Date: Tue, 12 Jan 1999 19:43:23 -0500
From: Louis Proyect <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: [BRC-ALL] Afro-Americans and radical politics
To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Afro-Americans and radical politics
By Louis Proyect, 12 January 1999
From "Richard B. Moore: Caribbean Militant in Harlem," edited by W. Burghadt Turner and Joyce Moore Turner
WCBS-TV broadcast, Black Heritage Series, March 19, 1969. Manuscript, Richard B. Moore
The term "radical," as qualifying "politics," has been too often misunderstood to mean a horrible and violent extremism, or an extremist who menaces everything good and decent in human life, and therefore a dangerous "ism" or creature who ought to be put out of the way by any and force possible. As here used, however, the term "radical" means its original signification, i.e. "of or pertaining to the root," as derived from the Latin radix meaning root. Hence "radical" here refers to a program, or an advocate of a program, which proposes basic change in the economic, social, and political order.
A "radical" in relation to chattel slavery, for example, was one who advocated, not partial measures to limit the slaveholders' punishment, or to require an increase in the food and clothing of the slave, but who demanded abolition of the system of chattel slavery and its replacement by system such as the free wage labor system.
In respect to the system of capitalism or the private ownership of the basic economic and productive forces of society and their operation for the profit of the owners, a "radical" is one who advocates the replacement of the capitalist system by a socialist order of society, which is generally held to mean common ownership and management by the people of the socially necessary means of production and their operation for human use an for private profit.
In this sense, then, the Messenger magazine and the group of Afro-American socialists, who conducted and supported it in Harlem, were called "radical." Indeed, in its prospectus of 1917 the Messenger declared itself "the only magazine of Scientific Radicalism in the world published by Negroes." Its basic position was set forth in an editorial "The Cause and Remedy for Race Riots" which stated:
"Revolution must come. By that we mean a complete change in the organization of society. Just as absence of industrial democracy is productive of riots and race clashes, so the introduction of industrial democracy will be the longest step toward removing that cause. When no profits are to be made from race friction, no one will longer be interested in stirring up race prejudice. The quickest way to stop a thing or to destroy an institution is to destroy the profitableness of that institution. The capitalist system must go and its going must be hastened by the workers themselves."
"Radical politics," then, has to do with the thorough-going nature of the ends sought and the means used to achieve these basic ends. . .
In Harlem from about 1917 on a branch of the Socialist Party, the 21st Assembly District, composed almost wholly of Afro-Americans, functioned vigorously. Prior to this there had been such able, eloquent, and singular pioneer Afro-American advocates of Socialism as Helen Holman and Hubert H. Harrison.
Hubert H. Harrison, who had come from the Virgin Islands, was a man of exceptional intellect and wide knowledge. Studies in economics and sociology had led him to socialism and he soon became a leader in the socialist movement. Along with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Bill Haywood, and Morris Hillquit, Harrison was active in organizing silk workers in Patterson, N.J., and he was an instructor at the Modern School. But becoming dissatisfied with some of the socialists' attitude on the "race" question, Harrison left them for the Harlem scene. From 1917 on Harrison conducted a "university outdoors," speaking evening after evening on various subjects, particularly aspects of "race" in its world context and the history and achievements of people of African origin and descent everywhere.
Hubert Harrison organized the Liberty League of Afro-Americans and published The Voice as the organ of this movement. More than any other man of his time, he inspired and educated the masses of Afro-Americans then flocking into Harlem. It was Harrison, too, who gave Marcus Garvey his first significant introduction to the people of Harlem at the Liberty League mass meeting held in Bethel A.M.E. Church. In the foreword to his booklet When Africa Awakes, Harrison later spoke with truth of the period before Garvey "when the foundations were laid."
While Hubert Harrison moved more and more toward the position of "race first," a score of young, militant, and studious Afro-Americans were actively propagating Socialism, while at the same time examining its philosophy and possible practical application for the removal of the ills which they suffered along with their people. These youthful Afro American seekers after knowledge and power studied diligently together on Sunday mornings The Communist Manifesto, Socialism Utopian and Scientific, and other writings of Marx and Engels. Through the People's Educational Forum on Sunday afternoons, they discussed events, inviting as speakers Afro-American intellectuals like Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, anthropologists like Franz Boas, and Socialist spokesmen like Algernon Lee.
From the street corners of Harlem these youthful Afro~American socialists spoke out against the wrongs inflicted upon their people and pointed to socialism as a means for the complete liberation of all oppressed mankind. They sought, though with only partial success, to apply Socialist theory as a method of social analysis to the Afro-American situation and to that of oppressed colonial peoples in Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. Often the question would be put as they were about to begin their meetings: "What shall we expound tonight, straight Socialism or Negro-ology?". Obviously, socialism had not yet been extended to a thorough analysis and comprehension of the special situation of the Afro-American people.
