The right to be radical: Uplifting the life of Claudia Jones
Claudia Jones. | CPUSA Archives

WASHINGTON–The Claudia Jones School for Political Education and Black Women Radicals came together virtually on the evening of July 3rd to co-host an event uplifting the life and work of Black Communist Claudia Jones. Over 300 attendees from around the world attended the event, including scholars and activists from Kenya, Toronto, London, Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States.

The event was centered around Jones’s life and, in particular, her essay in “A Right to be Radical,” which was published as in the pamphlet Ben Davis: A Fighter for Freedom, distributed by the National Committee to Defend Negro Leadership in November 1954. The booklet was written by Claudia Jones in defense of Benjamin Davis, Jr., the former Communist Councilman of Harlem. Like Jones herself and many other reds, Davis was persecuted for his Communist ideas. Jones’s booklet argued for his right to have those ideas and for the groups of Black leaders being tried during the McCarthy Red Scare period.

The event featured Dr. Carole Boyce Davies, author of both Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones and Claudia Jones: Beyond Containment. Like Jones, Boyce Davies was born in Trinidad and Tobago; she is currently Professor of Africana Studies and English at Cornell University (recently appointed the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell).

The life of Claudia Jones

Jaimee Swift, left, and Dr. Carol Boyce Davies, right, participate in the July 3rd event focused on the life and work of Black woman Communist Claudia Jones. | Jamal Rich / PW

Jones was born in Trinidad and Tobago (then, the British West Indies) in 1915 and immigrated to the U.S. with her family when she was just eight years old. Her family moved to Harlem, where her mother worked as a garment worker and died five years later due to poor working conditions.

Jones joined the Young Communist League (YCL) in 1936, when she was 21 years old, after being impressed with the Communist Party’s work on behalf of the Scottsboro Nine. The defendants were nine young Black men tried for raping two white women in a boxcar in Scottsboro, Ala. The Communist Party, through its legal defense front, the International Labor Defense, spearheaded the campaign to have them taken off death row and to have the bogus charges dropped. This was also in the period of Jim Crow apartheid in the U.S. and the onset of the Great Depression when millions were put out of work.

While in the YCL, she became a journalist for the Weekly Review and the Daily Worker and was eventually elected to the National Committee of the CPUSA in 1945, becoming the only Black woman on the party’s leading body. In 1948, Jones became secretary of the Women’s Commission of the Communist Party and, along with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, traveled around the U.S. to organize women into the Party.

Around this time, she wrote An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman, which further developed the ideological foundation of “triple oppression” and We Seek Full Equality for Women, demanding full emancipation for women. She also wrote a column in the Daily Worker in the early 1950s called “Half the World,” focusing on how women represent half the world and how they should receive half of the world’s resources.

She was arrested three times, with one of those arrests following a speech she gave called “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace.” Eventually, she was arrested and tried with twelve other Communists under the Smith Act amidst the Red Scare. She served ten months of a sentence but, because of health issues, was released early from the Women’s Penitentiary in Alderson, W.V.

After her release, however, she was ordered deported to the United Kingdom at the end of 1955. After arriving in London, she got involved with the local Caribbean community, developed the West Indian Gazette in 1958, and organized the first London Carnival in Notting Hill. Toward the end of her life, she traveled to Japan, China, and the Soviet Union before dying in December 1964. Her ashes were buried to the left of Karl Marx’s grave in London’s Highgate Cemetery.

The right to be radical

In the Jones essay, “A Right to be Radical,” which was the focus of the July 3rd seminar, she wrote: “Over 115 Communist and working-class leaders, thirteen of whom are Negroes have been arrested under the Smith Act.” These Black leaders were: Ben Davis, Henry Winston, Pettis Perry, James Jackson, Jr., Thomas Dennis, Ben Carreathers, Al Murphy, Thomas Nebried, Robert Campbell, Paul Bowen, James Tate, Claude Lightfoot, and Jones herself.

The introduction of the booklet is written by Eslanda Goode Robeson (the wife of Paul Robeson) and says Jones “holds a position of leadership in the Communist Party and plays a major role in the work for equality for women and peace. For her beliefs, Claudia Jones was victimized by reaction and prosecuted under the Smith Act. She also faces deportation to her native West Indies under the Walter-McCarran Act.”

Jones’s International Women’s Day speech was brought into the context of her ideas on radicalism. She asked, “Do not an oppressed people have a right to have radicals? Do not our people have the right to seek some radical solutions to their highly oppressed status? And have a right to be radicals? It would surely seem they have.”

Jones’ six justifications for radicalism were being against slavery, oppression, and capitalism, and being for equal rights, suffrage, and socialism. Boyce Davies explained that Jones always tried centering the following in her radicalism:

  1. Continuing the Black radical tradition.
  2. Reimagining emancipatory possibilities.
  3. Fighting for a more humanistic world.
  4. Internationalist vision of Black freedom struggles.
  5. Black women having a right to challenge oppressive situations because of Black women’s super-exploitation.

