Capital needs no legislation in order to provide for its use. Capital is strong enough to take care and provide for itself, but corporations are a dangerous power, especially large or consolidated corporations, and the American people fear them with distrust...We want no Tom Scotts, Jim Fisks or Vanderbilt’s in this State to govern us by means of which they would influence legislation tending to advance personal interests. —African American State Legislators, Tallahassee, Florida 1872
C.L.R. JAMES URGED listeners at a 1971 Institute of the Black World event in Atlanta to study W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction as a way to understand the meaning of Marxism, the Civil War, and emancipation. James implored his audience to grapple with Du Bois’s statement that Reconstruction was “#8220;the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen. It was a tragedy that beggared the Greek; it was an upheaval of humanity like the Reformation and the French Revolution.”(1)
James was in effect testing his listeners. Did they see Black history and Black struggle on par with the greatest revolutionary movements in history? Or did they view African Americans as mere footnotes and sidebars on the march towards working class self-emancipation? “#8220;I have to ask you the question,” James continued, “#8220;though I don’t expect answers. Did you ever think that the attempt of the black people in the Civil War to attempt democracy was the finest effort to achieve democracy that the world had ever seen? Don’t answer, I know you have it. You have to grapple with that.”
This question remains as valid today as the moment when James posed it. Do we merely study Black history as an exercise in multiculturalism, or do we take it seriously for the lessons it may provide us in this moment of economic calamity? It is the argument of this essay that we have much to learn from the questions that African American workers put to the U.S. political order between the late 19th century and the coming of the Great Depression.
Declaring “#8220;That....the working hours in all steam saw mills, factories and other working departments shall be ten hours as is over the United States of America, and that no steam saw mills, factories and other working departments shall work over that time,” hundreds of African-American workers called a general strike in Apalachicola, Florida on January 20, 1890.(2) Meeting at the Colored Odd Fellows Hall in the days leading up to the strike, African-American men and women met to discuss and draw up a series of resolutions to employers in Apalachicola.
Describing themselves as “#8220;We, the colored citizens of Apalachicola,” the workers’ assembly vowed to “#8220;change the present system of working.” They framed their demands as “#8220;Citizens’ Resolutions,” a pointed rejection of the wave of Black disfranchisement sweeping the South. They demanded “#8220;that no common laborer shall work at any of the said steam saw mills, factories or other working departments for less than $1.50 to $2.50.” (The wage scale represented an increase over the existing scale of $1.00 to $1.25).
The Citizens’ Resolutions proposed that this wage scale apply to all common laborers, native-born or foreign. The assembly resolved that immigration to Apalachicola would not be allowed unless higher, more equitable wage scales for all were instituted. Black workers tied labor rights, immigration, and citizenship together in an effort to avoid capital’s tendency to pit one against the other.
The Apalachicola General Strike represented the radical edge of the labor movement in Gilded Age America. When the strike commenced, hundreds of mill workers walked out of area factories and shut the port down. African-American women resolutely defended picket lines to the horror of white Floridians who reported, “#8220;The negro women are violent in their denunciation of the action of the whites and are congregating on the streets.” Local support of the strikers was strong, and only two Black workers crossed the picket lines. One of the strikebreakers was killed. The governor called out the state militia and mass arrests of strike supporters and leaders began.
At the very moment that the Apalachicola General Strike was unfolding, Florida U.S. Senator Samuel Pasco was leading opposition to the Federal Election Bill then being considered in Washington, D.C. Proponents of the bill hoped that it would turn back the march of one-party rule in the South.(3) Pasco and his allies in the Senate however, were determined to crush Black working-class voter turnout.
