Today's climate of supercharged patriotism and apparent intolerance for comment or critique calls to mind an earlier period of U.S. history. The Cold War that began in the mid- to late-1940s, along with McCarthyism and the anti-communist movement in the early 1950s, created an atmosphere of national hysteria and paranoia.
For the past decade, academic interest in this period with its complicated convergence of activity has grown tremendously. Of particular interest is the influence of the period on the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
"The civil rights movement arose just about the time the issue (anti-communism) was fading," says George Mason University Professor Roger Wilkins. "Joe McCarthy was being diminished and ultimately driven out of power. So Blacks and their allies were consumed with the enormous opportunities and challenges of the civil rights movement; it consumed our imaginations and our energies."
Wilkins, the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of American History and Culture and a 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning writer explains that civil rights leaders--like his uncle, former NAACP president Roy Wilkins--wanted to avoid the additional burden of being labeled communist.
"Conservatives and racists sought the upper hand by branding civil rights activists communists and thereby discrediting them," Wilkins says. "So the mainstream of the civil rights movement, just like the mainstream labor movement, didn't want anything to do with communism--they knew that would hurt their causes."
The consequences of speaking out were dire during this period of extreme paranoia. Careers were lost and reputations ruined. Wilkins remembers White academicians whose careers were derailed for suspicion of "communist activity." African American activists, writers and other Black intellectuals arguing for the end of racial injustice were often forced to censor themselves for fear of a similar fate.
Dr. Mary Helen Washington, professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of the forthcoming, The Other Blacklist: Black Writers, Civil Rights and the Cold War, concurs with Wilkins' assessment.
"Anything communist in the 1950s was labeled dangerous and not to be touched," she explains.
Washington notes her own special interest in the period as a person who lived through what she describes as a major shift in Black identity.
"I experienced first-hand what it meant, first of all, to be Negro in that period (and the acceptance) of an unequal structure. We were 'Negro' before the 1960s, and then we were 'Black.' That kind of convergence from a conservative period to a more militant one, that shift has always been a powerful part of my consciousness."
Washington explains that Black writers who were part of the Left wanted people to understand that the problem of segregation was not one of Black inferiority. The real problem, these intellectuals argued, was White supremacy. But these voices were hard to hear.
"There were very radical voices writing at that time," Washington says. "If I had access to them I would have experienced myself very differently.
"We had a slang saying in the 1950s, 'You know you ain't ready.' What it meant was that you were not ready for integration. As I look back, it was a kind of satirical, sarcastic humor about getting ready for integration. Part of this was a very strong sense that you were somehow not equal, that you had to prove your readiness."
But Black intellectuals and writers such as A. Phillip Randolph and Lawrence Reddick, Washington says, were presenting a radical Leftist viewpoint. "The kind of militant language (they used) would have given us a very different sense of ourselves as people involved in a straggle against the evils of White supremacy as opposed to the belief that Blacks had to prove their worthiness to Whites."
THE BEST-KEPT SECRET