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This Day in Labor History: June 23, 1855

[ 97 ] June 23, 2014 |

On June 23, 1855, a 19 year old slave woman named Celia murdered her master rather than allow him to rape her. She then attempted to burn his body, nearly succeeding in erasing all traces of the crime. She was arrested, convicted, and executed. This story gets at both the inhumanity of slavery and the sexual labor forced upon millions of African and African-American women during two centuries of chattel slavery in the United States.

Robert Newsom, a prosperous farmer in Callaway County, Missouri, purchased Celia in 1850. She was 14. In the 1850 census, Newsom owned 800 acres and five male slaves. Celia was the first female slave he purchased and it seems that he did so in order to use her for sex, as well as to serve as the house cook. His wife had died in 1849 and he decided on a sex slave rather than a new wife. He first raped Celia before they returned to his plantation. She eventually had two children by him.

In 1855, Celia took a slave named George as her lover. George pressured Celia to end Newsom’s rapes. Of course, he could do nothing about it himself, a subject that has gone far in defining the history of black masculinities in this country (there is a large literature on this topic). Celia did everything she could. She asked Newsom’s daughters to intervene. She pleaded to Newsom. Nothing helped. The rape continued.

On June 23, Newsom told Celia he was coming to her cabin that night, which he did at around 10 p.m. When he made his advances, she picked up a stick and beat him over the head. The first blow knocked him down and the second ended his life.

She hadn’t really intended to murder him. She just wanted him to not rape her. Not knowing what to do, she thought for about an hour. And then decided to burn him in her fireplace. Her house, an actual brick house built for her status as Newsom’s concubine, was a good distance from the main house so she had some ability to conceal her activities. She did a pretty complete job, smashing bone fragments and throwing them back into the fire, then spreading some of the ashes outside. The next morning she even got Newsom’s young grandson to hide the ashes, meaning he likely literally inhaled his own grandfather.

Because Newsom was so brazen about raping Celia, everyone knew that’s where he went the night before. So the blame immediately focused on her when he could not be found the next day. She went to work as normal and when confronted, denied everything. The police threatened to take away her children, but of course she knew that being caught meant death for her, so this was unsuccessful. She did admit Newsom had come to her cabin for rape. And finally she confessed after hours of continued questioning. After an official inquest the next day, Celia was hauled off to jail in the county seat of Fulton.

This all took place within the context of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and growing violence on the western frontier over the expansion of slavery, a labor system that increasing numbers of northerners either found abhorrent or at least a threat to their own status as free white workers. The Republican Party, founded the previous year, held the threat of slavery to white labor as central to its ideology. Three days before Celia’s trial began, on October 9, a man named John Brown arrived in Kansas for the first time, soon to become infamous for his use of violence to free people from slavery. Celia’s trial therefore was not just about punishing a crime, rare and salacious as it was. It was also about defending a system of labor that increasingly seemed to masters as threatened on all fronts, even as it was more profitable than ever. On top of all this was the constant fear slaveowners had that their bonded labor would rise up and kill them. Haiti was always on their minds, especially after the Nat Turner revolt. At the heart of this fear was the knowing injustice of the slave system that no amount of mental gymnastics and philosophical musings could erase.

Celia of course had no chance of an acquittal. The judge was William Hall, later a staunch Unionist in the Civil War, But in his instructions to the jury, he explicitly told them that if they believed she killed him to stop her own rape, this was not enough to be found not guilty. Hall really had no choice as he was ambitious and judges were elected positions in Missouri. Yet the defense pushed a radical line that slaves had the right to defend themselves from rape. Given that slave owners could legally do anything they wanted to their slaves without punishment, setting a legal precedent that there were limits to masters’ behavior would have overturned the entire moral basis of slavery. There is not a single known case in the American South of a slaveowner facing criminal charges for raping a slave, even though it happened every day all over the region. Giving slave women the right to resist would have been a major blow for slavery, yet in a slave state, that’s exactly the argument made by the defense attorneys, who seem to indeed have believed Celia was morally innocent. The attorneys were part of a small group of southerners who wanted to use the law to reform slavery’s worst abuses, saving the system while rejecting the attacks of abolitionists by undermining their ability to tell what seemed like sensationalized (regardless of their actual truth) stories about the horrors of slavery. But such reforms were impossible without granting slaves something like human rights.

