Max Shachtman

The St. Louis Star-Times Lays a Rotten Egg:

Will a Frameup Whitewash
a Lynching?

(March 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 12, 23 March 1942, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The lynching of the Negro, Cleo Wright, in Sikeston, Mo., last January 5 sent a shudder of horror and indignation through every person, black or white, whose brain is not rotten with the poison of Jim Crow thinking.

It caused the authorities a two-fold embarrassment:

To overcome their embarrassment, a special grand jury has been empaneled in Scott County, Mo. – the first grand jury called in this county in five years – to investigate the lynching. It’s all very legal and very dignified and very impressive. And Circuit Court Judge McDowell has already solemnly charged the jury to “follow the facts. If a man violates the law, it is your duty to indict him and uphold the dignity of the law. Do not be prejudiced against the good Negroes of the county because other people are trying to stir up race riots.”

The judge has to admonish the jury not to be prejudiced against “the good Negroes.” That he finds this admonition necessary is sufficiently indicative of who is on this grand jury and what it intends to do. (See story on page 1). The judge did not find it necessary to warn the jury not to be prejudiced against lynchers.

Why not?

Because, nine times out of ten, the juries in such cases in our lynch-law South are saturated to their ears with “prejudice” ... in favor of the lynch mob. Because, nine times out of ten in such cases, the “investigation” is a brutal farce aimed at covering up the criminals, aimed at covering even their identity, which is usually a matter of common knowledge.

Now, this is precisely the case in the Sikeston lynching. The names of the lynch-mob leaders are fairly well known in and around Sikeston. A couple of Negro papers in St. Louis have even published them. As the readers of Labor Action know, this paper was the only periodical of national circulation which printed the full true story of the Sikeston lynching and printed, likewise, the names of the mob’s ringleaders, that is, the criminals.

That issue of Labor Action was circulated by the hundreds of copies in and around Sikeston. If the Negro people there didn’t know the very individuals responsible for Cleo Wright’s murder before Labor Action printed their names, they learned them from its pages. So did the white workers and sharecroppers. And so did the planters and their thugs and tools.

That worries them! That makes it harder for them to cover up the criminals in this lynching, as criminals have been covered up in scores of lynchings before this time.

That makes it harder for them to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes.

They don’t like a working-class paper to be read by the white and Negro croppers and laborers, whom they still regard pretty much as their slaves. And they especially dislike a working-class paper that tells the truth, simply and courageously and always – a paper like Labor Action.

And because they are people – these Bourbon planters and their Jim Crow brethren – who don’t sleep, but ACT, it seems that they are playing with the idea of whitewashing the lynching by perpetrating a frame-up against those who fight lynchings!

That’s all that can be made out of the report of the grand jury session sent from Benton, Mo., to the St. Louis Star-Times and printed in its issue of March 10.

Judge’s Warning

The correspondent quotes Judge J.C. McDowell as warning the grand jury that “It is your duty to investigate this matter and not be influenced by what is going on outside the county, putting a lot of names in the paper and having mass meetings – you should not be intimidated by it.”

What is the honorable judge talking about? The report in the Star-Times gives us a hint. Read it carefully, just as it is written:

“The grand jury is meeting at a time when the community atmosphere of southeast Missouri is tense.

“Reports are current that Japanese agents have been promoting the pro-Japanese Pacific Movement among Negroes of this area.

“In New Madrid County meetings of Negroes have been held in recent weeks in Negro schools and churches. Reports are that representatives of the Social Workers Party arranged and spoke at the meetings. The Socialist Workers Party is the American branch of the Fourth International which was founded by the late Leon Trotsky after his break with the regular Communist movement.

“In Sikeston copies of a special edition of Labor Action, official newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party, have been distributed among Negroes. The edition was devoted to accounts of the lynching of Wright.”

Now, I happen to know the correspondent who sent this report to the St. Louis Star-Times. I know he is pretty well informed about the radical movement in the United States, having been very close to it at one time. I know that he could not possible have made the apparently accidental mistakes contained in that part of his story quoted above. He cannot possibly be ignorant of the fact that Labor Action is not now and never was the official organ or the unofficial organ of the Socialist (or “Social”) Workers Party.

“Late Leon Trotsky”

He must be aware of the fact that from its inception and up to a short time ago, Labor Action was the official organ of the Workers Party, and is still regarded as a partisan of the Workers Party’s program and principles. If the story connects Labor Action with the SWP, it is primarily for the purpose of bringing in the name of “the late Leon Trotsky” – which would be somewhat more difficult to do in the case of the Workers Party because of the differences of opinion on some questions between it and Trotsky. And Trotsky is brought in because, revolutionary fighter that he was, it is hoped that mention of his name in connection with the “tense atmosphere” in southeast Missouri will scare some people and help distract attention from the criminals – the lynch mob and its known leaders!

This is not the whole story, however.

What is the meaning of this business of bracketing the story of Labor Action and alleged meetings of the SWP (not one of which has been held, by the way, I can state authoritatively) or any other radical workers’ organization, with the story of the “reports ... current that Japanese agents have been promoting the pro-Japanese Pacific Movement among Negroes of this area”?

A Frame-Up?

Is some “clever” person thinking of laying down a smoke-screen in the form of a fantastic and monstrous frame-up, behind which the lynch mob criminals can escape scot-free?

Or have some experts in the art of “amalgams” and frame-ups who are known and notorious in the labor movement suggested the idea to a not overly bright but ambitious ditchwater cop?

Neither one would surprise us very much – or catch us very much by surprise. We say this plainly and openly for the benefit of anybody who is playing with the idea of a frame-up.

We know the record of American capitalist class justice, especially of its Southern Bourbon variety. We remember how the First World War was used by reactionaries to try to blacken every honest workingrnan who resisted iniquity and injustice by plastering him with, the label of “pro-German” and even “German spy.”

We know that the imperialists and their tools are doing essentially the same thing to militant workers and socialists in this war, too, and that they plan to continue to do it as long as they can get away with it.

Not So Easy!

But in this case, at least, it will not be so easy.

It will not be easy to convince people that anyone who is revolted by lynch justice and fights against it can be linked with a Japanese spy movement, or an imperialist movement of any kind.

It will not be easy to convince people that anyone who does what the honorable grand jury and judge should have done right off the reel – give the names of the criminals at the head of the lynch mob – should have found suggestions hurled at him, as the story in the Star-Times does.

It will not be easy to convince people that anyone who supports the croppers and day laborers in their fight against the shameful conditions in southeast Missouri is a “Japanese agent.”

After all, these are the “crimes” of Labor Action, in the eyes of the Missouri planters.

Trying a frame-up against Labor Action for these “crimes” will not succeed!

It is too thin. It will not whitewash the real and known criminals!

Shachtman button
Max Shachtman
Marx button
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 18.5.2013