Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of the Pan-African News Wire, outside the American Axle plant gate during the UAW strike. This photo was taken on Sunday, March 16, 2008. (Photo: Alan Pollock)., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
African Labor and the Struggle for Economic Justice
A history of slavery, reconstruction and the continuing movement for national liberation
by Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor
Pan-African News Wire
Editor's Note: This article is being republished in honor of May Day 2012.
Introduction: A Tribute to the Revolutionary Legacy of El Hajj Malik Shabazz, Malcolm X (1925-1965)
Since 1965, the overall crisis in world political economy has deepened into a more complex and aggravated social situation where the erosion of state structures and institutions have left the majority of the people without the essential necessities required for maintaining a decent personal and family life.
In this discussion we will survey the contemporary and historical conditions over the last four-and-one-half decades in an effort to construct a viable mechanism that will provide an alternative to the persistence of stagnation so characteristic of the present period.
Malcolm X's active religious and political life started while he was an inmate during the early 1950s when he began to read extensively on a wide array of topics and disciplines. He would later join the Nation of Islam at the aegis of his brothers who entered the organization prior to him.
After his release from prison in 1952, Malcolm became active in the Detroit Temple Number One and soon rose to the rank of assistant minister in the city. The organization provided Malcolm with a disciplined lifestyle, which is important for ex-convicts, who are returning to the same areas from which they were arrested during the period prior to their incarceration.
As this time in the United States and globally, the peoples of the colonial and semi-colonial territories were intensifying their efforts aimed at national independence. In areas such as south-east Asia and the Korea Peninsula, the struggle had taken on a decidely anti-capitalist character, which resulted in large-scale military intervention by the United States and France.
In Africa, the anti-colonial struggle accelerated after World War II when in many countries such as Ghana, Algeria, Egypt, Keny, Tanganyika, South Africa, etc., the masses organized into ex-servicemen associations, trade unions, women groups, student unions and political parties to forge the movements aimed at political independence.
After the return of hundreds of thousands of African American soldiers from service in the Pacific, North Africa and Europe, a new miltancy arose within the United States that increasingly grew impatient in the face of continued legalized segregation and economic exploitation. With the majority of Africans in the United States residing in the former ante-bellum south, which had been financially devastated as a result of the Civil War and the burgeoning industrialization in the northern and western regions, a growing segments of this population group saw no potential for social advancement in the rural and urban areas of the south.
As a result of these oppressed circumstances and with the urging of political and economic forces in the northern industrialized areas, many Africans began the migration out of the southern states. Although this migration pattern had become significant as far back as World War I, the social conditions brought about as a result of the catastrophic depression of the 1930s, natural disasters, which sparked large-scale crop failures and the increasingly violent suppression of African peoples by the white power structures in the south, provided adequate incentives for this community to seek refuge in other regions outside the south.
During the 1950s, Malcolm's generation realized that despite the movement north by millions of African people they still remained oppressed and exploited by the white ruling class in the urban areas. Earl Little, the father of Malcolm X, had moved to Nebraska from Georgia during the 1920s.
His mother Louise, was born in Grenada in the eastern Caribbean. Both of his parents were members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association(UNIA) headed by Marcus Garvey, who was deported from the United States in 1927.
Garvey's movement was extremely popular during the 1920s when thousands attended annual conferences in New York City. Louise Little wrote articles for the Negro World newspaper, the printed voice of the UNIA. The popularity of Garveyite Pan-Africanism during this period was indicative of the African peoples struggle for self-determination in the United States.
Consequently, the role of the national liberation process on the African continent over the last seven decades has contributed immensely to the overall struggle for Pan-Africanism, i.e., the unity of movements of African peoples designed to overcome the legacies of slavery, colonialism, and to create societies based on the principles of social equality, non-exploitation, economic development and the reclamation of African history and cultures.
The role of El Hajj Malik Shabazz (Malcolm X) in his intersection with the Pan-African historical process during the 1950s and 1960s and the remaining viability of his legacy of forging greater links between Africans all over the globe, made an indelible impact on the international scene. It is the challenge of the new generation of political activists to build upon these contributions in order to take Pan-Africanism into its next and possibly most significant phase: being the creation of a united effort aimed at the eradication of poverty, hunger, underdevelopment and social stagnation among the people.
