Reference Entry

Socialist Party.

Charles Rosenberg

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Socialist Party.

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The Socialist Party of America (SPA) was formally constituted in 1901 by a merger of the Social Democratic Party and a wing of the Socialist Labor Party. It was founded at the beginning of the most intense period of de jure racial segregation in the United States—a period in which American culture generally, not only in the South, excluded African Americans from many areas of public life. Formally, the party resolved at its 1903 convention to fight for the rights of Negroes, and in 1904 it declared that membership was open “without distinction of sex, race, color or creed.” There were three African American delegates at the founding convention. Practically, among the regions and constituencies where Socialism was strong, there was considerable racial animosity. A kind of mutual repulsion also existed: many blacks found that it was hard enough to be “black” without also being labeled “red,” and many whites found that it was hard enough to be “red” without also having a reputation of being “for the blacks.”The SPA was the most successful socialist movement in American history, appearing to Theodore Roosevelt “far more ominous than any populist or similar movement in time past” (Shannon, p. 5). As a member of the Social Democratic Party the presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs received one hundred thousand votes for president in 1900; he ran as the SPA candidate in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, receiving 897,000 votes in 1912, or 6 percent of the popular vote. In California, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Washington, and Idaho, the 1912 total was more than 10 percent, and in Oklahoma it was more than 16 percent. In 1911 thirty-three cities had Socialist governments, including Butte, Montana, and Flint, Michigan. Running for president in 1920 from his federal prison cell in Atlanta—for his opposition to U.S. entry into World War I—Debs again took 6 percent of the popular vote, nearly one million votes.Support for the Socialists came from garment workers in New York, agrarian radicals on the western plains, former populists in the South, and railway workers across the Midwest. The movement in New York produced the Rand School of Social Science, founded in 1906, which offered courses in English grammar and composition, socialist theory and history, stenography, American history, and government. In the West, farmers came to Socialist tent meetings to hear Kate Richards O᾽Hare and other fiery speakers preach the gospel of the cooperative commonwealth.African American Members and Civil Rights.W. E. B. Du Bois joined the Socialist Party in 1911 but resigned in 1912 to support Woodrow Wilson for president. The Reverend George W. Woodbey, preaching that he “wished to be free from slavery of Capitalism,” published The Bible and Socialism in 1904. In 1914 his pamphlet, Why a Negro Should Vote Socialist Ticket, sold 30,000 copies, among the party's top-ten pamphlets that year. A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen published the Socialist paper The Messenger, fighting to desegregate labor unions. The civil rights activist and organizer Bayard Rustin was also an SPA member for a time, as were Norman Hill and Arthur Parker. Hubert H. Harrison left the party, dissatisfied with the lack of specific programs for African Americans, and in 1917 founded the Liberty League of Negro Americans. William English Walling and Charles Edward Russell, both SPA leaders, were among the founders of the NAACP in 1909.Among party founders, Debs consistently advocated full participation for African Americans both in the party and in labor unions—but even Debs had been unable to win a majority of the American Railway Union to accept colored members in 1894. Debs refused to speak before segregated audiences, though he freely admitted that Socialists who shared “the malign spirit of race hatred” were by no means rare (Radosh, p. 60). Debs fiercely denounced lynching; the SPA's 1918 congressional campaign platform described African Americans as being victims of lawlessness including hanging, burning, and political disfranchisement and as being discriminated against in economic opportunity, while Debs called on the party to win the Negro “to its standard and prove itself worthy of his confidence and support” (Brommel, p. 218).Racism within the Socialist Party.Victor Berger—who organized the powerful SPA electoral machine in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and served several terms in Congress—maintained that “there can be no doubt that the Negroes and mulattoes constitute a lower race” (Brommel, p. 215). He worried that if the party identified itself with racial equality, many southern workers, as well as some in the North, would not join. Berger's opinion was no doubt influenced by his experience and constituency. At the time, African Americans in Milwaukee numbered less than three thousand, well under 1 percent of people in the state. Berger's support was strongest among the German immigrant population, then among Yankee Anglo-Americans, and weakest among Polish immigrants. He had secured the firm support of the city's AFL unions, some of which had whites-only membership policies, although it was unionized industries that drew African American migration from the Deep South after 1940.In Oklahoma, a stronghold of Socialist voters until World War I, the party leader Oscar Ameringer openly invited Negro membership, proclaiming, “we dig with him in the same ditch, drink with him out of the same cup, and eat with him out of the same dinner pail” (Burbank, p. 71). Yet at the same time, the Socialist candidate for governor J. T. Cumbie argued that Socialism would prevent exploitative landlords from sending white families into fields with black laborers; also a songwriter, Cumbie openly promoted the myth of black men raping white women in verses approving of lynching. Local landlords promoted racial division by importing transient African Americans from Dallas and Oklahoma City when nonblack tenants sought better terms. The otherwise respected Appeal to Reason, a Socialist newspaper published in Kansas, from time to time assured its mostly white readership that Socialism would not result in social equality between whites and blacks.Diminishing Returns.After severe government persecution during World War I, the SPA split in 1919 over the attitude of its members toward the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. From a 1919 membership of 109,000, the total membership of the U.S. Socialist and Communist parties in 1921 fell to 30,000. Those most favorable to equal participation by African Americans were generally inclined to join one of the new Communist parties; those most tolerant of racism either abandoned Socialism altogether or were left among the remnants of the SPA. This was not a universal rule, however: the SPA's presidential candidate from 1928 to 1948, Norman Thomas, suggested and then strongly supported the biracial Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, organized in 1934. The most prominent “red” African Americans after 1919—Henry Winston, William L. Patterson, Ben Davis, Angelo Herndon, and Paul Robeson—were all members of or closely associated with the Communist Party, not the SPA. Rustin, Randolph, and other prewar black Socialists pursued civil rights campaigns in the 1920s and 1930s at some distance from either party.The SPA had a resurgence of sorts between 1928 and 1932. The program of its 1932 convention in Milwaukee featured sharp denunciations of capitalism and retained the slogan “Workers of the World Unite.” It made no mention of racial or civil rights issues. State organizations that were virtually wiped out in 1919, such as those in Ohio and Nebraska, were growing. In 1932 Thomas received 884,781 votes for president. But by 1936 his total had dropped to 187,342 as support switched to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. The SPA never recovered its position as a significant political force. Frank Zeidler, the last Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, retired in 1960.

Reference Entry.  1462 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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