Charles Denby’s life story: the story of the struggle for freedom

March 8, 2018

From the March-April 2018 issue of News & Letters

Excerpted from the introduction to the new French edition of Charles Denby’s book Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal.

by Camille Estienne

In 1952, a small book entitled Indignant Heart appeared in New York. Under this succinct title lay hidden a remarkable autobiographical story of an African-American proletarian, Simon Peter Owens, writing under the pseudonym of Matthew Ward. Owens later wrote under the name of Charles Denby, which I will use for the rest of this introduction.

French edition of Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal. Order via

The grandson of slaves, born in 1907 in Lowndes County, Alabama, Denby spent his childhood on a large plantation where the Black sharecroppers wore themselves out growing cotton that the white landowners bought at low prices. In 1924, he left to try his luck in Detroit, Mich., where he was hired for the only jobs open to African Americans: first in a foundry, where the work is especially trying, then as a sweeper for the city. In 1930, unemployed, Denby returned to Alabama to work on his father’s farm. In 1935, with his wife Effie, he left for Montgomery, Alabama….In 1943, the war industries hired African Americans once again, and he returned to Detroit, where his wife would soon join him. He found work in an auto factory that had been converted to produce military aircraft.

Shortly after being hired, he played an active role in a wildcat strike, which brought him to the attention of union militants. The years between 1943 and 1951 would be years of political and union apprenticeship—and of confrontation with multiple forms of racism in the factories and political groups….

The First World War was the occasion of the first great migration to the industrial cities of the North, in particular to Detroit, then the capital of the automobile industry in the U.S. In 1910, several hundred African Americans worked in the auto factories of Detroit; in 1919 there were 11,000, but they remained confined to the least skilled positions, the lowest paid, and the dirtiest and most dangerous (cleanup, material handling—or in the foundry).

The economic crisis of 1929 first affected unskilled workers with little seniority….Tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs in the automobile industry, where Black workers were twice as affected by unemployment as white workers….The great union struggles of the 1930s opened new possibilities for actions for Black workers, who strove throughout the 1930s to advance their own demands in that framework. With the entry of the U.S. into the war in 1941, employment opportunities opened up anew, and Black workers seized the moment to exert massive pressure against discrimination.

In Detroit, Denby’s union activity put him into contact with militants whose political analyses resonated with his earlier experiences.

At the Briggs factory on Mack Avenue where he worked, he met Genora Dollinger (1913-1995), a Trotskyist militant who had played an important role in the 1936-37 sit-down strike at General Motors in Flint, Mich. Age 23 at that time, Dollinger had notably put together the “Women’s Emergency Brigade,” which did not hesitate to use clubs to defend the picketers. The stopping of production forced General Motors to negotiate with the unions, which marked an important victory in the history of industrial unionism. Following that strike, Genora Johnson (using the surname of her first husband) found herself blacklisted by all the employers in Flint. She left for Detroit and found work at the Briggs Manufacturing Company under the name of Genora Dollinger (the surname of her second husband).

It was there that she made contact with Denby and noted his fighting spirit. She brought him into the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). There he allied himself with the Johnson-Forest Tendency, an opposition faction that would soon break with Trotskyism.

Johnson was the pseudonym of the West Indian intellectual and activist C.L.R. James (1901-1989) who had lived in the U.S. since 1938; Forest was the pseudonym of Raya Dunayevskaya (1910-1987), a socialist militant born in Ukraine who had briefly been secretary to Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1937.

James was much interested in the “Negro Question” from a revolutionary perspective. At the SWP Convention in 1948, he gave a speech that aroused Denby’s enthusiasm: “The Revolutionary Answer to the Black Problem in the U.S.” In that speech, James took up the revolutionary potential of Black masses. He saw the struggle against discrimination as beginning with their demands for democratic rights during the American Revolution, continuing in the massive escapes of slaves to the North before the Civil War and their joining the armies of the North, their attempts to organize in the Southern States during the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877), and finally with Black workers in the union struggles of the 1930s.

On those grounds, James emphasized the vitality and the value of the independent Black struggle, which could not be fully subordinated to workers’ movements for a proletarian revolution. This perspective gave Denby weapons to fight from within a radical movement that often seemed to him to be blind to the specific problems of African-American workers.[1]

Dunayevskaya’s analyses focused on production relations in the Soviet Union. As she had the advantage of being able to read Russian and [knowledge of Marxist] economics, she was able to prove the capitalistic character of the USSR economy. She showed that Russian workers were just as exploited in the interest of capital accumulation as were workers in bourgeois democratic countries. But far from stopping at this observation, she pushed to capture the dynamic of exploitation and struggle, showing, for instance, that the workers’ struggles in the 19th century for the shortening of the workday had forced the capitalists to adapt and to find new methods to extract surplus-value, notably by intensifying work through mechanization. Deepening her interest in the autonomy of struggles, she paid special attention to the movement for the abolition of slavery. In that framework, Marx’s writings on the movement of escaped slaves, the Abolitionist movement, and the Civil War made sense. One finds many echoes of these analyses in Denby’s book.

