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International Socialism, June 1996


Lee Sustar

Bookwatch: Fighting to Unite Black and White


From International Socialism 2:71, June 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The common view on ‘race relations’ in the US today is that black and white people live in two separate worlds that will continue to diverge. The vastly different reactions of whites and blacks to the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial last autumn and the size of Louis Farrakhan’s black nationalist Million Man March a few weeks later only served to reinforce this view in the media. More recently Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan – whose campaign staff included open Nazis – has been portrayed as Farrakhan’s white equivalent.

Even those who reject such simplistic conclusions are profoundly pessimistic about the prospects for multiracial unity. When political scientist Andrew Hacker updated the US government’s 1960s Kerner Commission statistical study of black America, he reiterated its conclusion that black and white lived in ‘two nations, separate and unequal’, and added, ‘hostile’. [1]

Such fatalistic, ‘commonsense’ views imply that the racism that pervades US society has never seriously been challenged. But a look at US history reveals a powerful tradition of black and white unity that has withstood the pressures of slavery, segregation and contemporary racism. It is a tradition that stretches back to the American Revolution, through the movement to abolish slavery and the civil war. Since then the fight for black and white unity has been led by socialists and other militants seeking to overcome racial divisions in the working class. Indeed, the greatest gains of the working class movement – and social progress in general – have been achieved when black-white unity was at its strongest.

This history has been long neglected by liberals and black nationalists and falsified by conservatives. Yet a number of books written over decades and from a variety of political viewpoints do enable us to trace the tradition of black and white unity. Many of these books are long out of print, but are well worth the trip to the library.

The colonial era

There was nothing automatic about the white racism that served to justify chattel slavery in the American colonies. It had to be constructed along with the colonial economy itself. Peter H. Wood’s Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 to the Stono Rebellion [2] demonstrates how colonial law and repression were necessary to impose divisions between black and white in what became the first state to secede from the US in the civil war. (Even today South Carolina is a bastion of conservatism, with the lowest percentage of trade union members of the 50 states).

Wood shows that early colonial law in South Carolina didn’t clearly distinguish between African slaves and white indentured servants:

And regardless of formal status, the actual conditions of life and labour did not yet vary greatly between servant and slave, free and unfree ... Where white migrants ‘worked like slaves,’ black arrivals laboured in many respects like hired hands, and there were numerous households in which captured Indians, indentured Europeans, and enslaved Africans worked side by side during these first years. [3]

The American Revolution

The US Constitution of 1787 epitomises the hypocrisy of bourgeois democracy. It allowed the Southern states to count slaves as 3/5 of a person when calculating the apportionment of seats in Congress. Yet that is only one side of the story. The bourgeois revolution of 1776–1783 not only broke the bonds of British colonialism, but inevitably challenged the moral and political justifications for slavery.

Indeed, the revolution allowed thousands of free blacks and even slaves to fight for liberty alongside white revolutionary soldiers. This was documented in The Negro in the American Revolution [4], a 1940 book by Herbert Aptheker, a historian who has chronicled African-American history for nearly six decades, until recently as a Communist Party member. Aptheker shows how General George Washington was forced to match a British offer of freedom for slaves who would fight for their cause. Black soldiers’ contribution to the revolution was such that even the slaveowners’ Virginia legislature was compelled to free slaves who had fought in the army. The ideological, political and social impact of the revolution is further explored by Duncan MacLeod in Slavery, Race and the American Revolution. [5]


John Jay, a leading revolutionary and ‘founding father’ of the US, argued that the revolution should abolish slavery: ‘To contend for liberty and to deny that blessing to others involves an inconsistency not to be excused’. [6]

That ‘inconsistency’ was soon entrenched in the Constitution. The bourgeois revolution was only half achieved as competing social systems of slavery and free wage labour existed side by side. By the 1830s the increasingly elaborate white supremacist ideology of the Southern ruling class seemed to overwhelm the democratic ideals of 1776.

