Prioritizing the anti-racist fight

September 10, 2014

In the second installment of a three-part series on the history of the Workers Party--the forerunner of the Communist Party--and its anti-racist organizing in the 1920s, Todd Chretien discusses how the organization put its theories on opposing racism into practice. Click here to read the first article in the series.

AS THE Workers Party assimilated the Russian Bolsheviks' theory and practice of fighting against national oppression and racism, sharp changes in the communists' publications and activities came into focus. The sheer volume of anti-racist analyses and commentaries, anti-Klan coverage and stories reporting on the lynching of African Americans all indicate the prominence the party placed on opposing racism in the Daily Worker in the mid-1920s, as well as some of its limits.

In the daily's inaugural issue, a prominent Black Communist, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, began a regular column designed to promote the Workers Party's views on racism. While the Daily Worker's Black readership was likely quite limited, it almost certainly caught the attention of Black activists interested in the Workers Party's turn toward civil rights agitation.

In addition to printing Fort-Whiteman's columns, the Daily Worker regularly covered a wide variety of issues concerning African Americans. For example, it attacked the Ku Klux Klan as a threat to working-class unity as well as a specific threat to the African American community. This was critical as the Klan grew dramatically in the years after the First World War, especially in Northern and Midwestern regions where the Workers Party was strongest.

Thousands of members of the Ku Klux Klan marched in Washington, D.C. in 1925
Thousands of members of the Ku Klux Klan marched in Washington, D.C. in 1925

A February 5, 1924, front-page story titled "Vile Klan Film Showing Despite Arrests of Two" reported an attempt to screen The Birth of a Nation in Chicago, calling it a "race hatred picture." The Daily Worker kept up a steady stream of anti-Klan coverage right through the mid-1920s, particularly concentrating on the Klan's effort to repress striking miners and infiltrate the United Mine Workers Union (UMW).

Party journalists reported on the 1924 UMW convention in Indiana, quoting "[s]everal colored delegates [who] took the floor in fiery opposition to the night-riding enemies of their race who are denying all rights to human beings with Black skins." I estimate that the Daily Worker ran over 200 anti-Klan stories, often on the front page, between 1924 and 1927, making the publication a consistent anti-Klan during the heyday of the KKK's power in the north.

Another indication of the party's battle to overcome its pre-Comintern practice shows up in its coverage of racist lynchings, which were rarely mentioned in the early 1920s. This failure was finally corrected on March 11, 1925, in a front-page report on NAACP secretary James Weldon Johnson's petition to President Calvin Coolidge for federal anti-lynching legislation in the wake of a white mob burning a Black man at the stake in Georgia. In July 1925, the Daily Worker published gruesome photos of a lynching with the caption, "another Negro victim of a white mob."

A particularly poignant editorial cartoon on January 28, 1926, depicted the Statue of Liberty as a torch-wielding Klansman holding a knife to the throat of an African American man who is tied to a stake with flames rising up to burn his body. The caption reads, "News Item--A lynching mob at Ocala, Fla. Recently broadcast the agonizing cries of its victim for the benefit of the parasite profiteers who idle away their time in Florida's resorts."

The middle of 1925 seems to be a turning point, and from then on the Daily Worker's editors consistently tracked and protested lynchings in all parts of the country.

Besides exposures of Klan activity and lynchings, the Daily Worker highlighted discrimination in AFL unions, school and residential segregation, and racist police brutality commonly on Daily Worker's front page. These articles were frequently supplemented with editorial and analytical pieces laying out the Communists' views on the racial oppression.

The consistent spotlight on racial injustice showed a clear effort by the Workers Party to educate its membership on questions relevant to African Americans while attempting to engage Black leaders, activists and organizations in a discussion of the relationship between socialism and the fight against racial oppression.

THE WORKERS Party did more than simply report on racism. By the mid-1920s, communists initiated sustained efforts to initiate anti-racist campaigns, both independently and alongside Black and civil rights activists. In 1924, Workers Party activists attended three major African American conferences.

