Cyril Briggs and the African Blood Brotherhood: A Radical Counterpoint to Progressivism

Article excerpt

The Progressive Era was generally an age of optimism. It was an age in which people believed that it was possible, through legislative reform, to correct societal ills such as poverty, racism, and sexism. However, at the same time, there were many people who had little faith in such idealism, feeling reform would come not through legislation, but only by way of the bullet. One such group was the African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption (ABB), first announced in the pages of West Indian immigrant Cyril Briggs' radical periodical the Crusader. The group was founded in response to the bloody race riots during the Red Summer of 1919 and drew its name from the symbolic blood sharing ceremony performed by some African tribes. The ABB credo, largely manifested from articles within the Crusader, merged black nationalism with Marxism, espousing workers' rights, black liberation, and anti-imperialism. Perhaps its most distinctive characteristic was its support for armed black self-defense. The ABB represents what can happen when groups of marginalized people, seething from long-standing injustices, decide that legislature alone is not enough to reform society. Though the group was short-lived (1919-1924), its impact on black radical American politics in the 1920s and 1930s was profound.

It is hard to separate the ABB from West Indian immigration. The leaders were almost all Caribbean; indeed, without its Caribbean members, the ABB would scarcely have existed. Besides Briggs, who was the executive head, other members of its ruling Supreme Council included West Indian Americans (and Harlemites) Richard B. Moore (Barbados), Otto Huiswoud (Suriname), W.A. Domingo (Jamaica), and Grace Campbell (born in Georgia but whose father was Jamaican). There remains considerable question as to whether the organization was founded by the Communist (Workers') Party, but whether or not it was, it soon became affiliated with the group. (2)

Although most West Indians fit within the mainstream political parties, a small but determined group felt that legislative reform, because of inherent institutional racism, could not improve conditions for blacks. For them, a more radical approach was necessary to bring about reform. For many people, in fact, by definition a Negro radical was "an over-educated West Indian without a job." (3) The reasons for this Caribbean radicalism are debatable. African American Kelly Miller, Dean of Howard University, for example, believed that Caribbeans at home were conservative but became "radical abroad." (4) There are several flaws, however, in such reasoning. First, it is inaccurate to assume the submissiveness of Caribbeans at home. There was a long history of Caribbean rebelliousness dating back to the Maroons, runaway slaves who established their own communities. Furthermore, many Caribbean immigrants, such as Marcus Garvey and W.A. Domingo, had already exhibited radical tendencies in the West Indies, belonging to nationalist organizations or militant trade unions. The seeds for their behavior were planted in their homelands, and reached fruition in the United States, where they frequently felt a loss of status and prestige from what they had known back home. Black immigrants, being among the elite of those in the Caribbean, had generally received a solid primary and secondary school education and job training, giving them the skills to expect good positions; therefore, many were genuinely shocked when they faced discrimination they had not endured at home. They were unaccustomed to Jim Crow laws, let alone heinous crimes such as lynching, in the Caribbean. In addition, because they often were forced to move abroad due to limited higher educational and employment opportunities in their native lands, Caribbean immigrants, like other immigrants who tended to be in the vanguard of radical politics, generally had a more international viewpoint than many native-born Americans. The experience of seeing life in other countries and interacting with other blacks helped lead to a more Pan-American perspective. …