Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

How McCarthyism and the Red Scare Hurt the Black Freedom Struggle

In the years immediately following World War II, the movement for black equality, rooted in the militancy of black workers, was making massive strides. The McCarthyist anticommunist campaign of the late 1940s dealt a hammer blow to that project, attacking its unions and scattering its activists, ultimately narrowing the ambitions of the black freedom movement.

A group of men gather at a headquarters of the Communist Party USA following a protest demanding pay raise and an end to police brutality, US, circa 1920. Hirz / Archive Photos / Getty

The line between race and class is one of the most potent fault lines in left politics today. There’s a sense that a contradiction exists between fighting class inequality and fighting racial inequality. Among liberals, this has become almost an article of faith. Even among leftists, there’s a sense that these are dangerous waters, and that special theoretical acumen is necessary to navigate them successfully.

It wasn’t always like this. In fact, the split between race and class can be traced to a specific moment in American history, when the causes of racial and class equality were sundered. That moment was the Red Scare in the middle of the twentieth century.

Before the Red Scare, there was a potent movement for black equality that included the Left, most centrally the Communist Party. Based in the new industrial unions, this movement fought for black equality in housing, employment, and at the ballot box, and linked that fight to the broader struggle against capitalist domination. The anticommunist campaign of the late 1940s, however, beginning under the Truman administration, crippled this movement, delaying the fall of Jim Crow by a decade or more and narrowing the movement’s focus to legal equality, leaving its larger ambitions unfulfilled.

Civil Rights Unionism

In the 1940s, the movement for black equality made its biggest strides since Reconstruction. In 1941, prodded by socialist A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington Movement, Franklin Roosevelt issued executive order 8802, banning discrimination in the defense industry and establishing a Fair Employment Practices Committee. It was the first substantive federal commitment to civil rights since the 1870s. In the courts, the NAACP’s legal team won rulings against the “white primary” system and against racially restrictive housing covenants. In just six years, the NAACP went from 50,000 members to 450,000. One result of this ferment was a narrowing of the black-white wage gap at a speed not approached since.

At the heart of all of this activity was the militancy of the black working class. Two processes had come together to enable this militancy. First, technological change in Southern agriculture had pushed black Americans out of the cotton fields and into the cities, creating a black proletariat on a scale never seen before. Second, the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) created a union movement that broke, however incompletely, with American labor’s historic embrace of white supremacy.

Black Americans streamed into the CIO unions, whether in Detroit in the United Autoworkers, Alabama in the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, Chicago in the United Packinghouse Workers, or at sea in the National Maritime Union. While most CIO unions were to the left of the more conservative American Federation of Labor when it came to race, the leftmost were the unions in which Communist Party (CP) members played a leading role. Known as the “left-led unions,” these organizations were ferocious in their assault on racial inequality, whether on the factory floor or in the community more broadly.

In North Carolina, Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America-CIO (FTA) was emblematic of this kind of unionism. When Local 22 won its first contract from RJ Reynolds in 1944, it created a network of black shop stewards who became leaders in the fight to democratize Jim Crow North Carolina. Local 22 activists fought against police abuse of black Americans, conducted voter registration drives, and even revitalized the local NAACP, turning it into the largest in North Carolina. Led by CP cadres who were committed to training worker militants, the local even maintained its own library of black and working class history. As one black worker remembered, “at that little [city] library … you couldn’t find any books on Negro history … They didn’t have books by [Herbert] Aptheker, [W.E.B.] Du Bois, or Frederick Douglass. But we had them at our library.”

At the same time, in New York City, the United Public Workers of America (UPWA), another left-led union, fought for the rights of black public-sector workers. Though black public workers were subject to discrimination and segregation, institutions like the Post Office and the Internal Revenue Service were nonetheless engines of class mobility, allowing black workers to access levels of job security and compensation that were unheard of in the private sector.

In New York in the 1940s, they were led by black militants like Ewart Guinier, who ran for Manhattan Borough President on the American Labor Party ticket, and Eleanor Goding, who headed the local for Department of Welfare workers, and was the first black woman to head a union local in New York City. The union fought discrimination in government hiring, and was a key force in pushing for the FEPC. It also had an internationalist vision, organizing workers on the Panama Canal and fighting against the discriminatory wage system the US government used.

