Tag Archives: strike

The Cry Was Unity: African Americans and the Communist Party

Mark Solomon’s The Cry Was Unity: African Americans and the Communist Party is a deep and detailed look at this relationship in the US over a very short period of time, but a rather vital one I think. This time when the CP did some pretty amazing organizing, and some pretty flawed organizing, before their top-down structure dictated they drop it entirely.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how theory works with practice, about ideology and pragmatism, about the need to confront racism and white supremacy and how we might better go about that and I keep thinking about this book, so I dusted off the notes. I read a good while ago, I confess. Never got around to processing it really. This doesn’t succeed or do it justice, just pulls out some key quotes because it’s dense, something to return to with questions about specific people, specific dates.

So to start with Otto Huiswood. Originally from Surinam (Surinam!), he helped found the CP in Harlem in 1919 — making him the 1st African American to join. Cyril Briggs from the island of Nevis was another key figure…I had so little knowledge before reading this of just how important the Caribbean diaspora was in NY, and to radical politics. But Briggs did so much before the CP… he was inspired by the Irish Easter rising

which had fired the imagination of the “New Negro” radicals…exemplified an revolutionary nationalism that found its way into the rhetoric voiced on street corners and in the emerging press of rapidly urbanizing African American life. (5)

It makes me happy to see the connections between his radical philosophies and the Irish struggle (we all know Irish and Black folks didn’t often get along in NY, I just finished Ignatiev on the whole Irish becoming White thing, and damn is it ugly…) But anyway, a bit of happy news — and Connelly stood against slavery, for a while anyway.  But the Easter Rising, and other independence movements, inspired Briggs to advocate for a separate black state within the US. He founded the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) for African Liberation and Redemption, the announcement of its founding continued ‘Those only need apply who are willing to go the limit.’ (9) They were modeled on the Sinn Fein, founded the newspaper The Crusader in 1918.

1919 — Red Summer, a wave of lynchings swept the country. Briggs Was moving in the same circles as Huiswood, Claude McKay, Grace Campbell, W.A. Domingo, Hubert Harrison and other radicals in Harlem. Terrible times, amazing times, no? This was also the time of Marcus Garvey — and he and Briggs never got along.  Solomon writes

Marcus Garvey’s UNIA resonated for African American working people as Briggs’ ABB could not, because the former vibrantly express outrage at the dominant white society without directly and dangerously confronting the bourgeois order. (28)

And that is something Briggs did. He would join the CP in 1921, after the 2nd Internation congress in 1920. That’s the one where Lenin presented his ‘Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions’, a radical document that would begin to transform the work of the CP in the US as it urged the party to support revolutionary movements, and named both Ireland and African Americans. I lose track a little of the twists and turns and the politics of these congresses, but Claude McKay and Otto Huiswood were both present at the 4th congress in 1922, where the Congress established a Negro Commission.

The American Negro Labor Congress of 1925 opened in Chicago, race was always an issue as seen by the mostly white delegates, though they were addressed by Richard B Moore and Claude McKay. Solomon writes:

The sense of a “nation within a nation,” born in slavery and nurtured in segregation, is rooted in African American thought. It emerged from the lash, from political subjugation, from the trampling of the cultural heritage of an entire people, from assaults on their psychological makeup and identity. The Negro question was indeed more than a class or racial problem. the forced rupture of community between blacks and whites, and the onslaught on the blacks’ historical continuity, culture, and identity had produced a longing for political unity and psychic autonomy–for the realization of black national yearning. the Communists were onto something. National oppression constituted a proper description of what had happened to black Americans. (88)

There is this amazing insistence for a time that racial divisions and white supremacy be overcome:

southern whites [and non-southern whites, but more amazing for southern whites] must enter the CP cleansed of chauvinism…At the end of the decade [1920s] the Party had finally admitted the need to win the trust of  blacks and to strongly resist any backsliding on social equality. The Communists had come to believe that racial segregation and the savaging of black identity represented both an institutional foundation for American capitalism and its weak point. To compromise with racism in any way strengthened capitalism and wounded its most potent foes…concessions to segregation and inequality would validate racism and sacrifice blacks’ trust in white radicals. ‘ (128)

I still find it hard to imagine how hard it must have been to place this front and centre, but they did, and they were right to insist that it was this racism that prevented any united sense of class, right that freedom could not be obtained while these divisions existed. As Solomon continues:

“A real Bolshevik Leninist understanding” of racism, Harry Haywood intoned, held that liberation from the bonds of such oppression was inextricably “part of the question of the proletarian revolution” — a precondition for achieving Lenin’s historic alliance of the workers and subject peoples in common struggle against capitalism and imperialism. …. By locating the source of white chauvinism in the ideology and interest of the ruling class, the Party held an ominous sword over its members. What was more serious than the accusation that a Communist was doing the work of the class enemy? (130)

