This Week In Radical History: May 31-June 6
This weekly column offers a selection of leftist, labor, and revolutionary history for your reading and learning pleasure. They’re intended to be snippets; a page-a-day calendar-style glance at our under-taught history. Read a “this day in history” in the morning before you start your day, use it for a poli-ed mini-lesson to start a chapter or working group meeting, or let it help you prompt your social media messaging. The history of working-class struggles is violent and it is bloody and it has intentionally been taught in ways that disconnect us from the very real people who participated in these events and the external circumstances that set the stages. It’s just a glimpse, a starting point; not meant to be comprehensive but meant to help spark our curiosity about our history in digestible ways. Deep-links from a wide variety of sources are included to help send you down the rabbit hole. Enjoy!
May 31 and June 1, 1921: TULSA RACE MASSACRE
Commemorated via superhero backstory in the HBO series Watchmen, based on the graphic novel of the same name, but largely (and purposefully) covered up in standard history curricula, this large-scale attack of racial terrorism left as many as 300 people dead, 800 people hospitalized, 10,000 people were made homeless, and 35 blocks of one of the most prosperous Black neighborhoods in the country burned and destroyed. As with so many incidents of racial violence, it began because a young Black man was unfairly accused of sexually assaulting a white woman, and in this case, escalating events led to a white mob mercilessly descending upon a segregated Black neighborhood, with the complicity of local law enforcement. Learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre from WNYC/The History Channel’s Blindspot: Tulsa Burning Podcast.
June 1-12, 1929: 1ST CONFERENCE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTIES OF LATIN AMERICA
Taking place less than a year after the influential Sixth World Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) and just four months before the post-war American capitalist bubble would burst in the Black Friday Wall Street Crash of 1929, this small but groundbreaking conference hosted 38 delegates from 14 Latin American countries, all of which had Comintern-affiliated communist parties. Among the topics of discussion was a frank debrief of the Santa Marta Banana Massacre in Colombia, where a strike of the United Fruit Company banana workers turned violent, with the banana republic government sending the military in and ultimately slaughtering as many as 2,000 workers, an event which Gabriel García Márquez fictionalized in One Hundred Years of Solitude. This conference, which re-affirmed a commitment of solidarity with the Soviet Union, also pushed for a Latin American socialist programme that was distinctly anti-imperialist and focused on agrarian issues. Another open conference of Latin American communist parties would not take place until the 1960s, after several decades of revolutionary activity had changed the political outlook of the region considerably.
JUNE 2, 1919 – GALLEANIST BOMBINGS IN EIGHT CITIES
Italian immigrant and radical anarchist Luigi Galleani was well-known as a stirring and convincing public speaker, and his advocacy for ‘propaganda of the deed’ – overt violence against ruling class figures and instutions, intended to foment revolution – gained him a large and enthusiastic following. A first round of attempted bombings on May Day of 1919 largely failed, with most packages being intercepted and the one that exploded severely injuring a housekeeper. On June 2 of the same year, Galleanists tried again, detonating bombs in eight cities simultaneously, specifically targeting government officials who were responsible for making or enforcing anti-sedition laws and judges who had ruled in favor of deportation or prison sentences on political grounds. Once again, no targets were killed, but a private watchman and one of the bomb-makers were. Galleani was deported just a few weeks afterward (from charges predating the bombings) and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who had been targeted in both the May Day and June 2 bombings, used these bombings, as well as a wave of strike activity and racial violence, as a prompt (or pretext) to initiate the Palmer Raids, a series of violent crackdowns on radicals, particularly Italian anarchists and Eastern European Jewish leftists. Learn more about The Immigrant Press and the Red Scare from the Journalism History podcast.
JUNE 3, 1900 – ILGWU FOUNDED
As immigrants poured into rapidly-industrializing American cities in the late 1800s, women largely found their way into work in the garment industry, where their labor was brutally exploited in the worst conditions. On June 3, 1900, several smaller local unions of workers who specialized in creating women’s garments merged into the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Though membership was not limited to women (the “ladies” refers to the garments, not the workers) it was dominated by women and went on to become extremely influential. The ILGWU led the 20,000-worker strong New York Shirtwaist Strike of 1909, where predominantly-female strikers chanted “we’d rather starve quick than starve slow” and were beaten by policemen and private forces. A year later, the ILGWU led an even larger strike: this time, 60,000 cloak workers walked the picket line for months until mediation took place. In 1911, the ILGWU helped organize for better safety conditions in workplaces after the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire killed 146 workers, mostly immigrant women and girls, who worked in a ninth-story sweatshop where all of the exits were locked (to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks). ILGWU membership peaked in 1969 with 450,000 members, and in 1995, it merged with Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), which then merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union to create UNITE HERE.