African-American workers’ militancy in Apalachicola was the latest reminder to Pasco and his business constituents that Black citizenship challenged their reactionary rule. The Apalachicola General Strike demonstrated that some African Americans in the South had an expansive vision of democracy that clashed with capital’s efforts to impose a regime of cheap labor and disenfranchisement.(4)
Senator Pasco enjoyed considerable support in the North. Northern business interests were even then hammering away at the suffrage rights of immigrant workers, and they welcomed Black disenfranchisement as a step forward in the economic development of the South.(5) Florida’s premier daily newspaper approvingly quoted Andrew Carnegie who said: “#8220;In the South, the ignorant are the immense majority. To give suffrage without restriction to the blacks would mean that the intelligent whites were powerless, overwhelmed. Government would be in the hands of men steeped in ignorance of political responsibilities to a degree impossible for Northern people to imagine. Only residence among them can give a true impression.”(6)
Senator Pasco ultimately won his fight against fair elections in the South, and Black workers in Apalachicola lost as the state militia overran their town. The defeat in the small southern port was a harbinger of labor’s setbacks later that decade.
Studies of whiteness have shown that the social construction of race and racism is rooted in historical processes dating back to at least the 17th century — if not earlier.(7) What I’d like to do in this essay is to show that African-American struggles against white business supremacy illuminate the intersections of segregation, American capitalism, and state development in the decades before the Great Depression. Like slavery, segregation was a labor system. The interests that ran this system segregated African Americans away from political power in order to extract wealth from Black communities so as to distribute it — unequally — to the rest of the nation.
“#8220;The new slaveholder is only solicitous of obtaining the maximum of labor for the minimum of cost,” wrote African- American newspaper editor T. Thomas Fortune in 1884. “#8220;He does not regard the man as of any consequence when he can no longer produce. Having worked him to death, or ruined his constitution and robbed him of his labor, he turns him out upon the world to live upon the charity of mankind or to die of inattention and starvation.”(8)
Popular remembrances of the era of legal segregation often emphasize spatial aspects of the system such as “#8220;white-only” restrooms and drinking fountains. These images however only capture one dimension of white supremacy. Yes, Jim Crow was an effort to separate African Americans, but not necessarily from white people.
Consider what segregation looked like from Black perspective. White folks were your employers, they ran your schools, they collected your taxes, they studied you incessantly, and they controlled — or tried to control — almost every aspect of your life. You worked inside of white folks’ homes, you did their dirty laundry, and you knew their most intimate secrets. In fact, whites were an all-too intimate part of African-American life. Segregation was not primarily about physical separation between the races. Like all systems of racism past and present, legal segregation was about power, economics, and political control — of the entire working class.
John Harrison Volter of New Iberia Parish, Louisiana recalled that his grandfather had to take up arms to defend his land from night riders during Reconstruction. Volter went straight to the heart of white business supremacy in his analysis of the original KKK:
The Ku Klux Klan was not set up by the lower class of Caucasians. The lower class of Caucasians were recruited into the Ku Klux Klan by former rich plantation owners who saw a way to gain some of their property back. And they used prejudiced ideas, class ideas on these ignorant low-class Caucasians. The act of giving each free slave so many acres of land and then the Ku Klux Klan scared them off it, you know. These poor whites that was the body of the Klan didn’t gain nothing. The land went back to the rich owner, you know, it didn’t go to them. It’s just showing you how [they] manipulated their own people.(9)
An effort by African Americans in the late 19th century to insist on state responsibility for the poorest of its citizens during hard times shows how Black working-class ideas fatally clashed with white business supremacy.
African Americans in Jacksonville, Florida had entered into an electoral alliance with the Knights of Labor that elected a reform ticket to city council in 1886.(10) Two years later, Jacksonville was hit by a devastating yellow fever epidemic. Most whites fled, and Jacksonville became a majority-Black city.(11) Municipal authorities created a special Committee on Sanitation (COS) to facilitate city clean-up projects as well as to administer public work relief for unemployed workers. By early November, 1888, the municipality employed over 1,400 African-American workers on relief projects.(12)
Citing dwindling funds, the Committee on Sanitation announced a 50% cut in the municipal work program in mid-November. Nearly one thousand unemployed African Americans and their family members gathered near the offices of COS executives and demanded the reinstatement of all public relief jobs.(13) COS officials assured the protestors that there were no funds for extending the public works program.
Unemployed workers persisted in their demonstrations and followed COS administrators through the town demanding jobs for those who had been thrown out of work by the epidemic.(14) The Times-Union claimed that “#8220;this class of laborers does not of course understand these things and can hardly be expected to.”(15) The newspaper warned that Jacksonville stood on the verge of insurrection.