Boyce Davies further said on this point that “once Black women move, then the rest of society moves,” referencing the Black radical feminists who have come before and those who are organizing now, like those in the Movement for Black Lives.

Boyce Davies also centered the interlocking oppressions of class, race, and gender throughout this discussion, further explaining the super-exploitation of Black women workers. Jones was further quoted: “The very core of all Negro history is radicalism against conformity to chattel slavery, radicalism against the betrayal of the demands of Reconstruction, radicalism in relation to non-acceptance of the status quo!”

“Is there a conflict between being radical and being loyal to one’s country? History can best answer this question. For the history of our people is rich in examples that, because the oppression of our people comes from the ruling class, the very survival of our people required nonconformity to preserve the dignity of manhood and womanhood. We can conclude as a result of these examples that the entire history of the Negro people has been one of radical solution to the sorely oppressed status. We and Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and David Walker, Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, Ben Davis and Henry Winston—those who have been assailed as radicals—are the staunchest fighters against slavery and Jim Crow, for freedom and equality.” – Claudia Jones

Jones had said that the very “any serious leadership in the fight for Negro rights brings one into opposition with the foreign and domestic policies of government.” Seeing all those, like her, who’d been charged with trumped-up charges under the Smith Act, Jones said that no matter if it was “in writings, speeches, or needed organization endeavors, any Negro leader who pursues any necessary manifestation of leadership is labeled ‘subversive,’ ‘communistic.’”

Throughout the conversation on July 3rd, Angela Davis’s work on “Women and Capitalism” in the Black Feminist Reader was connected, since similar ideas were expressed about “triple oppression” by both her and Jones, each of whom were members and leaders of the CPUSA in different time periods. It was Davis who argued, “The objective oppression of Black women in America has a class, and also a national origin.” Because of the way the structures of female oppression are tethered to capitalism, she said, “female emancipation must be simultaneously and explicitly the pursuit of Black liberation and of freedom of other nationally oppressed groups.”

Claudia Jones, second from left, at an anti-racist march in Notting Hill, London, after her deportation from the United States. | CPUSA Archive

The second half of the event included Jaimee Swift, the founder, creator and executive director of Black Women Radicals, engaging in dialogue with Boyce Davies, as well as a question and answer from the audience. Black Women Radicals is a Black feminist advocacy organization dedicated to uplifting and centering Black women’s radical political activism. It is a collective of Black women who represent and uplift Black women of diverse gender identities and gender expressions, educational backgrounds, nationalities, religious and/or non-religious affiliations, languages, ethnicities, and more who have diverse pathways of and to Blackness and to Black womanhood(s) but who are all committed to uplifting, centering, and honoring Black women in their entireties. Swift is a Ph.D. candidate at Howard University, with concentrations in Black Politics, International Relations, and Comparative Politics. Her dissertation focuses on radical, Black feminist politics and resistance against state, structural, and symbolic violence in Brazil.

In their dialogue, Boyce Davies noted that Jones’s work always centered on women’s rights, Black rights, and worker’s rights. She also spoke on the global foundations of racism and how the current uprisings are not only in solidarity against police violence in the United States, but everywhere in the world. Boyce Davies also mentioned how more Caribbean people died in New York from COVID-19 than in the Caribbean and connected this to Jones’s migration to the United States when she realized the contradictions of values in the country.

Swift asked about the role of other Black women radicals, such as Maude White and Louise Thompson Patterson of the Communist Party, and also connected the international struggles of the late Marielle Franco and other Black feminist radical leadership. Boyce Davies added that people must also not forget the role of Grace Campbell, who was a Black woman leader in the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) and became the first Black woman member of the CPUSA once the ABB merged.

They also spoke on their future thoughts on the Black feminist tradition. Some thoughts came to mind such as how the Black Lives Matter movement was birthed by all Black women, who are really concerned about the impoverishment in communities and intersecting racial, class, and gender oppression.

Speaking further, Boyce Davies argued that “by deporting Claudia, they [the U.S. government] deported a radical Black female subject, and you can see the same with Assata Shakur.”

Later during the conversation, an audience member asked about self-care. Boyce Davies mentioned that “radical self-care” is a fundamental part of being an activist and protecting oneself from oppressive people. She further said that this new generation is leading the conversation around radical self-care unlike former generations of activists.

Jaimee, who is a journalist herself, also asked about radical Black journalism. Boyce Davies pointed to Ida B. Wells as a model, noting her work in fighting against the lynching of Black people in the South.

To end, Boyce Davies said that Black radical women want to challenge the way that society operates and have the right to challenge the oppressive structures due to their super-exploitation.


Jamal Rich
Jamal Rich

Jamal Rich writes from Washington, D.C. where he is active with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.