Henry Winston, the former national chairman of the Communist Party USA, was a great leader of our party. I had the honor and privilege of working with him for over 30 years. He was a wonderful comrade, my teacher and a very dear friend. I will always remember Winnie.
This year is the 93rd anniversary of Henry Winston’s birth. He was born April 2, 1911, in Hattiesburg, Miss. Winston’s grandparents lived under slavery. Born and raised under the system of Jim Crow, Winnie grew up to become one of the finest Marxist-Leninist thinkers and organizers that the U.S. working class has ever produced.
At the age of 11 his family moved to Kansas City, Mo. Hard economic conditions forced him to drop out of high school after two years. This was the beginning of the Great Depression. Like so many others, he ended up finding the movement of the unemployed. He took part in great struggles against hunger and unemployment and the movement to defend the Scottsboro youths. He was active in the Southern Negro Youth Congress and the National Negro Congress.
At age 19, Winston joined the Young Communist League, where his remarkable leadership abilities made it possible for him to rise from the post of Ohio organizer to that of national administrative secretary in a relatively short time. During that period Winston joined the Communist Party. He ultimately was elected the CPUSA’s national chairman at the Party’s 18th Convention in 1966. He spent over 20 years as national chairman as part of a team with Gus Hall, the Party’s outstanding general secretary.
I first met Henry Winston in 1961 in Philadelphia. He had recently been released from federal prison. Winston was a victim of the infamous anticommunist Smith Act. He had been convicted along with 11 other leaders of the CPUSA (for thinking, as Gus Hall often would say) and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. Their “crime” was basically being a leader of the Communist Party and advocating an end to war, racism, economic oppression and calling for a socialist USA. Like today under the Bush administration’s Patriot Act, the U.S. government then was trying to outlaw all dissent. Outlawing the Communist Party USA was the first step.
Winston and his comrades were political prisoners. By standing up for their rights, they were really upholding the highest principles of free speech and the right to advocate change,
including revolutionary change. They dared to stand up against the postwar anti-Soviet Cold War hysteria created by imperialism – and led by U.S. imperialism – in order to rationalize its drive for world domination.
They were real patriots and should have been treated like heroes for their great work on behalf of the working class and racially oppressed. Instead they were criminalized; they were hounded and persecuted. But through it all they consistently upheld the banner of the right to dissent, of peace, economic and social justice and freedom for all. They refused to join the anti-Soviet chorus of cold warriors who were acting on behalf of imperialism and its military-industrial complex. They were anti-imperialist and believed in proletarian internationalism and socialism. That was their “crime.”
From my time as a youth leader, I cherish the times I had with Winnie. To meet Henry Winston and to be a part of the Party headed by him and Gus Hall was a great experience for young revolutionaries. The Party was full of hundreds of seasoned working-class people of all races and nationalities, men and women who shared with us a wealth of knowledge. Henry Winston was the best. It could be said that he never left the youth movement because he gave his heart and soul to the education of the younger activists. We all loved him for that.
Winston’s organizational and political skills were legendary. I witnessed his mastery of the politics of organization every day for many decades. Having been a Communist political prisoner himself, Winston played a superb leadership role in the international fight for Angela Davis’ freedom. He truly understood the fight against racism, the need for unity and how to build broad, mass movements.
He played an outstanding pioneering role in the U.S. fight to free Nelson Mandela and in solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He led the Party’s work in the anti-apartheid struggle. His basic thinking helped make the U.S. movement in solidarity with Southern Africa a majority movement. He was the first in the U.S. to call for the boycott of the Republic of South Africa under the slogan of “isolate the racists.” Winston was in close contact with and highly respected by many of the top leaders of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the African National Congress.
Winston was a master polemicist. The African Communist, the SACP publication, described Winston’s seminal work, “Strategy for a Black Agenda” (International Publishers, 1973), as a “fighting book, written at white heat by someone who is by no means an academic onlooker but a front-line participant in a main battlefield against imperialism.” They characterized the book as “an indispensable weapon for every fighter for the liberation of Africa and her sons and daughters in the USA and Africa.”
This book was soon followed by another, titled “Class, Race and Black Liberation” (International Publishers, 1977). He also delivered many remarkable reports and speeches. Many were made into pamphlets.
