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When labor won in Jacksonville: Lessons for a strategic alliance in the South

By Dave Schneider |
April 12, 2019
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Jacksonville, FL - Dixie money rules in Jacksonville, Florida, but it shouldn’t.

Backed by developers and big business, Republicans won big in last month’s city elections. Democrats declined to field a candidate for mayor, left seven city council seats uncontested and offered no concrete platform for the struggling working class majority. It’s no surprise that less than 25% of registered voters turned out.

The dismal election results have sparked important conversations about politics and strategy. Jacksonville has seen an explosion of activism and people’s movements in the last five years, but this has not translated into a more progressive city hall. Jacksonville has a reputation as an extremely conservative ‘old South’ city, especially by Florida’s standards. But it’s also home to an enormous multinational working class and the largest African American population in Florida - both at-odds with the city’s ruling class.

As it turns out, Jacksonville’s history isn’t as conservative as one might think. In 1887, those forces came together to elect a city government led by labor unions and the Black community. This labor-led coalition employed thousands of workers through public works projects, expanded civil rights for African Americans, built impressive public infrastructure, taxed the rich, and eradicated yellow fever. It took a literal Jim Crow coup d’etat by the Florida legislature to remove them from power.

City officials would rather us forget about the time the working class and the Black community stood up together in Jacksonville. That makes this history all the more important.

Reconstruction sets the stage

Reconstruction was the most revolutionary time in U.S. history, and it’s the starting point for modern Jacksonville. The U.S. civil war brought an end to chattel slavery and the emancipation of 4 million Black slaves. This social revolution continued long after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. For 12 years, African Americans battled it out with their former owners for democratic rights and control of the southern states.

Radical republicans in Congress passed sweeping laws aimed at stripping the treasonous Dixie planters of their wealth and political power. The two most crucial - the 14th and 15th Amendments - extended citizenship, civil liberties and the right to vote to Black people, who comprised a majority or near-majority in most southern states. Coalitions of African Americans and progressive whites elected reconstruction governments around the South, which created the public education system and passed labor protections for workers.

In 1877, industrial capitalists in the north colluded with the deposed Dixie planters to overturn these people’s governments and restore the old rulers to power. After purging the radical republicans in Congress, the GOP agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South in exchange for Democrats backing Rutherford B. Hayes for president. In doing so, they condemned African Americans to a century of Jim Crow and racist terror.

Jacksonville and the working class in the 1880s

Far from the metropolitan tourist destination we think of today, Florida in the 1880s was one of the least populated states in the country. The white planter elite had returned to power and congregated in the Democratic Party. Tourism had increased with the expansion of railroads into Jacksonville, Saint Augustine and the panhandle, but the state remained extremely rural and underdeveloped. Much to the frustration of Dixie capitalists, poor infrastructure and regular outbreaks of life-threatening diseases made it difficult to attract northern investment.

Jacksonville’s large shipping port and railroad crossroads made it a significant industrial center in Florida’s otherwise rural economy. The city had a large urban working class, which grew significantly after the war. Many African Americans moved to the city during reconstruction in search of work. This fueled the creation of majority-Black neighborhoods like Springfield and LaVilla, but it also opened up the possibility for the entire working class - now a majority of the city - to organize and struggle for power.

At the time, the Knights of Labor had become the largest national union in the United States. They took a broad approach to organizing and made considerable progress in the South. Through the 1880s, the Knights of Labor organized Black and white workers across Jacksonville - bricklayers, longshoremen, sailors, railroad workers, phosphate miners, laborers and more.

By 1887, the Jacksonville Knights of Labor had ten functioning locals boasting 3000 members. In that year’s mayoral election, the organized working class put its strength to the test against the Dixie planter elite. Backing Republican John Burbridge for mayor, the Knights of Labor joined with the Black community and white middle-class progressives to crush right-wing Democrat William Dancy.

When hundreds of Black and white workers marched in victory to Burbridge’s home, the newly elected mayor pledged, “The Colored man can get justice from me as well as the white… Why? Because they have rallied around us in this fight and saved us from a government not of the people but of a clique.” He continued, “Had it not been thus, the opposition would have over-ridden us and driven us from the field.” Burbridge was no working-class radical, but he recognized the decisive role Black workers played in their victory over their Democrat rivals.

