[Editors’ note: CPUSA Executive Vice Chair Jarvis Tyner delivered the following eulogy for Grace Bassett, a lifelong activist for civil rights and socialism, at the celebration of her life held at Benta Funeral Home in Harlem, N.Y. on Nov. 15. Bassett was a member of the People’s World editorial board and a volunteer copy editor for many years, as well as the editor of Chicago’s DuSable edition of The Daily Worker during the 1940s. The entire staff, editorial board and network of volunteer reporters extend our deepest condolences to Grace’s family.]
Grace Colwell Thornton was born Dec. 17, 1916, in New Orleans. Grace died on Nov. 10, 2013, at age 96; next month she would have been 97, just three years shy of 100.
I have known Grace and her husband Ted for over 40 years. She was all Grace to me; then I married her great-niece and she became Aunt Grace.
She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority while a student at Dillard University in New Orleans. She was a social activist all of her life. She was a lifelong member of the Communist Party USA. Grace didn’t see a contradiction in being active in both the sorority and party – and neither do we.
In an interview with People’s World, Grace, speaking of her growing up years, said, “We were very active in the church and activities like the Girl Scouts, but at the time, they were not receptive to blacks.” That led Grace to join the YWCA.
But it was on a camping trip with her Methodist Church that she realized she liked helping people. We have just heard a beautiful rendition of “If I can help somebody, then my living shall not be in vain.” It is a very fitting song for Aunt Grace.
Back then she met a women social worker who took her on home visits. “That was my beginning. My whole life began there,” she said. She realized that she wanted to be a social worker.
In church and high school, she became involved in all sorts of activities: chorus, acting, counseling other youth, and, she added, “dating too.”
“I always had my boyfriends, but I had my activities,” she said.
At Dillard University, Grace went on a trip organized by her teacher. It was a lunch with students from a white college. “It was my first interracial experience,” she said.
In time, Grace became active in the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), founded in 1937, just before she graduated Dillard with a Bachelor of Arts in social work.
SNYC, like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which followed SNYC, was registering black people to vote. It was an organization of 100,000 active young people that carried out voter registration and education campaigns among blacks and whites in the deep South.
“Sometimes,” said Grace, “we went into unreceptive places.” She described how SNYC and a white student group went to a white neighborhood to do voter education. “While many were friendly, somebody reported us,” she said. Interracial groups at that time were targets of sheriff departments and the Klan.
“So we ran to our car, jumped in and left. Our program wasn’t just for Black people. It was for white people too, working class whites. We tried to get them to vote and educate them on what to vote for.”
The activities of SNYC helped give birth to the modern civil rights movement, she noted. World War II came, and many men went into the service. Grace assumed leadership roles in the New Orleans SNYC.
Later, she went to Atlanta to further her education. She traveled to SNYC organizing meetings in Mississippi. She met and developed friendships with SNYC leaders like Dorothy Burnham, and James and Esther Jackson. In 1984, Bassett was among those interviewed about SNYC for New York University’s Tamiment Library. NYU was where she got her master’s in social work.
SNYC, in addition to voter registration, organized tobacco and other workers into unions. Grace and her pioneering colleagues were active in fighting every violation of civil rights, all done at great personal risk.
In 1941, Mildred McAdory, a domestic worker and SNYC activist, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person in Birmingham, Ala., and was arrested. That was 14 years before Rosa Parks did just that in Montgomery. Mildred was arrested and SNYC led a big struggle on her behalf. Mildred, or Millie as many knew her, had to leave the South and came to Harlem where she became a member of the CPUSA’s National Committee.
Parks, the heroine of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the civil rights movement, later credited the role of both the NAACP and SNYC for leading the way to breaking segregation.
Grace moved to Chicago around 1942 with her first husband. McCarthyism had cost him his job with the transport workers union. She got a job with the Daily Worker and later became editor of its DuSable edition, in which she campaigned for the integration of the White Sox and Cubs baseball teams. She and her husband later divorced.
It was in New York City, at a party convention, where Grace met Ted Bassett, the Harlem organizer of the party, political activist and writer. Grace and Ted were married in 1952 and Grace moved to New York. She joined the ongoing grassroots and electoral struggles there for civil rights, peace, low rents and health care. In the 1970s Ted and Grace lived in Cuba. Ted was from Virginia but spoke Spanish and was the correspondent for the Daily World. Grace was very active in the movement to free Angela Davis, the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, and the Ben Davis Club of the Communist Party here in Harlem.
Grace Bassett returned to social work and was an active member of Local 1199 union as well as social workers’ professional organizations. She worked in New York hospitals, including Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital, until it was closed by Mayor Ed Koch, despite community protests of which Grace was a part. She worked until she turned 70 and Ted took ill. She retired to care for him. Ted died in 1994.
Grace was a journalist and a member of the People’s World editorial board. Once a week she would get on the subway at her advanced age and travel from the Washington Heights neighborhood downtown to Chelsea to volunteer her considerable editing skills and help get the paper out.
She would say, “I can’t stand just sitting around.” Remarkable.
When Grace spoke in our club everybody listened. We listened to her even when she was wrong. Like when Obama ran for president in 2008, and we were talking optimistically about the campaign: Grace interrupted and said, “You comrades are leading with your heart and not your head. This country is not ready to elect a black president.”
In the broad sweep of history, change is constant. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said the moral arc of the universe was “long but it bends towards justice.” Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
But, where do the great demands and struggle that make great change come from? They come from PEOPLE! The first to speak up. The first to say “Let’s go.” The first to sit down and strike and the first to pick up a picket sign. They know they can’t do it alone and they know how to effectively get others involved.
Why did this beautiful young black women college student end up in Birmingham registering black voters under the threat of the Klan? After all, everybody who was opposed to Jim Crow didn’t all jump out there first.
It was the heroes and sheroes like Grace Bassett – special people who have a deep understanding and are highly motivated to struggle against injustice. That’s why I joined the Communist Party.
Our dear Grace was one of those drum majors for freedom and peace and we loved her for that. We love her for who she was and the great things she did and her beliefs in a socialist future.
She couldn’t stand to sit around.