A Militant Liberalism: Anti-Communism and the African American Intelligentsia, 1939–1955

By Daniel W. Aldridge, III, Davidson College, Conference Paper for the 2004 American Historical Association, December 2003

On 18 October 1945 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded its person of the year award, the Spingarn Medal, to the renowned singer and actor Paul Robeson. Robeson was at the height of his career in late 1945, having just completed a record-breaking and historic run playing Othello on Broadway. Robeson's left-wing and unabashedly pro-Soviet politics were a matter of public record, and had not prevented him from enjoying great professional success during the wartime period.

Walter White, the Executive Director of the NAACP, had been a friend and admirer of Robeson's for over 20 years. However, several years after the award ceremony, White would recall that the Spingarn committee's selection of Robeson had been a controversial one, because of his steadily expanding espousal of Communism.1 Further, in White's estimation, Robeson threw away a chance to use his prestige and influence to positively influence US race relations by giving a Spingarn address that was a lengthy and vehement attack upon all things American and indiscriminate laudation of all things Russian.2 White claimed that Robeson's speech drew scant applause from a shocked audience. White's description of the reception of Robeson's address is given credence by the fact that the November 1945 edition of the NAACP's journal Crisis gives curiously little information about what had been a lengthily-planned and well-publicized event and makes no reference to Robeson's address.3

Robeson became steadily more estranged from White and many other black leaders and public intellectuals in the years following 1945. As he continued to adhere closely to the Communist Party and to the Soviet Union, they espoused a militant form of liberalism that strongly denounced American racism and European colonialism while rejecting a Communist Party that they saw as a false friend of African Americans and refusing to fall into the role of becoming apologists for the Stalinist regime.

While many historians have described how black leftists such as Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois were politically marginalized during the postwar period, the large number of African American political and intellectual leaders who strongly opposed Robeson's and Du Bois' pro-communist and pro-Soviet political stances have not received as close attention. Many writers, including David Levering Lewis, Gerald Horne, Martin Duberman, and Penny Von Eschen, in describing the political persecution of the postwar black Left, have depicted non-leftist black leaders and public intellectuals as succumbing to an anti-communist hysteria that required them to tone down their progressive political commitments and ostracize black leftists in order to obtain what turned out to be paltry and grudging civil rights concessions from the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.4 Carol Anderson's recent book on African American engagement with the UN Human Rights Commission from 1945 to 1955 and Kenneth Janken's recent biography of Walter White, while offering in many ways fresh and balanced interpretations of the differences between black liberals and leftists from the 1930's to the 1950's, still argue that postwar black liberals gave in to the Red Scare and underestimate the deep roots and internal sources of black anti-communist sentiment.5

This paper will argue that liberal African American leaders and public intellectuals did not cravenly accommodate anti-communist hysteria, but strongly believed that the Communist Party was using black Americans and would discard them when Soviet political interests dictated. Black anti-communism was not a product of the postwar Red Scare but was grounded in a deep distrust of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union that had its roots in the prewar period. Black anti-communists were, on the whole, progressive liberals who fought to bring an end to the Jim Crow regime and continued to champion the cause of colonized people of color.

The NAACP plays an important role in the story of black anti-communism. Under the leadership of Walter White from the early 1930's to the middle 1950's the organization grew to unprecedented prominence while occupying the liberal center of black politics. In the 1920's the NAACP successfully fought off a challenge from the black nationalist Right as represented by Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association. In the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's it would strongly oppose the communist-influenced black Left.

White's and the NAACP's anti-communism date from struggles with the Communist Party in the early 1930's. White first publicly attacked the communists in a 1931 Harper's magazine article in terms that would characterize black liberals' critique of communism well into the 1950's. The communists, White charged, were exploiting the Scottsboro situation and black people's grievances about racism and economic deprivation for their own selfish ends. White claimed, for example, that communists exploited the funerals of two blacks killed during eviction proceedings in order to foment parades sprinkled abundantly with banners and speeches advocating the overthrow of capitalism.6 Further, communists were not reliable allies of other progressive-minded organizations but heaped calumny on all groups that did not submit wholly to Communist dictation.7 Nonetheless, racism and deprivation made communist blandishments appealing to many desperate African Americans, and White maintained that the best way for white Americans to stop communism from spreading was to immediately address and ameliorate blacks' myriad and justified grievances.8 White's arguments that communists were using black people for their own ends, that they wished to join with non-communist groups only to dominate them, and that reform was the best antidote to communism, would be the staple arguments of black anti-communist liberals for the next quarter century.

While it is true, as Janken argues, that White's 1931 stance against communism was immediately rooted in rivalries involving financing and the Scottsboro case, we should not minimize the depth of the anti-communist convictions he maintained and acted upon until his death in 1955.9 Although White was not as vituperative in his verbal anti-communism as his NAACP second in command Roy Wilkins, he worked diligently to stop communist infiltration of the NAACP in the 1940's and 1950's and steered the organization in an anti-communist liberal direction that was in accord with his convictions and his interpretation of what was in African Americans' best interests.

The Communist Party of the 1930's developed a following among black intellectuals and developed a relatively small, but significant, grass roots following among blacks.10 In an era where the major political parties largely ignored black issues, the communists' effort to emphasize racial issues and include African Americans among their visible leadership was notable and laudable. However, the party's constant ideological shifts on political and racial issues, seemingly in accordance with direction from Moscow, cost it great credibility among African Americans.

Black newspapers and journalists that had viewed communists with some sympathy during the depression era, turned against the party after the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany in 1939. The Baltimore Afro American, which had sympathized with communists during the Scottsboro period, turned decisively anti-communist after the Ribbentrop Pact. On 30 December 1939 the Afro published an extensive series of articles detailing how the Ribbentrop Pact had destroyed communism's credibility with African Americans.11 Ralph Matthews, the Afro's foreign affairs editor, argued that the while communism had some appeal to black intellectuals, it had failed to catch on with the black masses. Further, the New Deal and the Soviets' duplicity in forming an alliance with Hitler had diminished whatever appeal communism had to black Americans.12 The novelist Claude McKay, a former communist himself, told Afro readers that black Americans should avoid blindly following any isms especially communism which were led by whites.13 The Afro's pro-interventionist editorial page adopted a strong anti-communist line in the years leading up to the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, denouncing the American Youth Congress as a communist-front organization, assailing communists for obstructing American preparedness for the coming war, and arguing that the Roosevelt administration should act decisively to stop racial discrimination by defense contractors and the Navy Department in order to check the spread of communism among young blacks.14

The Pittsburgh Courier, the most-widely circulated black newspaper of the wartime period was also strongly critical of communists. The Courier was editorially dominated by its popular columnist George S. Schuyler, a Harlem-based writer strongly influenced in matters of style by H. L. Mencken. Schuyler had been anti-communist since the Scottsboro era, arguing that communists were cynically using blacks and would treat them even worse than non-communist whites.15 Schuyler, however, was no friend of liberalism. He was an outspoken critic of FDR and the New Deal and delighted in skewering the NAACP and Walter White. White was so enraged by Schuyler's writings that he briefly considered suing Schuyler for libel when Schuyler claimed in a 1947 article that the NAACP was acting in accordance with the Communist party line, when it was considering presenting a petition to the UN protesting US policy towards African Americans.16

Schuyler argued in a 9 September 1939 column that the Ribbentrop Pact proved that he had been right in his belief that there was no essential difference between Fascism and Communism. He charged that communists cynically espoused social equality, the Scottsboro Case, and the self-determination for the black belt policy to capture the Negro group and the organizations serving its cause. However, due to the basic common sense of the bulk of Negroes, they had only succeeded in taking in a few mis-educated Negro intellectuals and a few of the more thoughtless and gullible workers of color. Communists had proven themselves to be masters of duplicity, who had expediently thrown away all of their purported principles in favor of Negroes when Soviet desires to build good relations with the western imperialist powers dictated.17

Schuyler maintained that black communists were fools to believe that black peoples' liberation could be achieved in an alliance with Joseph Stalin.18 In the postwar period, Schuyler would move steadily to the Right and increasingly denounce black liberals and civil rights activists for being in league with communists. Although Richard Gid Powers, in his history of American anti-communism identifies Schuyler as the most influential black anti-communist, Schuyler's brand of right wing anti-communism was far less influential among African Americans than was the variety of liberal anti-communism practiced by the NAACP and espoused by New York City's largest black newspaper, the Amsterdam News. 19

