Radicals and Reactionaries: Extremism in America

Earlier this month, twenty-four students enrolled in my America & Movies course focusing on radicalism in America came to The Wolfsonian–Florida International University museum for a presentation of primary source materials about some of the extremists we have been learning about in class. This particular class session was focused on left- and right- wing extremist groups and individuals in the early decades of the 20th century. The Wolfsonian Library holds an important collection of materials produced by and about the Communist Party U.S.A., the Ku Klux Klan and its splinter group, the Black Legion, as well as works celebrating figures, such as African-American poet, Langston Hughes, or lampooning others, such as publishing magnate, William Randolph Hearst and the “Radio Priest” Father Charles Coughlin.

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Four of the students, (Nathalie Mattas, David Santos, Javier Penarredonda, and Marlow Marimon), had elected to participate in a curatorial project on the topic. They had the opportunity to talk to their fellow classmates about how they had formulated their ideas for the installation and made their selection of materials to be exhibited.

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In focusing on the ideological battles waged between the left and the right, the students looked at how extremist groups used politically loaded imagery and caricature to recruit new members, to demonize their enemies, and to promote their “cause.” The library holds several books and pamphlets produced by the Ku Klux Klan attacking minorities, immigrants, and Catholics, even as they presented themselves as chivalrous white-robe knights and “guardians of liberty.”

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Long-term Loan

While Ku Klux Klan membership peaked in the 1920s and was in serious decline in the 1930s, a splinter group known as the Black Legion emerged in the Midwest to carry on the WASPish struggle against immigrants until the secret society’s political corruption and criminal activities came to light. Actor Humphrey Bogart’s Hollywood exposé, Black Legion helped topple the sinister organization.

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

The class also examined some materials that provided evidence of the Communist Party’s strategies for indoctrinating youth and courting African Americans in their membership drives. In focusing their propaganda efforts on the young, the CPUSA were heeding the advice of their late comrade and leader of the failed Spartacus uprising in Germany in 1919, Karl Liebknecht, who wrote: “He who has the youth has the future.”

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

The American Communist Party leadership published pamphlets, books, and periodicals aimed at children and young adults with stories they could relate to and also encouraged socially-conscious parents to send them to “young pioneer” summer camps.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca in honor of Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.’s Eightieth Birthday

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

The CPUSA also worked hard to recruit African Americans to the cause during the 1930s. Between 1910 and 1930, two million African Americans had migrated North in search of a better life, but in the wake of the 1929 Stock Market Crash and onset of the Great Depression, racist attitudes had flared up so that Blacks tended to be the “first fired and last rehired.” By 1932, half of the African American population was unemployed, and in New York City many of the achievements of the “Harlem Renaissance” had been erased and property gains by the black middle class had been lost. To demonstrate their sincerity and solidarity with the African American community, the Communists organized the “Upper Harlem Council of the Unemployed” and staged integrated demonstrations and marches aimed at stopping evictions. They were also actively involved in fighting “Jim Crowism,” promoting “Negro” civil rights, and championing Federal anti-lynching legislation; and highlighting the exploitation and plight of poor sharecroppers and tenant farmers facing Ku Klux Klan terror and their own push for “Negro self-determination” in the South.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of the August Mecklem Estate

The Party was also the first to nominate an African-American Vice Presidential candidate, James W. Ford.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca in honor of Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.’s Eightieth Birthday

Attacking the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP) leadership as both elitist and subservient to white interests, the CPUSA competed with them for the hearts and minds of the Black intelligentsia as well as the oppressed African American “underclass” of the “Blackbelt.”

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca in honor of Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.’s Eightieth Birthday

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

Prominent Black intellectuals such as W. E. B. DuBois and the poet Langston Hughes were recruited to the cause. In a collection of works by Hughes published by the Party in 1933, the editor made much of the fact that even as a famous bard and promoter of American poetry was reciting several of Hughes’ poems at a gathering of political elites in the dining room of the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. in 1925, the distinguished poet was in the room, not as a celebrant in that segregated venue, but invisibly clearing tables as a busboy.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca in honor of Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.’s Eightieth Birthday

In an attempt to court conservative Blacks to the cause in the South, the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Party, took up the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African American youths being “railroaded” in the Alabama courts. In their quest for work, the nine boys had hopped a freight train, only to be hauled off in Scottsboro, Alabama in March 1931, after having gotten into a scuffle with some white hobos. To avoid being charged with vagrancy, two white girls also discovered on the train concocted a story that they had been gang raped by the “brutes.” After narrowly avoiding a lynching, the boys, whose legal defense was a real estate lawyer who encouraged them to plead guilty, were convicted by an all-white jury and all but the youngest sentenced to death. The ILD secured the permission of the parents of the defendants to represent the boys and to demand a retrial, and the Party also organized demonstrations in cities across the globe in support of their clients. As part of their propaganda media campaign, the Party also prepared for publication a lino-block book providing the historical context for the trial lampooning KKK justice in the South.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The Great Depression decade became the Party’s “We told you so” moment for their argument that capitalism was on its last legs and Socialism on the ascendancy. It was also a period of unprecedented popularity for the Party and its Popular Front organizations.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca in honor of Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.’s Eightieth Birthday

The unforeseen rise of Fascist and Nazi totalitarian regimes presented the CPUSA with a new challenge and opportunity. Organizing Communist Front organizations like the American League Against War and Fascsim, the Party presented themselves as the most progressive organization in America arrayed against the forces of “social fascism” at home, and fascist dictatorship and military aggression abroad.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, gift of the August Mecklem Estate

William Randolph Hearst, whose media empire controlled a third of the nation’s news outlets, became a target of the labor groups and the left.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchase

Hearst was particularly despised for visiting Adolf Hitler soon after his seizure of power, at which meeting he negotiated a lucrative deal in which he agreed to print Nazi propaganda in his newspapers and help rehabilitate the dictator’s reputation in America. The CPUSA artist Hugo Gellert produced several scathing caricatures of the media mogul.

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

Other leftist pamphlets attacked Hearst as a Nazi sympathizer, variously depicting him hiding behind the flag and his 100 percent Americanism slogans, as a Nazi rat enemy of labor, and as a vampire bat in league with Hitler.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, purchases

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

The American League Against War and Fascism even organized a mock trial of Hearst before a packed house at the Hippodrome in New York City in October 1936.

Other targets of the left included Father Charles Coughlin, the “Radio Priest” who used his national broadcast to 30,000,000 listeners to rake in $50,000 a week during the depression as he attacked the Godless Communists, preached Anti-Semitism, and lauded the fascist regimes of Europe. Gellert published several caricatures of the priest.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

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

These are but a few examples of the holdings of extremist materials in The Wolfsonian Library and a small sampling of some of the items that will go on display in our next library installation which will open on January 30, 2020.

~ by "The Chief" on October 30, 2019.

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