Pioneering anti-racist Phineas Eastman, a Mississippi-born wobbly and activist with the interracial Brotherhood of Timber Workers, writes on his experiences organizing Black workers in Louisiana’s lumber camps during the Merryville strike.
‘The Southern Negro and One Big Union’ by Phineas Eastman from The International Socialist Review. Vol. 13 No. 12. June, 1913.
WITH the advent of sawmills and other big industries, and the construction of numerous lines of railroads in the South, day hands have been hard to get on plantations. So the owners rent to the negro tenant as many acres as he can cultivate. They make one stipulation; nothing but cotton is to be planted on this land and no part of it is to be devoted to the raising of garden truck. This, of course, compels the poor tenant to buy of the master, at exorbitant prices, food and clothing for himself and family, and feed for his work stock. Now, if the negro is energetic and economizes with the hope of “coming out” at the end of the year with something above rent and store account, he is eyed with suspicion. He is also slated for a great beating about the time his crop is to be “laid by,” for the purpose of running him off the place and confiscating his season’s product. Should he, in desperation, refuse to run, the yarn, “He made a move as if to draw a weapon,” is worked again, and one more poor black peon will have gone to join the innumerable host of his fellows “in the silent halls of death.”
The negro is treated with more consideration in the southern lumber industry, but “there’s a reason.” The boss in this industry has been pitting the negro against the poor white and vice versa, and making suckers out of both. On account of the scarcity of labor he has been compelled to treat the negro with a semblance of fairness, in order to use him as a club to hold over the rebellious white workers.
The negro still has a bloodthirsty enemy in the shape of the deputy sheriff stationed at each saw mill town and paid by the mill company. This contemptible tool of the master class in the South never lets a chance slip to graft on the negro in every way made possible by his ignorance and fear of the law. As these deputy scoundrels are recruited from the “bad native scissorbills,” they are just as quick to murder a negro as their plantation prototypes, the overseers.
Since the formation of the National Industrial Union of Forest and Lumber Workers of the I.W.W., in this section, the negro and white workers are fast getting together, and beginning to see a great light. They see that they have been played for fools by the bosses, and are banding together under the banner of the I.W.W. They mean to help each other in the fight for better conditions on the job, regardless of their difference in color, which they see cuts no ice with the boss, who would just as soon hire a cheap white as a cheap negro, or vice versa. There are many negroes in the Forest & Lumber Workers’ Union. There is room for all of them. The only drawback is the lack of confidence some of them have in their white fellow-workers, caused by the poison injected in their minds by the wily boss. Employers have used every dirty method to keep the two, whose interests are the same, divided. In this way scabs were always available.
Each, though, is becoming educated to the fact that they need the help of the other. In the lumber industry they are about equally divided. To control their jobs they must fight shoulder to shoulder on the industrial battlefield, or else become peons. The negroes naturally feel solidarity among themselves. This spirit has developed through their age-long abuse and exploitation by the whites. It is not a hard matter to make the negro class-conscious. He is bound to be rebellious.
In the recent fight at Merryville, La., where the American Lumber Company blacklisted fifteen of its employes for testifying for the defense in the famous Grabow trial, when the lumber trust tried to convict fifty-nine union men in an effort to stop the agitation for better conditions in the lumber industry, 1300 members of the Forest and Lumber Workers struck. They meant to force the American Lumber Co. to put these fifteen men back to work. Although not a one of these fifteen was a negro, our colored fellow-workers showed their solidarity by walking out with their white comrades, and no amount of persuasion or injection of the old race prejudice could induce them to turn traitor and scab.
They were arrested and jailed on different absurd charges, such as “unlawfully meeting in the same hall with white men,” but they laughingly lined up and marched to the town bastile, singing the rebel songs they had learned at the daily mass meetings in the Union Hall, and despite threats, after their release, they appeared in greater number the next day to hear the speakers, and sing more songs to fan the flames of discontent.
The writer spent four weeks at Merryville during this strike, and he and Fellow Workers Kelly, Cline and Feligno spoke to the strikers every day in the hall and on the streets, and the conduct of the negro strikers was a revelation to us all, and an eye-opener to the whites. After Fellow Workers Cline, Deeny, Baker and I were forcibly· deported by thugs of the company, aided by the Good Citizens’ League, the negroes still remained firm and refused to return to work when threatened by the company’s deputies. This shows what can be done with the negro workers along organization lines with a little effort. Most of the scabs now working in the plants of the American Lumber Company are negroes gathered from the cotton and sugar plantations. All these fellows need is a little industrial union propaganda. It will then be impossible for a boss to induce them to scab on their fellow-workers who are on a strike. They will be glad to join the union and they will stick when they have become members.
A better understanding exists now between the white and black wage slaves than I thought could be possible in such a comparatively short time. Thanks to the I.W.W. and its organizers, the time is not very far off when the boss will be unable to pit these workers one against the other. They will all be in the One Big Union, which recognizes the fact that there are only two classes in the world today, the Employing Class and the Working Class, and that there can be no peace as long as one is robbed by the other.
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v13n12-jun-1913-ISR-riaz-ocr.pdf