The following is an excerpt from “Black and Red: Socialism and Black Liberation,” part of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s “Conversations in Black Freedom Studies” series. The discussion features authors Charisse Burden-Stelly, Robin D. G. Kelley, and Barbara Smith and was moderated by Brian Jones and Jeanne Theoharis on April 1st. Rampant Magazine is running excerpts from this important conversation in two parts, which have been edited for length and clarity. Part II, “Myths of White Supremacy and Black Radicalism,” can be found here.
Brian Jones: The Conversations in Black Freedom Studies series is a space to talk about new works and ideas in Black social movement history. Tonight, we consider the nature of historic connections between the socialist movement and struggles for Black liberation from the very birth of capitalism, intertwined with the mass kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, to the twentieth century, when many of the leading lights of Black freedom movements were drawn to anticapitalist critiques. Certainly this week, from Bessemer, Alabama, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, this history has a particular resonance to guide our understanding.
Jeanne Theoharis: The collective knowledge in the room is formidable. We wanted each of you to tell us about one mobilization or group or organizer or set of organizers of the Black radical tradition as you define it, that people might not know and why we need to know it.
Charisse Burden-Stelly: I want to talk about the genre of the statement before the court. I’m going to talk about two of these: one from Pettis Perry, one from Claudia Jones. Each gave a statement before the court in 1952, after having been indicted and put on trial in 1948 through the Smith Act. And these statements before the court are very important for a number of reasons. It’s not as if they thought that these statements before the court were going to sway the jury in any way. They point this out in their statements. They were trying to raise the consciousness of workers and ordinary people who were tuned into the trial. They were also speaking to the jury in the sense that many of the people on the jury were working class, but it’s not as if they were necessarily trying to change their fate, because they understood the confluence of anticommunism, anti-Blackness, the Cold War, anti-Soviet sentiment, etc.
The other reason I want to think about these statements before the court is to think about what counts as the documents that we engage, and the ways that we think about political theory, political thought, and social thought. Pettis Perry’s statement before the court I actually found in the archives at the Schomburg in the Pettis Perry papers. I want to read some brief excerpts from those two statements before the court because of what they convey. When I think about the convergence of Black liberation and socialism, I think about the dialectic between radicalism and repression. It is really, really important that we keep that front and center because the repression is ongoing, but so, too, is resistance to that repression and new formations of struggle.
Pettis Perry said,
Another thing: the social composition of this jury. A person who went to school with Paul Robeson more than 20-odd years ago gave the government great consternation, but I’m tried by a person who worked for over 10 years for an international banking company in China. A person I submit bound to be steeped in all of the prejudice which goes with the exploitation of the colored and colonial peoples of the world.
Here, he’s talking about the jury composition and how the jury was biased against him because of the very people that they put on it. And it’s interesting to think about that now with the jury selection in the Chauvin trial—the ways they were weeding out all of the Black people. So this is ongoing. This also goes back to the Scottsboro case, for example, the types of case law that were established, not least in Powell v. Alabama, because of things like jury selection. But what he’s pointing out is not only the racial composition but also the class composition and the ways that having a particular class of people on the jury already makes them biased against communists. Later on, he goes on to say:
I can say this to Mr. Lane. I wish his department would be zealous in bringing to justice those who lynched and murdered the Negro people as they are to frame up and send us to jail because we fight against such oppression.
Again, he is pointing out that in the US, there’s a witch hunt against communists, particularly Black communists, but not against white supremacists and those who are actually meting out violence. That is, those who are actually defying the state by defying the constitution and other laws that are in place.
Turning to Claudia Jones, she goes on to talk about the types of workers she witnessed when she was incarcerated and the ways in which, without Marxism-Leninism, she might have been in the position of some of those women. She talks about the ways Marxism-Leninism and the consciousness that gave her allowed her to go a different way. She says:
Those women were in prison for what crimes? Petty crimes, born of poverty, of the ghetto of Jim Crow living, the crime of being born Black on American soil, of resisting treatment, rebellion against which, unchanneled, became lawless against the very Jim Crow society that perpetuates their lawlessness. One need only be a Negro in America to know that for the crime of being a Negro, we are daily convicted by a government which denies us elementary, democratic rights, the right to vote, the right to hold office, the right to judge shifts, to serve on juries, rights forcibly denied in the South and also in the North.
