Picturing Black History

Photographs and stories that changed the world

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Transcript: Workers of the World, an Interview with Jessica Vinas-Nelson

Damarius Johnson
Another essay that you wrote kind of incorporates that same idea in another direction in terms of workers of the world, and kind of the impact of Black labor. And so I wanted, if you could, kind of, follow that same process, how you chose the picture, the story, and then talk about its broader significance.

Jessica Viñas-Nelson
To be honest, I can’t remember when I first encountered this image. But I was immediately struck by it. When I heard about this project and saw that this image that had so longed intrigued me was in the Getty archives, I knew I had to explore it, because I always use this image on the first day of each semester to suck my students into the history we’re going to be covering. For students today, and the public today, the placard in this image that really draws people in is the fight police brutality sign. I think it’s, what’s so compelling, in addition to that, about this image, is that that sign fit in perfectly. There was no contradiction between that sign and all of the other signs talking about economic justice, right? Talking about fair labor standards, talking about the right to work, talking about right to fair work and fair pay. There was no contradiction between the struggles for economic justice and physical security, right? There are signs protesting a lynching, and there are signs protesting police brutality, and there’s signs demanding fair labor pay. And so these are inherently connected struggles, and that is what Black activists really brought to the Communist Party that was different from what the American Communist Party was trying to convey at the time. They were treating lynching and police brutality as non-issues, but Black activists saw them as inherently connected to the economic struggle, to the struggle for work, that the party was supposed to be fighting. And so, they were trained to bring them and bridge those struggles together. And really, in the time period after this image, the 1940s, and the 1950s, with the advent of the Cold War, there was an artificial disconnect growing between these struggles where they were seen as separate when they were inherently connected, because of Cold War, because of fears of being accused of being a communist. The economic aspects were often downplayed, but they were so inherently tied into this struggle that you can’t disconnect them. And I think one of the best illustrations of that is one of the most prominent parts of the civil rights movement is, of course, the March on Washington in 1963. But what we often leave out is, the full title of that event was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And so this aspect of work, and economic justice, and fair pay, and fair working conditions was inherently connected to the freedom struggle. In Martin Luther King’s famous, “I Have a Dream” speech from that day, he also makes reference to economic justice, he also makes reference to police brutality, he connects these things to the larger freedom struggle. They’re not individual separate fights that should be dealt with discreetly, but inherently interconnected ones. Part two, I think, of what drew me into this image was in the 1920s, there were very few black communists really, because the party wasn’t focusing on these larger issues beyond economic justice. And so, as some of the most exploited workers, of course African Americans were compelled by the Communist Party, and interested in it, but they couldn’t partner with it without this inclusion, without this focus on this larger struggle. They were pushing for, and they were making the party listen. And the party did eventually listen, and include these larger fights, and that’s thanks to Black activism, who made the struggle larger and more continuous and more representative of their demands and their needs.