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“We Dare Entertain Thoughts not to the Liking of Present-Day Bigots”: Radical Slavs, Race, Civil Rights, and Anti-Communism in Red-Scare America

  • Robert M. Zecker
Cover of                Volume 25, Number 2, 2014, p. 1-338, Journal of the Canadian Historical Association

Article body

Developing a white identity was a key component in East European immigrants’ acculturation to America. Many Slavic immigrants learned to distance themselves from black fellow workers through foreign-language newspaper reports of lynchings, race riots and savage colonized cannibals, parish minstrel shows, labour unions, and neighbourhood “improvement associations.” These cultural productions delineated blacks as impermissible outsiders and made a case for white privilege and Slavic inclusion in the Caucasian republic, whereby Slavs allied with other white ethnics in violently resisting black residential incursions into all-white neighbourhoods. [1]

Scholars such as David Roediger, Matthew Frye Jacobson, Noel Ignatiev, Eric Arnesen, among others, have noted the fraught history of white enmity toward black fellow workers; but they nevertheless highlighted moments of interracial solidarity sporadically built by dockworkers, unionists, editors, and others who recognized interracial solidarity as a means of overcoming a common plight in industrial America. Even if, on the whole, white workers of many ethnicities hostilely castigated blacks as illegitimate competitors, the work of such scholars suggests that another, interracial world was possible. [2]

Both the Communist Party USA (hereafter CUPSA) and, more narrowly, the International Workers Order (hereafter IWO) offer one of these sagas of interracial solidarity. Radical Slavs, together with other “red” immigrants, resisted the siren calls of whiteness. During the Popular Front in the 1930s and the 1940s, members of the International Workers Order, a consortium of fraternal ethnic societies with ties to the Communist Party, endorsed anti-colonial movements and black civil rights in the United States. An examination of the Library of Congress’ microfilmed copies of Moscow’s CPUSA archives, and the IWO archives housed at New York University and Cornell University, reveals that the IWO carried forward the work on racial equality in which Southeastern European and black comrades had been engaged during the 1920s. The Slovak Workers Order (hereafter SWO) and other IWO lodges joined the “American Crusade Against Lynching” and lobbied for an end to the poll tax and Jim Crow segregation. [3] Other progressive-minded Slavs, such as Leo Krzycki of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and Socialist Party, during World War II helped found the American Slav Congress, which advocated civil rights for blacks as part of its campaign to make Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms a reality.

The opening of the Soviet archives with respect to the Communist Party USA has led to a reevaluation of the autonomy of the American left, for there is indeed strong evidence of American Communists’ cooperation, if not outright collaboration, with the Russian Party. [4] The archives convincingly demonstrate that the Kremlin was in frequent contact with the US Party, and endeavored to stay apprised, and aspirationally, in control of all facets of its work. In May 1926 the secretary of the Communist International wrote the US Party asking for twice monthly reports on its activities, noting “Exhaustive reports on such questions as … work among the Negroes will be particularly valuable.” [5] Such letters may be the smoking gun for those inclined to see the entire American Communist movement as a tightly controlled project directed by the Comintern, and such documents certainly suggest the US Party was cooperating with the USSR to a far greater extent than left-wing activists in the 1930s–1950s publicly allowed. Haynes and Klehr have, as Maurice Isserman has noted, done a service by affording a fuller picture of the degree to which the US Party closely and frequently looked to Moscow. [6]

Yet scholars of the African American freedom struggle such as Erik McDuffie, Erik Gellman, William Maxwell, and Jacqueline Castledine have countered with strong evidence that when it came to civil rights, activists within the American Party and its allies often acted out of deep commitment, and did so with a great deal of local initiative, not cynical manipulation by or subordination to Moscow. [7] Indeed, the very letters, reports, and telegrams found in the Moscow archives, as well as the 1930s–1950s papers of the International Workers Order, contained at Cornell University’s Kheel Center, with other records deposited at New York University’s Tamiment/Wagner Labor Archives, strongly indicate that Party members often acted on their own initiative when it came to agitating for black civil rights and anti-colonialism, and were not passive or robotic recipients of the orders emanating from the Soviet Union. Fixation on questions of the degree of control by Moscow ignores, too, the content of what American Communists were working on, causes such as civil rights that, arguably, were admirable and, in the context of the 1920s-1950s, light years ahead of the actions of non-radical whites. While many Slavic Americans violently resisted black attempts to integrate neighbourhoods, the American Slav Congress and IWO countered the hegemonic white narrative and built cross-racial alliances.

Moreover, these American-grown initiatives to further racial equality were sometimes at odds with Moscow’s plans, as when the poet Claude McKay wrote to Moscow telling the comrades their candidate for editor of a paper for African Americans was a terrible one; or when Lovett Fort-Whiteman, national organizer of the American Negro Labor Congress, outlined on his own initiative plans for a trip to Russia and “insist[ed] on the establishing of an African and Negro Bureau in the Comintern;” or when H.V. Phillips demanded that more poor, dedicated black comrades be accepted and subsidized for attendance at a Moscow university, for “the Party will eventually need real leaders among the Negroes if it intends to become an American Party.” [8]

East Europeans in the American Party, too, resisted tight control from above, as when a Latvian comrade from the Bronx derided the close supervision of his ethnic bureau by the Central Executive Committee as “a bonapartistic centralization which requires only blind subordination,” and defended his right to talk back to his Party superiors. Slovak and Croatian editors likewise disobeyed the CEC and refused to run reports from Moscow in their papers. [9] It is difficult to agree with the suggestion that US Communists were slavishly obedient to Moscow or the US Party leadership. The Soviet Union was admired, but not regarded as infallible and certainly not above critique, and initiatives to further racial equality were undertaken by grassroots activists in the IWO, American Slav Congress and other organizations out of a genuine sense of interracial solidarity often at odds with the racial phobias of other Slavic Americans outside the orbit of the left.

