[I originally wrote this piece for my Saturday Evening Post Considering History column, but it didn't end up working out there. So I wanted to share it here!]
On the morning of September 2nd, 1885, ten white miners accosted Chinese miners working at a Union Pacific coal mine near the town of Rock Springs, Wyoming. After beating the Chinese miners brutally, the white miners joined a larger mob forming in town and marched to the Knights of Labor meeting hall. After spending hours working themselves into a frenzy of xenophobia and racism, the armed white mob descended on the Rock Springs Chinatown and began firing upon any Chinese people they encountered. By the day’s end they had lynched, brutalized, and murdered at least 28 Chinese Americans, wounded countless more, and burned much of the neighborhood to the ground.
That moment of racial terrorism echoed and extended broader histories about which I’ve written in this column. Most obviously, Rock Springs constituted one particularly violent expression of the overarching sentiments that produced the Chinese Exclusion Act and era, a period of profoundly exclusionary narratives directed not just at this particular American community but at immigrant arrivals from around the world. The massacre also illustrates the breadth and potency of the late 19th and early 20th century lynching epidemic, a decades-long explosion of racial terrorism that targeted communities of color across the United States (while decimating African Americans with especial potency).
But as we commemorate its 135th anniversary, the Rock Springs massacre also helps us engage another, more complex and just as crucial issue in American history: the problem with viewing “the working class” as a unified or monolithic community. Too often throughout American history, racial and ethnic violence and white supremacist terrorism have been perpetrated against non-white Americans by cross-sections of white Americans, including working-class whites in central or prominent roles. I’m not suggesting in any way that members of the white working class are more likely to be white supremacist than other Americans, but rather that they are not less likely—that white supremacy can cut across other elements of identity, and that in far too many cases throughout our history it has done so, producing violent and destructive effects for Americans of color. Remembering those histories is a vital first step in considering critically the possibility of working-class solidarity and shared activism in the present.
As I traced in another recent Considering History column, the anti-Chinese movement itself was profoundly linked to the rise of a white working-class labor movement in late-19th century California. Those xenophobic sentiments were often known as Kearneyism, a recognition of the potent influence of the Irish American immigrant and labor activist Denis Kearney and his anti-Chinese speeches at San Francisco’s “Sandlot.” In 1877 Kearney helped found a new political party, the Workingmen’s Party of California, which was dedicated in equal measure to advancing white workers’ rights and anti-Chinese fears (as illustrated by its 1880 electoral slogan “The Chinese Must Go!”).
The Rock Springs massacre was likewise driven by that combination of white labor activism and anti-Chinese prejudice. The radical labor union the Knights of Labor had been a key national advocate for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and in 1883 the Knights organized a Rock Springs chapter, with the express goal of creating a “Whitemen’s Town” to create solidarity and support for white miners in opposition to Chinese laborers. After the initial attack on Chinese miners (which seems to have happened at least somewhat spontaneously), the growing white mob gathered at the Knights of Labor meeting hall, from which they emerged to perpetrate their far more organized and destructive violence against the Rock Springs Chinatown community.
This kind of alliance of white working-class activism with white supremacist prejudice and violence was in no way limited to anti-Chinese sentiments in American history. The July 13th-16th, 1863 New York City Draft Riots have often been characterized as a working-class revolt against the city’s elites; in this narrative Irish American New Yorkers, spurred by resentments with the March Enrollment (or Civil War Military Draft) Act which created a Union Army draft that wealthy and powerful Americans consistently bought their way out of, took out those frustrations through violence. Yet that orgy of violence and destruction overwhelmingly targeted African Americans and their allies: lynching more than 100 African Americans; burning down numerous homes and buildings in both the African American and abolitionist communities, including the Colored Orphan Asylum and Horace Greeley’s residence; and forcing thousands of African American residents to flee the city.
Extra-legal massacres like the Draft Riots and the Rock Springs massacre comprised one form of white supremacist working-class violence, and laws that favored the white working-class by discriminating against Americans of color comprised another. As the United States formally expanded into the new territory and then state of California in the 1850s, two such laws sought to protect Anglo American workers through white supremacist discrimination. The Foreign Miners’ Tax of 1850 targeted immigrant arrivals like the Chinese laborers at Rock Springs, imposing an outrageous $20 per month task for “foreign miners” (defined as any resident who was not a “free white person”). More blatantly racist still was the Anti-Vagrancy Act of 1855, also known as the Greaser Act because it linked the “vagrants, vagabonds, and dangerous and suspicious persons” it targeted to “all persons who are commonly known as ‘Greasers’ or the issue of Spanish and Indian blood.” These laws sought to transform a state defined by its genuinely multi-racial and –national community into a white supremacist haven for white workers and their allies—and make clear that this white supremacy came just as much from the most powerful forces in American government and society as from angry mobs.
These multi-layered 19th century intersections between the white working class and white supremacist discrimination and violence continued into the 20th century. From the January 1930 Watsonville (CA) riots that targeted a community of Filipino American migrant laborers; to the January 1945 arson in California’s Placer County that destroyed the farm of a Japanese American family who had just returned from an internment camp (and for which the four white arsonists were acquitted by an all-white jury sympathetic to their defense that “this is a white man’s country”); to the 1974-75 anti-busing riots in Boston, which in both demographics and racist underpinnings closely paralleled the Draft Riots. And this alliance remains very much with us in the 21st century, as when “economic anxiety” is used as a justification for why many white working-class Americans voted (alongside white Americans from every strata of society) for the most overtly white supremacist president since Andrew Johnson.
American history likewise features significant moments and histories of cross-cultural solidarity, inspiring stories of alliances between workers and communities—such as during the 1920 West Virginia coal wars, when local miners joined forces with newly arrived Italian immigrant workers and African Americans brought in to serve as strikebreakers to fight back against their corrupt bosses and the detectives they had brought in to violently suppress the labor activism. That history, captured in cultural works like John Sayles’ film Matewan (1987) and Diane Gilliam Fisher’s poetry collection Kettle Bottom (2004), exemplifies what is possible when Americans find common cause despite such potentially divisive social and political issues.
Those inspiring histories deserve a place in our collective memories as well. But until we recognize how fully white supremacism and racism can trump class and labor solidarity, and how frequently they have done so across American history, we will fail to grasp a defining factor in both American society as a whole and the social and political debates of our moment in particular. The September 1885 Rock Springs massacre offers one clear and tragic illustration of how the white working class can become part of those national histories of white supremacist violence.
PS. Here are a few pictures that might have accompanied the column: