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Communism and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1930s

Jessica Barrick

Jessie Barrick (class of 2014) is from Hillsborough, North Carolina. She has not declared her major yet but plans to pursue her study of physics and Spanish. Jessie’s interest in the relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and Communism arose after reading Richard Wright’s novel Native Son in the eleventh grade. Her essay was written for Professor Wertheimer’s History 142: U.S. History since 1877.

Although the Cold War has ended and the fear of communism has (for the most part) subsided, communism remains a stigma in the minds of many Americans. The fear of communism became a nationwide obsession known as the Red Scare during two periods: one lasting only a few years after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917; the other arising after World War II and precipitating the Cold War. While communism was certainly a more prominent issue during those two time periods than any other in U.S. history, it did not disappear in the intervening time. The economic crisis was the predominant problem facing the United States in the 1930s, but noteworthy developments in communist policy also occurred during this decade. Studying the policies of the Communist Party of America (CPUSA) in the 1930s can provide significant insight into post-WWII communism as well as the formation of the unified Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s.

The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott marks the beginning of the unified Civil Rights Movement in the United States, but the Communist Party helped lay the foundations of the movement in the 1930s through their efforts to reach out to the black community and include them in Party activities. As the only left-wing party to espouse ideas of complete racial equality, the Communist Part began in the 1930s to join the fight for racial equality in trade union membership and the right to self-determination for African-Americans.1 When the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) convened in 1928, the members passed the 1928 Comintern Resolution on the Negro Question in the United States, which called for the recognition of the “black-belt” in the southeastern United States as a legitimate, independent nation with the right to self-rule.2 Additionally, the Comintern’s resolution required the CPUSA to “make every effort to draw Negro proletarians into active and leading work in the Party, not confining the activities of the Negro comrades exclusively to the work among Negroes.”3 The CPUSA was thus forced to integrate every aspect of its activities from trade union meetings to dances even to interracial marriages among members.4

This commitment to racial equality attracted a significant black constituency, as the Comintern hoped it would. Historian Mark Naison described the reaction of the black community by saying, “Although blacks of a nationalist bent found some Communist tactics objectionable, many Afro-American leaders were deeply impressed by the fervor and seriousness with which the Communists challenged long-standing racial barriers.”5 While Naison’s statement may be true, it does not explain why some non-nationalist black figures such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright either never joined the CPUSA, despite believing in communist tenets, or broke with the Party after only a few years. Rather than attracting certain politically-minded blacks and repelling others, the Communist Party gained and lost members frequently during the 1930s; blacks were first impressed with the CPUSA’s desire to work alongside blacks but then later grew disenchanted with the undemocratic restrictions and aversion to black solidarity within the Communist Party.6

The 1955 Montgomery bus boycott marks the beginning of the unified Civil Rights Movement in the United States, but the Communist Party helped lay the foundations of the movement in the 1930s through their efforts to reach out to the black community and include them in Party activities.

Initially, the CPUSA was attractive to many prominent figures in the Harlem Renaissance, as Naison explains, simply because it advocated racial equality, unlike the Republican, Democrat, or even Socialist Party. Claude McKay, a famous Harlem Renaissance poet and member of the CPUSA21-200x300 Communism and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1930sCommunist Party, criticizes the non-communist blacks who accept the leadership of white Republicans or Socialists when he argues, “the Negro Communist will see that in his theories he is far ahead of the masses of his own race and also the pretty bourgeois Negro intelligentia and white liberal reformers who are the voice of the Negro masses.”7 Like many black communists, McKay was attracted to the idea of the common black person fighting for his or her own rights and voicing her or her own opinions without having to rely on wealthier blacks or liberal whites to do it for him.

While McKay remained a Communist throughout his career, many black leaders, wary of a possible hidden agenda, were suspicious of the CPUSA from the start and eventually left the Party after using its resources and organization to advance the emerging Civil Rights Movement.8 Prior to the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, there was little–if any–widespread organization among black civil rights activists. By allowing blacks a place in organizing Communist Party activities or equal rights demonstrations, the CPUSA made possible the emergence of influential black leaders who would replace white liberals as the driving force behind the equal rights movement. Congressman Hamilton Fish III, a staunch anti-communist, declared in a 1928 article in the black newspaper the Chicago Defender, “The destiny of Colored people is not in white leadership, but in your own leadership.”9 Somewhat ironically, Fish agrees with McKay and other black communists who felt that white leadership of the Civil Rights Movement was not as effective as black leadership might be. Richard Wright, an influential Harlem Renaissance writer, argued that blacks were “divided, hopeless, corrupted, misled” and that “the communist method of unity had been found historically to be the only means of achieving discipline.”10