The International Workers Order was founded in 1930, bringing together pre-existing left-leaning self-insurance societies such as the Hungarian American Brotherhood, the Slovak Workers Order, and Communists who had left the Workmen’s Circle to found the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order. Accident and death policies were the main draws to this left-wing mutual benefit society, but the Order also offered a broad array of cultural and leisure-time activities for its members. From its onset, too, the IWO envisioned itself as a militant lobbying group preparing the proletariat for a coming workers’ state. As such the Order lobbied for Social Security, enacted in 1935, and universal health care, among other programs. [10]

Along with this proletarian militancy went a declaration in 1932 that “The International Workers Order condemns segregation as a vicious anti-working class policy of the bourgeoisie. It follows the leadership of the Communist Party … To make this struggle ever more effective, the I.W.O. must carry on a continuous campaign within its own ranks, combatting the principle and ideology of segregation. It must make immediate and strenuous efforts to organize Negro and white together, within its English branches.” The Order vowed “the mobilization of our branches … against lynching, against Jim Crowism, etc., must be the measures to transform backward workers … into advanced workers.” [11]

Radical immigrant commitment to anti-racism predated the Order. During the 1920s the Slovak Workers Order had already denounced lynching in its newspaper, Rovnost’ l’udu, as well as running exposés on “American imperialism,” “a history that has scandalized half the world.” The Marines in the Caribbean were said to be “at the beck and call of Wall Street.” Such leftist journals were some of the few places immigrants heard critiques of America’s racialized new world order. In non-radical immigrant newspapers, such as Slovák v Amerike and Jednota, articles frequently derided non-white peoples’ national aspirations, as when Slovák v Amerike applauded “a strict interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine” toward Haiti, Cuba, and Venezuela, and dismissed West Africans as “ceaselessly restless savages” who did not appreciate the blessings of French colonial rule. Conversely, the Communist-affiliated Rovnost’ l’udu in 1924 sniped that “We hear a lot about German imperialism from the recently departed Woodrow Wilson, but not a peep about American imperialism in the Philippines, Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Mexico and elsewhere …” [12]

In the 1920s white ethnics and African Americans in Party affiliates, such as the All-American Anti-Imperialist League and the American Negro Labor Congress (hereafter ANLC), made the connections between the fights against Jim Crow at home and imperialism abroad. The Party’s Committee on Negro Work called for “elimination of all racial discrimination of the Negro,” with the ANLC tasked with “carry[ing] on organizational campaigns, in order to fight against discrimination against the Negro in industry.” [13] In Chicago, as elsewhere, biracial units of the ANLC were organized to work on these goals. [14] ANLC officers also worked within the Universal Negro Improvement Association (hereafter UNIA), seeking to wean left-wingers away from a solely “Back to Africa” focus and cooperate with Party members on ending racialized oppression in the US and colonization in Africa. As scholar Steven Hahn notes, many in UNIA saw the movement as “preaching preparedness” while veterans of the movement say that Marcus Garvey “never did advocate for all Negroes to go back to Africa.” As such, many in UNIA may have agreed with the message the Party chairman sent them: “The rights of the Negro in Africa are not free for the taking. They have to be fought for, no less than the rights of the Negro in America.” [15] The ANLC’s national organizer likewise made the case for fighting against oppression globally. Lovett Fort-Whiteman made contact with South African unions, and urged the Comintern “to stimulate and aid the Negro Liberation Movement in South Africa” that was combating the tightening segregation and disfranchisement policies of the Hertzog government. As with so many progressive policies on race, it was grassroots American initiatives — not Kremlin directives — that pushed for forceful action, in this case looking to strangle apartheid in its cradle. [16]

It was not only high-ranking Party officials who reached out to progressive UNIA members. B. Borisoff of Gary, Indiana, in November 1926 wrote to General Secretary Charles Ruthenberg on the work he was doing to win over UNIA members “to the view-point of class struggle in America.” Borisoff wrote that in Gary and elsewhere the opposition group resisting Garvey’s hegemony “is closer to us in its willingness to fight for the interests of the negro in America and to view this struggle as a class struggle.” In Gary, he continued, UNIA members “form a considerable part of the steel workers.” Borisoff wrote a second time thanking Ruthenberg for contact names with black and Mexican workers, with whom he was beginning to organize. What’s striking is to find a correspondent named Borisoff reaching out to black and Mexican fellow workers, to organize, not terrorize them. Many other Slavic, Irish, and Italian steel workers in the aftermath of the failed 1919 strike scapegoated blacks as impermissible intruders on whites-only job sites and neighbourhoods, fire-bombing the homes of blacks who did not honour the colour line in Chicago, Detroit, and elsewhere. Here a “red” Slav looked to enlist black allies in the class struggle. [17]

Other comrades worked to organize Virgin Islanders living in New York, a Philippine independence organization in Kansas City, and “Spanish speakers” as well as “Hindu,” Japanese, and Chinese workers in San Francisco. [18] Jack Jampolksy informed Ruthenberg he was “in touch with Cuban workers in New York who are sympathetic to our movement,” this at a time when other white ethnics often ostracized Hispanic workers. [19] In 1926 the Organization Department informed the ANLC that the Hungarian American Brotherhood’s newspaper had written that “One of our very good comrades, Joseph Szabo” of East Saint Louis acting on his own was “working among Negroes in a machine shop,” “trying to propagate radicalism.” However, since Szabo was “not very fluent in English,” his success was limited, and the Department suggested the ANLC send some copies of their paper, the Negro Champion, to aid in his interracial organizing. Szabo’s work came just nine years after the infamous East Saint Louis white-on-black riot, in which other South and East European immigrants joined fellow whites with very different attitudes toward blacks living in their city. The fellowship exhibited by Szabo and others in the left milieu stands in contrast to the actions of other white ethnics, for, as an Industrial Workers of the World veteran commented in a 1924 letter, “The Negro and South European immigrant in the cities mix cutthroat competition.” [20]

Party leaders, too, stood by their racially egalitarian principles even when a little temporizing might have been to their advantage. In 1926 S.N. Ghose of the India Freedom Foundation contacted Robert Minor and then Ruthenberg. Ghose noted that prior to 1923 Indians had been allowed to immigrate and naturalize, but the Supreme Court declared that “‘free white persons’ are words of common speech to be interpreted only in accordance with the understanding of ‘the man in the street.’” Ghose allowed that “American labor is perfectly within its rights to bar any one they like to from coming to this country,” but bristled at Indian exclusion and sought Party support for a Senate bill defining people of India as “free white persons” again eligible for citizenship. Ghose bristled at the “absurdity” that barred accomplished Indian poets and scientists “while ‘any man on the street’ … can be admitted to American citizenship!” Ghose had no problems with America’s racialized exclusionary immigration system; he just wanted Indians to pass through the whites-only door. [21]