The first of these, the Sanhedrin civil rights conference, taking its name from a Hebrew word meaning "council," was an attempt to bring together the "big six" African American civil rights groups (excluding Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA): the NAACP, the African Blood Brotherhood, the Friends of the Negro Movement, the National Equal Rights League, the National Race Congress and the International Uplift League.

By early 1924, Cyril Briggs, now a leader in the Workers Party, had been integrally involved in organizing the Sanhedrin conference for more than a year. However, when the conference met in early February 1924, more conservative and influential Black leaders had pushed him out of his central role.

Nonetheless, the Workers Party had high hopes for the Sanhedrin and sent a well-prepared delegation of members and supporters to push for their plan to racially integrate the AFL. As almost all AFL unions at the time prohibited Black workers from joining, this issue was critical both from the point of view winning equality for Black workers and building a multiracial union movement.

Refraining from the type of harsh criticism against moderate Black leaders typical of Lovett Fort-Whiteman's Daily Worker columns, the editors invited the Sanhedrin leaders to "organize with the left wing of the American labor unite the workers of America, regardless of color or creed...for the overthrow of American capitalism."

Despite some sympathy for the Workers Party plank, the conference was primarily comprised of ministers, fraternal organizations, small businessmen and student organizations, with only a smattering of Black labor groups, such as the National Association of Railway Mechanics, the National Brotherhood Workers of America, the Grand United Order of Locomotive Fireman of America and the National Alliance of Postal Employees.

In the end, a compromise resolution was passed by the convention, calling on the AFL to grant "the fullest and equal recognition of Negro workers, in practice as well as in theory" as well as a demand for the "Negro press [to] give its full co-operation in educating the Negroes to the need to organize."

AFTER THE Sanhedrin, the Workers Party turned its attention to the July 1924 NAACP national convention in Philadelphia. White Communist Robert Minor, a Texas-born political cartoonist who gave up his lucrative national syndication deals in order to join the Workers Party, and Otto Huiswoud led the Workers Party delegation to the convention.

The Daily Worker greeted the NAACP convention with a long, front-page article by Minor titled, "Avalanche of Negro Protest Hits Coolidge," attacking President Calvin Coolidge for his failure to pass a federal anti-lynching law and his refusal to control the KKK. A second article by Huiswoud positively noted that the NAACP's "investigation and publicity of lynching are of great propaganda value," but also warned that the "policy of the NAACP has so far been largely one of appealing to Caesar from Caesar," whereas they ought to recognize that "both parties are infected with the Ku Klux Klan."

While clearly raising a sharp critique of the NAACP leadership on this question, Minor and Huiswoud continued their attempt to build alliances around specific issues. In another front-page article, Minor outlined a set of proposals he and other Workers Party members raised on the floor of the convention, including campaigns for federal legislation to ban racial discrimination in housing, for the nationalization of public schools in order to eliminate segregation in education, and to support the call initiated at the Sanhedrin for the AFL to end the color line in the trade unions.

On the final day of the convention, Minor and Huiswoud worked in conjunction with a number of NAACP delegates to draft an "Open Letter to the AFL," which the Daily Worker prominently featured. Minor criticized the letter for "being slightly weakened" from the original Workers Party draft, but praised the fact that the convention adopted it without dissent. The Open Letter demonstrated the distance the party had traveled from Debs' "nothing special" position. It argued:

Negro labor is in the main outside the ranks of organized labor, and the reason is first that white union labor does not want Black labor and, secondly, Black labor has ceased to beg admittance to union ranks because of the increasing value and efficiency outside the unions. We face a crisis in interracial labor conditions: the continued and determined race prejudice of white labor, together with the limitations of immigration, is giving Black labor tremendous advantage...[I]ntelligent Negroes know full well that a blow at organized labor is a blow at all labor...Is it not time for white unions to stop bluffing and for Black laborers to stop cutting off their noses to spite their faces?

