Stupid titling convention.

This is far from ideal but it’s as far as it gets. Ties to this stuff on ideas of fascism and anti-fascism in the African American left back in the day. Happily, now I can grab a bite to eat and go to sleep. *whew*

“Comparisons of Jim Crow with Fascism and Communism in African American Newspapers, 1935-1965”

African Americans critical of the white supremacist order in the United States used references to foreign policy to analyze and denounce American racism from the 1930s through the 1960s. In this paper I focus specifically on uses of the terms fascism and totalitarianism in denunciations of Jim Crow. These criticisms were often but not always voiced in relation to the American South, which many African Americans referred to as Dixie. I argue that the terms of used to criticize Dixie changed in a way that can appear misleading but the point remained the same, to make use of readily available rhetoric in the attempt to discredit white supremacists practices in the United States. I place my argument against the backdrop of what I see as a change in political rhetoric in the United State from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s. I also place my argument in relation to three approaches to the history of civil rights in the United States.

The historiography of the civil rights movement has expanded the bounds of its object in both space and time. The spatial expansion of civil rights historiography fits in with the trend in relatively recent U.S. history of putting the U.S. in an international or transnational context. This work has focused on the role of the Cold War in shaping the civil rights movement. Scholars argue that the civil rights movement both facilitated advances of the civil rights movement and restricted the movement as well. The primary gains for civil rights because of the Cold War came because decolonization created new nations controlled by people of color. The United States wanted to prevent these countries from allying with the Soviet Union, which made racism in the U.S. a liability. In other words, decolonization in a Cold War context created a foreign policy based incentive to challenge racial hierarchy domestically. [1]

The chronological expansion of civil rights historiography argues for the existence of a “long civil rights movement” against the idea of the civil rights movement beginning around 1955 and ending around 1969. [2] Historians do not agree on how far to move the temporal boundaries, whether the 1930s, 1920s, or earlier.[3] As Eric Arnesen notes, partisans of changing the temporal boundaries tend have an interest in specific forms of civil rights activism tied to the labor movement or the Communist Party or both.

In this paper I deal with a topic which speaks to both of these relatively new approaches to civil rights. In terms of the spatial expansion of civil rights history, while my emphasis in this paper is on the United States, I deal with a transnational or international topic. The political rhetoric of African American anti-racists that I focus on could be understood either as a tactical appeal to terms which writers judged would be most useful in denouncing the white supremacist order, or as a genuine expression of how these writers saw the world. The first possibility would mean African American anti-racists drew on rhetoric tied to the larger global conjuncture in order to support their struggles. The second possibility would mean African American anti-racists possessed a global consciousness, using events outside the U.S. to understand their own lives. I suspect that both possibilities were true to varying degrees for different people.

In terms of the chronological expansion of civil rights historiography, I argue for both continuity and change from the 1930s to the 1950s and 1960s, taking the longer perspective on African American anti-racism. I also deal with themes tied to the Communist left. I suggest a periodization of political ideas and rhetoric about communism, fascism, and anti-fascism which was not solely confined to African Americans, as backdrop for my discussion of African Americans’ political rhetoric. Put briefly, I believe that opposition to fascism was a far left idea in the early to mid 1930s U.S., moved firmly to center of American political ideas with the U.S. involvement in World War Two, then moved to the right and joined with anti-communism in the aftermath of World War Two.[4] I hope my paper demonstrates that further attention to the radical left among African Americans and in multiracial settings can expand our understanding of African American anti-racism, understood in both the larger spatial scope and the longer chronological scope.

