The Rise and Fall of the World’s Greatest Racial Democracy


Google the name Tallulah Bankhead and you will be regaled (or mortified if your mores tend to the Victorian) by tales of the actor’s libertine appetites, her breakout performance in the Hitchcock classic Lifeboat, or her half-camp, half vamp villainess in the 1960s Batman television series. Wikipedia references her patrician mien —dahling not darling– her crusade to get to know Gary Cooper (Biblically if not especially well) and her elegantly debauched repartee with Chico Marx.

What you are unlikely to locate on any search engine, however, is an account of Bankhead’s star turn in the insurgency that produced the twin miracles of the industrial age, one celebrated, the other decidedly not: the American middle class and the racial democracy which birthed it.

The rebellious daughter of an aristocratic Southern Family, Bankhead made a point of appearing on stage and screen with African Americans such as Canada Lee, helped raise cash for exploited sharecroppers and championed anti-lynching legislation.  It was her outspokenness that led organizers to recruit her for a 1947 Chicago rally to support James Hickman, a black steelworker charged with fatally shooting the slumlord who set the apartment fire that killed four of his children. Concluding the remarks that were prepared for her that autumn afternoon, she said:

“So long, however, as there exists anywhere on Earth one minority that is treated with contempt, that is herded into black slum areas, that is abused and insulted, so long will we have violence, hate, brutality, savagery. So long as there exists a Jewish problem, or a Mexican problem—or a problem of any minority—so long will one form of violence beget another. I am proud to be one of the humble gladiators in this struggle against narrow prejudice and stupidity.”

In his excellent retelling of the case, People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Housing and Murder in Chicago, the author Joe Allen writes that the mostly black audience of 1,200 people responded to Bankhead’s remarks with tears and raucous applause, causing her to ad lib for an encore:  “I love the Negro race.”

This brought the house down and the rainbow coalition of African Americans, Trotskyites and trade unionists went on to win Hickman’s release and a crackdown on abusive landlords, adding another trophy to the mantel of a multicultural mutiny, that at its apogee, fueled the American century with the broad-based buying power it needed for takeoff.

If history is any guide, the American middle class could well catch its second wind if Occupy Wall Street ever discovers the Nation of Islam.

A generation before Brazil emancipated its slaves, and more than a century before South Africans of all races went to the polls, freedmen collaborated with poor whites, fortune-seeking carpetbaggers, careerist bureaucrats, and women suffragists to extend free education to all youths, expand the nation’s transportation grid, modernize a feudal tax system, build hospitals and universities, begin to untangle the byzantine relationship between labor and management, and reverse the budget-cutting measures that severs the economy’s jugular vein.

In 1879, 55,000 working class white Virginians joined 110,000 freed slaves in open revolt, casting ballots for a newly-formed, populist third party that opposed the bone-deep spending cuts endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans, who had closed half the state’s fledgling public schools to repay principal and interest to wealthy Wall Street speculators.

The Readjusters campaigned to renegotiate state debts and reopen the schools that ordinary Virginians viewed as integral to their children’s’ futures, openly embracing “liberalism,” courting African American voters, challenging poll taxes and inveighing against the “power of wealth and privilege.” Between 1879 and 1883, the Readjusters ran the table, electing a governor, 6 of the state’s 10 Congressional delegates, and two U.S. senators, including the colorfully ironic General William “Billy” Mahone, a diminutive, tobacco-spitting ex-slaveholder and Confederate war hero.

Offering a cautionary tale for President Obama, Mahone was so cowed by conservatives’ depiction of a dark-skinned criminal—and sexual– menace that he effectively compromised the party to death, voting increasingly in lockstep with moderates, and watering down the party’s most popular reforms, leaving their political base unenthused. When white mobs murdered 7 blacks during an 1883 race riot in Danville, it provided the pretext for whites to patrol black neighborhoods with shotguns days later. Only 31 of the 1300 registered blacks turned out to vote; the Democrats won handily, finishing off the most potent interracial coalition in the antebellum era.

