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Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History

Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History

by Rebecca Hill
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In Men, Mobs, and Law, Rebecca N. Hill compares two seemingly unrelated types of leftist protest campaigns: those intended to defend labor organizers from prosecution and those seeking to memorialize lynching victims and stop the practice of lynching. Arguing that these forms of protest are related and have substantially influenced one another, Hill points out that both worked to build alliances through appeals to public opinion in the media, by defining the American state as a force of terror, and by creating a heroic identity for their movements. Each has played a major role in the history of radical politics in the United States. Hill illuminates that history by considering the narratives produced during the abolitionist John Brown’s trials and execution, analyzing the defense of the Chicago anarchists of the Haymarket affair, and comparing Ida B. Wells’s and the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaigns to the Industrial Workers of the World’s early-twentieth-century defense campaigns. She also considers conflicts within the campaign to defend Sacco and Vanzetti, chronicles the history of the Communist Party’s International Labor Defense, and explores the Black Panther Party’s defense of George Jackson.

As Hill explains, labor defense activists first drew on populist logic, opposing the masses to the state in their campaigns, while anti-lynching activists went in the opposite direction, castigating “the mob” and appealing to the law. Showing that this difference stems from the different positions of whites and Blacks in the American legal system, Hill’s comparison of anti-lynching organizing and radical labor defenses reveals the conflicts and intersections between antiracist struggle and socialism in the United States.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822342809
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/23/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 424
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Rebecca N. Hill is Director of the American Studies Master of Arts Program and Associate Professor of History at Kennesaw State University.

Read an Excerpt

Men, Mobs, and Law

Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History
By Rebecca N. Hill


Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4257-1

Chapter One

John Brown: The Left's Great Man

Veneration of great men is perennial in the nature of man.... Show the dullest clodpole, show the haughtiest featherhead, that a soul higher than himself is actually here; were his knees stiffened into brass he must bow down and worship. THOMAS CARLYLE

This has been one of the saddest days Harper's Ferry has ever experienced. This morning when the armorers went to the shops to go to work, lo and behold, the shops had been taken possession of by a set of abolitionists and the doors were guarded by negroes with rifles. GEORGE MAUZY

Some doubt the courage of the Negro. Go to Hayti and stand on the fifty-thousand graves of the best soldiers France ever saw and ask them what they think of the Negro's sword. WENDELL PHILLIPS

You see how warlike I have become.... Oh yes, war is better than slavery. ANGELINA GRIMKE

On the heels of the American Revolution, those who called most often for the use of violence to overthrow American institutions were the leaders of American slaves. Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, David Walker, Nat Turner, and Henry Highland Garnet all planned, engaged in, or called for a violent overturning of the system of slavery. At times, they referred to the example of the founding fathers in their efforts to mark their own struggle as one that was within, rather than outside, the American tradition. Frederick Douglass did so often, noting American hypocrisy in his famous Fourth of July address and comparing the aptly named slave rebel Madison Washington to the founders. David Walker demanded of white America, after quoting the Declaration of Independence in his Appeal, "Do you not understand your own language?"

Just as frequent were appeals to biblical stories of justice and liberation. In his book Exodus! Eddie Glaude Jr. argues that the militant abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet said that the Bible did not just allow force, but actually demanded it. Black abolitionists, particularly Nat Turner, read the Bible as a text of earthly justice; according to Sylvia Frey and Betty Wood, African Americans were drawn to evangelical Christianity because they saw salvation as "a spiritual revolution that would turn the moral universe upside down." At times, this longing was not just for a spiritual revolution, and men such as David Margate, a slave who came to envision himself as "a second Moses and should be called to deliver his people from slavery," alarmed whites. Similarly, David Walker, who was influenced by the slave rebel Denmark Vesey, made slave insurrection a version of God's wrath in his famous appeal: "My color will yet, root some of you out of the very face of the earth!!!!! You may doubt it if you please.... So did the antediluvians doubt Noah, ... so did the Sodomites doubt until Lot got out of the city and God rained down fire and brimstone from Heaven upon them, and burnt them up." Such revolutionary readings of the Bible by Black evangelicals could be argued to be the first native American radical ism. Although some might argue that the belief in signs and visions from another world was an "obvious manifestation of madness," it was not only Nat Turner who followed seasonal patterns and eclipses when making plans. Farmers' religion was "full of mysticism" during the 1830s, and whites also used astrology when making important decisions about when to plant their crops. While some aspects of African American Christianity bear the mark of Africa, these biblical interpretations endorsing slave rebellion were directly related to the experience of slavery, as Frederick Douglass once said to a white minister at an antislavery meeting: "If the reverend gentleman had worked on plantations where I have been, he would have met overseers who would have whipped him in five minutes out of his willingness to wait for liberty." Many Black abolitionists saw violence as an acceptable tactic for liberation because they recognized slavery to be a system of terror whose authors were immune to moral arguments. Douglass's stories, whether told on the speaker's podium or in his writing, suggested that the use of brutality against slaves had perverted the souls of the slaveholders, destroying the womanhood of slave mistresses and hardening the hearts of slave masters. He emphasized the irrelevance of moral suasion in his description of the terrible beatings his aunt received from Captain Anthony in Maryland:

I have often been awakened at the dawn of the day by the most heartrending shrieks of an old Aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist and whip upon her naked back until she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. Where the blood ran fastest there he whipped longest, he would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.

