“Democracy is predicated upon the principle of majority rule. In applying this principle to our political life, we find that our politico-economic masters have done an excellent job by accepting Democracy in theory, while they nullify it in practice. Through numerous subterfuges, such as race, poll tax, the domination of the two political parties by our economic rulers, literacy tests and other ways, democracy has been trampled under foot by a brazen but powerful minority. This minority has succeeded in dividing the majority on the bases of race, religion, sex, and what not, with the result that on election day they go to the polls, not as propertyless, exploited people seeking socioeconomic and political justice, but as white vs. blacks, good vs. bad, and so forth,” Frank Crosswaith, letter to the editor, the New York Age, Oct. 8, 1938.
One of the added delights of this research into my father’s writings is stumbling upon the voices of his colleagues and contemporaries. For weeks, I have been looking for something that might have some historical resonance to the voter suppression activities that are taking place in 2012. I also was looking for something that might be appropriate for Labor Day.
I found a twofer, not among my father’s columns, but in a letter to the editor that ran in his paper written by Frank Crosswaith (1892-1965), a New York labor leader. Born in what is now the U. S. Virgin Islands, Crosswaith came to New York at the age of 13 and devoted his life to improving labor conditions for workers, particularly those in Harlem. A biography on the New York Public Library’s website describes him as “one of the most effective organizers of black workers in New York City,” during the 20s and 30s.
Though Crosswaith was based in Harlem and worked closely with unions that had significant numbers of blacks among their ranks, he also embraced and championed the cause of the white working class. He ran as the Socialist candidate for several statewide offices and although his election bids were unsuccessful, he drew strong multiracial support.
Periodically, Crosswaith and my father gave one another a nod in print. Crosswaith wrote a letter praising one of my father’s columns, which Ebenezer then printed in his Dottings space on Jan. 1, 1938. My father once singled out Crosswaith as one of the few orators who took spoke on the streets of Harlem who were worth listening to and would not massacre “the King’s English.”
In that Oct. 8 letter to the editor in the New York Age, Crosswaith singled out Sen. Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith (D-South Carolina). According to Wikipedia, Smith earned his nickname while serving in the House of Representatives when he said: “Cotton is king and white is supreme.” Smith opposed women’s suffrage, arguing that it would apply the same rights as the 15th Amendment had granted to “the other half of the Negro race.”
During the 1938 Democratic Convention, Smith walked out when he saw that a black man was going to offer the invocation.
“Some day,” Crosswaith wrote, “we are confident the people both black and white — the poor people who work in the mills and mine, in factory, on railroads in the school houses and on the farms will get wise to the Smiths and others who have kept them consigned to a life of long hard labor, who have robbed them of their labor power, who have prevented them from getting a full view of life, who have narrowed their vision to a glimpse of life only from behind the squalid walls of the slums. Some day these people will rise up; the scales of ignorance will fall from their eyes, they will learn at last to appreciate the power which is theirs through their numbers and their vital importance to industry and agriculture. And when that day comes, the bogey of race superiority, so attractive today, will be exposed for what it is: namely a device to weaken the ranks of the Negro and the white working class and thus continue the exploitation by a clever, scheming minority. “
To Cotton Ed Smith and “others of his ilk” Crosswaith had this message:
“Have your fun while you may . . . Today is your day. In the very nature of things yours can be but a temporary victory which the united and enlightened action of all workers irrespective of race, creed, color, sex or nationality will inevitably destroy.“