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Fearless and Fired Up: Lessons from the 1930s

Interview With Mark Naison

June 30, 2020

What lessons does the Communist Party’s experience in the 1930s have for organizers today? Mark Naison‘s book Communists in Harlem During the Depression is among the most carefully researched texts on the Party’s strategy in this period. It first came out in 1984, and was most recently reissued by Indiana University Press in 2005. Kathleen Brown sat down with Naison and talked about strategy, organizing the unemployed, and how his research speaks to ongoing strategic discussions today.

Mark Naison is Professor of History and African American Studies at Fordham University and is the Founder and Director of the Bronx African American History Project, one of the largest community-based oral history projects in the country. He is the author of 7 books, including the classic Communists in Harlem During the Depression and more than 300 articles. Naison combines teaching and scholarship at Fordham with community activism and has founded several national organizations, including the Badass Teachers’ Association and the National Anti-Racism Alliance. A co-founder of the Bronx Berlin Youth Exchange, he has published articles about Bronx music and culture in German, Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese, as well as in English. He has given talks about these subjects in Germany, Spain, and Italy. However, we’re convinced that his greatest accomplishment is his appearance on  “Chappelle’s Show,” which has been broadcast numerous times on Comedy Central.

Thanks for taking time to speak with me. Today’s unemployment numbers in the tens of millions recall the unemployment statistics of the Great Depression. Looking back, what can we learn from the struggles of the unemployed and their successes as we head into a severe economic recession or potentially even a depression?

Communists were not only dealing with the urban unemployed; they were dealing with small farmers and sharecroppers who had been pushed off their land. There’s no question that in the early years of the Depression there was a lot of organizing to resist evictions and foreclosures using methods that were mostly nonviolent, not using guns. It was resistance short of armed force.

And then there were some instances which didn’t always turn out that well where people used armed force to resist foreclosures and evictions, especially in Alabama, where you had the sharecroppers’ union. But this was also being done in the Midwest by a non-Communist group called the Farm Holiday Association, which would have armed groups of farmers when the marshals would come. And sometimes they would stop trucks in the road and occasionally even march into courtrooms and stop court proceedings.

So there’s no question that in the early Depression, there was a tremendous amount of resistance to evictions and foreclosures, some of which were quite effective when you had the number of people involved outnumber the police. You had those conditions among neighborhoods in the Bronx, where basically Communists were able to create a dynamic where they had enough people to move the furniture [of evicted tenants] back after the eviction.

And since the state had to pay the marshals to evict someone, it was actually cheaper to let people stay in their apartments than constantly have marshals come in to take the furniture out. That required dense communal networks, and you largely had those in Eastern European Jewish working class neighborhoods, a little bit in the Italian neighborhoods.

You also had that in Harlem, and you had that in the South Side of Chicago and parts of Detroit. You had enough people moving furniture back to make it very difficult and expensive to evict. Now at some point massive police presence was used to make an example. In those instances, in the Bronx, you would sometimes have 4000 people in the street, and on buildings, mostly women, fighting the police. They did this in innovative ways, such as throwing marbles under the feet of the police horses or sticking the horses with long-needles from the hat-makers or throwing hot water down on the police from buildings. There were these “rent-riots.” And in 1931 in South Side of Chicago, there were these three Black Communists tenant organizers were killed and shot by the police and there was a memorial march of 50,000 people through the streets of Chicago.

What year was this?


Oh, early on.

All of this was early on before Roosevelt came onto the scene. The peak of tenant activism was 1931-1932. What happened was when Roosevelt came in, one of the first things he did was pass FDRA which appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars to let the states do direct relief and housing. What Roosevelt decided to do was to pump enough money, especially in states where you had Democratic mayors to accept the money.

In New York, the state set up home relief bureaus where impoverished families could go to get just enough to pay the rent and get food. And then, what the Communists did is the Unemployed Councils started accompanying families to the relief bureaus. And relief bureaus, rather than tenant organizing, became the main focus. And the Unemployed Councils morphed into the Workers’ Alliance when they went into work relief organized, tried to unionize relief workers. You had a whole apparatus to make sure people got relief which would then keep them in their homes.

