The Communist Party USA and African Americans
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The Communist Party USA, historically and currently committed to complete racial equality in the United States, played a significant role in defending the rights of African-Americans during its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s.
Early years (1919 – 1928)
When the Communist Party USA was founded it had almost no black members. The Communist Party had drawn most of its members from the various foreign language federations formerly associated with the Socialist Party of America; those workers, many of whom were not fluent English-speakers, often had little contact with black Americans.
The Socialist Party had not, moreover, attracted that many African-American members during the years before the split. While its most prominent leaders, including Eugene V. Debs, were committed opponents of racial segregation, many in the Socialist Party were often lukewarm on the issue of racism, perceiving discrimination against black workers to be merely an extreme form of capitalist worker exploitation. In addition, the party’s allegiance with unions that discriminated against minority workers compromised its willingness to attack racism directly; it did not seek out African American members, nor did it hold recruitment drives where they lived. Some African-Americans disaffected by Socialist attitudes joined the Communist Party, others the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB), whose political philosophy was essentially Marxist in nature.
The Communist Party at first echoed the economism of the Socialist Party. However, the party was also committed from the outset to bringing about world revolution, which put it in sympathy and concert with anti-colonial and "national liberation" movements around the globe. Its opinions of black worker struggle and on civil rights for blacks were therefore couched in broader terms of anti-colonialism; moreover, from its early years in the U.S. the party recruited African-American members; results were mixed, primarily due to the presence of rival groups such as the ABB.
The party thus had the greatest appeal in its early days to black workers with an internationalist bent, and from 1920 began to intensively recruit African Americans as members. The most prominent black Communist Party members at this time were largely immigrants from the West Indies who viewed a black worker struggle as being part of the broader campaigns against capitalism and imperialism.
At the 1922 Fourth Congress of the Comintern, Claude McKay, a Jamaican poet, and Otto Huiswoud, born in Suriname, persuaded the Comintern to set up a multinational Negro Commission that sought to unite all movements of blacks fighting colonialism. Harry Haywood,  a communist drawn out of the ranks of the African Blood Brotherhood, a socialist group with a large number of Jamaican émigrés in its leadership, also played a leading role. McKay persuaded the founders of the Brotherhood to affiliate with the Communist Party in the early 1920s. The African Blood Brotherhood claimed to have almost 3,500 members; relatively few of them, however, joined the party.
The Comintern directed the American party in 1924 to redouble its efforts to organize African-Americans. The party complied by creating the American Negro Labor Congress in 1925. That organization was also a failure: the black press denounced it and the labor movement, outside of a few party-controlled unions that themselves had few black members, ignored it.
The ANLC, for its part, isolated itself from other black organizations, attacking the NAACP and other organizations as middle class accommodationists controlled by white philanthropists. The ANLC and the Party had a more complex relationship with Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association; while the party approved of Garvey's fostering of "race consciousness", it was strongly opposed to his support for a separate black nation. When the party made efforts to recruit members from the UNIA, Garvey expelled the party members and sympathizers in its ranks
The Third Period and national self-determination (1928 – 1935)
The Sixth Congress of the Comintern held in 1928 changed the party's policy drastically; it claimed that blacks in the United States were a separate national group and that black farmers in the South were an incipient revolutionary force. The Comintern therefore ordered the party to press the demand for a separate nation for blacks within the so-called "Black Belt", a swath of counties with a majority black population extending from eastern Virginia and the Carolinas through central Georgia, Alabama, the delta regions of Mississippi and Louisiana and the coastal areas of Texas. The party leadership, deeply divided into rival factions, each eager to show its fealty to the Comintern's understanding of conditions in the United States, complied.
That policy drew ridicule from other left organizations and very little support from African-Americans, either in the urban north or in the South itself, where the CPUSA had little foothold. While the party continued to give lip service to the goal of national self-determination for blacks, particularly in its theoretical writings of the time, it largely ignored that demand in its practical work.
The party sent organizers to the Deep South for the first time in the late 1920s. The party focused its efforts, for the most part, on very concrete issues: organization of miners, steelworkers and tenant farmers, utility shutoffs, evictions, jobs, unemployment benefits, lynchings, and the pervasive system of Jim Crow.
The party's attempt to organize sharecroppers in Camp Hill, Alabama in 1931 provoked a violent response from vigilantes, who murdered one leader of the group, and local authorities, who put those farmers who had tried to fight off the mob on trial for murder. Attorneys with the International Labor Defense succeeded in having the charges dropped against all of the defendants. The Share Croppers' Union, formed after these events, nonetheless continued organizing, claiming nearly 8,000 members after leading a strike in 1934 that won higher prices for cotton pickers despite intense hostility from local authorities and businesses.
