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Black Leadership Analysis

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Black Politics

Robert Lee Hill (1892 – 1963)

(1892 – 1963)

Accomplishments

  • Founded the Progressive Farmers and Household Workers Union of America
  • Worked for Santa Fe Railway for forty years
  • Member of Topeka Kansas NAACP

The Elaine Massacre

Robert Lee Hill founded the Progressive Farmers and Household Workers Union of America in Arkansas in 1919. The founding of the union led to the Elaine Massacre that left somewhere between 250 to 850 black people dead and four or five white men dead. The Elaine Massacre is part of the Red Summer of 1919. The Red Summer consisted of numerous race riots in various cities and towns in America. The Elaine Massacre also led to the landmark Moore vs. Dempsey trial that will solidify the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

Robert L. Hill was born in 1892 or 1898 [9] to working class parents. He married in 1916 [9] before going off to war. Hill was a World War I veteran [4]. His time served in the military, more than likely, led to his militancy. 370,000 blacks that fought in World War I [1], when they returned home, they were not afraid to stand up for their rights. Black WWI vets let many armed resistance movements in 1919 in major cities. When Hill returned home, he worked for Valley Planting Company.[9]

Even though Hill was not a sharecropper himself, he felt called to do something to help the sharecropper’s plight. A sharecropper, also known as a tenant farmer, is a person that rents a farm from a land owner. The sharecropper then lives on credit from the landlord until the harvest arrives. The landowner and tenant then agree to share the crop. The tenant gets a percentage of the crop, and so does the landowner. The farmer can then pay off the debt to the landowner and have enough profit to last the winter after the sale of the crop.

Unfortunately, in the southern cotton industry, this ideal scenario never plays out. Often sharecroppers were illiterate and uneducated so they could not evaluate the books to ensure they got their share of the crop. The landlord would not let the sharecropper see the books even if the sharecropper had an education. Because blacks had no legal recourse, landlords would confiscate the entire crop. Ultimately, the sharecropper stayed in perpetual debt.

Not only did debt keep black people in the cotton industry, so did the law. The black codes made it illegal for a black man to be without a job for an extended period. Most companies outside the cotton industry did not hire black people. The person would be forced into a work camp if convicted of vagrancy, not having a job. The work camp would force inmates to pick cotton.

The need for a union was evident. 1919 was one of the worst times for the Labor Movement. The Russian Revolution happened in 1917 and by 1918 Russia was a communist country. The revolution began as a prolonged labor strike that turned into a riot. When the Russian army was called in to stop the riot, the army joined the rebels. The Tsar had to abdicate and the world’s first communist republic was born. Many American capitalists were afraid the same thing could happen in America.

The labor movement was also not welcoming to black people. The American Federation of Labor’s (AFL) 1919 convention declared the job of the AFL was to protect the jobs of “native-born white men” and upheld the restrictions on blacks joining unions. [2] This declaration ultimately hurt the labor movement. Blacks in the North broke strike lines to work at factories. Blacks were used to dilute the power of the Union. The racial strife in the North can be traced back to fear of blacks crossing picket lines.

The cotton industry expected a downturn in 1919[4][1]. World War I ended in 1918 and the southern cotton industry had been supplying cotton for the allied troops. The demand for cotton from Europe was expected to decrease severely. The planters were especially wary of giving sharecroppers a fair shake in 1919.

Despite all the adversity, Hill was able to create nine lodges of his union across Arkansas.[3] It was at a meeting of the lodge at Hoop Sur that the trouble began. On September 30, 1919, the Union had a meeting with one hundred people on how to organize for collective bargaining. In attendance at the meeting were men, women, and children.

Hill expected to be harassed by the local plutocrats. He had six patrolmen stationed outside the Hoop Sur church.[1]The Missouri Pacific (MoPac) Railway had a private police force that worked in conjunction with the sheriff’s office.[4] An informant tipped a group of patrolmen that a union meeting was happening in Hoop Sur. An altercation ensued, and the parties exchanged gunfire. [1][4][6]The church was burned later that night to destroy evidence of return fire.[4] One MoPac agent died, and a sheriff’s deputy was wounded.

The blacks of Hoop Sur decided to prepare for retaliation. Many men took up arms to defend the residential area known as Helena. The sheriff organized a posse of five hundred to one thousand men [3] outside the courthouse. The attack from whites happened at mid-morning October 1st. The black resistance was able to hold off the onslaught, and only 15 to 20 blacks died on that morning.[4] The resistance accomplished an incredible task that day and will go down in history for their bravery.

The Governor decided to call in reinforcements. The Federal Government was afraid of a socialist uprising. The government allowed the Governor to bypass calling in the National Guard and gave him authority over 500 trained federal troops from Camp Pike. The intervention of federal troops caused the carnage.

