Nearly a year ago, I was in a public library for a class on online research tools, searching a site for biographies. On a whim I typed in the name George Edwin Taylor. I happened to have the galley of the book, For Labor, Race, and Liberty: George Edwin Taylor, His Historic Run for the White House, and the Making of Independent Black Politics, by Bruce L. Mouser, lying next to the computer. My search yielded nothing, which made me all the more grateful for Mouser’s efforts.
Mouser had stumbled onto Taylor, who ran for US president in 1904 under the National Negro Liberty Party, losing in a bid to demonstrate the voting bloc potential of blacks. Taylor had fallen into utter obscurity until Barack Obama’s highly credible and ultimately successful campaign in 2008 sent Mouser back to research Taylor. In a storage space at the LaCrosse (Wisconsin) Public Library, Mouser had found a cache of documents about Taylor so unused they were still in the original mailing package. Taylor was a journalist and labor activist in La Crosse, writing fiery editorials advocating for progressive issues, including an eight-hour workday, equal pay for equal work, and pensions for impoverished ex-slaves. He was a Democrat at a time when most blacks were Republicans. He moved to Iowa and helped to establish the independent National Negro Liberty Party.
Mouser noted many similarities between Taylor and Obama. Both raised by single parents from an early age, both gifted speakers, both civic minded, Obama as community organizer in Chicago and Taylor as a labor activist in LaCrosse. The differences obviously having to do with the times in which they lived, making Obama’s prospects for reaching the presidency greater. Taylor was active in politics at a time when independent parties were as much a force as the nascent Republican and Democratic parties. Taylor was the standard bearer for a party that advocated specifically on behalf of African Americans while Obama maintains a race neutrality that provokes criticism among black advocacy groups.
Mouser’s book is a fascinating look at how even then there were fiercely competing interests among African Americans, being argued by the then and still well-known T. Thomas Fortune, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois. There was concern about being totally wedded to either political party and debates about how to get both to be more responsive to issues of importance to African Americans, including voting rights, employment, education, fair and equal treatment. What is most astonishing is to realize that even though the prospects for an African American to reach the highest office have evidently improved, so many other social and political issues stubbornly persist. In this black history month, it’s interesting to see the linkage between the present and – until Mouser’s book – the little known past. If I was to browse that biography site today, Taylor’s name would surely be there.