Anti-Fascism and the Left

A great many people in the 1930s were concerned with that they saw as the threat of fascism in the United States and around the world. Opposition to fascism in the 1930s was tied to the Popular Front. The phrase “Popular Front” derived from the 7th International Congress of the Communist International. This Congress decided that the Communist Parties of the world must make their top priority be opposition to stopping fascism. The 7th Congress viewed fascism as too powerful for only working class people and communists alone to halt, so alliances with people in other classes and other political perspectives was necessary. The Popular Front was both a political goal of building popular movements against fascism and the name of really existing popular movements that opposed fascism. Put another way, the Popular Front was the idea that radicals needed to build a popular front, defined as a cross-class social movement united against fascism. Central to the Popular Front as an idea and a practice was the view that fascism was an urgent problem. Michael Denning argues that the Popular Front was not reducible to the actions of the Communists involved.[5] Denning insists that we should view the Popular Front as a movement or a social milieu, which was dedicated not only to stopping fascism but also to fighting lynching and building the American labor movement. [6]

I call anti-fascism at the time period communist anti-fascism. “Popular Front anti-fascism” would be a more accurate phrase but “communist” serves as a reminder that while opposition to fascism was widespread in the 1930s, anti-fascism was on the left and outside mainstream American politics. Fascism and America, and for that matter, anti-fascism and America, were not yet antithetical. I mean “communist anti-fascism” in the sense not of “belonged to the Communist Party” or anything but more like “those damned reds!”

I have suggested that in the mid 1930s denunciations of fascism has a leftist ring. These denunciations abounded in the African American press. Concern with fascism in African American press began in earnest with Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Many African Americans argued that Mussolini’s invasion was an attack on all people of color around the world.[7] Italian troops quickly defeated Ethiopia. From there concern shifted to Spain, with Franciso Franco’s 1936 coup supported by Italy and Germany. Many African American commentators took a sort of “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” perspective. For many, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia had proven Italy an enemy of African descended people. If Italy wanted Franco to succeed then that could not be good for Africans around the world. One writer argued that a victory for the fascist in Spain would lead to fascist victories around the world, bring about “a return to slavery, or perhaps worse.” The invocation of a condition worse than slavery had serious rhetorical weight for people who had family members who had been born in slavery.[8]

Concern over fascism was not solely a matter of international affairs, however. Numerous letters to the editor in the New York Amsterdam News, an African American newspaper, expressed concern that fascism was growing in the U.S. as well. One writer warned of “Fascist tendencies in the United States” which wanted to take over the country.[9] An editorial declared that “Fascism in a hundred forms is spreading throughout the United States of America. A cursory examination of the various Fascist movements in this country – the Silver Shirts, the Brown Shirts, the White Crusaders, the Vigilante committees – will show in a minute that Fascism in America holds nothing but incalculable harm for the Negro.” The writer went on to attack home grown racist institutions, stating that “[a]ll of these organizations (…) are based on the brand of 100 per cent Americanism which characterized the infamous Ku Klux Klan.”[10]

African American Communist Vice-Presidential candidate James Ford repeatedly warned that fascism was growing in the U.S. and posed a special threat to African Americans. Ford said that African Americans “know what Fascism would bring. The activities of the Black Legion, the Ku Klux Klan, the Vigilantes show that fascism would mean the systematic organization of terror and violence against us: would make lynch law the rule of the land.”[11] In another statement Ford argued “Fascism in this country holds more horrors for [African American] people than 300 years of chattel slavery, industrial slavery and imperialism.”[12]

Other writers disagreed. Fascism was not on the rise in the United States, it was already present. “Fascism has long been here,” J. A. Rogers wrote, adding that “American Fascism is founded on color.”[13] Another article denounced “southern political fascism,” calling Dixie a “lawless, Fascist section.”[14] Responding to an earlier letter which had argued that African American athletes should boycott the Olympics in Germany, another letter expressed agreement, saying that “Hitler’s terror against the Jews and race-baiting antics are exceeded only in these United States where a reign of Fascism (…) has historically existed against Negroes. A direct blow against Hitlerism will strike an indirect blow against Fascism in the states against Negroes.”[15] “A Black Voter” wrote a letter to the editor calling for federal anti-lynching legislation, saying that “Lynching is a more savage form of Fascism than anything that Hitler and Mussolini have hatched in their evil brains.”[16]

