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Peace, Freedom and McCarthyism - Anticommunism and the
African American Freedom Movement

Book Review

Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement:
"Another Side of the Story" 
edited by Robbie Lieberman and Clarence Lang 
Palgrave Macmillan. 251 pages, $85.00

Reviewed by Mark Solomon

Against the Current
Nbr. 147 - July - August 2010


The title of this volume is a bit misleading. It has
hardly anything to do with the ideological substance of
US anticommunism in its encounter with the African
American freedom movement. Rather, this collection of
essays, ably edited by Robbie Lieberman and Clarence
Lang, does something more important for progressive
readers and activists: it explores the historic impact
of anticommunism, fostered by government and often
abetted by non-governmental organizations upon the
content, direction and fate of movements for African
American freedom.

The high cold war years and the heyday of McCarthyism
are the crucial points of departure for this collection.
Some historians have argued that the cold war was a boon
to civil rights with Washington spurring positive change
under the impetus of the ideological battle for Third
World hearts and minds. Some have marked the start of
the freedom movement from Brown v. Board of Education in
1954 and the mass Montgomery bus boycott sparked by Rosa
Parks in 1955. Some have contended that it was "good
politics" for black leaders in the fifties to resist
labeling by red baiting agencies.

However, largely among younger historians there is
another trend that insists that the red scare seriously
wounded the civil rights battle, undermining its broad
social vision and depriving the movement of some of its
most committed activists. Those historians perceive a
"long civil rights movement" whose roots were planted
decades earlier and whose ideology and activism were
nourished by pioneer radical African American and white
radicals, particularly Communists. Within that
framework, there is division over whether that neglected
historical current was ruptured by the cold war or
whether there was continuity that contributed to the
civil rights upsurge in the mid-fifties through the
sixties. The history of a long civil rights movement
with a crucial radical component carries powerful
implications for ongoing battles for liberation that
require a transforming vision of democracy and a
holistic program of struggle for political, social,
economic and cultural equality. This volume makes a
valuable contribution to that understanding.

In the midst of cold war hysteria, a cluster of African
American intellectuals insisted that there was an
indivisible connection between peace and freedom. Robbie
Lieberman points out that under repressive conditions
they held fast to anti-colonialism and internationalism
- demanding peace as the essential element of battle
against empire and calling for an alliance of anti-war
and civil rights forces. Lieberman reminds us of
courageous (and disparate) figures like writer Julian
Mayfield, naval captain Hugh Mulzac, playwright Lorraine
Hansberry and others who saw colonialism and neo-
colonialism as breeders of war and racism. The fight for
peace then was objectively ranged against anti-
democratic and militaristic forces. With that outlook,
Hansberry, was echoing her mentor Paul Robeson who had
maintained that the African American struggle for
freedom and social justice "represents the decisive
front of struggle for democracy in our country" and is
crucial to "the cause of peace and liberation throughout
the world."

Progressive Linkages Under Fire

That linkage of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism
with peace faded under the impact of McCarthyism. But it
did not die. A new generation of left intellectuals and
activists rekindled interest in African liberation and
in combating the negative impact of militarism upon the
domestic wellbeing of national minorities. That linkage
survived demands from centers of power and influence
that peace be severed from freedom to inoculate the
civil rights movement against charges of "subverting" US
foreign policy.  Martin Luther King's courageous
opposition to the Vietnam War echoed the small group of
fifties intellectuals as he withstood pressures within
his own organization and from the upper echelons of
government to jettison his opposition to the war.

In the midst of McCarthyite hysteria a nearly forgotten
group of black and white women on the left worked though
the American Labor Party, the New York adjunct of the
Progressive Party to forge progressive alliances.
According to Jacqueline Castledine, Ada B. Jackson,
Thelma Dale, Shirley Graham, Annette Rubenstein and
others fervently believed that peace must include
justice; that Jim Crow, institutional racism and
imperialism were all spawned from the same seed. Ada B.
Jackson was a force in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn,
building broad coalitions, fighting for economic justice
and black representation. Thelma Dale defied a hostile
political climate through uncompromising efforts to
merge civil rights and peace advocacy. Shirley Graham
(who later married W.E.B. Du Bois) used pen and voice to
declare: "peace like freedom is indivisible."

Yet, the cold war and the repressive climate took its
toll. The Congress of American Women, the National Negro
Congress, the Council on African Affairs, the American
Labor Party and the Progressive Party all disbanded.
Without those groups to provide support for the
convergence of peace and civil rights, the reemerging
anti-nuclear weapons movement in the late fifties,
notably Women's Strike for Peace, sundered that
connection, undermining the relevance of the anti-
nuclear movement for black women, leaving Grace Lee
Boggs to observe: "Blacks saw the bomb as a `white

Esther Cooper Jackson, the subject of a probing essay by
Erik McDuffie was from a generation of African American
women who rose to prominence on the left during the
influential Popular Front years of the late thirties and
forties. Becoming a leader of the Southern Negro Youth
Congress (where she met her husband, James Jackson)
Esther Cooper exemplified the major role taken by women
in an organization that fostered a climate of mutual
support and cooperation between men and women. After the
war, Cooper Jackson traveled to world peace congresses,
broadening her horizons and deepening her commitment to
world peace and anti-colonialism. McDuffie points out
that African American women radicals of the Popular
Front movements of the forties constructed their own
meanings of freedom grounded in awareness that struggles
against Jim Crow, colonialism and black women's
oppression were all connected.

