When the Soviet Union Tried to Woo Black America
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A Soviet-controlled “Negro Republic” in America was once more than just a communist pipe dream.
For at least one group, the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, represented a promising marketing opportunity in the heart of America. “Blacks in #Ferguson, there’s an alternative to this indignity: pick yourselves up with Islam, like #IS,” went one ISIS supporter’s tweeted plea. But the Islamic State is hardly the first outside group to take advantage of racial conflict in the U.S. to boost its ranks. Starting in the 1920s, the Soviet Union made a concerted effort to turn disaffected African-Americans from the party of Lincoln to the party of Lenin — and they had a much better sales pitch than “prospective jihad.”
In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was every reason for Black Americans, particularly in the Jim Crow South, to envision being citizens of another country, one either overseas or of their own creation. And, as Theodore Draper covers in American Communism and Soviet Russia, while Black nationalist Marcus Garvey was pushing for a permanent Black homeland in Africa during the early 1920s, a Black Communist visionary named Cyril Briggs was advancing his plan for a “colored autonomous State” in sparsely settled Western states like Nevada. American Communists like Briggs, however, were not able to “find a way to make use of the discontent which Garveyism fed on,” says Draper. And so Mother Russia, in the form of the Communist International organization, or Comintern, decided to get involved.
Comintern approved a $300,000 fund for propaganda purposes in Black America, and key African-American leaders and communist sympathizers were invited to Russia to be wooed by Lenin and other Soviet officials inside the Kremlin. One of those trained in Moscow was Lovett Fort-Whiteman, a Harlem bellman turned political activist whom Time magazine called “the Reddest of the Blacks.” (Fort-Whiteman would die in a Siberian gulag in 1939.) Others swayed by the charismatic Lenin included the Black poet Claude McKay. “If the exploited poor whites of the South could ever transform themselves into making common cause with the persecuted and plundered Negroes,” wrote McKay when he returned home, “the situation would be very similar to that of Soviet Russia today.”
Plans for a ‘separate Negro state’ in the South were part of a strategy to produce a Soviet state in North America.
It wasn’t until the 1950s, when several former African-American Communists testified before Congress and an FBI report, “The Communist Party and the Negro,” was declassified, that the American public would learn the true extent of the Soviet plans for Black America, including a Soviet-controlled “Negro Republic” in the middle of the South. Those plans began in earnest in 1928, when the Comintern declared there would be “self-determination in the Black Belt” and started organizing workers and targeting Southern African-Americans with propaganda showing pictures of Lenin with captions like “LENIN Shows the South the Only Way to JOBS, LAND and FREEDOM.”
And that was just the start. A 1930 resolution called for the creation of a “separate Negro state” in the South, part of a long-term strategy to foment a workers’ rebellion in the northern U.S. that would combine forces with Black America in a sort of Communist pincher movement to produce a Soviet state inside North America. The Soviets were motivated “not by the desire to improve the status of the Negro in our society,” according to one declassified FBI document, “but to exploit legitimate Negro grievances for the furtherance of communist aims.” That may have been part of it, but the American Communist Party, whose members were devoted to “fight and lead the struggle of the Negro race against exploitation and oppression,” was promoting greater Black representation in all branches of government under the banner of “equal rights” — a move that may have scared the FBI and the powers that be as much as a prospective Soviet satellite state did.
Things came to a head in 1931 when nine young Black men were sentenced to death for allegedly raping two white women in Alabama. The campaign to free the “Scottsboro Boys” provided the Communist Party with what it thought was the perfect chance to contrast racially divided America with a morally superior Soviet Union, never mind the ongoing gulags. “The Scottsboro Boys became a full-fledged, intense communist campaign,” writes Paul Kengor in The Communist, but one that “compounded an already tragic situation, undermining public support for a legitimate civil rights cause.”
Although the number of Black Communists in America would double to 14 percent over the next 15 years, there was a high turnover rate; by the 1950s, there were only 20,000 party members in America — 7 percent of which were African-American. A commitment to racial equality was ultimately not enough to attract Blacks into what was still considered a radical social scheme in America, and as more Blacks moved north and into the middle class, the conditions for anything resembling a “Black Belt” in the South diminished further.
By 1958, Communist Party leaders ended their campaign for Black self-determination, observing that African-Americans did not seem to possess any “common psychological make-up.” Or perhaps most had determined for themselves that communism just wasn’t for them.