And so some of this work was amazing. The 20s drew to an end, the Great Depression hit. We see the brilliant movement of the Unemployed Councils, working to return possessions back into the homes of those who had been evicted and organizing rent strikes. In Chicago, 1931, Unemployed  Councils organized on South Side of Chicago. Solomon notes that one day in July they restored 4 families to their homes in one day. Yet the police were cracking down. While the UCs continued fighting through 1933, there is no doubt that 1931 saw them at their height. The CP admitted they were unable to maintain the enthusiasm and engagement, and noted the ‘internal tedium’ of party politics as a factor. Reading some of the descriptions of party life, it is easy to see why. Meetings and meetings, circles of judgement and criticism, show trials. I mean, they had show trials. I had no idea, but you can see how the structures emerging from a calcifying Russian revolution (a whole tragedy in itself about to unfold there of course) were already beginning to crush the spirit.

It took a while though.

This early period also saw a branching out to work in wider collaborations. A number of middle-class Black leaders also endorsed the party given their stance on the race question, like Countee Cullen. The CP was running dozens of black candidates for political offices, not to win but as mass actions to educate and politicize around unemployment and racial equality. They had some incredible victories beyond the Unemployment Councils. Like the strike in St Louis where on May 15, 100 women  working in the nut industry (!) walked out demanding a pay rise, 3 weeks later 1000 black women struck, the next day white women walked out in solidarity. My favourite line in the book:

‘The women armed themselves with ‘brick-sandwiches’ to confront strikebreakers’ (251)

In Chicago 800 women, black and white, won a partial victory on strike against B. Sopkins Dress Company. Solomon gives us names I had not heard of the, the women who led this movement in Harlem — Maude White, Louise Thompson, Augusta Savage, Williana Burroughs of Hunter College (keep seeing this college referenced here though I had not heard of it before, seems to be an amazing radical place to look into). Increasingly the movement is being driven by those who are American born. There is a real sense of movement though, of hope. And then the CP stepped in once again. Good in some ways, that 1935 opening up, ‘accelerating the popular front’. CP members were able to work in growing coalitions — they even included Father Divine in Harlem. But this signaled the beginning of a move away from organizing, the liberation of Blacks, the anti-racist strategies. They dropped tenants wholesale. 1936 was a bit early for this so that’s not really covered here (like Iton’s work), there is a little more about it in Manning Marable, Robert Fisher and others. There is just a sense of impending tragedy, the story of the black Share Croppers Union — trying to ally with others with the help of Highlander (Don West, the cofounder of Highlander with Horton is mentioned a number of times in the book) — they fail,  and face a horrible wave of repression after they strike, they face murder and assassination.

This history is swallowed up. Rarely retold. Needing to be kept alive.

[Solomon, Mark (1998) The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi}

The streets and strikes of Clifton

Apart from being the final resting place of Santa Teresita, and an old nesting place of white vigilantism as shown by the case of the kidnapped Catholic orphans, Clifton is a photographer’s delight and full of ever more stories. Here is Chase Creek Street, with my folks wandering romantically hand in hand

They escaped the heat over ice cream while I reveled in it, down one of the more amazing Arizonan streets I have encountered, with buildings well loved (where boarding rooms and banana splits and guns are available) side by side with buildings now derelict. And I have so much love for the derelict

Here there is an opulence of decay I’ve seldom found, as the buildings of old mining towns are usually ruins or rigorously and shinily preserved for the tourists. This place is just itself instead, still standing in spite of everything and even ready to make a come back.

Though there are ruins here too…

And I wondered very sadly when exactly it was that the bar shut down, El Rey, here I am in spirit…

With all the attitude a bar tan cabron requires, I am sure que sigue siendo el rey (aunque no mas adentro, because outside? Oh no)…

I would have a given a great deal to have gotten in though! Even more for a cold bohemia.

I lost all of my attitude in the jail. It was blasted out of solid rock long ago, and sits by the side of the main road with an iron gate swinging open. It is wired for light, but there are no light bulbs, so you go down about 10 steep stairs into a cave of absolute blackness…there is a small room off of which there are three cells with horrible iron doors. Using the flash of my camera I got this picture

Of course, I never saw it like this, just the quickest of glimpses in the camera light, and the fear growing and growing every second. You can see nothing in the darkness, but you know the cells are there, and there is no way to know if they are empty. There is one window in the rock that lights up the cell on the right and I crept over to it, but the fear of what lay behind my back, maybe just the fear filling the whole place up like a well, kept me out…and I fought it and lost and scampered back up the stairs as fast as I could possible go.

