J. Meyer

Negro History Week and the Workers

(7 February 1949)

Source: The Militant, Vol. 13 No. 6, 7 February 1949, p. 3.
Source: PDF supplied by the Riazanov Library Project.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Negro History Week is no celebration of mere academic interest in the truth about Negroes. The Negroes had to organize themselves to find out and teach their own history as a weapon in the struggle. Generation after generation, distinguished and learned bourgeois professors, historians and publicists poured out a mass of lies, distortions, falsifications of the history of the Negro people in the United States.

By so doing they helped to provide the justification for the economic exploitation and social and political segregation of the Negroes by capitalist society. They helped to keep the Negro people in a state of doubt and demoralization about their own capacity to participate as equals in the life around them.

These lies and falsifications, taught in every school in the country, built up and maintained among white workers the feeling of separation from the Negroes and superiority to them. They were read abroad and this helped to make the shameful Jim Crow, policy of American society seem reasonable and natural, an inevitable outcome of Negro inferiority.

All this the Negroes had to fight. They began solely with the need to right their own historical wrongs. But now after some thirty years they have hot only undermined the vast structure of bourgeois lies about Negroes. They have done more. They have undermined the foundations of American historical writing, not only about Negroes but about crucial aspects of American history. Most important of all, they have given the proletariat an example to be followed. How and why this is so is of extreme importance to Marxists and to all workers.

The Negro historians have find a special interest in the central episode in American history, the Civil War. No historical subject is more important for the nation, What was its cause, what were the economic, social and political forces which led up to it, how was it fought and won, what were the consequences flowing from it? Without clear answers to all this, it is impossible to make a theoretical, a scientific analysis of the contemporary United States.

Great Contributions

Before the end of World War I Dr. Carter Woodson, as editor of the Journal of Negro History and author of many books and articles, had begun his life-long task of organizing and publishing studies , in Negro history in general and some remarkable studies on Negroes before and during the period of the Civil War.

To mention only one. In 1926 he published a mighty volume of nearly 700 pages, The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written During the Crisis 1800–1860. Once and for all was established in irrefutable form the powerful role played by the Negroes in the Abolitionist Movement.

In 1985 came the publication of Dr. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction. Dr. DuBois made some serious mistakes which we cannot go into here, but the creative role of the Negroes in the great crisis of American history was established with sound and brilliant scholarship and a genuine sense of historical style. His onslaught at the end of the book upon some of the famous writers on the period of the Civil War is a landmark in American historical writing.

Effect on Liberals

So deep was the corruption of history by the official historians that even the liberal and the pseUdo-Marxist writers could hot escape its influence. The Rise of American Civilization by the late Charles Beard, though not a Marxist work, helped substantially to correct many misinterpretations of the Civil War. When he called the Civil War “The Second American Revolution” and wrote of it as such, he took the writing of American history a step forward. But read the book with the work of Woodson or DuBois in mind. Beard does not know the role played by the Negroes before, during or after the Civil War.

In a later book, A Basic History of the United States, published in 1944, he tries to correct the omission. He repeats the legend about the majority of Negroes in the South having been faithful to their masters and mistresses during the Civil War. Then he adds self-consciously, “There were exceptions, to be sure, thousands of exceptions. At least 100,000 Negroes had served in the Union armies as soldiers and laborers ... In the South as well as the North, hundreds of Negroes, intelligent and educated, furnished some leadership for their bewildered people.”

Despite the work of DuBois and Woodson and the contributors to the Journal of Negro History, Beard’s facts are still wrong. The number of Negro soldiers and laborers was infinitely greater than he thinks. But his whole conception falls short. The great leadership of Negroes, educated and uneducated, was not so much after the Civil War as before it.

Basic for Understanding

It may seem that the issue is small. It is not. Without this knowledge you cannot understand the Abolition movement. Beard is baffled by the Abolitionists. In The Rise of American Civilization he says: “The sources of this remarkable Movement are difficult to discover. Westernaarck, in two huge volumes devoted to the history of moral ideas, gives no clue to the inspiration of such a crusade.” Both these gifted writers cannot understand how the Abolitionists came to be what they were.

