From the Civil War to the Comintern – Fighting Racism in the USA

Originally published May 1995

The oppression suffered by black workers in the USA from the last quarter of the nineteenth century eliminated much of the gains of the early post Civil War period. The reformist labor leaders of the time helped entrench this racism within the trade unions. In the first of two articles, John McKee explains the roots of this apartheid within the labor movement and shows how a radical, if incomplete, break with this legacy formed part of the early years of US communism under the influence of Lenin’s Third International.

The revolutionary Communist International (CI) quickly involved itself in the development of a Marxist analysis of the black question in the United States. From its foundation in 1919, the CI tackled the racism and indifference towards it that tainted the US labor movement. It was aware of the rotten tradition of the Second International on this issue. It was determined to prevent this legacy from infecting the young US communist movement.

With the founding of a communist party (at first known as the Workers Party), the leadership of the CI intervened to ensure the American party took up the question energetically. The experience and positions developed by the Bolsheviks on the Jewish question, the Bund and the relations with the oppressed nations within the Tsarist empire, were used as a basis to develop a revolutionary position on the “Negro question” as it was then called.

From Reconstruction to Jim Crow

The American Civil War (1861 1865) resulted in the abolition of slavery in the United States. The victory of the North, under Abraham Lincoln’s leadership, meant that the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing chattel slavery, was now the law of the whole land.

There was optimism amongst the freed black slaves, and progressive white workers, that the abominable oppression of black people was finally at an end. In 1866, the National Labor Union, meeting in Baltimore, declared its intention of organizing black workers:

“What is wanted then, is for every union to help inculcate the grand ennobling idea that there should be no distinction of race or nationality there is but one dividing line that which separates mankind into the two great classes, the class that labors and the class that lives by others’ labor.”‘

The optimism and spirit of integrationism were both tragically short lived. After the war, the then radical Republican Party carried out a program of Reconstruction. This sought to appease the defeated southern whites by providing economic assistance and, in addition, outlined a plan to absorb some four million new “citizens,” the freed slaves.

The more radical proposals to grant black people the right to vote and give them full civil rights were resisted by Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson.

Eventually, Congress defeated him and black people were enfranchised in the South. The Republican Party even began to organize black voters in order to oust the still dominant “Dixiecrats” (the Southern Democrats). But legally sanctioned racism persisted in the “Black Codes” under which landless or unemployed black people could be placed in bonded labor, or else arrested.

From the end of the war through to the late 1870s, the Reconstruction did result in advances for the freed slaves. In 1873, there was even a common struggle for land in the South, alongside poor whites, against the old landowners.

By 1876, however, Reconstruction effectively came to an end with the election of Rutherford B. Hayes as President. He was a Republican of the new breed a hard headed representative of the industrial magnates who had come to dominate the party and who had replaced the old generation of civil war radicals. In return for Southern Democrat support in getting his election ratified by Congress, Hayes promised to end Reconstruction. He was as good as his word.

Even a capitalism as dynamic as that of the USA was incapable of eradicating racism. In the North, the industrial bosses were content to utilize white labor rather than unskilled black workers.

A reactionary compromise with the more labor aristocratic sections of the working class was made which resulted in a color bar, as white workers sought to preserve their jobs. In the South, the fleeting alliance between black and poor whites gave way to the mobilization of those same whites in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other death squads, whose purpose was to drive blacks from their land. The freed slaves were targeted by demagogic Southern Democrats as the scapegoats for the economic hardship suffered by the whites.

By the 1880s a mood of counter revolution swept the South. The United States was developing as an imperialist power and the formerly divided Southern and Northern rulers now found common cause in the pursuit of the USA’s overseas interests.

All the gains of Reconstruction were destroyed. Initially, the Democrats used violence to force black people to vote for them. Organizations like the KKK and the Knights of the White Camelia terrorized the black community, murdered its leaders and organizers and intimidated black voters. Between 1882 and 1903 there were 2060 public lynchings of blacks.

