Wright Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

J.G. Wright

Shifts in the Negro Question

(November 1934)

From New International, Vol.1 No.4, November 1934, pp.113-115.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

NEGROES in the United States in 1930 numbered about 11,900,000. About 80% live in 16 southern states and the District of Columbia.

Historically the Negro was rural and agricultural. He was primarily a cultivator of cotton. Since the center of the cotton area is in the South, the Negro population was from the very beginning concentrated there. In this sense it is still correct to speak of the Negro as primarily “southern”. In approaching the Negro problem these historical aspects have been stressed more than sufficiently, but the profound changes that have taken place among the Negroes during the last few decades have been neglected almost completely.

Originally, the history of the Negro in America was the history of cotton. But today, it is an anachronism to view the Negro as primarily a backward farmer confined to cotton areas. In this sense it is no longer correct to speak of the Negro as primarily “southern”. The history of the Negro has become directly linked with modern industry. He has been separated from the soil and suddenly placed in the midst of the complex modern industrial structure. This is a fact. And, obviously, it is necessary to establish this fact because a tendency still prevails to view the Negro, especially the southern Negro, in terms of those conditions that prevailed at the outbreak of the Civil War, and in the period immediately following. The Negro, especially the southern Negro, is no longer overwhelmingly agricultural.

In 1860 the Negroes were most densely concentrated in the South, particularly within the boundaries of six cotton-growing states, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas. Naturally enough these states then could serve as a focus in any consideration of the Negro problem. In 1860 what was true of the Negroes in these states applied largely to the Negroes of the entire South, who comprised more than 92% of the total Negro population, and who were overwhelmingly agricultural. But to take these six states as our point of departure today can lead only to most grievous errors. The profound economic changes that the South underwent following the Civil War met with the greatest inertia precisely in these states. To this day they have remained predominantly agricultural with cotton still the main crop. (They produced 63% of the cotton crop in 1930.) Only within this area have the Negroes remained largely rural and agricultural.

The Negro population has been becoming urbanized (i.e. proletarianized) at an ever increasing tempo. For three decades following the Civil War, for the US as a whole, it remained rural and agricultural (in 1890, it was 80.6% rural and only 19.4% urban); in the three decades following, and particularly in the last decade the trend has been toward towns and cities. In 1920 the shift was to 66% rural and 34%; urban; in 1930 the shift was much more accentuated, 56.3% rural, 43.7% urban. The shift was by no means restricted solely to the North. In 1930 the number of Negroes living in southern cities exceeded those in northern cities. Concurrently, while the Negro population was growing in other states (southern as well as northern), the Negro population in this Old South area remained stationary over a period of decades. The Negro population of these six states was in 1910 – 5,087,000; in 1920 – 5,079,000; in 1930 – 5,073,000. During the same period the Negro population in the US had increased more than 20%. This clearly denotes an intense migration from these agricultural states into industrial sections. However, it should not be concluded that deep-going changes have not been occurring within the Old South itself. Here too, the industrial development has been making gigantic strides forward, breaking down the old economic structure, and the original economic differentiation between the industrial North and the agricultural South. The development has been uneven, but the same process has been going on here as elsewhere, only at a different rate. The historical cultural and economic conditions of the Old South tended to retard the process. What has most tended to obscure its actual course is the fact that even today more than 42% of the total Negro population still lives within the boundaries of these six states. In 1910 the same area held 51.7% of the total Negro population.

More than two-thirds of the total Negro farmers in the South and almost three-fourths of the tenant farmers are to be found in these same six states. A study limited to this area must necessarily fail to reflect the fundamental changes in Negro life.

From the density of the Negro population within this area, conclusions have been drawn that are highly fallacious, particularly the conclusions that the Negro problem is primarily geographic, i.e., southern, and agricultural, and therefore a “national” problem. Flowing from this, the attempt is made to reduce the entire problem to the analysis of only this particular section of the South, the famous “Black Belt” sector. For the core of this sector stretches precisely over the states we have been discussing. Just as it is possible to draw any kind of a triangle within a circle, so it is possible to construct within this territory a particular “well defined area” in which the Negroes would compose the majority of the population. But just as what applies to the inscribed triangle need not apply to the circle, just so what applies to this particular sector need not apply at all elsewhere. Such a sector may be, and in this case it actually is, arbitrary and artificial. In the first place the “Black Belt” embraces a territory that has remained primarily rural and overwhelmingly agricultural; secondly, even according to the most sanguine estimates it includes only about 3,000,000 Negroes, or approximately one-fourth of the total Negro population. Even the Stalinists claim for it only “some 3,320,000 Negroes”. The “Black Belt” is a very arbitrary sort of a belt. The six states over which the core of it extends comprise about 500 counties, with a population of 8 million whites and 5 million Negroes, that is, 61.5% white. To obtain a “solid area” in which the Negroes form the majority of the population, it is necessary to select particular counties which must be contiguous. Some 200 counties can be squeezed into this requirement. The most imposing picture of the “Black Belt” is painted by the Stalinists. Yet even they claim for it only that, “In 192 counties they made up from 50% to 75% of the population; in 36 counties they comprise more than 75% of the population” (Labor Fact Book, p.78. Figures based on 1920 census).

