Rebels in Bohemia: The Radicals of the Masses, 1911-1917

By Leslie Fishbein | Go to book overview

Chapter 8 The Exotic Other

Dress Rehearsal in Race Relations

At the turn of the century the promise of Reconstruction had been betrayed and long forgotten, and American blacks journeyed northward and into cities in the slimmer hope of economic betterment. Once again they impinged on the conscience of white radicals who felt compelled to protest the economic exploitation and cultural degradation of blacks in American society. Yet the drama played out in these prewar years, which was in many respects a dress rehearsal for the civil rights and black power movements of the 1950s and 1960s, was often no more than an expression of white sympathy and guilt. Few radicals sensed the immediacy of black problems or the difficulties of creating a new black culture free of the marks of white oppression. As a result, the alliance between white radicals and blacks was a tenuous one that began to fragment from its very inception.

The Socialist party, hoping for respectability and success, virtually ignored the plight of blacks. Center and Right-wing Socialist party members agreed that blacks and whites had no desire to live or work together; since capitalism forced them to do so against their will, socialism would solve the race question by complete segregation. Until the advent of socialism, Center and Right-wing party members raised no objection to separate black communities, schools, and Socialist party locals.1 This indifference to racism as an issue dominated party policy regarding blacks for the early years of the twentieth century. Historian Ira Kipnis writes: "There is no record that the party ever actively opposed discrimination against Negroes from 1901 to 1912."2 Although Left- wing Socialists were far less tolerant of all forms of racial discrimination and urged blacks to struggle for equality by joining the labor and socialist movements, they contributed little more than rhetoric in committing the party to fighting for the rights of blacks.3 Even the party's most popular leader, Eugene Debs, who defied racial prejudice by refusing to speak before segregated audiences in the South, failed to see that poor blacks were more disad

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