In the 1930s the Communist Party in Chicago was a vibrant, multiracial organization with thousands of members that actively fought against racism and class inequality. There is much socialists today can learn from its successes and failures.
In the last two months, hundreds of thousands of people throughout the United States have taken to the streets to denounce racism and police violence. In response, seventeen thousand National Guard troops were deployed to put down the uprising, curfews were declared in more than thirty cities, and tens of thousands of protesters were arrested. And yet the historic, nationwide upsurge in protest against racism continues. Indeed, the movement is winning victories that would’ve been unthinkable only a short while ago.
Early on, many of the protests and collective acts of rebellion came together spontaneously, without the aid of longstanding organizations of the left. But as time goes by, it’s becoming more and more apparent that durable organizational infrastructure is needed in order to sustain mass participation, train new layers of activists, and channel public anger into winnable demands.
What kinds of organizations are needed, however?
Among socialists, no less than among the public more generally, there are healthy debates underway that are bringing to the fore questions about Black leadership and white participation in antiracist movements. One such question is this: is it even possible, let alone desirable, to build a large-scale multiracial socialist organization in a country that is saturated, from top to bottom, with racism? More to the point: is it even worth trying to bring together masses of Black and white socialists in one big organization to fight against racism and all forms of oppression and exploitation?
Certainly there are good reasons to doubt whether this can be done—and many socialists of color have long lists of grievances against majority-white formations that justifiably leave them skeptical about the very aim of building a multiracial organization.
But it has been done before—and in Chicago no less.
In the 1930s the Chicago chapter of the Communist Party (CP) was—despite all of its problems and contradictions—a vibrant, multiracial organization with thousands of members (and a much larger mass of sympathizers) that actively fought against racism, built mass organizations dedicated to stopping evictions, and put together “unemployed councils” that concentrated popular discontent and channeled it into a large-scale campaign that won impressive victories.
In a city marked by aggressive anti-Black racism and relentless racial segregation, the CP had a several thousand–strong membership in Chicago in the 1930s that cut across the color line. Although Black people made up only 7 percent of Chicago’s population, they constituted roughly 25 percent of the more than 3,300 Chicagoan members of the CP.
These figures are all the more improbable given that city hall and employers had a longstanding penchant for using divide-and-conquer to destroy labor solidarity and weaken the collective power of the working class as a whole. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries capitalists deftly seized upon inequalities among workers in order to pit them against one another and thereby defeat union drives and strikes. Philip Armour, the owner of the largest packinghouse in Chicago, explained it like this: “We change among different nationalities and languages . . . it prevents them from getting together. We have the thing systematized.” Black workers were treated the worst and were, as it is sometimes put, the “last hired and first fired.”
How, then, was the 1930’s-era CP in Chicago able to build a three-thousand-strong multiracial organization in a context so unfavorable to antiracist politics and working-class solidarity? In particular, why did scores of Black radicals see the multiracial CP as the best organizational vehicle for achieving their political goals, even though they had many good reasons to be skeptical of the majority-white group?
Some of the answers to these questions are to be found in the remarkable, if largely unknown, history of Chicago CP in the 1930s, which is explored at length in Randi Storch’s excellent book Red Chicago: American Communism at its Grassroots 1928-35. In this article I’d like to explore some of this history with an eye to draw out some practical lessons about multiracial socialist organizing in the present.
The late 1920s is as good a place to begin as any. As late as 1928, the membership of Chicago’s CP was small and overwhelmingly white, and the party’s activist priorities in Chicago tended to reflect that fact. At the same time, however, the political scene in Black Chicago was especially dynamic and teeming with newly formed organizations. There were, for example, annual rallies and marches celebrating the Nat Turner rebellion as well as a layer of activists around Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Chicago was also home to a variety of politically active community institutions such as the NAACP, the Urban League, a swath of Black churches big and small, and the Chicago Defender, the country’s most well-known Black newspaper.
This political ecosystem was thrown into disarray, however, as the Great Depression set in. Waves of mass layoffs sparked by the onset of the Depression suddenly threw 40 percent of Black workers out of work. And with layoffs came the threat of eviction and even starvation. This was an especially devastating blow for a generation of African Americans who had fled to Chicago in order to escape the ruthless exploitation and grinding poverty of sharecropping in the rural Jim Crow South.
