Communists in the Civil Rights Movement: Conference at Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives [unabridged]

May Day 2016 visited the United States amid the charged atmosphere of a nation undergoing rapid subjective changes. The new Civil Rights Movement as expressed by the #BlackLivesMatter movement and movements for immigration justice continue to make their demands and increasingly are uniting with workers’ struggles. Labor revolt is surging as the #Fightfor15 and a Union, a movement overwhelmingly driven by people of color with a large proportion of women and youth, prepares to disrupt the McDonald’s shareholder meeting in Chicago. Verizon workers celebrated International Workers Day by entering their third week on the picket line.

It is in this context that a public forum was held on Friday and Saturday of May Day weekend, April 29th and 30th, to uncover the buried history of Communists’ role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and ‘60’s. This forum was held in New York University’s Tamiment Library, directly adjacent to Washington Square Park where members of the public picnicked in the warm and glowing sunshine.

 

The Tamiment Library was originally established in 1906 as an arm of the Rand School for Social Science, a workers’ school supported by the American Socialist Society. It currently houses one of the oldest collections in the U.S. of that country’s history of radical organizing. Various leaders of the Socialist Party, at the height of its influence, contributed to this library, among them Eugene Debs. After a series of difficult circumstances, the library was acquired by New York University in 1963 and incorporated with the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives by the New York City Central Labor Council in 1977 to preserve New York City’s own unique labor history. Internationally known as a center of study of the history of the United States’ Left, the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives preserves the various oral histories, film, monographs, periodical titles, pamphlets, and photographs documenting socialist, communist, and anarchist involvements in the labor and social protest movements.

 

Presenting at this forum were Gerald Horne, who currently holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston and has written prolifically on the subject of civil rights, labor, racism, international relations and war; Gene Tournour and Marian Gordon who are each members of the Congress of Racial Equality and were active alongside Communists in the Civil Rights Movement; Jarvis Tyner, Executive Vice Chair of the Communist Party – USA from 1984 – 2016; Ian Rocksborough-Smith, teaching faculty at St. Francis Xavier University; and LaShawn D. Harris, teaching faculty at Michigan State University. Timothy V. Johnson, director of Tamiment Library and Sara Haviland, teaching faculty at St. Francis College, led the Saturday morning and afternoon panels, respectively.

On Friday evening, Gerald Horne opened the event with a presentation on his book, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary. In this talk he discussed Robeson’s brilliance as an artist, as a linguist, and as a political-economist. He spoke of his dedication to the struggle in the Civil Rights Movement, his involvement with the U.S. and British Communist Parties, and his close relationship to Communist Party figures in the U.S. such as William Patterson and Ben Davis. Gerald Horne emphasized the importance of the internationalist character of Paul Robeson’s vision and the degree to which internationalism was of fundamental importance to the power of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

 

Over the course of this presentation, we learned that Paul Robeson’s towering intellect led to him being frequently referred to by others in the movement as “the tallest tree in our forest.” In addition to his studies in literature and political-economy, which he ably applied to contemporaneous struggle, he was an obsessive studier of languages throughout his life. Robeson read Marx in German; he read Lenin in Russian, and was fluent in Spanish and French. His interest in languages was a reflection of his internationalist orientation.

In terms of his internationalism in the fight against Jim Crow and racism in the United States, Robeson understood the important role that the U.S.S.R. and the entire socialist camp globally played at the time in exerting pressure on the reactionary forces in the U.S. towards retreat and in supporting the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950’s and 1960’s. With the U.S. being allied with the U.S.S.R. in the fight against fascism generally and Nazi Germany in particular, Robeson worked to convince many Black Americans of the connection between fascism abroad and racism at home at a time when many were more inclined to support Japan as a powerful force which was turning the narratives of white supremacy on its head. Following the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945, the U.S. suddenly returned to its former position towards the U.S.S.R. as “public enemy number one,” and the anti-communism of the Red Scare period escalated to a fevered pitch.

With this turn of events, Robeson found himself at complete odds with prevailing sentiments. As Gerald Horned told his audience, from Robeson’s point of view, “The kind of friendship that was exemplified during World War II should be carried over in the post-World War II era, and that just as Washington found it necessary to ally with Moscow to subjugate its antagonists, that folks here in the U.S., who were combating the ultra-right, also should have the right to engage in solidarity with Moscow to subdue their antagonists. But, to put it mildly, that was not a view that was widely shared in the US.”