Over time, this terror was redirected to enforce apartheid on the black population in the South Jim Crow. (2) Throughout the court houses of the southern states, lawyers devised means of overcoming the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

This had originally given blacks the right to vote. In 1870 the Supreme Court revised this interpretation of the amendment and ruled that it merely meant that blacks should not be discriminated against at the polls. Since discrimination was rife in the Southern states, a way round this had to be found. A Supreme Court decision in 1883 declared the 1875 Civil Rights Act illegal. Then in 1896, in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruled that the “separate but equal” doctrine apartheid was legal. Segregation appeared in every aspect of public life and “whites only” signs proliferated.

The 1890s saw many state constitutions re written to deny blacks (as well as many poor whites) the right to vote. In 1900 Carter Glass, speaking to the Virginia state Convention, explained:

“We are here to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitations of the federal constitution, with a view to the elimination of every Negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the strength of the white electorate.” (1)

In the economic sphere, things were no better for the freed slaves. While slavery was abolished in the rural areas, the economic system which underpinned it was left virtually untouched. As the plantation owners reasserted their political power, the former slaves found themselves tied into a system of economic exploitation on the land. As sharecroppers and tenant farmers, blacks were oppressed and exploited almost as much as in the earlier system of chattel slavery. In his article on “Capitalism and Agriculture in the United States” Lenin described these “semifeudal” relationships:

“The share cropping region, both in America and Russia, is the region of greatest stagnation, where the toiling masses are subject to the greatest degradation and oppression… Segregated, hidebound, a stifling atmosphere, a sort of prison for the ’emancipated’ Negroes this is what the American South is like. ” (4)

It was little wonder that the Southern blacks migrated North in growing numbers: 170,000 between 1900 10, 454,000 between 1910 20, 749,000 between 1920 1930. Migration slowed during the depression, but dramatically accelerated in the 1940s. The decade 1940 50 saw 1,599,000 move North. But before the war the great bulk of the black population still lived in the south nearly 75% of the 11.8 million black population in 1930.

The Trade Unions and Black Workers

The National Labor Union insisted on its declaration in favor of unity across the races, “unpalatable as the truth may be to many”.’ Racism had been widespread in the North as well as the South, amongst workers just as much as amongst farmers. White workers had rioted in many northern cities against freed slaves being given work during the Civil War. White troops in the Union army were for a long time hostile to black troops, and regiments were strictly segregated on racial grounds. With the end of Reconstruction, therefore, it came as no surprise that unions dominated by labor aristocratic workers should resort to racist policies and practices.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded in 1886, was to become the dominant union federation in the USA. In its early years, despite its nature as a craft organization, it took a reasonably progressive stance on the question of the organization of skilled black workers. A candidate for membership of the AFL in its early years had to take the following pledge:

“I promise never to discriminate against a fellow worker on account of color, creed or nationality .” (6)

In many areas, the AFL was still in competition with the Knights of Labor, an organization which deliberately attempted to unite workers of all races within its ranks.

Despite the small numbers of skilled black workers in the 1880s, they had a significant place in the rail, shipping, building and mining sectors. Samuel Gompers, the first President of the AFL, was in favor of organizing black workers. This often went against the desires of existing unions, many of which enforced a color bar.

The early AFL refused to allow unions to affiliate if their statutes barred black workers. While they allowed separate locals (i.e. branches) for blacks, this was initially seen as a last resort and such locals were to have the same rights as any other within the national organization. In 1890, the AFL refused admission to the National Association of Machinists because of its color bar, and set up a rival union.

Gompers pitched this policy, especially to the racist workers, on the grounds of practical trade unionism:

“If we fail to make friends with them, the employing class won’t be so shortsighted and will play them against us. Thus if common humanity will not prompt us to have their co operation, an enlightened self interest should.” (7)

This policy of integration was not to last. In the 1890s, the AFL itself became a bastion of apartheid, reflecting Gompers’ “business unionism”. This was a species of class collaboration that enabled the unions to “do business” with the industrialists in return for favors for the skilled workers. Like its development elsewhere in US society, systematic racism within the labor movement was an indication of the USA’s development as an imperialist power. It was directly related to the growth of an “aristocracy of labor,” preserving its privileges at the expense, not only of unskilled workers, but of the mass of poor blacks.

