Life and Laughter of Covington Hall

Against the Current, No. 104, May/June 2003

Matthew Quest

Covington Hall, Labor Struggles
in the Deep South & Other Writings
Edited and Introduced by David R. Roediger
Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1999, $14 paper.

ARGUING FOR MULTI-RACIAL labor meetings under Jim Crow in 1912, a daring partisan tells Southern workers they need to get over their attitudes of being the cream of the human race as they were fast becoming known as the “White Chinese.”

An editorial in a labor movement paper argues workers should support a strike of prostitutes against their brothel with a headline: “Go to the aid of our sisters in struggle, and see that they get it!”

Another stand is offered for class unity in the face of white supremacist notions: “There are no niggers, greasers, or white trash in the union, only men!” Labor struggles indeed.

While this may not be music to the politically trained ear, similar awkward but illuminating moments can be found in our historical memory — and, quiet as it’s kept, in our own contemporary workplaces and neighborhoods. Engagement by aspiring radical activists with real folks is frequently distinguished by macabre humor on all sides.

Justifiably uncomfortable, the presence of humor is often the location of many unequal power relations. I can suggest no greater pleasure to the reader for taking on this intellectual conundrum, of insurgent commitment and laughs, than the spectacle that is Covington Hall’s Labor Struggles in the Deep South in displaying many truths about the working class and how it struggles.

Humorous and Scathing

Covington Hall (1871-1952) was a charismatic messenger of working-class sovereignty. A journalist and poet, professor and union organizer, advocate of sabotage and the general strike, Hall was an opponent of white supremacy and empire, an advocate of gender equality.

Irreverent and humorous, both in his scathing indictment of state and capital and in his forging of unity and struggle among everyday people, his adages and allusions, grounded in a progressive vision of the culture of the Deep South for his epoch, could nevertheless be assessed at times as tainted by off-color racial sensibilities and masculinist notions.

Hall’s historical memoirs are an excellent opportunity to appraise critical aspects of radical labor’s libertarian heritage, to inquire how working-class communities are imagined by progressive historians and ordinary toilers alike, and to seek what complexities can be found behind the comedy that is the modern political world.

Labor Struggles in the Deep South is an elegant volume of labor history, editorial opinions, poems, cartoons and illustrations, which makes widely accessible for the first time a major text long-heralded and coveted by activist historians of labor and southern history.

Brought to life here are late nineteenth and early twentieth century struggles of New Orleans waterfront workers, farm and timber workers of Louisiana and East Texas, the challenges of fighting racism in the class struggle under Jim Crow, the strategies and perspectives of the Socialist Party, the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Hall’s narrative, while meandering at times, details the energy, idealism and achievements of radical unionism alongside the severity of the Jim Crow South before the First World War, placing himself at the center.

He cannot be said to be an “objective” observer of events; yet Hall’s humanity is complex and rich enough to encompass many authentic vistas, illustrating he is indeed a product of his ideals and environment.

Writing on the lynching of African Americans in communities where such a possibility was an ever present specter, Hall describes one horrific occurrence in front of a church whose sign read “Progressive Temple” and whose leadership was known to oppose multi-racialism and unionism.

A defender of Italian workers, who were not seen as white but foreigners, Hall was a supporter of wives’ rights to equal voting power on strike committees as well.

Covington Hall can also be seen in this narrative to be “a Southern gentleman” cordially bantering with politicians and police officers as they conspire against each other, offering perspectives of Jeffersonian democracy, republican ethics, even exhibiting nostalgia for the oppositional values of the Confederacy.

Shortcomings, Breaking Boundaries

David Roediger, professor of history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, editor of this text and frequent chronicler of Covington Hall over the years, provides an introductory essay with biographical reflections, a historiographical survey, and the acumen of an uncommon sage.

Roediger has justly earned a reputation as among the foremost scholars challenging both the white blindspot and masculine image of the labor movement, insisting we maintain a grounded humanism and sense of humor while we take up that endeavor.

Roediger, presenting us with an excellent text to engage, firmly takes Hall to task for his shortcomings in these areas, highlighting in particular how Hall imagines African Americans as sharing his own politics without adequately chronicling their own autonomous positions. One could add Mexican migrant workers, despite Hall’s demonstrated sympathy toward them, the Mexican Revolution, and the ideas of Ricardo Flores Magon.

From this vantage point, Roediger could better have reconciled Hall’s at times off-color sensibilities and humor with his anti-racism. It is curious that Roediger, an advocate of reflecting on African-American history’s contribution to illuminating the social construction of white identity as a barrier to working-class unity, draws no definite conclusions about race and humor among the multi-racial working class.

Covington Hall’s Labor Struggles in the Deep South is a historical text of the first order but it is something else as well. Offering snapshots of laughs on the dangerous edge of many political authorities, it reminds us the multi-racial, multi-gendered working class has many obstacles to class struggle but a shared sensibility among friends about what is funny, no matter how
seemingly outrageous to the outsider, is not one of them.

Paul Buhle has written that real humor can no more be eliminated than can the oral culture of the working class be eradicated without genocide against labor itself. When we step outside the boundaries of civilized conversation something mysterious happens.

The strengths and truths of humor which help us go on living daily may be a prelude to a future when we can laugh from a more secure place with a relief and happiness that we have never felt before. To be sure, we don’t always laugh with our fellow toilers and neighbors, but we shall with Covington Hall.

ATC 104, May-June 2003