In 1951, Denby left the SWP along with all of the members of the Johnson-Forest Tendency.[2] The group then formed the Correspondence Publishing Committee. Along the lines of Marx’s 1880 “Workers’ Questionnaire,” Correspondence strove to elicit testimony from different segments of the working class. Denby was encouraged to tell of his experiences as a Black production worker. C.L.R. James’s wife, Constance Webb, would work with Effie[3] and Denby on putting together their memories, which would appear in 1952 under the title Indignant Heart. That title connects this autobiographical story to the history of the anti-slavery struggle through a reference to the 19th century Abolitionist Movement.[4]

Denby’s book describes a world where racial oppression and economic exploitation dominate. On the Alabama plantations, Black sharecroppers could only sell their cotton to white landowners, to whom they remained indebted until the end of their days. In the factories of the North and the South, before the great wave of union organizing in heavy industry during the 1930s, the foremen threw their weight around at will in their departments and did not hesitate to demand part of the workers’ wages, and to practice usury. For African Americans, deadly racist violence posed a permanent threat. On Denby’s return to the South in the early 1930s, he witnessed two lynchings.

Whether it be a great cotton plantation in Alabama in the 1910s, an automobile manufacturing plant in Detroit in the 1920s, the city of Montgomery in the 1930s, or a war industries plant in the 1930s, Denby evokes, without any trace of despair, those worlds structured by oppression and exploitation.

Black sharecroppers, whom the white plantation owners kept in a constant state of dependency, destroyed their bosses’ livestock and provoked them to kill each other off, thereby getting rid of them without risking being accused. Besides, the Blacks that the landowners considered to be “bad” were the most respected.

In Montgomery, racial segregation, then in force in the South, would stop Denby from taking a seat. Armed with a knife, he confronted the passengers and the driver, determined to have it out with them if they did not leave him alone.

Charles Denby, author of “Indignant Heart”. Photo by Allen Willis (John Alan) for News & Letters.

In Detroit, Black women were working in a department in the factory where they constantly breathed toxic fumes. They were barred from easier jobs in the sewing department, which were reserved for white women workers. Workers in the paint department launched a wildcat strike in support of the Black women, in the midst of the Second World War. They weren’t concerned with their union’s commitment to support the war effort.

The exploited fought back, and one can’t miss the jubilation with which Denby tells these stories.

The second part of the book, published in 1978, brings us into an altogether new world.

The writings of part two are mostly taken from Denby’s contributions to News & Letters, the newspaper which he, as editor, ran with Raya Dunayevskaya since its founding in 1955. Part two brings out Denby’s political involvement with the civil rights movement and with workers’ struggles in the 1960s.

The first chapters tell about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the starting point of the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. These pages echo the colorful stories Denby told in part one of his rebellion in a Montgomery bus 20 years earlier. But this time it was no longer about individual revolt, but a mass movement against the rule of segregation. From the beginning, Denby joins in wholeheartedly. He returns to Alabama as often as he can, and tells about new developments there in his articles in N&L.

A few years later, in the mid-1960s, African Americans from Lowndes County began to organize to win their political rights. As Detroit was the main destination of Black workers from that county when they migrated North, many maintained ties with their rural roots. People from Lowndes County, now in Detroit, organized to send material support to activists in the South and put together a support group. Denby was chosen to lead this association that would send money, food, books, clothing, etc. to Alabama. This support was essential for the Lowndes County civil rights movement.

The activities in Lowndes County also brought the demand for “Black Power” to civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael. In fact, under the conditions in the county—the violence and the lynchings; the direct economic dependence of the Black sharecroppers on white landowners; a small Black middle class with little inclination to fight; a rural environment in which boycotts and sit-ins were largely unfeasible—the nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement proved largely ineffective.

Nonetheless, Denby and Dunayevskaya continued to criticize the new nationalist and elitist turn in the civil rights movement. In a January 1967 column in N&L,‘Black Power,’ Race, and Class,” Dunayevskaya denounced this regression that consisted of analyzing racism in terms of a “white psyche” which supposedly is part of a fear-guilt complex resulting from the 19th-century Black slave revolts. She returned once again to the fact that it was exactly during the epoch of slave revolts that a powerful Abolitionist movement took shape in which Black slaves, free Blacks, and white activists worked together to transform U.S. society towards human emancipation. She also firmly criticized the facile analysis of the liberalism within the civil rights movement as a perversion coming from the influence of whites on the movement. Liberalism is not a product of the “white psyche”; it’s rather the spontaneous philosophy of the middle classes, Black or white, who cannot conceive of a mass movement without an [elite] leadership….

Denby would remain faithful to these analyses, and that is why his assessments of the radical groups of the 1960s and 1970s are often severe.

His views on the 1960s wildcat strikes remained the same as those that he had adopted spontaneously in 1943. The fiery revolutionary speeches that were not rooted in patient grassroots work held little fascination for him. He showed himself to be equally committed in his fight against barriers of race, of class, and of gender, which he saw as barriers to the development of truly human social relations.

Denby remained convinced that these barriers could only be destroyed by the exploited masses struggling together for common purposes. In 1978 as in 1952, he encouraged those who are oppressed to fight back without waiting for a Moses who could very well bring them out of the desert, only to lead them back into it later.

Translated by D. Chêneville

[1] Later, Denby distanced himself from the “Pan-Africanism” of James, which he considered a nationalistic regression. His column in the October 1979 N&L adds that the 1948 speech was developed in close collaboration with Dunayevskaya, and followed a discussion with Trotsky, who convinced James of the special role of the independent Black struggle in the U.S.

[2] Here the author of the introduction mistakenly wrote “expelled.” In fact Denby and the group left the SWP because they had broken with Trotskyism. —Editor.

[3] Effie Owens speaks for herself in chapters 4 and 13.

[4] Estienne refers here to the book’s epigraph, quoted from the Abolitionist Wendell Phillips. —Editor.

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