If the Party had opportunistically exploited race issues to maximize its ulterior motives, as Harold Cruse famously charged, Ruthenberg might have leaped on Ghose’s band wagon. Instead he held firm, replying that while he supported the bill, lobbying “should be broadened into a campaign for the right of every individual irrespective of race, colour or nationality, to become a citizen of the United States.” Ruthenberg wrote to the secretary of the Council for the Protection of the Foreign Born insisting any agitation for this bill be coupled with lobbying to open citizenship and voting rights to all people regardless of “race, nationality or color.” [22]

Communists took positions regarding voting and citizenship rights that almost 40 years later would finally become law. Moreover, Ruthenberg took these stands in private letters that afforded the Party little publicity benefit (and in the case of Ghose, with his sneers at the “man in the street,” unlikely to win a sympathetic hearing), suggesting he was not grandstanding but expressing a sincere conviction. Much of what the Party advocated with regard to race in the 1920s–1950s is now taken at face value, at least rhetorically, as part of the American “equality” project. In this respect, the Party’s Popular Front motto was quite apt, for in its advocacy of colour-blind justice Communism was indeed “Americanism updated for the twentieth century.” [23]

Anti-colonialism and advocacy of civil rights continued after the IWO was established among various leftist Hungarians, Slavs, and other activists. The Order also included the black Douglass-Lincoln Society and the Cervantes Lodge for Puerto Ricans. As Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian members testified, interracial socializing and political activism were frequent. Moreover, the IWO as early as 1932 worked to recruit and enroll blacks and second-generation ethnic whites into integrated English branches, and such integrated branches continued until the Order’s demise. [24] This at a time when other ethnic insurance societies explicitly barred non-white membership. [25] Conversely, the IWO’s 1934 constitution and by-laws vowed the IWO “will organize agitation and cultural activities among its members with a view to creating amongst them an understanding of the needs of these struggles to break down amongst them the illusory barriers of race, creed and color, to establish among them the practices of class solidarity … .” [26]

Even as the IWO faced government prosecution for its alleged control by Moscow, its progressive stance on black rights made it into the record. In a 1951 trial, cross-examination of state’s witness George Powers brought out that “The IWO … supported (a) employment of Negros in Major League Baseball, (b) the Anti-Poll Tax Amendment, (c) anti-lynch legislation, and (d) the Civil Rights Program.” Powers also noted when he was a member in 1934 he collaborated in the defense campaign for the Scottsboro Boys, the black Alabama teens sentenced to death for alleged rape of a white woman. During his cross-examination it came out that “Even before Powers received his directive [from the Party] … the Scottsboro case was on the agenda of the IWO,” suggesting the group’s members were genuinely concerned about injustices to blacks, not cynically using the issue for Communist advantage. Many blacks proved receptive to the IWO and other radical groups given these groups’ unequivocal commitment to racial equality. Of course, at the height of the red scare, vocal advocacy of civil rights was regarded by many conservatives as in and of itself “subversive.” [27]

Throughout the Popular Front era, leftist Slavs advocated an end to black oppression, which they characterized as a particularly pernicious manifestation of “The dictatorship of capitalism.” Many IWO members were indeed members of the Communist Party, but “red” journals such as Robotnícky kalendár were some of the few venues in which immigrants read defenses of black rights. The kalendár for 1937 ran a woodcut illustration of a lynching with the condemnatory caption, “‘Democracy’ in the South. Black citizens in the Southern states of the U.S.A. until now have been vulnerable to white lynchers, because they haven’t united with white workers.” As in English-language Party publications, this equation gave little consideration to the racism of white workers, which stood in the way of class solidarity. The kalendár also ran an exposé of “The treacherous Ku Klux Klan,” while in 1942, L’udový denník, Slovak version of the Daily Worker, published a cartoon of a soldier destroying a scarecrow labeled “poll tax.” “The defeat of the poll tax is the triumph of democracy,” ran the caption. [28]

During World War II leftist Slavs in the IWO and the newly-founded umbrella group, the American Slav Congress (hereafter ASC), harnessed patriotism and anti-fascist animus to a civil-rights campaign. While other Poles and Slovaks (along with other white ethnics) attacked blacks in the streets of Detroit and other urban battlegrounds, adherents of the Slav Congress denounced the rioters as Hitler’s apologists. “[Fifth columnists] will attempt to weaken and defeat us by dividing us among ourselves,” Leo Krzycki thundered in his keynote to the first Slav Congress. “They will try to divide us from Americans who look back to other homelands. They will try to set us against Negroes. We will not be taken in. We will answer the sly whispers of the fifth columnists with clenched fists and determined hearts.” [29]

IWO lodges, too, called interracial solidarity necessary for victory. In 1942, the Order passed a “resolution on Negro Rights,” approving Roosevelt’s creation of the Fair Employment Practices Committee, but going beyond what the president was willing or able to deliver in urging federal prosecution of lynchers and an end to Army segregation. [30]

At its 1944 convention, the Slav Congress backed Roosevelt’s fourth-term bid, but also passed a resolution urging passage of “the anti-poll tax bill,” and another “against racial bigotry and call for punishment of those who endulge [sic] in such practices.” [31] In Indiana, ASC member Katherine Hyndman became involved with the Gary Civil Liberties Committee.” After the war, the ASC lionized Hyndman as “an outstanding advocate of equal rights and the betterment of race relations” who “helped to settle a hate-strike of white citizens against Negro citizens … [H]er efforts laid the groundwork for more harmonious relations between the groups.” [32]

