Workers Vanguard No. 1048
13 June 2014
Ida B. Wells
A Black Womans Fight Against Lynch Terror
(Women and Revolution pages)
We print below a forum, edited for publication, given by Lisa Martin on April 5 in New York City.
Why do we say on the flyer for this forum that Ida B. Wells is a forgotten courageous fighter for black rights? It is true that some people have heard of her and there are now a number of biographies of her life. But her role has been purposely minimized and she has been turned into a harmless icon.
Born a slave in 1862 in the middle of the Civil War, Ida B. Wells was in the forefront of the fight for black rights in the post-Reconstruction era—a time of widespread lynch-rope terror when black people, although not returned to slavery, were being solidified as a race-color caste at the bottom of American society. She refused to accommodate racist reaction in any way and so was anathema to those like Booker T. Washington and his apologists who repudiated militant struggle against the racist status quo. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) initially kept her out of its leadership and even appropriated some of her efforts while disappearing her role in the anti-lynching struggle.
In contrast to Wells, Booker T. Washington was a black leader whom all the white racist capitalist leaders could appreciate. Coming to the fore in the 1890s, he represented acquiescence to forcible segregation. Washington is famous for his Tuskegee Institute, which was created to prepare blacks for menial labor, and for his “Atlanta Compromise” speech in 1895 that advocated that black people work hard, accept segregation and submit meekly to racist oppression.
Washington’s emphasis on “industrial education” appalled Wells, who observed in the article “Booker T. Washington and His Critics,” which ran in the magazine World Today (1904):
“This gospel of work is no new one for the Negro. It is the South’s old slavery practice in a new dress. It was the only education the South gave the Negro for two and a half centuries she had absolute control of his body and soul. The Negro knows that now, as then, the South is strongly opposed to his learning anything else but how to work.”
Wells characterized the Tuskegean’s answer to lynching as “give me money to educate the Negro and when he is taught how to work, he will not commit the crime for which lynching is done.” In her eyes, Washington ignored the fact that “lynching is not invoked to punish crime but color, and not even industrial education will change that.”
As comrade Don Alexander pointed out in a forum, it makes perfect sense that Washington is being rehabilitated in this reactionary period [see “The Rehabilitation of Booker T. Washington,” WV No. 1000, 13 April 2012]. The current Democratic president Barack Obama, the first black CEO of bloody U.S. imperialism, hailed Booker T. Washington as “the leader of a growing civil rights movement.” Both Obama and Washington came to the fore in periods of reaction and serve well the white ruling class, in part by despicably telling black people that their ongoing oppression in this racist capitalist society is their own fault.
On February 27, Obama gave a speech to young black men at the White House. He lectured them on their “responsibilities,” adding that “you will have to tune out the naysayers who say the deck is stacked against you.” And this speech was given in the presence of the parents of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, two young black men who had been shot dead by racists in Florida, a state with a “stand your ground” law that promotes vigilantism. This blame-the-victim crap is sickening, but it is in line with Booker T. Washington. In 1906, three weeks before a horrific anti-black pogrom in Atlanta, Georgia, Washington gave a speech denouncing black people for committing too much crime. The white racist press ate it up.
We oppose Obama and all other politicians from the capitalist parties on principle. Democrats, Republicans and Greens all represent the interests of the ruling class. We’re for a workers party independent from the class enemy. Such a party, born out of class struggle by the multiracial working class and integrated unions, would fight for the rights of blacks, immigrants, women and gays as part of the struggle to overturn capitalism.
Growing Up Amid Racist Reaction
Ida B. Wells represented continuity in a long line of black women who were in the forefront of the fight against slavery and for black liberation. Harriet Tubman played a vanguard role in laying the groundwork for black freedom in the U.S. as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and a military strategist and spy during the Civil War. Harriet Jacobs was an active abolitionist fighter who lived through the Civil War, struggled to implement the promises of Radical Reconstruction—the most democratic period for black people in this country—and witnessed the betrayal of those promises.
