The Legacies of the Sojourner Truth Organization

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

In 1969, there was a national meeting in Chicago of the large U.S. student group known as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). At this famous meeting the group’s leadership split into factions—signaling that the ideological and organizational tensions which were not being addressed properly within SDS were finally bubbling to the top. The organizations that came out of that split and their subsequent further splintering make up a great deal of the fragmented Left we have today. This is one reason why it is important to make sense of this history. The split as I know it involved the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) on one side and the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) on the other. The RYM groups eventually split as well: several original RYM leaders formed the Weatherman, and the other groups and factions oriented less towards armed struggle formed the RYM II. The RYM II led to a number of prominent groupings now associated with the term “New Communist Movement” (NCM), such as the October League and the Revolutionary Union—to name a few. These NCM groups morphed and disbanded in ways too numerous to address here—but some of the contemporary organizations that came out of their path include the Freedom Road Socialist Organization(s) and the Revolutionary Communist Party. Another lesser known group to come out of RYM II was the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), based largely in Chicago from 1969 until the mid-1980s. In this email interview with Chicago anarchist organizer Michael Staudenmaier, Daniel Tucker explores the legacy of this lesser known but important group. Michael has been working for several years on a history of STO, currently in blog form at, with plans to develop it into a book in the near future. Michael has also worked with former STO members and other movement historians on the online archive of STO writing at  

Background in Brief: “STO was founded in Chicago at the beginning of 1970, and for the first several years its activities were limited to workplace organizing in the Chicago metropolitan area.  In the mid-seventies, STO shifted its political work away from factories and toward anti-imperialist solidarity work.  At the same time, it expanded geographically, first merging with like-minded groups in Kansas City and Iowa, then growing to include groups in Denver, Portland, San Francisco, and elsewhere.  As the eighties began, the group shifted strategically once again, this time toward intervention in what were called “new social movements,” such as student and anti-nuclear struggles.  Around the same time, the group shrank again, losing all of its non-Chicago membership by 1984 or so.  Not too long after, the Chicago group dissolved, and STO ceased to exist.” (An Organization of Revolutionaries Who Tried to Think: The Sojourner Truth Organization and its Legacy for Anarchists by Michael Staudenmaier, 2006)

Daniel Tucker (DT)   Let’s start with a bit of personal history. It is my understanding that you encountered members of STO while a relatively young anarchist working in groups like Anti-Racist Action and other anti-authoritarian projects associated with anarchism in the 1990s. Can you say a little bit about the intergenerational exchange that occurred between yourself and former members of STO? How important was that interaction for the development of your politics? Why don’t you think it happens more often? What is it about STO that resonated for someone working during a relatively stagnant period of anarchist activity in the U.S.?

