‘Bogalusa’ by Mary White Ovington from The Liberator. Vol. 3 No. 1. January, 1920.

The story of bravery. On November 22, 1919 Saul Dechus, Black lumber union organizer, walks down the streets of Bogalusa, Louisiana flanked for protection by two armed white men; union carpenters Daniel O’Rourke and J.P. Bouchillon. Murder ensues. Mary White Ovington, Socialist and a founder of the N.A.A.C.P. report.

‘Bogalusa’ by Mary White Ovington from The Liberator. Vol. 3 No. 1. January, 1920.

ON Saturday morning. November 22, in the town of Bogalusa, in the state of Louisiana, three men marched down the street. One was black; the other two, armed, walking on either side, were white. A negro criminal, one says at once, guarded by two officers of the law. No, there was no look of criminal or of policeman on anyone of the three faces. Those men, marching abreast: one black, the others white, were brothers, comrades-in-arms in the interminable battle of the worker for the product of his toil. The black man had dared to organize in a district where organization meant at the least exile, at the most, a death by lynching. On either side of him two white union men, carpenters by trade, risked by their espousal of the black man’s cause, not only their lives, but, if they were permitted to live, their reputations. They knew every vile taunt the cheap type of southerner, whom Dixon has made familiar to the world, would cast upon them. Yet together the three men marched down the broad highway of the Southern lumber town.

Unionism is far from popular in Bogalusa. The town is controlled by the Great Southern Lumber Company which this autumn ordered 2500 union men to destroy their union cards. Those refusing were thrown out of work. The Lumber Company has at its command the Loyalty League, a state organization formed during the war, not of soldiers but of men at home, part of whose business it was to see that every able-bodied man (Negro understood) should work at any task, at any wage, and for any hours that the employer might desire. They had back of them the State “work or fight law,” and might put to work men temporarily unemployed, save that the provision of the act did not apply to “persons temporarily unemployed by reasons of differences with their employers such as strikes or lockouts.” Under this legislation it was small wonder that unionism was forbidden by the Lumber Company; or that, though the war was ended, the Loyalty League continued its work. Returning soldiers joined it, and the night before the three men marched down the city street five hundred armed Leaguers held up a train half-a-mile from the railroad station and searched it for undesirables. Failing to get anyone on the train, they turned back into town and proceeded to chase undesirables there. A number of union negroes were beaten up, but their chief quarry, Saul Dechus, president of the local timberman’s union, they could not find. They wanted the “n***r” to be handed to them to be lynched, and failing to get him, they went discontented to their homes.

The next morning, members of the Loyalty League saw Saul Dechus, Negro union labor leader, protected by Daniel O’Rourke and J.P. Bouchillon, white union carpenters, parading their city street. Astonishment gave place to action; the three men were permitted to reach their destination, a garage owned by L.E. Williams, district president of the A.F. of L., but after they had entered, the Loyalty League demanded that they be immediately given up. This Williams refused to do, and as he raised his gun he was shot dead. The Loyalty Leaguers then rushed into the garage and killed two other men, Thomas Gaines, a carpenter, and Bouchillon. O’Rourke, the second man to stand with the negro, was severely wounded. Dechus himself escaped. Two members of the Loyalty League were reported seriously wounded.

Great Southern lumber mill in Bogalusa, Louisiana.

To understand the story of November 22, one needs to know the determined and successful efforts of the southern lumber men in these recent extraordinary years of prosperity, to keep unionism out of their camps and mills.

