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Ria Stone

A Labor Base for Negro Struggles

(August 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 7, August 1942, pp. 207–211.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Thirteen million Negroes in America have never known three of the “Four Freedoms” which America is supposedly spreading to the rest of the world. “Freedom from want” is a mockery to Negroes when they are last to be hired and first to be fired; when so many usually obtain only domestic work of short duration; when their wages are the lowest and their rents and food prices the highest. “Freedom from fear” is a myth to Negroes when they have no recourse against the “righteous” Southern citizenry who periodically find excuses to hold lynching parties; against the Northern citizenry who magnify every petty theft into a crime wave; or against those military police whose trigger fingers itch to soil a Negro soldier’s uniform with blood.

“Freedom of speech” is meaningless to millions of Negroes who are kept in enforced ignorance and illiteracy by the most meager educational facilities in the South and who are sent to the most crowded schools in the North, so that throughout the country, 2,700,000 Negroes (or more than twenty per cent of the total Negro population) have had no schooling beyond the fourth grade. “Freedom of religion” is the only one of the “four freedoms” for the Negro which the ruling class has encouraged. The latter has hoped to keep Negroes satisfied by sky-pilots, saturated with spirituals, shouting for peace and security in another world and therefore content with their misery in this world.

MOW – Democratic Rights Movement

The March on Washington (MOW) movement had its origins in 1941 when the production demands of “national defense” made it obvious to Negroes that Jim Crow discrimination was responsible for their failure to get jobs and training in “defense” industries. Starting out mainly as a “defense” jobs movement, the MOW, with the entrance of the United States into the “war for democracy” has taken on the character of a general fight for democratic rights for Negroes, and the jobs demand has become one among many other demands.

The MOW, like the Garveyite movement of the First World War, arises at a time when Negroes are conscious of the discrepancy between the professed aims of the ruling class to spread democracy abroad and the actual denial of democracy at home. But unlike the Garveyite movement, with its emphasis on black solidarity over the world, the MOW is an authentic native American movement, stemming from the American Negro masses and directed toward the goal of democratic rights for Negroes in America. At the same time, as was evident from the huge Madison Square Garden rally in New York on June 16, the Negro masses recognize their solidarity with the colonial masses – a solidarity not unrelated to the fact that the colonials are also predominantly colored. From this “color” solidarity, however, can develop a conscious realization that it is not color and race which decide the differences between oppressors and oppressed. As the war proceeds, the Negroes will discover more and more that Japanese imperialism has been, and is, as harsh and brutal in colored China, Korea and the Philippines as white imperialism has been, and is, in China, India, Africa and the West Indies. They will then begin to see the struggle of the Negro masses toward freedom from oppression in America as part of a world-wide struggle of all the oppressed peoples.

The MOW, unlike the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, is partly under working class leadership and professes to be a mass movement of Negroes. A. Phillip Randolph, national director and foremost leader of the movement, is president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and has a long record in the organized labor movement. Thus, when the Negro masses hail Randolph as their leader, it is an expression, however unconscious, of their need for working class leadership. At the same time, of course, and with Randolph’s sanction, dozens of so-called Negro leaders have also climbed in the bandwagon of the MOW. “Reverends,” YMCA directors and men and women whom the Negroes look up to because they have achieved government posts – all these take note of the potential militancy of the Negro masses and seek to direct it into safe channels. These “leaders,” as was obvious from the Madison Square Garden rally, trail behind, rather than lead the Negro masses. These “leaders” continually reiterate: “This is a mass movement!” because without the masses they are nothing!

The leaders of the MOW, while calling upon the masses of Negroes to join in the movement and make it their own, fear that the masses may respond so overwhelmingly that they can no longer be held in bounds. This fear is shown by the unwillingness of the leaders to call for a real March on Washington, and their restriction of the demonstrations of Negro strength to local rallies. The leaders, reformist in outlook, continue to rely strongly upon petitions to the President and on negotiations with the Administration, which it is hoped will produce more effective executive orders proclaiming an end to discrimination.