Following the right-wing strategic destruction of the New Deal coalition that, among other things, dislodged Henry Wallace as FDR’s running mate, Robeson found himself in a face-to-face confrontation with Harry Truman after the latter had ascended to the Presidency. Paul Robeson excoriated Harry Truman in this exchange because of the United States’ complete negligence in prosecuting lynchers who were often “mutilating Black soldiers freshly home from the war in their military uniforms.” This became a turning point in Robeson’s life in the sense that he began to experience relentless persecution and surveillance from U.S. authorities. This persecution only intensified when, in the early 1950’s, he joined with William Patterson, who then led the Civil Rights Congress, to bring a petition to the UN, charging the U.S. authorities with genocide against Black people. At a time when the U.S. was engaged in sharp confrontation with the U.S.S.R. over alleged human rights violations, this genocide petition effectively exploited the contradiction between United States’ accusations of the Soviet Republic, the former’s own posturing as the “paragon of human rights virtue,” and the atrocious treatment people of color were receiving on U.S. soil at that very moment. Simultaneously, the U.S. faced its own internal contradiction of attempting to make appeals to rising African and Caribbean leaders of that time when diplomats from countries in these regions had to face Jim Crow themselves when moving about the Southern parts of the U.S.

In spite of the pursuit and persecution that Robeson and many others faced from U.S. authorities and the dramatic downward material effect this had on his life, Robeson’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement continued to have a profound effect on the U.S. political landscape. He founded the newspaper Freedom, which featured the writings of talents like Lorraine Hansberry. This newspaper became a predecessor to Freedomways, many copies of which are on open display in Tamiment Library.

As an actor, Robeson also had in influence in the world of entertainment. Gerald Horne noted Harry Belafonte’s and Sidney Poitier’s references to Paul Robeson in their memoirs and autobiographies as an important trail-blazer for Black performers in Hollywood.

 

While Gerald Horne brought to light many of the ways in which the FBI’s surveillance and harassment had a profound effect on the life of Paul Robeson, Gene Tournour opened up Saturday morning’s panel speaking about his own experiences with the FBI. He began with a discussion of his experiences growing up in an Italian, working-class family that encompassed a wide spectrum of political views. He went on to focus his talks on FBI tactics and the personal difficulties this brought in terms of distorting his own personality and in terms of maintaining relationships of trust.

Tournour’s personal introduction to left politics came through his own readings of The Nation which were held in the library of his high school, a Jesuit school in St. Louis. He saw an ad in the magazine for a meeting about the Rosenberg –Sobell case. He began attending these meetings where Communists and Black radicals were in attendance. The combination of Communist and Black radical politics was considered particularly pernicious by U.S. authorities, and Tournour recalled being approached by the FBI, who took him for a drive and questioned him about his involvements in an attempt to frighten him into becoming an informant with regard to these gatherings. Gene was undeterred and the Rosenberg – Sobell group initiated his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement, eventually going on to become involved with the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE).

He shared with the audience, as an example of FBI divisive defamation tactics, a picture which had been given to him as a gift. The photo depicted himself alongside Gloria Richardson, both in sinister tones, and James Farmer, appearing as an upstanding citizen. The caption below described alleged strife between “militant and conservative forces” in the Civil Rights Movement. At the time, Gene Tournour had been working as field secretary for the CORE. In the caption he is merely described as a “white man,” Gloria Richardson as a “dissention leader,” while James Farmer, national CORE director at the time, is described as “a conservative.”

There were family members of Gene’s and even friends within the movement that became agents for the FBI. While tracking his movements, they would offer him social advancements, such as free Ivy League schooling, if he would only become an inside informant on the Civil Rights organizations he was involved with. At one point, agents visited Tournour and questioned him in front of his wife about whether he had had sexual involvement with a woman in a current rape case. These despicable tactics were all aimed at sowing seeds of doubt amongst friends and families to disrupt marriages and communities, to keep people off balance so as to limit their effectiveness in the struggle.

 

Following Tournour’s talk, Marian Gordan spoke of growing up in a Communist household. Her mother and father were both working class people involved in local CP Clubs. The Philadelphia neighborhood she grew up in was initially predominantly white, but became more integrated as the years went on. This, combined with having two parents and an older sister who were all in the Communist Party, informed her values of equality and fairness growing up as a child, so that it became, as she said, “automatic” for her to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Having joined the Party as a senior in high school, it provided her with backup and support for her involvement in the movement.

