Unity In Diversity? (Part 2) — Introduction:
In this episode, Unity In Diversity?
We saw in Episode 10 two approaches to the problems facing African Americans as a result of the failures of Reconstruction.
The integrationist and the Black Nationalist approaches were fundamentally in opposition to one another and the conflict between WEB DuBois and Booker T.
Washington was simply built into their philosophical ideologies.
In part two, we will explore other ideological approaches. Just like integration and Black Nationalism, the approach to problems in the 1920s and 1930s are each going to have their own set of strength and weaknesses.
As we also see, they carry with them their own built-in conflicts with other philosophical approaches.
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Africans and Europeans on the Move
As new immigrants arrive from Eastern Europe, largely as a result of the chaos brought on by World War I, many African Americans are going to find a good deal of value in some of their insights and philosophies that these new arrivals brought with them. Because many of the Eastern European rivals have faced similar exploitation and oppression in their own countries, perhaps they will make affective partners in fighting oppression and the United States. Perhaps the class based solutions built into the philosophies of socialism and communism will offer a way of getting around the limitations of race. Perhaps, but along with their limitations, there are also built in conflicts between the class based philosophy and the philosophies of integration and racial separatism.
From 1910-1920, African Americans were on the move. In what historians call, “ The Great Migration,” an estimated half a million African Americans flocked to northern cities. African Americans left to escape southern discrimination and racial oppression. Additionally, the boll weevil infestation of Southern cotton fields in the late 1910s forced many sharecroppers and laborers to search for alternative employment opportunities. Coupled with the enormous expansion of war industries created job openings for blacks mostly in service jobs vacated by new factory workers and the overproduction of cotton.
The Great Migration changed the composition of the Northern workforce. For a brief time, African Americans were able to find an abundance of good paying jobs. In addition, women – both black and white – also filled the labor vacuum as many of the men were off to war. In the north, African Americans encountered large numbers of ethnic Europeans who were also flocking to U.S. shores.
After the war, however, when white men found African Americans, ethnic Europeans, and women occupying the positions that they had left I’m sure you can imagine there would be a great deal of labor unrest. That is the reason why in 1919, in addition to the racial tension that was discussed in part 1 of this lecture, class tensions also erupted in the form of 3600 labor strikes. As many groups began to see other ethnic groups as competitors for jobs, there was a great deal of pressure on labor unions that were often ethnically exclusive.
Socialism and the Communist Party
Class unity presented a major threat to the elite because unity meant that the employers could not play the divide and conquer game, the political and economic establishment did little to stem the tide of ethnic backlash, and in many ways deliberately stirred it up by using a 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to steer up fear and hatred for Eastern Europeans and Russians fleeing the civil conflict. The ideals of the revolution brought workers party unity that cut across ethnic lines.
It’s on this stage that A. Philip Randolph stepped onto the scene. In a clear departure with WEB Du Bois and the NAACP, Randolph opposed involvement in World War I. He also clearly recognized that it was in the interest of the economic elite to stir up racial and ethnic tension so that one group can be played against the other. He wrote, “When no profits are to be made from race friction no one will longer be interested in stirring up race prejudice.” To that end he began an uphill battle to gain recognition for the Brotherhood Of Sleeping Car Porters union in the American Federation of Labor.
The Pullman Palace car Company was the largest single employer of black people. It catered to affluent whites who were accustomed to seeing African Americans as servants and serving in menial roles.
While the $67 average monthly pay which amounted to up to $300 with tips was relatively high compared to other types of employment open to African Americans, it did come at a price. African American porters were constantly deluged with insults and racial epithets from their white patrons. Like house servants, they were on call 24 hours a day. Time spent preparing the car and assisting passengers, which could take anywhere from one to five hours was considered off the clock and uncompensated. Additionally, porters had to pay out of pocket for shoe polish and other work related materials. They had to buy their own meals, pay for their own lodging at stopovers, and buy two uniforms a year-expenses that ate up nearly half of their monthly salary. Although many African Americans enjoyed a middle-class income, they were still paid less than white workers who were doing the same job.
Like socialism, communists sought to set aside racial differences in favor of a class-based solution to economic exploitation. The Communist Party recognized that African Americans, women, and poor whites shared a similar condition as exploited members of the working class and that racism and ethnic division were the primary barriers addressing that exploitation. That is the reason why from the outset, the Communist Party sought to eliminate racial chauvinism from its ranks.
The main difference between the communists and the socialists was that socialists such as A. Philip Randolph sought to work within United States institutions such as the American Federation of Labor, and as a result, were bound by the constructs of race relations in the United States. The Communist Party was an international organization headquartered in the Soviet Union. A. Philip Randolph didn’t particularly like the idea of giving up control to an international organization – he believed that control and leadership should be from within the United States.
The limitations on working within US institutions are similar to those at the NAACP faced in that they were often hostile to issues of racial and social justice. Many African Americans who joined the Communist Party did so recognizing that central weakness, but many more who were sympathetic to the left-wing ideals of the Communist Party did not join. Along with plain racism which was a formidable obstacle to class unity, both communism and socialism carried the stigma of being considered un-American, and those are the primary limitations of both approaches.
Clash of Ideologies
Ethnic and racial backlash as well as xenophobia in the United States after World War I embodied by the Ku Klux Klan, the Palmer Raids and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial had clearly identified socialism and communism as “un-American.” Just as integration and black nationalism have inherent built-in approaches that are in conflict with one another, it’s easy to see the built-in conflict that communism and socialism have with the NAACP which is an integrationist oriented organization. That is, how can an organization whose focus is integration with America possibly associate with a group or party that is considered un-American?
Also, as was the case with the NAACP and Booker T. Washington, the conflict between the NAACP and the Communist Party was openly hostile. Communist agitators held protests, marches, and dove headlong in the fiercest battlegrounds. In 1931, the Communist Party began organizing black and white sharecroppers in Camp Hill, Alabama. The reaction of the NAACP leadership is somewhat reminiscent of Booker T. Washington’s initial response to the NAACP. The NAACP denounced the Communist Party for recklessly putting African American lives at risk by agitating and organizing in the most hostile settings.
Likewise, the goals of the Communist Party and the socialists were inherently in conflict with those of black nationalists like Marcus Garvey. Garvey rejected class unity in favor of racial unity. Class unity between blacks and poor whites would never work because he believed that racial prejudice was congenital and could never be purged from whites. So the central inherent conflict between the two was on of class unity versus racial unity.
A. Philip Randolph referred to Marcus Garvey as “the supreme Negro Jamaican Jackass,” an “unquestioned fool and ignoramus,” and he launched a campaign “to drive Garvey and Garveyism in all its sinister viciousness from the American soil.” Cyril Briggs’s open hostility and attacks against Marcus Garvey ultimately provided the ammunition that the United States government used to marginalize and ultimately convict Garvey on charges of mail fraud, which led to his exile from the United States.
For his part, Marcus Garvey relentlessly attacked both the Communists and the NAACP, calling WEB Du Bois a “lazy, dependent mulatto.” Ironically, his attacks against the NAACP mirrored those of the Communist Party. Noting the class bias, and the NAACP’s apparent lack of concern for poor blacks, he referred to the NAACP as the National Association For The Advancement Of Certain People. The Communist Party was not nearly so bound by class bias and, in fact, welcomed the opportunity to build alliances with poor and working-class African-Americans.