Negro Masses Ready for Action

The Negro masses, on the other hand, experience daily the futility of executive orders. For one of these the MOW leaders already “postponed” a March on Washington in June 1941. Indeed, the limitations of Executive Order 8802 have been admitted by Mark Ethridge, a member of the Fair Employment Practices Committee created by the order. Said Ethridge! “I believe it is perfectly apparent that Executive Order 8802 is a war order, and not a social document ... Had I conceived it to be, I would not have accepted membership on the committee.” In other words, the Executive Order was calculated to serve only two purposes: one, to extort blood, sweat and toil from the Negro masses for the imperialist war; and, two, to pacify their resentment and obtain their support. It was in no sense a recognition of the justice of Negro demands.

The masses also saw their leaders given a first-class run-around in Washington when these leaders went there to negotiate in the Waller case. They cannot help but wonder, therefore, why mass actions of a more militant character are not called for by their leaders. They believe they have shown their leaders, e.g., at the Madison Square Garden rally and at the Chicago Coliseum rally, that they are ready to participate in a national March on Washington. They feel rightly that such a dramatic demonstration of their strength would be a direct action which would go far to upset the status quo.

Nevertheless, the reformist leaders of the MOW, instead of relying upon the masses in action, still rely upon the “new capitalists,” presumably congregated in the Roosevelt Administration, attempting to distinguish them from the “reactionary capitalists” and ignoring the fact that all capitalists are bound together by a class determination to keep all workers, Negro and white, at the bottom of the social ladder. Randolph has even gone so far as to renounce any intentions of an actual March on Washington, claiming that from its very inception the MOW used the idea of a march only as a threat, an empty threat which it apparently never intended to carry out. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that questions arise not only in the minds of the expectant and hopeful Negro masses but also among the so-called right wing elements among the Negroes who saw no reason for the existence of the MOW from its start. The Pittsburgh Courier, for example, in an editorial on August 8, asks wherein a March on Washington Movement which does not intend a March on Washington differs from the NAACP and the National Urban League as lobbying pressure groups.

MOW Needs Active Base

Clearly, the MOW leaders will continue to regard the movement not as a movement for action but only as a propaganda pressure group. Wary of jeopardizing the friendliest of relations with the Administration, they are therefore sensitive to and helpless in the face of pressure from it. Whatever gains the MOW can achieve for the Negroes within the confines of capitalism will come only if the movement has a mass base and a leadership which is ready and willing to carry out the mandates of the masses for actions of a militant mass character. Since the present leadership of the MOW is not one which can be depended upon to give militant leadership, it is all the more necessary for the ranks in the local MOW committees, not only to take a more active part but to insist upon their democratic rights internally and their serious participation in the formulation of decisions on actions and policy. They must insist that membership meetings be not simply rallies for entertainment, for handing out information, for rubber-stamping decisions already made by the executive committees, or for referring new proposals. Serious discussion and recommendations by the ranks of policies and actions are entirely possible and need not await directives from above.

The Negro masses have the spirit and will to struggle, to march and to picket for their rights and demands. In St. Louis, organized by the local MOW Committee, Negro workers marched on the small arms plants to protest the firing of 150 Negro workers. In Cleveland, members of the Future Outlook League picketed several plants refusing to employ Negro labor. In Akron, members of the same league have picketed the Federal Employment Service office for jobs. Where such actions have taken place, it is obvious that working class Negroes, intent on jobs, are in the forefront of the movement for economic and democratic rights for Negroes.

It is the Negro proletariat which will prove and is proving to be the most dependable and militant fighters for Negro rights.

At present, however, most of the active members of the MOW committees in various cities are from the middle class and professionals in the Negro community. Not sufficient working class Negroes have as yet taken their place, nationally and locally, in the committees. Until they make their impression through active participation and direction of the MOW it will be easier for the reformist and vacillating leadership to restrain and curb this movement from more militant mass actions. Moreover, so long as the active membership of the MOW committee remains dominantly middle class it will lack the necessary strength which can come only from Negroes in the labor movement.