In 1895, the AFL promoted the amalgamation of the two rival machinists’ trade unions on the basis of allowing the color bar to exist in the joining “ritual”, rather than being embodied in the union’s statutes. By the late 1890s, AFL unions were openly changing their statutes to bar black workers. At the same time black workers were being squeezed out of skilled employment with the active participation of the AFL unions.

These unions came to control the newly introduced apprenticeship system which, during the 1890s, steadily replaced “picking up” the trade on the job as a method of training. Potential black trainees were refused places. Moreover, many unions had policies of refusing to work with non union labor and this provided an excuse to refuse black union membership.

A 1902 survey showed that 43 national trade union organizations had no black workers in them and that the AFL had only 40,000 black members, 50% of these in the United Mineworkers. In many unions, the number of black workers had declined in the previous decade.

The 1900 convention of the AFL declared, in reply to criticism of its racist policy, that the Federation, “does not necessarily proclaim that the social barriers which exist between the whites and black could or should be obliterated”. It even blamed the black workers for allowing themselves to be used as strike breakers. This, indeed, became a big problem because black workers had little to thank the unions for by the late 1890s. And in the early 1900s the one integrationist union, the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) remained too small to challenge the increasingly ingrained racism of the US unions.

The Socialist Tradition

The racist positions of the AFL were reflected in the positions of the right and center factions of the Socialist Party (SP), which was founded in 1901. The right wing was represented by Victor Berger who was the first “socialist” elected to Congress. He wrote in 1902:

“There can be no doubt that the negroes and mulattoes constitute an inferior race. The many cases of rape, which occur whenever negroes are settled in large numbers, prove, moreover, that the free contact with whites has led to the further degeneration of the negroes, as of all other inferior races.” (9)

In 1903, the Party’s indifference to lynchings led to an investigation by the International Socialist Bureau. The party’s executive explained:

“The Socialist Party points out the fact that nothing less than the abolition of the capitalist system and the substitution of the Socialist system can provide the conditions under which the hunger maniacs, kleptomaniacs, sexual maniacs and now lynchable human degenerates will cease to be begotten or produced.”

This racist explanation seems to have satisfied the Second International’s Bureau. No more was heard of the investigation.

If the right wing saw the root of racial antagonism in the degenerate nature of the inferior black race, the center, led by Morris Hillquit, laid more emphasis on the role of the capitalists in fanning black white antagonism as a means of pursuing a policy of divide and rule in industry. Both factions of the SP, however, agreed that socialism would solve the race question in the ,,only possible way” by complete segregation of the races.

This vile racism did not go unchallenged in the Socialist Party. Eugene Debs was the SP’s leading propagandist and led the left wing. Debs encouraged blacks to struggle for their rights and to join the Party. He refused to speak to segregated audiences and opposed segregated branches of the SP in the South. Debs denounced the 1910 Party congress’ stance against immigration as “utterly unsocialist, reactionary and, in truth, outrageous”.

But the left’s attitude towards the black struggle suffered from a tremendous weakness. The “negro problem” was seen purely an an economic one, their oppression stemming from their super exploitation and the legacy of slavery. The emancipation of black people was a job for the socialist revolution. Complete social equality would have to wait until then and there was no need for any special work or special program of struggle for the blacks in America. This is what Debs was driving at in his oft quoted remarks:

“We have nothing special to offer the negro and we cannot make special appeals to all races. The Socialist Party is the party of the entire working class, regardless of color the whole working class of the whole world.” (10)

The result was that the left did little to take up the cause of the blacks in the South, or to push the party to campaign against lynchings and the Jim Crow laws.

