Chapter Sixteen: Toward Negro-White Labor Solidarity (1919-1924)

16. Toward Negro-White Labor Solidarity (1919-1924)

At this time the Party was in the center
of the struggle to smash Jim Crow unionism,
long a cancer in the working class development in the US.
One of the most important developments of the World War I and post-war period was the beginning of an active co-operation between the Negro people and the labor movement. A number of factors combined to produce this most significant movement. Not the least of these factors was the educational work of the Workers Party, and a more correct attitude toward the Negro question on the part of the broad left wing of the labor movement. An important element, too, was the growth of a substantial body of Negro workers in the North.

During the period from 1910 to 1920 there was a migration of well onto a million Negroes from the South to the North. Conditions were so terrible for the Negro people in the southern states that they sought in great masses to escape from them by fleeing north where, however, things were not radically better. The Negro population during these years increased in New York by 66 percent, in Chicago by 148 percent, in Detroit by 611 percent, and in other cities similarly. The Negro migrants flocked into the industries—such as were open to them. The existing body of Negro wage workers was greatly increased. According to the federal census figures, the number of Negro workers in manufacturing industries rose from 631,280 in 1910 to 886,870 in 1920, a 40 percent increase. The principal industrial strongholds of the Negro workers in 1920 were in steel—17 percent, meat-packing—15 percent, railroads—8 percent, and coal mining—7 percent. The growth of the Negro proletariat was one of the most significant political features of this general period.

The Negro people suffered most in the wave of reaction unleashed by the capitalists during and after the war. The lynchers were abroad with gun and torch and rope. Not a week passed but sadistic lynch horrors were splashed in the newspapers. In 1917 at least 38 Negroes were lynched; in 1918 the number went up to 58, and in 1919 to 70. In the 45 years from 1885 to 1930 there were 3,256 lynchings, or an average of 73 per year. "Race riots" were precipitated by the employers and their lackeys in scores of towns and cities, including Chicago, Detroit, East St. Louis, and Washington. The Ku Klux Klan, huge in size and bold and ruthless, attacked the Negro people, the foreign-born, and the Communists as its main targets.   The Klan invaded many northern states and insolently announced that it would eventually seize control of the national government.

But the lynchers and white supremacists unexpectedly encountered a very militant Negro people, who frequently fought arms-in-hand against their persecutors. In the great East St. Louis riot of July 1917, which cost 40 lives, many of those who perished were whites. The same was true of the 13-day riot in Chicago in July 1919, where, with 13 officially listed as dead, the Negroes successfully defended themselves from the lynch mobs. In Elaine County, Arkansas, an estimated 100 Negro sharecroppers were butchered by armed thugs in a bitter battle. Illustrating the Negro people's militant spirit, in September 1917, a Negro regiment in Houston, Texas, goaded beyond endurance by attacks of the Jim Crowers, defended itself, killing 17 attackers. The fact that 13 Negroes were hanged for this affair and 41 imprisoned for life did not quell the fighting spirit of the Negro people.

The sharp spirit of resistance of the Negro masses was akin to the militant mood generally of the workers during this period. And much of it was to be attributed to the fighting line of the Workers Party, although it also had other sources. The Negro people were outraged and aroused by the brutal regime of Jim Crow and persecution under which they lived. In France, too, the Negro troops, themselves segregated into Jim Crow regiments, had been received by the masses of the people with far more of a spirit of fraternity than they had ever known in the United States. Hence, when the soldiers returned home they were resolved not to submit to the monstrous Jim Crow spirit prevailing in both North and South. Also, very important in producing militancy among the Negro masses was the stimulating example of the great Russian Revolution. In the U.S.S.R., the American Negro people, as well as the oppressed nations all over the world, saw before their eyes the tremendous example of the many peoples who make up the Soviet Union living together in harmony and equality. Soviet influence upon American Negroes in this respect has been far greater than is generally recognized.


The first important step taken by the harassed Negro people in an organized manner to defend themselves during the war and post-war years was the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the so-called Garvey movement. Its founder, Marcus Garvey, a brilliant Negro leader, born in Jamaica in 1887, was originally a printer and editor. He launched his movement in the British West Indies in 1914, and it was designed to appeal to the Negro peoples of the world.   Garvey came to the United States in 1917, establishing the first section of the U.N.I.A. in New York during that year. The movement showed vitality, grew rapidly, and it held its first organized national convention in 1920.

