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Organizing in the Depression South, A Communist’s Memoir

James S. Allen

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.

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