African Americans wanted jobs in order to keep their families alive and they believed that the city of Jacksonville should be responsive to their needs. In fact, the Jacksonville unemployed movement may be seen as precursor to the unemployed protests of the 1930s.(16) Black workers held continuous demonstrations, assembled each night to formulate platforms, and chose representatives to present their demands to the city. The unemployed movement ultimately presented the city with a sophisticated plan to tackle poverty and price-gouging by area merchants. African-American workers’ ideas were distilled into the following propositions that were generated out of a “#8220;mass meeting of laborers”:
“#8220;Proposition 1.— To establish a relief store where all laborers, employed by the Sanitary Committee, can purchase their supplies; and that the purchasing agent of the association be authorized to sell to all such laborers their groceries, etc., at wholesale prices, or for the same as he pays for them at the North.
“#8220;Proposition 2.— To pay all laborers working under the Sanitary Committee the sum of sixty cents per day. Should a relief store be established, over two-thirds of the cash, paid out for Labor would float back into the treasury of the association.”(17)
In the face of a municipal crisis, Black laborers had formulated a partially self-funded cooperative plan that would protect the well-being of their families and benefit city coffers as well. The Jacksonville unemployed movement placed relentless pressure on the COS. After days of mass agitation, the city’s relief agency finally relented: all workers who had been dismissed would be reinstated, albeit at a sliding pay scale depending on family size.(18)
The cooperative store plan however, was rejected. City officials agreed to pay workers sixty cents for six hours work a day. Equally significant for our own time, city officials agreed that “#8220;no private work of any nature should be done with public money, but that this work should be left as a source of employment for our citizens after business has assumed its normal condition…”(19)
Shades of Hurricane Katrina coverage in 2005, the Times-Union depicted African-American workers in Jacksonville as lazy, ignorant, or as helpless victims of a natural catastrophe. White COS officials congratulated themselves on their largesse, but African Americans understood that they had saved their public relief jobs through organization and agitation. Black workers also understood that their labor was the source of all wealth, and they issued a strong public statement that reflected this understanding of political economy:
The laboring men know very well that they are doing good service for a small consideration, and while the property-holders are being the greatest benefactors, after due consideration we know that it is working a serious hardship upon us to be compelled to give five days of labor and time for the sum of $3 — a sum wholly insufficient for the support of men having families, or even for single men…and as we are loyal citizens and shoulder equally the responsibility with all others, we desire to submit…the following propositions.(20)
The Jacksonville unemployed movement highlighted the central conflict between Black workers and white business supremacy. Employers and their allies in media and the government assumed that they could run society with a free hand. African Americans countered that labor was the basis of all wealth and deserved a place at the bargaining table of municipal politics.
Conservative Democrats across Florida viewed the Jacksonville unemployed protests with horror. If African Americans could demand state intervention in favor of working-class interests during times of crisis, then the unbridled rule of capital was at risk. Soon after the unemployed protests ended, the State Comptroller rejected the bonds presented by the newly-elected pro-Black Republicans in Jacksonville, setting the stage for a Democratic coup.(21)
In April, Florida legislators introduced a bill to revoke the charter of Jacksonville. This empowered the governor to replace elected officials with hand-picked individuals. The genius of the plan was that Black voting power would be shattered by an ostensibly non-racial measure. The Times-Union defended the ruling class: “#8220;Everybody favors the bill: lawyers, merchants, and businessmen.”(22)
According to the leading organ of white business supremacy in the Deep South, revocation would guarantee race and class domination: “#8220;If the present bill to amend the Jacksonville charter should fail, this city will get no relief whatever. Capitalists will not lend money to a municipality that can be bought for fifty dollars. At our next city election Jacksonville will be completely Africanized.”(23)
The Times-Union warned its readers that democracy was bad for business: “#8220;The friends of the bill now pending to amend our city charter are warned to ‘call a halt and reconstruct it to conform to the ideas of a majority.’ The majority, to which reference is made, constitute the very ‘majority’ (so called) from which we seek to escape.”(24)
The Florida state legislature revoked the charters of Jacksonville, Key West, and Pensacola in the 1880s — all in cities with active African-American labor movements, periodic interracial coalitions, and high Black voter turnout.(25) The purpose of revocation was to substitute popular government with one-party rule and to silence the voices of Black workers and potential white allies.
