On February 19, 1934, a group of communists involved in the League of
Struggle for Negro Rights decided that discrimination toward African
Americans and Filipinos in
needed to come to an end. Led by a young, African American man, named
Revels Cayton the group entered a Seattle City Council meeting
demanding laws that would make discrimination based on race illegal.
The group made such a strong case that the Council decided to have a
mass meeting to discuss the conditions facing minorities in
. Following the disruption of the Council meeting another group of
protestors went to a local bar called the Breakers Beer Parlor where
they demanded that the “For Whites Only” sign be removed from the
premises. The group chose to forcibly remove the sign from this
business, and then went on to remove others in the area.
Revels Cayton, son of the prominent middle class black leaders
Horace and Susie Cayton, and brother of the influential sociologist
Horace Cayton, Jr., was one of the leaders of this demonstration, and
an active member in the
labor and communist communities. As a key member of the Seattle
Communist Party in the early 1930s, Revels always paid close attention
to the labor issues on the waterfront, where black workers had been
able to fight back white racist unions to get access to important
longshore and maritime work. An activist on behalf of minorities and
the working class, he worked his way through the ranks of labor union
activities. As a strong proponent of unions, Revels had a
distinguished activist career in the 1930s and 1940s: he served in
the head office of the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union in San
Francisco during the 1934 general strike; and would eventually serve
as Secretary of the Maritime Federation of the Pacific; Vice President
of California State Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO);
chairman of the California CIO’s minorities committee; a member of
the Los Angeles Committee for Home Front Unity that oversaw the
city’s response to the 1943 “Zoot Suit riots” of 1943; and
director of the communist National Negro Congress.
on June 5, 1907,
Revels was the fourth child of Susie and Horace Cayton. The Cayton
family, is one of the most prominent in
history, was heavily active in
organizations. Revels took his role as a member of this family
seriously; he felt that he had a responsibility to society. This
pressure and sense that he owed something to the world, resulted in a
life that would impact countless others. This paper will explore the
life and activism of this remarkable figure’s life in
, from his role in the Communist Party to his work in waterfront
unions, Revels Cayton shows the important role African Americans could
play in the fight for minority rights throughout the world.
was a common trend in the Cayton family; it was therefore no surprise
when Revels continued in the family tradition. Based heavily on
extensive oral history work he did with Revels Cayton, Richard Hobbs
wrote a dissertation and book on the lives of the Cayton family, and
these sources are key for understanding Revels’ life.
father Horace Cayton, Sr. was born a slave in
. It was his childhood experiences that would lead Horace to become a
proponent for African American rights in
and to create numerous newspapers, including the Seattle Republican. Through the newspapers and community activism
Horace would encourage the African American community to seek
independence. Revels’ mother Susie Cayton grew up in
the daughter of Hiram Revels, the first African American member in the
United States Senate.
The Caytons raised five children who would strive for success
because they were Caytons. All five found different ways to live out
their parents’ legacies. The eldest son, Horace Jr., who became a
famous sociologist, described the family sense of obligation in this
way: “our goals were dictated by our past; we were obligated by our
family history to achievement in our fight for individual and racial
Horace Jr. was not the only Cayton who saw things this way. His
younger brother, Revels, took this family obligation to heart and
strove to live his life in the image of his ancestors. The entire
family looked to their past and in particular to the image of their
grandfather, Hiram Revels—Revels’namesake—whose presence was
As children the Caytons experienced many different aspects of
. For many years their family thrived, living in the wealthiest
residential areas of
, known as Capitol Hill.
during the early 1900s was beginning to grow; large numbers of people
were migrating to the
in search of work and opportunities. Among them were several thousand
African Americans, from 1900 to 1940 the African American population
grew from 406 to 3, 789.
The majority settled in
’s “Central District.” It was rare for African Americans to move
outside this particular area of the city, therefore, the fact that the
Caytons lived in Capitol Hill meant that the Cayton children would
have different experiences than other African American children in
May 13, 1913 things dramatically changed for the Cayton family: Horace
Sr. was forced shut down the Seattle
Republican, the newspaper he published for nineteen years. The
loss of the newspaper resulted in financial hardships for the family.
