Civil Rights and the CPUSA

Last fall semester, I had the privilege of teaching a History Junior seminar course at Florida International University designed to expose students to non-traditional primary source materials on the subject of the Great Depression and New Deal era. One of the undergraduate students in that class, Nathaniel Candelario, passed in a final research paper on the antecedents of the Civil Rights Movement that most of us today associate with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other activists of the 1950s and 1960s. While most Americans are familiar with the boycotts, sit-ins, and demonstrations of the post-Second World War era, this student persuasively argued for the need to acknowledge the earlier struggle for African-American civil rights that took place during the 1930s, largely under the aegis of the Communist Party of the United States (or CPUSA).

During this earlier era in the struggle for African-American rights, the CPUSA—very much a “white man’s movement”—positioned itself as one of the leading instruments in the civil rights crusade. While their progressive position on race was embraced partly as a means of wooing and recruiting blacks into the Party, it also stemmed from the genuine belief of their members in the values of equality, and in the goal of championing the cause of oppressed peoples. While First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) also worked tirelessly in this period to advance the cause of African Americans, the CPUSA was the only political party of the era to adopt civil rights as part of its party platform and the first to put an African-American vice-presidential candidate on its ticket.

Even as the Great Migration witnessed a major shift of African Americans from the rural South to Northern cities and urban centers, during the Depression decade the majority of blacks were still scratching out a meagre living as sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and migrant laborers tied by debt and KKK terrorism to peonage in the South. In the 1930s, the Communist Party U.S.A. dedicated itself to fighting the “defenders of white chauvinism,” educating and liberating oppressed African Americans, and advocating for “Self-Determination for the Black Belt.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

In many of their publications, the CPUSA railed against Capitalism and its false promises to the African Americans. In a pamphlet envisioning the Sovietization of American society, the Party’s black vice-presidential candidate, James W. Ford, ironically quoted Booker T. Washington’s belief that “No race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized.”


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

According to Ford, Radical Reconstruction had failed to deliver on its promise of “40 acres and a mule,” and Capitalism had eroded and black land ownership and virtually “re-enslaved” blacks in the rural South through a system of “debt peonage,” foreclosures, and vagrancy laws that drove poor black men into prison chain-gang labor camps.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

While Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Act had been designed to help poor farmers, Southern politicians managed to subvert and pervert the provisions of the program to allow white landowners to earn federal subsidies even as they drove “Negro” tenants and sharecroppers off their property.

While Communist rhetoric and print propaganda wooed the African-American community, the Party realized that actions spoke louder than words. Attempts to forge integrated unions in the South proved difficult and dangerous for the Party. Angelo Herndon, an African American working for the Communist-affiliated Unemployment Council had a run-in with the law in Atlanta, Georgia in 1932 after organizing a hunger march and demonstration at the Atlanta courthouse. Two detectives trailing Herndon discovered Communist literature in his hotel room, and arrested him under an old Reconstruction-era “insurrection” statute for attempting to organize an integrated union of working-class blacks and whites. Having faced a racist judge in the courtroom, and hostile public outside, Herndon’s defense attorney, African-American lawyer Benjamin Jefferson Davis, Jr., became radicalized himself, joining the Party after making his concluding arguments in the 1933 case. Moving to Harlem, Davis became an editor of the Party’s newspaper, The Negro Liberator in 1935, and afterwards of The Daily Worker.


Benjamin Davis, Jr. (1903-1964) portrait /by Hugo Gellert
Courtesy of: PD-US,

After Herndon was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 18–20 years in his first trial, the CPUSA continued to organize national speaking engagements and demonstrations on his behalf. The Party’s legal arm, the International Labor Defense, managed to secure him a new trial, and following a second conviction by Georgia’s Supreme Court, a successful appeal and overturning of the 1937 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that declared Georgia’s controversial Insurrection Law unconstitutional.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca 

The CPUSA found another opportunity to show the Party’s concern for the plight of African Americans with the infamous trial of nine African-American boys in Scottsboro, Alabama. The boys, like hundreds of thousands of other youths, had hopped a freight train in a desperate bid to find work in some other city. After a skirmish with some white hobos also riding the rails, the train came to a stop in Scottsboro, Alabama. Two homeless females were also pulled off the train, and to deflect charges of vagrancy and prostitution, claimed to have been victims of an alleged gang rape. Narrowing escaping a lynching, eight of the boys were convicted and sentenced to death in a sham of a trial; the youngest boy received a life sentence. While the NAACP initially chose not to involve itself in such a controversial case, the CPUSA sent organizers to speak with the boys’ families and secured permission to take on their defense. The Party organized mass demonstrations nationally and internationally, and kept their cause alive in print.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Communist Party leaders also hired the best criminal lawyer in the country to defend them, and litigated a series of retrials that would take the Scottsboro Boys’ case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision rendered there had important consequences for the future Civil Rights movement, as the Supreme Court decision rejected the long-standing Southern tradition of depriving blacks from participating in the jury selection process and from sitting on juries.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

The CPUSA also actively agitated on civil-rights issues in the cultural life of America. Articles and editorials in the Party’s mouthpiece, The Daily Worker, consistently advocated on behalf of integrating the national pastime of major league baseball in the 1930s. The Party also won the support and allegiance of a number of prominent Black intellectuals, writers, and performers, including Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Paul Robeson.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

While the NAACP and Eleanor Roosevelt were determined advocates for African-American civil rights in this same period, their record of accomplishments in the 1930s was mixed. Both the NAACP and the First Lady championed a federal anti-lynching bill, but President Roosevelt, a New Yorker, failed to throw his public support behind its passage, fearing the defection of the Southern “Dixiecrat” wing of his party. Consequently, the anti-lynching bill failed to pass in Congress.

Eleanor remained a staunch supporter of civil rights and black culture. She attended many meetings of the NAACP, was photographed presenting an African-American woman an award at the Annual NAACP meeting in Richmond, Virginia in 1939, and attended the dedication of Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center on May 7, 1941.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The First Lady was herself derided by critics as a “Communist sympathizer” on account of her stance on integration. Her personal intervention during the Second World War was critical to the Tuskegee Airmen receiving the opportunity to prove themselves in air combat in Europe.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

After a decade of civil-rights and anti-fascist activism that established a reputation for the CPUSA as the most progressive party in America between 1929 and 1939, the Communist Party imploded and disintegrated as leadership toed the Moscow line in support of the Hitler–Stalin Pact in 1939, and membership fell precipitously. Black Socialist leader A. Philip Randolph resigned from the Negro National Congress in protest. After a brief warming of relations during the war years that made allies of the U.S. and Soviet Union, there was a return to animosity in the postwar period and during the Red Scare of the 1950s.

The Party had negligible influence in the subsequent Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Communist Party supporter, Stanley Levison became Reverend King’s closest white advisor in the early 1960s, and another individual with Communist associations, Hunter Pitts (“Jack”) O’Dell, became an important member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Ultimately, King bowed down before the anti-Communist hysteria of the era. Under pressure from President John F. Kennedy and the FBI, Dr. King ceased all contact with Levinson and reluctantly called on O’Dell to resign from the SCLC in 1963 so as not to allow America’s “morbid fear of Communism” to discredit the Southern Freedom Movement as something “Communist inspired.”

~ by "The Chief" on January 15, 2018.

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