Middle-class, relatively conservative organizations such as the NAACP and Urban League, which had never really sought to include the Black working poor within their ranks, had little to offer the most hard-hit sections of Black Chicago—and this meant that any radicalization among the Black poor would need to find organizational expression elsewhere. As Claude Lightfoot, a leading Black member of the CP in the 1930s put it, this was a time when “Black people were in a stage of transition from old methods of struggle for their rights,” when a “new crowd” of militant, working-class Black activists was growing in Chicago who tended to distrust the legalistic focus of groups such as the NAACP.
It was hardly inevitable that masses of Black workers would gravitate toward the CP, however. In the 1920s, Marcus Garvey’s UNIA had a mass membership that included poor and working-class Black people, but internal corruption and a limited political program—Garvey praised capitalism and advocated for Black people to leave the United States and form a new nation in Africa—weakened its standing once the Depression set in. The Harlem-based African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) was formed by Black radicals dissatisfied with the conservatism of Garvey and had a presence in Chicago in the ’20s. But by the mid-1930s, the majority of militant Black activists had found their way into the CP.
Many of the first wave of African-American activists to join the CP first encountered the party in Washington Park on the South Side. At the time, the park was the political heart of working-class Black Chicago, a place where the “unemployed, homeless, and curious gathered to hear all manner of speakers riff on political and social topics of the day.” As Storch describes it, “Not only might Garveyites, Wobblies and Communists take center stage, but preachers, academics and local politicians were known to climb on soapboxes, debate and harangue. Occasionally talks turned to rallies and rallies to demonstrations.” These spontaneous, open-air forums “promoted lively discussion and debate among radical, liberal and conservative employed and unemployed Black people, whose cacophony of voices sometimes inspired impromptu action.”
It took some time, but eventually CP activists became a strong pole of attraction within this highly competitive political environment. By 1932, for example, Communists were “speaking daily at the park to crowds that sometimes reached between two and five thousand.” Indeed, leading CP member Marie Houston ran classes on Marxist economics in Washington Park where “hundreds of Black people attended each day, listening intently for two hours at a time.” These vibrant public political discussions drew in a layer of Black activists looking for an organization to join. David Pointdexter was among them.
Poindexter had moved to Chicago from Nashville, where he had witnessed lynchings first-hand. Storch describes his political radicalization as follows:
Pointdexter first gravitated toward the Garveyites, but, listening to the debates in Washington Park, he eventually found Communists more convincing. William Patterson, an African American party leader, later recalled that the party’s belief that blacks and whites needed to work together ultimately caused Pointdexter to leave the Garveyite movement.
Pointdexter soon developed a reputation as a fiery orator. As a fellow party member recalled, “when he got through preachin’ everybody’d be ready to go into the lake with him. That’s how much power he had over people.”
Claude Lightfoot was another Black militant drawn to the CP in this period.
Lightfoot was already a well-known activist and organizer by the time he became a CP member. Though the Republican and Democratic parties sought to recruit and co-opt him, he eventually turned them both down and joined the CP, partly, as he put it, “for idealistic reasons, to help the poor, the downtrodden and oppressed people all over the world.” But this wasn’t the whole story: Lightfoot would later recall that he joined “after having gotten up on the soap box . . . cursing out the police and then marching away triumphantly with the workers.”
Harry Haywood joined the CP around the same time. Haywood was born in Nebraska to parents who had once been slaves. After serving in the military and returning in the midst of the 1919 “race riots” (in effect, a racist pogrom against Black Chicagoans), his shock and anger sparked a political radicalization. At first, he gravitated toward the Garveyites and the Industrial Workers of the World. Ultimately he chose the CP on the basis of his judgment that:
It comprised the best and most sincerely revolutionary and internationally minded elements among white radicals and therefore formed the basis for the revolutionary unity of Blacks and whites. . . . It was part of a world revolutionary movement uniting Chinese, Africans and Latin Americans with Europeans and North Americans through the Third International.
Haywood was not alone in feeling this way. Many radical Black activists in this period were impressed by the serious anticolonial and antiracist politics of the CP and joined on that basis. Though academic stereotypes misrepresent Marxism as an essentially white political movement focused only on class, the CP in the 1920s and ’30s viewed antiracism as a central part of its project. As early as 1921, the CP’s program stated that “the negro workers in america are exploited and oppressed more than any other group. The history of the negro in america is the history of a reign of terror, of persecution, rape and murder . . . [the Party’s] task will be to fight for social, political and economic equality . . . and destroy altogether the barrier of race prejudice.” In 1930, the Communist International declared that “white workers had to prove themselves worthy of the confidence of negro workers . . . every white worker must unhesitatingly jump at the throat of any person who strikes a negro in the face, or who persecutes a negro.”
