The Bond Of Poverty

Today, while the ruling class works tirelessly to separate and divide across racial lines, and as the social fabric that is pinned down by the capitalist order continues to crumble, and as the hopes of the poor flow faster and stronger into a pre-packaged containment of ruling class narrative, we all must be increasingly diligent not to fall into today’s identity politics and its seductive trappings. We must understand another way and what is possible by looking to the past.

Despite the bourgeois wisdom in circulation, history remembers moments of real racial unity against the power of Capital. Poking through the silent American narrative are, perhaps, the most useful examples. Many can be found in the labor history of the United States;  it’s radical and enlightening, but remains largely unknown. The implications of these bold acts of the past are, to the order of a capitalist society, too scary for deep analysis – being too filled with unity, solidarity and kinetic energy against fundamental social injustices.

Below is an excerpt from History of The Labor Movement In The United States vol 2, p. 69-70.

While the Knights of Labor did not succeed in eliminating race prejudice in its ranks and in eradicating discriminatory practices against Negro members, it did establish a significant record of labor solidarity. For the first time in the history of the American labor movement, widespread Negro-white unity flourished as Negro and white members of the Order acted together for common purposes. In the South, race prejudice, built up assiduously for over a century by the ruling class, suffered serious setbacks at the hands of the fellowship of labor.

In Richmond and Norfolk, Negro and white Knights employed in some of the factories worked together cooperatively, and a reporter was amazed to find that “harmony prevails between white and black workmen.”¹ A dispatch from Charleston, South Carolina in John Swinton’s Paper of May 13, 1886, tells a significant story: “The white and colored mechanics and laborers of this city are working in great harmony as K. of L. This is a grand stride. The organization of the K. of L. has done this much for the South. When everything else had failed, the bond of poverty united the white and colored mechanic and laborer.”

In many industries where the Knights exercised influence, Negro and white workers engaged in strikes together. Thus in Baltimore, Nero and white caulkers joined the Knights for mutual protection against a cut in wages. The men were on strike from August 3, 1885, to May 6, 1886, and throughout this prolonged period, they resisted every attempt by the employers and the press to drive a wedge between them by appeals to racial prejudice. One hundred and fifty strike breakers were imported, but Negro and white caulkers united to drive them out of the shipyards. The strike was settled with what the United States Labor Commissioner referred to as “partial success” for the strikers. The caulkers’ wages were reduced from $2.75 to $2.50 a day, and the working week remained at 60 hours.² The strike ended with the unity between Negro and white workers strengthened.

In Louisville, Kentucky, over 6,000 Negro and white marched together in a K. of L. parade. Louisville parks were closed to Negroes, but after marching though the streets, the parade entered National Park, and “thus have the Knights of Labor broken the walls of prejudice.” In Birmingham, Alabama, over 5,000 Negro and white marched in a labor demonstration sponsored by the Order. After the parade, a Negro speaker and a white speaker addressed the workers form the same platform. The Knights of Dallas, Texas, held a Fourth of July celebration and a Negro local assembly marched with the white workers. After the parade, two of the speakers were Negroes. “This is the first time such a thing happened in Texas,” observed a contemporary newspaper.³

At a great Labor Day parade in Baltimore in 1886, 25,000 persons, Negro and white, were reviewed by Powderly [a white leader of the Order]. A reporter noted the fact that Negro workers were “well mixed in and though the procession. In some instances, you would see an assembly composed entirely of colored Knights; another assembly would be perhaps half colored, and in some instances one solitary colored individual would be marching with any number of his white trades-brothers. The procession was a very orderly one, the colored and white fraternizing as if it had been a common thing all their lives.”¹¹ The following year, one of the K. of L. recommendations to the Maryland legislature included the striking out of the word “white” wherever it occurred in the constitution and laws of the State.²²

Reference Notes:

¹John Swintons’ Paper, Oct. 17, 1886, March 20, 1887; Cleveland Gazette, Sept. 11, 1886; Sidney H. Kessler, “The Organization of Negroes in the Knights of Labor,” Journal of Negro History, vol. XXXVII, July, 1952, pp. 257-62.

² Jeffrey H. Brackett, “Notes on the Progress of the Colored People of Maryland Since the War,” Johns Hopkins Studies in History and Political Science, 8th Series, VII-VIII-IX, 1890, p. 377; Second Biennial Report of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics and Information of Maryland, 1886-1887, Annapolis 1888, p. 70.

³ John Swinton’s Paper, May 16, 1886; Journal of United Labor, Aug. 6, 1887.

¹¹ Cleveland Gazette, May 8, 1886; July 23, 1887; New York Freeman, May 8, 1886, John Swinton’s Paper, July 3, 1887; Huntsville Gazette, July 23, 1887.

²² John Swinton’s Paper, Sept. 19, 1886; New York Freeman, Sept. 11, 1886; New Orleans Weekly Pelican, July 30, 1887

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