American inquisition part 2: What McCarthyism really destroyed

Photo: Paul Robeson at a Civil Rights Congress protest in front of the White House in Aug. 1948. Credit: Flickr/Washington Area Spark

Taking down the “Soviet Menace” in America, was, as we saw in part 11, not a response to any real “national security threat,” but a very real threat to corporate profits and neocolonial domination by the U.S. ruling class. It was a shield to hide its real, and much less popular, mission to take down those bold enough to challenge racism, advocate aggressively for workers, for peace, rather than world war, or cold war, and a post-war world that would also be free of colonialism. 

Even decades later this was so successful most of those who were extirpated from public life remain forgotten. The heaviest blows, without a doubt, fell on the labor and Black liberation movements — in particular their intersection. Whatever its faults, the Communist Party was the nexus between forward-looking elements in both arenas. The unions — and union locals — with the strongest communist influence were the most outspoken opponents of racism, not as a matter of charity but strategy. Making clear that the principle result of white supremacy had been to hold back working-class prosperity. 

Relatedly Black communists, understanding the vast majority of Blacks were workers, linked Black freedom to shifting power relations away from capital and toward labor. In both cases, the militants in question recognized that working and oppressed people could never defeat the ruling class isolated purely within national borders, but had to bring their struggles together with similar forces worldwide. 

For a brief period in the post-World War II era, this constellation of forces, both communists and non-communist progressives, presented a very different vision of the world. They were the true victims of McCarthyism, and understanding of what they were up to, offers an important lesson about the role of panics, inquisitions and witchunts organized by the U.S. ruling class in the name of “national security.” 

A crushing blow

In North Carolina, Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Works of America (FTA) had taken on the biggest tobacco makers in the country, and won union representation. The nearly 10,000 members were mainly Black women. Working together they won not only higher wages, but longer breaks, overtime and vacation days for the first time in living memory.2 

They were responsible for electing the first Black city council member in Winston-Salem history and expanding the right to vote in North Carolina in ways that hadn’t been possible since the 1890s. The union even forced RJ Reynolds Tobacco to give workers time off without loss of pay to vote — the first time any employer had done so in the history of North Carolina. The NAACP in Winston-Salem went from 11 members in 1941 to nearly 2,000 just a few months after Local 22 members stepped in to revitalize the civil rights organization.3 

The union also stepped in against the lynch mob mentality of the South, campaigning to defend William Wellman, a Black man, from a death sentence stemming from a false rape charge.4 Local 22, was also a leftwing stronghold, with the majority of the 150 members of the Winston-Salem Communist Party in 1946 being tobacco workers, including a significant number of Local 22 shop stewards. Party activity was synergistic with the unions, in particular on fighting Klan terror and promoting more progressive policies in the state like the first ever minimum wage and higher salaries for teachers and expanded public education.5 

In the post-war atmosphere, this put Local 22, and the FTA more broadly, in the crosshairs of the witch hunters. FTA, along with others in the labor movement initially refused to sign the anti-communist affidavits linked to Taft-Hartley, which meant they lost the ability to represent workers in union elections. Anti-communist labor leaders in the CIO and the AFL started competing organizing drives to undermine Local 22, using redbaiting and racism to try to turn workers against the union. 

Many of their community supporters in the Black middle class also turned on them. Racist politicians and corporate officials feigned belief in some progress for Blacks to break some of the more mainstream leaders away from the union on anti-communist grounds. Local 22 also faced heavy attack for having a close relationship to Paul Robeson and spearheading the North Carolina presidential campaign for former Vice President Henry Wallace in 1948, the only candidate running on an anti-segregation platform. These factors combined crushed the union by the early 1950s, sending tobacco workers back into the unorganized, Jim Crow world that they had done so much to start tearing down. 

Civil rights, the first wave

On the one hand, the war had raised the hopes of Black America about what may come next. It had also raised the fighting spirit of Black people who not only advocated aggressively, but sought to exploit their status as “swing voters,” especially when combined with the political forces of labor in Northern and Midwestern states to exert political pressure on both parties to embrace non-discriminatory policy planks. Nonetheless, the forces of white supremacy were not easily dislodged and the menace of defacto and de jure lynch law were just as evident as the war ended. 

Indicatively, on June 6, 1945, just three days before the Nazi surrender, Denice Harris, a war veteran, was shot to death, without reason, by a joint police-civilian mob in Atlanta, Georgia. The case was ultimately ruled a “justifiable homicide.” On Dec. 23 of the same year in Fontana, California the Short family, including two young children, were burned to death in their home for daring to move into a “white” neighborhood. No one was ever held responsible.6 

In that atmosphere, it’s unsurprising that there was a desire to fight back. In 1946, the Civil Rights Congress, a vehicle for militant fightback, was formed. The organization was led by William Patterson, a communist and one of the principal leaders of the fight to free the Scottsboro Boys and other civil rights campaigns of the 1930s and 1940s, including the integration of Major League Baseball. It also included top leaders from the UAW and the United Electrical Workers, the former governor of Minnesota, stalwart African American newspaperwoman Charlotta Bass  — later the first Black woman to run for vice president — and a number of others with serious credentials fighting racial discrimination.7 

