Fighting Lynch Laws in America

Against the Current, No. 143, November/December 2009

Gerald Meyer

Anti-lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History   
By Rebecca Hill
Duke University Press, 2008, 424 pages,
$24.95 paperback.

Rebecca Hill’s ambitious book highlights a major theme of American radical history. It brings together the history of labor defense campaigns with the concurrent movement to prevent the lynching of African Americans. In six individual studies from John Brown to the Black Panther Party, Hill achieves two notable goals: a substantive reinterpretation of these cases and a heightened recognition of their commonalities.

Hill organizes her essay on John Brown, whom she refers to as “the Left’s great man,” around two questions: why Brown resorted to violence and why the abolitionist movement, as a whole, embraced him. She situates Brown’s use of violence within the context of the thoroughly violent society that was pre-Civil War America, noting the Republic’s revolutionary origins and the subsequent political violence (election-day riots, lynchings, attacks on abolitionists), which won the approval of newspaper editorials and public figures.

Brown’s eager involvement in the Kansas-Nebraska armed confrontations between pro- and anti-slavery forces and, more spectacularly, in the raid on Harper’s Ferry germinated from the lynching of the abolitionist printer, Elijah Lovejoy.

After Brown’s execution, Henry David Thoreau and Wendell Phillips, both of whom “made the argument for the solidarity of the free and the enslaved as a moral obligation and a political necessity,” posthumously embraced Brown as did the entire abolitionist movement. (61)

Hill reminds the reader that John Brown was the white fighter for African-American equality most admired by African Americans. Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X saw Brown as a rare phenomenon: a white man dedicated to helping Black men to stand up for themselves.

Hill’s discussion of John Brown opens up an underlying theme in Men, Mobs, and Law: While no one else followed Brown’s example of attempting to foment an armed slave insurrection, the failed campaign to save him and subsequent efforts to memorialize his martyrdom greatly energized the abolitionist movement as a whole.

Similarly, massive campaigns on behalf of labor martyrs (the Haymarket Martyrs, Tom Mooney, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti) and radical African Americans (such as Huey Newton and George Jackson) who proposed violent confrontation with the state never increased the ranks of that political tendency. Yet the progressive, socialist and communist organizations, which set out to build the broader movements, gained in numbers and influence.

The Haymarket Legacy

On May 4, 1886, as the police moved to disperse a mass meeting of workers and their supporters who had assembled in Chicago’s Haymarket Square to manifest support for a city-wide strike demanding the eight-hour work day, someone in the crowd threw a bomb at the police.

Injuries from the blast and gunshot wounds caused the deaths of eight policemen and at least four workers. Prosecutors charged eight leaders of the general strike, some of whom had not even been present at this assembly, with conspiring with an unknown man to commit murder.

Oscar Neebe received a 15-year sentence; the other seven were sentenced to death. Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment; Louis Lingg committed suicide the morning of the execution; August Spies, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Albert Parson were executed. At their trials, all the defendants professed their anarchist beliefs. They justified the bomb thrower’s action as a legitimate act of self-defense. None of this deterred leftists and progressives of every tendency from rallying to their defense.

The Haymarket Martyrs became memorialized throughout the world when the Socialist International declared May Day “International Workers’ Day.”

The international character of the movement, Hill notes, reflected the background of the martyrs themselves — only Parsons was native-born. Fielden was an immigrant from Great Britain; the rest were German immigrants. The Haymarket Martyrs were members of a multi-national American industrial working class, 75% of which by the 1880s was foreign-born, second generation, or African American. (73)

The commemoration of the Haymarket Tragedy and its martyrs in literature, public meetings and in May Day celebrations enriched radical culture. Hill describes the recurring theme of “blood as seed” as productive of a radical counterculture that substituted for both religion and nationalism. The Haymarket Martyrs’ sacrifices and the dignity with which they faced their fate, regardless of their politics, transformed them into an iconostasis of a secular faith that energized radicals of every belief.

The deep grieving for the loss of these brave men became an integral part of a counterculture; it provided emotional, even spiritual, sustenance to groups of persecuted radicals. Hill circles around the conflicting consequences generated by this multi-layered radical culture, which sustained radicals’ commitment to their beliefs but simultaneously encouraged a sectarianism that reduced their political effectiveness.

Women Resist Lynch Mobs

Men, Mobs, and Law incorporates the often overlooked contributions of women in the defense of labor activists and African-American victims of lynching. For example, Hill details the unstinting work of Lucy Parsons in defense of her husband, Albert, and the other Haymarket Martyrs as well as her lifelong career as a radical. (Lucy Parsons, an African American, later joined the Communist Party.)

Hill makes her greatest contribution in restoring women’s place in the history of American radicalism when she documents the lifelong work of Ida B. Wells, an African American who pioneered the movement against lynching. Wells began her campaign in her newspaper Free Speech in 1892, after her close friend and his two companions were lynched when they fought back against a mob of whites intent on burning down their small business in Memphis, Tennessee.

