The Communists and ‘The Negro National Question’
What was the forward path for the communists? From 1918 to 1920, they originally formed two small parties, the Communist Party and the Communist Labor Party. But by 1921, they merged into one at the insistence of the Moscow-based Communist International or Comintern. Several young African Americans, many WWI vets, formed the African Blood Brotherhood, and many of its members joined the communists. A group of these was sent to Moscow to study at the Comintern schools for several years. While there, they engaged with Zinoviev and others to develop a new theoretical approach to African Americans.
By the 1928 or 6th session of the Comintern, a resolution drafted by Harry Haywood was adopted, advocating the position that Blacks in the U.S. were an oppressed nation in the South and an oppressed minority nationality elsewhere, with a right to self-determination and full equality. As a result, the early 1930s saw communists organizing Black and white sharecroppers into unions in the Black Belt, a mass demonstration in Chicago, led by Blacks, against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, and a major legal case defending the Scottsboro Boys (nine young Southern Blacks framed on rape charges). These new practices and a ‘new theory’ saw many Blacks joining the CPUSA rather than the Socialists. (It should be noted, however, that viewing Blacks as a ‘nation within a nation’ was neither new nor firstborn in Moscow. It reached all the way back to the Black abolitionist David Walker’s 1829 Appeal and several indigenous affirmations in the U.S. after Walker).
With the onset of the Great Depression in 1932, FDR and his ‘New Deal’ came into power. It meant some gains for labor in the ability to organize and some for Blacks as well. The Civilian Conservation Corps construction camps may have been segregated, but they still offered employment to young Blacks. With the ‘Solid South’ of White Redemptionists in charge, Blacks and Chicanos were primarily excluded from many New Deal worker benefits. The South in Congress, for example, forced the exclusion of agricultural and household workers from social security and unemployment insurance. In many ways, the early New Deal was ‘affirmative action for whites.’ The union organizing drives, and the ongoing cultural expressions of the Harlem Renaissance, still kept the Reconstruction trend alive while subdued overall.
But a significant intellectual event of the decade was the publication in 1935 of W.E.B. DuBois’s masterpiece, ‘Black Reconstruction in America,’ which refuted all the lies of the ‘Deming School’ of history and D. W. Griffith’s film, ‘Birth of a Nation,’ a 3-hour celebration of the White Redeemers that played in every theater in the country, and for many, it was the first movie they ever saw. The pro-Confederate ‘Deming School’ of history held sway in the universities. Unfortunately, DuBois’ book was not widely reviewed at the time. Instead, its adversary arose in the form of a more modern and technicolor spinoff of ‘Birth of a Nation’ in the 1939 film, ‘Gone with the Wind,’ based on Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling 1935 book of the same title. On this cultural terrain, the White Redeemer stories maintained their hegemony.
With the outbreak of WW2, the question of Black troops in a segregated army and fair employment in defense industries once again pushed against the ‘Solid South’ and its Jim Crow restrictions. The African American Pittsburgh Courier editorialized for what it called ‘The Double V Campaign,’ or victory against fascism abroad alongside victory against Jim Crow at home. The Chicago Defender and other Black papers picked up the campaign, and the ‘Double V’ symbol appeared in Black businesses and churches across the country. A. Phillip Randolph and Black unionists started planning for a wartime ‘march on Washington.’ Randolph called it off, however, when FDR promised a fair employment policy, which was widely implemented. With FDR’s death and Henry Wallace’s defeat in 1948, it fell to President Harry Truman to continue these efforts and start desegregating the U.S. military. Next Page