ATC 147, July-August 2010
Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement:
"Another Side of the Story"
Edited by Robbie Lieberman and Clarence Lang
Palgrave Macmillan, 251 pages, $85, cloth.
THE TITLE OF this volume is a bit misleading. It has hardly anything
to do with the ideological substance of U.S. anticommunism in its
encounter with the African-American freedom movement.
Rather, this collection of essays, ably edited by Robbie Lieberman
and Clarence Lang, does something more important for progressive
readers and activists: it explores the historic impact of
anticommunism, fostered by government and often abetted by
non-governmental organizations, upon the content, direction and fate
of movements for African-American freedom.
The high Cold War years and the heyday of McCarthyism are the crucial
points of departure for this collection. Some historians have argued
that the Cold War was a boon to civil rights, with Washington
spurring positive change under the impetus of the ideological battle
for Third World hearts and minds. Some have marked the start of the
freedom movement from Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the
mass Montgomery bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks in 1955. Some have
contended that it was "good politics" for Black leaders in the '50s
to resist labeling by redbaiting agencies.
However, largely among younger historians there is another trend that
insists that the red scare seriously wounded the civil rights battle,
undermining its broad social vision and depriving the movement of
some of its most committed activists. Those historians perceive a
"long civil rights movement" whose roots were planted decades earlier
and whose ideology and activism were nourished by pioneer
African-American and white radicals, particularly Communists.
Within that framework, there is division over whether that neglected
historical current was ruptured by the Cold War, or whether there was
continuity that contributed to the civil rights upsurge in the
mid-'50s through the '60s. The history of a long civil rights
movement with a crucial radical component carries powerful
implications for ongoing battles for liberation that require a
transforming vision of democracy and a holistic program of struggle
for political, social, economic and cultural equality. This volume
makes a valuable contribution to that understanding.
In the midst of Cold War hysteria, a cluster of African-American
intellectuals insisted that there was an indivisible connection
between peace and freedom. Robbie Lieberman points out that under
repressive conditions they held fast to anti-colonialism and
internationalism demanding peace as the essential element of battle
against empire and calling for an alliance of anti-war and civil rights forces.
Lieberman reminds us of courageous (and disparate) figures like
writer Julian Mayfield, naval captain Hugh Mulzac, playwright
Lorraine Hansberry and others who saw colonialism and neo-colonialism
as breeders of war and racism. The fight for peace then was
objectively directed against anti-democratic and militaristic forces.
With that outlook, Hansberry was echoing her mentor Paul Robeson, who
had maintained that the African-American struggle for freedom and
social justice "represents the decisive front of struggle for
democracy in our country" and is crucial to "the cause of peace and
liberation throughout the world."
Progressive Linkages Under Fire
That linkage of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism with peace
faded under the impact of McCarthyism. But it did not die. A new
generation of left intellectuals and activists rekindled interest in
African liberation and in combating the negative impact of militarism
upon the domestic well-being of national minorities.
That linkage survived demands from centers of power and influence
that peace be severed from freedom to inoculate the civil rights
movement against charges of "subverting" U.S. foreign policy. Martin
Luther King's courageous opposition to the Vietnam War echoed the
small group of '50s intellectuals as he withstood pressures within
his own organization and from the upper echelons of government to
jettison his opposition to the war.
In the midst of McCarthyite hysteria a nearly forgotten group of
Black and white women on the left worked though the American Labor
Party, the New York adjunct of the Progressive Party to forge
progressive alliances. According to Jacqueline Castledine, Ada B.
Jackson, Thelma Dale, Shirley Graham, Annette Rubenstein and others
fervently believed that peace must include justice; that Jim Crow,
institutional racism and imperialism were all spawned from the same seed.
Ada B. Jackson was a force in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn,
building broad coalitions, fighting for economic justice and Black
representation. Thelma Dale defied a hostile political climate
through uncompromising efforts to merge civil rights and peace
advocacy. Shirley Graham (who later married W.E.B. Du Bois) used pen
and voice to declare: "Peace like freedom is indivisible."
Yet the Cold War and the repressive climate took its toll. The
Congress of American Women, the National Negro Congress, the Council
on African Affairs, the American Labor Party and the Progressive
Party all disbanded.
Without those groups to provide support for the convergence of peace
and civil rights, the reemerging anti-nuclear weapons movement in the
late '50s, notably Women's Strike for Peace, sundered that
connection, undermining the relevance of the anti-nuclear movement
for Black women, leaving Grace Lee Boggs to observe: "Blacks saw the
bomb as a 'white issue.'"
Esther Cooper Jackson, the subject of a probing essay by Erik
McDuffie, was from a generation of African-American women who rose to
prominence on the left during the influential Popular Front years of
the late '30s and '40s. Becoming a leader of the Southern Negro Youth
Congress (where she met her husband, James Jackson), Esther Cooper
exemplified the major role taken by women in an organization that
fostered a climate of mutual support and cooperation between men and women.
