Labor's Problem: Real Wages
Through the years the United States has grown
in size, in wealth, and in political strength.
As we have seen in “Problems of Industrial
Expansion,” business organized into corporations which in turn
organized into trade associations and occasionally, trusts and
cartels. This was
accompanied by the organization of labor, first into craft
unions and then into industrial unions.
The public became convinced that trusts and
cartels were undesirable. At
times it seems that the public has begun to doubt the value of
such powerful unions as the United Mine Workers.
This series of four articles will deal with
John Mitchell, Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, and Walter Reuther. It will be primarily concerned with one phase of their work:
efforts to gain better wages and better working
conditions. It will
show how each man learned from
his predecessors and how the emerging need for a standard of
value to appraise wage demands becomes increasingly acute.
This standard must, in the long run, be accepted by
labor, management, and the public.
1825 when the Durham miners organized the first union of coal
miners, men have alternately pitied and cursed the unfortunate
diggers of coal. Coal,
to be sure, is a vital necessity in this industrial
civilization, a necessity accented by the power of the United
Mine Workers of America today. Yet those who are prone to condemn the miners when they
follow their powerful leader should remember that no fine
oratory, no sentimental tears, and no public legislation has
helped the miners one iota as much as miners’ organizations
and the men who have led them. This truth doubtless holds in most other fields of human
That the lot
of the miner is intrinsically hard is due both to the natural
and the economic phenomena governing coal.
Coal must be mined in the bowels of the earth, and those
who mine it are foredoomed to spend most of their lives
is black, and the men who mine it are grimy and blackened. It is dusty when crumbled, and the coal miner lives and
breathes in a dust-ladened atmosphere.
The dangerous gasses released by coal when it is
disturbed may ignite and explode without warning.
Underground waters may be tapped unexpectedly to flood
the mines and drown the men.
coal presents the capitalist system with an anomaly. In general it is true that the more equipment, the more
capital invested in a modern industry, the more\- economically
and profitably it may be run.
But coal mining proves the reverse of this theorem.
Because the coal that lies on the surface of the earth is
the easiest coal to mine, surface mining requires less equipment
and is a relatively inexpensive operation.
Once the mine must be sunk deep in the earth, the cost of
mining is immeasurably increased. Each year as the mine goes deeper, it costs correspondingly
more to mine the coal.
operator, the coal miner prefers surface mining, which is less
dangerous and more pleasant work.
But as he is forced deeper into the underground mines,
facing increasing hazards, the operator is tempted to decrease
rather than increase his pay, because the profits are
is little stimulation for the operator to install safety
equipment at greater and greater expense, in exhaustively worked
in a capitalistic economy may thus be said to be unsound,
although nationalization of the mines provides no easy solution.
The inherent difficulties in coal mining are illustrated
most clearly in a country like Britain, where coal resources are
already declining and mines are reaching exhaustion.
The government of Britain, which owns the mines, has
spent hundreds of thousands of pounds to mechanize the mines,
but the return in increased output has been negligible.
second half of the thirteenth century, almost every know coal
field in England, Wales, and Scotland was being mined, and the
slavery of the miners was well under way.
It is true enough that coal mining tends to become
unprofitable, and equally true that the operators of the mines
have often suffered severe financial loss.
But the real, long-term losers have been men and the
women (and, until recently, the children) who spent their lives
coal miners were not, technically speaking, slaves, but for many
years they were kept in feudal bondage, being bound over every
year for a year’s time, at very meager wages.
When the miners of Durham and Northumberland organized
“The Colliers of the United Association of Durham and
Northumberland” after the repeal of the Combination Act in
1825, they formed the first coal miners’ union.
ancestor of the United Mine Workers of America soon published a
pamphlet outlining major grievances.
The miners complained of inadequate pay and improper
ventilation and lighting below ground.
They called attention to the harsh behavior of
dictatorial supervisors, to the arbitrary failure to provide
them with employment, and to sharp practices—cheating them out
of their promised half-crown daily when the pit was idle for
more than three days.
historical records, the miners soon evolved a “spread the
work” scheme comparable to the U.M.W.’s three-day week of
1950. Thus we find
that the “Union laid down a rule that no hewer should make
more than 4 s. a day,”
despite the vehement complaints of the operators.
From the Association of Durham and Northumberland miners
grew the powerful miners’ organizations of Britain.
Mine Workers of America, of course, may well claim this group as
an ancestor, but its more immediate fore-fathers mined coal in
Illinois, where they finally struck against wage cuts and
declining earnings in 1861. By the early nineteenth century, coal mining had become a
profitable enterprise in the United States.