Talk is cheap, however—and it is not likely that a mass influx of Black Chicagoans into the CP would have occurred had it not been for the respect the party won through doing serious activist work that resulted in visible, tangible victories for Black workers.
That work was multifaceted, but the two most important campaigns were the unemployed councils and the anti-eviction movement. Unemployed councils were grassroots formations organized by CP members that brought together laborers thrown out of work by the Depression to fight for unemployment insurance, public works jobs, and more. Black workers were the hardest hit by the Depression, on the one hand, and were more hemmed in by racist labor market restrictions than any other group, on the other. To organize unemployed Black workers to loudly and confidently demand their due, then, meant confronting a variety of white supremacist structures established by the state and employers. It meant, among other things, bracing for violent police backlashes aimed at forcing Black laborers to remain the most vulnerable and marginalized group within the working class. And, most importantly, successfully carrying out this work meant requiring white CP members to go to Black neighborhoods and put their lives on the line to fight alongside Black workers.
Unsurprisingly, these unprecedented public acts of interracial working-class solidarity provoked a violent backlash from the authorities. As has often been the case throughout American history, city officials and business elites were deeply troubled by the emergence of a multiracial political movement capable of upsetting the balance of power in the city by uniting workers who were previously kept collectively powerless by being pitted against one another.
In 1932, city hall struck back by ordering an end to growing anti-eviction activism aimed at keeping working people in their homes in the midst of the Depression. The CP had played the leading role in organizing the mass movement against evictions, so this crackdown was a targeted attack on the CP. But because rates of eviction were much higher in Black neighborhoods, those who participated in the CP-led anti-eviction struggle were overwhelmingly African American. Thus, when the Chicago Police Department got its orders to smash the movement, the cops saw their task as two-fold: to discipline and punish Black people to “keep them in their place” while destroying the multiracial organization that was waging the struggle by uniting workers across the color line. To do this, the CPD formed special units called Red Squads that regularly harassed CP members, attacked demonstrations, raided meetings, and destroyed CP property.
In this era, groups of CP members and sympathizers would regularly congregate in Washington Park and march to the house of a person being evicted, sometimes in the hundreds, to move their furniture back into the building and turn their utilities back on. This became so common that when parents on the South Side feared an eviction, they would tell their kids to “run quick and find the Reds!”
On one such occasion, Abe Grey, whom fellow members remembered as “one of the best Black organizers in the party,” helped lead a march of between eight hundred and a thousand people from Washington Park down 51st street to Dearborn to the residence of Diana Gross, a seventy-year-old Black woman who was being evicted by her landlord. The CPD had already threatened activists that “if you go out on any more evictions today you’re gonna get drilled.” When the demonstrators proceeded to do what they always did—contest the eviction and move the tenant back into their home—the cops moved in and started attacking and arresting people.
At one point, police attacked the large crowd of anti-eviction activists and murdered several leading organizers, among them Abe Grey. Several days later, one of Grey’s friends was found murdered, his body mutilated and left to rot in Washington Park. CP members were virtually certain that this was the work of the Chicago police who had “taken him for a ride.”
In response to these atrocities, South Side CP organizers David Pointdexter, Marie Houston, Squire Brown, and Claude Lightfoot worked quickly to turn out more than ten thousand people in Washington Park to protest and decry the killings by the police. Shortly thereafter, CP members and communist sympathizers planned a mass funeral. On the day of the event, more than one hundred thousand people turned out in support of those killed—about 40 percent of those who participated in the march were white and 60 percent were Black.
Chicago’s ruling class and its politicians were especially unnerved by these public demonstrations of interracial solidarity in a city where divide-and-conquer was the standard means of preserving the existing order. Indeed, one can imagine the terror that must have gripped capitalists in the meatpacking industry when the CP set upon knocking down the walls of segregation that separated Black workers on the South Side from the Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, and Mexican workers who lived in squalid conditions in the Back of the Yards neighborhood nearby. To their horror, the CP succeeded in convincing white workers to “travel into Black neighborhoods on the South Side and march with Blacks in hunger marches, funeral processions and Labor Day demonstrations.”
As a result of this organizing work, the Black membership of the CP increased tenfold in the space of a few years. Indeed, in 1932 the communist vote was most concentrated in Black neighborhoods on the South Side, particularly in the area directly north of Washington Park and from 43rd to Pershing between Wentworth and State. “In these areas, votes for the CP not only reflected people’s support for its Black vice-presidential candidate, James Ford, but also recognized work the party did in these areas. This work centered on organizing employed workers and extended into unemployed organizing, campaigns for racial equality and Marxist education.”
