BLACK LABOR MILITANCY AND THE KNIGHTS OF LABOR
While the black press debated the desirability of blacks joining the ranks of labor, Negro workers themselves were demonstrating what was for southern whites an alarming tendency to organize and fight for higher pay and improved working conditions. The mythology that blacks were docile and tractable workers came under challenge in the 1880s when those same workers displayed an assertiveness decidedly uncharacteristic of the straw man created by racial mythology.
The most dramatic mechanism through which black workers asserted their militance was the strike. In March 1880, plantation wage laborers in St. John Parish demanded an increase from 75₵ to $1.00 per day. When the owners refused to comply, blacks left the fields, and strike leaders travelled from plantation to plantation enforcing the stoppage. Violence inevitably followed, and the governor quickly ordered troops to the scene, withdrawing them only after they had arrested the ringleaders and broken the strike. Typically, the newspapers reported the troubles with a deliberate planter bias (Doc. 1–5).
In East Atchison, Missouri, whites mobbed black strikers in July 1880, and the authorities refused to send the militia to protect them (Doc. 7). Another strike conducted at a Jacksonville, Florida, saw mill culminated in a gun battle between the primarily black strikers and the police (Doc. 6). On the other hand, during the 1881 New Orleans Cotton Yard strike, 4,000 black and white workers displayed a high degree of class solidarity (Doc. 8). Between 2,000 and 3,000 workers of both races attended the funeral of a black drayman shot by police during the stoppage, and other unions sent representatives as well. The employers brought in scabs from Savannah and, naturally, the mayor supported the employers. As the police made mass arrests, numerous non-striking black men and women also were jailed for assisting the workers (Doc. 10). During the week of disturbances which followed, the police shot another black man, which prompted one Louisiana newspaper to wonder why, when thousands of strikers of both races took to the streets, only blacks were shot (Doc. 11).
In this atmosphere of working class solidarity, the Knights of Labor began a definite campaign to enlist black members (Doc. 14–25). Southern Negroes generally responded favorably once it became apparent that the Order was open to them. But the South was not a homogeneous region and its work force was fractured by class, race, and provincialism. Consequently, black and white relations among the working classes varied greatly by locale. In some places white Knights refused to organize blacks and paid the penalty of defeat. Such was the case in Galveston, Texas, where between 1,500 and 2,00 Knights went on strike in November 1888. When black strikebreakers were imported, racial confrontation seemed inevitable (Doc. 26). For whites the main issue was the employer’s use of black workers. Since they refused to recognize the needs of Negro workers, the white laborers chose to view the strike as a struggle for the “protection of white labor.” Trouble appeared imminent when the black longshoremen announced that they would not “tamely submit” to being replaced. Tension mounted when the local Master Workman of the Knights attempted to get three black policemen fired, and when the militia was mustered (Doc. 27–31).
Working conditions for blacks were generally worse in the South than in the North. The truck system of payment, the leasing of convicts, and other devices by which tillers of the soil were kept in debt, and sometimes debt peonage, all provided the landless agricultural workers of the region with a multitude of grievances which called for organized action. But here employer resistance to the organization of black farm workers was particularly severe. Just south of Little Rock, Arkansas, three assemblies of black Knights were organized, and a strike was called in July 1886 for improved wages and to protest exploitation at the company store. Believing that a rebellion of racial revenge was underway, planters sent their families away, and an armed posse assembled to quell this outrage to the planters’ sense of racial order (Doc. 34–35).