Negro’s Future with Organized Labor

The development of mass production industries in the United States and the entrance of hundreds of thousands of Negro workers into these industries has proceeded since the First World War. Incorporation of all these workers into the labor unions, regardless of race, color or creed, has been a matter of historical imperativeness if workers are to defend themselves against increasing exploitation. Especially with the development of the CIO, more workers in the mass production industries are learning that the economic class requirements of workers are achieved only through class solidarity of all workers, Negro and white. Today, according to available reports, there are half a million Negroes in the labor unions – CIO, AFL and railroad brotherhoods. The relation of the Negroes to the CIO was recently stated succinctly by Willard S. Townsend, president of the United Transport Service Employees of America (UTSEA-CIO) and first Negro member of the CIO’s executive council. Townsend declared: “Since the majority of Negroes in the world are workers, their only escape from economic bondage and social disfranchisement is through organized labor. The CIO has provided this specific avenue of escape.”

The St. Louis CIO Council’s support of the recent struggle of the Negro and white sharecroppers in Southeast Missouri is a classic example of organized labor actively following a policy of non-discrimination and equality to build working class solidarity and a militant union movement. The CIO unions, in their general policy of non-discrimination, are building a working class movement which stands as a symbol of the most fruitful methods whereby Jim Crow discrimination can be attacked. By bringing the Negro workers into the unions, specific grievances of the Negroes related to the basic problem of economic existence are better resolved and/or put more on the same basis as the problems of their fellow white workers and union brothers. Moreover, the basis is laid for attacking the problem of social and political discrimination through class action and working class leadership, not only within industry but also within the Negro community.

The Negro community has begun to shift its view regarding the importance of unionism, although prejudices still remain among Negroes because of their bitter experiences in the past, as well as today, with Jim Crow craft unions. Likewise, as is clear from instances such as the recent Detroit strike, where four white workers refused to work alongside Negro workers, it has not been possible to erase from the minds of white workers in a few years the poisonous prejudices indoctrinated by the capitalist class for so many generations.

Recognition of the fact that the Negro’s future lies with organized labor points the need for Negro labor committees (or similar bodies, whatever their form or name), not as mass movements, but as educational mediums supplementing the labor unions. Such committees would (1) carry out union and workers’ education among the Negro workers in and outside the unions and in the Negro community; (2) encourage Negro workers to join unions; (3) strive to break down Jim Crow prejudices of white workers in the shop and in the unions wherever it exists. Negro labor educational committees of this character will work more effectively and have a more consistent and militant stand when they include revolutionary workers who see the historical importance of the labor union movement; who realize clearly the class origins of Jim Crow; who will at no time sacrifice union and Negro rights to imperialist war demands; and who can develop Negro workers to a realization of the ultimate revolutionary action which must be carried out to smash Jim Crow in its entirety.

MOW Movement Needs Labor Base

The MOW movement, unlike the organized labor movement, does not have a class character. It is not oriented around the struggle of the Negro workers alone, but has its base in the Negro people as Negroes. It has arisen because the Negroes in America, while primarily workers, still have a special problem of fighting for their democratic rights as one of the largest oppressed minorities in the world. The movement is not interracial or non-racial in character but has been and is intentionally an all-Negro movement, excluding whites from participation and calling upon only a few whites for support. Considering the oppression of Negroes as Negroes, and considering also their desire to prove their independent strength, this restriction, while radically wrong, is at least understandable.

However, if the MOW is to develop, it will discover that white workers and their organizations are the staunchest allies of the Negro working masses and can provide the most solid and valuable assistance. Once white workers comprehend more fully the class necessity for combating Jim Crow, they will not forget the lesson, since their own existence and working class solidarity depend upon it.

White liberals, on the other hand, whom the MOW has called upon for support – have no real stake in the Negro struggle but their fickle humanitarian sympathies. Even more patently, the white bourgeois politicians, e.g., Willkie and Dewey, who have expressed themselves as deploring the Negro’s miserable lot, have only the stake of election day politics to make them “friends of the Negro people.” The Negro masses will do well to see that the MOW movement finds its allies, not among such fair weather white liberals and bourgeois politicians, but among the white working class elements. Here again, the active participation of the Negro proletariat in the movement would be an important factor. Recognizing the necessity of working class solidarity and experiencing daily its effectiveness in militant mass actions, they must point the need for widening the support of the MOW so as to include working class organizations.

MOW Struggle and “National Unity”

The MOW, unlike the Stalinist front National Negro Congress, which crassly subordinates the Negro struggle to the imperialist war, tends to have as its primary purpose the Negro’s fight for democratic rights. The Stalinists characterize the MOW as subversive and defeatist because it does not make support of the imperialist war its main objective. The MOW, through Randolph, has in turn, exposed a Negro “Victory” rally held by the Stalinists as a “typical Communist front movement” which “wants to make the Negro forget all his grievances.

