Black History Month: Henry Winston and the African American Freedom Struggle


2-25-08, 10:37 am

Editor's note: Henry Winston is the former chair of the Communist Party USA (1966-1986). Jarvis Tyner is the executive vice chair of the Communist Party USA.

PA: In his book, Strategy for a Black Agenda, published over 30 years ago, Henry Winston postulated that a new stage of struggle had been reached, one that combined the struggle for civil rights with the struggle for economic rights. In your view, are we still at this stage?

JARVIS TYNER: Strategy for a Black Agenda first came out in 1973. The book was and remains a fundamental contribution to the struggle. The issues that Henry Winston raised centered on the unity of the class and national questions. In his book, he stressed the need for the Black liberation movement to come to grips with the long-term economic crisis faced by our community, and to direct the struggle against racism toward a broader struggle against the power of monopoly capitalism and imperialism. I think that message is still very powerful. I also think that we are still in that stage of the struggle, although the situation today is more complex in a lot of ways.

PA: There is a story that Henry Winston actually met with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Is that true?

TYNER: I was there when they met. It was when King came to speak at the centennial celebration of W.E.B. Du Bois and made that sterling speech against anti-communism as he paid tribute to Du Bois. Winston asked me and a couple of other comrades to be with him backstage. When Dr. King came in they shook hands and he said, “Mr. Winston, I’m so glad to meet you!” They exchanged a number of appreciations, and Winnie (as he was affectionately known) mentioned that he had two Southern brothers. Winnie was from Mississippi originally, so he and King had that kind of rapport. It only lasted about 10-15 minutes, but it was a very nice exchange. At that time if your remember King was meeting with Malcolm X. He was trying to bridge the gap that had been artificially imposed on the movement – that the nationalists couldn’t talk to the civil rights people – the integrationists – and that the Left was a pariah in the civil rights movement. He was challenging all of that near the end. He was coming out against the Vietnam War. So the meeting between Winston and King meeting was very appropriate in that context, and it went very well. As we know, King was not afraid to examine radical ideas. And Winnie was very brilliant on the tactics and strategy of the civil rights movement and the fight against racism. I think they both appreciated each other’s role very much. It was a very nice meeting, at which I sat back in awe of these two great Black leaders.

PA: On the issue of strategy and tactics, Winston wrote often about the important role of African Americans in the labor movement for galvanizing the entire labor movement behind the civil rights struggle. How would you characterize his assessment of the role of Black workers?

TYNER: Winston understood that Black people, in general, were 95-96% working class. In Detroit, for instance, you had a very high percentage of industrial workers who were African American, and although Detroit has been devastated by the decline in the auto industry, NAFTA, and all the other problems of globalization, nevertheless, those are the people’s roots.

Winston used to say that African American steelworkers, autoworkers, electrical workers, etc. had to be viewed in the context of the fight for civil rights. What he understood and what he taught us was that there was a link between the class and national questions, and that Black workers played a decisive role in that respect. In the history of our struggle, even in the antebellum slavery period, Black workers, freed and slave – the slaves themselves, of course, were workers, they just weren’t paid – comprised the largest number of abolitionists, in the sense that they were fighting for their own freedom.

Black workers played a tremendous role at that stage in the fight against slavery, and in the post-slavery period and during Reconstruction, Black farmers and working-class ex-slaves played a key role in the fight for a new democracy. That continued all the way through to the great upsurge of the 30s, when it was possible to organize workers in the Deep South on the basis of anti-racism, in which the Party played a big role, and again Black workers came to the fore. If look at who led the civil rights movement in the South, you can say that it was led by middle-class people like King and the preachers, but who was their constituency? The constituency was rural Blacks, farm workers, small farmers, and, of course, in the cities, workers in the mills and factories down there. Steelworkers in Birmingham played a huge role in this fight.

This was what Winnie always taught us. He helped the Party see the strategic role of African American workers, particularly the organized sector of the working class, in advancing the struggle for the liberation of our people, and indeed of society as a whole. He always talked about the advanced Black proletariat in different parts of the country, who had gone into industry and found their way into unions – who had to break their way in in many ways – and who played a very militant role in the rank-and-file.

These workers brought their skill and organization, and the power of the labor movement, into the African American fight for freedom and the civil rights movement, and in that sense their role was historic and critical to moving forward. Racism is rooted in capitalism, and therefore who was better able to fight capitalism and racism than the people who were producing that surplus value, who understood how the system worked, and could play a leading role? That is why the working class is always the most consistent fighter in the Black community for an end to racism.

PA: Given the fact that Winston placed the unity of the class and national questions so squarely in the foreground, and that early civil rights organizations like the Civil Rights Congress and International Labor Defense, led by William L. Patterson, unabashedly combined two forms of struggle, the economic and the civil rights struggle, do you think that Winston saw the civil rights movement in the 1960s as having gone off course?

TYNER: No, not at all – he hailed it. If you read the Party literature on the civil rights movement in the 60s or anything Winston wrote about it, it was hailed as a great struggle. Certainly it was centered on social questions, but you cannot foresee how the upsurge is going to come against injustice. It may seek a form that you didn’t foresee. The civil rights movement naturally arose on the basis of the apartheid situation in the South, the fact that people had to go to the back of the bus, that people had to attend segregated schools based on separate and unequal, and that people were not allowed to sit in the same meetings together, Black with white. They went to separate churches, to separate sections of movie theaters upstairs. I remember going down South as a child and sitting upstairs, and I asked my cousin why we were doing this. He said, “Don’t ask that question or we’ll get in trouble.” That was the way it was.

