Archive for febrero 2019

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, quien podría ser considerado el padre de los Afro-American Studies, nació en Santurce, Puerto Rico, en enero de 1874. Como muchas otras grandes figuras de la historia puertorriqueña, Schomburg es un desconocido para la mayoría de sus compatriotas. Por el contrario, en Estados Unidos se le honra y recuerda con devoción por su gran aportación a la comunidad afro-estadounidense. Comparto con mis lectores esta reseña crítica del libro de Vanessa K. Valdés Diasporic Bkackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (SUNY Press 2017). Escrita por Regina Mills, esta reseña fue publicada en la excelente bitacora Black Perspectives de  la African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).

Vanessa K. Valdés es directora del Black Studies Program del City College of New York-CUNY. Regina Mills es profesora el Departamento de Inglés de la Texas A&M University.


Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

Arturo Schomburg in Mind, Body, and Spirit

Vanessa K. Valdés

Black Perspectives  February 19, 2019

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, known to many by his anglicized name Arthur A. Schomburg, is no stranger to most African American and diaspora studies scholars. The impressive collection that he donated to the New York Public Library has formed the foundation of much of the scholarship in the field. However, until very recently, scholarly research on Schomburg himself has been sparse. For this reason, I welcome Vanessa K. Valdés’s study of this foundational figure. Valdes’s Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (2017) is the premier work for any scholar seeking more information on Schomburg’s multiple roles as an independentista, collector, and writer.

The book is framed as a biography, promising to educate the reader on Schomburg’s life and the contemporary events that shaped his intellectual journey. Valdés offers a comprehensive view by framing the work around the five facets of Schomburg’s identity and influence. In the first chapter, she contextualizes the Antillean independence movement, focusing especially on the Puerto Rican and Cuban figures that make up Schomburg’s “intellectual genealogy” (27). Across the remaining chapters, she presents Schomburg as institution builder, writer/historian, archivist, and portrait subject. Valdés’s project is strongly archival, pulling not only from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (SCRBC) but from scrapbooks, letters, and photographs held by Fisk, Columbia, Yale, and Hunter College (el Centro).

The introduction lays out Valdés’s primary concern: how Schomburg illuminates “definitions of blackness, masculinity, citizenship, and nation” and how his engagement “with these multiple discourses throughout his life, and his interpretation of said notions offers an assessment of Afro-Latinx subjectivity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States and its commonwealth, Puerto Rico” (3). Like many Afro-Latinx Studies scholars, she often describes Schomburg using “bridge” language, viewing him as “a link” and “a conduit” (5) in the circles in which he traveled, continuing a common trope of the Afro-Latinx figure as a bridge between Black and Latinx communities. However, her analysis often goes beyond this figuration, particularly due to her thorough analysis of Schomburg’s representation and performance of Afro-Puerto Rican masculinity. Schomburg is never just a symbol; he is a fully embodied subject.

This first chapter is largely one of historical context and biography, focused on those who came before Schomburg rather than Schomburg himself. This chapter dispels the common charge in Schomburg’s time, and even in our own, that he abandoned his Puerto Rican roots and assimilated into the US Black community. Valdés’s attention to the impact of Haitian independence on the Hispanic Caribbean is particularly welcome, as it situates the influence of Black liberation and anti-blackness in the social and political history of Puerto Rico and Cuba. For example, in her reading of Salvador Brau’s tribute to Rafael Cordero, who started the first school open to students of all colors and backgrounds in Puerto Rico, she details how Brau represents Cordero in opposition to Haitian blackness, invoking a politics of respectability (48). By convincing the reader of Brau’s influence on Schomburg, we see how Brau’s own problematic ideas about race influenced Schomburg’s collecting and writing. In addition to Brau, she argues that five other Puerto Rican and Cuban intellectuals shaped Schomburg’s Afro-Latinx subjectivity: from Ramón Emeterio Betances he learned of Afro-Puerto Rican resistance, from Eugenio María de Hostos educational philosophy, and from Lola Rodríguez de Tío, Rafael Serra y Montalvo and José Martí he came to value pan-Caribbean activism.

The second and fourth chapters focus primarily on his institution building through organizations and the archive.They, however, are the weakest of the chapters, as they often read more as literature reviews rather than her own findings. Chapter Two’s focus on the organizations in which Schomburg held important leadership positions—the Prince Hall Masons and two Black historical associations—adds little new information to those topics. Chapter Four focuses on Schomburg as an archivist and his views on archival access and dissemination of knowledge. Valdés sets Schomburg up as a different kind of historian from Salvador Brau. She sees Brau’s motivation as “firmly establishing Puerto Rico as an inheritor of Spanish cultural values” and Schomburg’s as outside of the nationalist framework, focused instead on “collective histories of peoples of African descent” (96). However, this argument could be further developed by accessing a broader source base. For example, I was very interested in her section on his impact on the development of Fisk’s Negro Collection, since that topic has received less attention than the SCRBC, but she provides only two pages on this section. Overall, there is more focus on the theory of archive-building and other scholars’ views on archives than on Schomburg’s own philosophy of the archive, something that might have been thoroughly developed through analysis of his letters or other sources.

In Chapter Three, Valdés focuses on Schomburg’s published essays, which “broaden the parameters of his audience’s conceptions of blackness so as to include the Spanish-speaking populations of African descent” (72). She makes the case that “Schomburg’s historical articles,” though written primarily in English, should be viewed as crónicas, a Latin American genre of vignettes often written for periodicals, following closely Susana Rotker’s definition in La invención de la crónica (1992). Valdés makes a good case, since the genre is known for its skepticism of ‘objectivity,’ a perfect format in which to question the so-called logic of white supremacy. Valdés’s invocation of the crónica in many ways parallels Claudia Milian’s use of that genre, in her 2013 study Latining America, as a lens through which to consider Langston Hughes’s and James Weldon Johnson’s writing in and on Latin America. Valdés’s chapter does not provide a thorough literary analysis, per se, of his works, which is unfortunate since at the beginning of the chapter Valdés emphasizes Rotker’s argument that the crónica is a genre at “the juncture between the literary and the journalistic” (73). However, Valdés succeeds in introducing the reader to “representative pieces that reveal not only [Schomburg’s] dedication and commitment to the acknowledgment of Afro-Latinx contributions to the hemisphere but that also highlight the complexities of Afro-Latinx subjectivity” (72). In particular, she provides detailed and helpful historical context for the reader, so they can better appreciate, for example, Schomburg’s 1912 article in Crisis entitled “General Evaristo Estenoz,” written in the middle of what would be known as the Race War of 1912 in Cuba.