The Amsterdam News was owned by Dr. C. B. Powell, a Harlem X-Ray technician turned business magnate, and it supported FDR and the New Deal in the 1936 and 1940 elections, although it would endorse racially liberal Republican New York Governor Thomas Dewey in 1944 and 1948. The paper was a consistent exponent of and forum for liberal anti-communist views in the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's. On the other hand the Amsterdam News' most significant rival newspaper, the People's Voice, founded in 1942, and partly owned by Harlem's future congressman Adam Clayton Powell (no relation to C. B. Powell) was a distinctly left wing paper with many communist writers.20 Harlem's remaining newspaper, the reliably Republican New York Age, was generally considered to be more conservative than the Amsterdam News.21

NAACP second in command and Crisis editor Roy Wilkins wrote a regular column for the Amsterdam News in which he frequently denounced the Communist Party, black leftists and the Soviet Union. Wilkins gleefully noted that the Ribbentrop Pact had left our Left-wingers, including our dark followers of Stalin, gasping for breath.22 Wilkins argued that Soviet behavior showed that they were as amoral as the Nazis, and that those deluded black leftists who had been hoping for the emergency of some international leadership sympathetic to (their) problems, must turn elsewhere, for the opportunism of the Stalinites is on par with the opportunism of the Republican party. Both have tossed the brother overboard as soon as they got what they wanted from him.23 Wilkins blasted the communists' on-again, off-again self determination for the black belt policy as ludicrous and as a disguised form of racial separation that was just the opposite of what most African Americans desired.24

The Amsterdam News' news coverage had an anti-communist orientation. The paper gave a hostile account of a September 1939 communist meeting in Harlem in which Benjamin J. Davis, Jr. and other communists denounced the imperialist war after having been vocal anti-fascists since the Popular Front period. The unnamed correspondent reported that the purportedly non-partisan meeting was according to impartial observers. . . a dictatorial communist affair, where penny pamphlets and other Red reading fodder was sold on the way out.25 The paper also gave front-page coverage to a tempestuous meeting of the Negro People's Committee for Spanish Refugees, chaired by Paul Robeson, at which Lester Granger of the Urban League and author Pauli Murray were outraged because a white representative of the parent organization declared that the committee would be broken up before it would be allowed to denounce the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact.26 Granger would become an outspoken anti-communist during the postwar period. An Amsterdam News reporter who interviewed Paul Robeson in 1939 expressed bewilderment at Robeson's sudden post-Ribbentrop anti-war stance after he had been a vocal anti-fascist for several years.27 Another article mocked black communist leader James Ford for his sudden conversion to an anti-war stance after the Nazi-Soviet agreement:

Historically speaking:

  1. B. D. (Before Danzig) Reds sponsor united front with the Democracies.
  2. A. P. (After Hitler-Stalin Pact) Reds boast Adolf was tricked by Joe, Reds still squawk for united front vs. Nazis.
  3. A. P. P. (After Partition of Poland) Reds now say down with everybody but Joe.28

The Amsterdam News strongly supported A. Philip Randolph when Randolph dramatically quit the National Negro Congress in 1940 because the Congress had fallen under the control of blacks allied with the Communist Party. Randolph objected to the group's pro-Soviet orientation as well as to its new leader, John P. Davis' claim that blacks would not fight the Soviet Union. Randolph, in a tone which anticipated black intellectuals wide denunciation of a similar statement Paul Robeson would make in 1949, argued that if called upon, blacks would fight against Russia with all the fervor and patriotism of any 100 per cent Americans.29 Randolph argued that the communists were a definite menace and a danger to the Negro people and labor, because of their rule or ruin and disruptive tactics in the interest of the Soviet Union.30 The Amsterdam News editorialized against the Negro Congress' capture by the Communist Party.31 As would be expected, columnist Roy Wilkins also denounced the National Negro Congress as a communist front.32