Burbridge and the new city council got to work. They passed a $54,000 budget, the largest ever to that point, aimed at public works projects, building infrastructure and expanding public health facilities. To finance these projects, they cracked down on wealthy planters and capitalists who had dodged $30,000 in taxes under the previous administrations.

His top priority in building infrastructure was eliminating the threat of disease, particularly the deadly yellow fever. In Florida’s sweltering heat, raw sewage and countless swamps became breeding grounds for nasty viruses and pathogens - and mosquitos carrying diseases. Burbridge’s projects might fix these issues in the city’s largely white neighborhoods, but Jacksonville’s most significant Black neighborhoods, Springfield and La Villa, technically fell outside the city limits.

The Dixie planters had tried to minimize Black electoral influence in city politics by cutting them out. In doing so, they made it legally impossible to eliminate the threat of yellow fever. After all, viruses don’t respect segregation laws. Pressure on Burbridge grew as reports of yellow fever outbreaks in other cities trickled into Jacksonville. Finally, the city government amended its charter and annexed Springfield and La Villa, which forced a snap election in December 1887.

Labor wins in Jacksonville

These annexations had huge consequences. For one, they expanded Jacksonville’s tax base. More important, this move dramatically expanded Black electoral influence by making African Americans a voting majority overnight. But the entire working class, white workers included, benefitted from this expansion of Black voting power. As the single-largest mass organization of African Americans in the city, the Knights of Labor, became a decisive political force in Jacksonville politics.

December’s election saw voter turnout skyrocket, twice as high as the April election earlier that year. Middle class whites threw in with the Democrats, but it didn’t matter. The Knights of Labor-led coalition with the Black community captured nearly 75% of the vote, winning the mayor’s office and a supermajority on the city council. Racist redistricting laws in the new city charter had gerrymandered Black voters into three two-seat districts, but the labor-led coalition nevertheless ran 10 African American candidates for city council, five of whom won.

Under this new labor government, Jacksonville’s Black community saw its political power expand in important ways. Since the end of reconstruction, African Americans had suffered from rampant police crimes committed by the city’s all-white law enforcement - itself closely tied to the Ku Klux Klan. Those arrested faced show trials and harsh sentences from white judges drawn from the Dixie planter class.

To address these inequalities, the Knights of Labor coalition immediately hired a considerable number of Black officers. They appointed African American entrepreneur Alonzo Jones as one of three police commissioners. Facing outspoken Dixie opposition, they also appointed well-respected AME minister Joseph E. Lee as a city judge. Of course, these measures didn’t end the oppression, but they did represent serious blows to the ruling Dixie establishment.

Tackling disease, low wages and unemployment

Unfortunately, the new labor-led government quickly faced a public health catastrophe. Yellow fever broke out in the summer of 1888, which would claim more than 400 lives by the end. Thousands of people fled the city, including newly elected city council members and even the mayor. Businesses closed and many workers lost their jobs. Merchants took advantage of the situation with price gouging and the economy descended into chaos.

The city government tried to take action by establishing health facilities and distributing medical supplies. But the city lacked the funds to finance an emergency public works project on this scale. When they appealed to the Florida legislature to raise limits on issuing city bonds, Tallahassee refused. Banks and financiers, eager to see the labor-led coalition fall apart, refused to loan the city money. Dixie imposed a blockade as the people of Jacksonville suffered and starved.

Yellow fever devastated the coalition government. The city council could no longer get a quorum because too many members had fled. The mayor would not return until the epidemic subsided. Desperate for a lifeline, the city turned to two white Democrat businessmen, who had raised hundreds of thousands in relief funds. They set up the Jacksonville Auxiliary Sanitary Association, which spearheaded an enormous $500,000 public works program focused on sanitation, public health and infrastructure. By November 1888, it employed 2000 workers total, including 1400 Black workers.

While the dysfunctional city government could exercise very little oversight, the working class picked up the slack. When the sanitation association management slashed wages and laid off 50% of its workforce, 1000 mostly Black workers and their families marched on their downtown office in protest. Through their local unions, workers launched a campaign to expand employment, raise wages and set price controls on essential goods. After weeks of mass agitation, management caved to most of the workers’ demands.

Dixie overthrows democracy

These upheavals disturbed the ruling elite across Florida. Key West had elected a similar Knights of Labor government and Pensacola had seen several strikes. The 1888 presidential election sharpened their fears when Jacksonville voted overwhelmingly for Republican Benjamin Harrison, a candidate seen as sympathetic to reconstruction-era policies. But their most immediate concern was the Knights of Labor. With hundreds of Democrat voters living in exile, the labor-led coalition had also swept the state legislature elections, and African Americans won several seats.