During the initial stages of his movement, Garvey, in line with the militant spirit of the American Negro people, developed a bitter bill of grievances. Among these, as he outlined them in 1920, were inequality in wages of Negro and white workers, exclusion from trade unions, deprivation of land, taxation without representation, unjust military service, Jim Crow laws, and lynching. The U.N.I.A. demanded "complete control of our social institutions without interference by any alien race or races." It originally favored the U.S.S.R., supported self-determination of peoples, and repudiated the League of Nations because "it seeks to deprive Negroes of their liberty." It declared also that "the Negro should adopt every means to protect himself against barbarous practices inflicted upon him because of color."

Garvey had no faith in the possibilities of Negroes securing just treatment in any country, including the United States, where they constitute a minority. Although his program stimulated the American Negro people to fight gross injustices, Garvey's real objective was eventually to get the Negro masses to return to their original homeland. "Back to Africa" was his central slogan.

The Negroes of the United States joined the Garvey movement in substantial numbers. During the early 1920's, the U.N.I.A. claimed half a million members, and it was by far the largest Negro political organization in the country. Negro militants were attracted to the movement chiefly, however, because of its fighting spirit, but without attaching basic importance to its "Back to Africa," "Negro-Zionist" aspect. The Negro masses, Americans of many generations standing, were obviously determined to fight for their rights in the land of their birth. The "Back to Africa" slogan was purely Utopian.

Soon the U.N.I.A., opportunistically led by Garvey and his group, began to yield to reactionary capitalist pressures and to shed its early radicalism. As Robert Minor describes it, "By a process of elimination, all demands which were offensive to the ruling class were dropped one by one, and the organization settled down to a policy of disclaiming every idea whatever of demanding any rights for the Negro people in the United States—the policy of declaring that the Universal Negro Improvement Association was . . . trying only to construct an organization of a 'home for the Negro people in Africa.1 Eventually its policy degenerated to the point where the organization quit real fighting for equality for the Negro in this county. This reactionary line eventually killed the Universal Negro Improvement Association  among  the  Negro  people.

From 1921 on the main activities of the U.N.LA. leaders were centered around selling stock in the Black Star Line of steamships, which was to render a triangular service between the West Indies, Africa, and New York. About $500,000 was collected for this purpose. The steamship line not materializing, however, Garvey was arrested by the federal government, convicted, and sent to Atlanta federal penitentiary in 1925 for two years. The big movement which he had built, torn with factionalism during his imprisonment, gradually fell to pieces. As Harry Haywood points out in his book, however, the disintegrated Garvey movement left many small organizations behind it.2

The central political significance of the Garvey movement was its national content. Garvey cultivated a national spirit, although it was a bourgeois nationalism, among the Negro people of the United States. His movement, being basically Utopian, could not serve the aspirations of the Negro people, but it did help to raise them to a new level of unity and consciousness. The Negro national spirit vaguely voiced by Garvey reached its full development in present-day Communist policy, which is based upon the reality that the Negro people in this country constitute an oppressed nation.

The Workers Party generally adopted a friendly, although critical, attitude toward the Garvey movement. In 1924 the Central Committee sent a letter to the U.N.LA., offering the support of the Workers Party and urging co-operation between Negroes and whites. In this letter, however, the Party still handled the question, not from a national but from a class and race standpoint. 3


Employers have long used the policy toward their workers of divide and rule. They have systematically played off one group against another, to the detriment of all: native-born against immigrants, men against women, skilled against unskilled, members of one nation or religion against those of another. Negro workers have been especially the victims of this disruptive policy. For many years the employers made it impossible for Negroes to work in various industries—steel, auto, rubber, textile, lumber, electrical, etc., or to secure jobs at skilled trades, unless they would agree in practice to take the jobs of striking white workers. The heart of the Communists' policies has always been to combat and defeat these divisive tactics of the employers.