Although at one time it took seven days to bring 60 tons
of anthracite to tidewater on the Susquehanna (where it was sold
at from $10 to $12 per ton), the four canals built for the
carrying of coal by 1829 increased the production of anthracite
alone to 112,000 tons annually.
Because of the limited quantities of anthracite or hard
coal in the United States, virtual monopolies were established
shortly, while the vast regions of bituminous fields made soft
coal a highly competitive industry.
Both these conditions were to react on the men in the
areas of coal fields in this country measure approximately
185,000 square miles. Of
this, the anthracite area, confined to Pennsylvania, accounts
for about 470 square miles. Actually, the first miners’ union in America was formed by
the anthracite miners in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, in
1848. The union,
known as the Bates Union, after the Englishman who was its
“agent,” had a peak membership of 5,000 and organized a
partially successful strike in 1849.
in 1850 set a pattern for similar disasters in the miners’
union. It was a
failure based on charges that Bates had betrayed the miners.
Whether or not Bates was at fault, his downfall pointed
the way to similar treatment of most of the early miners’
poorly-paid, ignorant, and distrustful miners rewarded their
leaders, as a rule, with degradation.
of the Bates union left the anthracite fields unorganized.
Twenty years went by before scattered local unions met in
1868 to form the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association.
But the real
impetus to miners’ organization and to a national association
of coal miners was provided by the workers in the bituminous
fields. Their lead
was due in large part to the fact that they worked in a highly
competitive industry and that operators tried continually to cut
costs by cutting wages. Only
a national organization could hope to control wages across the
industry and protect the organized miners from competition in
unorganized fields. In
1860, when the bituminous miners began to organize their
national association, they numbered only 11,331 scattered across
the country, whereas the anthracite miners concentrated in
Pennsylvania already totalled 25,126 men.
of Abraham Lincoln had signaled a widespread industrial
depression in the United States.
A business depression starting in 1860 and dragging into
1861 meant bank collapse and serious unemployment.
In Illinois, the operators of bituminous mines reacted
with a wage cut of one-quarter cent a bushel and followed this
step with another, equal cut shortly thereafter.
The second reduction ushered in first unorganized, and
then organized, striking and the subsequent establishment of the
For at least
a year the Association covered only miners supplying the St.
Louis market, but gradually the group gained strength in
Illinois. After the first successful strike, which forced a
“Miners’ Bill” through the Illinois legislature, the
Association was able to maintain the two and one-half cent
mining rate re-established by the strike and to boost the rate
to three cents in September, 1862, and to four cents in November
of the same year.
Many of the
conditions which nurture resentment among the miners today were
flourishing in the 1860’s.
Partly because of the scattered set-up of the coal
fields, the isolated position of the mines, and the seasonal
employment of workers, operators in the United States, like
their counterparts in England, soon established company stores
and company dwellings for the miners.
England and the United States these petty monopolies offered
ample opportunity for abuse, and the opportunity was almost
grasped by the operators. Although early American miners made no formal complaints, by
1863 we read of the Belleville district miners of Illinois
complaining that they were forced to buy “all their supplies
of whatever kind … at the most exorbitant rates” from
company stores, and to pay ridiculous rentals for “shells of
mining was still a comparatively primitive operation, and
ventilation was usually inadequate.
With the vast bulk of bituminous coal brought up without
steam, the average soft coal mine employed less than 25 miners.
There was no safety regulation, no public inspection
required, and few if any mines had more than one opening.
“undercutting,” the miner lay on his side, exposed to small
avalanches, to possible roof falls, as well as to dangerous
Miners’ Association struggled throughout the 1860’s to put a
safety act through the Illinois legislature without success.
The anthracite miners were more successful with their
request for official supervision of the mines in Schuylkill
County, Pennsylvania in 1869.
One of the
most ancient protections of the miner was his independence in
the mines. In the
1860’s he was still a petty contractor, engaged to dig and
deliver merchantable coal, assigned to a particular working
place, or chamber, responsible for his own safety.
His dissatisfaction with working conditions led him, like
his English brothers, to cooperate with fellow-miners in
restricting coal production to a certain amount per day.
Voluntary limitations on individual production based on a
“fair day’s work” maintained the rate paid for mining and
regulated hours of employment as well.
Miners’ Association spread further into Illinois, it was
unable to live through the post-Civil War period of economic
readjustment. An unsuccessful strike in 1865 led to a lock-out, with the
employers demanding the abandonment of the union. From 1865 on, with conditions in the industry growing
steadily worse, the Association began to fall apart and by 1870
it existed no more.
