The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36

The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36

The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36

The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36


The Communist Party was the only political movement the left in the late 1920s and 1930s to place racial justice and equality at the top of its agenda and to seek, and ultimately win, sympathy among African Americans. This historic effort to fuse red and black offers a rich vein of experience and constitutes the theme of The Cry Was Unity.

Utilizing for the first time materials related to African Americans from the Moscow archives of the Communist International (Comintern), The Cry Was Unity traces the trajectory of the black-red relationship from the end of World War I to the tumultuous 1930s. From the just-recovered transcript of the pivotal debate on African Americans at the 6th Comintern Congress in 1928, the book assesses the impact of the Congress's declaration that blacks in the rural South constituted "a nation within a nation", entitled to the right of self-determination. Despite the theory's serious flaws, it fused the black struggle for freedom and revolutionary content and demanded that white labor recognize blacks as indispensable allies.

As the Great Depression unfolded, the Communists launched intensive campaigns against lynching, evictions, and discrimination in jobs and relief and opened within their own ranks a searing assault on racism. While the Party was never able to win a majority of white workers to the struggle for Negro rights, sup- or to achieve the unqualified port of the black majority, it helped to lay the foundations for the freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Cry Was Unity underscores the successes and failures of the Communist-led left and the ways in which it fought against racism and inequality. This struggle comprises an importantmissing page that needs to be returned to the nation's history.


This is the completion of a project that began in the 1970s and was put aside when other interests took over. However, several factors converged to bring me back to the book. First, the archives of the Communist International were opened, making materials available that promised an enriched understanding of the encounter between African Americans and Communists. There was also the ever present responsibility to scores of people who had opened their hearts and minds at a time when it was still not easy to discuss Communist connections. My debt to them could only be repaid by producing this book.

Admittedly, I was also goaded by victorious ballot initiatives to eliminate affirmative action, legislative measures to reduce black representation, and court decisions to eradicate much of what remained. With that agenda dominating, much of today's discussion was about racial reconciliation without racial justice, the value of resegregation, the virtue of black capitalism, or the worth of an official apology for slavery. Academics brought forth weighty studies claiming that compensatory programs are no longer needed--either because of their success in nurturing the growth of the black middle class or because of their failure to end a miserable ghetto pathology. The contradictions didn't seem troubling to them.

Whether it constituted "presentism" or not, I felt that an exploration of the relationship between blacks and reds in the 1920s and 1930s had a lot to say to . . .

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