J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

“Labor with a White Skin Cannot Emancipate Itself Where Labor with a Black Skin Is Branded” – Karl Marx

(24 November 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 90, 24 November 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Negroes in Steel (Continued)

Let us continue with our examination of the Negro in the steel industry, as portrayed by Cayton and Mitchell in their book, Black Workers and the New Unions.

The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers for years did practically nothing to organize the Negroes – or for that matter, anybody else. The union officials passed resolutions and talked about accepting Negro workers as well as whites, but they did nothing to bring numbers of Negroes into the union, even after the passage of the National Industrial Relations Act. The union continued its policy of equality in words and segregation in action.

But among the new unions formed after the NRA, there was a new spirit, and officers and members went after Negroes, recognizing that without them it was impossible to win victories against the bosses. Wherever the proportion of Negroes in the plant was large the workers made a determined drive. An interview with a worker in McKeesport, Penna., shows in a few words the role of the Negro in steel:

“Negroes must be organized here if the union is to have any show at all; it would be impossible to ignore them completely because of their great numbers, especially since difficulties have been experienced in bringing in the highly skilled American workers.”

Outstretched Hand Not Enough

But the Negro has behind him three hundred years of deception and exploitation by whites. Many whites make the mistake of thinking that as soon as they go with an outstretched hand to the Negro he will forget everything and accept it. It is not so easy. Many of the white workers found that they had to make a special effort to get Negroes in. One of the most frequent methods adopted was to get Negro speakers to address meetings. And certain lodges elected Negroes to offices in the unions, so as to give practical proof that the equality of which they spoke was more than verbal bait for the Negroes. In Homestead, Penna., the financial secretary of Spirit of 1892 Lodge No. 172 tells of the great success that follows the election of Negroes to office:

“... Then the rest of them came in droves. They are a clannish bunch, passing word of all such developments around among themselves. Each man brings his friends, and the next meeting the friend brings other friends, until enormous numbers of them attend in force.”

The two areas where most Negroes filed into the union were Pittsburgh and Birmingham, one in the heart of the industrial district of the Northeast and the other in the backward South. This shows us once more a lesson that we must never forget, that in the last analysis it is economic relations which are decisive in politics.

No Racial Question in Profits

The economic relation is decisive in politics. The capitalist does not allow race prejudice to interrupt his profits. When union activities became threatening, the owners in one factory tried a novel way of splitting the workers. Previously Negroes were not allowed to work the open hearth or as first helpers, but were kept as second or third helpers. To divide the working class, the company promoted several Negroes to first helpers, the most aristocratic, skilled, and well paid job in the whole mill. This had a double effect. Those Negroes who got the job would have nothing whatever to do with the union. And the other Negroes in the shop felt that at last promotion was open to them and they therefore became much cooler to union organization.

The white workers were now paying for their previous neglect of and discrimination against the Negroes. We shall see more of this in the future. But in any serious competition, on a large scale, between the workers and the bosses, the great majority of Negro workers – 99 percent of them – will find their places beside their white brothers. Economic relations, though not the whole story, are the most important part of the story.

Many of the Negro workers are sympathetic to the union. They know that they will get little from the company, but what they fear is that in the event of a closed shop the white workers might discriminate against them. This has happened in many unions and nothing but the most vigilant honesty and fair play on the part of the white workers can break down this justified distrust. Yet despite these difficulties, the unions were able to attract and to hold Negroes.

Equality Begins Among Workers

An important part of this work is the election of Negro officers. In nearly every important lodge in the Pittsburgh area this has taken place. First of all the lodges began by electing Negroes to office simply in order to attract other Negroes. Later, as more Negroes came into the union, these voted for additional colored officers. And finally all the workers, white and black, recognized the capabilities of certain among the Negro officials and voted for them without regard for the color of their skin. In Clairton, Penna., for instance, according to an interview,

“There were more colored than white elected to office. Here in Clairton there are about ten whites to one colored person. When the nomination came off, they nominated whom they wanted. We wanted to put up as many Negroes as we could. We voted by secret ballot. They had a colored man and a white man watching the ballot box. Six colored were nominated and of these, four were elected. Mr. M. was elected corresponding representative, J.E. financial secretary, M.B. trustee, and J.B. another trustee.”

When the Negro sees that he can make his influence felt and can elect some of his race to office, he can more easily turn his back on the bosses. It is in this way that the great battle for equality not only on the economic but on the political and social field will be won.

The Homestead, Penna., lodge, according to one of its officers,

“... held a couple of bingo games and a dance, all of which Negroes attended in force with their ladies. At the dance, held in the lower section of the city near the Negro district, there were no restrictions. Dancing was mixed racially and sexually, whites with Negro partners. I danced with a Negro girl myself. Negroes enjoyed themselves immensely and there was no kicks from the whites. This lodge will soon have a picnic which will be mixed.”

There are many such successful attempts, despite some failures.

This attempt of the workers to get together, naturally suffers from the tremendous pressure to which they are subjected by the race prejudices of a bourgeois society. But it is here that the battle for racial equality must be fought, and it is here that it can be won. Not in dances in Greenwich Village, or by bourgeois hosts and hostesses who invite intelligent Negroes to their houses for dinner in order to show that they are enlightened and above the vulgar prejudices of capitalist society. Some of these people mean well, some of them do not. But their activities, their parties and lunches are a mere drop in the ocean. They are not important. Black and white workers struggling together for socialism will bring equality, and nothing else will.

Last updated on 19 April 2018