Wells grew up during Reconstruction, which went through distinct phases, and experienced the exhilaration of the freed slaves during those volatile years. In her youth, she came to expect full equality and refused to accept anything less. Wells persistently fought against the stream of reaction that was ascendant after the defeat of Radical Reconstruction. That defeat gave rise to a new political alliance of big planters, Southern capitalists and certain Northern financial interests, in particular, investors in Southern railroads, land, mining and timber. In “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom” (1966) [reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9], one of the Spartacist tendency’s founding documents, we describe what happened:
“This bloc initiated a campaign of violent race hatred among their political opponents which succeeded in destroying the developing black-white unity. In the context of the new racism the Black people were disenfranchised, stripped of all legal rights, and permanently denied access to adequate education. Those setbacks were codified into a series of laws institutionalizing the rigid segregation which has been the dominant feature of the South ever since.”
The civil rights struggles in the 1950s and ’60s resulted in real gains for black people in the realm of legal equality. Yet the black masses remain specially oppressed: economically the last-hired, first-fired, and through state and extralegal racist terror forcibly segregated at the bottom of society in ghettos, prisons and prison-like schools.
When Wells was born, the Civil War was raging and her hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi, was in the thick of the fighting. Located 40 miles southeast of Memphis, Tennessee, and almost 200 miles north of Vicksburg, Mississippi, Holly Springs changed hands at least 57 times during the war. In November 1862, Union general Ulysses S. Grant entered Holly Springs with a force of 5,000, nearly doubling the population of the town. After the Union victory in the war, 200 federal soldiers occupied Holly Springs, which became the regional headquarters of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The first couple of years after the Civil War were called Presidential Reconstruction. During this time, racist “black codes” were passed in many states, land that had been given to freedmen was taken back, and racist attacks were rampant. In 1866, horrific racist massacres in Memphis and New Orleans made many realize that President Andrew Johnson’s leniency toward the former Confederates had unleashed renewed barbarism.
The clash beginning on May 1 in Memphis between recently discharged black veterans and racist mobs, mainly Irish cops and firemen, resulted in the deaths of 46 black people. Hundreds of black homes were also burned down. Then on July 30, New Orleans cops—many Confederate veterans—attacked a Radical-dominated constitutional convention called by the governor and attended by 25 delegates who were guarded by 200 black supporters, many former soldiers. Thirty-four black people and three white Radical Republicans were killed and over 100 were injured.
The political tide turned toward a more radical Reconstruction. The Congressional Reconstruction Acts of 1867-68 were passed, placing the states of the former Confederacy under martial law. Two things came out of this period: voting rights for black men and public education for both black and white children. However, the capitalist class did not and could not make a serious effort to redistribute land to the former slaves because of its own interest in protecting private property.
Learning the Importance of Struggle
Ida was inspired by her father Jim Wells. He was active in Reconstruction politics and refused to back down when the racists tried to intimidate him. With Reconstruction making public education available for the first time, Jim and Lizzy Wells insisted that their children receive as much education as possible. Ida later recalled, “Our job was to go to school and learn all we could.”
Jim Wells was apparently active in the town’s Loyal League, a black political organization run by A.C. McDonald of Shaw University and Nelson Gill of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Republican-affiliated Loyal League was founded in 1863 in the North. The Republican Party began as a pro-Union, anti-slavery capitalist party. The Democratic Party, in contrast, was a pro-Confederate, pro-slavery party. Following the Civil War, thousands of black freedmen throughout the South organized and voted for the Republican Party through the Loyal League, also known as “Lincoln’s Legal Loyal League.”
The Loyal League held torchlight parades at night in Holly Springs during election campaigns. Hundreds and even thousands of black marchers would fill the city streets with what whites referred to as “obscene pictures” of the Democratic Party candidates painted on thin cloth, ten to twelve feet long. Of course, the racists did not think it “obscene” that when marching for the Democratic Party they carried a coffin in a mock funeral procession for Nelson Gill, who with his wife ran one of two freedmen’s schools in Holly Springs, the one allied with the Baptists. Ida attended the Methodist-run Shaw University (now Rust College), where her father was a trustee.
The town was relatively violence-free, although white hostility did show itself on the sidewalks of the town square. Gill’s school let out about the same time each afternoon as the Female Institute and Bethlehem Academy, which were attended by whites. The students from each flocked home in groups. The whites claimed right of way, but Mrs. Gill would no more cede to them than her husband would back off in politics. She placed herself in the center of her pupils, who would lock arms to form a solid wall across the sidewalk. The white girls would have to pass around or come into contact with the black girls. Ida’s uncompromising attitude toward full equality was formed in this atmosphere.
