In honor of African American History Month, the sixth article in our series on the Communist Party’s 90th anniversary will survey a document written by James W. Ford, one of the most recognized African American leaders in the party during the 1930’s, 40’s and early 50’s.
James W. Ford, who ran for vice president on the Communist Party ticket in 1932, ’36 and ’40, was the first African American to run for a presidential ticket in U.S. history. Ford served in the military during WWI; after the war he was an active trade unionist in the American Postal Workers’ Union. In 1925, he became active in the American Negro Labor Congress, a mass organization of black workers founded and led by the Party. The following year, Ford officially joined the CP. Ford quickly became a respected leader in the CP and in 1928 he was sent to the Soviet Union to the 4th World Congress of the Red International of Labor unions. Also in 1928, Ford attended the 6th World Congress of the Communist International, where he served on the Comintern’s Negro Commission, and the 2nd Congress of the League Against Imperialism. In 1930, Ford helped organize the Comintern sponsored 1st International Conference of Negro Workers. In1932, Ford returned to the U.S. where he was elected vice president of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, and to the Political Bureau of the CPUSA. In 1933, Ford was put in charge of the Party work in Harlem. Again in 1935, Ford was sent to the 7th World Congress of the Communist International, and then as fascism was on the rise, he went to Spain to support the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. During the late 1930s, Ford was instrumental in founding the National Negro Congress. After WWII, the dissolution of the Communist Party by Earl Browder, and it’s re-founding, Ford continued to play an active role in the Communist Party, African American rights, peace and socialism. Ford died in 1957.
The document that we will survey comes from the January 1943 issue of “The Communist,” a monthly magazine published by the CPUSA; the article is titled “Mobilize Negro Manpower For Victory.”
During most of World War II African Americans were segregated in the Armed Forces and in most war-related industries. Additionally, despite the the Roosevelt administration’s stance on the issue, the government bodies established by to oversee war-time production needs remained largely opposed to desegregation.
It is in this context that Ford writes, “The armed forces of the United States are engaged far and wide in this people’s war for the survival of our nation…The armed forces are drawing heavily upon the national manpower. It is required that all Americans, regardless of race or religion, be fitted into the production program for a total war economy, to supply the armed forces and the civilian war needs.”
While Ford viewed the newly established Manpower Commission as a positive step forward, he also criticized it for not going far enough. First he criticized it for not including provisions that insure representation from labor and farmer’s organizations. Second, he wrote, “the absence of a mandatory provision for representatives of Negro organizations” is a major shortcoming of the commission that weakens war production.
With these caveats, Ford wrote, the “Manpower Commission can transform the entire nation in moral and in working efficiency; it can make the people a living part of the nation’s industrial machinery…it can unite the people as never before and make them assume a sense of national civic responsibility…”
Ford continues, “Discrimination is a political problem and is eating at the vitals of mobilization of the total war effort.”
As is apparent, Ford is arguing that all-out mobilization in war production is necessary to defeat fascism, however war production is hampered by racism, therefore the federal government must do more to challenge racism in war-related industries in order to win the war.
Additionally, Ford argues, “It [discrimination] is eating at the heart of the Negro people and aggravating their attitude and morale towards the war effort…The Negro people,” he continues, “are fully justified in their resentment and struggle against abuses that have meant their rejection as a part of national unity.”
Ford is making a very important point here. He is arguing for the broadest possible national unity within the context of the struggle for African American equality. Rather than being a compromise, Ford’s analysis suggests that African American equality can be fought for more fully by winning the full participation of African Americans in the war effort.
Ford then goes on to highlight the work of the United Automobile Workers union, the National Maritime Union and the United Electrical Workers’ Union in breaking down racist barriers in their respective union jurisdictions. Ford called these unions “outstanding examples.”
For example, Ford writes, “The U.E.W.A changed the place of its national convention because hotels discriminated against its Negro delegates. In New Jersey a local of that union forced the employers to include 20 percent Negro workers in its training program for 25,000 workers. [And] The U.A.W.A…took prompt steps to end a local wildcat strike of white workers of that union because Negro workers had been assigned to skilled jobs.”
However, he noted, “There are…many bottlenecks of discrimination that operate against the full integration of Negroes in war industries.” In fact, “many state employment services refuse to hire Negroes,” especially in the South, and many unions refused to follow the lead of the CIO-led unions mentioned above.
To this Ford responded, “Discrimination by unions against Negro workers is a problem that the entire labor movement must tackle in the spirit of the CIO, which brands discrimination as characteristic of our Nazi enemies.”
James W. Ford fought tirelessly for full equality, while fighting for total war mobilization against fascism. He saw the struggle to win democracy abroad as being connected to the struggle to win democracy here at home.
His strategic and tactical insight contributed to the struggle to win African American equality in a period of equal rights struggle usually given very little attention in history books. As part of the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party let us celebrate James W. Ford and the countless other communists who fought so tirelessly for equality here at home, while working to defeat fascism abroad.