Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant

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For instance, an enslaved person, forced under violence to work from sunrise to sunset, could hardly be described as lazy.

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Yet laziness, as well as characteristics of submissiveness, backwardness, lewdness, treachery, and dishonesty, historically became stereotypes assigned to African Americans. These stereotypes, still perpetrated by a class of white people who have been determined to keep black folks down, made no sense to me. So Daisy was my little playmate, my maid, my friend, and the daughter of old Catherine, who was a cook that we adored. So all those years we played together and everyone was happy. We never heard of all these things we hear about today.

And there were nearly a hundred, enormous rice plantation with many animals around, and a beautiful old house and about a hundred Colored people there. But we loved them. If you could, would you paint a picture for us of what it was like on the plantation in your early days. It was a lovely happy time, living in open spaces with many lovely Colored people and animals and flowers and fields.

My father had everything thoroughbred, from the pigs, horses, the dogs and the people had to be thoroughbred. And we would get into a buggy with him and drive to the plantation from what we call the pine land, where we lived. And we would spend, every Saturday this was, we would spend the day, and old Fortune, I can see him now, he would give us dinner.

And we would have a heavenly time. That same racist theme is used to blackanize working-class immigrants—with or without papers—who instead of being appreciated for toiling in our fields and factories doing hard labor are demonized as criminals, drug-dealers, and rapists. My dad worked; sometimes at three jobs, and before he finally got his GI benefits and could go back to school and get a college degree, he was an actor, waited tables, and worked on trains.

His dad was a chauffeur, and later a postal worker. Their parents were slaves. Enslaved people worked—hard. We were free to starve. Freedom often meant the state found a way to enslave you again. Take the case of black coal miners. African Americans have been mining coal and fighting bosses for over years.

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Slaves were working in coal mines around Richmond, Va. Slaves able to fill this quota were fed supper. African Americans accounted from 83 percent to 90 percent of these slave miners in Alabama. Sixty-nine percent of Tennessee prisoners digging coal in were Black. Some poor whites were railroaded to jail too. Conditions were horrendous in these convict mines. Nearly one out of ten prisoners died annually at the Tracy City, Tenn. Labor Day, the labor movement, and black Americans. In an op-ed for The Grio, Theodore R. Johnson wrote about how Labor Day was born:. Labor Day was nationally established after the Pullman Strike of when President Grover Cleveland sought to win political points by honoring dissatisfied railroad workers.

Being excluded from the right to even fight for fair work and wages, the Pullman porters formed their own union called the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters , the first black union, and A. Philip Randolph was its first president. Set to take place in the s, this demonstration was called off weeks before its kick-off date because President Roosevelt met with Randolph and other civil rights leaders in , and signed an order barring racial discrimination in the federal defense industry.

Roosevelt did so to stop the march from happening. In spite of a history of exclusion, black Americans are the group that view unions most favorably, according to Pew research :.

Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant

Black workers have fought to organize, even in the face of racism. When not allowed in white unions, they organized their own. Even here, however, and beyond the hurt of mine own, I have always striven to recognize the real cogency of the Union argument. Collective bargaining has, undoubtedly, raised modern labor from something like chattel slavery to the threshold of industrial freedom, and in this advance of labor white and black have shared. I have tried, therefore, to see a vision of vast union between the laboring forces, particularly in the South, and hoped for no distant day when the black laborer and the white laborer, instead of being used against each other as helpless pawns, should unite to bring real democracy in the South.

On the other hand, the whole scheme of settling the Negro problem, inaugurated by the philanthropists and carried out during the last twenty years, has been based upon the idea of paying off black workers against white.


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That it is essentially a mischievous and dangerous program no sane thinker can deny, but is peculiarly disheartening to realize that it is the Labor Unions themselves that have given this movement its greatest impulse and that today, at last, in East St. Louis have brought the most unwilling of us to acknowledge that in the present Union movement, as represented by the American Federation of Labor, there is absolutely no hope of justice for an American of Negro descent. Personally, I have come to this decision reluctantly and in the past have written and spoken little of the closed door of opportunity, shut impudently in the faces of black men by organized white workingmen.

I realize that by heredity and century-long lack of opportunity one cannot expect in the laborer that larger sense of justice and duty which we ought to demand of the privileged classes.

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I have, therefore, inveighed against color discrimination by employers and by the rich and well-to-do, knowing at the same time in silence that it is practically impossible for any colored man or woman to become a boiler maker or book binder, an electrical worker or glass maker, a worker in jewelry or leather, a machinist or metal polisher, a paper maker or piano builder, a plumber or a potter, a printer or a pressman, a telegrapher or a railway trackman, an electrotyper or stove mounter, a textile worker or tile layer, a trunk maker, upholster, carpenter, locomotive engineer, switchman, stone cutter, baker, blacksmith, booth and shoemaker, tailor, or any of a dozen other important well-paid employments, without encountering the open determination and unscrupulous opposition of the whole united labor movement of America.

That further than this, if he should want to become a painter, mason, carpenter, plasterer, brickmaster or fireman he would be subject to humiliating discriminations by his fellow Union workers and be deprived of their own Union laws. The early Knights of Labor actively accepted and organized black workers at a time when racism in America was intense.

The AFL also started out in the s with a nondiscrimination policy, but founder Samuel Gompers later came to see blacks as a "convenient whip placed in the hands of the employers to cow the white man. Employers did capitalize on racial divisions by recruiting black workers as strikebreakers. In a incident, employers in East St. Louis, Illinois, recruited southern blacks to take jobs for low pay to drive wages down.

White workers organized a whites-only union in response. Racial tensions mounted and in July an attempt to drive blacks from their neighborhoods led to a riot in which 40 blacks and 9 whites were killed. The AFL craft unions became solidly racist.

In W. Du Bois, the influential black spokesman and historian, found that 43 national unions had no black members, and 27 others barred black apprentices, keeping membership to a minimum. Du Bois spoke against both "the practice among employers of importing ignorant Negro-American laborers in emergencies" and "the practice of labor unions of proscribing and boycotting and oppressing thousands of their fellow toilers. By refusing to admit blacks, they were assuring that there remained a group of workers that employers could turn to in order to bring down wages or to apply pressure during strikes.


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  • It wasn't until later in the twentieth century that union leaders began to look beyond their own prejudices to see that solidarity across racial lines made sense. The individual stories are arranged thematically in chapters on labor organizing, Jim Crow in the workplace, police brutality, white union racism, and civil rights struggles. Taken together, the stories ask us to rethink the conventional understanding of the civil rights movement as one led by young people and preachers in the s and s.

    Instead, we see the freedom struggle as the product of generations of people, including workers who organized unions, resisted Jim Crow at work, and built up their families, churches, and communities. The collection also reveals the devastating impact that a globalizing capitalist economy has had on black communities and the importance of organizing the labor movement as an antidote to poverty.

    The Black Church Is Robbing Black People

    Michael Honey gathered these oral histories for more than fifteen years. He weaves them together here into a rich collection reflecting many tragic dimensions of America's racial history while drawing new attention to the role of workers and poor people in African American and American history. The interviews contained in this volume shine a harsh light on the nuts-and-bolts scaffolding of American workplace apartheid. Eyewitness testimony reveals not only the political economy that undergirded racial segregation on the job, but also the wide range of tactics on the part of African-American labor organizers who resisted it.

    Focusing on the city of Memphis, Tennessee, editor Michael Honey has assembled a story told through more than two dozen voices, a story about African-American men and women workers who literally risked their lives on the shop floor, day in and day out, trying to provide for their families.