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International Socialism, Spring 2003


Hassan Mahamdallie

Defying the colour line


From International Socialism 2:98, Spring 2003.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Brian Kelly
Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908–21
University of Illinois Press 2001, £16.99

For too long it has been widely argued that the American white working class will always be racist. This ‘common sense’ has had far reaching political consequences – for if white workers and their organisations are ‘the problem’, why should blacks join with them in their struggles for liberation?

Take, for example, the study of the relations between black and white workers in the American Deep South. Many historians in the field have pushed analytical variants of the notion that whites during the Jim Crow period were not only consistently hostile to blacks but were the bastion and chief beneficiaries of racial oppression. As Brian Kelly points out in his important book Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908–21, these historians have ‘constructed a framework that leaves one wondering whether white supremacy served any function other than defending the material and psychological interests of working class whites’. [1] He points out the once dominant view in Southern labour history – that ‘white elites and not white workers were the main beneficiaries of racial division – is [today] explicitly rejected in much writing on race and labour’. [2]

Ironically one source of this misinterpretation has been the ‘history from below’ movement. This has rightly eschewed the elitist ‘top-down’ approach in favour of refocusing on the experiences of working class people. As Kelly argues, the result in the main has been a huge step forward and a valuable undertaking. But it has also carried with it the potential that ‘the view “from below” might merely substitute a new form of historical myopia for that of the “old” labour history it aimed to displace’. [3] The danger is that the interests and actions of those in power are painted out of view. For the history of the struggles against racism the pitfall is clear – the tendency to underplay or altogether abandon a class analysis while concentrating on descriptions of the everyday (and undeniable) antagonisms between black and white workers and the so called psychological ‘wages’ of ‘whiteness’.

Kelly’s book is an attempt to reassert the political value of a total history approach. He has set himself the hardest test – to put a Marxist analysis of racism against the relations between black and white during the era of legalised white supremacy. The resulting study is an incredibly rich and nuanced synthesis that convincingly demonstrates that it was those in power in the South who had everything to gain from dividing workers along the ‘colour line’ and those labouring at the bottom of society who had everything to gain from interracial unity and solidarity. Kelly’s detailed research reveals that, despite the iron grip of the colour line, white coal miners in Alabama sustained resistance to the employers’ drive to divide and rule, and at points moved beyond tactical alliances in their fight against exploitation towards a more thoroughgoing stand against racism. Kelly also usefully uncovers how the Alabama black middle classes could play a junior role in defending the South’s racially based status quo.

The history of the struggle of the coal miners of Alabama at the start of the last century is truly inspiring. They fought tooth and nail, often with their lives, to build and maintain their organisation against the vice-like rule of the employing class. Who would have thought that in Alabama, while racism was being enforced by extreme terror – not least by the Ku Klux Klan – significant interracial unity from below could take root? Kelly’s excellent study is complemented by a reading of Daniel Letwin’s book that covers the same subject material. [4] Letwin’s book opens with an episode that gives the reader a vivid insight into both the combativity and confidence of black workers and how they were regarded by their white counterparts:

One summer day in 1878, Willis J. Thomas, an African-American coal miner and an organiser for the Greenback-Labor Party in the Birmingham district, stopped in the town of Oxmoor to post signs announcing a public meeting where he was scheduled to speak. The notice addressed itself to both black and white workers. As he nailed a copy to the door of the Eureka Iron Company storehouse, Thomas was accosted by a group of men calling themselves ‘Democrats’, who warned him that he was courting trouble and that he had better make himself scarce. Unperturbed, Thomas reached into his vest pocket, and produced a piece of paper, perhaps documenting his association with the Greenback-Labor Party or his legal right to post the announcements. Nonplussed, the men handed it back, and left.