The winter of
1870 was hard for the coal miners of the middle west.
Many mines were closed, and the rest had lowered wages.
Among the miners who waited impatiently for the Illinois
mines to re-open was Scotch-Irish Robert Mitchell, living with
his second wife and the children of two marriages in Braidwood,
during that hard winter, John Mitchell was born to Robert’s
second wife. The
simple outline of John’s early life is the story of the tragic
mother died when he was two and a half; his stepmother had a
child by a previous marriage and add another son.
When John was only six, his father was killed by a
runaway team, leaving John’s stepmother with four sets of
Scotch Presbyterian, John’s stepmother brought up her children
to “tell the truth and shame the devil.”
She was forced to take in washing for a livelihood and
young John became her helper.
Because he often stayed home to work, he was a poor and
indifferent scholar, and an outcast from the children’s group.
When John was ten, and his stepmother remarried, he left
home and worked on a farm for his keep.
But like most
miners’ sons, he entered the mines even before the minimum age
limit, starting as a trapper-boy at the age of 12.
(The State set the minimum age limit at 13).
As a trapper-boy, John worked in complete isolation in
the dark depths of a mine tunnel, where he waited to open and
close the wooden doors separating one section of the workings
from another for the mule drivers and their coal trucks.
In less than a month, John was promoted to mule driver
and started on the path toward becoming a skilled miner.
getting harder all the time for the miners of Illinois.
Although annual wages had been about $314 in 1879, before
John went into the mines, in 1885 and 1886 annual wages dropped
to around $239. When
the young man was 16, he left Illinois for the West, and for the
next two or three years he worked in various mining camps in
Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
But he found no future there, and in 1889 returned to the
mines of Illinois.
at an inauspicious moment.
The mine operators of Northern Illinois were trying to
drive the wage down to a point where they could compete with
low-cost Southern Illinois mines. When the Spring Valley miners protested, they were met by a
lockout, and their families were evicted from company houses.
A writer for the New York World
hundred heads of families of Northern Illinois
had not a stroke of work since May; seven out of
every ten families are sick; seriously so; malarial
fevers, diptheria, cholera morbus, ague and pneumonia
form the bulk of the ailments. … Salt pork,
potatoes and corn meal, with a little tea and coffee,
have been their sole means of subsistence throughout the
Valley, the lockout was a victory for the operators, who forced
a 20 per cent reduction on their miners and forced them to sign
yearly contracts of work described by Henry D. Lloyd of Chicago
as “slavery—slavery in yearly installments.”
miners, John Mitchell included, there seemed little hope of
permanent relief. Scattered
union organizations had lost strike after strike, and neither
the Knights of Labor (to which Mitchell belonged) nor the
National Progress Union were able to ameliorate conditions.
After 10 years of rivalry between these two
organizations, a united front was finally organized at Columbus,
Ohio, on January 22, 1890.
The United Mine Workers of America was alive at last.
had begun to study law, and was reading Edward Bellamy’s Looking
After another abortive strike in 1891, the young man
again tried his fortune in the West and again returned
unsuccessful to Spring Valley.
Now 22, he married a motherless miner’s daughter,
Catherine O’Rourke, and within a year their first son was
He had little
enough reason for optimism.
The panic of 1893 added fuel to the flames of radicalism
now sweeping the country. The year before, the infamous Homestead strike had ended in
violence and murder, and the People’s (Populist) Party polled
over a million votes, nominated 22 electors, and sent a powerful
group to Congress.
The year 1894
promise no relief. When
the president of the United Mine Workers, John McBride,
addressed the fifth annual convention of the United Mine
Workers, he said very simply:
“There is a limit to human endurance and you have
reached that limit.” The
union had only 13,000 paid up members out of 250,000 men working
in the mines, but the national union’s first strike call, to
begin in April, 1894, was obeyed by 125,000 men.
The strike failed.
army set out from the mining camp of Massillon, Ohio.
Wages in Illinois were said to average $12 a month.
A legislative commission of Pennsylvania declared that
miners there “lived in many cases worse than beasts … herded
together like cattle and in many cases wallowing in their own
after long-drawn out discussions in Washington, Roosevelt
proposed arbitration, Mitchell called an anthracite convention.
More than five months after the strike had been called,
the convention accepted the arbitration.
the commission hearings, as at the convention, Mitchell
reflected the moderate conservatism that marked his character.
Clarence Darrow defended the miners, as he had defended Debs
eight years before. But
Mitchell forced him, it is said, to moderate his inflammatory
speeches for the miners. When
Darrow made his summary to the commission, Baer had already
presented the operators’ case, and Mitchell had shaken his
hand in an amazing gesture of conciliation.
