Eyes Off the Prize, by Carol Anderson


Carol Anderson, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Missouri/Columbia, has written a fascinating political narrative history of African American attempts to raise the issue of human rights before the United Nations in order to attack de jure and de facto segregation and racism in the US in the early post World War II period. The anger that African American novelist Richard Wright captured so forcefully in the figure of Bigger Thomas, the protagonist in his great prewar defining work, Native Son, cries out from every page of Anderson’s narrative - anger against Democratic party leaders, Southern racist politicians running interference for murderers, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt using her reputation and prestige to undermine militants and NAACP leaders more interested in supporting the Truman administration and fighting Communists than in using the new postwar situation to advance the cause of civil rights. Anderson’s work portrays the intense and complicated internal politics that characterized the NAACP, the prewar National Negro Congress and the postwar Civil Rights Congress. The author also examines the white middle men and power brokers dealing with African American leadership in the Roosevelt, Truman and early Eisenhower administrations, and the international maneuvering over positions and policies concerning colonialism and racism in the early history of the United Nations.

Although the author doesn’t use the term, this narrative of Civil Rights groups describes the political divisions within what appears to be an internal colony of the United States as its leaders struggle to have an international organization put pressure on the US government.

Few should be surprised to discover that Anderson shows national organizations and governments to be more interested in their own internal politics and private agendas than the larger moral and ethical issues to which they paid lip service. It is nevertheless important to governments, organizations, and leaders accountable for their acts in the past if one is both understand policy development and hold leaders accountable in the present.

If Anderson’s work has a central weakness, it is in the passive acceptance of anti-Communist party, USA, and anti-Soviet stereotypes, which tends to make her narrative a one dimensional negation of all organizations struggling to bring the issue of US racism to the UN. A more careful reading of the works of Gerald Horne, the most insightful and prolific scholar addressing the context that she studies, particularly Horne’s Communist Front? The Civil Rights Congress, 1946-1956 and Black and Red: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1946-1956, would have helped her develop a more insightful and realistic analysis.

The CPUSA, its activists and allies through the period and the Soviets after the war were the leading force in the US and on the world scene in publicizing the oppression of African-Americans, because their ideology, values and political interests had no long-term place for racism and colonialism.

The Soviets muted their anti-racist and anti-colonialist positions (they saw the two rightly as deeply inter-related and African Americans as essentially an internal colony in the US.) during the Popular Front period when they were seeking alliances with the colonial British and French Empires and the informal US empire, composed of protectorates and spheres of influence throughout Latin America and great economic power over British Commonwealth Canada, against the Fascist Axis Alliance.

The CPUSA, however, was much more consistent in its opposition to racism and to its building of an integrated party at all levels. While racism remained in Communist ranks, as it did far more pervasively through the larger society, Anderson’s assertion that the Communist party essentially used groups like the National Negro Congress and Later the Civil Rights Congress to raise funds for itself and carry forward its political agenda is both unproven and a return to anti-Communist stereotyping. Once more Gerald Horne’s work explodes that myth.

First of all, the easiest way to be politically opportunistic in US politics, as Anderson fails to grasp, has always been to either ignore or downplay institutional racism, as the policies of both liberal Democrats and so-called 'democratic socialists' in this and later periods clearly shows. By fighting racism in the white working class and taking the 'hard cases' of racist brutality, from the Scottsboro Case in the 1930s to the Martinsville Nine and Trenton Six cases after World War II, Communists in the US, much like Communists in South Africa, left themselves open to greater assaults on their own civil liberties, which were under sweeping attacks in the early cold war era when the Soviets in the United Nations and African-American and white CPUSA activists sought to publicize institutional racism.

Indeed, it was, as Anderson recognizes and documents, the powerful study of US institutional racism which African American Communist and Civil Rights Congress leader, William Patterson brought to the United Nations under the title of We Charge Genocide, that was the most important direct attempt to bring the issue of African American oppression before the United Nations. Here too Anderson, while acknowledging Patterson’s contribution, fails to understand its importance in both the United Nations and on the world scene.

The defeat of the Axis and the enormous rise in power of anti-colonial movements and Communist revolutionary forces made the Soviets former allies their new enemies, regardless of what they did. Even Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe on Truman administration terms, which, given the loss of what is now estimated at 27 million people, was politically impossible, would probably have been seen as a sign of weakness by US cold warriors, who might have taken more drastic actions to support Chiang K’ai-shek in China, the French colonial war in Indochina and oppose anti-colonialism in Africa.

At the same time de jure segregation and de facto racism, while politically stronger in the short-run in the US, because segregationist Democrats here and racist settler regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia were now significant allies in the war against Communism, was also a handicap for cold warriors as they fought an anti-racist anti-colonialist enemy in the non white former colonial regions of the 'third world,' where the majority of the human race resided.

If, as Anderson contends, the postwar 'opportunity' for greater anti-racist gains was lost (and I agree) the blame rests squarely with the new center-right alliance in the US of right-wing or cold war liberals and conservatives who agreed on the necessity supporting dictatorships of the right through the world with less fanfare the aforementioned racist white settler regimes, in the name of negative definitions of freedom and democracy, that is, that which is anti-Communist is ipso facto a part of the 'free world.' This forced the Civil Rights groups she studies to either modify and moderate their positions or face political persecution at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the FBI, the Subversive Activities Control Board and other federal agencies, as the Civil Rights Congress and its leaders, including William and Louise Patterson and Paul Robeson, did. While Anderson has few solutions for African American leadership in the period save greater and more focused militancy, most of the right questions are asked and the double standards, hypocrisy and essential cynicism that pervaded the US governments and establishment organizations, both white and African American, are exposed. As such, this is a very valuable work for students of African American and general US history.

Eyes Off the Prize:The United Nations and the African-American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955 By Carol Anderson Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 2003.

--Reviewed by Norman Markowitz.

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