Minor, Huiswoud and the Daily Worker editors lauded the Open Letter, which squarely placed the responsibility on white labor unions to take the first step in breaking down their racist exclusionary practices as a precondition for unity. Furthermore, the Open Letter identified growing Black participation in the Northern industrial centers as irreversible and, crucially, positive from the point of view of developing an integrated working class.

While the party overestimated its own capacity, and that of the NAACP, to conduct such a national campaign, the agreement, signified by the Open Letter, at least opened the door to probing which sections of organized labor might be sympathetic.

HOWEVER, IF the Workers Party had cause for some optimism with respect to enrolling forceful Black allies in their campaign to integrate the AFL, it ran into a stonewall at the 1924 UNIA national convention in New York City. Founded by Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey in 1919 to protest racism, emphasize Black pride, encourage economic independence and advocate the potential unity of the international African diaspora, UNIA quickly mushroomed into the largest African American organization in U.S. history, enlisting up to one million members by 1920.

Demonstrating the high value the communists placed on establishing an understanding with Garvey's organization, the Daily Worker ran several articles complimentary of UNIA in the days before the conference in late July 1924 and a nearly full-page appeal signed by party secretary Charles E. Ruthenberg (who had been jailed for opposing the First World War) and William Z. Foster (who had organized the 1919 national steel strike), the party's highest profile leaders.

As noted in the NAACP Open Letter, the appeal is striking for the Communists' open identification with African Americans and colonized peoples as potential allies, regardless of differences in political orientation. "Brothers and Sisters, Comrades," read the beginning lines of the appeal, "The Workers Party of America extends to you its fraternal greetings. May your work in this historic convention be fruitful for the liberation of your race. We live in a world ruled by a capitalist class which for its own purposes cultivates a superstitious belief in the 'superiority' of certain races."

It should be noted that by 1924, the Workers Party could not have believed that Garvey himself would strike up an alliance with them. In 1920, Cyril Briggs had labeled Garvey an opportunist, and the African Blood Brotherhood had sought to spread disillusionment and distrust in Garvey's power within UNIA. Thus, the Workers Party appeal was an attempt to find a hearing among the UNIA delegates and potential dissidents.

The Workers Party leadership felt that its best opportunity for opening up a breach in Garvey's monolithic hold over UNIA lay in a concerted attack on his decision to form an alliance, incredibly, with the Ku Klux Klan. Garvey had set out upon this strange path in the early 1920s because he believed the Klan was "honest" in its racism and that an agreement might be produced based on their mutual desire to separate the races.

Needless to say, this upset many of Garvey's followers. So, after establishing common ground on other issues, Ruthenberg and Foster, without naming Garvey personally, launched a sharp attack on his policy, writing "we trust that you will pledge yourselves with us not to rest until the last vestiges of the Klan is exterminated."

They then offered their campaign against AFL racial exclusion as a positive alternative to Garvey's alliance with the Klan. In language designed to project a respectful approach, the party's two most important leaders stated, "We should especially like to coordinate our efforts with yours in a drive to open the doors of all labor the full and equal admission of Negro workers."

As the UNIA convention proceeded, however, party officials realized that they would not be able to achieve even the narrow success they had enjoyed at the Sanhedrin conference in February. Garvey effectively sidelined any opposition to forming an alliance with the Klan.

The one fight the Communists were able to mount on the floor of the convention came when Olivia Whiteman, a Black Workers Party member, succeeded in getting the floor to appeal to the delegates to repeal a clause in their program stating that UNIA did not aim for "social equality." She was ruled out of order by the chair, adding an exclamation point to the Communists' failure to win over even a fragment of UNIA's base.

If the Workers Party failed to construct a broad-based, multiracial coalition to oppose discrimination in the AFL, that didn't stop them from taking the fight to the 1924 AFL national convention in Texas on their own.

