“Speak out now when others grow silent”: The Messenger, the IWW and debates over new negro radicalism - George Robertson

“Speak out now when others grow silent”: The Messenger, the IWW and debates over new negro radicalism - George Robertson

An essay on the relationship between the IWW and A. Philip Randolph's The Messenger, a black political and literary magazine from the early 20th Century.

“Ere long the country may look forward to full (sic) fledged Negro radicals who will measure up to the standards of modern economic and political radicalism.” Messenger, December 1919.

“We have constantly maintained that the solution to the Negro Problem rests with the alliance of Negroes with radical organizations.” Messenger, February 1920.

“Negroes and Industrial Workers of the World have interests not only in common, but interests that are identical.” Messenger, October 1919.

The social and economic cleavages created during World War I facilitated a worldwide political left-turn, with increasing numbers of workers, both white and black, questioning the political and economic status quo and embracing social movement organizations devoted to the dismantling or overthrow of capitalism. In the United States, one of the most potent symbol and manifestation of this insurgency was the increasingly close relationship between African Americans and white leftist groups.[1] The specter of Red-Black cooperation provoked a convergence of racist and anti-radical reactionary forces in the summer of 1919, with angry urban mobs seeking to punish recalcitrant blacks, and J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Intelligence effectively race-baiting and imprisoning radicals of both races. In the context of this pervasive violence and repression at home, and American imperialist intervention abroad, many black radicals argued the need for new thinking, new tactics and new leadership that eschewed liberal reformism, challenged blind patriotism and narrow nationalism, and sought to the answer the “Negro question” on a systemic level.[2] Out of these ongoing debates emerged a “new radical spirit”, a symbol of a new militant posture among African Americans: the New Negro.[3]

While there is a tendency to treat this postwar insurgency as a time of unprecedented ecumenicalism among black radicals, it is important not to let the appearance of cooperation obscure the existence of a dynamic discourse on the nature and definition of New Negro radicalism.[4] As black radical Hubert Harrison argued in October 1919, “Today Negroes differ on all those great questions on which white thinkers differ, and there are Negro radicals of every imaginary stripe – agnostics, atheists, I.W.W.’s, Socialists, Single Taxers, and even Bolshevists.”[5] Indeed, Barbara Foley has shown how the meaning of the New Negro was highly contested during this period, with radicals, liberals and reactionaries each claiming the term to designate a plurality of ideological attitudes and postures.[6] More broadly, though part of the same theoretical debate, radicals argued amongst themselves and against liberals about the desirability of radical leadership, as well as, more profoundly, the need to redefine the nature and meaning of ‘radicalism’ and reassess the criteria used for considering African American leaders ‘radical’.

This essay will focus on the role of the Messenger, the largest and most influential left-wing black monthly of the postwar years, and its editor’s role in promoting and cultivating what would become a dominant postwar representation of the New Negro as an “anti-capitalist radical who envisioned African American emancipation as inseparable from – if not identical with – the project of a class-conscious, multiracial alliance.”[7] In particular, I will examine the significance of the under-studied relationship between the Messenger and the predominantly white radical labor organization, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Debates in the pages of the Messenger about the nature of radicalism, the desirability and efficacy of radical leadership and the solutions to “race problems” revolved around the editor’s support for the theory, tactics and organization of IWW, and their (usually liberal) opponent’s unwillingness or inability to support the IWW, or class-based labor organization in general. Although the Messenger’s editors were certainly not alone amongst radicals in their calls for class-conscious, interracial labor and political organization, their theoretical contributions served to significantly expand and refine the emerging discourse surrounding the New Negro figure. The Messenger’s emphasis on interracial and international working class solidarity and anti-capitalism, articulated as it was through the concomitant debates over the IWW and the nature of black radicalism, served to magnify, strengthen and expand systemic critiques of US racism and exploitation inherent in black radical thought, and helped establish the editor’s tenets of “modern economic and political radicalism” as a paradigm through which class-conscious postwar New Negro workers would judge the desirability and effectiveness of black leadership and action.

For radicals and reactionaries, black southern migrants and returning servicemen, the immediate postwar years were rife with contradictions and revolutionary possibilities.[8] The Russian Revolution in October 1917 established the first worker’s state, discredited reformist socialism and gave credence to the revolutionary organization and tactics of the working class.[9] On the back of worldwide labor unrest, and a wartime strike wave, workers in Seattle organized the first General Strike in United States history in February 1919, and in Moscow the next month, Communists established the Third International.[10] The US government responded forcefully to this insurgency, indicting and imprisoning 184 IWW’s and the leaders of the SPA for sedition, engaging in widespread surveillance campaigns under the auspices of the Bureau of Intelligence, and conducting multiple hearings and commissions, the most famous and far-reaching of which, was the Lusk Committee in New York state.[11]