The story goes that the man who blasted it into being was the first man locked inside of it, he started shooting his gun into the air at the opening celebration after the townsfolk refused to toast him for his good work. Anyone who could think such a place was a good idea definitely deserved to spend some quality time there.

The employment in Clifton all comes from the earth, from copper and gold, and the huge pit mine in Morenci only a couple of miles away. It belongs to Phelps-Dodge…funny to think that I did a great deal of work for them in the old family business of Orbis Geographics…they even now hold maps I hand colored, and never paid on time if memory serves me correctly!

But here is one of the well-kept buildings along Chase Creek St.

There is a long history of strikes, and a history just as long of atrocities committed by mining companies and local government against striking miners in Arizona…not that we ever learned any of it in school. One of the best resources on this is Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miner’s Strike of 1983 Recast Labor Management Relations in America by Jonathan Rosenblum, which contains a great general history of labor and copper. There was a strike in Clifton, Morenci and Metcalf in 1915-16 led by the Western Federation of Miners.

Then Jerome and Bisbee, 1917: The IWW organized and called a strike, a very successful strike. President Wilson had refused to send in federal troops at local request, and appointed the Arizona governor to mediate instead, just imagine… In Jerome, where the IWW was striking against PD, over 100 men were kidnapped by vigilantes and held in the county jail, before being moved by train and dumped in Needles, CA. In Bisbee the strike was against the owners of the Copper Queen mine. 1,186 men (some of whom were neither miners nor on strike) were rounded up at gun point by vigilantes and put in cattle cars still full of manure and trucked into New Mexico. Many then continued to be held there by the federal government for months. An IWW organizer, Jim Brew, was shot when he resisted the round up, after shooting one of the ‘deputies’. It is believed that Walter Douglas, president of Phelps Dodge and son of the owner of Bisbee’s Copper Queen mine, orchestrated the actions as a way to break organized labor in the state, which he did. The cattle cars belonged to him, and he probably supplied the guns…he was indicted, but charges were dropped. And armed guards were stationed at the entrances of Bisbee and Douglas, to pass them required a passport signed by Sheriff Wheeler…so almost none of the men ever returned. You can read more here.

Back in Clifton, Morenci, and Metcalf a union was again organized in the early 1940s. Mexicans were still not allowed to hold any of the more skilled jobs. When David Velasquez began helping the Bulldozers shovel what he had once shoveled by hand he became eligible to join the Operating Engineers under the AFL. He tried to join, but they old him that Mexican ‘boys’ would be better in their own union, called the Federated Labor Union. There was no possibility of rising into the better jobs. So he and Andres Padilla organized a branch of the CIO, meeting secretly along the river. After two years they won certification, Morenci Miners local 616 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter workers. Originally they represented all miners, but racism divided the union and crafts split from it; Mine Mill became known as the Mexican union. In 1946 Mexican American veterans returning home from the war gave the impetus for a strike, seeking health benefits and equal wages for all races. Mine Mill won its first contract. And then followed a long period of strength and broad activist unionism (if only all unions could say the same) in spite of  the witch-hunt for communists, where union leadership was put on trial by the CIO itself. It suffered constant attack from the federal government, as well as hostility from other unions who all looked to appropriate its membership. In 1967 it merged with the steelworkers.

In 1982 PD announced it was laying off 3400 workers in Arizona and Texas. Negotiations began, and in July of 1983 a strike was called, and a picket line formed at the Morenci pit. Morenci is entirely a company town…workers were evicted, harassed, arrested, put under surveillance by the Arizona Criminal Intelligence Systems Agency. Very creepy, but Arizona likes to know what dissidents are up to, particularly when they dare to stop mining. Local government was entirely on the side of PD, putting injunctions on pickets and protests. PD announced it was hiring replacement workers, and 1,000 people gathered at the gate to the mine to prevent it. PD shut down production.

And on August 19th, 1983, the National Guard and state troopers were called in to break the strike. They arrived with military vehicles, helicopters, tanks. They forced entry for the scabs. 10 days later they arrested 10 miners in Ajo for ‘rioting’. And that was really the end, though the strike dragged on slowly until February of 86 when the NLRB rejected the unions appeal to stop decertification.

It is often seen as the great symbol of defeat for American Unions. And here is what the pit looks like now:

It has engulfed the towns of Morenci and Metcalf, swallowed them up and lost them forever in the search for more copper. And I suppose you could say, for a moment, it swallowed the labor movement as well. But just for the moment.

[also posted at www.pmpress.org]

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