There isn't space to explain why here, but earlier in the year, the Communists had burned many bridges with liberal and progressive white trade union leaders through a heavy-handed push for the formation of a Farmer-Labor Party. Thus, they entered the AFL convention in a weakened position with respect to their standing among the assembled delegates. However, rather than trying to mend fences with their former allies by downplaying their opposition to the racism, the Workers Party delegates fought to bring their civil rights planks to the floor.

The Daily Worker set the tone in an editorial attacking the secretary of the Texas AFL for his opposition to Mexican immigration and the "stupid policy of race discrimination permeating the unions." The editors then turned on the national AFL leadership arguing,

[The] most disgraceful toward the organization of the Negro workers...[and it is] the same as with the Mexicans in the Southwest. This policy of stupid and short-sighted selfishness, of craft privilege and organized monopoly prevails at the expense of both Black and white."

The AFL leadership, needless to say, turned a deaf ear to the Workers Party's warnings, demonstrating the party's anti-racist stance remained an embattled minority position within the official labor movement.

REBUFFED BY the AFL, the party sought other potential avenues. Throughout 1924 and 1925, overall strike levels continued to decline from their record high in 1919, and opportunities for the Workers Party to apply its anti-racist union resolutions in practice remained infrequent.

One little-known instance occurred during a strike of more than 100 African American women in Chicago in the fall of 1926. "100 Negro Women Strike When Boss Cuts Piece Rate," proclaimed the Daily Worker on October 4, 1926. The women worked stuffing dried dates for a fruit-processing company called Marcus and Co.

In place of the piece rate offered by the boss, the women asked for a $12 a week salary for nine hours work per day. The Daily Worker reported their request that the Chicago Federation of Labor "not only direct their strike, but also to aid them to become permanently organized workers."

The Chicago Federation of Labor had in the past organized Black and white stockyard workers during a bitter strike in 1919, but the city had also suffered through devastating race riots that same year. Thus, while there was a precedent for at least some Chicago unions supporting Black workers, these traditions were weak.

Front-page stories in the Daily Worker spread news of the strike throughout the country, but it was in Chicago where the Party attempted to build large-scale support. When strikers identified by the Daily Worker as Elizabeth Griffin, Laura Smith, Mrs. Robert Jones and Mrs. Ella Smith were jailed, the party-affiliated American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC) bailed them out.

Another article praised the strikers, reporting that "every one of the 100 women who walked out...appeared on the picket line for duty, despite the heavy rain." Within a week of the strike's beginning, Workers Party activists had secured recognition of the strike by the Chicago Federation of Labor, gained authorization to collect strike support funds from affiliated unions, and even clinched time on union-sponsored radio programs for the strikers.

The Communists also brought this issue to African American fraternal and religious organizations, reporting, "15 committees have been formed to solicit funds from Negro organizations and churches in the city." And, as the strike entered its second week, the Workers Party organized an indoor rally at the Union Trade Hall to publicize and raise money for the strike.

It is difficult to assess the attention this strike attracted more widely as it was generally ignored in the mainstream press, but the Communists clearly hoped it was the beginning of a broader campaign, at least in Chicago, where they could play a role in organizing Black workers into unions.

However, after this hopeful beginning, police harassment broke the strike and the Chicago Federation of Labor never followed through on its promise of support for the workers. Nevertheless, the party's support for this little-known strike of non-union Black women shows how they were beginning to understand the political importance highlighting the struggles of the oppressed.

HOWEVER, THE Communists' enthusiastic response to the date stuffers' strike stood in contrast to their passivity to initiating or joining in campaigns against racism outside the workplace. This was exposed in the fall of 1925 when Ossian Sweet, a Black doctor, bought a house in a white neighborhood in Detroit.

Soon after moving in, a white mob surrounded the house. Dr. Sweet and his friends and family armed themselves and defended their home in a shoot-out with the racist mob. Two whites were killed, and Dr. Sweet and Henry Sweet were put on trial for murder in November 1925.