A dedicated and courageous group, these Afro-American socialists were seeking human status and full freedom. Only occasionally did leaders like Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph appear at these street meetings; well-known socialists were more occupied with the editing of the Messenger magazine. The roster of the regular street speakers included W.A. Domingo, Otto E. Huiswoud, Rudolph Smith, Frank Poree, Anna Jones, Elizabeth Hendrickson, Frank R. Crosswaith, Herman Whaley, John Patterson, Victor C. Gaspar, Thomas Potter, Ramsay, and the present speaker.
In a vigorous campaign during 1918 around the candidacies of Rev. Frazier Miller for Congress and Grace P. Campbell for the State Assembly, the Socialist street speakers won 25 per cent of the Harlem vote. Rev. George Frazier Miller was a highly cultured yet socially conscious Protestant Episcopal minister of the caliber of his distinguished predecessor Alexander Crummell. Grace P. Campbell was a humanitarian socaial worker who maintained, largely from her own earnings, a needed home for deserted young mothers. The nomination of the first Afro-American candidate for Congress, since the post-Reconstruction period, party ticket, was significant in establishing a precedent which was to be carried to success with the election of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. the nomination of an Afro-American for Borough President of New York City, on a radical party ticket, paved the way to the nomination major party tickets of such candidates, and led to the election of Hulan E. Jack and other Afro-American notables who have followed in that high office.
Seeking to discover whether the Socialist Party would furnish any significant force for the organization of their victimized people, the Afro-American socialists asked the Euro-American socialist leader Algernon Lee at a session of their Harlem Forum: "What program does the Socialist Party have for organizing the Afro-Americans, especially in the South?" Algernon Lee answered that the Socialist Party was the party of the proletariat, that by proletariat Marx meant the workers in industry, that the Socialist Party did not have enough forces to carry through this primary task and therefore had no forces to organize the Negroes. Though such organization was needed, said Lee, it would have to be done by some other bodies or Negroes themselves.
Algernon Lee was therefore soundly condemned for his doctrinaire position by the militant Afro-American socialists. The disciplinary attempt followed by the Socialist Party District Committee further served to convince most of the Afro-American activists in the Harlem branch that the Party, as then controlled, had little or nothing to contribute to the solution of the situation of racist oppression in America, and, accordingly, withdrew from the Socialist Party. The few who remained were apparently swayed by the prospect of getting some support in leadership careers from the Socialist Party or such organizations as followed its leadership.
But before the curtain thus came down on this activity under the aegis of the Socialist Party, the Afro-American militants had played a not inconsiderable role. They had thus gained the attention of the Crisis magazine, organ of the N.A.A.C.P., which in an article of March, 1920, noted: "For the first time in the Negro's history, he has a Left Wing or Radical Group."
A significant radical action was the challenging of a court injunction which prohibited the Colored Motion Picture Operators Union from activity to secure employment for its members in the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. Though the arrest of the spokesman for the right to employment and free speech was upheld by another court, the presence of the people became such that this Jim Crow exclusion was soon ended and Afro-American motion picture operators began to be employed.
A radical publication, and an influential force while it appeared, was the Emancipator, edited and promoted by W. A. Domingo and Richard B. Moore. Challenging editorials written by Cyril V. Briggs appeared in the Amsterdam News during 1918. Soon thereafter Cyril V. Briggs launched the Crusader magazine as the organ of the African Blood Brotherhood. These activities together gave rise to a cultural and social climate which caused Harlem to be known as "The Mecca of the New Negro." The movements which soon followed were nurtured in this cultural climate and militant temper which had been developed by the Harlem radicals and socialists.
Seldom recognized or understood, this relation of the preceding radicals to the Universal Negro Improvement Association has been noted by a well-known statesman and critic. Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People during this period, James Weldon Johnson set down his considered conclusion in the book, Black Manhattan, published in 1930 as follows:
"The Harlem radicals failed to bring about a correlation of the forces they had called into action, to have those forces work through a practical medium to a definite objective; but they did much to prepare the ground for a man who could and did do that, a man who was one of the most remarkable and picturesque figures that have appeared on the American scene--Marcus Garvey."
In the case of the Harlem Literary Renaissance it is obvious that the first to appear to herald this renaissance was Claude McKay. This Afro-Jamaican poet wrote in reaction to the monstrous lynchings of the American scene the famous impassioned sonnet "If We Must Die" which he concluded:
"Like men we'll face the murderous cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!"
Later, in response to the Russian Revolution, McKay wrote in "Exhortation: Summer 1919" the following clarion call:
"In the East the clouds grow crimson with the new dawn that is breaking, And its golden glory fills the Western skies.
O my brothers, dreaming for long centuries, Wake from sleeping; to the East turn, turn your eyes!"
The poet Claude McKay was, for a time, one of the editors of the radical magazine to which journal he contributed a bitter retaliation against race discrimination to which he had been subjected on going to see a play then being shown in Greenwich Village, entitled appropriately "He Who Gets Slapped." McKay accepted an invitation and attended the Fourth Congress of the Communist International as an observer in Moscow during 1922.