The so-called anti-radical “Red Summer” of 1919 referred concomitantly to the over forty urban race riots that occurred in major cities across the US, most notably Chicago and Washington DC.[12] In September 1919, the Messenger carried an ominous guest editorial written by steadfast black radical W.A Domingo, warning white America that:

No longer are Negroes willing to be shot down or hunted from place to place like wild beasts; no longer will they flee from their homes and leave their property to the tender mercies of the howling and cowardly mob...The New Negro has arrived with stiffened back bone, dauntless manhood, defiant eye, steady hand and a will of iron.[13]

In the months that followed the “Red Summer”, almost all commentators – liberal, radical and reactionary – agreed that the aggressive posture among African Americans represented a new attitude of militancy, and demonstrated the black community’s “increased unwillingness to respond passively to abuse and violence.”[14]

Radical black critics argued, however, that this “present case of Negro discontent” represented more than a purely spontaneous reaction to the particularly oppressive conditions of urban America, but was rather part of a “great pandemic”, a reflection of a spirit of internationalism and a recognition amongst these New Negroes that the fate of the black community in the United States was intimately connected to the wellbeing of other oppressed groups across the world.[15] Yet while black radicals could agree with Hubert Harrison that “the cause of the “radicalism” among American Negroes is international”, they argued amongst themselves and with liberals and black nationalists over what kind of international movements these New Negro blacks were and should be aligning themselves with.[16] Was this New Negro insurgency inspired by the international “exploitation of laborers by capitalists”, or the “social, political and economic subjugation of colored people by white”, or a combination of both?[17] It was in the context of this dynamic discourse that the Messenger made a significant contribution to developing and extending an anti-capitalist critique of US that argued class conscious collaboration between white and black workers was the most expedient and truthful expression of the New Negro’s desire for economic and social change.

The Messenger was founded by two Socialist Party members, A Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen in 1917, and would achieve a monthly circulation of 150,000 by 1919.[18] As Philip Foner argues, “in its militancy, the Messenger was far in advance of anything up to that point in the history of black radicalism.”[19] The Messenger’s editors devoted themselves to the “scientific” study of race and class relations, in which the problems of racial discrimination and inequality were understood as a function of capitalist development. According to historian Rod Bush, Randolph saw class as an economic category “without social or cultural limits”, and hence viewed cultural nationalism and the dominant “100 percent Americanism” as “an obstacle both to the class struggle and to the Black freedom struggle.”[20] Pursuant of their belief in the significance of black worker’s economic relationship to the means of production and their fellow workers, the Messenger’s editors saw labor organization as the most immediate goal, beyond armed self-defense, for the protection and eventual emancipation of the black working class, and sought to establish an alliance between black workers and white labor movement.[21] The editors’ early syndicalist tendencies, certainly reflective of their sympathy for and relationship with the Industrial Workers of the World would, by the mid-1920’s, be supplanted by a much less radical and at times openly class collaborationist brand of Kautskyian Marxist reformism.[22] During its formative years however, particularly 1919 and early 1920, the Messenger was generally recognized among radicals and reactionaries alike as the foremost uncompromising voice of anti-capitalist New Negro radicalism.[23]

The Industrial Workers of the World was founded in Chicago in 1905 in response and opposition to the exclusionary craft practices of the conservative American Federation of Labor and the increasing centralization of productive industry in the hands of a few powerful conglomerates.[24] The IWW sought to organize the entire working class into One Big Union of industrial workers to “take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.”[25] As significant as their American-syndicalist conviction that workers should eschew the ballot box and “organize on the job, where you are robbed”, was the organization’s militant and unwavering commitment to ensuring that “no working man or woman shall be excluded from membership because of creed or color.”[26] Indeed, according to the IWW, “there is no race problem...there is only a class problem”, ostensibly because “the economic interests of all workers, be they white, black brown or yellow, are identical” based on their shared class position.[27] The IWW saw racism as the exclusive product of capitalist exploitation, maintaining that a chief tactic of “the exploiters” was “to play race against race on the slave market and reap fruit from the struggle in the shape of a low wage scale.”[28] The organization of black and other colored workers together with their white brothers was thus considered an essential “bread and butter” economic issue for all workers.[29]

Although the record of the IWW’s engagement with the “race question” is notably stronger than the Socialist Party of America’s, the two organizations shared a similar conviction that, in the words of Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, “we have nothing special to offer the Negro,” apart, as the IWW stated, from “giving him the same membership privileges as are the common property of all who join.”[30] Unlike the SPA, however, the IWW did have some success in black communities, gaining significant, if somewhat fleeting membership amongst black lumberjacks in Louisiana before WWI (as part of the organization of the IWW-affiliated Brotherhood of Timber Workers), and on the Philadelphia docks, with the Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union, Local 8 from 1913 to 1923.[31] It was during this latter period, particularly during and after World War I, that the IWW reached its organizational nadir, primarily as a result of significant governmental persecution. It was also, not coincidentally, when the union began to make a more conspicuous appeal to black workers (coming north during the Great Migration), and the Messenger emerged as the leading black magazine dedicated to revolutionary radicalism.

