Friday, May 15, 2015
On Black Socialism and A. Philip Randolph: Unlike European socialism, which is very "statist" and "top-down" (coming from the government), American socialism is more "organic" and "bottom-up" (emerging from the people). Perhaps the most famous African-American socialist was A. Philip Randolph, a railroad worker who admired Eugene V. Debs' efforts at organizing the American Railway Union (ARU). Even though Randolph was about a generation behind Debs in terms of age, he followed Debs' lead by founding the nation's first black labor union in 1925. Known as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), the union sought to bargain collectively with the Pullman Company, which produced a variety of train cars for use in passenger rail travel. In the 1920s, the job of a "porter" was largely limited to baggage handling, ticket punching, and custodial duties. Over time, it became an occupation traditionally associated with African Americans. Thus, being a porter generally meant there was no chance of getting promoted to "conductor," which was a position often reserved for whites. As the BSCP progressed, Randolph pushed for changes in federal labor law during the 1930s. And in 1941, he succeeded in getting President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, which attempted to ban racial discrimination in the national defense industry. Although it was not a law, EO8802 marked the first federal effort to curb segregated labor practices.
Friday, May 1, 2015
On the Civil War Draft Riots: Ten days after the Battle of Gettysburg ended, which was perhaps the Civil War's biggest turning point, the streets of Manhattan erupted. The Union Army, under direct orders from President Lincoln, began to conscript able-bodied men into fighting the Confederacy. Indeed, since New York City had seen an astronomical influx of European immigrants, especially Irish, during the preceding two decades, it made sense to target these "new" immigrants as recruits. Promises of steady employment, food, clothes, camaraderie, shelter, and even "full" citizenship were all presented as benefits to being conscripted into the Union Army. But many of these young (Irish) men would rather take their chances in gangs or working as clerks to jump potentially from the underclass to the middle class. Fighting in the Union Army meant leaving NYC to head South and liberate African-American slaves. And in many respects, these immigrants saw themselves as sharing the same socioeconomic status as Southern slaves. Thus, the conscription process was ultimately doomed from the start. The above clip is from Gangs of New York (2002), which did a terrific job portraying the city's draft riots.