A New Deal for All? is concerned with examining the relationship between the US labour movement and black freedom movement in Depression-Era Baltimore. However, it is clear early on that there are wider implications of the study. The book claims that the mutual support and influence of the black freedom movement on the labour movement sowed the seeds for the future civil rights struggles in America which is contrary to most orthodox accounts.
Skotnes structures his work into four parts. The first – “The Context” – is a single chapter aimed at setting the scene by explaining the character of the Baltimore Metropolitan Region during the Depression years. The second section of the book, “Emergences”, explains how the black freedom and workers’ movement began to reconstruct themselves in the early 1930s after being left in disarray following the Wall Street Crash. This section describes how both movements worked closely together cutting their teeth on local activity such as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Strike, the Baltimore Unemployed Councils and the People’s Unemployment League of Maryland. Central to all these campaigns were concerns about racism. This reflected the early influence of the Communist Party and later Socialist Party of America that saw anti-racism as integral to every struggle.
The final two parts – “Transitions” and “Risings” – reflect the growth of groups that went from local activism to mass mobilisations and also the embrace of national organisational forms in the shape of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the NAACP. Although this ultimately led to a decline in direct interaction between the workers’ and black freedom movements as both pursued national agendas and distinct areas of work, they continued to profoundly influence each other.
The author is honest about the potential limitations of his work. For instance, his significant use of “oral histories” (retrospective interviews) could raise questions around the reliability of some of the accounts. Furthermore, the sole focus on the Baltimore Metropolitan Region restricts the potential for wider conclusions to be drawn regarding the whole of America.
Interestingly the Epilogue makes it clear that the influence of earlier workers’ struggles on the civil rights movement is a growing interpretation being advanced by historians.
A New Deal for All? is a really interesting read, not just in its detailed portrayal of Baltimore and the exciting struggles of working class people, but also in the blueprint it seems to offer that, I would argue, supports the undertaking of united front work at a time of frustrating political and economic downturn.
A New Deal for All? is published by Duke University Press, £18.99
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