The Roots of This Mess We Are In

by Kate

When times get tough, the left gets study groups.

When the shock of last November faded into the grim reality of this January, Bay Area progressives got tired of post-mortems about how we didn’t prioritize the white working class enough and decided to try to figure out what the f*** happened. Potlucks and video watching sessions abound. Not wanting to buck the tide, and hoping for enlightenment, I joined a group organized by the Center for Political Education, reading W.E.B. DuBois’s classic, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. I might have thought twice if I had realized that DuBois’s definition of “essay” is somewhat different than the current usage. His is a 700 page history of class struggle in America going back to the mid-1800s.

In the first two chapters of the book, titled “The Black Worker” and “The White Worker”, DuBois sets out two of his fundamental points. One is that Black workers were not simply hapless victims of slavery, war and its aftermath, but an active part of both the construction and reconstruction of the country, for better and for worse. To this end, he consciously uses the phrase “Black workers” in lieu of “slaves” or “freedmen,” the terms of choice for the white historians who preceded him, who universally painted Reconstruction as a tragic failure.

demonstrators at SFO

A second part of his project is to demonstrate the moments in which the vast majority of white workers, both organized and unorganized, northern and southern, passed up opportunities to join with Black workers to achieve power. There were, he notes 5 million white workers in the south who never owned slaves, added to 4 million Black workers, versus a planter class comprising only 8,000 men (women attached to these men also reaped the benefits of slaveholding, but had no political or economic power). White working- and middle-class people were effectively disenfranchised in multiple ways: by property qualifications for voting and serving in the legislatures, by the absence of educational opportunities – only 25% of white southerners could read or write, and ultimately according to DuBois, by the laws, both state and federal, which allowed planters to count slaves for purposes of representation while slaves, of course, could not vote. So, DuBois points out, until 1850, “the slaveholder practically voted both for himself and his slaves,” meaning that, in South Carolina, for example, “the political working of the state is in the hands of one hundred and fifty to one hundred and eighty men.”

White workers in the south, DuBois points out, were bound to the planter class by three things: the opportunity to police the Black workers, including with great brutality; the opportunity to work for the planters as overseers or profit from selling to them; and the belief that somehow they themselves would ascend to the ranks of the planters. Updated to today, this is summarized by Ronald Wright, in A Short History of Progress: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” In 1992, LAGAI leafleted in the Castro for Proposition 167, which would have modestly raised some taxes on people making over $250,000 a year. Any number of gay men told me, “I’m against that because I don’t want my taxes to go up.” I would ask, “Do you make $250,000 a year?” “No, but I’m gonna.”

While a few northern labor leaders attempted to ally with the abolitionists, in general, says DuBois, the organized white working class saw free Black labor as unwanted competition, willing to work for less and drive down wages. Therefore, the fledgling industrial unions in the north were mainly silent on abolition. White workers in the north were easily persuaded to displace their anger at capital onto free Black workers. Cincinnati and Philadelphia saw riots between between 1828 and 1840 during which white workers attacked Black churches, killed Black people and sent whole communities of free Black workers fleeing to Canada. When the draft was instituted in the north in 1863, Irish workers rioted in New York, turning their anger at the ruling class against Black people, killing at least 119 throughout the city.

“The wisest of the leaders could not clearly envisage just how slave labor in conjunction and competition with free labor tended to reduce all labor toward slavery,” writes DuBois. “For this reason, the union and labor leaders gravitated toward the political party which opposed tariff bounties and welcomed immigrants [immigrants then made up much of the labor movement], quite forgetting that this same Democratic party had as its backbone the planter oligarchy.”

White workers, both northern and southern, also put their energy into demanding policies to keep free Black workers out of the West, which DuBois calls the “safety valve” of American capitalism. White working class organizations demanded “free soil,” meaning that the west would not allow slave labor to compete with them, but free labor could not include Black labor. Neither DuBois nor the labor movements seem to have given any thought to Native Americans, who were slaughtered to make this “free soil” available to white workers.

No Place For Free Black People

The people who established the united states – whether powerful or relatively powerless – never had any intention to include free Black people. Initially, Lincoln and the other northern leaders did not assume that the Civil War would end slavery in the South. They only wanted to preserve the status quo, while the South wanted to expand slavery to the west and reopen the slave trade. Once it became clear that the only way to win the war was to free Black workers, some half million of whom joined the union army as soldiers, spies or laborers, Lincoln and Republican Congressmen began making plans to deport or “colonize” free Black people to “some tropical country beyond the limits of the United States,” as specified in the April 1862 act abolishing slavery in Washington, D.C. “Negotiations were begun with foreign countries that owned colonies in the West Indies, and with South American countries.” A group of 400 Black people were actually transported to an island owned by Haiti; many of them quickly died of disease and starvation and those who survived were brought back to the u.s. on a war ship.

The electoral college and the Senate were designed specifically to concentrate power in the hands of slaveholders by ensuring that the more populous northern states could not outvote the South. Writes constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar: “Virginia emerged as the big winner—the California of the Founding era—with 12 out of a total of 91 electoral votes allocated by the Philadelphia Constitution, more than a quarter of the 46 needed to win an election in the first round….For 32 of the Constitution’s first 36 years, a white slaveholding Virginian occupied the presidency.”

Growing up in Virginia, visiting the homes of those Virginian presidents on field trips, I never learned that explanation for their prevalence. We just thought it was because (white) Virginians were superior to everyone else.

