W.E.B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia

By Gerald Horne; Mary Young | Go to book overview
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After the Emancipation Proclamation, some labor unions welcomed blacks as a way of ending poverty and other social ills. In 1876, the Knights of Labor held its first national convention and proclaimed no distinctions of “race, creed or color.” Union campaigns proceeded in the South, resulting in fourteen unions of black carpenters and marking the beginning of unionized black workers. Unfortunately, dissension within the ranks of the Knights of Labor led to its decline. On its heels emerged the American Federation of Labor (AFL) as a larger and more successful movement. The AFL, however, seemed less inclined to include black workers, and the AFL allowed its unions to amend its laws to exclude blacks.

Between 1881 and 1900, there were fifty strikes by U.S. workers protesting black employment and their nonunion status. Paradoxically, these same union protesters opposed blacks joining unions. Thus, African Americans began a protracted struggle for their democratic rights as workers and citizens.

W.E.B. Du Bois' interest in unions was piqued by his growing realization that it was not just the poor white laboring classes responsible for the suppression of blacks in unions. His studies revealed a universal problem of the exploitation of labor by management and big business. Upon examining labor problems in the United States, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, Du Bois realized that imperialism drove the world economy and that its primary aim was to obtain cheap materials and labor to compensate for private profits and higher wages paid to white workers in Europe and the United States. Du Bois also took a great interest in apartheid in South Africa and sharply criticized its political, economic, and legal discrimination against blacks and other people of color.

Because African Americans were not allowed to join labor unions, some


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