Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900

By Philip S. Foner; Robert James Branham | Go to book overview

112 THE PRESENT RELATIONS OF LABOR AND CAPITAL

T. Thomas Fortune

The year 1886 was one of intense struggle between labor and capital in the United States. In cities and towns the armies of labor organized and gave expression to the pent-up bitterness of years of exploitation in a series of strikes that shook the nation to its foundation. On May 1, 1886, about 350,000 workers in 11,562 establishments in the country at large went on strike for an eight-hour day.

This was the setting for the speech delivered on April 20, 1886, by T. Thomas Fortune ( 1856-1928) before the Brooklyn ( New York) Literary Union. Born in slavery in Florida, Fortune saw the Ku Klux Klan in action as a boy. With little formal education, but with practical knowledge of the printer's trade, Fortune came to New York in 1879 and rose to become one of the leading journalists of his day. He became part owner and editor of his own newspaper, the Globe, which later became the Freeman, and finally the New York Age.

Fortune was influenced by Karl Marx and Henry George, as demonstrated in his remarkable book Black and White: Land, Labor and Politics in the South, published in New York in 1884. In this speech, he identifies a basic human right to the necessities of life and, aligning the plight of poor black laborers with that of subservient classes around the world, predicts a coming revolution of labor in the reallocation of wealth. One of the most militant and influential black leaders of the late nineteenth century, Fortune was also, paradoxically, a close friend, defender, adviser, and ghostwriter for Booker T. Washington. In the 1890s, Fortune was among the founders of the National Afro-American League and the National Afro-American Council, forerunners of modern national civil rights organizations.

The speech text is taken from the New York Freeman, May 1, 1886.

I DO NOT EXAGGERATE the gravity of the subject when I say that it is now the very first in importance not only in the United States but in every country in Europe. Indeed the wall of industrial discontent encircles the civilized globe.

The iniquity of privileged class and concentrated wealth has become so glaring and grievous to be borne that a thorough agitation and an early readjustment of the relation which they sustain to labor can no longer be delayed with safety to society.

It does not admit of argument that every man born into the world is justly entitled to so much of the produce of nature as will satisfy his physical

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