Vanessa K. Valdés

Valdés’s strongest intervention is her analysis of photographs and portraits of Schomburg. Largely ignored in previous works, Valdés’s close reading of a commonly circulated photo immediately grabs the reader’s attention. This examination of his engagement, and especially his resistance, to photography is powerful because it focuses on Schomburg’s agency over his body. Valdés’s emphasis on Schomburg’s embodied existence is apparent throughout the book and provides readers an image of the man as more than just a disembodied mind, an image that may have contributed to the erasure of his complex identity. In Chapter Two, she even imagines Schomburg’s sonic impact, asking how his voice, which may have “carried an accent conveying a youth spent in the Caribbean, one that was accustomed to speaking Spanish fluently” could have impacted the diverse audiences in which he held space (56). By examining the photographic representation of Schomburg as an Afro-Puerto Rican man, taking up space across a variety of communities, most of which were uncomfortable with his ambiguity, Valdés gives us a new way to see Schomburg. While much of his writing fits a particular kind of respectability politics, focusing on Black excellence rather than the ordinary humanity of blackness, Valdés’s analysis of Schomburg’s embodied choices depicts his defiance and Antillean revolutionary spirit.

At a relatively slim 138 pages (with 26 pages of endnotes), this book provides an excellent introduction to students and scholars seeking an accessible portrait of Arturo Schomburg. Not only does Valdés craft a compelling biography, she fully contextualizes his life and the transnational circumstances that most impacted his intellectual development. Most previous works view Schomburg through a US-centric lens, placing him as a Harlem Renaissance figure who forsook Puerto Rico. Diasporic Blackness, however, restores Schomburg’s Puerto Rican upbringing and his connection to African diasporic communities in the Caribbean and US. For those seeking an extended depiction of Schomburg’s diasporic identity, Valdés’s study can be placed alongside Flor Piñiero de Rivera’s 1992 collection of his writings and Elinor Des Verney Sinnette’s 1990 biography.

Though the above critiques suggest that Schomburg’s life and work demand further explorations, Valdés’s book is a necessary addition to the previous literature. It will be, without a doubt, the book recommended to curious community members who see Schomburg’s portrait on the wall of the SCRBC, or a graduate student who wants to know more about this iconic figure. Future researchers can build on the work of Diasporic Blackness by discussing the literary value of Schomburg’s writing, providing a fuller account of his impact on the archives at Fisk University, and examining Schomburg as a theorist of the archive.

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En este artículo del historiador Garret Felber  (The Univertsity of Mississippi), se analizan nuevas fuentes que podrían obligar a revaluar el legado del gran líder revolucionario afroamericano Malcom X.

Malcom 1

The Missing Malcolm X

Garret Felbert

Boston Review, November 28, 2018

More than fifty years after his death, Malcolm X remains a polarizing and misunderstood figure. Not unlike the leader he is too often contrasted with—Martin Luther King, Jr.—he has been a symbol to mobilize around, a foil to abjure, or a commodity to sell, rather than a thinker to engage. As political philosopher Brandon Terry reminded us in these pages on the fiftieth anniversary of King’s death this year, “There are costs to canonization.” The primary vehicle of canonization in Malcolm’s case has been The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which has been translated into thirty languages and has been widely read—by students and activists alike—across the United States and abroad.

The project first took shape in 1963, when Malcolm signed an agreement with journalist Alex Haley to co-author the book for Doubleday Press. (It was the first book for both writers.) The contract stipulated that Malcolm would have ultimate say over the final version: “Nothing can be in the manuscript, whether a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter, or more that you do not completely approve of.” But Malcolm would never see the final book, which was published instead by Grove Press after his assassination in 1965. Fearing it would be too controversial, Doubleday withdrew its contract after Malcolm’s death in what biographer Manning Marable called the “most disastrous decision in corporate publishing history.” The book sold six million copies by 1977 and would later serve as the basis of Spike Lee’s influential 1992 biopic. It has shaped generations of activists and helped to define our collective understanding of race in the United States. The book is viewed as a crystallization of Malcolm X’s political vision, yet that vision is all too often overshadowed by—or conflated with—the man himself, portrayed in the book as a charismatic leader defined by dramatic personal transformation and tragedy.

That understanding—both of the person and of the politics—now stands to be reexamined. This summer previously unpublished materials that had been seized from a private collector, who acquired them at the sale of Haley’s estate in 1992, were auctioned to the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The items acquired include various notes from Malcolm, a draft 241-page manuscript of the autobiography with handwritten corrections and notes from both Malcolm and Haley, and—perhaps most importantly—a previously unpublished 25-page typewritten chapter titled “The Negro.” (This week, the Schomburg Center made these items available to the public by appointment.) There have long been rumors of three missing chapters among scholars; some think Haley cut them from the book following Malcolm’s assassination because their politics diverged or the book had transformed during his tumultuous last year. Whatever the reasoning, “The Negro” is a fragment of the book Malcolm intended to publish—a book that would be virtually unrecognizable to readers of his autobiography today. We will never fully know that book, of course, but “The Negro” chapter forces us, finally, to engage with it.

The published book charts a series of personal transformations: from his birth in Omaha, Nebraska, as Malcolm Little to his nickname “Detroit Red” (he had reddish hair) in Harlem, then “Satan” while he served time in prison, to Malcolm X when he embraced the Nation of Islam, and finally, after making the pilgrimage in 1964, to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Spanning five hundred pages and nineteen chapters, including an expansive epilogue by Haley, it is a story of dramatic metamorphosis. Malcolm Little, born one of seven children in 1925 to disciples of Pan-African activist Marcus Garvey, was imbued with black self-reliance during his childhood in Lansing, Michigan. His father, Earl, was killed under suspicious circumstances—many suspect the Black Legion, a white hate group—when Malcolm was six years old. When his mother, Louise, was admitted to a mental institute in 1938, Malcolm first went to foster care and then to his half-sister’s home in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. Traveling back and forth between Roxbury and Harlem, the young Malcolm met musicians and entertainers and became involved in a life of petty crime before being arrested and sentenced to 8–10 years for a string of home robberies. In prison, the published autobiography relates, Malcolm undergoes a religious and political awakening that culminates with his conversion to Islam; he became the chief minister of Harlem’s Temple No. 7 in 1954. Seven years later, he was named the Nation of Islam’s national representative and had become its public face. The book concludes at a dizzying pace as Malcolm experienced the turmoil of his ouster from the Nation of Islam, his founding of two independent organizations (Muslim Mosque Inc., and the Organization of Afro-American Unity), his travels abroad in 1964, and eventually his assassination in early 1965.