In every edition of the Messenger published in 1919, the editors made strong appeals to black workers to affiliate with the IWW.[32] In an article in the July edition entitled “Why Negroes Should Join the I.W.W”, the editors reminded black workers that, “The IWW is the only labor organization in the United States which draws no race or color line.”[33] Furthermore, considering that “the only recourse the Negro has is industrial action...it is simply logical for him to throw his lot in with the Industrial Workers of the World” who dealt chiefly with unskilled laborers, and “stand on the principle of industrial unionism.”[34] In another article in the same edition, “Negro Workers: The AFL or IWW”, the editors continued to articulate their belief in the importance of labor organization as a revolutionary force, and their support for the IWW. Discussing the role of the ruling classes in fomenting “artificial race hatred and division by poisoning the minds of both whites and blacks” the editors conclude that:

The only problem then, which the colored worker should consider, as a worker, is the problem of organizing with other working men in the labor organization which best expresses the interests of the whole working class against the slavery and oppression of the whole capitalist class: The IWW.[35]

Thus, not only should black workers align themselves with the IWW as a reaction to the exclusionary tactics of the mainstream American Federation of Labor (which was “a machine for the propagation of racial prejudice”), but also, more importantly, because organizing along class lines would best support their efforts to realize “the prospect of REAL FREEDOM”.[36]

The IWW’s tactics of the One Big Union and the General Strike seemed to be particularly appealing to the Messenger’s editors, and helped them to situate African American labor struggles within a world-wide framework of class conscious solidarity between workers.[37] In September 1919, the Messenger carried an article entitled “The March of Industrial Unionism”, in which they attacked craft union tactics, the “slowness and inadequacy of political action” and lauded the spread of industrial unionism.[38] For the editors, the “magic phrase” ‘One Big Union’ was a “logical and revolutionary” response to the concentration of capital; “the antidote for capitalist poisons.”[39] Particularly promising for the editors was the fact that “the principles of the One Big Union are swiftly encircling the globe...from the Pacific coast...to the Atlantic, across the ocean to Europe, and then to Asia.”[40] Suggesting that the emancipation of African American workers lay in their solidarity with other similarly oppressed workers around the world reflected the Messenger editor’s desire to establish black worker’s economic relationships and class position as the most significant and appropriate organizing tool for the New Negro.

Not only were the Messenger’s editors supportive of the IWW’s theoretical and tactical goals and the symbolic rhetoric of the IWW as a tool for worldwide social and economic reconstruction, but they also used a Local of the IWW as a substantive example of the concrete, economistic gains that could be made by black and white workers if they committed themselves to class-conscious interracial organization.[41] Local 8 of the IWW’s Marine Transport Workers Union in Philadelphia argued the Messenger, “was a living example of the ability of white and black people to work, live and conduct their common affairs side by side.”[42] The Local, composed of 3,500 stevedores, three-fifths of whom were African American, had controlled the docks since 1913, and were “setting an example which labor groups throughout the country must emulate if the Ku Klux Klan...is to be destroyed and the Open Shop campaign is to fail.”[43] As suggested, Local 8 was significant for the Messenger, as an example of both interracial harmony, and as “lever with which the men have raised their wages.”[44] Significantly, it was one of the “few labor organizations which has given whole-hearted support, moral and financial,” to the Messenger’s editor’s attempts “to spread...Brotherhood propaganda among the white and black workers”, contributing amounts to the Messenger’s publication fund.[45]

The attempts by some members of the Local and their outside supporters to form a separate “race first” organization of black longshoremen provided the Messenger with an opportunity to reify their belief that, with the guidance of good leadership and proper education in class consciousness, African American worker’s economic and social struggles were best served by an alliance with white workers.[46] As well as ongoing attempts by the conservative International Longshoremen’s Association and employers to destroy the union by “preaching a race-riot doctrine of segregation”, in the summer of 1921, “alleged Negro leaders masquerading in the guise of race loyalty, had been preaching the nefarious and dangerous doctrine of race segregation to the Negro members of Local 8.”[47] In response, the Local “proceeded to conduct an educational campaign in leaflets and forum lectures”, “a systematic forum in self education” that resulted in “the militant, class-conscious and intelligent Negro workers” reaffirming their commitment to interracial solidarity.[48] For the editors of the Messenger, this expression of class consciousness epitomized the spirit of the New Negro, and suggested exactly how “the race problem” could be “worked out by black and white workers,” provided, that is, that they recognize that “power lies in solidarity – which is achieved through industrial organization.”[49]

