Organizing in the Depression South, A Communist’s Memoir

James S. Allen

The "Negro Question" continued

This stand was disputed from the beginning by American Communists. At the very Congress where it was first proposed, John Reed, delegate of the Communist Labor Party, spoke against it. The Negroes, he held, were part of the American people, though underprivileged, and they wanted to be accorded their rightful place as such, with full equal rights. He rejected nationalist tendencies, as represented by the Garvey movement, as harmful to working-class interests, and urged integration as the ongoing policy, with emphasis upon unity of white and Black workers, although demands for social and political equality were also to be supported. [ix] This remained essentially the acknowledged stand of the American Communists, allowing for divergent views on Garvey and variations in the direction of nationalist sentiment, until the beginning of the crucial change in 1928–1930.

Public debate and polemic centered on the most novel and dramatic program demand of the International resolutions: the proposal for self-determination of Black Americans, based on their majority in the Black Belt of the old South, where they had the right to constitute a republic and choose between separation or federation with the federal government of the United States. The theoretical and historical derivation of this proposition and its subsequent history require further discussion elsewhere. Here let it be noted that this demand, common to most national independence struggles, was applied to the striving for Black freedom in the United States as a matter of general policy, without regard to the specific and unique context within which the struggle was taking place. Eventually, it was to be subordinated and dropped entirely. It did have the advantage at the time of centering Communist attention on the Black majority in the South, the region’s semifeudal formation as the internal source of racism, and most especially on the oppressive conditions of its Black population.

However, the real and lasting significance of the new position insofar as it affected the policies of the Party rests not so much on the form in which self-determination was projected but on the analysis and interpretation of the Black condition in America.

The prime importance of the new outlook was its recognition of Black Americans not only as racially distinct but as an oppressed national people and their struggle for equality as a freedom movement of a national type. The false dichotomy of nation (or race) versus class was thus overcome, for the interchange as well as the contradictions were seen within the context of the striving for equality and freedom. Effectively disposed of was the old dictum that for so long had hampered labor and radicals the supposedly pure class nature of the Negro question in the United States by comprehending its national-type quality as well as its mass base in the working class.

That very comprehension brought into central play the critical distinction between the respective working classes of the oppressing and the oppressed nations. In this situation workers of the former shared in the national chauvinism of their nation and those of the latter distrusted the oppressing nation as a whole, without distinction as to class. In the new understanding, it was the responsibility of the white workers, and particularly the Communists, to combat racism in their own ranks and elsewhere if the distrust of all whites by Blacks was to be mitigated. Black workers, and especially Communists among them, were expected to oppose separatist tendencies, to urge the unity of white and Black workers against the common enemy. In time, this distinction also had a countervailing effect, in encouraging the sense of identity and the consciousness of Blacks as a people that is, of an identity of a national kind, impelled and accelerated by the very condition of oppression by whites.

The distinction between the working classes of the oppressing and oppressed peoples provided the key to an effective struggle against racism in the American Communist Party and outward to the white working class in particular. A far-seeing, strategic revolutionary concept was associated with this distinction. Equality was not only a humanitarian and just aspiration that had been shared by abolitionists and latter-day reformers alike. It was required to assure reliable allies in the everyday working-class struggle against capitalist exploitation and social injustice. Beyond that, it was meant to gain a permanent ally along the road of basic social change. Thus, the entire problem of fighting racism in the Party and outward was placed as an axiom of the revolutionary perspective and not only into the future. Making proclamations about equality would hardly suffice. That axiom had to be imperatively and constantly proved in current action to gain the trust and confidence of the Black ally.

As already stated, the effort to make a change in this direction produced a virtual revolution in the American Communist Party. The Party was surprised, even greatly shocked, by the charge in both International resolutions that it was under racist (“white chauvinist”) influence. Moreover, it faced the pressing demand that it institute a constant fight against racism in its own ranks.

