Abolition Democracy’s Forgotten Founder

Portside Date:
Author: Robin D. G. Kelley
Date of source:
Boston Review

Nearly every activist I encounter these days identifies as an abolitionist. To be sure, movements to abolish prisons and police have been around for decades, popularizing the idea that caging and terrorizing people makes us unsafe. However, the Black Spring rebellions revealed that the obscene costs of state violence can and should be reallocated for things that do keep us safe: housing, universal healthcare, living wage jobs, universal basic income, green energy, and a system of restorative justice. As abolition recently became the new watchword, everyone scrambled to understand its historical roots. Reading groups popped up everywhere to discuss W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic, Black Reconstruction in America (1935), since he was the one to coin the phrase “abolition democracy,” which Angela Y. Davis revived for her indispensable book of the same title.

I happily participated in Black Reconstruction study groups and public forums meant to divine wisdom for our current movements. But I often wondered why no one was scrambling to resurrect T. Thomas Fortune’s Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South, published in 1884. After all, it was Fortune who wrote: “The South must spend less money on penitentiaries and more money on schools; she must use less powder and buckshot and more law and equity; she must pay less attention to politics and more attention to the development of her magnificent resources.” Du Bois, on the other hand, praised Reconstruction efforts to establish and improve the penitentiary system in what proved to be a futile effort to eliminate the convict lease. Much shorter but no less powerful, Fortune’s Black and White anticipates Du Bois’s critique of federal complicity in undermining Black freedom, but sharply diverges by declaring Reconstruction a miserable failure. He argues that the South’s problems can be traced to the federal government allowing the slaveholding rebels to return to power and hold the monopoly of land, stripping Black people of their short-lived citizenship rights, and refusing to compensate freed people for generations of unpaid labor. The result was a new kind of slavery: “the United States took the slave and left the thing which gave birth to chattel slavery and which is now fast giving birth to industrial slavery.” Du Bois echoes Fortune, but adds that white labor’s investment in white supremacy ensured “a system of industry which ruined democracy.”

Fortune, by contrast, believed racism would ultimately wither away, but not without a struggle. Formerly enslaved people with proper education, he held, would have to lead the way. He remarks on how Black people came out of bondage, not as robbers and thieves but as industrious, hard-working, family- and community-oriented people:

while the white men of the South, the capitalists, the land-sharks, the poor white trash, and the nondescripts, with a thousand years of Christian civilization and culture behind them . . . organized themselves into a band of outlaws, whose concatenative chain of auxiliaries ran through the entire South, and deliberately proceeded to murder innocent men and women for POLITICAL REASONS and to systematically rob them of their honest labor because they were too accursedly lazy to labor themselves.

And still, he believed interracial working-class unity was not only possible but necessary for “political reasons” to bring an end to monopoly and private ownership of land, the source of inequality. “Individual ownership in the land,” he writes, “is a transgression of the common right of man, and a usurpation which produces nearly, if not all, the evils which result upon our civilization; the inequalities which produce pauperism, vice, crime, and wide-spread demoralization among all the so-called ‘lower classes.’”

So, where is Black and White in recent book club discussions? Where is T. Thomas Fortune in the pantheon of radical Black intellectuals? I’m not the first to ask the question; it has been raised with the publication of each new edition over the last half-century. The most common answers attribute Fortune’s relative obscurity to his behavior. He shifted with the political winds. He renounced his radicalism to become an acolyte of Booker T. Washington. He drank too much and had an uncontrollable temper. The list is long.

But the truth is, in African American circles—especially among the Black press—T. Thomas Fortune never sank into obscurity. He remained a celebrated figure in Black letters throughout his life and for many decades after his death in 1928. Deemed “the dean of Negro journalism,” he was the subject of flattering obituaries and occasional profiles recalling his contribution to politics, the press, and fighting racial injustice. Fortune was described as “one of the most brilliant journalists in the country”; a man of principle, conscience, and integrity who could never be bought; “a valiant warrior” who “fought with his pen to the very last.” In 1949 Roscoe Conkling Simmons published a particularly hyperbolic portrait of Fortune, giving him credit for advancing the careers of both Booker T. and Frederick Douglass. Simmons declared him New York’s “greatest citizen after the fall of Robert E. Lee.”