The defense of the IWW and its tactics from the criticism of more liberal leaders helped the editors redefine their vision of New Negro radicalism, and emphasize anti-capitalism as both a benchmark for judging African American radicalism, and as a precondition to leadership of the black working class. Between July 1919 and September 1921, The Messenger ran four large articles directly attacking prominent black leader W.E.B Du Bo is for his lack of support for the IWW and its tactics, his alleged uncritical patriotism, and his unwillingness to actively substantively support organizing efforts among black workers.[50] These unflinching criticisms of Du Bois came almost exactly a year after Randolph’s withering attacks of his “Closed Ranks” editorial in July 1918.[51]

The first article was written in response to an editorial allegedly written by Du Bois in the April edition of the Crisis, in which Du Bois, referring to African Americans, posits; “Suppose we had yielded to German propaganda, suppose we had refused to shoulder arms, or had wrought mischief and confusion, patterning ourselves after the IWW and the pro-Germans of this country, How should we hold up our heads?”[52] The editors of the Messenger “took Du Bois to task”, reminding readers that the IWW “is the only national organization of labor unions which does not discriminate against Negroes,” and that as such, “A Negro should be the last person to try and cast aspersions upon the IWW.”[53] In response to Du Bois’s claim “we do not believe that the methods of the IWW are today feasible or advisable,” the editors provided a lengthy rebuttal, outlining the necessity and feasibility of industrial unionism, reminding readers that the One Big Union principle had spread across the world, and indicating that Du Bois’ lack of knowledge of this made him as ignorant to the real needs of the black working class as “the average clay-eating cracker of Georgia.”[54]

These attacks on Du Bois functioned as part of a larger debate on the meaning of radicalism. Fundamentally, the Messenger’s editors believed that Du Bois’ failure to “apply the searchlight of scientific criticism” to the “Negro problem”, and his concomitant lack of support for the methods and tactics of industrial unionism and the IWW, rendered him liberal rather than radical, and hence completely undesirable as a leader of the New Negroes.[55] In a scathing critique of prominent black leaders, spanning the October and December 1919 issues, the editors attack Du Bois for his inattention to the “inevitable consequences of hidden but powerful social forces.” For Randolph and Owen, a radical critique of social relations did not rest on merely attacking the manifestations of a political system – “a Negro who opposes lynching demands the vote, condemns the Jim-crow car” – as this “political organization is very little bit more than the regulative organization through which the economic forces in the background express themselves.”[56] Rather, for the editors, a leader could and should only be considered radical when they criticized the economic establishment that supported the political and social status quo.[57] Against this measure, Du Bois was subsequently found lacking. The main test Randolph and Owen used to reveal his liberalism was his lack of support for the IWW, which they believe proves his “crass ignorance of economics of labor and industry.”[58] Considering that “the chief need of the Negro is the organization of his industrial power...One who has neither political or industrial radicalism can hardly be called a radical in the strictest sense of the world.”[59] Significantly, by attacking Du Bois’ “lamentable incapacity to think fundamentally”, his lack of a visible commitment to “the interest of unionizing Negro workers” and the IWW, and his class collaborationist attitude towards the Republican and Democratic party as indicative of “the policy of the “Old Crowd Negro”, the editors used the debate about the nature and definition of black radicalism to pioneer and promote a more militant, class conscious image of the “New Crowd Negro”.

As well as attacking African American leaders allegedly ambivalent or openly hostile to labor organization, the Messenger devoted considerable space during the immediate postwar years to drawing attention to those ‘race’ leaders who were committed to the promotion of labor militancy among the New Negroes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering what we have seen above, the leader who received the most consistent attention was black IWW leader Ben Fletcher, organizer for the Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union Local 8 in Philadelphia, and the only black Wobbly serving time in Leavenworth prison for sedition.[60] In eight articles between 1919 and 1921 the Messenger campaigned to raise awareness about the political plight of IWW and other “class war” prisoners, and concomitantly to promote the aims of industrial unionism, as espoused by the little-known Fletcher, who according to the editors, “has a vision far beyond that of almost any Negro leader whom we know.”[61] What made Fletcher such an appealing leader, argued the Messenger, was his willingness to throw “his lot in with his fellow white workers, who work side by side to raise their standard of living.”[62] Fletcher’s incarceration was used by the editors as an opportunity to again draw strong distinctions between “smug, sleek” Old Crowd Negro leaders “who swerve, compromise and equivocate for soft berths, fat salaries and slothful ease”, and those committed to the “principle” of “to the workers belongs the world.”[63]

The lynchpin here, as in the Messenger’s attacks on Du Bois, was Fletcher’s “unremitting fight in the class war”, his willingness to “sin against the sacred creed and dogma of financial imperialism”, and his active “fights for the great masses to lessen their hours of work, to increase their wages, to decrease their high cost of living, to make life more liveable.”[64] In contrast to Du Bois, Fletcher’s unwavering class-consciousness, commitment to industrial organization and opposition to imperialism made him an ideal leader of the New Negroes.