The conservative trade union leaders, however, as lieutenants of capital in the ranks of the workers—and particularly the Gompers clique of bureaucrats—went right along with the infamous anti-Negro policy of the employers. Themselves experts at discriminating against various sections of the working class—against women, young workers, the unskilled, and the unemployed—these labor officials practiced the worst exclusionism against Negro workers. They did their utmost to prevent Negroes from getting a foothold anywhere in the industries, especially in the skilled trades. Dozens of trade unions cynically barred Negro workers from membership by constitutional provisions, while many more excluded them in practice. These treacherous policies were made all the more disgraceful by the hypocritical official pretenses of the A.F. of L. to organize all workers, "regardless of race, creed, or color," while its leaders refused to stir in order to compel its affiliated unions to admit Negroes into the industries and the unions. The anti-Negro policies of the Gompers clique constitute the most shameful of all the disgraceful pages in the history of these misleaders of labor. The essence of the latter's position, like that of the employers, was that if the Negro workers were to get into the industries, and particularly the skilled trades, it could only be by taking strikers' jobs. And the tragedy was that such reactionary policies of the union leaders had a certain amount of support from the more backward and chauvinistic sections of the white workers.

To make the position of the Negro workers still more difficult, some of their own people to whom they then looked for leadership—conservative petty-bourgeois elements, who were outraged by the shocking conditions of discrimination practiced against Negroes in the industries and the unions—also took a position that the only way the Negro worker could get into industry and skilled work was by disregarding the unions. Spero and Harris give many examples of this attitude, which was sharply marked during the World War I period. 4 Booker T. Washington saw no hope in trade unionism for the Negro worker. Nor did Garvey. The latter's attitude, say the above-mentioned writers, was that the Negro should "beware of the labor movement in all its forms." Kelly Miller, a Negro professor at Harvard, dealing with the Negro and trade unionism, said, "Whatever good or evil the future may hold for him, today's wisdom heedless of logical consistency demands that he stand shoulder to shoulder with the captains of industry." There was also anti-trade union sentiment in such organizations as the Urban League and the N.A.A.C.P. a quarter of a century ago. And every practical trade union organizer of those days knew that a number of the Negro petty-bourgeois leaders, sickened by the Jim Crow policies of many trade unions, were sure to take a stand advising the Negro workers to have nothing to do with the labor movement. Cayton and Mitchell say, "Toward the labor movement the Negro upper class has generally been antagonistic." 5 Many of these intellectuals, too, precisely because of their weak class position in relation to the white bourgeoisie, tended to sell out the interests of the workers to the latter.


It is to the great honor of the Negro workers that they have been able largely to win their way into the unions and industries and to create, during our years, a body of almost one million solid trade unionists from their ranks. And they have accomplished this in spite of the Jim Crow policies of the employers and their lackey trade union leaders, as well as the unwise advice of many petty-bourgeois Negro leaders. Of course, some Negro workers were misused as strikebreakers in the post-World War I years, but this development has geen grossly exaggerated by enemies of the Negro people. Strikebreaking was far more prevalent among the whites. For every Negro strikebreaker there were scores of white ones.

The solidarity between Negro and white workers was greatly increased during the World War I period. This was the work of the most advanced elements among the Negroes and the left-wing whites, and it was accomplished in the face of strong opposition from the forces described above. The Communist Party is particularly proud of the fact that it was a dynamic factor in this whole crucial development.

The first major concrete step in developing Negro-white trade union co-operation during this period was in the big meat-packing organizing campaign and strike movement of 1917-18, which we have outlined in Chapter 9. This key movement was led by William Z. Foster and J. W. Johnstone, who eventually became Communists. The unionizing drive succeeded in bringing into the labor organizations some 20,000 Negro workers, out of a total of about 200,000 workers organized all over the country. This achievement surpassed anything that had previously been accomplished by labor unions friendly to Negroes, such as the I.W.W., Miners, Longshoremen, and others. It is today a cherished tradition of the Communist Party.

The packinghouse success was all the more significant because it was achieved in the face of powerful opposition not only from the packers' trust and the Jim Crow leaders of the A.F. of L., but also because it had to counter a strong resistance on the part of many Negro petty-bourgeois intellectuals. The latter, judging from past experiences, feared that the packinghouse union campaign would be only another trap for the Negro workers. Many also feared to lose their own leadership among the Negro masses to the unions. But the strong proletarian sentiments of the workers overcame all this opposition and led them to grasp in friendly solidarity the hands of the white workers outstretched to them.

