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What’s Missing From Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, I’d like to briefly highlight two courageous black socialists, Lucy Parsons and A. Phillip Randolph, whose commitment to justice should inspire a resurgent Occupy movement.

Lucy Parsons (c. 1853-1942) 

Lucy Parsons was born in antebellum Texas, likely into slavery, according to a number of historians. In 1871, she married a white Confederate veteran, and the pair soon moved to Chicago where they threw themselves into the working class movement, joining the Socialist Labor Party.

It would be a mistake to believe her Parsons’ radicalism was eclipsed by her husband’s. Class warfare had a very literal meaning for her. In 1885, she was quoted in the Chicago Tribune, saying, “Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or a knife, and lay in wait on the steps of the palaces of the rich and stab or shoot the owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination.”

While the morality and effectiveness of terrorism is doubtful, contemporary accusations of class warfare against centrist politicians speaking in favor of mildly progressive taxation appear laughable when compared to Parsons’ support for “propaganda of the deed.”

On May 1 of the following year, unions across the country participated in a general strike in support of the eight-hour workday. At the forefront of one of two marches in Chicago that day, Parsons and her husband led 80,000 workers down Michigan Avenue.

After Chicago police shot and killed two strikers two days later, a rally was hastily organized in Haymarket Square on May 4. When police attempted to disperse the gathering, someone in the crowd threw dynamite at the authorities. The police opened fire on the crowd. In the end, seven police officers and at least four workers were killed. But even a police captain conceded the number of wounded workers was “largely in excess of that of the police.”

Not accused of throwing the bomb, Parson’s husband was one of eight men accused of conspiracy to murder; charges historians widely believe to have been groundless. Parsons traveled across the nation, agitating for the release of the accused. In the process, her public profile as a revolutionary grew as did the frequency with which she was subjected to police surveillance and harassment.

“In Columbus, Ohio, for example, the mayor banned a speech she was scheduled to deliver during the month of March—and her refusal to respect this banning order led the police to throw her in jail,” according to Scholar Angela Y. Davis.

Ultimately, Parsons’ husband was sentenced to death, and both she and her two children were arrested for attempting to see him on the day he was executed. It was then, according to Davis, that a member of the Chicago police said, “That woman is more to be feared than a thousand rioters.”

In 1905, Parsons helped found the Industrial Workers of the World, a militantly anti-capitalist union that at its height boasted 100,000 members. A prolific writer and speaker, she continued to advocate on behalf of the working class, paying special attention to the plight of women, arguing, “We are the slaves of slaves. We are exploited more ruthlessly than men.”

The International Labor Defense group, which was founded in 1925 by the Communist Party, provided legal aid to labor activists and black Americans. It defended the Scottsboro Nine, black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white girls, when mainstream organizations such as the NAACP were unwilling to do so.

“Parsons became an active worker for the new group,” according to Davis. “She fought for the freedom of Tom Mooney in California, for the Scottsboro Nine in Alabama and for the young Black Communist Angelo Herndon, whom Georgia authorities had imprisoned.”

Tragically, in 1942 she was killed in a house fire, when she was believed to have been 89 years old. She never stopped fighting for a more egalitarian world.

A. Phillip Randolph (1889-1979) 

A member of the Socialist Party of America, by the mid-1910s, A. Phillip Randolph was a popular soapbox speaker in Harlem, arguing against the injustices of the capitalist system. A few years later, he served as editor of the influential black leftist magazine The Messenger.

Randolph wrote in an editorial, “Most Negro families are on the brink of poverty, they are not striving to live but they are struggling to keep from dying…private ownership of the tools of production…is the mother of poverty, ignorance, crime, prostitution, and race prejudice.”

Due to his vocal opposition to World War I, for which he was arrested, Randolph was called “the most dangerous Negro in America.” Who exactly applied this label is unclear, with different scholars maintaining it was U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, or others.

In 1925, “a group of Pullman porters, the all-black service staff of the Pullman sleeping cars, approached Randolph and asked him to lead their new organization, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters,” according to the AFL-CIO website. In addition to his deep support for the labor movement, Randolph was selected because he was not a Pullman employee, and thus could not be fired for union activity.

“For the next 10 years, Randolph led an arduous campaign to organize the Pullman porters, which resulted in the certification of the BSCP as the exclusive collective bargaining agent of the Pullman porters in 1935,” according to the AFL-CIO website.

During the Second World War, Randolph led the March on Washington Movement, which aimed to force the government to end racial discrimination in defense industry hiring. Faced with the prospect of 100,000 black workers protesting in the nation’s capitol, President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 signed an executive order, outlawing discrimination in defense industry hiring on the basis of “race, creed, or national origin.” Randolph subsequently cancelled the planned march.

Seven years later, Randolph organized the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation, hoping to desegregate the armed forces themselves. Speaking before the U.S. Senate’s Armed Service Committee, Randolph promised he would “openly counsel, aid, and abet youth, both white and Negro, to quarantine any Jim Crow conscription system.”

President Harry Truman issued an executive order in July of 1948 ending military segregation, as he was “(t)hreatened with widespread civil disobedience and needing the black vote in his 1948 re-election campaign,” according to the AFL-CIO website.

Sadly, beginning in the 1950s, as Cold War hysteria swept across the country, Randolph grew increasingly conservative. In fact, according to historian Daryl Russell Grigsby, Randolph “supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam and condemned radical trade union actions in Third World countries.” Still, he helped organize the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York.

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