The editor’s admonition that black and white workers actively protest his imprisonment obviously resonated, as a steady flow of letters calling for his release started to reach President Harding by 1921.[65] Although he did not have his sentence commuted until 1923, the campaign to free Ben Fletcher served a more immediate symbolic purpose for the Messenger’s editors. In the context of debates amongst radicals and against liberals and conservatives over the desirability of new radical leadership, the Messenger’s defense of Fletcher and emphasis on his distinctive leadership qualities was an important means for the editors to articulate and promote their vision of a class-conscious New Negro committed to interracial organization and anti-capitalism.

As we have suggested from the outset, The Messenger’s efforts to shape postwar black radicalism existed within the context of an extensive debate amongst black radicals about the most expedient ways and means to organize and prosecute black struggle. It is important to remember that the concurrent dialectic between revolutionary and reactionary forces and the dynamic and evolving debate amongst black radicals during this period, ensured that the definition and course of New Negro radicalism was very much uncharted, and the desirability and efficacy of radical new leadership in contest. The ideological convictions of the Messenger’s editors thus represented only one of the multitude of theoretical positions held by postwar black radicals, and these other radicals often had suspicions or criticisms of the Messenger’s unilateral support for interracial collaboration. Challenging the Messenger’s position, erstwhile black Socialist Hubert Harrison argued that “it is not the Class Line, but the Color Line” to which New Negroes were reacting.[66] He argued that New Negroes were and should be cultivating a “race-first” consciousness in recognition of the special nature of their oppression, and an understanding that “race feeling is...deeper than class feeling and will outlast the capitalist system.”[67] In particular, Harrison argued that because the Socialist Party of America had consistently “insisted on Race first and class after” New Negroes should refuse to put “either socialism or your party above the call of your race.”[68] Reflecting the influence of early Leninist doctrines of self-determination, and expressing a similar sentiment to Harrison, Cyril Briggs, editor of the militant journal the Crusader and leader of the proto-Communist African Blood Brotherhood, argued that while it was a “possibility” that white and black workers could “live together in peace and equality”, it was by no means inevitable, even with the replacement of capitalism with some form of socialism.[69] While both these men were certainly anti-capitalists and did support interracialism in theory, they were much more critical than the Messenger’s editors about the efficacy of exclusively class based organization.

In this context of skepticism amongst other radicals about the prospects of interracial organizing it is significant that the Messenger would devote so much attention to promoting labor unity as one of the fundamental tenets of the New Negro posture. Significantly, the Messenger recognized that its relationships with the IWW and other radical white leftist groups should not only serve to promote class consciousness among black workers, but must also as an example to white labor of the importance of committing to the organization of African Americans. Indeed, as the editors’ saw it, “the Negro radical’s task” was not merely to “educate Negroes so that they may understand their class interests”, but also as significantly to convince unionists and radicals that “organized labor must harness the discontent of Negroes and direct it into working-class channels for working class emancipation.”[70] The editors were always quick to remind white workers that “organized labor cannot afford to ignore any labor factor of production which organized capital does not ignore,” and that “the combination of black and white workers will be a powerful lesson to the capitalists of the solidarity of labor.”[71] Pursuant of this conviction in the shared responsibility of interracial unionism, Randolph and Owen founded the National Association for the Promotion of Labor Unionism Amongst Negroes in mid 1919, with the catch cry “Black and White Workers Unite.”[72] The Association served as a vehicle for the editors to denounce the continuing exclusionary practices of AFL unions, while at the same time promote the IWW and its industrial organizational tactics to black and white workers.[73] When three white workers were killed protecting a black labor organizer from a lynch mob in Bogalusa, Louisiana in November 1919, the Messenger’s editors proclaimed:

You are learning! You are on the right road. Your enemy is the Southern white employing class not the Negroes. Your only weapon is the solidarity of the working class, black and white...So, let us educate labor. Circularize white labor unions, not Southern white capitalist, anti-Negro governors.[74]

The editor’s establishment of the National Association for the Promotion of Labor Unionism Amongst Negroes and the support for class conscious white Southerners was a logical concomitant to their attacks on Du Bois, promotion of Local 8’s brand of interracial unionism, and their vision of activist black workers at the vanguard of postwar labor organization, neither abandoning nor exculpating white workers for what the editor’s recognized was pervasive white working class racism.