At its 1943 conference, the Slovak Workers Order equated segregation with Hitler’s reign in Europe. “The enemies of the common people always use laws and the courts to incite the differences between the various religions, races and national groups, and thus are the common people divided and cast down into fascist slavery,” its “Resolution Against Race Discrimination and Anti-Semitism” began. “We are now seeing that anti-black laws in the US, just like the Nazis’ anti-Semitic laws which have enslaved millions and killed many more of the best people, … is the best means of installing in America a similarly bloody fascist regime.” The SWO consequently condemned all anti-black or anti-Semitic laws, and “call[ed] for strict punishment of all racial and ethnic unrest and slurs and riots.” [33] The following year, the SWO convention passed a similar “Resolution on Negroes,” equating American racism to Hitlerism. The convention “ended with a call for an end to discrimination against Negroes, an end to Jim Crow, and that as fast as possible, Negroes be integrated into all sections of American life.” They also demanded the end of the poll tax, “so that blacks and millions of poor white Southerners can enjoy true American citizenship.” [34]

The ASC and IWO countered the hegemonic white narrative and built cross-racial alliances. Ukrainian organizer John Mykytew wrote of his contacts with black United Auto Workers official Shelton Tappes and the Reverend Charles Hill regarding his “recruiting drive among the Negro people.” Although Mykytew’s enthusiasm struck some blacks as condescending, he wrote, “You have no Idie [sic] how much I am happy to work among the Negro people. … Here in Detroit 100,000 Negro [sic] we must get them in to I.W.O. by half.” [35] Herman Schlossberg of Los Angeles likewise noted, “In the course of my membership in the Order, I have taken in more than one hundred members, including Brothers and Sisters of all races and creeds.” [36]

The IWO’s Polonia Society likewise published a foreign-language pamphlet supporting black civil rights, [37] while Mario D’Inzillo of the Garibaldi Society in October 1942 wrote the Justice Department, New York’s Senators Wagner and Mead, and President Roosevelt urging passage of federal anti-lynching legislation as well as anti-poll tax bills. D’Inzillo even lobbied Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson on anti-lynching legislation. [38]

Although the term was not used, we might regard these efforts as early multiculturalism, in which members celebrated their Slavic, Italian, and Jewish cultures (often denigrated in 1940s America), but also took part in social affairs with black and Hispanic leftists. ASC conventions featured all the Ukrainian mandolin orchestras one’s ears could stand, but the Congress also sponsored appearances by black singer-activist Paul Robeson. IWO member Robeson also performed at the Order’s rallies and took part in the group’s civil-rights campaigns. [39] Robeson also served on the Prisoners Relief Committee of the Civil Rights Congress, which, together with the IWO in 1950 sponsored a vacation at Communist-affiliated Camp Kinderland for the four children of Willie McGee, a black man on Mississippi’s death row for a rape conviction. Other Relief Committee members included former state Senator Stanley Nowak, head of the Michigan IWO and Slav Congress. [40]

Even in the face of prosecution, many East European members highlighted the groups’ commitment to interracial solidarity. In 1951, as the IWO faced liquidation after the New York Insurance Department deemed the group a “hazard” for its leftist political beliefs, dozens of members offered affidavits defending the group. Kalyna Popow of a North Philadelphia Ukrainian lodge deposed that in addition to sponsoring Slavic dance recitals and art exhibits, her branch held celebrations during Negro History Week and Brotherhood Week. While many white ethnics organized vigilante squads as blacks moved into North Philadelphia, Popow and her comrades celebrated Brotherhood Week. [41]

Popular Front multiculturalism became so accepted that Národné noviny, newspaper of the National Slovak Society, even publicized a “Calypso Song of ‘The Common Man.’” “Sir Launcelot Pindar, calypso singer from Trinidad, has written a new song that he wants all the people to hear: ‘Let the fascists talk about superior race,/Americans have a superior plan/We’re going to make it the Century of the Common Man./That is what Vice President Wallace said/On paying tribute to our honored dead/Who gave their lives that we might be free/To enjoy blessings of liberty/… From England, Holland, France we’ve come,/Austria, Hungary and Belgium,/India, China, Africa, Mexico and Korea, Australians, Russians, Lebanese, Finns, Italians, Portuguese, Daughters and sons of all nations, We are now just plain Americans.’ “Another of his recent songs is ‘Defenders of Stalingrad,’” the article noted. [42]

Less lyrically, Popular Front Slavs committed to anti-colonialism and better race relations at home, as when Národné noviny reprinted a CIO News editorial from the United Electrical Workers on “Why We Fight,” explaining the importance of dealing justly with “Our Colonial Allies.” United States’ treatment of Puerto Rico, the editorial acknowledged, was “a black spot on America’s honor” that gave the Japanese a propaganda weapon among non-white peoples. [43] A year later the Slovak paper was still pressing the anti-colonial issue, this time on behalf of India. “Maybe a time will come when the Atlantic Charter will also enter into force among the countries of colonial peoples,” an editorialist wrote. “Surely the crowds of millions of people would disagree with the British and butt in that the Atlantic Charter must be applied all over the world — and not just to the big shots.” [44] Just after the war, the Slav Congress’ George Pirinsky echoed this call for “a forward-looking colonial policy” to aid non-whites in their “emancipat[ion] … from any imperialist domination.” [45]

Not every white ethnic worker embraced interracial solidarity. In recalling the Slav Congress’ efforts to calm Detroit following the 1943 race riots, Pirinsky reminded readers his organization had been one of the few East European groups unequivocally to condemn the white assault on blacks. “The American Slav Congress by its very nature is averse to racial bigotry and prejudice,” Pirinsky stressed. “… [I]t joined hands with the labor movement and other liberal groups in sharply condemning these disgraceful and dangerous riots. It spoke out vigorously against the Slav Negro baiters, most of them innocent dupes who swallowed the vicious propaganda of native fascists …” The ASC sponsored a Slav Day rally in nearby Hamtramck, at which 5,000 attendees heard luminaries “castigate the fomenters of racial disorders in the sharpest terms. Shelton Tappes, a black UAW official, described the riot as Hitler’s last effective weapon ... Practically the entire City Council of Hamtramck, the most Polish city in America, attended the rally …” [46]

