We recently completed a finding aid, or inventory, for a significant manuscript collection that we acquired several years ago – the African American Communist Party Pamphlets. This collection contains 53 pamphlets created between 1928 and 1974 by the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). The CPUSA played an important role in defending the civil rights of African Americans during the height of its popularity in the 1930s and 40s. The organization began a focused effort to recruit African Americans in the 1920s, sending organizers to the Deep South. They mobilized students, farmers, and industrial workers to overturn segregation laws, build support for anti-lynching legislation, and ensure equal voting rights for minorities. In the North, they campaigned against the eviction of African American tenants, for equality in the work force, and against police brutality. The CPUSA viewed the liberation of African Americans as a vital component of the American class struggle. Several thousand African Americans joined the CPUSA in hopes that the organization would help them to achieve specific civil rights including educational and labor related goals.
The CPUSA was a prolific publisher of pamphlets. Pamphlets were inexpensive to print, easy to hand out, and an affordable way to spread ideas to audiences both large and small. This collection contains notable examples of the type of information being disseminated by the CPUSA. Several prominent African Americans, including Pettis Perry, Henry Winston, and Benjamin Davis, wrote pamphlets included in this collection. Perry, author of 4 pamphlets in the collection, rose through the ranks of the CPUSA leadership to become secretary of the CPUSA’s Negro Work Commission. He led an effort to root out racism within the party, resulting in hundreds of Communists being expelled. Winston, author of 2 pamphlets in the collection, was a community organizer, civil rights leader, and member of the CPUSA who devoted his life to advocating for the working class. Davis, author of 8 pamphlets in the collection, was a lawyer, journalist, orator, and organizer, well known for his involvement in several high profile legal cases, including those of Angelo Herndon and the Scottsboro Boys. Herndon, also an author of one pamphlet in this collection, was an African American labor organizer who was arrested and convicted for insurrection in 1932.
There are several pamphlets of topical interest as well. The pamphlet titled “The Negroes in a Soviet America,” by James Ford and James Allen, written in 1935, is typical of pamphlets produced during the period in which the CPUSA was heavily recruiting African Americans. The authors denounced capitalism and promoted communism as a path to a brighter future for African Americans. The pamphlet laid out a history of the mistreatment of African Americans, citing the Scottsboro Boys case in Alabama and the disappearance of African American owned farms. Other pamphlets highlight the work of abolitionists including Harriet Tubman, Thaddeus Stevens, and Frederick Douglass.
Of the over 50 Communist Party pamphlets in the collection, only one was written by Russians and published by the state-owned news agency in Moscow. Titled “Fire Bell in the Night,” it was written by three Russians hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 and completed on the day of his funeral. This pamphlet also includes commentary on the Watts Riots, the march from Selma to Montgomery, the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and a calendar detailing victims of racism.
Drop in during our open hours or make an appointment to view this incredible collection.
The Archives & Special Collections is open Tuesday through Friday from 10:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. or by appointment.
By Laura Edgar, Assistant Archivist