Herbert Aptheker’s excellent Abolitionism: A Revolutionary Movement [7] not only describes the heroic struggles of this period, but demonstrates the tremendous social and political significance of interracial political activity. Edward Magdol’s The Antislavery Rank and File: A Social Profile of the Abolitionist Constituency [8] proves that the antislavery movement was not the exclusively white middle class affair that it is usually portrayed to be. By uniting a section of skilled white workers with strong republican traditions, freed blacks and white intellectuals and clergy, the abolitionists had an enormous impact on US politics in the period before the civil war. This legacy is explored by several 1960s New Left historians in a collection of essays edited by Martin Duberman, The Antislavery Vanguard. [9] Long out of print, it is worth the effort to find. James McPherson’s exciting early book, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction [10] is, happily, now back in print. McPherson’s analysis of the revolutionary character of this struggle is restated in his new book of essays, Drawn With the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War. [11]

The most exciting reading is the records of the freed slaves’ and abolitionists’ own words. Charles S. Blockson’s The Underground Railroad [12] collects the gripping narratives of escaped slaves and white abolitionists who defied a federal government’s Fugitive Slave Law to smuggle ex-slaves into the North and to Canada.

John Brown’s anti-racism had a religious basis. But Brown rejected moral suasion in favour of waging a guerrilla war on the United States government with the slogan, ‘This land must be purged in blood!’ Aptheker writes, ‘The apotheosis of revolutionary commitment, determining the basic nature of Abolitionism, was John Brown’. [13] W.E.B. DuBois underscores Brown’s commitment to black and white unity in his 1909 book, John Brown (now back in print). [14] Brown was hanged in 1859 soon after a failed raid on the US Army armoury in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, the aim of which was to arm slaves for an uprising. The classic study of Brown is Stephen B. Oates’s To Purge This Land in Blood: A Biography of John Brown. [15]

Essential reading on this period is Life and Times of Frederick Douglass [16], the autobiography of the escaped slave who became the US’s greatest abolitionist. Douglass broke with his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, arguing that slavery could be ended through a political movement that united black and white around the democratic ideals of 1776. Like Karl Marx, Douglass predicted from the outset that the North could not win the war without emancipating the slaves and using black troops to crush the South. [17]

David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass’ Civil War [18] traces the evolution of Douglass’s radical, uncompromising call for an ‘abolition war’ and his fight for a Reconstruction that would at last achieve black and white equality. In 1866, Douglass led a delegation of black leaders to the White House to challenge President Andrew Johnson’s efforts to undermine Reconstruction with a speech that remains the best summary statement on racism in the US:

The hostility between the whites and blacks of the South is easily explained. It has its roots and sap in the relation of slavery, and was incited on both sides by the cunning of the slave-masters. Those masters secured their ascendancy over both the poor whites and blacks by promoting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each. [19]

The civil war and Reconstruction

More books have been written about this period than any other in US history. Two are ‘must’ reading: James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era [20] and Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. [21] Both authors regard the civil war as the continuation of the bourgeois revolution of 1776. While the scope of their work includes economic, social, political and military issues, both books revolve around the axis of blacks’ struggle for their own emancipation and the possibilities this created for black and white equality. McPherson writes:

The organisation of black regiments marked the transformation of a war to preserve the Union into a revolution to overthrow the old order. Lincoln’s conversion from reluctance to enthusiasm about black soldiers signified the progress of this revolution. [22]

The war smashed slavery. Thousands of white Northerners derided by racists as ‘carpetbaggers’ and even more white Southerners reviled as ‘scalawags’ joined with freed blacks to ‘Reconstruct’ the South. [23]

The radical Republican vision of black and white equality foundered on business’s need for continued black labour in the plantation economy through debt peonage, sharecropping and other coercive means. A reconstituted Southern ruling class began a decades’ long process of building a racist Democratic political machine based on the forcible elimination of black voting rights. Foner argues that this did not benefit white workers and farmers: ‘While the region’s new upper class of planters, merchants and industrialists prospered, the majority of Southerners of both races sank deeper and deeper into poverty’. [24]

The struggle for black and white unity in the early labour movement

With the end of the war, a labour movement that had been disfigured by slavery now had to face the challenge of uniting black and white workers. An obscure but important 1955 book by Bernard Mandel, Labour: Free and Slave [25], quotes the leadership of the new National Labor Union (NLU) warning white workers not to reject unity with black workers:

What is wanted is for every union to help inculcate the grand ennobling idea that the interests of labour are one; that there should be no distinction of race or nationality; no classification of Jew or Gentile, Christian or infidel; that there is one dividing line, that which separates mankind into two great classes, the class that labours and the class that lives by others’ labour. [26]

Anti-racists in the NLU leadership lost the argument. The Colored National Labor Union was forced to organise separately. This should not be surprising. The working class movement had only just begun to come to grips with racism, and there was a vacuum on the left as key Radical Republicans opposed such labour reforms as the eight hour day and socialists were still too few in number to have much impact on organised labour.

