African Americans and American Communism

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Of the many radical and socialist political movements of the 20th century, the Communist Party (CP) USA, more than any other, placed black liberation at the top of its agenda. The Party won some critical victories for that cause and achieved a small but significant following among black workers and intellectuals, especially during the 1930s and 1940s. The first contact between blacks and communists was the result of a convergence of seminal events in the second decade of the 20th century. The Great War engendered irreparable splits in socialist parties over support or opposition to a war that opponents viewed as imperialist. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia followed by the formation of V. I. Lenin's Third Internationale (Comintern) spurred anticolonialist currents, as Lenin declared that struggles of non-European colonial and dependent peoples for self-determination was essential to the fortunes of working-class movements in developed states. Those events, in turn, stimulated movement toward the communist orbit by a segment of a new urban black intelligentsia drawn largely but not exclusively from West Indian immigrants already schooled in anticolonialism.

The Crusader

In 1917, Cyril Briggs, a native of Nevis and St. Kitts, founded the journal The Crusader, which advanced a militant racial “catechism” of the greatness of African peoples. Inspired by Woodrow Wilson's stated aim of freedom for oppressed nations and colonies, Briggs promoted African liberation while calling for struggle and agitation against racial injustice in the United States. In 1919, Briggs formed the semisecret African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), which advocated armed resistance to lynching, the right of blacks in the South to vote, the right of black workers to unionize, and defiance of Jim Crow laws. By then he had become disillusioned with Wilson and drew closer to the first black recruits to the Communist Party, such as Otto Huiswoud, Claude McKay, and others. Inspired by the Third Internationale's call for revolutionary unity between colonial peoples and labor in the metropolitan states, Briggs was increasingly drawn to Marxism and to Lenin's view of the struggles of blacks against national oppression as inherently antiimperialist.
In 1919, the Communist Party's founders had barely moved beyond the view of Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party that socialists had “nothing special to offer the Negro” and that blacks would only rise as the working class rose. For Briggs, however, the road to freedom for Africa and for people of African descent was through the world “socialist commonwealth.” An Afrocentric outlook came to rest on the notion that communism was endemic to the African communal experience. The unfolding world movement led by the fledgling socialist Russia would indeed have something special to offer the Negro. It would lift the imperial yoke from Africa, assist the struggles of blacks all over, and consequently honor the aspirations of black people as indispensable to the revolutionary process. Briggs was among the first to weld revolutionary socialism to a radical nationalist vision that demanded freedom for Africa and for African Americans.

The African Blood Brotherhood

While the African Blood Brotherhood most likely never exceeded 3,000 members, it attracted militant intellectuals such as Richard B. Moore, Otto Huiswoud, W. A. Domingo, and Grace Campbell, as well as clusters of war veterans, principally in New York and Chicago. Briggs's increasing stress on an alliance between peoples of African descent and the international communist movement soon became a source of antagonism between the ABB and Marcus Garvey's far larger Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). In some measure, Briggs had anticipated the first extensive discussion of the “Negro question” at the Fourth Comintern Congress in 1922, which concluded that the struggles of blacks against oppression were inherently antiimperialist. Nationalist organizations like Garvey's UNIA carried the seeds of revolutionary battle against imperialism, so Briggs repeatedly sought to influence Garvey to accept an alliance with the communists. Garvey, however, held to his fervent belief in racial solidarity as the exclusive agency of social transformation. Neither Briggs nor the communists were able to budge Garvey, and the conflict between Briggs and the Jamaican leader became increasingly personal and was finally sundered beyond repair.

The Aftermath of World War I

By the mid-1920s, revolutions had been defeated in Europe, the postwar U.S. labor upsurge had been crushed, and the red scare had led to the deportation of thousands of radical alien immigrants. The radical tide dissipated and a conservative antilabor trend became dominant. The revolutionary nationalist perspective of black communists was superceded (with the Comintern's support) by an effort to get black proletarians emigrating from the South to join organized labor. The African Blood Brotherhood waned and died as communists organized the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC) in 1925 to batter down the doors of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and advance interracial unionism.
The ANLC registered some accomplishments. It organized a militant strike of black women laundry workers in Chicago, it vigorously defended black seamen charged with cowardice aboard a sinking ship bound for the Caribbean, it supported striking black coal miners, it played a leading role in the strike of motion picture projectionists in Harlem in the late 1920s—insisting that there could be no hegemonic black culture in Harlem unless there was a struggle to uplift the economic conditions of African Americans. But the ANLC suffered from chronic and ultimately fatal sectarianism, despite pleas from black organizers to the Comintern to assist in toning down the open role and direction of the Communist Party in the organization. Hobbled by its own narrowness, by a party whose ethnic federations often sought insularity through the exclusion of blacks, and by the country's conservative climate, the ANLC could never overcome its small following and ineffectiveness.

