Ernest Rice McKinney (1886-1984) was a black US trade union organiser, revolutionary socialist and former National Secretary of the Third Camp Workers Party USA.
Born in Malden, in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley, McKinney’s father was a coal miner and later a teacher as was McKinney’s mother. McKinney Sr. eventually landed a job at the US Treasury through his involvement in the Republican Party, which had widespread black support in the decades after the American Civil War.
Due to the efforts of anti-slavery abolitionists during post-Civil War Reconstruction, West Virginia had a black franchise. The area also experienced industrial development from the 1870s with the growth of railway lines and mining. The United Mine Workers of America (founded 1890) had some success pursuing biracial trade unionism, which left a lasting impression on a young McKinney.
Growing up, McKinney noticed class differentiation within the black community, as the small black middle-class attempted to forge alliances with the white elite, supporting anti-union sentiments. These experiences shaped McKinney’s understanding of the centrality of black workers to the class struggle, and the centrality of the class struggle to black liberation.
McKinney was educated at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he worked with the black intellectual WEB Du Bois to set up a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In later life McKinney would be skeptical of the role of such non-working-class groups. At the time both Du Bois and McKinney were active in the Socialist Party of America.
After Oberlin, McKinney became a social worker, working with young black people in Denver, Colorado. He then served in the US Army between 1917-1919, as part of the American Expeditionary Forces in France.
Like many in his generation, McKinney was inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution and joined the Communist Party in 1920. At this time he was working on A. Philip Randolph’s newspaper The Messenger, which advocated inter-racial trade union organising; it opposed the black nationalism of Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement.
In the early 1920s the American CP took the problem of black oppression more seriously than any other US socialist organisation had ever done before. One of the founders of American Communism and, later, Trotskyism, James P Cannon recalled that, the “earlier socialist movement, out of which the Communist Party was formed, never recognised any need for a special program on the Negro question. It was considered purely and simply as an economic problem, part of the struggle between the workers and the capitalists; nothing could be done about the special problems of discrimination and inequality this side of socialism...”
“The American communists in the early days, under the influence and pressure of the Russians in the Comintern, were slowly and painfully learning to change their attitude; to assimilate the new theory of the Negro question as a special question of doubly-exploited second-class citizens, requiring a program of special demands as part of the overall program — and to start doing something about it.”
The debates on black liberation in the 1920s were affected by the growing Stalinisation of the Communist International and its national sections. The position on black liberation shifted towards “self-determination for the black belt” in the American south, a policy drafted at its Sixth Congress in 1928 by Finish Stalinist Otto Kuusinen (later head of Stalin’s puppet Finnish government after the Soviet occupation).
The line was dictated from Moscow to the CP leaders in the US. However, it was more of a test of loyalty and orthodoxy than an operative agitational slogan. Much of the Stalinists’ most impressive black activism (like its defence of the Scottsboro Boys) happened not because of but in spite of the Comintern’s programme.
McKinney would always be a strong advocate of a revolutionary integrationist position arguing that “the Negroes in the US must lay their case before the trade unions. Not as outsiders seeking a united front but from the inside as an integral and integrated part of the labor movement. Here the Negro proletarians will be caught up in the basic struggles of labor, they will have opportunity to pose the question of democratic rights for the Negro as a part of the struggle for the emancipation of the whole working class.”
This meant the labour movement must cease to be a movement of more privileged white workers: “The demand...for social, political and economic equality for Negroes is... addressed directly to the white proletariat... The party says to the white workers that the Negroes have already initiated and carried on the struggle for their democratic rights against terrific opposition; even the opposition of white labor. It is now the duty and the responsibility of white labor to step out in front, take the lead and throw its full weight into the fight.”
In 1926 McKinney left the CP and three years later joined with AJ Muste to form the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) which supported the formation of a mass Labor Party distinct from both the SP and the CP.
The CPLA formed the American Workers Party in December 1933 and opposed the slogan of “self-determination for black belt.”
McKinney wrote in 1936: “The Workers Party rejects as spurious and defeatist all schemes based on race patriotism and nationalism; whether it be ‘self-determination for the black belt’, Back to Africa, salvation by Negro business enterprise, or any other scheme or plan which in practice means the segregation of the Negro worker.”