But the whole idea was mass organizing. Individual tenants or groups of tenants would need to have a whole cohort of people dealing with the landlord or the marshals or the police. And then you had to have a committed group of people willing to risk being beaten or jailed, and then to invite people in the neighborhood to join in. So you had to have a cadre of very dedicated people willing to get beaten or arrested over and over again and then another group of sympathizers participating in the action but may not be willing to do it, say, 15 different times.

The Communist Party had a national strategy for how to do this. The CP then built the Unemployed Councils, which was a membership organization that was Communist led but people didn’t have to be Communists to join. You wanted a larger group of sympathetic people to cheer you on and occasionally join in.

This is during the CP’s Ultra-Left Third Period where they denounced reformist organizations and advocated organizing separate “red” unions, and yet they were quite successful. What conclusions do you draw from that?

Communists were doing what nobody else did and what needed to be done. You were willing to take risks, which in other periods would have seemed crazy, but in this period didn’t. It’s like everything was turned upside down. Also, Communists preached interracial solidarity. In Birmingham, Alabama Communists put signs “Black and white unite and fight” wherever there were unemployed people. What would have seemed as sectarian and crazy in one context seemed to work.

I don’t mean the confrontational, anti-eviction work. My question is the relation between the Communist Party and the community. You write about the CP in Harlem in 1930, 31 as beginning to make inroads into the community but are still quite marginal. How and when does that begin to change?

But they can still do effective unemployed organizing. Gradually the members who were given a sectarian analysis decided to subtly modify it when they saw, my god we can work with these ministers, these Garvey people, so lets do it and not turn it into a challenge with the national leadership or the COMINTERN, but rather deal with the circumstances which required a bigger tent than you would have thought the Third Period ideology allowed. That’s what happened in Harlem. The tent got bigger. And I suspect wherever effective organizing was going on, the tent got bigger.

The people who joined in Alabama, who were involved in the Alabama sharecropper union, these were people who were tradition-minded religious farmers and what they saw in the Communists was the air of the abolitionists. They had their own framework for seeing this. And they saw the Soviet Union almost as an extension of John Brown or the people of reconstruction. You had an analysis in the late 1920s seemed ridiculous to people and the party didn’t grow and all of a sudden they started doing things around race and organizing the unemployed that nobody was doing, and people gravitated to that and started working with that. It’s having tactics that fit the moment. Even if people thought the Communists were crazy.

It certainly fits the moment today – there are going to be a lot of people who are facing eviction when anti-eviction orders are lifted and as federal aid ends.

For any unemployed person, I want to see a one-year moratorium on eviction and mortgage/rent payments. That to me is a reasonable demand. The key thing is  [for anti-eviction actions] is outnumbering the police. There are only so many police. Let’s say that crazy Trump decides to give a back-to-work order, who’s going to enforce it? I know in New York you try and make the teachers go back to work – we’ve lost 50 people in the school system. They’re not going. Who’s going to force them?

The key is having enough people: you have to have some people who are willing to get arrested several times. And then, other people who are ready to get arrested just once. But if you have 300 people wiling to get arrested up to 10 times, and you have 5,000 people ready to get arrested once, and you have 100,000 ready to stand around and go crazy while people get arrested you can bring things to halt.

Here we’ll need to figure out how we can do it, given social distancing, and be creative about it. Just recently, we’ve seen the creative use of car caravans and rallies to have socially distanced pickets.

That reminds me of one of my all-time favorite strikes, which was the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike. You have 5,000 people stopped in cars and trucks, and nothing moves in the streets of Minneapolis. And again, they did without guns. They used everything else: clubs and chains and bats. The same thing even in Flint [during the sit-down strike]. Once you bring out your guns, they have an excuse to bring in the military.

And they bring in the military anyway even if protestors remain peaceful.

They use it – they shoot the pickets and then you have a funeral march and another 50,000 people in the streets and it backfires. For me, in terms of this mobilization, it is all about how many people do you have, who are willing to get arrested. It’s a pain in the ass. You get hit, you get messed up. You need a certain number of people who are willing to do it over and over again and another group of people who are willing to do it once or twice. And that can happen faster than you think, if the authorities have overreached themselves. Or it’s because people are that scared or pissed.

Can you talk about the development of the unemployed councils and the shift to neighborhood organizing? You mention in Communists in Harlem a picket of housewives against high meat prices. Can you talk a bit about outside of the workplace organizing and the creative ways people fought back?