The planters and Dixie capitalists realized they could no longer win a democratic election in Jacksonville, even as the fever subsided and people returned home. Desperate to restore their power, they orchestrated a coup d’etat through the Florida state legislature. First they blocked the recently elected Black legislators from taking their seats. Then in early 1889, Democrats introduced House Bill 4, which revoked Jacksonville’s city charter and placed its government under administrative control.

It passed with little opposition later that year. Governor Francis Fleming, the son of a wealthy planter family and a notorious racist, overturned democracy. In their place, he appointed a loyal gang of Dixie elites, including the two businessmen at the head of the sanitation association. Over its four-year reign, this literal dictatorship of Dixie capital repressed the Black community and the Knights of Labor - all while showering white Dixie capitalists with public money.

Key West and Pensacola also had their charters revoked during the 1880s for daring to elect labor coalitions. By the time elections resumed in these cities, the damage was done. The Florida legislature had enacted poll taxes and other voter suppression laws that stripped African Americans of their right to vote. Jim Crow became the law of the land, built on the corpse of Jacksonville’s labor government, and it would remain in-place for the next 60 years.

Lessons for moving forward

Political and social conditions have changed since the 1880s. Florida is now the third largest state in the country, and around a million people live in Jacksonville alone. But some things haven’t changed. A small class of Dixie capitalists still rule the city for their own benefit. The working class majority suffers from exploitation, poverty and low-wage jobs. African American neighborhoods continue to suffer from underdevelopment and neglect, with many areas still lacking working sewage systems. Police still target and terrorize the Black community with impunity. Even the public health crises continue: Jacksonville has the highest violent crime and murder rate of Florida’s major cities, leads the state in fentanyl overdoses, and ranks ninth in the country for new HIV infections.

One of the major lessons to draw from labor’s victory in 1887 is that the working class and the Black freedom struggle share common interests. Just as they do today, Black workers made up an enormous share of the working class. Separated from them, white workers could only play a junior part in a racial coalition dominated by their own class enemies: the Dixie planters and capitalists. A divided working class was a conquered working class.

Unionism changed the game. The Knights of Labor organized workers of all nationalities on the basis of their shared class interests. Fighting together for higher wages, public health reforms and democratic rights, the union exposed white supremacy as a tool of the boss. After all, if over half of the working class can’t vote because of racist laws, how can workers hope to ever win an election, much less take power?

But racist ideas and prejudices are not just a trick played by the boss to deceive white workers. They wouldn’t continue to work for hundreds of years without something underwriting them. White chauvinism persists to this day because it offers an explanation, no matter how bogus, for the real inequalities and injustices faced by African Americans. It’s a system that oppresses African Americans as a whole, as a nation in the South - denying them political power, democratic rights, decent wages, land, dignity and more.

This system crystallized in the aftermath of reconstruction, and the defeat of Jacksonville’s labor-led coalition shows us how this happened. It highlights something crucial: The entire working class has to tackle national oppression. There’s no breaking the power of Dixie capital without Black freedom.

Finally, Jacksonville’s history shows us the strategic possibilities and the limitations of elections. The Knights of Labor and the Black community won a historic election here in 1887, but this did not mean they ruled the city, much less the state or country. Planters and Dixie capitalists still held all their wealth, land and economic power. They put the labor-led government under siege from day one, plunging the people into crisis. Whatever aid they gave came with strings attached. Eventually the ruling class exercised its power through the Florida state legislature and got rid of democracy entirely. It’s not too different from what’s happening to Venezuela’s democratically elected government today.

Putting the working class in power and winning Black freedom is more than winning elected office. But remarkable elections like 1887 show the winning potential of a strategic alliance between the working class and the Black community, in Jacksonville and across the South.

Sources

Florida’s “Second Reconstruction”: The Knights of Labor and Interracial Politics in Jacksonville, Florida, 1887-1889, Jay Driskell, January 3, 2014.

Learning How to Jim Crow: Jacksonville, Florida’s White Progressives, 1887–1892, Jay Driskell, January 4, 2013.

The Knights of Labor in the South, Melton Mclaurin, 1978.

“Segregation and Black Labor Before the CIO,” Paul Ortiz, Against the Current, Jan/Feb 1996.

Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920, Paul Ortiz, 2005.

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