In high school, Gordan recalled circulating petitions to integrate the schools and walking the picket line in support of integrating Woolworths in the South. She also spoke of the impression made upon her by young Communists who came to speak at her school upon returning from the freedom rides in 1961.

Following high school, she first attended Antioch College in Yellow Spring, Ohio. This rural progressive campus and the small, liberal town of Antioch provided few organizing opportunities, although there was a small CP Club there which organized a successful and peaceable effort to integrate a skating rink nearby. Marian soon transferred to California State University, Los Angeles and became involved with the CP and Civil Rights activities there. She participated in the marches to Selma in 1965 and, having been arrested, spent three days in jail with other comrades who lifted their spirits with singing and various games, against the orders of the guards. That year, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of CORE, SNCC, and NAACP sent people to various parts of the South to fight segregation and disenfranchisement. Marian was sent to Jackson, Mississippi where she participated in church meetings and rallies, picketed segregationist stores, and developed a deep love for freedom music.

Gordan raised the point that having suffered severe defeats from the McCarthy period, and having been virtually banished from the labor movement, the Civil Rights Movement helped revitalize the Communist Party. It gave it “grounds for action to nourish itself in addition to contributing to the movement.” Although there were many groups that were fearful of Communist involvement for fear of government backlash, there were others who welcomed the support.

Being in the Communist Party, according to Gordan, taught her not only principles of justice and equality, and building toward a classless society, but also the importance of being with people in the trenches. It impressed upon her the difference between merely being present and actively building the movement, organizing and mobilizing within it. It provided the important class approach to movement building and the necessity of unity, of bringing various movements together in a united front. The Party also provided the long-term vision necessary to have the strength to go on.

“So for me, being part of the Civil Rights movement was the most moving, extraordinarily fulfilling thing I did in my life,” she concluded.

 

The Saturday morning panel culminated in a talk by Jarvis Tyner. Jarvis joined the Communist Party in 1961, when he was 20 years old. At the time, as he said, he “was looking for the Civil Rights Movement, and found both the Civil Rights Movement and the Communist Party.” Growing up in Philadelphia, his initial political consciousness came from sitting in his mother’s beauty shop where domestic and garment workers from the neighborhood would gather. He was impressed with their articulate discussion of current events. In particular, he recalled their discussion of the Rosenberg execution, which, despite being reported in gruesome detail, they regarded as a tragic injustice. Unintimidated by the surrounding anti-communist rhetoric and nuclear scares, these women spoke of Paul Robeson highly as one of the greatest fighters for them although, as they said, “they called him a Communist.” These women felt it was a travesty that Ethel, a mother of two children, should not have been let go when the first jolt from the electric chair didn’t kill her. They felt that second jolt was an illustration of brutality, where people could be framed and executed for their allegiance to higher ideals.

These women came from the deep rural south, and were mostly sharecroppers. Tyner’s father had also worked picking tobacco and other field crops in the South. After coming north, his father worked in a medical factory as a handyman fixing machines for $50 a week. His mother, before pursuing what she regarded as her higher calling as a beautician, had been a schoolteacher. Her own sense of this higher calling spurred her to guide Jarvis’ brother McCoy to become a world-class piano player, although at the time, his father couldn’t understand it. To supplement the family’s income, Tyner remembers being driven in his father’s truck to haul away discarded things from other neighborhoods to sell, including 2-tons given to him by his boss for use in their own home and to sell.

Jarvis attended a high school that was integrated, although it was becoming predominantly Black over time. He had a group of friends that would discuss the Civil Rights struggles going on at the time, and challenged the segregationist trends within his own school. Having visited the South in the summers, he had first-hand experience of the discrimination occurring there. There were two lines at the stores, and he couldn’t get served until the white line got served first. He and his cousins could not enter at the front of the theater, but had to use a side entrance and sit in the balcony seats. He would often rebel against these rules, although his cousin tempered his actions to some extent to preserve Jarvis’ safety. In spite of these experiences, he was shocked by what he saw going on in Little Rock, Arkansas and Montgomery, Alabama on the television after completing high school. Tyner had not seen the dramatic racism of the type on display in these towns.