America vs. Fascism

As the U.S. entered World War Two these arguments would only gain more rhetorical power. As Penny von Eschen writes, after World War Two “Nazism became the standard of evil, and anti-racist struggles appealed to similarities between racism and Nazism for their legitimacy.”[17]

Anti-fascism in the 1940s became Americanized, as the United States went to war with fascist countries. Thus fascists became anti-American. I call this patriotic anti-fascism.[18]

As fascism became identified with American patriotism and the national war effort, African American critics of white supremacy continued to denounce Jim Crow as fascistic. “It is hard, at times, to differentiate between a Fascist in Europe or one in Dixie,” one writer noted.[19] Another, referring to segregation, wrote that “Hitlerism in New York City (…) existed long before Hitler.”[20] Another writer attacked the hypocrisy of the U.S. fighting racism abroad while practicing it in the nation’s capital: “Washington is an international disgrace. Washington, the capital of the “arsenal of democracy,” is a Jim-Crow town. A town which puts into daily practice the master race theories of the Fascist dictators. Washington, in reality, is the capital of the South.”[21]

New York Congressional Representative Adam Clayton Powell used anti-fascist rhetoric to reply to Mississippi Representative John Rankin’s statement that he would not sit next to Powell. Powell called Rankin “the leader of American Fascism,” adding that “290,000 black and white Americans are politically disinherited by American Fascism in Rankin’s own county. I am happy that Rankin will not sit by me because that makes it mutual. The only people with whom he is qualified to sit are Hitler and Mussolini.” Powell further suggested that Rankin should be investigated by HUAC for his role in “mass murder-lynching.”[22]

All of these arguments amounted to several points: African Americans should oppose fascism and support the war against fascism, the United States should actively oppose fascism, and the United States should at the same time get its own house in order. Denunciations which linked conditions in Germany and the U.S. suggested that action should be taken at once both at home and abroad.

Totalitarianism

In the aftermath of World War Two and the onset of the Cold War, anti-fascism became linked to anti-communism, as part of a Cold War equation of fascism and communism. The idea of totalitarianism helped link the two previously opposed ideas together.[23] I call this anti-communist anti-fascism. Communist anti-fascists who had actually fought fascism faced a variety of problems, including being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.[24] Through World War Two, African Americans criticized communism as well, and after the war criticism of communism grew. Many of these criticisms came in the form of the term “totalitarian.” As I have already suggested, after World War Two the idea of totalitarianism rhetorical merged communism and fascism (conflating along the way all communists with Stalinist dictatorship). In the aftermath of the war, Mississippi politicians used a version of the category of totalitarianism in a way that may be familiar to contemporary readers. They argued that over-riding states’ rights, which in the code of the time meant the freedom to discriminate, would be totalitarian.[25] In another familiar use of the term, the NAACP in 1953 reaffirmed its rejection communism and called for all branches to be “constantly on the alert for attempts of Communists and their sympathizers or supporters of any other totalitarian system to infiltrate and gain control of any units of our organization.”[26]

In The Cold War and the Color Line, Thomas Borstelmann uses the category of totalitarianism to criticize the south and policymakers. He writes of a great irony: loudly anti-Communist Southern local authorities ruling a chunk of the “free world” in quasi-totalitarian fashion.”[27] On the other hand, Borstelmann writes that “[d]espite totalitarian tendencies along the color line, the American South was not the Eastern Bloc,” even though the Cold War “presented critics with the image of a totalitarian Soviet Union that bore some resemblance to white-controlled Dixie.”[28] Many African American critics of Dixie noticed the resemblance between totalitarian regimes and Dixie. By 1946 critics began using “totalitarian” in addition to “fascist.” One article quoted a preacher saying that “On the ebb tide of every war there is great danger of a resurgence of organizations which foment prejudice. We had them after the first World War and I am not surprised that they are rising again. There seems to be a certain totalitarianism that extreme patriotism engenders which these organizations capitalize on.”[29]

