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T. Thomas Fortune: The Forgotten Founder of Abolition Democracy

Nearly every activist I encounter these days identifies as an abolitionist. To be sure, movements to abolish prisons and police have been around for decades, popularizing the idea that caging and terrorizing people makes us unsafe. However, the Black Spring rebellions revealed that the obscene costs of state violence can and should be reallocated for things that do keep us safe: housing, universal healthcare, living wage jobs, universal basic income, green energy, and a system of restorative justice. As abolition recently became the new watchword, everyone scrambled to understand its historical roots. Reading groups popped up everywhere to discuss W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic, Black Reconstruction in America (1935), since he was the one to coin the phrase “abolition democracy,” which Angela Y. Davis revived for her indispensable book of the same title.

I happily participated in Black Reconstruction study groups and public forums meant to divine wisdom for our current movements. But I often wondered why no one was scrambling to resurrect T. Thomas Fortune’s Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the South, published in 1884. After all, it was Fortune who wrote: “The South must spend less money on penitentiaries and more money on schools; she must use less powder and buckshot and more law and equity; she must pay less attention to politics and more attention to the development of her magnificent resources.” Du Bois, on the other hand, praised Reconstruction efforts to establish and improve the penitentiary system in what proved to be a futile effort to eliminate the convict lease. Much shorter but no less powerful, Fortune’s Black and White anticipates Du Bois’s critique of federal complicity in undermining Black freedom, but sharply diverges by declaring Reconstruction a miserable failure. He argues that the South’s problems can be traced to the federal government allowing the slaveholding rebels to return to power and hold the monopoly of land, stripping Black people of their short-lived citizenship rights, and refusing to compensate freed people for generations of unpaid labor. The result was a new kind of slavery: “the United States took the slave and left the thing which gave birth to chattel slavery and which is now fast giving birth to industrial slavery.” Du Bois echoes Fortune, but adds that white labor’s investment in white supremacy ensured “a system of industry which ruined democracy.”

Fortune, by contrast, believed racism would ultimately wither away, but not without a struggle. Formerly enslaved people with proper education, he held, would have to lead the way. He remarks on how Black people came out of bondage, not as robbers and thieves but as industrious, hard-working, family- and community-oriented people:

while the white men of the South, the capitalists, the land-sharks, the poor white trash, and the nondescripts, with a thousand years of Christian civilization and culture behind them . . . organized themselves into a band of outlaws, whose concatenative chain of auxiliaries ran through the entire South, and deliberately proceeded to murder innocent men and women for POLITICAL REASONS and to systematically rob them of their honest labor because they were too accursedly lazy to labor themselves.

And still, he believed interracial working-class unity was not only possible but necessary for “political reasons” to bring an end to monopoly and private ownership of land, the source of inequality. “Individual ownership in the land,” he writes, “is a transgression of the common right of man, and a usurpation which produces nearly, if not all, the evils which result upon our civilization; the inequalities which produce pauperism, vice, crime, and wide-spread demoralization among all the so-called ‘lower classes.’”

So, where is Black and White in recent book club discussions? Where is T. Thomas Fortune in the pantheon of radical Black intellectuals? I’m not the first to ask the question; it has been raised with the publication of each new edition over the last half-century. The most common answers attribute Fortune’s relative obscurity to his behavior. He shifted with the political winds. He renounced his radicalism to become an acolyte of Booker T. Washington. He drank too much and had an uncontrollable temper. The list is long.

Read entire article at Boston Review