Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement, an Interview


Editor's note: Interviewed here are Robbie Lieberman and Clarence Lang who are co-editors of a new book titled Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement (Palgrave Macmillan). The co-editors are working with the publisher to get this book out in paperback soon in order to make it more affordable. Look for an audio version of this interview on an upcoming Political Affairs podcast.

PA: What inspired this project?

CLARENCE LANG: I met Robbie Lieberman – actually we talk about this a little bit in the preface to the book – at a history conference in St. Louis. I heard her on a panel that was discussing the NAACP and the early Cold War, and she was actually saying a lot of the things that I was thinking from the audience. So I raised my hand and tried to get into the conversation. She was really articulating a number of points. What I was hearing on that panel, if memory serves me correctly, was quite a bit of apologizing and explaining away of some of the activities of the NAACP in the late 1940s, early 1950s in regard to African American activists who were accused of being Communist or being red.

I had read some of the work by Gerald Horne and other scholars, such as Penny Von Eschen’s book (Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism,1937-1957), so I really had a very different view of the subject matter from what I mostly heard on that panel, aside from Robbie’s interventions. Afterwards I went up to her and we had a conversation. In fact, I think she spied me in the audience looking fitful and frustrated, and nodding when she was speaking, and so she wasn’t surprised when I approached her. That was how our relationship and dialogue around this subject matter began. She mentioned to me that we should do some joint work around this topic. I was a graduate student at the time, so I wasn’t really thinking that anything would really come of that, because a lot of that kind of talk goes on at conferences. But as I got to know Robbie, I learned that Robbie doesn’t say things casually. If she says that she would like to do X, Y or Z, you can bet that she is going to do her best to make it happen. So the project just sort of gathered steam and momentum from there, and now we have the final product, our new book.

This project began around 2000, so there has been almost 10 years of work on it in terms of conceptualization, writing, editing, etc. By that time I had finished grad school, moved around a little bit, and began a tenure-track position here at the University of Illinois, but the project has been ongoing for that whole time.

ROBBIE LIEBERMAN: The main reason had to do with a sort of shift in historiography, and especially the argument that a lot of people were making that civil rights were a product of the Cold War. Sometimes that was just implied, but often it was stated explicitly, and the idea that the Cold War was good for African American rights was profoundly disturbing to me and to Clarence Lang as well. So that was the starting point. We wanted to talk about the negative impact of the Cold War on the Freedom Movement.

PA: When you say that people are arguing that civil rights are a product of the Cold War, what do you mean by that?

LIEBERMAN: The book that has had the most influence is actually called Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Society (by Mary L. Dudziak). The basic argument that book makes is that international pressure on the United States because of the Cold War to live up to its rhetoric of freedom is what brought about the kind of legal civil rights that are usually associated with the movement. Basically, she is saying that without the Cold War you don’t make that progress. Then other people kind of picked up on that, and just said, “Oh yeah, of course, you know, it was good that they threw the Communists out of the movement,” or that they narrowed their focus to just segregation, and they basically just sort of ran with that. So it has become a kind of standard refrain. Now everybody talks about Cold War civil rights, as if that is understood – that the Cold War is what helped bring about the successes of the movement.

PA: McCarthyism played a big role in changing or erasing our memory of the 20th century in a lot of different ways. Could you both talk about how that changes the story of African American history in the 20th century and the struggle for civil rights?

LIEBERMAN: A lot of what McCarthyism did was to convince people to leave out big parts of the story, and what gets left out when you talk about Cold War civil rights is the broad base of the movement, and the kinds of issues people were concerned about, which weren’t just about getting rid of legalized segregation, as difficult as that was, but also about economic justice, global peace issues, and things like that. A lot of those issues kind of fell by the wayside because of the McCarthy era, but it shows up in scholarship as well. But the fact that a lot of people were excluded from the movement because they had certain leftwing credentials that weren’t acceptable – that isn’t really part of the story. The organizations that were destroyed in the period basically don’t get much attention because they didn’t last. So what we are left with is this story of liberal progress, while all kinds of important and pioneering anti-racist work that was done by the Left gets ignored.