The newly-developed solidarity of Negro and white workers in the packing industry had a real test of fire during the severe Chicago "race riots" of July 1919. This anti-Negro pogrom was organized by agents of the packers, who above all wanted to force the Negroes out of the unions and to drive a wedge between the Negro and white workers in their plants. The Chicago Stockyards Labor Council, then headed by T. W. Johnstone (Foster having left the packing industry to work in steel), saw the storm coming and mobilized the union membership to head it off. On July 6th a big parade of white and Negro packinghouse workers marched through the Negro districts of the South Side of Chi-go, in an effort to allay the grave tension. Nevertheless, on July 27th, a result of direct provocation by packer-organized hoodlums, the storm burst. Virtual civil war raged for two weeks in the whole area, with ,000 police and soldiers mobilized to intimidate the Negro people, meanwhile, 30,000 white stockyards union workers met, protested, pledged solidarity with their Negro brother workers, and demanded the withdrawal of the armed forces, which had done most of the killing. The splendid stand of the Stockyards Labor Council during this crisis, and specially of Jack Johnstone, stands forth as one of the very finest events the history of the American labor movement. It did much to cement Negro-white labor solidarity over the country. 6

A second basic development in this general period, making for Negro-white labor solidarity, was the wartime growth of The Messenger group New York Negro workers and intellectuals.   In Chapter 12 we have fetched an outline of this important movement.   Its main significance, particularly with  regard  to Negro-white  labor  co-operation,  rested in the fact that it challenged current Negro petty-bourgeois opinion that trade unionism was injurious to the Negro workers and it boldly urged Negroes to get into the unions. The group tirelessly exposed the indignities and injuries inflicted by the A.F. of L. Jim Crow system and demanded the admission of Negro workers into all unions on the basis of full equality.   Besides, it displayed initiative in  organizing Negro workers those callings where they predominated in the working force. 

The Messenger group, in whose early and best stages pioneer Negro Communists played a decisive part, gave birth to a whole series of constructive activities and organizations, which we can only list here. It created several papers besides The Messenger itself, including The Crusader, The Challenge and The Emancipator. Among the labor organizations growing out of this group's activities were the United Brotherhood of Elevator and Switchboard Operators, National Brotherhood Workers of America, National Association for the Promotion of Labor Unionism among Negroes, the proposed United Negro Trades, the Brotherhood of Dining Car Employees, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The broad Messenger group was also the source of several general Negro organizations of political protest and activity, among them the Friends of Negro Freedom and the African Blood Brotherhood. 7

The Messenger group, particularly in its earlier phases, was essentially a radical, left-wing body. It sounded a high note of fighting militancy for the Negro people, in a period of hysteria when they were being fiercely attacked by capitalist reaction. The "New Negro" of the Messenger conception was one who was quite willing to die if need be in defense of himself, his family, and his political rights. He demanded "the full product of his toil." His immediate aim was "more wages, shorter hours and better housing conditions." He stood for "absolute social equality, education, physical action in self defense, freedom of speech, press and assembly, and the right of Russia to self-determination." 8 The Messenger was one of the very few Negro papers that opposed World War I. The F.B.I., distorting the paper's militancy, stated that "This magazine threw all discretion to the winds and became the exponent of open defiance and sedition." 9 Such militancy was eventually ironed out, however, by Randolph and his associates in pushing The Messenger into the typical right-wing Socialist position. Pressure from The Messenger group and from the Communist Party was largely responsible, during the early 1920's, for the more favorable position on trade unionism for Negro workers taken by the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League.

The appearance of the Communist Party upon the political scene, after 1919, raised the whole struggle of the Negro people to a higher level in their fight for fundamental human rights. The Communists in particular strengthened the basic tendency of the Negro masses, the white workers, and progressives generally to work together for the promotion of their common interests. With their customary thoroughness and militancy, the Communists quickly overcame the crass neglect and misunderstanding of the Negro question which had been such a marked weakness in the policies of the Socialist Labor and Socialist parties for the previous forty years, and they made the fight for Negro rights a burning issue throughout the labor movement.

Already during the period of 1920-1921 the Party had increasingly recognized the significance of the Negro question. When the Workers Party was organized at the end of 1921 and brought the Communist movement into legality, it took a better position regarding the Negro people. As remarked earlier, the convention resolution then adopted was the most advanced ever written on the Negro question by any working class party in the United States. At its 1922 convention, the Workers Party re-stressed the Negro question, adopting a program of full support to the fight of the Negro people for economic, political, and social equality, and waging a fight against white chauvinism and for unity in the struggle against capitalism. 