And yet missing from nearly all of these tributes is any mention of Black and White. Indeed, Du Bois never once cites Fortune in Black Reconstruction. August Meier’s landmark 1963 study, Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915, is one of the first texts to discuss Black and White, though his remarks barely fill a single page. He writes, “Not until W. E. B. Du Bois converted to socialism some twenty years later, did a distinguished Negro leader state with such intellectual vigor the thesis of class conflict and the identity of interests of the black and white workers.” Emma Lou Thornbrough, Fortune’s first and only biographer, includes an eight-page summary of the book’s contents but provides very little context or critical engagement.

However, to conclude that the book simply fell out of public view would also be a mistake. Black and White is arguably one of the most “rediscovered” texts in African American letters. In 1969 the pioneering independent scholar, William Loren Katz, reissued Black and White in the series he edited, “The American Negro: His History and Literature,” for Arno Press—an imprint of the New York Times. The following year Johnson publishers issued another edition as part of its “Ebony Classics” series. Thornbrough’s biography appeared two years later, earning much critical acclaim.

The real problem is that people weren’t reading the book very carefully. Historian James M. McPherson’s painfully short “Preface” to the Arno Press edition of the book actually disparages Fortune for his “quasi-Marxist” and “Utopian” belief that Black and white workers held common interests and, in Fortune’s words, “should unite under one banner and work upon the same platform and principles for the uplifting of labor.” But in the early 1880s, this argument was neither “utopian” nor necessarily Marxist. The interracial labor insurgencies we associate with the Reconstruction era were not over; on the contrary, they intensified.

In 1877 workers waged a nation-wide strike wave that began with railway workers in West Virginia, before spreading to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and ultimately St. Louis, Missouri where socialist-led workers organized the nation’s first general strike. Despite the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, the Knights of Labor, the Greenback Labor Party, and the Readjuster Party organized biracial labor campaigns and upheld the promise of multiracial democracy in the region. By 1880 biracial working-class-oriented coalitions were holding on in places such as North Carolina and Virginia. In fact, the Danville “Race Riot” of 1883 proved to be a major catalyst for the book precisely because it resulted in the overthrow of the Readjusters—an interracial party that called for the cancellation of the Confederate war debt in order to reduce the tax burden on workers and farmers. Instead, the party wanted to direct funds toward public schools, repeal the poll tax, and break the power of the plantocracy and the banks that held the debt. Fortune sided with the Readjusters for refusing “to vote to tax themselves to pay money borrowed without their consent.” Although his response to the violent overthrow of the Readjusters by white supremacists was to propose a new national Black organization “that could effectively and systematically protest lynch law, mob violence, segregation, the penal system, and the inequitable distribution of school funds,” he nonetheless saw the potential of interracial labor organizing in Virginia.

But Fortune was no Marxist, and his “anti-capitalism” was ambivalent at best. He was against monopoly and the concentration of wealth, an issue that concerned many classical economists at the time trying to understand growing inequality and the boom and bust cycles of U.S. capitalism during the “gilded age.” On one side, he rejected the bogus Social Darwinist theories of Herbert Spencer and Yale Professor William Graham Sumner who claimed that the wealthy owed their success to natural selection and the “natural” laws of the free market. On this view, business acumen, character, frugality, thrift, a work ethic, and intelligence were heritable traits that the poor and non-whites presumably lacked. Of course, few “robber barons” displayed all of these characteristics, but it did not stop them from invoking evolution to explain the deepening wealth divide. Darwinian explanations for class inequality found their greatest proponent in Sumner, whose book, What Social Classes Owe to Each Other (1883), appeared a year before Black and White. His answer, unsurprisingly, is nothing: neither the rich nor the government ought to help the poor as doing so would disrupt the natural order. The poor can learn the values of success so long as they are unhindered by government aid, irresponsible charity, or trade unions. Government’s role is merely to protect “the property of men and the honor of women.”

At the time Fortune clearly regarded capital and labor as antagonistic. He wrote in a column in 1886, “The black man who arrays himself on the side of capitalism as against labor would be like a black man before the war taking sides with the pro-slavery as against the anti-slavery advocates.” But this did not mean he supported socialist or anarchist movements. In fact, he drew primarily on thinkers who not only believed socialist and anarchist groups undermined organized labor, but opposed strikes and militant labor action as dangerous.