Despite being wary of the Communist party’s true intentions, black leaders recognized the potential the Party offered through their established infrastructure and media outlets. One area in particular in which the black Civil Rights movement benefited from the organization and resources of the Communist Party was its entrance into labor unions. Previous to the 1928 Comintern Resolution, blacks were kept from national trade unions by the discriminatory American Federations of Labor. The 1928 Resolution listed as a primary objective “a merciless struggle against the AFL [American Federation of Labor] bureaucracy, which prevents the Negro workers from joining the white workers’ unions.”11 Through the subsequent work of the CPUSA, interracial trade unions were established which not only took a step toward equal working conditions and compensation but allowed blacks to elevate their status as leaders in the emerging civil rights movement. Historian Oscar Berland goes so far as to say that the entry of black leaders into northern industry led black leaders to “assume hegemony of Negro liberation movements.”12

While the CPUSA was initially attractive to many blacks in the 1930s, several key party policies led to the disillusionment of many, resulting in a flow of blacks into and out of the Party throughout the decade. Some black leaders worried that by claiming blacks were the most oppressed group in the U.S. (and therefore the most willing to give up everything for public ownership) Communists were saying that blacks had no stake in their own land and no reason to fight for political equality. Walter White, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), warned in an article appearing in a 1931 Wichita, Kansas Negro Star that “The Communists are therefore making strenuous CPUSA21-200x300 Communism and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1930sefforts to convince the Negro that he has no stake in his own land.”13 And, indeed, some of the policies of the CPUSA seemed to indicate that the Party favored black cooperation with the Party’s policies rather than black solidarity and political equality.

The CPUSA’s aversion to black solidarity became a major source of tension with its black constituency.14 While the 1928 Comintern resolution did require the integration of blacks into Party activity, the 1930 Comintern Resolution on the Negro Question in the United States advised the CPUSA against fostering any exclusively black organizations and instead to focus on bringing blacks into the established party groups.15 Historian Susan Campbell argues that the 1928 and 1930 Comintern Resolutions demonstrate the respect and egalitarianism with which the Communist Party treated the blacks in the United States, and that simply “to accord such respect has important immediate and continuing benefits.”16 However, the Party lost membership among blacks who preferred black-founded and black-run organizations.

Two notable examples of black solidarity movements that were widely supported by the black community, especially in the north, were Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” campaign and the Harlem Renaissance. Garvey, one of the Communist Party’s primary opponents, advocated black pride and unity through his creation of the Black Star Line shipping company to carry African-Americans to the western coast of Africa, where he proposed they establish an independent nation. Garvey’s all-black movement and belief in black leadership was better received by the black community than was the Communist Party because Garvey’s African pride displayed more respect for African-Americans than the Party’s insistence on white participation in every activity.17 In a similar though less specific vein, Harlem Renaissance artists such as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay celebrated black culture and pride. Many of these artists were at one point affiliated with the CPUSA, but eventually were disenfranchised with the Party’s lack of support for black cultural expression.

One such case was that of Richard Wright, who was first attracted to the Party by the John Reed Clubs, communist organizations that patronized black writers and artists. Initially finding in them a willing publisher for his radical and provocative works, Wright later grew tired of the restrictions placed on his writing by the Party, which tried to shape his writing around the ideas they wanted presented to the black community.18 Even though Wright believed in communist ideals, he left the Party officially in 1944, after being pressured to drop his current project and move to the Soviet Union. Wright tellingly explains his decision by saying: “No ideological differences impel me to say this. I simply do not wish to be bound any longer by the Party’s decisions.”19 Wright was not alone in his decision to leave the Party due to restrictions, nor were the restrictions limited to the messages of Harlem Renaissance writers.

Many blacks began to realize the true price they were paying for their membership in the Communist Party; while the Party did propose to extend to blacks certain rights denied to them by the U.S. government, several basic rights afforded them by the Constitution (such as freedom of speech) were restricted by the CPUSA. Frank Crosswaith, editor of the black newspaper Plaindealer (Wichita, Kansas) , warned his readers in 1930 that, “It is a cardinal tenet of Communist creed to deny to all who differ from them the right to a differing opinion.20 Harlem journalists recognized the hypocrisy of the Party’s committment to racial equality, while in the Soviet Union, Stalin allowed no dissention or criticism of any kind.21

When forced to weigh the benefits of communism against those of democracy, many blacks opted for the latter. As early as 1930, black journalists were advocating democracy over communism as a mean for attaining racial equality. In a 1930 newspaper article, Crosswaith appealed to his readers’ sense of reason and argues that the “instruments for the complete realization of democracy have already been developed and passed down to us by preceding generations.”22 In effect, he urges his readers to have patience with democracy which does not promise immediate relief from segregation and discrimination but which promises to eventually arrive through peaceful, democratic means as an answer whereas communism is certain to lead to oppressive, totalitarian rule under which no one has the same rights now enjoyed. Because the communist ideals sounded so appealing in theory to oppressed people desperate for change, he futher warns that communism is “to the Negro in particular and the working class generally a menace.”23

Additionally, black journalists pointed out that communism offered little in the way of viable solutions to the alleged ills of capitalism.24 Crosswaith recognized that all of the constructive programs that the Communist party implemented arose when the Party abandoned its own doctrine in favor of socialist policies. In fact, the Communist Party of America initially showed very little interest in civil rights just like the Socialist Party. Not until after the Comintern imposed its 1928 Resolution on the CPUSA did the Party begin to consider race relations in the U.S.25 The Comintern recognized in the working-class blacks of the South an unharnessed resource to be used in the proletarian fight. The 1928 Resolution marked a shift to the “class against class” period in the Party’s history.26 The Resolution provides the following reason for advocating racial equality: “The Negro workers must be organized under the leadership of the Communist party, and thrown into joint struggle together with the white workers.”27 The Comintern saw its chance to increase its numbers in the United States by persuading black workers to join in the working-class struggle being waged by the communists.