Earlier I quote an article describing fascism as “based on the brand of 100 per cent Americanism which characterized the infamous Ku Klux Klan.”[30] That 1934 article identified America and the Klan with fascism. By the end of World War Two, African Americans began to use the category of totalitarianism to attack the Klan as anti-American. What I above called patriotic anti-fascism allowed room for African Americans to identify anti-racism as a patriotic cause. One article in reference to the KKK, wrote “[t]here is no place in this country for White Shirts, who are as dangerously totalitarian as were Hitler’s Brown Shirts and Mussolini’s Black Shirts.”[31] Others described the KKK cross-burning as totalitarian and as un-American.[32]

Criticism of Dixie’s racist order as totalitarian was not limited to (ostensibly) non-state actors like the Klan. One article described Georgia’s racist Governor Herman Talmadge as totalitarian for his role in preventing African Americans from political participation.[33] Another article struck at Talmadge, describing him as having carried out “a fascist coup” akin to “Hitler’s beer hall Putsch in Munich.” Foreman warned that white supremacy had to be confronted head on, warning that “The forces of reaction are solidly organized and well-financed. We cannot allow the ranks of progressives to be split by the totalitarian lies of those who would set one group against another.”[34]

A 1947 article indicted the Mississippi Democratic Party, decrying their “requirements for voting in Mississippi Democratic primaries” including that “Negroes who turned out to vote had to swear that they disliked federal anti-lynch law.” The article quoted A. Philip Randolph saying that these requirements were “totalitarian thought control and discrimination.”[35] One article described a proposal by the left wing American Veterans Committee to create a “Radio Free Mississippi” so that “the people of Mississippi may discover what the civilized people of America think.” The article also said that “Committee for Political Refugees, Upton Sinclair and others have urged a mass evacuation from the state of Mississippi; the relocation of all minorities who are virtually prisoners in that totalitarian state.”[36] Another article called Mississippi a “totalitarian and closed society.”[37]

Martin Luther King, Jr., used an evocative image bound up with totalitarianism to describe racism in 1964. He wrote “I have just returned from a tour of Mississippi (…) and nothing has inspired me so much for some time. These are a great people who have survived a concentration camp existence by the sheer power of their souls.” [38] Another story used the concentration camp image. A front page story with a large photo declared, “Concentration Camp… U.S. Style!” described the corralling of student civil rights demonstrators “in a barbed wire stockade” in South Carolina.[39]

Conclusion

In this paper I have shown African American anti-racists using a changing rhetoric to denounce white supremacy in the United States from the mid 1930s to the 1960s. This rhetoric changed its terms in keeping with a shift in U.S. political culture. Specifically, the political valence of the terms fascism and communism changed, a new term – “totalitarianism” – emerged, and the political positioning of anti-fascism as leftist and revolutionary or as patriotic shifted as well. At the same time, this political rhetoric remained continuous in the sense that it continued to be used to denounce racism in the United States. African Americans sought rhetorical resources to undermine the racist power structure they faced. I can not speak to the efficacy of this rhetoric because of the limits of my sources, but I believe this use of rhetoric was novel and warrants further attention. While the term “totalitarian” is largely an anti-communist and conservative term, within anti-racist circles the term was useful as a way to draw parallels between the U.S. South and oppressive practices in the U.S.S.R. Finally, comparisons with oppression outside the United States suggests that African American anti-racists understood their experiences in a global context, maintaining a global consciousness despite the limiting influence of the Cold War.

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[1] Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena,

(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003). See also Penny M. Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism 1937-1957 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997). Von Eschen’s book emphasizes more of the costs of the Cold War, including a less internationalist approach within African American freedom struggles.

