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Leftists and the Civil Rights Movement

August 25, 2013

Communist and Socialist Jews and Blacks

by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg

Greenberg1ON MANY ISSUES we now identify with modern liberalism, communists and socialists were there first. They opposed war, organized the unorganized, and challenged racial barriers in American life. They demanded fair wages and working conditions, government action to protect labor, and free speech. Virtually all the tactics used in 20th-century protests, moreover, from sit-ins to mass demonstrations to picket lines, were also pioneered by communists and socialists. Many liberal activists, however, were reluctant to make common cause with those to their left, particularly communists, for two reasons: principled ideological opposition to communism, and concern that identification of political activities with communism in the minds of the public would lead to a loss of support. Despite this gulf, however, liberals generally followed the left’s approaches to activism after a lapse of several years.

The very notion of a Black-Jewish coalition was arguably the invention of leftist groups, which quickly recognized the mutual interests of both minorities. Black and Jewish socialists and communists thus led the way toward a civil rights movement that was mass-based, that talked about class, and that challenged social institutions. The two groups, wrote Jacob Weinstein in 1935 in the Labor Zionist journal, Jewish Frontier, “must understand each other and combine with other minorities to break the vicious hold of that arch-predatory minority — the capitalists and their flunkies.” As Harlem Communist Party leader James Ford saw it, “The Negro masses in active struggle against anti-Semitism, the Jewish masses in active struggle for Negro rights — only this will deprive reaction of its Ace Trump!”

In 1942, Jewish scholar Louis Harap, who was to become a long-time editor of Jewish Currents, and L.D. Reddick, African-American curator of the Schomburg Collection and a lecturer at City College, argued forcefully for alliance in Negro Quarterly. Their articles were reprinted the next year in a pamphlet provocatively entitled, “Should Negroes and Jews Unite?” with a passionate introduction by socialist labor leader A. Philip Randolph. Frank Crosswaith, the socialist head of the Negro Labor Committee, answered the question affirmatively in a speech for the Dorchester Workmen’s Circle in 1938. The recognition of the shared and pressing concerns of oppressed groups, emerging naturally from radical ideologies, was also spurred by tactical decisions such as the 1935 declaration of a ‘Popular Front’ by the Communist International — a mandate for communists to work with liberal institutions for progressive change.

Indeed, starting in the late 1930s, liberal African-Americans and Jews began reaching the same conclusions. Their move toward alliance emerged out of the need for unity against fascism and for strengthening their struggles for equal citizenship and against discrimination. By 1943, when the lack of progress in race relations had brought Nazi-like mob violence to American shores in the shape of race riots, a Black-Jewish coalition for civil rights was taking shape.

Morris Milgram, national secretary of the Workers Defense League (founded in 1936 by Norman Thomas) and an important developer of integrated housing across the U.S., routinely invited African Americans to the Washington, DC apartment he shared with his wife. In 1943, offended Southern army officers living nearby convinced Milgram’s landlord, a Jew, to evict the couple. The situation captured the attention of the African-American press — and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also became interested, given Milgram’s Jewish identity and the group’s own emerging concern with racial discrimination.

The ADL was most upset not about segregation, however, but about the possible rise of anti-Semitism if a Jew was seen as violating white norms. Why should a Jew get in the middle of that fight? Aggravating the situation further, the ADL noted, the landlord had discovered in the apartment “a negro woman in a bathrobe present only with Mr. Milgram in the morning hours.” As was pointed out in an internal ADL memo, “The implication of miscegenation might prove very disastrous if publicity breaks about this case.”

The ADL decided to “endeavor to have the Milgrams take a reasonable attitude.” But Mrs. Milgram, they reported, “refuses to listen to any argument of expediency.” Next they approached the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) and the Socialist Party, hoping they might intervene and convince the Milgrams to back down. The organizations refused.

Greenberg2WITHIN A FEW YEARS, liberal Jewish groups had changed their position. When two Jewish labor activists, for example, entertained an integrated group of union members at their home on South Peoria Street in Chicago in 1949, rumors spread that the African-American guests were purchasing the house. Over the course of the next few nights, increasingly large and menacing crowds of whites gathered, shouting racist, anti-communist and anti-Jewish remarks, throwing stones, and attacking Progressive Party counter-demonstrators, while the police stood by. The ADL and the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) stepped in, pleading with the mayor to issue a statement that “every individual in Chicago had the right to live... unmolested and to entertain whomever he chose.” Instead, the mayor criticized “the subversive elements” who were challenging the attackers. In the ensuing criminal cases, the judge wasn’t sure that the violence constituted a race riot. Rather, he saw it as “the result of a miserable conspiracy, hatched... by a small but highly organized... band of subversive agents, professional agitators and saboteurs bent upon creating and furthering racial and religious incidents.” He discharged the defendants.

