THE FIGHT FOR CIVIL RIGHTS IN THE 1930s: SELECTIONS FROM THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION

On this, the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington, D.C., I thought I would mark the occasion by highlighting a few items from the Wolfsonian library collection documenting the earlier struggles for civil rights in America during the 1930s. While the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt put a president (and first lady) into the highest office of the land who were sympathetic to the cause of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), much of the serious agitation for African-American civil rights came from more “suspect” sources like the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Most Americans today are oblivious of the influence the Party once wielded and of their earlier efforts to champion and promote “Negro rights” during the decade of depression.

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Early on in the decade, the CPUSA involved themselves in one of the most important judicial cases of the 1930s dealing with race. In 1931, nine African-American teenagers “riding the rails” in search of work got into a scuffle with some white boys, and were afterwards (wrongly) accused of gang-raping two white girls also found on the train. Barely avoiding a lynching, the boys were “railroaded” through Alabama’s judicial system and sentenced to death. At that moment, the Communist Party took over their defense, won them a new trial, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court. A Wolfsonian library exhibit put together by FIU History Graduate student Brian Orfall and placed online by David Almeida details the Communist Party’s involvement in the Scottsboro and other race trials during this decade.

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In the course of organizing mass demonstrations and protests to unmask “KKK justice” in Alabama, the Party adopted a “go-it-alone” policy that alienated them from other left-leaning and liberal organizations also fighting against lynching and for civil rights for “Negroes.” To maintain control of the Scottsboro Boys defense and to draw African-Americans into the ranks of the Party, for example, the CPUSA rebuffed and then fended off attempts by the NAACP to participate in the case.

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The Party also printed and prepared to publish a number of leaflets and propaganda pieces that implied that the NAACP were headed by “lackeys” of the white establishment.

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Although they knew that the Party had no chance of winning the presidency by the ballot box, the Communists placed James W. Ford on the ballot as their vice presidential candidate in 1936 and 1940 to demonstrate that they were the only political party truly interested in providing a voice for African-American causes.

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Communist artists like Hugo Gellert put their talents in the service of the Party, creating powerful visual messages that decried the abuse of Negroes under Capitalism and reinforced the idea that relief would come only when African-Americans took up the struggle to overthrow the oppressive economic system.

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In an era when African-American sharecroppers and tenant farmers were being driven off the land, when 50% of Blacks were out of work, when Jim Crow laws doomed Black talent to menial and demeaning jobs, and when lynchings lit up too many dark nights, it is easy to see how the Party had such appeal.

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The Communist Party, of course, lost their credibility as progressives (and saw their membership plummet) with the endorsement of the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939, and had to go underground in the post-World War II era after the arrest of the leaders and the banning of the Party during the second “Red Scare.”

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GIFT OF MARTIJN F. LE COUTRE

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ANONYMOUS DONOR

There were, of course, other groups and other artists equally committed to promoting the cause of Negro Rights in America. Lynd Kendall Ward (1905-1985), the son of the fiery Methodist minister and outspoken Socialist Harry F. Ward (1873-1966), also used his artwork to fight for progressive social causes. At the nadir of the Great Depression, Ward provided the dust jacket and title page illustration for Robert Gessner’s Upsurge a collection of revolutionary protest poetry.

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His black & white wood engraving depicts the raised clenched fists of a crowd of black proletarians erupting into flames, and a beam of light.

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In 1937, Lynd Ward also contributed an illustration for a leaf for a calendar published by the American League Against War and Fascism. In this design, Lynd shows working class farmers and industrial workers engaged in a multi-racial effort to push aside bayonets and cannons in their fight for peace.

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In the post-World War Two era, Ward toned down the “revolutionary” edge of his artwork considerably, even as he continued to agitate for civil rights. In 1947, Ward supplied the illustrations for Hildegarde Hoyt Swift’s North Star Shining: A Pictorial History of the American Negro.

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This book of verse and pictures aimed to remind the nation of the “important role, sometimes tragic, often heroic” played by anonymous and famous African-Americans too often “ignored” and “omitted” in our histories.

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GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA

Although many civil rights campaigners disassociated themselves from the Communist Party during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, there remained important ties between the groups well into the 1960s. The Communist Party’s head organizer in the South, Jack O’Dell, for example, became an important advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which prompted President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy to warn King to fire him. At the same time, they authorized FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to launch an investigation of King. Many historians today maintain that the federal government’s support of the Civil Rights movement was the result of the need to end the American system of apartheid if the United States was to maintain her reputation for “freedom” in the ideological competition with Communist revolutionaries in the Third World.

~ by "The Chief" on August 28, 2013.

3 Responses to “THE FIGHT FOR CIVIL RIGHTS IN THE 1930s: SELECTIONS FROM THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY COLLECTION”

  1. Frank,

    Look at this:

    http://bourkewhite.wordpress.com/

    • Just picked up a copy of North of the Danube by Bourke-White and will be blogging about it soon.

      Frank Luca Chief Librarian, Adjunct Professor of History

      The Wolfsonian FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY

      1001 Washington Avenue Miami Beach, Florida 33139 t 305-535-2641 f 305-535-2639 frank@thewolf.fiu.edu http://www.wolfsonian.org

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  2. In the day of Civil Rigths, an specific and neutral blog. Great!

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