After the war, Cooper Jackson traveled to world peace congresses,
broadening her horizons and deepening her commitment to world peace
and anti-colonialism. McDuffie points out that African-American women
radicals of the Popular Front movements of the '40s constructed their
own meanings of freedom, grounded in awareness that struggles against
Jim Crow, colonialism and Black women's oppression were all connected.
Indicted in the early '50s under the notorious Smith Act that accused
Communists of "conspiring to advocate and teach" the overthrow of the
government, James Jackson went underground for more than five years.
With a phalanx of FBI agents shadowing and harassing her and her two
small children, Esther Jackson, according to McDuffie, seized upon
conservative "familialism" to fight back tossing the charge of
destroying vaunted family values at the government and jettisoning
international concerns to concentrate on defending her husband.
McDuffie argues shrewdly that by resorting to conservative means to
counter government attacks, Communists fostered a discontinuity in
their own tradition isolating homosexuals and cutting off
discussion of sexuality that might have helped to destabilize Cold
War culture. While it is likely that in the environment of the '50s
the Communists were more concerned with potential blackmail of
homosexuals within their ranks than in cultural issues, the narrowing
effect of "familialism" left many in the Communist orbit ill-equipped
to relate to the cultural upsurge of the '60s.
"Correspondence" and Communists
Radicals in Detroit in the '50s occasionally heard about a nearly
invisible left formation simply called "Correspondence" that met in a
decrepit hall on the East Side of the city.
Rachel Peterson's essay on "Correspondence" illuminates (somewhat at
odds with the rest of the book) virulent leftist opposition to the Communists.
The group under consideration was an offshoot of the "Johnson-Forest
Tendency," pseudonyms for C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya who had
split from the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party to form
"Correspondence," which was the name of the group's newspaper and the
sole material expression of its existence.
Shunning traditional engagement in political struggle, Correspondence
scorned organization as organically repressive (especially Communist
organization), opting for "amanuensis," the verbatim recording of
letters from readers, to spark working-class and African-American rebellion.
Like the old joke about a bystander being hauled off to a paddy wagon
exclaiming that he's an anticommunist, only to have the cop respond:
"I don't care what kind of communist you are," Correspondence
believed that its fervent anticommunism (which it perceived as
anti-Stalinism) would give it cover from government attack. It did
not. Its focus upon working-class and African-American issues and its
roots in the Johnson-Forest Tendency were enough for the government
to deport C.L.R. James and for the Postmaster General to seek
revocation of its mailing rights.
What Peterson sees as Correspondence's objective complicity with
McCarthyism led to inner strains and contributed, along with
government harassment, to its dissolution. Ultimately, its
anticommunist dogma bordered on ironic humor. Responding to a reader
who wondered if the publication was "communist," the editors replied:
"Communists have so fouled up everything that an American worker
cannot say a word about speed-ups without being called a Communist."
Peterson's informative article also underscores an unappetizing side
of C.L.R. James. While he is justly celebrated for his magisterial
studies of Black rebellion, James's inveterate anticommunism could
reach ludicrous levels.
While awaiting deportation at Ellis Island, James was tossed into a
cell with five Communists who were so concerned with his health that
they threatened a hunger strike if he was not given proper food and
medical treatment. While James conceded that the leader among the
Communists was a "man of principle" and among "the best" that the
country could offer, he was nevertheless an "Ahab" who would impose
tyrannical rule if he ascended to power. As for the Communists'
effort to defend his health, James described it as a plot to "win him over."
Despite its curious abnegation of political engagement, Peterson
points to a continuity of influence by some of Correspondence's key
writers. James' influence pervaded African-American radical ranks in
the '60s; James Boggs became a "father figure" to a new generation of
Black working-class militants; Grace Lee Boggs continues to play a
major role in Detroit's present struggle for survival.
Finally, Peterson notes that "…Correspondence recorded voices that
might otherwise have gone unheard, creating a dialogue in the midst
of a repressive atmosphere…" from Los Angeles housewives to Virginian
coal miners to New York academics.
The Black Labor Scene
The National Negro Labor Council came into existence in 1951, largely
under the leadership of African Americans in the Communist orbit.
Inspired by a growing postwar need to confront reversals of gains
made by Black labor in wartime, NNLC organized on the "axes of race
and class." It attracted thousands of working people across a wide
political spectrum in the midst of intense McCarthyite repression.
Clarence Lang notes that NNLC launched successful campaigns to open
clerical jobs for Blacks at Sears; it fought to break the color line
in hotel, railroad and airline industries; it advocated for strong
fair employment practices legislation, garnering crucial support from
left-led unions; it battled with Westinghouse in Louisville for jobs,
especially for Black women.
With a broad agenda reflective of a social movement, NNLC vigorously
pursued women's rights (women constituted one-third of its
membership), opposed colonialism, spoke out against the Korean War,
called for anti-lynch legislation, ending the poll tax, stopping
segregated housing and demanding that mainstream labor adopt fair
employment practices clauses.