This position was shared by Daniel Dc Leon’s Socialist Labor Party (SLP). While Dc Leon denounced the racism of the SP at the Amsterdam congress of the Second International and forced the removal of references to “inferior races” in its resolutions, he had little time for looking at the specific problems and demands of black workers:

“More difficult, withal useful to the Movement, is the discovery of that which may be identical in all their proletarian character. This is the creative discovery.” (11)

As a result, agitation around noneconomic questions, such as disenfranchisement, beatings, frame ups and lynchings were a distraction from the “real” struggle around economic issues. Despite calls from SLP members to make the struggle in the South a special issue for the party’s paper, The People, as a means of organizing and recruiting amongst black people, this agitation and work was stillborn.

It was from the left in the Socialist Party that the communists emerged in the early 1920s. They carried with them its general approach to the black question in America. As James Cannon, a founder member, put it:

“…the American communists in the early twenties, like all other radical organizations of that and earlier times, had nothing to start with on the Negro question but an inadequate theory, a false and indifferent attitude and the adherence of a few individual Negroes of radical or revolutionary bent.” (12)

It was to take the intervention of the CI and Lenin himself to begin a serious reorientation of the party’s work.

The Comintern and the US Communists

In 1919, there were two parties claiming adherence to the CI. The Communist Party of America, dominated by the foreign language federations (made up of European migrants), devoted a paragraph to the Negro question in its founding program. This reflected the traditional position of the Socialist Party’s left wing on the question:

“The Negro problem is a political and economic problem. The racial oppression of the negro is simply the expression of his economic bondage and oppression, each intensifying the other. This complicates the Negro question but does not alter its proletarian character.” (13)

The Communist Labor Party, one of whose leaders was John Reed, did not even mention the question in its founding documents.

The issue was discussed at the Second Congress of the CI in 1920. Lenin, in drafting the theses on the national and colonial question, submitted a number of the theses to delegates and solicited their opinions. One of these was headed, “The Negroes in America.” This set the tone for the early discussions of the black question in the USA. It was placed within the framework of the question of nationality even though this was not how American socialists had traditionally viewed it. John Reed made the major contributions to the commission and the plenary sessions.

Reed had no objection to viewing blacks as a “nationality”. But he referred to them in commission as one of the three groups of “oppressed nationalities” in the United States, the others being the immigrants and oppressed nations such as Filipinos. While he emphasized their growing integration into the Northern labor movement, Reed recognized there was a growing “race consciousness” amongst blacks after World War 1, and that they had taken up arms against white pogroms in Washington, Chicago and elsewhere.

He argued that Communists should energetically support “the Negro selfdefence movement,” while cautioning against the idea of an armed black insurrection. Without the co operation of the white proletariat, this “would be the signal for the counter revolution.” (14)

Reed was overly dismissive of the existence of any movement for independence or self determination amongst the black population, underestimating the significance of the “Back to Africa” movement as a symptom of this tendency:

“If we consider Negroes an enslaved and oppressed people, we confront two problems: on the one hand, that of a strong racial and social movement; on the other, that of a powerful proletarian labor movement that is rapidly gaining class consciousness. Negroes have no demands for national independence. All movements among the Negroes aiming for separate national existence fail, as did the Back to Africa movement of a few years ago. They consider themselves first of all Americans at home in the United States. That makes it very much simpler for the communists.” (15)

However, the finally agreed theses seemed to recognize the right of blacks in the USA to self determination and demanded communist support if such movements demanded secession:

“…secondly, Communist Parties must give direct support to the revolutionary movements among dependent nations and those without equal rights (e.g. Ireland, and among the American Negroes), and in the colonies.

Without this last particularly important condition, the struggle against the oppression of the dependent nations and colonies, and the recognition of their right to secede as separate state, remains a deceitful pretense, as it is with the parties of the Second International. ” (16)

Reed also argued that communists “must not stand aloof from the Negro movement for social and political equality”, which was spreading rapidly. “Communists”, he argued, “must use this movement to point out the futility of bourgeois equality and the necessity of social revolution not only to free all workers from servitude but as the only means of freeing the Negroes as an enslaved people.” (17)

However, such positions were not reflected in the practical activity of the newly fused Communist Party of America. In 1921 it took a direct intervention by Lenin himself to push the party into taking up serious work amongst black workers. Lenin sent the party a letter in 1921 expressing concern that CPA reports did not mention party work amongst blacks and called on it to make this a strategically important part of its future work. Joseph Zack was then put in charge of black work. For the first time, articles on the “Negro question” began to appear regularly in the party’s press.