There is an almost seamless historical continuity between the class warfare that produced the Readjuster Party, the racism that destroyed it, and the policies of austerity that characterizes our politics today. What is typically left unsaid in discussions of Jim Crow is that it was principally a political campaign, no different from Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Regan’s cryptic racial appeals to suburban Democrats, Lee Atwater’s infamous Willie Horton ad, or Mitt Romney’s demagogic condemnation of an apocryphal “47 percent” of the electorate who are on the dole, and ensconced in Obama’s camp. By repeatedly asking white employees—especially men—to choose between their coworkers and their tribe, the nation’s wealthiest one percent unspools class solidarity to maintain a steady supply of cheap, exploited labor.

When longshoremen in California’s Bay area went on strike in 1934, blacks who had consistently been rebuffed in their efforts to integrate the docks, jumped at the chance to work, albeit for smaller paychecks than their white peers. Confronted with a failing strike, the head of the longshoremen’s union, an Australian émigré named Harry Bridges, began appearing in African American churches across the Bay Area, acknowledging the union’s mistreatment of blacks, but promising skeptical parishioners a new deal: if they respected the pickets, blacks would be admitted into the union and treated the same as white dockworkers.

They did, and the strike’s subsequent success triggered a wave of labor militancy that not only re-imagined bad jobs as good ones, but also connected workers’ discontent with broader political struggles, such as the Hickman case in Chicago, and at the RJ Reynolds tobacco plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

In 1943, 10,000 employees—two-thirds black and half women—staged a sit-down strike to protest unsafe working conditions and low wages at the cigarette maker. Winning wage hikes and unprecedented concessions, the workers formed Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers union, then promptly proceeded to register thousands of African American voters, who in turn helped elect a black minister to the City Council, the first since Reconstruction to win an election in the Deep South against a white candidate. Local 22 pressured City Hall to build public housing, adopt price controls, improve schools, expand bus service and jobless benefits, and in 1948, endorsed the Progressive Party’s candidate for president, former FDR Vice President Henry Wallace, who often appeared with blacks at campaign rallies.

Dusting off their old divide-and-conquer playbook, the oligarchs managed to derail Local 22’s momentum by re-purposing naïve and meddling carpetbaggers as communists who failed to grasp the subversive intent of un-American blacks, (even going so far as to suggest that work stoppages handicapped the country’s military effort in War World II by denying soldiers their  favorite smokes).  In 1949, RJ Reynolds management convinced collaborationist union leaders to cynically run a moderate black FTA executive against the local’s popular, Marxist black president, Moranda Smith, then carpet-bombed local radio airwaves, newspapers and factory bulletin boards with ads suggesting that it was white employees’ patriotic duty to vote against Smith. Smith won, but Local 22 was so deeply split that it was a spent force. Smith told a 1947 CIO assembly that the communist witch-hunt was misguided. “I do not think you have ever read or have ever heard of a Negro man or a Negro woman who has ever been a traitor to the United States.”

The 1947 Taft Hartley act sought to depoliticize organized labor by banning, as one example, general or “sympathy” strikes like the biracial bacchanal in December 1946 in which thousands of black, white and Latino workers shut down Oakland, California to show their support of striking women department store clerks. Taft-Hartley required labor unions to identify and weed out communist insurgents with questions like these: “Have you ever danced with a white woman?” or “Have you ever entertained colored guests in your home?”

Just as it did during Reconstruction, pluralism energized both American democracy, and the backlash against it with a zeal that bordered on evangelism, or psychosis. If Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo seemed divinely inspired in 1965 to help register blacks in Alabama to vote–this “is everybody’s fight” she explained to her puzzled husband—FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover’s characterization of Liuzzo as a whore following her murder, suggests he suffered froas iridiphobia, or an irrational fear of rainbows.

But Hoover’s slander was nothing more than a distraction. Then as now, the elites’ main objection is not that blacks and whites, if left to their own devices, will fuck.

But that they’ll talk.