ONE OF the biggest strike waves in U.S. history swept the country in 1919. But the “Red Summer” of that year also exposed the enormous racial divisions in the American working class. Race riots flared over 25 major cities. At least 500 Blacks died in the violence.
But Blacks resisted these racist attacks more strongly than ever.
As the Black press wrote, a “militant” “New Negro” had emerged through the experience of the First World War.
Industrial jobs and their steady wages raised the expectations of the 750,000 Blacks who had moved to the Northern cities during the war. Many of the 300,000 Black war veterans kept their guns and organized armed self-defense against the racist attacks.
African Blood Brotherhood
The African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) was a radical U.S. black liberation organization of the early 20th century that developed ties to the Communist Party. The group was a propaganda organization built on the model of the secret fraternity, organized in “posts” with a centralized national organization based in New York City. The group’s size has been variously estimated between 1,000 and 50,000 members at its peak.
The Crusader Magazine
Journalist Cyril Briggs left the Amsterdam News to start the monthly magazine The Crusader in 1918. The first issue, published by the Hamitic League of the World, had African Nationalist politics, but within a Progressive context.
Editorials endorsed independent African economic development within the free market and called for the national independence articles in President Wilson’s Fourteen Points proposal to be extended to African colonies.
The same issue also endorsed A. Philip Randolph’s campaign for New York State Assembly on the Socialist Party ticket.
At the same time, the magazine asserted the right of African Americans to defend themselves against lynching and racist attacks.
Racially-motivated violence against African-Americans was endemic in the Jim Crow era, and large scale attacks by white vigilantes on African-American neighborhoods were not uncommon.
Historian Charles Crowe found that between 1898 and 1908 there were 40 major race riots in the South. Large-scale attacks occurred in Atlanta in 1906, Springfield, Illinois in 1908, East St. Louis in 1917, Chicago, Phillips County, Arkansas and Omaha in 1919 and Tulsa in 1921.
African Blood Brotherhood Emerges
In response to these attacks, The Crusader advocated armed self-defense. Politically, Briggs drew comparisons between government attacks on white and black radicals. He identified capitalism as the underlying cause of oppression of poor people of all races.
While endorsing a Marxist analysis, The Crusader advocated a separate organization of African-Americans to defend against racist attacks in the United States, much as Africans were combating colonialism abroad.
In September of 1919, The Crusader announced the formation of the African Blood Brotherhood, which would serve as a self-defense organization for Blacks threatened by race riots and lynchings. The ABB also organized inside the UNIA-ACL and advocated a policy of critical support for Marcus Garvey. ABB leaders Briggs and Claude McKay participated in the UNIA’s 1920 and 1921 international conferences in New York. At the second conference, McKay arranged for Rose Pastor Stokes, a white leader of the Communist Party, to address the assembly.
The ABB became highly critical of Garvey following the apparent failure of the Black Star Line and Garvey’s July 1921 Atlanta meeting with Grand Kleagle Clarke of the Ku Klux Klan. In June of 1921.
Conflicts with Garvey and the FBI
Although the disputes with Garvey were real, the conflict was worsened by secret interference by police and government intelligence agencies. Historian Theodore Kornweibel reports that the government began manipulating radical organizations in conjunction with legal prosecution under the pretense of disrupting opposition to World War I.
Following the end of the war, the government’s campaign continued under the direction of Attorney General Palmer in what is called the First Red Scare. Prefiguring COINTELPRO by fifty years, government agents were secretly planted in the UNIA, ABB and The Messenger. These agents provided intelligence to the incipient FBI while spreading misunderstandings, sabotaging meetings, and acting as agents provocateurs.
The ABB enjoyed a period of notoriety following the Tulsa Riot of 1921. Tulsa had an ABB chapter and news reports credited the organization with inspiring resistance to racist attacks.
Fusion with the CPUSA
The Crusader ceased publication in February 1922, following Garvey’s indictment for mail fraud. Briggs continued to operate the Crusader News Service, providing news material to affiliated publications of the American black press.
Poet and ABB member Claude McKay visited the Soviet Union several times in the mid-1920s, writing about conferences of the Communist International for African-American audiences. McKay’s book, The Negroes in America (published in Russian in 1924 but not in the U.S. until 1979) argued, against the official Communist position of the time, that the oppression of black people in the U.S. was not reducible to economic oppression, but was unique.
He argued against the color blindness that the Communists had inherited from the Socialist Party. McKay made significant contributions to the debate on national self-determination in support of national independence for oppressed peoples, if the peoples themselves desire it. Subsequently, in the aftermath of the Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928, the CPUSA adopted a policy of national self-determination for African-Americans living in the “Black Belt” of the American South.
The policy was neglected after the Popular Front period began in 1935, but was not formally replaced until 1959.
As the Communist Party developed, it regularized its structure along the lines called for by the Communist International. Semi-independent organizations such as the African Blood Brotherhood were no longer supported. Sometime during the early 1920s the African Black Brotherhood was dissolved, with its members merged into the Workers Party of America and later into the National Negro Labor Congress. Many early ABB members, however, went on to be key CP cadres for decades.