The National Question

By 1928, the CP's “Negro work” remained in crisis and was placed for discussion and debate on the agenda at the Sixth Comintern Congress. Harry Haywood (also known as Heywood Hall), a young black recruit to the Communist Party who was studying at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV) in Moscow, received support from the Soviets to lead a drive to characterize the Negro question in the United States as a national question. Haywood argued that in 215 contiguous Southern counties, running from the Tidewater to East Texas, the black majorities constituted an oppressed “nation within a nation” that had been blocked from the larger nation by the residue of slavery and the betrayal of Reconstruction. Thus, in the South, the goal of blacks was self-determination (i.e., not necessarily separation of the races, but the right of choice by the black majority); in the North, their goal was political, economic, and social equality.
The concept of national self-determination for the black majority in the South was fatally flawed. Even V. I. Lenin, who generally promoted self-determination, had pointed out in his Statistics and Sociology that the dynamic development of industrial capitalism in the United States rapidly shrunk national differences and undermined the special claims of various groups while solidifying the country into a single national entity. However, defining the Negro question as a national question bared the depth of a special oppression that transcended race and class. It underscored a brutally repressed nationality—an assault on basic human identity itself.
Thus the black freedom movement was elevated to the highest status in the Leninist lexicon; black life constituted a revolutionary force in its own right, one absolutely indispensable to the fortunes of the working class. Lenin believed that the working class would never achieve its own goals without the Negro people and their movement for self-determination. It was therefore the “sacred duty” of white labor to respect the aspirations of blacks and to prove through relentless struggle against all forms of racism and discrimination the worthiness of interracial radical alliances. Blacks would only overcome generations of distrust of radical whites if those whites unreservedly respected blacks' national consciousness and right of political choice. Thus, education, cleansing of the heart, mawkishness, and sentimentality were rejected as a basis for commitment to black liberation and were replaced by the concept of revolutionary necessity.
That new ideological framework, combined with the onset of the Great Depression, unleashed a frenzy of activity rivaled only in history by the abolitionist movement. In 1929, the Communist Party dissolved the ANLC and formed the League of Struggle for Negro Rights (LSNR). The LSNR used its paper, The Liberator, which was edited by Cyril Briggs, to stress traditional black resistance to oppression, and its attacks on lynching and racist violence mirrored the militant timbre of the Sixth Comintern Congress. In the 1930s, the poet Langston Hughes was president of the congress. March 6, 1930, a day of mass demonstrations for unemployment insurance, marked the beginning of significant black involvement in communist-led actions. In 1930, the Party established a beachhead in Alabama and began the painful task of building the Share Croppers' Union under brutally repressive circumstances that cost the lives of perhaps a score or more of black croppers. The union laid the groundwork for the labor and civil rights movements in Alabama.
The Scottsboro case followed soon thereafter in March of 1931. It constituted a herculean global effort to save the lives of nine boys framed on a rape charge. A battle between the communist-led International Labor Defense (ILD) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) erupted over control of the case, baring important underlying disagreement about which social class, bourgeois or labor, would lead the black liberation movement. It also revealed sensitive issues about the conjunction of race and class when the communists often revealed a deeper affinity and respect for the impoverished Scottsboro parents than did the middleclass leaders of the NAACP. The Scottsboro case followed a long and tortured trajectory through three trials and numerous appeals—along the way establishing important precedents that established the right to adequate counsel and the inclusion of blacks on juries. The nine defendants were ultimately spared the electric chair, although some of them spent long, arduous years in prison. Concurrent with the Scottsboro case was a broadly based campaign to free Angelo Herndon, a young black communist convicted under an archaic pre–Civil War sedition statute in Georgia. There were also scores of other cases involving African Americans ensnared by a racist legal system.
At the same time, in their own ranks the communists were faced with resistance to racial equality, especially in the social sphere. After complaints from black members about racist treatment within the CP, a series of publicized “white chauvinism” trials were staged to confront white communists charged with racism, which the CP viewed as rooted in capitalist exploitation but having taken on a life of its own in white working-class consciousness. Before large audiences, “the stench of the slave market” was decried as those charged were forced to choose between political purgatory or confession and renewal. Despite the contrivances, the trials often provoked questions in the black press and black community about whether blacks could follow the injunctions of the larger polity to hate a movement that was willing to purge its ranks of members whose “crimes” constituted little more than standard social practices.
Throughout the sectarian early 1930s, when the communists repeatedly castigated middle-class “enemies” in the black community, the Party nevertheless won respect for its militant antieviction, antilynching, welfare rights, labor organizing, and other struggles in streets and courtrooms, at unemployment and welfare offices, on picket lines, in cotton fields, and in classrooms. This impressive record ultimately could not stem the doubts of African Americans about the fidelity of white labor in general to black liberation or about the ability of the Party to overcome its own pariah status. Thus the seeds of a black labor alliance were planted.