Muhamad Ali y Malcom X

Haley originally intended this narrative arc—comprising the full scope of the published autobiography—to fill only three brief chapters that would merely serve to introduce the book’s main author. According to the original chapter outline, after the biographical details, Malcolm would tell the story of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s life in a lone transitional chapter before writing the bulk of the book: eleven speech-like essays on a range of topics, including “The Liberal,” “The Brutal Police,” “The Farce on Washington,” “The Potential Twenty Million Muslims in America,” “Questions I Get Asked” and the Nation of Islam’s ten-point program “What We Muslims Want. . . What We Believe.” While these themes appeared in many of Malcolm’s speeches and were interspersed throughout the final book, the chapters as originally titled were never realized.

Instead, Haley delivered “The Negro” to Doubleday in October 1963. A month and a half later, after Malcolm called President John F. Kennedy’s assassination a case of the “chickens coming home to roost,” Elijah Muhammad publicly chastised Malcolm and forbade him from public speaking for three months, which proved to be the most productive period of the autobiography’s writing. Haley would type as Malcolm spoke aloud, gathering napkins he had surreptitiously placed for Malcolm to scribble his thoughts. Around this time, Haley wrote his editor and agent that Malcolm was “tense as the length of his inactivity grows—and it eases him when I come and talk the book with him.”

Malcolm began to reflect more openly about his past, likely ballooning the personal narrative at the expense of the essays, and Haley began to describe the “first half of the book” as “the man’s life story.” With his restlessness producing more material, “The Negro” was now intended to be one of three, rather than eleven, essays for the remainder of the book. The others would be “The End of Christianity” and “Twenty Million Black Muslims”—the three essays serving to summarize Malcolm’s religious and political point of view.

With the book, Malcolm had hoped to subvert the generic conventions of autobiography that elevate the singular, private person over the collective, political public. Personal storytelling could be a means for collective liberation. Indeed, the weight given to Malcolm’s political vision in the book at times led to tensions with Haley. Just months after Haley and Malcolm signed the contract with Doubleday, Haley requested that his role be changed from “co-authored by” to “as told to.” “Co-authoring with Malcolm X,” he wrote, “would, to me, imply sharing his views—when mine are almost a complete antithesis of his.” He remembered Malcolm scolding him: “A writer is what I want, not an interpreter.”

Malcolm wanted his autobiography to be the story of a people and the social forces that shaped their lives, but in the end it became the story of an exceptional man’s life. Marable’s own Pulitzer Prize–winning biography of Malcolm, twenty years in the making, grew out of his frustrations that the autobiography did not accurately represent Malcolm X’s political thought. Both during his life and after his death, Malcolm has often been reduced to a bare vessel of emotion, caricatured as an incisive critic who lacked a solution to the structural racism he so eloquently denounced. The autobiography itself was first marketed this way, as the story of “America’s angriest black man.” James Farmer, one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement, once quipped at Malcolm during a debate: “We know the disease, physician, what is your cure?” Marable had speculated that the unpublished chapters would reveal a more holistic political vision, and “The Negro” partly fulfills that hope. Indeed, in its twenty-five pages, Malcolm X both outlines sicknesses and, quite explicitly, offers potential cures.

Haley excitedly wrote that “The Negro” was “guaranteed to upset the NAACP and [White] Citizens Councils, alike.” But the chapter, crucially, is more than just provocation. Today the essay’s title may sound like the product of a bygone era, but to Malcolm the term was always outdated, an ideological fiction of white supremacy. The “Negro,” he wrote, was a “white creation”:

Part of the ‘Negro’s’ survival technique until this day has been to let the white man hear what he knew he wanted to hear from his creation, and to show him the image he wanted to see. And the white man has gullibly believed the Negro survival ruse. It has helped him not have to face the enormity of his crime.

A classic lecture Malcolm gave as minister of Harlem’s Mosque No. 7 traced the root of “Negro” back to the Greek word for death, “nekro.” This folk etymology pointed not only to the Nation of Islam’s conviction that 85 percent of black people were “dead” in the sense that they were “deaf, dumb, and blind” to their own history, but also to its contention that the necessary and proximate death of the “Negro” race would lead to the rise of the Earth’s “original people.”

There is rage in “The Negro,” but it is accompanied by reason. It argues for politics over personality. The chapter is a kaleidoscopic tour through Malcolm’s searing critiques of black political leadership, integration, liberal incrementalism, and white philanthropy. The tone throughout is characteristically pointed, speech-like, and conversational:

One of the white man’s favorite tricks, through his ‘liberals’ and through his puppet ‘Negro leader’ mouthpieces, is to keep flooding the black masses and the rest of the world with propaganda that the black man here is getting better off in America in every way, every day. But the true nature and the true intent of the former slavemaster is glaring every way and every day in the headlines:

You Can’t Enter Here

You Can’t Ride Here

You Can’t Work Here

You Can’t Play Here

You Can’t Study Here

You Can’t Eat Here

You Can’t Drink Here

You Can’t Walk Here

You Can’t Live Here

At the center of Malcolm’s analysis in “The Negro” is the farce of liberal incrementalism. As an identity, “Negro” elevated a few black leaders to speak on behalf of all black people, propping up liberal narratives of incremental racial progress through tokenism and the facade of inclusion. Malcolm argued that racial integration was predicated on a discourse of inferiority: “sittin-in and kneeling-in at the bottom of the ladder, looking up and hollering ‘I’m just as good as you.’” He saw white philanthropy and civil rights leadership as a “black body with white heads.” And for those who said the Nation of Islam preached hate, he reminded that the “white man is in no moral position to ever accuse any black man of hate.”

Buried in the last three pages of the chapter are its greatest revelation. “‘First things come first,’ we are taught by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad,” Malcolm writes. That first step, however, will come as a surprise to many: political bloc strength. Malcolm and the Nation of Islam are often characterized as having been antagonistic to procedural politics—voting, legislation, and the like. But here Malcolm suggested that the black voting bloc could “overnight, take hold of the black man’s destiny in America.” He goes on to credit Muhammad as “advising the black masses to activate America’s greatest untapped source of political bloc strength.” Indeed, a year earlier Muhammad had declared that the future of black Americans “lies in electing our own.” The Muhammad Speaksnewspaper claimed that the Nation of Islam might soon endorse candidates and participate in a nationwide voter registration drive in preparation for the 1964 election.

