Communists in Harlem first came out in 1983. What spurred you to write it?
I was very involved in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the late 1960s and the whole approach of the Communist Party to the ‘Negro question’ was something that different groups in SDS were using to justify or explain their own understanding of race in America in that pretty tumultuous era. They used the communist approach particularly to justify how they would deal with organisations like the Black Panthers or black student unions on college campuses.
The only Marxist organisation in the United States that had really dealt with race in a systematic way that had resonance to us was the Communist Party. So I started reading about the various communist positions on the ‘Negro question’, and was fascinated in particular at how the communists saw black nationalism as an impulse that could either have revolutionary or reactionary implications in practice. I thought it was a very interesting way of thinking about African American autonomist political activism.
I should also say I was involved in an interracial relationship at that time, and I knew that the Communist Party was a site where interracial marriage and interracial sociability were welcomed. And so that was another aspect of the communist experience with race that intrigued me.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s the movement in the US was by and large racially bifurcated and really didn’t know quite what to do with mixed race couples or mixed race sociability. Some more nationalist organisations opposed this. Others just ignored the question nervously. I didn’t see anyone who had a systematic view of interracial sociability – nothing comparable to the Communist Party in the 1930s or 1940s. This was also something that intrigued me.
When Communists in Harlem came out in England it was a revelation to many of us – we didn’t know about this period in US history. Did it have that impact in America?
It wasn’t that much of a revelation in the US because people were quoting Communist resolutions on the ‘Negro question’ by 1969. A lot of former communists were involved as advisers to organisations like the Black Panthers and to various wings of SDS, and there were also organisations like Progressive Labour, which was a left split from the Communist Party. There were groups like the Socialist Workers Party [US] and various Trotskyist organisations that were also somewhat aware of this history. And there were still people who were advising students and revolutionary organisations who went back to the 1930s.
So there was an organic link between the Communist Party in the 1930s and the civil rights movement?
Absolutely. It’s very interesting. One of my colleagues is writing a dissertation on the history of the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (Core) – which was the most militant and probably the most effective northern chapter. Several of the key cadre in Brooklyn Core had come out of the Communist Party. And one of them had come out of the Communist Party in Harlem.
So there were definitely a lot of former communists behind the scenes in the civil rights movement. And of course many of Dr King’s advisers had come out of the Communist Party – from Bayard Rustin, who had come from Harlem, to Stanley Levinson. You scratch a civil rights organiser and you’re very likely to find an ex-communist or the child of an ex-communist. The Red Diaper babies, as we call them, were central to the civil rights movement.
There were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who had come through this party and its allied organisations between 1929 and 1955. And one of the formative experiences of being a communist was thinking very seriously about race in America and seeing racism as something that everyone had to fight to achieve any kind of social progress.
The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia acted to attract key black nationalists over to communist politics, didn’t it? They then went on to lay the ground for the success of the Communist Party in Harlem.
The Communist International took an openly anti-imperialist position and talked about an alliance between the colonial revolutionaries and the working classes in the industrialised capitalist nations as what was needed to overthrow capitalism. Also there were people in the Communist International who saw the black movement in the US as a kind of anti-imperialist force that would help the American working class movement as a whole.
The Communist International was far in advance of American communists and most American socialists. The US movement did not have a very impressive record of reaching out to African Americans or openly challenging racial discrimination and segregation.
The US is a profoundly racist society where immigrant groups quickly realise that their status is to be achieved by separating themselves as far as they can from African Americans. The socialist movement in America was very heavily rooted in recent immigrants and they were beginning to adopt the chauvinist attitudes that were part of the process of Americanisation.
So it took the Communist International – a movement that was really shaped by a larger ideological and political dynamic – to say you must constitute yourselves into a militant anti-racist force. That did not come from within the American Communist Party initially.
Black radicals were not only impressed by what was going on with the non-European Soviet nationalities, they were also very impressed that they met revolutionaries from China, from Africa, from South America. It was such a different environment from the US where black intellectuals were isolated, ostracised and quarantined. They couldn’t teach at major universities; they weren’t invited to professional conferences; they couldn’t even sit in the same section of most theatres as whites. The colour line was drawn unbelievably and what you saw in the Soviet Union was the colour line being trampled on.
One of the policies that came out of the Communist International was on the ‘Black Belt’ theory. Can you explain what that was and the effect it had on the Communist operation in the US?