Of course you had a centrally coordinated organization like the Communist Party. They had cadres in the street, factories, transit centers. They had unemployed organizations. They also did consumer organizations. We had a different gender structure then, of course, where women would organize against high prices. So you had different organizations where you had different cadre assigned to different tasks.

You join the Communist Party and they’ll ask, what do you want to do? Do you want to do unemployed work? If you are a woman, do you want to do consumer work? Or do you want to go underground in the shops as a cadre? Some of the most successful organizing occurred in transit, especially New York City subways, which was overwhelmingly Irish and there were almost no Irish Communists so they assigned Finnish communists and gave them Irish names. Or Jewish communists were given Anglicized names to go South.

So you had this organization which had the capacity to operate clandestinely and openly. Many of the people who went into the shops were clandestine and all the organizing was secret. That was how you could have a successful action in Flint. Because there they had spies and infiltrators and every union was infiltrated, but because you had the clandestine Communist structure they couldn’t infiltrate. You could prevent the movement being infiltrated and broken from within. It’s hard to duplicate that. I mean, you could have secret cadre who do x or y but it’s a very unique structure and nobody else organized as effectively.

Thinking about this moment: the need for organizing is so great and yet the experience of people is so limited. Thinking about how the CP made the shift from being marginal and small from the late 1920s to highly influential through the work that you profile in your book – anti-racist organizing and the direct action anti-eviction work, and the work with the unemployed councils – I was reading the 1932 National Statement of the Unemployed Councils, for example – the late 1920s CP sounds very similar to the situation that the Left finds itself in today.

When I look at some of the people who were elected in New York City alone, DSA was central with AOC’s election, Alexandria Biage taking over the state senate in New York from people who are basically allies of the Republicans, have basically changed the whole political environment of the city. You have to rewrite the playbook. Who knows what’s possible. As the Black Panthers used to say, “Ain’t nothing to it but to do it.” Until you try doing stuff you won’t know what’s going to happen.

Could you talk more about unemployment during the Great Depression? 33% of white New Yorkers were unemployed and around 65% of Black New Yorkers were unemployed. What was that moment like?

Food was an issue. Housing was an issue. But it was also a sense of humiliation. Have you ever watched the movie Cinderella Man? It’s a movie about a boxer named James Braddock who was somewhat successful in the 1920s and experienced sudden impoverishment. He had to beg for work on the docks of New Jersey with a broken right arm. And his family was living in a basement with no food. And a friend of his, who became a Communist after a Hooverville riot in Central Park. And it explains not jus the level of sudden impoverishment but the humiliation particularly of the men who were unable to provide for their family.

So what happens to James Braddock – he almost loses his family. He’s only able to get a job on the docks by pretending he doesn’t have a damaged right arm and then what sort of saves him from total humiliation is Roosevelt’s relief. He feels the total humiliation of lining up to get the money to feed his family. The minute he gets his first paycheck he pays them [relief] back. Because he was pretty famous as a fighter before, someone asks him to stand in for a fight and to everyone’s shock he knocks the guy out. Then they give him another fight.

Then they set him up for the Heavyweight Championship with someone who has killed two people in the ring. He ends up winning the Heavy Weight Championship of the World after being humiliated. The movie gives you a sense of the level of humiliation and sudden poverty was incredibly traumatic. Everyone who lived through that period. My mother would secretly pocket the fruit or the salt or the sugar because the trauma of that hardship – she never believed that good times would last. She always believed that impoverishment or humiliation was around the corner.

People did things you would have never believed. Such as, the Bronx Rent strikes, such as the Flint Sit-Downs. And all the anti-foreclosure movements around the country. Because there was no safety net from the government at all was even more humiliating. It took a full three years before government was able to do anything at all to deal with people’s insecurity and impoverishment.

I’m in contact with some people who haven’t received unemployment benefits because they’re self-employed, they have no income coming in, and they only have food on the table because of SNAP [food stamps] – and we’re just at the beginning of the economic crisis.

I’m so glad you’re doing this. I wish I was younger to contribute more. I’m 73. If talking to me gives people some perspective or sense of encouragement, then I’m happy to help in any way I can.

The 1930s is fertile ground for the Communists but also fertile ground for fascists. What were some of the ways that the Communists were able fight the far-right, and what are the lessons for today?