The UPWA wasn’t alone in linking the fight for civil rights with international solidarity. Inspired by antifascist mobilization and anticolonial revolt, black organizations and intellectuals advanced a critique of white imperialism that identified colonialism with the power of capital. Figures like George Padmore and Henry Lee Moon sought to link black organizations in the United States with unions of black workers in the colonial world. Activists around the Communist Party founded the Council on African Affairs to promote African independence. The Council especially prioritized the struggle of black workers in South Africa, acting as the vanguard for an internationalist black political consciousness that extended well beyond the Marxist left.

In the years immediately following the end of World War II, organizers had good reason to think that Jim Crow and the larger American caste system were on their last legs. A movement that spanned from liberal organizations like the NAACP to the Communist Party, and based on the militancy of black workers, was mounting a challenge to racial inequality that recognized the need to completely remake American society. Pillars of white supremacy, like the white primary, were falling, and the federal government was dragged, inch-by-inch, into open opposition to Jim Crow. Within a few years, however, many of the organizations leading this charge would be destroyed, their activists scattered and demoralized, while the surviving elements of the struggle adopted a far more cautious stance.

Radicalism Repressed

Though anticommunism in the United States stretches back to at least the American response to the Paris Commune, a distinct wave gathered strength in the years following World War II. The United States and the Soviet Union had been allies in the fight against fascism, putting a temporary cooler on red-hunting passions. But after 1945, as the Cold War set in, attacks on American supporters (or even insufficiently hostile opponents) of the USSR came into fashion.

Moreover, the end of the war witnessed a massive strike wave by workers whose demands had been suppressed during the war years. 1946 saw the largest strike wave in American history, with more than five million workers involved. Employers were eager to regain the upper hand, and anticommunism was a key part of their arsenal.

The anticommunist push began in earnest in 1947, when Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9835, establishing a loyalty oath program for federal employees. It subjected all two million federal workers to investigation into their political beliefs, in order to determine whether they were members of, or even sympathetic to, “subversive organizations,” which were determined by the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations, and included the National Negro Congress and the Council on African Affairs.

Truman’s anticommunist initiatives gave the signal that red-hunting was now an official American pastime. In the House of Representatives, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which had existed since the late 1930s, turned its attention to Hollywood, seeking to root out subversive influences in the film industry. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who had been hunting communists since his days as a young operative in the War Emergency Division’s Alien Enemy Bureau during World War I, designed and carried out Truman’s loyalty oath program, used the program to double the size of the FBI, and routinely passed information from his investigations to HUAC. Joe McCarthy, the man who would give this moment its name, was actually a late-comer to the party, getting involved only in 1950.

The black left was a major target for this anticommunist network, composed heavily of Southerners for whom segregation was part of the American way of life. The CAA and the Civil Rights Congress (the successor to the National Negro Congress) were both the targets of investigation, and ultimately collapsed under the weight of repression. W.E.B. Du Bois himself, in his eighties, was arrested and appeared in court in chains for his activism in the global peace movement.

Yet the investigations launched by the anticommunist network went far beyond defiant radicals like Du Bois. Because the Communist Party and its fellow travelers had been so central to the movement for racial equality in these years, there were few black activists who had not rubbed shoulders with communists in the course of their work. This was all the pretext needed for the FBI or HUAC to launch an investigation. Even black liberals who couldn’t possibly have been construed as communists, like friend of the Roosevelts Mary MacLeod Bethune or congressman Adam Clayton Powell, were subject to investigation.

This wide net of repression had a chilling effect on black activism. Liberal organizations like the NAACP raced to distance themselves from anyone tainted by communism, which in local branches often meant expelling some of the most dedicated activists. Though liberal black intellectuals and activists had been a vital part of the anticolonial push before and during World War II, they now retreated from anything that could be construed as opposing American geopolitical aims. While the CAA fought to bring attention to the United Kingdom’s brutal counterinsurgency in Kenya, the NAACP confined itself to opposing the far less geopolitically explosive efforts of Italy to hold on to its African colonies.