[2] Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” The Journal of American History Vol. 91, No. 4 (March 2005), 1233-1263; Kevin Boyle, “Labour, the Left, and the Long Civil Rights Movement,” Social History Vol. 30, No. 3, August 2005, 366-372.

[3] Some historians do not agree with the whole enterprise of changing the periodization of civil rights. See Eric Arnesen, “Reconsidering the ‘Long Civil Rights Movement,’” Historically Speaking Vol. 10, No. 2, April 2009, 31-34.

[4] At the same time, the center of American politics shifted somewhat in this period. Opposition to fascism moved to the right, the center moved somewhat leftward. The center of American politics then slowly began to shift rightward again in the aftermath of World War Two. See Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)

[5] Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1996).

[6] This paragraph draws from an unpublished paper I wrote in the fall of 2008, “African American Anti-Fascism, the Popular Front, and Civil War in Spain, 1936-1939,” in which I argued that African Americans involved in opposition to General Franco’s fascist coup in Spain had a unique perspective within the larger Popular Front.

[7] See for example W. A. Domingo, “How to Help Ethiopia,” The New York Amsterdam News, 20 July 1935; 12.

[8] Leon Bell, “The Way Out,” The New York Amsterdam News, 26 December 26, 1936; 12. I discuss African Americans’ concern with the Spanish Civil War and participation in the anti-fascist struggle in Spain in more detail in my paper “African American Anti-Fascism, the Popular Front, and Civil War in Spain, 1936-1939.”

[9] C. J. “Nothing Personal,” The New York Amsterdam News, 2 May 1936; 12.

[10] “The Fascist Plot,” The New York Amsterdam News, 1 December, 1934; 8.

[11] “Vote G.O.P. and Rope Goes on Necks, Ford Asserts to Millions,” The New York Amsterdam News 26 September, 1936; 4.

[12] T. R. Bassett, “Letters From Readers to the Editor,” The New York Amsterdam News, 5 December, 1936; 16.

[13] J. A. Rogers, “Ruminations,” The New York Amsterdam News, 2 November, 1935; 8. In retrospect it can be tempting to argue that African Americans who called the Jim Crow south a fascist order were overstating their case rhetorically. I do not think this is the case. In the late 1930s and early 1940s fascism was not yet so singularly identified with the Holocaust in the way that it is for us today. It seems to me that comparisons between Dixie and Nazi Germany were sincere comparisons based on the knowledge of events that people had at the time they were writing.

[14] “Even in Face of Death”, The New York Amsterdam News; 13 May, 1939; 10.

[15] “Letters From Readers to the Editor,” The New York Amsterdam News, 21 September, 1935; 10.

[16] “Pass The Anti-Lynching Bill,” New York Amsterdam News, 27 July, 1940; 10. The fight against lynching and for an anti-lynching law had long been rhetorically tied to fascism. See for example, “Fight Fascism Now,” The New York Amsterdam News, 25 January, 1936; 8.

[17] Penny M. Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism 1937-1957 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 153. My research supports Von Eschen’s claim, as this section argues. At the same time, as I argue in the next section, the cold war rhetoric of totalitarianism allowed African Americans an additional rhetorical tool.

[18] While the left remained opposed to fascism and anti-fascism came to be seen as a patriotic American idea, the left and especially communists did not come to be seen as patriotic and American. People who had actually opposed fascism prior to WWII, prior to the Americanization of opposition to fascism, did not become more acceptable or have an easier time. Their terminology migrated or became more widely acceptable but their fortunes did not improve, generally speaking. Anti-fascists who fought in Spain, for example, faced accusations that they were “premature” in their anti-fascism. On the other hand, the Communist Party played a major role in discrediting itself. The Soviet Union’s nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany and the US Communist Party’s willingness to go along with that policy made the CP’s anti-racism and anti-fascism ring hollow for many. See Glenda Gilmore, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008). See also “Devil Take the Hindmost,” New York Amsterdam News, 16 September, 1939; 6. “Red Deal Stirs Harlem Group,” New York Amsterdam News, 18 November, 1939; 1.