Unlike the Democratic Party machine in Chicago, which was solidly committed to racial segregation and white supremacy, the CP fielded many Black candidates for a variety of city, state, and federal offices during the Depression. One candidate for state representative, Dora Huckleberry, was described in a leaflet as a “militant Negro woman. Arrested many times for her participation in struggles against discrimination and unemployment. A fighter for Negro rights.”
Candidates with this political profile were an important part of the electoral efforts of the CP in 1930s Chicago. Though contemporary liberal mythology would have us believe that the Democratic Party has, for most of the twentieth century, been the leading political force in the US for antiracism and Black rights, the truth is that the CP did more antiracist organizing in the ’30s alone than the Democratic Party has done in all of its existence.
The flood of Black members into the organization in the early ’30s permeated the group from top to bottom. As the composition of the CP in Chicago became more Black, the internal culture of the group changed. For example, many African American CP members brought traditions from the church into the spaces where they organized as communists. One white CP member recalled that at party meetings where the membership was predominantly Black, those in attendance would “follow every word of the speaker with real emotion . . . encouraging him as at a prayer meeting with cries of ‘Yes, yes, comrade’ and often an involuntary and heartfelt ‘Amen!’”
By the mid-1930s, key positions were occupied by Black members who took an active role in shaping the organization’s approach to politics in the city. As a result, even conservative newspapers, such as the Whip, were forced to acknowledge the inroads the CP had made in the Black community in Chicago:
The Communists have framed a program of social remedies which cannot fail to appeal to the hungering, jobless millions, who live in barren want, while everywhere about them is evidence of restricted plenty in the greedy hands of the few.
The CP also provided one of the only places where Black and white activists could discuss, socialize, and protest together—indeed it was probably the most racially integrated institution in the United States at the time. Over the course of the decade, the CP in Chicago “organized interracial picnics, dances, and social events where Black and white communists learned from each other and occasionally developed strong relationships, a rarity in 1930s segregated Chicago.” Dempsey Travis, who grew up in the Black Belt on the South Side during this period, recalls being impressed by the CP’s commitment to Black and white social relationships. As a child, this even led Travis to believe that any white person talking to a Black person must be a communist.
Lowell Washington, an African American member of the unemployed councils, would later recall that before joining the CP, “I had never really ever talked to a white man before, and I certainly hadn’t said more than two words to a white lady, and here I was being treated with respect and speaking my mind and not having to worry about saying something that might rile ’em up . . . Let me tell you it changed the way I thought about things.”
That this was exceptional speaks to the deep-seated racism—indeed, apartheid conditions—in Chicago in the 1930s. It is therefore astounding the CP was able to carve out a space, however small and tenuous, for social interactions approaching mutual respect and solidarity among Black and white radicals.
Of course, if most people are unaware of this history, they are familiar with how it ends. Despite all of its promise, the CP was more or less completely destroyed in the decades that followed the Depression, never again achieving the high-water mark of mass membership and activism achieved in the 1930s. The reasons for this collapse are many—certainly internal political dysfunction combined with harsh state repression of the left during McCarthyism proved to be decisive factors.
But it remains true that there is much to be learned from the astounding victories the CP was able to achieve in 1930s Chicago. In a city where Black people were regularly met with terrorism, bombings, and brutal violence when they merely attempted to move out of designated areas of the city, the fact that the CP was able to do what it did is inspiring. It demonstrates that dogged organizing work on the basis of antiracist, socialist politics has the potential to forge political formations that can shatter expectations about what’s possible in the way of building interracial solidarity.
The politics of multiracial radical political organization are complex and liable to run aground in a number of different ways. The biggest danger is that an abstract, colorblind goal of “unity” encourages accommodation with the racist order by designating certain issues as divisive or “distractions from our main goals.” Unity of this sort is nothing but a compromise with oppression. It is not an emancipatory goal.
As Assata Shakur once put it, uniting Black and white revolutionaries to fight against a common enemy, the ruling class, is essential—but, for Black people, this solidarity must always be on the basis of “power and unity rather than from weakness and unity at any cost.”
Genuine solidarity requires, as a precondition, that white workers reject racism and actively enlist themselves in the fight against it. For all its faults and mistakes—organizational, political, and personal—radicals today can learn a lot from the progress the CP made in the 1930s toward building a multiracial socialist organization based on mutual respect, solidarity, and militant antiracism.
Tyler Zimmer is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and the co-chair of the Chicago DSA Anti-Racist Working Group. He is also a member of the Rampant editorial collective.