Indeed, as well as existing as a substantive example of the potential of interracial class-consciousness, the relationship between the IWW and Messenger also ultimately served to influence the IWW’s awareness of “race issues” and attentiveness to the organization of African Americans. Although it is certain that the IWW made a stronger effort to organize African Americans during 1919, the over-exaggerated, alarmist and often completely false nature of government and newspaper sources, makes it difficult to ascertain the extent to which these constituted the “desperate efforts to get the colored men into the One Big Union” the Messenger spoke so approvingly of.[75] Indeed, the relationship between the Messenger and the IWW served reactionary whites as a potent symbol of the dangerous potential of a new Red-Black alliance.[76] Reflecting the tendency to emphasize the passivity and ignorance of the black working class, government officials, mainstream newspapers and the white public were convinced that IWW and Bolshevik agitation and propaganda was the primary cause of the 1919 race riots, and that by cynically utilizing the Messenger the IWW was able to unilaterally “sow discontent” and “subvert the black population”[77] In July and August 1919, the New York Times carried a series of incendiary articles, quoting extensively from the pages of the Messenger as evidence that “Reds are Working amongst Negroes”; “Radicals Inciting Negroes to Violence”; “Reds Try to Stir Negroes to Revolt “ “Negroes of World Prey of Agitators”; “Russian Reds and IWW blamed for Race Riot”.[78]

While these articles, among many others, are a helpful illumination of the anxieties of the white employing class, their shrill tenor makes it difficult to get a realistic sense of the substantive nature of the IWW’s role in organizing black workers. Despite the fact that scholars seem to agree that the IWW “never succeeded in recruiting the great mass of black workers”, the organization’s relationship with the Messenger nonetheless expanded the frequency of its’ appeals to black workers, and its awareness of the importance of black activism and the Messenger in postwar radical discourse.[79]

During the height of Red Summer, the IWW reprinted a series of articles on black workers from the Messenger.[80] Recognizing that they “seldom take the trouble to draw attention to a periodical printed outside the organization”, the editors praised the article “Negro Workers: Unionism or Slavery”, as “the best article on this subject we have ever seen.”[81] Furthermore, they commended the Messenger as “one of the foremost of the radical magazines...destined to be a powerful factor in organizing the colored workers industrially along with their white fellow workers.”[82] As well as these reprints, the IWW’s organ the Industrial Worker also displayed increased editorial attention to the conditions of the black worker, addressing the organization’s understanding of the relationship between capitalism and race riots, and the necessity of interracial organization. Thus, despite the long-term inability of the IWW to attract a large black following, during the postwar period, in the context of its relationship with the Messenger, the IWW began to make more concerted efforts to appeal to and propagate the kind of class-consciousness that Randolph and Owen argued characterized the New Negro posture.

From the revolutionary crucible of 1919, the complicated nexus of class and racial unrest and the theoretical debates and substantive actions of postwar African Americans emerged the militant figure of the New Negro, engaged in an interconnected fight against racism and capitalism.[83] Over the course of five years, the term would increasingly come to be associated with the cultural expressions of the Harlem Renaissance, and would evolve to signify a posture of aggressive individualism far removed from its militant, anti-capitalist roots.[84] As we have seen throughout this paper, the Messenger played a significant role in promoting this initial anti-capitalist, class-conscious posture among postwar New Negroes. Central to this contribution was the magazine’s fiery rebuke of “Old Crowd Negroes” and its dynamic discourse with other black leaders on the desirably and feasibility of radical leadership and the theoretical, tactical and structural imperatives of interracial industrial organization. The Messenger editors, recognizing that “when one is uninformed about the nature of a movement he is disinclined to entertain it, and when one is misinformed concerning the objects and aims of a movement he is inclined to oppose it,” endeavored to educate and promote anti-capitalist, pro-labor radicalism amongst black workers by suggesting that both their short-term wellbeing and eventual economic, social and political emancipation could both be achieved only through the kind of alliance with class conscious white workers espoused by IWW leaders such as Ben Fletcher, and demonstrated substantively IWW Local 8. By discrediting and lampooning the leadership programs of the “Old Crowd Negro” as antithetical to the welfare of black workers, the Messenger established a clear paradigm of “modern economic and political radicalism” that amplified and expanded the theoretical importance of class consciousness, interracial labor unity, anti-capitalism, and internationalism in the discourse surrounding the meaning and definition of the New Negro figure. Thus, as we have seen, supporting the IWW and its egalitarian, anti-capitalist radicalism was a means for The Messenger’s editors to articulate and reaffirm their own vision of New Negro radicalism and militancy, at once building on and expanding the scope and heterogeneity of postwar black activism.