As a witness of the oppression that people were going through and the freedom rides as an organized response, Jarvis saw the mass anger and hatred coming from Southern racists after the simple act of trying to end segregation in schooling and public accommodations. At the time, the failure to recognize democracy and decent schooling as a universal right, and the patterns of segregation in the world surrounding him were baffling. A remark from his friend Robert stuck with him for the rest of his life: “I don’t understand why they hate us so much.”

This is what made him immediately attracted to left wing people. His first participation in direct political action came about when he saw people picketing Woolworths. He joined the line and walked around a few times, feeling awkward but glad he did it.

It was after he graduated high school and married at a very young age, that he encountered the Communist Party. They had moved to Powelton Village, near Pennsylvania University, and there was a Party club there. They were picketing stores, raising issues of discrimination, such as the barbershops that refused to cut Black people’s hair, and successfully organized to integrate American Bandstand. In the context of a world in which inter-racial dancing, and the presence of Black youths in a party incited deep-seated fears and implied mayhem in most white people’s minds, this was of no small significance for the younger generation. A similar effort was conducted later in north Philadelphia where a Party Club maintained a storefront. High school dances were successfully integrated at a catholic high school that had very few Black students.

Although at this time McCarthyism had scared many from the Communist Party, it hadn’t eliminated the respect the Party had among the best civil rights, political, and labor leaders. When the march on Washington in 1963 was being prepared, it faced tremendous opposition, both from the right wing, who equated masses of Black people on the streets with violence and rioting, and from the Kennedy administration who felt it would create encumbrances to the passing of the Civil Rights Act and other progressive reforms. Martin Luther King and the movement behind him pushed back against this pressure, but questions of security emerged as paramount. TV cameras were placed on thirty-foot towers, hoping to collect footage of the awaited riots, and all the liquor stores were closed on the basis of racist assumptions. The army was put on reserve nearby, and a general panic was fostered in the public. The inside discussion of the Party’s national leadership began to turn towards organizing progressive unions around the east coast and the Midwest to secure the march, knowing that a reliance on the police or the army to perform this role would be highly undesirable. “The New York unions were already mobilized, but the question was to get huge contingent of steel workers, meat packers, and auto workers to come and serve as security for the march. Ben Davis, who had not long ago been released from prison on the Smith Act, was sent to the Midwest to talk with Charles Hayes and leaders of the UAW to talk about mobilizing and security. When you see pictures of Martin Luther King making his historic ‘I have a dream speech’ and you see union hats all around him, the CP played a large role in helping to organize those unions. That march was the most peaceful, uplifting, beautiful, harmonious gathering of people of all races and nationalities, and King’s speech soared. It is still one of the best speeches ever made for its simplicity, moral fortitude, and uplifting sense that we can win this battle. The Party helped make this happen.”

W.E.B. Du Bois had passed away in March 1963, the same year the explosion of Civil Rights activity was erupting all across the country. During this massive rally, a crowd of 250,000 people went silent over his name. In response to these events, Jarvis was involved with the Communist Party’s formation of the Du Bois Club in the Bay Area as a broad-based youth organization in 1964. The Du Bois Club formed a committee to fight hiring discrimination in the hotels and other tourist enterprises in San Francisco and Oakland. The Club later expanded their activity to Auto Row where many auto franchises refused to hire Black salespeople. Eventually, thousands began to show up under the leadership of the Du Bois Club to the picket lines outside various hotels, restaurants, and auto companies. The national leadership of the Party was ready to move from its Progressive Youth Organizing Committee (PYOC), former members of which Jarvis was able to identify in the audience at the Tamiment Library, into forming this larger pro-socialist youth organization. The PYOC and Du Bois Club were unique in the sense that they openly welcomed communist involvement. Largely because of the anti-communist pressure exerted by the FBI, most popular front organizations did not allow even the most hard-working Communists to have public Communist identifications as participants in these groups.

Jarvis himself had his own interactions with the FBI. He recalled coming home one evening to find his mother sitting on the porch, crying. Two agents were in the house and Tyner’s mother encouraged him to listen to what they had to say. Jarvis, angry that they had intimidated his mother into a fearful state, told her they had no right to be there without a warrant and told them to leave. After attempting to use this as evidence that he was headed for trouble, Jarvis responded by saying, “If you want to stop trouble, why don’t you end segregation? Why don’t you get the racists out of here? Why don’t you get jobs for our people?” Tyner told the audience his mother, although supportive of his role in the Party, continued to worry about him up until the time he ran for Vice President of the United States. It was 1972 and his mother said to him, “You know I saw you on television. You sounded pretty good! Where’d you learn that stuff?” Jarvis began to explain to his mother and other members of his family, who were shocked at his learnedness, of how the Party had been his education over the years.

