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Organizing against racism during the Great Depression
Communists in Harlem

February 24, 2006 | Page 12

WITH THE republication of Mark Naison's book Communists in Harlem During the Depression (University of Illinois Press, 2005), a new generation of socialists will have the opportunity to learn the lessons of Communist Party's (CP) antiracist organizing in the 1930s. ADAM TURL explains why the CP's successes, and mistakes, are important today.

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THE RESPONSE to Hurricane Katrina exposed once again the rampant racism at the heart of U.S. society. Racism has been--from slavery to today--the preferred method of the rich and powerful to divide workers and the poor--and revolutionary socialists have been at the center of the fight against it.

Mark Naison's Communists in Harlem During the Depression is invaluable in its documentation of one of the high-water marks in that history--when the Communist Party led some of the largest and most important struggles against racism prior to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and built a multiracial party with thousands of Black members.

The CP had been expelled from the old Socialist Party (SP) for supporting the Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution in 1917. The SP was a broad church: In its ranks were revolutionaries like Eugene Debs, who picketed the racist movie Birth of a Nation and refused to speak to segregated audiences. But the party also included those who didn't aim to overthrow the capitalist system, and among them were, in some cases, out-and-out racists.

The left of the SP, while opposing racism, thought it needed to appeal to workers simply on their common class interests, failing to see the need to build a specific fight against racism. They brought this mistaken approach with them into the new CP. In the early 1920s, the CP had only a few thousand members, mainly immigrant workers, a smaller group of U.S. born radicals and very few Black members.

But the arguments of the Russian revolutionaries transformed the CP, so that by the late 1920s, the party saw fighting racism as central to the fight for socialism.

The Russian revolutionary Lenin had argued that oppressed nations in the Russian Empire had the "right to self-determination," and only by being the "tribune of the oppressed"--and fighting against any and every instance of injustice--could socialists both defeat the racism and nationalism that divided them, and build a united workers movement to overthrow capitalism.

By the end of the 1920s, Stalinism had already disfigured the Communist movement, including a wholesale retreat from self-determination for the oppressed nationalities of Russia. Nevertheless, the American party was able to attract and win over a small layer of committed Black revolutionaries, like the small left-nationalist African Blood Brotherhood.

In 1928, the Communist International issued a proclamation that Blacks in the U.S. were a distinct nation, with the right to self-determination. It developed the "Black Belt Theory," which demanded that an area in the U.S. South, with a concentrated Black population, be given the right to secede.

No Black organizations or activists in the U.S. had ever made such a demand. And it didn't match reality on the ground--a growing number of Blacks were moving into the Southern and Northern cities. In the early 1930s, Communists were also burdened by the Comintern's "Third Period" policies--which claimed that revolution was imminent.

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WHEN THE depression struck in 1929, it hit Harlem especially hard. During the 1920s "Harlem Renaissance," there was an important but small Black middle class, but it was almost wiped out by the depression. For workers, mostly in lower-paid service jobs, it was even worse: Unemployment skyrocketed, and Harlem's churches were serving thousands of free meals each day.

The CP organized the "Upper Harlem Council of the Unemployed," and a nationwide day of action against unemployment brought 500,000 into the streets. Mass protests in New York's Union Square and direct actions to stop evictions helped build up the core of Harlem communists. When one Black activist was arrested and sentenced to six months in jail, hundreds--Black and white--demonstrated in front of the judge's house.

As Naison writes, "The willingness of so many white Communists to endure arrests and beatings to protect a Black comrade gave Communist arguments in behalf of interracial solidarity a new logic and concreteness."

The CP constantly aimed to build multiracial movements against racism. When boycotts were organized in Harlem against racist storeowners that refused to hire Blacks, the CP argued that one of the demands should be that no current workers be let go.

While some Black nationalists pursued an anti-immigrant campaign against Italian shopkeepers, the CP organized protests with Black and Italian workers against Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia.

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WHAT REALLY put the Communist Party on Harlem's political map was the years-long campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys--nine young Black men charged in 1931 with raping two white women on an Alabama freight train. They were tried, convicted and sentenced to death in just two weeks despite the fact that there was no evidence against them.

The CP's International Labor Defense (ILD) took up the case, organizing with the defendants and their parents both a solid legal defense and a national protest campaign.

Opinions about the case among the Black population split along class lines. The NAACP was initially reluctant to take it up, afraid to be associated with nine men accused of rape. Millions of ordinary Black people, however, were outraged.

Across the country, the CP organized protests in defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Protests and meetings around the case were, at first, mostly attended by white party members and the smaller number of Black communists.

But the movement began to snowball, leading to large protests around the country--including an interracial march of thousands through the streets of Harlem. The struggle helped bring hundreds of Harlemites into the party.

Communist influence in Harlem spread into cultural and social life as well. The party recruited the poet Langston Hughes and held fundraisers for the Scottsboro Boys with such figures as the singer Billie Holiday, who recorded the song "Strange Fruit," which was written by a member of the CP about lynching in the South.

At the same time, the Scottsboro campaign, like much of the party's work in the early 1930s, was undermined by the ultra-left "Third Period" line. So when the prominent liberal attorney Clarence Darrow volunteered to defend the Scottsboro Boys, the party said that he could only do so if he denounced the NAACP--which he, of course, refused to do.

This sectarian attitude began to change, but it wasn't because the party came to its senses. Stalin shifted course after Hitler came to power in Germany. In order to placate Western governments, he instituted a "Popular Front" policy--of uncritical alliances with those who had just recently been denounced as "social fascists."

In the U.S., that included not just other socialists, but Democrats like President Franklin Roosevelt, who opposed anti-lynching legislation in Congress because of his ties to the Southern "Dixiecrats" who upheld Jim Crow racism. The CP supported the Second World War, despite segregation in the armed services, supported the wartime "no-strike" pledge, and even supported the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast.

This has led some to argue that the Marxist project of building a multiracial party and movement won't work. But that misses two things.

What the CP did accomplish in the 1930s--in building struggles against racism and organizing unions of Black and white workers together--shows the potential to build a multiracial movement and party.

Secondly, when the CP abandoned its principled fight against racism, it did so after first abandoning Marxism. When the CP abandoned Black workers, it abandoned workers in general--including white workers.

Communists in Harlem During the Depression provides a new generation of socialists with lessons that can help build today's struggles--and create a political alternative, so that the next historic opportunity, when it comes, will not be lost.

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