Organizing in the Depression South, A Communist’s Memoir

James S. Allen

MEP Publications, Minneapolis


  • Chapter 1. The "Negro Question"
    The First Chapter of  the complete book (in PDF)
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  • 2. We Go South
  • 3. Founding the Southern Worker
  • 4. The Beginning of Communist Organization
  • 5. Tallapoosa
  • 6. Scottsboro
  • 7. The Decatur Trial
  • 8. Epilogue


  • A. The Workers (Communist) Party in the South, by William Z. Foster
  • B. Credo of the Southern Worker: What Do We Stand For?
  • C. Call for Mass Conference against Lynch Law, issued by the Provisional Organization Committee for the South of the American Negro Labor Congress
  • D. Farmers of the South, Fight Starvation! Appeal by Communist Party
  • E. Scottsboro Parents Statement


The publisher thanks Professor Robin D. G. Kelley for providing the manuscript of this work on a computer file under James S. Allen’s original title, Communism in the Deep South: The Opening, 1930–31 A Political Memoir.


The years 1930 and 1931 may be considered the beginning of a new phase of Southern history, although few may have realized it at the time. Consider the events of those days.

The nine Black Scottsboro Boys were saved from the electric chair by a nationwide mass protest movement, projected on a world scale as well. Previously, the mere accusation of raping a white woman would customarily have assured the destruction of a Black male by a mob or court.

The miners of the Kentucky fields, centered in Harlan, engaged in a long, bloody strike against a conspiracy to deny them a decent life. Big mine operators; the local and state governments; sheriffs’ posses and thugs hired by the employers, supported by troops, combined against them. The miners finally gained union recognition, better conditions, and the right to live in their own homes instead of company houses, and to buy provisions wherever they pleased in a word, to enjoy a breath of freedom. Black sharecroppers and poor farmers of Tallapoosa County, Alabama, organized their first union, beat back armed bands numbering hundreds who raided their homes and shot on sight. They not only survived, but grew into a force to be reckoned with by the planters and credit merchants.

The impact of these events was lasting, for they challenged the central pillars of Southern society. The union in Tallapoosa challenged the sharecropping plantation system. The Scottsboro defense movement challenged the entire false ideology of white superiority and Black inferiority that distorted and disfigured the juridical and political structure of the region, diseased the mentality of practically the entire white population, and kept the Blacks in submission. The militant Harlan miners gave warning, as did the Gastonia, North Carolina, textile strikers of 1929, of the new unrest to be expected from the industrialization that was to bring about a “New South.” The latter had been predicted since the turn of the century and was still to be long in coming.

Much has already been truly recorded about each of these episodes, and the telling continues to the present day, a halfcentury after their occurrence. The Scottsboro story has been told in full-length books, including a substantial scholarly work, in a popular television documentary, in poetry, in numerous essays and commentaries. Harlan is accorded an honored place in labor history, is the subject of an exciting television drama, shown at commercial movie theaters as well, and of other literary efforts. The events at Camp Hill and Reeltown, Alabama, are prominently reported in a study by the federal government of efforts to organize rural unions. The sharecroppers’ epic is also preserved in a lengthy academic oral history, in books, in poems, and in other literary works. The folk songs born in these struggles have become a part of our national heritage.

Yet nothing of substance has been written about the Communist initiative in bringing about this primary awakening. True, there have been some passing references to the Communist contribution in a few histories. Whatever more extended remarks have appeared are mostly of a derogatory nature, sometimes outrageously libelous and calumnious, ignorant or unthinking repetitions of outright lies and myths. I do not mean to imply that amid all this debris there is not also some critical comment worthy of serious consideration, with which I intend to deal. The crucial Communist effort nevertheless remains unknown or obscure.

This book is an attempt to fill the gap. It makes no pretense at being a history, formal or otherwise, of the period as a whole. That is still to be done by an enterprising historian. Mine is a personal memoir a political memoir if you please, for which I alone am responsible.

