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Editor’s note: The following is a background report to Paul Kengor’s The Communist. Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor. It is written by Spyridon Mitsotakis, who is Professor Kengor’s research assistant. To see Part I, click here.
In the early 1930s, the Communist Party’s outreach toward African Americans was reaching its decade long peak. Across the South, the Party was leading a struggle against the Jim Crow system, best exemplified by their defense of nine African Americans accused (based on less-than-reliable evidence) of raping two white women on a train to Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. On the outside, and to the ordinary Communist Party member, the Party’s anti-Jim Crow activities of the 1930s appeared noble. But the real powers behind the Communist Party had a more sinister goal. Manning Johnson, who had been a member of the Communist Party for ten years and who had served on its National Committee for three, testified:
No. 3 [i.e., the third reason why Johnson left the Party] was the insincerity of the Communists in the Scottsboro case. We were constantly told by James W. Ford and others that we were not interested in saving the lives of the “damn” Scottsboro boys; that we were interested in using the Scottsboro case to penetrate Negro churches and civic organizations which we could not reach except for a cause of that kind, and in the course of the development of this campaign to raise the slogans of the Communist Party, and during our contacts with these large masses of Negroes to seek out the best elements among them and recruit them into the party.
Anybody who did not want to carry out that particular line was considered an opportunist. It was around this issue we had some sharp differences, and some very good people who had come into the movement because of sincerity were expelled from the party.
In fact, the Communists’ involvement in the Scottsboro case was spearheaded by a Party activist named Sol Auerbach (also known by his Party name – James S. Allen), who had spent time in the Soviet Union, had traveled to the South for the purpose of starting a Party newspaper and was an advocate of the Party’s southern African American separatist strategy. And it was the Comintern who used its propaganda arm to make the Scottsboro Case an international spectacle, as was discovered in the Comintern archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is no evidence that the Moscow-based Communist International cared about the fate of the Scottsboro defendants beyond propaganda purposes. In 2003, a historian, Dan Flynn, wrote of the Communist Party’s involvement in the Scottsboro case: “[I]n reality the Communists merely used the embattled youngsters. Richard Gid Powers points out in Not Without Honor that the Communists had raised $250,000 for the Scottsboro Boys’ defense, but had put-up a scant $12,000 for two appeals.”
But the campaign did attract a number of blacks to the Communist Party, and that influence lingers to this day. Barack Obama’s mentor Frank Marshall Davis credited the Scottsboro campaign for bringing him to Communism. In addition to this, Angela Davis, a former leading member of the Communist Party, in an April 15, 2009 interview conducted by Julian Bond as part of the NAACP’s “Explorations in Black Leadership” series, explained that her mother “was a member of the Southern Negro Youth Congress,” an organization completely under the control of the Communist Party and “was involved in the campaign to free the Scottsboro Nine. And as a child, I had the opportunity to spend time with black communists who had come to Birmingham to help organize there, to help organize the Southern Negro Youth Congress.” When asked by Bond “if your mother’s political activity engaged you in some sort of way,” Angela Davis replied: “Well, yes … My parents knew who was a member of the Communist Party and who was underground so I remember this kind of fear of the FBI and I also remember being— learning that you never talked to the FBI. When I was six years old, if they asked me any questions, you know, don’t answer at all.”
That the NAACP would be honoring Angela Davis shows how much that organization has changed since it helped lead the Civil Rights movement under the anti-Communist leadership of Roy Wilkins – a time of the organization’s greatest accomplishments, such as its victory in Brown v. Board of Education. The difference in attitude can be seen in a letter Wilkins wrote to the Communist Party’s William Patterson (then head of the Communist-front “Civil Rights Congress”) in 1949:
We remember the Scottsboro case and our experience there with the (Communist front) International Labor Defense, one of the predecessors of the Civil Rights Congress. We remember that the present Civil Rights Congress is composed of the remnants of the ILD and other groups. We remember that in the Scottsboro case, the NAACP was subjected to the most unprincipled vilification. We remember the campaign of slander in the Daily Worker. We remember the leaflets and the speakers and the whole unspeakable machinery that was turned loose upon all those who did not embrace the “unity” policy as announced by the communists.
We want none of that unity today.
We of the NAACP remember that during the war when Negro Americans were fighting for jobs on the home front and fighting for decent treatment in the armed services we could get no help from the organizations on the extreme Left. They abandoned the fight for Negro rights on the grounds that such a campaign would “interfere with the war effort.” As soon as Russia was attacked by Germany they dropped the Negro question and concentrated all effort in support of the war in order to help the Soviet Union. During the war years the disciples of the extreme left sounded very much like the worst of the Negro-hating Southerners.
The Communist Party’s outreach to African Americans in the 1930s were indeed dealt a serious blow by the Party’s subservience to the Soviet Union during the radical shift in policy during the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939-1941) and a second radical shift once the Germans attacked the Soviets (mid-1941). Now the Party, which had spent much of the 1930s comparing the southern United States to Nazi Germany, was put in a position of defending the Soviet Union’s collaboration and attacking those who advocated support for anti-fascist forces and nations as “imperialists” – and pushing the line that black Americans’ true enemy is American capitalism. Then all those efforts aimed at fighting Jim Crow were dropped once the Germans invaded the USSR because, as Party leader Earl Browder admitted in 1945, the Party’s policy in 1942 became: “the struggle for Negro rights must be postponed till after the war” to focus on supporting the war effort.