The Legacy of Racism and National Oppression Continues
A racist cartoon published by the New York Post on February 18, 2009 depicted a chimpanzee being shot dead by the police. The cartoon was a supposed parody of an incident that had occured in Connetticut the day before when a chimp attacked a woman and was shot.
The racist character of the cartoon was directed at the newly-elected President Barack Obama since the caption on the illustration says: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill." By implying that Obama is a chimp and deserved to be killed by the police, he is placed in the same social situation as any other black man confronting law-enforcement on the streets of America.
What was outrageous about this act of racist provocation is that forty-four years ago Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City. His murder initiated a series of political assassinations against African American leaders.
When we examine the high incidence of political assassinations, military coup d'etats, state directed corruption and economic exploitation and isolation for political purposes, it is evidence enough of the desire on the part of western imperialist countries and their allies within the African world to maintain control and direction over the thinking and activity of the masses of people.
Malcolm X, during his lifetime as well as posthumously, exemplified the best notions of independent thought, speech and activity. Consequently, his assassination forty-four years ago was a signal to the conscience of Africans and all peace and freedom loving peoples that their struggle would be a protracted one with many enemies to defeat before genuine victory could be proclaimed.
This racist provocation by the New York Post takes place during the same month of February that represented the tenth anniversary of the murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999 by the New York Police Department's Street Crimes Unit. Diallo was shot 19 times after 41 shots were fired at him for no apparent reason.
After public outrage over the police murder of Diallo, which resulted in mass demonstrations and calls for the prosecution of the four officers involved, a trial was held in Albany, New York. However, all of the officers accused were acquitted and no one was ever held accountable for the death of Diallo, who was an immigrant from the West African nation of Guinea-Conakry.
A settlement in a civil suit did award some money to the family of Amadou Diallo, nonetheless, the phenomena of racist police violence against African Americans and other oppressed groups continues to this day. Consequently, the cartoon did much to reaffirm racist violence as an oppressive mechanism designed to hold African people in perpetual fear and social bondage.
The New York Post rejected the accusation that its motivation was racist in publishing the cartoon. In a reluctant apology that followed two days of militant demonstrations outside its offices, The Post said of the cartoon that: "It was meant to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill. Period. But it has been taken as something else--as a depiction of President Obama, as a thinly veiled expression of racism. This most certainly was not its intent; to those who were offended by the image, we apologise."
At the same time, the nature of the weak apology did not lessen the outrage sparked by its publication. The New York Post even undermined its own efforts aimed at damage control when it went on to state in its "apology" that: "However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with the Post in the past--and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback. To them, no apology is due. Sometimes a cartoon is just a cartoon--even as the opportunists seek to make it something else."
In other words, the Post took the position that it had done nothing wrong. According to the corporate media outlet, those people who have expressed outrage around the country and taken to the streets outside their headquarters in New York City, are not motivated by genuine concern and anger but only selfish political gain. However, the broad coalition of forces that have protested this provocation does suggest that the underlying impetus is based on anti-racist sentiment.
African Labor and American Capitalism
This year's African American History Month takes on added significance because of the recent election and inauguration of President Barack Obama. The ascendancy of Obama comes at a critical time period when billions of people around the world are facing increasingly perilous economic conditions.
Each day, through the various international press agencies, the deepening crisis in world capitalism is conveyed through a plethora of statistics that describe large-scale losses in the banking industry, the declining value of stock prices and the massive layoffs of workers in all of the major industries.
Within the context of the economic crisis, African American workers are facing some of the worst conditions. The African American people have faced national oppression, economic super-exploitation and cultural degredation for centuries. The system of chattel slavery was based on the exploitation of African labor.
W.E.B. DuBois in his book entitled: "Black Reconstruction in America", published during the Great Depression in 1935, addressed the central role of the African proletariat, and colonial labor in general, in providing the profits that lead to the emergence of western capitalism.
DuBois says in the chapter entitled "The Black Worker" that:
"It was thus the black worker, as founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth century and for the modern world, who brought civil war in America. He (and she) was its underlying cause, in spite of every effort to base the strife upon union and national power." (p. 15)
DuBois then goes on to say: "That dark sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States--that the great majority of mankind (humanity), on whose bent and broken backs rest today that the founding stones of modern industry--shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned and enslaved in all but name; spawning the world's raw material and luxury--cotton, wool, coffee, tea, cocoa, palm oil, fibers, spices, rubber, silks, lumber, copper, gold, diamonds, leather--how shall we end the list and where?
