One of the biggest lies of capitalist propaganda is that Black people “live off” white workers. This racist falsehood has been used for decades to justify cutbacks that hurt all poor and working people. It was even hurled against the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was set up after the Civil War to help formerly enslaved Black people.
The truth is that it was enslaved Africans who produced most of the U.S. exports before the Civil War. Cotton alone accounted for half of U.S. export earnings in 1860.
So Black labor overwhelmingly paid for imports of machinery and other industrial goods from Britain. Crews on U.S. vessels and whaling ships included Black sailors, as portrayed in the novel “Moby Dick.”
From Maryland to Texas, it was enslaved Africans who cleared the forests and plowed the fields on land stolen from Indigenous nations. Every plantation mansion was built by Black carpenters. Frederick Douglass worked in a Baltimore shipyard.
Black labor was also essential to New York City, which had a municipal slave market on Wall Street. The metropolis became the country’s financial center by being the bankers for the slave owners.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis doesn’t want students to know this truth. That’s why this bigot is trying to ban Black history.
Hollywood helps cover up the role of Black labor in making the United States so wealthy. With some exceptions, when a television show does feature workers, they’re usually white guys. Think of Jackie Gleason in “The Honeymooners” or Kevin James in “The King of Queens.”
The latest example of this ignorance is podcaster Joe Rogan. He attacked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s mild statement urging more diversity in construction jobs.
“Do you know that he gave a speech the other day about how there’s too many white people working in construction sites,” was how Rogan characterized Buttigieg’s remarks. That’s poison.
It’s saying fighting discrimination hurts whites. That’s par for the course for Rogan, who’s had to apologize for using racial epithets dozens of times on his shows.
Rogan went on to say, “That’s skilled labor. Like, you have to hire people that are really good at that. And if they don’t exist in that community, you have to hire them from outside that community.”
Who do you think built the White House, Joe Rogan? As Michelle Obama pointed out, it was skilled Black carpenters who could be sold on the auction block.
Always remember John Henry
The 9,000 miles of railroads in the South before the Civil War were built by enslaved Africans. Thousands of more miles were laid afterwards by Black prisoners.
They included “the steel driving man” John Henry, who was worked to death building the Chesapeake and Ohio railway, now part of the gigantic CSX rail system. Forcing railroad monopolies to pay reparations to Black people also guarantees that cities like East Palestine, Ohio, that have been devastated by train wrecks will be compensated.
On some southern railroad lines, Black workers accounted for as many as 90% of the locomotive firemen. (“Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality” by Eric Arnesen)
Starting with Philadelphia and going south, at least half of the dockworkers are Black. These include the ports of Baltimore; Norfolk, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; New Orleans; and Houston.
At one time, a majority of Alabama’s coal miners were Black. In 1930 there were 55,000 Black coal miners, including 22,000 in West Virginia. (“Black Coal Miners in America” by Ronald Lewis)
By 1910 there were more than 37,000 Black workers in U.S. steel mills. (“The Harder We Run: Black Workers since the Civil War” by William H. Harris)
The violent overthrow of the Reconstruction governments in the South was a tragic defeat for Black freedom and all poor people. Decades of lynchings and Ku Klux Klan terror followed.
This was the period when railroad tycoon Jay Gould bragged he could hire one-half of the working class to shoot the other half. Almost every big strike was met with violence from the employers.
While hundreds of white strikers ― including many immigrants ― as well as Black strikers were shot down in the North, thousands of Black people were lynched in the South.
Agents scoured eastern and southern Europe to hire workers for the 12-hour workdays in Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills. But these labor recruiters didn’t go south of the Ohio River to hire Black or white sharecroppers.
They were needed to produce ever-increasing amounts of cotton, the production of which leapt from 4 million bales in 1870 to 16 million in 1911. Despite the rapid growth of U.S. manufacturing, cotton still accounted for 29% of U.S. exports that year.
Summoning Black labor north
World War I changed that hiring scheme by cutting off the European labor supply while fueling an economic boom. Big capital summoned Black workers north, where they became indispensable to heavy industry.
By 1917, a quarter of the 50,000 meatpacking workers employed in Chicago’s Union Stockyards were Black. There were 7,000 Black workers in Pittsburgh’s steel mills in 1918.
Dennis C. Dickerson’s book, “Out of the Crucible: Black Steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania, 1875-1980,” emphasizes their increasing role: “By the end of the 1920s, Black workers had entrenched themselves in the steel mills of Western Pennsylvania. In 1929, they comprised at least one fifth of all shop employees in area mills and foundries.”
By 1920, African Americans were 11.4% of the “steel labor force” in Illinois, 14.2% in Indiana and 10.9% in Pennsylvania. (“Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era” by David Brody)
The Black percentage of these states’ population in 1920 was only 2.8% in Illinois, 2.8% in Indiana and 3.3% in Pennsylvania. So a century ago, Black workers were concentrated in the steel industry far above their percentage of the population.
During World War I, the 38,723 Black shipyard workers accounted for a tenth of those employed in the industry, according to Harris. In 1919 there were 4,500 African Americans working at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. (“The Informer,” Cleveland, April 1919)
Black workers key to union victories
Black workers were crucial to the working class upsurge of the 1930s. Millions of workers won union wages and benefits when Social Security was established. In the 1934 West Coast dockworkers’ strike, union leader Harry Bridges won support from the Black community.