That Fourth Congress was attended as an accredited delegate by the first Afro-American communist in the United States, Otto E. Huiswoud, an immigrant from Dutch Guiana, whence also came Jan E. Matzeliger, the inventor of the lasting machine which revolutionized the shoe industry of America, Huiswoud had gone over from the Socialist Party into the more militant Communist Party.
Another Afro-American, who after leaving the Socialist Party later the Communist Party, was Lovett Fort-Whiteman. After returning trip to Moscow, Fort-Whiteman became National Organizer of the American Negro Labor Congress founded in 1925. But Fort-Whiteman was Bohemian, wearing Russian shirts and boots, and appearing far removed from the workers whom he was expected to organize.
Meanwhile American militants were slowly attracted to the Communist Party they constantly pressed for struggle against "race" prejudice, organization of Afro-American workers beginning on the basis of their immediate needs, and for representation on the executive bodies of the Communist Party and of workers' organizations generally.
Meanwhile, Afro-American Communists especially Harry Haywood, while studying in Moscow, and in conjunction with some Russian and other Communists, recognized the semi-colonial features of the condition of Afro-Americans. They moved on further to the position that "Negroes" in the southern United States constituted an oppressed nation, that "Negroes were concentrated and formed a majority of the population in the Black Belt of the South, and that therefore it was necessary to recognize the right of self-determination for the "Negroes" as a nation in the South. At first rather considerably resisted, this position was in time adopted as the official position of the Communist Party. The League of Struggle for Negro Rights was organized during 1930, on the basis of recognition of this right of self-determination, with Harry Haywood as Secretary. In his book Negro Liberation published in 1948, Haywood gave a full statement of his position. But this was somewhat in the nature of a swan song, since the Black Belt was by then far gone in the process of disappearing due to the mass migrations of Afro-Americans to the North and West.
Progress was to come, however, from another direction. The arrest, trial, and sentencing to death of nine Afro-American youths at Scottsboro, Alabama, was met by the development of able legal defense and powerful mass protest. This case was thus connected into an international symbol of struggle against racist persecution and oppression.
Time permits here only a very brief statement. Suffice it to say that as Vice President of the International Labor Defense, the present speaker was connected with the Scottsboro case from its beginning until the last of these youths was released. During this time it was my duty to make four nationwide speaking tours to promote the mass protest deemed essential, and to take a delegation of their mothers to the White House to call for action on the part of President Roosevelt. But there should be recalled here a meeting held at the Civic Club in New York when William Pickens of the N.A.A.C.P. launched a sharp attack against the I.L.D. and the Communists whom he charged with seeking to sacrifice the Scottsboro youths to the Communist cause. Pickens had formerly praised the I.L.D. and the Daily Worker for having acted in their defense "more speedily and effectively than all other agencies put together." But being reprimanded by the top leadership of the N.A.A.C.P., Pickens had become an inveterate opponent of the I.L.D. On the contrary Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois called for "stressing our points of agreement rather than those of disagreement." This sage counsel had to be followed at the end when it was necessary to form the Joint Scottsboro Defense Committee with Dr. Alan Chalmers as a leading figure. with Roy Wilkins as a delegate from the N.A.A.C.P. and Anna Damon and myself as representatives of the I.L.D. A powerful force had been added to the Scottsboro defense when William L. Patterson succeeded J. Louis Engdahl as President of the I.L.D. Patterson in the tradition of the abolitionist Wendell Phillips had turned the key in his law office and had gone out to defend the Afro-American victims of racist oppression. This freedom-inspired course was followed by Benjamin J. Davis, Jr. who aided in the defense of the Scottsboro youths and Angelo Herndon, and who later became the first Afro-American Communist in the New York City Council.
As a result of the Scottsboro campaign and the work among the unemployed, the Communist Party attracted numerous Afro-Americans to its support and into its ranks. James W. Ford was elected to the Central Committee of the Communist Party and as its candidate for Vice President election campaign of 1932. Ford was a close follower of Robert Minor and then of Earl Browder. This was unwittingly expressed when W. Ford, at an affair held in Harlem to mark the publication of his The Negro and the Democratic Front, distressed the Afro-American militants by declaring his dependence upon the Central Committee of the Party and how lost he felt when temporarily placed out of touch with this Committee. With the dropping of the right of self-determination by Earl Browder and the liquidation of work among Afro-Americans in the South, which was known to Ford but not revealed to the party generally, the Communist Party began to decline. Despite the efforts of such Afro-American leaders as Pettis Perry, Claudia Jones, and Henry Winston, who were persecuted and jailed in the reactionary McCarthy and Smith Act period, the repression served to reduce and to limit the activity of the Communist Party. The conclusion seems inescapable that so long as racist oppression persists, so long will the more militant Afro-Americans turn to parties seeking a solution to the oppressive conditions to which they are subjected.
BRC-ALL: Black Radical Congress - International Discussion/Debate