I was a member of a small team of Communists who ventured into the Deep South in early 1930; I was a participant and close observer of this first effort at Communist organization in the region. Even after leaving, I remained a student of its history and continuing development.

Few contemporaries of that time are still around with whom to compare and consult, but fortunately I had many of my own writings of the period to use critically when memory alone proved insufficient or unreliable, as it often does. I drew heavily on the weekly tabloid periodical, the Southern Worker, which I edited and which recorded the events and opinions as reported and written about at the time and on the spot by our many correspondents as well as by staff. I had kept a file of letters to family and friends and many of the articles and essays written later. My own two books on the South (The Negro Question in the U.S. and Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy), products of long and arduous studies begun while I was still in the region, supplied background and historical perspective.

I must admit at the start that we were subversives, as so often charged. We did conspire to change the Southern social order, to uproot its remnants of slavery, to improve the life conditions of Blacks and whites as well and to humanize, to civilize relations between them. Yes, as again often charged, socialism was our goal for the South as well as the North but we knew it was in the future. In the meantime, the order of things had to be improved. Along the way we wanted to overcome racism and the know-nothingism and obscurantism that continued to mar our history and current perceptions. And if socialism is the outcome of efforts such as these, why not?

I do not write here in condemnation of an entire region and its white people. Rather, I explore the distortions and disfigurations brought about by the specific turns and twists of history resulting in the particular class and ethnic formations that generated the superstitions and prejudices implanted in a people otherwise often well-meaning, civil, and friendly. These disfigurations are human failings that people can overcome, as they have been in the process of doing, as underlying conditions shift.

New York, January 1984

The “Negro Question”

The first Communist efforts at organization in the Deep South in 1930 were the result of a gradual evolution of policy over a period of ten years. This was not, as some simplistically assume, on “orders from Moscow,” or out of a self-serving desire to enhance the prestige of the Party merely by making a gesture in the direction of impressing Black Americans. The initiative for this new crusade arose from multiple impulses and pressures, inside the Party and from the outside.

The decade of the 1920s was, for the Communists of the United States, a period of transition, during which program and policies were defined in their essentials and the nature of the organization and its activities was determined. The split in the Socialist Party in 1919, when its left wing broke away to form, initially, two new parties the Communist Labor Party and the Communist Party (to be merged in 1921) marked clearly enough the basic divisions between the reformist and the revolutionary wings of the socialist movement. The crisis had been brewing in every socialist party for years and led inexorably to the chasm between those supporting World War I and the opponents of their country’s participation in an imperialist war. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was the catalyst that brought the crisis to a head.

The split, however, was only a beginning. The substance and the form of the new party were still to be worked out. This is not the place to go into the trials, experiments, failures, and successes of the process. The Party was engulfed in a fierce factional struggle during most of this period. Subject to constant persecution and harassment a condition that was to be repeated periodically the Communist Party finally did emerge as a single, unified organization in 1929, coincident with the outbreak of the Great Depression. It had also, despite numerous handicaps and obstruction, gained experience in the labor movement. Particularly in efforts to organize the unorganized into industrial unions, it engaged in coalition politics in the cause of Black freedom, and in defense of the foreign-born. The Party also perfected the policy and techniques of mass defense on behalf of labor leaders and activists prosecuted for their activities.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the transition involved the understanding of and approach to the situation of Black Americans. The prevailing position of the Socialist Party, shared generally by its left wing before the split, can be expressed simply: The Negro question will be solved along with the labor question since, in the vast majority of cases, Blacks are part of the laboring classes; thus socialism will in the end assure full equality. The special situation of Black Americans was hardly recognized, the specific demands of Black workers in addition to those common to the established unions were, on the whole, neglected, and the racist stereotypes that prevailed in society were to be found in the Socialist Party as well.

