Pages From African American History: George Padmore on "The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers", 1931
The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers
by George Padmore 1931
Black Slaves in the New World
Besides the 200 million Negroes estimated inhabiting the Continent of Africa, there are between 40 to 50 million Negroes scattered throughout the New World – the United States, the West Indies and Latin America. They are the descendents of the slaves who were brought from Africa to work upon the plantations and the mines in the territories which they now occupy. Therefore, unlike their black brother in Africa, the Negroes in the New World have had centuries of contact with the white capitalist civilisation. But like the Negroes in Africa, they are subjected to the same barbarous methods of imperialist plunder and exploitation.
The United States of America
Even in the United States, which the apologists for bourgeois democracy consider the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” we find 15 million Negroes brutally enslaved. The story of the oppression of Negroes in the United States forms one of the darkest pages in the history of capitalism. In no other so-called civilised country in the world are human beings treated as badly as these 15 million Negroes. They live under a perpetual regime of white terror, which expresses itself in lynchings, peonage, racial segregation and other pronounced forms of white chauvinism.
The vast majority of the 15,000,000 Negroes in the United States are toilers-industrial workers and poor peasants. The bulk of them are still on the land, either as agricultural labourers, share croppers or tenant farmers. They live in certain sections of the Southern States, where they are so thickly populated that they form a sort of compacted territory of their own, known as the “Black Belt.” Here the Negroes are in the majority.
There are some 219 counties in the South where the population is nearly half or more Negroes. The State of Georgia, which covers an area of 52,265 square miles with a population of 2,895,832, has the largest black population of any state in the American Union while the State of Mississippi, which is 46,865 square miles with a total population of 1,790,618, the blacks number 52.2 per cent. (census of 1920).
And, strange to say, it is in these thickly populated territories that the Negroes suffer most oppression. They are absolutely at the mercy of every fiendish mob incited by the white landlords and capitalists. Bands of business and professional men make periodical raids upon the black countryside, where they lynch Negroes, burn homes and destroy the crops and other property belonging to the blacks. In most cases of lynching the Negroes are burned to death after their bodies have been soaked in gasoline, while others are hanged from trees. On these occasions the entire white community turned out to witness the bloody spectacles, which were made “Roman Holidays.”
White ruling class terrorism becomes so vicious at times that entire Negro communities move away and seek new homes in the North and other parts of the country where they are better able to defend themselves. It is estimated that over two million Negroes left the South for industrial cities during the war and post-war period.
White Chauvinism and the Labour Movement
Race prejudice or white chauvinism is one of the chief weapons in the hands of the capitalist class in order to oppress and enslave the black workers. In the United States the working class is made up of different nationalities and races which are grouped into white and black. In order to prevent these workers from uniting together in militant struggle against the bourgeoisie who rob them all alike, the employers and their agents in the Labour movement (reformists and social-fascists), encourage the workers to hate each other by playing up racial and national differences.
As a general rule Negroes are not permitted to join the reformist trade unions, which are under the control of social fascist leaders like William Green and Matthew Woll, of the American Federation of Labour. As a result of this policy of discrimination, the black workers in the North, like those in the South, are compelled to do the hardest and dirtiest work for the lowest wages and in periods of economic depression such as the present they are always the first to be discharged from their jobs. With the seven million unemployed in the United States today, the Negroes are feeling its effects more severely than any other section of the working class. Millions of them are now walking the streets of every big city of the North and the rural districts of the South faced with the spectre of starvation and death.
The only trade unions of America which admit Negro workers on the basis of full political, economic and social equality are the revolutionary unions affiliated with the Trade Union Unity League, the American Section of the Red International of Labour Unions. These unions are under the influence of Communist leadership and conduct intensive national campaigns calling upon the black and white workers to unite against the American bourgeoisie, and their labour agents, the reformist trade union leaders of the American Federation of Labour, as well as the socialists, whose policy it is to divide the workers on the basis of colour in order that they may be exploited more effectively. In this the capitalists have been fairly successful in the past, but the workers are now beginning to see the folly and danger of racial antagonism and are starting to unite into militant trade unions and unemployed councils, under the leadership of the Communist Party and the revolutionary trade union centre, the T.U.U.L.