By 1943 the ASC had its hands full countering Slavs who condoned attacks on blacks. The IWO was aware there were reactionary Slavs, too. In a partially Slavic Detroit neighbourhood, whites challenged the planned opening of Sojourner Truth Homes, a public-housing project they feared was designed for blacks. A Polish priest inveighed against the invasion of “the niggers” as a riot ensued to prevent the homes. Perhaps in an effort to rally unsympathetic Slavs, Národné noviny published articles in which Congressman Vito Marcantonio, a member of the Garibaldi Society, faulted “the government of all race rioters,” and Congressman Samuel Dickstein blamed the “KKK riot” on far-right agitators such as House Un-American Activities Committee (hereafter HUAC) Chairman, Martin Dies of Texas. The paper published an editorial from the CIO News arguing that “Race Hatred is Sabotage” and another which asserted that “job discrimination, poll-tax denials of political rights, [and] unequal community treatment of racial minorities” were “some of the dark spots in American life where race hatred is bred.” Still, the editorial was sure the riots were the work of Hitler’s agents, suggesting some writers were unwilling to acknowledge Slovaks could be both anti-Hitler and violently anti-black. Another Národné noviny editorial characterized anti-black and anti-Mexican rioting in Los Angeles as antithetical to the spirit of Lincoln. “The treatment of blacks in America is still a form of slavery, akin to the way gypsies are treated in Europe.” [47]

Not every IWO member, however, took the message of equality to heart. In Detroit, Reverend Charles Hill, who was a candidate for city council, complained Garibaldi Society members bitterly opposed his call for open housing and resisted public housing in white neighbourhoods. An IWO official wrote to General Secretary Sam Milgrom that Hill was about to quit the Order over his Italian comrades’ white chauvinism. Milgrom apologized, but also to some degree excused the Italians’ resistance. “I am sorry that Reverend Hill takes the attitude that he does. First of all I hope he realizes that we are a fraternal organization and that our basic problem is to educate our membership. After all when a member joins the Order he comes in with all the baggage of his prejudices. Even while in the Order so many of our members … are reached with our education on the Negro question only with great difficulty ... I am sending out copies of [the] pamphlet ‘Complete Equality’ to each member of the Garibaldi Society in Detroit.” [48]

As a counter to some of its recalcitrant members, the IWO’s Michigan leadership, under state Senator Stanley Nowak, demanded Detroit’s city council reverse itself and provide blacks with public housing in formerly all-white neighbourhoods. [49] The IWO issued press releases backing Hill’s attempt to become the city’s first black councilman, but the reverend lost the election. [50] In these squabbles we see the beginning of white ethnic backlash once race entered the picture.

Similarly, Edward L. Nelson of the Douglass-Lincoln Society complained in a 1950 letter to a Daily Worker columnist, “I was unfavorably impressed by the opening of your column … on Abdoulay Diallo. You opened by describing him as ‘a slight, dark-skinned young man,’ and continued as though there was something incongruous in this ‘dark-skinned young man’ being influential, and giving reaction the jitters. Whatever your intentions, this kind of description … is a typical stereotype such as we encounter in commercial publications but which has no place in progressive journalism.” [51]

The problem of “white chauvinism” was a recurring nightmare. A celebrated Party trial involved August Yokinen, who was called on the carpet for barring black comrades from the sauna and swimming pool at Harlem’s Finnish Progressive Hall. As with so many other radical immigrants, his “red” tendencies were at war with his whiteness. At Philadelphia’s Slovak Hall, the Slovak Workers Order was one of the shareholders, but the hall’s 1921 charter stipulated the building was “available for rental by all other groups, but Negroes were excluded because it was feared that their cleanliness standard would not measure up to that of other groups.” [52] Even if Slovak Communists expressed racial solidarity, they raised no objection to a colour bar at their hall, and the explanation of a black lack of a “cleanliness standard” suggests some immigrants had internalized racialized phobias. New Yorkský denník, a Slovak daily, likewise featured a “joke” contributed by a reader in which a black man asks his son why he is prohibited from swimming with white kids. “Because, Papa, they were white before they went swimming, and they want to stay white.” [53]

In New York, however, what is telling is that after Yokinen recanted, black comrades rallied around him. When the federal government endeavoured to deport Yokinen to Finland, the Party-affiliated League of Struggle for Negro Rights (hereafter LSNR ) held massive save-Yokinen rallies in the Bronx. The League wrote Yokinen and expressed solidarity, asserting it was because he had recanted white racism and committed himself to working for black rights that the government was persecuting him. The Party’s efforts failed to prevent the deportation. But even while Cyril Briggs, Harry Haywood, and others in the LSNR noted similar white chauvinism incidents elsewhere, this biracial rallying around the Finn suggests when whites rejected their racial privilege, black comrades accepted and embraced them, imperfect vessels though they were. [54]

Nevertheless, the Party and its affiliates periodically faced charges of white chauvinism, as when the Buffalo chapter of the Friends of Soviet Russia was split by allegations they had barred a black Party speaker from addressing their meeting; when a Communist summer camp was alleged to have disinvited black attendees; and when Earl Browder was informed that the 1932 Bonus Army March on Washington had Jim Crowed destitute black veterans. [55]

The IWO, too, found itself uncomfortably confronting vestiges of white racism in the early 1930s. After boldly asserting the Order’s commitment to racial equality, the author of a 1932 report on organizing Negro branches nevertheless allowed that the organization might have to turn a blind eye to some members’ lingering prejudices. “[T]he I.W.O. would defeat its own purpose of reaching the backward masses … if it would insist that applicants for membership in the I.W.O. must all be free from the bourgeois poisons of racial or national prejudices. Such a policy would change the I.W.O. from a united front mass organization for mutual help into an organization of radicals only.” The IWO often found itself striking a delicate balance between commitment to civil rights and indulgence of the “bourgeois” race phobias of members such as the Detroit Italians who infuriated Reverend Hill. [56]

Problems periodically surfaced, as when Philippa Stowe of Harlem complained of mistreatment by an IWO organizer. Stowe wrote, “I feel compelled to tell you that I cannot join at this time. … I do wish to be fair, but I am unable to determine … whether the objectionable conduct of Mr. Sol Winnick was his own idea or a part of the program of the International Workers Order. His conduct, although subtle, was insulting and degrading, and I do not know whether it was intended to express disrespect for my race or merely for my sex. At any rate, I am convinced that your organization would fare better without the services of Mr. Winnick … [H]e and his kind should not have the opportunity to corrupt the Negro People and our young.” [57]

Of course, such problems were more likely to arise in an organization committed to interracialism than in a more conservative ethnic fraternal such as the First Catholic Slovak Union. There black attendance at one’s lodge was simply unthinkable, and thus no squabbles over “white chauvinism” ever arose.

