"An Ex-Slave Holder on the Negro Question"

The old Socialist Party of America had all the shortcomings (and then some) of the socialist parties formed in the era of capitalism's ascendency. It was a big-tent, combining a few genuine revolutionists with a large contingent of vague dreamers and social tinkerers. John Reed put it well when he quipped that fully a third of SPA members were "middle class persons who think that Karl Marx was a man who wrote a good anti-trust bill."

It's no surprise, then, that the party's ranks were home to out-and-out white supremacists. But for all that, the party's best elements waged a war against racism. We get a great example of this from a 1904 series of letters.

In the January 1904 International Socialist Review, Eugene Debs published a letter he had got, along with his reply. The letter warned Debs that "you will jeopardize the best interests of the Socialist Party if you insist on political equality of the Negro. For that will not only mean political equality but also social equality eventually." The letter was anonymous, signed only as from "so far a staunch socialist." Debs's response (PDF) is crushing, something you can see in his opening lines:

The writer, who subscribes himself "A staunch member of the Socialist Party," is the only member of that kind I have ever heard of who fears to sign his name to, and accept responsibility for what he writes. The really "staunch" Socialist attacks in the open -- he does not shoot from ambush.

But an even more astonishing response came in the April 1904 International Socialist Review. Its title had me expecting the worst. It is not the worst. It is the best. Read it below.

An Ex-Slave Holder on the Negro Question

In fulfillment of a duty which I feel I owe to the colored race, the Socialist Party, Comrade Debs and Comrade Untermann, I add my hearty approval to their articles as given in the International Socialist Review. To me it seems that Comrade Untermann's suggestion as to a universal socialist programme will prove the life of our party and will greatly facilitate our action.

As to Debs, he voices my sentiment on the negro question verbatim, and I have reason to believe that he has extracted the Tom Dixon rot from the head of the "staunch socialist." [Tom Dixon was a famous white supremacist author that "staunch socialist" recommended to to Debs].

I speak from my own knowledge of our negroes. I was born inside of the same enclosed yard that they were born in, nursed and cared for by the older ones while a helpless kid; fought and scratched with them as we grew up, until the law of man (not God's, as I was taught) made me their cruel master. Then I proved cruel, and I beat them without cause, believing I was their superior. But time proved, to their eternal credit, and to my eternal disgrace, and to the eternal shame of my race, that the negro was our superior.

Now for facts as I know them. I left a colored woman with my wife to protect and care for her at a time when this section was alternately occupied by one army and then the other. This woman, on being told that some white women had been insulted by a soldier -- this very negro woman -- went to my wife with a huge butcher knife in her hand, saying to her: "Miss Samantha, if any man dares to insult you while Marse Jo is gone, I'll be durned if I don't wash my hands in his blood; I don't care a durn whether he be Reb or Yank." Show me, if you can, such devotion among the white race. Mark you, I was then away from home fighting to keep her and her race in this miserable state of bondage.

Again, in the year 1863, my brother and I were fed by a man that our father had raised and on whose back we had placed stripes. This very man, Jerry, risked being punished to bring to us in camp food such as we had been strangers to since we had left our homes. Think of this, all you nigger haters! Jerry paid us in kindness for our cruelty.

Again, do you not know that during the war, if the negroes had been what you suppose and as mean as I acknowledge I was at that time, they would have taken advantage of our absence and could have massacred every woman, child and aged man in the thirteen southern states. All, all was at their mercy. Did they seek retaliation? No. But to my certain knowledge they continued to protect and care for the mistress and little ones.

Yes, thank God, I, like Debs, can say that my sympathy and praise goes out to the colored man, and I have no apology to make to any living man or dead. I thank God, that if I knew this man Jerry, that fed my brother and me, was still living that I would willingly walk through more mud and rain to shake his old black hand than all the Clevelands, Roosevelts and such like on earth. Mark you, this man Jerry was sold a short time before the war began, and at the time he was doing this generous act of kindness to my brother and me he was owned by ex-Governor Neel S. Brown.

I am determined to defend the colored race's political and economic rights in spite of all the "critics" in and out of Hades. As to their social right, I will say that I would by far rather be associated with a nigger that would feed me than with a white man that would starve me.

Tullahoma, Tenn.
Jo. H. Baxter.

That warrior for mankind was almost certainly Joseph H. "Joe" Baxter, 1835-1915.