"All these are gathered up at prices lowest of the low, manufactured, transformed and transported at fabulous gain; and the resultant wealth is distributed and displayed and made the basis of world power and universal dominion and armed arrogance in London and Paris, Berlin and Rome, New York and Rio de Janeiro."
In concluding the thought, DuBois states the inevitable, that is: "Here is the real modern labor problem. Here is the kernal of the problem of Religion and Democracy, of Humanity. Words and futile gesture avail nothing. Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts which, in cultured lands, the Machine and harnessed power veil and conceal. The emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black." (p. 16)
In the aftermath of the Civil War, even though Africans were ostensibly liberated from chattel slavery, most of them still were tied to the exploitative system of agricultural production. Peonage, sharecropping and tenant farming represented the only avenues that many people had to earn a living. The degree of self-organization was confined to the churches and attempts at cooperatives.
Moreover, the formation of racist vigilante organizations served the interests of the former planters in that they kept African Americans from making significant gains in political representation and economic self-sufficiency. Thousands of African Americans were lynched between the 1880s and the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett became known nationally and internationally in the campaign to end lynching. Wells-Barnett was born in the Delta Mississippi region during the Civil War. She left the rural areas after her parents and other relatives died as a result of the yellow fever epidemic of the late 1870s. Wells-Barnett eventually settled in Memphis, Tennessee where she became a school teacher and cultural activist. In 1884 she would challenge segregation on the railway cars in Woodstock, Tennessee after being physically removed from a non-smoking car designated for white women.
By the early 1890s, Wells-Barnett was a renowned journalist and eventually took over control of the newspaper where she worked. Her outspoken criticism of the educational system and its discriminatory practices toward African Americans caused her to lose her teaching contract. She would become a journalist and political advocate full time.
When she spoke out militantly against the lynching of three African American men in Memphis in 1892, she embarked upon a national and international speaking tour to expose the hypocrisy of the white south which attempted to justify lynching on the basis of the supposed inherent criminal behavior of black men and their ficticous threats to the sanctity of white womanhood.
Wells-Barnett was eventually driven from Memphis after the courts and police ordered her newspaper closed and destroyed. She re-located in Chicago and continued her political activities and journalism on behalf of the anti-lynching cause. Wells-Barnett was also a leading figure in the African American women's club movement which mobilized millions throughout the north and south of the United States.
African workers and Organized Labor
In regard to organized labor, the emergence of the trade union movement represented the broader social ambivalence towards African Americans. The Knights of Labor for example, took on the same racial prejudice towards African labor as the broader white bourgeois society. However, groups like the International Workers of the World (IWW) sought to organize both black and white workers in order to advance the struggle of the working class as a whole.
In Chicago during the 1870s and 1880s, one African American woman, Lucy Parsons, became an outspoken advocate for workers rights and against the tyranny of the capitalist class. She originally came from Texas and migrated to Chicago where her husband, Albert, was heavily involved in the early labor movement. Albert Parsons took on a job as a printer during a time of economic depression in the United States when the capitalist class sought to suppress working class organization through the importation of immigrant workers and the driving down of wages.
One of the early labor struggles developed in 1877 during a railway strike which eventually spread to Chicago. The workers engaged in work stoppages and sabatoge. Albert Parsons invovlement in these struggles lead to his dismissal from the printing trades in Chicago. Lucy became a seamstress in order to supplement the family's income. She also began to write for radical publications that were put out by the anarchist and socialist movements of the day which were gaining mass support during the 1870s and 1880s.
According to the IWW's political biography of Lucy Parsons entitled "Woman of Will":
"Lucy began to write for many radical publications, including The Socialist and The Alarm, an anarchist weekly published by the International Working People's Association (IWPA), which she and Albert had helped found in 1883. She had little sympathy for bosses who were paying their workers substandard wages.
"Her most famous article, "To Tramps," advocated "propaganda by the deed," a philosophy that held that only violent direct action or the threat of such action will ultimately win the demands of the workers. She was often considered more "dangerous" than her husband because she was so outspoken in her beliefs on the rights of the poor. Lucy was also threatening as a militant and radical woman who refused to assume the role of a homemaker."
In 1886, the Parsons were directly involved in the labor struggles in Chicago. The Haymarket incidents of May 1886 resulted in the arrest of Albert Parsons and several other men, even though some of them were not even present when the police-instigated rebellion took place. The struggle that year was centered around the acquistion of better wages, improved working conditions and the eight-hour day. May 1 was the designated day for the initiation of this monumental struggle.