Liberal Black and Jewish groups were appalled. The ADL, AJCongress, NAACP and others joined the socialist JLC in creating the Chicago Council Against Racial and Religious Discrimination to fight the court decision and work toward peaceful integration of housing.

Like what you're reading?Similar about-faces occurred time after time. On issues of housing and employment discrimination, while mainstream groups like the National Urban League in the late 1930s and early ’40s were talking privately to white employers and rental agents to persuade them to accept African Americans, communists, and socialists were organizing mass demonstrations, marches and picket lines against housing and hiring segregation, police brutality, lynchings, discrimination against Black shoppers, exclusionary trade unions, and evictions. Liberal groups were horrified by these ‘needless provocations.’ Jewish groups particularly objected when radical protestors targeted Jewish-owned stores for overcharging or refusing to hire Black clerks. An American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) investigation of Jewish business practices in Harlem defended the store owners’ “entirely reasonable principle of economics.” When several African-American papers published a 1941 story about discrimination at Kaplowitz’s, a department store in Washington, DC, the ADL responded: “Actually, the Kaplowitz store was by no means the only offender, nor were the Jewish stores the only ones guilty.” Since all white Southern businessmen acted in racist ways, the ADL pointed out, if only Jews “individually alter their present policy, it would affect their business, and would be opposed by the majority of residents of the community.”

Yet within a few years, the Jewish Community Council in Cleveland was intervening with unfair Jewish landlords and credit merchants. The ADL was meeting with Jewish department store owners in Washington to urge “greater discretion” in the treatment of Black customers. In Detroit, the Council set up an investigative body regarding complaints. In Baltimore, the AJCommittee struggled with Jewish department store owners over discriminatory policies, and in St. Louis and Chicago, the ADL encouraged Jewish employers to hire more African Americans. These efforts became louder and more emphatic over time, and finally enjoyed some success.

WORLD WAR II PROVIDED a unique opportunity to act on economic inequality. When A. Philip Randolph called Black leaders together to propose a 1941 March on Washington that would demand an end to employment discrimination and segregation in the armed forces, moderates among them endorsed the idea. They knew that their conciliatory tactics during World War I had produced no benefits, and they recognized the potency of mass action, which leftist groups and local African-American communities had employed to good effect in the Depression.

Liberal Jewish groups, however, read Randolph’s call as a sign of potential subversion. An ADL staffer warned his director, “He has been causing the President... a great deal of anxiety with statements involving threat, bordering on sedition.... The violence of his recommendations... might conceivably affect our relations with some government bureaus because Randolph does not hesitate to whip the Negroes up to the adoption of methods calculated seriously to embarrass Washington.” Twenty-two years later, however, Randolph’s dream of a March on Washington was finally fulfilled, this time with the hearty endorsement not only of liberal African-American groups but of a broad range of Jewish organizations, including the ADL.

Another tactic the radical left began to use in the 1930s was the ‘sandwich’ technique of testing for discrimination by sending in sequence a white person, an African American, and another white person, to check the availability of apartments and jobs. It took more than ten years for this strategy to catch on among more mainstream groups. In 1949, the Brooklyn AJCongress Women’s Division, the Urban League, and the NAACP took discrimination complaints and provided investigators to test new fair employment laws. The Bronx Council of AJCongress called for volunteers to “visit employment agencies and firms advertising for help and make application to ascertain if you will be accepted or refused because of race, religion or creed.”

THE MORE CONFRONTATIONAL the tactic, the longer it took to be accepted by the mainstream civil rights groups, especially Jewish ones. Communist and socialist groups, for example, challenged racial discrimination and organized the unemployed and the non-unionized in highly visible and sometimes bloody demonstrations. The pacifist, socialist Fellowship of Reconciliation and its offspring, CORE (led by socialist Bayard Rustin), specialized in dramatic acts of civil disobedience. When refused a room in a hotel, Rustin would spend the night in its lobby. Local CORE affiliates used demonstrations, pickets, and even sit-ins to integrate businesses. Each of these tactics faced strong opposition from liberal groups before being embraced.

