"Filling the Gap": Intergenerational Black Radicalism and the Popular Front Ideals of Freedomways Magazine's Early Years, (1961-1965)

By Rocksborough-Smith, Ian | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2007 | Go to article overview

"Filling the Gap": Intergenerational Black Radicalism and the Popular Front Ideals of Freedomways Magazine's Early Years, (1961-1965)


Rocksborough-Smith, Ian, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


In 1965, two years after Paul Robeson returned to the United States from a five-year sojourn abroad induced by vicious red-baiting, Freedomways' managing editor Esther Cooper Jackson and associate editor Jack O'Dell helped organize a tribute for him at the Hotel Americana near Times Square in New York City. (2) Among the 2500 people who filled the hotel's Albert Hall that night was a diverse group of New York's black public figures, notably actors, musicians, artists, writers and intellectuals. Harlem's famous theatrical couple, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, were the M.C.s for the evening. They had been closely involved with Freedomways for much of its existence, generously donating their time and money and hosting numerous other events and fundraisers for the magazine; Dee would later become an editor. (3) At the tribute, Dee and Davis introduced high profile speakers such as writers James Baldwin (4) and John Oliver Killens, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) National Chair John Lewis, and Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker. (5) Progressive white folk singer Pete Seeger also gave a performance. The event's 171 sponsors were a "Who's Who" of famous black New Yorkers and included the likes of actress Diana Sands, musicians John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Taylor, and comedian Dick Gregory. (6) Others, like John Lewis, were intensely involved in the day-to-day tasks of civil rights movement organizing. International sponsors also sent greetings to the Salute, including Jawaharlal Nehru of India, African American exiles in Ghana like Shirley Graham Du Bois and Alphaeus Hunton, and the artists and directors of the Moscow Art Theatre. (7)

In short, the Freedomways tribute to Robeson included an extraordinary mixture of high profile liberal and leftist personalities given the Cold War context and the supposedly marginalized position of the guest of honour. (8) It was precisely this heterogeneity, articulated in the pages of the magazine, and featured at public events like the tribute to Robeson, that would demonstrate how prominent radical continuities could mirror the black Popular Front of previous decades and persist into this period of the African American freedom struggle.

The emergence of Freedomways in the early 1960s complicates the arguments of many historians who overlook continuities in emphasizing change in the struggle for black liberation in the mid-twentieth Century. Much civil rights literature correctly extends the chronology of the movement back to include the industrial unionism, New Deal activism, and anticolonialism of the 1930s and 1940s with the dominant narrative of anti-racist protest during the 1950s and 1960s. However, this literature does not examine the continuities between the two eras, instead stressing their qualitative differences. Thus, many writers lament the decline of African American left and labour-oriented internationalism in the face of McCarthyist intimidation during the late 1940s and 1950s. (9) Others suggest that an internationalist civil rights anti-racism survived the 1950s but was primarily pro-American--pragmatically following the Cold War liberal consensus of anti-communism and anti-leftism, but nonetheless advancing the cause of racial justice in the United States. (10) There is a growing body of literature, which shows that radical politics survived from an earlier era and stayed the course through the repressive red baiting of the 1950s to significantly influence the tactics, strategies, and culture of the freedom struggle that emerged from that decade. (11) But unlike much of this literature, which stresses the diffuse intellectual, literary, and strategic continuities of these radical politics, (12) a case study of Freedomways provides concrete evidence that not only the ideas, but the activists and activism of earlier decades survived the McCarthyism of the 1950s to have a definite impact on the civil rights movement and black political discourse of the early-mid 1960s. …

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