Peter Humphries Clark, principal of the Colored High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, was one of a small number of 19th Century African American Socialists. Grandson of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, schoolteacher and later Principal of the Colored High School in Cincinnati and staunch Republican until 1877, there was little in Clark’s background that suggested he would by the end of Reconstruction embrace socialism as a political philosophy and join the Workingmen’s Party. Certainly few other African Americans of the period followed his path.
Clark delivered a speech on July 22, 1877 to a crowd of striking railroad workers who were part of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, at that point the largest national confrontation of labor and management in U.S. history. Dozens of strikers and non-striking workers were killed, millions of dollars' worth of property was burned, and hundreds of factories were closed by strikers. Eventually President Rutherford B. Hayes used federal troops against strikers. Against that backdrop Clark gave the speech which outlined his views and his belief that the strike was part of a broader class struggle that would lead to the fundamental transformation of the American economic system. The speech appears below.
Gentlemen: If I had the choosing of a motto for this meeting, I should select the words of the patriotic and humane Abraham Lincoln, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” These words, so full of that charity which we should exercise toward each other, are especially suited to this day and time, when wrongs long condemned have at last been resisted and men are bleeding and dying in the busy center of our population, and all over the land other men, with heated passions, are assembling to denounce the needless slaughter of innocent men who, driven by want, have appealed to force for that justice which was otherwise refused to them…
I sympathize in this struggle with the strikers, and I feel sure that in this I have the cooperation of nine tenths of my fellow citizens. The poor man's lot is at best a hard one. His hand to hand struggle with the wolf of poverty leaves him no leisure for any of the amenities of life, his utmost rewards are a scanty supply for food, scanty clothing, scanty shelter, and if perchance he escapes a pauper's grave [he] is fortunate. Such a man deserves the aid and sympathy of all good people, especially when, in the struggle for life, he is pitted against a powerful organization such as the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad or Pennsylvania Central. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was taken possession of by the government during the war, and was rebuilt in a manner, from end to end. Such a firm roadway, such tunnels and bridges, are rarely seen as are possessed by that road, and at the end the road was turned over to its owners in a better condition than it had ever been, so that much of the outlay which other roads are compelled to make was saved to this. They were paid for the use of the road many millions of dollars and the managers have lately declared a dividend of ten percent, and if their stock was watered, as I have no doubt it is, this ten percent is equivalent to fifteen or twenty percent upon the capital actually invested in it. Yet this road, so built, so subsidized, so prosperous, if we may judge from its dividend, declares itself compelled to put the wages of its employees down to starvation rates. Either they were not honestly able to declare that dividend or they are able to pay living wages to the men whom they employ. The blood of those men murdered at Baltimore cries from the ground against these men who by their greed have forced their men to the desperate measure of a strike, and then invoked the strong arm of the government to slaughter them in their misery.
The too ready consent of the state and national governments to lend themselves to the demand of these wealthy corporations cannot be too severely condemned. Has it come to this, that the President of a private corporation can, by the click of a telegraphic instrument, bring state and national troops into the field to shoot down American citizens guilty of no act of violence? For you observe that neither at Grafton, Baltimore or Pittsburgh was there violence offered to persons or property until the troops were deployed upon the scene. At Grafton it is noticeable that women, wives and mothers, were the chief forces employed by the strikers to keep others from taking their places.
The sight of the soldiery fired the hot blood of the wronged men, and they met force with force. Whether they are put down or not, we are thankful that the American citizen, as represented by these men, was not slave enough to surrender without resistance the right to appeal for a redress of grievances. When that day comes that a mere display of force is sufficient to awe a throng of Americans into submission, the people will have sunk too low to be entrusted with self government.
Those men will be avenged nobly avenged. Capital has been challenged to the contest; and in the arena of debate, to which in a few days the question will be remanded, the American people will sit as judges, and just as surely as we stand here, their decision will be against monopolists and in favor of the workingmen. In twenty years from today there will not be a railroad in the land belonging to a private corporation; all will be owned by the government and worked in the interests of the people. Machinery and land will, in time, take the same course, and cooperation instead of competition will be the law of society. The miserable condition into which society has fallen has but one remedy, and that is to be found in Socialism.
Observe how all civilized communities pass from a condition of what is called prosperity to one of depression and distress. Observe how continually these fluctuations occur; how the intervals between them grow shorter; how each one is more violent than the last, the distress produced more widespread. Observe, too, that after each the number of capitalists decrease, while those who remain grow more wealthy and more powerful, while those who have failed join the great army of workers who hang forever on the ragged edge of pauperism.
The so called periods of prosperity are more properly periods of unrestrained speculation. Money accumulates in the hands of the capitalists, [through] some governmental device as a tariff or the issue of greenbacks. This abundance tempts men to embark in business enterprises which seem to promise rich returns. For a time all goes well, shops are crowded with busy men, and all [are] ready to say, "Behold how prosperous we are!" But there comes a check to all this. The manufacturers begin to talk about a glutted market. There has been overproduction. There comes the period of sharp competition. Prices are reduced, goods are sold at cost below cost then comes the crash, bosses fail, shops are closed, men are idle, and the miserable workmen stand forth, underbidding each other in the labor market. If the competition be too sharp, they resort to strikes as in the present instance. Then comes violence, lawlessness, bloodshed and death.
People who talk of the anarchy of socialism surely cannot have considered these facts. If they had, they would have discovered not a little of anarchy on their side of the question.