Even more destructive, however, was the Cold War in the union movement. HUAC and Hoover, of course, paid special attention to the left-led unions. They were joined in this effort by Congress, which in 1947 passed the Taft Hartley act, requiring, among other things, that union officers sign affidavits swearing that they were not supporters of the CP and had no relations with organizations advocating the overthrow of the government.

Inside the union movement, the liberal labor bureaucracy was also moving against Communists. The CIO leadership had always had an ambivalent relationship with communists in the unions, recognizing that they were often the most talented and committed organizers, while also fearing them as a political challenge. During World War II, the CP had endeared itself to the union leadership with its militant defense of the no strike pledge as necessary for the defeat of fascism. After the war, however, as the USSR’s geopolitical interests diverged from the United States’, the CIO leaders who had tied their fate to the Democratic Party viewed the CP as at best a liability, and at worst as traitors.

In the CIO, these tensions were sharpest between the left-led unions, whose leadership supported the CP, and the liberal union leaders. In 1948, the CIO leadership got its chance to take decisive action when the left-led unions endorsed Henry Wallace’s left-wing third party run for president. Over the next two years, eleven unions were forced out of the CIO, representing about a quarter of a million workers, or a fifth of its total membership. Over the next few years, these unions would be subject to thousands of raids by CIO unions intent on destroying them.

The left-led unions were the ones most committed to civil-rights unionism. Isolated from the CIO and the rest of American liberalism, they were an easy target for the investigators. Ferdinand Smith, a Caribbean-born leader in the National Maritime Union in New York, was deported back to Jamaica in 1951 after the NMU purged its communists. After the UPWA was expelled from the CIO, New York City refused to recognize the contracts it had won protecting black workers, and Eleanor Goding was fired from her job with the Department of Welfare.

In North Carolina, Local 22 went on strike against RJ Reynolds in 1947, but was crippled by anticommunism. Its leaders refused to sign the Taft Hartley affidavits, disqualifying the union from NLRB protection. At the same time, CIO unions began raiding Local 22’s members, fanning the anticommunist flames on which RJ Reynolds was already pouring gasoline. By 1950, Local 22 had been destroyed, and its militant black leaders blacklisted.

This story was repeated across the country. In unions that remained in the CIO, like the UAW, black militants were marginalized and pushed out of leadership. In the expelled unions, organizers tried to maintain the movement they had built over the previous decade, but, caught between state repression and the opportunistic offensive by the liberal unions, were quickly overwhelmed. Most of the left-led unions either disappeared or merged back into other CIO unions over the next decade.

Under the anticommunist assault from the reactionary right and liberal Democrats alike, the black left buckled. A generation of activists, intellectuals, and shop-floor militants was politically dismembered. Investigated, jailed, fired, blacklisted, and deported, the people who made up that movement for racial equality that had cohered in the first half of the 1940s were isolated from one another. The progress towards dismantling the American system of racial domination that had seemed so dramatic just a few years earlier ground to an abrupt halt.

The Legacy of Anticommunism

When civil rights insurgency broke out once more, most dramatically in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the politics animating it were different from those of the earlier wave. Old Left veterans were everywhere in the Civil Rights Movement, from Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters organizer E.D. Nixon in Montgomery, to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Jack O’Dell, who came out of the CP. But their old commitment to remaking the American political economy was no longer a defining characteristic of the movement.

The nature of racial oppression itself had been redefined at the height of the Cold War. While even many liberals in the 1930s and ‘40s had agreed that racial inequality was intimately bound up with the structure of economic power in American life, the anticommunist crusade had made these sorts of critiques politically radioactive. Instead, liberal intellectuals like Gunnar Myrdal and Harry S. Ashmore redefined racial inequality as a kind of ugly atavism, an exception to the American creed that only held the country back from its mission of global leadership.

For much of the “classic” phase of the Civil Rights Movement (1955–65), this was the understanding of racism that most directly informed the movement’s political vision. The fight against discrimination became severed from the fight for a more equal country overall.

To be sure, there were those who tried to resist this separation. At the grassroots, organizers like Ella Baker or Bayard Rustin came out of the Old Left, and knew full well that legal equality without redistribution would be a hollow victory. The 1963 March on Washington was built with crucial assistance from the United Autoworkers, and the march’s full title was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” The policy objectives of this tendency in the movement were summed up in the Freedom Budget, a proposal that attempted to translate the Civil Rights Movement into a campaign for full employment and public works.