The single most visible Black American Communist to trumpet the Soviet Union’s cause was Paul Robeson. Harvey Klehr, reviewing the definitive biography of Robeson by Martin Duberman writes:
In the early 1930s Robeson suddenly swung to the political Left. Duberman, linking his new militancy to the collapse of a three-year romance with a white Englishwoman, speculates that her decision to end the relationship reinforced Robeson’s belief that the white, Western world would always reject him. Be that as it may, in 1934 Robeson angrily announced that the “modern white American” was a “member of the lowest form of civilization in the world today,” and in the same year he accepted an invitation to the Soviet Union. Once there, he was smitten: “Nights at the theater and opera, long talks with [the director Sergei] Eisenstein, gala banquets, private screenings, trips to hospitals, children’s centers, factories . . . all in the context of a warm embrace.” Convinced that the Soviet Union had abolished racial prejudice, Robeson felt, he said, “like a human being for the first time since I grew up.” It was the start of a lifelong romance.
As Ronald Radosh recounts in his memoir Commies:
By the onset of the Cold War, Robeson’s career had been cut short, as the singer squandered his early success by dedicating himself relentlessly to a vigorous defense of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin. In particular, his statement at a Soviet-sponsored “peace congress” in Europe, that American Negroes would not fight on their own country’s side in a war between the United States and the Soviet Union, brought down the wrath of the nation upon him. The great baseball hero Jackie Robinson reluctantly appeared in public before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to let it be known that he differed strongly with Robeson, and from that point on, the singer’s career was all downhill. Of course, that meant that Robeson would become an even greater hero of the Communist Left in America, who took him to their heart and proclaimed him the nation’s single greatest public figure.
While Robeson insisted black Americans would never fight for America against the Soviet Union, he actively supported those Americans, black and white, who fought for the Comintern. In an interview with the anti-American network Democracy Now!, Marxist singer Harry Belafonte recounted how “Paul Robeson, who was a mentor and a man for whom I had enormous love and admiration … went everywhere there was the opportunity to be heard, whether it was going into Spain to sing during the great Spanish revolutionary war in ’30s, whether it was going to England.”
In the mid-to-late 1930s, the Communist Party misled black Communists to willingly give life and limb for a cause they misunderstood – a misunderstanding resulting from an intricate web of lies and two-faced schemes woven together by the Soviet Union. One of the great rallying cries of revolutionary Pan-Africanist and Black Nationalist movements was to assist Ethiopia, which at that time was the only independent black African nation to resist the invasion it suffered at the hands of Fascist Italy. The Soviet Union and its surrogate organizations joined in these calls to defend Ethiopia – while at the same time the Soviets continued selling vital war materials to Italy, which were promptly put to use by the fascist conquerors. That did not stop the Communists from exploiting this rally cry to draw blacks into the Party and its causes – including leading their black “comrades” toward joining millions of others in suffering one of the most infamous betrayals of modern times. On July 25, 1936, the Spanish Republic, besieged by a military rebellion led by the Italy-supported General Francisco Franco, asked the Soviet Union for assistance.
The response was an effort by the Comintern to recruit volunteers from Communist Parties around the world to go to Spain and fight. One of the recruiting tools the Communist Party USA used to recruit more than 80 blacks to join the thousands of Americans who travelled to fight in Spain was to present the Spanish Civil War as an extension of the Italian war in Ethiopia, adopting, in early 1937, a slogan of: “Ethiopia’s fate is at stake on the battlefields of Spain.” Ultimately, the Soviet Union was able to have its agent take control of the Spanish army – resulting in a Stalinist police-state which expended most of its energy hunting down other non-communist left-wing groups then fighting Franco. In the meantime, Stalin’s agents pilfered Spain’s gold reserves in exchange for insufficient arms for the Spanish government forces and its allies – who were then sent to the front to meet certain death and defeat like cattle led to the slaughter. Weakened from within, the Spanish republic fell to Franco. Stalin’s betrayal of Spain has been well documented with material from the Comintern archives. So, not only did the Soviet Union deceivingly draw these black Americans into Communism by decrying an atrocity in Ethiopia that the Soviets themselves assisted in, but the Soviets then drew them into a battle in Spain, where they betrayed Spain as well, making the bloodshed of these black Americans in vain. And Robeson was a key participant in that deceit.
“It would take almost a half century more, after Robeson’s death,” Dr. Paul Kengor wrote in the American Spectator, “for Communist Party USA to publicly concede the obvious: Paul Robeson had been a longtime secret member.”
In May 1998, the centennial of Robeson’s birth, longtime CPUSA head Gus Hall finally, proudly revealed the truth. In this birthday tribute to “Comrade Paul,” Hall and CPUSA came bearing gifts. “We have a birthday present for Paul that no one else can give,” said Hall, “the full truth and nothing but the truth.” And what’s that truth? “Paul was a proud member of the Communist Party USA,” stated Hall unequivocally. Paul had been a man of communist “conviction.” This was “an indelible fact of Paul’s life,” in “every way, every day of his adult life.” He “never forgot he was a Communist.” A teary-eyed Hall recalled that his own most precious moments with Paul were when I met with him to accept his dues and renew his yearly membership in the CPUSA.
Professor Harvey Klehr, one of the world’s leading scholars on American Communism, stated in an interview that the Communist Party was, for the most part, too busy defending itself from government scrutiny in the 1940s and 1950s to make as forceful an effort to influence black Americans as they had during the thirties. But among the most significant exceptions was that of Hunter Pitts “Jack” O’Dell. Having come to Communism in the 1940s, by the 1950s O’Dell became one of the Party’s leading activists in the South. Morris Childs, a leading member of the Communist Party and secretly an FBI agent, reported on a discussion that took place in a February 10, 1959 meeting during the “Twenty-first Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union” between some of the leaders of the Soviet Union, among them Mikhail Suslov and a CPUSA delegation consisting of Morris Childs and a black Communist Party leader named James Jackson.
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