The Southern bourgeoisie and landlords are largely the descendants of the former slave-owning class. They are the most oppressive of the American ruling class. Trained in all the vicious practice of chattel slavery, they torture and brutalise their workers in the most barbarous fashion. Living in constant fear of the Negro masses, the capitalists, who exploited them to the very limit, maintain a reign of fascist terrorism through the State apparatus (court, police, militia), as well as the Church. Some of the most active agents of the oppressors are the preachers, who go around the countryside stirring up racial hatred and mob law against the Negroes.
The most widespread forms of economic, political and social oppression of Negroes are: (a) peonage, (b) slavery, (c) lynching, (d) Jim Crowism.
Most of these terrorist practices against Negroes are perpetuated by specially created fascist organisations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the American Legion, the Black Shirts, the Caucasian Crusaders, etc., etc. These organisations are supported by the bourgeoisie and reactionary middle class elements. They invade the sections where the Negroes live, burn homes and crops, kill off live stock, poison drinking water wells, murder and lynch unarmed men, women and children who dare to offer resistance to their pogroms.
A few words about each of these forms of socio-economic oppression:
(a) Peonage. Peonage is the most brutal and demoralising form of economic exploitation. It has its basis in the rent and profit system which grew out of chattel slavery. After the Negroes were “freed,” they had no land of their own or the means whereby to gain a livelihood, so most of them were compelled to remain on the plantations of their masters. Some of them sold their labour power for wages, while others entered into a sort of feudal contractual relationship which bound them to the land like serfs. The landlords allot a certain quantity of land to each black family, and supplied tools, seed and food to the tenants until the harvest has been reaped. The crop is then taken over by the landlords, who sell it and afterwards make an account to the tenants. The tenants are always given less than what the crop sells for, and in this way they continually find themselves indebted to the landlords. For example, if a Negro cultivated a hundred bales of cotton which fetched 600 dollars on the market, the landlord will present him with an account of 800 dollars for supplies alleged to have been rendered during the year, so even if the Negro paid the 600 dollars he would still owe the landlord 200 dollars, which he would be compelled to pay off by planting another crop under similar conditions as before. This is repeated year after year. Even if the Negro took the landlord to court his statement of the facts would not be believed, because the word of a white man cannot be refuted by a black. Furthermore, the Southern landlords are not only the overseers, bookkeepers of their plantations, but are the political dictators of the community as well, and when they make a statement it becomes the law of the court. It has always been the prerogative of the ruling class of the South to decide when the Negro workers should leave their service, or under what conditions they are bound. Negroes who rebel against these outrages and run away are hunted down by the police and other uniformed thugs, with the aid of bloodhounds which are especially employed for this purpose. They are brought back to the plantations and turned over to the landlords either as vagrants or as runaways.
Another method by which labour is recruited is through the chain gang. Whenever the landlords need labour they simply go to the local judge and arrange that the police be ordered to arrest the required number of workers. In this way whole communities of able-bodied blacks are commonly apprehended. All kinds of frame-up charges are made against them. When fined in court they have to agree to enter the service of the landlords, who pay a small fine for the opportunity to reduce the Negroes to servitude. In this way the judges and the police get the court fees, and the landlords cheap labour.
A brief account from one of the peonage districts is sufficient to illustrate this point. Passing along the street where a Negro had been mistreated by his white master, an observer inquired of the worker: “Why do you stand this?” “That is just the damned trouble down here” responded the black, “I once complained to the court when another white man beat me. The man denied it and the judge, who believed his story, imposed upon me a fine which I could not pay, so I have to work out in the service of this man who was present in the court at the time and paid it in order to get the opportunity to force me to work for him.”