Among the Socialists there were notable exceptions, of course. Attempts were made to oppose the exclusion policy of the trade unions, and some outstanding Socialists, Black and white (W. E. B. Du Bois, William English Walling, and Charles Edward Russell, among others) supported militantly the defense of civil rights, notably in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. NAACP support came almost entirely from the middle class.

That was not the only diverse current among the Socialists. A number of Black members felt that their party was overlooking the color question. Chandler Owens and A. Philip Randolph (who was later to organize the Pullman porters) issued the Messenger, a socialist magazine published in New York which focused on the situation and problems of Black Americans. With the split, the editors remained in the old party, but from the group gathered around them emerged a new publication, the Crusader, edited by Cyril Briggs. It was favorably inclined toward the Soviet Revolution, welcomed the appeal of the Communist International to fight imperialism, and also leaned toward the Communist Party of the United States. From its inspiration and its ranks arose the African Blood Brotherhood, which supplied the first Black Communist recruits in the early 1920s, among them members who became top-ranking Party leaders. During the great race riots of 1919–20, the Brotherhood, many among them veterans of the World War, urged armed resistance by Blacks, helped organize and lead it, and in some places turned racist attacks on them into virtual battles.

Racism runs deep in this country, and in those days it was practically universal, affecting all classes and strata of people. The established unions were deeply infected with race prejudice, sharpened by competition for jobs as Blacks came into Northern industry from the South in greater numbers. This also affected the white immigrants from Europe who formed so large a segment of the expanding working class before World War I. The greater part of the old Socialist Party consisted of the language federations of the foreign-born, and the largest of them went with the Communists in the split.

Neither of the new Communist Parties at their formation had either a Black delegate or a substantial reference to the Black condition in the initial programs. No one really challenged the Socialist position on this question at that time. If, as the old program held, the Negro question was simply part of the labor question, there was little need to direct any special attention to the condition or the specific needs of the Black population, including its workers. Lynching, race riots, and other excesses were to be condemned, of course, but the protests against them did not go beyond the limits of “legality” set by the NAACP and the reformers. Only the African Blood Brotherhood, some other outspoken Blacks (among them the poet Claude McKay), and even ministers from their pulpits called for armed defense against mobs and lynchers.

All this soon affected the early Communists, but no doubt the greater and most direct influence arose from the exodus of Blacks from the South into Northern industry. With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, the supply of immigrant labor was cut off at a time when American industry had begun one of its great cycles of expansion to meet the demand for armaments abroad.

Previously, Northern industry spurred by the Civil War and later by the “Manifest Destiny” concept that set the country on the imperialist road at the turn of the century had depended upon the succeeding waves of immigrants from Europe. In later phases, peasants from Eastern Europe predominated, and they were joined by the farmers of the western reaches of North America who were being displaced by the efficient new machinery, the onerous burden of mortgage and credit debt, price disparities, and giant farms. Now, under the necessities created by the world crisis, the Northern industrialists for the first time seriously tapped the Black labor supply that had been bound to the soil in the South and hampered by all-encompassing racial restrictions. Agents were sent South to recruit this labor force directly with glorified accounts of the new life awaiting them. The resistance, even violent intervention, of the planters could not stem the tide.

At least one million Black workers came into Northern industry directly from the rural South during the war, and another million in the first half of the 1920s. They were raw, inexperienced in any kind of mass organization, ignorant of the struggle for unionism. In the new environment, they again found themselves placed at the lowest economic and social levels, housed in slums, and subjected to mob attack. At first ignored by the unions, which saw them merely as job competitors and strikebreakers, the new Black proletarians remained on the fringes of society. A very basic change had occurred, however: a Black industrial proletariat had been created overnight late in history, it is true, but nonetheless crucial for the freedom and progress of the African American people.

The mass migrations were induced by outside forces, over which neither the Blacks nor their bosses had any control. Yet the exodus was a form of rebellion against the semislavery of their Southern existence, or the Blacks would not have departed so readily or eagerly. In the second decade of the twentieth century, the memory of the earlier rebellions, to speak only of the Civil War and its aftermath, had dimmed or had given way to hopelessness and despair. After the defeat of the slave-owning South, Reconstruction was a valiant attempt to revolutionize the old society and to give the freedmen a rightful place in the life and governance of the region.