On October 10, the jury found Celia guilty of first-degree murder. While in prison, Celia delivered a stillborn child. She was not allowed to testify, but that wasn’t only because she was a slave, but because the accused could not testify on their own behalf in Missouri at this time. She was scheduled for execution on November 16, but five days prior, she was moved out of jail to an unknown location and not returned until after her original date. Probably the defense attorneys were involved in this, although it’s unclear. They wanted to appeal to the state Supreme Court, which was not going to happen before the 16th. A new execution date of December 21 was scheduled. On December 14, the Supreme Court refused to stay the execution. Celia was executed by hanging on December 21.

Other than the quite exceptional act of murdering her master, Celia’s story is the story of millions of black women, forced into sexual labor for their masters.

There is an excellent book on this case that I recommend for your own reading and for assigning to students, Melton McLaurin’s Celia, a Slave: A True Story.

This is the 109th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

A Sad Anniversary

[ 46 ] June 22, 2014 |

With the Civil War sesquicentennial and the World War I centennial beginning, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement’s major victories has not received the attention I’d like to see. Of course some of those anniversaries are for the many horrible tragedies of the freedom struggle. Such was yesterday, which marked 50 years since James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were kidnapped and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan during Freedom Summer.

Of course, as we’ve seen since the Supreme Court’s rejection of the most important provision of the Voting Rights Act, these issues are long behind us and southern states like Mississippi have completely accepted African-American equality.

Third Parties: Not a Solution for the Left

[ 443 ] June 21, 2014 |

Scott has said much of what needs to be said about Jennifer Roesch’s Jacobin article calling for the “radical left” to break with the Democratic Party. The problems with this article are numerous, for it blithely avoids providing useful historical context or examples of how third parties work in the United States, what the constituency for a left third party would look like, how such a third party would actually succeed (or indeed, what the goals would be other than punishing Democrats), or really, an understanding of the incredibly complex society of the United States in 2014.

The third party has long has been how the American left has sought to punish Democrats for their various crimes. From Henry Wallace to Ralph Nader to really great lesser known activists like former Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers executive and so-called “Rachel Carson of the Workplace” Tony Mazziocchi, when activists get frustrated with the corporate domination of the Democratic Party, they have sought to create a left alternative. It never goes anywhere. When your benchmark of success in the modern Green Party, you know this is a strategy to irrelevance. Putting together political parties takes a huge amount of work, labor better spent actually helping people live better lives. The problem all of these people have also faced is that, frankly, most Americans don’t like their policy ideas. Whether that’s because they are racist or have false consciousness or are tools of capitalist media propaganda or whatever, it doesn’t much matter here. The point is that the organizing on the ground hasn’t happened to make a third party viable. For people who talk so much about bottom-up change and organizing the masses, it’s quite interesting that the solution they fall to for their lack of success is presidential third party runs, as if one daddy from the top will finally bring success.

To be fair, Roesch doesn’t quite come out and call for a leftist third party candidate in 2016, although I strongly doubt she would opposed it. Instead, she mostly focuses on local races. Where can “third parties” work? There are situations where something outside of the Democratic/Republican box can develop. Roesch mentions two, but in fact, they aren’t very useful for her project. The labor ticket in Lorain County, Ohio was a local insurgency against a terrible Democratic Party that used unions for their money and GOTV efforts while pursuing politics actively hostile to them. Nationally, labor doesn’t have the power to fight back against this reality. In Lorain County, it does and it did and it should have. If organized labor was strong enough in this country to challenge and defeat bad Democrats without electing Republicans, I would support that 100%. It is not and it knows it.