The party, despite its nominal support for a separate black nation, attempted to transcend color barriers in organizing workers, farmers and the unemployed. The party's defense of the rights of African-Americans, however, hampered its ability to recruit white Southerners. While the party also attempted to organize white workers and farmers during this period – most famously in the textile workers' strike in Gastonia, North Carolina in 1929 and the Harlan County War strike in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1931 – the party's identification with civil rights was constantly used against it to discourage whites from participating; those white Communists who crossed the color barrier to work in black communities faced ostracism from their own neighbors and co-workers. The party added to its isolation from White southerners by expelling a number of white members for exhibiting racial prejudice.
Organizing in the North (1928 – 1935)
The party was also active in campaigning on issues concerning black Americans outside of the South. The CPUSA made a point of campaigning against racial segregation, both in the independent unions they were organizing during the Third Period and in the American Federation of Labor unions they were attacking. The party also made a concerted effort to weed out all forms of racism within its own membership, conducting a well-publicized trial of a Finnish member of a foreign language federation in Harlem that had acted insensitively toward blacks.
The CPUSA also organized among African-Americans in the North on more concrete issues than the formation of a black state in the South. The party was, for example, either the first or one of the most active organizations in campaigning against evictions, for unemployment benefits, and against police brutality. In other instances during this period the Communist Party joined in campaigns that others had begun, such as the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" boycott launched against Jewish and Italian businesses in Harlem.
The party's relations with other groups in the black community veered wildly during this period. At the outset of the Third Period the rigid communist orthodoxy dictated by the Comintern required the party to attack other, more moderate organizations which also opposed racial discrimination. During the late 1920s the CPUSA denounced the NAACP and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as "class enemies" or "class collaborators". Although local leaders worked to modify this hard line in practice, factional infighting and changes dictated from abroad often undid what progress had been made, both in practical work and in relations with other groups; as an example, the party repudiated much of the work it had done in Harlem in opposing evictions because the party leader most associated with that work had been expelled, along with Jay Lovestone, who had briefly sided with Bukharin in his conflict with Joseph Stalin.
The Scottsboro Boys and the ILD
The party's most widely reported work in the South was its defense, through the ILD, of the "Scottsboro Boys", nine black men arrested in 1931 after a fight with some white men also riding the rails, then convicted and sentenced to death for raping two white women later found on the same train. None of the defendants had shared the same boxcar as either of the women they were charged with raping.
The International Labor Defense was the first to offer its assistance. William L. Patterson, a black attorney who had left behind a successful practice to join the Communist Party, returned from training in the Soviet Union to run the ILD. After fierce disputes with the NAACP, with the ILD seeking to mount a broad-based political campaign to free the nine while the NAACP followed a more legalistic strategy, the ILD took control over the defendants' appeals.
The ILD successfully overturned their convictions on appeal to the United States Supreme Court, which held in Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45 (1932) that the State's failure to provide the defendants with counsel in a capital case violated their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The ILD's battles with the NAACP continued when the cases returned to Alabama for retrial, when the NAACP blamed the ILD for the conviction and death sentence handed down by the jury in the retrial of the lead defendant. While the NAACP later backtracked and agreed to join with the ILD in defending the nine after other black organizations and a number of NAACP branches attacked it for that position, the tensions never disappeared and the ILD retained control of the second round of appeals. It won reversals of these convictions in Norris v. Alabama, 294 U.S. 587 (1935) on the ground that the exclusion of blacks from the jury pool had violated the defendants' constitutional rights. Even so, all of the defendants were convicted on their third retrial.
The Scottsboro defense was only one of the ILD's many cases in the South at that time: it also defended Angelo Herndon, a Communist Party activist sentenced to death by the State of Georgia for treason for his advocacy of national self-determination for blacks in the black belt, while demanding retribution for lynching and due process for criminal defendants. For a period of time in the early and mid-1930s the ILD was the most active defender of blacks' civil rights in the South and the most popular party organization among African-Americans.
The League of Struggle for Negro Rights, founded in 1930 as the successor to the ANLC, was particularly active in organizing support for the Scottsboro defendants. It also campaigned for a separate black nation in the South and against police brutality and Jim Crow laws, while also advocating a more general policy of opposition to fascism and support for the Soviet Union.
