A decade before Abram Hewitt defeated Henry George’s bid for mayor of New York in 1886, he delivered a more lasting blow to the American Left. A prominent northern congressman and chair of the Democratic National Committee, Hewitt played a central role in negotiating the notorious Compromise of 1877, which conceded victory in a contested presidential election to the Republican Party in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops that had occupied the former Confederacy since the Civil War. That arrangement freed Southern Democrats to use fraud, intimidation, and outright terrorism to deprive most African Americans and many poor whites of the right to vote; it also gave wealthy landowners and industrialists unchallenged hegemony in the South and tremendous influence in the nation as a whole. When leftists won elections in New York and other northern states, whether as Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, or Progressives, their influence was constrained severely by the disenfranchisement of working-class voters and the weakness of organized labor in the “Solid South.” Not until a coalition of civil rights organizations, interracial unions, women’s clubs, and left-wing groups set out to “re-align” the Democratic Party during the Second World War did the Left begin to transcend the legacy of 1877.
I recount this history not to dispute Michael Kazin’s assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the Occupy movement but to complicate the distinction between the “anti-corporate Left” and the “passions of discrete groups” that, Kazin contends, have limited the appeal of the Left since the 1960s. A. Philip Randolph, a socialist who led the postwar civil rights movement, insisted that its objective was not simply to win voting rights and equal protection for African Americans in the South but to end the unfair advantage that white supremacy lent to conservatives across the United States. “Our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not, and we know that we have no interest in a society in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty,” Randolph told the quarter-million people who joined his March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. “Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, or Federal aid to education,” he continued, “and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate the Congress.”
To the degree that Randolph and his allies were emblematic of the American Left, as I believe they were, they adopted a strategy that essentially reversed the approach that Kazin attributes to Occupy Wall Street. Whether calling for the abolition of slavery, equality for women, or the unionization of workers, leftists succeeded not by appealing to “anyone with a grievance of any kind against the . . . corporate hands” but by convincing large numbers of Americans that their own hopes and dreams coincided with “the passions of discrete groups.” Such causes have often been dismissed as “special interests”—none more so than organized labor—but they have also inspired the most transformative social movements in American history.
It is true that Henry George’s 1886 campaign anticipated the open-ended appeal of the Occupy movement—he claimed to represent “the ninety-nine per cent…[who] must pay the other one per cent” just to live and work in New York City; but he also pledged to prohibit housing discrimination against black New Yorkers and condemned rumors of voter fraud and anti-white violence that he called “the manufactured excuse for murdering black men” in the South. Perhaps most remarkably, George opposed efforts to bar immigration from China, a cause that he championed in previous decades, on the grounds that anti-immigrant rhetoric would distract native-born workers from more pressing demands. The Knights of Labor, who supported George despite his reversal on Chinese exclusion, captured his message of solidarity in their timeless slogan, “An injury to one is the concern of all.”
THAT LOGIC was expressed most recently by the protests last year in Wisconsin, which were sparked by restrictions on the collective bargaining rights of a relatively small percentage of workers in the state. Conservatives charged that public employees represented the worst kind of “special interests,” who used collective bargaining to hijack public services, demand exorbitant pay and benefits, and milk taxpayers of their hard-earned cash. Yet by mobilizing quickly and effectively, educators, firefighters, prison guards, and hospital workers succeeded in convincing hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites that attacks on public employees were just the first stage in a broader assault on the democratic process, the quality of public services, and the rights of workers in the private sector. It is not clear how long the movement can sustain that sense of solidarity, but it has already led to the recall of two state senators who voted to restrict collective bargaining, inspired the repeal of similar restrictions in Ohio, and forced the governor of Wisconsin to defend his actions in a recall election.
The politics of solidarity have particular relevance for Occupy Wall Street, which has been slow to confront the barrage of Voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and disenfranchisement of ex-offenders that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People calls the greatest assault on voting rights since the Compromise of 1877. The Occupy movement has reminded us that mass protest and civil disobedience can influence political debate as decisively as voting and running for office, but it is difficult to imagine how it can address economic inequality or restrain the power of corporations without increasing turnout among working-class voters, most of them black and Latino, who are most likely to be disenfranchised by these changes. “Voting rights attacks are the flip side of buying a democracy,” NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous explained in a direct appeal to Occupy Wall Street’s critique of corporate domination of elections; “First you buy all the leaders you can, and then you suppress as many votes as possible of the people who might object.”
Rather than seek to release itself from the claims of so-called “special interests,” today’s Left must understand that a revival of solidarity requires it to defend the voting rights of people of color, equality for women, and the collective bargaining rights of workers. If the Occupy movement fails to do so, it may find itself facing the same limitations that the Left did a hundred years ago.
William P. Jones teaches history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is author of The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Workers in the Jim Crow South and The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten Legacy of the Civil Rights Move-ment, which will be published by W.W. Norton & Co. in 2013.