Her first fight was against segregation in train travel. As a young woman, Wells began teaching school in Woodstock, Tennessee, 12 miles north of Memphis, where she lived with her aunt and sisters. Although she had been riding the train without incident for over a year, one Saturday evening in 1883 en route to Woodstock a conductor decided she did not belong in the first-class car because she was black. At first, Wells ignored the conductor, but he returned and picked up her bags to move them to the second-class smoking car. Wells resisted. The conductor grabbed her arm as she braced herself against the seat. He tore her clothing, so she bit his hand, drawing blood. The conductor returned with two other men to force this petite woman into the smoking car. Instead, she demanded to be let off. She was dumped off the train unceremoniously as white racist passengers cheered.
Wells did not back down. She sued the railroad, winning $200. The railroad appealed. The suit was going nowhere, but her attorney, who she suspected was bought off by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, promised that it would not further harass her. Once again she was thrown out of first class and once again she sued. This time, she retained another attorney and was awarded $500 on the basis that the separate car was not equal. It took until 1887 for the appeal by the railroad to be settled, with the judges ruling against Wells and holding her liable for $200 in court costs.
This legal fight was but one example of resistance to racist reaction. While the recall of the final Union troops from the South in 1877 represented the official end of Radical Reconstruction, black people engaged in ongoing struggles against their enforced segregation up until and after the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision made “separate but equal” segregation the law of the land. Separate is never equal in this racist society, as Wells was quite aware.
A Crusading Journalist
Wells published an article about her case, introducing her to the field of journalism. Meanwhile, Wells was fired from her teaching job in Memphis because she publicly denounced the deplorable condition of the segregated black schools there. It was as a journalist that she took up the fight against lynching.
In 1894, Frederick Douglass, the radical abolitionist leader, wrote about the epidemic of lynching in “Why Is the Negro Lynched?” He observed:
“Not a breeze comes to us from the late rebellious states that is not tainted and freighted with Negro blood. In its thirst for blood and its rage for vengeance, the mob has blindly, boldly and defiantly supplanted sheriffs, constables and police…. There is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood-chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the coloured people of this country, by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South.”
Douglass explained that the myth of the black rapist was invented after the Civil War to justify lynch law. He pointed out that during the Civil War and Reconstruction, even while scores of black people were killed by white mobs, the charge of rape was never made as justification. Instead, it was claimed that black people were plotting insurrection and planning to kill all white people and take over.
Wells took the myth of the black rapist head-on as editor of the Free Speech, an outspoken Memphis newspaper. An 1891 editorial stated: “Those Georgetown Kentucky Negroes who set fire to the town last week because a Negro named Dudley had been lynched, show some of the true spark of manhood by their resentment.” Wells advocated black retaliation against white racist terror as the only way to stop the atrocities.
Galvanizing her campaign against racist lynching was the March 1892 victimization of Calvin McDowell, Henry Stewart and her close friend Thomas Moss. Wells described the lynching of the three “peaceful, law-abiding citizens and energetic businessmen” who ran a grocery store in a Memphis suburb. A white man named Barrett, the owner of a rival store on the opposite corner, had gone into their grocery with a drawn pistol, threatening to “clean them out.” After hearing that Barrett was returning with a group to attack them, her friends “mustered forces and prepared to defend themselves against the attack.” Barrett came with a 12-man posse, supposedly with a warrant. Wells continued:
“When they entered the backdoor the young men thought the threatened attack was on, and fired into them. Three of the officers were wounded, and when the defending party found it was officers of the law upon whom they had fired, they ceased and got away....
“Excitement was at fever heat until the morning papers, two days after, announced that the wounded deputy sheriffs were out of danger. This hindered rather than helped the plans of the whites. There was no law on the statute books which would execute an Afro-American for wounding a white man, but the ‘unwritten law’ did. Three of these men, the president, the manager and clerk of the grocery—‘the leaders of the conspiracy’—were secretly taken from jail and lynched in a shockingly brutal manner. ‘The Negroes are getting too independent,’ they say, ‘we must teach them a lesson.’ What lesson? The lesson of subordination. ‘Kill the leaders and it will cow the Negro who dares to shoot a white man, even in self defense’.”
—Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892)
In Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, published decades after her death in 1970, Ida wrote: “Like many another person who had read of lynching in the South, I had accepted the idea meant to be conveyed—that although lynching was irregular and contrary to law and order, unreasoning anger over the terrible crime of rape led to the lynching; that perhaps the brute deserved death anyhow and the mob was justified in taking his life.” But these three black men were lynched “with just as much brutality as other victims of the mob; and they had committed no crime against white women.” She described how this “opened my eyes to what lynching really was. An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.”
In her 1895 pamphlet, The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, Wells stated: “During the past thirty years in the South...more than ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution...and for all these murders only three white men have been tried, convicted and executed.” During the 1890s, lynchings in the South averaged two per week. Black people were resisting segregation and disenfranchisement and these lynchings were used to force acceptance of Jim Crow.
The Right of Armed Self-Defense
Wells was in favor of black armed self-defense. In her autobiography, she relates how she bought a pistol “after Tom Moss was lynched, because I expected some cowardly retaliation from the lynchers. I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap. I had already determined to sell my life as dearly as possible if attacked. I felt if I could take one lyncher with me, this would even up the score a little bit.”
In her pamphlet Southern Horrors, which the newspaper New York Age published after she was driven out of Memphis, she further stressed the importance of armed self-defense for black people:
“Of the many inhuman outrages of this present year, the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves…. The only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense. The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life.”
Contrary to the pacifist mythology of the civil rights movement, there is a long history of armed self-defense on the part of black people. The approximately 200,000 black soldiers who fought in the Civil War held onto their arms as long as they could. In the 1930s, Southern union organizers and sharecroppers armed to defend themselves. During the 1950s and ’60s, black gun clubs such as that started by Robert F. Williams in Monroe, North Carolina, and the Deacons for Defense in Louisiana were organized around the country to stop racist Klan terror. Many black soldiers returning from Korea and Vietnam refused to put their guns down and utilized their military training to defend the civil rights struggle from Klan terror. The racist capitalist state has systematically disarmed black people in order to fully subjugate them.
The entire working class has an interest in opposing gun control laws. If you support gun control, you support the capitalist state having a monopoly of arms. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. pushed. The Spartacist League opposes gun control and collected money for the Deacons with the slogan “Every dime buys a bullet.”
Rape and Race
Wells’s article about the Memphis lynching outraged the white ruling class. An Associated Press dispatch from Memphis that she read while on vacation in New York shortly after the article was published said that a committee of leading citizens went to the office of her paper, the Free Speech, and ran the business manager, J.L. Fleming, out of town. They destroyed the type and furnishings and left a note warning that anyone trying to publish the paper again would be punished by death.
The article had noted that the “rape of helpless Negro girls and women, which began in slavery days, still continued without let or hindrance, check or reproof from church, state or press.” It continued:
“I also found that what the white man of the South practiced as all right for himself, he assumed to be unthinkable in white women. They could and did fall in love with the pretty mulatto and quadroon girls as well as black ones, but they professed an inability to imagine white women doing the same thing with Negro and mulatto men. Whenever they did so and were found out, the cry of rape was raised, and the lowest element of the white South was turned loose to wreak its fiendish cruelty on those too weak to help themselves.”
The white racists were infuriated that she spoke openly and boldly about consensual sex between white women and black men, which was an explosive issue.
Let’s be very clear. The accusation of rape had nothing to do with any crime against women. Instead, it was a cover for the hideous barbaric lynchings being carried out across the South. Rape was not even claimed as a justification in the majority of lynchings, but it did not matter. As Wells pointed out in Southern Horrors:
“This cry has had its effect. It has closed the heart, stifled the conscience, warped the judgment and hushed the voice of press and pulpit on the subject of lynch law throughout this ‘land of liberty.’ Men who stand high in the esteem of the public for christian character, for moral and physical courage, for devotion to the principles of equal and exact justice to all, and for great sagacity, stand as cowards who fear to open their mouths before this great outrage.... Even to the better class of Afro-Americans the crime of rape is so revolting they have too often taken the white man’s word and given lynch law neither the investigation nor condemnation it deserved.”
