The Workingmen's Party
The Workingmen's Party of California was an American labor organization led by Denis Kearney in the 1870s. The party took particular aim against Chinese immigrant labor and the Central Pacific Railroad , which employed them. Its famous slogan was "The Chinese must go!" Kearney's attacks against the Chinese were of a particularly virulent and openly racist nature, and found considerable support among white Californians of the time. This sentiment led eventually to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Kearney was born in Oakmount, County Cork , Ireland and immigrated to the United States . During the Long Depression , he became popular by speaking to unemployed people in San Francisco, denouncing the railroad monopoly and immigrant Chinese workers, known as Coolies .
Kearney began his working life as an ally of employers. In July 1877, when anti-Chinese violence occurred in San Francisco, Kearney joined William Tell Coleman 's vigilante Public Safety Committee as a member of Coleman's "pick handle brigade." By August 1877, however, Kearney had been elected Secretary of the newly formed Workingmen's Party of California , and often directed violent attacks on Chinese, including denunciations of the powerful Central Pacific Railroad , which had employed them in large numbers.
Kearney traveled east to popularize his opinions and campaigned with the Massachusetts politician Benjamin Butler , the Greenback Party 's candidate for President . Kearney sought the Vice Presidential nomination, although Butler never offered it to him. Kearney faded from the public's eye by the early 1880s, leaving as his legacy only the anti-Chinese laws that the Workingmen's Party had passed at the 1879 California Constitutional Convention. Many of these laws, which included a ban on the employment of Chinese laborers, were ruled unconstitutional by the federal Ninth Circuit Court . Corresponding with the English author and politician James Bryce in the late 1880s, Kearney nonetheless claimed credit for making the "Chinese Question" a national issue and affecting the legislation of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
In spite of growing criticism, Kearney’s popularity increased. At an outdoor gathering place near San Francisco City Hall, known as “The Sandlot”, he regularly spoke in front of crowds that numbered as many as 2,000 people. Observers said he had a natural ability to stir up crowds, and since his speeches often lasted as long as two hours he had plenty of opportunity to incite the audience. One of his trademarks was to gradually increase the volume of his speech until it reached fever pitch, then dramatically throw off his coat and unbutton his collar. Such gestures “always provoked a storm of applause.”
In one of his early speeches, he urged laborers to be "thrifty and industrious like the Chinese", but within a year's time he began denouncing Chinese immigrants as the cause of white workers’ economic woes. By 1878, he used the Sandlot forum to give frequent and violent speeches against Chinese immigrants and the problems he claimed they caused. He warned railroad owners that they had three months to fire all of their Chinese workers or “remember Judge Lynch."