McKinney continued, the American Workers Party “rejects also the spurious doctrine that the Negro worker has no special problems and can be treated en masse just as a worker. The fact that the Negro worker suffers a double form of exploitation gives the lie to this doctrine. He is exploited as a worker and further exploitated as a Negro worker.”
One main focus of the CPLA was unemployed organising. In September 1932, the Pittsburg CPLA branch launched the Unemployed Citizens’ League with McKinney as its Executive Secretary. “We sought,” he recalled, “to give these unemployed workers an idea of what kind of society they lived in, an idea as to what improvements might be made in that society, and an idea how they could participate in improving that society.”
These efforts were successful in mobilising workers and the unemployed to protect people’s homes and possessions from bailiffs, wire their houses and turn back on their gas. The Unemployed Leagues also demanded cash relief and cash for public works in order to give the unemployed more of a choice than that offered by the receipt of goods.
In 1934, the AWP played an heroic role in the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, paralleling the work of the Trotskyists in the Communist League of America in the Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike that same year.
The strikes were the catalyst for the fusion of the AWP with the Trotskyists to form the Workers Party of the United States at the end of 1934, which marked McKinney’s entry into the Trotskyist movement.
These strikes also paved the way for the creation of the more radical Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935, as a rival to the craftist American Federation of Labor (AFL). The following year, McKinney briefly became an organiser with the CIO’s Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC). Mc Kinney organised steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio in the 1930s and in 1940 sharecroppers and tenant farmers for the Missouri Agricultural Union.
After a period of entry work inside the recently revived Socialist Party, the Trotskyists formed the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) in 1938. Within the Trotskyist movement, McKinney became an ally of Max Shachtman. When Shachtman and his allies split with the SWP in 1940 over its response to World War Two, McKinney became National Secretary and trade union expert in the newly-formed Workers Party, and wrote much of its policy on black liberation.
CLR James, who had headed the SWP’s work on black oppression, also joined the new Workers Party. There was personal animosity between James and McKinney, but it was accompanied and aggravated by political differences.
The “self-determination” slogan was still vigorously opposed by McKinney (and Shachtman), who saw black people as the most exploited layer of the American working-class but not as a separate nation. The slogan found more resonance with James, who carried his views into the new organisation, and influenced Leon Trotsky.
As Christopher Phelps wrote in his introduction to Shachtman’s polemic Communism and the Negro: “As against Shachtman’s 1933 standpont, Trotsky and James in 1939 believed that the right of self-determination applied to black Americans, and that revolutionaries should support the demand for territorial independence if raised in substantial numbers by black Americans themselves.”
However Trotsky himself wrote that he thought it was wrong for the CP to make an “imperative slogan” out of self-determination, and did not advocate raising it – only for revolutionaries to support a movement for self-determination if black Americans themselves wanted it.
On this latter point, James wrote to Trotsky that: “You seem to think that there is a greater possibility of the Negroes wanting self-determination than I think is probable... I consider the idea of separating as a step backward so far as a socialist society is concerned. If the white workers extend a hand to the Negro, he will not want self-determination.”
McKinney, however, in the majority resolution of the Workers Party in 1945 wrote: “All the manifest tendencies of Negroes today, especially the proletarians, are in the other direction. As the regular Negro proletarians and the new Negro wage earners enter the factories and take their places in the trade union struggles they reveal a marked tendency away from separation and all ideas of racial separatism...
“However, if, despite our efforts, the Negroes should demand political independence, the WP guided by the Bolshevik position on self-determination, would approve such a course; provided, however, that such a course did not violate wider principles of workers’ democracy and provided also that such a demand was not made under conditions that would jeopardise the existence of the workers’ state and throw the Negroes themselves defenseless into the clutches of counter-revolutionary imperialist forces.
“Whatever position the WP might take in the future when a concrete demand for self-determination arose, we are not now and will not be advocates of self-determination...We are and remain advocates of the unity of the working class: the fellowship of all the proletarians in the class struggle, the gathering together of all the working class for the coming assault on capitalism and the establishment of the workers’ state.”
McKinney was to drift out of the organised Trotskyist movement, leaving the Workers Party in 1950, though he still considered himself a Marxist. He went on to teach labour history a Rutgers University, working with the United Federation of Teachers to organise education workers, and served as a consultant to the A. Philip Randolph Education Fund, which ran programs for trade unions and black groups.
He was a hugely talented organiser, journalist and revolutionary militant, Ernest Rice McKinney’s life and work deserves to be widely known about and discussed.