Michael Staudenmaier (MS)   First, a brief correction: I wouldn’t describe the mid-nineties as a “relatively stagnant period” for anarchists. In fact, it was actually a time of modest growth and enthusiasm, which probably peaked with the Active Resistance Counter-Convention held here in Chicago in 1996. The event drew 750 anarchists to town from all over North America to talk politics and protest the Democratic National Convention. It was in the run-up to AR that a number of us younger anarchists met a crew of former STO members who were still in Chicago but mostly withdrawn from activism. As far as we could tell, they were drawn to us because we were committed anti-capitalists and anti-racists. They weren’t scared off by our anarchism, even though they weren’t anarchists. They liked our commitment to direct action and our openness to new ideas. For ourselves, we were intrigued by the history of this group we hadn’t ever heard of (STO), and by the willingness of the former members we met to accept us where we were at despite our obvious political differences.
Personally, I think of this encounter as having been absolutely pivotal for the development of my politics, and I think several other veterans of that experience would say the same thing. At the time, in addition to the largely white anarchist scene, I was also actively involved in supporting the Puerto Rican independence movement and in particular the Albizu Campos High School that was (and still is) part of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Humboldt Park. I soon learned that STO had its own history of solidarity work with the Puerto Rican independence movement, and I learned a lot from the ways STO had navigated that work. I also was drawn to the particular analysis of white supremacy that STO had put forward, which I found to be much more sophisticated than anything I found within anarchism. Plus, STO had a history that seemed to balance the need for theoretical debate with real action and organizing efforts. So, I acted like a sponge and soaked up what I could of the background stories of the various people that I met; I also developed a decent collection of old STO publications that eventually became one of the reasons I decided to pursue researching the history of the group.
Finally, I should say that this was one of several different intergenerational encounters I and other young anarchists in Chicago and elsewhere had during the 1990’s, often with an older generation of non-anarchist radicals. I’m not so sure they are as uncommon as we tend to think they are; I have a suspicion that we (younger radicals) tend to de-prioritize them in our collective political narratives, although I don’t have a good explanation for why we do this. Maybe it’s a fear of passing judgment on our elders, or perhaps it’s a reticence around acknowledging our political debts outside our identified ideological tradition (in this case, anarchism). In any event, the point, it seems to me, is to talk about these encounters and encourage more of them.
DT   You’ve written about STO’s contribution to the popularization of the concept of “White Skin Privilege,” which builds on the legacy of WEB DuBois and other Black radicals from reconstruction to civil rights. You have also commented that their take on this idea did not manifest in the kind of moralizing-sermonizing guilt-ridden manifestations that the theory is often accompanied by today. What was different about the way STO used the concept of white privilege than the way it is used today? Can you point to aspects of history that have been lost, from W.E.B. DuBois to C.L.R. James to STO, that would be useful for analyzing race and capitalism today?
MS   STO began from a class analysis, trying to figure out what prospects existed for what Marxists called “proletarian revolution.” They understood that white skin privilege functioned as a barrier to revolution, because it made working class unity (across races) far more difficult to achieve. Thus, as one former STO member put it, “the first thing was equality.” This amounted to a strategic orientation rather than a guilt-laden moral stance, which makes the STO version of the white skin privilege analysis very different from some of the more academic-oriented versions of the theory common today within the Left.
Another difference was the way STO attempted to apply its analysis in multiple areas of organizing, especially within factories during the early 1970s. In that context, the (mostly white) members of the group saw their primary task as supporting radical initiatives arising within black and latino caucuses or committees, and rallying other white workers to these struggles. It’s not too surprising that some people would criticize this approach as “moralistic,” because it rejected the largely standard logic that workplace struggles needed to build themselves around the immediately apparent material self-interest of all workers. To be honest, the “moralism” charge was both true and false. True, because STO did tend to romanticize the struggles of Black and (to a lesser extent) latino communities, on the assumption that these struggles clearly represented the proletarian revolution in embryo, when in fact they were reincorporated within capitalism just as the previous generation of progressive white labor struggles had been. But false, because the broad strategic approach of generating unity across race lines within the U.S. working class (and, further, unity across national lines within the global working class) was in no way dependent upon any sort of narrowly moralistic guilt-tripping. If privileged workers couldn’t see the short-, medium-, and long-term benefits of organizing in solidarity with less privileged members of their class, then there was no hope of ever creating mass anti-capitalist movements that could challenge the generalized misery of the system. This is as true today as it was in 1978, or 1968, or 1938, or 1868, or . . .
Another thing that is largely forgotten in the crush of writings on “critical whiteness studies” is the black origins of the theory of white skin privilege. Historians like David Roediger have highlighted the role of Black radicals like W.E.B. DuBois in this process, especially his analysis of the “public and psychological wage” that white workers received after the Civil War that led largely to the cross-class alliance between white workers and the white ruling class, against the surging black movement that emerged from the Civil War. Other Black radicals, such as Hubert Harrison and C.L.R. James, advanced similar ideas in the period before World War Two.
Until the late 1960’s, the white left was supremely unconcerned with this problem, despite its regular reemergence. STO co-founder Noel Ignatin (now Ignatiev) and a working class intellectual named Ted Allen did their best to popularize a singularly unpopular set of ideas within the white new Left at the end of that decade. STO was one of the only left organizations to emerge from the sixties committed to an analysis that is now so commonplace that even mainstream Democrats speak regularly in the language of privilege. (Other groups tied to the white skin privilege analysis included the Weather Underground and its various descendents, though STO also tended to be highly critical of these groups for going too far in “writing off” the prospects for revolutionary activity among white workers.)
In a way, the biggest difference between the origins and early development of the white skin privilege analysis and its current manifestation is the difference between scholarship and analysis that emerges from direct engagement with social movements (be it the NAACP for DuBois, the CIO for James, or the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left for Allen and Ignatin), on the one hand, and the situation today where – with a handful of important exceptions – academics studying these questions tend to be defined primarily by their position within the university and only secondarily by their location within social movements. And I say this as someone who finds real value in some elements of academic discourse, who considers the academy a reasonable and valid career choice for radical intellectuals. The problem doesn’t lie with radical academics, but rather with the real limits of currently extant social movements. As those movements expand and become more radical, the bulk of radical academics will follow suit.