Today the National Negro Congress, in its June, 1942, statement, urges, for example, that job discrimination be abolished in war industries only “to beat the Axis.” It urges the prosecution of lynchers only as “traitors to our war effort.” The statement also exposes as “selfish” those who put the just demands and long overdue rights of the Negroes before the Stalinist “victory” program of an American war offensive and a second front. After the Waller legal lynching, the National Negro Congress issued a statement in which it “calls upon its councils and friends to hold immediately win-the-war rallies to protest against the outrageous injustice of which Odell Waller was a victim.” These examples are illustrative of the depraved and cynical attitude which the Stalinists hold toward the struggle of the masses, Negro and white, when it affects Kremlin interests.

While the opposition of the MOW to the Stalinist front organizations is real and explicit, the political differences of the two become obscured by the fact that the leaders of the MOW also support the war. The slogan of the movement – “Winning Democracy for the Negro is Winning the War for Democracy” – is an attempt to straddle the war issue by the “Double V” conception of victory at home and victory abroad. But as the war pressure increases and “national unity” appears to be threatened by a struggle for Negro rights, the MOW leaders reiterate more vociferously and repeatedly their patriotism and loyalty. They increase their sales pressure on the skeptical Negro masses to accept the theory that the Allied powers are really fighting for democracy and that the future freedom of the oppressed Negro masses lies with the victory of the “democratic” imperialists rather than in independent mass actions. Even after the Roosevelt Administration had refused to intervene in the Waller case, and it was admitted by Randolph that “the President and the government have failed us,” the MOW issues its petition for democratic rights “in the interests of national unity” and of “victory of the United Nations.”

The Negro masses, on the other hand, by their fundamental distrust of the war, show, however inarticulately, that they distrust a social order which conducts a “war for democracy” abroad while denying democracy at home. To the extent that the MOW permits itself to be dissuaded by imperialist war and “national unity” considerations from emphasizing and carrying out struggles for the rights of the Negroes, it will lose the support of the Negro masses. On the other hand, if the MOW receives its impetus and direction from the Negro proletarian masses, who find themselves more frequently forced to carry out militant actions despite the exigencies of “national unity” and the imperialist war demands, it will be able to achieve more permanent and important gains for the Negroes.

MOW Movement – and Politics

The March on Washington movement also has a political character which is not usually recognized. That this should be the case is understandable, since a rising mass movement cannot avoid taking cognizance of the fact that the state or the governmental power is the force that oppresses it. The call for a March on Washington was implicitly a realization of the fact that the government is a concentration of the oppressive forces within the country. The way in which the call for a March on Washington captured the imagination of the Negro masses in 1941 is evidence that they feel this need for action against the political powers. That the reformist and middle class leaders of the MOW have time after time “postponed” such a march is also evidence that they fear the political consequences and implications of the March on Washington action. The government, suspecting the possible political developments, made desperate and successful efforts to circumvent a march in 1941.

“Good” and “Bad” Politicians

At the same time, as is shown by its refusal to intercede for Waller, the government is not yet ready to appease the Negro masses by granting certain demands which they make. When Odell Waller, tried and condemned by a poll-tax jury, walked to his death in the electric chair, the Negroes became even more bitterly disillusioned with American “democracy” and its war. But there are those in the ruling class, especially the Southern Bourbons, who feel that if you appease the masses in their struggles, they will not be content with one “concession” when so much cries out for change. That is why these men are willing to pay the price of disillusioning the Negro masses now, hoping that the rejection of their demands without any signs of yielding will also discourage the masses from further struggle. Governor Darden of Virginia, for example, was influenced in his refusal to commute Waller’s sentence by a fear that “perhaps the Negroes would celebrate the victory by crowding the streets”!

More obviously, the political slant of the MOW is seen in its efforts to get the Negroes out to vote in the November elections for those candidates who express themselves as on the side of the Negroes. Here again the Negroes are attempting to distinguish between “good” and “bad” bourgeois candidates, ignoring the fact that the difference between the two is mainly that one flatters the Negroes into the hope that he can do something for them in office, while, the other, more harsh and adamant, makes no claim to either interest or sympathy with Negroes.