The family had already moved into an apartment building after the loss
of their home on Capitol Hill in 1909. The loss was because of a
restrictive covenant that made it against the law for an African
American family to live in that area.
These events would drastically change the direction of Revels’ life.
He would no longer grow up in a prominent area of
; rather he would come to maturity in neighborhoods throughout
because the family moved often. It was also through these experiences
that Revels and his family would realize what it meant to be racially
different and would drive Revels’ need to find racial equality and
eventually would result in his participation in the Communist Party of
Seattle and other radical activities.
In 1913 the family moved again, this time to the
where Revels would attend Rainer Elementary and
. Financial troubles became a constant issue for the Cayton family;
their circumstances were constantly changing, depending on the success
of whatever project Horace Sr. was working on at the time. It was in
this state of uncertainty that Revels grew up. The family never knew
if things were going to change the next day or if their current status
would last. Financial problems were always an issue for the Caytons;
therefore all of the children were forced to work at young ages.
financial struggles the family faced led Revels to the waterfront in
the summer of 1922, where at the age of fifteen he found work as a
telephone operator on various passenger ships.
He also worked as a waiter, working up to sixteen hours a day for very
low wages. This type of work was very difficult, and one writer from
the 1930s described it this way, “[the waiter] was awakened at
five-thirty…after his own breakfast, he set up his tables and was
ready to serve guests at seven…He then helped clean up…. Cleaned
the silver and set up his tables for lunch…cleaned again and set up
for dinner…and then cleaned again before being able to eat dinner
sometime around nine-thirty…”
It was under these circumstances that he was first exposed to the
powerful possibilities of worker organizing through the Colored Marine
Employees Benevolent Association (CMEBA). The CMEBA was created by
local African American leader, James Roston, to break the waterfront
strike of 1922 and allow African Americans to work on the passenger
ships coming in and out of
. The Association was designed to unite black workers by having a
central bargaining force but not to be specifically a labor union.
Revels’ early experience on the waterfront would help mold him into
the role of an activist. Later in life he would be drawn to the
waterfront again and this time it would be in a more powerful position
when he became heavily involved in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union
his summer at sea, Revels returned to school and took up where he left
off, playing baseball and football. Unfortunately, in 1925 he became
incredibly ill, he was diagnosed with encephalitis
lethargis. The disease also known as “sleeping sickness” left
Revels incredibly weak, so weak that it took him a year to recover
enough to return to school.
The disease not only affected Revels physically, but psychologically
as well. His illness ended his dream of becoming a famous baseball
player, and ultimately lead him towards communism and his activist
and elsewhere. While recovering from the illness, Revels met a Wobblie
who introduced the eighteen-year-old to the ideas of socialism. Revels
described the encounter in this way: “by the time I got off that
porch [where he spent hours talking politics while recovering from his
illness]…I was a socialist. I found it…reasonable and
sensible…that the only way that Blacks were going to get free would
be in conjunction with the working class…”
Revels began to read avidly about socialism and was convinced that if
the world would follow these ideals, there would be fewer racial
problems and workers rights would be better. This encounter changed
Revels’ view of society and when he returned to high school his
attitude was very different. His new outlook made relations with
fellow students and teachers difficult. He now was alienated from his
peers based on political views as well as race.
June of 1929, Revels graduated from high school and rather than
celebrating with his classmates he was once again drawn to the
waterfront. He wandered through
listening to the complaints of the workers. As Revels began to
contemplate his future, he realized that with his poor grades, college
was not an option. In 1932, the Depression’s deepening hold over
made work scarce, and at the age of twenty-five Revels decided to sit
in on classes at the
. It was on the
campus that Revels, already sympathetic with labor radicalism, was
first introduced to communism. He soon began attending meetings of the
Young Communists League with a friend.
The Communist Party of America was formed in 1919 as an offshoot of
the international movement. The movement became very popular in
among the many workers trying to organize and make a better living in
the growing economy of the
. Along with the worker rights, racial tension was one of the key
issues of the Party during the 1930s. Party rhetoric revolved around
creating a system in which all workers would be equal and therefore
there would be no racial tensions. The Party felt that it was
necessary to pull all workers into the Party including African
Americans and other minorities. In 1928 the Communist International
created the “Resolution on the Negro Question.” The resolution
stated that racism in the
was affecting the ability of the Party to organize effectively.