It was a sign of political maturity, he believed, to first register black people, then organize them, and to vote only when a candidate represented their interests.

Malcom X y Martin Luther King

“The Negro” thus complicates narratives of rupture which position Malcolm’s foray into electoral politics as his first major shift after leaving the NOI. Even as Malcolm composed the chapter in 1963, a shift toward black bloc voting, voter registration drives, and black political parties was already underway. The all-black Freedom Now Party had been established in August 1963 during the March on Washington. The next year the activist Fannie Lou Hamer delivered her historic speech on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which sought seats at the Democratic National Convention. Soon after Kennedy’s assassination, Barry Goldwater announced his candidacy as the Republican challenger in the 1964 election, and throughout the election Malcolm would return to one of his favorite folk metaphors: the fox and the wolf. Like Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson was a liberal fox who would eat you with a grin. Goldwater, by contrast, was a vocal opponent of the Civil Rights Act, the wolf who would eat you with a scowl. But both the fox and the wolf, Malcolm was fond of pointing out, belong to the same family. In “The Negro,” he called Democrats and Republicans “labels that mean nothing” to black people. Elsewhere he noted how in the United Nations, there are those who vote yes, those who vote no, and those who abstain. And those who abstain often “have just as much weight.” A sign of political maturity, he believed, was to first register black people, then organize them, and vote only when a candidate represented their interests.

This analysis culminated in one of Malcolm’s most famous addresses, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Delivered in April 1964 shortly after breaking with the Nation of Islam and forming his independent organization Muslim Mosque, Inc., Malcolm told a Cleveland audience, “A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.” Many historians have seen the speech as Malcolm’s first ideological break from the Nation of Islam, an index of his developing political thought. “The Negro,” by contrast, shows this thought as an extension of the Nation of Islam’s political development rather than a departure. Even the title of his speech may have been borrowed from the pages of Muhammad Speaks; in 1962, a front-page story about the struggle in Fayette County, Tennessee, to register black voters was subtitled: “Fayette Fought For Freedom With Bullets and Ballots.”

Similarly, the outline of black bloc voting in “The Negro” was a precursor to Malcolm’s later, more expansive goal of bringing the United States before the United Nations. In 1964, he connected a domestic black voting bloc to a global “African-Asian-Arab” one. “Today,” he urged, “power is international.” Electoral engagement was a tool, but hardly a panacea, for collective liberation.


What significance does this revised understanding of Malcolm X and his autobiography have for social movements now?

By reanimating the autobiography’s original aim to tell the story of a people, not just a single person, the newly uncovered materials let the air out of the persistent myth that we should look—and, by implication, wait—for this generation’s King or Malcolm. This was always a convenient fiction, relying on the marginalization of women and grassroots activists. “The movement made Martin,” as Ella Baker pointed out, “rather than Martin making the movement.”

The new materials emphasize how quickly autobiography shades into hagiography when we erase the collective political context.

Indeed, today’s activists are mostly decentralized, group-centered, and hyper-local. They eschew—in many cases, outright discourage—cults of personality and dependence on a singular spokesperson. They have insisted that they are not leaderless, they are leader-full. Historian Barbara Ransby writes in her new book, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century, that “this is the first time in the history of U.S. social movements that Black feminist politics have defined the frame for a multi-issue, Black-led mass struggle that did not primarily or exclusively focus on women.” Today’s activists are as likely to draw on Baker, Assata Shakur, Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective as on Malcolm X.

Some students and activists still bemoan the absence of charismatic leaders, but the new materials emphasize how quickly autobiography shades into hagiography when we erase the collective political context. Malcolm X has come to look exceptional and distinct, disconnected from the political tradition handed down by his parents: his mother Louise wrote for the Universal Negro Improvement Association newspaper Negro World, and his father Earl was a Garveyite preacher. Properly contextualized, these new materials reconnect Malcolm to the intergenerational black nationalist tradition that he hoped his personal story might embody.


The rediscovered material reminds us that Malcolm sought a politics that was collective, and not solely reliant on his—or anyone’s—leadership. Just two months before his assassination, he introduced Hamer to a Harlem audience and pledged they would soon launch a massive voter registration drive to register black people as independents. “Policies change, and programs change, according to time,” he told a crowd that same day. “You might change your method of achieving the objective, but the objective never changes. Our objective is complete freedom, complete justice, complete equality, by any means necessary.”

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Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) es uno de los personajes más fascinantes de la historia estadounidense. Líder sindical, socialista convencido, candidato a la presidencia de Estados Unidos en cinco ocasiones y víctima de la intolerancia fanática, Debs encarna las luchas sociopoliticas de la sociedad estadounidense posterior a la guerra civil . Comparto con los seguidores de esta bitácora este execelente artículo de la historiadora Jill Lepore sobre la vida y legado Eugene V. Debs.

Eugene Victor Debs left school at the age of fourteen, to scrape paint and grease off the cars of the Vandalia Railroad, in Indiana, for fifty cents a day. He got a raise when he was promoted to fireman, which meant working in the locomotive next to the engineer, shovelling coal into a firebox—as much as two tons an hour, sixteen hours a day, six days a week. Firemen, caked in coal dust, blinded by wind and smoke, had to make sure that the engine didn’t explode, an eventuality they weren’t always able to forestall. If they were lucky, and lived long enough, firemen usually became engineers, which was safer than being a switchman or a brakeman, jobs that involved working on the tracks next to a moving train, or racing across its top, in any weather, at the risk of toppling off and getting run over. All these men reported to the conductors, who had the top job, and, on trains owned by George Mortimer Pullman, one of the richest men in the United States, all of them—the engineers, the firemen, the brakemen, the switchmen, and even the scrapers—outranked the porters. Pullman porters were almost always black men, and ex-slaves, and, at the start, were paid nothing except the tips they could earn by bowing before the fancy passengers who could afford the sleeping car, and who liked very much to be served with a shuffle and a grin, Dixie style.