Darrow analyzed Baer’s statistics, showing that as of that
date 49 per cent of the miners were getting less than $200
yearly; nine per cent between $200 and $300 and only five per
cent, an annual wage of more than $800.
Taking the highest possible average, the laborers did not
get more than $333. During
the four months of hearings, Mitchell’s conservatism grew.
With the hearings finally closed he made a very moderate speech
in Chicago, declaring to more than 6,000 men that “We are all
poor simply because we cannot get rich honorably.”
This conservatism was soon to prove his undoing; but it
was still applauded.
decision of the commission represented by no means a complete
victory for the U.M.W. The
award provided a ten per cent increase in wages (20 per cent was
asked) and a nine-hour day (an eight-hour day had been
of calling for the direct recognition of the union, the
commission provided for the creation of a six-man conciliation
board, on which workers’ organizations were to be represented.
year 1903 was to see still greater gains in working conditions
for the bituminous miners.
In the seven years since 1898, it was estimated that some
miners had received pay increases of 66⅔ per cent.
The union was growing in strength.
Unfortunately for the miners and the country, however,
the depression which began in 1903 forced the operators to
demand a reduction in pay for miners, a reduction of 15 per cent
for following two years.
Mitchell saw no benefit to the country, the operators or the
miners in the reduction, he worked to prevent a strike.
His success (the strike vote was 102,000 against to
68,000 for) added to the feeling among many union men that
Mitchell was too conservative, too moderate.
Rumors were prevalent that hobnobbing with the operators,
visiting at the White House, had turned Mitchell’s head, that
he was no longer a miner’s man.
Sectional strikes beginning late in 1903 failed, and
Mitchell was blamed. By
the time the 1905 convention meeting rolled around, Mitchell was
being attacked on all sides.
Mitchell had spent two months in Europe in 1904, during the
Colorado strike, as an elected delegate to the International
Mining Congress. That
he remained for two months when “the strikers starved”
writing articles and living “sumptuously” was generally
charged against him. A
local leader, Robert Randall, publicly scored Mitchell as “the
little tin labor god of the capitalist class,” who had eaten
with “the man who has the blood of the Homestead men on his
hands and who had done more to crush American manhood and
degrade American womanhood than any other man in the United
reference is, of course, to Andrew Carnegie).
the miners stuck to Mitchell.
He spoke eloquently, in his own defense:
far as my present official position is concerned, I
would be happy, indeed, gentlemen, if it were your wish
to turn it over tomorrow to someone else; happy, indeed,
to go back to my home and loves ones … to have the
pleasure denied me for seven long years. . . .
you suppose the salary I get here, good as it is …
compensates me for the loss of companionship? …
Do you think I crave this position, I wish to
assure you … that from the first year after my
election I have never asked, directly or indirectly, for
any man’s support or for a single vote . . . if I stay
here one year or twenty years, this office must come to
me unsolicited and unsought. . . .
of you have forgotten, but I never have, the conditions
you had when I first came with you.
I do not claim any part of the credit for this
change, but I hope the time may never come when my
people must go back to where they were some years ago. .
gentlemen, if one of the charges this man makes is true
[Randall] I say that I am utterly unfit to represent
you. . . . On
the other hand, if these statements are untrue, …
then I say I have a right to demand of you that you
afford me protection. . . .
Either this man or I should not be a member of
was expelled, but the memory of his attack lingered to haunt
Mitchell until his retirement.
Mitchell was involved in bitter struggles to prevent
strikes in 1906. He
was tired and unwell, and union morale was low.
Again, at the convention of 1907, he faced a bitter
attack against his moderate policies and again the attack
unfortunately was failing also. Since the summer of 1906 he had begun to drink seriously, and
his drinking was an even greater problem because it troubled
him. Now he was
genuinely ill, in and out of hospitals and wearing himself out
in inter-union battles. The
quality of his courage is shown by a speech he made in December
of 1907, when he was beset by acute pain in the middle of a
speech. He believed
that death was coming, declaring to the audience:
believe my time is at hand.
I do not care.
I am half glad that it is almost over.
If I do not see the men again tell them for me
that whatever success I have brought for them has not
been for pecuniary benefit.
It has been because I love them.
Mitchell lived, but he withdrew at last from active
participation in the union.
At the age of 38, he had grown old and feeble in the
service of the miners. On
the credit side, the U.M.W. had won gains more advanced than
those of any other union in the country.