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a long analysis of the case in the November 1925 issue of The Crisis, arguing that "a real and awful challenge confronts the nation." The NAACP launched a national campaign, retaining communist ally and long-time radical lawyer Clarence Darrow as legal counsel for the Sweets.

Thanks to Darrow's eloquence and the NAACP's organizing, the judge declared a mistrial, releasing all the defendants on bail in late November 1925. Du Bois hailed the outcome as the "First Battle of Detroit." When a jury acquitted the final defendant, Henry Sweet, on all charges in May 1926, Du Bois heralded the victory as a potential turning point for civil rights. He asserted, "We are not sure even in their rejoicing most colored Americans appreciate the sign of the acquittal of Henry Sweet."

The NAACP used this case to rebuild its activist base all across the country and to rally supporters against housing segregation, racist white violence and the need for a federal anti-lynching law.

Yet, aside from several sympathetic Daily Worker stories covering the trial, the Workers Party appears not to have joined the NAACP's organizing campaign, despite the fact that the party was relatively strong in Detroit. This at first seems all the more perplexing because these months were precisely when the party was attempting to launch the American Negro Labor Congress, an organization intended to be a large-scale effort to combat racial discrimination and promote unionization among Blacks.

Du Bois had defended the ANLC during the Sweet campaign against conservative Black political voices and white union leaders, writing that The Crisis "asserts the right of any set of American Negroes to investigate and sympathize with any industrial reform whether it springs from Russia, China or the South Seas." In the final days of the Sweet case, The Crisis ran a four-page review of Soviet policy toward Africa and its consequences for African Americans titled "Lenin Casts His Shadow Upon Africa," sympathetic to aspects of communism.

Soon after Henry Sweet's acquittal, Du Bois traveled to the Soviet Union, and Darrow joined the board of the communist-initiated International Labor Defense (ILD). Thus, the party appears to have had ample opportunity to have at least attempted to establish an alliance with the NAACP with respect to this critical case.

SO, HOW can we explain the failure of the Workers Party to make a priority of organizing to defend the Sweet family? Throughout the years 1924 to 1927, the Daily Worker routinely denounced housing and school segregation, racist lynching and the Ku Klux Klan, and the communists sometimes translated their anti-racist policies into action as we saw in their efforts to support the Black women strikers in the fall of 1926 in Chicago.

However, strikes by Black workers were relatively rare in the mid-1920s and the idea that real class struggle must happen on the shop floor (a holdover from the IWW point of production emphasis) may have lingered, dulling the Communists' appreciation for the importance of campaigning against manifestations of racism outside the workplace.

This weakness aside, in the very years when unions were on the decline and the Klan grew in prominence, Black and white communists led small, but significant struggles, built lasting relationships with pockets of African American workers, and acquired the experience and habits of working alongside and among important elements of the Black community.

If the party didn't devote sufficient resources and personnel to these efforts, it was no longer merely out of blindness and indifference. Rather, the party was now attempting to champion civil rights and was therefore forced to deal with the very real frustrations of the enormity of that task in a country built on slavery and Jim Crow.

To make matters worse, the mid-1920s, despite successes such as the Sweet case and the outposts of urban cultural expression such as Harlem and Chicago's South Side, marked a very difficult period for the Black freedom struggle. The NAACP suffered a decline (despite Du Bois' optimism after the Sweet verdicts) and Garvey's UNIA fragmented.

The rise of the Klan, the failure of federal anti-lynching legislation, and the general rightward political drift added headwinds to the communists' pioneering forays into building multiracial alliances and organizations. All of this could have led the Workers Party to look for a line of least resistance for popularizing its ideas, and in America in the 1920s that would have meant downplaying their fight against racism.

To their great credit, once they set out on the path to linking Black liberation and socialism, they held firm to that line during some of the most difficult years in American history, laying the basis for their contribution to the famous battles to free the Scottsboro Boys and begin integrating the new industrial unions during the Great Depression.

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