JUNE 4, 1932 – SOCIALIST REPUBLIC OF CHILE FOUNDED IN A COUP
The Post-WWI and Post-Depression eras were tumultuous ones in Latin America, and Chile was no exception. A series of military juntas and corporatist quasi-dictatorships ruled the country throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, but for 12 days (or 2 months, depending on who one asks_, it emerged as a Socialist Republic, following a bloodless military coup orchestrated by Air Force Colonel Marmaduke Grove, lawyer and leftist organizer Eugenio Matte, and journalist Carlos Davila, who would be made President of the Republic, though he would resign in frustration on June 14. On June 16, with the support of the Army, began replacing socialist members of the provisional government with his own supporters. These expulsions included Matte and Grove, who he exiled to Easter Island. Notably, the Communist Party of Chile (a member of the Comintern) rejected this junta from the beginning, as did trade unions and some other leftist bodies, claiming that it was too militaristic and would not be truly socialist. Ultimately, the tensions in the Republic could not hold: the Socialist Republic of Chile was officially dissolved on September 14, 1932.
JUNE 5-6, 1832 – JUNE REBELLION BREAKS OUT IN PARIS
More than 40 years after French peasants stormed the Bastille and sent a good portion of the aristocracy to the guillotine, and nearly 20 years after Napoleon had abdicated at Fontainebleau, the French people found themselves still living under a monarchy — a constitutional monarchy, but still not the republic that so many of the working class had been fighting for and demanding. After the “Three Glorious Days” of the July Revolution led to a transfer of power from Charles X (the final French ruler from the House of Bourbon) to Louis Philippe, who had initially been a commander in France’s Revolutionary Wars but later split with the Republicans in defense of the monarchy, the Republicans were freshly infuriated. The death by cholera of reformer General Lamarque on June 1, 1932 served as a catalyst for what would ultimately become a fairly bloody, but quick, battle in the streets, with around 150 total deaths and 650 wounded on both sides combined. This smaller rebellion would likely have been a historical footnote if it had not been for its fictionalization at the center of Victor Hugo’s opus Les Miserables, which has led to countless re-enactments of the June Rebellion’s homemade barricades on stage and screen. Do you hear the people sing? Learn more about the June Rebellion from Episode 6.08e of the Revolutions Podcast.
JUNE 6, 1944: OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST TOMMIE SMITH WAS BORN
Tommie Smith was born in Clarksville, in the Piney Woods region of East Texas, on June 6, 1944. Like so many Black families in the mid-20th-century USA, the Smiths left the terror-filled Jim Crow South as part of the Second Great Migration during Tommie’s childhood and landed in California. In high school, Smith was a record-setting multi-sport athlete, which won him an athletic scholarship to San Jose State University, from where he earned multiple national collegiate titles. Both Smith and San Jose State teammate John Carlos qualified to run the 200m sprint at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Initially, as members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, they planned to boycott the Olympics unless some basic demands were met, including a ban on participation by South Africa and Rhodesia (both of which were under white minority rule at the time) and a restoration of Mohammed Ali’s World Heavyweight boxing title (which had been stripped because of Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War). When South Africa and Rhodesia were disinvited, they decided to attend. In their event, Smith took the gold medal, setting a world record that would last another 14 years, and Carlos took bronze. The two famously attended the medal ceremony shoeless, wearing just socks, to represent the extreme poverty that Black US Americans were living under, and they each raised a gloved fist in a Black Power salute. (The silver medalist, white Australian Peter Norman, gave them the black gloves and joined them in wearing an OPHR badge.) The IOC subsequently suspended Smith and Carlos and they were subject to intense racist backlash, including threats to themselves and their families. Smith went on to play briefly in the NFL and became a coach and academic faculty member at Oberlin and Santa Monica College. A 2020 documentary titled With Drawn Arms documented Smith’s life in sports, and he still tours on the lecture circuit.
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