On the national level, IWO and Slav Congress leadership continued to advocate for equality, a policy a Connecticut Black Muslim appreciated when he wrote the IWO applying for membership. [58] In its 1946 “Resolution on Lynch Terror,” the Order endorsed the “newly organized American Crusade to End Lynching[’s] pilgrimage to Washington, D.C.” to secure a federal anti-lynching bill, [59] while General Secretary Max Bedacht called for an end to “Negro persecutions” and lynching, warning “If the peddlers of racist poisons are not stopped, it will be only a matter of time before we have Oswiecim’s and Dachau’s in America, even though their names will be spelled differently.” [60] Writing in the ASC’s journal, Louis Adamic equated American-backed colonialism in Asia and Africa with segregation at home, prophetically warning blacks would no longer accept ghettoization and “crumbs falling off the white man’s table.” “Until there is a clear and steady advance toward equality, there will be strikes and race riots, here.” [61] In January 1949 the ASC joined the Civil Rights Congress at a D.C. rally against “the vicious Jim crow [sic] policy which threatens our democracy,” demanding “anti-lynch, anti-poll tax, and fair employment practices legislation.” [62]

Officials of the IWO continued to call for a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee — which had been dismantled at the end of World War II; the end of the poll tax; school integration; and a federal anti-lynching bill. In February 1948 the Order urged “all societies” to flood Congress with telegrams demanding an anti-lynching law. The American Slav Congress’ Leo Krzycki was one of the co-chairmen of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party run for president, a campaign that called for the end of Jim Crow, the poll tax and other forms of discrimination. [63]

Even in small ways, the IWO championed breaking racial barriers. When the Cleveland Indians — the first AL team to integrate — won the 1948 pennant, Sam Milgrom sent a telegram to club president Bill Veeck, “greeting the victory as a ‘victory for American democracy.” “International Workers Order, the only interracial fraternal organization, with 180,000 members throughout the country, cheers the Cleveland triumph as a victory for true fraternalism and real Americanism. Here’s hoping you win the World Series.” With the help of black Hall of Famer Larry Doby, the Indians did. And locally integrated IWO teams played games and passed petitions through the stands demanding baseball abolish the colour line. [64]

Individual Slavic societies carried the fight forward, too. Benjamin Davis, first black as well as first Communist on New York’s city council, wrote the Polonia Society’s president praising its work for civil rights and against lynching, [65] while the 1947 convention of the Serbian American Federation passed a resolution demanding a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. [66]

It was not long before red hunters took notice. “US to Probe Red Activities in Slav Groups,” the Pittsburgh Press crowed. The Press credited its exposé of Communist Slavs with spurring the House Un-American Activities Committee to move against the Slav Congress. “It was revealed in those stories that Communists were using foreign-language newspapers and radio programs to spread official propaganda of iron curtain countries, that pro-Communist ‘welfare’ organizations operated openly, that church and fraternal organizations were being infiltrated.” “The American Slav Congress was revealed in these stories as the key organization of the Red drive. … The size of the Communist program is indicated by the goal of the American Slav Congress to represent ten million Americans of Slavic descent, most of whom work in the heavy industrial centers …” [67] Attorney General Clark placed both the IWO and ASC on his List of Subversive Organizations, and ignored letters from elected officials who praised the IWO which had “fought time and again against discrimination because of race or creed or color, given generous support to those opposing narrow-minded and intolerant attitudes.” [68]

While the IWO and ASC advocated other unpopular positions such as atomic disarmament, continued cooperation with the wartime Soviet ally, and vigorous union rights, it was in no small measure because of anti-racist activism that both groups were placed on the Subversive List and investigated by HUAC. Both the attorney general and three successive chairs of HUAC were Southern segregationists. The ASC was the subject of an extensive 1949 hearing and a 300-page report by HUAC, in which a young Congressman Nixon faulted the organization’s labour, peace, and civil-rights policies. [69]

HUAC’s report tarred the Slav Congress’ support for the presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace by asserting “The leading spokesman of the movement organized by the Communists against the foreign policy of the United States is, of course, Henry A. Wallace, presidential candidate supported by the Progressive Party and the Communist Party, USA.” [70] The purge of dissent meant that even an Iowa Republican not on board for the Cold War had to be purged. So what chance had someone named “Krzycki”?

The final nail in Krzycki’s coffin was his union background. “In 1937 Krzycki was a leading speaker at a Chicago CIO mass meeting featured by the Communist press, which resulted in rioting in which five persons were killed and more than 100 injured near the strike-bound Republic Steel Corporation’s South Chicago plant. A Chicago newspaper implied that his speech incited the 2,000 strikers and sympathizers to menace police guarding the plant.” [71]

HUAC’s ironclad “proof” of Krzycki’s subversion was, of course, the Memorial Day Massacre, where strikebreaking members of the Chicago police deployed machine guns against peacefully picketing workers. “Menacing” pickets were mowed down with machine guns, many shot in the back as they were fleeing. The massacre was by the Chicago police — to suppress lawful strikers. The same Congress that had begun the repression of left-leaning, effective unions with the passage of Taft-Hartley was now passing judgment on Krzycki, the UAW’s George Addes, the Mineworkers’ Tony Minerich, and other members of the Slav Congress. Effective defenders of workers’ rights were often labeled “un-American” in 1949. [72]

While the opening of the Moscow archives in the 1990s convincingly revealed there to have been far more extensive collaboration between the Kremlin and the US Party than American leftists allowed, on the ground grassroots activists in the IWO and Slav Congress seem genuinely to have believed they were engaged in legitimate political activity, and in both their private correspondence and public statements reacted with surprise and outrage at the tactics deployed against them. In the summer of 1948 The Slavic American published an open letter demanding to know, “Since when have criticism and opposition to the … policies of the administration … been considered subversive?” Indeed, if Slav Congress members were subversives and Kremlin spies, they were inept ones. They signed public petitions and took out full-page ads on behalf of racial equality and other causes, signed their own names to letters to left-leaning journals, and otherwise operated openly in the Popular Front political milieu. The Slavic American wrapped itself in the Bill of Rights, while Minneapolis Ukrainians puzzled by HUAC’s persecution arranged a defense of their IWO lodge. [73]