Fred W. Vincent, writing in an interesting article on the lumber industry in Sunset, August, 1918, says: “On the Pacific Coast all logging camps and everyone of the big lumber mills operate on the eight-hour schedule. Of the 70,000 West Coast timber workers, virtually every man holds union membership. The government practically guarantees them high wages, sanitary camps, plentiful food, and the eight-hour day. In Dixie there isn’t a single organization among the 237,000 workers. They toil ten and eleven hours. Their wages are from one-half to two-thirds what is paid in the Douglas fir region. Forty percent of the Southern timber workers’ wages range between $1.50 and $2.25 a day. Organization is prohibited. Once the I.W.W. tried it seriously. When the gun fire ceased in that small Louisiana mill town, 14 radicals and their sympathizers were dead. Southern labor is unprotected. The majority of unskilled laborers are black. They are not allowed to vote. The whites, excepting the skilled men, are poor, ignorant, and are denied the power of the ballot box because they are unable to pay the poll tax. The South is a land of only one political faith controlled by the business element wholly. The workers are at its mercy.”

The timber workers of Bogalusa, white and black, were in this helpless state. Not even the Federal Government was protecting them, all the war-time recommendation and commands of the labor department, which were accepted by the West, being quietly passed over by the southern employer. One Federal mediator, awarding an eight-hour day in the oil fields of Houston, was told to leave and mind his own business. “Organized labor is not recognized in the South,” was the statement of the superintendent of the United States Shipping Board, Gulf District.

But since Mr. Vincent wrote his article, organized labor has been at work; and even in the town of Bogalusa- though it is owned by the Lumber Company and has its Loyalty League armed to show the poor whites and the poorer blacks the virtue of a government of the employer, for the employer and by the employer- white and colored men have joined together to secure better conditions for themselves and their families. They have striven for some of the advantages of the Pacific timber workers, who indeed need an advance in wage less than their southern brothers, for the western timber worker is usually single while the southern supports a wife and children. And they have done this at the’ risk of their lives.

My first knowledge of labor disturbances at Bogalusa was in June, 1919 at the annual conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, when the president of the New Orleans Branch of the body reported on the work of his section. Among other matters he made the following statement:

“At Bogalusa, Louisiana, men who had violated no law, but who refused to advise colored people not to join the Unions- among them a doctor owning about $50,000 worth of property- were visited by a committee of the district and told to leave town. They were given so many minutes to get out of the city, some twenty minutes, some an hour, some six hours, depending upon their condition. When they asked why this was done, they were given no reason. They carried the matter to the head of the town and he refused to hear them. The police refused to hear them. No local authority would give them any answer except, “what we ask is that you go.” Finding that they could get no protection these citizens came to New Orleans. We took their statements and the Branch strove to assist them. The colored people are fast leaving Bogalusa,. and as a result the employers of the town are going throughout the country to get men for their work.

“We have tried in every way possible to get into the white papers something in respect to this particular matter out, not one will say a word about it.”

The next word that came to our office concerning Bogalusa was news of a particularly atrocious lynching. The negro’s body was riddled with bullets, dragged through. the streets to be. burned outside the house of the woman who. had accused the murdered man of assaulting her. No arrests, of course, were made.

The night, before the attack on Dechus, when the Loyalty League were hunting the town for undesirables, more. than one negro was beaten up. One of them, George Williams, age 65, escaped to New Orleans and gave his story to a courageous little colored paper, the Vindicator, of that city. Among other things he said:

“I moved to Bogalusa in 1907. I worked off and on for the Great Southern Lumber Company up to the time the labor troubles began. In November I met a member of the so-called strong-armed squad and he said to me: ‘Why don’t you go back to work?’ I said that the Company demanded that I tear up my union card and that was the only condition under which we would be allowed to go back to work- renounce our union membership and get back into the old rut where we had always been until just a short while ago when we joined the union. He replied to me: “Well, you had better get out of this town.” I thought little of the remark at first because I have always tried to live peaceable with everybody; and secondly I could not think that any civilized man in this day and time could think of killing a man because he tried, in a legal way, to get all that he could for his labor. This man proved to be one of the gang that came to my house on Friday night and dragged me out and beat me. I know him well and he knows me, I know a lot of others too, and before this matter is over, there is going to be more dirt uncovered, in Bogalusa than the average man would think possible.