The CRC approached the issue of fighting racism with a Scottsboro-like mentality. Focusing on mass campaigning to shine a spotlight on racial injustice, exploiting the official U.S. rhetoric of “democracy” to bring pressure on authorities and sidetrack clear frame-up cases. As such, a major focus was on developing a mass membership of those opposed to white supremacy. Its membership was rooted in the Black community, and leftwing sectors of the working class. For instance, in Pennsylvania one chapter leader reported its members were “influential in Negro Baptist church life.” In Spokane, Washington the members were mainly “railway workers and carpenters.” In Wilkes-Barre, the members were “in large part” miners. Chicago, even at the height of McCarthyism in 1952, had 4,000 members.8 

The CRC was a hive of activity on all the major fronts. Nationally they waged a fierce campaign to pressure the government to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan (which they never did) and collected over 500,000 signatures in a campaign to oust arch-racist Theodore Bilbo from Congress. They registered voters in the Jim Crow terror stronghold of St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana and fought against segregation in South Carolina schools.9 In Philadelphia the local CRC picketed Woolworths until they hired their first Black employees and in California forced the state employment agency to cease screening job applicants by race.10 

The Civil Rights Congress was perhaps best known for its willingness to take on Scottsboro-like cases where Black’s were framed on bogus charges, mainly the Martinsville Seven, Willie McGee and Rosa Lee Ingram. Ingram’s case was particular indicative because it directly challenged the centuries old status quo in the South that Black women could be raped at will. Ingram and her sons were arrested and sentenced to death after the three acted in self-defense and killed a white man who had repeatedly committed sexual violence against Rosa Lee. The CRC represented her in court and, along with the Black left-led organization Sojourners for Truth and Justice, conducted a mass defense campaign of protests and petitions that got the sentenced commuted to life. All three would finally be released in 1959. 

The Civil Rights Congress also presented a landmark publication “We Charge Genocide!” to the United Nations in 1951, that, in detailed fashion, listed the extreme violence and discrimination faced by Blacks in the United States that made a significant impact internationally and seriously harmed its image in Europe and in the Global South. 

For all this, the CRC was heavily targeted by the government. As early as 1948, it was listed as “subversive” by Attorney General Tom Clark. They endured incessant police harassment, wiretapping and physical disruptions of meetings by thugs sent in by the police and right wing. Affiliation with the CRC was one of the principle markers of being a subversive communist agent and dozens were hauled before Congress on that basis. The government waged a multi-faceted campaign to target the finances of the CRC, essentially bankrupting the organization by forcing it into numerous legal cases and demanding it turn over its donor lists which, of course, hobbled ongoing fundraising. Not to mention several IRS probes. Ultimately the organization was forced to dissolve in 1956.11 

Meaning of McCarthy

These are just two examples of dozens. The International Workers Order, for instance, was a mutual aid society with hundreds of thousands of members that provided low-cost health and life insurance, as well as medical and dental clinics for workers. It was the only insurance organization that didn’t discriminate against Blacks. It also underwrote numerous cultural activities to benefit working-class families. Nonetheless, despite being totally solvent, it was forced to dissolve itself in the mid-1950s by New York State officials. 

The McCarthyite witch hunt fits perfectly into a frequent occurrence through history of “national security”-type panics launched by elites. In 1741, for instance, colonial authorities in New York tortured several Irish women for being accomplices in a slave uprising. From their “confessions” half the male slave population was imprisoned in a mass hysteria. British colonial authorities presented the whole thing as a Catholic plot conducted by Spain and the Pope. 

Not that long after, in 1798, the new United States passed the Alien and Sedition Act, which blatantly contradicted the Constitution, essentially making it a crime to criticize the government, with fear of the French Revolutionary spirit hanging in the background. After Nat Turner’s rebellion, a wave of repression followed across the South as slave owners feared slave revolts. This repression included beheading the uninvolved and placing their heads on pikes. The Virginia legislature followed up by passing increased restrictions on free Blacks as well as slaves. 

In each case, these panics are created by elites to clip the wings of those potentially challenging their power. With “foreign interference”often used  as the pretext. Clearly this is where we are today. Opposition to anything contrary to the status quo is being framed as “disinformation” or “misinformation” or as being “manipulated” by Russia, China, Iran, Hamas, Cuba or all of the above. 

The question is, will we learn from history? Will we let the genocidaires to silence the voice of those opposing genocide? Allow those who strangle countries with blockades and sanctions to strangle those who struggle for a more just world order? Let the elites who hope to keep workers poor and impoverished crush the voices arguing to end hunger and provide the masses with a dignified standard of living? The real meaning of McCarthyism is that it, along with its attendant panics and inquisitions, are just weapons of the rich against the exploited and oppressed. If we want a new world, we can’t ever forget that.

  1. ↩︎
  2. ↩︎
  3. ↩︎
  4. Ibid. ↩︎
  5. Ibid. ↩︎
  6. We Charge Genocide, 1951, pp.60-61 ↩︎
  7. Gerald Horne, Communist Front? Civil Rights Congress, pp. 32-33. ↩︎
  8.  Ibid. pp. 40-41 ↩︎
  9. Ibid. p. 58 ↩︎
  10.  Ibid. pp.58-62 ↩︎
  11.  Ibid. ch. 11 ↩︎
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