To Shape a New World
Malcolm X arrived in Harlem in the early 1950s on the heels of the contentious departure of another of its adopted, if little-known, sons. As Malcolm was bounding into Harlem’s local political arena, Harold Cruse was settling downtown, still clinging to wistful dreams that he had, temporarily at least, put on hold. As a young boy, Harold Cruse dreamed of becoming a writer. For a southern-born black boy coming of age in the Great Depression, this was an ambitious goal, with long odds. Born in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1916, Cruse moved as a young boy to New York City as part of the exodus to northern cities that would shortly transform African American life. The then-largest internal migration in American history sowed the seeds for Harlem’s emergence as a cultural mecca that would become the headquarters for black political resistance, intellectual achievement, and cultural innovation. A second great migration, which started during the early 1940s, of southern-born blacks (which eventually eclipsed its earlier counterpart in both density and geographical breadth), extended to cities and regions recently buoyed by the movement for civil rights. Coalitions of civil rights activists, trade unionists, Communists, and Pan-Africanists led strategic campaigns for racial justice and radical democracy that stretched from gritty Harlem neighborhoods through Detroit’s industrial shop floors to Dixie’s cradle, Birmingham, Alabama, and out west to Oakland’s postwar boomtown.1
Cruse’s favorite time was spent reading books at the local library. It was no ordinary public library. Harlem was home to the New York Public Library’s Negro History Division, a repository of black history and culture founded by the Afro-Puerto Rican bibliophile, historian, and curator Arturo Schomburg. Schomburg’s passion for African, Caribbean, and African American history provided the residents of Harlem’s black community a window onto its past.2
In the 1950s, black nationalists stalked Harlem like itinerant Baptist preachers in search of wayward flocks, wistful for the heady post–World War I years, when “New Negroes” reshaped Afro-America with a dose of militancy as effervescent as it was unprecedented. Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s dynamic presence had fueled this golden age, when the Universal African Legions (soldiers in Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association) held Harlem captive with precision marching, ornate uniforms, and defiantly proud stares.3 No sooner had Garvey overcome what appeared to be insurmountable organizational, financial, and political obstacles than his movement collapsed, victimized by internal ineptitude, government surveillance, and jealous rivals. Garvey’s arrest on charges of mail fraud, and subsequent incarceration during the mid-1920s, made room for other advocates of interracial class struggle who, during the height of the New Negro, could barely be heard above the din of nationalist fervor.
If Garvey’s absence created space for radicals, the Great Depression invited another front in the war for racial equality: class-based political agitation. With organizing energies fueled by social crises, the Communist Party (CP) made small, but surprisingly robust, headway in Harlem. While Garvey stoked controversy through grand gestures aimed at coaxing dignity from Africa’s descendants, the CP offered a Promethean vision of class struggle. As Cruse remembered, anyone who couldn’t debate the finer points of Marx and Engels was “considered a goddamned dummy!”4
By the late 1930s, the Depression introduced the possibilities of social, cultural, and political revolution at home and abroad and reached Harlem’s street corners, barbershops, churches, and other institutions. Much of Cruse’s early political education took place at the Harlem YMCA, which served as a debating society, intellectual training ground, and incubator for what Cruse later described as a hotbed of political activity. The all-black neighborhood blurred class distinctions among Afro-Americans, where Harlemites rubbed shoulders with leading black literary lights.5 Virtually every block of Harlem was up for grabs: nationalists exhorting on one corner, while Socialists and others set up their headquarters fifty yards away. Pamphlets on class struggle, Pan-Africanism, and trade unionism compressed decades of social history into easily digestible prose. Walking through parts of Harlem, you risked being bombarded by pamphleteers selling, or sometimes giving away, propaganda that recounted the history of Negro oppression and offered a blueprint for black liberation.
