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More of This Please

[ 21 ] December 11, 2012 |

I know there’s very little reason to have much hope for the mainstream media, but when villagers begin calling out Republicans to their faces on policy, it makes me a little more optimistic.

This Day in Labor History: December 11, 1886

[ 9 ] December 11, 2012 |

On December 11, 1886, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance was established in Lovelady in Houston County, Texas. This organization may have accomplished little in concrete gains, but it represented the brave attempt of black farmers to avoid tenancy, sharecropping, and other forms of white controlled labor. It also as played an important role in the broader farmer movement to protect themselves from the rapacity of Gilded Age capitalism.

The Farmers Alliance itself, an organization formed to speak to the very real concerns of increasing poverty and economic marginalization of southern farmers within the burgeoning industrial capitalist world, could not be a truly integrated organization. The reality of segregation and racism were too much for that. The Farmers Alliance is an interesting organization in its own right, a strategy created by southern economic radicals that would bridge away from the Democratic Party and toward a “third party of the industrial millions” through cooperative strategies.

As the white radicals knew, black farmers were as interested in these ideas as they were. Beginning in December 1886, black organizations began forming under the name the Colored Farmers Alliance to argue for black rights within the larger Alliance movement. Interestingly, while 16 of the people at the Lovelady gathering, including the nominal president, were African-American, the 17th attendee was ex-Confederate officer R.M. Humphrey. It was on Humphrey’s farm where the meeting took place and Humphrey would serve as the national spokesman for the organization despite his race.

Humphrey was an interesting guy. He seems to have started the Colored Farmers Alliance as a way to propel him into Congress. In a majority black district where voter suppression hadn’t taken place yet, he used the organization in its first two years as his own political machine. But when he lost his bid in 1888, rather than give up, he actually committed himself to building it as a legitimate group to fight for black labor rights. Organizers moved across the South, organizing African-Americans for higher crop prices, lower railroad rates, and other policies that would help the sharecroppers and small land owners who found themselves increasingly squeezed by capitalism.

While all small southern farmers had problems in the late 19th century, black farmers had it worse. Both races had much in common: the crop lien, the inability to finance your own crop without going into debt, the desire to control your own labor and livelihood. Both had similar goals–a flexible currency, higher commodity prices, railroad regulation, etc. But black labor was also caught in the racial realities of their day. The sheer existence of independent black labor was an affront to the southern society of the Gilded Age. Only 20 years after the end of the Civil War, much of the white supremacist violence used against African-Americans was about tying labor in place–powerless, cheap, and controllable. What African-Americans understood, as the historian Lawrence Goodwyn tells it, was that neither the capitalists nor the white Populists had any real capacity to question their own position in the racial caste system. African-Americans knew that an economic answer to the problems of independent farm labor was not enough for they also were stuck in a lower caste.

Southern black farmers

The response of elite whites to the Colored Farmers Alliance was one of disdain. Race baiting proved an effective method to undermine the burgeoning and always uncomfortable alliance between whites and blacks. The Montgomery Advertiser wrote that “the white people don’t want any more Negro influence in their affairs than they already have, and they won’t have it.”

Given the hostility of powerful whites, Colored Farmers Alliance organizers worked quietly, without the fanfare and open political organizing of the white Alliances. Essentially, the Colored Alliance worked not unlike the beginnings of a labor union or the civil rights movement in the 1950s. They found local leaders and tried to cultivate that leadership into something more. Because they worked so secretively, even a historian of Goodwyn’s preeminence admits that he can’t find much about their day to day actions. We know that the organization did engage in public political activities a the Ocala Convention of 1890 and the founding of the People’s Party in 1892, but other than that, it’s hard to know. Still, by 1890, the organization at least claimed to have 1.2 million members. Part of this was absorbing other populist-related black organizations such as the black versions of the Agricultural Wheel, providing more evidence to the very real efforts of black farmers to stand up for their economic and political rights. In 1891, it attempted to institute a strike to raise the price of cotton, but the CFA simply did not have the power to pull such an event off and it failed.

