Harlem’s 1946 fight against South African starvation foreshadowed anti-apartheid struggle
Food is piled up on the front of a stage as Alphaeus Hunton addresses 4,000 people at Abyssinian Baptist Church to open the South African famine relief campaign in 1946. Josh Lawrence, Paul Robeson, Rev. Shelton Bishop, and Adam C. Powell Sr. are seated behind the cans and bags of food. | Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / New York Public Library, Astor | At right, Daily Worker coverage of the event. / People's World Archives

People’s World is happy to reprint below an article from the Jan. 3, 1946 issue of the Daily Worker by W. Alphaeus Hunton, then the educational director of the Council on African Affairs (CAA).

Hunton, considered “one of the most neglected African-American intellectuals” in U.S. history, partly due to his membership in the Communist Party USA, worked closely with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois domestically and internationally. Through the CAA, he helped to build a transatlantic alliance that fostered solidarity between African Americans fighting for equality and Africans fighting for liberation against colonial subjugation and oppression.

The article below highlights just one example of the CAA’s efforts to build solidarity with Black South Africans while educating fellow Americans to the reality of racial subjugation, oppression, and starvation. In this column, Hunton briefly contrasts the left, progressive—and Communist—press, as opposed to the “Big Business daily press,” in bringing attention to the imposed starvation of Black South Africans. He also provides historical context and explains how the great wealth in South Africa came to be controlled by the white minority, noting this is “how the system of imperialism works.”

This column is also important for what it foreshadows. Though the solidarity event was tremendously successful, attended by over 4,000 people with “tons of canned food” donated, it (and other examples of cross-ocean solidarity) were later used by the House Un-American Activities Committee to label the CAA “subversive,” leading to its “forced dissolution” in 1955. Regardless, the CAA did not hide its support for organizations such as the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, nor did Hunton, Robeson, and DuBois hide their support for the Communist Party USA, precipitating their own trials and travails during the Red Scare.

Later this week, People’s World will publish a brief sketch of Hunton’s life and work by Tony Pecinovsky, who is completing a book about Hunton to be published later this year titled The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946.

“Today’s Guest Column: Harlem Rallies to Aid Famine-Stricken Africa,” Daily Worker, Jan. 3, 1946

Harlem will start off the New Year, appropriately enough, with a demonstration of support for the oppressed victims of imperialism across the seas. The victims upon whom special attention is being focused in this case are the people of that vast colonial continent, Africa.

I’m referring to the mass meeting to be held next Monday night, Jan. 7, under the auspices of the Council on African Affairs, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on 137 St. Specific object of this meeting—and of a month-long campaign which the meeting will initiate—is to collect a mountain of canned food and substantial funds for the relief of four million famine-stricken Africans in the Union of South Africa. The campaign is being undertaken in response to urgent cables to the Council appealing for help from America. We’ve got to deliver!

As I remarked in this column some weeks ago in discussing the famine situation and other aspects of African life in the British dominion over which General Smuts presides, you will search in vain for information on such matters in the Big Business daily press. Talk about freedom of the press! The Times’ idea of news that’s “fit to print’’ doesn’t include such items as the following from South Africa:

“Syalamba—we are starving. You can say that I, Noxgoweni, the headman, say WE ARE STARVING.”

“We have lost so many cattle that many Africans will never get milk for the rest of their lives.”

***

W. Alphaeus Hunton’s column in the Jan. 3, 1946 edition of the Daily Worker. | People’s World Archives

How does it happen that half the African population of the South African Union is faced with starvation? Land-hunger is the answer.

During the 19th century, the Boer settlers and the British colonists pushed the Africans back farther and farther into the country, herding them into smaller and ever smaller areas. By trickery and theft, but mainly by might of European guns over African spears, the white invaders took away the African’s land. The Boers staked out their thousand-acre cattle farms; the British staked out their claims to diamond fields and gold mines.

Though they fought a bitter war at the end of the century, and the Boers yet resent the political dominance won by the British, the primary and common concern of both European groups is to keep the Africans, who outnumber the Europeans four to one, “in their place.” The land theft has been sanctified by law. Legal statutes now designate a mere one-eighth of the country as “Native Reserve Area,” and all Africans not in the employment of Europeans must remain in these areas.

Thus it happens that these restricted “reserve areas” are crowded with half the African population, those not working on European farms, in the mines, or in the cities (and by law they cannot hold skilled jobs). There is not enough land in the reserves to support the primitive subsistence economy of the people. Crops are meager and there is not enough grazing land for cattle.

***

There is great wealth in South Africa’s modern cities, but in the reserves, the African’s life is one of poverty, hunger, and disease. There is food aplenty in the cities, but in the reserves, there is no money to buy any food, and not enough is produced to go around. Nine out of 10 African children are undernourished. Men leaving the reserves to go to work in the mines require a special diet before they can perform hard labor. In some areas, the infant mortality rate is over 60 percent.

This chronic starvation condition reaches calamitous proportions in the reserve areas when, as happened this year, a severe drought occurs, killing off cattle and destroying the already inadequate crops. That is how it happens that people are today dying of starvation in the land of gold and diamonds, South Africa. That is how the system of imperialism works.

And that is why all of us—not only Harlem but all of New York—should turn out to the mass meeting next Monday night. That is why we should give liberally, individually, and through organizations, to this cause of famine relief.

With Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson heading the list of speakers, and with a powerful mass expression of solidarity with the cause of oppressed peoples, Monday night’s meeting will be heard all the way to South Africa.


CONTRIBUTOR

W. Alphaeus Hunton
W. Alphaeus Hunton

W. Alphaeus Hunton, considered “one of the most neglected African American intellectuals” in U.S. history, partly due to his membership in the Communist Party USA, worked closely with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois domestically and internationally. Through the Council on African Affairs, he helped to build a transatlantic alliance that fostered solidarity between African Americans fighting for equality and Africans fighting for liberation against colonial subjugation and oppression. His papers are located at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.

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