The "Negro Question" continued

The failure of Reconstruction left, as a heritage of the old days, the restored or reconstituted plantation based on sharecropping and related forms of tenancy. Upon that renewed socioeconomic foundation, the planters restored their power over Southern society (“Home Rule,” as it was called), at least in the Deep South states where their dominance had hardly been challenged in the past. They also resumed an influential position in federal government (always on the reactionary side), although by then the aggressive industrial-financial oligarchy activated by the Civil War was irrevocably on top.

The modes of labor exploitation peculiar to the reconstituted agrarian system and the racist ideology that it generated penetrated into practically every nook and corner of society. The brief interim of the Southern phase of the populist revolt in the 1890s seemed to promise some kind of coalition between white and Black farm people against the ruling combination of planter, credit merchant, and banker, now supported by the North and its important business institutions. But the revolt foundered on the rocks of racism. Populist leaders like Tom Watson and Ben Tillman introduced a new brand of racist demagogues who plagued the South and the rest of the country as well. Then came the grandfather clauses and the restoration of many restrictions against Blacks that had been set aside in most states during Reconstruction. Between that period and the great wartime exodus, a dark interval of despair and hopelessness intervened, with little prospect of change. No wonder, then, that the trek to the North soon became a torrent that cut deep gullies into the old South and transformed the composition of the Northern laboring class.

For the Blacks, it was not only an escape from ancient bondage, but a transformation of their entire social structure. Those who came North and also the smaller number who migrated to the few Southern industrial centers not only changed their position geographically but also changed their class status. From a half-free peasantry, they became a half-free working class. In this new situation, even with its limitations and disadvantages, the Black wage earner had found a place in modern capitalist society, although as a segregated and underprivileged member of the working class as a whole. A new potential was thus created for overcoming the restrictions imposed upon the Black worker and Black people in general.

Communists could not for long remain impervious to the import and potential of such a fundamental change in class composition, in effect the instantaneous emergence of a new sector of the class. The Communists saw the necessity of organizing Black workers together with whites, or, failing that, of setting up independent unions of Black workers as a means of forcing their entry into a resistant labor movement. Calling often for such solidarity, Communists made some valiant efforts in that direction.

Their projection was outward, toward the mass of Negro workers. An official Party delegation, as well as one from the African Blood Brotherhood, took part in the Sanhedrin, [i] the All-Race Assembly, which convened in Chicago in 1924. It was the first significant postwar attempt at a nationwide gathering of all Black civil rights forces. The Party and Brotherhood delegations, with little support among the delegates, sought to commit the assembly to a prolabor position. They failed, since the Assembly was completely dominated by aspiring middle-class and professional elements, aloof from the mass of Black labor. In this climate, the Assembly proved abortive.

The following year, almost on their own and without taking the trouble to find allies, the Communists organized the American Labor Congress in Chicago. The broad, far-reaching resolutions and positions worked out there went well beyond the demands of labor to include the social and political complaints of the Black population. Many of these demands were to become accepted standards and laws in years to come, and the program was even then recognized as one every Black civil rights group could accept. The young corps of Black organizers of the Congress, drawn mostly from the African Blood Brotherhood, became valuable Communist activists. But this Congress also proved abortive, for it was so narrowly conceived and formed that it turned out to be more like a Black replica of the Communist Party than the beginning of an effective mass organization as was soon acknowledged by the Communist leaders themselves when they turned to a critical examination of their work.

What was wrong? Why did the Communists, despite their determination to reach the most exploited layers of the working class, have only a handful of Black members toward the end of the decade? [ii] Their public pronouncements against lynching and other depredations, their position favoring equality, their stand on civil rights, their urgent calls to organize Black workers into the existing unions these were to the point and in the right direction, far exceeding their own initial approach. Why no real progress?

