The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

MLK’s radical vision was rooted in a long history of Black unionism

Why unionism is integral to achieving equality

Striking Memphis sanitation workers pass Tennessee National Guard troops during a march to city hall on March 29, 1968. (Charlie Kelly/AP)

Fifty-three years ago, a racist White man killed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. King’s presence there was no coincidence. The city’s predominantly Black sanitation workers were on strike and King had a long history of supporting unions, which he once described as “the first and greatest anti-poverty program.”

The recent effort by 6,000 predominantly Black workers to unionize an Amazon warehouse complex in Bessemer, Ala., is only the latest chapter in a long history of Black labor organizing. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Their efforts, like King’s in the 1960s, were made possible by the work of Ben Fletcher. Fletcher was a Black labor organizer from Philadelphia who organized a union whose membership was roughly one-third African American, one-third Irish and Irish American, and one-third immigrants from other European countries. Despite leading his era’s most effective interracial, multiethnic union — this history that has been largely overlooked. Fletcher’s advocacy of radical unionism and socialism, like King’s after him, illuminates the intersectional struggles for economic and racial equality that still resonate in America in 2021.

Born in 1890, Fletcher was a working-class Black Philadelphian whose parents were probably born enslaved in 1850s Virginia. They moved to Philadelphia in the late 1880s, presumably to escape poverty and the rising discrimination and violence that Black Southerners experienced after Reconstruction’s demise.

At the time, Philadelphia possessed the largest Black population of any city outside the South, yet racism defined the Black experience in the City of Brotherly Love. In his first book, “The Philadelphia Negro,” Black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois argued that racism defined Black residents’ lives.

Never graduating from high school, Fletcher joined hundreds of thousands of rural Black and White Americans and European immigrants who sought work in America’s third largest city, an industrial behemoth that produced everything from battleships to buttonhooks. However, most employers refused to hire Black people, thereby confining them to low-wage jobs, including loading and unloading ships along the Delaware River. As a teen, Fletcher probably walked the mile or so from his South Philly apartment to the riverfront to “shape up,” the abusive hiring system that pitted workers against each other and forced them to bribe hiring bosses for a day of backbreaking, poorly paid work.

In 1910, Fletcher joined the Industrial Workers of the World, the country’s most colorful and radical union because of its unapologetic embrace of socialism and internationalism and rejection of racism, xenophobia and sexism. Five years earlier, the IWW was founded by an assortment of leftists, including Eugene Debs, much-loved leader of the Socialist Party; Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, legendary organizer of coal miners and child labor abolitionist; “Big Bill” Haywood, leader of the most militant, socialist union of Western miners; and Lucy Parsons, the Black anarchist and widow of Albert Parsons, a Haymarket “martyr” from Chicago’s eight-hour movement. These radicals founded a union whose purpose was no less than overthrowing capitalism worldwide. The IWW preamble boldly declared: “There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things in life.”

Wobblies, an affectionate term for members, also rejected the mainstream unions belonging to the American Federation of Labor which, because of prejudice, refused to organize most Black, female and immigrant workers and possessed no agenda beyond short-term, incremental improvements to members’ wages and conditions.

Fletcher embraced the socialism and anti-racism of the IWW as well as its solution: militant unions deploying workers’ greatest tactic — the strike. Strikes could help workers win short-term economic gains in advance of a general strike to achieve the Wobblies’ revolutionary goal, “Abolition of the wage system.”

Fletcher appreciated that the IWW committed itself to fighting racism. As he wrote in 1929, “long ago I have come to know that the Industrial Unionism as proposed and practiced by the IWW is all sufficient for the teeming millions who must labor for others in order to stay on this planet, and more, it is the economic vehicle that will enable the Negro Workers to burst every bond of Racial Prejudice, Industrial and political inequalities and social ostracism.”

He quickly became known as a humorous, intelligent and powerful speaker. Another Wobbly wrote of Fletcher’s speaking skills in 1912: He “certainly knows how to deliver the goods.”

The following year, a two-week strike of 4,000 dockworkers shut down Philadelphia, one of the country’s busiest ports. During this strike, the IWW operationalized its egalitarian principles as the strike committee included at least one member of every ethnic group on strike. Equally important, they won raises and union recognition in their newly chartered branch, Local 8.

Arguably, only a union such as the IWW could succeed considering the Philadelphia waterfront’s worker demographics. For centuries, U.S. employers repeatedly have used race and nationality (as well as sex, ethnicity, etc.) to divide and weaken workers. But Fletcher and other Wobblies saw the power of interracial solidarity.

Once gaining power, Local 8 forced racial integration on the bosses, who previously segregated work gangs. To weaken workers and increase productivity, bosses long had played Black gangs off against Polish gangs off against Irish gangs and so on. Instead, Local 8 instituted racial equality in work gangs, in its leadership ranks and at social events.

While Fletcher was widely seen as the union’s key leader, he didn’t act alone. Other Black and White Wobblies, including John McKelvey, Alonzo Richards, John Walsh, Glenn Perrymore and Polly Baker, also promoted these changes. Fifty-one years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which King famously championed, Local 8 achieved integration on the waterfront.

These successes did not last, however. When the United States declared war against Germany, in 1917, the government created anti-free speech laws that criminalized all dissent — real and perceived. Before the United States entered the war, the IWW as well as Debs’s Socialist Party were outspoken critics who viewed the war as workers killing workers solely to benefit economic and political elites. President Woodrow Wilson as well as the Department of Justice, thus, hated radical unions such as the IWW but also feared their power.

Just months after declaring war, Fletcher and hundreds of other Wobblies were arrested even though, shortly after the war’s end, these laws were found to violate the First Amendment. In 1918, the arrested Wobblies were found guilty in a mass trial. Fletcher was sentenced to 10 years for “espionage and sedition,” though the prosecution presented no evidence against him.

Before his sentence was commuted in 1922, Fletcher served almost three years in Leavenworth prison. After returning to Philadelphia, he resumed his activities as an organizer and speaker.

Local 8 collapsed by 1923 — a victim of an onslaught from powerful shipping corporations, the city and federal governments, and the rival AFL union as well as rising racism and xenophobia. Similarly, the IWW never recovered from massive government repression and employer hostility.

Fletcher lived a few more decades, remaining committed to radical unionism, anti-racism and socialism. He died in 1949, buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn. By the time King started championing unions in the 1960s, Fletcher was forgotten by many.

Black activists in radical social movements of the ‘60s — including Ella Baker, Fred Hampton and Angela Davis — stood on Fletcher’s shoulders even if they didn’t know it. When civil rights activists sat down at a Greensboro lunch counter in 1960, they used a tactic first deployed by Wobblies who sat down inside a General Electric factory in 1906. When civil rights activists refused to pay bail (and filled the jails), they echoed Wobbly free speech activists who did so in Spokane in 1909.

King, like other Black activists in the 1960s, well understood that most Black people were poor and working class and could only empower themselves by acting collectively. King went further in support of democratic socialism, writing: “The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition.”

That also was why King so loudly supported unions, a history too often played down. He declared, “As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined.”

Today, as we honor King, we must appreciate that the bright line from Memphis to Bessemer possesses an earlier inflection point: Fletcher’s Philadelphia.