The Great Black Radical You've Never Heard OfHistorians in the News
tags: racism, African American history, radicalism, labor history, Shipping, IWW, longshoremen, Interracial activism
PETER COLE is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University and Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Program at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and the award-winning Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He also is the founder and co-director of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19). He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.
In the early 20th century, when many U.S. unions disgracefully excluded Asian, Black and Latinx workers, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) warmly welcomed people of color. This revolutionary union, whose members affectionately are known as Wobblies, emphasizes class struggle solidarity in its legendary motto: “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All!”
Ben Fletcher, an African American who helped lead the IWW’s most militant and effective interracial branch, epitomized the union’s brand of anti-capitalism and antiracism. Fletcher (1890−1949) was a tremendously important and well-loved member of the IWW during its heyday, the first quarter of the 20th century. A brilliant union organizer and a humorous orator, Fletcher helped found and lead Local 8 of the IWW’s Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union. When founded in 1913, this union was a third African American, a third Irish and Irish American, and a third other European immigrants. Despite being hated by the bosses and redbaited by the government, Local 8 controlled the waterfront for almost a decade.
My new book, Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly (PM Press) tells the story of one of the greatest heroes of the American working class. For 25 years, I have researched him and his union, painstakingly uncovering a stunning range of documents related to this extraordinary man. The book includes a detailed biographical introduction of his life and history, reminiscences by fellow workers who knew him, a chronicle of the IWW’s impressive, decade-long run on the Philadelphia waterfront in which Fletcher played a pivotal role, and nearly all of his known writings and speeches. In an era of soaring inequality and the largest wave of protests in favor of racial equality in half a century, Fletcher’s timeless voice could inspire a new generation of workers, organizers and agitators.
To give a sense of the man and the book, below is an excerpt of an interview Fletcher gave, in 1931, to the Amsterdam News, his only known interview. It reveals a great deal about Fletcher’s experiences prior to the federal trial in Chicago in 1918 (in which nearly 100 IWW leaders were charged with violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts passed during the wartime frenzy of hyper-patriotism), unwavering commitment to the IWW, and revolutionary industrial unionism. Fletcher also describes how he was nearly lynched in Norfolk, Virginia in 1917.
The Amsterdam News is among the older still-operating Black newspapers in the United States. Founded in 1909 and named after a major street in Harlem, this weekly newspaper is geared to the Black community of New York City. The paper long has been a voice for equal rights and power and none other than Malcolm X wrote a column in the paper. Its workforce unionized in 1936 and remains so.
Ben Fletcher, long-time IWW organizer, drew a deep puff of his cigar and looked placidly out of the window as he concluded the reminiscences of his radical activities which led to his imprisonment in 1918 along with 100 other members of the Industrial Workers of the World in the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth on indictments returned against them by a Government possessed of a wartime hysteria.
A simple tale he told. The story of his life as a class-conscious worker. The story of how he had been turned to IWW by the discriminatory practices and craft limitations of the American Federation of Labor unions; of how he had organized longshoremen along the coast from Boston to Norfolk; of how he had been smuggled out of the latter city by friends after the shipping interests had threatened him with lynching; of how he had to force himself into that Federal courtroom in Chicago, where for nineteen weeks he and 112 other leaders of the syndicalist movement stood trial on charges of espionage and obstructing the Government’s war program, and finally of the two years and six months of the ten-year sentence he served in the Federal penitentiary.
“Some People Are Taken to Jail, But Ben Fletcher Just ‘Went In’,” Amsterdam NewsDecember 30, 1931, p. 16.
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