‘Our country is going to the dogs!’ one of the Democrats muttered ... ‘To think that a Negro has that much authority in a good Democratic state, is enough to make a white man commit suicide ... Three years ago if a Negro dared to say anything about politics, or public speaking, or sitting on a jury, or sticking up a notice, he would be driven out of the county, or shot, or hung in the woods.’ Especially alarming was the high esteem in which Thomas was held among whites. ‘Some men that heard nigger Thomas,’ he fretted, ‘say he is the best speaker in Jefferson county, white or black.’ [5]

The mere existence of Thomas was clearly enough for the ‘Democrat’ to judge him as an alarming challenge to the set-up. Anything that vaguely pointed towards the bogey of ‘social equality’ was beyond the pale of Alabama society at the time. As Kelly says, in this period ‘the status of black workers hovered somewhere in the “twilight zone between slavery and freedom”.’ [6]

However, the coal magnates of Alabama and the expanding Southern industrial city of Birmingham needed labour, and turned to black workers. Blacks were drawn off the cotton plantations of the Black Belt and into the coalfields where they worked alongside white coal miners and recent European immigrants. In the 1900s to 1920s black miners made up over 50 percent of the workforce. Although they would live separately (segregation of the races was law), black and white miners worked side by side at the coal face and learned to depend on each other in a whole number of ways.

The ideal for the industrial elite would have been to reproduce the oppressive and racially charged rural plantation system in the mines, and the nearest they got was the use of convict labour-which was not far off slavery. But the ‘law’, despite the best efforts of its representatives, could not provide enough manpower. The mine operators needed to attract ‘free’ black labour which might otherwise join the mass exodus from King Cotton to the factory floors of the Northern industrial cities. This contradiction set in motion fundamental tensions in the employers’ position. So, for example, when the labour market was tight the bosses found that the swingeing racism of the authorities, which they normally depended on, acted against their immediate interests. So in Birmingham in 1908 ‘the “indiscriminate arrest of working negroes for trivial offences” had become so disruptive to industrial employers in the district that a number of them had resorted to pay[ing] the constable in their beat to let the negroes play crap games. The corporation officials say this is the only way to keep their labour camps from being demoralised. They buy protection for their men’. [7] During the 1910s the big operators, hoping to stabilise production, carried out limited ‘reforms from above’ – building better housing and somewhat ameliorating the worst aspects of the mining system. But this partial reform went nowhere near ending the dire situation for the miners and did nothing to blunt the militancy of the workforce – indeed it fed into an increased confidence. This mood was to build up until, combined with acute labour shortages created by the First World War, it exploded into mass unionisation and a bitter strike in 1920–21.

The ‘reform from above’ by the bosses did not mean they in any way had the interests of black workers at heart, and nowhere did they even dream of actions to challenge Jim Crow. When the workers struck, the coal and steel operators immediately fused with the rest of the Birmingham elite to unleash racism and repression. The one card the bosses played without a second thought was that of race in their continual effort to divide the workforce-even if it meant potentially unleashing a bloody racist backlash against blacks. They consciously politicised disputes around the issue of race, pointing to the workers’ fraternisation across the colour line as evidence of the trade unions’ subversive intention to challenge white supremacy. As two operators argued, one strike was no less than ‘a direct insult to our Southern traditions’. Playing upon fears of ‘race mixing’ was also part of the armoury: one Birmingham newspaper columnist wrote attacking the 1908 coal strike:

White women and black women meeting on the basis of ‘social equality’ indeed! White men holding umbrellas over negro speakers! Black men addressing white men as ‘brother’! The women of our fair southland resent it. [8]

When this tactic failed to split the workers the employers would resort to deadly violence and repression.

