Links between domestic civil rights and anti-colonial struggles explored in new book

The links between the struggle for domestic Black civil rights and decolonization were multifaceted and reciprocal, and they fostered an “activist and intellectual network that connected the African American quest for freedom to the empire question.”

In John Munro’s excellent book, The Anticolonial Front: The African American Freedom Struggle and Global Decolonization, 1945-1960, these links are explored in exhaustive and enlightening detail.

Focusing on the 1945-1960 period, as former colonial peoples were one-after-another gaining their independence, The Anticolonial Front was “a tendency within the postwar Black liberation struggle in which the imperial structure of gendered racial capitalism took center stage in political theory and organization.”

As Munro writes, this “political bloc was ‘anticolonial’ in its opposition to US imperial power and Western European imperialism; it was a ‘front’ as a site of political engagement and as a loose affiliation of shared ideas.”

Though primarily focused on the post-war period, Munro does highlight the important work of the Council of African affairs prior to the end of the war. He notes the CAA’s April 1944 conference “Africa – New Perspectives,” as setting the precedent for what W.E.B. DuBois, among others, envisioned for post-war Pan-Africanism. The CAA conference also brought DuBois closer to the scholar-activist, and Communist, W. Alphaeus Hunton.

According to Munro, the CAA “infused US politics with an anticolonial ethos at the height of the wartime left-liberal coalition,” a coalition, he argues, that often sacrificed anti-colonial struggles for the sake of war-time unity against fascism.

One of the strengths of Munro’s book is how he places young activists in the anti-colonial front, such as Jack O’Dell, in historical and political context, linking them to Popular Front Communist-led organizations, while also documenting their long-term commitment to equality and liberation. O’Dell, an early leader of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, the National Maritime Union, and the Communist Party, USA, would during the 1960s become a close confidant to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Munro also analyzes “three journals that kept anticolonialism in print as the Old Left became New: Political Affairs, Freedom, and The Crisis.” As he notes, “Despite the domestic political repression that attended the reorganization of US empire after World War II, there is a remarkable record of published work that testifies to the ongoing politics of the anticolonial front…”

Tellingly, and somewhat surprisingly, Munro bucks the dominant myth within U.S. historiography that postulates that the CPUSA became a marginal political force as the Cold War and Red Scare ascended. He writes, “Although magazines such as Dissent and The Nation bore witness to the reality that the Communist left was not the only political grouping to adopt a critical stance toward imperialism during the cold war, the greatest journalistic contribution to anti-colonial discourse in the United States during the years between World War II and the 1960s was produced by the CPUSA press and those friendly to it.”

This is a profound statement; one that we, unfortunately, cannot explore within the confines of a short review. Suffice it to say, the Communist press – Political Affairs, Masses & Mainstream, the Daily Worker, etc. – as well as the press friendly to the CPUSA – Paul Robeson’s Freedom newspaper, the CAA’s New Africa and later Spotlight on Africa, the various publications of the International Workers Order, Communist-led CIO union publications, etc. – constituted a major focal point for anti-colonial education, collaboration, and activism.

As Munro notes, the Daily Worker “established a place in the transcontinental resistance to imperialism through, for example, its campaigns against government harassment of Black anticolonial activists Ferdinand Smith, Claudia Jones, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and James Jackson, or through William Patterson and Herbert Aptheker’s columns…”

Munro also challenges the myth that Communists saw nothing but decline after the 1956 Nikita Khrushchev revelations of Stalin’s crimes against humanity and socialism; Herbert Aptheker reported to CPUSA leaders, by July 1958 Political Affairs readership actually increased by over 2,000 new subscriptions. As Munro put it, “the magazine constituted a significant site of anticolonial politics throughout the 1945-1960 period.”

Of course, The Anticolonial Front does not just document the role of Communists or those close to Communists; George Padmore and the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James are discussed, among others; as is the 1955 Bandung Afro-Asian Conference. However, as I read The Anticolonial Front it was almost impossible to not appreciate the preponderance of CPUSA influence during this period.

Toward the end of The Anticolonial Front Munro makes the links between the 1945-1960 anti-colonial front and the 1960s-1970s Civil Rights and Black Power movements. He notes that Angela Davis’ mother had been active in the National Negro Congress and the Southern Negro Youth Congress, as had James and Esther Cooper Jackson, and Ishmael Flory. Of course, Davis’ arrest, worldwide campaign for her freedom, and ultimate acquittal are well-known; it also helped spark the birth of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. Less well-known, however, is James and Esther Cooper Jackson’s role in mentoring Coleman Young, the National Negro Labor Council leader and future mayor of Detroit, and the launching of Freedomways, the quarterly journal of Black liberation. And perhaps, even less well-known is the role of Ishmael Flory, a CPUSA leader, in the founding and leading of the Chicago-based Afro-American Heritage Association.

The links forged by and through “the anti-colonial front” are worth exploring as the assault on Black lives continues unabated. Munro’s book is needed now more than ever.

The Anticolonial Front: The African American Freedom Struggle and Global Decolonization, 1945-1960

By John Munro, Cambridge University Press, 2020, 333 pp


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.