By 1831, former slaves seemed to agree almost to a person that the slaveholders' religion was hypocrisy. At the same time, shortly after Nat Turner's rebellion, slave masters in the South began to preach a particularly pacific brand of Christianity to slaves. White abolitionists, like Black abolitionists, reminded their countrymen of the American revolutionary tradition when they talked about slave rebellions, and in many cases they used the Bible to justify their cause. William Lloyd Garrison, who opposed violence in general, jocularly commented after hearing the popular song "Fall Tyrants Fall" sung on the Fourth of July with its lyric, "How noble the ardor that seizes the soul / how it bursts from the yoke and the chain / what pow'r can the fervor of freedom control / or its terrible vengeance restrain," that all Americans must be hoping and praying for the coming of slave insurrection. Garrison also suggested that Americans were "patriotic hypocrites" in the days after the Nat Turner revolt, for writing panegyrics to "Frenchmen, Greeks and Poles" and yet reproaching Turner and his band. The radical white abolitionists described slavery as a continuing state of war against slaves, distributing such striking texts as Theodore Dwight Weld's American Slavery as It Is, with its revealing lists of advertisements for runaway slaves. In addition, white and Black abolitionists alike referred to America's frontier heroes when they looked for precedents to justify disobeying laws that supported slavery. How could Americans celebrate Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson and yet demand that abolitionists follow the laws of slavery? they asked. For slaves and free Blacks, and for many white abolitionists, slave rebels were heroes.

However, the best-known white abolitionists, the Garrisonians, were dedicated to the philosophy of "nonresistance" and refused to extol the use of force against slavery. For this reason, when many historians write about John Brown, who became the most famous martyr of the abolition movement following his raid on Harper's Ferry and hanging by the State of Virginia in the fall of 1859, they have asked two questions: Why did this particular man turn to the use of violence, and why did nonresistant abolitionists celebrate him as a martyr? However, for a man who chose to be a hero in a time of heroism, the choice to be nonviolent was more deviant from national culture than was the use of force. The unusual aspect of John Brown in the nineteenth century was not that he, a white man, chose to use force but, rather, that he, a white man, sought to organize a slave rebellion. Consequently, it was Brown's effort to raise a "slave rebellion" and not his use of violence in general that had to be expunged from his legend by the people who originally crafted him as a hero in the days before the Civil War.