It was this statement of action that created great change in the
American faction of the Communist Party and allowed for an increase in
the number of African American members in the Party. An example of
this emphasis on racial changes in the Party can be seen in the
“Proposed Draft Resolution-8th District convention, March 17-18,
1934.” This document presented many of the “fundamental tasks”
facing the party. The eighth task stated that they wanted to work on
the “development of struggles against discrimination, Jim Crowism,
and for the rights of Negroes and Filipinos.”
The opening up of the Party to minorities allowed the Party to reach a
larger audience and make a larger impact.
The Communist Party had a very large impact on the life of Revels
Cayton. It was as a member in the early 1930s that Revels began to
become active in supporting campaigns against racial injustice not
but through solidarity with workers around the country. Like many
African American activists of his generation, it was work on the
Scottsboro Boys campaign through the communist International Labor
Defense (ILD) that first inspired Revels’ Communist Party
involvement. On March 25,
1931 nine African American youths were arrested in
and charged with rape. The alleged victims were two young white women
who had been found with the young men on a freight train...
The race of the two groups determined the verdict and the sentences.
Eight of the nine teenagers were sentenced to death. Claiming blatant
racism, Communist Party and the ILD stepped in to defend the
Scottsboro boys. Revels was so captivated by the case of these boys
that he created a group in
committed to saving the boys from death. He would speak numerous times
about the boys and tour with Mother Patterson and Mother Wright, the
mothers of some of the boys, at meetings across the state of
He was quoted in The Northwest
Enterprise as saying that “the danger of lynching at the hands
of either the
courts or an inflamed mob grows daily. The fight for freedom of the
Scottsboro boys must be greatly intensified.”
Revels brought this intensity to all that he did and through his
participation with the ILD expanded his campaigning greatly.
Revels formally became a member of the
chapter of the Communist Party sometime in early 1934. There are many
reasons he may have become a more active member then.
states that it was because a friend said that he would have a better
standing within the International Defense League. In letter to Richard
Hobbs, Revels explained that “…in the beginning I was drawn to the
Party because I believed that in a socialist system there would be no
racism.” The Party gave Revels status and power within a tight
community and therefore gave him important tools and direction for his
later life. Revels also recalled to
that “membership in the Party gave me a sense of identity, a
direction, a purpose. It also continued [my] education…because the
Party required members to be reading, and studying.”
This seeking education and a sense of belonging may have been reasons
why Revels would align himself within the Communist Party, an always
controversial organization that would face increased scrutiny in the
years to come.
In January of 1934, Revels Cayton declared his candidacy for
the Seattle City Council on the Communist Party ticket. It’s
possible, due to the hierarchical structure of the Communist Party,
that Revels was chosen to run and then told that he would be a
candidate instead of choosing to pursue this position on his own. He
is probably only one of a very small handful of African Americans who
were chosen for such a prestigious role within the Party. But Revels
also used the Party’s support to push a radical civil rights agenda
’s more class-based political culture.
Throughout January and February of 1934, the Communist Party
spent a great deal of time trying to present their ideals to the
working class in the hopes of creating a working class movement that
would make communism a greater part of Seattle politics. The Communist
Party publication Voice of
Action introduced Revels in this way:
Cayton, the youngest candidate running for office, is 24 years old. He
was born and reared in the city of
, a graduate of
high, played on their baseball and football teams. Cayton is a Negro
worker and a symbol in this campaign of the unity of all workers
regardless of race, creed or color. He went to sea nine years ago.
Later he became a dishwasher, waiter, bellhop, cook and steward. He
joined the Young Communist League and the Marine Workers Industrial
Union years ago. At present he is district secretary of the
International Labor Defense.
quote shows how the Party wanted to place him on a personal level with
prospective voters, making him out to be an all-American individual at
the same time that they affirm his party credentials. It also shows
that he was a worker and was facing the same hardships that other
were facing. It is representative of the Party’s struggle to place
their movement on a lower level and to create a place for African
Revels and other communist candidates ran under a single
political platform. In an article in the Voice
of Action, the editor explained that “the points are those that
affect every working man and woman in town. Jobs, adequate
relief…unemployment insurance…such issues are the real issues in
the campaign, and only the platform of the communists deals with such
problems.” The article goes on to say that the Voice of Action chooses to support the communist candidates because
they back up their words with action.