Wells observed that rape of black women by white men went unpunished. And as far as the Southern racists’ concern for the well-being of even white women, they had shown during Reconstruction that they cared nothing for the Northern white women who had traveled heroically to the South as teachers at the freedmen’s schools. Wells thundered condemnation on American lynch law. Her article in the New York Age, “The Truth About Lynching,” was widely published and 1,000 were sold in the streets of Memphis alone. The racists who destroyed the Free Speech to try and shut up Wells instead managed to propel her on an international tour, on which her words reverberated worldwide.
On the International Stage
Wells began her speaking career on October 5, 1892 at a talk organized by black women in New York that launched the Women’s Loyal Union. This appearance was followed by invitations to speak in Boston; Philadelphia; Wilmington, Delaware; Chester, Pennsylvania; and Washington, D.C. In Philadelphia, her talk was widely attended, including by many from the old abolitionist movement. Also attending was Catherine Impey, the editor of Anti-Caste, a magazine published in England that opposed caste oppression in India.
Wells’s first European engagement was at the home of Isabelle Fyvie Mayo, a Scottish author who provided shelter to students from Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) and India. The gruesome lynching of Henry Smith in Paris, Texas, in 1893 had shocked and outraged Mayo. In view of a mob of 10,000, Smith was tortured with hot irons for almost an hour and then doused with gasoline and burned to death. Wells wrote about it, noting that “the mob fought over the hot ashes for bones, buttons, and teeth for souvenirs.” When Mayo was told that many people were not aware of and so did not care about lynchings, she agreed to form a group called “Emancipation” that would take up the fight against lynch terror.
After first speaking in a drawing room at Mayo’s home before a small group of organizers, Wells went on to speak to a meeting attended by approximately 1,500. Wells gave talks all over Scotland, informing people of the atrocities occurring in the American South. She proceeded on to the English cities Newcastle, Birmingham and Manchester and got resolutions passed all over Britain. Those resolutions were published throughout the U.S., including the South, further enraging the racist authorities.
Wells traveled directly from her first anti-lynching lecture campaign in Europe to the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. It was a segregated event. Black people were not allowed, except at the Haitian exhibit. The Expo had reproductions of antebellum plantation scenes glorifying slavery and contained no hint of the violence and repression black people were being subjected to.
Wells saw possibilities in forcing visitors, who came to celebrate the progress of white men, to confront the bloodlust of white lynch mobs. Wells waged an uphill battle, even against Frederick Douglass, who was somewhat skeptical of her plan to publish an 81-page pamphlet, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition. Douglass wrote the introduction. Wells contributed a chapter titled “Lynch Law” and another on the convict lease system in the South that enslaved black people on chain gangs and was used to drive down wages of free labor. The Haitian government had asked Douglass to supervise its exhibit. So Wells was able to distribute 10,000 of these pamphlets from a desk she manned at the Haitian Building.
Wells and Women’s Rights
Like Douglass, Wells was a staunch champion of women’s rights—even though feminist leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, formerly avowed abolitionists, turned their movement for women’s rights into a tool of racist reaction following the Civil War. Feminists organized against passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution because it gave votes to black men and not to women.
Wells worked with the suffragists in a much later period and fought against their disgusting conciliation of Southern racists. In January 1913, Wells formed the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first suffrage group for black women in Chicago. The group sent Wells as its delegate to a national suffrage parade held on March 3, 1913 in Washington, D.C., during the presidential inauguration of the vile racist Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
To appease racist Southern white women who did not want an integrated march, the president of the Illinois Suffrage Association decided to exclude Wells from their delegation. Wells was outraged and declared she would boycott the march if she could not march under the Illinois banner. Instead of boycotting, though, she came out of the crowd along the parade route and slipped in next to a white Illinois delegate, successfully integrating the march without official permission.
Wells was a woman in a very anti-woman period. From the time she was 16 years old and took care of her siblings, Wells was maligned for taking on such responsibility as an independent young woman. Rumors went around that she was being kept as the mistress of an older white man, which infuriated her. Wells’s struggle for full equality was complicated by the fact that she wanted respectability as a woman, something which black women under slavery had been denied.
Slave masters routinely brutalized black girls and women—including Ida’s mother—justifying such dehumanizing treatment by labeling them “sexual savages.” Stripped, beaten and raped, black women suffered an extra burden under slavery. But “respectability” under capitalism, particularly in Victorian times, meant that a woman should be subjugated to a man in the nuclear family. Black working-class women are triply oppressed in capitalist society by race, sex and class.