She recognized that the lynching of an individual African American required a political response because it was intended to intimidate all African Americans into accepting their subordinate status. Wells aptly described the lynching ritual as consisting of two opposing forces: a unified white community, including “the lowest element of the white south .  .  .  and white men who controlled all the forces of law and order in their communities,” on the one hand, and “persons very largely defenseless; and more or less under social ban, afflicted by disability and always under the fatal disadvantage of race prejudice,” on the other.

Whenever possible, Wells portrayed the horrendous lynching scene as an opportunity for the anti-lynching forces to commemorate “the superior manhood of the victims at the pyre, focusing especially on elements of calm, unflinching resistance to pain, rationality, and religious faith in her descriptions of lynching victims.” (119, 121, 122)

Wells proposed a two-pronged strategy: encouragement of self-defense for African Americans (Wells owned a pistol) and the proclamation of the message within the wider society that lynching was a barbaric practice abhorrent to a republic.

Hill’s failure to provide context and supportive information diminishes the enormous value of this particular essay. The reader needs quantitative data in order to assess, for example, just how many African Americans were lynched overall. It is also important to establish that at least 20% of the victims were not African Americans. (The lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans in 1891 was the single largest mass lynching in U.S. history.)

Hill would also have done well to note that in addition to her work as a journalist, pamphleteer and on the lecture circuit, Wells was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Hill’s documentation of the persistent and effective efforts of the NAACP, and especially those of W.E.B. Du Bois, the editor of its journal Crisis, extends her discussion of the topic and in the process undercuts a widespread assumption that this primarily middle-class organization contributed little to the struggle for widespread, multi-class Black equality in America.

The Sacco and Vanzetti Saga

The most cohesive, compelling chapter of Men, Mobs, and Law relates the oft-told story of Sacco and Vanzetti. Hill manages to say something new here. Hill parses out the labyrinthine world of Italian American radicalism; she correctly situates Sacco and Vanzetti within the small world of Luigi Galleani and his adherents, who proposed an heroic, individualistic version of anarchism. Galleani’s inspiration was Mikhail Bakunin; Georges Sorel and Friedrich Nietzsche also influenced his thinking.

As ardent anarcho-communists, the Galleanisti eschewed all forms of organization, including trade unions. Hill’s success in interpreting Sacco and Vanzetti’s thinking as well as identifying the ineffectiveness of the Galleanisti-led defense is in large measure due to her use of Italian-language sources, specifically their newspaper, L’Adunata dei Refrattarie (the rallying cry of those who resist control) and L’Agitazione, the organ of the Galleanisti-led, Boston-based Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee. Hill notes how the unstable alliance of anarchists and liberals (forged by their mutual anti-Communism) led to an excessively politicized trial and a narrowly based movement.

Hall credits the defense strategy of the Communist-led International Labor Defense (ILD), founded in 1925, with mobilizing a mass defense movement capable of confronting the power of the state.

Reflecting its focus on creating the broad-based movement, early on the ILD’s journal Labor Defender rejected a defense strategy primarily based on radicalized Italian immigrants. It affirmed “all forces must be united without delay into the broadest possible basis in the struggle to free Sacco and Vanzetti.” Declaring its opposition to individual acts of violence, Labor Defender insisted, “We are knocking on the door, not with the hand of irresponsible individuals, but with the titanic fist of the workers of the world.” (197, 198)

Sacco and Vanzetti favorably regarded the efforts of the ILD on their behalf. However, neither renounced their beliefs in anarchism. Sacco shouted, “Viva l’anarchia!” just before the executioner pulled the switch to activate the electric chair; Vanzetti described anarchism as “beaut[iful] as a woman to me … perhaps even more.” (182)

Hill introduces elements of gender which add new understanding to what has been characterized by Bruce Watson in his recent book on Sacco and Vanzetti as the “greatest cause célèbre of all time.” Most significantly, she notes that the letters selected for The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti (eds. Marion Denman Frankfurter and Gardner Jackson), which are the most important source for “the case that will not die,” disproportionately includes letters to a group of Brahmin (albeit dedicated progressive) women at the expense of letters from Sacco and Vanzetti’s Italian comrades.

Although Hill fully acknowledges the Communist Party’s role in the defense, she fails to document the vast international campaign which was a singular contribution the Communists brought to this and subsequent defense movements.

The effectiveness of the CP in this area of mass work caused many individuals to move closer to or actually join the Communist Party. Art Shields left the Industrial Workers of the World for the Communist Party during the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti, William Patterson joined the CP as a direct result of his participation in the ILD’s efforts, and Pietro di Donoto, the author of Christ in Concrete, joined the CP on the day of their execution.

Hill’s list of important literary works inspired by the Sacco and Vanzetti case could be expanded to include Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset and Howard Fast’s The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti. She might also have mentioned Ben Shahn’s series of 23 gouache paintings, “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti,” his most important works.

The CP and Labor/Black Defense

Hill credits the CP with “changing the definition of labor defense itself by including in the ILD’s mission the defense of working-class African Americans accused of nonpolitical [my emphasis] crimes.” (209) In short, the CP-led ILD/Civil Rights Congress (CRC) combined the two elements brought together for examination in Men, Mobs, and Law. (In 1946, the CPUSA merged the ILD and the National Negro Congress into the newly founded CRC.)