One of the main issues for the communists was support of striking
workers, his appeal to workers may have been a contributing factor to
why Revels was chosen by the Party as its representative. In the end
the Party’s ideology failed to attract the working class votes they
sought. There just were not enough communists or communist supporters
to allow for a communist candidate to be elected.
In April, 1934, Revels became involved in another legal case in
which a man was convicted of murder based on the color of his skin. In
1932 Theodore Jordan, a man living in Klamath Falls, Oregon, was
convicted of murder by an all white jury and sentenced to die. During
the first trial,
had a very weak defense team and therefore the NAACP stepped in and
demanded a retrial and managed to get a stay of execution. The
International Defense League, led by Revels, stepped in and took over
’s defense from the NAACP. Revels took credit for getting the new
trial started and was quoted in the Voice
of Action as saying that “Governor Meier promised to appoint an
investigation committee in this case. He has not yet done so, and
every effort must be made to force him to appoint one with full
representation on it for
The defense of
was successful in that it prevented him from being hung; however, they
were not successful in freeing him and he was not paroled until 1960
after serving twenty-six years in prison.
During the same time period in which Revels was working to free
Theodore Jordan, he traveled to Roslyn with Mr. and Mrs. E.M.
Hugh-Jones. The Hugh-Jones’ were visiting from
to study labor conditions in
. In April of 1934 a bitter miners strike was occurring in the small
mining town of
. Revels was there to show the British couple the situation as a
representative if the International Defense League. Soon after being
spotted, he was arrested because of his reputation as a troublemaker.
Revels described his experiences in two articles in the Voice of Action. In the first article on April 17, 1934, Revels
describes what the miners in Roslyn’s multiracial union were facing.
In speaking about the mood, he says, “the air was electric. The
solidarity of the miners, their wives, permeated me. The viciousness
of their situation. Their hope and determination.”
The second article on May 1934 has a different feel. The headline
reads, “Cayton Describes Roslyn Jailing, Lynch Threats; Grilled by
Police, Thugs.” The article describes how he was arrested and then
grilled in a Cle Elum jail cell, while outside the building
“vigilantes” waiting for his release so they could exact justice.
Ultimately Revels was released because of the persistence of the
British couple who accompanied him. This event shows how the white
community viewed Revels as a radical troublemaker.
In August of 1934, Revels stepped away from work with the
International Labor Defense and helped to create the
chapter of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights (LSNR). The LSNR
was a more radical arm of the Communist Party created in 1930. The Voice
of Action reported that “Revels Cayton, District Organizer of
the International Labor Defense, analyzed at length the problem of
Negro workers, and concluded with the program of the [LSNR]. His point
of emphasis was militant mass action as the way of forcing
Revels either chose or was forced to step away from the ILD and focus
upon the LSNR. When not in
working on waterfront workers’ issues, Revels would lead the
aggressive, militant group in its struggles against discrimination and
segregation until the spring of 1935.
Revels continued his role as a prominent member of the Communist Party
while working with the LSNR and was named the Party’s candidate for
the 37th District-State Senate position in September 1934.
His candidacy was unsuccessful and only mentioned the one time in Voice
The state of
is one of the only states in
to never have had an anti-intermarriage law on the books, though it
wasn’t from lack of trying. Several anti-intermarriage laws were
presented and never passed. In February, 1935, King County
Representative Dorian Todd introduced House Bill Number 301 to the
Washington State Legislature. The Bill, known as the Todd Bill, would
have banned intermarriage in the state of
. The Northwest
Enterprise, the most prominent African American newspaper in the
region, thought the issue so alarming that it reprinted the entire
Todd Bill. The Bill stated that it was intent on regulating marriage
and in turn would determine who fell under what category.
term ‘white’ or ‘white person’ shall mean and include all
persons of the European or white race...and all others whose ancestral
lineage can be traced to inhabitants of any European country which had
political existence…to 1800…
term ‘negro’ shall mean and include the Ethiopian or black race
and/or any of the inhibited races…
Bill goes on to include other “races” and specify what they were
considered. It also specifies that any person with “intermixture of
blood” is considered the race other than white. It also states,
“all marriages of white person hereafter performed or solemnized in
the state of
with negroes, Mongolians, or Oceanics as herein defined are illegal
and void.” The Bill also would have regulated other aspects of
marriage including licenses and the conditions under which marriage
can be performed.