The T.U.E.L. in its mass campaigns during the early 1920's also gave encouragement and support to the general movement of the Negro people. In the national elections of 1924, William Z. Foster, presidential candidate of the Workers Party, presented the Communist program on the Negro question in many cities of the Deep South. And from those years right down to the present time there has been no convention or mass campaign of the Communist Party in which the Negro question has not been in the front line of consideration.

Five specific features may be singled out as characterizing the Communist fight on the Negro question, initiated during these early years. First, the Communists understood the key significance to the Negro people of a place in industry and in the unions, and they fought relentlessly to break down every barrier in this respect. Second, there was the special stress that the Communists laid upon the vital issue of social equality. Other movements which had given some co-operation to the Negro masses in their fight for justice almost always dodged and hedged on the matter of social equality. But not the Communists. In their programs and in the life of the Party, they saw in the fight for social equality a basic aspect of the whole struggle of the Negro people. Third, from the outset the Communists also realized the basic need to fight against white chauvinism (white supremacist ideology), not only in the ranks of the established enemy, but also among the white workers, even among those politically well developed. The importance of this position may be realized when one looks back at the outrageously chauvinistic material that formerly appeared unchallenged in the press of the Socialist Party.   The fight against this insidious white chauvinism, in the midst of the Communists themselves, has gone on with increasing clarity and vigor ever since. Fourth, the Communists made clear the enormous political significance to white workers of the fight for Negro rights. They knocked on the head the current idea that support of the Negro people was only a sort of generous gesture of solidarity, and made it clear that the white workers could not win their fight without the co-operation of the Negroes. They demonstrated the fact that the Negro people constituted a powerful constructive force which imperatively had to be linked up with that of the whites. And fifth, whereas in the past most forces in the labor movement who were sympathetic to the Negroes' cause at best gave it only a sort of lip service, the Communists, realizing the tremendous importance of the Negro question, have always placed it high on their program and given it all possible support and emphasis. The Party in these years, however, had not yet come to understand the Negro question as a national question.


The foregoing policies the Communists practiced over the years in all their activities on the Negro question, in such bodies as the American Negro Labor Congress, the trade unions, and many other organizations and movements. These Communist activities were a major factor in raising the Negro people's struggle to a higher political level.

The general developments listed above produced marked constructive effects upon the liberation movement of the Negro people. The first of these effects was the beginning of a break-down in the previous isolation of the Negro movement. The isolation of the Negro people had been most sharply cultivated by the Garvey movement, which not only discounted all hope of co-operation with whites, but even proposed that the Negroes should leave this country altogether. However, finding new allies among the white left-wing forces and the broad labor movement, the Negro people, in line with their stand in previous decades of struggle, gradually abandoned the Garveyite idea that they had to make their fight alone. More and more they took their proper place in the front ranks of the broad progressive, democratic forces of the United States.

The second important development in the Negro national movement during the period, arising from the causes with which we have been dealing, was the strengthening of the role of the Negro proletariat in the liberation movement. Not only did the workers become more important because of their growth numerically, but they also played more of the part of leaders of the Negro people. This was a consideration of major importance; for among the Negro people as well as among the American people in general, only the proletariat can successfully lead the toiling masses to freedom.

The third important development in the Negro movement in this period was the acceleration of the growth of Communist influence among the Negro masses. The Communists, who all over the world stand at the head of the fighting working class and the oppressed colonial peoples, were particularly fitted to convey a new strength and leadership to the Negro movement in the United States. In the ensuing years they were to demonstrate this fact very clearly.

1 Robert Minor, in The Workers Monthly, Apr.  1926.
2 Haywood, Negro Liberation, p. 203.
3 Daily Worker, Aug. 5, 1924
4 S. D. Spero and A. L. Harris, The Black Worker, pp. 138-46, N. Y., 1931.
5 H. R. Cayton and G. S. Mitchell, Black Workers and the New Unions, p. 378, Chapel Hill, N. C, 1932.
6 The Communist, Jan. 1930.
7 Harry Haywood, unpublished manuscript.
8 The Messenger, Aug. 1920.
9 Max Lowenthal, The Federal Bureau of Investigation, p. 121, N. Y., 1950.

Chapter 16

No comments:

Post a Comment