As we have seen, a strong anti-communist tendency was well established in the NAACP and in certain sectors of the black press long before the beginning of the Cold War. During World War II, black liberals and black leftists established an uneasy and ultimately unsustainable working relationship just as the US and the Soviet Union were able to establish an uneasy and ultimately unsustainable working relationship. Black liberals and black leftists both opposed domestic racism and both wanted the war to result in national independence for colonized peoples of color. Yet their efforts were often curiously disconnected. For example, it is startling how little cooperation there was between the left-wing New York-based Council on African Affairs and the liberal New York-based NAACP on anti-colonial matters during World War II.33 In fact, in April 1942 NAACP board member Alfred Baker Lewis urged YMCA leader Channing Tobias not to become involved with the CAA because of its communist orientation. Baker argued that communists did not have consistent policies but followed the line of Russia's foreign policy and make every zig-zag which Stalin makes.34 While other liberals, such as National Council of Negro Women leader Mary McLeod Bethune did work with the CAA, NAACP leaders, except for Du Bois, were, for the most part, conspicuous by their absence from CAA-sponsored events.

Communists were widely suspected of toning down their militant racial advocacy and militant labor activism during the war years in order to support the war effort at a time in which the Soviet Union was imperiled. Black communist leader James Ford, for example, attacked A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington Movement in a 1943 article for creating confusion and dangerous moods in the ranks of the Negro people, that would lead to the isolation of the Negro people from their most important allies, the progressive white population and the organized labor movement.35 Negro Digest sponsored a 1944 symposium on the question Have the Communists Quit Fighting for Negro Rights. Schuyler, predictably, argued that the communists had abandoned labor militancy and black rights during the war in order to serve Soviet interests. More tellingly, Horace Cayton, a sociologist with no history of anti-communism, also argued that communists were apparently subordinating the Negro's problem to the larger world struggle for power.36

The communists themselves came to believe that they had been too moderate during the war. The US Communist Party had dissolved itself in 1944 in an apparent move toward the political center. In March 1945 the Duclos letter appeared in a French communist publication castigating the American party's wartime direction under its leader Earl Browder. Duclos urged the American party to reconstitute itself and move to the left. Browder and James Ford confessed that they had gone too far in the direction of racial moderation, and they were eventually dismissed from the party hierarchy.37 In the immediate postwar period the Communist Party decided to reestablish its former militancy, and this decision would put it in conflict with the NAACP and other anti-communist black liberals who were now fully convinced that communists were not reliable or desirable allies.

NAACP leaders acted swiftly to check what they believed to be a communist attempt to take control of local NAACP branches and the organization as a whole. White received reports in November 1946 that alleged that communists had achieved virtual complete dominance of the San Francisco, Richmond and one or two other California branches. This left White with no doubt that a determined campaign is being waged by the Communists to capture the Association.38 In the years following 1946, the organization would keep a vigilant watch for communist activity in NAACP branches and youth groups. In 1947, the NAACP national convention passed a resolution barring from the organization any organized clique, group, political party or religious group seeking to seize control of the NAACP for the purpose of undermining the program to which the association is dedicated.39 This policy was amplified at the 1950 national meeting when the delegates passed by a vote of 309 to 57 a resolution that gave the NAACP's national Board of Directors the power to expel any local branch that it believed had fallen under Communist or other political control and action.40 The national organization would continue to maintain this basic policy throughout the 1950's.

The NAACP also continued to avoid close cooperation with organizations it considered to be communist. Walter White, Roy Wilkins, and other top NAACP officials closely monitored the newly established Civil Rights Congress in 1946, and quickly concluded that it was an amply financed CP move.41 White sent Marian Wynn Perry to the Detroit organizational meeting for the CRC as an observer, and in a confidential memo to White she concluded that the meeting was a left-wing affair and that communists were perfectly open in accepting positions and in dominating the Committees. Perry concluded that while the CRC started out to be. . . a united front organization to work in the field of civil rights, that intention was obviously changed and a small Communist group openly took over the Congress without any qualms.42 NAACP leaders reached similar conclusions about the National Negro Congress. In a June 1946 memo to Walter White, Detroit branch Executive Secretary Gloster Current worried that working with a noticeably ‘left wing’ organization, which undoubtedly takes directions from Moscow (would) isolate our legitimate demands against the caste system and paint them with red paint of the (communists).43

