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Black Activism and the Communist and Socialist Parties of the early Twentieth Century

by Darius Spearman

As new immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe during World War I, many African Americans found value in the insights and philosophies that these new arrivals brought. Because many Eastern European arrivals faced exploitation and oppression in their home countries, perhaps they would make effective partners in fighting oppression. The class-based solutions built into the philosophies of socialism and communism offered an alternative to the approaches of integration and Black nationalism. As with other philosophies, however, they also carried limitations.

Africans and Europeans on the Move

A Black family from the South arrives in Chicago, Illinois

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

During “The Great Migration,” from 1910 to 1920, an estimated half a million African Americans flocked to Northern cities. They left the South to escape discrimination and racial oppression. Additionally, the boll weevil infestation of Southern cotton fields in the late 1910s forced many sharecroppers and laborers to seek alternative economic opportunities. The enormous expansion of wartime industries created opportunities for Black workers, mostly in service jobs.

Most went to the Northern cities of Chicago, Detroit, Saint Louis, and Harlem. It is important to note that the segregation and discrimination they experienced in the North was usually less overt. However, many northern cities did embrace racial segregation. Nevertheless, the Great Migration changed the composition of the Northern workforce. For a brief time, African Americans found an abundance of relatively good-paying jobs.

Along with jobs, Black migrants encountered large numbers of new ethnic European arrivals. From 1880 to 1920, European migrants came to the United States in large numbers due to the nation’s growth and the industrial revolution. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, immigrants from Europe grew from less than 1 million in 1880 to more than 7 million by 1920. Most immigrants settled in cities in the Northeast, and the vast majority came from southern and eastern Europe.

The Socialist Party

With the arrival of new immigrants, the Socialist Party proliferated. It attracted support from intellectuals, workers, farmers, and reformers. Its main goal was to bring about political reforms and improve working conditions. Socialism has had various definitions throughout history. Some people who call themselves socialist believe they can achieve utopia by creating an egalitarian society where everyone gets equal access to resources. Others believe socialism means nationalizing industries and controlling their distribution through government regulation. Still others see it as simply sharing wealth more equally among citizens. Groups such as anarchists, communists, labor organizers, and Marxists have applied the term “socialism” to their movements. Generally, socialism can be understood as an economic system based on social ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution of goods. Theoretically, such control promotes worker unity and gives workers greater power and a greater share of profits.

Historically, however, racial animosity has presented the most significant challenge to worker unity. Complicating matters is the arrival of other new ethnic Europeans. When the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced in 1915, it expanded its white supremacist ideology to ethnic Europeans. The Socialist Party (S.P.) thus became a vehicle for fighting racial injustice inviting African Americans to join the fight against capitalism. The party blamed the business-owning class for Black oppression and white racist policies while declaring itself in sympathy with the oppressed.

Like socialists, communists sought to set aside racial differences in favor of class-based solutions to economic exploitation. The Communist Party recognized that African Americans, women, and poor whites shared a similar condition as an exploited working class. Racism and ethnic division were the primary barriers to addressing that exploitation. For that reason, the Communist Party sought to eliminate racial chauvinism from its ranks from the outset. They did so by elevating African Americans like Cyril Briggs to key leadership positions who openly advocated an alliance with working-class whites. Both Briggs and the Communist Party recognized that racism had to be rooted out of the white working class to forge an alliance based on common interest.

Racial Violence and the Red Summer of 1919

Lynching outside Omaha Courthouse, 1919

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, racial tensions boiled over as troops returned from World War I during the “Red Summer” of 1919. The Red Summer was a series of violent racial conflicts across the United States. After World War I, racial violence against Black veterans spiked as they returned from Europe. The most bloody incident occurred in the Southern city of Elaine, Arkansas, where rioters killed an estimated hundred African Americans.