The resolution on the Black Belt was part of a resolution on the ‘Negro question’, one part of which had the concept of a Negro nation in embryo that existed in a portion of the Southern United States.
The idea was that there was a group of majority black counties across a large section of the South where you had the nucleus of a black nation. The Communist International said that this nation in embryo should be acknowledged and should be extended the right of self-determination up to secession under a Communist government.
This was consciously designed to appeal to people who were in the Marcus Garvey movement and to take those nationalists away from the focus on ‘Back to Africa’, and at the same time to promote communist organising in the South.
But there were other portions of the same resolution that emphasised that in the rest of the country it was the responsibility of communists to fight for complete integration of all institutions. There is this memorable phrase, ‘To fight white chauvinism everywhere – including in the communist movement.’
So even though the call for self-determination was the most dramatic and innovative portion of the resolution, what had the most day to day impact was the idea that it was the responsibility of every communist, especially white communists, to fight racism wherever they found it – including in the communist movement, and including in the ethnic fraternal associations associated with it.
The majority of communists at this time were non English speaking immigrants. They had social clubs, cafeterias, meeting rooms, occasionally gymnasiums and bathhouses, and the idea was that all of those places had to be open to African Americans. It was not just that a communist was supposed to fight racism at the workplace. The communist was supposed to fight racism everywhere and to promote the closest fraternisation of black and white everywhere.
This was the only element in American society that was trying to desegregate and fight racism in a thoroughgoing way.
Yes. It meant people eating together, playing sports together, going to the theatre together and also dating and marrying one another and raising families together.
The Communist Party decided to dramatise its rather unique willingness to challenge taboos. They sponsored interracial dances in Harlem with Duke Ellington playing. You see, in America there were many whites that were liberal or socialists who would say, ‘I support equal rights but I draw the line at social equality. I don’t support intermarriage or dating, or blacks and whites socialising together.’
In the South interracial socialising was the major rationale for lynching. It was the prospect of black men and white women linking up together that drove the South into a lynching frenzy. That was what the Scottsboro case was about – they found two white women in a freight car with nine young black men and that was tantamount to a lynchable offence.
In 1931 the Communist Party in Harlem actually dramatised this commitment by putting a white comrade who had been chauvinist on trial, didn’t it?
There was a small Finnish community in Harlem and they had a Finnish workers’ hall. The janitor, August Yokinen, objected to blacks coming to dances because he said they would then want to use the sauna and the bathhouse and he for one didn’t want to bathe with Negroes. So the Communist Party decided to put him ‘on trial’ in front of 2,000 people in Harlem for white chauvinism.
He was prosecuted by a white Communist and was defended by the great black Communist orator Richard B Moore. One of the phrases Moore used when arguing he should be re-educated, not expelled from the party, was, ‘I would rather have my head severed from my body by the capitalist lynchers than to be expelled in disgrace from the Communist International.’
There were some very dramatic phrases that came out of the anti-racist activism of the Communist Party. My favourite, which I believe has certain validity today, is, ‘It is the duty of the white workers to jump at the throat of any person who strikes a Negro in the face, who persecutes a Negro.’ That phrase symbolised the moral imperative to fight racism on the part of white communists.
It was the duty of black communists to fight racism, and to show that whites could be trusted by their black brethren – that there can be no interracial solidarity unless the communists of the majority and oppressor group prove themselves willing to fight racism.
How did people react to this call for interracialism?
There were a whole group of young white communists who responded to this, not so much the old immigrants, but the children of these immigrants.
This was a new form of abolitionism. And these young people sensed that there was something here that was profound and powerful. It also helped that this younger generation had been brought up on jazz and had a certain exposure to African American culture and music.
A group of younger whites seized on this moral imperative to fight racism and really took it very seriously and made the policy worthwhile. They were at times willing to put their lives on the line for it – like going down south to organise, to put back furniture of black tenants who had been evicted or marching for the Scottsboro Boys in mass demonstrations.
When I interviewed them when they were older they said this was the part of the communist experience that was most authentic and lasting and profound. You were doing something that no one else in America was willing to do.
There was also a response among some blacks. If you go through your life thinking that no white people can be trusted in a country where you are 15 percent of the population, your prospects are very grim.
So the very idea that there were whites you could work with was, I think, liberating and empowering to some blacks. It made them think that their options were greater. It made them feel more willing to take more aggressive action against racism. They realised they weren’t alone.