With the coming of the antifascist Popular Front in the mid-1930s, the communists adopted a far broader and more inclusive relationship with the black community—jettisoning ideological division in favor of stress on common ground and cooperation in building interracial unions, advancing civil rights, and combating the worldwide fascist danger. The founding of the National Negro Congress (NNC) in 1936 in pursuit of those aims marked a high point in communist influence on blacks. The congress coalesced scores of black church groups, civic organizations, and unions. The NNC aimed to cultivate a cadre of black labor organizers to help build powerful industrial unions in the auto, steel, meat packing, and electrical industries.
The Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), which was founded in 1937, mobilized Southern youth and students to fight segregation, demand voting rights for blacks, work for equality in education and health care, and assist in building unions, especially in the tobacco and food processing industries. The SNYC also trained a new generation of young black radicals and communists, among them James and Esther Jackson, Edward Strong, and Louis Burnham, who would go on to leadership positions in the Communist Party and in the postwar progressive movement around Henry Wallace's 1948 presidential candidacy. In 1938, communists joined Southern liberals to form the Southern Conference for Human Welfare to advocate economic justice and equality.
By the mid-1930s, communists were embracing and promoting black culture as the quintessence of a national people's culture. Black writers and artists like Richard Wright, Paul and Eslanda Robeson, Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence, and many others were drawn to a vibrant radical interracial cultural community within the communist orbit where their poetry, graphics, and works for the theater were promoted by Communist Party publications and by Party-influenced organizations. The antifascist spirit drew about 80 African American men and a woman nurse into the international brigades to fight Franco's insurgency in Spain, while scores of black artists, like Cab Calloway and Count Basie, performed at benefit concerts for the Spanish loyalist cause.
While the communists' defense of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 crippled the support for communism in some areas, the communists' standing in black communities was largely undamaged. Communists and their allies in this period organized an extensive campaign to end Jim Crow in major league baseball, continued to provide vehicles for expression and development of African American music and art, and organized boycotts of segregated public facilities and the film Gone With the Wind. After the Nazis invaded Soviet Russia in June of 1941 and the United States entered the war against the axis powers, the Party leadership expressed reservations about a “Double V” campaign for victory against racism at home and fascism abroad. Rather, the leadership stressed the need for national all-class unity in the struggle to defeat fascism. Some African Americans felt disappointed and abandoned as a result of this apparent downgrading of the battle for equality. However, antiracism was by then deep in the bones of black and white communists and liberal allies and could not be fully placed on the back burner. Campaigns went on during the war for full implementation of Fair Employment Practices in burgeoning defense industries, for desegregation of the armed forces, and for an end to discriminatory policies against the black community.
In 1944, CP general secretary Earl Browder dissolved the Party, jettisoning the last vestiges of Lenin's concept of an organization of dedicated revolutionaries. It was replaced by the Communist Political Association, a loosely organized educational and civic action group. The concept of national self-determination for the Black Belt was interred as Browder declared that Southern blacks had “self-determined” assimilation into the larger society. Less than 2 years later, Browder was ousted, the Party reconstituted, and the self-determination doctrine resurrected.
Through these upheavals, the Negro National Congress and SNYC had become moribund. Then, in 1946, the communists helped found the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), led by communist lawyer William L. Patterson, a veteran of the International Labor Defense and the Scottsboro battles. The CRC gained notoriety when it placed before the United Nations a petition, “We Charge Genocide,” which documented a long list of government-sanctioned assaults on African Americans that in the organization's view constituted genocide.
The CRC also fought scores of cases in the courts and in the streets involving African Americans ensnared by the legal system. Among the most well known were the cases of Rosa Lee Ingram in Georgia, Willie McGee in Mississippi, and the “Trenton Six” in New Jersey. Rosa Lee Ingram, a widowed tenant farmer and mother of 12, had, along with two of her sons, been convicted and sentenced to death for killing a white neighbor. The jury had ignored strong evidence that the killing was clear-cut self-defense against the neighbor's attacking the Ingrams with a rifle butt, and they proceeded to a speedy trial and sentencing. An international campaign combined with legal appeals ultimately spared the lives of Ingram and her sons. The CRC fought in vain to save Willie McGee, who was executed in 1951 for rape of a white woman in Laurel, Mississippi, despite overwhelming evidence that the charges were motivated by the woman's rage after McGee ended an affair with her. The six black defendants known as the “Trenton Six” were freed in 1951 on appeals entered by the CRC after they had been sentenced to death in the killing of a white shopkeeper, despite witnesses who identified the killers as “two or three white or light-skinned black teenagers.”