Sawant’s victory in Seattle was not a third party victory. It was a second party in a one-party district. In situations where one party is so completely dominant that the primary is all that matters for a victory, then insurgent challengers that present voters with a real option can make sense. Such was this Seattle city council seat. But that’s hugely different than a national campaign. Another Nader or whoever building a national political party of the left might present voters with more choices, but the effect of those choices is going to be electing Republicans, overturning Roe v. Wade, repressing black voting, Sam Alito-style Supreme Court judges, eviscerating environmental and workplace safety restrictions, etc., etc. Those calling for a national third party cannot ignore this. They have to take responsibility for what such the implications of such a party would be on the nation. The only exception is if the leftist party can actually win elections, which would only happen by essentially replacing the Democratic Party in our two-party system. And good luck with that.

It is a situation like Sawant’s victory that explains the closest thing we’ve ever had in this nation to a third party success story, which is the Populists. Rural anger over capitalist exploitation (not that most farmers were anti-capitalist, but they were increasingly opposed to the system of Gilded Age capitalism that openly took advantage of them and doomed them to poverty) led to a number of rural organizations becoming the Farmers Alliance in the 1880s and running a presidential candidate as the People’s Party in 1892. The Democrats co-opted part of their platform in 1896 after nominating William Jennings Bryan and the Populists disappeared. But even here, as the historian Jeffrey Ostler discovered in his book on state-level Populism, the success of this so-called third party depended on whether there was a functioning second party. In states like Iowa where an already functioning two-party system existed, the Populists could not gain ground because farmers found a responsive political outlet in one of the parties. It was only in states like Texas without a Republican Party or like Kansas without a Democratic Party that the Populists succeeded as a state-wide organization. In other words, they were filling the role of the second party.

More problematic is Roesch’s seeming contempt for how politics actually operate, whether in the U.S. or anywhere:

In most cases, independent campaigns are unlikely to actually win. Therefore, in the majority of situations, the primary goals are to raise the need for a political break with the Democrats, to amplify and strengthen existing movements and to engage a wider audience in left-wing ideas. Even in cases where independent candidates are able to win, like in Seattle, success can’t be measured on the usual terms of bourgeois politics, such as making deals to pass legislation or building alliances with other legislators.

The usual terms of bourgeois politics, such as making deals to pass legislation. You mean, how change actually happens? There is not a single social movement in American history that has not needed the usual terms of bourgeois politics to win change. Not one. The labor movement required the National Labor Relations Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, and much additional legislation. The environmental movement needed the Wilderness Act, various Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, etc. The civil rights movement needed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The gay rights movement is succeeding because of its brilliant legal strategy. I guess this is all just bourgeois politics since deals had to be made and legislation was weakened through those deals that allowed them to get the necessary votes to codify change. All of this isn’t the pure politics of working class solidarity (which is disconnected from most of the actual American working class but what does that matter to ideology) and, well, what exactly? What the goal of such a party is if not to pass legislation goes totally unmentioned It’s just purity and punishment.

And then there’s this:

Once in office, left-wing activists who try to carry on their struggle while representing the Democratic Party ultimately end up having to choose between making deals with and accommodations to the existing power structure, or becoming marginalized and unable to accomplish their goals.

I’m sorry, has there ever been a state with functioning democratic structures, capitalist or socialist, where making deals with existing power structures has not happened? No. This is called governance. If socialists do get elected and they can’t govern because they refuse to, they will be quickly and rightfully swept from office.

So where does this lead us? Rosech identifies places where left alternatives to Democrats make sense and I don’t disagree with most of them. It’s possible that a socialist run against Andrew Cuomo could be a good idea. Certainly a left candidate for mayor of Oakland has logic behind it. Rhode Island in 2014 is a state, like Texas or Kansas in the late 19th century, that is an effective one-party state where the only thing tying the party’s elected officials together is the need to be in the party to have personal power. Without a functioning Republican Party, Rhode Island could be an interesting place to experiment with a state level left alternative to the Democrats. But ultimately, this again would just be filling the role of the 2nd party. And whatever form it takes, it will have to make compromises and won’t pass anyone’s purity tests. Because that’s the real world.