Roy Wilkins summarized the NAACP's objections to the Left when he spurned CRC leader William Patterson's 1949 request to cooperate with the NAACP in the Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization. Wilkins argued that the NAACP had seen since Scottsboro how communists claimed to want to work alongside other progressive groups but in practice vilified all organizations that would not submit to communist control. Further, the communists had demonstrated their subservience to Soviet interests in the manner in which they had abandoned the fight for Negro rights during World War II. Years of experience had convinced Wilkins that when leftists campaigned for black civil rights, they did this only as a secondary consideration, which would always be weighted, shaped, angled, or abandoned in accordance with the communist party line. 44

NAACP leaders' efforts to prevent communist infiltration of the organization and distance themselves from leftist groups began nearly a year before the Truman Doctrine and preceded intensive congressional investigations of communism. NAACP leaders' anti-communism was not forced upon them by the Red Scare, but reflected what they believed to be sound evidence that communists were seeking to subvert the civil rights movement and turn it towards a defense of Soviet interests.

The NAACP's determination to resist what it viewed as a communist attempt to capitalize on civil rights for ends that were not in black people's best interests did not mean that it endorsed attempts to restrict leftists' civil liberties. On the contrary, as an organization dedicated to a cause that was far from universally popular, it had little choice but to support the civil liberties of those with whom it profoundly disagreed. This tendency is exemplified by the NAACP's response to Paul Robeson's postwar travails.

Walter White's once-close relationship with Robeson cooled in the years following 1945. When Essie Robeson wrote White in October 1947 to enquire if the NAACP would join in a concerted effort of several black organizations to call for poll tax repeals and other measures, he politely declined.45 White frankly admitted that Paul and I have not seen eye to eye on political and strategic points during recent years, but nonetheless claimed that he retained much respect for Robeson for speaking out frankly about his views instead of wiggling and wobbling as so many other people do who favor Communism but take to cover when the going gets hot.46

Despite these important political differences, the NAACP protested when Peoria, Illinois and Albany, New York barred Robeson from giving concerts in their cities in 1947. Writing on behalf of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins argued that those cities' actions violated the cherished American right of freedom of speech.47

The NAACP's dedication to freedom of speech was tested when Robeson allegedly declared in Paris in 1949 that American Negroes would not fight against the Soviet Union. As Robeson's biographer Martin Duberman has shown, Robeson's statement was widely condemned by mainstream black leaders and in the black press.48 Wilkins, in his usual slashing style, excoriated Robeson in a Crisis editorial for abandoning black people in order to become an abject Soviet fellow traveler, joining, in effect, the ranks of what a later generation would call the radical chic.49 White, in his syndicated newspaper column, adopted a more measured tone. He criticized Robeson for presuming to speak on behalf of black Americans and for being so out of touch with what White viewed as their essentially loyal and pro-American sentiments. Nonetheless, the NAACP leader concluded, American society was ultimately to blame for Robeson's and other black Americans' disillusionment. Therefore white America. . . would be wise to abstain from denunciation of the Paul Robesons for extremist statements until it removes the causes of the lack of faith in the American system of government. Until the United States cleanses itself of its own racial sins, it will not have the right to criticize without hypocrisy such statements as those of Mr. Robeson in Paris.50

Although disagreeing strongly with Robeson's pro-Soviet stand, NAACP leaders protested against the House Un-American Activities Committee decision to hold hearings to allow leading Negroes to dispute Robeson's statement, arguing that there had never been any question of the loyalty of the Negro to the United States of America, and that it failed to see the necessity of holding hearings to be assured of what is already known to be true by our government.51 Further, when a mob of veterans, policemen, and ordinary citizens attacked concert-goers in Peekskill, New York in order to disrupt an appearance by Robeson in August 1949, Wilkins sent telegrams to veterans groups, the Westchester County District Attorney, and Governor Thomas Dewey demanding that the rioters be brought to justice and that local law enforcement's complicity with the rioters be fully investigated.52 New York area branches were instructed to keep pressuring local officials.53 Wilkins also sent an official protest in March 1950 when the National Broadcasting Company cancelled Robeson's appearance on Eleanor Roosevelt's television program.54