Fascism’s triumphs in parts of Europe and Africa gave black Americans the opportunity to fight for freedoms abroad that they were denied at home. For blacks the fight against an overseas enemy lent urgency to domestic struggles for racial justice. Stationed in a supply company in Italy and North Africa, Cruse became friendly with Italian Communists. There were pragmatic reasons for such friendships. Preyed on by hijackers and other criminal elements, vulnerable black supply officers negotiated with the Italian Underground as a matter of professional survival and personal protection.6
Cruse returned home, more politically conscious and worldly, to a Harlem that had also matured. In fact, postwar New York City became a battleground for some of the most militant and cosmopolitan efforts to achieve racial equality in the United States, and Harlem was the movement’s nerve center.7 For instance, seizing opportunities created by postwar momentum for progressive politics, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—the NAACP—and the Council on African Affairs joined forces to promote a human rights platform for the nascent United Nations.8 Groups such as the National Negro Labor Congress and the Civil Rights Congress, as well as leading black intellectuals (Paul Robeson, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes among them), established relationships with Communists that ranged from dangerous flirtation to intimate association.9 Communists, through support of black criminal defendants, sharecroppers, trade unionists, artists, and writers, also played an important, hotly debated role among black activists during this period. Black sympathizers, not to mention members, viewed the CP as a potential vehicle for liberation, while anti-Communists suspected the group of playing African Americans for dupes (a fear promoted by the federal government). The majority of black folk remained neutral, accepting the CP’s support in certain instances of bald-faced racial injustice while never coming close to becoming professional members. In 1946, Cruse officially joined the Communist Party. Like many in his generation, he entered radical politics at the peak of its post–World War II popularity, only to come of age amid its steady decline during the Cold War.
From rural hamlets and small southern cities to giant urban metropolises, the black postwar generation challenged racial discrimination in industry, labor, housing, and domestic and foreign policy. Paul Robeson, the broad-shouldered Renaissance man who possessed the physique of a football player, the mind of an intellectual, and a sonorous bass voice that thrilled a global listening audience, emerged as the most popular spokesperson for black insurgency during the 1940s.10
Robeson’s radicalism was rooted in his identification with underdogs of every race, color, and creed, an advocacy that found him proclaiming solidarity with indigenous people from Africa to the Soviet Union. Yet while leaders such as Robeson served as invaluable political mobilizers, a national black freedom movement was brokered, block by block, at the local level by far less glamorous figures.11 Ella Baker (future founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), in her capacity as the NAACP’s branch director, helped this process unfold in cities like New York through grassroots organizing efforts that stressed cooperation with trade unions affiliated with the left-wing Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).12
If the end of the war ushered in dramatic changes for black Americans, it also exposed enduring problems. Wartime race riots, most infamously Detroit’s 1943 orgy of violence sparked by competition over jobs and housing, bared the enormity of the unresolved crisis. Rising expectations of black veterans met with racial violence, precarious employment opportunities, and a blatant defense of segregation that found local voice from Harlem to the Mississippi Delta to parts west and national representation among powerful Washington politicians.
International events paralleled, and at times intersected with, postwar black freedom struggles; events in Africa proved pivotal in this regard. The rapid decolonization of African states fostered domestic and international pan-African alliances, anchored by the stately presence of Afro-America’s legendary intellectual propagandist W. E. B. Du Bois and the controversial outspokenness of Paul Robeson. Domestically, an assortment of militant organizations mirrored these developments, jointly promoting antiracism at home and human rights abroad.13
Postwar black activism heralded new hopes for racial justice in every facet of American life, though such hopes were offset by a presidential directive that established a hard peace through the threat of global war. The Truman Doctrine offered a picture of international, multiracial democracy that was, in theory, tantalizingly expansive. In practice, Truman’s foreign policies created a domestic political order that sacrificed freedoms of speech and political association, not to mention agendas for racial and economic justice, at the altar of what he proclaimed to be a larger evil—Communist totalitarianism. Remnants of the black freedom struggle responded in different ways to the Cold War’s assault on the civil liberties of black radicals. Robeson and Du Bois held steadfast in their commitment to Socialism and paid the price in legal troubles and tarnished reputations. Other, less stalwart, fellow travelers turned government collaborators, informing on ex-comrades. The NAACP navigated the political storms by turning inward, withdrawing from the postwar black liberal-left alliance and opting instead for a more narrow description of racial justice and domestic peace.14
Although after World War II black Americans would enjoy new rights, yet more freedoms remained to be claimed; it was the space between new rights and unclaimed freedoms that would fuel Black Power activists. In 1953, amid setbacks for radicals of all stripes and after less than a decade as a Communist, Harold Cruse left the CP. He was not alone. Like his more famous contemporaries, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, Cruse grew skeptical of the CP’s capacity to lead a political revolution. Indeed, the Communist Party’s Depression-era eloquence on race matters—exemplified by its vigorous attacks on segregation as well as the “black belt” thesis that allowed “Negro self-determination,” or black nationalism, to penetrate Communist ideology—sagged in subsequent decades, weighed down by an almost evangelical sectarianism.15 Ex-Communists and former radicals responded to the CP’s ideological zigzags in different ways, with Ellison embracing American universalism, despite America’s stubborn resistance to black inclusion, while Wright searched, until his premature death, for new revolutionary ideals. Cruse settled on a vision of black nationalism—self-determination, unity, and the cultural politics of race—that retained the international awareness he first witnessed on Harlem street corners, read about at the New York Public Library, and experienced through service in World War II and, ironically, the Communist Party. Cruse’s disappointment with Communism could be seen in bitter personal relationships with Harlem’s leading literary figures, such as Lorraine Hansberry, as well as in his own failures in the field of arts and letters. Operating in social and cultural arenas that claimed pride in an older style of black activism, while at the same time searching for new political horizons, Cruse would be both a participant and a critic of Black Power politics. In his 1967 manifesto, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, he charged white Communists and black radicals with failing to recognize that the key to African American liberation resided in the last place anybody cared to look: in the black community’s indigenous, cultural, and artistic institutions.