The miners had prospered more than any other industrial
group. The working day had been decreased from 10 to 8 hours for
bituminous workers, from 10 to 9 in the hard coal fields.
The coal mining industry was the best organized industry
in the country.
the rest of Mitchell’s life brought him little satisfaction. his position
with the Civic Federation was attacked by the United Mine
Workers, and he resigned it rather than leave the union.
After years of lecturing, he was finally, in March, 1914,
chosen for a four year term as member of the New York State
Workmen’s Compensation Commission.
In June, 1915, he was transferred and appointed Chairman
of the Industrial Commission of New York State. Here he remained
until his death in September, 1919, at the age of 49.
many eulogies at his untimely death were somewhat watered down
by the discovery that Mitchell died a rich and not a poor man.
In the last, futile years of his life he had become
interested in the stock market, and his estate was valued at
almost a quarter of a million dollars.
(Later, the estate was valued at $347,151).
Despite charges to the contrary, it was acquired
honestly, as far as evidence shows.
Mitchell’s sincere conservatism, his belief in the
capitalist system, and his dislike of radical socialism, meant
that there was nothing inconsistent in his accumulation of
the U.M.W. demanded it, he had even resigned his $10,000 a year
job with the Civic Federation. No evidence has ever been produced that Mitchell had
ill-gotten gains. Five
years after his death, the miners who loved him and remembered
him unveiled a statue in his honor in Scranton, with the motto
“Champion of Labor—Defender of Human Rights.”
it must not be forgotten that during his lifetime the men whom
he served took a great toll from Mitchell—his family life, his
youth, his health, his usefulness to society after retirement.
The usual rewards of the early mine labor leaders were
Mitchell’s, too—worship in success, and vilification when
failure threatened. Life
in the mines is hard, the industry is a difficult, hazardous
one, and the life of a coal miners’ leader in many ways
matches that of the men.
France’s famous minister of finance, once remarked that the
best tax system was the one that “plucked the goose with the
least hissing.” — Montreal
History, January, 1950
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Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The
Permanence of Racism
grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black
former Harvard law professor who made
headlines recently for his one-man protest
against the school's hiring policies,
hammers home his controversial theme that
white racism is a permanent, indestructible
component of our society. Bell's fantasies
are often dire and apocalyptic: a new
Atlantis rises from the ocean depths,
sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white
resistance to affirmative action softens
following an explosion that kills Harvard's
president and all of the school's black
professors; intergalactic space invaders
promise the U.S. President that they will
clean up the environment and deliver tons of
gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens
take all African Americans back to their
planet. Other pieces deal with black-white
romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job
Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine
And We Are Not Saved (1987), is back
in some of these ominous allegories, which
speak from the depths of anger and despair.
Bell now teaches at New York University Law
* * *
Representing the Race
The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer
By Kenneth W. Mack
Representing the Race tells the story of an enduring paradox of American race relations, through the prism of a collective biography of African American lawyers who worked in the era of segregation. . . . Mack reorients what we thought we knew about famous figures such as Thurgood Marshall, who rose to prominence by convincing local blacks and prominent whites that he was—as nearly as possible—one of them. But he also introduces a little-known cast of characters to the American racial narrative. These include Loren Miller, the biracial Los Angeles lawyer who, after learning in college that he was black, became a Marxist critic of his fellow black attorneys and ultimately a leading civil rights advocate; and Pauli Murray, a black woman who seemed neither black nor white, neither man nor woman, who helped invent sex discrimination as a category of law. The stories of these lawyers pose the unsettling question: what, ultimately, does it mean to “represent” a minority group in the give-and-take of American law and politics? /
For Love of Liberty
* * * *
Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered
the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It
By H. W. Brands
In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar's astonishing rise to become the world's principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar's changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America's economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan's bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar's dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today.
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Sex at the Margins
Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
By Laura María Agustín
This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice.
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Michelle Alexander: US Prisons, The New Jim Crow
Judge Mathis Weighs in on the execution of Troy Davis
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
mass incarceration of people of color through the War on
Drugs is a big part of the reason that a black child
born today is less likely to be raised by both parents
than a black child born during slavery. The absence of
black fathers from families across America is not simply
a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time
watching Sports Center. Hundreds of thousands of black
men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away
for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed
by whites. Most people seem to
imagine that the drug war—which has swept millions of
poor people of color behind bars—has been aimed at
rooting out drug kingpins or violent drug offenders.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This war has
been focused overwhelmingly on low-level drug offenses,
like marijuana possession—the very crimes that happen
with equal frequency in middle class white communities.
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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If you like this page consider making a donation
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
8 July 2012