J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

(17 February 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 7, 17 February 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The United Mine Workers condemned the Scottsboro frame-up as an attack against the entire Negro race and recommended support of federal anti-lynching legislation to pave the way for extending the benefits of democracy to Negro workers.

The United Mine Workers have had if not a perfect – we live in a capitalist world – a long and honorable history in its dealings with Negroes. Both white and black workers need to study its history closely. Just after the failure of the 1919 strike the miners in the northern fields of West Virginia, making a drive for unionization, recognized that their only hope was the success of their brothers in the southern part of the state, who were then under heavy attack by the coal-owners. They formed an armed group of 8,000 men, of whom 200 were Negroes, and marched upon the southern counties. The federal government interfered and stopped the march. But the unity in action, as a class, of these black and white workers is comparable to the tremendous class solidarity displayed by the black and white workers in the Chicago race riots of 1919. There were lynchings and race riots in 1919. But in that period of labor upheaval the militant workers of both races were getting closer together, foreshadowing the mass movement into the CIO, the greatest step forward the Negroes have made in this country since the abolition of slavery three- quarters of a century ago.

Negroes Early Played a Role

The UMW, from its beginning in 1890, encouraged Negroes to join. In northern West Virginia, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania, Negro miners held offices such as president and secretary, although greatly outnumbered by whites. Often the solitary Negro member of a local was president or secretary, this because he could speak and write English at a time when many of the foreign born could not.

In 1900, in the Flat Top Coal Fields, there were about 18,000 miners, 9,000 white and 9,000 black, all members of the union. In 1920 there were 25,000 Negro members of the UMW, though by 1927 the number had dropped to 5,000. When Lewis began the drive for the CIO, the traditions and experience of the UMW in the Negro field were powerful factors in helping to bring the Negroes in. Today it is estimated that there are 80,000 Negroes in the UMW. In 1937 George Schuyler of the Pittsburgh Courier wrote that in Local 12068 of the United Mine Workers there were only four or five Negroes out of 68 members and yet all the officers were colored.

After a year and a half of work in the Alabama fields 23,000 miners were organized, about 14,000 of them Negroes. Whites and Negroes met in mixed meetings. Officers and committees were chosen equally from both races. The white usually had the more important places but this was due to the influence of the social system in the South. It would be easy to show that all has not been perfect in the relations between the races in the union. But one old Negro miner, a miner for 33 years, a union member for 25 and secretary of Local 2950, has said that “The United Mine Workers of America has done more to remove hatred and prejudice in the labor movement and to restore harmony and good will between man and man than any other agency in the country.”

At the Columbus convention there were six official bands, one of which was the Logan County Band, composed of Negro high school boys and girls from Logan County, West Virginia. Lewis, pursuing his political maneuvers with Senator Wheeler, included the band among those who went to meet the Senator at the railway station and accompanied him to his hotel. Lewis stated that he specially wanted to honor the band, each member of which was a son or a daughter of a member of the UMW. Their expenses had been paid by the local unions in Logan County.

At the convention an important speech was made by William Dickerson, of Barkly, West Virginia. He asked for support to the passage of a Federal Mine Inspection bill to prevent such disasters as took place in Barkley on January 10, when 91 men were lost, 16 of them Negroes. Dickerson was a member of the rescue squad. Dickerson is a young man of 25, graduate of West Virginia State College. He studied business administration but was unable to find any opening. He went to work in the mines, identified himself with the working class and was soon elected recording secretary of Local 6420. In this lodge there are 480 members, of whom 25 only are Negroes.

Why There’s Unity in West Va.

Now what is the underlying cause of all this? Nothing less than the geographical construction of West Virginia. Yes, the geographical construction of West Virginia. Before the Civil War the states of Virginia and West Virginia were one. Eastern Virginia consisted of the rich flat plains, on which flourished the cotton plantation system. In the West, the highlands, the population consisted of small farmers who had no slaves and were oppressed by the rich Bourbons of the lowlands.

In 1861 the slave owners naturally went with the South. The farmers of West Virginia saw their chance, refused to go with them, organized a separate state, and fought with the North. White men all, they took sides not according to race but on account of their economic interests and the social and political ideas which flowed from them. Since that time the two states have had a steadily divergent history in regard to their attitude to Negroes. The hard life, the equalizing conditions of labor in the mines, have forged a unity, one of the most powerful in the never-ceasing battle against race prejudice in America.

When the fight for the CIO came, the UMW took the lead and has accomplished work of outstanding importance in the history of labor and of Negro labor in particular. Their support of the anti-lynching bill is a great gesture of solidarity to the Negro people. But it is more than that. It shows us that, along with our fight for the bill in Congress we must never lose sight of our main aim, the creation of such conditions as would enable whites and Negroes to work together in conditions from which will flow social and political equality. Those conditions are what we call the socialist society.

Last updated on 16 July 2018