CORE combined public education, consumer pressure and direct action to bring change. In Chicago, it polled customers to demonstrate that there was little resistance to the hiring of Black clerks. In St. Louis, CORE members dropped leaflets from an airplane (this proved “not very satisfactory because most of the leaflets landed on the tops of buildings”). Others painted slogans on their shirts, like “Let’s Make Democracy Work” and “All We Ask Is Justice.” These tactics found ready support among liberals.

But more militant CORE tactics went over less well. In Washington, DC in 1949, the Interracial Workshop of CORE stood in lines in front of a theater that refused to sell them tickets. In St. Louis, CORE called for a boycott of a restaurant that refused service to Black American Legion members. That same year, AJCongress (which by then contained a number of activists who had left the Communist Party) debated tactics for employment discrimination campaigns. One member argued that “mass demonstrations... serve as an irritant” and were counter-productive. He urged no “picketing and hip-hooray.” Another delegate objected: “I say protest, demand, and you get what you want.”

Shad Polier, chair of AJCongress’ Commission on Law and Social Action, offered a more nuanced assessment: The threat of a March on Washington, he said, had been “effective... a very, very daring move. Whether or not they could have carried it through, we leave aside for the moment. But... it may not work again.” The nation had been in crisis, and the protest “involved the most basic demand of thirteen or fourteen million people who had to be won over so that they could be put to work.” But such conditions arose infrequently and this was not such a time. Picketing, concluded Polier, “is a brutal statement of coercive effort.”

In the end, AJCongress agreed that building organizational coalitions was crucial: “to work out a common... strategy in the open.... talking with legislators” and “holding... educational conferences.” Beyond this, the organization would not go: “There isn’t a place in the U.S.,” Polier warned, “where... if you handle these things in a mass, and you make a mess of it, you [don’t] make enemies of everybody.” Several delegates raised the counter-example of organized Jewish boycotts of German products during the war, but Polier responded: “[T]hat represented a crisis in Jewish life, [which] matched exactly the crisis [that] produced the March on Washington... it would be just as sensible for any Negro organization to say any time they were not satisfied with something, ‘We are going to march on Congress,’ as it would be for the American Jewish Congress to say that, ‘We are going to boycott, because we once had one.’”

Similarly, the ADL’s Civil Rights committee warned in 1949 that it “looks with disfavor upon picketing... as an expression of disapproval except [in] special circumstances.” Jews in particular feared mass demonstrations, which were reminiscent to them of the demagogic rabble-rousing that had been ruinous to European Jewry — but the NAACP’s idea of militant mass action was similarly constrained. In 1955, for example, concerned that “the public at large was becoming complacent as a result of the gains achieved through the courts... and increasingly... cynical about the prospects for federal legislation,” the NAACP recommended “stimulating greater... grassroots pressure.” Despite the mass actions beginning to emerge across the nation from bus boycotts to CORE demonstrations, however, NAACP did not envision marches or protests. Rather, it intended greater citizen lobbying to ensure “the actual passage of overdue and needed civil rights legislation.”

By the 1960s, of course, liberals had enthusiastically embraced formerly radical approaches and joined or sponsored their own demonstrations, protests and picket lines. This most public face of the civil rights movement owed its success to tactics pioneered by the left.

CORE’S USE OF SIT-INS was most dramatic. In 1949, at a St. Louis restaurant, “An interracial group of four to twelve people would ask for service,” CORE reported. “When they were refused, they would continue to sit there for several hours.... During these sit-ins, the restaurant manager would close the counter where we were sitting. Then we began spreading our group out over several counters....”

CORE held regular sit-ins every Saturday, with between twenty and thirty participants. While the restaurant took months to come around, CORE did report after a few weeks that “we are getting the support of the public.... When we first started our campaign very few customers were friendly, and there were many antagonistic remarks, but now many customers actually buy food for the members of our group during our sit-in.”

Like Bayard Rustin’s refusal to leave hotels, these sit-ins were themselves modeled on communist and labor-inspired sit-down strikes from the 1930s. However, despite the tactic’s documented effectiveness in breaking down segregationist practices and educating the public, it took nearly three decades for the sit-in to be embraced by more mainstream civil rights groups — and then only after students began a sit-in at a North Carolina Woolworth’s in 1960 and it spread like wildfire. At that point, the NAACP not only embraced the strategy but tried to convince the students to organize as an NAACP youth group. In the Jewish community, the JLC was the first to announce its support for sit-ins, followed quickly by other Jewish civil rights agencies.