The Popular Front (1935 – 1939)
In 1935, the Comintern abandoned the ultraleftism of the Third Period in favor of a Popular Front which sought to unite socialist and non-socialist organizations of similar politics around the common cause of anti-fascism, confirming the policy that the CPUSA had already embarked upon. The party had mended its relations, at least temporarily, with groups such as the NAACP and had developed relations with church groups, particularly in the North. The party had also started edging toward support of the New Deal by moderating its attacks on the Roosevelt administration.
As a sign of its new attitude toward others fighting for the rights of black Americans, the CPUSA folded up the League of Struggle for Negro Rights and joined with other non-communist groups to create a new organization, the National Negro Congress, with A. Philip Randolph, a longtime member of the Socialist Party, as its head. The NNC functioned as an umbrella organization, bringing together black fraternal, church and civic groups, and supported the efforts of the CIO to organize in the steel, automobile, tobacco and packinghouse industries. The NAACP kept its distance from the NNC, whose leaders accused the organization of ignoring the interests of working class blacks.
The CPUSA dropped its support for a separate black state within the United States, campaigning instead for the end of racial discrimination as part of its new platform that "Communism is twentieth century Americanism". When black residents of Harlem rioted in 1935 after false reports that a youth arrested for shoplifting had been killed by the police, Communist Party activists joined with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and NAACP leader Walter White to try to avert further violence.
The party continued, on the other hand, to emphasize issues pertaining to black workers, while denouncing lynching and similar violent acts directed at blacks. Communists joined with labor and civil rights groups to form the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, which campaigned for civil rights and socialism. A New York City school teacher and party member, Abel Meeropol, wrote the song "Strange Fruit" to dramatize the horrors of lynching and racism in the South.
The party also tailored its campaign for unity against fascism to appeal to the black community, as in the case of its opposition to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Black members also fought in the Spanish Civil War, where the Lincoln Brigade was the first American military force to include blacks and whites integrated on an equal basis and black officers commanding white troops.
Organizing black workers
The Communist Party made the fight against racism within the labor movement and Jim Crow outside it one of its consistent principles from the early 1920s forward. While maintaining a position against white supremacy, the Party made special efforts to organize black miners in the strikes its National Miners Union led in western Pennsylvania in 1928 at the same time as leading strikes of (nearly exclusively) white textile workers in the Carolinas and Georgia in 1929 and coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1931. Local authorities used this issue and the Party's support for "godless communism" and the Soviet Union to drive a wedge between the strike leadership and white workers.
The Party made more progress in organizing African-American workers in the New Deal era, particularly through unions associated with it, such as Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union, which organized black miners in Alabama, the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, which created interracial coalitions in the meatpacking plants in Chicago and elsewhere, and the Food and Tobacco Workers, who established integrated unions with interracial leadership in North Carolina and Kentucky. Those unions established deep roots among the black workers in those industries, who remained supportive of the left leadership of their unions even as the party itself became increasingly unpopular in the late 1940s and the 1950s.
In the United Auto Workers, in which the CPUSA once vied for leadership, both the party and its opponents led by Walter Reuther campaigned for the demands of black workers and against "hate strikes" and race riots led by white workers opposed to working with African-Americans, but disagreed as to how the union should respond.
Party activists and organizers also played a significant role in organizing black workers in other unions, such as the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, in which the CPUSA had a role, but not leadership. The party did not, however, make any consistent progress in recruiting black members through its union organizing efforts. In the SWOC, for example, the Party's organizers suppressed their identity as communists and much of their politics in order to avoid political differences with Philip Murray, who headed the organizing the campaign, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which was financing it. Those organizers rarely were able, in any case, to stay in an area long enough to allow them to cultivate the relationships that would have allowed them to bring individual workers into the party.
In other industries from which blacks were excluded or made up a small part of the workforce, CPUSA-led unions had a mixed record. The Transport Workers Union of America, which denounced segregation but took only halting efforts to oppose it during its early years, formed coalitions with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the NAACP and the Negro National Congress in the early 1940s to eliminate occupational segregation and to require ambitious affirmative action goals in New York City public transit. The TWU also fought against employment discrimination in public transit in Philadelphia in 1944, during which time the federal government ordered the private transit company to desegregate its workforce, provoking a wildcat strike of many of the union's newly organized members that was ended only when the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration sent troops to guard the system and arrested the strike's ringleaders.
On the other hand, the record of other left unions was not as positive. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, with its power over the workplace exercised through its hiring hall, eliminated formal barriers to black employment, although a degree of informal segregation returned through the institution of casual employment. The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (or UE) ignored party directives to confront the issue in its industry, calculating that any challenge to the principle of seniority by pursuing affirmative action remedies for black workers would prove immensely unpopular among white workers.
