March 10, 2006
‘A Star to Steer By, Hugh Mulzac – pt. 2

by Maxwell Haywood

Last week I reviewed some of Hugh Mulzac’s experiences and this week I continue to do so briefly and also to see what lessons we could learn from them. {{more}}

While living in the United States, Hugh Mulzac witnessed deep conflicts between workers and the state. He saw how the state and the police cooperated with employers to suppress workers so that workers could be exploited and suppressed with the aim of increasing output, profits and wealth for the employers. The 1934 West Coast Longshore-men’s strike was described by Mulzac as an example of the deadly cooperation between state and police in their confrontation with workers. He had this to say: “The strike lasted eighty-two days, and has become a classic example of the workers’ militancy and the brutality of the stevedoring and shipping companies, backed by the full power of police and state. Every time-honored technique to break the strike was utilized; venal newspapers raised the specter of revolution, police raided the union halls, and on June 16 the operators signed a phony agreement with Ryan, who tried to call the strikers back to work. They refused, and on July 5 finks, police, and the National Guard stormed the docks in the “Battle of Ricon Hill” to open up the sealed waterfront. Two ILA members were killed and 109 wounded on this day. “Bloody Thursday” has been commemorated by the West Coast labor unions ever since.”

He demonstrated full commitment to the struggle for worker rights. For example, during the ‘Spring strike” of 1936 by the National Maritime Union, a marine superintendent wanted to hire Mulzac to help break the strike.

This is what Mulzac said to him: “Cap…for the past twelve years I have been registered as a master with Calmer. And now when there’s a strike on you offer me a job! You understand why I must refuse, don’t you.” Mulzac was persecuted for his sympathies or closeness to socialists or communists and his respect and defense of the rights of workers. At that time, the Port Security Act known also as the Magnussen Act, and President Truman’s Executive Order 10173 were used to victimize persons such as Mulzac.

So what are the lessons Vincentians and especially young people could learn from his achievements? Overcoming racism is one such lesson. Young people, especially those who will travel abroad to Europe, North America, and Latin America to study, work or live permanently could learn from Hugh Mulzac how to overcome and fight against racism and class oppression and exploitation.

Even if they decide to stay in SVG or in the Caribbean, Hugh Mulzac’s experience could be a great lesson for them in overcoming social injustice.

Another lesson demonstrated by Mulzac was that preparation for a job is a key to success. When he wrote the exam for his master’s license in 1918, he gave assurances to Captain White, one of Baltimore’s chief inspectors, who warned him to study before taking the exams. While that was good advice, Hugh Mulzac was already fully prepared. He told the captain: “I’ve been studying for eight years, Captain, if I can’t pass now I’ll never be able to”. When and because Mulzac quickly finished the test, another Captain who administered the exam, this time his name was Captain Dunn, expressed doubts about Mulzac’s doing well on the exam. Nevertheless, Mulzac passed the exams with a score of 100, and he completed the exams in record time.

One can imagine how shocked both white Captains were. Captain White could not avoid asking Captain Dunn: “What examination did you give Mulzac? How did he get through it in seven hours?” According to Mulzac: “I had not only finished the examination in record time but was the first colored seaman in Baltimore history to sit successfully for his license.”

Importantly, he recognized that his struggles were common to black people and taught that lesson to us. His experiences led him to state the following: “I had to begin to understand that discrimination was not only my problem, but a fight of the whole colored [black] race – and of whites too, for that matter, though precious few seemed to realize it.”

In the presence of severe obstacles, Mulzac had to stay focused, brave and believe in himself. Without these attributes, he would not have overcome these obstacles.

Mulzac was very clear on the perspective that only when workers unite they could achieve progress. He wanted young people to learn this lesson! He said: “Young workers today, enjoying pension plans, three-week vacations with pay, health insurance, seniority promotions, overtime pay, air-conditioned fo’c’sles, … and other benefits, really should learn how these conditions were won…. For won they were, not generously bestowed by suddenly philanthropical employers.”

For sure, the life and times of Hugh Mulzac should be readily available to Vincentians, especially young people. He is indeed a hero to many Vincentians and many African Americans in the United States. Quite often he had to stand firm and courageously resist the racists and class forces; he never bowed to them despite his frequent encounters with these forces. He could have passively borne the racism and class suppression that were imposed on him and his people and workers; instead he risked his life and fought not only for himself but for all black people and workers in order that the deadly social diseases called racism, exploitation and oppression could be eradicated. May his spirit live on. Thank you, Hugh Mulzac!

Information for this article was taken from Hugh Mulzac’s Autobiography titled “Hugh Mulzac – A Star to Steer by.”