Radical roots of the civil rights movement

February 22, 2008

Aaron Hess looks at the role of Communists in the struggles that led to the civil rights movement.

IT'S ALMOST universally acknowledged, across the political spectrum, that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s was a pivotal struggle for social justice, and that the end of Jim Crow segregation in the South marked a major advance for racial equality in the U.S.

But there remains an ongoing struggle over the civil rights movement's history and meaning for today.

Often, politicians, the mainstream media and even historians offer a "Lite" version of the movement--one that diminishes the struggles of the thousands of people involved and obscures the radical conclusions about American society that many of these activists drew.

One example would be Hillary Clinton's in January that Martin Luther King Jr.'s "dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." This gets the history completely backward. It was only the massive tide of grassroots struggle that pressured Johnson to press for civil rights legislation--and it took much more struggle to get the bill enforced across the South.

What else to read

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore's Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 gives a fascinating account of the radical sources of the civil rights movement that would shake U.S. society in the 1950s and 1960s.

For another good book on Southern struggles in the pre-civil rights movement era, see Robin D.G. Kelley's Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression.

For a broader overview of the struggle against racism in the U.S., from slavery to the present day, get Black Liberation and Socialism, by Ahmed Shawki.

Manning Marable's Race, Reform and Rebellion puts the 1950s and '60s civil rights movement in the context of the African American struggle against racism historically. Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement by Jack Bloom is an essential history of the development of the struggle.

Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore challenges the sanitized version of the struggle for Black freedom in her new book Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights.

Gilmore starts by arguing that in order to properly understand the social forces and organization that shaped the battle against Jim Crow segregation, the narrative needs to begin earlier--in the years after the First World War.

This longer-term view clarifies two important points. First, the struggle against Jim Crow wasn't limited to opposing formal segregation, but was driven by a demand for social and economic equality more generally. As Gilmore writes:

The NAACP's litigation campaign that resulted in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 was only part of a much larger campaign...In the simplified stories that the media told of the movement, civil rights came to mean school integration, access to public accommodations and voting rights. This view erased the complexity of a drive to eliminate the economic injustices wrought by slavery, debt peonage and a wage-labor system based on degraded Black labor.

The second important result of examining the origins of the civil rights movement is that the role of radicals--and in particular, that of the Communist Party (CP)--emerges as central to the story.

WHEN PRESIDENT Woodrow Wilson took the U.S. into the First World War in 1917, he claimed the conflict would "make the world safe for democracy" and vowed that the victors would uphold the principle of national "self-determination." This was an appropriation of the language of the 1917 Russian Revolution, at least partly in the hopes that the U.S. could curtail socialism's spreading influence.

But while the Russian Revolution did deliver on its promise of freedom for Russia's colonies and equal rights for oppressed minorities, Wilson's talk about "self-determination" was pure posturing.

This, after all, was a president that ordered the invasion and occupation of Haiti, the world's only Black republic, in 1915--during which Marines forced Haitian workers into a Jim Crow-style system of forced labor "with all the vindictiveness that a Southern American Negro Hater could put into it," as one historian of the time put it.

Wilson's contempt for Blacks at home, including those fighting in the U.S. military, was just as great. In 1915, 100 recorded lynchings took place, mostly in the South--and Wilson did nothing. "When Black soldiers went to France," Gilmore writes, "Army officials tried to force the French to establish segregation...There should be no eating together, no shaking hands, no 'sign of intimacy in public between white women and Black men,' the Army ordered."

Participation in the European war raised African-Americans' hopes that their conditions would improve. But the white establishment of the former Confederacy and racists across the North unleashed a campaign of terror against returning Black veterans. Black sharecroppers in Elaine, Ark., who tried to form a union were tortured and massacred, and in the summer of 1919, there were 26 riots across the U.S., including a days-long killing spree against Blacks in Chicago.

The most important organized force that emerged to challenge racism was the budding U.S. Communist movement. Despite having only a small base of support in the South after the war, the Communists--taking their lead from arguments put forward by Russia's Bolsheviks and the Communist International, the grouping of Communist Parties established in 1919--devoted themselves to the struggle against racism.

