By Lenni Brenner
If you asked today’s American college students when the civil rights movement began, most would say “when Rosa Parks disobeyed a bus driver’s order to give her seat to a white.” She was arrested on December 1, 1955. On December 5th, after her trial and the first day of the Black bus boycott, a meeting in the Mt. Zion AME Church organized the Montgomery Improvement Association to lead the struggle. Martin Luther King, Jr. was elected president. In 1957, after strategy differences with King, Parks left Montgomery. She worked in Detroit as a seamstress. In 1965, Democratic Rep. John Conyers hired her as his Detroit office secretary. She retired in 1988.
Americans easily understand the Montgomery Improvement Association’s establishment in the Mt. Zion Church. Most Black Americans were religious. They identified with the Hebrew slaves fleeing Egypt for “the promised land.” But, beyond specialists in Black-Jewish relations, Parks’ subsequent employment by a severe critic of Israel and the later politics of the civil rights movement is unknown to today’s public. Therefore this article will focus on the evolution of America’s Black rights leaders and movement’s attitudes towards Zionism, from the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, thru to 1994, when apartheid South Africa, Israel’s open ally, vanished into history.
The Black Struggle from 1909 to WWII
When Parks was arrested, she was the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. It had only one Black, W.E.B. Du Bois, on its first executive board in 1909. His politics and the NAACP’s evolved, eventually in different ways, but he was always pro-Zionist.
“The African movement means to us what the Zionist movement must mean to the Jews, the centralization of race effort and the recognition of a racial fount.”
In its early years the NAACP organized occasional protest marches but its primary arena soon became the courts. Post WW I, its place in the streets was taken by Marcus Garvey’s ‘back to Africa’ Universal Negro Improvement Association. Asked if he was imitating Benito Mussolini, he replied that Mussolini was imitating him. But men in military formations were needed in an era of anti-Black riots.
The UNIA grew to massive size until 1922, when Garvey was arrested for mail fraud re money collected for his Black Star Line, which would ultimately ship followers to Africa. Convicted in 1923, imprisoned in 1925, he was deported to Jamaica in 1927. Garvey always equated the UNIA to Zionism, even after blaming Jewish NAACP leaders for his prosecution.
Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in 1917 and established the Union of Soviet (Council) Socialist Republics, based on ethnic equality. The Communist Party here made Black rights a top priority and attracted the attention of Black intellectuals. After Lenin died in 1924, party secretary Joseph Stalin converted the USSR into a personal dictatorship and the CPUSA took his commands to be holy writ. Stalin and Communist parties everywhere, including Palestine, opposed Zionism, but it was not an issue in their involvement in the Black struggle.
In 1928, the CPUSA called for a Black republic in the areas of the American south where they were the majority. This attracted some Blacks, but more important was the CP’s legal defense of the “Scottsboro boys,” nine young Blacks convicted in Alabama in 1931 of raping two white women and sentenced to death. The CP’s International Labor Defense took the case to the Supreme Court which declared that defendants are entitled to effective counsel and that no one may be de facto excluded from juries because of their race. White racist rage against “Communists” and “Jewish lawyers” served to establish the credibility of both among Blacks.
In July 1930, Wallace D. Fard Muhammad founded the Nation of Islam in Detroit. Among other things, it called for an independent Black state in America. In 1933 he established a security guard called the Fruit of Islam to defend the NOI and other Blacks against white racists.
Fard Muhammad left Detroit in 1934 and was never seen again. Before departing he conferred leadership of the NOI on one of his earliest followers, Elijah Poole, who changed his name to Elijah Muhammad. He preached that Wallace Fard Muhammad was Islam’s Mahdi and Christianity’s Messiah. The Nation and FOI were a small but visible presence in Black communities until the early 1950s, when Malcolm X, who had converted while in prison for burglary, became Elijah Muhammad’s chief lieutenant. Under Malcolm’s leadership the NOI became a mass movement and the FOI grew in every Black community.
It took the 1929 Depression, under a Republican President, to get northern Blacks to vote for a Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1932, in hope of improved economic conditions, but they had few illusions about their new party. It ruled the legally racially segregated “solid south” and many northern states where landlords and employers could discriminate or not, at their option. There were no Black Democratic convention delegates until 1940.
In 1934, Stalin anticipated a second world war with Britain, France, the U.S. and the Soviets against Hitler. Unofficially, so as not to embarrass him, the CP supported Roosevelt, putting it in tandem with Black voters. It was central in organizing the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a rival to the almost universally racist American Federation of Labor. Hundreds of thousands of workers, many Black, joined CP-led unions. By 1939 the CP grew to 90,000 members, many Jewish or Black. Singer Paul Robeson, while not formally a CP member, was royally treated in the Soviet Union and helped make the CP a major force in the Black community.
In 1938, Trinidad-born C.L.R. James, author of The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, came to the U.S. and joined the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. In 1939, under his influence, the SWP declared that, if America’s Blacks wanted their own state in the south, they would support the demand. The SWP was very small, but James’ book made him well known to Black intellectuals, worldwide.
In 1939, after Britain and France signed the Munich pact with Hitler, Stalin reversed himself and made the Hitler-Stalin pact. Thousands of Jews quit the CP in disgust, but Bayard Rustin, a gay Black Quaker member of the Young Communist League since 1936, stayed on. In 1941 the YCL assigned him to fight against U.S. military segregation, then called off the campaign when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. He quit in disgust and joined A. Philip Randolph (1889 – 1979), president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in calling for a Black march on Washington against racial discrimination in war industries and segregation in the military. The march was cancelled after Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, banning war industry discrimination. The military remained segregated, but the Executive Order was seen by many Blacks as a partial victory.
Rustin went to prison in 1944 for violating the WWII draft law. He could have accepted a religious pacifist civilian work assignment, but chose prison, feeling that his political opposition to war was more important than his religious concerns.