Much like other political entities, the Communist Party had its own agenda to run and tried to attract as many supporters as possible. Without doubt, the CPUSA was revolutionary in its commitment to racial equality and in laying the groundwork for the unification of the Civil Rights Movement into the organized and effective movement it became in the 1950s. Without the Party’s organizational infrastructure and unifying doctrines, the Civil Rights Movement may never have attained the influence it did. However, the restrictions of basic rights and aversion to black solidarity prevented it from retaining many of the black members it initially attracted.

Bibliography

“America Must Be Just to Negro or Face Communism Says Walter White,” Negro Star [Wichita, Kansas]. July 17, 1931.

Berland, Oscar. “The Emergence of the Communist Perspective on the ‘Negro Question’ in America: 1919-1931: Part Two.” Science and Society 64, no. 2 (Summer 2000) 194-217.

Campbell, Susan. “‘Black Bolsheviks’ and Recognition of African-America’s Right to Self-Determination by the Communist Party USA.” Science and Society 58, no. 4 (Winter 1994/1995): 440-470.

Crosswaith, Frank. “Communism and the Negro.” Plaindealer [Topeka, Kansas]. May 23, 1930: 1.

“Harlem Needs Leaders.” Chicago Defender February 18, 1928.

McKay, Cluade. The Negroes in America Translated by Robert Winter. New York: National University Publications, 1979.

Naison, Mark. “Historical Notes on Blacks and American Communism: The Harlem Experience.” Science & Society 42, no. 3 (Fall 1978): 324-343.

“The 1928 and 1930 Comintern Resolutions on the Black National Question in the United States.” In From Mark to Mao, edited by David Romagnolo. Washington, D.C.: Revolutionary Review Press, 1975.

Wright, Richard. “I Tried to Be a Communist.” Atlantic Monthly 174, no. 3 (September 1944): 48-56.

  1. Mark Naison. “Historical Notes on Blacks and American Communism: The Harlem Experience,” Science and Society 42, no. 3 (1978): 324. []
  2. “The 1928 and 1930 Comintern Resolutions on the Black National Question in the United States,” in From Marx to Mao, ed. David Romagnolo (Revolutionary Review Press, 1975). []
  3. “The 1928 and 1930 Comintern Resolutions on the Black National Question in the United States.” []
  4. Naison, “Historical Notes,” 325. []
  5. Naison, 325. []
  6. Naison, 327. []
  7. Claude McKay. The Negroes in America, trans. Robert Winter (New York: National University Publications, 1979), 89. []
  8. Naison, 329. []
  9. “Harlem Needs Leaders.” Chicago Defender, February 18, 1928. []
  10. Richard Wright. “I Tried to Be a Communist,” Atlantic Monthly 174, no. 3 (September 1944): 48. []
  11. “The 1928 and 1930 Comintern Resolutions on the Black National Question in the United States.” []
  12. Oscar Berland, “The Emergence of the Communist Perspective on the ‘Negro Question’ in America: 1919-1930: Part Two,” Science and Society 64, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 202. []
  13. “America Must Be Just to Negro or Face Communism Says Walter White,” Negro Star, July 17, 1931. []
  14. Naison, “Historical Notes,” 337. []
  15. Naison, “Historical Notes,” 334. []
  16. Susan Campbell, “‘Black Bolsheviks’ and Recognition of African-American’s Right to Self-Determination by the Communist Party USA,” Science and Society 58, no. 4 (Winter 1994/1995): 445. []
  17. Naison, “Historical Notes,” 342. []
  18. Wright, “I Tried to Be a Communist,” 48. []
  19. Wright, “I Tried to Be a Communist,” 51. []
  20. Frank Crosswaith, “Communism and the Negro,” Plaindealer (Topeka, Kansas), May 23, 1930. []
  21. Naison, “Historical Notes,” 341. []
  22. Crosswaith, “Communism and the Negro”. []
  23. Crosswaith, “Communism and the Negro.” []
  24. Crosswaith, “Communism and the Negro.” []
  25. Berland, “The Emergence of the Communist Perspective,” 195. []
  26. Campbell, “‘Black Bolsheviks’,” 441. []
  27. “The 1928 and 1930 Comintern Resolutions on the Black National Question in the United States.” []
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