The destruction of the Black electorate was not accomplished in order to assuage the feelings of poor whites. In each case, state seizure of local government was carried out in the interests of individuals the Pensacola Commercial referred to as the “#8220;intelligent, enterprising, business men.”(26) In cities such as Apalachicola and Jacksonville, African-American workers demonstrated the most radical political visions of their time. This is why the ballot was stolen from them.
White southern elites mounted a public relations offensive to explain segregation in a language their northern peers would understand and support. African Americans invoked a labor theory of value to justify their political involvement. White business supremacy held that southern economic development depended on the removal of Black workers from politics altogether. Princeton-educated Governor Daniel G. Fowler from North Carolina explained to the New York Herald that segregation enhanced his state’s competitiveness in the global economy:
In social and political life the negro is subordinate in North Carolina as well as in New York…In the stern realities of life as we find them, the white man is superior, and it is impossible for him to live under the domination of an inferior race. All sections of the country must agree with us in that….. It is the indomitable spirit, the tenacious self-reliance, the assertive power of strong manhood and the conquering impulse implanted in the minds of the Anglo-Saxons by that ‘divinity which shapes our ends’ that causes the whites to take natural precedence….Labor is so cheap with us that we can hire negroes for fifty cents a day, and our cotton fields can compete successfully with the world in the common grades of cloths…The condition of the great mass of the 650,000 colored people in North Carolina is abject poverty. They live from hand to mouth, and have no frugal habits of saving.(27)
Dr. George T. Winston, president of the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in North Carolina, told his colleagues at the American Academy of Political and Social Science in Philadelphia that “#8220;His [Black people’s] progress depends absolutely upon restoration of friendly relations with the whites….Two things are requisite:
“#8220;1. The withdrawal of the negro from politics.
“#8220;2. His increased efficiency as a laborer.”(28)
White southerners believed that segregation was a profitable labor system. Future U.S. Senator Josiah Bailey celebrated the disappearance of Black voters in North Carolina’s 1902 elections: “#8220;In the election this week not one-tenth of the negroes voted. And such as voted [did so] without leaders and without cause. The Republicans have abandoned them….The negro has disappeared from politics. The war is over. Now let the era of good-feeling come in — in Christ’s name.”
Bailey explained that African Americans were welcome in the South as long as they worked hard and stayed out of politics: “#8220;No more loyal citizens of the Republic are to be found than the citizens of the Southern States.. Nor are they bitter toward the negroes. They value the negro as a workman, and respect him as a human being; they understand that his faults are the faults of a lowly and misguided race; and they hope for his improvement and advancement. They do not wish to send him away.”(29)
Before he became governor of North Carolina, Thomas Walter Bickett stated that the “#8220;Negro Question” boiled down to three issues: “#8220;How to get a competent negro woman in the kitchen. How to get and keep a kind and trustworthy negro woman in the nursery. How to get and keep plenty of negroes in the cotton patch.”(30) Racism helped pave the way towards a lucrative system of cheap labor.
A burgeoning literature on African-American history demonstrates that Black workers did not cease to struggle against white supremacy.(31) In the wake of WWI, African-American sharecroppers in the Arkansas Delta began organizing an agricultural labor union and cooperative. White landowners responded by assaulting the union, and ordering law enforcement officials to crush the sharecroppers.(32) These events led to the Elaine Race Riot of 1919.
In the same year, African Americans in Longview, Texas began experimenting with cooperative purchasing and marketing of farm produce — thus bypassing white creditors and merchants. While the Longview Race Riot of 1919 was allegedly sparked by a Black man’s presence in a white woman’s bedroom, the NAACP and local African Americans understood that the violence had been sparked by the cooperative venture and Black assertiveness.(33)
Radical Black working-class visions of political economy continued to percolate to the surface of southern life. In 1922, the Emancipation Day assembly in Raleigh, North Carolina resolved “#8220;To foster every organization meant to prevent the exploitation of the negro or wage-earner, white or black, by the wealth of either group, and that we go on record in favor of co-operative marketing.”(34) No wonder the white elite so tenaciously enforced one-party rule in their domains!