Our institutions were created to specifically exclude one group of workers, but subsequently, a lot of other safeguards against democracy have been put into place. Whether you are talking about the unwillingness to control corporate spending on elections, defunding public education, disenfranchisement of various groups of people, the repression of social movements, or simply the degradation of politics so that no one wants to spend their free time participating in it, the ruling classes have been united on one principle: universal suffrage is their enemy.

How We Tell the Story Is Part of the Story

The retelling of Reconstruction is one of the means by which Black and white workers have been disenfranchised and divided. It’s been cast as a giant and tragic failure, during which white opportunists (northern “carpetbaggers” and southern “scalawags”) colluded with corrupt federal officials to fan the flames of hatred rather than unifying the country. Writes historian Eric Foner, “Reconstruction has long been misrepresented, or simply neglected, in our schools, and unlike Confederate generals and founders of the Ku Klux Klan, few if any monuments exist to the black and white leaders of that era.”

In fact, Reconstruction was a moment of rare and spectacular progress and a harbinger of possible biracial and multi-class collaboration.

In its first phase, Presidential Reconstruction, president Andrew Johnson allowed southern legislatures to reestablish slavery-by-another-name in the form of Black Codes that outlawed Black people from gathering in cities or being on the street after dark, required them to be under work contracts at all times and to carry and provide proof of their employment at all times, and allowed them to be conscripted for labor by the state if they broke any of those requirements. Johnson, a North Carolina born tailor who had relocated to Tennessee, was one of those middle-class southerners aspiring to planter status. He ran with Lincoln in 1864 under the National Union party, and ascended to the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination by a group of southerners opposed to the end of slavery, led by John Wilkes Booth (something else I did not learn accurately in school).

Republicans in Congress were appalled by the Black Codes and refused to seat legislators from the southern states, a move Johnson opposed. In 1866, Johnson vetoed the first ever Civil Rights Act, which established the right of African Americans to vote. Congress overrode his veto, which ultimately led to a major schism between Johnson and Congress, his impeachment and the beginning of “Radical Reconstruction,” which lasted from late 1866 until 1876.

Radical Reconstruction saw 2000 African American men elected to local, state and federal offices, including 14 congressmen, 3 senators, 600 state legislators, six lieutenant governors and a governor. These Black elected officials helped to create the first system of public schools, progressive taxation and infrastructure projects to rebuild the south’s economy, including railroads and roads. All of this, of course, benefited poor and working class whites as well. Birthright citizenship, now under attack by the white supremacists in the administration and others, came into being during that time as part of the 14th Amendment.

By 1874, in the throes of a national depression, Foner says that “the Northern Republican party became more conservative” and retreated from “the ideal of equality.” I have only read the first 200 pages of DuBois’ history, so it’s not clear to me what led to that retreat, but I have a hunch it has something to do with capitalism.

Scholar Keeanga-Yamatta Taylor writes: “Railroad magnates were successful in getting states to subsidize the costs of labor and materials. Railroad bosses paid out thousands of dollars in bribes to get the lucrative deals involving state subsidized railroads that would ultimately be controlled by private enterprise. Many states spent millions in tax dollars to subsidize railroads even when the work was not guaranteed. While the federal government balked at giving land to freedmen and poor whites, it gave more than 180 million acres of land to railroad companies by the end of the nineteenth century….Democrats banned from office in the South pointed to this as an example of why the federal government could not be trusted to oversee Reconstruction.”

The Knights of Labor, formed secretly in 1869, had 700,000 members by 1876. In 1875, Mississippi Democrats hatched the Mississippi Plan to take back control of the state through a campaign of terror to suppress the Black vote. The Republican governor requested president Grant to send federal troops, but Grant refused, fearing that doing so would lose political support and result in Democratic victories. The Mississippi Plan worked: “five counties with large black majorities polled only 12, 7, 4, 2, and 0 Republican votes, respectively” (Wikipedia). The Great Railroad Strike began in 1877, and Republican president Hayes, who became president under the “Great Compromise of 1877,” which withdrew all federal troops from the South, sent federal troops to quell the strike.

Some historians talk about the post-WWII period of 1945-1968 as the “Second Reconstruction,” during which grassroots pressure and government activism came together to create civil rights legislation and social welfare programs. Using this lens, of a period of interracial action for social progress, followed by a period of intense backlash, Rev. William Barber, who crafted the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina under the auspices of the NAACP, called his movement a Third Reconstruction:

“Many former Confederates saw black citizenship and leadership working with white leadership as inherently illegitimate…They began to wail against taxes. The first arguments about cutting taxes began around 1872. The argument was, If we cut taxes, then the government can’t keep its promises to the former slave. It couldn’t fulfill the post-slavery economy and lift up those white and black allies working together. They hated public schools and involvement in the court system….”

These are the roots of the current “crisis of democracy” in this country. They’re long and deep. In fact, the roots of our democracy are anti-democracy. Poetic idealists from Frederick Douglass to Langston Hughes to Van Jones to Linda Burnham and Rinku Sen have appealed over the years to Americans to live up to our ideals, bring our best selves, fight for the whole country, Let America Be America Again. That’s all worth doing as long as we remember the meat of Hughes’ poem, not just the title:

(There’s never been equality for me
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars
I am the red man driven from the land
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak

There’s never been freedom but Reconstruction, the brief shining moment, reminds us that there could have been.

Author: lagai

LAGAI-Queer Insurrection is one of the oldest radical queer liberation groups in the U.S. We publish UltraViolet, a more or less bimonthly newspaper, which is mailed free of charge to over 1500 people, including over 800 prisoners. Our website is

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