LANG: There is a lot to that, I think. The simplest way to go about it is to examine its effect on the more radical tendencies of the movement. When I think of social movements, I think of a phenomenon that has many different tendencies. You have left tendencies, you have centrist tendencies, and you have conservative tendencies. The organizing thesis of our book is that the early Cold War and McCarthyism played a role in sidelining or otherwise marginalizing the more radical tendencies of the African American freedom movement. That doesn’t mean that radicals, people who were on the left, just fell off the face of the planet in the late 1940s and 1950s. They persisted and many of them re-emerged at later points in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and thereafter, but this was, I would certainly argue, a moment of rupture in the movement, when certain tendencies that had been hegemonic or others might argue fairly permanent, during the 1930s through the Second World War period, were no long able (if they were able to survive at all) to function in the way that they had.

I would argue that there was, whether we are talking about the 1930s, 40s, 50s or 60s, very much a working-class core to the demands and the agenda of the movement. But in terms of that working class agenda being articulated from a more radical perspective, I think that the early Cold War period was a period of discontinuity that had an impact on how the movement subsequently developed and the kinds of people who would emerge in prominent roles, i.e. Martin Luther King, Jr. as opposed to Paul Robeson or W.E.B. Du Bois, for instance. In the same way that McCarthyism had an impact on the political culture of the US generally, certainly African Americans, as a segment of that population, were heavily impacted as well.

PA: To focus on a particular example of what you, Professor Lang, write about in your essay, which documents the strong role of African Americans in forging unity between labor, the African American community, and the civil rights movement. Why is this particular moment, which was centered around the labor movement, so little discussed today as part of civil rights history?

LANG: I think it is tied to the fact, as a professor of mine once mentioned, that anti-communism became essentially a civic religion, so that talking about issues of labor and linking those issues to broader questions of social and political equality became tantamount to being a communist. One of the things that comes out of this period is that the segregationists, those folks who were defending legal racial apartheid in the US, basically found in anti-communism a language to attack Black social movements. So even though every anti-communist was not a segregationist, certainly I think it was rare to find a segregationist who was not an anti-communist. Gerald Horne, again, has done some seminal work on this. Therefore linking the labor movement to the struggle for economic rights and social justice became tantamount to being a communist. At a certain point, to just raise the issue of Black people being able to participate in unions with some semblance of equality, have expanded job opportunities, and the whole rhetoric of fair employment, became evidence in many people’s minds of being red, being pink, being a communist. And when an organization like the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC) emerges, which fights very stridently around these issues, it is not very long before that organization is put on a list of subversive organizations, and hounded by various federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, so that six years after it is created it is destroyed.

It wasn’t just that organizations were destroyed. The road is littered with a number of organizations that didn’t make it because they were harassed and driven out of existence. However, at the same time you also had, more moderate, mainstream, if you will, forces recreating those organizations along more conservative lines. Organizations that were deemed a bit too radical were drummed out, but the organizations that the liberals and more moderate elements created in their place did not have the same far-reaching vision and goals.

A perfect example I talk about in the book is the National Negro Labor Council. It was run out of existence. Then A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, along with other Cold War Black liberals, created the Negro American Labor Council, which, I would argue, was a pale comparison. So although you still have the persistence of a working-class kind of politics during this period, that politics is reconfigured further to the right of where it was in an organization like the NNLC.

PA: Of particular note is the peace movement, which is the area you, Professor Lieberman, cover in the book. You note how many African American leaders – I’m thinking of Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois as key figures here, who were sympathetic to or associated with the Communist Party, played a big role in the peace movement. But that moment in history in the late 1940s and early 1950s is simply not treated at all in terms of the peace movement or in terms of the role of African Americans in that movement. Could you talk about some of the things you discuss in your chapter?

LIEBERMAN: What I try to do is bring back some of those African American voices who were concerned about both peace and freedom issues, people who had the kind of global view that Du Bois and Robeson had, people who were critical of US foreign policy, people whose critique we just don’t hear much about. But they were very important at the time, and it is important for people to know about them now.

If you read most peace history, there isn’t much attention paid to African Americans unless they happen to be nonviolent activists like Bayard Rustin. And if you read African American history, there is not a lot of attention to the issue of peace. So part of what I am trying to do in a larger way is bring these two things together and just fill in those holes. I think it all goes back to McCarthyism in a way, because it was considered un-American to oppose the Cold War and the Korean War, and people are still uncomfortable talking about that period. Even the idea of peace in some sense became associated with communism, and a lot of people would talk about “peace” in quotation marks, meaning this was the communist version of peace, and that we shouldn’t take it seriously. So again we are just missing a big part of that history. A number of African American intellectuals and activists spoke out for both peace and freedom during the early cold war years, but their perspective receives very little attention, if any, in histories of the black freedom movement.