Tyner was a working in printing trades and an industrial supply company in the early 1960’s. He joined the Party after getting laid off from a printing job in 1961. Being a new and highly active member eager to learn, he felt himself learning and growing constantly. He referred to the Party as his post-secondary and graduate education. Theory, Economics, Ideology, and Political History were all subjects constantly illuminating the world around him. He began to take the things he was learning into discussions with his friends. When they told him to “lighten up,” he would reply, “But these are all the things we’ve been talking about over the years. I’m learning about the why’swhy they hate us so much – why we were fighting for freedom.”

Shortly after it’s founding in 1964, the Du Bois Club had been cited by the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB) as a Communist front organization, but the Civil Rights Movement had a great impact pushing back against the McCarthy-era hysteria. This was accompanied by the growth of the women’s movement, the ecology movement, and certain progressive features within the labor movement. The SACB would send a committee into various towns to hold hearings. A tight relationship existed between the FBI operatives and newspaper organizations, with certain agents sometimes posing as media personnel. There would be hysterical headlines from these hearings. As a result, people would have their jobs taken away, their credit destroyed, and their reputations smeared. Tyner himself was unable to get an apartment. He recalled a particular reporter by the name of Jack Lotto publishing a piece in which he was called a “crazed Communist dupe.” Because Tyner said he used to be a Bible School teacher, it was suggested he was infiltrating the churches and corrupting the youth in their Bible Schools. However, as the movements gained momentum and the country began to change, these tactics became less effective.

The W.E.B. Du Bois Club was the last case to be reviewed by the SACB. However, by this time, when the committee came into New York to hold hearings on the Club, rather than holding them in contempt of court and arresting their members, the committee members were on the defensive. Even their prepared witnesses were not providing the SACB with the answers they prodded them for. Jarvis stood up and told them, “You are spending all this money, traveling in luxury all around the country, when you could have found out our affiliation with the Communist Party for a 5 cent telephone call!”

 

In 1961, the McCarran Act was in place. This Act made the Party register as a foreign agent. A “double 10” law guaranteed a $10,000 fine and ten years in prison for every day a Communist didn’t register as a foreign agent. Within a few days in the Party, Jarvis would have been completely broke and made to spend the rest of his life in prison. It was important in 1964 that the Du Bois Club prevailed over the Subversive Activities Control Board in these hearings. Similarly, in the late 1960’s when Angela Davis was on trial, President Nixon called her a terrorist and every newspaper had her photo as a wanted criminal. In spite of all these attempts, and in spite of her being given an all-white jury, she was unanimously acquitted. “McCarthyism was on the run,” Jarvis said. “It ain’t over yet, but the point is, if you fight, you can win.”

Jarvis Tyner came to the end of his talk with a stunning account of Martin Luther King Jr. and one of his lesser-known speeches. The Party enjoyed good talking relationships with a number of different leaders and Freedomways Magazine held an event at Carnegie Hall to honor the 100th birthday of W.E.B. Du Bois. Dr. King had agreed to speak at this event, and he had been on the receiving end of constant red-baiting over the years. The organizers of the event had serious concerns about mentioning Dr. Du Bois’ connections to the Party. Dr. Du Bois had publicly joined the Communist Party just before leaving for the newly independent Ghana in 1961 to act as chief editor the Encyclopedia Africana. In an earlier period, Jack O’Dell had to publically disconnect from the Party to reduce pressure on the SCLC and Dr. King, as Ian Rocksborough-Smith would illuminate in the afternoon panel. Over the course of Dr. King’s address, he made the following historic statement: “We cannot talk of Dr. Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years. It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln warmly welcomed the support of Karl Marx during the Civil War and corresponded with him freely. In contemporary life the English-speaking world has no difficulty with the fact that Sean O’Casey was a literary giant of the twentieth century and a Communist or that Pablo Neruda is generally considered the greatest living poet though he also served in the Chilean Senate as a Communist. It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our irrational, obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.” This quote is not well known, but as Tyner noted, “this national hero felt he had to go on the record as rejecting all that.”