Nevertheless, the tradition of black and white unity that began in the abolitionist movement was revived as an anti-racist current within the trade unions. The indispensable record of this struggle is Philip S. Foner’s Organized Labor and the black Worker, 1619–1981. [27] A long time Communist Party member and a leading labour historian who died last year, Foner combines committed anti-racism with an exhaustive knowledge of US working class history.

The book’s chief flaw is that it sidesteps the CP’s downgrading of anti-racist struggles during its periods of support for the Democrats in the Popular Front of the late 1930s and during the Second World War. Nevertheless, it depicts all the struggles that vindicate the National Labor Union leaders’ ‘grand ennobling idea’ of black-white unity. Foner describes the Labour Day parades in Boston and Newark in 1887, where more than 20,000 black and white members of the Knights of Labor marched together. Here too is the story of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) meeting with striking lumberjacks in Louisiana in 1912, where IWW leader Big Bill Haywood and white Southern organiser Covington Hall refused to address segregated meetings. [28]

There have been two competing tendencies in organised labour: one, a craftism that excluded women, immigrants and blacks embodied in the American Federation of Labour (AFL); the other, an anti-racist industrial unionism committed to uniting all workers in a common struggle with their employers. Foner demonstrates that, whenever labour failed to unite black and white, both suffered the consequences.

Black and white working class unity has always been achieved at high points in struggle. Philip Foner’s The Great Labor Uprising of 1877 [29] shows how the first national strike in the US united black and white workers even as Reconstruction was being overthrown. One of the most remarkable stories of black and white workers’ unity in US history is the New Orleans general strike of 1894, described in Eric Arnesen’s excellent Waterfront Workers of New Orleans. [30]

In that same period an interracial Populist farmers’ movement swept the West and South. A full account can be found in Lawrence Goodwyn’s The Populist Moment. [31] The movement failed because of the competition inherent in farming and attempts to build electoral alliances across classes.

Populism’s absorption into the Democratic Party at the turn of the century left white supremacy seemingly unchallenged. Yet even in the Deep South at this time the United Mineworkers built an astonishing degree of black-white unity. Ronald Lewis’s Black Coal Miners in America [32] shows how black and white miners had only themselves to rely on in company towns dominated by violent coal operators. At a time and place where it was illegal for blacks and whites to mix publicly, the UMW routinely organised armed picket lines of blacks, whites and immigrants. [33]

Lewis builds on earlier accounts of the UMW’s tradition of black-white unity in Herbert Gutman’s influential 1968 essay, The Negro and the United Mine Workers of America included in the valuable book, The Negro and the American Labor Movement [34], edited by Julius Jacobson. Gutman chronicles the career of black UMW official Richard Davis, a leading organiser who was the top vote getter in the union’s 1896 elections to its executive board. Gutman concludes ‘… until we know more fully the world of men like Davis, we shall not clearly comprehend the tragedy and the hope embedded in recent American history’. [35]

August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, along with John Bracey, are co-editors of another useful collection of essays, Black Workers and Organized Labor. [36] Contributions on the Knights of Labor, the IWW, the United Steelworkers and the United Auto Workers show how successful bi-racial unionism transformed the lives of both black and white workers. This point is made in great and inspiring detail in Meier and Rudwick’s study, Black Detroit and the UAW. [37] After describing the results of aggressive organising by the UAW’s ‘Black Department,’ staffed in part by Communist Party members, the authors conclude ‘It was just because the UAW had been in the forefront of the struggle for economic and social change that Detroit blacks had found it to be such an indispensable ally’. [38]

To fully appreciate the significance of those gains of the CIO, it is necessary to understand the tragic consequences of the AFL’s accommodation to the colour bar. The influx of black workers into Northern cities led to full employment during the First World War boom. But the AFL’s efforts to organise the steel and meatpacking industries collapsed amid the worst race riots in US history in 1919. Two books by David Brody show how the AFL’s exclusion of black workers led directly to crushing defeat as African-Americans were recruited en masse as strikebreakers: Steelworkers in America: The Non-union Era [39] and Labor in Crisis: The Steel Strike of 1919. [40] Elliot Rudwick shows how the refusal of AFL unions to organise blacks contributed to one of the worst of the race riots of that period in his Race Riot at East St Louis, July 2, 1917. [41]

