Socialism in Kansas City: A Short History


[A man] carrying a red flag…should be arrested [like a] dangerous man who is flourishing a deadly weapon.

So wrote the Kansas City Star in the waning years of the 19th century.

As the 20th century dawned, American socialist and communist movements grew in popularity and became a political force to be reckoned with. As documented in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, an estimated 1 million Americans read socialist newspapers. The Socialist Party had nearly 120,000 members. Socialist politicians served in 340 cities across the country, some 1,200 mayors, councilpersons, state congressmen, and other politicians. Victor Berger of Milwaukee, a city run by socialists off and on for 50 years, became the first socialist U.S. Congressman in 1911. Eugene V. Debs of Indiana was the presidential candidate for the Socialist Party in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. In 1920, he garnered 6% of the national vote (nearly 1 million people), a percentage many modern third-party candidates would die for — and he did it from a prison cell, having been jailed for speaking against U.S. involvement in World War I.

This article will not explore the ideology of socialism in-depth, but generally speaking socialists believe workers should own and manage their workplaces democratically and share the wealth workers create, rather than allow one owner or a board to monopolize decision-making power and award themselves much while offering workers little. As Kansas City’s Midland Mechanic wrote on July 14, 1898, “Labor produces all wealth and provides the luxuries of the rich, but it clothes itself in rags, lives in hovels, is denied justice and ridiculed by plutocracy.”

Therefore, socialists were leaders of the labor movement, organizing and striking for higher wages, union rights, workplace safety, and the end to child labor and 12- and 16-hour workdays. Socialists further believe government, both local and national, should be controlled by the people (yes, some in the past believed the government should own the workplaces, with the people or their worker representatives owning the government). In short, in both the political and economic worlds, the many should rule, not the few — power to the people. Such ideas often encouraged solidarity and friendship between workers regardless of race, religion, national origin, or gender. Not always, by any means, but at times. Hence, socialists and communists (including many black socialists and women socialists) were often leaders and supporters of historic equal rights and anti-war movements.

Like other cities, Kansas City was home to socialist organizations and newspapers. In fact, what would become the largest socialist newspaper in the nation with 760,000 subscribers, the Appeal to Reason, began in Kansas City. Julius A. Wayland, after fleeing Indiana to avoid a lynching over his socialist ideology and helping found the utopian, communal Ruskin Colony in Tennessee, moved to Kansas City and started the paper in 1895. Its name was a nod to Thomas Paine. Wayland printed 50,000 copies of his first issue. To save on costs, Wayland moved his business to Girard, Kansas, in 1897.

From there it would grow into a national paper. Wayland included the writings of Thomas Paine and of course Karl Marx to popularize socialism. Further, to quote the Socialist Worker, a modern publication:

Among the paper’s correspondents were Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Mother Jones and Eugene V. Debs. The Appeal first made Upton Sinclair famous. In 1905, Warren approached the novelist with the idea of shedding light on the appalling working conditions in Chicago meatpacking plants. Sinclair was to work incognito, gathering information. The result was a series in the Appeal called “The Jungle,” which modern readers may know as one of the most widely read works of American literature.

The paper arrived during the depression of the 1890s, when the Kansas City Star was writing that there was “a tendency to speak of ‘the unemployed’ as of a permanent, recognized, and even organized class” and the Kansas City Mail wrote that “hard times is the cry of everyone nowadays.” The Socialist Labor Party in Kansas City declared in 1895, “Never before in the history of mankind has there been so much suffering from hunger and privations of all kinds alongside of luxury and abundance of nature’s gifts and the products of labor.”

The Star, however, was not pro-labor. It boasted that “the grievous oppression of labor is no longer possible in America” in 1891. It condemned Eugene Debs for the Pullman Strike, a nationwide strike of railroad workers in 1894. The Mail wasn’t particularly thrilled about radical leftists either, declaring in 1893, “Mormons and Socialists should be scattered to the four winds.”

The Kansas City branch of the Socialist Party published a weekly newspaper, the Workers’ World, “one of the few pro-Communist papers in the Midwest.” One can actually read copies from 1919 online. It was founded by socialists James Cannon and Earl Browder, prior creators of another labor paper, the Toiler. Published by Max Dezettel, the Toiler advocated syndicalism — transferring ownership of business to the workers and their unions. The Kansas City Syndicalist League, which historian Edward Johanningsmeier called “the strongest component of the national league,” had “practical control” over the local cooks, barbers, and office workers unions.