Yet it is precisely here that the destruction of the first civil-rights movement was felt most acutely. While the Freedom Budget put forward an ambitious agenda, it was markedly different from the kind of transformation sought by the organizers of the 1940s. Its ideological vision was constrained from the start, as its authors described its ambitions as, “No doles. No skimping on national defense. No tampering with private supply and demand. Just an enlightened self-interest, using what we have in the best possible way.” For these exponents of racial liberalism, egalitarianism required no major political conflict, and became a technocratic project of social modernization.

Moreover, the strategy for achieving the Freedom Budget was one forged in intimate alliance with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Whereas figures like Du Bois or Padmore understood that militant struggle would be necessary to force reform, the proponents of the Freedom Budget convinced themselves that their stature within the Democratic Party would be sufficient to win their agenda. They were mistaken.

In the second half of the 1960s, as the movement searched for a way forward after the consummation of its victory over Jim Crow, some wings began moving towards the kind of politics that had animated the movement’s first wave. Martin Luther King, Jr was a key figure who pursued more and more radical confrontations with the American power structure. In doing so, however, he was largely isolated and alone, without comrades.

Instead, the increasing militancy of the movement more often led away from class politics. Figures like Roy Innis and Floyd McKissick of the Congress of Racial Inequality embraced a cultural radicalism before signing on to Richard Nixon’s “black capitalism.” At the other end of the spectrum, many movement activists turned to municipal politics, electing black mayors and city councillors. This strategy reached its nadir in the early 1970s, as the urban fiscal crisis led the new black city governments to be the agents of austerity against black public workers. Some of the more serious New Left formations, like the Black Panthers or various New Communist Movement groupings, attempted to provide an alternative, but their efforts were insufficient to replace the movement destroyed by anticommunism.

Racial equality and class equality had been divorced as political visions. The repression of class radicalism during McCarthyism created a void that has defined American politics since. This repression combined with the limits of racial liberalism to create a predictable dynamic in American politics, whereby dissatisfaction with the anemic vision of racial liberalism gave rise to movements of rebellion. However, those movements, detached from class politics and the kinds of social forces that could give them weight, either dissipated into the ether of marginal militancy, or were reabsorbed into a renewed racial liberalism.

Overcoming Amnesia

The anticommunist purges of the late 1940s and early 1950s dealt a hammer blow to the movement for racial equality. The growing strength of a movement that linked remaking the country’s racial order with remaking its economic order was a direct threat to plans for “the American century.” Though the Left as a whole suffered grievously in these years, much of the fiercest repression was reserved for black leftists.

In recent years, however, much of the emphasis in American historiography has suggested precisely the opposite. This interpretation, articulated most directly in legal historian Mary Dudziak’s book Cold War Civil Rights, has argued that the Cold War actually benefited the movement. Because the United States was competing with the USSR for the allegiance of the decolonizing world, movement organizers were able to portray racism as an obstacle to American hegemony, and secure the state’s support in the project of demolishing Jim Crow. The Justice Department’s amicus curiae brief in Brown v. Board of Education arguing segregation had “an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries” exemplifies the way the Cold War allowed the movement to turn up the heat on the American state.

Yet as the above history should indicate, such a narrative succeeds only by retrospectively treating what the movement did actually achieve as all it ever sought to achieve. In the 1940s, it is plain that the movement had a more far-reaching vision for equality. This vision was precisely what the onset of the Cold War made impossible. Similarly, even the etiolated vision of the Freedom Budget, so carefully constructed to remain within the bounds of Cold War liberalism, never came to fruition, despite the best efforts of its backers like King and Rustin. If the Cold War enabled a certain kind of civil rights agenda, it only did so by greatly curtailing that agenda’s ambitions.

The ambition of civil-rights unionism is precisely what is needed to give substance to antiracist politics today. For all the lip service paid to intersectionality in contemporary discourse, too many visions of black advance are all too happy to see that advance occur within a society whose fundamental structure remains unchanged. Often, it seems that antiracism is defined simply as the equal distribution of inequality. An earlier generation of civil rights struggle saw things differently. They, and their opponents, understood that black equality required a fundamental transformation of American society.