The Cry Was Unity: African Americans and the Communist Party

Mark Solomon’s The Cry Was Unity: African Americans and the Communist Party is a deep and detailed look at this relationship in the US over a very short period of time, but a rather vital one I think. This time when the CP did some pretty amazing organizing, and some pretty flawed organizing, before their top-down structure dictated they drop it entirely.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how theory works with practice, about ideology and pragmatism, about the need to confront racism and white supremacy and how we might better go about that and I keep thinking about this book, so I dusted off the notes. I read a good while ago, I confess. Never got around to processing it really. This doesn’t succeed or do it justice, just pulls out some key quotes because it’s dense, something to return to with questions about specific people, specific dates.

So to start with Otto Huiswood. Originally from Surinam (Surinam!), he helped found the CP in Harlem in 1919 — making him the 1st African American to join. Cyril Briggs from the island of Nevis was another key figure…I had so little knowledge before reading this of just how important the Caribbean diaspora was in NY, and to radical politics. But Briggs did so much before the CP… he was inspired by the Irish Easter rising

which had fired the imagination of the “New Negro” radicals…exemplified an revolutionary nationalism that found its way into the rhetoric voiced on street corners and in the emerging press of rapidly urbanizing African American life. (5)

It makes me happy to see the connections between his radical philosophies and the Irish struggle (we all know Irish and Black folks didn’t often get along in NY, I just finished Ignatiev on the whole Irish becoming White thing, and damn is it ugly…) But anyway, a bit of happy news — and Connelly stood against slavery, for a while anyway.  But the Easter Rising, and other independence movements, inspired Briggs to advocate for a separate black state within the US. He founded the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) for African Liberation and Redemption, the announcement of its founding continued ‘Those only need apply who are willing to go the limit.’ (9) They were modeled on the Sinn Fein, founded the newspaper The Crusader in 1918.

1919 — Red Summer, a wave of lynchings swept the country. Briggs Was moving in the same circles as Huiswood, Claude McKay, Grace Campbell, W.A. Domingo, Hubert Harrison and other radicals in Harlem. Terrible times, amazing times, no? This was also the time of Marcus Garvey — and he and Briggs never got along.  Solomon writes

Marcus Garvey’s UNIA resonated for African American working people as Briggs’ ABB could not, because the former vibrantly express outrage at the dominant white society without directly and dangerously confronting the bourgeois order. (28)

And that is something Briggs did. He would join the CP in 1921, after the 2nd Internation congress in 1920. That’s the one where Lenin presented his ‘Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions’, a radical document that would begin to transform the work of the CP in the US as it urged the party to support revolutionary movements, and named both Ireland and African Americans. I lose track a little of the twists and turns and the politics of these congresses, but Claude McKay and Otto Huiswood were both present at the 4th congress in 1922, where the Congress established a Negro Commission.

The American Negro Labor Congress of 1925 opened in Chicago, race was always an issue as seen by the mostly white delegates, though they were addressed by Richard B Moore and Claude McKay. Solomon writes:

The sense of a “nation within a nation,” born in slavery and nurtured in segregation, is rooted in African American thought. It emerged from the lash, from political subjugation, from the trampling of the cultural heritage of an entire people, from assaults on their psychological makeup and identity. The Negro question was indeed more than a class or racial problem. the forced rupture of community between blacks and whites, and the onslaught on the blacks’ historical continuity, culture, and identity had produced a longing for political unity and psychic autonomy–for the realization of black national yearning. the Communists were onto something. National oppression constituted a proper description of what had happened to black Americans. (88)

There is this amazing insistence for a time that racial divisions and white supremacy be overcome:

southern whites [and non-southern whites, but more amazing for southern whites] must enter the CP cleansed of chauvinism…At the end of the decade [1920s] the Party had finally admitted the need to win the trust of  blacks and to strongly resist any backsliding on social equality. The Communists had come to believe that racial segregation and the savaging of black identity represented both an institutional foundation for American capitalism and its weak point. To compromise with racism in any way strengthened capitalism and wounded its most potent foes…concessions to segregation and inequality would validate racism and sacrifice blacks’ trust in white radicals. ‘ (128)

I still find it hard to imagine how hard it must have been to place this front and centre, but they did, and they were right to insist that it was this racism that prevented any united sense of class, right that freedom could not be obtained while these divisions existed. As Solomon continues:

“A real Bolshevik Leninist understanding” of racism, Harry Haywood intoned, held that liberation from the bonds of such oppression was inextricably “part of the question of the proletarian revolution” — a precondition for achieving Lenin’s historic alliance of the workers and subject peoples in common struggle against capitalism and imperialism. …. By locating the source of white chauvinism in the ideology and interest of the ruling class, the Party held an ominous sword over its members. What was more serious than the accusation that a Communist was doing the work of the class enemy? (130)

And so some of this work was amazing. The 20s drew to an end, the Great Depression hit. We see the brilliant movement of the Unemployed Councils, working to return possessions back into the homes of those who had been evicted and organizing rent strikes. In Chicago, 1931, Unemployed  Councils organized on South Side of Chicago. Solomon notes that one day in July they restored 4 families to their homes in one day. Yet the police were cracking down. While the UCs continued fighting through 1933, there is no doubt that 1931 saw them at their height. The CP admitted they were unable to maintain the enthusiasm and engagement, and noted the ‘internal tedium’ of party politics as a factor. Reading some of the descriptions of party life, it is easy to see why. Meetings and meetings, circles of judgement and criticism, show trials. I mean, they had show trials. I had no idea, but you can see how the structures emerging from a calcifying Russian revolution (a whole tragedy in itself about to unfold there of course) were already beginning to crush the spirit.

It took a while though.

This early period also saw a branching out to work in wider collaborations. A number of middle-class Black leaders also endorsed the party given their stance on the race question, like Countee Cullen. The CP was running dozens of black candidates for political offices, not to win but as mass actions to educate and politicize around unemployment and racial equality. They had some incredible victories beyond the Unemployment Councils. Like the strike in St Louis where on May 15, 100 women  working in the nut industry (!) walked out demanding a pay rise, 3 weeks later 1000 black women struck, the next day white women walked out in solidarity. My favourite line in the book:

‘The women armed themselves with ‘brick-sandwiches’ to confront strikebreakers’ (251)

In Chicago 800 women, black and white, won a partial victory on strike against B. Sopkins Dress Company. Solomon gives us names I had not heard of the, the women who led this movement in Harlem — Maude White, Louise Thompson, Augusta Savage, Williana Burroughs of Hunter College (keep seeing this college referenced here though I had not heard of it before, seems to be an amazing radical place to look into). Increasingly the movement is being driven by those who are American born. There is a real sense of movement though, of hope. And then the CP stepped in once again. Good in some ways, that 1935 opening up, ‘accelerating the popular front’. CP members were able to work in growing coalitions — they even included Father Divine in Harlem. But this signaled the beginning of a move away from organizing, the liberation of Blacks, the anti-racist strategies. They dropped tenants wholesale. 1936 was a bit early for this so that’s not really covered here (like Iton’s work), there is a little more about it in Manning Marable, Robert Fisher and others. There is just a sense of impending tragedy, the story of the black Share Croppers Union — trying to ally with others with the help of Highlander (Don West, the cofounder of Highlander with Horton is mentioned a number of times in the book) — they fail,  and face a horrible wave of repression after they strike, they face murder and assassination.

This history is swallowed up. Rarely retold. Needing to be kept alive.

[Solomon, Mark (1998) The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi}

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