Indicted in the early fifties under the notorious Smith
Act that accused Communists of "conspiring to advocate
and teach" the overthrow of the government, James
Jackson went underground for more than five years. With
a phalanx of FBI agents shadowing and harassing her and
her two small children, Esther Jackson, according to
McDuffie, seized upon conservative "familialism" to
fight back - tossing the charge of destroying vaunted
family values at the government and jettisoning
international concerns to concentrate on defending her
husband.  McDuffie argues shrewdly that by resorting to
conservative means to counter government attacks,
Communists fostered a discontinuity in their own
tradition -isolating homosexuals and cutting off
discussion of sexuality that might have helped to
destabilize cold war culture. While it is likely that in
the environment of the fifties, the Communists were more
concerned with potential blackmail of homosexuals within
their ranks than in cultural issues, the narrowing
effect of "familialism" left many in the Communist orbit
ill-equipped to relate to the cultural upsurge of the

"Correspondence and Communists

Radicals in Detroit in the fifties occasionally heard
about a nearly invisible left formation simply called
"Correspondence" that met in a decrepit hall on the East
Side of the city. Rachel Peterson's essay on
"Correspondence" illuminates (somewhat at odds with the
rest of the book) virulent leftist opposition to the
Communists. The group under consideration was an
offshoot of the "Johnson-Forest Tendency," pseudonyms
for C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya who had led an
exodus from the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party to
form "Correspondence" which was the name of the group's
newspaper and the sole material expression of its

Shunning traditional engagement in political struggle,
Correspondence scorned organization as organically
repressive (especially Communist organization), opting
for "amanuensis" the verbatim recording of letters from
readers that would somehow spontaneously spark working
class and African American rebellion.

Like the old joke about a bystander being hauled off to
a paddy wagon exclaiming that he's an anti-communist,
only to have the cop respond: "I don't care what kind of
communist you are," Correspondence believed that its
fervent anti-communism (which it perceived as anti-
Stalinism) would give it cover from government attack.
It did not. Its focus upon working class and African
American issues and its roots in the Johnson-Forest
Tendency were enough for the government to deport C.L.R.
James and the Postmaster General to seek revocation of
its mailing rights.

What Peterson sees as Correspondence's objective
complicity with McCarthyism led to inner strains and
contributed, along with government harassment, to its
dissolution. Ultimately, its anti-communist dogma
bordered on ironic humor. Responding to a reader who
wondered if the publication was "communist," the editors
replied: "Communists have so fouled up everything that
an American worker cannot say a word about speed-ups
without being called a Communist." Peterson's
informative article also underscores an unappetizing
side of C.L.R. James. While justly celebrated for his
magisterial studies of black rebellion, James's
inveterate anti-communism could reach ludicrous levels.
While awaiting deportation, James was tossed into a cell
with five Communists who were so concerned with his
health that they threatened a hunger strike if he was
not given proper food and medical treatment. While James
conceded that the leader among the Communists was a "man
of principle" and among "the best" that the country
could offer, he was nevertheless an "Ahab" who would
impose tyrannical rule if he ascended to power. As for
the effort to defend his health, James shrugged it off
as a plot to "win him over."

Despite its curious abnegation of political engagement,
Peterson points to a continuity of influence by some of
Correspondence's key writers. James' influence pervaded
African American radical ranks in the sixties; James
Boggs became a "father figure" to a new generation of
black working class militants; Grace Lee Boggs continues
to play a major role in Detroit's present struggle for
survival. Finally, Peterson notes: "...Correspondence
recorded voices that might otherwise have gone unheard,
creating a dialogue in the midst of a repressive
atmosphere..." from Los Angeles housewives to Virginian
coal miners to New York academics.

The Black Labor Scene

The National Negro Labor Council came into existence in
1951, largely under the leadership of African Americans
in the Communist orbit. Inspired by a growing postwar
need to confront reversals of gains made by black labor
in wartime, NNLC organized on the "axes of race and
class." It attracted thousands of working people across
a wide political spectrum in the midst of intense
McCarthyite repression. Clarence Lang notes that NNLC
launched successful campaigns to open clerical jobs for
blacks at Sears; it fought to break the color line in
hotel, railroad and airline industries; it advocated for
strong fair employment practices legislation, garnering
crucial support from left-led unions; it battled with
Westinghouse in Louisville for jobs, especially for
black women. With a broad agenda reflective of a social
movement, NNLC vigorously pursued women's rights (women
constituted one-third of its membership), opposed
colonialism, spoke out against the Korean War, called
for anti-lynch legislation, ending the poll tax,
stopping segregated housing and demanding that
mainstream labor adopt fair employment practices

Lang places NNLC outside the framework of the Popular
Front, repeating the well-known litany of charges that
Popular Front politics mandated a turn towards "moderate
and conservative policies" at the cost of militancy - in
this case militant support for black liberation. But the
Popular Front cannot be defined solely on secondary
tactical grounds. NNLC was deeply reflective of the
principal character of the Popular Front: a political
commitment to substantively advance the struggle for
democracy primarily on the "axes of race and class,"
singling out racism as the central barrier to social
change and prioritizing broad-based networking of
individuals and groups working to qualitatively extend
democracy in all major spheres. That perception of the
Popular Front pervades most of this volume; Lang's
analysis departs from that viewpoint.