In brief, it may be answered that the Communists, even then, still failed to understand in what respect the “Negro question” was more than a pure class question. While discrimination arising from race prejudice could not possibly be ignored, it was seen largely as it applied to the exploitation of Black workers and not as characteristic of attitudes toward the entire Black population. The Communists may have made substantial progress toward overcoming the neglect characteristic of the labor movement, as well as the old Socialist movement, but they had not touched the heart of the problem, nor undertaken the fundamental thinking that was needed to find the way.

Symptomatic of this failing was the ambivalence toward the Garvey movement, by far the biggest mass upsurge among Black Americans since Reconstruction. With all its fantastic fanfare and regalia, and despite its mistaken slogan of “Back to Africa,” during its brief heyday in the first half of the 1920s it was an extraordinarily significant expression of the rebellious sentiment of millions of Black Americans, of their hopes and aspirations for some form of greater freedom. It was certainly nationalist, as then expressed in race terms, in the sense that it sought to establish identity as a distinct people seeking an acknowledged and honored place among the nations.

This the American Communists (with a few notable exceptions) could not grasp, although they were impressed by the sweep of the upsurge and the early prolabor stand of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). They sent delegations to its conventions and offered cooperation on issues shared in common. At the same time, they condemned the “Back to Africa” idea as utopian and a diversion from the real problems faced here at home. They also deplored the gradual departure from the initial prolabor program and antiimperialist emphasis of the Association, as well as its refusal to condemn the Ku Klux Klan. [iii] When Garvey was prosecuted by the federal government on convenient mail-fraud charges, the Daily Worker, organ of the Communist Party, charged frame-up and rose to his defense. After his conviction and imprisonment, the UNIA was split by an internal struggle for power, and in 1925 began to disintegrate. Upon serving his prison term, Garvey was deported to Jamaica and his influence waned almost entirely. In the end, the Communists turned completely against the remaining Garvey organizations as obstacles to workingclass solidarity and objectives.

Here then was one source of the trouble the failure to perceive the nationalist quality of the fight for Black freedom as an authentic and potent force in the struggle for social change. While a few saw that potential, the tendency to condemn it as anti–working class prevailed. In general, the Party took a “for or against” position a confrontation on the basis of the contradictions rather than a recognition that the Black freedom cause had both nationalist and class content, often in conflict as contradictions are bound to be, but nevertheless components of a single movement.

A deeper and more pernicious source can also be discerned, which to a large measure was responsible for the inability to appreciate the nationalist quality. It is a revealing commentary on the prevailing atmosphere in the Party that it was the few Black members who most persistently and constantly raised the problem of racism as it existed in the organization itself. True, some white leaders did so as well, but the Black Communists were the ones who had to identify the personal indignities they suffered, the lack of consultation with them, and their absence from the higher, directing posts and committees. Many Black comrades who had joined in the earlier years left the Party because of the racism they encountered there and the asperity with which their charges were often met. Others remained to carry on the struggle, taking it into the international gatherings of Communists, where their complaints were better understood and encouraged. [iv]

The "Negro Question" continued

Obviously, the primary lesson was still to be learned: the Party was also victim to the racism prevailing in the country, the heritage of a long historical development, renewed constantly by the continuing persistence of the old Southern structure. It was bolstered by the expansionism and imperialism of the United States. U.S. wars of conquest, in addition to the African slave trade, were waged against other races. We fought the Indians of our own land, as well as the Indians and their descendants in Mexico and in large parts of Central America and the Caribbean, where there were also many of African descent. We subjugated Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Filipinos, and later fought wars of conquest against Koreans and Vietnamese. For a long time, we excluded Asians from our country and during World War II, we placed Japanese-Americans in concentrations camps under onerous conditions. Thus, great-power imperialist chauvinism, with its arrogance and pretenses of superiority, and the racism born of our own internal history, nurtured each other.