A campaign against racism was the first task seriously undertaken by the Party as a consequence of the new position elaborated at the Sixth Congress. At this point, the undertaking still lacked the theoretical insight that would give it real substance. White members tended to view accusations of racism as a personal insult, as a challenge to their worth as Communists, as a sort of pogrom to split the Party. Black members were emboldened to specify their complaints, and for this were often reprimanded as racist or nationalist, still used as a term of opprobrium. But as a whole, an extensive reeducation took place, as expressions and attitudes common to racist thinking were identified and explained. Such expressions and attitudes, most often used unconsciously and without malice, were resented by Blacks more than outright acts of discrimination and denigration. They revealed insensitivity, a consciousness unaware of the privileges enjoyed as a “superior” race at the expense of Blacks. Black Communists, precisely because of their deeper social understanding, had a keen sense of racial slurs and insults and of their rights, and stood on their dignity as a people on the way to freedom. In any case, the Party was beginning to understand that serious progress would be made in gaining the support of Black Americans not by assigning Black comrades to organize Black masses, but by the Party as a whole entering the fray as a free association of the races.

It took fully two years to overcome the initial internal resistance and make a meaningful turn in the policy and actions of the Party. The resistance was due not only to the persistent hold of racism in its various forms, although this was the chief obstacle. It was due also to opposition in the organization to the program of self-determination for the Black Belt majority of the South, a problem that was to remain for many years.

This latter problem, however, did not prevent the Party from understanding the crucial importance of the South as the seedbed of racism in the national consciousness. Until then the Party had hardly touched the South, long considered the graveyard of radicals. As already noted, Foster did tour the Southern cities in the 1928 national election campaign, and he proposed sending Communist organizers there. Scattered among Southern cities were a few Party sympathizers, and beached militant seamen carried on some activity in the Gulf ports. A Party branch in Norfolk, Virginia, had to be disbanded because it was so deeply infected by racism that it proved entirely inert. [x]

The first meaningful Communist attempt to organize Southern workers came in 1929, in the hard-fought, bloody strike of textile workers at Gastonia, North Carolina. The workers in the mills were, for the most part, recent migrants from the upcountry, from which they had been ousted by mine operators and by sheer poverty. Blacks were found only as caretakers and general laborers, since they were not employed in the mills as operators. A tacit but firmly followed understanding existed between the planters and the mill owners, who had moved South to exploit cheap and unorganized labor, that the Black labor supply on which the plantations depended would not be recruited by the mills.

Yet the color question did intrude. The Communist-led National Textile Workers Union, which guided the strike, was committed by its policy of industrial unionism to organize all workers within an enterprise, whether operators or laborers, not to speak of the basic commitment of the Communist leaders themselves. There were problems with the white workers, and even among the Communist organizers, about holding unsegregated meetings of the union. This was the first important experience of Communists with racism in the South. It cannot be said that they had notable success in solving the problem before the strike was broken by force. [xi]

However, Gastonia was on the coastal plain, in the recently industrialized area, away from the principal plantationsharecropping regions of the central plains and the Mississippi Delta. The Party’s first serious effort to organize in the Deep South, with its great concentration of Black population, came in early 1930. It was a direct consequence of the internal change in the Party and the new position on the struggle for Black freedom. The decision to proceed with the establishment of Party organization and of an openly Communist periodical in that part of the South confirmed the change in course.

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1. The supreme council of the ancient Hebrew nation was known as the Sanhedrin. That the All-Race Assembly was so designated emphasized the parallel, often drawn at that time, between the oppression of the Negro people and the situation of the Jewish people.

2. In a speech at the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International in 1928, James W. Ford reported no more than fifty Black members in the CPUSA (International Press Correspondence, August 3, 1928, pp. 772–73). At that time the Party may have had no more than 12,000 members. On the assessment of the American Negro Labor Congress as a replica of the Communist Party, see Otto Huiswood, head of the Negro Department, “Report to the Sixth Communist Party Convention,” Daily Worker, March 9 and 11, 1929; James Ford and William Wilson (William L. Patterson), “On the Question of the Work of the American Communist Party among Negroes,” (Discussion Article), Die Kommunistische Internationale, August 29, 1928, pp. 2132–46.

3. The critical support offered by the Party is perhaps best exemplified in its open letter to the Fourth International Convention of the UNIA in August, 1924. One of its central points was to propose a united fight against imperial- ism in Africa, without mentioning the Garvey slogan of “Back to Africa” (Daily Worker, August 5, 1924.) Among the leaders of the Party, Robert Minor and William F. Dunne were outstanding in sensing the nationalist quality of the Black freedom fight. See, for example, Minor, “The Black Ten Million,” Liber- ator, February-March, 1924, and “The First Negro Workers Congress,” Workers Monthly, December 1925; Dunne, “Negroes in American Industry,”

4. The Congresses of the Communist International and also of the Red International of Labor Unions (RILU) served as tribunals for Black American Communists who attended them as delegates of the U. S. Party. The Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922 was first attended by American Blacks. Otto E. Huiswood, a national organizer of the African Blood Broth- erhood, came as part of the official U. S. Party delegation, and Claude McKay, the Black poet and recent coeditor of the Liberator, was an invited fraternal delegate. In his speech there, McKay warned that “racism is the greatest difficulty that the Communists of America have still to overcome the fact that they first have to emancipate themselves from the ideas they entertain towards the Negroes before they can be able to reach the Negroes with any kind of radical program” (International Press Correspondence, January 5, 1923, pp. 16–17). That Congress was the first to devote a special session to the Negro and to establish a commission to deal with the Negro question in the United States and other countries. Among many published criticisms of racism in the American Party that may be cited is an article by Lovett Fort-Whiteman, then a student in Moscow and later the national organizer of the American Labor Congress, in the official organ of the Communist International. Writing under the name of James Jackson, he stated that Communist influence among Negroes is weak because “the Communists have not recognized and accepted as a starting base the peculiar social disabilities imposed upon the race” (Communist International, November, 1924, pp. 50–54). Particularly noteworthy in this respect is the speech of James W. Ford at the Sixth Comintern Congress, already referred to, as well as the speech of Otto Hall (Jones) at the same congress (ibid., August 8, 1928, pp. 811–12). Also on racism in the CP, see Cyril Briggs, “Our Negro Work,” Communist, September, 1929. Ford was named a member of the executive committee of the RILU.

5. The phrase appears in his report to the Fifth Party Convention in August, 1927 (Daily Worker, September 22, 1927).

6. One may cite, for example, Wilson Record, The Negro and the Communist Party, Chapel Hill, 1951, long considered in many quarters a standard text on the subject. Though it is well researched and annotated, the text is seriously marred by a simplistic, negative approach to the Communist International and the relation of the CPUSA to it. “Orders from Moscow” were not automatically followed, as the author would have it. The fierce factional fight in the Party, for instance, continued for years, despite pressure from Moscow to stop the “unprincipled” struggle. In his speech, previously cited, at the Sixth World Congress, James W. Ford had this to say: “By investigating the archives of the Comintern, we have discovered that during the last few years no less than 19 resolutions and documents upon the Negro question have been sent by the

7. “Russians and Negroes,” February, 1913 (Lenin on the United States: Selected Writings by V.I. Lenin, New York, 1970, pp. 58–59).

8. Lenin, Capitalism and Agriculture in the United States of America, ibid., pp. 123–131).

9. See The Second Congress of the Communist International, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1920, pp. 151–54.

10. See Irving Keith, “Organizing Virginia,” Daily Worker, May 6, 1929.

11. See Cyril Briggs, “The Negro Question in the Southern Textile Strikes,” Communist, June, 1929, pp. 324–28, and “Further Notes on the Negro Question in Southern Textile Strikes,” Communist, July, 1929, pp. 391–94.