According to labor historian Philip Foner, 85,000 of the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee’s 550,000 members were Black.
The Black communist Benjamin Careathers personally signed up nearly 2,000 Black employees of Jones & Laughlin at the Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, plant for the union.
The 1937 “Little Steel” strike ― waged against the smaller rivals of U.S. Steel ― was drowned in blood. Chicago cops killed 10 workers in the Memorial Day massacre. Largely because of Careathers’ effort, J&L became virtually the only “Little Steel” outfit to sign a union contract.
Black workers were key for the United Auto Workers forcing Henry Ford to sign a union contract in 1941. The victories of the Packing House Workers Organizing Committee were based on Black workers.
In Chicago’s stockyards, the bosses used Polish women to segregate some of the departments. The Black communist union organizer Henry “Hank” Johnson learned a little Polish from his Polish American comrades. After Johnson gave a short speech in Polish, hundreds signed union cards.
Racist hiring practices continued even as U.S. plants needed workers for war production. A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led the March on Washington Movement to demand jobs during World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt was forced to set up the Fair Employment Practices Commission.
It was hardest of all for Black women to get hired in factories. Black women had always been more likely to work outside of their home than white women. But almost 80% of their jobs in the cities before World War II had been as maids. They’re workers, too.
It was Black women domestic workers who were the backbone of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott – a big blow to Jim Crow racism.
Racism hurts all poor and working people
During the post-World War II period of capitalist economic expansion, U.S. big business increasingly depended on Black labor. The two biggest U.S. industries were auto and steel. One out of four auto and steel workers were Black in 1968.
That year General Motors was the world’s largest corporation, while Ford, Chrysler and U.S. Steel were also among the 10 biggest U.S. companies. Black workers were the bedrock of the United Auto Workers.
In his book, “The Company and the Union,” author William Serrin estimated that the UAW’s membership was 30% Black in 1972. Forty percent of UAW members in Detroit’s metropolitan area were Black.
With their strikes, UAW workers won dental insurance and other benefits not only for themselves but also for many other workers. Non-union employers were often compelled to offer some of these benefits in order to attract workers.
Massive job discrimination persisted. For years, Harry Bradley, a founding member of the John Birch Society, refused to hire Black workers at his Allen-Bradley factory in Milwaukee that made electrical controls.
How did that help the 6,000 workers employed there, members of United Electrical Workers Union Local 1111? The last union workers were let go in 2010.
The greatest example of how discrimination in hiring hurts all workers is in textiles, where over a million workers were employed in 1973.
Yankee textile companies fled New England in order to escape unions and immigrant workers. By 1960, 89% of U.S. textile production was in the South.
Wages in Southern mills were up to 40% below the Northern average. (“Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South” by Janet Irons)
Excluding Black workers from textile mills was seen as a way to keep unions out. It was vital to manipulating and brainwashing white workers who were so desperately poor themselves.
Not all white workers believed this rubbish. The 29-year-old union supporter Ella May Wiggins was shot to death on Sept. 14, 1929, during the Gastonia, North Carolina, strike. Typical of the poverty suffered by white textile workers was that four of her children died of whooping cough.
Hiring Black workers in Southern textile mills is one of the greatest triumphs of the civil rights movement. When Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeill and David Richmond began their sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on Feb. 1, 1960, just 3.3% of textile workers were Black.
Eighteen years later, in 1978, Black workers held a quarter of the textile industry’s jobs. (“Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960-1980” by Timothy Minchin)
Victor Perlo in “Economics of Racism II: The Roots of Inequality, USA,” showed how discrimination allowed capitalists to make super-profits. A history of racist terror is why only 2% of workers in South Carolina are union members.
That’s the reason Michelin Tire has 14 plants and other facilities in South Carolina, employing over 9,000 workers. None of these workers have union protection.
Just as U.S. textile outfits fled Northern states to run away from unions, Michelin wanted to escape from the French working class. Black, white and Latinx workers in the Palmetto State get lower wages as a result.
Poor and working people in the United States have been pushed back for over 45 years. The destruction of six million factory jobs is the biggest reason for the decline in union membership.
In 1980, young workers in Flint, Michigan, had higher average incomes than those in San Francisco. Then General Motors closed nine of its 10 auto plants.
By 2017, half of Flint’s population was living in poverty. Flint’s children were poisoned by a polluted water supply.
Dozens of cities that were manufacturing centers were devastated. The Black metropolis of Detroit was a special target of Big Capital.
Automation helped destroy thousands of jobs held by Black workers in coal mines and factories.
There’s a stench of fascism in the air. Donald Trump Jr. claims East Palestine, Ohio, was neglected after the recent train wreck because it’s an overwhelmingly white city. Charlie Kirk, who’s featured on Fox News, says there’s a war against white people.
Joe Rogan is part of this bigoted chorus. Hate doesn’t fight for higher wages, lower rents or better retirement benefits.
Three years ago, 26 million people marched to demand Black Lives Matter! Using its media stooges, the wealthy and powerful have counterattacked.
Unity is the greatest weapon poor and working people have. Inspired by the Palestinian struggle, we need a multinational working class Intifada.
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