And I want to concur with Mr. Perry’s proposal to Mr. Lane, that he recommends to the department of justice, that they show more zeal since they have not ever prosecuted a single anti-Semite or a Ku Kluxer in these United States with this total of 5,000 lynched Negro men, women and children since the 1860s.
And so again, they’re calling out the hypocrisy, the violence, and the anticommunism and anti-Blackness of the court itself, which is why they cannot get a fair trial. They also have statements about the stool pigeons and paid informants who are used to testify against them, which undermines their due process.
The other reason I want to bring up these statements before the court is to lift up the political prisoners. These are early examples of modern political prisoners. Indeed and in fact, on March 29th of this year, Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald died in prison. He was the longest-serving Black Panther incarcerated person, and he died in prison. And we still have many, many people from Mumia Abu-Jamal to Mutulu Shakur and many, many others who are still rotting behind prison bars, and these are political prisoners. Communists like Claudia Jones, Ben Davis, Alphaeus Hunton, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, they were political prisoners. And many of them died early from things like heart conditions and health conditions that they either contracted or that were exacerbated in prison.
Thinking about these statements before the court, but beyond that, thinking with people who are committed to Black liberation and socialism, helps us to reveal all of these different structures of domination and repression that are happening in the world and also behind bars.
Robin D. G. Kelley: I was hesitant to talk about this, but I think we still need to talk about Alabama. Let me begin by saying that a good part of my work, learning from Cedric Robinson and others, is demonstrating that the South is not backward. The South is not the epicenter of reaction. The reaction is a response to the fact that the US South has been the source of the most radical, often Black-led, multiracial democratic movements in the country. Those who rule the South know this. It is clear by their actions, through legislation, through repressive policies, that the Southern ruling class is merely reacting to these movements.
So I want to talk a little bit about the history of labor in Alabama, because it impinges directly on two things: first, the struggles of Amazon workers in Bessemer and second, voting rights. The suppression of voting rights is a labor issue. Alabama has a very long and noble union history and radical history because of the Communist Party’s organizing efforts in the 1930s and ’40s. The New Deal certainly played a role in supporting labor and legitimizing labor unions through the creation of the National Labor Relations Board and the Wagner Act. But Black and white communists saw their movement work as a kind of second Reconstruction to bring democracy and workers’ power to the place where it once prevailed.
So they organized. They organized iron ore workers, organized coal miners, they organized steelworkers. The Sharecroppers’ Union had about 15,000 members at its height. And Black workers were at the forefront. Now, when I say Black workers were at the forefront, we nod our head, say, “Yes, you know, Black workers were in the lead.” And we all agree and we imagine Black people as the vanguard, but I want to just add a couple of caveats, two things, actually.
First, some Black elites undermined and opposed working-class movements. That’s happening now. Just go back and see who took Jeff Bezos’ money in June of 2020 and who is silent (i.e., the Urban League) on the question of organizing in Bessemer. The same thing happened in the 1930s and ’40s. You have Black elites who undermined and opposed working-class movements, out of fear, driven by their own class interests, or because they were on the payroll of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company.
The other point is that the success of these movements in Alabama and the South really do depend on building alliances across the color line. And I want to highlight a couple of those alliances. I mean, certainly the union movement, the International Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union, which was the most radical union in Bessemer at the time, was majority Black. They could not have won without white workers, so they organized white workers. And they were able to convince white workers—some of them, not all of them—not to join the company union. In other words, they were able to push back against the race-baiting that often undermined union solidarity.
Another example is the Right to Vote Club in the 1930s, which was run mainly by Black CIO organizers and Communists. They did voter education and registration, and rank-and-file members actually battled segregation and disfranchisement. Yet, they were challenged by a group of Black elites calling themselves the Alabama Federation of Civic Leagues, who insisted that the franchise should be the sole possession of the Black elites, not the Black working class. And this Federation represented a longstanding Faustian bargain in which Black elites enjoyed the franchise and limited citizenship in exchange for controlling the masses of Black people.