In short, once events required it, Black and Jewish liberal groups came around to give support, with some trepidation — even to the bus boycott in Montgomery, and CORE’s dignified civil disobedience — although they withheld direct participation.

A case in point: In 1946, the Supreme Court declared segregated interstate transportation unconstitutional. To test that decision, CORE called for a “Journey of Reconciliation” in which African-Americans and whites would ride trains together through the South. At first, both Black and Jewish liberals were skeptical. The NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall warned that any “disobedience movement... would result in wholesale slaughter with no good achieved.” But most progressives, like Randolph and Mary McLeod Bethune, endorsed the action.

In the end, everyone rallied. The NAACP provided legal defense for those charged with violating segregation laws; ADL’s Sol Rabkin wrote to congratulate the organizers and offered to file amicus briefs for any cases that ended up in court. Their report, he gushed, “was one of the most exciting social documents we have ever come across.” Of course, the Journey of Reconciliation was copied in 1961 as the Freedom Rides, which were endorsed by liberal as well as leftist activists. Unlike the 1947 Journey, the Freedom Rides did turn bloody, but no one questioned their effectiveness.

SOMETIMES, DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN LIBERAL GROUPS like the NAACP and more radical ones like CORE or the Workers Defense League were less sharp than we might think. For example, the NAACP, National Urban League, and the March on Washington Movement, briefed in 1945 about CORE’s nonviolent civil disobedience training, all agreed that “the project held great possibilities.” None were opposed. And while the NAACP opposed A. Philip Randolph’s 1948 campaign to refuse conscription until President Truman desegregated the armed forces, it endorsed the picket line Randolph simultaneously launched, and held its own protests in Washington, DC.

Nor was the left all about activism in the streets. In New Jersey, in 1946, a coalition of the leftist Civil Rights Congress, the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), NAACP and AJCongress brought suit against Atlantic City restaurants that refused to serve African-Americans who were attending UPWA’s convention. Similarly, it took three years of struggle by CORE, ADL, NAACP and the Workers Defense League to integrate the swimming pool at the Jewish-owned Palisades Amusement Park. In this latter case, CORE’s contribution took place not only in the legal arena, but through picketing of the amusement park and of the owner’s home.

There were other instances of effective left-liberal collaboration. C.L. Dellums, vice-president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters on the West Coast, observed that the Jewish Labor Committee, which worked “hand in glove” with the NAACP and Black trade union leaders, did more to pass fair employment laws in San Francisco “than any other single agency.”

More commonly, however, liberal groups refused to participate in leftist programs, even when they endorsed the goals and tactics, and refused to allow communists or socialists to participate in their own activities. As the National Urban League emphasized, “in order to defeat their long-range purposes we must reject their offer of support even for the cause we ourselves serve.”

GROWING ANTI-COMMUNIST SENTIMENT in the U.S. made cooperation with the Communist Party especially unattractive and dangerous. “If the average citizen should ever come under the impression that racial understanding is a theory advocated primarily by communists... then it will be a lost cause,” argued ADL. As the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins remarked, “God knows it was hard enough being Black; we certainly didn’t need to be red too.”

Indeed, in 1950 the NAACP resolved to “investigate the ideological composition... of the local units” to “eradicate [Communist Party] infiltration, and if necessary... suspend and reorganize, or... expel any unit which in the judgment of the Board... comes under Communists or other political... domination.” They did so in several cities, including San Francisco and Philadelphia. They expelled individuals suspected of leftist leanings, noting as justification that they received the “cold shoulder” from respected community members, or that their “families are known for their subversive activity.”

That same year the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order was expelled from the Los Angeles Jewish Community Relations Council. As AJCommittee explained, relationships with such communist-affiliated or communist-led organizations “cannot in the first instance be developed... and whenever... attempted, cannot be continued.”

Liberal groups also declined to take up legitimate discrimination cases when those involved had leftist tendencies. In 1950, the ADL learned that a New York landlord had evicted Sidney Tobias from his apartment because he had sublet to an African-American.The Chelsea Tenants Council protested and its representative, Rose Bloom, asked for ADL support. The presence of the American Labor Party, the consideration of picketing as a means of protest, and “other indicators,” the ADL concluded, revealed the coalition’s “left-wing tendencies,” and although it “found the facts to be as Miss Bloom states... the ADL could not involve itself in this particular situation.”