Browder was a member of the American Federation of Labor and worked in a bookstore and for the Johnson County Cooperative Association in Olathe, Kansas. Like Debs, he spoke out against World War I, the draft in particular, and was imprisoned from late 1917 to late 1918. Cannon was an International Workers of the World member and one of the founders of this country’s Communist Party (in 1919) — Browder became its General Secretary in 1930. Six years later, Browder was nominated as candidate for president of the United States. Cannon traveled multiple times to the Soviet Union to represent U.S. communists at the Comintern.

On Friday, April 4, 1919, in its first paper (selling for 5 cents), the Workers’ World laid out its raison d’être, its reason for being:

Capitalist society is destroying itself with the forces generated within its own body… Unemployment is growing in these United States weekly, daily, hourly. Sporadic strikes are occurring everywhere, and growing in power and scope with every strike. Wage and working standards are being demoralized. Prices are going up instead of down…

Our rulers, from the “schoolmaster” down to the smallest bank director, are exhibiting nothing but futile gestures, sonorous phrases, and a general incapacity for even an intelligent understanding that a fundamental change is necessary. From such a situation nothing can come but a great crash, and the crash will not be long in coming.

Socialism offers the only way out. But socialism, to be effective, must be organized and must become vocal. This is the “Why” of the Workers’ World, to demand the abolition of exploitation, to assert the necessity for the control of society by the workers…and to assist in developing the practical program by which the workers will take over industry for society as a whole…to foster and encourage, in season and out, that faith in the working class and its ability to control its own destiny…

The paper focused heavily on socialist theory and practice, prison reform, and labor struggles. It arrived during the fourth month of a great streetcar worker strike, which had two causes. Workers who organized into a union, the Carmen’s Union, were immediately fired by the streetcar company. Further, workers wanted a wage increase from 36 cents to 42 cents an hour. The men left their jobs and “met at Labor Temple and paraded, with bands and banners, through the main streets of the city, and under the windows of the Street Railway office at 15th and Grand.” Then “the case was taken before…Wm. Howard Taft,” the former president, at the National War Labor Board, which was designed to mediate worker-employer disputes.

The company hired scabs (or “finks”), who lived like a “herd in the barns at 16th and Garfield where they were being housed and fed by the company,” to replace the strikers. So thousands of “indignant and outraged workers gathered around the barns, overpowered the police, burned a few cars as a sign that they were in earnest, and escorted the ‘finks’ in a body to Union Station, where they saw them carefully out of town.”

Things only escalated from there. “Kansas City was given the strange spectacle of soldiers with fixed bayonets and machine guns, patrolling the streets of Kansas City night and day in motor cars. A campaign of terrorism was inaugurated against the men, strikers, and even suspected sympathisers [sic], being arrested upon the flimsiest pretext. To utter the word ‘scab’ publicly meant at the least a week or two in jail.” Four men were arrested after rumors that strikers were dynamiting streetcars arose — and were allegedly forced by the police to confess. Then “certain men, supposed to be in the pay of the railway company, were said to have been caught trying to place explosives in the Labor Temple.”

“The government acts only to uphold the company,” Workers’ World wrote. “All forces are arrayed against the men, who are still standing together in magnificent solidarity with nothing on their side but the justice of their demands. Will cynical and arrogant forces win? It will be a black day for the Kansas City capitalists when ALL the workers realize as fully as do the streetcar men that justice can only be obtained by taking the government into their own hands.”

Socialism was discussed in public forums in Kansas City. For example, the American Federation of Labor held a convention in Kansas City in December 1898, where, according to the New York Times, “socialism was the absorbing topic.” Indeed,

The Socialist delegates made a determined effort to infuse Socialistic doctrine into the law of the Federation, by the introduction of a resolution the gist of which was that the constitution of the federation be changed so as to admit indorsement [sic] of no political party except that “bearing on the class-conscious propaganda for abolition of the wage system.”

Probably they will not succeed, for there is a majority against them, but the Socialist orators held the floor nearly all the afternoon, and will continue their argument to-morrow.

Kansas City was gripped by the typical hysteria over socialism — the Red Scare.

Take for example 1913, which saw a “Free Speech Fight in Kansas City” (International Socialist Review). 85 members of the Industrial Workers of the World were thrown “in jail for speaking on the streets. The number is increasing daily with men who come from different parts of the country, some of them from as far as Great Fall, Mont., beating their way, braving the cold and snow, to fight and suffer for the right to agitate and educate the workers for the overthrow of capitalism.”