But a national third party alternative is a disastrous idea that would a) elect Republicans nationwide and b) take up so much energy and resources that leftists would have to ignore actual community organizing in order to focus on this. Is this is the best use of left energy? I’d argue not. Instead, I’d look to our past to see how people on the streets moved political parties through protest, lobbying, and organizing.

Instead, like how radical conservatives took over the Republican Party from within beginning in the 1950s, leftists would have much better success turning the Democratic Party into a more left-leaning organization. I don’t think this necessarily should be the focus of left organizing efforts, but people who want to put the energy into creating a third party would find it much better spent here. I mean, they’d have to deal with the Laborers union willing to sell out potential allies for years over a few jobs, business owners, anti-abortion Irish Catholics who vote Democratic for economic issues, and all the other complexities of modern America. But the United States is not a nation of people who go to socialist meetings. It’s a nation of people who watch football. The American kind of football. No left political movement can succeed without recognizing the complexity of the American populace and make compromises with those groups with which they are uncomfortable. Otherwise, they will win nothing.

Root for Your Washington Dead Savage Heathen Heads

[ 143 ] June 20, 2014 |

What does “Redskins” mean exactly?

What is germane to the conversation? What is semantics? That is debatable. The fact remains that to many Native Americans, the term “redskin” has long meant the act of our ancestor’s scalps being collected for bounty.

Academy of the Underrated

[ 88 ] June 20, 2014 |

Tony Gwynn is significantly underrated.

O’Connor on Rand

[ 293 ] June 19, 2014 |

Not that it’s surprising that any writer or reader with even reasonable taste would reject Ayn Rand as horrible writing, but still, Flannery O’Connor in 1960:

I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.

On the other hand, Rand actually liked Spillane so, well, whatever.

Horace Silver, RIP

[ 13 ] June 18, 2014 |

The great jazz pianist has died at the age of 85.

Prison Labor Can Do All The Work

[ 138 ] June 18, 2014 |

In yesterday’s post on prison labor and cheese making, Happy Jack left this amazing powerpoint presentation by Colorado Correctional Industries, the private prison mafia. Entitled, “Motivating Prisoners to Become Business Partners,” you can see all the great work you can get prison labor to do for 60 cents a day. You can have them make furniture for the governor’s office (really John Hickenlooper? Really?). You can have them make bear proof trash cans. You can

And there are outstanding benefits for the prisoners. They get job training for work that is now done by prisoners, so that’s pretty helpful when they get out. The pool for bonuses in the Panel Shop is .007314% of the monthly revenue. That seven-thousandth of a percent is pretty generous.

In all seriousness, when I read this, I think of how so many of these industries were once union jobs. Or if they weren’t union, they probably at least paid OK. Now they are undercut by prison labor. I see some of the historically most exploitative industries like apparel and agriculture taking full advantage of this situation. I almost laugh at CCI marketing prisoners to farmers as a replacement for all too rare migrant laborers from Latin America. I think of the cost argument made by CCI to the taxpayers, when of course the real cost argument is not leading the developed world in imprisoning people, mostly for nonviolent crime. I think of the future of a nation increasingly committed to labor at near-slave conditions.

And of course there’s the fire fighting. If the workers die, it’s even less money the taxpayers to fork over. But if they live, CCI gets more profit. It’s such a dilemma! As for training wild horses, that just seems bloody dangerous for anyone. So why not make prisoners do it?

There is nothing about a document like this that should surprise you except that it’s readily available on the internet. This sort of exploitation is at the core of the 21st century economy and it contributes to lack of good, dignified labor in the United States.

Union Environmentalism

[ 10 ] June 18, 2014 |

Let me recommend Trish Kahle’s Jacobin piece on the Miners for Democracy (1970s reformist United Mine Workers members) and the potential of energy workers embracing environmentalism. Brief excerpt:

Ultimately, the group of miners arguing for an energy workers union federation — or even a new union to represent all energy workers — were unsuccessful in transforming their union in that vision. This failure helped lead to the decline of the MFD, and along with it, the radical environmentalist vision they put forward.