Jarvis Tyner concluded his remarks by describing the pride he felt being a part of the Communist Party fighting the battle against racism: “Ben Davis, Claude Lightfoot, William Paterson, Claudia Jones – all Party leaders – set records in terms of fighting against racism. All the Party members understood the centrality of the fight against racism and the revolutionary character of African-American and people of color fighting for freedom; because American capitalism is rooted deep in the cement of racism, and is a source of great profits, and to divide and rule the working class.”

 

Ian Rocksborough-Smith opened Saturday afternoon’s panel by introducing the audience to Jack O’Dell, a lesser known figure in the Civil Rights Movement who nonetheless inspired Rocksborough-Smith’s African-American studies.

O’Dell was born in 1920’s Detroit which was emerging as an urban center of heavy industrial activity as well as a Petri dish of working-class culture and Black radicalism. While studying at Xavier College in New Orleans, he was inspired by the “Double-V” campaigns to support anti-racist struggles at home with anti-fascist struggle abroad. He terminated his enrollment and enlisted in the National Martime Union in 1943. During his travels along the African coasts, he encountered many Communists and began studying the works of Karl Marx and W.E.B. Du Bois. These experiences led him to develop into a “budding trade unionist,” as Nikhil Singh wrote, and he returned to the U.S. determined to destroy Jim Crow.

Although the NMU was one of the unions eliminated from the CIO in response to the McCarthy period, it was during this very period that O’Dell chose to join the Communist Party. At this time, he began to sell insurance in Montgomery where he simultaneously was involved in supporting the anti-segregationist movement. After FBI harassment forced him out of his job in 1958, he moved to New York City and volunteered as a Southern organizer for the March on Washington for Integrated Schools. The march brought a petition to Congress to enforce the Supreme Court decision of 1954.

In 1961, Jack O’Dell was first brought into contact with Martin Luther King when he was asked to promote a fundraiser for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) at Carnegie Hall. His ability to accept positions like this one as well as serving as a contributing editor to the more radical organization Freedomways, as he did in 1963, exemplifies his ability to move strategically and pragmatically, on a non-sectarian basis, according to the needs of the movement. His contributions to the magazine were both extensive and influential, proving to have an influence on the thinking of Dr. King himself as the latter began to expand his focus from Civil Rights into a broader criticism of the capitalist system.

As the FBI began to target radical forces within the Civil Rights Movement, certain figures were forced to resign from their roles in the movement in order for it to move forward. Among these figures were Jack O’Dell himself. O’Dell said that civil rights “adversaries could see where the movement was going, and it was going towards a critique of capitalism.” “The civil rights movement,” he added, “had entered the sphere of critiquing the system from the standpoint of poverty.” Expanding even further, Dr. King would eventually elucidate in his famous Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam War on the connections between poverty, racism, and militarism. Jack O’Dell later commented on these developments by noting that the class issues “which they had spent millions of dollars preventing from surfacing through say, the trade union movement, was now meeting them with the civil rights movement.” He then exclaimed, “That’s a hell of a dialectic, man!”

The circumstances which forced O’Dell out of the SCLC led him into his work with Freedomways. The contributions continued to have an historical effect as they had a great deal of influence over Jesse Jackson, who would later lead the Rainbow/PUSH coalition. When O’Dell joined People United to Save Humanity (PUSH) in 1972 he was held in high regards.

Rocksborough-Smith throughout his remarks impressed upon the audience the influence and power Jack O’Dell was able to have on and bring to the Civil Rights Movements on the basis of a non-sectarian approach. It was an approach that allowed him to bring together and work within various political strains while maintaining and applying a radical political orientation.

 

 

Gerald Horne’s participation in the Saturday afternoon panel was focused on the historical connection between the United States formation as a settler-colonialist state and its deeply reactionary nature, particularly with regard to race.

He began by arguing that while the colonists’ rebellion against British rule was a step forward out of the realm of religion as the foundation of society, it simultaneously replaced this foundation with a racial construction. His analysis brought to light the ways in which this revolt was founded on the logic of resisting abolitionism while resolving the ethnic conflicts that raged between various European ethnicities under a broader umbrella of “whiteness.” He noted the way in which similar decolonization struggles elsewhere that were founded on the resistance against abolitionism have historically resulted in a recalcitrant reactionary politics, while other former British colonies, who never rebelled, do not now suffer from the same politics of reaction, with racialized oppression operating on a fundamental level.