One Saturday morning in August, 1933, over 200 African-American women workers at the Charleston Bagging and Manufacturing company organized an occupation strike that shut their gigantic bagging factory completely down, idling 800 workers. The strike began on August 26, at 7 a.m. in the weaving room where 130 Black women worked. “#8220;After the work had ceased there,” according to contemporary newspaper accounts, “#8220;the agitators went into the spinning room, where a like number of workers had begun their day’s work.”(35)
The Charleston News and Courier alleged that “#8220;They [the women workers] threatened violence to those who would not cease work and at this time Samuel E. Stauffer, general manager, ordered the power turned off and the machinery stopped and called the police.”(36) When the police arrived however, they quickly found themselves on the defensive as the women defended their occupation strike with bobbins and knives; the stunned police looking to restore order were instead greeted with cries of “#8220;strip em!”
To uplift their spirits, the women formed revolving picket lines and sang improvised spirituals such as “#8220;I ain’t gonna work no more” as well as other more traditional gospel songs. The Charleston policemen, sensing their momentary disadvantage, called for reinforcements.
The strike at Charleston Bagging was not organized by an existing trade union; male involvement in the strike appears nonexistent. Perhaps this explains the media’s efforts to rob the insurgency of any political meaning. Newspapers in the Carolinas ran incredulous headlines like: “#8220;Spirit of Jungle Animates Negroes In Strange Strike At Charleston Bagging Mill”(37); The News and Courier claimed that the strike “#8220;resembled a jungle scene shown in the motion pictures...”(38)
This racist coverage obscured the fact that there was nothing “#8220;exotic” about the strike at all. Nor was the plant occupation a spontaneous outburst on the part of the women strikers. Indeed, they struck at the very moment that representatives of the Roosevelt administration and owners of bagging companies across the country began meeting to work out new wage and hours guidelines in the bagging industry.(39)
These guidelines, called “#8220;codes,” fell under the jurisdiction of the New Deal’s National Recovery Administration (NRA). “#8220;Designed largely for industrial recovery, the NRA legislation,” writes Barton J. Bernstein, “#8220;provided for minimum wages and maximum hours.”(40) The NRA was an effort to lift the country out of the Great Depression. African-American women in Charleston were excluded from the high-level NRA hearings held in Washington D.C. Nonetheless, they still fought to make their voices heard.
According to police, the women strikers demanded a minimum wage of 12 dollars a week.(41) This amount is significant: it was the “#8220;blanket wage” recently negotiated in the textile and tobacco industries under the NRA. Their willingness to strike for this wage means that the women saw themselves as equals of their white counterparts in the textile and tobacco industries. The women’s fight for a blanket minimum wage — without regard to skill level — affirms their roles as pioneers in the national resurgence of progressive labor activism that paved the way for the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935.
African-American women at Charleston Bagging and Manufacturing were not merely waging a wildcat strike; they were struggling to expand the New Deal to their workplaces and communities. This militancy connects the Charleston women with African-American workers across the South who were calling for federal intervention in the economy.