However, the Red summer’s racial violence was not confined to Southern cities. Notably, in Chicago, a Black teenager drowned in Lake Michigan on July 27, 1919. His death resulted from a group of white youths who began throwing rocks at him after he drifted onto the segregated side of the beach. Fifteen whites and 23 Blacks died in the ensuing week-long riot, with more than 500 injured. Additionally, rioters burned 1000 Black homes to the ground.

Labor Strife, Socialism, and the Communist Party

In addition to racial tension in 1919, class tensions also erupted in the form of 3,600 labor strikes. (Hine 402) As worker solidarity threatened the business-owning class, employers benefited from fomenting inter-ethnic strife. Racially exclusive labor unions led to tension as employers pitted one ethnic group against another. Using them as strikebreakers, such strife invariably led to declining wages as the various groups competed for jobs.

Further, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia fueled fear and hatred for Eastern Europeans and Russians fleeing the civil conflict. The political and economic establishment did little to stem the tide of ethnic backlash and, in many ways, deliberately stirred it up. In an orchestrated propaganda effort, the “Red Scare” refers to a series of government operations against alleged anarchists, communists, and other radicals suspected of being national security threats. In October 1919, a wave of violence against alleged anarchists and communists known as the “Palmer Raids” swept the country. In gross violation of their rights, Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer ordered 249 ethnic immigrants deported and 6,000 arrested and imprisoned. (Hine 402)

A. Philip Randolph, half-length portrait, seated behind microphones on desk, facing front, at press conference

Photo from Library of Congress

On this stage of ethnic and labor strife, A. Philip Randolph stepped onto the scene. In a clear departure with W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP, Randolph, opposed involvement in World War I. He also clearly recognized that it was in the interest of the economic elite to stir up racial and ethnic tension by playing one group against the other. He wrote, “When no profits are to be made from race friction, no one will longer be interested in stirring up race prejudice.” (Pfeffer 10) He began an uphill battle to gain recognition for the Brotherhood Of Sleeping Car Porters union in the American Federation of Labor.

The Pullman Palace car Company was the largest single employer of Black people. It catered to affluent whites accustomed to seeing African Americans as servants and serving menial roles. While the $67 average monthly pay amounted to up to $300 with tips and was relatively high compared to other employment open to Blacks, it did come at a price. (Hine 410) Their white patrons constantly deluged Black porters with insults and racial epithets. Like house servants, they were on call 24 hours a day. Time spent preparing the car and assisting passengers, which could take one to five hours, was considered off the clock and uncompensated.

Additionally, porters paid out of pocket for shoe polish and other work-related materials. They had to buy their meals, pay for their lodging at stopovers, and buy two uniforms per year – expenses that ate up nearly half of their monthly salary. Although Black porters enjoyed a middle-class income, they still received less pay than white workers doing the same job. That fact, however, threatened white workers.

Chicago, Illinois. Pullman porter at the Union Station

Photo from Library of Congress

That there were Black workers performing the same job for less money should have made the importance of inter-racial union clear to white workers. Organizing in solidarity for equal pay and benefits would improve conditions for Black workers while simultaneously protecting white workers from being undercut by cheaper Black labor. Nevertheless, it took a decade for the A.F.L. to formally grant union recognition to the Brotherhood Of Sleeping Car Porters in 1935.

Conclusion: Can There Be Unity?

As African Americans and ethnic Europeans flocked to Northern cities in the World War I years, they faced similar circumstances and similar challenges. However, forging coalitions based on those circumstances was also a challenge. With the “red summer” racial strife and the fear-mongering of the “red scare,” African Americans faced a contradiction. As they sought acceptance as Americans, was it possible to align themselves with communists, socialists, and ethnic Europeans who were also targets of xenophobic attacks and represented the epitome of un-Americanness?


Hine, Darlene Clark., et al. African Americans: a Concise History. Prentice Hall, 2004.

Pfeffer, Paula F. A. Philip Randolph, Pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement. Louisiana State University Press, 2000.