by John Mason
We are in the middle of African-American History Month, where we honor those in the African-American community who have contributed to this country, in spite of racism and persecution. Traditionally such history has deliberately been hidden, hence a month dedicated to it; it takes its origins from the historian Carter G. Woodson and his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, declaring the second week of February “Negro History Week,” February being the birth month of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
I would like to bring up a couple of African-American men who I don’t believe get enough press; they were fundamental in the Civil Rights and Labor movements (and there has been tremendous overlap between the two movement; they are one and the same). The first is A. (Asa) Philip Randolph, who was a Socialist of the Eugene V. Debs era, and came out against the First World War; and editor of the radical newspaper The Messenger. In 1925 a group of sleeping car porters asked Randolph to lead their union-organizing effort, for better wages and conditions from the Pullman Sleeping Car Company.
The Pullman company did the usual tricks in trying to break the union, such as calling favors in Black newspapers to publish articles against the union, calling on ministers to preach against the union, hiring goons to terrorize the workers, and threatening porters with firing. But, after ten years of struggle, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) won a charter from the AFL, and a contract from the Pullman company; from that the Sleeping Car Porters became some of the most prosperous workers in the Black community.
(This might not seem like much, organizing workers, but it‚s basic; a person MUST have a decent livelihood to advance in life, be able to pay their utilities, their mortgages, and their kids‚ way through college. Randolph, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, knew the importance of economic democracy along with political democracy; what good is having the right to go to college if you don’t have the money for it?)
As the United States prepared to enter the Second World War, Randolph campaigned for a march on Washington in 1941 to advocate for the end of racial discrimination in armaments industries; President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which prohibited discrimination in defense industries. In 1947, Randolph organized a campaign of civil disobedience to end racial discrimination in the military; in 1948 President Harry S. Truman, who was briefly in the Klan, signed Executive Order 9981, which ended military segregation.
Another figure I salute is Bayard Rustin, who since before the Second World War, to the time of his death in 1987, was a champion activist for Civil Rights and opposition to war, pioneering nonviolent civil disobedience as a tactic for social change. Rustin endured prison for his beliefs and activism, including opposition to US participation in the Second World War, and for riding desegregated buses in the South.
Randolph selected Rustin to organize the logistics of the 1963 March on Washington, with such things as organizing train and buses to take marchers to Washington, organizing press relations, and first aid stations. (It’s these unsexy, mundane, logistical things that activists work on that make social change movements work.) Like Randolph, Rustin worked for a close alliance between the Civil Rights and Labor movements, understanding that economic class issues were, and remain, as important as racial issues.
But Bayard Rustin was a Gay man, in a highly homophobic era, which was a problem even among otherwise progressive activists, and so had to be more in the background, as they say “taking one for the team.” I contribute to the long-overdue honoring of the life and work of Bayard Rustin.
I delight at the self-destruction of the Republican party, due to its pandering to racism, sexism, and homophobia. In 2009 the “Tea Party movement” was formed by two basic organizations, Americans for Prosperity, founded by the billionaire Koch brothers, and FreedomWorks, founded by Dick Armey, who was Republican House leader. Now the Republican party has found what kind of monster it created, with Tea Party oriented candidates for President-Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Herman Cain, Rick Perry–displaying willful ignorance about which government agencies to eliminate, the names of former Soviet republics, and the scare of Muslims infiltrating the government. Such behavior attracted racists, people who denied provable scientific data on climate change, people who could not accept a Black man as President (“birthers”), disciples of Ayn Rand. THIS is what the Republican base has become….
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