I think this policy was a profoundly dynamic and effective one. Not that there weren’t moments of foolishness, awkwardness and occasionally serious problems of how the line was implemented, but having white communists seeing fighting racism as a precondition of their revolutionary political mission was in my mind the greatest contribution the Communist Party made to American life.
How did the CP grow in Harlem from the late 1920s?
It was the Great Depression that really opened the path. So many people in Harlem lost their jobs and their apartments. Communists had very practical responses to both of those things. They held hunger marches to demand that the government appropriate funds for relief. They also at times marched on charities and made them give up more food than they were initially willing to do. Communists moved back the furniture of tenants who were evicted for non-payment of rent. That kept people in their apartments for at least a longer period of time than they would otherwise have been there.
So the Communist unemployed councils really captured the attention of a lot of people in Harlem who were in desperate circumstances.
The Communist Party’s high profile mass campaign over the Scottsboro case – where a group of young black men were falsely accused of raping two young white women – also helped build its reputation, didn’t it?
In 1931 you had 5,000 white communists marching through Harlem chanting, ‘Free the Scottsboro Boys – end lynching.’ Harlem’s response was, ‘What the hell is going on here! This is a new world. Maybe this idea of black and white uniting has something for us. There are people who are fighting for our day to day economic rights and our long term status in America. And a good many of them are white, and some of them are black. Maybe we should look into this.’
The Scottsboro Boys campaign had a huge impact. Most of the people who lived in Harlem had come from the South. That nine young black men could be sentenced to death for just being in a railroad car with white women touched the core of a lot of people – it was a symptom of everything wrong with race in America.
It was also the fact that the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) was reluctant to advocate for these young men, because they were kind of tough working class and illiterate. It’s like the Montgomery Bus Boycott – many other people had experienced what Rosa Parks had, but the NAACP waited until a person of unassailable reputation had been arrested to choose as the symbol of the movement.
What makes the Communists’ success even more significant was that it wasn’t the case that they had no political rivals inside Harlem – there were the Garveyites, the NAACP, other black nationalist organisations, the churches.
The one thing that the Communist Party used that none of those organisations did was mass action and confrontational protests. If you are an isolated, persecuted minority, with no serious allies, confronting racism directly seems to be a very risky strategy. Nobody could be more militant rhetorically than the Garvey movement – but they didn’t hold sit-ins and picket white institutions.
The Communist Party was the only organisation that was going to put back the furniture of a family that was evicted. An African American church might have a soup kitchen for hungry families, but they weren’t going to sit in at the Salvation Army. They weren’t going to lead a hunger march on City Hall demanding more relief. And that was what was unique about the Communists – they used protest strategies that involved marches and demonstrations and sit-ins that led to their members getting arrested. The Communist Party was willing to break the law.
What did Harlemites think of the CP at the time? What did they say about them?
They would think that they were crazy, they were strange, but they were glad to have them on side.
The language that the Communist Party used was not something that people necessarily responded to – the rhetoric about the proletariat and the revolution is not part of the vocabulary of African American protest. Militant secularism and sometimes hostility to religion was part of the Communists’ doctrine, especially in the early 1930s. There were a lot of things that seemed odd and unfamiliar.
I think the interracialism of the Communist Party made people wary, but on the other hand there were a lot of people in Harlem who were glad that the Communists were there.
The Communist Party in Harlem grew spectacularly in the 1930s, didn’t it?
Yes, from 50 people in 1929 to several thousand by the end of the Depression. Most of them were recruited out of a particular local activity. You had mass organisations like International Labour Defence (ILD) in the Scottsboro Case; the unemployed had the unemployed councils; later you had the American League Against War and Fascism; you had different trade units, organisations that dealt with cultural issues. People were recruited out of these. It was an effective tactic.
Once they realised how important Harlem was for setting the tone for what was going on politically for the rest of the black community in the US the Communist Party sent a lot of talented people into Harlem.
I don’t think that the same expertise went to every black community. They actually called it a ‘national concentration point’. They brought in James Ford, Abner Berry, Harry Heywood and Richard Wright from Chicago to work on the Daily Worker. They decided to send the best African American organisers to Harlem.
How did the Communist Party in Harlem relate to the many religious groups?
Initially they were hostile to the black church. The terms they used were ‘sky pilots’ – religion was ‘the opium of the people’ and ministers were agents of the ruling class to keep people focused on ‘pie in the sky when you die’ rather than their rights on Earth.