Colored Farmers Alliance members

While some Alliance leaders talked a good game of racial cooperation in the 1880s and early 1890s, the tolerance of any southern white for black participation in the political process and economic discourse was limited. Tom Watson may have started his career touting racial cooperation, but he quickly moved to the worst kind of race-baiting white supremacist. The two Alliance organizations split over the issue of an introduced bill in Congress to provide federal supervision of southern elections. The Colored Alliance supported the protection of black voting rights wholeheartedly while the white Alliance turned toward white supremacy and the rejection of policies they associated with Reconstruction. Moreover, Goodwyn argues that white supremacy made the real sustenance of the Colored Alliances impossible to maintain because without public acts in the political process, no meaningful movement culture could develop. And public political acts often meant death for the African-American of the late 19th century.

In the end, the significance of the Colored Farmers Alliance from a labor perspective is that it served as an organization that tried to hold on to the fading independence of a black farm labor. For sharecroppers, which made up a significant percentage of the membership of both Alliances, the organization was the one possibility of fighting for policies that would help their lives. Being independent of white labor domination was at the core of rejecting slavery and its near-imitations that eventually reclaimed much of southern black labor.

This is the 47th post in this series. The rest are archived here.

Clinton and the Drug War

[ 40 ] December 10, 2012 |

I don’t want to make a big deal out of something that really probably isn’t, but I do think there is some significance to Bill Clinton declaring the drug war a failure. It matters precisely because of the possibility of Hillary Clinton running for president in 2016. Clinton is basically on the campaign trail now in the sense that anything he says could be construed as the position of possible candidate Clinton. Does this potentially mean the move toward decriminalization is beginning to gain traction in the political class? If Democrats at the top levels begin openly questioning drug policy, that is both extremely significant and a sign that the youth agenda is beginning to trickle up.

Again, it may not mean this much. But it isn’t nothing.

The Road It Gives and the Road It Takes Away

[ 16 ] December 10, 2012 |

The life of a musician is one of high-risk, if for no other reason that they are on the road all the time. Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera is the latest to die far too young.

Wanker of the Day

[ 165 ] December 10, 2012 |

Nic Kristof.

Evidently Kristof is only interested in poverty if he can personally fly in and rescue women from sex slavery. Otherwise, he’s happy to channel the arguments of Gilded Age social Darwinists.

Here is an illustration of Kristof’s views, from 1877

“Helping the Poor–Gratuitous Distribution of Coal by the City–Cherry Street,” New York City, 1877

Can’t you just feel the dependency developing?

….Follow-up question. Are Kristof’s sex slaves still worth rescuing if the brothel has air-conditioning? Or do they then become the unworthy poor?

The Most Necessary Cover Song In History

[ 42 ] December 8, 2012 |

Doc Severinsen does King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King.” From 1970.

Shorter Eric Cantor: “The Rights of White Men to Sexually Assault Women of Color Shall Not Be Abridged!”

[ 189 ] December 7, 2012 |

Leave it to a congressman from the ex-Confederacy, where the white rape of black women has a long and sordid history, to hold up the Violence Against Women Act in order to protect white men from prosecution by tribal courts if they rape a Native American woman.

Yes that’s right. Eric Cantor is the holding up VAWA for that reason. Republicans have been fighting it tooth and nail because the new act would expand protections to immigrants, the LGBT community, and Native Americans. They are caving on the first two. But about Native Americans, Cantor refuses to budge. Here’s the low-down.

Leahy explained the provision, probably the least understood of the three additions in the Senate bill: It gives tribal courts limited jurisdiction to oversee domestic violence offenses committed against Native American women by non-Native American men on tribal lands. Currently, federal and state law enforcement have jurisdiction over domestic violence on tribal lands, but in many cases, they are hours away and lack the resources to respond to those cases. Tribal courts, meanwhile, are on site and familiar with tribal laws, but lack the jurisdiction to address domestic violence on tribal lands when it is carried out by a non-Native American individual.

That means non-Native American men who abuse Native American women on tribal lands are essentially “immune from the law, and they know it,” Leahy said.

The standoff over including VAWA protections for Native American women comes at a time of appallingly high levels of violence on tribal lands. One in three Native American women have been raped or experienced attempted rape, the New York Times reported in March, and the rate of sexual assault on Native American women is more than twice the national average. President Barack Obama has called violence on tribal lands “an affront to our shared humanity.”