Revels Cayton took an active roll in opposing the
anti-intermarriage bill. He penned two articles for the Voice
of Action about the issue, arguing that the “Anti Intermarriage
Bill Is Attempt To Smash Unity” and,
when one takes into consideration the ruling class drive to fascisize
and in turn this dri
ve by the toiling masses and broad sections of the farmer and middle
class population, is it possible to understand the full significance
of the Anti-Interracial bill that has been introduced in the
Washington State Legislature.
The attack on minority groups is proceeding hand in hand with
the economic assault on the living standards of the workers and the
drive to deprive the latter of the last remnants of their democratic
this article, Revels presented the attempt to outlaw intermarriage in
as an attack against African American involvement in working class
struggles. He asked organizations throughout
to step forward and protest the law and asked that individuals fight
for their rights as well.
In his next article, Revels celebrated the defeat of the
Democratic legislators, Todd and Co., like their brother lynchers down
South, thought they would be able to slip the vicious
Anti-Intermarriage Bill through nice and quiet. They were greatly
surprised, however, when the Negro people refused to pussy-foot on the
issue but rose up by the hundreds and demanded that the bill be
claims that with the help of the Communist Party and the Voice of Action, the African American community was able to unite
with the white workers to create a movement that was strong enough to
put down the powerful white leaders in government. He ends his article
with a plea to fight “Uncle Tom Politics” and to build the Voice
of Action, “the true voice of the militant white workers and of
the Negro people.”
There were far reaching results of Revels’ role in the
Communist Party. He earned the reputation of a troublemaker, which
made it difficult to work anywhere in the state of
. He was black-listed at the waterfront, making it difficult to find
work. Finding work in
during the Depression was hard for every worker, it was harder still
if you were an African American in search of work. The black
community, including the Caytons, in
relied upon jobs in the services industries. These jobs included those
on the boats, African Americans quickly lost their jobs in the wake of
the Depression as crews were slashed and the African Americans were
the first to lose their jobs.
As a result of hard times, the entire Cayton family was placed on
county relief. At one point during the winter of 1933, the family was
removed from the lists because of Revels’ radical actions for the
Communist Party and the ILD. Revels was outraged when the family was
taken off relief, and immediately demanded that they not punish his
family for his actions. Due to his confrontation, all except for
Revels himself were reinstated.
Another result of Revels’ participation in the Communist Party was
that his mother, Susie, became involved in the Party sometime during
the mid-1930s after being introduced to it by her son.
In May, 1934, an event happened that would eventually lead to
Revels’ decision to leave the city of
. The dramatic Maritime Strike of 1934 drew Revels back to the
waterfront. During the
strike Revels, worked on the waterfront as an organizer. His actions
during the strike brought him back into the labor movement, and
inspired him to leave
and travel to
, where the heart of waterfront labor organizing was located. By the
spring of 1935, Revels was extremely active in the Marine Cooks and
Revels’ life in
was full of activism on behalf of workers and African Americans. He
left a mark on the city that will never be forgotten. His life had
many ups and downs as he traveled throughout the country working with
different labor and civil rights organizations. He was a strong leader
of the Marine Cooks and Stewards where he helped lead the Harry
Bridges faction of the group and the voice of the African American
workers in the union. In 1937, he became the MCS representative to the
Maritime Federation of the Pacific, and in July was elected Vice
President of the MFP Bay Area Council.
