SHOULD BLACKS JOIN THE RANKS OF LABOR?
The heightened militancy of American laborers during the late 1870s and 1880s rendered it vital to the interest of black workers to form some consensus regarding the advisability of trying to join the labor movement, or to remain apart from it. While the issue had confronted blacks before, the rise of the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor, which reached its membership peak in 1886, agitated the question as never before. The Knights’ policy of organizing all workers, except financial speculators and liquor dealers, into one big union was not entirely new; what was unique about the Knights, however, was the constitutional rejection of racial discrimination within the organization.
This public position on racial equality in union membership fueled a heated debate in the black press during the 1880s. The positions expressed in these black newspapers, which are sampled in Part II, break down into several general categories. No doubt there were some Negroes, like one member of the Carpenters’ and Joiners’ Union, who rejected altogether the notion that blacks were discriminated against at all once they joined existing unions. This black unionman charged that Negroes had demonstrated little interest in learning the skills required to join a craft union, thus laying the blame for low black membership at the door of Negroes themselves (Doc. 2). But most blacks probably held views somewhat less sanguine. Knowledgeable Negroes generally agreed with Frederick Douglass, who believed that all workers had the same economic interests in receiving “an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.” He believed that laborers of all races eventually would organize for their own protection, for the poverty of “wage slavery” was only a little less galling than chattel slavery (Doc. 1).
The New York Freeman agreed with Douglass, and generally supported the view that since the Knights were willing to accept all workers regardless of race, and since the organization had the power to shut down the entire economy, blacks should belong. Moreover, blacks were, by and large, laboring people and therefore had a moral obligation to join the struggle for a more equitable distribution of wealth (Doc. 4). Black and white workers had the same economic interests, the Freeman argued, and could not afford to alienate white workers by refusing to join with them (Doc. 10–11).
On the other hand, some Afro-Americans followed the issue with the same suspicion as the New York Age, which pointed out that, at least as early as April 1886, the Knights had not actively attempted to organize black workers. The Age reminded its readers that past experiences with white workers did not justify the belief that the Knights would actually practice their own constitutional principles on racial equality (Doc. 5). John R. Lynch, a former U.S. Senator from Mississippi and one of only three blacks ever to serve in that august body, agreed with the Age and suggested that the Knights only thought of blacks as “tools.” As evidence, Lynch alluded to the fact that, even when Negro workers supported unions, many white Knights still refused to work alongside them. Lynch concluded, however, that exclusion itself caused racial prejudice and, rather than remain aloof, blacks must fight for access into the dominant unions (Doc. 6).
Adopting a more nationalistic point of view, the Washington Bee advocated the organization of “all colored labor into one strong fraternity” powerful enough either to force white unions to accept blacks, or to erect an independent black body (Doc. 8).
In a pamphlet published in 1887, William H. Councill, a southern black conservative, expressed views less in keeping with the working classes but quite in tune with the intellectual climate of the day. Espousing a hybrid “social darwinism,” Councill believed that labor and capital were not antagonistic forces at all. Stretching sophistry to its limits, he concluded that all people were accumulators of wealth; rich people simply had excelled in this capacity. Envy, not injustice, was the root of the conflict between labor and capital. Anticipating the ideology popularized by Booker T. Washington a decade later, Councill announced that blacks were the “most desirable” of all laborers they were unskilled for the most part, and if they remained so, the laws of the marketplace would forever render them outcasts (Doc. 12).