The mass protests and mass arrests began when “the police broke up a street meeting on behalf of the Wheatland prisoners. Five men were sentenced to 200 days in the workhouse. The others have been sentenced to similar and even longer terms.”

The police “clubbed the speakers off the streets.” Some were “clubbed and so badly injured that they had to be taken to the hospital,” the punishment for those “brave men who dare to speak against capitalism.” Yet the “resolute rebels have determined to have free speech at any cost.”

Like elsewhere, some socialists (white and black) helped push forward black rights. People like Herb March of the Young Communist League and socialist Charles Fischer united blacks and whites at places like the Armour packing house, where blacks were fired first and underrepresented in better positions. They formed a union that became the largest racially diverse organization in the city, with leaders from both races. In September 1938, after a pay dispute involving unpaid blacks, 400 black and 600 white workers occupied Armour together for days. “It left a unity of friendship that couldn’t have been created in any other way,” Fischer recalled. Further, he remembered:

There was, of course, that religious difference and that racial difference, which were obstacles at first but which were all overcome. All of them — simply by showing the people that we all had a common goal to make a decent living, to have a decent standard of living, and this was the way to go, and the only way to go, because without a union, we’re all lost.

The strikers won their demands.

Further, black and white members of the Kansas City branch of the Communist Party marched through the city together to protest unemployment in 1931. Black communists like Abner Berry gave speeches around the city to help unite workers (see Racism in Kansas City: A Short History).

Many socialists understood the relationship between race and class: racist doctrines justified economic oppression by capitalists, employers. Just like emancipation of yesteryear would mean the end of free labor for slave owners, human equality would force business owners to pay blacks the same wages as whites. Racism served to prevent this, just as sexism and xenophobia prevented the same for women, undocumented immigrants, and others. Further, racism discouraged diverse workers from uniting (and was often stoked by corporations as thoroughly as possibly to weaken labor organizations). In 1931, James Cannon, former editor of Workers’ World, wrote for a New York paper:

In its struggle against the workers’ emancipation movement capitalism plays upon all the dark sentiments of ignorance, prejudice and superstition. This is seen daily and hourly in its endeavors to divide the workers and oppressed people along national, racial and religious lines…. [White workers are] inflamed against the foreigner, the Jew and the Negro. Communism cannot be other than the mortal enemy of these devastating prejudices…. Communists must be the heralds of a genuine solidarity between the exploited workers of the white race and the doubly exploited Negroes.

Kansas City was home to a branch of a black socialist organization called the Black Panther Party. The local chapter started in 1969 and was headed by Pete O’Neal. The Panthers aimed to promote self-defense and use of Second Amendment rights, to unify workers against capitalist exploitation, to embrace black pride, to make African Americans politically powerful and economically self-sufficient, to end illiteracy, hunger, and poverty in black communities, and to fight and die at any time for freedom. Marxist ideas of giving power to the common people attracted many, as did the idea of revolution in an America where blacks were stripped of their human rights and white vigilantes and police could attack and kill peaceful marchers with total impunity.

The local chapter created social programs to lift Kansas City blacks out of poverty. Its “three major survival programs included a free breakfast program, black history classes, and free health screening for sickle cell and hypertension.” Food donations from local businesses fed 700 children each day (Racism in Kansas City). The Kansas City Panthers had female members and leaders, like Charlotte Hill O’Neal.

Indeed, men were not the only socialists (though socialist women were usually made subordinate to men). Take Kate Richards O’Hare, who, while being a racist segregationist, was a vocal Socialist Party organizer, an anti-war and anti-militarism advocate who was also imprisoned under the Espionage Act (freedom of speech was not particularly popular in America during the Great War). She later made an unsuccessful run for Congress on a Socialist Party ticket. O’Hare lived on a farm in rural Kansas and then moved to Kansas City as a youth. She remembered in an article for the Socialist Woman:

Then came the day when we left the ranch and went to the city to take up the life of a wage-worker’s family in the poverty-cursed section of the town. For, of course, no other was possible for us for father’s wages were only nine dollars a week and nine dollars is not much to support a family of five. Of that long, wretched winter following the panic of 1887 the memory can never be erased, never grow less bitter. The poverty, the misery, the want, the wan-faced women and hunger pinched children, men trampling the streets by day and begging for a place in the police stations or turning footpads by night, the sordid, grinding, pinching poverty of the workless workers and the frightful, stinging, piercing cold of that winter in Kansas City will always stay with me as a picture of inferno such as Dante never painted…

I, child-woman that I was, seeing so much poverty and want and suffering, threw my whole soul into church and religious work. I felt somehow that the great, good God who had made us could not have [wanted to abandon] his children to such hopeless misery and sordid suffering. There was nothing uplifting in it, nothing to draw the heart nearer to him, only forces that clutched and dragged men and women down into the abyss of drunkenness and vice. Perhaps he had only overlooked those miserable children of the poor in the slums of Kansas City, and if we prayed long and earnestly and had enough of religious zeal he might hear and heed and pity.