To understand this you have to know above all about the contributions of the Negroes, the escaped slaves who became world-famous propagandists, the escaping slaves, the Underground Railroad, the constant slave rebellions in the South, the battles over civil rights for escaped slaves in the North. These made the Abolition movement what it was and also what it was not. Thus a world-famous political creation of the American people, the Abolition movement, remains a mystery because of the rejection of the Negroes as a historical force.

One more example must be given. The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, published in 1934, has on its lists of editors and contributors, such names as Sidney Hook, Lewis Corey, and any number of liberal and progressive historians, ex-Marxists, would-be Marxists, materialists etc. Yet the; article on American slavery by Ulrich Phillips contains the following about Negroes in the Civil War:

“In war time neither belligerent found much use for Negroes. As had been foretold in the South; they did not rise in insurrection but remained peaceful and incommunicado oh the plantations. Tradition says that very many were obsequious arid solicitous to the end – faithful friends ... There is rio ground for doubting the truth of such reports.”

But Abraham Lincoln himself, during the Civil War, said about the Negro soldiers: “Take two hundred thousand men from our side and put them on the battlefield or cornfield against us, and we would be compelled to abandon the war in three weeks.”

The Negro historians have brought such truths back into circulation. Against tremendous odds they have succeeded.

All Over the World

What has happened to American history by its degradation of the Negroes is not unique to the United States. It is characteristic of history all over the world. It took the rise of the labor and socialist movement in Europe before the role played by the workers and the peasants in the French Revolution a hundred years before began to be made known. The American working class will have to follow the trail blazed by the Negroes. Organized labor will have to organize its own societies for the study of the role of he workers and farmers in the critical episodes of American history.

When this is done, and it will inevitably be done, the history of the United States will have to be rewritten from top to bottom. The discrimination against Negro slaves, i.e., against Negro labor, in the Civil War is only a special ease of the discrimination against labor as a whole consistently practised by bourgeois historians the World over.

History is never a history only of the past. It is always concerned with the present and therefore with the future. That is why the bourgeois historians write as they do. But two can play at that game. Today same of the younger Negro historians are delving into the Abolitionist movement and the conflicts between whites and Negroes inside this movement. They are not doing this merely for history’s sake. They are seeking to find answers, to the difficult relation between the special struggle for Negro emancipation and the general struggles in the nation as a whole. This was a serious problem in 1840–1865. It is a serious problem today.

The Negroes have been impelled to this, among other reasons, by the policies of the Stalinists. The Stalinists did some very good work in the field of Negro history. But here, as everywhere else, their manipulation of economics, politics, history, to suit the policy of the moment, has bred a growing, distrust of them. The direct influence of the Stalinists on Negro historical writing, which was ,at one time great, is declining.

The whole situation presents a powerful challenge both to the genuine Marxists and the labor movement as a whole. The Negro historians have done a remarkable work that extends beyond the writing of history as such. Their probings into the Abolition movement will have great influence in helping to shape future mass political movements in the United States. But to do this work as it ought to be done they need to master historical method, Marxism, the science of history as developed by Marx, Trotsky, and other great proletarian writers, not excluding Daniel de Leon. That science today is corrupted by Stalinism but. it is vigorously practised by the Trotskyist movement in the United States and' all over the world. There is a fruitful field of mutual collaboration here by Negro historians and the genuine representatives of the great intellectual tradition of Marxism.

But here, as everywhere else, the most fundamental task can be done by organized labor and organized labor alone. It must study the causes of the great successes and the serious limitations of the Negro historians. It must recognize the need for labor to help the Negroes in the great work that they have begun, to subsidize it, to read it, to spread its results. But organized labor now has the power and the resources to begin such an investigation into. American history as will right not only the wrongs of Negroes but will rout the professors and historians who have slandered all labor and deceived us and the rest of the world for so long.

The proletariat must fight the capitalists in every field. When they suppress the truth about Negroes and workers in American history they are fighting to maintain their rotting society. When the proletariat, as only the proletariat can, opens up the road that the Negro writers are so patiently charting, another mighty blow will have been struck at the tottering tower of bourgeois ideology. The time is ripe.


Last updated on: 27 March 2024