NNLC suffered the same fate as other left organizations
smothered by McCarthyite repression. A combination of
government harassment and the AFL-CIO's remorseless
hostility chipped away at its membership and support,
signaling its eventual dissolution. However, Lang
convincingly demonstrates both the rupture in
progressive labor struggles and the continuity of the
black radical impulse in the labor movement reflected in
the story of NNLC. With the base of NNLC narrowing, the
Communist Party eventually abandoned what was left of
the organization. The rupture appeared to be complete.
But some of its key activists continued to be
politically engaged in a variety of ways. Some
gravitated towards sectarian parties and from those
platforms influenced reemerging black radical labor in
the sixties; others helped form A. Philip Randolph's
Negro American Labor Council (NALC) with ties to the
labor establishment; others joined in founding the
Coalition of Black Trade Unionists; others, notably
Coleman Young who was mayor of Detroit for twenty years,
joined mainstream politics. Lang concludes: "While this
continuity is certainly striking, it is worth
considering what might have been achieved had the
schisms created by cold war anticommunism not constantly
forced labor activists to recreate the wheel."

Latino Left Decimated

There was once a powerful postwar left in the country's
Chicano communities. With searing relevance for the
present, Zaragosa Vargas tells the story of how that
left was wiped out. Throughout the southwest, the left
wing Union of Mine Mill and Smelter Workers was a
bastion of support for Mexican families and mine
workers. (The legendary film, "Salt of the Earth"
portrayed the union's support for Mexican families in
the infamous Empire Mining strike in Bayard, New Mexico
and the leading role of women in that struggle.) In the
larger community, Communist organizers built the
National Association of Mexican Americans (ANMA). That
organization attributed the evils of racism that
afflicted the Mexican community to capitalism; it
denounced militarism and the Korean War and fought for
Fair Employment Practices codes. At its peak it had 4000
male and female members. Supported by the organizational
strength of the Mine-Mill and Furniture Workers' Unions,
ANMA forged alliances with the Progressive Citizens of
America (forerunner to the Progressive Party), the Civil
Rights Congress and similar groups in the left orbit.

But the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act undermined progressive
unionism as a civil rights vehicle, wounding the fight
for fair employment clauses. Also, ANMA's stand on
racism, peace, labor and deportations caught the
attention of the House Committee on Un-American
Activities. A steady pattern of government attack
unfolded. The McCarran-Walter Act brought widespread
threats of denaturalization, stripping the Mexican
rights movement of some of its most capable activists
through deportation. The Smith Act targeted Mexican
American Communists in Denver, singling out Chicana
leader Anna Correa-Bary. The red scare drove scores of
Mexican Americans out of left organizations. The most
devastating blow was "Operation Wetback" and subsequent
"Operation Terror" which foisted collective punishment
on Mexican families and drove more than one million
undocumented Mexicans out of the country.

Anticommunism and "foreign subversion" became essential
ideological weapons in the deportation frenzy. While
ANMA was shattered, elements of continuity were
manifested in the emerging establishment-oriented
Community Service Organization (CSO) that engaged in
legal battles against segregated schools and
deportations. One element that survived the destruction
of the left was efforts by Mexican organizations ally
with African Americans to fight school segregation and
other forms of discrimination.

As the sixties dawned, there was only faint awareness of
the efforts of Communists that give birth to the ANMA.
Yet, Vargas insists, the virtually forgotten chapter
demonstrates the potential for building progressive
workers' power among Mexican-Americans: "Indeed, the far
reaching revolution launched by Mexican Americans was
built upon the foundation established by the class
conscious activists of the postwar years and their brave
stand for meaningful social and economic change."

"Anticommunism and the African American Movement" is a
valuable source for scholars, activists and all who work
for a just world. It is deeply instructive to learn of
past efforts to forge democratic change, to learn the
price of rupture of those efforts and to grasp the
elements of continuity that enrich activism today. The
book is a foundation for additional study of how a
besieged left continued to fight racial injustice during
the cold war years by demanding justice for African
Americans trapped in a racist legal system - Willie
McGee, the "Martinsville (Virginia) Seven," the "Trenton
(New Jersey) Six, and others. One ends with the hope
that the publisher will produce a paperback edition of
this outrageously priced book so that its vital content
will be available to a much larger public.

[Mark Solomon, a former union printer and academic, is a
long-time peace and justice activist. He is the author
of The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans,


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