When the bosses played the race card the response of the miners and their organisations was in the main to resist divisions. For example, the attitude of the miners’ union – the United Mine Workers (UMW) – to strikebreakers shows it was wholly aware of the race traps laid by their bosses. As Kelly writes:

The hostility that strikers displayed towards scabs seems to have contained almost no specifically racial element. In many cases white miners seemed sympathetic to the plight of black strikebreakers, acknowledging that it was their bleak predicament rather than any innate proclivity to scabbing that has cast poor blacks as the easy prey of the operators. By contrast, miners of both races exhibited far less tolerance towards strikebreaking by local farmers, who were far more likely to be white than black. [9]

Letwin reports that, as a result of this sophisticated approach to black strikebreakers, many of those blacks who came over to the workers went on to become union activists in the following period. [10]

Kelly shows that this interracial trade unionism did not come out of thin air, but was rather a product of a deliberate policy by the UMW. Its agitational predecessors, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Knights of Labor and the Greenback-Labor Party, had also intervened as part of their political programmes to organise black workers and argue that white miners should ally with them in the struggle against exploitation. Many activists, such as Willis J. Thomas, went even further and pushed explicit anti-racist and socialist arguments and policies. (This contrasted with the exclusive old craft unions represented by the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) which excluded black workers.)

But the fight against racism was not merely a propaganda or moral exercise. It tapped into the material conditions of Alabama society. There were potential fractures in the ruling ideology of the South that the unions could exploit. Jim Crow was not just racially based – its stratification dictated that everyone had their place. For the elite it meant not only race dominance but class dominance. This created its tensions – challenging the idea that all whites had something in common to defend. As one historian has written, ‘It took a lot of ritual and Jim Crow to bolster the creed of white supremacy in the bosom of a white man working for black wages’. [11] Poor whites’ allegiance to the existing order had to be constantly encouraged by legal segregation, efforts to divide and rule in the workplace, and the pulpit and the pen. Racism was nourished on the antagonism born of competition between poor blacks and whites for jobs, but it was not lost on many white trade unionists that black oppression was deliberately being used to drive down the position of all of them. Wages in the Birmingham steel industry were consistently below national standards. While in 1911 steel labourers averaged 17 cents an hour in Pittsburgh and Chicago, Birmingham employers divided unskilled labour into two grades, paying 13 and 15 cents respectively.

The wretched existence that flowed from this exploitation had the potential to sow the seeds of unity. On a very basic level white workers understood that they had to include blacks in their fight against the employers or blacks would be used against them. This has been interpreted by many historians as merely an expression of narrow white self interest and does not necessarily denote a break from racism. The term coined is ‘pragmatic interracialism’, evidenced, for example, by the bi-racial internal structure of the UMW.

But it is clear, especially in times of struggle, that ‘pragmatism’ could be the start of a process of change for white workers, not the end. Driving a wedge between black and white workers was central to the strategy and interests of the Southern industrialists, whose profitability and ability to stave off competition from the industrial North relied on the suppression of wage demands across the board. For white workers to effectively fight that strategy they had no option but to take account of the vexed question of race. During the 1908 strike employers and the media were aghast when destitute strikers set up a ‘tent city’ where blacks and whites mingled (even though they had separate tents). A former city mayor complained, ‘Today in this district we behold pluralism in the sex of devils, embodied in male and female ... These devils have sought to teach the negro that he should affiliate with white men and with white women ... I thought to myself: has it come to this again?’ [12] The military were ordered to cut down the tents, punishing both black and white.

On occasions the UMW was proactive in combating racial divisions – Kelly cites a UMW pamphlet, Appeal to the Colored Mine Workers of Alabama, that ‘contrasted the UMW’s pursuit of industrial equality with the operators’ hostility to associating the black man on terms of perfect equality with the white man’. [13] It is notable in Alabama that even after the miners and their unions suffered large defeats on the industrial field there seemed to have been no attendant rise in racial tensions or scapegoating of black workers.

