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Jeffrey B. Perry Blog

A Letter of Support Re: The Black Justice League Protests at Princeton by Jeffrey B. Perry and Gene Bruskin--

In 1964, as Princeton freshmen we were told that Woodrow Wilson had been a leading Progressive, a proponent of “Democracy,” and a champion of self-determination abroad. It is good to see students today challenging that picture.

Wilson’s record was deplorable on the “race question.” He cut back federal appointments of African Americans; supported showings of the white-supremacist film "The Birth of a Nation" for himself, his Cabinet, Congress, and the Supreme Court; stood by silently as segregation was formalized in the Post Office, Treasury, Interior, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and Navy; did nothing as almost two dozen segregation-supporting legislative attempts including exclusion of Black immigrants, segregation of streetcars, and a ban on inter-racial marriages in the District of Columbia were introduced in the House and Senate; and declined to use any significant power of office to address lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement and the vicious white-supremacist attacks on twenty-six African American communities including Washington, DC, Chicago, and East St. Louis that occurred during his administration.

Under Wilson the U.S. not only implemented the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act of 1918, and the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920, it also occupied Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Nicaragua and intervened in Panama, Honduras, and Mexico. Nevertheless, Wilson ran for President in 1916 on a campaign slogan “he kept us out of war,” posed before the world as a champion of democracy, and prated of “the rights of small nationalities,” of “self-determination,” and of “the right of all who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government.” In addition to the awful horrors let loose on small countries pre-war, in the postwar period he also helped to pave the way for partition, occupation, and conquest in the Middle East and Africa and for future wars.

There were contemporaries of Wilson, people like the intellectual/activist Hubert Harrison, the founder of the first organization (the Liberty League) and first newspaper (The Voice) of the militant “New Negro Movement,” who saw through the misleading portrait of Wilson so often found in the media and history books. Harrison understood that while lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement marred this land, and while the U.S. brazenly attacked smaller countries, “Wilson's protestations of democracy were lying protestations, consciously, and deliberately designed to deceive.” At the founding meeting of the Liberty League in June 1917, Harrison posed a direct challenge to Wilson who had claimed the U.S. was entering World War I in order to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” Harrison’s mass meeting was called, as its organizational flyer headlined, to "Stop Lynching and Disfranchisement in the Land Which We Love and Make the South 'Safe For Democracy.'" A month later Harrison led a second major Harlem rally to protest the white supremacist “pogrom” (his word) in East St. Louis, Illinois (15 miles from Ferguson, Missouri).

We are glad that the Black Justice League is raising some of these issues, opening the eyes of many, and helping to point the way forward in the 21st century.

Dr. Jeffrey B. Perry ‘68
jeffreybperry@gmail.com
Editor of the new expanded edition of Hubert H. Harrison, When Africa Awakes: The "Inside Story" of the Stirrings and Strivings of the New Negro in the Western World and author of Hubert Harrison, The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 (Columbia University Press)

Gene Bruskin ‘68
genebruskin@gmail.com
Founder, U.S. Labor Against the War
Trade Unionist

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July 4, 1917: Hubert Harrison Urges Armed Self-Defense at Harlem Rally Jeffrey B. Perry Zinn Education Project

On July 4, 1917, The Voice: A Newspaper for the New Negro—the first newspaper of the “New Negro Movement,” edited by Hubert H. Harrison—made its debut at a rally at the Metropolitan Baptist Church at 120 W. 138th Street, between Lenox and Seventh Avenues in Harlem.

The rally was called by Harrison’s Liberty League (which was the first organization of the “New Negro Movement” and which Marcus Garvey and many other activists joined). The rally drew national attention as it protested against lynching, segregation, and disfranchisement.

The protest rally came in the wake of two series of white supremacist pogroms (from May 27–May 30 and July 1–3, 1917) against the African American community of East St. Louis, Illinois. Estimates of the number of African Americans killed in East St. Louis ranged from 39 to 250 and the attacks were widely attributed to “white” labor’s opposition to Black workers.

At the rally Harrison reportedly said, “They are saying a great deal about democracy in Washington now,” but, “while they are talking about fighting for freedom and the Stars and Stripes, here at home the white apply the torch to the black men’s homes, and bullets, clubs and stones to their bodies.”

As president of the Liberty League, Harrison advised Black people who faced mob violence in the South and elsewhere to take direct action and “supply themselves with rifles and fight if necessary, to defend their lives and property.”

According to the New York Times, Harrison received great applause when he declared that “the time had come for the Negroes [to] do what white men who were threatened did, look out for themselves, and kill rather than submit to be killed.” He was quoted as saying, “We intend to fight if we must . . . for the things dearest to us, for our hearths and homes,” and he encouraged Black people everywhere who did not enjoy the protection of the law “to arm for their own defense, to hide their arms, and to learn how to use them.”

He also called for a collection of money to buy rifles for those who could not obtain them, emphasizing that “Negroes in New York cannot afford to lie down in the face of this” because “East St. Louis touches us too nearly.”

As he later put it, “‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ and sometimes two eyes or a half dozen teeth for one is the aim of the New Negro.”

Harrison stressed that it was imperative to “demand justice” and to “make our voices heard.”

See the article with related links and graphic at HERE

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