Of the Native American women who are raped, 86 percent of them are raped by non-Native men, according to an Amnesty International report. That statistic is precisely what the Senate’s tribal provision targets.

For all intents and purposes, Eric Cantor is coming out as the defender of (mostly) whites raping non-white women. I’d say this is especially reprehensible. But it’s Cantor so it’s par for the course.

Again, the coming Republican coalition is just around the corner……

Let It Go

[ 141 ] December 7, 2012 |

The Obama Administration needs to let Colorado and Washington have their legal marijuana. Just let it go. The Obama Administration has pretty much let the DEA do what it wants around marijuana, largely I think because Obama just doesn’t care and doesn’t want to waste a single minute thinking about this issue. I understand that. But busting legal marijuana is not that dissimilar from the Defense of Marriage Act, at least in terms of the federal government trying to get in the way of historical processes as the social libertarianism of people under the age of 40 comes of age. Even on the level of morality, it’s hard to argue that putting people in prison for small-scale drug offenses is less immoral than denying marriage equality.

Obama just needs to walk away. Treat it like gay marriage and let the states decide what they want. At the very least, it’s an interesting experiment. If it is a disaster, the states can get rid of it. But the same people who support gay marriage support marijuana legalization. The reconstituted McGovern coalition that has pushed Obama to victory wants this. He could crack down now and it probably won’t cause a huge political backlash, even among his supporters. But like DOMA, 15 years down the road, it’s going to make Obama look pretty stupid as legalization becomes an overwhelming movement.

Western Lynchings

[ 97 ] December 6, 2012 |

This is a fascinating piece on Ken Gonzales-Day, the artist and author who explores the history of lynching in the American West. We usually think of lynching as something that had to black people in the South. But it was far more pervasive, especially in the American West, where non-whites of all varieties were lynched throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Gonzales-Day has an exhibit of images where he has digitally erased the hanging bodies from old lynching photos, forcing our gaze to the people proudly posing next to their victims.

There’s also this:

As if to underscore this idea, Mr. Gonzales-Day has also produced a self-guided walking tour of lynching sites in downtown Los Angeles that allows participants “to revisit places and events made infamous” in the context of their present-day lives. The tour is an extension of the artist’s own six-year pilgrimage to nearly every county in California, culminating in another series, “Searching for California’s Hang Trees,” that features large-scale color photographs and billboards of lynching sites, particularly the trees that possibly served as hanging posts.

A self-guided walking tour of lynching sites? Wow. That actually sounds amazing and important. Forcing us to recognize the dark histories on the landscapes we take for granted has tremendous value in making us confront our national racist past and how whites benefit from that historical racism and white privilege today.

In Case Your Day Has Gone Too Well

[ 26 ] December 6, 2012 |

Thought it was worth darkening your day by pointing you to this handy online calendar of mine disasters in American history. See how many miners were killed on the birthdays of you and your loved ones!

This Day in Labor History: December 6, 1865

[ 33 ] December 6, 2012 |

On December 6, 1865, the legislature of Georgia ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ending slavery. Arguably, the single most important event in the history of American labor, the official end to slavery closed a chapter in the nation’s race-based labor system, a system that still remains in important forms to the present.

I hardly need to go into great detail on the history of slavery and I’d rather leave the details of specific events to individual posts in this series (see here, here, and here for other slavery posts). But let us the review the general outlines of what slavery meant–the right of the employer to do whatever they want with labor. Kill it. Rape it. Impregnate it and own the offspring. Beat it. Gamble it away. Dehumanize it. Whatever. It’s all open game when labor becomes property. When the employer can base this slavery on difference and then naturalize that through racism, even better because it creates solidarity between those who don’t share that difference, regardless of whether they have personal investments in human capital. As I’ve said in the past about the southern argument that lots of Civil War soldiers didn’t own slaves–just because they didn’t own slaves doesn’t mean they didn’t want to own slaves.