Every man who worked on the American railroad in the last decades of the nineteenth century became, of necessity, a scholar of the relations between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, the masters and the slaves, the riders and the ridden upon. No student of this subject is more important to American history than Debs, half man, half myth, who founded the American Railway Union, turned that into the Social Democratic Party, and ran for President of the United States five times, including once from prison.

Debs, who wrote a lot about manliness, always said that the best kind of man was a sand man. “ ‘Sand’ means grit,” he wrote in 1882, in Firemen’s Magazine. “It means the power to hold on.” When a train stalled from the steepness of the incline or the weight of the freight, railroad men poured sand on the tracks, to improve the grip of the wheels. Men need sand, too, Debs said: “Men who have plenty of ‘sand’ in their boxes never slip on the path of duty.” Debs had plenty of sand in his box. He had, though, something of a morbid fear of ashes. Maybe that’s a fireman’s phobia, a tending-the-engine man’s idea of doom. In prison—having been sentenced, brutally, to ten years of hard time at the age of sixty-three—he had a nightmare. “I was walking by the house where I was born,” he wrote. “The house was gone and nothing left but ashes . . . only ashes—ashes!” The question today for socialism in the United States, which appears to be stoking its engines, is whether it’s got enough sand. Or whether it’ll soon be ashes, only ashes, all over again.

Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855, seven years after Marx and Engels published “The Communist Manifesto.” His parents were Alsatian immigrants who ran a small grocery store. Debs worked for the railroads a little more than four years. In the wake of the Panic of 1873, he lost his job at Vandalia and tramped to East St. Louis looking for work; then, homesick, he tramped back to Terre Haute, where, in 1875, he took a job as a labor organizer, and, later, as a magazine editor, for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He hung his old scraper on the wall, part relic, part badge, part talisman, of his life as a manual laborer.

Debs was a tall man, lanky and rubbery, like a noodle. He had deep-set blue eyes and lost his hair early, and he talked with his hands. When he gave speeches, he leaned toward the crowd, and the veins of his temples bulged. He was clean-shaven and favored bow ties and sometimes looked lost in crumpled, baggy suits. He had a way of hunching his shoulders that you often see, and admire, in tall men who don’t like to tower over other people. In a new book, “Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography” (Verso), drawn by Noah Van Sciver and written by Paul Buhle and Steve Max, Debs looks like an R. Crumb character, though not so bedraggled and neurotic.

People could listen to him talk for hours. “Debs! Debs! Debs!” they’d cry, when his train pulled into a station. Crowds massed to hear him by the tens of thousands. But even though Debs lived until 1926, well into the age of archival sound, no one has ever found a recording of his voice. When Nick Salvatore wrote, in his comprehensive biography, “Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist,” in 1982, “His voice ran a gamut of tones: mock whisper to normal conversation to full stentorian power,” you wonder how he knew. Debs could speak French and German and was raised in the Midwest, so maybe he talked like the Ohio-born Clarence Darrow, with a rasp and a drawl. Some of Debs’s early essays and speeches have just been published in the first of six volumes of “The Selected Works of Eugene V. Debs” (Haymarket), edited by Tim Davenport and David Walters. Really, he wasn’t much of a writer. The most delightful way to hear Debs is to listen to a recording made in 1979 by Bernie Sanders, in an audio documentary that he wrote and produced when he was thirty-seven years old and was the director of the American People’s Historical Society, in Burlington, Vermont, two years before he became that city’s mayor. In the documentary—available on YouTube and Spotify—Sanders, the Brooklyn-born son of a Polish Jew, performs parts of Debs’s most famous speeches, sounding, more or less, like Larry David. It is not to be missed.


Debs began his political career as a Democrat. In 1879, when he was only twenty-three, he was elected city clerk of Terre Haute, as a Democrat; the city’s Democratic newspaper called him “one of the rising young men of Terre Haute,” and the Republican paper agreed, dubbing him “the blue-eyed boy of destiny.” Debs looked back on these days less fondly. “There was a time in my life, before I became a Socialist, when I permitted myself as a member of the Democratic party to be elected to a state legislature,” he later said. “I have been trying to live it down. I am as much ashamed of that as I am proud of having gone to jail.” Throughout his life, he believed in individual striving, and he believed in the power of machines. “A railroad is the architect of progress,” he said in a speech at the Grand Lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1877, the year the President of the United States sent federal troops to crush a railroad workers’ strike. The firemen’s brotherhood was less a labor union than a benevolent society. “The first object of the association is to provide for the widows and orphans who are daily left penniless and at the mercy of public charity by the death of a brother,” Debs explained. At the time, he was opposed to strikes. “Does the brotherhood encourage strikers?” he asked. “No—brotherhood.”

For a long time, Debs disavowed socialism. He placed his faith in democracy, the franchise, and the two-party system. “The conflict is not between capital and labor,” he insisted. “It is between the man who holds the office and the man who holds the ballot.” But in the eighteen-eighties, when railroad workers struck time and time again, and as many as two thousand railroad men a year were killed on the job, while another twenty thousand were injured, Debs began to wonder whether the power of benevolence and fraternity was adequate protection from the avarice and ruthlessness of corporations backed up by armed men. “The strike is the weapon of the oppressed,” Debs wrote in 1888. Even then he didn’t talk about socialism. For Debs, this was Americanism, a tradition that had begun with the American Revolution. “The Nation had for its cornerstone a strike,” he said. He also spent some time with a pencil, doing sums. Imagine, he wrote in an editorial, that a grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt started out with two million dollars—a million from his grandfather and another million from his father. “If a locomotive fireman could work 4,444 years, 300 days each year, at $1.50 per day,” Debs went on, “he would be in a position to bet Mr. Vanderbilt $2.50 that all men are born equal.”

In 1889, Debs argued for an industrial union, a federation of all the brotherhoods of railroad workers, from brakemen to conductors, as equals. Samuel Gompers wanted those men to join his far less radical trade union, the American Federation of Labor, which he’d founded three years earlier, but in 1893 Debs pulled them into the American Railway Union. Soon it had nearly a hundred and fifty thousand members, with Debs, at its head, as their Moses. That’s what got him into a battle with George Pullman, in 1894, and landed him, for the first time, in prison, where he read “Das Kapital.”

