Socialist Anti-Racism Now and in the Past

The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is an Anti-Racist organization. As we know, racism is a major challenge for our society and thus a concern for DSA. Some have called racism “America’s original sin.” Our chapter, Columbus DSA, seeks to challenge racism and realizes we need to increase our racial diversity. We begin with awareness and self-education. What follows is first an announcement from the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus of DSA and then a presentation of black voices for socialism from the early 1900s.

The AfroSocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus of the DSA will be holding a national convening June 7th-9th in New Orleans! Since the colonial occupation of America began, capitalism and racial oppression have walked hand in hand. Because of this history, it is important to hold space for socialists of color to come together, build relationships, strategize for the future of multiracial socialism in the United States, and show solidarity with the dispossessed and poor around the globe.

“At the convening, we will delve into our place in this struggle, grounding it in the context of DSA, and of our time. We hope to build on the vibrant history of socialists of color like Ella Baker, A. Philip Randolph, Fred Hampton, Angela Davis and others. Our goal is to cultivate a culture within DSA that is supportive, welcoming, and elevates our comrades of color so that we can advance the aims of socialism and dismantle all forms of oppression.”

There have been strong voices for socialism from the Black Community and continue to be. Sadly, there is a history of racism among socialists in the United States especially in the early years of the 1900s. Strong black voices arose in that time period and speak to us today. Three African-Americans were active socialists in the later 1800s and early 1900s. My main source is Black Socialist Preacher: the teachings of Reverend George Washington Woodbey and his disciple, Reverend G.W. Slater, Jr. Woodbey, George Washington, George W. Slater, and Philip Sheldon Foner. 1983. San Francisco, Calif: Synthesis Publications.

One of the voices is George Washington Woodbey (1854–1937). Woodbey was the first black minister to join the party of socialism and play a leading role. He was born a slave, self-educated and became an ordained Baptist Preacher in 1874. Later he was on the state executive board of the Socialist Party in California. He spoke on street corners and was a frequent target of police, facing police brutality and jail. A key to his influence was his ability to explain socialism in simple terms. His pamphlet What to Do and How to Do It or Socialism vs. Capitalism was widely distributed in Wayland’s Monthly in 1903. Here he states, it was “precisely because of his devotion to the principles enunciated in the Bible that he became a socialist.” (11) His 96-page booklet: The Bible and Socialism: A Conversation Between Two Preachers shared the connection of Marx with the principles of the Bible. He also taught that the economic teachings of the Bible and Socialism are the same. Woodbey’s writings were “largely addressed to winning new converts to the socialist cause.” He actively participated in the Socialist Party debates, as a convention delegate in 1904 and 1908. In 1908, he spoke out against Oriental exclusion to challenge this racist proposal. Woodbey stressed the unity of black and white workers. He stated that the issue had once been the elimination of slavery and it had become the elimination of poverty.

The second voice is George Washington Slater, Jr. (born in 1872) He was moved to join the Socialist Party by “Woodbey’s analysis of how only socialism could help abolish poverty.” This came after his efforts to start a cooperative for his suffering community were stopped because large business enterprises would not allow him to get supplies. He wrote for the Chicago Daily Socialist and was a lecturer at Wilberforce University and served as a pastor in Clinton, Iowa. Slater stated that “Scientific Socialism is the only systematic expression of the social message of Jesus.”

Reverdy Ransom (1861–1959) studied and later taught at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio. The library at Payne Seminary there is named for him. He was a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, who pastored churches and established social services in Chicago and New York. Ransom became the editor of the national AME Review and later bishop. Here is a well-known leader in the African American Methodist Episcopal church whose prophetic witness for social justice included advocating for socialism.

“Socialism, like the inspired carpenter of Nazareth, places more value on man that it does upon riches. It believes that the rights of man are more sacred than the rights of property, believes indeed, that the only sacred thing on earth is a human being. Socialism would bring all people to participate in the rivalry of life upon a footing of equality, allowing each individual the widest possible range for the development of his powers and personality with freedom to follow wherever his abilities may lead him.” (Foner, p 286)

Further on, Ransom states, “The days of race domination are ended, the solidarity of the human race is coming to be admitted by all.” This is the call to overcome racism. I lift up this call to Columbus DSA today! Columbus has great racial diversity. What can each one of us do to cross the barriers that separate us along racial lines? I invite people of color to join us in the struggle. We need to be intentional to interact and to invite people of color to join the struggle for socialism. Socialism can only be fulfilled as it brings people together across the lines of race in an intersectional way. Let us unite in true solidarity.