O’Hare was a machinist with her father and a trade unionist, until she heard Mother Jones speak at the Cigar Maker’s Ball in Kansas City. She “hastily sought out ‘Mother’ and asked her to tell what Socialism was.” O’Hare then became a socialist, reading the Appeal to Reason, gaining Wayland as a mentor, and joining the Socialist Labor Party of Kansas City in 1899. She joined with Caroline Lowe (a teacher) and Winnie Shirley, other Kansas City socialist women, to push for socialism throughout the southwestern U.S. O’Hare soon rivaled Eugene Deb’s popularity in the Southwest, gaining a national and even international reputation, according to historian James Green.

Another famous socialist woman was Ella Reeve Bloor, who helped establish the Communist Labor Party in Kansas City and was later a national organizer. She wrote for the Workers’ World as well.

Socialism in Kansas City found a home in the 1970s in the form of the Kansas City Marxist-Leninist Cell and the Kansas City Revolutionary Workers Collective, a black Marxist organization with “roots in the Afro-American student and community struggles” that reached out to national communist groups and local groups like the Wichita Communist Cell. The KCRWC declared, “We will struggle to unite the working class movement with the movement of oppressed national minorities, women, students, and all who will struggle for the socialist revolution. We will lead the U.S. working class to its greatest victory yet — the [establishment] of the People’s Socialist Republic of the United States!”

The KCRWC had harsh words for both the United States and the U.S.S.R. regarding imperialism, calling the two superpowers the “most dangerous exploiters… These two bloodsuckers are the biggest threat to world peace… The competition for world domination by these two superpowers, which is particularly acute in Southern Africa, the Mideast, and Europe, exposes their true aims.” Further,

The U.S. has long been regarded as a reactionary imperialist power, and has long ago won the bitter hatred of the world’s working people — from Puerto Rico to Chile, from southern Africa to Vietnam… The Soviet Union is now a fascist police state internally, and a vicious exploiter internationally. We say that the Soviet Union is social-imperialist — socialist in words, imperialist in deeds.

During the great Kansas City, Missouri, School District teacher strikes of the 1970s, the KCRWC stood with the teachers, calling the strike a “just struggle.”

Black and white teachers went on strike for forty-two days in 1974 and again, three years later, for forty-four days. The strikes, organized by the American Federation of Teachers, pushed for better wages, smaller class sizes, sick leave, better working conditions, and other demands. The district sought court edicts to end the strikes or weaken them through restraining orders. Violations of court orders earned strikers fines or jail time.

On April 7, 1977, the Star ran the headline “127 Teachers Arrested in School Disturbances.” The strike beginning March 1977 shut down ninety-two schools and left 51,000 students out of class (see Racism in Kansas City).

The KCRWC condemned the priorities of those who “own all the wealth and power in society”:

To the capitalists, the education of the working class children is not a profitable venture. Consequently, public schools are allowed to deteriorate. Capitalists invest in more profitable areas, such as spending billions for bombs and missiles to be used against other peoples of the world.

It called for parents, students, and workers to unite against the school board and the capitalist economic system.

It wasn’t the first time in Kansas City that socialists were involved in public school reform, for example in the 1890s and 1910s criticizing “the centralized structure and elite membership of the local school board… [They] called for representative democracy, but unfortunately lacked the power to implement desired changes,” as historian William Reese writes. The Socialist Labor Party in Kansas City called the school board “absolutely capitalistic.”

In modern times, some Kansas Citians still believe in socialism. Small groups come and go, too numerous to fully list: the Kansas City Marxist Alliance, the Kansas City Youth for Socialist Action, and so on. Today, there exist socialist groups like the Progressive Youth Organization, the Kansas City Revolutionary Collective, and the Kansas City Democratic Socialists of America. Groups and individuals study, write, talk, and preach about socialism, working toward what William Morris called the “next step” in the Workers’ World on November 28, 1919:

A new society founded on industrial peace and forethought, bearing with its own ethics, aiming at a new and higher life for all men, has received the general name of Socialism, and it is my firm belief that it is destined to supersede the old order of things founded on industrial war, and to be the next step in the progress of humanity.

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