The NAACP took other pro-civil libertarian stands during the postwar era. During the same 1947 national convention at which it issued its first anti-communist resolution, it also denounced the indiscriminate persecution and condemnation of sincere liberals and their organizations fighting for democratic principles, by the so-called house un-American activities committee, which had failed to investigate the Klan and other right-wing extremist groups with the same zeal with which it was investigating leftists.55 During the celebrated Hollywood Ten incident of 1947 Walter White sent a telegram to HUAC chair J. Parnell Thomas requesting that the committee refrain from branding as communist persons in the motion picture industry who had worked to improve the depiction of African Americans.56 In the 1950's the NAACP opposed legislation requiring alleged communist from groups to register with the government and immigration laws intended to limit the number of foreign radicals entering the United States.57

The NAACP also actively promoted an anti-colonial and anti-racist foreign policy sensibility during the 1940's and 1950's. Even as the organization endorsed NATO and the Marshall Plan, it did not blindly endorse the foreign policies of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. If one looks at Crisis during the years 1945-1955 one can see that the NAACP journal still gave extensive coverage to foreign affairs after World War II with a third-world centered and anti-imperialist focus. The journal editorialized and published articles, frequently written by George Padmore, in support of African nationalist movements, and gave sympathetic coverage to the Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950's at a time where they were generally treated as an anathema by the mainstream press.58 Crisis also paid close attention to the South African situation, condemning the Afrikaner Nationalist government and criticizing the United States for doing little about South Africa while it heartily condemned human rights violations behind the iron curtain.59 Crisis published articles in the 1940's and 1950's supporting the Vietnamese struggle for independence from France and warning Americans not to try to step into the French's shoes.60 In the 1940's and 1950's Crisis was a voice for a non-communist progressive foreign policy that strongly sympathized with Asian and African nationalist movements and urged the US to take a more proactive and constructive response to developing country nationalism rather than to write it off as communist inspired.61

The question remains whether the NAACP's anti-communist liberal approach to African American politics reflected broader black public sentiment during the 1940's and 1950's. It is certainly true that the NAACP's 1948 dismissal of W. E. B. Du Bois was very unpopular with black public opinion.62 As many authors have discussed, Du Bois disagreed sharply with White's anti-communist liberal position, and, along with Robeson, supported Henry Wallace's Progressive Party presidential candidacy while White supported Democratic incumbent Harry Truman. Yet, black public support for a venerable leader who was, many believed, underhandedly dismissed from the organization he had founded does not translate into support for his particular political views.

African American voters were surprisingly cool toward Henry Wallace's Progressive campaign even though Wallace himself had been very popular with blacks and the Progressives had made a concerted effort to appeal to blacks by addressing black issues and running black candidates for public office.63 While prominent African Americans such as Robeson and Du Bois strongly supported Wallace, others, including Roy Wilkins and widely read black journalists such as the Pittsburgh Courier's P. L Prattis and Amsterdam News political columnist Earl Brown advised black voters to reject Wallace, precisely because of the widely alleged communist domination of the Progressive Party.64 While, as has been widely noted, Walter White strongly supported Truman in the 1948 election, many major black publications, including the Amsterdam News, Pittsburgh Courier, and Baltimore Afro American endorsed Republican candidate Thomas Dewey.65 Black voters in the 1948 election apparently disregarded the advice of Du Bois and Robeson as well as that of many major black newspapers: they strongly supported Truman and the Fair Deal, rejecting both Wallace on the Left and Dewey on the Right. Black New Yorkers, for example, backed Truman by an estimated 4-1 margin.66 However, black voter behavior in the 1948 election hinged on a number of factors, and voter rejection of Wallace cannot be ascribed simply to widespread anti-communist sentiment. However, if we look at black voter behavior in a hotly disputed local election in New York City we can get even more of a sense that anti-communist liberalism enjoyed broad black public support.

The New York City area is an especially prominent locale in the history of black communism and anti-communism. Both the NAACP and the Communist Party were headquartered in New York. Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois all lived in the greater New York area. Communists had more political influence in New York than in many other areas; Vito Marcantonio, the American Labor Party congressman from East Harlem who was widely alleged to be a staunch communist fellow traveler, if not a Party member, was a major force in New York politics in the 1940's. Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., an open communist, was elected to the New York City Council in 1945 when Adam Clayton Powell gave up his Council seat to become New York's first elected black Congressman.