The April 1955 Afro-Asian Conference, convened in Bandung, Indonesia, would provide hope for black radicals burned by the Cold War’s scalding political climate. Paul Robeson, in his fifth year of domestic confinement after federal authorities stripped him of his passport, greeted the conference as a symbol of the kind of politics—of radical anticolonialism and self-determination—that furthered the commitment to human rights and freedom of expression that was his life’s work.16 Presided over by Indonesian president Sukarno and convened by the prime ministers of Indonesia, India, Burma, Ceylon, and Pakistan, the conference featured representatives of twenty-nine nonwhite nations whose populations together exceeded one billion. Bandung’s declarations against racism, colonialism, and imperialism represented a watershed event: a “third bloc” opposing both capitalism and totalitarianism. The conference marked the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement, which defied the political requirement that even the tiniest country swear allegiance to the United States or to the Soviet Union. Neutrality, however, had its cost. Behind the scenes in Washington, the State Department observed the entire proceeding with keen interest, despite its public indifference to events in this far corner of the world.17
In the United States one modest, but powerful, act of political dissent coincided with the radicalism that Bandung expressed in bold strokes. In 1955, the same year as Bandung, Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the young leader of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Coupled with 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court desegregation decision, the 1950s would then be christened as the start of the modern civil rights era.18
While black southern laborers, preachers, and college students stood poised on the edge of history (destined to be regarded, for the most part, as bit players in an unfolding historical drama; character actors overwhelmed by the glamorous star power and transcendent appeal of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy),19 participants in the black freedom struggle reinvented themselves as political figures, cultural doyens, magazine editors, and, at times, reform-minded civil rights activists.
In the 1950s, many of the activists who had come of age during the war years, such as the members of the Harlem Writers Guild, formed relationships with Malcolm X. On the surface it was an unlikely alliance, since Malcolm represented a religious group—the Nation of Islam—that eschewed political involvement, going so far as to discourage its members from voting, marching on picket lines, or participating in boycotts. Yet Malcolm’s personal biography and political history made him attractive to activists seeking renewed faith in radical politics. A former Pullman porter turned full-time hustler during the 1940s, Malcolm resided on the fringes of the postwar freedom surge. By the mid-1950s, however, he was an ex-convict turned local activist, an emerging national figure in a transformed political landscape. Malcolm’s short stints as a laborer and longer residence in the bowels of black urban America shaped his political activism. In a relatively brief career that would be noted for its envelope-pushing militancy, Malcolm boldly confronted democracy’s jagged edges, vociferously arguing that the goals of integration fell far short of complete equality for African Americans and that, ultimately, racial liberation required a political revolution. Malcolm’s radicalism, most often recognized as the prophetic prelude to the fiery black awakening of the 1960s, took initial shape during the 1950s against the backdrop of southern civil rights insurgency and Bandung. For Malcolm, links between the local and the international were self-evident, only their programmatic implications remained frustratingly unclear. Over the course of the next decade, Malcolm X, the once-wayward son of a slain Garveyite preacher, would make it his mission to find—and institute—an unprecedented revolutionary politics as part of a quest for black power that would take him from jam-packed Harlem street corners and Los Angeles mosques to British universities, Middle East pilgrimages, and African kingdoms.20
Copyright © 2006 by Peniel E. Joseph