Harking back to the internationalism of Paul Robeson expounded upon the previous evening, Horne further argued that because of this deep entrenchment, external forces to the United States have been of fundamental importance to the struggles for liberation within its borders. In the same way that it would be difficult to imagine the end of apartheid in South Africa without the assistance of Cuban troops, backed by the global socialist camp, the role of the Black Jacobins in Haiti and the assistance of British abolitionists was instrumental to the defeat of racialized slavery in the U.S. “A lesson one can reasonably infer from these comparative global experiences with white supremacy is that settler colonialism, be it in North America or Southern Africa, is one of the most intractable progeny of capitalism and imperialism to corral, particularly in both cases where they have involved rebellions against colonialism – be it 1776 or the so-called Great Trek in South Africa in the 1830s as the Afrikaners sought to flee British rule so they too could continue enslaving Africans.”

Pointing out the connections between the Scottsboro case and the international pressure it brought down upon the United States; the leading role of the Communists in the mass national anti-racist mobilizations, with their connections to the socialist camp more globally; the indispensible role Moscow played in crushing Nazi fascism; and African-American affinities with Tokyo, Horne highlighted the important relationships between international and national struggle in beating back the colonial structures of racism within the U.S. The Civil Rights Congress petition, “We Charge Genocide,” brought by William Paterson to the United Nations in the early 1950’s, reinforces this point, translated as it was into many languages and having sold thousands of copies around the world.

The embarrassment caused to the United States in attempting to launch its attacks against the Soviet Union for human rights violations while its own persecution of Black Americans was coming into the international spotlight, forced it to terminate Jim Crow as a social project. This resulted in the United States shifting the focus of its repression onto the socialist movements. Despite this pressure, Communists and their allies maintained a powerful leadership role in the Black freedom movement.

In addition to the strength lent by the socialist project domestically and internationally to the anti-Jim Crow movement, the concurrent anti-colonial struggles in Africa played a significant role as well. Indeed, these movements were themselves sustained and backed by the broader socialist camp itself.

Subsequent international decisions on the part of the United States authorities may be seen in the light of undermining the socialist project in response to these pressures. Among these decisions include its alliance with backward forces in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, deals cut with China aimed at destroying unity between that country and the former U.S.S.R., and more recently, efforts to form closer relationships with Cuba, Japan, India, Vietnam, and Australia in order to isolate China as it increasingly emerges as an economic powerhouse.

Horne argued that the deterioration of class-based institutions in the United States has not only led to reduced strength in the anti-racist movements, but also a return to a “pre-1776 dispensation as we now see religious difference as a tool for bias.”

What Horne distilled throughout this profound discussion was the deep interconnection between American anti-communism and the attempt to maintain race as an organizing principle of society.

 

LaShawn Harris concluded the event with a presentation on Marvel Cooke, an influential journalist, civil rights activist, and active organizer with the Communist Party throughout the Civil Rights Movement.

Harris became acquainted with the life and work of Marvel Cooke in graduate school. She was presented with the 1935 article by Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke, “The Bronx Slave Market,” and became increasingly interested in the work of Cooke and other Black women Communists. In this piece, Cooke and Baker examined the effect of the Great Depression on New York African domestic workers and the atrocious urban slave market. Harris described the way Cooke, in her writing, “captured Black city dwellers in everyday politics,” and “vividly described working class people’s colorful lives and explored the laboring lives of a number of street vendors and self-proclaimed fortune tellers.”

“Cooke wrote for the New York Amsterdam News, was managing editor of Adam Clayton Powel’s The People’s Voice and in 1950 became the first Black woman reporter at the Daily Pompous. Cook’s activism spanned several decades. She was a member of several labor and Civil Rights organizations, including the American Newspaper Guild, the Civil Rights Congress, the Communist Party, and she worked in Angela Davis’ defense.”

Marvel Cooke was born on April 4th, 1903 in Mankato, Minnesota. In 1925, she moved to Harlem and was inspired by its cultural vitality and political atmosphere which “embraced a psychology of uplift and freedom,” and a “liberation ideology that emphasized self-respect self-determination, Black militancy, economic nationalism, and race solidarity.”

Cooke was one of many emerging Black women journalists of her time and her political analysis was particularly informed by the underclass experience. When she joined the Communist Party in 1930, the economic crisis in the United States was intensifying already profoundly difficult circumstances for African-Americans experiencing high rates of unemployment and poverty. As a child, her family provided her with a race- and class-conscious orientation. “We were taught that we must do something for our people, you know – join a crusade. We had a sense of pride and a sense of who we were, and that we must work to make things better. That was just inbred in us. It was a natural progression for me to have joined the Communist Party.”

