BY JAMES P. CANNON
Everything new and progressive on the Negro question came from Moscow, after the revolution of 1917, and as a result of the revolutionnot only for the American communists who responded directly, but for all others concerned with the question.
By themselves, the American communists never thought of anything new or different from the traditional position of American radicalism on the Negro question . The simplistic formula that the Negro problem was merely economic, a part of the capital-labor problem, never struck fire among the Negroeswho knew better even if they didnt say so; they had to live with brutal discrimination every day and every hour.
There was nothing subtle or concealed about this discrimination. Everybody knew that the Negro was getting the worst of it at every turn, but hardly anybody cared about it or wanted to do anything to try to moderate or change it. The 90 percent white majority of American society, including its working-class sector, North as well as South, was saturated with prejudice against the Negro; and the socialist movement reflected this prejudice to a considerable extenteven though, in deference to the ideal of human brotherhood, the socialist attitude was muted and took the form of evasion. The old theory of American radicalism turned out in practice to be a formula for inaction on the Negro front, andincidentallya convenient shield for the dormant racial prejudices of the white radicals themselves.
The Russian intervention changed all that, and changed it drastically, and for the better. Even before the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were distinguished from all other tendencies in the international socialist and labor movement by their concern with the problems of oppressed nations and national minorities, and affirmative support of their struggles for freedom, independence, and the right of self-determination. The Bolsheviks gave this support to all people without equal rights sincerely and earnestly, but there was nothing philanthropic about it. They also recognized the great revolutionary potential in the situation of oppressed peoples and nations, and saw them as important allies of the international working class in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism.
After November 1917 this new doctrinewith special emphasis on the Negroesbegan to be transmitted to the American communist movement with the authority of the Russian Revolution behind it. The Russians in the Comintern started on the American communists with the harsh, insistent demand that they shake off their own unspoken prejudices, pay attention to the special problems and grievances of the American Negroes, go to work among them, and champion their cause, including among whites.
It took time for the Americans, raised in a different tradition, to assimilate the new Leninist doctrine. But the Russians followed up year after year, piling up the arguments and increasing the pressure on the American communists until they finally learned and changed, and went to work in earnest. And the change in the attitude of the American communists, gradually effected in the twenties, was to exert a profound influence in far wider circles in the later years.
The Communist Partys break with the traditional position of American radicalism on the Negro question coincided with profound changes which had been taking place among the Negroes themselves. The large-scale migration from the agricultural regions of the South to the industrial centers of the North was greatly accelerated during the First World War, and continued in the succeeding years.1 This brought some improvement in their conditions of life over what they had known in the Deep South, but not enough to compensate for the disappointment of being herded into ghettos and still subjected to discrimination on every side.
The Negro movement, such as it was at the time, patriotically supported the First World War to make the world safe for democracy; and 400,000 Negroes served in the armed forces. They came home looking for a little democratic payoff for themselves, but couldnt find much anywhere. Their new spirit of self-assertion was answered by a mounting score of lynchings and a string of race riots across the country, North as well as South.2
All this taken togetherthe hopes and the disappointments, the new spirit of self-assertion and the savage reprisalscontributed to the emergence of a new Negro movement in the making. Breaking sharply with the Booker T. Washington tradition of accommodation3 to a position of inferiority in a white mans world, a new generation of Negroes began to press their demand for equality .
2. In 1919, with millions of demobilized soldiers vying for hard-to-come-by jobs, there were racist riots against African Americans in Chicago and some twenty-four other U.S. cities, from Omaha, Nebraska, to Knoxville, Tennessee, from Washington, D.C., to Bogalusa, Louisiana. There was a sharp rise in lynchings throughout the South. Two years later, from May 31 to June 1, 1921, racist mobs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, rioted against African Americans, demolishing the thirty-five-square block Black community, destroying more than 1,200 houses, and killing an estimated one hundred to three hundred people. Heavily outnumbered, Blacksmany of them World War I veteransorganized to defend themselves as best they could.
3. Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) opposed any mass struggle for Black rights, counterposing to it the perspective of accommodation with Jim Crow while working for vocational training and self-improvement.