PA: I wanted to challenge the idea of a rupture a little bit. Professor Lang's article talks about Local 600 of the UAW in the Detroit area. It is certainly true that African American labor leaders like Dave Moore and some of those around him were drummed out of the union in the 1950s, but other important figures in the Detroit area that were affiliated with the NNLC and were tied closely to the labor movement, people like Coleman Young, John Conyers, George Crockett and others, survived politically and continued to have brilliant political careers. I don’t mean, of course, that they tied themselves to the radical left. Is Detroit an exceptional case because it has a unique history? How do you see what happened there fitting into the larger picture you are describing?

LANG: There are certain special dynamics in Detroit in terms of the strength of labor unions there. I do not think the case of Detroit was atypical. I am approaching the subject from the standpoint of historical materialism, so it is all about continuity and change. There are always those things that continue. My criticism is that oftentimes that continuity has been over-emphasized.

We have this period of McCarthyism where there was some real damage done to organizations, activists and political communities. But in the literature and history of the period I see a trend, certainly in the study of the Black freedom movement, that perhaps unwittingly minimizes the negative impact of McCarthyism and the early Cold War. You can examine the effects of this in many other cities. I have studied St. Louis, for instance, and there are examples of what you described there and other places as well – where every individual who was involved in the radical movement was not necessarily suppressed forever in terms of their public lives. Some people were able to make a comeback, and some people were able to remake themselves, but everyone was affected. Even someone like Coleman Young, who was involved in the NNLC, did have to recreate himself a bit. And that becomes the ultimate point. You have some organizations that were erased; you have some individuals that were, in a sense, taken out of commission, but then you have other folks who are able to survive, but they have to make certain kinds of adjustments. So everyone was affected, even though there are those success stories. Some individuals who were involved in both the National Negro Labor Council and the Negro American Labor Council, later re-emerged in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in the early 1970s, so there is a continuity there.

My concern is that the issue of continuity (which arises out of the popular thesis of the “Long Movement” – the idea that one can draw an unbroken line of resistance from the 1930s to the present), tends, I think, to downplay the impact of the Cold War on the early movement. One of the main purposes of our book is to emphasize the point that we really have to take this moment seriously, and although it was perhaps not one of complete rupture, we need to recognize that there are some real discontinuities here. We really have to be cognizant of that and we have to be clear about it.

This is particularly important if we think about our own times, and what the War on Terrorism has generated in terms of its impact. I certainly remember early on, after 9/11, what the impact was on the political culture here. This was a very serious thing, and we cannot be cavalier about the impact of this kind of dynamic. I take your point, and in fact I agree that there are many examples of what you are talking about. The question is how we interpret such an historical moment, and from our perspective, we certainly see more evidence of damage than we see of people being able to wend their way through it without being affected.

LIEBERMAN: My guess would be that it depends on where you look and when, and which individuals you are looking at. The process generally, the process of exclusion and division, is much more evident on the national level. If you look at organizations like the NAACP and CORE, and so on, it’s the leadership that is saying we have to purge ourselves, we have to be clear about who we will work with and who we won’t. But at the grassroots level there is always much more acceptance of working with anybody who supports your views, or being supportive of Du Bois or Robeson in their struggles with the government and that kind of thing. So I think that plays into it as well. But I am not sure you can just say the rupture was short-lived and people came back. It wasn’t quite that simple.

PA: Finally, where do you see this historical project going in the future?

LIEBERMAN: The larger project I have in the works is further developing what this chapter in the book does, but by talking more about individuals, especially Black radicals who haven’t received much attention, but who tried to hold the causes of peace and freedom together in that really difficult period. For instance there was Dr. Carlton Goodlett who published a newspaper (the Sun-Reporter) in San Francisco. I am also doing work on Lorraine Hansberry’s interest in peace, about which scholars have had very little to say, and on Charlotta Bass, who was the vice-presidential candidate of the Progressive Party in 1952. These were people who were really outspoken about these issues, and were attacked for it – Bass had to cease publishing the California Eagle and she was kicked out of her sorority – but who never backed down.


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