Peace, Freedom and McCarthyism
— Mark Solomon
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 mainstream politics.
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 female members.
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 larger public.
ATC 147, July-August 2010