Winnie was a special victim of the racism in the U.S. prison system. The African American Communists convicted under the Smith Act were treated more harshly then the others. While serving time in prison, Winston developed a brain tumor. The prison authorities refused his demands for treatment. Winston suffered through weeks of inadequate care and excruciating headaches. Because he was denied proper medical treatment, Winston ultimately lost his sight.
He needed to be released from prison and put under the care of a specialist. The extraordinary lawyer for the Communist Party, John Abt, sprang into action. Abt led the campaign to win an early medical release for Winston. That effort eventually led to President John F. Kennedy granting Winston such a release in 1960.
When Winston was released he uttered these memorable words, “They have robbed me of my sight, but not my vision.”
Winston was quickly put under the care of an able U.S. eye specialist and then went to the USSR for emergency treatment. By that time, however, they were only able to save a small portion of his sight.
Eventually Winston became totally blind. But through all of that, Winnie found the means to be an active, vibrant Communist leader. In that regard Fern Winston, his wife and comrade who recently passed away, was indispensable, as were the various comrades who traveled with Winnie and helped him live an active life. I never saw it firsthand, but a very reliable source told me recently that Winnie loved to go bowling and did well at it. Everyone who knew him admired his great courage and steadfastness.
Despite having gone through what he had, Winston showed no bitterness. He was warm, kind and confident. He had a good sense of humor and a vast knowledge of history, politics and Marxist-Leninist theory. He was fiercely dedicated to the cause of the working class and all oppressed people, a militant foe of all forms of injustice. He was a highly skilled and experienced Party leader who had a great deal of confidence in his people and his class.
That idea of Winnie’s vision became a guide to life for all of us. His vision was the vision of a better world that tens of millions of people all over the world today believe is possible. Henry Winston died on Dec. 12, 1986.
We can move closer to Winston’s vision if we are able to defeat the Bush administration and their policies at the polls this November. Winnie would have been very happy to see that happen.
I will always remember Winnie for his enormous humanism and compassion. He headed what you could call the Party’s “sick and shut-in committee.” If someone was ever ailing for more than a day or so, he or she could expect a call from Winston. I also remember the wonderful barbecue picnics out at his country house and the great times sharing a delicious meal with him and Fern at their apartment in East Harlem.
I remember his great love for music and culture and the great camaraderie between him and Gus Hall, Jim Jackson, William L. Patterson, Ted Bassett, Vic Perlo, John Pittman, and Helen and Carl Winter and other stalwarts. I will never forget the great stories he’d tell and that wonderful smile and infectious sense of humor. But above all, I will remember most his great dignity and confidence as an African American Communist and worker.
Jarvis Tyner is executive vice-chair of the Communist Party USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*(see related article below)
Fight racism for unity and progress
By Henry Winston
The giant industrial monopolies, the big banks and insurance companies, the financiers and landowners, all spawn racism and use it as one of their chief class weapons to maintain and defend their regime of exploitation and oppression, of enmity among peoples, of imperialist wars of aggression.
It follows that all democratic and antimonopoly forces, with the working class and Black liberation movement in the van, can effectively defend the interests of the vast majority of people only when they actively further the struggle against racism. This is an essential precondition for the development of a fighting alliance which will unite all democratic and antimonopoly forces in the country.
Marx wrote long ago that “labor in a white skin can never be free so long as labor in the black skin is branded.” This profound observation points up the fact that racism is the consciously employed weapon of the white imperialist oppressors, who use it to create division in the ranks of the working class. And Marx correctly suggests that white workers must take the lead in the struggle against racism. This is the path which can lead to unity of Black and white workers in struggle, which can achieve Black equality and a real improvement in the conditions of all workers.
The conclusion which Communists must draw with respect to this most important question is that it is mere chatter to talk about trade union consciousness developing into class consciousness and advancing to socialist consciousness if there does not exist a conscious, unending struggle against racism.
No worker can be said to be class conscious who does not recognize the community of interests of all workers as a class. And for white workers this means, first of all, recognition of the community of their interests with those of Black workers and therefore of the need to fight for the rights of Black workers.
– From a lecture to a seminar of Communist Party organizers in 1971.