Leaving aside for the moment all other considerations it is obvious that one cannot equate even the actual area over which the bulk of the Negroes is spread – some 24 states including the District of Columbia – with a handpicked area of 192 counties, in which the whites compose an insignificant minority only in 36. Moreover such a belt, to be consistent, must exclude the remaining 300 counties in which there are only about 2 million Negroes. It also throws out of focus not only the millions of northern Negroes, but also a greater southern population than the one actually included, some 3,300,000 Negroes in the directly adjoining states of Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida, in which there are 11,460,000 whites. Needless to say, the constructors of “Black Belts” do not and cannot remain consistent with their own premises. They include perforce within it counties that explode the premises of Negro majority, of contiguity and of “well marked area”. No two maps drawn of the “future” Negro State tally. The most appalling and ambitious ones include practically the entire South. The least pretentious would include the cities of Richmond, Memphis, Vicksburg, New Orleans and Savannah, which with the exception of Savannah are predominantly white.

By focussing our attention on the “Black Belt” we cannot understand the significance of the decisive economic and social shifts in the South in general and among the Negroes in particular. By thinking in terms of the “Black Belt” we can only think of the Negro problem in terms of conditions that prevailed in the middle of the 19th century. The basic factors in the Negro problem are not geographic divisions, or state boundaries, or county lines. The basic factors are economic. The so-called “Black Belt” was and still remains predominantly rural and agricultural. In the meantime, the economic development has been surging over the old state and new county lines. Under the impact of economic forces the mass of the Negro population in and outside of the six states has been rapidly shifting from rural to urban, from agriculture to industry. This shift, which has been going on at an ever increasing rate, must continue to take place in accordance with the internal logic of American capitalist development. This process, which has already vitally affected the “Black Belt” itself, although it has not yet disintegrated it, must proceed at an ever increasing tempo. The. agricultural aspect of the Negro problem, particularly in this phase of it, provides the subject for an independent analysis. Suffice it to say that the entire agricultural base of the South as a whole is being disintegrated not only by the permanent crisis of American agriculture, and the industrialization of the South, but also by the mechanization of cotton farming. All these factors bear most directly and immediately upon the Negro farmer who is being driven from the land into urban centers and into the ranks either of the proletariat or the unemployed. In the period immediately before us we shall witness accelerated changes in the “Black Belt” proper, precisely along the lines indicated by what has already happened elsewhere in the South. The Negro farmer is being driven from the land.

This movement has already penetrated deeply into the heart of the “Black Belt” itself. We have already pointed out its stationary or declining population and also the fact that more than two-thirds of the Negro farms in the South and almost three-fourths of the tenant farmers are in the “Black Belt” area. What holds true of the entire South bears most directly upon the Negro farmers in these six states. In the entire South, in 1920, there were about 980,000 Negro farmers of whom 714,000 or about three-fourths were tenants; in 1930 the Negro farmers dropped to 880,000 of whom 699,000 were tenants or more than three-fourths. At the same time, only 46.6% of the white farmers in the South were tenants. The pressure to which the agricultural Negro is being subjected is brought out still more clearly by comparing the trend among Negro farmers with that among white southern farmers. Between 1920 and 1930 the number of white farmers dropped also, but only 1.6% as compared with more than 7% for the Negroes. While the Negro tenants decreased absolutely, the number of white tenant farmers increased. At the same time the number of white share croppers almost approached that of the Negro croppers: white, 383,381; Negro, 392,897. The white farmer is being pauperized at a different rate from the Negro. But the pauperization of the white farmer accelerates the rate at which the Negro is being driven from the land. And in point of fact this has already crystallized itself definitely: the economic base of the Negro has already shifted from agriculture to industry. The crux of the Negro problem is in modern industry and not in the old agricultural South.

The movement of the Negroes to the North has been nothing but an integral part of the urbanization of the Negro. The movement northward began at the same time as the urban shift in the South. The growth of Negro population in the North from 9.4% in 1890 to 20.2% in 1930 is only an integral part of the shift to cities and towns of the Negro population as a whole from 19.4% of the total in 1890 to 43.7% in 1930. The sweep of this shift is apparent at a glance, if we examine some figures.

In 1930 there were more adult Negroes in towns and cities than remained on land. According to the last census, adult urban Negroes – in the entire U. S. between 20 and 44 years of age – numbered 2,820,000; those who remained on the land numbered 2,197,000. [1]

Over 3,800,000 or almost two-thirds of those gainfully employed were engaged in occupations other than agriculture in which there had remained only 36.1%, a drop of almost a million from the number in 1910 when 84.6% of those gainfully employed were engaged in agriculture.

