‘Fear of a Socialist America’: Research on Black radicals featured at historians conference

NEW ORLEANS—Thousands of scholars and historians gathered in the Big Easy for the 2024 Organization of American Historians conference, where a range of radical and progressive panels and workshops were held. The agenda was filled with topics like “Race, Labor, and Policing in the United States,” “Environmental Justice in Post-War America,” and “Racialized State Violence and Resistance.”

Labor and left themes also dominated in sessions devoted to “Graphic Histories of the Working Class,” and “Families, Freedom, and the Legacies of Enslavement.” There was even a Historians of American Communism social gathering to bring together all the academics engaged in “red” research.

It was the intertwining of race, gender, class, and political repression, though, that defined one major panel entitled “Fear of a Socialist America: Black Radicals Face Right-Wing Anti-Communism.” There, a lively discussion ensued as historians linked 1950s-era political repression with current attacks on higher education, textbooks, and Critical Race Theory.

Edna Griffin / via Communist Party of Iowa

For example, Slippery Rock University Associate Professor of History Melissa Ford talked about the life and work of Edna Griffin, known today as the “Rosa Parks of Iowa…a name I’d like to unpack a little.”

While Griffin now has a bridge named after her in Des Moines, according to Ford, “Anti-communism has all but erased her…radical activist past and membership in the Communist Party, ultimately contributing to a lingering perception of a conservative, reactionary, and white Midwest and prevalent anti-socialist sentiment today.”

Ford also challenged the dominant myth in U.S. historiography that the CPUSA became a marginal political force post-1956; she argued that Griffin remained a prominent figure in Iowa’s activist community well into the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.

For example, Ford said:

In 1972, she served as the party’s elector in Iowa; had the CPUSA candidate, Gus Hall, won the state’s votes, she would have cast the electoral ballot. In the ’70s and ’80s, she continued to be a force in bringing people to the party, recruiting, and inspiring a younger generation. She protested U.S. aid to Contras in Central America in the 1980s and defended Anita Hill in the 1990s. At age 76, she went with a group of Quakers to Nebraska to sit in the middle of a highway to prevent transportation of nuclear warheads, an action that led to her arrest.”

Denise Lynn took a deep dive into Black radical Claudia Jones’ early opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam as “a significant and understudied aspect of her activism and the Cold War peace movement more generally.”

Lynn, Professor of History and Director of Gender and Africana Studies at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, and the author of Claudia Jones: Vision of a Socialist America, argued that Jones’ deportation was in part a consequence of her outspoken opposition to U.S. militarism and imperialism.

As Lynn put it, “Radicals like Jones,” as well as other leaders of the Communist Party USA, “do not appear in these histories [about Vietnam] because anti-communism…led to harassment and marginalization.” Additionally, “Jones would be followed, surveilled, arrested multiple times, imprisoned, and eventually deported.

Lynn said that this harassment, “which escalated during the post-World War II period and culminated in the incarceration and deportation of dozens of communists…in the 1950s” resulted in a certain historical amnesia about “early radical resistance to U.S. intervention in Asia more broadly and in Vietnam specifically.”

Sarah Curry rounded out the discussion at the “Fear of a Socialist America” panel with a talk on the ideological and political links between the Minute Women and the women of the Ku Klux Klan. Both groups used the bogey of anti-communism to stifle demands for African-American equality.

Curry, a third-year PhD candidate in History at Queens University Belfast specializing in the anti-communist hysteria of the McCarthy era, noted that the Minute Women “primarily attracted middle and upper-class white women to their cause, a large number of whom were housewives and could easily engage in the group’s activities, such as letter writing, phone chains, reading groups, meetings, and luncheons.”

Claudia Jones speaks at a Communist Party event in the 1940s. Seated behind her is Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. | People’s World Archives

Like Moms for Liberty today, which has been organizing to ban books on LGBTQ themes and the history of racism, the Minute Women presented a veneer of respectability to hide their racist beliefs.

However, like the Minute Women, and other far-right groups, the women of the KKK also, interestingly, advocated for a degree of autonomy and agency within what was a male-dominated, masculinist, and patriarchal organization, so long as that agency did not extend to women of color.

This author chaired the panel and noted that the deportation of Jones, the erasure of Griffin’s Communist past, and the organization of groups such as the Minute Women were, in fact, illustrative of a real fear: the fear of a post-war emerging Black militancy comfortable with red allies, what I call a “Red-Black Alliance.” This coupled with a then-growing world movement for socialism and national liberation caused the U.S. ruling class to react by attempting to destroy the Communist Party, its adjacent organizations, and prominent individuals affiliated with it, especially African-American activists.

As noted above, a lively discussion was had between the panelists and the audience, and several ideas emerged for future research avenues. Both Melissa Ford and Denise Lynn are working on manuscripts for International Publishers.

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Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.