The political space that had been opened up by the incredible levels of self-organization among rank and file miners allowed broad debate and agitation on issues like the environment. But as it became harder for workers to go on the offensive and the energy conglomerates continued to consolidate their power, miners found themselves fighting an increasingly uphill battle that left less and less room to fight for anything except survival.

Although they were some of the last workers to do so, the United Mine Workers did eventually face decline accompanied by the growth of conservatism. Today, rather than being seen as the vanguard of a movement to protect the land, miners are portrayed by many environmentalists as backwards, reactionary, and part of the problem.

I think this is pretty much correct for the UMWA, but in other industries, it wasn’t so much consolidation as it was capital mobility that undermined union environmentalism. The labor-green alliance she describes was not unique to the UMWA at the time. The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers were the pioneers here, but the International Woodworkers of America, International Association of Machinists, and United Steel Workers of America had pretty strong environmental records as well. She concludes by talking about union democracy as central to a labor environmentalism, but my own research on the IWA really doesn’t suggest this is necessary. For the IWA, it was the union leadership pushing the green message and the locals embraced it or didn’t depending on the issue. When there was rank and file resistance, it was against environmentalism, not for it. So in the case of the UMWA, the connection between union democracy and environmentalism was profound because it was so connected to the leadership’s indifference to workers dying of black lung and in accidents. But that’s very much not a universal thing.

Despite this quibble, this is an excellent article on the potential of energy workers embracing a green future, even if, understandably enough, how to get from Point A to Point B remains pretty hazy.

Soviet Anti-Religious Propaganda

[ 36 ] June 18, 2014 |

russiananti6posndfgponsa

Enjoy.

Post-Nuclear Wealth

[ 50 ] June 17, 2014 |

Don’t have a date on this, but if I was a Cold War American, I would feel pretty good about a nuclear attack eliminating all those takers.

….In comments, Herman notes the source is this 1965 report on a post-nuclear Houston. I’d make a Houston joke here, but it’s too easy.

Prison Labor and Artisanal Food

[ 69 ] June 17, 2014 |

The prison-industrial complex finds new ways to generate profit. So it’s hardly surprising that probably the industry most exploitative of labor in American history–agriculture–is more than happy to take advantage. What may surprise some people is that it’s the high end artisanal food companies that cater to Whole Foods and other such stores who are involved. This story focuses on Haystack Mountain, a Colorado goat cheese company that is buying its milk from a prison company farm.

Says John Scaggs, Haystack’s marketing and sales director, referring to CCI: “They have land. They have human capital, the equipment. If you can think it up, they can do it, and do it fast.”

That diverse and nimble operation has attracted visits by officials from 22 prisons as well as steady interest from companies that want to tap CCI’s workforce. “I get one to two calls a week from companies,” says CCI director Steve Smith, adding that he declines those that simply want cheap labor.

The practice has long been controversial. Prisoners earn meager wages and have no recourse if they’re mistreated, LeBaron argues. Plus, they can take jobs from law-abiding citizens. “It’s hugely concerning in the face of economic instability and unemployment,” she says.

Counters Smith: “These are coveted jobs.” Base pay starts at 60¢ a day, but most prisoners earn $300 to $400 a month with incentives, he says. To be hired, inmates must get a GED and maintain good behavior for six months.

60 cents a day. In 2014. Now that’s the kind of labor exploitation I know from the history of American agriculture.

There was also this Twitter exchange between labor and justice writers Sarah Jaffe and Alexis Goldstein with some PR flack from Haystack Mountain who is not very good at his job because he reveals way too much. According to the PR person, Haystack Mountain isn’t even saving money on the milk compared to what they would pay on the open market, meaning all that money is going to the prison capitalists. Everyone wins but workers. And the idea that all these prisoners are earning skills they will take into the workforce of goat farming is so ridiculous as to be laughable.