Debs once said that George Pullman was “as greedy as a horse leech,” but that was unfair to leeches. In the aftermath of the Panic of 1893, Pullman slashed his workers’ wages by as much as fifty per cent and, even though they lived in housing he provided, he didn’t cut rents or the price of the food he sold them. Three thousand workers from the Pullman Palace Car Company, many of them American Railway Union members, had already begun a wildcat strike in May of 1894, a month before the A.R.U.’s first annual meeting, in Chicago. As Jack Kelly recounts, in “The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America” (St. Martin’s), Debs hadn’t wanted the A.R.U. to get involved, but the members of his union found the Pullman workers’ plight impossible to ignore, especially after nineteen-year-old Jennie Curtis, who’d worked in the Pullman sewing department for five years, upholstering and making curtains, addressed the convention. Curtis explained that she was often paid nine or ten dollars for two weeks’ work, out of which she paid Pullman seven dollars for her board and two or three more for rent. “We ask you to come along with us,” she told Debs’s men, because working for Pullman was little better than slavery. After hearing from her, the A.R.U. voted for a boycott, refusing “to handle Pullman cars and equipment.”

That Curtis had a voice at all that day was thanks in part to Debs, who had supported the admission of women to the A.R.U. He also argued for the admission of African-Americans. “I am not here to advocate association with the negro, but I am ready to stand side by side with him,” he told the convention. But, by a vote of 112 to 110, the assembled members decided that the union would be for whites only. If two votes had gone the other way, the history of the labor movement in the United States might have turned out very differently.

Black men, closed out of the A.R.U., formed the Anti-Strikers Railroad Union, to fill positions opened by striking whites. If working on a Pullman car was degrading, it was also, for decades, one of the best jobs available to African-American men. Its perks included safe travel at a time when it was difficult for black people to make their way between any two American cities without threat or harm. George Pullman’s company was the nation’s single largest employer of African-American men. Thurgood Marshall’s father was a Pullman porter. The A.R.U. vote in 1894 set back the cause of labor for decades. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters achieved recognition from the Pullman Company only in 1937, after years of organizing by A. Philip Randolph.

The Pullman strike of 1894, one of the single biggest labor actions in American history, stalled trains in twenty-seven states. Debs’s American Railway Union all but halted transportation by rail west of Detroit for more than a month—either by refusing to touch Pullman cars or by actively unhitching them from the trains. Whatever Debs’s initial misgivings about the boycott, once his union voted for it he dedicated himself to the confrontation between “the producing classes and the money power.” In the end, after a great deal of violence, George Pullman, aided by President Grover Cleveland, defeated the strikers. Pursued by a U.S. Attorney General who had long served as a lawyer for the railroads, Debs and other A.R.U. leaders were indicted and convicted of violating a federal injunction to stop “ordering, directing, aiding, assisting, or abetting” the uprising. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Debs’s conviction. He and seven other organizers were sentenced to time behind bars—Debs to six months, the others to three—and served that time in Woodstock, Illinois, in a county jail that was less a prison than a suite of rooms in the back of the elegant two-story Victorian home of the county sheriff, who had his inmates over for supper every night.

“The Socialist Conversion” is the title of the half-page panel depicting these six months in “Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography.” It shows Debs in a prisoner’s uniform, seated at a desk in a bare room, with a beady-eyed, billy-club-wielding prison guard looking on from the doorway, while a cheerful man in a suit, carrying “The Communist Manifesto,” approaches Debs, his speech bubble reading “This is a present from the Socialists of Milwaukee to you.”

Very little of this is true. Debs’s time in jail in Woodstock was remarkably comfortable. He ran the union office out of his cell. He was allowed to leave jail on his honor. “The other night I had to lock myself in,” he told the New York World reporter Nellie Bly, when she went to interview him. “There was no sign of the prisoner about Mr. Debs’ clothes,” Bly reported. “He wore a well-made suit of grey tweed, the coat being a cutaway, and a white starched shirt with a standing collar and a small black and white scarf tied in a bow-knot.” The Milwaukee socialist Victor Berger did bring Debs a copy of Marx’s “Das Kapital.” And Debs and his fellow labor organizers dedicated most of their daily schedule to reading. “I had heard but little of Socialism” before the Pullman strike, Debs later claimed, insisting that the reading he did in jail brought about his conversion. But it’s not clear what effect that reading really had on him. “No sir; I do not call myself a socialist,” he told a strike commission that year. While in jail, he turned away overtures from socialists. And when he got out, in 1895, and addressed a crowd of more than a hundred thousand people who met him at the train station in Chicago, he talked about “the spirit of ’76” and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not Marx and Engels.

The next year, Debs endorsed the Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, running on both the Democratic and the People’s Party tickets. Only after Bryan’s loss to William McKinley, whose campaign was funded by businessmen, did Debs abandon his devotion to the two-party system. The people elected Bryan, it was said, but money elected McKinley. On January 1, 1897, writing in the Railway Times, Debs proclaimed himself a socialist. “The result of the November election has convinced every intelligent wageworker that in politics, per se, there is no hope of emancipation from the degrading curse of wage-slavery,” he wrote. “I am for socialism because I am for humanity. . . . Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization.”

That June, at the annual meeting of the American Railway Union, Debs founded the Social Democracy of America party. When it splintered, within the year, Victor Berger and Debs joined what became the Social Democratic Party, and then, in 1901, the Socialist Party of America. For Debs, socialism meant public ownership of the means of production. “Arouse from your slavery, join the Social Democratic Party and vote with us to take possession of the mines of the country and operate them in the interest of the people,” he urged miners in Illinois and Kansas in 1899. But Debs’s socialism, which was so starry-eyed that his critics called it “impossibilism,” was decidedly American, and had less to do with Karl Marx and Communism than with Walt Whitman and Protestantism. “What is Socialism?” he asked. “Merely Christianity in action. It recognizes the equality in men.”

The myth of Debs’s Christlike suffering and socialist conversion in the county jail dates to 1900; it was a campaign strategy. At the Social Democratic Party convention that March, a Massachusetts delegate nominated Debs as the Party’s Presidential candidate and, in his nominating speech, likened Debs’s time in Woodstock to the Resurrection: “When he came forth from that tomb it was to a resurrection of life and the first message that he gave to his class as he came from his darkened cell was a message of liberty.” Debs earned nearly ninety thousand votes in that year’s election, and more than four times as many when he ran again in 1904. In 1908, he campaigned in thirty-three states, travelling on a custom train called the Red Special. As one story has it, a woman waiting for Debs at a station in Illinois asked, “Is that Debs?” to which another woman replied, “Oh, no, that ain’t Debs—when Debs comes out you’ll think it’s Jesus Christ.”