It is folly to say that a condition of poverty is a favorable one, and to point to men who have risen to affluence from that condition. For one man who is strong through the hindrances of poverty, there are ten thousand who fail. If you take ten thousand men and weigh them with lead and cast them into the midst of Lake Erie, a few may swim out but the majority will be drowned.
This condition of poverty is not a favorable one either for the individual or for the nation. Especially is it an unfavorable condition for a nation whose government lies in the hands of all its citizens. A monarchy or an aristocracy can afford to have the mass of its citizens steeped in poverty and ignorance. Not so in a republic. Here every man should be the owner of wealth enough to render him independent of the threats or bribes of the demagogue. He should be the owner of wealth enough to give leisure for that study which will qualify him to study and understand the deep questions of public policy which are continually demanding solution. The more men there are who have this independence, this leisure, the safer we are as a nation, reduce the number, and the fewer there are, the more dangerous the situation. So alarming has been the spread of ignorance and poverty in the past generation, that whole cities in our land whose states, indeed are at the mercy of an ignorant rabble who have no political principle except to vote for the men who pay the most on election days and who promise to make the biggest dividend of public stealing. This is sadly true, nor is the Negro, scarcely ten years from slavery, the chief sinner in this respect.
That this evil of poverty is partially curable, at least, I am justified in thinking, because I find each of the great political parties offering remedies for the hard times and the consequent poverty. Many wise men, learned in political economy, assure us that their doctrines, faithfully followed, will result in a greater production of wealth and a more equal division of the same. But as I have said before, there is but one efficacious remedy proposed, and that is found in Socialism.
The present industrial organization of society has been faithfully tried and has proven a failure. We get rid of the king, we get rid of the aristocracy, but the capitalist comes in their place, and in the industrial organization and guidance of society his little finger is heavier than their loins. Whatever Socialism may bring about, it can present nothing more anarchical than is found in Grafton, Baltimore and Pittsburgh today . . . .
To increase the volume of the currency, which is the remedy proposed by some, means simply that money shall be made so abundant that the capitalist, in despair of any legitimate returns in the way of interest, shall embark in any and all enterprises which promise returns for the idle cash in his coffers. It means a stimulation of production in a community already suffering from excess of production; it means speculation, competition, finally a reduction of values, bankruptcy, ruin. The American people have traveled that path so frequently in the past fifty years that it requires no prophetic powers to map out the certain course which will be pursued. Already our capitalists rush to invest their money at four and a half percent in markets which a short time since gave readily two percent a month. Increase your volume let it be either greenbacks or silver and we enter on the career I have described with a certainty that the gulf at the end is deeper and more hopeless than the one in which we now wallow.
Trades unions, Grangers, Sovereigns of Industry, cooperative stores and factories are alike futile. They are simply combinations of laborers who seek to assume toward their own unfortunate fellows who are not members the attitude that the capitalist assumes toward them. They incorporate into their constitutions all the evil principles which afflict society. Competition, overproduction mark their stores and factories as much as do those of individual enterprises, and when the periodic crash comes, they succumb as readily as any.
All these plans merely poultice the ulcer in the body politic which needs Constitutional treatment. The momentary improvement they produce is always succeeded by a corresponding depression. The old fable of Sisyphus is realized, and the heavy stone rolled to the top of the mountain with infinite labor rolls back again.
The government must control capital with a strong hand. It is merely the accumulated results of industry, and there would be no justice should a few score bees in the hive take possession of the store of honey and dole it out to the workers in return for services which added to their superabundant store. Yet such is the custom of society.
Future accumulations of capital should be held sacredly for the benefit of the whole community. Past accumulations may be permitted to remain in private hands until, from their very uselessness, they will become a burden which their owners will gladly surrender.
Machinery too, which ought to be a blessing but is proving to be a curse to the people should be taken in hand by the government and its advantages distributed to all. Captain Cutter wrote in his song of steam:
Soon I intend ye may go and play, While I manage this world myself.
Had he written, ye may go and starve, it would have been nearer the truth. Machinery controlled in the interests of labor would afford that leisure for thought, for self culture, for giving and receiving refining influences, which are so essential to the full development of character. "The ministry of wealth" would not be confined to a few, but would be a benefit to all.
Every railroad in the land should be owned or controlled by the government. The title of private owners should be extinguished, and the ownership vested in the people. All a road will need to meet will be a running expense and enough to replace waste. The people can then enjoy the benefit of travel, and where one man travels now, a thousand will travel then. There will be no strikes, for the men who operate the road will be the recipient of its profits.
Finally, we want governmental organization of labor so that ruinous competition and ruinous overproduction shall equally be avoided, and these commercial panics which sweep over and engulf the world will be forever prevented.
It will be objected that this is making our government a machine for doing for the citizen everything which can be more conveniently done by combined than by individual effort. Society has already made strides in the direction of Socialism. Every drop of water we draw from hydrants, the gas that illumines our streets at night, the paved streets upon which we walk, our parks, our schools, our libraries, are all outgrowths of the Socialistic principle. In that direction lies safety.
Choose ye this day which course ye shall pursue.
Let us, finally, not forget that we are American citizens, that the right of free speech and of a free press is enjoyed by us. We are exercising today the right to assemble and complain of our grievances. The courts of the land are open to us, and we hold in our hands the all compelling ballot.
There is no need for violent counsels or violent deeds. If we are patient and wise, the future is ours.
The Cincinnati Commercial, July 23, 1877.