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Harry Allen

Unity with Labor – The Only Hope for MOW

(July 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 28, 12 July 1943, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On the basis of the recently concluded March on Washington conference held in Chicago, it is necessary to review briefly its history of the past year in order to understand the proceedings and actions of the present. It is now clear that any decision with respect to an actual march on Washington will remain entirely on paper unless the rank and file of the March on Washington Movement and its supporters generally can exert enough pressure to compel militant actions and a march over the head of the straddling and opportunist director of the MOW, A. Philip Randolph.

The fact is that the program of action and proposals adopted by the national conference at Chicago mark a noticeable retrogression, in view of the events of the past year – Detroit riots, Beaumont lynching, Army discrimination, etc. – from the MOW policy conference held in Detroit last September 26–27.

A Real Perspective and Program – In the Past

In his keynote address to the Detroit conference, Philip Randolph, adapting himself verbally to the moods and needs of the Negro masses in order the better to be able to head off an actual march, declared:

“We must develop a series of marches of Negroes at a given time in a hundred or more cities throughout the country, or stage a big march of a hundred thousand Negroes on Washington to put our cause into the main stream of public opinion and focus the attention of world interests.

“The mobilization and proclamation of a nation-wide series of mass marches on the City Halls and City Councils to awaken the Negro masses and, center public attention upon the grievances and goals of the Negro people, and serve as training and discipline of the Negro masses for the more strenuous struggle of a March on Washington, if, as and when an affirmative decision is made thereon by the Negro masses of the country through our national conference.”

“A March on Washington as an evidence to white America that black America is on the march for its rights and means business.

“The picketing of the White House following the March on Washington, and maintain said picket line until the country and the world recognize that the Negro has become of age and will sacrifice his all to be counted as men, free men.”

Those assuredly were strong and brave-sounding words. They are even truer today. Indeed, a word from Randolph to the Negro masses that the MOW will really march would rally countless Negro numbers and wide labor support for the march. But Randolph will not give the word. Only the masses can still make the march a reality.

The truth is that the National Conference of the MOW did not act in a manner to assure a determined struggle under MOW leadership against Jim Crow. Why is this so?

Randolph Leads MOW – Downhill

To begin with, between the nine-month period of the Detroit conference and the Chicago national conference, Randolph and the MOW leadership have brought the MOW movement steadily downhill with their 1943 version and practice of Uncle Tom hat-in-hand. That is, with their almost complete reliance and faith in petitions and appeals to the Roosevelt Administration for the redress of grievances of the Negro masses.

Steadily the mass following which the MOW had developed at the inception of the movement, culminating in great demonstrations at Madison Square Garden, New York, the Coliseum in Chicago, St. Louis, etc., has disappeared. As the MOW leadership failed to direct the Negro masses into militant action for their economic and democratic rights (with local exceptions, carried on independently of the national leadership, as in St. Louis), the masses became despairing and disillusioned with the MOW.

Hence the real masses of Negro people, much less the Negro workers, were not truly represented at the Chicago national conference. The MOW has increasingly moved away from such a base as it did have in the organized labor movement and among the Negro proletariat generally; and toward a middle class base, viewpoint and practice. This development accounts for the pacifist, “non-violence” phobia that saturated the proceedings of the conference for several days.

Middle Class Leadership Runs MOW

Middle class elements – intellectuals, teachers, preachers, etc. – dominated and made up the great bulk of the MOW delegates at Chicago. However, these Negro middle class “leaders” (presumably, too, the most advanced of the middle class Negroes) cannot possibly (no more than can middle class elements generally) successfully build and lead a movement on behalf of the masses.

In a conference presumably representing the interests of 15,000,000 Negroes in America, of which ninety per cent or more are working men and farmers of various description, hardly any reference of significance, except for an occasional hosannah by some speaker, was made to the working class and the organized labor movement as the real or potential source and force for carrying through the struggle for Negro economic, social and political rights. Yet it is precisely membership, participation in and leadership of the MOW by Negro workers and unionists which alone can yet possibly transfer the MOW into an active, militant mass movement for Negro rights.

How limited has become the vision of the MOW leadership (which Randolph’s hand-tailored conference of delegates endorsed) is indicated in the decision of the conference to carry through its educational and “public pressure” campaign of “non-violent good will action” in the cities of Richmond, Washington, New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.

But Detroit – where anti-Negro violence and murder raised their bloody head; Detroit, the seat of KKKism in the North; this great industrial city with tens of thousands of Negroes, is not even regarded by the MOW conference as among the first cities to receive its attention and “educational” efforts. Protests from some of the delegates did not change this part of the program of “action.” “Good will” had indeed nenetrated the spirit of the delegates.

Nevertheless, the pacifistic doctrine enunciated at the conference did not really represent even the attitude of the middle class gathering, much less the sprinkling of worker delegates. Murmurs of protest outside the conference proceedings and in the conference itself demonstrated this fact, as did also the motion in the last hour to set a date for the march.