“This is our year,” Debs said in 1912, and it was, in the sense that nearly a million Americans voted for him for President. But 1912 was also socialism’s year in the sense that both the Democratic and the Republican parties embraced progressive reforms long advocated by socialists (and, for that matter, populists): women’s suffrage, trust-busting, economic reform, maximum-hour and minimum-wage laws, the abolition of child labor, and the direct election of U.S. senators. As Debs could likely perceive a couple of years later, when the Great War broke out in Europe, 1912 was to be socialism’s high-water mark in the United States. “You may hasten Socialism,” he said, “you may retard it, but you cannot stop it.” Except that socialism had already done most of what it would do in the United States in those decades: it had reformed the two major parties.

Debs was too sick to run in 1916. The United States declared war on Germany in April, 1917; the Bolshevik Revolution swept Russia that November. Debs spoke out against the war as soon as it began. “I am opposed to every war but one,” he said. “I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the world-wide war of the social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades.” Bernie Sanders recorded this speech for his 1979 documentary. And, as a member of the Senate, Sanders said it again. “There is a war going on in this country,” he declared on the floor of the Senate in 2010, in a speech of protest that lasted more than eight hours. “I am not referring to the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan. I am talking about a war being waged by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people against working families, against the disappearing and shrinking middle class of our country.”

After Debs, socialism endured in the six-time Presidential candidacy of his successor, Norman Thomas. But it endured far more significantly in Progressive-era reforms, in the New Deal, and in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. In the decades since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, many of those reforms have been undone, monopolies have risen again, and income inequality has spiked back up to where it was in Debs’s lifetime. Socialism has been carried into the twenty-first century by way of Sanders, a Debs disciple, and by way of the utter failure of the two-party system. Last summer, a Gallup poll found that more Democrats view socialism favorably than view capitalism favorably. This brand of socialism has its own obsession with manliness, with its “Bernie bros” and allegations by women who worked on Sanders’s 2016 Presidential campaign of widespread sexual harassment and violence. Sanders’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, recently addressed some of these charges: “Was it too male? Yes. Was it too white? Yes.” Hence the movement’s new face, and new voice: the former Sanders campaign worker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Debs wrote its manifesto, but there’s a certain timidity to the new socialism. It lacks sand. In 1894, one Pullman worker stated the nature of the problem: “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechized in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.” We live in Amazon houses and eat Amazon groceries and read Amazon newspapers and when we die we shall go to an Amazon Hell. In the meantime, you can buy your Bernie 2020 hats and A.O.C. T-shirts on . . . Amazon.

Debs was arrested in Cleveland in 1918, under the terms of the 1917 Espionage Act, for a speech protesting the war that he had given two weeks earlier, on June 16th, in Canton, Ohio. “debs invites arrest,” the Washington Post announced. Most of the nation’s newspapers described him as a dictator or a traitor, or both. And, because what he had said was deemed seditious, newspapers couldn’t print it, and readers assumed the worst. But the speech was vintage Debs, from its vague blandishments and programmatic promises—“We are going to destroy all enslaving and degrading capitalist institutions and re-create them as free and humanizing institutions”—to its astute observations and forceful repetitions: “The working class who fight the battles, the working class who make the sacrifices, the working class who shed the blood, the working class who furnish the corpses, the working class have never yet had a voice in declaring war.”

Debs was one of thousands of socialists jailed during the First World War and the Red Scare that followed, when the Justice Department effectively tried to outlaw socialism. His defense attorney compared him to Christ—“You shall know him by his works”—and called no one to the stand but Debs, who, during a two-hour oration, talked less about socialism than about the First Amendment. “I believe in free speech, in war as well as in peace,” Debs told the court. “If the Espionage Law stands, then the Constitution of the United States is dead.”

The socialist Max Eastman, watching him speak that day, described Debs’s growing fervor. “His utterance became more clear and piercing, and it made the simplicity of his faith seem almost like a portent,” Eastman wrote. But it’s the speech Debs gave during his sentencing that would be his best-remembered address, his American creed: “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

After being sentenced to ten years, he was taken, by train, from Cleveland to a prison in West Virginia, where he was held for two months before being transferred to the much harsher Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. On the wall of a cell that he shared with five other men, he hung a picture of Jesus, wearing his crown of thorns. Refusing to ask for or accept special treatment, he was confined to his cell for fourteen hours a day and was allotted twenty minutes a day in the prison yard. He wore a rough denim uniform. He ate food barely fit to eat. He grew gaunt and weak.

Debs came to think about the men he met in prison the way he’d once thought about men he’d worked with on the railroad. “A prison is a cross section of society in which every human strain is clearly revealed,” he wrote in a memoir called “Walls and Bars.” But, if the railroad was a model of hierarchy, prison was a model of equality: “We were all on a dead level there.”

He became an American folk hero, a champion of free speech. In his “from the jail house to the White House” campaign, in 1920, he earned nearly a million votes running for President as Convict No. 9653. But a vote for Debs in 1920 was not a vote for socialism; it was a vote for free speech.

Convict No. 9653 refused to ask for a pardon, even as he grew sicker, and leaner, and weaker. His reputation as a twentieth-century Christ grew. (Kurt Vonnegut’s much beset narrator in “Hocus Pocus” says, “I am so powerless and despised now that the man I am named after, Eugene Debs, if he were still alive, might at last be somewhat fond of me.”) His supporters began holding Free Debs rallies. President Woodrow Wilson refused to answer calls for amnesty. Warren Harding finally released him, on Christmas Day, 1921. Debs never recovered. He lived much of what remained of his life in a sanatorium. In 1925, he said that the Socialist Party was “as near a corpse as a thing can be.” He died the next year.

Debs understood capitalism best on a train, socialism best in prison. One of the last letters he wrote was to the judge who had sentenced him in 1918, asking whether his conviction had left him disenfranchised or whether he still had the right to vote. ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the February 18 & 25, 2019, issue, with the headline “The Fireman.”

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La foto en la que, alegadamente aparece el gobernador de Virginia Ralph Northam con la cara pintada de negro en el anuario de su escuela de medicina, ha colocado en la vitrina nacional estadounidense el tema del  blackface. Esta practica, asociada a los espectáculos de vodevil conocidos como minstrels,  formó parte de la cultura racista estadounidense desde mucho antes del estallido guerra civil y siguió siéndolo mucho después  del fin de la esclavitud.