The IWW describes this series of events as follows:
"The movement for the eight hour workday was one of the most difficult struggles for laboring people in the United States. It is filled with stories of huge protests which were broken up by police and Pinkertons (private security). Many people were maimed and killed before demands to shorten the workday were finally met. One of the most famous events in the history of the eight hour struggle was the Haymarket Affair.
"In response to a huge protest at a mill in Chicago in which a few workers were killed by the police, local radical activists organized a meeting at Haymarket Square in downtown Chicago. Over 2,000 people showed up to hear the speakers. Even the Mayor of Chicago appeared, and reported that the event was peaceful. However, after the Mayor left and the meeting's numbers dwindled, a huge army of police marched towards the crowd and gave them an order to disperse. During the confusion, an unknown person threw a bomb into the crowd of police, killing an officer. A riot broke out in which both workers and police were injured and killed."
Several labor activists were arrested and charged with fomenting the disturbances. Albert Parsons was eventually executed in 1887 even though there no evidence that he was directly involved in the killing of the police. Lucy remained an activist in the radical workers movement among the anarchists and later socialist and communist organizations.
When the IWW was formed in 1905, Lucy was the second woman to join the organization which believed in the primary role of the working class as an engine for genuine social change. However, as a result of ideological struggles taking place in the anarchist and working class movements of the time, Parsons moved further towards the socialist camp.
In "Woman of Will" it states that:
"In 1925 Lucy began working with the newly formed Communist Party. Though she didn't officially join until 1939, she held an affinity with the party, seeing them work toward revolution from a perspective of class consciousness. At this point, after major conflicts with the new directions of the anarchist movement and watching its momentum slow, Lucy felt that the anarchist movement had no future as it no longer actively moved the people toward revolution.
"During this period, Lucy mainly worked with the coalition for International Labor Defense, a Communist Party group, aiding with the Scottsboro Eight and Angelo Herndon cases. Both of these cases were situations where the establishment charged African-American organizers with crimes they did not commit. This was Lucy's first return to the South and her first work on issues involving race. Her work in these areas and on the Tom Mooney case illustrates her lifelong dedication, after the murder of her husband, to expose the fascism of the judicial system. Though controversy exists over the Communist Party's involvement in both of these cases, especially its indictment of the NAACP and its party propaganda during the Scottsboro Boys' Trial, they extended the Communist Party's influence in African-American communities, where Communist Party members helped organize unions."
Parson tragically died in a fire in 1942 in Chicago. Her possessions, including her personal papers and books were seized immediately by the FBI. Her legacy of struggle has remained largely hidden from successive generations of African Americans and working class people.
Trade Unions and the National Question
As mentioned above, the burgeoning trade union movement was not uniform in its approach to organizing African American workers. The Knights of Labor took on a more conservative approach toward not only African workers but the proletariat as a whole. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) maintained separated union locals based on race.
In a personal account from Michael Keith Honey's "Black Workers Remember", George Holloway of Memphis, Tennesse said in a 1990 interview that:
"[The] Pullman porters union was one of the first to accpet blacks. Most of the AFL was skilled white people, and laborers couldn't join. The only other AFL unions that had blacks at that time were the carpenters and bricklayers unions.
"They (the AFL) had a separate hall for blacks. Blacks and whites couldn't go to meetings together. They actually belonged to two different unions. The AFL trades building was right on Beale Street, and the black one was behind it on Linden and Lauderdale. It was a big brick building for the white union, and a separate little wooden building in the back, at one time a servants' quarters, for the black union. The AFL machinists and electricians were all in the white union. The blacks met in that little tiny hall in the back. The whites didn't want the blacks in the union, and they weren't going to have them." (p. 61)
However, by the 1930s, with the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a new militancy would emergence in the working class struggle. Honey, in another book entitled, "Going Down Jericho Road", makes the following observation in relationship to inter-racial organizing in the labor movement:
"But hope would emerge as a group of unions formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and pledged to organize all workers regardless of race, gender, nationality, or political beliefs. African Americans became the CIO's strongest supporters of interracial organizing, aided by assorted white radicals. Despite all the obstacles, workers in Memphis durng the late 1930s and throughout the World War II built CIO unions in cotton and food processing, on the waterfronts, in lumberyards, and in factories, but they often paid a terrible price for their activism.
