RACE RELATIONS WITHIN THE KNIGHTS OF LABOR
The Knights of Labor attempted to circumvent the racial issue by arguing that it had no relationship to the economic goals of the Order without at the same time betraying its own constitutional principles on racial equality. In this the Knights failed. Opponents of “social equality” successfully undermined the Order’s effectiveness in the South, and fractured the working class along racial lines. Racial liberalism among many leading southern unionists only served to heighten the tensions among rank-and-file workers within the Order, and displayed the fundamental weakness in the Knight’s strategy of accepting blacks as economic equals while accommodating southern views on social inferiority. This ambivalence manifested itself in the structure of the organization in the South where the vast majority of local assemblies were segregated.
On the other hand, district assemblies were generally integrated, but pressures for segregation often came from blacks themselves. Those black locals which favored the establishment of racially separate districts did so in order to expand the number of Negro delegates sent to the state and general assemblies. State assemblies in the South also were integrated, with blacks participating fully, including election to state office. In short, the Knights compromised with segregation at the local level, but maintained integrated assemblies at the higher levels of organization. The leadership realized that in the South it had to court blacks, for to organize only white workers would be self-defeating. Racial mores in the region, however, militated against working-class unity. Often, white Knights steadfastly opposed the organization of Negroes if it meant that they would attend the meetings of white locals. After the Ferrell incident at the 1886 convention, criticism of the Knights’ racial posture reached a crescendo. The public association of the Knights with “social equality” took a heavy toll in white membership, and by 1887 the Order was under attack from every quarter in the South. The charges against the Knights of Labor seemed to be confirmed by the heavy influx of blacks until, as one Negro Knight remarked: “Nigger and Knight have become synonymous terms” (Doc. 4).
Ultimately, most white Knights failed to accept the notion that black and white economic problems bound them together in a common cause. Whites refused to break away from the standard racial etiquette of the region, and resented the growing influence of Negroes within the Order. They had no intention of seeing black workers elevated from a servile position. As one authority has noted: “In the contest between economic interest and racial prejudice, prejudice won, as usual.”
As the somewhat opportunistic strategy of the national leadership became more and more apparent, interest among black workers began to fade, until by 1890, it ceased to exist at all. By then the Order had abandoned the black worker, as many Negroes suspected it would all along, and refused to take a stand even in general terms against the rising tide of racial segregation. In 1894 the Knights announced that the only solution to the “Negro Problem” in the United States was to raise federal funds for the deportation of blacks to Africa. A poll of white locals revealed overwhelming sentiment in favor of the idea, and James R. Sovereign, the Iowa editor who succeeded Powderly as Grand Master Workman that same year, was instructed by the Executive Board to mobilize support for the African colonization of American blacks. Predictably, Negro workers were outraged, and the black press was filled with angry protests denouncing the Noble Order in the most ignoble of terms.
By 1893 the Knights’ membership rolls had dropped to 200,000. Two years later it stood at 20,000, and after 1895 it ceased to exist as a viable labor organization. Documents 1–14 reveal the conflicting tendencies within the Order, while Documents 15–20 demonstrate how far the Knights had fallen from their original ideals, finally to succumb to colonization, that most stillborn of American solutions to the “Negro question.”