Also some of the first communist leaders in Harlem were West Indians, who didn’t have the same element of religious leadership in their community, so there was no particular affection for or sympathy towards African American religious institutions as expressions of popular resistance or at least survival.
It was the Scottsboro struggle that made some communists take a second look at the African American church, because a lot of religious leaders in Harlem responded positively to the way the communists went to the defence of the Scottsboro Boys.
So here you have a problem, namely that the people you have been attacking and denouncing are coming out in support of you – and there was a division among the communist leaders in Harlem over how to handle it. Some said, ‘Okay, even though “the party line” certainly does not really allow for formal alliances between black churches and communist organisations, maybe we need to make an exception here in Harlem because a lot of the ministers are not behaving in an expected fashion.’ Others said, ‘This is what the doctrine says and we should do it.’
I think there was a real tension starting around 1932 on how to deal with the churches. But with the rise of Hitler, first the United Front and then the Popular Front policies gave more influence to the leaders in the Harlem Communist Party who wanted to work with the black churches. By 1936 black ministers were allied with communists on a wide variety of issues including improving education and healthcare, fighting police brutality and organising against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.
A highpoint for me was when in 1935 Italian and black Communists staged a huge march together through Harlem to protest at Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia.
You had the Italian Communists marching through Harlem shouting ‘Down with Mussolini!’ That was what the Communist Party could do at its best – it could show white communists from an oppressor nation identifying with the oppressed. That’s the kind of thing that made people who were Garveyites join the Communist Party – which did happen.
Did religious people ever join the Communist Party?
People who were religious might have had a hard time in the Communist Party because I think this was to a large degree an alliance of convenience – it didn’t change the kind of political education that took place within the party. A religious person wouldn’t have much problem being in the American League Against War and Fascism but being in the Communist Party and going to cadre training – you weren’t going to see much religion! I think that religious people tended not to stay in the party for very long.
How did the Communist Party relate to the extreme zigzags of policy that came out of Moscow with the rise of Stalin? Reading your book, it seems that the CP in Harlem continued to grow.
Even though aspects of the line changed, the idea that fighting racism was a central portion of the mission of American Communists never wavered. That was a constant. Your position on certain questions might change, but the fundamental necessity of fighting racism or studying black history or respecting and promoting the African American contribution to American culture – those things didn’t waver.
That’s one of the threads of continuity that allowed people to remain in this movement for as long as they did, at least until the outside forces made it so difficult to be a Communist that you were risking your life, career and family for doing it.
Culture and history was central to the Communists in Harlem, wasn’t it? They turned racism on its head by championing the centrality of African American culture.
Whatever is authentic and powerful and unifying in American culture is directly connected to the African American cultural contribution, the concept that there is no real American nation without its African American component. Paul Robeson expressed that most powerfully. Also there is something that people don’t take that seriously perhaps – that the Communist Party from 1935 was fighting for the integration of major league baseball.
The Daily Worker had a highly respected sports page that pounded away at the idea that if the US was going to be a democracy then it couldn’t exclude blacks. Blacks were some of the best players in the game and it was undemocratic and wrong to exclude them.
So the Communist Party in Harlem attracted the musicians, the novelists, the poets and the writers to this movement. And they added an extraordinary vitality. The Communist Party in Harlem was surrounded by the artists of this period – Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Billie Holliday, Teddy Wilson, and Louise Thompson and later Paul Robeson.
Was the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact a devastating blow to the CP in Harlem?
I don’t know how devastating it was in Harlem. It hurt, but it didn’t destroy the Communist Party’s long term influence. In 1943 Benjamin Davis gets elected to New York City Council as a Communist from Harlem.
Some people left, but it was hardly a fatal blow. It was the Cold War that made it extremely difficult and dangerous to be a Communist. And liberals were becoming more willing to fight racism. So firstly the price of being a Communist was higher and secondly by the late 1940s there were more alternatives outside the Communist Party to fighting racism. That made it possible for people to leave without giving up on their anti-racism.
How does this book fit with politics today?
This book reminds us that without radicals and revolutionaries America would still be an officially segregated society. The book honours the contribution they made to challenging a profoundly racist political culture in the United States that not only infected people on the right, but also people on the left.
A society without a revolutionary opposition is a society that is politically stagnant. There was a profound creativity at the grassroots level that opened all sorts of possibilities that people hadn’t thought were there. I guess the book is a reminder that history moves in strange ways. I hope people see it as an optimistic book.
Communists in Harlem During the Depression is published by University of Illinois Press.
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