It cannot be said that the Party succumbed to this general ambiance, for it understood early on and fought against the aggressive, interventionist actions of its own government from opposition to the first World War as imperialist through every armed intervention or threat to the peoples of Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere.

The Party was not immune to prevailing racial attitudes, but the racism that penetrated the Party was transmitted primarily through the working class, from whose struggles it was formed and which is its fundamental base. This is a significant consideration, not because racism among workers is any less properly, it is necessary to dispense with the mistaken and distorted view that the Communist International was an alien, evil force responsible for all the mistakes and failures of the Communist Party of the United States.6 Like other political associations, the International did make some serious mistakes, as did the American Party. But among its many benefits was the unique aid it rendered the American Party on the problem that had been plaguing it from the start. The position elaborated through the International on the situation of Black Americans proved not only a great boon to the Party, but was an invaluable contribution in the struggle to overcome racism in the United States as a whole. This may appear at first to be an overdrawn conclusion, but this conclusion stands the test of time. obnoxious than among others, but because it is more susceptible to change. The racism that filtered through the working-class medium to affect the Party and labor militant is deeply classtinged. To be sure, this did not prevent the exclusion of Blacks from trade unions or other discriminatory practices. But it is also true that prejudices against national minorities of whatever race and they were probably the majority in the industrial proletariat are prone to be set aside when they interfere with practical class objectives, such as winning a great strike, as had been demonstrated in many such instances in our labor history. When this happened, it did not mean that national chauvinism and racism in various guises had been eliminated, but it did signify progress in that direction.

More time and much experience would be required to recognize that the particular needs of Black workers, which arise from their late entry into the working class and their underprivileged position in it and in society, must be incorporated in the demands of labor, and that Black workers need to be accorded an equal place in labor organizations. Without such steps, their solidarity on an enduring basis cannot be gained. It would take still more effort, and hard critical thinking, to appreciate the broad strategic advantage of gaining the confidence not only of Black workers but of other Black Americans in order to make real progress toward a new and just social order.

Unfortunately, the past record of militants and the Left, including the Communists, in fighting racism in the labor movement could hardly be considered successful.

It is true that many efforts were made to overcome this obstacle, going back to the years immediately following the Civil War. The leaders of the National Labor Union, formed in 1866 as the first effort at nationwide organization in the modern period, did see the need to organize the Black craft workers and laborers. In the South there were many more Black mechanics and laborers than white in industry, and the Blacks had their own unions among craftsmen and in the tobacco, shipcaulking, construction, and lumber industries, as well as on the docks. Attempts were made both by the National Labor Union and by the Colored National Labor Union, formed in 1869, to bring about unity. These efforts foundered on the rocks of racism, as expressed in the refusal of Northern white unions (there were few in the South) to admit Blacks as members, and on the political differences arising from opposing outlooks concerning Reconstruction.

The American Marxists of the time, members of the First International, were instrumental in organizing unions among Black workers in the North but failed to recognize the revolutionary implication of Reconstruction. They seemed to ignore entirely the main body of Black toilers in the South in transition from slavery to a half-free form of land tenancy. At times, the Knights of Labor, precursor of the American Federation of Labor, did pay attention to the needs of Black workers, and the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) in the years before World War I, did include Negro labor in some of its great, but sporadic, organizing drives. The left wing of labor, led first by Socialists and then by Communists, fought the conservative leadership of the American Federation of Labor. They opposed its narrow concept of craft unionism and favored industrial unions and the organization of the vast body of the unorganized. This of necessity included, perhaps overwhelmingly, all ethnic and racial groups. But successes were few and did not result in any significant changes in the movement at a whole. The concerted effort to recruit Black workers did not come until the rise of the new industrial unions of the CIO in the 1930s. By then, the Black workers, more experienced and class conscious, more assertive of their rights, joined on their own in the organization drives. By then, also, Communists and other left militants had learned the essential lesson and become prime movers in the vast undertaking.