[1] Rod Bush, We Are Not What We Seem: Black Nationalism and Class Struggle in the American Century (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 90.
[2] Bush, We Are Not What We Seem, 104.
[3] Bush, We Are Not What We Seem, 88.
[4] Barbara Foley, Specters of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 66
[5] Harrison, “Two Negro Radicalisms”, New Negro, October 1919, reprinted in Louis J. Parascandola ed., Look For Me All Around You: Anglophone Caribbean Immigrants in the Harlem Renaissance (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 148.
[6] Foley, Specters of 1919, passim.
[7] Foley, Specters of 1919, p. 69.
[8] Foley, Specters of 1919, 16.
[9] Ibid, 16.
[10] Foley, Specters of 1919, 15.
[11] Philip Foner, “The IWW and the Black Worker,” Journal of Negro History 55 (January 1970),p. 58. Foley, Specters of 1919, 11.
[12] Foley, Specters of 1919, 15.
[13] W.A Domingo, “If we must die”, Messenger, September 1919, 4.
[14] Foley, Specters of 1919, 13.
[15] Harrison, “Two Negro Radicalisms”, in Look For Me All Around You, 149, Domingo, ‘If we must die’, Messenger, September 1919. Bush, We Are Not What We Seem, p. 103. Foley, Specters of 1919, 14.
[16] Harrison, “Two Negro Radicalisms”, in Look For Me All Around You, 149. According to the Messenger, “[The New Negro] is the product of the same worldwide forces that have brought into being the great liberal and radical movements that are now seizing the reins of political, economic and social power in all of the civilized countries of the world.” Messenger, August 1920, 74.
[17] Harrison, “Two Negro Radicalisms”, in Look For Me All Around You, 149
[18] Kornweibel, No Crystal Stair: Black Life and the Messenger, 1917-1928 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1975), xvi. Foley, Specters of 1919, 50.
[19] Quoted in Foley, Specters of 1919, 69.
[20] Bush, We Are Not What We Seem, 92-93.
[21] Bush, We Are Not What We Seem, 102.
[22] Sterling Spero, and Abram L. Harris, The Black Worker: The Negro and the Labor Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931). 389. Bush, We Are Not What We Seem, 92.
[23] President Wilson’s Justice Department called the Messenger, “the most dangerous of all Negro publications”, during this period. Kornweibel, Seeing Red: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy, 1919-1925 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 77-99. Bush, We Are Not What We Seem, 92.
[24] Philip Foner, “The IWW and the Black Worker,” 45.
[25] “The Preamble of the I.W.W”, Industrial Worker, April 29, 1909, 2.
[26] Joyce L. Kornbluh, ed, Rebel Voices: An I.W.W Anthology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), 12. Foner, “The IWW and the Black Worker”, 46.
[27] “A Class, Not Race Problem”, Industrial Worker, February 3, 1917, 3.
[28] “An Appeal to Colored Workers” Industrial Worker, September 20, 1919, 4.
[29] Foner, “The IWW and the Black Worker,” 46.
[30] Industrial Worker, Feb 3, 1917, Foner, “The IWW and the Black Worker,” 49. Foley, Specters of 1919, 86. Spero, and Harris, The Black Worker, 405.
[31] Lisa McGirr, ‘Black and White Longshoremen in the IWW: A History of the Philadelphia Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union Local 8’, Labor History, 36: 3 (1995), 377-402. David Roediger, “Gaining a hearing for Black-White Unity: Covington Hall and the Complexities of Race, Gender and Class,” in Towards the Abolition of Whiteness; Essays on Race, Politics and Working Class History (London, Verso, 1994).
[32] Kornweibel, No Crystal Stair, 178.
[33] Messenger, July 1919, 8.
[34] Messenger, July 1919, 8.
[35] Messenger, July 1919, 8.
[36] Messenger, July 1919, 8, 14.
[37] Messenger, August, 1919, 8, September , 1919, 6.
[38] Messenger, September, 1919, 6.
[39] Messenger, September, 1919, 6 Kornweibel, No Crystal Stair, 179.
[40] Messenger, September, 1919, 6.
[41] “Colored and White Workers Solving the Race Problem For Philadelphia”, The Messenger, July 1921, 214, “The Forum of Local 8”, August 1921, 234, “The Task of Local 8 – The Marine Transport Workers of Philadelphia”, October 1921, 262, “Local 8 of the IWW in the Firing Line” February 1922, 355.
[42] Messenger, August 1921, 234.
[43] Messenger, October 1921, 263.
[44] Messenger, July 1921, 214. Kornweibel, No Crystal Stair, 179. Indeed scholars have been quick to point out that Local 8 was one of the few IWW locals to successfully practice day-to-day job control. See Spero and Harris, Black Worker, 335, and McGirr, “Black and White Longshoremen in the IWW”, 379.
[45] Messenger, October 1921, 263. Kornweibel, No Crystal Stair, 179.
[46] Spero and Harris, Black Worker, 335.
[47] Messenger, August 1921, 234.
[48] Messenger, August 1921, 234, October 1921, 263.
[49] Messenger, July, 1921, 215.
[50] Messenger, July, 1919, 10, October, 1919, 17, December 1919, 7, and September 1921, 246.
[51] Bush, We Are Not What We Seem, 92.
[52] Crisis, April, 1919, 269. Messenger, July 1919, 10.
[53] Messenger, July 1919, 10.
[54] Messenger, July 1919, 10.
[55] Messenger, October, 1919, 18.
[56] Messenger, October, 1919, 18.
[57] Messenger, May/June 1919: “Whoever seeks to find the root cause of social disease is a radical.”
[58] Messenger, October, 1919, 18.
[59] Messenger, October, 1919, 18.
[60] Foner, “The IWW and the Black Worker”, 58.
[61] Messenger, August, 1919, 28. See also, May-June, 1919, 10, December 1919, 19, August 1921, 235, September 1921, 244, November 1921, 273, January 1922, 329.
[62] Messenger, August, 1919, 28.
[63] Messenger, August 1919, 29. May-June 1919, 10.
[64] Messenger, December 1919, 19. August 1919, 28 July 1921, 213.
[65] Foner, “IWW and the Black Worker”, 59. Messenger, July 1921, 213.
[66] Harrison, “Two Negro Radicalisms”, in Look For Me All Around You,149.
[67] Harrison, “Race First vs. Class First”, reprinted in Jeffrey B. Perry (ed), A Hubert Harrison Reader (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 108-109.
[68] Harrison, “Race First vs. Class First”, 109.
[69] Briggs, 'The Salvation of the Negro’, reprinted in Look For Me All Around You, 208.
[70] Messenger, May/June 1919, 20
[71] Messenger, August 1919, 11.
[72] Messenger, August 1921, 11. Kornweibel, No Crystal Stair, 179.
[73] Messenger, August 1921, 11. Kornweibel, No Crystal Stair, 179.
[74] Messenger, February 1920, 2.
[75] Messenger, August 1921, 11.
[76] Theodore Kornweibel, [i]Seeing Red[/i], 22. See New York Times, October 19, 1919, August 27, 1919, August 24, 1919, July 28, 1919, and August 4, 1919.
[77] Kornweibel, Seeing Red, 22. New York Times, August 27, 1919.
[78] Kornweibel, Seeing Red, 84. New York Times, October 19, 1919, August 27, 1919, August 24, 1919, July 28, 1919, August 4, 1919. Theodore Kornweibel Jr., No Crystal Stair, 78.
[79] Foner, “IWW and the Black Worker”,60. Kornweibel, No Crystal Stair, 180.
[80] “Negro Workers: Unionism or Slavery”, Industrial Worker, July 16, 1919, 1. “Why Negroes Should Join the IWW”, July 30, 1919, 2. Foley, Specters of 1919, 67.
[81] Industrial Worker, July 16 1919, 1.
[82] Industrial Worker, July 16 1919, 1.
[83] Foley, Specters of 1919, 31.
[84] Bush, We Are Not What We Seem, 88. Foley, Specters of 1919, passim.

