Resistance, Rebellion & Revolution: The United States
From the plantations of the Black Belt South to the factories of the big cities, working women In the U.S. have always played an heroic role in the resistance against capitalist exploitation and national oppression.
Harriet Tubman was a staunch revolutionary fighter against slavery and the most valiant conductor of the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad provided safe houses and .transportation for escaped slaves on their way to the northern states and Canada. It aided over 60,000 slaves to escape to freedom. Its thousands of collaborators directly challenged the Fugitive Slave Law and defied long prison terms and death at the hands of pro-slavery lynch mobs.
After escaping from slavery herself, Harriet Tubman returned to the South 19 times between 1849 and 1861 and led 300 slaves to freedom. Her courage made her a legend in the North and South alike, inspiring hope among the slaves and fear among the slaveowners, who offered a $40,000 bounty for her capture, dead or alive. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, she once again returned to the South, working for the Union Army in South Carolina. At the head of a unit of Afro-American guerilla fighters she led many daring missions behind enemy lines, gathering intelligence, carrying out sabotage, and liberating slaves.
Ella Mae Wiggins
Ella Mae Wiggins was an Anglo-American strike leader in Gastonia, North Carolina who was shot through the heart on her way to a union meeting on September 14, 1929. A group of hired thugs from the company fired into a truck of strikers and Ella Mae fell dead.
Ella Mae Wiggins was 29 years old when she was murdered. She worked in a textile mill and had given birth to 9 children. All of her children caught whooping cough at one time. She was working nights and didn't have anyone to care for them. She asked the foreman to switch her to day shift so she could tend the children but he refused. She had to quit her job to care for the children. Unemployed, there wasn't enough money for medicine and four of her children died.
In 1929 textile workers in North Carolina averaged earnings of $10 a week. The age of the workers ranged from 13-60 years. They worked 10-11 hour shifts. In Gastonia the shifts were 12 hours. Many times the workers had to work 6 days a week. 50% of the textile workers were women. When the company proposed wage cuts, the workers went out on strike.
In the spring of 1929 there were 18,000 textile workers on strike in 15 different communities in North Carolina. These strikes took place in company towns: company townsmeans the company owns the houses, the stores, the church, the school, the doctor, the school teacher, the preacher. Strikers were evicted from their homes, their children thrown out of schools; the company-controlled newspapers and preachers ranted and raved against the strikers. The strikers’ headquarters in Gastonia, a small shack, was attacked by a mob of thugs and burned down. The strikers defended their headquarters and their lives with arms and during this attack the chief of police was killed. Strike leaders were hounded down and arrested, tried and given long sentences in prison for this righteous act of self-defense.
The Gastonia strike was lead by the National Textile Workers Union, a revolutionary union initiated and led by the then-revolutionary Communist Party, USA. Ella Mae Wiggins embraced the revolutionary spirit and leadership of the strike and took upon herself the building of unity with the handful of Afro-American workers who were employed in the textile industry. She knew that the unity between Anglo-American and Afro-American workers was critical to building the unity of the entire working class.
Ella Mae Wiggins was not only a strike leader, she was also a songwriter. She wrote and sang songs throughout the strike, on the picket lines, at rallies and outside the jail. Her music is a rich legacy of the revolutionary spirit of this struggle. As they laid her in her grave, her fellow workers sang "The Mill Mother's Lament" a song written by Ella Mae that sums up the terrible suffering of the women in the textile factories:
Ella Mae Wiggins
Mill Mother's Lamentby Ella Mae Wiggins
|We leave our homes in the morn-ing We kiss our chil-dren good-bye,|
|While we slave for the boss-es, Our chil-dren scream and cry.|
We leave our homes in the morning,
We kiss our children good-bye,
While we slave for the bosses
Our children scream and cry.
And when we draw our money,
Our grocery bills to pay,
Not a cent to spend for clothing,
Not a cent to lay away.
And on that very evening
Our little son will say:
"I need some shoes, mother,
And so does sister May."
How it grieves the heart of a mother
Now everyone must know.
But we can't buy for our children,
Our wages are too low.
It is for our little children,
That seems to us so dear,
But for us nor them, dear workers,
The bosses do not care.
But understand all workers,
Our union they do fear.
Let's stand together, workers,
And have a union here.
"I Hate the Capitalist System"by Sara Ogan Gunning
The words to this song were written by Sara Ogan Gunning, a mountain woman whose husband was a coal miner. Her husband and father both died from "black lung" caused by breathing coal dust in the mines. Her baby son died of starvation. The experiences she wrote about in her songs are shared by working women throughout the U.S.
|I — hate the Cap't - list sys - tem, — I'll|
|D A7 D|
|tell you the rea - son why, They caused me so much|
|G A7 D|
|suff - 'ring, — And my dear - est friends to — die.|
Oh yes, I guess you wonder
What have they done to me
Well, I am going to tell you,
My husband had T.B.
Hard work and low wages
And not enough to eat,
Going naked and hungry,
No shoes on his feet.
I had a blue-eyed baby
The darling of my heart
But from my little darling
Her mother had to part.
