The exclusion of black workers from right-wing unions within the labor movement was opposed by those on the left. Indeed, even though the “Negro Problem” stirred considerable antagonism among left-wing labor organizations, the conflict centered on the best means for achieving the integration of blacks into mainstream unionism.
The socialists saw communism as a threat to their own influence, to be sure, but also to their view of the good society. Communists, with their talk of revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat, laid too much emphasis on destruction of the capitalistic system rather than constructive change, the socialists contended. Furthermore, they showed no regard for such cherished values as freedom of thought among the people they hoped to lead, and the communists’ rise to power would only mean replacing one dictator with another. The communists, on the other hand viewed the socialists as all talk and no action. They charged the socialists with underestimating the power and determination of the capitalists to maintain themselves in power, and were convinced that violence would probably be necessary for the workers to gain control of the means of production.
Because the Communist Party had a stronger philosophical commitment to social activism and articulated a more unified ideological strategy than the socialists, their influence in the labor movement was much more visible. Numerous labor organizations were supported by the Communist Party. One of them, the Trade Union Educational League, was founded in November, 1920, by William Z. Foster to unite communists, non-communist radicals, and moderates within the AFL and the railroad brotherhoods in an effort to organize Negro workers into established unions. The T.U.E.L. achieved few concrete results among blacks, however, and, in 1929, the Trade Union Unity League was organized to revitalize and continue this work. With Foster serving as secretary, the T.U.U.L. aimed to gather the unorganized into industrial reformist unions of the AFL, and to bring Negroes into the labor movement through left-wing unions which accepted all workers.
The CP helped finance other activities among black workers as well. For example, it supported two black communists, Levett Fort-Whiteman and H. W. Phillips, who organized the American Negro Labor Congress. It met in October, 1925, and declared its intention to unionize black workers and to abolish racial discrimination in the union movement. Even though the Congress received notorious publicity in the press, it achieved little else. Consequently, a broad coalition of organizations interested in the problems of black workers remained a serious need when the National Negro Congress was organized in 1936. The NNC certainly qualified to fill that role, for representatives from 585 organizations heard A. Philip Randolph inaugurate the latest movement to organize blacks into industrial unions. The charge that it was a front for the CP, which helped finance the organization, hampered the NNC’s efforts. Nevertheless, it continued to function until 1947, even though fragmented by internal schisms.
The communists’ cause célébre of the era, however, was the case of Angelo Herndon. On July 11, 1932, the young black communist organizer was arrested in Atlanta, Georgia, while leading relief demonstrations of the black and white unemployed, Herndon was convicted under an archaic law related to the incitement of slave insurrections, and sentenced to serve from eighteen to twenty years in prison. After a five-year struggle, the Supreme Court reversed Herndon’s conviction by a five to four decision.
Part V documents these and other developments in the left-wing struggle to organize black workers.