Irving Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Irving Howe

Democracy Wins the Battle of Sikeston, Missouri

(February 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 5, 2 February 1942, p. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

American democracy won a battle last:week. Not in the Far East; not in the Atlantic; nor on any battlefield. American democracy won a battle in Sikeston, Mo.

It was the battle of American democracy vs. Cleo Wright and American democracy won.

Cleo Wright lost.

It was a great battle while it lasted – fought with that spirit of fairplay and good, clean fun which is so typical of American democracy. Cleo, Wright, aged 30, was a mill worker in Sikeston. That immediately makes him suspect: a mill worker. Cleo Wright was a Negro. That makes him even more suspect: a worker and a Negro, too.

Cleo Wright was accused of having stabbed and attempted to attack a white woman. The policeman who arrested him wasn’t going to bother with the formality of a jury trial, or an investigation. He wanted immediate justice. So he shot Cleo Wright three times.

Chalk up a round for American democracy.

The upholders of law and order of Sikeston, Mo., a city which has only the greatest respect for law and order, since it believes in American democracy: and is ready to send its sons to lick those yellow Japs and fight for freedom in the Pacific – the upholders of law and order took Cleo Wright to jail.

But why wait for the courtroom? So thought some of the city’s more upright citizenry – the two-bit crackers, the courageous storekeepers, the noble drunkards, the indomitable street bums – and the respectable, law-abiding middle class citizens – who decided that it was time to take justice into their own hands.

They did.

They dragged Cleo Wright, already riddled and bleeding to death with three bullet holes piercing his skin, and tied his feet to the back of a car. There were 600 of them – 600 upright citizens thirsting for justice (and “nigger blood”) who came to do their duty. They wanted to make sure that justice would win – so, they figured, that odds of 600 to 1 would be just about right.

(Those who thought that the odds might still be too small took a few nips of whiskey – to give themselves courage.)

They tied Cleo Wright’s feet to a car – he was still conscious – and towed him through the section where the city’s 3,500 Negroes live. (“Here, you dirty niggers,” they cried, these crusaders for justice, “here, take a look at what we’re doing to Cleo Wright.”) Here was the majesty and beauty of American democracy, with justice and freedom for all.

The driver sped the car 70 miles an hour through several blocks, outdistancing, the shouting followers.

They couldn’t keep up with the car ... but they could follow it by tracing the stream of blood – Cleo Wright’s blood – through the streets.

When the mob caught up, considerably grown by this time and finally feeling that it was now powerful enough for real business, someone got an idea, let’s finish it up! They got a five gallon can of gasoline and poured it over Wright's body. A ringleader applied a match, and there was an explosive burst of flame.

That was the end of Cleo Wright, millworker and Negro. Nothing remained except some torn flesh and charred bones.

American democracy came through.

“It was great stuff while it lasted,” they said as they dispersed.

The police took charge of the body. No Negro undertaker would bury Cleo Wright’s remains. They were afraid. No Negro dared go out of his house that night in Sikeston, Mo., where every red-blooded American is preparing to go out and fight for democracy in the Pacific and the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean and Magellan’s Straits and Iran and Burma and Cyrenaica and Balik Papan.

The district attorney gave out a statement the next morning. He said he couldn’t apprehend the mob, or its leaders. No, there wasn’t much that would or could be done. Why rake up old sores?

American democracy won. Yet – why were they so shy, so reticent, the trumpeteers and champions of American democracy? Where was the august and stately New York Times, with a majestic, editorial hailing the victory of Sikeston, Mo.?

Where was Archibald MacLeish, head of the Office of Facts and Figures, whose job it is to describe the victories of American democracy? And where was that peerless champion of American democracy, Secretary of the Navy Knox, who has so often proved himself a friend of justice and freedom, who in fact is today a leader in the war for justice and freedom ... in Timbuctoo and Malaya, in the Pacific and the Atlantic, in Iran and Cyrenaica?

And where was the head of them all, the Great White Father, the President of these United States, the proclaimer of the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms, whose voice quivers with indignation as he describes the horrors of racial persecution ... in Germany?

Why were they not proclaiming unto the skies the victory of Sikeston, Mo.?


You, Sacco and Vanzetti; you, victims of the Ludlow massacre; you, victims of Chicago’s Memorial Day; you, the lynched and beaten – move over and make room ... for Cleo Wright, who lost the battle of Sikeston, Mo.

Irving Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 25.4.2013