Examination of the period shows that the very term ‘pragmatic interracialism’ does not help us map the boundaries of black and white unity. White workers’ attitudes were a fluid state of affairs that always had the potential to go much further then self interest. This is because when workers move into struggle they are forced to challenge old ideas and ways of seeing the world. White union members could quite easily move beyond ‘pragmatism’ to something more radical. For example, one white miner could point out that while ‘the white miner is treated bad enough ... the Negro as a general thing simply catches “hell” in the big way’. He could clearly appreciate that this would have repercussions for himself: ‘Day by day the reins are being drawn tighter and tighter on us ... and if we continue to hold our peace the day will soon come when we will be catching as much hell as the Negro.’ He urged that white miners ‘lay aside prejudice’ and reorganise the UMW on an interracial basis. [14] Another UMW veteran, after decrying that black miners were, ‘in many instances, treated worse than convicts’ argued that there should be a renewed effort to recruit blacks to the union. ‘This should be done not only in self defence, but for the sake of humanity, as the Negro is worthy of being saved from the industrial and moral death he is dying’. [15] Another white miner wrote, ‘There is only one way for us to better our condition, and that is by bettering the Negro’s condition. It is a fact that we cannot rise and leave him in the ditch’. [16] This evidence weighs against those who say that interracial solidarity in Alabama stopped at self interest and was too ‘fleeting’ to have any historical significance. [17] As Kelly rightly points out, an analytical fatalism that asserts that the grip of racism on white workers was total and monolithic ‘does not begin to explain the variety of outcomes labour historians are beginning to uncover in cross-racial interaction at the bottom of Southern society’. [18]

One important fact remains unchallenged – despite the faults and limitations of the miners and their organisations over the race question, the level of active integration they achieved rose far above any other area of Southern society. Comradeship welled up from the bottom of society, not from the top down.

Kelly is careful to place caveats to the overall thrust of his account. He writes that the UMW never fully escaped the contours of the society in which it operated. It is important to appreciate that the miners were fighting on a political, economic and social terrain that was not of their making. White workers did not invent the colour line. As Kelly points out, ‘It was the operators, after all, and not white miners who controlled the racial composition of the workforce.’ Union leaders often bent to the ruling ideology and were often defensive on the issue of equality. They were clearly hamstrung by the syndicalist tradition in America at the time that separated economics and politics – sometimes pleading that the union was only interested in equality on the industrial front. There were also issues as to the extent to which white workers would have blacks in the top leadership of the union. Often union leaders would try to negotiate a ‘space’ within Jim Crowism to operate, but they could not do this consistently because even a mild espousal of equal rights was seen by the Alabama ruling elite as a full frontal challenge to the very rule of capital. In fact any concession that the UMW leadership made to Jim Crowism only served to weaken their overall fight. [19] Kelly hints at the need for a different politics when he asks ‘whether a more frank and open defence of interracialism, supplemented with a broad internal campaign to prepare white members for the vilification that would be forthcoming from the operators and their allies, would have been more successful’. [20]

However, whatever the drawbacks, the UMW in Alabama remained committed to building an interracial union. Partly this was to do with the militancy of the black workers themselves. They did not wait for the UMW officials (who were often far behind the rank and file) to decide to ‘let them in’ – they took their destiny into their own hands. They continually challenged the stereotype that blacks were ‘docile’ and uninterested in the ‘white unions’. Black workers ran to the front of the struggles because they sensed that they had not only more to gain from victory, but more to lose from defeat. Kelly cites the bravery of the black leaders who often paid with their lives, the readiness of black strikers to take up arms against the bosses’ thuggery, and their determination to win. He quotes one rank and file black miner, Dan DeJarnette, blacklisted 12 years after his role in the 1908 strike, describing himself as having ‘not one drop of scabbing blood in me’. DeJarnette wrote to the UMW head office volunteering himself for the job of touring the plantations in the Black Belt to dissuade fellow blacks from being used as scabs, even though he was ‘sure enough barefoot’ and nearly naked ‘with my pants on and they ... all torn up’. [21]

Often militants such as DeJarnette would not only have to fight white supremacism, but also condemnation from some fellow blacks. It was not only the racist white elite that tried to further their interests by appeals to racial solidarity – the small black middle class in Alabama often played a part in trying to undermine the workers’ struggles.

