The Great Black Radical You’ve Never Heard Of – The militant labor organizer Ben Fletcher, in his own words.

In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, when many U.S. unions dis­grace­ful­ly exclud­ed Asian, Black and Lat­inx work­ers, the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW) warm­ly wel­comed peo­ple of col­or.…

In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, when many U.S. unions dis­grace­ful­ly exclud­ed Asian, Black and Lat­inx work­ers, the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW) warm­ly wel­comed peo­ple of col­or. This rev­o­lu­tion­ary union, whose mem­bers affec­tion­ate­ly are known as Wob­blies, empha­sizes class strug­gle sol­i­dar­i­ty in its leg­endary mot­to: ​An Injury to One Is an Injury to All!” 

Ben Fletch­er, an African Amer­i­can who helped lead the IWW’s most mil­i­tant and effec­tive inter­ra­cial branch, epit­o­mized the union’s brand of anti-cap­i­tal­ism and antiracism. Fletch­er (18901949) was a tremen­dous­ly impor­tant and well-loved mem­ber of the IWW dur­ing its hey­day, the first quar­ter of the 20th cen­tu­ry. A bril­liant union orga­niz­er and a humor­ous ora­tor, Fletch­er helped found and lead Local 8 of the IWW’s Marine Trans­port Work­ers Indus­tri­al Union. When found­ed in 1913, this union was a third African Amer­i­can, a third Irish and Irish Amer­i­can, and a third oth­er Euro­pean immi­grants. Despite being hat­ed by the boss­es and red­bait­ed by the gov­ern­ment, Local 8 con­trolled the water­front for almost a decade.

My new book, Ben Fletch­er: The Life and Times of a Black Wob­bly (PM Press) tells the sto­ry of one of the great­est heroes of the Amer­i­can work­ing class. For 25 years, I have researched him and his union, painstak­ing­ly uncov­er­ing a stun­ning range of doc­u­ments relat­ed to this extra­or­di­nary man. The book includes a detailed bio­graph­i­cal intro­duc­tion of his life and his­to­ry, rem­i­nis­cences by fel­low work­ers who knew him, a chron­i­cle of the IWW’s impres­sive, decade-long run on the Philadel­phia water­front in which Fletch­er played a piv­otal role, and near­ly all of his known writ­ings and speech­es. In an era of soar­ing inequal­i­ty and the largest wave of protests in favor of racial equal­i­ty in half a cen­tu­ry, Fletcher’s time­less voice could inspire a new gen­er­a­tion of work­ers, orga­niz­ers and agitators. 

To give a sense of the man and the book, below is an excerpt of an inter­view Fletch­er gave, in 1931, to the Ams­ter­dam News, his only known inter­view. It reveals a great deal about Fletcher’s expe­ri­ences pri­or to the fed­er­al tri­al in Chica­go in 1918 (in which near­ly 100 IWW lead­ers were charged with vio­lat­ing the Espi­onage and Sedi­tion Acts passed dur­ing the wartime fren­zy of hyper-patri­o­tism), unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to the IWW, and rev­o­lu­tion­ary indus­tri­al union­ism. Fletch­er also describes how he was near­ly lynched in Nor­folk, Vir­ginia in 1917.

The Ams­ter­dam News is among the old­er still-oper­at­ing Black news­pa­pers in the Unit­ed States. Found­ed in 1909 and named after a major street in Harlem, this week­ly news­pa­per is geared to the Black com­mu­ni­ty of New York City. The paper long has been a voice for equal rights and pow­er and none oth­er than Mal­colm X wrote a col­umn in the paper. Its work­force union­ized in 1936 and remains so.

Ben Fletch­er, long-time IWW orga­niz­er, drew a deep puff of his cig­ar and looked placid­ly out of the win­dow as he con­clud­ed the rem­i­nis­cences of his rad­i­cal activ­i­ties which led to his impris­on­ment in 1918 along with 100 oth­er mem­bers of the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World in the Fed­er­al Pen­i­ten­tiary at Leav­en­worth on indict­ments returned against them by a Gov­ern­ment pos­sessed of a wartime hysteria.