Whenever there is a shortage of labour the Southern capitalists do not only resort to these repressive measures, but also commandeer the use of child labour. For example, by order of the white county superintendent (Memphis, Tennessee), 8,000 Negro students enrolled in schools of Shelby county were taken out of the school-rooms and placed in cotton fields during the season of 1930. The “cotton recesses” affect only Negro students. Coloured schools are always closed until after the cotton crops are gathered. Negro rural schools in the South are run for an average of six months, with two suspensions, one for the planting and the second for the picking of cotton. White schools are open for the usual nine-month term. Compulsory child labour is widespread throughout the South.
(b) Slavery. Thousands of blacks are still being held as slaves in the coal mines and on road construction work in the States of Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia. A law was enacted in the State of Florida in 1919 to the effect that, whenever a Negro is unable to pay his debts, he is to be imprisoned, and the jailer has the right to rent him out to a farmer until such times as the farmer is satisfied to release him.
There is a special law in Mississippi which makes it a criminal offence, punished by fines or imprisonment, for agents to enter the State and contract for labour. This law was enacted in order to prevent Negro tenants and agricultural labourers from leaving their masters, no matter how badly they are being treated or how high the wage offered by other employers outside of the State.
A white man by the name of Wilson, who owns a 7,000 acre farm near Greenwood, Mississippi, went into the county of Moxubee scouting for Negro farm labourers in 1930-he had signed up 25 coloured workers and had chartered two freight trucks for their transportation to Greenwood when the business men and plantation owners in Moxubee discovered Wilson’s activities. They immediately organised a band of 100 men and drove Wilson out of the town. The Negroes who had dared to sign up to leave were stripped naked and most brutally flogged in public as a warning to other blacks never to attempt to migrate.
Investigations have disclosed the existence of large slave farms in the extreme Southern part of Florida. Over 5,000 Negroes have been collected from various parts of the State and lured away to toil in the turpentine camps, where they are forced to work day and night under armed guards. Life in these places are indescribable hell holes. The workers are huddled together in shacks, given a minimum amount of food of the worst quality, and denied the most elementary sanitary conveniences. Conditions are more primitive than in some colonial countries. As a result, disease is very rampant in these barbed-wire compounds. Hundreds of blacks die annually from starvation and exposure, while others meet a quicker and more welcome death at the hands of their cruel task masters.
(c) Lynching. Hand in hand with peonage is mob rule, which expresses itself in lynchings. These outrages, although chiefly perpetrated in the South, occur in other parts of the United States of America.
Over 3,256 Negro farmers and workers have met their death at the hands of white lynching mobs between 1885 and 1930. Georgia heads the list of lynching States with a record of 441 Negroes and 256 whites during the period of 35 years. There is hardly a month which does not bring its tidings of this form of class outrage and racial terrorism.
The circumstances under which a Negro named Henry Lowry, about forty years of age, was lynched typifies the practice as it has developed in the United States. The story of this outrage was written on the scene of the lynching by a reporter of a capitalist newspaper, who describes the incident as follows:
“More than 500 people stood by and looked on while the Negro was slowly burnt to a crisp. A few women were scattered among the crowd of Arkansas planters who directed the gruesome work. Not once did the slayed beg for mercy despite the fact that he suffered one of the most horrible deaths imaginable. With the Negro chained to a log, members of the mob placed a little fire of leaves around his feet. Gasolene was then poured on the leaves, and the carrying out of the death sentence was under way.
“Inch by inch the Negro was fairly cooked to death. Every few minutes fresh leaves were tossed on the funeral pyre until the blaze had passed the Negro’s waist. As the flames were eating away his abdomen, a member of the mob stepped forward and saturated the body with more gasolene. It was then only a few minutes until the Negro had been reduced to ashes.
“Even after the flesh had dropped away from his legs, and the flames were leaping towards his face, Lowry retained consciousness. Not once did he whimper or beg for mercy. Once or twice he attempted to pick up the hot ashes in his hands and thrust them into his mouth in order to hasten death.”
