Benjamin Harrison Fletcher was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1890. He worked as a day laborer and a longshoreman, loading and unloading ships. Fletcher joined the IWW and the Socialist Party around 1912. He first heard IWW soapbox speakers addressing working class audiences in riverside neighborhoods. Shortly thereafter, Fletcher became a leader of the IWW in Philadelphia, beginning a long career in public speaking that won him a great many accolades for his fine voice and incisive arguments for overthrowing capitalism.
Fletcher was a prominent member of the IWW's Philadelphia branch of longshoremen, called the Local 8. In May 1913 thousands of longshoremen struck for better wages and union recognition; their new union—the IWW. Following the strike, Fletcher led Local 8 and was celebrated in the Wobbly press, the IWW newspaper. Local 8 in general and Fletcher in particular seemed to prove one of the anti-capitalists' central tenets: race was used to divide workers who shared a more important identity, that of class, but unions could overcome that challenge. While this notion still is debated hotly, it is undeniable that thousands of African American longshoremen belonged on an equal terms to an organization that proved that interracialism was not only possible but essential to true working class might. That Local 8 remained a powerful force despite employer and governmental hostility indicates as much.
As America formally entered World War I, Philadelphia became one of the most important ports for the war effort. Though they engaged in but a single work stoppage (Local 8’s anniversary was celebrated annually with a one-day strike), the federal government targeted Local 8’s leaders, Fletcher included, in its national raids on the IWW. Demonstrating his importance and singularity, Fletcher was the only African American among the hundred members of the IWW tried in 1918 for treasonous activities.
While no direct evidence was provided against Fletcher, Local 8, or even the IWW (most of the “evidence” were statements of the IWW’s anti-capitalist beliefs, not any planned actions to interrupt the war effort), all of the defendants were found guilty—the jury came back in under an hour, all guilty on all counts. Fletcher was fined $30,000 and sentenced to ten years in the Leavenworth federal penitentiary in Kansas. As the sentences were announced, the Wobbly leader Bill Haywood reported that, “Ben Fletcher sidled over to me and said: ‘The Judge has been using very ungrammatical language.’ I looked at his smiling black face and asked: ‘How’s that, Ben? He said: ‘His sentences are much too long.’” While in jail, Fletcher’s release became a celebrated cause among African American radicals, championed by The Messenger, a monthly co-edited by A. Philip Randolph. Fletcher served around three years, before his sentence was commuted, along with most of the other jailed Wobblies, in 1922.
After his release, Fletcher remained committed to the IWW, though never played as active a role as he had prior to his imprisonment. He stayed involved in Local 8 but generally remained in the background. He still gave occasional speeches, on tours and street corners into the 1930s. Fletcher’s health failed while still young, typical of longshoremen and other manual laborers. He also moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn with his wife, where he worked as a building superintendent, until he died in 1949. He is buried in Brooklyn, New York.
Alongside Hubert Harrison and Lovett Fort-Whiteman, Fletcher was one of the few African American leaders in the revolutionary IWW. The union that he helped lead for a decade, Local 8, stands as a rare example of interracial equality in the early 20th century.