In places like Michigan where the Black Legion was incredibly strong and where the Coughlin Movement had a base in the plants, it was very tricky. A lot of workers in the Flint Sit-Down strikes were listening to Father Coughlin. Basically, what Communists had to do, where you’re organizing among Irish transit workers, where the Church is very strong and hates Communists, Communists rarely went head to head with the right.

What they did is made themselves so indispensible that white workers who were attracted to fascist groups still joined the Communist organizing efforts. The two places where you had a strong right where Communists were effective were in the New York transit industry and the auto industry. Communists build a base by consistent reliable performance and by not trying to propagate their ideology publicly but privately one on one.

Here’s how it went: the Communists only know who the other Communists are – nobody else knows. They’re talking about a broader set of demands that other people can unite around. You see somebody who is doing a really great job for this and you tap them on the shoulder – men mostly – and you say, I see you’re a great fighter – how would you like to be part of a secret group that fights for the working class? You recruit individuals. You never try to recruit on mass. That was when you were building the unions.

If you were attacked by fascists you’d fight back, you’d beat them back.

I noticed that the 1932 Unemployed Councils required a self-defense group.

You’re fighting police and if they are vigilantes you’re going to fight them – but only if they attack you. And you’re always trying to convert people – if you can. But you’re being very careful. You win the respect of people and then you draw them in. That’s a longer process through education, reading. So who knows? Some of these crazy people (right-wingers) might support a moratorium on evictions. Especially if you’re saving their ass.

I still remember in SDS when I was going to the Convention in1969 and we had a whole busload of people. We went to this truck stop, and it was the bearded but tough looking revolutionaries meeting truckers. The truckers said, “They’re not so bad except that they’re Communists.” I think your deeds speak louder than your words.

I had a chance to work with this great revolutionary minister named Claude Williams who was an organizer with the Southern Tenants’ Farmers Union, also came to Detroit during the war, and organized Memphis Dockworkers, then went back to Birmingham worked with mine, millers, and smelters. I spent four years in Alabama organizing his personal papers. He was an incredible organizers and he was able to organize Blacks and Southern whites together around common demands. He said, “we don’t need leaders above the people we need leaders of the people.”

Even in the middle of McCarthyism they were never able to run him out of this town in rural Alabama because he had done so many things for people that they didn’t let the Klan kill him. Things were done, crosses were burnt, but the neighbors said, “You’re not going to kill him.” I met him for the first time in 1970, and he lived through all this stuff. So I think it’s a hell of a challenge but its nothing that people haven’t faced before.

In Michigan, the Black Legion was equivalent to the Klan, and they were very powerful. In Malcolm X’s autobiography he writes about the Black Legion killing his father. They were a major force in the auto-plants.

Can you talk about the ways in which anti-racism was central to Communist organizing?

Oh boy. Putting people [white Communist members] on trial for white chauvinism. Nobody had ever seen shit like that. That you’re going to be thrown out – you have to change your whole way of acting or else you can’t be part of this movement. There’s no room for racism in this movement. No one had ever done that before in a predominantly white organization.

And to encourage interracial socializing. They had interracial dances in a society where Black men were lynched if white women and Black men gathered together, and here they were promoting interracial dances and interracial sociability and interracial marriage. In other words, this had to be a holistic commitment.

And then, the Communist Party promoted an immersion in Black history and Black culture. It wasn’t just in the sphere of politics, it was in the sphere of music, historical studies. It had tensions, but it was an integral part of the Communist Party’s strategy, and it was one of the reasons it was effective.

And then there was the Scottsboro Boys Movement. That was what did it. 5,000 white people marching down the streets of Harlem, shouting “Free the Scottsboro Boys!” “End Legal Lynching!” No one had ever seen anything like that. And a lot of those people were some of the same Jewish Communists from the Bronx who were moving the furniture back from the anti-eviction actions.

I think that was the thing: you had all these people fearless and fired up. And when people are scared they respond to that kind of leadership. These are unprecedented circumstances, but it is also an opportunity.

How did people do it before? A small number of truly dedicated people willing to take risks with a larger group of some people willing to take smaller risks can have an impact.

And a diverse strategy – shop floor organizing to unemployed councils to neighborhood organizing, with anti-racism at the heart of everything.

Kathleen Brown is a member of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (AFT Local 3550) and a PhD student in American Culture at the University of Michigan, where she studies 1930s radicalism. She is a longtime socialist.


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