Wobblies and Socialists, Communists and Trotskyists

Given the race riots and the disastrous defeats of the 1919 strikes, the IWW’s unwavering commitment to black and white unity is all the more impressive. Melvin Dubofsky’s We Shall Be All: A History of the IWW [42] demonstrates how the ‘Wobblies’ built interracial unity even as the AFL maintained the ‘colour bar’. Dubofsky quotes IWW organiser George Speed: ‘… One man is as good as another to me; I don’t care whether he is black, blue, green or yellow, as long as he acts like a man and acts true to his economic interests as a worker’. [43]

During the First World War period, the Socialist Party of America had both a right wing and a revolutionary left wing. The efforts of black and white left wing socialists to build working class unity are detailed in Philip S. Foner’s American Socialism and black Americans. [44] Foner is also co-editor, along with Robert S. Allen, of a documentary history, American Communism and Black Americans, 1919–1929. [45] This gives fascinating insight into the CP’s early efforts to develop a revolutionary approach to fighting black oppression based on Lenin’s writings and the experience of the Russian Revolution.

By the 1930s the CP was a thoroughly Stalinist, non-revolutionary party. Yet the prestige of the Russian Revolution continued to attract the most class conscious workers to the party. And the Communist International’s insistence on self determination for the Southern ‘black belt’, although never acted upon, led to special emphasis on anti-racist work. The result was the most integrated working class party in US history. Mark Naison’s outstanding Communists in Harlem During the Depression [46] describes how white Communists built credibility among black workers by fighting police brutality, combating racist discrimination by landlords and shopowners, and building the unions. Black membership in the party’s New York district went from 74 in 1932 to about 1,000 between 1936 and 1938. Key to this was the party’s work to defend the Scottsboro Boys, nine youths sentenced to death for a rape they did not commit.

Even more dramatic examples of the CP’s success in building black-white unity can be found in Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. [47] Kelley shows how the Alabama party, launched by a handful of white organisers, became a largely black organisation of 1,000 by 1934, with a base in key unions and a leading role in the civil rights struggles. Also worth reading are two autobiographies of leading black Communists. Harry Haywood’s Black Bolshevik [48], while reflecting a Maoist interpretation of the CP’s growth and decline, provides fascinating insights into the struggle to build black and white unity. So too does The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist [49], edited by Nell Irvin Painter.

The achievements of the CP were squandered by the Popular Front alliance with Democratic President Roosevelt; in the South the Democrats were the party of white supremacy. When the CP backed the no-strike pledge during the Second World War, it also effectively opposed black demands to end discriminatory hiring practices in war industries. The fight for black and white unity was left to small Trotskyist groups. A collection of newspaper articles arguing for this perspective can be found in Fighting Racism in World War II [50], with contributions by C.L.R. James, George Breitman and others.

The civil rights era

In the 1950s McCarthyite witchhunts and the decline of the Communist Party left a void in the fight for black-white unity. It was soon filled by the civil rights movement. The best way to follow this is through the political life of Martin Luther King Jr. Committed to black and white unity within a framework of liberal integrationism, King believed that, if the segregated South could be brought in line with the North, racism would wither away. This was the essence of his famous I Have a Dream speech at the 1963 March on Washington. What is usually ignored is his shift to the left under the pressure of Northern racism, the betrayals of Democratic politicians and the Black Power movement. This evolution is traced in three outstanding biographies: David J. Garrow’s Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [51], Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63 [52] and Stephen B. Oates’s Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King Jr. [53] Garrow fully documents King’s efforts to organise an interracial Poor People’s March on Washington and emphasises that he was assassinated after joining striking black sanitation workers on a picket line.

King’s vision of interracial liberalism could not overcome the class divisions in US society. Jack Bloom’s Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement [54] provides perhaps the best account of why the black middle class emerged to lead the movement and why there was no working class organisation capable of providing an alternative. In the same vein, Gerald Horne’s Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s [55] shows that white working class racism and the separatism of the Black Power revolt were direct consequences of the McCarthyite purge of socialists from the labour movement in the 1950s. Doug McAdam’s Freedom Summer [56] shows how the experience of black-white unity among student organisers in the South contributed to the revival of socialist politics in the 1960s.