"Whites beat and nearly killed Thomas Watkins, a black longshoreman who led a strike of black and white Mississippi River workers in 1939, as (Mayor Crump) denounced the CIO as 'nigger unionism' and 'Communism.' Company thugs and white workers fearful of losing their jobs brutally beat white union organizers at the Ford and Firestone factories. Even black workers, fearful their company would close if they unionized slashed open the stomach of fellow worker Clarence Coe when he tried to organize them." (p. 13)
In the industrial plants of the north in Detroit, the role of African American workers was key in the final recognition of the United Auto Workers in 1941. However, in the aftermath of World War II and the rise of the so-called "Cold War", the anti-communist hysteria would serve as a mechanism in holding back the radical character of the trade union movement as it related to fightng racism, capitalism and imperialism.
The formation of the National Negro Labor Councils and other black-led reform efforts, resulted in the anti-communist and racist attacks against African American working class organizers and leftists. Many of these militant forces were driven out of leadership positions in the trade union movement.
Nonetheless, the southern civil rights movement that developed after the Montgomery Bus Boycott relied on the experience gained by African Americans in the labor movement. E.D. Nixon, one of the main organizers of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a long time activists in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Mrs. Rosa Parks had also worked with him in this union as well as the NAACP.
During the 1960s, when the struggle against Jim Crow took on its decisive phase, the majority of African American workers were still subjected to a split labor market. In the industrial centers, African Americans were given the dirtiest and most hazardous jobs.
In the south, African Americans were still paid at a lower rate than whites based upon national discrimination. The failure of many labor unions to fight racism militantly created the conditions for the Revolutionary Union Movements of Detroit and other areas around the country. Caucuses were formed specifically to fight racism. This phenomena took place simultaneously with the advent of militant mass demonstrations and urban rebellions.
Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated while he was engaged in a protracted struggle to win union recognition for 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis. King had planned to lead a Poor People's March on Washington during 1968 that would demand the eradication of poverty through a guaranteed annual income and other social benefits for everyone living inside the United States.
Today's Struggle Against Low-Wage Capitalism
With the growing crisis of capitalist overproduction, commonly identified as globalization, the significance of the working class struggle takes on added significance. Workers in the United States and around the world have been severely affected by the collapse of the financial sector and the consequent lay-offs of millions of employees.
At the same time, millions of working families are being thrown out of their houses and being made homeless. Workers have seen the evaporation of their hard won pensions and savings through massive swindles and the failure of the capitalist state to effectively challenge the large-scale theft by the bosses and bankers. African Americans, Latinos and women are being disporportionately affected by the current economic crisis. As a result of this crisis, we see the burgeoning of a new fightback movement aimed at curtailing the desperate actions of the capitalist class.
In 2008, new coalitions arose in the United States to fight against foreclosures, evictions and utility shut-offs. The workers of UE in Chicago occupied the Republic Windows plant demanding justice after they had been summarily laid-off and denied severance benefits in violation of federal law. In Oakland, California, youth exploded in rebellion after the brutal murder of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old commuter on the public transporation system.
On the interantional scene, we have witnessed general strikes and rebellions in Greece, France and other European states. In the so-called developing countries over the last year, there have been industrial actions in South Africa, Kenya and Egypt as well as food rebellions in Somalia.
In the French Caribbean colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique, a general strike which began in January has effectively shutdown the territories' business sector. Despite the deployment of French riot police and the murder of a trade union leader, the masses have responded through rebellion and resistance. The French desperately sought to curtail the general strike and rebellion in fear that it would trigger further unrest in the mainland, where African immigrants have periodically rebelled over the last three years.
These independent actions on the part of the working class and the nationally oppressed will continue. Nonetheless, the current crisis, which will render millions more jobless and homeless, requires the formation of a national fightback movement which will demand an immediate moratorium on foreclosures, evictions and utility shut-offs. The movement must also call for an effective jobs program that will provide decent wages and health benefits to all working families in the United States.
Ultimately, the only real solution is a mass working class and nationally oppressed movement aimed at the realizaiton of socialism. It is only under a socialist system that the organization of the economy and the society can be carried out based upon the real needs of the people. With the deepening crisis in capitalism in the United States and throughout the world, the propagation of socialist-oriented demands will gain greater attention and support among the working class and the oppressed.
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire. The writer has been a researcher of African-American history and political culture for many years.