“About eleven o’clock Saturday night, as I sat in my home- I was tired, having worked rather late that night, was aroused by someone at the door. I was nodding and did not know what was happening until the gang had hold of me, dragging me outside. They cursed and swore declaring they were going to kill me that night. They beat me with clubs and sticks until, almost lifeless, I dropped to the ground. I reckon I did not drop sooner because they were holding me up so that they could hit me better. When I fell, helpless, a man weighing in the neighborhood of three hundred pounds jumped upon, me and. stamped me. I could do nothing but take it.

“I have something like sixteen hundred dollars worth of household goods, and a very large house. I hope some way can be arranged. that my things can be taken care of.”

The killers.

This is the story of one man, beaten so that his hands were broken as he tried to ward off the blows. “And just like I know these things,” he says, “a lot of other men know them” and it is hardly likely we will all be killed before the cover is pulled back. In, fact, if anyone is killed, it will make all the rest that much more anxious and willing to tell.”

After all, with all its tragedy, there is much of this story of Bogalusa that is commonplace; and nothing about it is more a commonplace than the way in which it is hushed up in the press. William L. Donnels, General Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, telegraphing to the Attorney General and Samuel Gompers and the Secretary of War, concerning the murder of the three men, said: “We have asked repeatedly that an investigation be made of conditions in Bogalusa without avail. If something is not done at once we are going to take the law into our own hands.”

But it is very doubtful if there will be any investigation. Special protection has been accorded the southern lumber companies and it is not likely to be withheld now. And in this the present government is like many another government that this republic has known.

Bogalusa is a commonplace story of the attack upon organized labor by force, but there is one thing unusual in it. Not since the days of Populism, has the South seen so dramatic an espousal by the white man of the black man’s cause.

The three white men who died in protecting a negro in that lumber town, marked, let us dare to hope, the turning point in the history of southern-labor. For centuries the white and the colored laborers of the South have been taught to despise one another. The slave despised the poor white trash, and the poor white despised the bondsman; and both grew up in ignorance and dirt and heart-rending poverty. Freedom brought little change in the status of labor. By an appeal to race pride, by clever playing up of old animosities, the master class has prevented the white and the black from uniting to secure decent labor conditions. Something of the same sort has been done in the North in pitting American-born against foreigner, but it has been less successful than the southern pitting of race against race.

If they wished, the influential people of the South could stop lynching to-morrow. They have only to recognize the Negro as a citizen, to mete out justice to those who commit crimes against him, to stop the orgies whose records defile our daily press. They make entertaining excuses for refusing the black man his citizenship, but the excuses are camouflage. Far back in their minds is the undefined realization that if white and black laborers come together, if they pool their interests, profits will grow less. And so, we find the Florida legislature, with a fine gesture of contempt, tearing up a Negro petition for better schools, throwing it unread into the waste-paper basket. This is a bow to the poor white, part of the policy of impressing him with his immense superiority over the black. It is a policy which leads to many a lynching, but it also prevents many a strike.

Lawlessness and cruelty will continue in the South so long as this carefully stimulated race hatred keeps the working class apart. We know then how to judge the splendid courage, the spiritual dignity, of the two carpenters who walked down the street of Bogalusa guarding their colored brother.

The Liberator was published monthly from 1918, first established by Max Eastman and his sister Crystal Eastman continuing The Masses, was shut down by the US Government during World War One. Like The Masses, The Liberator contained some of the best radical journalism of its, or any, day. It combined political coverage with the arts, culture, and a commitment to revolutionary politics. Increasingly, The Liberator oriented to the Communist movement and by late 1922 was a de facto publication of the Party. In 1924, The Liberator merged with Labor Herald and Soviet Russia Pictorial into Workers Monthly. An essential magazine of the US left.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/liberator/1920/01/v3n01-w22-jan-1920-liberator-hr.pdf

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