We are in a moment when the connection between Abraham Lincoln and the 13th Amendment are strong in the public mind because of the Spielberg film, which I have yet to see. There’s no question that Lincoln played a key role in it passing Congress, something he was only able to do of course because the majority of the opposition had seceded from the nation and were no longer part of Congress. But slaves effectively ended the institution themselves during the war. African-Americans, north and south, free and slave, knew what the war meant from the moment it started. Slaves poured out of Maryland into newly emancipated Washington, D.C., knowing that a Union victory would mean the effective end of the institution. They fled to Union lines at every opportunity, well before Lincoln would allow the military to free them. They volunteered for the Union Army by the tens of thousands, facing the institutionalized racism of that institution in order to do whatever they could to free their families and comrades in the South, whether by holding a gun or digging a latrine. Of course none of this was possible without the U.S. government declaring slavery no longer the black labor policy of the nation. Credit for the end of slavery goes to many people, including many long forgotten African-Americans who may have nothing but walked away at the first opportunity.

African-Americans leaving the plantations

The 13th Amendment was generated out of Congressional Republicans and abolitionists who saw changing the Constitution as a better way of ending slavery through the United States, as presently constituted, than Abraham Lincoln’s preferred method of trying to convince the border states to do so voluntarily. Lincoln’s methods had proven ineffective as the border states flat refused, even Delaware which barely even had any slaves by 1864. Abolitionists began a petition drive for a constitutional amendment in 1863. In February 1864, two black men delivered a petition on the Senate floor to Charles Sumner with over 100,000 signatures; by mid-1864, over 400,000 Americans had signed a petition.

Despite urging from Congress, Lincoln refused to make any recommendation for an constitutional amendment in his 1864 State of the Union Address. Congress took it up anyway. The 13th Amendment’s language was written by Lyman Trumbull in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Somewhat amusingly, Sumner wanted to base the language around the French Declaration of the Rights of Man but that was seen as too Frenchy and was rejected. The amendment was presented to Congress on February 10, 1864. At first it seemed that it might get Democratic support but the upcoming 1864 elections got in the way and Democratic support disappeared in the face of the party’s white supremacist platform for George McClellan over Lincoln. The amendment passed the Senate on April 8, but fell 13 votes short in the House.

McClellan campaign poster, 1864

After Lincoln’s reelection (something in serious doubt until just before the election), the first order of business for Congress was to take up the 13th Amendment. Republicans undertook a full-fledged effort to get the votes with William Seward promising rich patronage to Democrats for voted for it. Only 2 Democrats who were going to serve in the next Congress had the courage to vote yes, but 14 others, who had either lost or chosen not to run for reelection, also voted yes and the 13th Amendment squeaked through Congress in January 1865.

At this point, the amendment went to the states for ratification. It quickly moved through the North, only failing in the 3 states that voted for McClellan–Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey. The three Reconstruction governments established under Lincoln–Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana, passed it as well. A rump legislature in Virginia joined them. The process then slowed, but under tremendous pressure, enough ex-Confederate states passed it that on December 6, Georgia became the tipping point state and the 13th Amendment was ratified.

It is somewhat ironic of course that a slave state like Georgia would be the final vote to encode the end of slavery in the Constitution. But by late 1865, the institution was dead anyway. Andrew Johnson was seeking to speed the process of Reconstruction up in order to ensure that white supremacy ruled the nation. The easiest way to do that was to get the ex-Confederates to pass the 13th Amendment and renounce secession. That plus nothing was enough for Johnson, although of course it would not be enough for the Republicans. And as the battles over Reconstruction would demonstrate, the battle over control of black labor was far from over as states like Georgia were implementing the Black Codes at the same time they ratified the fait accompli of slavery’s ending. That southern whites would by and large win this battle over massive black resistance in the late nineteenth century demonstrates the tenuousness of the nation’s commitment to free labor for people of color, even in the face of fighting a civil war over the issue.


Finally, it’s important to see the 13th Amendment not as an end, but as part of the larger national debate of what to do with 4 million freed black laborers. Was simply ending slavery enough? Did they need to be part of the larger political body? Most politicians in the North agreed that their proper place was laboring on plantations under white supervision. This assumption would guide much of the coming Reconstruction policy, something I will explore in further detail in the future.

Mississippi ratified the 13th Amendment in 1995.

This is the 46th post in this series. The other posts are archived here.

Smoke Up and Be Somebody

[ 19 ] December 5, 2012 |

If cigarettes are good for birds, it must make sense that they are good for humans too, right?

I wonder if there’s a way we can impart this knowledge to children? This might work:

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