Revels Cayton – Unsung African American Hero of Labor History – African American History Month Series #4

Revels Cayton - Communist labor and anti-racism activist.
Revels Cayton – Communist labor and anti-racism activist..

By Gerry Scoppettuolo

In the revolution I found the liberation that I needed and that meant so much to me – a Nicaraguan lesbian commenting on the significance of the Sandinista revolution in 1984 interview.

If you let them race bait, they will red bait, if you let them red bait, they will queen bait. -Revels Cayton

There are far too many unsung heroes and heroines in the pantheon of Black Labor History. Then there was Revels Cayton.

Revels Cayton (1907-1995) was one of many Communist Party (CP) members who built the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. In Seattle and San Francisco, he effectively led the CP’s militant national anti-racist defense of the Scottsboro Nine as well as the Anti-Lynching campaign. He left behind a legacy which was, to say the least, unique.

Today he would be called a heterosexual ally of the gay rights movement. This role would be thrust upon him, by chance, as he set about to racially desegregate the Marine Cooks and Steward Union CIO (MCS) in the late 1930’s. The material conditions of class oppression provided the opportunity but, it must be said, only a communist could properly deploy a strategy to create a groundbreaking radical labor unity.

While still in his teens Revels Cayton worked as a waiter and steward on West Coast luxury ocean liners as a member of the Jim Crow Colored Benevolent Marine Employees (CMBE) union. This was the only way he could secure such employment, as onerous as it was. In a few years he would join the Communist Party in Seattle in 1934. He was influenced by the Communist International’s adoption of a Black Nationalism platform in 1928 calling for self-determination for the so-called Black Belt population in the Southeast U.S.

Cayton was a lifelong confidant of Paul Robeson. Both were sons of enslaved fathers. His grandfather, Hiram Revels, was the first African American Senator in U.S. history, elected to represent Mississippi in 1871 during Reconstruction. His brother, Horace Cayton Jr, was a renowned sociologist and labor historian in his own right. The apple did not fall far from a whole orchard of trees in the Cayton family.

An early supporter of the Scottsboro Nine with the CP’s International Labor Defense, Cayton also joined the party’s League of Struggle for Negro Rights (LSNR) in 1934, just as the LSNR was abandoning its failed attempt to organize separate communist unions to compete with the racist AFL crafts. But historical and material events sometimes move very quickly and within a few months of the great San Francisco General Strike of 1934 and the 1936 maritime strike that followed, the CP would embrace the more broad-based anti-fascist Popular Front to great effect, brief as it was.

In the luxury liner industry Black workers like Cayton were segregated into the all-Black Jim Crow Colored Marine Benevolent Employees union (CMBE). At the same time white workers would join the “white only” Marine Cooks and Stewards union. If the white workers threatened to strike, the Black workers in the CMBE were used and exploited as a reserve, strike breaking threat.

This fit in nicely with racist luxury liner ship owners’ insistence on an all whites workforce to serve their rich clients, make their beds, serve their meals, wash their dishes, and do their laundry. But not all whites wanted this brand of toil and so during the Great Depression it became a necessity for the owners to reach into the queer population to find white males who were willing to perform the often-degrading work required (“queer work”).

Woodcut, National Union of Marinbe Cooks and Stewards
Woodcut, National Union of Marinbe Cooks and Stewards.

By the 1930’s 60% of these workers were gay men and drag queens and many of them were, like Revels Cayton, members of the Communist Party. During the great 1934 San Francisco General Strike, the luxury liners’ racist divide and conquer strategy failed when Black workers refused to cross picket lines after the ILWU opened the union to them, a change followed by the Marine Cooks and Stewards.

To settle the 1934 strike the ILWU won hiring hall privileges allowing the union to select only union members to pick work details. This did away with the practice of the notorious “shapeup” which allowed agents of the ship owners to arbitrarily weed out union members, Black workers and communists who would be looking for work.

Although the MCS also won hiring hall rights after the strike and Black workers could join the union by this time, there would be one more hurdle in the way of racial unity. Revels Cayton was the acknowledged leader of the African American workers in the MCS. With a cadre of gay white communist men and “queens” he was able to secure control of the hiring hall and institute what was then known as a “checkerboard” practice of hiring one Black worker for every white worker until a ship was fully staffed.

According to University of Washington historian, George,Robertson, It was in this tenuous situation that a “small group of communists in the union,” led by Revels Cayton, were able to pass a resolution that established a system of union-controlled rotary hiring that protected both industry seniority and equal shipping rights regardless of race. This resolution accommodated both the white workers’ anxieties about steamship companies bypassing the Union and “shipping off the dock”, and the Black workers’ desires to have equal access to job opportunities and have their seniority in the industry protected.

The late gay working-class historian, Alan Berube, would become close to Cayton near the end of his life. Cayton described to him how this unity came to be forged: It was scary, Cayton says, “because there was a very delicate balance in the hall. At one time you could start a damn riot, The white guys, you know, are throwing in for a job and they gave it to a Black guy, that ain’t so hot”.

This was not a “one-off” act of solidarity. Again, as Robertson relates: In San Francisco, Paul Boyles – an openly gay, white member of the Communist Party – deliberately dispatched Black workers to “white” jobs at a pace that even alarmed Revels Cayton and won favor with militant Black workers. Cayton recalls, I was in the dispatch booth at the time, and Paul Boyles the [white gay] dispatcher, when the cards came in, handed it back to one of the Black guys and said, “you go down to that damn ship.” And he says, “you go on.” And there was a white patrolman who was really with all the old reactionary group…He said, “McCabe, you go with him, and you get him on the goddamn ship!” And I said, “Paul, take it easy…you’re moving pretty quick.” He said, “Fuck ‘em, fuck ‘em, fuck ‘em! Put him on the goddamn ship!

It might be presumptuous to claim that Revels Cayton and his cadre of queer white comrades were solely responsible for what happened with the MCS. But it cannot be denied that Cayton successfully applied communist class struggle theory and the lessons of his own lived experienced of racism and oppressive toil at sea to create a new kind of working-class labor unity decades ahead of its time.

The achievement of the MCS was crushed by 1953 when it was expelled by the CIO as a “communist led” union, along with the ILWU and eight other international unions. Racist discrimination in employment was legally outlawed in 1964 with the passage of the Civil rights Act followed by a Supreme Court ruling in 2020 affecting gay workers. However, racist terror and renewed transphobic hysteria still have great power and evidence of fascist threats abound.

Revels Cayton and the communists-led workers struggles of the past indeed did happen – and can happen again.


My Desire for History, Alan Berube
The Cayton Legacy, Richard S. Hobbs
Black Past, Revels Cayton
Revels Cayton, American Communist, Susan Falconer,
Desegregatng a Maritime Union, George Roberson


African American History Month Series #1: Impact of the Haitian Revolution on Resistance History

African American History Month Series #2: African Emigration and the United States Civil War 

African American History Month Series #3: Emancipation, the Nadir and Pan-African Awakenings

African American History Month Series #5: Pan-African Struggles Against Colonialism and the First Imperialist War: 1876-1919

African American History Month Series #6: Cultural Renaissance, Economic Crises and the Struggle Against Fascism, 1919-1945

African American History Month Series #7: African Americans and the Cold War from Civil Rights to Black Power

African American History Month Series #8: African American Liberation and the Vietnamese Revolution

African American History Month Series #9: Before and Beyond Vietnam

African American History Month Series #10: Pan-Africanism and Palestine Solidarity, Then and Now (Part I)

African American History Month Series #10: Pan-Africanism and Palestine Solidarity, Then and Now (Part II)

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