So these were the things that were up front and in your face every day. Those were the questions that the struggle was initiated on. In 1960 with the sit-ins in Greensboro, the Montgomery bus boycott before that, the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision regarding segregated schools, all that happened in Little Rock, that was the way it came about. But I think Dr. King understood – and this was something Winnie had done a lot of thinking and writing about – that it was indeed necessary for that struggle to now take on a more class-oriented approach and attack the economic roots of racism, that it was necessary to do this in order to structurally change the systemic racism that was linked so closely with capitalist profits and power, and the strength of imperialism around the world. Henry Winston wrote about that in his Strategy for a Black Agenda and other works. He brilliantly clarified people’s thinking and made them move forward.

He thought the 1960s were great, but it was the evolution that occurred in the 60s that brought people to that point. Remember that Dr. King went from Montgomery to Memphis to show his solidarity with the sanitation workers there, and that he felt that the need to build the labor movement in the Deep South was so important. He was very close to the labor movement and to the 1199 healthcare workers here in New York, which he called his favorite union – they named their center after him. He really understood those workers very well. It was the hard economic questions, as well, that brought him to oppose to the war in Vietnam. He saw the international role of imperialism, its racism, adventurism, and aggression abroad, as very much related to the fight against racism at home. Du Bois understood that too, and King stood on the shoulders of Du Bois and all the other greats before them.

They both knew about William L. Patterson, and about the Civil Rights Congress and its great role, and they knew how the process had developed. Back in William Patterson’s day it was Scottsboro and the blatant cases of racist lynching. W.E.B. Du Bois also fought against lynching. All of that culminated in the organization of labor in the South. But now there was a whole new cycle on a different level, and it was linking the class struggle with the national struggle into one powerful coalition. Both in terms of their membership and their programs, groups like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and before that the NALC (Negro American Labor Council) embodied that fight, making the link between the class and national questions. Winnie understood that connection very well and wrote about it brilliantly.

PA: What role did Henry Winston play in developing ties between the African American community here and the struggle for national independence on the African continent?

TYNER: At the end of the Vietnam War, the issue that was growing larger and larger was the fight for the defeat of apartheid in South Africa and solidarity with Africa in general. I remember discussing the national issue in the Party and saying that the next big international question was going to be solidarity with African liberation, particularly the end of apartheid in South Africa, which we felt was the kingpin, the key to opening up a new phase of liberation in Africa. I think that has proven true.

Winnie actually knew many of the African leaders and was particularly close to the SACP (South African Communist Party), whose status was illegal, of course, at that point. Therefore, many of its leaders were living in Eastern Europe and western capitalist countries, but they sought health care in the Soviet Union and the GDR (German Democratic Republic). Winnie had actually spent many hours with some of the top leaders of the South African Communist Party, because they met together in health clinics and hospitals. (Winston had suffered a brain tumor while imprisoned in a US federal prison for his leadership in the Communist Party. Before the tumor was treated, in Eastern European health centers, after his release in 1961, it had damaged his optic nerve and caused him to go blind.) They were more than comrades. They were comrades and close, close friends – and they literally had hours to talk over things.

When Winnie returned from abroad, he said that we had to do something on this question. He kept pushing it for many years. He helped initiate the formation of the National Anti-Imperialist Movement in Solidarity with African Liberation or NAMSAL. Henry Winston was the one who came up with the concept of isolating the racists, that is, of boycotting South Africa in every aspect of international diplomatic and economic exchange, to isolate the racists until they ended the system of apartheid. He was the one who raised the issue of freeing Nelson Mandela, and he was the one who knew all the leaders personally, such as Oliver Tambo, the head of the ANC, and Moses Mabhida and J.B. Marks, leaders in the SACP.

Winnie’s writings were extremely popular among the African leaders, because he had a deep, Marxist-Leninist scientific analysis of what was happening in Africa, and he reflected the best thinking that had come out of the African American community on how to liberate the continent. Kwame Nkrumah was associated with our Party when he was here. A lot of African leaders came to the United States to attend college. Some also went to Eastern Europe to school and came back with a Marxist analysis, and that helped to spur things on. Patrice Lumumba, who was murdered, was an advanced thinker and fighter against imperialism who fought to free the people of the Congo. His murder was clearly decided on in Washington and executed from there. And, of course, that sparked this whole movement.

Winnie had a great understanding of what was happening in Africa and conveyed that to us. I know that when African Americans would go to Africa, they would be asked, “Do you know Henry Winston?” And a lot of them didn’t know who Henry Winston was, so when they came back they said, “Who is this Henry Winston? I’ve got to get to know him.” Well, Henry Winston was the Chairman of the Communist Party, and many of them came knocking just to talk to Winnie and to get to know him. He had such prestige on the African continent, the same kind as Paul Robeson had.

The CIA did everything it could to try to block this kind of relationship with the new African leaders. They knew the power of it and what it meant, especially if it was on an anti-imperialist basis, if it was not simply about a color relationship, although that had its place and its reason – and is understandable – but the deeper meaning of Winston's message was anti-imperialism. From that perspective, all the socialist countries were rising and forging solidarity with the African liberation movements, and all the Communist parties around the world were doing the same. This made it possible for a comrade like Winnie, who had a special understanding and outlook, to bring his communist understanding to the struggle and help advance it.