The Bolsheviks' commitment to eradicating national oppression had a strong impact on a layer of Black radicals in the U.S. Gilmore describes Lovett Fort-Whiteman, one of the first Black members of the CP, assessing the Russian revolution's policy of self-determination:

Previously, it had been "Tatar against Turk;...Georgian against Armenian," with "strict separation." The Soviets had "approached these racial problems with a directness and scientific understanding" unsurpassed in the world. The Muslims gained access to schools in Turkistan, and the Uzbeks, crushed under the Tsar, were..."quite free and independent and politically important people."

The living example of the new workers' state in Russia, founded on the principle of social equality, convinced a small number of important Black activists to join the CP. The most interesting material in Gilmore's book is her biographical sketches of some of these courageous and remarkable people.

A number of them, including Otto Hall, Lovett Fort-Whiteman and Cyril Briggs, helped to form the CP-led African Negro Labor Congress (ANLC) in 1925, to organize Black workers excluded by the racist American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions.

Briggs and Hall had both belonged to the African Blood Brotherhood, an association of Black radicals that Briggs, its founder, described as "a peace-loving, but red-blooded organization created to afford the immediate protection and for Immediate Ultimate Liberation to Negroes Everywhere."

The ANLC launched a newspaper, the Negro Champion, which reported on the key role of Black workers in workers' struggles like a textile strike in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1926. While the ANLC had few organizing successes, it showed the potential for building a struggle against racism based on workers power. For this, the ANLC earned the ire of a racist media, which 'red-baited' Black Communists relentlessly--Time magazine accused it of "Bolshevizing the American Negro."

In 1929, the CP began to score some successes in the South. Gilmore describes how, against all odds, party activists led successful strikes of millworkers in Gastonia, N.C., after patiently building a multiracial organizing drive--and responded to the jailing of strikers by creating a defense campaign that highlighted the racist criminal justice system. The CP also organized unemployed councils, through which thousands protested for jobs and welfare benefits.

The CP challenged the Ku Klux Klan by building an anti-lynching campaign across the South. "Throughout 1930s. Communist anti-lynching meetings drew growing audiences," Gilmore writes. "In Winston-Salem, 300 Black and white workers showed up in front of the Reynolds Tobacco Factory No. 9 to protest lynching."

But by far the most successful CP campaign against Jim Crow injustice in these years was support for the legal defense of the "Scottsboro Boys," nine young men falsely accused of gang rape and sentenced to the electric chair in 1931. While moderate Black organizations like the NAACP refused to organize around the case, the CP built a campaign from Haiti to Harlem that put the Southern legal system on trial.

THE STRATEGY and tactics of the new Communist Party in the U.S. were decisively shaped by the Bolshevik-led Comintern. This has led many Cold War historians to caricature American Communists as mere dupes of Moscow.

As Gilmore's book shows, the reality was more complex. The prestige of the revolution in Russia, combined with the relative lack of experience of the American revolutionaries, lent Comintern policy enormous authority.

Tragically, however, by 1928, the revolutionary era in Russia was over. Instead of reflecting the interests of working-class struggle, Comintern policy came to reflect the foreign policy interests of a new bureaucratic ruling class, led by Joseph Stalin.

Under the explicit direction of the Comintern, the CP adopted a position in 1928 that Blacks in the U.S. constituted a nation, and called for "Self-Determination in the Black Belt"--despite the fact that building a separate nation didn't fit the conditions nor the demands of most Blacks, great numbers of whom were migrating from the South to take jobs in Northern industrial cities.

This was the first in a series of political zig-zags that marked the end of the CP as a revolutionary force. The party remained committed to the struggle for Black liberation in the early 1930s, but compromised this commitment in 1935 when it sought to construct--on Stalin's demand--a "Popular Front" alliance with the Democratic Party of President Franklin Roosevelt.

A clear account of this history is missing from Gilmore's book, making it more difficult for the reader to follow the politics behind the twists and turns in the Communists' strategy during and after the Second World War.

However, Gilmore's focus on the lives of individual activists clarifies the crucial role that CP members played in laying the foundation for the struggle to transform a racist society. As Gilmore writes, "It was Communists who stood up to say that Black and white people should organize together, eat together, go to school together and marry each other if they chose."

Further Reading

From the archives