Communists and black culture
During the Popular Front era the party attracted support from a number of the brightest lights in African-American literature, including Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, some of whom joined the party, only to break with it in later years. Paul Robeson, a vocal defender of the Soviet Union, apparently never joined the party, but was loyal to at least a few of its members including Ben Davis who was jailed under The Smith Act.
The Communist Party also took up benign issues. The party’s newspaper, The Daily Worker, started agitating for integration of major league baseball in the mid-1930s. The party also made a point of integrating its dances and other social events and continued to ostracize and expel members accused of "white chauvinism".
World War II (1939 – 1945)
The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact damaged the party significantly in the black community. A. Philip Randolph resigned from the Negro National Congress in protest and black newspapers throughout the North condemned the party for its rapid volte face. The CPUSA attacked its opponents as warmongers. When Adolf Hitler's forces invaded the Soviet Union, the party switched to an all-out support for the war effort. It denounced Randolph's proposed March on Washington against employment discrimination in war industries, arguing that it might harm production. But the CPUSA still demanded that defense contractors integrate and took steps to combat "hate strikes" and white-led race riots in Detroit.
The post World War II era
In 1946, the NNC and the ILD merged to form the Civil Rights Congress. The CRC continued its activities during the height of postwar attacks on the Communist Party, denouncing discrimination in the judicial system, segregated housing, and other forms of discrimination that blacks faced in both the North and the South.
The party had hopes of remaining in the mainstream of American politics in the postwar era. Benjamin J. Davis, Jr. ran for and won a seat on the City Council in New York City in 1945, advertising his membership in the Communist Party and drawing on both black and white support.
That era did not last. New York City changed the rules for electing members of the City Council after Davis' election and Davis lost the next race in 1949 by a landslide to an anti-communist candidate. The fact that he was under indictment for advocating the overthrow of the United States government did not help his candidacy.
The CRC found itself increasingly isolated in this new climate as former allies refused to have anything to do with it. Represented by William Patterson and Paul Robeson, it attempted to file a petition entitled "We Charge Genocide" with the United Nations in 1949 that condemned the treatment of black citizens in the United States. Patterson was convicted a year later of violating the Smith Act and the Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr. declared the CRC to be a subversive organization in 1954. The CRC received especially hostile attention from state authorities in the South, where it and related organizations were often raided or banned. The CRC dissolved in 1956, just as the civil rights movement in the South was about to become a mass movement.
At the same time the internal turmoil brought on by the Cold War, the Smith Act prosecutions, and the ouster of Earl Browder led to an internal battle in which the Party expelled a number of members who were accused of displaying "white chauvinism". In the grim days of 1949 and 1950, as the CP was about to be driven out of the CIO and much of the U.S. labor movement, many CPUSA leaders now saw their work among the white working class as a failure and the black working class as the "vanguard of the revolution".
The Party therefore directed those unions with CPUSA leadership to take a stance against continued use of seniority systems in those workplaces in which seniority made it more difficult for black workers to break out of segregated job classifications and to advocate "superseniority" for black workers, an early version of the type of measures that came to be known as "affirmative action" twenty years later. Many left-led unions, such as the UE, simply ignored the Party's directive.
The New Left and afterwards
The Communist Party continued, even after splits and defections left it much smaller, into the 1960s. It made efforts to reestablish itself among students through the W. E. B. Du Bois Clubs, named after one of the original founders of the NAACP, who joined the CPUSA in 1961. Other youth organizations, such as the Che-Lumumba Club in Los Angeles, flourished for a time, then disappeared.
The parties’ fortunes appeared to revive for a while in the late 1960s, when party members such as Angela Davis became associated with the most militant wing of the Black Power movement. The party did not, however, reap any long-term benefits from this brief period of renewed exposure: it did not establish any lasting relations with the Black Panther Party, which was largely destroyed by the early 1970s, and did not recruit any significant number of members from those organizations or win them to its politics.
The party maintained some standing in the black community through its former allies, including Coleman Young of Detroit and Gus Newport in Berkeley, California, who were elected to office in the 1970s.
- Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of Americana Communism: The Depression Decade p.344-345
- Research files on African-Americans and communism 1919-1993, (Bulk 1919-1939). Created by Mark Solomon. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. 4.25 linear feet (4 boxes). Call Phrase: Tamiment 218. online guide to the archive retrieved April 10, 2005.
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