BLACK SOCIALISM AND GREENBACKISM
During the 1870s, the black worker was caught in the vortex of contracting alternatives. The federal government began, and finally completed, its withdrawal from the commitmemt to full equality for freedmen. As the federal government retreated from Radical racial policies, white southerners regained home rule and succeeded in all but eliminating blacks from political power. Moreover, at that very moment when black workers were most in need of white union support, those same unions became even more vigorous in excluding blacks from the ranks of the organized.
Against this general background, it is not surprising to find some blacks concluding that a major change in the American political and economic system was in order. One of the black leaders was Peter H. Clark of Cincinnati. Clark’s grandfather, William Clark, was the “Clark” of the Lewis and Clark Expedition sent by Thomas Jefferson in 1804 to explore the continent and find a route to the Pacific. In 1849 Peter Clark became a teacher in the city’s colored public schools, and after a brief flirtation with African colonization, decided to stay in Cincinnati. He launched his own newspaper in 1855, the Herald of Freedom, and in 1866 became principal of Gaines High School (colored). Although an ardent Republican prior to and during the Civil War, in the immediate post-war years Clark steadily moved to the left. In a speech delivered on March 26, 1877, Clark became the first Afro–American to identify himself publically with socialism, announcing his support for the Workingmen’s Party of the United States, the first Marxist political party in this country (Doc. 2). Peter Clark’s basic ideas are presented in Documents 1–5.
The Greenback Party emerged from a series of agrarian conventions in 1875, and pledged itself to a repeal of the resumption of specie payment act as a means for improving the farmers’ economic position. In other developments, the brutal force used to break the great strikes of 1877 taught many mechanics that some form of political action outside the traditional party structure was necessary. Consequently, workers’ parties sprang up across the country. Out of mutual necessity, they soon began to merge with the Greenback Party in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. The election returns of 1877 accelerated the formulation of a national unity platform for the farmers and the mechanics, which finally took place in Toledo, Ohio, in February 1878. Both groups agreed in principle that the economic woes of laboring men resulted from the machinations of speculators and monopolists, and they agreed upon the need to reduce the hours in a work day, and both demanded an expansion in the money supply. Yet, the alliance between Labor and the Greenbackers essentially was unstable. The Greenbackers believed that financial reform would cure all of society’s ills. On the other hand, workers wanted much more, demanding that the government operate the railroads and other public facilities upon which the unemployed would be put to work, ownership of land and prohibition of large accumulations of wealth in the hands of a few, and other goals such as the shorter work day, direct elections, and a graduated income tax. Inevitably the two groups split and by 1879 the joint Greenback-Labor movement was all but dead.
Still, here was a platform with which black workers could readily identify even if the greenback panacea aroused little interest among them. The extent to which southern blacks supported the movement is open to further study, but as historian Herbert G. Gutman has suggested (see note 71), many southern blacks undoubtedly shifted their hopes to the Greenback-Labor movement as a reaction to the Republican retreat from Radical Reconstruction. A majority of the Greenback clubs in Mississippi and Texas, for example, were probably composed of blacks. At least some of the Nationals in Arkansas and Alabama also found support among black radicals. The letters reproduced as Documents 6–35 reveal that probably more blacks than whites were attracted to the movement in Alabama. Nationals at Helena, Jefferson Mines, and Warrior Station, located in the coal fields near Birmingham, exemplified a progressive inclination for working–class solidarity among black and white coal miners who belonged to the movement.