Peter Cole's Blog

The Great Black Radical You’ve Never Heard Of

By Peter Cole
In These Times
December 1st, 2020

Ben Fletcher, photographed upon arrival at the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas, September 1918. After being found guilty of “espionage and sedition,” he was sentenced to ten years in federal prison and fined $30,000. Bureau of Prisons, Department of Justice, U.S. National Archives

In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, when many U.S. unions dis­grace­ful­ly exclud­ed Asian, Black and Lat­inx work­ers, the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW) warm­ly wel­comed peo­ple of col­or. This rev­o­lu­tion­ary union, whose mem­bers affec­tion­ate­ly are known as Wob­blies, empha­sizes class strug­gle sol­i­dar­i­ty in its leg­endary mot­to: ​“An Injury to One Is an Injury to All!” 

Ben Fletch­er, an African Amer­i­can who helped lead the IWW’s most mil­i­tant and effec­tive inter­ra­cial branch, epit­o­mized the union’s brand of anti-cap­i­tal­ism and antiracism. Fletch­er (1890−1949) was a tremen­dous­ly impor­tant and well-loved mem­ber of the IWW dur­ing its hey­day, the first quar­ter of the 20th cen­tu­ry. A bril­liant union orga­niz­er and a humor­ous ora­tor, Fletch­er helped found and lead Local 8 of the IWW’s Marine Trans­port Work­ers Indus­tri­al Union. When found­ed in 1913, this union was a third African Amer­i­can, a third Irish and Irish Amer­i­can, and a third oth­er Euro­pean immi­grants. Despite being hat­ed by the boss­es and red­bait­ed by the gov­ern­ment, Local 8 con­trolled the water­front for almost a decade.

My new book, Ben Fletch­er: The Life and Times of a Black Wob­bly (PM Press)tells the sto­ry of one of the great­est heroes of the Amer­i­can work­ing class. For 25 years, I have researched him and his union, painstak­ing­ly uncov­er­ing a stun­ning range of doc­u­ments relat­ed to this extra­or­di­nary man. The book includes a detailed bio­graph­i­cal intro­duc­tion of his life and his­to­ry, rem­i­nis­cences by fel­low work­ers who knew him, a chron­i­cle of the IWW’s impres­sive, decade-long run on the Philadel­phia water­front in which Fletch­er played a piv­otal role, and near­ly all of his known writ­ings and speech­es. In an era of soar­ing inequal­i­ty and the largest wave of protests in favor of racial equal­i­ty in half a cen­tu­ry, Fletcher’s time­less voice could inspire a new gen­er­a­tion of work­ers, orga­niz­ers and agitators. 

To give a sense of the man and the book, below is an excerpt of an inter­view Fletch­er gave, in 1931, to the Ams­ter­dam News, his only known inter­view. It reveals a great deal about Fletcher’s expe­ri­ences pri­or to the fed­er­al tri­al in Chica­go in 1918 (in which near­ly 100 IWW lead­ers were charged with vio­lat­ing the Espi­onage and Sedi­tion Acts passed dur­ing the wartime fren­zy of hyper-patri­o­tism), unwa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to the IWW, and rev­o­lu­tion­ary indus­tri­al union­ism. Fletch­er also describes how he was near­ly lynched in Nor­folk, Vir­ginia in 1917.

The Ams­ter­dam News is among the old­er still-oper­at­ing Black news­pa­pers in the Unit­ed States. Found­ed in 1909 and named after a major street in Harlem, this week­ly news­pa­per is geared to the Black com­mu­ni­ty of New York City. The paper long has been a voice for equal rights and pow­er and none oth­er than Mal­colm X wrote a col­umn in the paper. Its work­force union­ized in 1936 and remains so.

Ben Fletch­er, long-time IWW orga­niz­er, drew a deep puff of his cig­ar and looked placid­ly out of the win­dow as he con­clud­ed the rem­i­nis­cences of his rad­i­cal activ­i­ties which led to his impris­on­ment in 1918 along with 100 oth­er mem­bers of the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World in the Fed­er­al Pen­i­ten­tiary at Leav­en­worth on indict­ments returned against them by a Gov­ern­ment pos­sessed of a wartime hysteria.

