Thursday, February 7, 2019

Jack Kelly's "The Edge of Anarchy"

Jack Kelly is a journalist, historian, and one-time screenwriter. His latest book The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America was praised by the New York Times as “timely and urgent ... a thrilling description of the boycott of Pullman cars and equipment by Eugene Debs’s fledgling American Railway Union.

Kelly applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Edge of Anarchy and reported the following:
The Edge of Anarchy is the story of the largest and wildest labor uprising in American history. In 1894, hundreds of thousands of railroad workers shut down virtually all commerce in the country in order to pressure George Pullman to address the demands of the workers in his rail car factory. The workers were led by Eugene V. Debs, one of the most dynamic labor leaders in the country’s history and president of the huge American Railway Union.

Page 99 relates the “blistering six-hour debate” that erupted during the union’s convention on the eve of the strike. One of the main issues on the agenda was whether to admit African American members to the union. Pullman operated sleeping cars on rail lines and hired black workers to serve as porters, essentially servants for the passengers. If these men joined with the other railroad workers, it would give the union much more clout.

Debs, a strong advocate of the solidarity of all workers, pleaded that “if we do not admit the colored man to membership, the fact will be used against us.”

But it was not to be. One man rose to say he “would not ‘brother’ the negro under any circumstances.” By two votes, the delegates refused to admit black members.

This incident, although not a central theme of the book, is an excellent example of how the race issue forms an underground current through so many aspects of our history. By rejecting blacks, the white rail workers helped defeat their own cause—a pattern that recurred again and again during the later history of the labor movement.

The book mentions how it took another forty years for black workers to form their own union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and win recognition from the Pullman Company. The leader of that union, an admirer of Debs, was A. Philip Randolph, who became an important figure in the civil rights movement.
Learn more about the book and author at Jack Kelly's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Edge of Anarchy.

--Marshal Zeringue