A correspondent of the “Memphis News Scimitar,” another Southern bourgeois paper, wrote the following description of the lynching of a young Negro worker in Tennessee.
“I watched an angry mob chain a Negro to an iron stick. I watched them place wood around his helpless body. I watched them pour gasolene on this wood. And I watched the men set this wood on fire I stood in a crowd of 600 people as the flames gradually crept nearer and nearer to the helpless Negro. I watched the flames climb higher and higher, encircling him without mercy. I heard his cry of agony as the flames reached him and set his clothes on fire.
“’Oh, God!’ he shouted. ‘I didn’t do it. Have mercy!’ The blaze leaped higher. The Negro struggled. He kicked the chain loose from his ankles, but it held his waist and neck together against the iron that was becoming red with intense heat. ‘Have mercy, I didn’t do it-I didn’t do it!’ he shouted again and again.
“Soon he became quiet. There was no doubt that he was dead. The flames jumped and leaped about his head. An odour of burning flesh reached my nostrils. I felt suddenly sickened. Through the leaping blaze I could see the Negro sagging and supported by the chains.
“When the first odour of the baking flesh reached the mob, there was a slight stir. Several men moved nervously.
“’Let’s finish it up,’ someone said. Instantly about twelve men stepped from the crowd. They piled wood on the fire that was already blazing high. The Negro was dead, but more wood was piled on the flames. They jumped higher and higher. Nothing could be seen now for the blaze encircled everything.
“Then the crowd walked away. In the vanguard of the mob I noticed a woman. She seemed to be rather young, but it is hard to tell about a woman of her type, strong and healthy, apparently a woman of the country. She walked with a firm even stride. She was beautiful in a way.
“The crowd walked slowly away.
“’I am hungry,’ someone complained, ‘let’s get something to eat.’”
Thus ended another act of the great drama of American civilisation!
Of the ten lynchings which occurred in 1929, the last one took place in the State of Kentucky on Christmas Day-the occasion on which the bishops and priests and the other “holy men of God,” who carry on a campaign of lies and slander against the Soviet Union, were chanting their hymns to their God and shouting “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men!”
Since the beginning of 1930, 36 lynchings have already taken place. One of the victims was a Negro women about sixty years old, the mother of four children. The woman worked for a white farmer in North Carolina. He refused to pay her wages and she threatened to report him to the police. That same night the farmer organised a group of business men and landlords, led them to the woman’s house and took her to a nearby field where she was hanged from a tree.
After the lynching of two Negroes, Shipp and Smith, at Marion, Indiana, pictures of their charred bodies were sold in the shops of the city of Terre Haute, where bloodthirsty capitalists bought these stocks up as souvenirs of “how to keep the ‘niggers’ in their place.”
However, one of the most fiendish and atrocious outrages committed against a Negro worker occurred in Jacksonville, Florida, on Christmas Eve in 1930. A Negro youth by the name of Timothy Rouse, employed as an orderly in a municipal hospital, was accused of carrying on amorous relations with a white fellow worker. The physicians at the hospital became so infuriated over the idea of a white woman being in love with a Negro that they called a meeting of the business men of the city who demanded that Rouse be immediately dismissed. Shortly afterwards the Negro was arrested and thrown into prison. A few days later a mob, headed by the petty bourgeois elements of Jacksonville broke into the jail, placed the youth into an automobile and took him to the outskirts of the city where he was placed under anaesthetics and castrated by doctors who were part of the mob. The hooligans then returned to the city and ordered an ambulance to go to the spot where the victim was left and remove him to a Negro hospital. As usual the State officials, many of whom participated in the outrage, made no attempt to discover the culprits, giving as the excuse that the inhuman operation was performed “by unknown parties.”
As barbarous as this outrage is, let it be known that Rouse is not the first Negro to be subjected to this form of atrocity. A number of similar cases occurred in other sections of the South, where the ruling classes-in their determination to prevent any relationship between the white and black workers, resorted to the most barbarous and savage assaults upon Negro men suspected of having any personal relationship with white women.