Women’s right to vote in the U.S. was not recognized until after the Russian workers revolution of October 1917, which gave women the vote. The Bolshevik Revolution put the question of women’s rights on the international agenda as never before. Full equality for women necessitates replacing all the functions of the family with free 24-hour childcare, dining halls, laundries, cleaning services, not to mention free abortion on demand as part of free, quality health care for all. This real equality is what the Bolsheviks took steps toward after they took power. No capitalist government will ever do so.
Wells saw herself as an anomaly. She refused to limit herself to what were seen as “women’s concerns.” Wells had many suitors; many were writers who sparred with her in the press. Wells obviously was only going to get together with a man with a strong political backbone, someone who could respect her as his full equal. She married Ferdinand Barnett, a black lawyer living in Chicago, in 1895. They first met when they worked together on the anti-lynching pamphlet for the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Barnett owned a black newspaper, the Chicago Conservator, for which Wells began to write in 1893. They shared political views.
The Barnetts and W.E.B. Du Bois coalesced into an anti-Booker T. Washington camp following the 1903 publication of Du Bois’ book The Souls of Black Folk, a polemic against Washington. Du Bois presented his idea of a “talented tenth” elite of the black population who would uplift the black masses. Wells was particularly opposed to Washington’s servile acceptance of segregation because of her own bitter experience in Memphis.
White race riots and lynchings of blacks in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 led to the founding of the NAACP the following year. Wells spoke from the floor of Cooper Union at the initial NAACP meeting to urge the assembly not to compromise with Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee machine.
Du Bois was the only black person on the nominating committee for the NAACP’s leadership body. Also on that committee were Mary White Ovington, a member of the Socialist Party (SP), and Oswald Garrison Villard, the grandson of abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison and an avid Booker T. Washington supporter. Those two shunned Wells; Ovington was very condescending to blacks, seeing them only as victims, and thus opposed an outspoken radical black woman like Wells having a leadership position. Both Wells and William Monroe Trotter, another outspoken black radical of the time, were purposely omitted from the leadership body by Du Bois.
Later, Du Bois in his 1940 book Dusk of Dawn erased Wells from the campaign that saved Steve Greene of Arkansas, giving the credit to the NAACP. Greene was a black man who killed a white farmer in self-defense. In 1910, Greene arrived in Chicago wounded from the shootout and was extradited to Arkansas to be lynched. The Negro Fellowship League run by Wells raised money and organized a defense committee that spirited Greene to safety. Wells had him returned to Chicago and hid Greene successfully.
Wells in Context
Wells was a militant reformer. She was religious and was part of the black middle class, albeit somewhat of a thorn in their side. She appealed for federal legislation to ban lynching. Such a ban was her ultimate goal, as she did not have a Marxist perspective. She was a courageous liberal.
Wells has to be taken in historic context. The victory of the North in the Civil War opened the road for the development of the working class. The proletariat is key to the overthrow of capitalism, which is the only way forward for black liberation. While the young American working class waged some explosive struggles, including for the eight-hour day, it was still in its formative stage. Following the Civil War, a populist movement developed based on black and white poor farmers in the Midwest and the South. Big Business mobilized to smash this interracial movement, ultimately driving a wedge between its black and white components.
Wells took an important outspoken stand in defense of union organizing. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) had been founded in 1925. Railway sleeping car porters were commonly referred to as “George,” after George Pullman of the Pullman Company. Porters were overwhelmingly black, and the practice derived from the Old South, where slaves were named after their masters.
The union leadership sought to build its membership by targeting one of the Pullman Company’s biggest terminals: Chicago. In December 1925, women from Wells’s Chicago women’s rights club invited A. Philip Randolph, the head of the BSCP and a member of the Socialist Party, to speak at their meetings. Wells hosted Randolph at her home. The club women, together with a sympathetic minister, campaigned to promote the Brotherhood, defying a storm of protest by the black press and most of the clergy.
For more than two years, as the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, obsequiously defended the Pullman management and opposed the BSCP, Wells and her cohorts raised support for the union within the black middle class. Milton Webster, BSCP local organizer, believed that Wells’s club women were instrumental to the union gaining a voice in black Chicago. By siding with labor in this struggle, Wells alienated others in the black elite.