A sim­ple tale he told. The sto­ry of his life as a class-con­scious work­er. The sto­ry of how he had been turned to IWW by the dis­crim­i­na­to­ry prac­tices and craft lim­i­ta­tions of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor unions; of how he had orga­nized long­shore­men along the coast from Boston to Nor­folk; of how he had been smug­gled out of the lat­ter city by friends after the ship­ping inter­ests had threat­ened him with lynch­ing; of how he had to force him­self into that Fed­er­al court­room in Chica­go, where for nine­teen weeks he and 112 oth­er lead­ers of the syn­di­cal­ist move­ment stood tri­al on charges of espi­onage and obstruct­ing the Government’s war pro­gram, and final­ly of the two years and six months of the ten-year sen­tence he served in the Fed­er­al penitentiary.

​“I was prepar­ing the long­shore­men of Bal­ti­more for a strike in 1917 for high­er wages, short­er hours and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions when I received instruc­tions from head­quar­ters to pro­ceed to Nor­folk where the dock work­ers were becom­ing rest­less and ask­ing that an orga­niz­er be sent them,” Fletch­er began.

​“I found the men respon­sive and eager for a union. But I had not been in town long before word was cir­cu­lat­ed that I rep­re­sent­ed a dan­ger­ous ele­ment set on the destruc­tion of prop­er­ty and the over­throw of the Gov­ern­ment. Then I began receiv­ing mes­sages of a threat­en­ing char­ac­ter. I would be lynched if I spread that doc­trine around Nor­folk, I was told. One night, friends, fear­ing that my life was in dan­ger, smug­gled me aboard a north­bound ship to Boston.”

​“By this time the Gov­ern­ment, spurred on by the lum­ber and cop­per inter­ests of the West, had set about a delib­er­ate plan to erad­i­cate the IWW, which was grow­ing rapid­ly in num­bers, gain­ing con­trol of cer­tain impor­tant indus­tries, and threat­en­ing the suprema­cy of the AF of L, which the Gov­ern­ment con­sis­tent­ly favored through­out the war period.”

​“It was while I was work­ing in Boston that I received a tip that I was in line for indict­ment by a Fed­er­al Grand Jury. Accept­ing this tip as authen­tic I returned to my home in Philadel­phia, where I pre­ferred to be placed under arrest. The next week I read in the paper that indict­ments had been returned against 166 of us and that we were to be arrest­ed on sight.”

Ben Fletch­er paused long enough to relight his cig­ar and to glance reflec­tive­ly about the room; to think again of the days when his orga­ni­za­tion was a ral­ly­ing ground for the rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers of the coun­try; when it con­sti­tut­ed enough of a threat to com­pel the atten­tion of the Gov­ern­ment; when it had cards issued to a mil­lion work­ers includ­ing 100,000 black men and women whose mem­ber­ship was dis­cour­aged or barred by the AF of L unions. Times have changed and now with its scant 3,000 dues pay­ing mem­bers it is lit­tle more than a pro­le­tar­i­an sect.

​“For more than months,” he said, tak­ing up the thread of his nar­ra­tive, ​“I remained in Philadel­phia, a fugi­tive from jus­tice yet going about my work with no effort to con­ceal my iden­ti­ty. Dur­ing this peri­od I was work­ing in a round­house [loco­mo­tive main­te­nance shed built around a turntable] of the Penn­syl­va­nia Railroad.”

​“One day — it was Feb­ru­ary 9, 1918 — two strangers appeared at my door. They were spe­cial agents of the Gov­ern­ment. They placed me under arrest and I was held in $10,000 bail. After being impris­oned for two weeks bail was reduced to $1,500 by the Fed­er­al dis­trict attor­ney. This was secured by the IWW local and I was released.”

​“Sum­moned to appear in court in Chica­go on April 1, I arrived two hours late due to a train wreck. Mak­ing my way through the Fed­er­al agents and police who swarmed the cor­ri­dors I was blocked at the court­room door by the chief bailiff, who inquired:

“’What do you want in here’?”

“’I belong in here’.”

“’Oh, a wise boy from the South side want to see the show’?”

“’No, I’m one of the actors.

​“Take that stuff away. You can’t get in here’.”

​“Insist­ing that I belonged there I pulled out my card and told him to go in and see if Ben Fletcher’s name wasn’t on the indict­ment. He left the door in charge of assis­tants, went in and return­ing announced: ​‘He’s Ben Fletch­er, all right. Let him in.’”

​“And then I walked into the court­room and into the Fed­er­al penitentiary’.”

“Some Peo­ple Are Tak­en to Jail, But Ben Fletch­er Just ​‘Went In’,” Ams­ter­dam News­De­cem­ber 30, 1931, p. 16.

Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly

Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University in Macomb and a research associate in the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Cole is the author of the award-winning Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area and Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia. He coedited Wobblies of the World: A Global History of the IWW. He is the founder and codirector of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project.

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