Apr 082010

Slave revolts, births and criminal syndicalism

NoC News

On April 8 in 1712, a slave revolt occurred in New York City, a city that at the time exploited a large slave labor force to grow its economic might. On the night of the revolt, twenty-three slaves set fire to a city building and waited—with hatchets, swords and guns—for white townspeople to respond to the fire. They killed nine people and injured six more before fleeing. In the roundup of slaves that occurred afterwards, twenty-one were executed and six committed suicide rather than be captured. The uprising resulted in new slave laws that included, among other things, more leeway in allowing masters to “discipline” their slaves—so long as the beatings did not result in loss of life or limb.

Historical accounts record that the uprising began on Maiden Lane, at the time an apple orchard on the northern rim of the city. Today, Maiden Lane is located in Manhattan’s financial district.

On April 9 in 1898, Paul Robeson was born. Robeson—a lawyer, actor, singer, scholar, and political activist—caught the attention of red-baiting U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, who in the 1940s singled out the popular black performer for his black nationalist and anti-imperialist views. McCarthy’s persecution of Robeson led to the singer having his passport revoked in 1950. It took eight years before Robeson was allowed to travel abroad once again, which all but ruined his performance career.

Two years later, on April 12, 1900, Florence Reece was born. Author of the famed labor song “Which Side Are You On?,” Reece lived in Harlan County during a bloody series of strikes in the region, most fought to claim the right of miners to collectively organize for better wages. Much like today, mine owners responded violently to the call for bettering workers’ rights. They hired their own private militia for security, and then set them to beating, jailing and harassing union leaders who were organizing on behalf of workers. Reece wrote “Which Side Are You On” at a time when Harlan Sheriff J.H. Blair and some of his men had shown up and ransacked Reece’s house in search of her husband Sam, a union organizer. Unable to find her husband, Blair and his men waited (unsuccessfully) outside in hopes of ambushing him when he returned home.

Reece’s song captures the need to make clear and definite stances in choosing to support workers over owners. But her first lines,If you don’t want your husband to die in the coal mine/I’ll see you in the morning out on the picket line,” also point to the lead role women have historically taken in social justice movements. In this, the song’s lines connect Reece and other Harlan women to a long history of female activism, from Emma Goldman, Rosa Parks and the courageous women sitting in the frontlines of the 1960s lunch-counter sit-ins, on up through tireless female activists like Amy Goodman and Cindy Sheehan today.

On April 14, 1930, over 100 Mexican and Filipino farmworkers were arrested for union activity in Imperial Valley, California. Eight were eventually convicted of criminal syndicalism, or of unlawfully attempting to change the way government or industry is run or organized.

On April 15 in 1915, the Agricultural Workers Organization, an IWW union, formed in Kansas City, Missouri.

And finally, on April 16, 1968, the Memphis sanitation strike ended with criminally underpaid black sanitation workers winning a ten cent salary increase. The strike ended twelve days after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, where he had been organizing in support of the striking workers.

Dates come from 2010 Labor History Calendar of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

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