The bend of the arc

By Lynn Koh
Nov 6, 2010

It's mentioned in our last Month in Review, but in case you missed it, you can support Iraq Veterans Against the War and their campaign to prevent traumatized troops from redeploying by signing their petition here. They are trying to reach 10,000 petition signatures by this Thursday.

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I recently picked up a book by Wayne State professor Beth Tompkins Bates, called Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics.  It deals with a transition in racial justice organizing in the African American community during the 20s and 30s, which Bates describes as 'New Crowd' protest politics.  This transition has three related features.  First, a shift in demands, as labor organizing, unions, and economic justice for industrial workers became central to strategies of achieving racial equality.  Second, a shift in tactics, which expressed a willingness to take militant action outside of the officially sanctioned channels for expressing grievances and petitioning for redress.  Third, a shift in organizational forms, as 'Old Guard' organizations were seen as unable to mount the campaigns needed to advance the cause.

Taken together, these changes had far-reaching effects on the political landscape.  They precipated a sharp internal debate within the NAACP about how to relate to militancy (which eventually led Walter White to support striking auto workers), and arguably culminated in the very credible threat of a March on Washington in 1941 that forced FDR to integrate employment in government contractors.

Bates' claim is that the Pullman Porters were central in this shift, as the leadership of the organization and the legions of community activists doing support work for the porters went on to play key roles in developing the most influential political programs, coalitions, and campaigns during this period.  Of course, the general radical upsurge in the 30s was also no small factor; neither was the dramatic change in demographics created by the Great Migration and expansion of industry in cities like Chicago.

It seems like progressive organizing today is equally due for a change.  The prospect of several more years of high unemployment and the likely future of a multipolar world is, perhaps, as dramatic a development in our political economy as what took place during the 1910s and 20s.  Furthermore, there also seems to be widespread frustration about our inability to grapple productively with the two-party system  and score victories (not to mention placing power in the hands of ordinary people). 

Stay tuned...

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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