DT   STO organized independent groups (outside of the unions) within Chicago factories. With so little manufacturing in the city today and so many people working irregular, flexible, contract, and/or non-profit jobs with little hope for unionization—what about STO’s approach to labor and work could be applicable today? Are there success stories or failures from their past that would help people interested in addressing work-place organizing in today’s radically altered labor landscape?
MS   This is the proverbial $64,000 question, and I don’t have any solid answers. There have been enormous changes in the landscape facing working people over the past forty years. One long-time member of STO who I interviewed was able, without any apparent effort, to rattle off a list of more than 50 factories in the Chicago area where STO had a presence at some point during the 1970s; just as quickly he concluded that the vast majority of those workplaces no longer exist, having succumbed to deindustrialization. As you note, the unionized workforce has shrunk dramatically as a result of this shift, but another major change concerns the character of mainstream unions. When STO began, it was hard to find any major union that wasn’t completely corrupt in ways that would have done the first Mayor Daley proud. But just as the second Daley regime has successfully incorporated a range of progressives and radicals (including at least one founding and long-time member of STO, who is now a prominent consultant to Daley), so has the mainstream labor movement fully incorporated most of the sixties and seventies labor radicals. Both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win leaderships feature real corruption, but they also include people and ideas that were once relegated to marginal reform caucuses and opposition slates. The sort of anti-racism and labor militancy that is commonplace within the leadership of mainstream labor today was, forty years ago, encountered just about exclusively at a leadership level in the United Auto Workers (UAW).
This example is instructive for a few reasons. First, some of the most inspiring radical labor movements of the late 1960s, especially the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, emerged from direct challenges to the supposedly “progressive” politics of the UAW leadership. Second, at several points in its history, STO lost members due in part to its inability to develop a coherent critique of the sort of non-crooked business unionism associated with the UAW, and some of these members later became active within the UAW bureaucracy. Third, the UAW is now most well known among labor militants as the union that collaborated with the Big Three automakers in dismantling one of the most secure social safety nets ever achieved through labor struggle. (And, in my day-job world of accounting, I shudder to think of what the UAW’s balance sheet will look like for 2008, now that they have absorbed the future cost of defined-benefit pensions owed to their retirees.)
So, it seems to me that the new “progressive” labor movement probably has more of the same in store for the rank and file. At the same time, I can’t fault people who view mainstream labor as the only game in town, and I definitely applaud efforts like the recent victory by rank and file Teamsters against old-school corrupt mobsters in local 743. It seems to me that radicals need to work with people where they are at now, not where we would like them to be, and in a union town like Chicago that often means within the AFL-CIO and WIN. That said, not every labor struggle is a union struggle, and radicals need to be more attuned to and supportive of working class struggles that don’t fit neatly into a trade union context. (A great example here is the March 10 Movement and the May Day immigrant marches of the past few years, which mobilized a largely non-union section of the working class.)
One question I ask a lot of people has to do with pivotal sectors of the economy. STO focused its early efforts largely on what was called “heavy manufacturing” (big factories making steel, cars, consumer durables, etc.) because of two key factors: first, it was an essential component of the U.S. economy, the kind where workers had the leverage to shut down the system if they were inspired to do so; and second, it was one of the only places in a segregated city where black, white, and latino workers interacted on a regular basis. In an ever more globalized economy it’s hard to figure out what part(s) of the economy fit the first criterion, although the second part is clearly descriptive of a range of arenas, from the service sector to healthcare to transport. One former STO member (herself now an organizer for a CTW union) even suggested to me that the answer to my question might not relate to workplaces at all, that it might be better to focus on working class communities. There are certainly no easy answers here, but I think the general question of where radicals with limited resources should focus our efforts is an important one that has been insufficiently attended to in the recent past.
DT   Any last words on the legacy of STO? What does it mean to you to be writing this history of this organization from the past? Are you nervous about ‘getting it right’? This seems to be a big challenge in writing histories of the left, especially of the post-60’s “New Left”—we are still living with the inherited organizations and rhetoric from that time period. Many of the leaders from then are still leaders today, but there is so much we don’t know and that people will not tell us about what really happened then. How can we learn from this history when so much of it has been misrepresented or never told at all?
MS   I’m very nervous, and I think that’s one of the main reasons I have procrastinated as long as I have on finishing my manuscript. I didn’t live through the events I’m describing, and I’m concerned that I won’t be able to “capture the flavor,” as one former member put it. In general, however, former members and others I’ve interviewed or corresponded with have been highly supportive of my efforts. People have shared memories, documents, and photos with me; and almost everyone I have spoken with has put me in touch with at least one other person who had something interesting to say. I’m certain there are a lot of things that I will never know, either because no one thinks to tell me, or because people simply feel more comfortable leaving some things in the past. I don’t really have a problem with that; I imagine that I would behave similarly if someone ever asked to interview me about ARA or whatever.
My goal is to tell a story – the story of a small revolutionary group over a number of years—and along the way share some themes: the white skin privilege analysis, the idea of autonomy, dual consciousness and hegemony, workplace organizing methods, anti-imperialism and anti-fascism, feminism, anti-capitalism, and so on. I’m clearly not the only person who could tell this story, since among the former members of STO are a number of widely published authors, but so far as I know I am the only person currently working on this little bit of forgotten history. Similarly, this story is only one of many that might illuminate the themes I’ve mentioned, but I can only speak to the work I am doing.
One nice thing about my project is that it already has a built-in audience, and I don’t mean primarily college students studying labor history or race relations. There are a number of small groups of radicals all over the U.S. today that take direct inspiration from the legacy of STO, and I hope that groups like these can utilize the history I am writing in their ongoing work. These people help keep me “honest,” in the sense of doing my best to do justice to STO’s history. At the same time, I also feel a level of responsibility to the former members I’ve interviewed, some of whom I count as friends and comrades. It’s not easy having two masters, the past and the future, but this is what all radicals face, whether we are writing history or organizing workers or whatever. ◊


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s