Monday, February 01, 2010

First American-born Black Communist

The theme for this year's Black History Month is The History of Black Economic Empowerment which coincides with the centennial anniversary of the National Urban League. The National Urban League was founded in New York in 1910 as a collaboration between the city's most prominent professionals, businessmen and reform leaders of both races. It would forego the crusade for civil rights to focus on the needs of individuals as seven hundred thousand blacks migrated north between 1910 and 1920 looking for work. A more radical empowerment movement for blacks is described in Defying Dixie: the Radical Roots of Civil Rights 1919-1950. Yale historian Glenda Gilmore's researches the Southern communists, socialists and expatriates who challenged Jim Crow during the three decades following the Bolshevik Revolution. Gilmore argues that the decades between the wars were not a prelude to the more prominent struggle for black equality in the 1950s and 1960s, but instead represent a more complex campaign that had as its goal a fundamental reordering of American society. Liberal and radical Southerners waged an improbable struggle on behalf of civil liberties and labor rights. The civil rights movement's later demand for "jobs and freedom" was, in the end, nothing new.

Gilmore focuses on the first American-born black Communist, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, who died in a Siberian gulag. A native Texan and a Tuskegee graduate, he became very involved in radical politics. After witnessing the Mexican Revolution in the Yucat√°n and then agitating for socialist causes in Harlem, party officials summoned him to Moscow to teach him about the true nature of the struggle in the American South. There, before an audience that included Joseph Stalin and Ho Chi Minh, he tried to convince them that an interracial coalition of Southern workers would be impossible to achieve. He was overruled by the party leaders, and, for a time, he accepted their vision over what he knew was true. Fort-Whiteman embraced the Soviet Union as a paradise, where Russians would bend over backward to prove their racial egalitarianism. When he returned to the United States, he wore a Russian peasant blouse and knee-high felt boots, his head completely shaved. But he soon returned, in his words, "home to Moscow." Tragically, as Gilmore relates, his new home would prove to be as cruel as the old. In the end, Fort-Whitemn was swept up in the Stalinist purges and sent to a Siberian labor camp where he died a broken man in the winter of 1939.

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