Similarly, the Jewish Labor Committee, NAACP, AJCongress, Urban League and Workmen’s Circle all refused to join an effort to integrate housing in Parkchester, New York because it was spearheaded by, in the Jewish Labor Committee’s words, a “Cominform apologist.”

This refusal to work with the left did not go unprotested. Both the NAACP and the Communist Party, for example, had long been engaged in anti-lynching work, with leftists providing much of the muscle and energy in local campaigns, when, in 1939, Walter White of the NAACP raised concerns about Communist Party requests to distribute the NAACP’s anti-lynching petitions. A Daily Worker headline, “Harlem C.P. Shows How to Lead Anti-Lynch Drive,” confirmed White’s feeling “that the Communists would try to appropriate the entire issue. This clipping,” he explained, “in the hands of [Southern senators] would... ruin any efforts to secure passage of the [anti-lynching] bill.” We must be “more selective in the future,” he concluded, “... because the work of thirty years can be and may be destroyed.”

White’s colleague, George Murphy, emphatically disagreed. “Frankly, I think it is a little fantastic to suppose that the whole work of the NAACP could be destroyed, as you put it, by the mere fact that the Communist Party distributed a large number of our anti-lynching petitions.... I agree with Heywood Broun, who [asks], and quite logically, [whether] we [are] to be branded because we believe in a number of things that the Communists also believe in? And, must we cease to believe in those things because the Communists believe them too?” In any case, Murphy continued, the segregationist senators would “filibuster no less because the Communists are not going our way than they would if the Communists are going our way.” No one “can frighten the NAACP... unless we... allow ourselves to be frightened.” Still, the organization continued to refuse to work with communist groups in any efforts.

What did such exclusion ultimately mean to the civil rights movement? It meant the loss of allies when few were around — especially in the South, where few but the left challenged segregation directly or organized African-American workers. It meant the loss of communist critiques of the institutional benefits that white skin provided. Communist John Williamson, for example, argued that while Jews suffer from anti-Semitism, African Americans also lack “equal rights and full economic, social and political equality.” This meant a substantively different struggle: “Oppression and discrimination against the Negro workers takes place twenty-four hours a day. It affects the Negro workers in relation to where they can sleep, where they can eat.” Without this understanding, he noted, many Jews, even activists, show a “lack of sensitivity to expressions of white chauvinism.” Had the liberal Jewish community heeded such warnings, it is possible that the divisions of the 1960s might have played out rather differently.

The refusal of liberal groups to address leftist critiques based on class, in particular, often led them to focus ineffectually on individual remedies rather than systemic ones. In terms of Black-Jewish relations, there were losses, too: Both the Socialist and Communist Parties considered the links between Jews and African Americans to be crucial, and ties among Frank Crosswaith’s Negro Labor Committee and the Workmen’s Circle, Jewish Labor Committee and several progressive Jewish union locals were substantial. Paul Robeson, A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen, Benjamin Davis and many other Black radicals emphasized their unity with Jewish struggles — and also spoke most forcefully in the Black community against anti-Semitism. Randolph called it “dangerous and downright stupid” because in “our various battles... against Jim Crow... Jews... rallied to our support. And not just with words.” Such perspectives, had they been embraced by the liberal mainstream, might have helped ease tensions between Blacks and Jews and increased the enduring strength of their coalition.

Finally, there was a loss of momentum in the movement because of the constraints in tactics that liberals were willing to consider. Their opposition to public militancy was explicitly linked to their antagonism to coalition-building with communists. The result, said Judge Jane Bolin, who resigned in disgust from the NAACP board in 1950, was “sterile and barren” programs while the organization shouted down as a communist or fellow-traveler “every board member and branch” that wanted from the NAACP “less talk and more action.”

That same year, Ben Herzberg of the AJCommittee complained that by concentrating “energy and resources” on programs to distinguish Jews from communism, “the attention of the staff was diverted from other programs of greater urgency.”

Despite their attempts to avoid any engagement with the left and its tactics, however, liberal organizations did, in fact, ultimately embrace every tenet and strategy pioneered by the left. In that embrace, the civil rights movement was transformed from a slow, formal march to equality to a dramatic, far-reaching movement to change social values and social structures.

Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, Raether Distinguished Chair in the Department of History at Trinity College, is author of Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century (2006, Princeton University Press). This article, published in our January-February, 2008 issue, is based on a lecture she gave in our magazine’s Morris U. Schappes Centennial Lecture and Performance Series in 2007.