The 1948 campaign of Henry Wallace for president, in which communists played a prominent role, was marked by a powerful commitment to civil rights and by the refusal of Wallace and his running mate, Senator Glen Taylor, to appear in the South before segregated audiences. Defying physical threats and barrages of rotten eggs and tomatoes, the Wallace campaign rallied Southern liberalism in the first major postwar assault on segregation and was a factor in pressuring Wallace's rival, Harry S. Truman, to accept a strong civil rights plank in his successful campaign for the presidency.
Yet, the Cold War was deepening and was having a complex and contradictory effect on the relationship of communists, blacks, and the struggle for equality. In an increasingly repressive environment, the old adage that it was “tough enough being black without also being red” appeared to be borne out by particularly harsh demands on radical and communist African Americans to march in lockstep with growing anticommunism and to abandon their criticisms of the larger society's racial injustice. Communist leaders such as New York City councilman Benjamin J. Davis and Henry Winston were sentenced with 11 white colleagues to federal prison for “teaching and advocating overthrow of the government”; Paul Robeson's concert career was destroyed and his passport confiscated; W. E. B. Du Bois was indicted in 1951 for “failure to register as a foreign agent” due to his sponsorship of the Stockholm Peace Appeal to ban nuclear weapons (but the charges were later thrown out). Baseball star Jackie Robinson was forced to testify against Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and leaders of the major mainstream civil rights organizations were repeatedly called upon to denounce the left and to affirm their support of the U.S. conflict with the U.S. S. R.
At the same time, the U.S. government's Cold War with world communism had a positive effect on the ongoing battle for equality in the United States. With a contest for hearts and minds in Africa, Asia, and Latin America raging, segregation and racism in the United States was becoming a heavy albatross that had to be lifted. The historic Supreme Court decision in May of 1954 ending segregated schools noted the negative effect of unequal education on the battle against communism being conducted by Washington.
The 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, that was led by Martin Luther King, Jr., ushered in the modern civil rights revolution, which in significant measure, with all its faults and missteps, echoed the long and neglected history of the left's struggles for racial equality. A vibrant link between past and present was forged when veterans of the old Share Croppers' Union like Hosea Hudson and Ned Cobb joined the new battles of the 1950s. Yet, the Communist Party, buffeted by the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the revelations by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 of the crimes of Stalin, was now in decline. However, Party members and many who had left the Party continued to work for desegregated schools and voting rights while the left-wing Southern Conference Education Fund (successor to the Southern Conference for Human Welfare) extended valuable experience to the rising Southern movement.
The upsurge in the antiwar and civil rights movements in the 1960s brought a modest spike in the Party's young African American membership, Angela Davis the most prominent among the new members. The doctrine of national self-determination had again been interred in 1958, but elements within the Party defied national policies against nationalism, responding sympathetically to the black power movement and even establishing an unprecedented all-black youth club in Los Angeles.
The collapse of the U.S. S. R. and the states of Eastern Europe engendered a deep, irreparable split in the Communist Party. Long-time Party leader Gus Hall was accused of abandoning the traditional Party position on the centrality of the struggle against racism and for black liberation. Prominent black activists like Angela Davis, Charlene Mitchell, and James Jackson, as well as a number of local African American leaders left the Party to form the democratic socialist Committees of Correspondence. But despite its often heavy-handed relationship with the African American community, the Communist Party established an important and influential record in the long and continuing struggle for fulfillment of the promise to African Americans of equality, justice, and interracial unity.

References

Keywords

  • communism
  • negro
  • communist parties
  • Scottsboro case
  • self-determination
  • African Americans
  • labor

Author(s)

Further Reading

  • Dudziak, Mary L. (2000). Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. This is an exhaustive study of the efforts of the U.S. State Department and other government agencies to pressure the civil rights movement to support U.S. foreign policies and to convince foreign nations that the United States was making progress on civil rights.
  • Foner, Philip S., and Allen, James S. (Eds.). (1987). American Communism and Black Americans: A Documentary History, 1919–1929. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. This is a compilation of primary documents from communist and African American sources on the black-red relationship.
  • Foner, Philip S., and Shapiro, Herbert (Eds.). (1991). American Communism and Black Americans: A Documentary History, 1930–1934. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. This continues the documentation of the first volume noted above.
  • Kelley, Robin D. G. (1990). Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. This is the most comprehensive work to date on the Share Croppers' Union and communist activities in the Deep South during the 1930s.
  • Naison, Mark. (1983). Communists in Harlem During the Depression. Champaign: University of Illinois Press. This covers the work of communists in Harlem during the tumultuous 1930s.
  • Solomon, Mark. (1998). The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1919–1937. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. This book conveys the story of African Americans and communists from its beginning in 1917 until its apex in 1937.