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March 31, 2020 7:19 am

Jews, African-Americans and Communism in Harlem

avatar by Harold Brackman


A train station in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Before World War I, German sociologist Max Weber argued that “the Protestant ethic” had engendered “the spirit of capitalism.” His colleague, Werner Sombart, countered that “Jews invented modern capitalism,” and that socialism was doomed in the prosperous US.

Yet after World War I, American communism’s founders were optimistic about Marx’s dreams for this country. They looked expectantly to radicalizing desperately poor European immigrants, including Jews, and also a racially-oppressed proletariat of African-Americans.

The Liberator was America’s first magazine devoted to revolutionary communism. In 1922, the managing editors were Mike Gold (born Itzok Isaac Granich on New York’s Lower East Side) who recounted his rise to radicalism in Jews Without Money (1930), and Claude McKay, who immigrated from Jamaica to New York to become American communism’s first acclaimed African-American intellectual.

Gold and McKay were soon at each other’s throats, ostensibly over whether the magazine should emphasize unvarnished accounts of proletarian struggles like Gold wanted — or, instead, McKay’s preference for more sophisticated writing in the manner of the Harlem Renaissance.

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McKay’s departure from The Liberator for travels abroad was the first of many ruptures that bedeviled the communist party’s efforts to promote Black-Jewish unity. Nevertheless, the party — encouraged by Moscow — tried to smooth over differences. It “Americanized” numerous European “nationality federations” that had resisted learning English. It also accepted a new slogan — “Self-Determination for the Black Belt” — dictated from Moscow by the Comintern. Bordering on self-segregation, this dubious vision defined African-Americans in the South as a racially-separate “oppressed nation.”

However, in 1931, some communists successfully won African-American admiration by exploiting the defense by Jewish attorney Samuel Leibowitz of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African-American teenagers falsely accused of — and then jailed for — raping two Southern white girls.

The Great Depression’s depths should have been fertile ground for the communists in New York City, with welfare dependency among black families reaching 80%. Young Jewish men, including some who had grown up in Jewish Harlem, also suffered from 50% unemployment. And the party did indeed make strides organizing rent strikes among African-Americans against evictions.

By 1935, such protests had evolved into a sophisticated “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign, to force Blumstein’s, the largest Jewish-owned department store on Harlem’s 125th Street, to hire African-American salespeople.

The Communist Youth League initially supported the boycott with an inflammatory pamphlet, which the party had to disown amid accusations that it was antisemitic. Then Harlem erupted in a race riot, which Jewish store owners blamed on Harlem’s Sufi Abdul Hamid — called “The Black Hitler.”

With blessings from Moscow, the American communists also adopted the Popular Front strategy of cooperating with liberals against Hitler that appealed broadly to American Jews. The Popular Front succeeded in attracting more Jews to communism, yet it also contributed to long-simmering tensions between Jewish and African-American communists over issues including interracial dating among communists.

Despite the departure of Jewish families from Harlem by 1940, Jewish merchants remained. A second Harlem Riot erupted in 1943. This turbulent era was chronicled in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952).

In the 1920s, Sholem Aleichem’s specter was said to walk the streets of formerly Jewish Harlem neighborhoods. So too, our time is still haunted by ghosts of Black-Jewish conflicts from before and during World War II.

Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of “From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans” (Africa World Press, 2015).

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