Speak Out Now.pdf287.02 KB


Mar 29 2011 22:28

Thanks. This is great.

Do you know anywhere to find a copy of October 1919 The Messenger that the quotes at the beginning are taken from. Regardless, this is fantastic.

Juan Conatz
Mar 29 2011 22:40

Nah, I couldn't tell you where to find copies of them. Maybe you could email the author if you could track down his info?

Other than the actual piece, this is all I have on this

The paper on The Messenger and the IWW is available from the website of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies of the University of Washington. It is a prize-winning paper in Labor Studies -- the best undergraduate paper of 2007-2008, written by History Major George Robertson.
Mar 30 2011 15:10

The Messenger is one of the few newspapers that I've never found collected in any archive (if anyone knows where to find them, please send me a PM). But it left lots of traces in West Oakland because, being the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad (upon completion in 1869), lots of African American railroad porters eventually settled there -- and used their mobility working on the trains to distribute black papers across the country. It became the West Coast organizing center for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters when it was founded in 1925 by A. Philip Randolph; the main organizer in Oakland was C.L. Dellums (uncle to recent Oakland mayor Ron Dellums). In a published research report of Sonoma State University, entitled Sights and Sounds: Essays in Celebration of West Oakland, I found the following quote:

A. Philip Randolph wrote:
"...in the South, Negroes are still sweated 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 and 20 hours a day. The lumberjacks in the West (white) are no less mercilessly exploited. It is these indescribable conditions that gave birth to the Industrial Workers of the World. Peonage pens and industrial hells of the South will eventually force Negro workers, too, into industrial unions...And ere long, black and white workers will stop fighting each other over race prejudice and combine against their common enemy--the white capitalist." In "Organized Labor and Negro Politics," The Messenger, March 1920, p.6

The Brotherhood also adopted many Wobbly songs, even using "Hold the Fort" as its anthem.

gram negative
Mar 30 2011 03:58

Thanks for this.

Oct 25 2018 00:28
As well as attacking African American leaders allegedly ambivalent or openly hostile
to labor organization,

Is an early use of a description that to me seemed of only recent usage?

Juan Conatz
Nov 8 2018 13:51
ajjohnstone wrote:

Is an early use of a description that to me seemed of only recent usage?

That isn't a quote from anything, it's the author of this paper using that term.