The federal troops were responsible for most of the killing [4]. The soldiers carried machine guns, and white mobs from all over the South supplemented the force. Many unarmed blacks hid in the woods and were hunted down like dogs. Here are some of the quotes from whites that witnessed the massacre.

“[The white mobs and troops] shot and killed men, women, and children without regard to whether they were guilty or innocent of a connection with killing anybody or whether members of a union or not.”[1]

“Vigilantes killed a black woman pulled her dress over her head, and left her body on a road, another brutal lesson of what happened when [blacks] lost their place”[1]

“Several hundred (whites) … began to hunt negroes and shooting them as they came to them.”[3]

“Committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes, or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.” [3][6]

“When finally the soldiers’ ammunition was exhausted, and their liquor ran low, they withdrew from the scenes of their sins against humanity, the remaining negroes gathered up their scattered dead and with slow, awkward step marched to their little churchyards and there said their simple rites over the bullet-riddled bodies of loved ones.”[6]

In the face of federal troops blacks still resisted. An eyewitness account from L.S. Dunaway reports a black dentist was arrested for his connection to the union. He and his three brothers were put in the back of two police cars. When the cars were transporting the men to jail, the envoy was ambushed. One of the police officers was shot with a shotgun. The other officers immediately killed the four suspects. [9]

The black resistance was not well documented. Much of the reason for such little information is the black men that were captured then freed were on extended furlough. They did not get a pardon. Furlough meant the governor could send them back to prison at any time. Also, after they saw the carnage inflicted on their families after their capture, they wanted to make sure the people that survived would not be attacked. No one wanted to be seen as bragging about shooting whites.

The fact that over 250 men were captured alive proves that the resistance was formidable. If the troops could simply annihilate the resistance, they would. There were too many instances of black towns being burned to the ground such as Rosewood, FL, and Tulsa, OK. The five hundred federal troops must have evaluated particular encampments and decided that forcing the rebels to surrender would reduce the loss of life. One corporal is reported to have died in the skirmishing. There is one quote by L.S. Dunaway that attest to the bravery of these men.

“There were those among [Blacks] that openly defied officers, citizens and soldiers alike, until death cut short their futile stand against the whites. ”

Unfortunately, after most of the resistance was captured or killed, blacks were killed indiscriminately in Elaine, AR. There are reports of black men being shot while running away from white mobs. Many eyewitness accounts report the killing of women and children. The troops often opened fire on unarmed civilians with machine guns. The exact number of blacks killed will never be known. Most of the bodies were burned in large pits to allow for quick disposal. [6] Many blacks fled Arkansas and created new lives in the North and West.

There is no record of Robert Hill participating in the fighting. However, there was a special search made for him.[6] He was able to escape to Boley, OK an all-black town in Oklahoma then moved to South Dakota to evade capture. [9]. He finally settled near Topeka, KS.

Topeka police captured Hill in 1920.[9] He had written a friend in Arkansas to let people know he was safe. The friend asked to meet him in Kansas City, MO. Hill agreed, and the friend tipped off the authorities.

The NAACP took the defense of Hill. After a prolonged legal battle, the NAACP prevented Hills extradition to Arkansas. Hill took an assumed name and worked for the Santa Fe Railway for forty years.[9] In gratitude to the NAACP, he served in the Topeka NAACP for many years.[9] He died in 1963.

Most of the black resistance was captured by October 3.[1] A few hundred people were put into makeshift jails to await trial. [3] The result of the original trial cause 12 men to be sentenced to death, 273 to pleas for second-degree murder, and a few had the case dismissed. Details on the trail and the landmark Moore vs. Dempsey case will be in next week’s Leader analysis.

Analysis:

No transcripts or recordings could be found of his speeches. However, L.S. Dunaway said, “Hill’s influence over the less intelligent Darkey was something marvelous.” According to Dunaway Hill said this:

“He had them believing that by standing together the negroes could make the white people divide with them in the matter of land ownership, and that if a peaceable division could not be obtained, then the negroes, outnumbering the whites about ten to one in that section, would “rise up and march on the whites with high-powered rifles and shotguns, thus showing the strength of the colored race.” p 107 [6]

For the sake of analysis, the statement’s truth will be assumed. The statement expresses an Orange level understanding of the situation of black people. Hill understands the underlying problem is economic, and once others realize that the real issue is money, poor whites and blacks are natural allies. The statement shows that Hill ultimately saw the struggle beyond racial lines.