Equally illustrative of the intensity of the shift is the fact that the Negro population in 79 major cities increased over 60% in a single decade, 1920-1930, leaping from 1,920,000 in 1920 to 3,150,000 in 1930. Even in 1920, at the inception of “the “Black Belt” ballyhoo, this trend away from the land was clearly indicated, for already at that time only two-fifths of those gainfully employed were engaged in agriculture.

The consequences of this urbanization have been far-reaching. The relation of the Negro to industry has radically altered. Until as late as 1914, the Negro served as a reserve to draw on in times of labor shortage or strikes. By 1930 the Negro had become an integral part of the labor force in practically every important industry.

In the movement away from the land, two peak waves are to be observed, one in 1916-1919, the other in 1921-24; but they were only a part of the continuous trend and not a sudden isolated exodus. Once again we stress that underlying the ebbs and flows of this movement are not geographic or “sentimental” causes but profound economic forces. The labor agencies of large industries had a great deal more to do with it than the activities of the Klu Kluxers in the South.

The Negroes’ function as a labor reserve led to their utilization as strikebreakers. But from this role of a labor reserve they have become transformed into integral parts of the industrial structure. Negroes compose 7.6% of the total labor force in the mining industry; 10.3% in transport; 7.2% in manufacturing and machine industry. Although they are only 9.7% of the US population, they composed in 1930, 28% of the unskilled workers in large meat packing concerns; 16.2% of the unskilled in the steel industry; and 22.7% of the laborers in building trades. Instances are not lacking of strikes in which the proletarianized Negro served as the backbone while the bosses depended upon Negro strikebreakers primarily recruited from rural districts. The Negro has definitely become an integral part of the proletariat, preponderantly unskilled and most intensely exploited.

The Negro problem is and will be to an ever increasing degree a working class problem; and the crucial criterion is the economic and not the geographic distribution of the Negro population. By themselves statistics are meaningless such as that in 1930 almost four-fifths of the Negro population still lived in the socalled South, or that the bulk of the Negro population is spread over 24 states and that almost 20% lives in eight northern states (Pa., N.Y., N.J., Ohio, Ill., Mich., Missouri, and Indiana), or any other assortment of vital statistics. What is decisive is the economic content of the figures. And in respect to the Negro this content is industrial. This does not mean that we disregard entirely, or intend to minimize the importance of the Negro farmer. The Negro agrarian problem is an acute and an important one. However, the American Negro is not predominantly agricultural. He is a proletarian.

From the revolutionary standpoint the Negro problem is primarily the problem of gaining over to the revolutionary platform the overwhelming majority of the Negro workers. The rural Negro can be gained as an ally only in the same manner, basically, as the rural white, and that is by being mobilized under the leadership of the proletariat.

From the very beginning the misleaders of the American working class as a whole and Negroes in particular have tried to drum into the heads of Negro and white that working class unity could not be achieved directly. Booker T. Washington did what he could to discourage Negroes from putting their trust in working class unity. And on the other hand, the reactionary trade union bureaucracy has drawn racial lines as rigidly as any Ku Kluxer. The unmasking of the class struggle will greatly facilitate the political development of American workers, Negro and white. But we will fail to unite them unless our fundamental approach to the Negro is the same as to any other worker, taking of course into consideration that they represent at present the most backward section of the backward working class, not because they were colored but because they stem directly from the most backward rural sections.

The elemental urge to class solidarity has manifested itself time and again. But these were and remained only episodic beginnings, in the absence of a genuine revolutionary party. Decades ago, in 1886, the old Knights of Labor had over 60,000 Negroes organized in its ranks. The IWW even in the darkest South was able to organize into a single organization Negroes and whites and lead them to successful strikes particularly in the lumber industry. In West Virginia, where the reactionary United Mine Workers of America tried to gain a foothold, two counties were more than half organized and most of the miners were Negroes; they were the backbone of the strike. But numerous as these instances are, they have remained episodic, and the base must be practically laid anew. One thing is certain: there are no “national” shortcuts to organizing the Negro workers. The basic slogan is that of class solidarity, and not at all the slogan of “self-determination”.

Booker T. Washington preached to the Negroes against class solidarity and tried to imbue them with self-degradation. He said, “the wisest of my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly ...” He advocated an “alliance” with the wealthy whites against the “white trash”, i.e., against the white workers who are the “oppressors and scoundrels, who hold Negroes in contempt and lynch them”. The Negroes have been taught by the bourgeoisie to distrust and hate the white workers and vice versa. We must imbue the Negro with class solidarity. We must say,

“The wisest of the Negro race understand that the agitation of the question of class solidarity is the only way out for his race! Class conscious Negro and white workers must teach the Negro masses and the white that they have only one enemy – their real lynchers and oppressors – the capitalists.”

J.G. Wright



1. As the obverse phase of this shift, we naturally find that the bulk of children, adolescents as well as the aged remained behind on the land. Thus in 1930 there were:


under 5




65 & over













Last updated: 19.6.2005