A sim­ple tale he told. The sto­ry of his life as a class-con­scious work­er. The sto­ry of how he had been turned to IWW by the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry prac­tices and craft lim­i­ta­tions of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor unions; of how he had orga­nized long­shore­men along the coast from Boston to Nor­folk; of how he had been smug­gled out of the lat­ter city by friends after the ship­ping inter­ests had threat­ened him with lynch­ing; of how he had to force him­self into that Fed­er­al court­room in Chica­go, where for nine­teen weeks he and 112 oth­er lead­ers of the syn­di­cal­ist move­ment stood tri­al on charges of espi­onage and obstruct­ing the Government’s war pro­gram, and final­ly of the two years and six months of the ten-year sen­tence he served in the Fed­er­al penitentiary.

I was prepar­ing the long­shore­men of Bal­ti­more for a strike in 1917 for high­er wages, short­er hours and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions when I received instruc­tions from head­quar­ters to pro­ceed to Nor­folk where the dock work­ers were becom­ing rest­less and ask­ing that an orga­niz­er be sent them,” Fletch­er began.

I found the men respon­sive and eager for a union. But I had not been in town long before word was cir­cu­lat­ed that I rep­re­sent­ed a dan­ger­ous ele­ment set on the destruc­tion of prop­er­ty and the over­throw of the Gov­ern­ment. Then I began receiv­ing mes­sages of a threat­en­ing char­ac­ter. I would be lynched if I spread that doc­trine around Nor­folk, I was told. One night, friends, fear­ing that my life was in dan­ger, smug­gled me aboard a north­bound ship to Boston.”

By this time the Gov­ern­ment, spurred on by the lum­ber and cop­per inter­ests of the West, had set about a delib­er­ate plan to erad­i­cate the IWW, which was grow­ing rapid­ly in num­bers, gain­ing con­trol of cer­tain impor­tant indus­tries, and threat­en­ing the suprema­cy of the AF of L, which the Gov­ern­ment con­sis­tent­ly favored through­out the war period.”

It was while I was work­ing in Boston that I received a tip that I was in line for indict­ment by a Fed­er­al Grand Jury. Accept­ing this tip as authen­tic I returned to my home in Philadel­phia, where I pre­ferred to be placed under arrest. The next week I read in the paper that indict­ments had been returned against 166 of us and that we were to be arrest­ed on sight.”

Ben Fletch­er paused long enough to relight his cig­ar and to glance reflec­tive­ly about the room; to think again of the days when his orga­ni­za­tion was a ral­ly­ing ground for the rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers of the coun­try; when it con­sti­tut­ed enough of a threat to com­pel the atten­tion of the Gov­ern­ment; when it had cards issued to a mil­lion work­ers includ­ing 100,000 black men and women whose mem­ber­ship was dis­cour­aged or barred by the AF of L unions. Times have changed and now with its scant 3,000 dues pay­ing mem­bers it is lit­tle more than a pro­le­tar­i­an sect.

For more than months,” he said, tak­ing up the thread of his nar­ra­tive, ​I remained in Philadel­phia, a fugi­tive from jus­tice yet going about my work with no effort to con­ceal my iden­ti­ty. Dur­ing this peri­od I was work­ing in a round­house [loco­mo­tive main­te­nance shed built around a turntable] of the Penn­syl­va­nia Railroad.”

One day — it was Feb­ru­ary 9, 1918 — two strangers appeared at my door. They were spe­cial agents of the Gov­ern­ment. They placed me under arrest and I was held in $10,000 bail. After being impris­oned for two weeks bail was reduced to $1,500 by the Fed­er­al dis­trict attor­ney. This was secured by the IWW local and I was released.”

Sum­moned to appear in court in Chica­go on April 1, I arrived two hours late due to a train wreck. Mak­ing my way through the Fed­er­al agents and police who swarmed the cor­ri­dors I was blocked at the court­room door by the chief bailiff, who inquired:

“’What do you want in here’?”

“’I belong in here’.”

“’Oh, a wise boy from the South side want to see the show’?”

“’No, I’m one of the actors.

Take that stuff away. You can’t get in here’.”

Insist­ing that I belonged there I pulled out my card and told him to go in and see if Ben Fletcher’s name wasn’t on the indict­ment. He left the door in charge of assis­tants, went in and return­ing announced: ​He’s Ben Fletch­er, all right. Let him in.’”

And then I walked into the court­room and into the Fed­er­al penitentiary’.”

Some Peo­ple Are Tak­en to Jail, But Ben Fletch­er Just ​Went In’,” Ams­ter­dam News­De­cem­ber 30, 1931, p. 16.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.


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