The political “leadership” of the MOW today, and indeed the Negro masses in general tend to favor Negro candidates for legislative election and Negro appointees as their representatives in the Administration, irrespective of their political view or parties. It is understandable that the Negroes as a large minority should demand and attempt to achieve proportional representation as their democratic right. But the Negroes must be wary of regarding every man of their own race, especially those whom the ruling class favors by appointment, as having more than the most superficial color identity with them. A demand for mere color representation can and has resulted in the simple expedient of the Administration’s placing a colored face among the white faces who have been practicing Jim Crow. Such colored “representatives” are merely placed in administrative posts to allay the Negro’s rising resentment in one connection or another. Utilized for this purpose have been Judge Hastie, Negro adviser to the Secretary of War, and Dr. Robert C. Weaver, Negro adviser to the War Production Board and director of the Negro division of the War Manpower Board. When the Negro masses began to stir over the Fort Bragge “riots” of the fall of 1941, Judge Hastie was put on the air to reassure them. But the promises he made didn’t prevent the Alexandria “pogroms” of the winter of 1942, the Fort Dix killings and similar occurrences in Army camps all over the country. Similarly, Weaver has been accused by a Negro unionist of “using the good graces of his office” to turn the attention of the FEPC and the public away from the Colt Co. (Hartford, Conn.), known for its discriminatory policy toward Negro workers.

That the government knows the usefulness of Negro administrators to help it maintain its oppressive rule is implied by the recent proposal to set up a government bureau on all Negro affairs. It is patently ludicrous that such a bureau would be for policy-making in a Negro self-rule sense when Negroes are interwoven in and are an organic part of all phases of American society. Hence, this proposal for a catch-all bureau has rightly been characterized by the NAACP as a technique for making Negroes wards of the government in the same way that the Indians have been. That this bureau would presumably be staffed largely by Negroes does not change the intent or effect of the proposal one whit. Whether Negroes take their orders directly from the white Jim Crow ruling class or from the colored henchmen or colleagues of this class, the Negro’s lot will remain the same under the existing social order.

Democratic Rights Through Socialism

From the foregoing it is clear that there are two movements of unquestioned significance in the modern period to the Negro masses and therefore to all labor. One is the entry of thousands of Negroes into the labor unions, especially the 400,000 in the CIO unions. The other is the March on Washington which stems from and proceeds at present among the Negroes as a whole. The surer and more significant movement is that of the Negroes within the labor movement, a process not yet completed but taking its course as a necessary and normal development of American labor and economy. The MOW, on the other hand, obtains much of its strength from the fact that a “national emergency” exists in the United States, requiring special numbers of workers in war production. For this reason, the MOW may find such gains as it may make vitiated by the exigencies of the critical post-war situation. Nevertheless, despite this limitation and those indicated earlier – viz., its middle class composition, the vacillations of the leaders due to their political ideologies, its amorphous organization – the MOW can today and for the next period serve the interests of the Negro masses if it becomes a Negro workers’ movement. Infiltration of proletarian elements will strengthen and help to change the leadership and propel the movement into militant actions.

Whether the MOW movement proves transitory or develops into a broad and relatively permanent movement for Negro democratic and economic rights will depend upon whether it will develop a leadership which seeks its main support in the organized labor movement and whether the Negro masses in the labor movement are ready to enter into and actively support this general movement for Negro rights as a supplement to their economic and class activities within the unions themselves.

Negro working class leaders will be first to realize, and more courageous to state, that the Negro masses are right in their fundamental distrust of the imperialist war for democracy. Working alongside of their white fellow workers, they will see that the workers must all unite to fight for the rights of any section of their class. Also, in time, these “New Negroes” will be quickest to understand, act upon, and lead others to act upon, the basis of revolutionary principles.

When workers refuse to be divided they will be moving toward the overthrow of the whole system of social exploitation. And only when the system is overthrown will the Negroes, like the colonials with whom they have much in common, achieve even their democratic rights. To achieve their democratic rights, the Negroes, under revolutionary working class leadership of Negroes and whites, must achieve the socialist revolution.

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