In 1939, Revels married Ethel Horowitz, a young Jewish girl he
. He remained in
working with the MCS and the CIO until 1941 when he moved to
, he worked with the CIO as an organizer and became director of the
State CIO Minorities Commission and Vice President of the California
State CIO Council. He returned to
for a time until in 1945 he was asked to be the executive secretary of
the National Negro Congress in
. It was during this time on the NNC that Revels’ attention shifted
back to more direct links with the Communist Party. At the same time
that Revels was experiencing
, his marriage to Ethel was falling apart—she did not travel to
and their marriage effectively ended with his move. The NNC only
lasted a few years after Revels joined the organization, in large part
succumbing to anti-communist pressure. While working with NNC, Revels
met his second wife, Lee Davidson. They were married in February 1948
and a little over a year later their son Michael Revels Cayton was
After the end of the NNC in 1947, Revels once again turned his
attention to the labor movement. In 1952, his connection ended with
the Communist Party when he stopped attending meetings. In the early
1950s, Revels’ returned to
. During the fifties, Revels struggled to find work and it was not
until the 1960s that he again became heavily involved in the civil
rights struggles in
. He became a prominent figure in
and was named in 1964 to the Human Rights Commission and later served
as Deputy for Social Programs under the mayor of
. He continued to work with city government until he retired in 1972,
but continued to be a strong advocate for the rights of minorities
after his retirement. Although he was not an active member of the
Communist Party in his later life, he never totally disavowed the
group, and continued to be supportive of its ideals.
Cayton died at the age of eighty-eight on November 4, 1995. His life
affected many people; he centered his life on activism, and supported
minorities and workers across the
. Through the Communist Party, he was able to find his place within
the world of political and social activism. Throughout his life he
took on many roles that challenged the status quo, in particular his
work on behalf of workers on the waterfront and in other industries
was incredible because of his race and lack of education. He made huge
impacts upon the Civil Rights and Labor movement of
and the rest of the country and his role should never be forgotten.
Sarah Falconer 2005
(HIST 498 Fall 2004)
Horace C. Long
Special Collections. 11 November 2004. Accession Number 3917-2.
Philip S. and Shapiro, Herbert (editors). American Communism and
Black Americans: A Documentary History, 1930-1934.
James. Stories of Scottsboro.
: Pantheon Books. 1994.
Richard S. The Cayton Legacy: An African American Family.
: WSU Press. 2002.
, Richard Stanley. The Cayton
legacy: Two generation of a Black family, 1859-1976.
: UMI Dissertation Services. 1989.
Joseph Sylvester. The Colored Marine Employees Benevolent
Association of the Pacific, 1921-1934. Thesis:
Quintard. The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central
District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era.
10 August 1933. 14 February 1935.
7 August 1933. 27 February 1934. 3 April 1934. 17 April 1934. 8 May
1934. 3 August 1934. 14 September 1934. 15 February 1935. 29 March
Voice of Action. 27 February 1934.
It is unclear what year Revels was born. In
(1989) he states 1909 and a Voice of Action article says he was 24
in 1934 corroborating this date. However, in his other book
(2002) gives the date of June 5, 1907 for. For the purpose of this
paper I will use the 1907 date.
Richard Hobbs. The Cayton Legacy. (2002): 1-22.
Horace Cayton. Long
. (1963): 3.
Quintard Taylor. The Forging of a Black Community. (1994):
Joseph Sylvester Jackson. The Colored Marine Employees
Benevolent Association. (1939): 23-24.
. The Cayton Legacy. (1989): 231.
Philip S Foner and Herbert Shapiro. American Communism and
Black Americans. (1991): XI.
Eugene V. Dennet Papers.
, folder 12.
James Goodman. Stories of Scottsboro. (1994): XI.
Voice of Action, August
, August 10, 1933.
Voice of Action, 27
February 1934. Unsure if the age stated is accurate, most likely
Voice of Action. 27
Voice of Action. 3 April
Revels Cayton, Voice of
Action. 17 April 1934.
Voice of Action. 8 May
1934. Revels is quoted in this article.
Voice of Action. 3
Voice of Action. 14
September 1934. The V of A states 47th while
(2002) states 37th (p. 93)
. 14 February 1935.
Revels Cayton. Voice of
Action. 15 February 1935.
Revels Cayton. Voice of
Action. 29 March 1935.