William L. Patterson has long been known as a hero in the fight against racism and for socialism. Probably best known for his leadership to save the Scottsboro defendants, nine African American youth falsely accused of raping a white women, and as the director of the Civil Rights Congress, which was widely viewed as the legal defense arm of the broad African American freedom struggle, Patterson also served as a national leader of the Communist Party USA.
In Gerald Horne’s new book, “Black Revolutionary: William Patterson and the Globalization of the African American Freedom Struggle,” we are privy to Patterson’s transformation as a well-to-do New York lawyer – in Horne’s words, he was “living large, accumulating a sizable bank account” – into a revolutionary and international leader who struggled his whole life against Jim Crow, South African apartheid, colonialism, red-baiting and war with the Soviet Union.
It is in his formative days as a young lawyer that Patterson met the legendary athlete, actor and artist Paul Robeson; they remained lifelong friends. It was the Communist Party’s defense of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian born anarchists falsely convicted of murder that lead Patterson to give up his high paying gig as a law partner, and eventually join the Communist Party in 1926.
“I followed the Sacco-Vanzetti case with all my soul,” Horne quotes Patterson as saying. “It was at this moment that a weighty realization dawned: ‘I came to the conclusion then that through the channels of the law and of more legal action [alone] the Negro would never win equality’ for ‘if a white worker like Tom Mooney and white foreigners like Sacco and Vanzetti could be so victimized, what chance was there for Negroes at the very bottom.'”
Sacco and Vanzetti were eventually executed in spite of national and international protest.
After officially joining the party, Patterson immersed himself into the International Labor Defense, the legal defense arm of the Scottsboro Boys, and the American Negro Labor Congress, which challenged the racism of then lily-white American Federation of Labor.
As an emerging and prominent African American leader of the CPUSA, Patterson was sent to Moscow, where he met dozens of future leaders of the African liberation movement and forged the international contacts that proved to be so important in the coming dismantling of Jim Crow back home.
“While abroad, he recounted, ‘I had met leaders [and] liberation fighters of almost every country in the world’ an invaluable experience that gave him a depth of understanding beyond the ken of most of his peers…,” and another example of how the former Soviet Union helped to forge the worldwide contacts and connections that served to isolate Jim Crow racism and eventually hasten its defeat.
While Black Revolutionary is a biography of Patterson, it is also an examination of how Cold War politics affected the African American freedom struggle. For example, Horne devotes considerable text to the NAACP’s mismanagement of certain aspects of the Scottsboro case, as well as, their refusal to help the ILD organize mobilization protests. In many cases, the NAACP’s membership participated in spite of its leadership’s insistence on legal defense only. The NAACP also disavowed left-progressive leaders, like founding member W.E.B. Du Bois, in the hopes of saving itself from the emerging Cold War witch hunt.
Horne also devotes considerable text to the Civil Rights Congress petition to the United Nations, titled “We Charge Genocide,” which was “a devastating indictment of the U.S. authorities’ complicity and dereliction in lynching, murder, deprivation of voting rights and all manner of crimes” against African Americans. Patterson delivered the petition – to much press coverage – in Paris, while Robeson simultaneously delivered it to the UN headquarters in New York.
After the delivery of the petition, Patterson exclaimed, “…mission accomplished…[by which] I meant that the struggle for American Negroes for their rightful place in their own nation was merging with the liberation struggles of the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America.” Joyfully, Patterson – in acknowledging the role of the Soviet Union, the Eastern European states and African liberation struggles – said, “I had learned much about the essence of the term international working class solidarity.”
However, just as the noxious poison of Jim Crow was being dismantled and as the mid-50s and early 60s civil rights movements were emerging, another simultaneous trend was developing – the McCarthy era. Just as Jim Crow was gasping for its last breath, Patterson and other leaders of the CRC and Communist Party found themselves in jail; those that remained free had their passports revoked, were harassed by the FBI, were attacked, like Robeson in Peekskill, N.Y., and/or went underground.
Horne’s Black Revolutionary isn’t just valuable as a history of 30s, 40s and 50s era class struggle, it also highlights the role prominent communists, like Patterson, played in the legal defense of the 60s and 70s era black liberation movements, most notably the defense of the Black Panther Party – of which, Patterson acted as mentor and legal counsel to many of the leaders, including Angela Davis.
There is so much food for thought in Black Revolutionary that it is almost impossible to summarize into a short review. Without reservation, Gerald Horne’s biography of William L. Patterson should be required reading for anyone interested in the global context of the African American freedom struggle.
“Black Revolutionary: William Patterson and the Globalization of the African American Freedom Struggle”
University of Illinois Press, 320 pp., October 2013