Benjamin Harrison Fletcher (1890-1949)

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Ben
Fletcher, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1890, was the most important African American
in the most influential radical union of his time, the early 20th
century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Fletcher
became active in the IWW while working as a longshoreman, loading and unloading
cargo ships.  In 1912 he joined the
union, nicknamed the Wobblies, and Socialist Party.  Quickly, Fletcher became a popular leader and
speaker, winning many accolades for his oratory style and arguments for
overthrowing capitalism, the Wobblies’ ultimate goal.

Fletcher
proved the most prominent leader of Local 8, the IWW branch of Philadelphia
longshoremen, organized in 1913.
Fletcher and his union seemed to prove one of the Wobblies’ central
tenets: the union could overcome racial and ethnic divisions that employers
encouraged.  In Local 8, thousands of
African Americans and West Indians belonged to and led an organization that
also included thousands of European Americans and European immigrants.  The union integrated work gangs, meetings,
social gatherings, and leadership posts—all unusual in American labor history.

During
World War I, Fletcher and other IWW leaders were targeted by the federal
government because of the union’s anti-war stance.  Though Local 8 called no strikes during the
war, the government feared its power and more generally the influence of the
IWW.  Fletcher was the sole African
American among over one hundred Wobblies tried and convicted in 1918 for
treason.  Though no evidence was brought
against him specifically, Fletcher was sentenced to ten years in a federal
penitentiary and a $30,000 fine.  As the
judge announced the sentences, Wobbly leader “Big” Bill Haywood reported,
“Fletcher sidled over to me and said: ‘The Judge has been using very
ungrammatical language.’  I looked at his
smiling black face and asked: ‘How’s that, Ben?
He said:  ‘His sentences are much
too long.'”

Fletcher
served three years in federal prison, his sentence commuted in 1922. Fletcher’s
release became a celebrated cause among black radicals, championed by The Messenger, co-edited by A. Philip
Randolph
and Chandler Owen. Afterwards, Fletcher remained committed to IWW
ideals, though never again played an active role in the union.

Ben Fletcher
died in Brooklyn, New York in 1949 but the union he led, Local 8, became a model for the
effort to establish interracial equality in the early 20th Century.

Source:

Peter Cole, Ben Fletcher: The Life and Writings of a Black Wobbly (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2007); Peter Cole, Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007); William Seraile, "Ben Fletcher, I.W.W. Organizer." Pennsylvania History 46:3 (July 1979).