levers to advance socialist revolution. They had built a vanguard party of workers of different nationalities with the most advanced, revolutionary consciousness.
The idea of the fight against special oppression as an impetus for revolution changed how American Communists thought about their work in a country founded on black chattel slavery. This was captured by James P. Cannon, a CP leader who was later won to Trotskyism, i.e., authentic revolutionary Marxism. Cannon noted that American Communists learned “to assimilate the new theory of the Negro question as a special question of doubly-exploited second-class citizens, requiring a program of special demands as part of the overall program—and to start doing something about it” (“The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement,” in The First Ten Years of American Communism ).
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a wave of popular discontent over economic devastation spawned a number of populist demagogues who tried to deflect this anger away from the capitalist profit system. Among these was Democratic Party politician Huey Long, who had served as governor of Louisiana. After Long became a U.S. Senator, the KKK said that it was going to campaign against him in Louisiana. This prompted Long to get up in the Senate press gallery and say, “Quote me as saying that that Imperial bastard will never set foot in Louisiana.” And if he did, he risked leaving with “his toes turned up.” Long was certainly no anti-racist, but his stance against the Klan won him much sympathy among black people in Louisiana.
In 1934, Long launched a “Share Our Wealth” campaign with the slogan “Every Man a King,” promising $5,000 to every family. Initially a supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Long claimed that his populist proposals came from Roosevelt’s unfulfilled promises. Long said:
“When one man decides he must have more goods to wear for himself and family than any other ninety-nine people, then the condition results that instead of one hundred people sharing the things that are on earth for one hundred people, that one man, through his gluttonous greed, takes over ninety-nine parts for himself and leaves one part for the ninety-nine.”
—Every Man a King: The Autobiography of Huey P. Long (1933)
The Occupy Wall Street movement came full circle from movements like Long’s, proving that there is nothing new under the sun as far as these populist shibboleths are concerned.
The U.S. Trotskyists of the time, organized in the Workers Party, sought to expose the pretensions of Long. In an article titled, “Huey Long—Workers’ Enemy,” the New Militant (27 April 1935) wrote: “Huey Long proclaims in grandiose style for the redistribution of wealth; but he is equally vociferous in his proclamations for the maintenance of the present social relationship.”
For Revolutionary Integrationism!
Starting with World War I, the great migrations of black people from the rural South to the North led to the entry of large numbers of black people into the industrial working class, giving black workers enormous potential social power. This development underscored the need for a revolutionary program to address the special oppression of black people. The black population in the U.S. is an oppressed race-color caste, an integral part of American class society since the time of slavery while at the same time forcibly segregated in the main at the bottom of this society. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s did away with de jure segregation, but de facto segregation is built into the economic order of American capitalism.
The entire history of mass black struggle—from the anti-slavery abolitionists through the Civil War and Radical Reconstruction to the civil rights movement—has been in the direction of integration, not separation. Black workers in the 1930s participated in and often played leading roles in the labor battles that created powerful, racially integrated industrial unions. Our program as Marxists in the U.S. is one of revolutionary integrationism—fighting against all instances of racial oppression, we stand for a working-class socialist revolution that sweeps away the capitalist economic order in which segregation and racial oppression are entrenched. Separate will never be equal! Only a socialist society based on production for social need and not private profit can provide the decent jobs, education, housing and health care that are denied to those left to fight for survival in the ghettos.
The liberal populists of today, no less than the populists of the 19th century and their 20th-century successors, are incapable of offering a program to resolve the profound economic and social inequality faced by black people. Capitalism is a system based on exploitation and oppression; a proletarian, revolutionary perspective is needed. Despite the increasing destruction of industrial jobs and erosion of union strength in recent decades, black workers continue to be integrated into strategic sectors of the industrial proletariat, such as urban transit, longshore, auto and steel.
Because of their position as both the most oppressed and also the most conscious and experienced section of the proletariat, revolutionary black workers are slated to play an exceptional role in the coming American revolution. Won to a revolutionary program, black workers will be the living link fusing the anger of the dispossessed ghetto masses with the social power of the multiracial proletariat, and will be leading cadres of a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party.