Davis had been elected to the City Council in 1945 under a proportional representation system where voters citywide could vote for candidates. It was widely believed that Davis owed his election to strong support from white leftists, due to his endorsement by the Marcantonio-controlled American Labor Party, as well as to strong support from black voters, as he had also been endorsed in that election by the very popular (among blacks) Adam Clayton Powell. New York City amended its voting rules in 1947 so that Councilmen would be chosen from districts in large part so that communists would have a harder time being elected.67 For his 1949 re-election, Davis could not depend on the support of New York's white leftists but would face an overwhelmingly black Harlem electorate. Davis' problems were compounded by the fact that he was indicted, along with other major leaders of the Communist Party, under the Smith Act in 1949 which made it illegal to conspire to teach or advocate the overthrow of the US government by force.

Into this situation stepped Earl Brown, a young Amsterdam News columnist, who decided to challenge Davis for the Harlem council seat precisely on the communism issue. In the postwar years, the Amsterdam News' editorial page was dominated by anti-communist liberal writers. Aside from Brown, a Harvard graduate who also worked for Time magazine, there was M. Moran Weston, the labor columnist, and A. M. Wendell Malliet, the foreign affairs columnist. Lester Granger, the Urban League leader, also wrote a column for the newspaper in which he expressed anti-communist views. Although strongly opposing the Communist Party and the Soviet Union, the Amsterdam News columnists were generally anti-colonial, pro-labor, and pro-civil liberties.

The Amsterdam News retained the anti-colonial sensibility that had emerged among African Americans during the wartime years. For example, the paper endorsed Indonesian independence in 1946, and Brown called for greater anti-colonial efforts by the UN while Malliet condemned the domination of Haiti by the US and banking interests.68 Nonetheless both Brown and Malliet believed that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian society, and the expansion of Soviet influence would not bode well for colonial peoples or for the world at large. Brown and Malliet argued that the best way for the western powers to fight communism was through domestic economic and racial reform, and by ending colonialism and spreading freedom and prosperity to the world's non-white majority.69 On labor issues, Brown opposed the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, while labor columnist Weston supported the defeat of communist officers in New York area CIO locals.70 Amsterdam News writers' anti-communism was tempered with a civil libertarian sensibility. Brown opposed Ben Davis' and other communists' conviction under the Smith Act since it was highly unlikely that the US government was in serious danger of being overthrown.71 He also opposed the Mundt-Ferguson bill that required communist front groups to register with the government.72 Both Brown and the Amsterdam News editorial section strongly condemned the Peekskill rioters. The Amsterdam News made it clear that it opposed the views expressed by Robeson and the Communist Party, but nonetheless argued that the constitutional rights of those who espoused unpopular views must be upheld.73

The Amsterdam News clearly favored its columnist's candidacy. The paper's coverage of Ben Davis was quite hostile, and it displayed little sympathy for him during his Smith Act trial. In fact, the paper showed more interest in Thelma Dial, the attractive Harlem housewife who served as foreperson of the jury than it did in New York's only black councilman.74 In his first major campaign speech, Brown emphasized that anti-communism was the primary issue in the campaign. Brown charged that communists played upon the justifiable grievances of the Negro. . . in order to win them over to Communism and not to help solve any of the Negro's problems. Brown claimed that the communists had abandoned the Negro cause during World War II because their interest is not the Negro but Russia first, last and only. The communists' reinvigorated racial militancy should be rejected as sheer hypocrisy because they were only interested in blacks again because Russia (was) no longer in danger. Brown's candidacy was endorsed by the Amsterdam News, the Democratic, Liberal, and Republican parties, the CIO, and by the Citizens Union. 75

If Brown had the advantage of prestigious endorsements, Davis had the advantage of being able to credibly claim to be a victim of the white establishment. He was released on bond after his Smith Act conviction and allowed to remain on the ballot. Further, the American Labor Party was a well-organized machine and Davis outspent Brown by $35,000 to $6,000 during the campaign. In the end Harlem voters decisively rejected Davis by a 3-1 margin. Brown received a total of 63,030 votes to Davis' 21, 962 votes.76 Brown himself argued that his victory showed that Harlemites rejected communism, but warned whites not to be complacent—the best way to stop communism in Harlem was not through elections, but by alleviating the slum conditions that would make radicalism attractive to neighborhood residents.77