Black and Red
The early SP in the U.S. included everyone from outright racists like Victor Berger to liberals like Mary White Ovington to revolutionaries like Eugene V. Debs. Debs was an anti-racist who spoke out against lynching and was in favor of organizing integrated unions. But even Debs, who was among the best of the Socialists, did not clearly see the need for American revolutionaries to systematically organize the whole multiracial working class against the atrocities being committed against black people. His color blindness was expressed in his statement: “We have nothing special to offer the Negro, and we cannot make separate appeals to all the races.”
The American Socialist Party belonged to the Second International, which also included the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. The Russian party split into two parts in 1903. The leader of the left wing of that split, known as the Bolsheviks, was V.I. Lenin. In What Is To Be Done? (1902), Lenin put forward that it was not enough to struggle for economic demands for the workers—revolutionaries also had to fight against all attacks on the oppressed. Lenin wrote: “The social-democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people.” The Bolsheviks championed national rights for oppressed minorities. They organized labor defense guards to defend Jewish people against tsarist pogroms and fought for women’s rights as part of their working-class program.
After the Bolsheviks took power, they organized the Third (Communist) International and recruited from socialist parties and anarchist groups around the world to form Communist parties that attracted those inspired by the Russian Revolution. The Comintern made a special point that Communists in the U.S. had to organize to defend black people. James P. Cannon, a founding member of the Communist Party (CP) and later leader of American Trotskyism, stated in The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962): “Everything new on the Negro question came from Moscow—after the Russian Revolution began to thunder its demand throughout the world for freedom and equality for all national minorities, all subject peoples and all races—for all the despised and rejected of the earth.”
Anti-black racism is the main weapon used by the capitalist rulers to divide and weaken the working class as a whole. The fight for black rights was and is a matter of self-defense for all workers. This became very clear in 1919 when there was an attempt to organize black and white meatpacking workers in Chicago. A racist riot killed many black people and isolated black workers in their segregated neighborhoods. What was needed were integrated labor defense guards to protect black workers and their families. These were not organized. Instead, the bosses were able to recruit blacks as scabs, which helped defeat the organizing drive.
In the wake of the Russian Revolution and under the prodding of the Bolsheviks, the CP over time came to appreciate the struggle against black oppression. While they won to their ranks a small group of radicals from the African Blood Brotherhood in Harlem in the 1920s, this work did not really take off in a big way until the 1930s. Despite Stalinist degeneration, the CP did good work in the South fighting for black rights in this period. The International Labor Defense (ILD)—a non-sectarian defense organization initiated by the Communist International on which the Partisan Defense Committee is based—took up the case of the Scottsboro Boys. These nine black youths were threatened with legal lynching and would have been murdered by the state of Alabama were it not for the international campaign waged by the ILD and the Comintern.
As much as things have changed, they have remained the same. Despite the civil rights movement, black oppression remains the bedrock of capitalism in Obama’s America. The fight to organize the South is as crucial to the workers movement as ever, especially since many industrial unions have been decimated. Public schools in this country are more segregated than they were 40 years ago. Black people and Latinos have become the majority in the nation’s prisons as the prison population has swelled to over two million during the last two decades. The death penalty is legal lynching—the majority of those on death row are black or Latino—and a part of the legacy of chattel slavery. It has become less popular in some quarters, but in the South the death penalty is going strong.
The fight against racist terror and oppression continues. Our communist program is for revolutionary integrationism. We are for the full integration of black people into an egalitarian socialist society. We strive for equality for black people, but not by relying on the good graces of the capitalist politicians of the Democratic or Republican Parties, the enemies of labor and black struggle. Instead, we seek to mobilize the working class in independent action.
Black rights and labor rights will either go forward together or fall back separately. We aim to build a revolutionary party like the Bolsheviks that can uproot racist oppression through a thoroughgoing workers revolution that will expropriate the capitalist class and establish a workers government. Triply oppressed black women workers will play a key role in building that revolutionary party. When black people fight for their rights as in the 1950s and 1960s, it clears the ground for the entire working class to struggle for workers power. We want to turn fighters for black freedom into fighters for communism. We aim to finish the Civil War through workers revolution! When the working class in power writes its official history, Ida B. Wells, the uncompromising fighter, will not be forgotten. She will hold an honored place as a historic fighter for black equality.