(d) Segregation, better known in America as Jim-Crowism is the most widespread form of social oppression in the United States. Wherever Negroes live, whether in the North or South, they are segregated in their social relationships from the whites. This applies most generally in public utility service, schools, hospitals, recreation centres and other places of amusement, etc. In some States Negroes are not even allowed to ride in the same coaches with the whites. Wherever railroad companies agreed to permit them to ride they are provided with small dirty wooden compartments for which they have to pay the same fare as the white passengers, who enjoy the most up-to-date railroad conveniences. On Southern street-cars, Negroes get in and off from the rear while the whites enter from the front and have priority to the best seats. In those places where Negroes are admitted to the theatres they are forced to enter through back doors, and inside the theatres are huddled together in filthy balconies far removed from the stage.
Black workers are not permitted to patronise restaurants which cater to whites, neither are they allowed to use the same public bathing beaches or entrances to buildings as other people. Negroes are debarred from libraries, museums, art galleries, and other centres of culture. Very limited educational and cultural opportunities are offered to them. In most places they are compelled to send their children to separate schools, and, as is to be expected. the capitalist State expends by far more money on the education of white children than black, although the Negro workers are made to pay the same taxes for the maintenance of the public schools system. A few figures will illustrate the marked disproportion in the educational budget for blacks and whites in the South:
South Carolina (dollars) 60,12 for white child; 5.90 for Negro
Georgia " 48,00 " " 7,00 " "
Mississippi " 32,57 " " 6,00 " "
Louisiana " 74,24 " " 8,20 " "
Alabama " 40,92 " " 8,70 " "
Arkansas " 32,23 " " 9,00 " "
Florida " 78,22 " " 12,00 " "
In the face of this marked discrimination for the education of the two races, one can easily appreciate the tremendous handicaps which the children of Negro workers and peasants are confronted with in acquiring education and culture. Nevertheless, through great personal sacrifices, the Negroes have themselves carried on the struggle to liquidate illiteracy.
(e) Disenfranchisement. Politically, Negroes in the South are completely disenfranchised; this is done with open violence and terror. On election days there are armed white mobs, agents paid by the capitalist politicians to keep the Negroes away from the polls in the Southern States. Furthermore, certain enactments, known as the “Black Laws,” have been incorporated in the Statutes of some States in order to more effectively deprive the Negroes of their political rights. These laws are chiefly based on property and educational qualifications. As the vast majority of Negroes are propertyless, and their standard of literacy is a matter to be determined by the politicians (Republicans and Democrats), it becomes very easy for them to be ruled off the ballot. During every election campaign in America, Negro workers who attempt to vote are openly shot down before the polling stations by armed thugs and gangsters, specially hired by the various capitalist parties to prevent the blacks from taking part in the elections. The Republican, Democratic and “Socialist” parties are all hostile to the Negroes. Only the Communist Party fights for their full economic, social and political equality, and champions the right of self-determination for the Negro masses who inhabit the Black Belt.
(f) Ghetto Life. Wherever one goes in America one sees a striking similarity in the appearance of black communities derisively called “Nigger Towns.” The outstanding feature of these ghettos are their very unsanitary conditions. For the bourgeois politicians, although they compel the Negroes to pay the same amount of taxes as the whites, never spend any money to improve the standard of life among the black workers. Epidemics frequently break out in these black settlements, taking heavy toll among the workers, especially their children. The death rate among the Negro workers in America is in some cases 50 per cent. higher than whites. This is especially so in the case of contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis, typhus, etc. Even in the North, where Negroes are supposed to be better off than in the South, they are still the victims of varied forms of social oppression. First of all they are isolated from the rest of the working class by traditional social codes imposed upon the workers by the bourgeoisie, in order to maintain an ideological influence over the white workers, who are taught to hate and despise their black comrades. Therefore, we find that the less class-conscious white workers, like the capitalists, have the tendency to consider the Negro workers as social outcasts – members of a pariah race.