Violence and Nineteenth-Century Heroism

John Brown lived in a time when America openly celebrated heroic fighters. From the 1830s to the 1850s, Americans celebrated violent acts as regenerative, and those who perpetrated them were the great heroes of republicanism. While western settlers championed their victories over Native Americans and Mexicans as evidence of their own natural superiority and destiny, revolutions rocked Europe, Africa, India, and the Caribbean. In the era of the 1830 and 1848 revolutions, romantic theorists argued that a nation's ability to win self-determination against tyrannical rule was the test of strength that proved a necessary prerequisite before any subjugated nation could argue for its independence as a natural right. Sam Houston, for example, "elevated the importance of freedom achieved through armed and willful action: the 'soldier-citizen,' like the 'pioneers' engaged in a contest against overwhelming odds that displayed 'unsubduable courage,' 'bold and generous daring,' and 'independent might.'" Even as Americans subjugated their Native neighbors, they heralded European struggles against tyrannical regimes in the name of national self determination as heroic. Just as Johann Gottfried von Herder, the German romantic, had heralded each nation's unique traits and tendencies, so Americans described each country and each race with its own unique character traits and argued that rebellions proved an actual genetic inheritance of freedom. In contrast, subjugated nations were deemed "dying races" doomed to extinction. The American excitement for war, particularly in the aggressive attack on Mexico in 1846, was striking enough that, according to one German observer in Chicago, "You Americans are the most ferociously warlike people that I have ever known." Ned Buntline's and George Lippard's popular accounts of western adventures, argues Shelley Streeby, promoted "empire as redemptive, where damaged urban masculinity might be rehabilitated." In American cities, where rioting had long held a place in civic culture, the republican doctrine that physical courage was evidence of natural rights for white men made it difficult to oppose the continuation of the "politics out of doors," even following the extension of suffrage to all white men in the 1820s. In the "age of Jackson," American political life drew in masses through highly partisan agitation; popular, cheap newspapers with party affiliations flourished; voter turnout increased to 75 percent; and people attended political meetings, rallies, and lectures regularly. Religious revivals championed emotional experiences and led masses of people into political reform. Political parties inspired intense loyalty and castigated their opponents as dangerous to national safety, arguing that attempts to curb local self-determination were secretly efforts to reinstall the pre1812 rules of Federalism. Election Day thus became a major day for rioting. The riots increased in both frequency and ferocity to the extent that many called 1834 "the riot year." In 1841 in Rhode Island, mobs, while proclaiming themselves to be egalitarian, were often enforcers of existing hierarchies. Young working-class men terrorized houses of prostitution in "bully attacks" on brothels that reinforced gender hierarchies. Antiabolitionist mobs attacked the abolitionists as "Jacobins" and race mixers. Such mobs were not that unusual, as the New York Sun editorialized: "It is not a difficult matter to get up in our city one of those elegant assemblages called a mob." While Democrats such as Walt Whitman lauded nativist rioters in New York, Whig activists referred to mobs as the mere weapons of ruling class demagogues, repeating a neo-Aristotelian conception of the link between masses and tyrants. Abraham Lincoln, a young Whig, spoke against popular violence, following the lynching of five gamblers in Vicksburg, attempting to replace the cult of rebellious violence with the political religion of law. Lincoln's argument did not immediately win everyone over, for, according to the western historian Richard Maxwell Brown, "During the nineteenth century and into the twentieth ... Americans saw vigilante participation as an act of public spirit as important in its own way as election of public officials." The use of violence to enforce order was especially popular, and those who joined vigilante groups or supported them saw the use of violence to enforce community norms as part of their rights as citizens. "The people of this country are the real sovereigns," declared the Indiana Regulators in 1858. "Whenever the laws, made by those to whom they have delegated their authority, are found inadequate to their protection, it is the right of the people to take the protection of their property into their own hands and deal with those villains according to their just desserts." George Templeton Strong, aristocrat of New York, seemed to admire the 1856 San Francisco Vigilance Committee and noted in his diary: "San Francisco is in anarchy.... The vigilance committee has acquired the highest office.... The committee treats habeas corpus as a nullity ... but ... claims to represent all the respectability, property and honesty of San Francisco, and if so, I hope its experiment may succeed. One like it will have to be tried in New York in ten years." Ralph Waldo Emerson, too, approved of California's rule "by the bowie knife and the revolver." Even the seemingly rebellious crowds of New York, Philadelphia, and other major cities were more regulatory than rebellious in their energy. In Gentlemen of Property and Standing, Leonard Richards notes the preponderance of the well-to-do in the antiabolition mobs of the 1830s and demonstrates their role as protectors not of democracy, but of existing social structures. The most intense period of anti-abolition rioting was led by respectable town leaders and defended "the established order against the encroachments of internal subversives." The riots' leaders attacked the abolitionists whose goal, they claimed, was to incite slave rebellions and compared them to French revolutionaries. In 1834, Ephraim Hart of Connecticut announced that if the abolitionists were allowed to speak, "The niggers will be excited to rise and murder their masters and the white population." Cities maintained a racial double standard for rioters, demanding in Philadelphia, for example, that "Blacks should behave inoffensively and with civility at all times" to avoid making whites angry. Apparently, they were not docile enough, because in the antebellum North, Blacks were ten times more likely to go to jail than were whites. Although the historian of mass violence Paul Gilje argues that few would defend rioting after 1819, rioting continued to be part of urban politics well into the 1850s, even if Whig newspaper editors bemoaned it. In his newspaper, the Subterranean, the Jacksonian Mike Walsh announced that he would "light upon" George H. Woolridge, the "pimp and brothel chronicler" like "an angel of God," proudly described his fistfights with "thieves and blackguards" who opposed his newspaper and, in the name of white supremacy, threatened to "flatten" Rhode Island's State House and "pillage" Providence because it had awarded Blacks suffrage following the "Dorr War" of 1842. His "Spartan" gang played a pivotal role in New York election riots in the Sixth Ward in 1842, but this did not hurt Walsh, who won "overwhelmingly" there when he ran for Congress in 1854. According to Sean Wilentz, who sees Walsh as a kind of anticapitalist hero, "His use of force was perfectly in keeping with the rough-house standards of the 1840s." William Tweed (before he became "Boss" Tweed) was expelled from his fire company for swinging an ax at a rival fireman, but that did not end his political career. He won the alderman's position in the following election year. Similarly, the leader of the Irish street gang the Killers, William McMullen, became an important leader in Democratic Party politics in Philadelphia following his stint in the Mexican-American War. (Continues...)

Excerpted from Men, Mobs, and Law by Rebecca N. Hill Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. John Brown: The Left's Great Man 27

2. Haymarket 69

3. Anti-Lynching and Labor Defense: Intersections and Contradictions 112

4. No Wives or Family Encumber Them: Sacco and Vanzetti 162

5. The Communist Party and the Defense Tradition from Scottsboro to the Rosenbergs 209

6. Born Guilty: George Jackson and the Return of the Lumpen Hero 265

Conclusion 315

Notes 323

Index 398

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