The Great Black Radical You've Never Heard Of

Historians in the News
tags: racism, African American history, radicalism, labor history, Shipping, IWW, longshoremen, Interracial activism

PETER COLE is a Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at West­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty and Research Asso­ciate in the Soci­ety, Work and Devel­op­ment Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Wit­wa­ter­srand in Johannes­burg, South Africa. He is the author of Wob­blies on the Water­front: Inter­ra­cial Union­ism in Pro­gres­sive Era Philadel­phia and the award-win­ning Dock­work­er Pow­er: Race and Activism in Dur­ban and the San Fran­cis­co Bay Area. He also is the founder and co-direc­tor of the Chica­go Race Riot of 1919 Com­mem­o­ra­tion Project (CRR19). He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.

In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, when many U.S. unions dis­grace­ful­ly exclud­ed Asian, Black and Lat­inx work­ers, the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW) warm­ly wel­comed peo­ple of col­or. This rev­o­lu­tion­ary union, whose mem­bers affec­tion­ate­ly are known as Wob­blies, empha­sizes class strug­gle sol­i­dar­i­ty in its leg­endary mot­to: ​“An Injury to One Is an Injury to All!” 

Ben Fletch­er, an African Amer­i­can who helped lead the IWW’s most mil­i­tant and effec­tive inter­ra­cial branch, epit­o­mized the union’s brand of anti-cap­i­tal­ism and antiracism. Fletch­er (1890−1949) was a tremen­dous­ly impor­tant and well-loved mem­ber of the IWW dur­ing its hey­day, the first quar­ter of the 20th cen­tu­ry. A bril­liant union orga­niz­er and a humor­ous ora­tor, Fletch­er helped found and lead Local 8 of the IWW’s Marine Trans­port Work­ers Indus­tri­al Union. When found­ed in 1913, this union was a third African Amer­i­can, a third Irish and Irish Amer­i­can, and a third oth­er Euro­pean immi­grants. Despite being hat­ed by the boss­es and red­bait­ed by the gov­ern­ment, Local 8 con­trolled the water­front for almost a decade.

My new book, Ben Fletch­er: The Life and Times of a Black Wob­bly (PM Press) tells the sto­ry of one of the great­est heroes of the Amer­i­can work­ing class. For 25 years, I have researched him and his union, painstak­ing­ly uncov­er­ing a stun­ning range of doc­u­ments relat­ed to this extra­or­di­nary man. The book includes a detailed bio­graph­i­cal intro­duc­tion of his life and his­to­ry, rem­i­nis­cences by fel­low work­ers who knew him, a chron­i­cle of the IWW’s impres­sive, decade-long run on the Philadel­phia water­front in which Fletch­er played a piv­otal role, and near­ly all of his known writ­ings and speech­es. In an era of soar­ing inequal­i­ty and the largest wave of protests in favor of racial equal­i­ty in half a cen­tu­ry, Fletcher’s time­less voice could inspire a new gen­er­a­tion of work­ers, orga­niz­ers and agitators. 

To give a sense of the man and the book, below is an excerpt of an inter­view Fletch­er gave, in 1931, to the Ams­ter­dam News, his only known inter­view. It reveals a great deal about Fletcher’s expe­ri­ences pri­or to the fed­er­al tri­al in Chica­go in 1918 (in which near­ly 100 IWW lead­ers were charged with vio­lat­ing the Espi­onage and Sedi­tion Acts passed dur­ing the wartime fren­zy of hyper-patri­o­tism), unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to the IWW, and rev­o­lu­tion­ary indus­tri­al union­ism. Fletch­er also describes how he was near­ly lynched in Nor­folk, Vir­ginia in 1917.

The Ams­ter­dam News is among the old­er still-oper­at­ing Black news­pa­pers in the Unit­ed StatesFound­ed in 1909 and named after a major street in Harlem, this week­ly news­pa­per is geared to the Black com­mu­ni­ty of New York City. The paper long has been a voice for equal rights and pow­er and none oth­er than Mal­colm X wrote a col­umn in the paper. Its work­force union­ized in 1936 and remains so.

Ben Fletch­er, long-time IWW orga­niz­er, drew a deep puff of his cig­ar and looked placid­ly out of the win­dow as he con­clud­ed the rem­i­nis­cences of his rad­i­cal activ­i­ties which led to his impris­on­ment in 1918 along with 100 oth­er mem­bers of the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World in the Fed­er­al Pen­i­ten­tiary at Leav­en­worth on indict­ments returned against them by a Gov­ern­ment pos­sessed of a wartime hysteria.
A sim­ple tale he told. The sto­ry of his life as a class-con­scious work­er. The sto­ry of how he had been turned to IWW by the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry prac­tices and craft lim­i­ta­tions of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor unions; of how he had orga­nized long­shore­men along the coast from Boston to Nor­folk; of how he had been smug­gled out of the lat­ter city by friends after the ship­ping inter­ests had threat­ened him with lynch­ing; of how he had to force him­self into that Fed­er­al court­room in Chica­go, where for nine­teen weeks he and 112 oth­er lead­ers of the syn­di­cal­ist move­ment stood tri­al on charges of espi­onage and obstruct­ing the Government’s war pro­gram, and final­ly of the two years and six months of the ten-year sen­tence he served in the Fed­er­al penitentiary.
“Some Peo­ple Are Tak­en to Jail, But Ben Fletch­er Just ​‘Went In’,” Ams­ter­dam News­De­cem­ber 30, 1931, p. 16.
Read entire article at In These Times

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