Fortune models much of his argument on William Godwin Moody’s 1883 text, Land and Labor in the United States, which argues that land monopoly replaced small farms with “food factories” worked by machines or “tenant farms peopled by feudal slaves,” resulting in overcrowded cities, low wages, high unemployment, and poverty. However, he also blames labor unions for the state of the economy. “Of all the monopolies and tyrannies of capital,” he writes, “there is not one that equals the suicidal selfishness of the workingmen.” Unions, he asserts, have destroyed the apprenticeship system, deskilled labor, dictated wages, and forced workers to strike, disrupting productivity and encouraging idleness and violence. “[B]y disunion, proscription, violence, a narrow minded selfishness and unreason,” unions have “madly thrown away their great opportunities and become weaker and weaker; whilst the capitalists, insignificant in numbers, but powerful in unity and wise in their methods, have as surely increased in strength, and never more rapidly than at the present time.” Moody suggests replacing strikes with intelligent arbitration involving “society men”; reducing the working day to six hours in order to increase employment, raise wages, and permit more leisure time; ending tenant farming and redistributing land “to the people” through the Homestead Act; double taxing all unimproved lands; and granting government control of transportation.

Fortune stops short of blaming organized labor. He sees the problem as one of relative overproduction—workers don’t have the means to purchase the glut of commodities they are producing—and competition, which is the real culprit in lowering wages and driving unemployment. At the same time, though, he was not fond of strikes. His decision to append the testimony of R. Heber Newton before Senator Henry Blair’s Hearings on Relations Between Labor and Capital (1883) suggests some accord with Newton’s assertion that strikes are outmoded and destructive and ought to be replaced by arbitration.

But what did Fortune think about employing the Homestead Act to redistribute land to “the people?” Moody’s understanding of “the people” did not include the Indigenous population, whose land was stolen and parceled out for homesteaders. And while Black and White mentions “Indians” in passing, Indigenous people do not figure in Fortune’s proposal for biracial class politics. This omission is perhaps surprising given Fortune’s own Native heritage (his father Emanuel Fortune was Seminole), not to mention the fact that the U.S. military was still embroiled in “Indian wars.” Moreover, the Dawes Act, which divided Native lands into individual allotments in order to break tribal sovereignty and make more land available for settlers, was still three years away. But Fortune, like most Americans, accepted the myth of Indians as a dying people, “exterminated by superior force and intelligence, as in the case of the poor Indian of our own land.” Fortune praises them for their courage and “unconquerable heroism and fortitude,” while pronouncing that their “defense of priority of ownership of our domain have caused them to be swept from the face of the earth. Had they possessed intelligence with their more than Spartan courage, the wave of extermination could never have rolled over them forever.” Even as Native dispossession continued throughout his lifetime and struggles for sovereignty persisted, Fortune continued to hold on to the idea of the brave and dying Indian. In 1899 he wrote that “the last Indian is standing on the confines of the Republic, watching the sun of his life gradually sinking down the western incline of the world.”

Fortune’s other source was Henry George’s book, Progress and Poverty (1879), which identified private ownership of land as the main source of inequality. Instead of confiscating land, George proposed a single tax that would, in effect, transform private ownership of land into a kind of lease, since it would no longer be profitable to hold land without making it productive. This would break up monopoly landownership, render other forms of taxation unnecessary, pay for public institutions and infrastructure, and ultimately lead to greater distribution of wealth. As George put it, “laissez faire (in its full true meaning) opens the way to a realization of the noble dreams of socialism.” The Marxists begged to differ, especially Karl Marx himself. In a letter to Friedrich Sorge, Marx criticized George for ignoring wage labor, while “believing that the transformation of rent into taxation paid to the State must bring about the automatic disappearance of all the abuses of capitalist production. So the whole thing is merely an attempt, tricked out with socialism, to save the capitalist regime and, indeed, to re-establish it on an even broader basis than at present.” George did not set out to abolish capitalism but create greater equality within it. Moreover, he was not keen on labor organizations, which he characterized as “destruc­tive of the very things which workmen seek to gain.”

Fortune took from George’s idea of abolishing private ownership of land—although, much like his position on capitalism, he wavered. Fortune measures Black progress in terms of land and wealth accumulation, predicting that African Americans would in fifty years own at least thirty-five million acres of land. “The future landlord and capitalist of the South,” he concludes, “are no longer confined to the white race: the black man has become a factor, and he must be counted.” Obviously, his prognostications were way off, but did he regard this trend as a warning or a sign of success? His ambivalence led reviewers to wildly divergent interpretations of his arguments. A writer for the Christian Union called the book “dark” and pessimistic and took issue with his claim that white people monopolized land and Black people continued to suffer from racial prejudice and an economy-based greed. By contrast, a reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer found the book incredibly optimistic: “[Fortune] anticipates a happy future for the colored people in the Southern States, for he thinks they will eventually own a great deal of the land in that section and have a corresponding degree of intelligence, influence and independence.”