Brown's landslide victory over Davis shows that communists had relatively narrow support among Harlem residents. Davis was unable to use his tribulations with the white establishment to his political advantage in the same way as Harlem's ever-popular and ever-embattled congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Brown's support by the mainstream political parties and the Amsterdam News were not necessarily decisive factors either. As we have seen, Harlem voters ignored the Amsterdam News' endorsements of Thomas Dewey in presidential elections, and they continually reelected Adam Clayton Powell despite the Amsterdam News long-standing hostility to the flamboyant preacher-politician. In fact, when Earl Brown challenged Powell in the 1958 Democratic congressional primary, Brown was trounced even though he had the support of the Amsterdam News, New York Times, Herald Tribune, and the Democratic Party establishment.78

Years of sharp differences over the best way to advance black peoples' interests led to a firm and bitter break between black liberals and black leftists in the 1950's. This break is exemplified by the final stages of the White-Robeson relationship. White wrote an article for Ebony magazine in 1951 which argued that Robeson had allowed the adulation he received from the Soviet Union and from white leftists to turn his head, and that he had sacrificed an opportunity to play an important role in the Negro's struggle in order to blindly follow Soviet dictates.79 Robert Alan, a pseudonym for a New York journalist that may have been Earl Brown, argued similarly in the November 1951 Crisis that Robeson had abandoned the cause of black people in order to serve as a Soviet apologist.80 The Norfolk, Virginia branch of the NAACP was advised in 1952 not to hold a Robeson concert as a fundraising event because White and Wilkins had written articles disapproving of Robeson's views, and because the confusion which would result will not be advantageous to the branch.81 It is no compliment to Walter White that he wrote a memorandum to Thurgood Marshall in 1953 declaring that Robeson had never been a director or vice-president or connected in any official capacity with the NAACP and in fact was not even a member of the Association. White admitted that they had awarded Robeson the Spingarn medal, but that had been the sole contact between Mr. Robeson and the NAACP, and was solely for distinguished achievement in the theatre and on the concert stage. 82 Robeson showed the class to still attend White's funeral when the NAACP leader died suddenly of a heart attack in March 1955.83

Walter White's death was but one indication of the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one. Joseph Stalin's death in 1953 and Joseph McCarthy's fall from grace in 1954 would mark the end of the high Cold War. The Brown decision of 1954 would be both the highpoint and the end of the NAACP's dominance of the civil rights struggle. The 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott would start a new phase of the civil rights movement with new leaders and a new tactic of non-violent civil disobedience that would build upon the foundations laid by the NAACP.

In the years following the civil rights movement and the black revolution of the 1960's the bitter divisions of the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's between black liberals and black leftists would no longer appear to be so relevant. Further, many observers would be a bit disillusioned by what they felt to be the partial and incomplete gains of the civil rights era. In this context, many writers would reevaluate and rehabilitate black leftists like Robeson and Du Bois, who seemed to offer a broader vision than mere civil rights, and who sacrificed much for their passionate beliefs. Yet in their zeal to rehabilitate the Cold War's domestic victims and to criticize the shortcomings of the post-civil rights era, many writers have accepted an incomplete and romanticized picture of the Left. It is true that individual leftists were deeply and sincerely dedicated to racial equality. However, recent revelations show that black liberals' concerns that the Communist Party was dominated by Moscow and would change its beliefs in accordance with Soviet dictates were not paranoid delusions but a remarkably perceptive depiction of the state of affairs.84 Also with the collapse of communism we can see that rosy depictions of Russia's eradication of racism and conquest of poverty were empty propaganda. It is time that we also reevaluated and rehabilitated black liberals who believed with great passion that the Left was leading black America into a dead end that would have disastrous results. African American anti-communist liberals fought for freedom and justice and articulated an anti-colonial and anti-racist foreign policy sensibility while refusing to be diverted into a defense of a totalitarian regime. African American anti-communist liberals of the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's developed their own politics of the vital center that served black interests well in a crucial and difficult period.