The rich and mighty capitalists,
They dress in jewels and silk;
But my darling blue-eyed baby,
She starved to death for milk.
I had a darling mother,
For her I often cried,
But with these rotten conditions
My mother had to die.
"Well, what killed your mother?"
I heard some capitalist say,
Was hard work and starvation
My mother had to pay
They call this a land of plenty
For them I guess its true;
That's for the rich old capitalists
Not workers like me and you.
Oh what can you do about it,
To these men of power and might?
I tell you Mr. Capitalist,
I'm going to fight and fight and fight.
My Life and Strugglesby Willie Mae Brown
I want to tell you a little bit about my life. I have suffered exploitation and oppression as an Afro-American, as a woman and as a worker. But I have learned that the capitalist system is the cause of this suffering and that only revolutionary change can put an end to it.
My mother was just 5 days away from her 15th birthday when I was born in 1931. So I was raised by my grandparents. When I was six years old, my grandparents moved from what we called the hills, to the Delta. The delta is land at the edge of the hills, very rich land. Everything that you planted on it grew, so we moved there.
My grandmother worked for some of the rich landowners there. The first person she worked for was very rich. Her salary some months was $10.00. She was lucky enough to get a raise from the second person she worked for; her salary was raised to eighteen dollars a month. She worked very hard. She did things like tend the garden, plant the seeds in the garden, preserve the food, she did all of this. She also had to be at work for 5:00 am in the morning. That's the time the rich landowner ate his breakfast. Alone. At 9:00 in the morning she had to fix breakfast for his wife and from around 11:00 to noon, his son may have gotten up to eat. All of this took a very long time, but of course she had to do it. She also did the washing and ironing, and this was sometimes not for the person she worked for but was for other people, to try to supplement her salary.
I remember that she had to wash the clothes over the scrub board and they had these old black pots that she had to boil these things in to get them white. The wife of the landowner wanted her clothes starched, even her sheets, pillow cases, and her husband's underwear. She wanted everything ironed. She wanted to put it away ironed.
My grandfather also worked. He tended the barn. He kept the mules in shape, he fed them. This was an all-day job. He had a little better salary which was $20 a month.
When my grandmother finished the meals for the people, she went home around 3:00 o'clock in the evening, and she had to come back for 5:30-6:00 p.m. to prepare supper for them. So really her whole day was taken up at that house, because she had to prepare the meals and it wasn't until 7:00-8:00 o'clock at night that she would get off.
During the winter months she sent me to a religious school that was very strict. I had to drop out because the tuition at that time was $50 a month, and with my grandmother's salary she couldn't afford it.
So I had to help out to get things that I needed. I worked, I picked cotton for a dollar per hundred pounds, that's a penny a pound. I hoed cotton for a dollar a day which was very bad. We had to leave in the morning on the truck to go out in the hot sun and work from sun up to sun down and you weren't allowed to lolly gag. We only got to eat one meal. You weren't allowed to get water. You had to wear clothes, because the sun was beating down on you and you had to cover yourself up. We were under constant pressure from the overseer that they had in the fields. They wouldn't allow you to chop down their cotton, if you did you'd get fired. Sometimes I cut it down; I couldn't help it really, so I'd pick it up and put it in my pocket. That was the way that I kept the job. But you couldn't even go to the bathroom, that was the least thing they should have let you do, you just had to not go. If you went to the bathroom in the woods you'd be fired. The landowner was an odd, queer man, he was just like the first people that I read about in slavery. He had the opportunity to get any woman that he wanted on the plantation and if they didn't submit to him, well he would make it hard for them. Usually he would get the younger women and he had some children by them. He approached me; I was one of his victims.
Life on the plantation is very bad. You work hard and you never have any future in your work. It's not much different today than it was when I was coming up. There are families of a lot of people, I'd say sometimes from ten to fifteen people in the family. All those people have to work. There is no school during the months that the plantation is working. Your kids can't go to school.
What makes me feel bad about the way they treated the people, was that some people would have somewhere around forty or fifty bales or cotton that they would have picked every year. I don't remember exactly what bales of cotton sold for but I'm sure that it was a sum that was good. November was the time of year that they settled with the people. But even working all year some people did not get a dime. They didn't get anything and they ended up owing the landowner.
The food that we ate consisted primarily of fat back, molasses, bread, and biscuits. You had to get all this from the commissary. Most of the people were illiterate, they couldn't count, they didn't know their names as written down, so they had to depend on the landowner's bookkeeper to keep books for them. And we know that he cheated, because anytime you have 40-50 bales of cotton a year you should draw some money. But most of the people ended up not only getting nothing but owing the landowner. This was the way of keeping them down, cause they were not allowed to leave the plantation. They had to stay there. If they tried to leave, then he'd have the sheriff pick them up.
Well, I just look back on that, and I find out that the landowner made a lot of money off people. He had two plantations adjoining each other and he left all this to his son who never really did anything. In fact he didn't even have to serve in the armed forces because they bought his way out. He didn't have to do anything.