St. Louis Mass Action – Real Way Against Jim Crow

For example, T.D. McNeal, president of the St. Louis MOW, proclaimed:

“In one ‘defense’ plant employing 15,000 workers, there were no Negroes employed. To the company, a MOW delegation declared:

“If you don’t give us jobs, we will take the issue to the streets, and keep it there until we get what we want. We will build a mass picket line clear around your plant and keep it there.”

This militant threat of mass action resulted in five thousand jobs for Negroes at this plant.

Delegate McNeal then further stated: “Mass pressure, a picket line, now will be thrown around the Bell Telephone Co. to force employment of Negroes.”

Basically, the delegates recognized that only a mass March on Washington would bring the issue of Jim Crow graphically and dramatically to the attention of the entire people of America, and for that matter of the world; and serve as a means to help eliminate, so far as is possible under capitalist society, aspects of Jim Crow.

“Seat of Jim Crow Is Washington”

A delegate from Buffalo, representing a body of union steel workers (CIO), expressed the real feelings and desires of the Negro masses when he declared, in voicing drastic and outright opposition to the resolution on Non-Violent Good Will Direct Action:

“The seat of Jim Crow is the seat of government at Washington. It is there we must go!”

In reply to the chief spokesman of the non-violent technique, he further pointed out that the Negro unionists in Buffalo were instrumental in helping to build a strong Steel Workers Union, “not by running away from the blows of the scabs and the company, but by unbroken mass solidarity to the fullest extent needed.”

Negroes Want to March

It is significant to note that no motion or resolution came before the convention calling upon and specifying the Negroes of the labor union movement to become the organized base and leadership of the MOW, locally and nationally, along with the adoption of the militant methods of struggle carried out by the labor movement.

In an even more fundamental sense the MOW conference demonstrated its inability to comprehend the objective conditions which, if understood and taken advantage of, make for a deep, wide and effective struggle against Jim Crow in its worst forms.

This truth is instinctively recognized by the Negro masses, who realize that if they don’t break down Jim Crow during the war, Jim Crow conditions will exist in even more aggravated form after the imperialist war. That is the reason why the Negro masses at the outset rallied in vast numbers to the MOW, as it gave initial evidence of leading the Negroes in mass actions, in a mass march, if need be, on Jim Crow’s chief seat, the government at Washington.

The solution of Jim Crow evils, even partially (as well as of the problems of labor) lies in who has or controls state power, the government. This was implicitly recognized initially by the MOW when it talked big words of a mass March on Washington.

If the march has failed to materialize, it is because the middle class, reformist and, apparently, pacifist outlook of Randolph and the MOW leadership today fear for their ability to direct or control the Negro masses should they once proceed to independent demands and actions upon the government powers.

A New Leadership Must Arise

The present weak organizational state and outlook of the MOW came about inevitably, as Randolph’s leadership of the MOW is examined and understood.

Specifically and precisely this meant and means today that the MOW ranks must develop their own working class leadership of the organization. Through independent local militant actions, they can still carry through the tasks and purpose for which the MOW was organized – an organization of mass action against all evils and representatives of Jim Crow. The methods of the St. Louis MOW must become the spirit and practice of all the MOW, thereby putting the needed pressure on the present MOW leadership to move toward national militant actions.

The national conference of the MOW graphically demonstrates that the only hope of the MOW for the future is for Negro workers in the basic industries, especially those in the unions, to enter into and dominate the policies and practices of the MOW. Unless the entry of such Negro workers – the best educated, conscious and militant forces of the Negro people, the ones best able to lead the Negro struggle also in their communities – takes place very rapidly; unless they soon assume local leadership of the MOW units (until they can achieve national leadership and replacement of the middle class MOW leadership), the MOW will go the road of all movements led by confused and straddling middle class elements – to an untimely end or a barrier to progress of the Negro masses.

In view of the hopes placed in the MOW by great numbers of Negroes, and in view of the original potentialities for a powerful mass movement for Negro rights, the MOW conference proceedings and decisions must be recorded fundamentally as a failure, even partially a tragedy. The responsibility for this failure rests primarily on the Randolph leadership. If the basic policies and leadership cannot be transformed, the MOW is going to get nowhere.

Which Road for MOW?

The rabble-rouser of the MOW, Dr. Charles Ervin, director of the Eastern Region of the MOW, in his: opening speech entitled, Why Negroes Assemble at Chicago, spoke many truths. Only they will prove to be bitter gall to MOW followers and the Negroes generallly as they come to observe the impotence of the MOW with its “new” policy of “non-violent technique” and “good will action,” plus the straddling policy adopted on the mass March to Washington – which in fact means no march at all.

The Negroes, Ervin declared, may properly proclaim for themselves the doctrine espoused by Karl Marx for the working class. “Negroes of America, unite!” he paraphrased Marx. “You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

True, but not quite enough. Negro workers, come closer to Marx, to Lenin, to Trotsky. Workers, Negro and white, “Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” Therein lies the true historic destiny of the laboring masses of America and of the world.

The present MOW policy for the Negroes spells failure in the struggle against Jim Crow and its causes. With or without the MOW, the Negro masses must aim quickly to get on the road of militant mass action; insist on a MASS MARCH ON WASHINGTON; and, in time, take the road with other workers toward political power. Thus the conditions will be laid for the complete abolition of Jim Crow.

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