Lang places NNLC outside the framework of the Popular Front,
repeating the well-known litany of charges that Popular Front
politics mandated a turn towards "moderate and conservative policies"
at the cost of militancy in this case militant support for Black liberation.
But the Popular Front cannot be defined solely on secondary tactical
grounds. NNLC was deeply reflective of the principal character of the
Popular Front: a political commitment to substantively advance the
struggle for democracy primarily on the "axes of race and class,"
singling out racism as the central barrier to social change and
prioritizing broad-based networking of individuals and groups working
to qualitatively extend democracy in all major spheres. That
perception of the Popular Front pervades most of this volume; Lang's
analysis departs from that viewpoint.
NNLC suffered the same fate as other left organizations smothered by
McCarthyite repression. A combination of government harassment and
the AFL-CIO's remorseless hostility chipped away at its membership
and support, signaling its eventual dissolution.
With the base of NNLC narrowing, the Communist Party eventually
abandoned what was left of the organization. However, Lang
convincingly demonstrates both the rupture in progressive labor
struggles and the continuity of the Black radical impulse in the
labor movement as reflected in the story of NNLC.
The rupture appeared to be complete with NNLC's demise.. But some of
its key activists continued to be politically engaged in a variety of
ways. Some gravitated towards sectarian parties and from those
platforms influenced reemerging Black radical labor in the '60s;
others helped form A. Philip Randolph's Negro American Labor Council
(NALC) with ties to the labor establishment; others joined in
founding the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists; others, notably
Coleman Young who was mayor of Detroit for 20 years, joined
Lang concludes: "While this continuity is certainly striking, it is
worth considering what might have been achieved had the schisms
created by Cold War anticommunism not constantly forced labor
activists to recreate the wheel."
Latino Left Decimated
There was once a powerful postwar left in the country's Chicano
communities. With searing relevance for the present, Zaragosa Vargas
tells the story of how that left was wiped out.
Throughout the Southwest, the left-wing Union of Mine Mill and
Smelter Workers was a bastion of support for Mexican families and
mine workers. The legendary film "Salt of the Earth" portrayed the
union's support for Mexican families in the infamous Empire Mining
strike in Bayard, New Mexico and the leading role of women in that struggle.
In the larger community, Communist organizers built the National
Association of Mexican Americans (ANMA). That organization attributed
the evils of racism that afflicted the Mexican community to
capitalism; it denounced militarism and the Korean War and fought for
Fair Employment Practices codes. At its peak it had 4000 male and
Supported by the organizational strength of the Mine-Mill and
Furniture Workers' Unions, ANMA forged alliances with the Progressive
Citizens of America (forerunner to the Progressive Party), the Civil
Rights Congress and similar groups in the left orbit.
But the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act undermined progressive unionism as a
civil rights vehicle, wounding the fight for fair employment clauses.
Also, ANMA's stand on racism, peace, labor and deportations caught
the attention of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. A
steady pattern of government attack unfolded.
The McCarran-Walter Act brought widespread threats of
denaturalization, stripping the Mexican rights movement of some of
its most capable activists through deportation. The Smith Act
targeted Mexican American Communists in Denver, singling out Chicana
leader Anna Correa-Bary. The red scare drove scores of Mexican
Americans out of left organizations.
The most devastating blow was "Operation Wetback" and subsequent
"Operation Terror," which foisted collective punishment on Mexican
families and drove more than one million undocumented Mexicans out of
the country. Anticommunism and "foreign subversion" became essential
ideological weapons in the deportation frenzy.
While ANMA was shattered, elements of continuity were manifested in
the emerging establishment-oriented Community Service Organization
(CSO) that engaged in legal battles against segregated schools and
deportations. One element that survived the destruction of the left
was efforts by Mexican organizations to ally with African Americans
to fight school segregation and other forms of discrimination.
As the '60s dawned, there was only faint awareness of the efforts of
Communists that give birth to the ANMA. Yet, Vargas insists, the
virtually forgotten chapter demonstrates the potential for building
progressive workers' power among Mexican Americans: "Indeed, the far
reaching revolution launched by Mexican Americans was built upon the
foundation established by the class conscious activists of the
postwar years and their brave stand for meaningful social and economic change."
Anticommunism and the African American Movement is a valuable source
for scholars, activists and all who work for a just world. It is
deeply instructive to learn of past efforts to forge democratic
change, to learn the price of rupture of those efforts and to grasp
the elements of continuity that enrich activism today.
The book is a foundation for additional study of how a besieged left
continued to fight racial injustice during the Cold War years by
demanding justice for African Americans trapped in a racist legal
system Willie McGee, the "Martinsville (Virginia) Seven," the
"Trenton (New Jersey) Six," and others. One ends with the hope that
the publisher will produce a paperback edition of this outrageously
priced book so that its vital content will be available to a much