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The Cry Was Unity

The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936

Mark Solomon
Copyright Date: 1998
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  • Book Info
    The Cry Was Unity
    Book Description:

    The Communist Party was the only political movement on the left in the late 1920s and 1930s to place racial justice and equality at the top of its agenda and to seek, and ultimately win, sympathy among African Americans. This historic effort to fuse red and black offers a rich vein of experience and constitutes the theme ofThe Cry Was Unity.

    Utilizing for the first time materials related to African Americans from the Moscow archives of the Communist Inter-national (Comintern),The Cry Was Unitytraces the trajectory of the black-red relationship from the end of World War I to the tumultuous 1930s. From the just-recovered transcript of the pivotal debate on African Americans at the 6th Comintern Congress in 1928, the book assesses the impact of the Congress's declaration that blacks in the rural South constituted a nation within a nation, entitled to the right of self-determination. Despite the theory's serious flaws, it fused the black struggle for freedom and revolutionary content and demanded that white labor recognize blacks as indispensable allies.

    As the Great Depression unfolded, the Communists launched intensive campaigns against lynching, evictions, and discrimination in jobs and relief and opened within their own ranks a searing assault on racism. While the Party was never able to win a majority of white workers to the struggle for Negro rights, or to achieve the unqualified support of the black majority, it helped to lay the foundations for the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s.

    The Cry Was Unityunderscores the successes and failures of the Communist-led left and the ways in which it fought against racism and inequality. This struggle comprises an important missing page that needs to be returned to the nation's history.

    Mark Solomon, an emeritus professor at Simmons College, is the author ofRed and Black: Communism and Afro-Americans, 1929-1935,Death Waltz to Armageddon: E. P. Thompson and the Peace Movement, andStopping World War II(with Michael Myerson).

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-252-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-XII)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. XIII-XVI)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. XVII-XXVIII)

    This is the completion of a project that began in the 1970s and was put aside when other interests took over. However, several factors converged to bring me back to the book. First, the archives of the Communist International were opened, making materials available that promised an enriched understanding of the encounter between African Americans and Communists. There was also the ever present responsibility to scores of people who had opened their hearts and minds at a time when it was still not easy to discuss Communist connections. My debt to them could only be repaid by producing this book....

  6. Part I The Early Years, 1917–28

    • Chapter One The Pioneer Black Communists: Cyril Briggs and the African Blood Brotherhood
      (pp. 3-21)

      They came to communism by ones and twos. The first African American to enter the emerging Communist Party in 1919 was Otto Huiswoud who was from Surinam (formerly the Dutch West Indies). He had been active in the Harlem 21st Assembly District club of the Socialist Party, where he met Arthur P. Hendricks from British Guiana. Coming from similar colonial backgrounds, they became close friends and together joined the Socialist left wing, which was destined to be expelled from the Socialist Party and propel the party’s left toward communism. Hendricks was a theology student with a powerful, persuasive intellect and...

    • Chapter Two Looking for the Black United Front
      (pp. 22-37)

      The presence of ABB delegates at the Workers Party convention in December 1921 was a bruising point of contention between the ABB and Marcus Garvey. Garvey had arrived in New York in 1916 from his native Jamaica, where two years earlier he had founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Nurtured in the racially stratified West Indies, Garvey brought to those blacks in the United States who bore the stress of new urban living a message of racial nobility, strength, and beauty. As for whites, Garvey insisted that their racial prejudice was congenital; appeals to white society’s sense of justice and...

    • Chapter Three The Comintern’s Vision
      (pp. 38-51)

      The last quarter of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth beheld the rise of modern imperialism. That phenomenon sparked a debate among Marxists about the importance of the “colonial question” to the interests of the laboring masses of the industrial nations. It preoccupied the Seventh Congress of the Second (Socialist) International, held at Stuttgart, Germany, in 1907.¹

      V. I. Lenin, in attendance at that congress, had begun to attack proponents of “pure revolution,” based solely on the working class. He sensed that turn-of-the-century czarist Russia was weakened by the presence of oppressed nationalities and by a peasantry...

    • Chapter Four The American Negro Labor Congress
      (pp. 52-67)

      The American Negro Labor Congress was supposed to transform the entire American racial and social landscape. It would be a centralized movement of black protest led by labor; it would cleanse organized labor of racial prejudice and heal its crippling inner divisions; it would help lay the groundwork for industrial unionism; it would turn the black masses away from bourgeois misleaders and advance the “hegemony” of the working class; it would be black America’s contribution to training and leadership of the worldwide anti-imperialist movement. This was a tall order.¹

      ANLC’s organizers hoped that union and nonunion black workers, as well...

    • Chapter Five A Nation within a Nation
      (pp. 68-92)

      In 1928 a battle raged in the Soviet Communist Party over whether capitalism was entering a period of acute economic and social crisis that would foretell sharpened class struggle and revolutionary ferment. This was the outward manifestation of a conflict, orchestrated by Stalin and ultimately drenched in Soviet blood, for dominance over the Soviet Communist Party and the Comintern. For American Communists, an assessment that capitalism was entering an acute crisis would provide theoretical artillery for the faction led by Alexander Bittelman and William Z. Foster in its brawl with Jay Lovestone and John Pepper, who had become his factional...

  7. Part II The Third Period, 1929–33

    • Chapter Six The Turn
      (pp. 95-111)

      In May 1928 Gordon B. Hancock of Hampton Institute noticed something ominous stirring in the South. There appeared to be a changing “work psychosis” among working-class whites, who were now taking formerly shunned “nigger jobs.” Urban League investigator and analyst Jesse O. Thomas detected growing “machinization” in southern agriculture; the displacement of unskilled labor was affecting both bottom-rung blacks and poor whites. The special vulnerability of blacks put them under the most direct attack. In Thomas’s words, “as soon as a job changes from unskilled to semi-skilled, it becomes a white man’s job.” Since 1923 crop production had been declining...