A través de una excelente entrevista a la historiadora Rhae Lynn Barnes, mi podcast favorito de historia de Estados Unidos –Backstory– analizada el papel que han jugado el blackface y el minstrelsy en la historia de Estados Unidos.

Los interesados en escuchar la entrevista la encontraran aquí.

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En este, el mes en que los estadounidenses celebran la herencia afro-americana, comparto con mis lectores este interesante escrito sobre el tema de la legislación que buscó frenar los linchamientos en Estados Unidos. Los linchamientos fueron parte de la violencia racial de la que fueron víctimas las minorías estadounidenses, especialmente, los afroamericanos. Casi 5,000 personas fueron linchadas en Estados Unidos entre 1882 y 1951, de los cuales dos terceras partes fueron ciudadanos negros.


The History of American Anti-Lynching Legislation

We’re History   February 5, 2019

Onn October 26, 1921, President Warren G. Harding traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to participate in the city’s fiftieth anniversary celebration.  The Republican Harding, just seven months into his first term, was immensely popular.  But the speech he gave that day was soon condemned by the Birmingham Post as an “untimely and ill-considered intrusion into a question of which he evidently knows very little.”

What did Harding say that so offended the local newspaper?  After marveling at Birmingham’s industrial development, the President broached the subject of race relations.  Harding reminded the audience that black Americans had served just as honorably as whites in the recently completed world war, stating that their service brought many African Americans their “first real conception of citizenship – the first full realization that the flag was their flag, to fight for, to be protected by them, and also to protect them.”  He went on to condemn the lynching of black men and women and told the citizens of Birmingham that their future could be even brighter if they had “the courage to be right.”

Harding was not the first politician to claim to oppose lynching, and he would not be the last.  According to Tuskegee Institute statistics, over 4,700 Americans—two-thirds of them African American—were the victims of lynching between 1882 and 1951.  Lynching was a favorite tool of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups in the years after the Civil War, terrorizing black communities out of political activism and into silence for fear of their lives.  For decades, white southerners used lynching, Jim Crow laws, and voter suppression to maintain white supremacy and Democratic Party rule. After World War I, increased European immigration, fears of communism, and the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to major industrial cities in the North and Midwest led to increased instances of lynching.

Between 1882 and 1968, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, and seven U.S. presidents between 1890 and 1952 asked Congress to pass a federal anti-lynching law.  Probably the most famous anti-lynching proposal was the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, first introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Missouri Republican Leonidas C. Dyer on April 8, 1918.  Dyer, known as a progressive reformer, came from St. Louis, where in 1917 white ethnic mobs had attacked blacks in race riots over strikebreaking and competition for jobs.  His proposed legislation made lynching a federal felony and gave the U.S. government the power to prosecute those accused of lynching.  It called for a maximum of five years in prison, a $5,000 fine, or both for any state or city official who had the power to protect someone from lynching but failed to do so or who had the power to prosecute accused lynchers but did not; a minimum of five years in prison for anyone who participated in a lynching; and a $10,000 fine on the county in which a lynching took place.  Those funds would be turned over to the victim’s family.  The Dyer bill also permitted the prosecution of law enforcement officials who failed to equally protect all citizens.

White southern Democrats in Congress opposed Dyer’s bill, and it went nowhere in 1918.  The next year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) published a report that disproved the claim that most lynchings were of black men accused of attacking white women.  In fact, the report stated, less than one-sixth of the 2,500 African Americans lynched between 1889 and 1918 had been accused of rape.  Dyer, who represented a district with a large black constituency and was horrified by both the violence and disregard for the law inherent in lynching, determined to keep pressing his anti-lynching bill.  In 1920, the Republican Party included a brief endorsement of anti-lynching legislation (though not Dyer’s specifically) in the platform on which Warren G. Harding was elected:  “We urge Congress to consider the most effective means to end lynching in this country which continues to be a terrible blot on our American civilization.”

Dyer unsuccessfully re-introduced the bill in 1920, but it got a boost in late 1921 when Harding endorsed it in his Birmingham speech.  Harding went to Birmingham just four months after the May 31-June 1 racial violence in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which saw white mobs attack black residents and business and led to the deaths of nearly forty African Americans.  On January 26, 1922, the U.S. House of Representatives successfully passed the Dyer bill, sending it to the Senate.  But it failed in the Senate as southerners filibustered it, arguing that that blacks were disproportionately responsible for crime and out-of-wedlock births and required more welfare and social assistance than other minority groups.  In other words, stronger social controls—like lynching—were necessary to keep African Americans in line.  Dyer introduced his bill before Congress in 1923 and again in 1924, but southerners continued to block it.


The Costigan-Wagner Bill of 1934 was the next major piece of anti-lynching legislation put before the U.S. Congress.  It was co-sponsored by Senators Edward P. Costigan of Colorado and Robert F. Wagner of New York—both Democrats.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt, also a Democrat, was hesitant to support this bill, primarily due to the provision it included that allowed for punishment of sheriffs who failed to protect prisoners from lynch mobs.  While FDR certainly opposed lynching, he worried that supporting the Costigan-Wagner Bill would cost him white southern support in his 1936 reelection campaign.  Ultimately, it did not matter much: southern senators blocked the bill’s passage, and Roosevelt cruised to an easy re-election, defeating Kansas Governor Alf Landon by over eleven million popular votes and an Electoral College count of 523 to 8.

Other anti-lynching bills came and went through the years, but none ever passed Congress and went to a president’s desk.  Even as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, Congress has still never passed an anti-lynching law.

In June 2018, nearly a year after the August 2017 racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the three current African American members of the United States Senate introduced a bill to make lynching a federal crime.  Senators Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) drafted the bipartisan legislation that defines lynching as “the willful act of murder by a collection of people assembled with the intention of committing an act of violence upon any person.”  The senators call their bill the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018.  “For over a century,” said Senator Booker, “members of Congress have attempted to pass some version of a bill that would recognize lynching for what it is: a bias-motivated act of terror… we have righted that wrong and taken corrective action that recognizes this stain on our country’s history.”  The bill unanimously passed the U.S. Senate on December 19, 2018.  It still requires passage by the House of Representatives and a presidential signature to become law.

Though not fondly remembered by historians because of his weakness and corruption, President Warren G. Harding deserves credit for calling out the crime of lynching nearly a century ago.  Criticized as a small-town, backward-looking Midwesterner who longed for the easy days of his childhood, it turns out that at least on the issue of racial violence Harding was ahead of his time.

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