The new emphasis of the communists led to the recruitment of the first significant group of black cadre. These came from an organization called the African Black Brotherhood (ABB) which published a magazine, The Crusader.

Again it was not the activities of the communists in America that attracted the leadership of the ABB, but rather the policies and actions of the Soviet Republic, in particular its attitude towards the oppressed nationalities of Tsarist Russia and the vigorous defense of their right to self determination.

The Crusader, and its editor, Cyril Briggs, fought for “self determination” for the Negro people. Having taken an anti war stance in 1914, Briggs used The Crusader to argue for the social and national rights of Negroes. President Wilson was denounced for his hypocrisy in “supporting” the right of small nations to self determination in Europe while not lifting “a finger for justice and liberty for over TEN MILLION colored people, a nation within a nation, a nationality oppressed and Jim Crowed, yet worthy as any other people of a square deal or failing that, a separate political existence.”

Increasingly, after 1919 the ABB moved in the direction of socialism and sympathy with the Russian revolution. Sometime in 1920 or 1921 almost the entire leadership of the ABB was won to the Workers Party (the name at the time of the CP). Many in Harlem, like Briggs, came from the Caribbean, but in Chicago there was a native born Afro-American chapter (i.e branch). The initial cadre of black communists were largely intellectuals, from the ABB. Cyril Briggs was a journalist, Grace Cambell was a school teacher, Richard Moore was a professional lecturer for the Socialist Party, Lovett Fort Whiteman a drama critic.

For a period, the CP used the ABB to mount an intervention into Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) movement but little headway was made. The UNIA was moving rightwards, emphasizing capitalist values for black progress, “racial purity” and even organizing meetings with the KKK, both organizations supporting “segregation” of the races. Garvey refused to seat delegates from the ABB at UNIA conferences and the possibility of work from the inside did not materialize.

But the CP now had a significant number of black cadres. The Cl’s intervention had appeared to bring results. The question now was what slogans should be at the center of the program for the mass of oppressed blacks in the USA and how should the CP use that program?


(1) Quoted in Beyond Equality, David Montgomery, New York, 1967, p180
(2) “Jim Crow” was a common derogatory term for black Americans, popularised in the lyrics of a nineteenth century minstral show song. It became a short hand term for the arsenal of apartheid legislation that spread across the former Confederate states in the 1890s.
(3) Quoted in The Negro Revolt, Louis E. Lomax, New York 1971, p40
(4) Lenin, Collected Works Volume 22, Moscow 1964, p26
(5) D Montgomery, op cit, p 180
(6) RS, Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Volume 2, New York 1975, p347
(7) ibid p196. Gompers and the AFL had a very different attitude to Asian (primarily Chinesg) workers. They not only had to be kept out of the unions but out of the country, excluded by law or “driven out by force of arms”. Gompers regularly referred to the “yellow menace” and the “inborn inferiority” of Asian peoples.
(8) Foner, “Socialism” quoted in A Shawki, International Socialism 2:47 p46
(9) I Kipnis The American Socialist Movement New York 1972, p132
(10) H Draper, American Communism, New York 1973, p316
(11) D Herreshoff Origins of American Marxism New York p169
(12) J P Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism” New York 1973,p230
(13) Quoted in Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism Chicago 1989, p192
(14) The Communist International in Lenin’s Time, Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, Volume 1, New York 1991, p227
(15) ibid, p228
(16) J Degras (ed), “Theses on the National and Colonial Questions”, in The Communist International 19191923, Documents London 1971, p142
(17) J Riddell, op cit, p228
(18) H Draper, op cit, p323 (emphasis in original)