Marvel Cooke’s involvement with the Party as a middle-class Black intellectual was unique. Most Black Party members were working-class. Outside the Party, many Black elites felt left organizations’ class emphases detracted from the necessary racial analysis needed in the context of the United States. Her role in the Party was mainly as an organizer working behind the scenes. She never ran for office or held prominent positions. The effectiveness of her personal approach in brining Black Americans closer to the Party, however, was well recognized.

Although Cooke did not consider her role as significant, she felt it developed her own work. According to her, the Party made her “a better reporter. It broadened my vision as to what society should look like, and what we would hope for America, which was to live up to the Constitution.”

The FBI began monitoring Cooke in the 1940s. In 1944, the FBI noted that Cooke, “had strong Communist leanings over a period of years and the CP regarded her as one of its most important Communists in Harlem.” In the mid-1950’s she was made to testify before McCarthy. Although many Black Communists left the Party during the period, Cooke remained active in it and continued forming ties with rising Civil Rights and other radical leaders in the post-World War II era. In 1969, she began working for the Angela Davis defense committee upon William Paterson’s request. The case had deeply angered her. She was enthusiastic about her involvement with this committee, which aimed to incorporate into its immediate goal of releasing Davis from prison a broader vision for liberation. Harris noted that, “Black Communists of the early and mid-20th century profoundly influenced the political philosophy of Civil Rights and Black power organizations including SNCC and the Black Panther Party.”

When Marvel Cooke died of leukemia in the early 2000s, she was celebrated by The Chicago Defender and Crisis Magazine as a persistent champion of civil and human rights. “Cook produced insightful articles that set out to inform New Yorkers about the world in which they lived. Her writings illuminated her commitment to raising the political and social consciousness of New Yorkers. But Cook’s writings were just one aspect of her fascinating life. The highly respected journalist was part of a dynamic group of African-American women that reshaped the American Left movement, and provided a continuity between what Darlene Clark Hine called ‘the total civil rights movement’ and the ‘2nd reconstruction of the 1950’s and 1960’s.’ “

 

Taken together, these discussions illuminated several themes with regard to the Communists’ style of work and the dimensions they brought to the struggle for civil rights as a mass movement. The long-term vision for a fundamentally different society of radical equality infused the Communists with a tremendous stamina. They were long-term strivers and strugglers. They understood the short-term goals and specifically oriented movements within the broader context of a historical march towards the socialist commonwealth. This vision was rooted in their vigorous studies of the world around them. They understood the reality of their current world as a process of development growing out of earlier social epochs. Working from a historical and dialectical perspective provided them with a framework for understanding the direction the struggle was moving towards and how to best guide it.

Not only did they situate their immediate placement in time within a broader view of history, but they understood their geographical placement within a broader global perspective. The internationalist perspective greatly informed their practice, strategies, and tactics. Without the incorporation of international strategies, the Civil Rights Movement could not have fought with the same degree of power and force.

Communists in the Civil Rights Movement also saw the importance of working on a mass basis, of involving themselves with the broadest possible struggles against the forces of reaction and repression immediately facing them. They understood that progress moves through stages of advance. Their non-sectarian approach to struggle earned their respect within these movements and allowed them to have a large degree of influence even with those who did not see themselves as Communists. This allowed them to build unity between the different struggles and to show the inner connections between them.

The power that the Communists brought to the contemporary struggles of their time was evidenced by the intense determination the ruling authorities demonstrated to route them out of existing movements. Yet, despite the intense pressure that they faced, they showed that when these repressive tactics are resisted with popular forces, they can be beat back.

In short, the presentations at Tamiment Library uncovered a rich repository of historical anecdotes that revealed the power that is brought to movement building when it enjoys the involvement and leadership, however subtle or unrecognized, of radical forces. It is impossible to ignore the degree to which a deep understanding of the historic and material roots of various forms of oppression, repression, and exploitation create the basis for finding points of unity in the struggle for an equitable, just, and sane world. But as the history shows, there are difficulties as well in establishing this unity. There are forces fundamentally opposed to these causes and predisposed to limit the vision of progressive forces, and they are well-practiced in the art of creating division. Progressive movements will achieve victory to the extent that they are able to stay one step ahead of their opponents, and history can provide them with the clues necessary to properly navigate their course.