You had groups like the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) joining up the white leftist League of Young Southerners—people like James and Esther Cooper Jackson, and Louis and Dorothy Burnham, and others, building a Black-led, interracial movement. You had the Southern Conference of Human Welfare, and out of that we get Anne Braden and Carl Braden, who lived in Birmingham and moved to Louisville and continued to fight racism until the end of their lives. And then at some point, the all-Black Sharecroppers’ Union formed an alliance with the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.
So the point is that these movements were gaining momentum, and they were outlawed and crushed by what? By the Cold War, as Charisse’s work makes clear. In the name of Cold War anticommunism, the state and the ruling class were able to drive a wedge between Black and white workers. And the NAACP, which ironically played a role in undermining the left unions in Alabama, ended up being outlawed too!
White Citizens’ Councils were formed in response to a class rebellion. I’m not saying that anti-Black racism wasn’t fundamental, but anti-Black racism is part of class domination. In a nutshell, these movements really help us understand what’s at stake. That in fact, what we see as voter suppression in Georgia is a class action against primarily Black people, but the suppression of the Black vote ends up making it possible to crush social justice initiatives and pass anti-labor and pro-corporate legislation. We saw this with Alabama, which became a Right to Work state in 1953 as a result of Taft-Hartley and Cold War anticommunism more generally. But in 2016, the Alabama state legislature was able to enshrine Right to Work in the constitution. How did they do that? Voter suppression. Alabama was way ahead of Georgia on the voter suppression movement in the twenty-first century. That’s how they did it.
The lesson here is that we’ve got to realize that Black liberation and socialism were always about the liberation of humanity as a whole. When we say, “Black workers are at the forefront,” they’re at the forefront not in self-interest, but in the interest of all. They were fighting not for themselves as individuals, but for each other.
Barbara Smith: I’m going to talk about an organization that I have some familiarity with, and that is the Combahee River Collective. I think that more people are aware of its existence now than they were, say, even five years ago. And one of the reasons is because Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor did a book, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, published by Haymarket Books, in which she interviewed the three coauthors of the Combahee River Collective statement. So more people know of the Combahee River Collective, but there are some things that concern me these days around what people understand Black feminism to be and what they also understand Combahee to have been.
The year 2017 was the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective statement, and now it’s seen as a historic kind of intervention. But, I have said often, the reason I believe that the Combahee River Collective statement is still useful and vital to this day is because we are socialists and because it has a material analysis. You can say that to people, and if they’re not familiar with what that means, it can kind of go right by. “Oh yeah, yeah, classism.” I never use the term “classism” because we’re not talking about “classism,” we’re talking about economic exploitation and class oppression. We’re talking about capitalism.
I think the reason that the ideas of the Combahee River Collective have such staying power is because of the fact that we had a class analysis, specifically an anticapitalist and socialist analysis. And one of the things that I observe these days is that there are some Black feminists of younger generations who have made Black feminism practically into an identity cult, which could be expressed as, “Isn’t it wonderful that we’re all Black women together? We’re powerful. Black girl magic.” Etc, etc.
We also coined the term “identity politics” in the Combahee River Collective statement, and it’s like they’ve taken the identity and they left the politics on the floor. They’re all into the identity part of it, and they’re not dealing with the politics at all. Well, we never separated them because we understood what we were trying to do. And I don’t know if people saw that my Twitter blew up last week because Meghan McCain on The View thought she would speak on identity politics, which she really should not have done because she hasn’t done her homework, obviously. My Twitter blew up to astronomical proportions because I took the time to explain what we meant by identity politics. If you go to my Twitter (@thebarbarasmith) you can find my little mini-lessons.
What I explained and always explain is that all that we meant is that in the mid- to late 1970s, we felt that Black women had a right to determine our own political agendas based upon our interlocking oppressions that were the result of our specific identities. At a time when Black liberation did not deal with gender and sexuality, at a time when white women’s liberation, or feminism, did not deal with race, we said, “Wait a minute. We’ve got to deal with all of that.” It’s important to understand that with Combahee, we were never a think tank. We were out there in those streets doing the work. And even though I don’t really go out nowadays during the pandemic, [laughs] I’m still trying to get some political work done, as are other people who share the politics that we tried hard to build.
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