Now preoccupied with defending themselves, leftists continued their civil-rights activism. IWO president Rockwell Kent signed on to the “National Emergency Civil Rights Mobilization,” only to receive a letter from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Roy Wilkins telling him the IWO “is not one of the organizations invited to participate in this Mobilization.” Even though the Order had been working for civil rights for almost two decades, by 1949 its assistance was unwelcome. [74] Sam Milgrom and Rockwell Kent nevertheless decided to urge individual members to attend the mobilization even if their institution had been blackballed, suggesting they were genuinely interested in furthering black civil rights and not just subverting the campaign for Communist gains. [75] Other internal letters between IWO officials not meant for public scrutiny likewise speak of the group’s dedication to furthering black civil rights, calling into question Harold Cruse’s famous conclusion that Communists were only cynically interested in exploiting civil rights. [76]

Members of the American Slav Congress continued their activism in the face of deportation proceedings. Katherine Hyndman, who had been brought to America in 1913 at age 6, defended her effort to achieve school integration in Gary, as well as her other subversive ideas. In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, Hyndman asked, “Will we become a new type of displaced persons, banished from the United States because we dare entertain thoughts not to the liking of present-day bigots and witch-hunters?” [77]

The IWO faced a liquidation order from the New York State Insurance Department after it was deemed “subversive” by the Justice Department, a death warrant the Order unsuccessfully fought through the courts as well as the Subversive Activities Control Board. The Insurance Department offered a novel interpretation of the actuarial term “hazard” (as in a mutual society that was financially unstable) in now labeling the IWO a moral and political hazard, never mind that its finances were impeccable. Order officers pointed out auditors had consistently found their finances to be sound for more than 20 years, a fact reiterated by a Newark accountant in the Order who deposed the organization had “restricted its investments to municipal, state and Government bonds because as a group, such securities offer greater safety.” [78] Such arguments, though, were mocked by the arch-conservative NewYork World-Telegram and Sun, whose headline writer scoffed, “Their Books Balanced, But Politics Were in Red.” The paper likewise dismissed arguments that the IWO elected non-Communist officers by sneering that officers such as Harlem Congressman Vito Marcantonio “could therefore serve as ‘window dressing,’ a familiar Commie trick.” Repentant ex-Communist and professional testifier Louis Budenz piled on, condemning the Garibaldi Lodge, where “the boys worked like beavers to get out the vote for that now-defeated Stalin stooge, Marcantonio.” [79]

In the midst of this campaign the IWO remained defiant. Treasurer Peter Shipka in 1951 asserted “the right to defend is an inalienable right. We helped to defend Negro people who faced lynch justice, to see that justice shall not be denied them.” Rubin Saltzman of the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order similarly pointed out in the Morgen Freiheit the government’s hypocrisy in prosecuting some fraternals, but not others, for being at odds with US foreign policy. The Knights of Columbus escaped scrutiny even though it had supported “cannibalistic Franco” during the Spanish Civil War. Of course, by 1951 Franco’s fascist near-past was being air brushed in the name of Cold War anti-communism, and it was the black and white Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who were in the government’s cross hairs. [80]

Ordinary members facing deportation expressed defiance bordering on the poetic. “[O]ne thing they don’t understand — our stubbornness. We are fearless people,” a Carpatho-Rusyn member wrote his society’s president. “Even if they deport me to the North Pole, among the Eskimoes, I shall show, by gesticulation, if needs be, to these Eskimoes the wrong we are being done by Capitalism. There too I shall prepare for the day of the overthrow of the oppressors of the working people. They will not get rid of us, no matter where they deport us! …” Such defiant letters suggest the commitment radical immigrants had to the causes in which they believed. [81]

More systematically, as part of its appeal of the liquidation order, in 1951 the IWO solicited affidavits from members, and while the Order may have suggested matters members should stress, in many of these affidavits members’ commitment to the Order’s interracialism clearly stands out. Hyman Weinberg of Cleveland expressed pride in the IWO, “wherein all people irrespective of race, color or creed are regarded with complete equality.” Miklos Petri, member of a Hungarian lodge in the Bronx, stated “The most important thing about the IWO is that it does not discriminate against any people because of nationality, color, or religion, and we want to have peace with everybody. I am very proud of the fact that we have two Negroes in my Lodge. There is no other organization in America like the I.W.O., which provides social, fraternal, and economic benefits to all people of all races and colors.” [82]

Black IWO members confirmed this story. Pecola Moore of Los Angeles appreciated the insurance she would not have been able to purchase in the segregated private market. “Being an American Negro (so called), I have been helped beyond words to tell. The fellowship of help through the fraternity and sick benefits is a blessing to the poor and distressed persons. I would not have been able to pay a doctor; nor buy the medicines, to say nothing of paying for a home call from a physician, had it not been for the help of this organization.”

But Moore added that “[I]t was not the medical service features of the Order that primarily made me wish to join.” “What I liked best about the Order was the fact that it really practices brotherhood and democracy. The Brothers and Sisters in my Lodge hold … many kinds of educational activities, and all persons of all creeds and races are together in perfect unity. My lodge has on many occasions fought for issues important to the Negro people. … Each year we celebrate Negro History Week with wonderful programs. I would like to ask the court to please let us have the one organization which is helping all people regardless of race, creed, or color to live and grow through mutual assistance which is Universal Brotherhood.” [83] In defending their Order, officers and regular members pointed out private insurance corporations that stood to benefit from the liquidation had millions of dollars invested in segregated housing developments, even as they discriminated against blacks by charging exorbitant rates. Treasurer Shipka charged the liquidation effort was motivated at least partially by private insurance corporations who “are preparing the greatest insurance grab in the history of our country … $100,000,000 of insurance and $7,000,000 of your money could very well be used by any insurance company to invest in Jim crow [sic] housing or other enterprises …” The Douglass-Lincoln Society president echoed this charge in an article published in The Defender, official newspaper of the black lodge. [84] From the testimony of black members such as Moore, strong evidence emerges that for many people Communist affiliation was irrelevant if the organization made good on its commitment to civil rights.