Hill obviously was not against using physical force to protect members of his movement. He also made it clear to his followers that they had numbers in the town of Elaine and that they should not be intimidated by white people. The use of physical force is a precarious subject in black empowerment. The Elaine Massacre goes to illustrate this point. It is hard to speculate on what would happen if the black people of Hoop Sur did not have guards for the September 30 the meeting. Maybe the whites would have simply broken up the meeting, which there is little historical precedence. More than likely they would have hung Hill. It is also most probable they would have burned Helena to the ground if there had been no resistance on October 1st. The white mob of 500 to 1,000 people did not come to take six suspects peaceably. However, the result was the killing of 250 to 850 blacks in southeast Arkansas. Ultimately, white people have the firepower and numbers nationally. A large scale attack or defense will produce an outcome similar to the Elaine Massacre.

Sources

  1. Krugler, David (2-26-2015) America’s Forgotten Mass Lynching. from http://www.thedailybeast.com
  2. (5-25-2012) Causes of the 1919 Race Riots from https://socialistworker.org/
  3. Stockley, Grif (08-01-2016) Elaine Massacre from http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net
  4. Johnson, J (02-27-2013) Evanescence The Elaine Massacre from http://greenmountainsreview.com/
  5. Widell, Robert (08-2002) Blood In Their Eyes Review from http://www.h-net.org
  6. Dunaway, L.S. (1925) What a Preacher Saw Through a Keyhole in Arkansas
  7. (May 2016) Never Forget America’s Mass Lynching from https://blackmainstreet.net/
  8. (05-07-2011) Race Riots of 1919 from http://www.globalsecurity.org/
  9. Gruber, John (02-26-2015) Robert Lee Hill from http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

Asa Philip Randolph demonstrates to black leaders how to build coalitions. Randolph was also realistic about the limitations of his organization. The realization of his limitations led him to seek strategic alliances. While in these alliances he was able to keep control of his union and stay focused on his goal.

Randolph also understood that some organizations could derail his union. If he were to ally with a group that was too radical he would not only hinder the Brotherhood, he would also put many porters in danger. Randolph sought alliances with other mainstream organizations.

As most of the readers already know, Asa Philip Randolph organized The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and obtained a charter from the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He was successful in his efforts because he made strategic alliances to increase his power. An evaluation of the porter’s previous attempts to unionize will be used to demonstrate how “going it alone” is not realistic.

The first attempt to create a porter’s union was in 1890 with the Charles Sumner Association. Charles Sumner was a Senator that fought for Civil Rights. The Pullman Company threatened to fire all the porter’s and hire white replacements. The 1890 strike never happened. The second strike threat occurred in 1897, and again the company threatened to hire white replacements to stop the strike. The closest any porter got to making an appeal for higher wages was getting an editorial in a local newspaper in 1901.

The porter’s primary barrier to successful organizing was a lack of money. In the 1920’s a porter made $1,200 a year. The poverty line in the 1920’s was $1,500 a year. So most porters did not have money for savings or union dues. In addition to only making $1,200, tips composed twenty percent of the salary. As anyone that has worked for tips knows, tips fluctuate, leaving the porter in an even more precarious position.

Not having sufficient income made porter’s even more dependent on the Pullman Company. The company had a porter rule book with two hundred and seventeen rules. When that many rules are in place, every worker made numerous transgression every shift. Pullman had grounds to fire a porter at any time. In addition to not having income or job security, a porter would have a difficult time finding new employment. Pullman specifically recruited dark-skinned black people for the porter job. The job market discriminated against dark-skinned people. The loss of a porter job could be a setback that a black man would never recover.

In 1925, Randolph was selected to run the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters. His job is to finally give the porters a much-needed raise and change the rules to allow for porters to stand up to abuse. Randolph faces many of the same problems previous organizers will face. Membership fluctuates because people can not pay their dues. Instead of simply berating members, he went out to find allies with deep pockets.

Randolph sought out donations from liberal white churches. Donations from white churches keep the Brotherhood afloat for the tumultuous early years. Many of these churches were concerned with the welfare of black people. They have established wealthy membership that kept a steady stream of money flowing to the Brotherhood.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was another organization courted by Randolph. The AFL was the largest federation of unions at the time and had deep connections with the Democratic party. Both the AFL and the Democratic party had a long history of racism. In the North, blacks were not allowed in most unions. When unions went on strike, black workers would cross the picket line and fill the empty jobs. The AFL and Democratic party often conspired to create laws and reduce funding that would help black people as a way to retaliate.

Randolph knew that the AFL was the only union organization that could give the Brotherhood validity. Affiliation with the AFL would also give Randolph inside information on various initiatives in Congress. Most importantly the AFL could supply the Brotherhood with money in the event of a strike.

The Brotherhood received AFL affiliate status in 1929. The Brotherhood would pay the AFL $0.35 per member. A full AFL membership union only pays $0.01 per member. Many critics saw this not only as a “slap in the face,” but a poor use of scarce resources. Randolph understood that the AFL membership would be a long and arduous road. If the Brotherhood could survive this probationary period, they could obtain real government influence.