I stayed on the plantation until I was 16 years old. I went to Jackson, Mississippi and I lived there awhile and some years later I got married to a musician and moved to New Orleans. I was happily married and I always did want a large family because I was raised alone and I always wanted company. I thought that kids were the best thing that I could have had. This was still not the best thing that I did because that was a lot of responsibility for my husband and me. He was a musician and at the time, back in the 50's, work was hard to come about. After he worked in the French Quarter for a while, the go-go girls started going in, white go-go girls that weren't dressed too well. All the musicians lost their jobs in the French Quarter so they had to go elsewhere to look for work. He tried a few bands and, well, they didn't pay too much. At that time you didn't get very much when you played here in the city. $10 a night was a pretty good price for a musician starting out. So that was a large responsibility on us.
We had a pretty happy marriage until the kids started getting larger and wanting more things and he just couldn't afford to give it to them. I think it affected him more so than me. Anyway, he started fooling with drugs and I think drugs destroyed him. Each little problem brought on more drugs and after my son started having problems with the police, well that really got him. He always felt guilty that maybe it was his fault that this happened.
I know now that these drugs were designed to destroy people; it wasn't just by chance that they were put there. They were put there so they can keep the people from awakening, so they can keep the Black people's minds dead.
I got my first job in 1967 in a department store downtown, that was about the time that my husband and I broke up. I didn't have any money; I had to work because I had gotten to the last point in my life that I thought I could stand. I didn't have money to pay my rent. I didn't have money to pay the utilities and only a meager supply of food and stuff in the house to feed the kids. But I raised my kids in a way that they accepted this and it wasn't a problem like some kids that you know of who complain all the time.
So when 1 started working, I worked 8 hours a day and I had to depend on my eldest son to do the cooking and so forth. But I didn't have a large enough salary to support them, so we still didn't have money to really live well. But I thought at the time that this was good that I was working, not knowing that this was affecting me or affecting my health.
My next encounter was on the New Orleans lakefront in 1978 with the police. My family was on an outing on Lakeshore Drive. We were playing games and thought we were having fun when we were attacked by a group of whites. They were yelling racist names at us and said that we were on the "wrong side"; what they meant was the "white side" of the lakefront.
At that time we didn't know who they were. They attacked us with sticks. One of the attackers, a lady, hit my 16-year-old daughter with the butt of a gun and caused a terrible wound. I guess we would have been killed if it had not been for someone who called the uniformed police. They came in and didn't arrest the people who attacked us. We discovered then that the whites who had attacked us were members of the New Orleans Police Department. We didn't know that to begin with. So after that we couldn't say anything to the police. We weren't allowed to say anything. They took us and they arrested five of the people in our group. The only reason they didn't arrest everybody was because everybody wasn't out there. Some people had gone with my daughter to try to get the blood cleaned off her.
We tried to pursue it in court and didn't get any relief. They didn't believe anything we said anyway because the police were involved. We still have charges on our records: aggravated battery on an officer. I never passed a lick and I don't think anybody else did unless they were attacked and some people in our group really were badly attacked. They tell me that the reason that they don't remove this from the record is because we have civil proceedings. But at the time they were told to drop the criminal charges against us, so I didn't think we had any charges still on our records. I don't see why they could drop them and we still have a record. Why is it that the young men in our group will grow up with a record for the rest of their lives, I suppose, when in fact the state never accepted the charges against them?
That incident basically gave me strength to try to do something about this system because there are a lot of evil things out there. I know we have to do something about it. It's really too blatant now. My life is the reflection of thousands of Afro-American women and, in some cases, all women. This experience has taught me that the system is flawed and that we must seek change. I personally feel that I have benefited, though rather late in life. And after that attack on the lakefront by the police I decided to seek some changes. I was fortunate to meet some people who are involved in revolutionary work and I think I have benefited. I will continue to fight.
Honor Her Memory
This poem is in honor of Eula Love, a 39-year-old Black woman in Los Angeles who was gunned down by police in a dispute over a $22 gas bill. The author is unknown.
The last straw. This is the last straw.
No way they're going to cut me off.
Maybe that's what she was thinking when she took a stand
in front of her house.
No way they're going to come onto this property.
The electric. The phone.
Food every week higher than last.
The gas. Now the gas.
Final Notice – Shut-Off.
It's blackmail. How can I feed these children
if I can't even cook on the stove?
But how am I supposed to feed them if I pay that bill?
A few dollars left once a month from the social security from their daddy,
He'd be so mad if he could see
what they've done to his family.
No way they're going to turn off that gas.
And the killer cops still out on the street.
Cruising. Feeling strong.
"If they try something, let 'em have it.
Remember Eula Love-
No D.A. in this city will give you any trouble."
It's the last straw.
No way they're going to get away with this.
You keep it down; you don't make trouble.
work as hard as you can
And you can end up lying handcuffed,
your life bleeding out of you
on your front lawn
just the same as if you fought them up front.
The best defense is fighting back
But not alone, and with your eyes on the long road.
That's what we know. We all know it.
There's no hiding out, no way out some ladder,
Climbing a rotten ladder to sit on a rotten roof.
I'd rather be with my friends, getting prepared,
thousands, millions of us
and we'll all stand our ground alongside Eula Love.
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