Jumal Ahmad of Cleveland, “a local teacher in the Ahmadiyya Mission of the Moslem faith,” recounted “I had trouble with my life insurance company, and I was recommended by a friend to join the … Order where I, as a Negro, did receive equal treatment.” Ahmad added “It has been practice, in my experience in the International Workers Order, not to discriminate anyone for religious or political reasons … I have found true fraternalism and racial equality in the organization, which I am proud to support and belong to.” Surely the IWO was one of the few organizations in 1951 with Jewish, Slavic Catholic, and Black Muslim members. [85]

Such appeals fell on deaf ears and radicals such as George Pirinsky, Zlatko Balokovič, and Peter Harisiades of the IWO Greek Society were deported as “undesirable aliens,” if not to the North Pole then to their native European homelands. [86] The president of the American Russian Fraternal Association wrote to the group’s New Haven lodge, urging members to attend Pirinsky’s hearing and demonstrate solidarity with him. “You know that the Secretary of the American Slav Congress has been held, for 69 days, on Ellis Island, or, as it is commonly called, the Island of Tears,” he reminded his brothers and sisters. There the ASC secretary shared a cell “behind double barbed wire” with the National Maritime Union’s Ferdinand Smith, soon to be deported to Jamaica for his militant advocacy on behalf of his multiracial membership. In spite of — or perhaps because of — the Russians’ support, Pirinsky’s appeal was denied and he was shipped back to Bulgaria. [87]

Conversely, the government refused to allow other defiant leftists to travel abroad to argue for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and other subversive concepts. American-born members of the IWO such as singer Paul Robeson and painter Rockwell Kent had their passports yanked, stifling their calls for civil rights. [88] Less prominent members resigned out of well-founded fears of prosecution or loss of employment. A member of the Slovak Workers Order quit out of fear his son would be expelled from medical school, while a member of the Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order who worked for the post office quit as he was now required to take a Loyalty Oath in order to continue selling stamps. “I was wondering if you could discontinue sending me ‘The Jewish Fraternalist’ through the mails,” he wrote. “The Post Office … and the FBI in Hammond[, Indiana,] have taken every name that receives the ‘Fraternal Outlook’ and every Russian sounding name that receives literature or is in the directory. I don’t want you to think that I have given up on my convictions or beliefs. I have not, I have to take care as to my job … ” [89]

Even as late as October 1954 IWO members were protesting against their Order’s liquidation. Joseph Petercsak expressed “deep regret [at] the decision of the Supreme Court in connection with our Order. … Our membership always regarded our Order as the head of a big family. We were together in good and bad times.” Earlier, the secretary of the Hungarian lodge of Hammond had protested, “Our money is there and we feel that we have our rights.” [90]

By the end of 1954, however, the IWO was dismantled, with the Slav Congress shutting the following year. By that point affiliated fraternal societies had been stripped of their insurance licenses by judicial decree. The Croatian Fraternal Union (hereafter CFU), HUAC gleefully noted, was in November 1947 slapped with “an injunction that forbids the present left-wing officers … from using the funds of the organization and taking charge of the fraternal insurance company it controls.” [91] HUAC asserted the CFU got what it deserved, for “This entire organization was taken over by the Communists …” HUAC admitted that at the 1947 CFU convention only 50 delegates were estimated to have been Communists. “(H)owever, … by clever jockeying this Communist kernel succeeded in wresting control from the hands of the non-Communists, electing five Communists to its ‘supreme court’ in control of the immense resources of this powerful organization.” [92]

Communist success in winning elections was characterized as “wresting control” — “clever jockeying.” As Croatian American Steve Nelson noted, when he was organizing coal miners no one asked him if he was a Communist, they merely wanted to know if he was an effective union spokesman who would be reliable in improving miners’ lives. Perhaps CFU delegates similarly felt Communism was immaterial so long as fraternal officers were dependable people who were effectively advocating for the kinds of improvements in domestic and foreign policies lodge members desired. HUAC of course did not see it this way. [93]

With regard to the IWO, the American Supreme Court refused to review a New York state appellate court’s decision ordering its liquidation and forbidding officers and members from associating with each other in any newly created organization. Although under a previous Supreme Court decision an organization on the List of Subversive Organizations was entitled to a hearing before a Subversive Activities Control Board, in a Kafkaesque turn, the New York Insurance Department, now running the Order’s day to day business and scrupulously overseeing all expenditures, denied a request for funds to pay lawyers to represent them at the SACB “hearing.” Lawyerless, the Order’s officers boycotted the hearing, and the board declared failure to attend an admission of guilt. The Insurance Department then dispersed the Order’s assets to for-profit insurance corporations. In a final ironic twist, the high court in 1955 ruled the IWO had erroneously been placed on the subversive list after all. The ghost of the Order was exonerated, cold comfort to members such as Petercsak who were already deprived of their big family, or shareholders in Arow Farm, a summer camp of the American Russian Fraternal Society, who in August 1955 were still under investigation by the New York Legislature for their suspect IWO affiliation and alleged Communist recruiting. [94]

Immigration historians have lamented the decline of ethnic social clubs as the immigrant generation died and assimilated Americans lost their hyphens. But this was not just a question of the passing of the immigrant generation — it was a direct result, in many cases, of red-baiting. Who would join the Croatian Fraternal Union if the FBI was keeping watch? And watching it was. The HUAC report on the Slav Congress meticulously listed attendance by “undesirables” at meetings covered by the Daily Worker where Communists spoke. Merely being at a meeting with a Communist polluted any person or group to which that person belonged. [95]

To be sure, assimilation and the waning of the immigrant generation played a large role in the decline of associational life. [96] But Robert Putnam’s lament that America is “bowling alone” ignores the coercive role that red-baiting played in this decline, especially for the politically engaged. [97] In no small measure because of their anti-racist activism, the IWO and Slav Congress were red-baited into oblivion. But for a brief moment some white ethnics opted out of white privilege in favour of cross-racial solidarity.

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