Hill misses the point that the CP saw these crimes — actual and concocted — which were used to justify lynchings as inherently political, in that the criminal-justice system and extralegal activities such as lynchings were tools used to terrorize African Americans, as a people, into submission. Following from Ida B. Wells’ insights, the logical response was a political one.

Hill deserves enormous credit for unearthing overlooked ILD campaigns which succeeded due to its deft combining of expert legal defense and mass mobilizations. These include: Calogero Greco and Donato Carillo, anarchists accused of killing two members of the Fascist League of North America in the Bronx in 1927; and Angelo Herndon, an African-American Communist, sentenced to death for “inciting insurrection,” because he led an interracial march of the unemployed in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1932.

Hill directs her greatest attention to the ILD’s campaign to save the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American youths accused of raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. Hill believes this campaign represented “a major turn for the socialist left, which finally came to address the mob intimidation of Blacks as central to the overall repression of the working class.” (235)

The case concretized the CP’s insistence that white workers should defend Black workers victimized by lynching. Based in part on Robin Kelly’s work, Hill argues that this policy did not originate in Moscow, but evolved from the Party’s work in the South to organize unions across race lines. These activities aroused such violent reactions that they necessitated an ongoing campaign against lynching.

Vern Smith, an IWW leader who joined the CP, affirmed that in addition to the need for individual Communists to act in a civil, friendly way toward individual African Americans they encountered, they must “add . . . a vigorous, defiant defense of all Negro workers in whatever trouble they find themselves, and never tire of protesting against, striking and struggling in every possible way against Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and every other vicious attack on the Negro as a race.” (222)

In short, the CP prioritized the battle against racism — socially and politically — in ways that no other primarily white organization ever had. While Hill’s study is truly compendious, it is unfortunate that she finds no space to comment on another large area of defense work carried out by the Communist Party — defense of the foreign born — effectively carried out on a large scale by the CP-led American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born.

While documenting the CP’s monumental work in the conjoined arenas of labor defense and the struggle against lynchings against African Americans, Hill chides the ILD for attempting to justify the Moscow show trials and other unsavory aspects of Communist policy. She does not imply, however, that a relative handful of articles defending these policies published in Labor Defender in any way cancelled out the value of the work of the ILD/CRC.

The dilemma for Leftists, then and now, is that those individuals and groups that condemned Stalin’s actions failed to develop a political practice that moved the American working class and the African-American people forward to an extent anywhere on a scale similar to the CP. In most instances the victims of class and racial oppression in the United States and those who most deeply cared about them refused to reject organizations that were most effectively fighting for their rights.

Defense of the Panthers

Hill’s last study takes up the police attacks on the leadership of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in the 1960s and the movement to save its survivors. She presents in great detail the arguments of George Jackson, whom she views as the pre-eminent ideologue of the Panthers, for a defense movement based on violent actions against the criminal justice system. These tactics were congruent with both the BPP and Jackson’s advocacy of a philosophy of direct action as the major means of achieving racial equality: specifically the destruction of the prison system from within.

Although Hill places Angela Davis at the center of the Panther defense movement and records two very general statements of the CP’s position on the need to build a mass movement (an approach the Panthers and Jackson derided), she fails to give a similarly detailed account of its political perspective and how it worked out in practice.

The CP’s advocacy of a nonviolent mass movement could not be dismissed, since its historic leadership boasted a range of first-line African-American leaders (Benjamin Davis, Jr., Henry Winston, James Jackson, W. E. B. Du Bois, William Patterson and Angela Davis). The CP’s insistence on a mass approach to the Panthers’ defense was in part fulfilled when in 1970 it helped to form the National Coalition against War, Racism, and Repression, which in contradistinction with the purportedly more radical National Peace Action Coalition, joined defense of the Panthers to the goals of the peace movement.

Oddly, Hill does not discuss the movement to “free Angela,” which employed the CP’s historical strategy. Not so parenthetically, the Free Angela campaign resulted in a significant upsurge in the CP’s membership and, for a short period, a restoration of its prestige in the American-American community. (Angela Davis was acquitted in 1972, after a trial that attracted international notoriety, on charges of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy in connection with the attempted escape of George Jackson — ed.)

Hill might have made explicit a valuable lesson for the Left, which is, in fact, embedded in this valuable book. Individuals who coalesce to attack the social and economic foundations of the state place themselves at risk. Movements which actively recruit individuals, who themselves are often marginalized within the society, to join this pursuit must assume that repressive measures are inevitable, especially if the movement initially succeeds. Therefore, defense work must be an integral and valued part of any responsible radical movement.

It is not enough for U.S. radicals to read Men, Mobs, and Law; they should study it individually and in groups. They will find there the interplay of class, ethnicity, gender and race that explains over the course of American history, the outcome of movements that have sustained and advanced progressive agendas.

ATC 143, November-December 2009