    • Chapter Seven The Communist Party in the Deep South
      (pp. 112-128)

      The decade of the 1920s had been strewn with resolutions calling for building the Party in the South. Nothing had been done save “journalistic protest” against lynching and other outrages. But by the winter of 1930 the Party was free of Lovestone and the theory of the rural South as a reserve of reaction. The Depression was deepening, and suffering in the South was incalculable. There could be no delay in reaching the black population of the South. The Party’s 1930 convention called for the Political Bureau to establish three new southern districts, anchored in Birmingham, Winston-Salem, and New Orleans....

    • Chapter Eight Wipe Out the Stench of the Slave Market
      (pp. 129-146)

      In May 1929 John H. Owens, one of the pioneer black Communists, wrote a letter from New York City to A. L. Isbell, the head of the Party’s Negro Department in the Midwest. Owens had just returned from Gastonia and cities along the eastern seaboard where he had been speaking and raising funds for the Party. He urged Isbell to send a special-delivery letter of protest to Robert Minor saying that Owens had received no salary, not even funds for transportation home, and that his family had not received any money either. “The Party is the bunk,” Owens concluded.¹ In...

    • Chapter Nine Fighting Hunger and Eviction
      (pp. 147-163)

      In Chicago, in the winter of 1932, the writer and critic Edmund Wilson came upon the Angelus Building, where homeless blacks had taken refuge. He found shattering desolation in a place where even hardened social workers had felt “overwhelmed with horror.” There was darkness in the hundred cells dug out of the building’s decay; there was cold; there was danger. “It is a firetrap which has burned several times—the last time several people were burned to death. And now, since it is not good for anything else, its owner turned it over to the Negroes.”¹

      Beyond Chicago, the country...

    • Chapter Ten Nationalists and Reformists
      (pp. 164-184)

      Always, for the Party, there was bourgeois nationalism and the “national revolutionary movement of the Negro people.” Both were shaped and driven by social class, but the internal nature and relationship of class forces within those distinct modes were strikingly dissimilar. The two were also contradictory.

      Bourgeois nationalism hadn’t changed; it was still personified by the remnants of the Garvey movement and by the merchants, strivers, and assorted professionals who sought to maintain their own ghetto through subordination to the dominant capitalism.¹

      On the other side of that bourgeois coin was “reformism,” personified by Du Bois and the NAACP. The...

    • Chapter Eleven Death to the Lynchers
      (pp. 185-206)

      In February 1931 a writer for the New YorkWorldnoted that the incidence of lynching had increased sharply in 1930—as a direct result, he stated, of the stock market crash of 1929. The Depression had caused social unrest and fanned mob hysteria among the unemployed. Arthur Raper, an expert on lynching for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, conducted an extensive study of the phenomenon in the early 1930s. The commission was an organization whose caution often rankled even the cautious NAACP. Its conservatism made Raper’s conclusions seem even more startling: “Lynching and the threat of it are now...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • Chapter Twelve The Search for Unity and Breadth
      (pp. 207-230)

      As a melancholy holiday season approached in the fall of 1930, theChicago Defenderpublished a wry editorial cartoon entitled, “Unemployment Solves One Problem.” Two jobless workers, one black, one white, are seated on a park bench. The black says: “I was just thinking—when times were good my old buddy here wouldn’t work with me. He said I wasn’t white like he is and kept me out of a job. Now, times have changed and hard times have hit him, and he’s willing to chum with me.”¹

      Would the leveling tendencies inherent in the Great Depression dissolve the centuries-old...

  8. Part III The New Deal and the Popular Front, 1933–36

    • Chapter Thirteen New Deals and New Directions
      (pp. 233-257)

      The coming of the New Deal did not initially provoke the Communists into new thinking. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s early policies seemed to lend credibility to the CP’s “social fascist” mantra. His election to the presidency brought the growth and concentration of state power and a strong bond with corporate capital. Momentum toward state capitalism was accelerating—accompanied by efforts to eviscerate class struggle in the name of the higher good of the nation. The two major building blocks of Roosevelt’s crisis program—the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act—seemed like corporate fascism swathed in nationalist fervor....

    • Chapter Fourteen Harlem and the Popular Front
      (pp. 258-284)

      In Harlem, on a single day in the spring of 1933, the Harlem Unemployed Council fought seventeen evictions, returning possessions in three cases; a major Scottsboro meeting was held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church; a Harlem branch of the Food Workers Industrial Union was formed; and three hundred people demonstrated at the Home Relief Bureau, demanding money for rent and nondiscriminatory work at union wages. Hammie Snipes, a truculent ex-Garveyite, suffered one of his many police beatings at the bureau. Such a day defined the life of a Communist for the small number of Harlem residents who joined the Party.¹...

    • Chapter Fifteen Toward a National Negro Congress
      (pp. 285-310)

      In January 1935 thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C., for the CP-inspired National Congress for Unemployment and Social Insurance. T. Arnold Hill, then acting executive secretary of the National Urban League, was one of many voices calling for action to facilitate the entry of blacks into the emerging industrial union movement.¹

      The need for action was compelling. Around the nation many observers wondered if Negro workers could long resist the pressures to break strikes in the face of the AFL’s racism. Before the issue of the union hiring hall attracted the support of black longshoremen in San Francisco (see...

  9. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 311-314)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 315-376)
  11. Bibliographical Essay
    (pp. 377-386)
  12. Index
    (pp. 387-403)