[19] “Appeasement and the FEPC,” New York Amsterdam Star-News, 23 January, 1943; 8.

[20] “Battling Jim Crow on the Home Front,” New York Amsterdam Star-News, 20 March, 1943; 12.

[21] Wilfred H. Kerr, “‘Capital of Democracy’ Reeks With Color Bias,” New York Amsterdam Star-News, 6 February, 1943; 9.

[22] “Will Not Sit Near Powell, Says Rankin,” New York Amsterdam News, 13 January, 1945; A1.

[23] A classic philosophical argument about parallels between fascism and communism is Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (New York: Harcourt, 1951). In 1945 General Motors published a less rarefied version of the idea, a pamphlet called The Road to Serfdom: In Cartoons, drawing on Friedrich Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom. The pamphlet reprinted material which had originally appeared in Look magazine. The text and the images depict economic planning as leading to murderous dictatorship, and conflate communism with fascism. A reproduction of the pamphlet appears online at http://mises.org/books/TRTS/. Online, Internet, Accessed May 4, 2009. See Bertrand M. Roehner, Driving Forces in Physical, Biological and Socio-Economic Phenomena: A Network Science Investigation of Social Bonds and Interactions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 118. This sort of equation has recently come back in the far right in the U.S., as ultra-conservatives portray the Obama Administration as socialist and therefore fascist. See for example Roy Edroso, “How Rightbloggers Made ‘Fascist’ the New ‘Socialist,” Running Scared: Village Voice Blog, 6 April, 2009; http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2009/04/how_rightblogge.php

Online, Internet, 3 May, 2009.

[24] Part of my aim in this paper and my earlier paper on opposition to Franco is to suggest that these ideas played out differently among African American anti-fascists in relation to white anti-fascists. As part of this, I would like to eventually look at racial dynamics within the Red Scare. I do not currently have a sense of what happened to African American communist anti-fascists after World War Two, whether they became anti-communist anti-fascists or what sort of treatment they endured. This is a matter for future research.

[25] “Miss. Declares War on Civil Rights Issues,” Atlanta Daily World, 14 February, 1948; 1.

[26] Emory O. Jackson, “NAACP To Hold ’54 Convention In Dallas; Passes Resolution,” Atlanta Daily World, 28 June, 1953; 1.

[27] Borstelmann, 159.

[28] Borstelmann, 56; 4.

[29] “Klan Rebuked From Pulpits” Atlanta Daily World, 16 May, 1946; 1.

[30] “The Fascist Plot,” The New York Amsterdam News, 1 December, 1934; 8.

[31] “Crusade Against Klan Urged Anew,” Atlanta Daily World, May 24, 1946; 1.

[32] “Asked To Review Action Of Censorship Board,” Atlanta Daily World, 14 October, 1947; 1. “Un Americanism Of Klan Asked To Be Studied Here,” Atlanta Daily World, 25 December, 1948; 8.

[33] “County Unit Top Issue in Next Election,” Atlanta Daily World, 21 August, 1952; 1.

[34] “‘South Stripped Bare And Dead Broke’ – Foreman,” Atlanta Daily World, 23 February, 1947;1.

[35] “Tom Clark Probes Miss. Vote Laws,” Atlanta Daily World, 13 August, 1947; 1.

[36] “Proposes Creation Of ‘Radio Free Mississippi’,” Atlanta Daily World, 1 February, 1956; 2.

[37] “Meredith Calls Mississippi Worst Type Of Police State,” Atlanta Daily World, 19 November, 1963; 1.

[38] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Ready In Mississippi,” New York Amsterdam News, 29 August, 1964; 18.

[39] “Concentration Camp… U. S. Style!,” New York Amsterdam News, 19 March, 1960; 1.

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