One of the most important books on this period is Dan Georgakis and Marvin Surkin’s Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. [57] This chronicle of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), a black auto workers’ socialist organisation, shows the challenge of rebuilding black-white unity in the US working class after McCarthyism drove the left from the unions. DRUM for the most part rejected organising with white workers. Yet almost in spite of itself, it set an example for white workers who took part in the rank and file revolts which swept the industry in that period.

Twenty years later DRUM’s rejection of the Democratic Party and its commitment to working class self emancipation remain relevant. The decline of living standards for both black and white workers has created the basis for a far more unified and class conscious challenge to the employers than was achieved in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Fighting to unite black and white today

The decline of black struggle and the New Left and liberalism’s shift to the right has meant that the discussion of how to unite black and white in the US has been all but abandoned. A notable exception is Stephen Steinberg’s Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy. [58] While Steinberg falls into the trap of calling for limits on immigration to allegedly defend African-American jobs, the book is essentially a defence of the 1960s vision of a society free from racial oppression. It therefore is an indictment not only of Republican presidents Reagan and Bush, but of Democrat Bill Clinton who has joined them in attacking affirmative action, welfare and voting rights.

Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination [59], a collection of the Russian revolutionary leader’s 1930s discussions with C.L.R. James and several US socialists, provides a framework for a revolutionary approach to fighting oppression based on race or nationality. However, the distortions of the editorial introduction and the ambiguous nature of some of the transcribed discussions render this book insufficient as a guide to socialist practice today.

That role is filled by Peter Alexander’s Racism, Rebellion and Revolution [60] and Alex Callinicos’s Race and Class. [61] While both books are aimed at a British audience, they draw extensively on the history of the anti-racist struggle in the US. And both make it clear that the next chapter in the story in the fight to unite black and white will be written by those organising to challenge the system that profits from that division.


1. A. Hacker, Two Nations: black, White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (2nd edition, New York 1995).

2. P.H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 to the Stono Rebellion (London and New York 1975).

3. Ibid., pp. 53-54.

4. H. Aptheker, The Negro in the American Revolution (International Publishers, the Communist Party USA publishing house).

5. D. MacLeod, Slavery, Race and the American Revolution (London and New York 1974).

6. Quoted in L. Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790–1860 (Chicago and London 1961), p. 7.

7. H. Aptheker, Abolitionism: A Revolutionary Movement (Boston 1989).

8. E. Magdol, (New York 1986).

9. (Princeton, New Jersey 1965).

10. (Princeton, New Jersey 1964, republished 1995).

11. (New York and Oxford 1996).

12. (New York 1987).

13. H. Aptheker, Abolitionism, p. 123.

14. John Brown (New York 1974), Preface.

15. (New York 1970).

16. (New York and London 1979). Reprinted from the revised 1892 editions. Other editions are also available.

17. Ibid., p. 342.

18. (Baton Rouge and London 1989).

19. D.W. Blight, op cit, p. 383.

20. (New York and London 1988,).

21. (New York 1988)

22. McPherson, op cit, p. 565.

23. E. Foner, op cit, p. 297.

24. Ibid., p. 596.

25. (New York 1955). Published by Associated Authors (a cooperative of left-wing writers to put out books boycotted by publishers in the McCarthy era).

26. B. Mandel, p. 213.

27. (New York 1981).

28. pp. 57, 116.

29. (New York 1977).

30. (New York and London 1991).

31. (New York and London 1978). This is an abridged version of Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America (New York and London 1976).

32. (Lexington, Kentucky 1987).

33. R. Lewis, p. 140.

34. (New York 1968).

35. p. 127.

36. (Belmont, California 1971).

37. (New York and London 1981).

38. A. Meier and E. Rudwick, p. 222.

39. (Boston 1960, reprinted New York 1969).

40. (Philadelphia 1965). Republished 1987.

41. (Cleveland, Ohio and New York 1966).

42. (New York 1969).

43. M. Dubofsky, p. 151.

44. (Westport, Connecticut, and London 1977).

45. (Philadelphia 1987).

46. (Urbana, Illinois, and Chicago 1983).

47. (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and London 1990).

48. (Chicago 1978).

49. (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London 1979).

50. (New York 1980).

51. (New York 1986).

52. (New York 1988).

53. (New York 1985).

54. (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana 1987).

55. (Charlottesville, Virginia, and London 1995).

56. (New York and Oxford, 1988).

57. (New York 1975).

58. (Boston 1995).

59. (New York 1978).

60. (London 1987).

61. (London 1994).

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