Three days after the bagging strike broke out, domestic workers in nearby Edisto Island began insisting their employers pay the NRA’s minimum industrial wage of thirty cents an hour despite the fact that domestic workers were excluded from the codes. One African-American woman reportedly told a prospective employer: “#8220;you ain’t gonna git a cook less you pay her thirty cents by the hour, no mam! Uncle Sam done set the wage at that and you can’t ride over what he say.”(42)
African-American women in Kingstree, South Carolina told their bosses that the NRA required them to increase wages,. In rural Williamsburg County, “#8220;There are some who have been working for years in the same place who either demand more pay or shorter hours. And from farms come reports that negroes who have been content to work for a dollar a day cording wood and other jobs now openly state they will have their ‘thirty cent a hour like de guv’mint pay.’”(43)
African-American women in St. Louis and Philadelphia would join their sisters in Edisto and Charleston in major strikes that challenged NRA wage and hours’ codes. The following spring, Black female laundry and cafeteria workers in Birmingham led wildcat strikes for better wages and working conditions under NRA code agreements.(44) In the wake of the Birmingham upheavals, Black women domestic workers in New Hope, Alabama launched the first recorded strike in the city’s history. Like their counterparts in Edisto, the New Hope women demanded a minimum wage scale that would cover all domestics.(45)
At the time of the Charleston Bagging Strike, white South Carolinians were hotly debating the causes of the Great Depression. State senator J.C. Long told a large Charleston gathering that “#8220;The depression was caused, in the final analysis, by the lack of people spending money,” and he argued for the need to raise taxes in order to create public works projects.(46) Full-page newspaper advertisements criticized the low wages and prices that seemed to be dragging the country deeper into depression. Charleston businesses promised to raise wages.
On the day of the bagging strike, the News and Courier ran an ad featuring a white woman lamenting that “#8220;I am a stenographer. I have been making only $10.00 a week and had to care for my mother and younger brother.”(47) The message of the ad, endorsed by 21 major Charleston businesses, seemed to be that low wages were a scourge on society.
African Americans were shut out of the local discussion surrounding the New Deal. What did Black women workers at Charleston Bagging who were working 54-hour weeks and making an average of eight dollars a week think about being excluded from the debate? What did they think when the News and Courier supported the aspirations of fictitious white female stenographers and ignored the plight of real Black workers?
While Charleston businesses supported the idea that white workers should enjoy higher wages in order to get the economy going again, they rejected similar aspirations among Black workers in South Carolina. “#8220;As usual,” The News and Courier opined, “#8220;they [Black workers] have interpreted the news [of the NRA codes] to suit themselves, and have managed to get hold of a mass of misinformation.”(48) Experts argued that if the federal government raised industrial wages too high in the South, then Black farm workers would refuse to work for white farmers.(49) This one-sided debate reveals the ways that the New Deal would eventually marginalize many African Americans as well as poor whites in the South — all in the name of economic progress.(50)
The Charleston Bagging Strike was defeated by police force. Bobbins were no match for guns, and by Saturday afternoon, August 26, Charleston police had driven the women out of the factory. From this point onward, police deployed in force whenever African Americans tried to picket or even gather near the plant.(51)
The city also suppressed the annual African-American Labor Day march. The excuse was “#8220;possible communistic influences,” but Black workers didn’t need outsiders to explain to them the significance of the day.(52) With roots in the 19th century, “#8220;Colored Labor Day,” as it was called, was an event where African-American unionists from Charleston and the Sea Islands gathered to celebrate the role their labor played in building the nation.(53)
A day after the elimination of Colored Labor Day, the News and Courier remarked that “#8220;Charleston celebrated with the nation yesterday the first Labor day under the new deal, and celebrated it quietly.”(54) Yet it was a silence only achieved through police and state repression. The following week, the city of Charleston sponsored a gala parade celebrating the achievements of the National Recovery Administration.(55) African Americans were not invited. Charleston, South Carolina helped transform the New Deal into a White Deal.
African-American workers in the South helped set the stage for the rise of the New Deal, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, in the 1930s. Not coincidentally, millions of Black southerners were first disenfranchised and subsequently excluded from New Deal social legislation in order to placate southern business interests.(56) These exclusions in turn exacerbated black poverty, and drove deeper wedges between sectors of the U.S. working class.(57)
Today, the United States faces a new economic crisis. It would be comforting to think that progressive economists, labor leaders or other sages will lead us out of what Eugene V. Debs aptly called “#8220;this capitalist wilderness,” but we know that this is not going to happen. An overwhelming majority of African Americans voted in the Presidential Election to take the nation out of the mess that it had created for itself. They drew on deep roots of radical thought that we too often ignore. A serious analysis of Black history is a necessary step in the reconstruction of the mass movements we need to build in order to fight our way forward.
ATC 138, January-February 2009
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