Of course, these and other reviews failed to mention Fortune’s conclusion. No matter how he analyzed the crisis or whose ideas he drew upon, he was crystal clear about what to do: “The hour is approaching when the laboring classes of our country, North, East, West and South, will recognize that they have a common cause, a common humanity and a common enemy; and that, therefore, if they would triumph over wrong and place the laurel wreath upon triumphant justice, without distinction of race or of previous condition they must unite!”

This common cause, the unity of working people across the color line, has drawn the most skepticism—and continues to do so today. But Fortune turned out to be prescient, and history proved him right. For the last 137 years, the South has been the epicenter of the country’s multiracial democratic movements. Jim Crow, lynching, and disfranchisement were ruling class responses to interracial movements to preserve and expand democracy, protect the rights of working people, redistribute land, and dismantle the plantation oligarchy. Every one of these legal and extralegal measures to break democratic insurgencies was sanctioned by the federal government. Southern states passed the most draconian anti-labor, anti-Black, and anti-immigrant laws not because they were “conservative” but because more than one-third of the electorate couldn’t vote. And yet, some of the most militant interracial strikes took place in the heart of Dixie: from coal and iron ore miners in Alabama; waterfront workers in New Orleans, Mobile, Pensacola, and Charleston; textile, lumber, and poultry workers in North Carolina; sharecroppers in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama; and farm workers in Florida and Georgia, to name but a few. A Black-led interracial movement delivered a second Reconstruction and a Poor People’s Campaign, and Black, Native, and poor white Southerners spearheaded the environmental justice movement. Today, as 26 million people took to the streets to condemn the police killing of George Floyd, Black, Latinx, and white working people were trying to organize Amazon workers, miners, and prisoners in Alabama.

Black and White remains a transformative text that inspires new generations. In 2009 I taught the book in an undergraduate seminar at Duke University. Rob Stephens, a thoughtful white student and native North Carolinian, wrote a paper for the class describing Fortune’s book as “a scathing analysis of racist capitalism in the United States, and the laws complicit therein” as well as “a (re)vision of the possibilities for a broad-based, bi-racial struggle for autonomous development among the laborers of the South.” He saw something that most critics, skeptics, and even sympathetic scholars such as James McPherson, missed: “[W]hen Fusion politics and the Populist Movement still held real promise to unite the white and black laborers of the South in a coalition against capitalist power, there was still hope that class-based struggle would overwhelm White Supremacy.” Rob was already a seasoned activist when he showed up in my class, having organized against gentrification in Durham. But he carried Fortune’s injunction with him, and then encountered a brilliant, fearless organizer making the same plea for interracial working-class unity. His name was Reverend William Barber. Rob spent three years as a Field Secretary for the North Carolina NAACP under Reverend Barber’s leadership and helped organize North Carolina’s Forward Together-Moral Monday Movement. Today Reverend Stephens is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, the National Political Director for Repairers of the Breach, and the Deputy Director of the Mass Poor People’s Assembly for the Poor People’s Campaign, both organizations founded by Reverend Barber and Reverend Liz Theoharis.

Reverend Barber, perhaps more than anyone, has taken up Fortune’s challenge to future generations to build a new movement and unite working people and the poor in common cause. He calls it the Third Reconstruction. The Third Reconstruction is being led by a new fusion politics through organizations such as the new Poor People’s Campaign, Project South, Southerners on New Ground (SONG), Kindred: Southern Healing Justice Collective, Cooperation Jackson, Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, the Free Alabama Movement, the Movement for Black Lives, and a variety of abolitionist organizations demanding an end to prisons and police. The Third Reconstruction is the closest we have come to fulfilling Fortune’s radical dream—and exceeding it. They are calling for an end to structural racism, poverty, inequality, ecological devastation, the carceral state, war and militarism, and a new “moral revival” that will put people and the planet before profit.

You will find the seeds for this revival right there, in black and white.

Editors’ Note: From BLACK AND WHITE by T. Thomas Fortune. Foreword copyright © 2022 by Robin D. G. Kelley. Introduction copyright © 2007 by Seth Moglen. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Robin D. G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA, is author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.

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Source URL: https://portside.org/2022-04-24/abolition-democracys-forgotten-founder