The Democratic party heavily pressured the AFL to begin to incorporate black members. The AFL had a long history of segregation in its affiliate unions. At one AFL conference, the group stated its official goal was to protect the livelihoods of native-born white men. The pressure came from the Democratic party’s need to keep control of the mayorship of many major cities, which had sharp increases in their black population. Also, the Democratic party wanted to pull membership away from third parties such as Democratic Socialists and Communists. The Democratic party could reduce the threat of a third party by being more inclusive.

Randolph garnered the most criticism for his introduction of AFL president William Green in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. He said Green was the second Abraham Lincoln coming to rescue the black worker from industrial bondage. Many critics used this overly enthusiastic introduction as proof Randolph was using the porters as inroads into the AFL. The AFL had a long history of excluding black people and had not allowed the porters to enter as full members.

The election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1932 was the jumpstart that both the Brotherhood and the AFL needed to merge. FDR instituted the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 and expanded the Railway Labor Act to include airlines. These laws set specific procedures to form a union, address grievances, and to go on strike. The introduction of a union-friendly administration increased membership in the Brotherhood of Pullman Porters. It is not a coincidence that the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters got an official charter from the AFL in 1935. Having an administration that was friendly to the cause of black liberation had substantial effects. In 1937, the Brotherhood signed a contract with the Pullman company for higher wages and improved working conditions.

Many of today’s black leaders speak of black people becoming independent. Black organizations talk about divorcing themselves from white money and white members. Historically, completely isolated organizations do not work. It would be advantageous to look at what A. Philip Randolph’s alternatives were in the fight against the Pullman Corporation.

The obvious ally would be various black organizations around at the time most notably, the black church. If all these black organizations “pooled their pennies together” they could have serious money to fight injustices. The only problem with the strategy is that all the other black organizations had similar, if not worse money problems. In fact, Pullman gave generous donations to black churches to help in the fight against the Brotherhood. The Chicago branch of the National Urban League fought against the Brotherhood because of a large Pullman donation. The National Urban League funded most of the black politicians. Therefore, many of Chicago’s black politicians were against unionization. The lack of money in the black community hurts black organizations. Most black organizations are more concerned with getting donations to stay afloat and are willing to compromise ethics to get the donations.

The Brotherhood could have enlisted wealthier members of the black community. There were some prominent members of the black community that could have provided money. However, many felt threatened by the prominence of the porter’s in the black community. The few black professionals in major cities enjoyed being the wealthiest black people in town. If the porters obtained fair wages, they could challenge their status in the community. Most black professionals were deeply invested in Orange Meme striving. They were not interested in helping others.

One could say if you were going to ally with white people at least partner with white people that were integrationist from the beginning. The biggest rival to the AFL at the time was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). IWW was integrationist from inception in 1905. One of the founding members, Lucy Parsons, was born a slave in Texas. The IWW wanted to do away with the wage system and put workers in charge of the means of production. The IWW put itself in direct opposition to the AFL that wanted “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” If the Brotherhood joined IWW, they would have to challenge Pullmans validity in running the railroad.

The IWW radicalism also led to scrutiny by authorities. In 1906, the murder of an Idaho Governor implicated an IWW leader. Citizen accused IWW member of rioting in Butte, Montana in 1914. Migratory farmers were also a large part of the IWW membership. Unfortunately, migratory farmers were looked down upon and blamed for many unsolved crimes. Migratory farmers were called hobos in the 1920’s and viewed negatively by the general public. The activity that put the IWW the most at odds with the Federal government was its outspoken stance against World War I.

Many unionist believe the government systematically targeted the IWW to cause its downfall. Numerous high profile cases plagued the organization from the early 1910’s to 1920’s. By 1925, the organization was a shell of itself. The union will recover in 1960’s, but the 1920’s was a dark time for the IWW. Randolph understood what the IWW was going through and was smart to keep the Brotherhood away.

Eugene V. Debs, one of the founders of the IWW, was a hero of Randolph. Randolph wrote about Debs’ philosophy in college and his first years at “The Messenger.” Even though Randolph personally agreed with the philosophy of the IWW, including the IWW’s stance against war, he knew a partnership would not be practical. Randolph knew how to set his personal feelings aside for the good of the group.

Randolph’s life and work demonstrate effective leadership. It is a model that more black leaders should follow. He understood the limitations of his group and worked with organizations that would complement the Brotherhood. Once Randolph determined which organizations could be of service to him, he put aside his personal feelings a pursued the alliance. His efforts ultimately culminated in the first contract between a black union and a major corporation. Randolph’s pragmatism is something to admire.

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