Before this could happen, a virtual internal revolution had to take place in the Party. At the height of the inner-Party warfare late in the 1920s, Jay Lovestone, then its leader, declared that the Black peasantry of the South, which fed the stream of Black labor into the North, was “the reserve of reaction.” [v] This assertion was a revelation of his outlook and that of many of his supporters. The position revealed ignorance or total disregard of American history, and the nature of the present reality of the South and of the oppression of Blacks. It also departed from the Leninist concept of the alliance of the working class with the peasantry and with oppressed peoples fighting for freedom. That judgment was indignantly repudiated by the Black comrades and by the opposing faction led by William Z. Foster as an unforgivable concession to reaction and racism.

Nevertheless, by 1928 the Party was making progress in overcoming its difficulties in this respect. Its national nominating convention in May had twenty-four Black delegates. The section of the election platform dealing with Black Americans was comprehensive and may be considered among the most satisfactory statements on the subject until then. It spoke vaguely of the “racial class system,” but also declared, “The Communist Party is the party of the liberation of the Negro race from all white oppression.” It recognized the unique and semifeudal nature of the Southern agrarian system. A number of Negro candidates were run for local and legislative offices.

Outstanding in the campaign was the tour of the South by William Z. Foster, the presidential candidate of the Party. He had meetings in Louisville, Birmingham, New Orleans, Atlanta, Norfolk, and Richmond. Foster and campaign workers were arrested in Wilmington, Delaware, because publicity for the meeting included the demand for Black equality, a demand that the authorities considered a breach of the peace. These were the first Communist meetings to be held in most of those cities. In an article in the November 1928 Communist, Foster urged the elaboration of a Party program for the South and the founding of Party organizations in that region. Significant also were the inclusion of some Black comrades in the top national and regional committees and the appointment in Buffalo of the first Black district organizer.

Obviously, the Party was by now more keenly aware of the need for a fundamental change in its position on the “Negro question.” But by itself it seemed unable to accomplish the decisive turn. It needed help from the outside, from associates unaffected by the American race epidemic and with the experience of dealing with movements of a nationalist type. This help came from the Communist International. To understand this properly, it is necessary to dispense with the mistaken and distorted view that the Communist International was an alien, evil force responsible for all the mistakes and failures of the Communist Party of the United States. [vi] Like other political associations, the International did make some serious mistakes, as did the American Party. But among its many benefits was the unique aid it rendered the American Party on the problem that had been plaguing it from the start. The position elaborated through the International on the situation of Black Americans proved not only a great boon to the Party, but was an invaluable contribution in the struggle to overcome racism in the United States as a whole. This may appear at first to be an overdrawn conclusion, but this conclusion stands the test of time.

The position was expounded in two resolutions of the International. One was a consequence of discussion before and during the Sixth World Congress of the Communist International in 1928, and the other was a more elaborate statement by its executive body in 1930. These documents were preceded by years of discussion and debate, begun by Lenin as early as 1913 [vii] and with the participation of American Communist leaders to some extent since 1920, and more intensively during the months of preparation for the Sixth World Congress. Leading American Communists were in the preparatory committees charged with presenting the question in the form of a draft resolution to the Congress as a whole.

This is not the place to record a full history of the question. Suffice it to recall that Lenin included, in a draft resolution on the national and colonial question he presented to the Second World Congress of the Communist International in 1920, the American Negro people among the oppressed nations of the world, and continued to press this view in subsequent articles. In an early study he had defined the semislave condition of Black Americans and compared it with the semifeudal situation of Russian peasants after the abolition of serfdom. [viii] He had also shown the distinctive characteristics of Southern society based on this historical development, as distinguished from the rest of American society. Now, by 1920, he had concluded, historical development had resulted in the formation of an oppressed Negro nation within the confines of American society. Negro freedom struggles should be supported by the world Communist movements, he urged, along with the liberation movements of other oppressed peoples.

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.


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.