Written by Karyn Pomerantz, September 17, 2017
This series of blog posts reviews the immense contributions of black revolutionaries fighting racism and capitalism, primarily in the United States during the early to the mid-20th Century.
This is not close to a comprehensive review so see a brief bibliography below for further reading. Let’s enjoy these inspiring stories and start educating our friends about this important history so we can move the antiracist movement forward.
Many people view Marxism and communism as a white thing, and the most famous revolutionaries, such as Marx, Lenin, and Mao, were white or Asian. The history books largely ignore the revolutionary contributions of American black communists, such as William Patterson, Paul Robeson and Lucy Parsons. They and many of their comrades advocated for working class unity to topple capitalism around the world in spite of Jim Crow atrocities, the patriotism pushed during World War II, and McCarthy era imprisonments and black lists.
Many white communists and socialists believed eliminating capitalism would automatically abolish racism. They minimized the destructive nature of racism and did not strongly engage in anti-racist struggles. While eliminating capitalism removes the reasons for racism (creating more profit and dividing workers), black Marxists like Paul Robeson and William Patterson recognized the need to prioritize the fight against racist ideas and practices. Many all black revolutionary groups, such as the Marcus Garvey (Return to Africa) Movement and the Black Panther Party, promoted a nationalist perspective instead of building united working class organizations and movements.
Communist Party USA Leader: William Patterson
William Patterson was a prominent leader of the Communist Party USA (CP) during the 20th Century. As a lawyer, he led the International Labor Defense (ILD) that defended the Scottsboro Boys and the Civil Rights Congress, both affiliated with the Communist Party USA and opposed by the more conservative NAACP.
Born in 1891, Patterson grew up during the era of Jim Crow and lynching, working to achieve the civil rights of black Americans and the liberation of workers of all racial categories and nationalities. He joined the Communist Party in the late 1920s, strongly awakened by the execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. He abandoned his law career to devote himself to political work. Patterson was resolute in his support of a communist society, unity among workers of all racial categories and nationalities, internationalism, the early Soviet Union, and grassroots organizing.
Campaigns Against Racism
In 1931, the state of Alabama arrested and charged nine black boys (Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson, Eugene Williams, and Andrew and Leroy Wright), called the Scottsboro Boys, with the rape of two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. Although Bates admitted that she lied, the state continued their prosecution, convicting them to death or lifetime in prison. The CP led campaign secured their release – 20 years after this decision!
The Scottsboro case exemplified the role of Jim Crow in terrorizing black workers. False accusations of rapes of white women by black men was a common ploy used to justify the arrests of black men. Beginning during slavery and continuing today, it was a way to demonize black men and instill fear in white men and women.
Patterson led the ILD and the CRC, mobilizing legal and grass roots support, organizing demonstrations in the dangerous South, and rejecting coalitions with politicians and the Democratic Party. The more conservative NAACP opposed this strategy, preferring solely a legal approach. NAACP leaders felt threatened by the popularity and support of the CP.
Patterson maintained his commitment to multiracial and international solidarity, including whites and workers throughout the world, a strategy opposed by many black nationalists. He understood the importance of attacking racism separately from organizing only about class:
“His commitment was an acknowledgement that a multiracial alliance grounded within an empowered working class was the preferred strategic option, the road to revolution (Black Revolutionary, p. 27).
Patterson took antiracism to an international audience. Globalizing this struggle, a dominant strategy of Patterson and the CP, galvanized support from grass roots peoples and organizations. He linked the Scottsboro Boys case to the anti-colonialism movements around the world, winning support for communism among people who were fighting for their liberation from European imperialists in many African countries. The USSR and allied parties embraced the issue as well. The US rulers found it hard to justify WWII as a war to liberate Europe from the Nazis while it discriminated against its black citizens. This strategy was instrumental in winning the release of the Scottsboro defendants.
Patterson also championed the desegregation of baseball, mobilizing the CP and white and black workers that resulted in victory. Again, it was hard for the US ruling class to justify discrimination as they opposed Nazi race hatred.
Patterson appreciated the crucial role of a radical press. He created pamphlets and edited newspapers to promote the Party’s positions and attract workers. His publications had tremendous influence similar to WEB DuBois’ The Crisis, the newspaper of the NAACP.
During the 1950s, the US government launched the Red Scare against communists and other radicals. Patterson and Paul Robeson wrote the famous book and petition, We Charge Genocide, an indictment of domestic and international American racism, lynching, suppression of voting rights, discrimination, and imperialism. Patterson traveled throughout Europe, winning support from African Americans and activists around the world while Robeson introduced it to the UN’s Genocide Convention, reviving a stagnant movement in the US. Prominent American liberals, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Thurgood Marshall, vigorously opposed the petition. In response, the US indicted Patterson on charges of withholding information and eventually jailed him. While many former CP members finked on members, Patterson and Robeson never surrendered any names.
As described above, Patterson and Robeson internationalized the struggles in the US. They both spent time in the Soviet Union, whose leadership endorsed and promoted the liberation of African Americans. The USSR took the “Negro Question” seriously, supporting a Black Belt to give African Americans their own territory to govern. It invited American workers to live in the Soviet Union for training, and many accepted and reported how welcomed they were there. When two white workers discriminated against a black worker, they were sentenced to jail and made to apologize. Robeson reported that a Soviet worker acted in a racist manner aboard a bus, and the passengers kicked him off. The friendships and alliances between the USSR and he American Communist Party and African American leftists made it difficult for the US government to oppose a World War II alliance with USSR. The USSR’s support of American blacks reduced anti-communism in the US. It was inconsistent to oppose Nazism while practicing Jim Crow and endorsing the racial superiority of whites.
However, World War II presented a contradiction to American socialists and communists. The USSR encouraged a United Front policy, an alliance of workers and the ruling classes against Germany and Japan. Most left parties, including the CP USA, adopted the United Front, but Patterson and Robeson opposed it.
Once the Allies defeated fascism (primarily due to the Soviet Union), the US began the cold war against the USSR and anti-communist attacks against the Communist Party and unions through jail, black lists, and smear campaigns. The House Un-American Committee (HUAC) interrogated Patterson and others, including screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Patterson refused to name other activists although many famous people like lawyer Thurgood Marshall, author William Faulkner, and labor leader A. Philip Randolph became informants.
During the 1960s anti-colonial and liberation movements around the world impaired US efforts to obtain access to resources, and competition with the USSR intensified. Domestically, it was a time of rebellion with the rise of the Black Power movement, the Black Panther Party, urban and prison uprisings, civil rights organizations (SNCC, CORE, SCLC) and the anti-white Nation of Islam. The ruling class decided to grant some concessions and court US blacks, such as Rockefeller’s funding of the National Negro College fund.
Patterson continued his involvement and dedication to multi-racial revolution. He wrote about the causes of racism, the role of the media to separate whites and blacks, and applauded the Watts Rebellion and the Attica Prison revolt. He differed with Black Panther politics, specifically their glorification of violence rather than seeing it as a means to an end, their nationalism and their concentration on the lumpen proletariat.
Patterson, along with many of his comrades we will present, serves as an inspiring role model. They all selflessly devoted their lives to making working class lives, especially black and oppressed peoples, matter.
“… (Patterson) abandoned a promising life as an attorney and committed himself to a life of struggle (for) a multiracial alliance grounded within an empowered working class… on the road to revolution”
Gerald Horne. Black Revolutionary. William Patterson and the Globalization of the African American Freedom Struggle. Chicago” U of I Press, 2013.
Robin D.G. Kelley. Freedom Dreams. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.