When the 1920 Alabama coal strike broke out, black preachers connected to the Birmingham black establishment tried to split the union by branding the UMW ‘the white man’s union’. As one observer commented, ‘All of the Negro preachers had been subsidised by the companies and were without exception preaching against the negroes joining the union’. [22] Workman’s Chronicle was distributed free through the miners’ camps. As Kelly writes, Birmingham had a ‘small but influential middle class’ of ‘preachers, businessmen, newspaper editors, camp welfare workers, leaders of the fraternal orders – who were held up by employers as the natural spokesmen for black racial progress, and who were often materially supported by the coal operators’. [23] This group profited from economic opportunities within the colour line and their outlook was shaped by the arch-accommodationist Booker T. Washington, a regular visitor to Birmingham. Washington preached black moderation and economic advancement (even if it meant strikebreaking) within Jim Crow. He declared, ‘It should be the motto of every coloured labourer to strive to make friends with his employer ... Alabama has the richest soil, the friendliest skies and the best opportunity for advancement to the negro that can be found anywhere.’ One of his protégés, Robert W. Taylor, was employed by the Alabama mine owners to teach black children on the basis that he was ‘a good negro, smart’, ‘who knows his place’. [24] Needless to say, Washington was anti-union. But he did have a resonance – partly because for a small number of blacks it was possible to accumulate wealth (especially those who ran businesses in the black areas or who could demonstrate willingness to help the white elite) and partly because ‘white society’ seemed so unremittingly hostile that any notion that blacks could ever attain equality could be dismissed as a pipe dream. Best, then, to stay with ‘your own kind’. As Kelly recognises, ‘In the absence of an interracial alternative even the cramped variant of racial pride advanced by the uplifters could strike a chord amongst hard-pressed miners.’ [25] But the ‘uplifters’, whose motto was ‘Hasten slowly’, could not sustain a hegemonic hold over the black miners. Time and again blacks spurned the calls of the black middle classes to remain ‘true to their race’ and chose to side with their class.

The Alabama miners were continually beaten back by the crushing power of the operators combined with the repressive institutions of the Southern state. But it was not a wasted struggle, for it proved that even in the most unpromising conditions black and white unity between workers could be forged. In many ways Alabama was a testing ground for the fights to come. As Kelly writes:

The conclusion reached by the best working-class militants and carried into the next round of mass struggles in the 1930s – that the particular, racial oppression of black workers would have to be faced frontally and not sidestepped – was the historical jewel snatched from the rubble of defeated strikes ... that ... convulsed the Alabama coalfields. [26]


1. B. Kelly, Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfields, 1908–21 (University of Illinois Press 2001), p. 8.

2. Ibid., p. 4.

3. Ibid., p. 5.

4. D. Letwin, The Challenge of Interracial Unionism – Alabama Coal Miners 1878–1921 (University of North Carolina Press 1998).

5. Ibid., pp. 1–2.

6. B. Kelly, op. cit., p. 83.

7. Ibid., p. 41.

8. Ibid., p. 21.

9. Ibid., p. 181.

10. D. Letwin, op. cit., p. 144.

11. Ibid., p. 109.

12. Ibid., p. 148.

13. Ibid., p. 176.

14. Ibid., pp. 95–96.

15. Ibid., p. 125.

16. Ibid., p. 124.

17. Organized Labor and the Black Worker Organized Labor and the Black Worker 1619–1981 (International Publishers 1982) is unfairly damning in his criticism of the UMW in Alabama during this period.

18. B. Kelly, op. cit., p. 205.

19. Ibid., p. 118.

20. Ibid., p. 191.

21. Ibid., p. 126.

22. Ibid., p. 170.

23. Ibid., p. 89.

24. Ibid., p. 99.

25. Ibid., p. 102.

26. Ibid., p. 207.

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