Alphaeus Hunton: The Fight for Equality and Liberation during WWII

Alphaeus Hunton with his wife, Dorothy, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. Du Bois, sometime between 1949 – 1963 (Courtesy of the Schomburg Center)

It has been argued that the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA) neglected the struggle for African American equality during World War II. It has been further argued that anti-fascism overshadowed anti-colonialism during the Popular Front and WWII periods among Communists, socialists, and progressives. 

W. Alphaeus Hunton’s work in the National Negro Congress (NNC), the Council on African Affairs (CAA), and as a columnist for the Daily Worker challenges this notion. Hunton, a Howard University professor and a Communist, led the Washington, D.C. NNC chapter and served on the organization’s national executive board.

In summer 1943, Hunton left Howard to become educational director of the CAA, which sought to build alliances between African Americans fighting for equality and Africans fighting for liberation. He oversaw the publication of the CAA’s newsletters New Africa and Spotlight on Africa; organized pickets, boycotts, protests, petitions, and conferences; maintained contact with leaders of national liberation movements in Africa; and worked as a liaison between the CAA and the broader progressive Black community, often with other Communist-led groups, such as the Civil Rights Congress, the National Maritime Union, the Jefferson School of Social Science, and later the National Negro Labor Council, and Sojourners for Truth and Justice, among others.

From July 1944 to January 1946, Hunton wrote for the Daily Worker, the CPUSA’s flagship publication. His articles focused on African American equality and Black liberation in Africa, a focus he would continue in Paul Robeson’s Freedom newspaper and later in Freedomways.

Hunton was a scholar-activist. His grassroots organizing and journalism serve to add context and nuance to the role of Communists in the fight for equality and liberation during WWII and is part of what Charisse Burden-Stelly calls the “Tradition of Radical Blackness,” a tradition that includes efforts to imagine and bring into being liberating possibilities for oppressed peoples.

As a NNC and CAA leader, as well as a Daily Worker columnist, Hunton challenged racism and fascism. For example, Hunton “spearheaded the fight for ‘all-out defense of democracy’ in defense industry – right here at home,” by fighting for African American jobs at the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Plant in Baltimore. When he was called before the Dies Committee, he asked why the committee “does not devote just one-tenth of its time to investigating the subversive undermining of American democracy…[through] the varied forms of discrimination and oppression practiced against Negro citizens,” especially the “flagrant…denial of jobs to Negroes in certain defense industries.” The Committee claimed that “infiltration of Negro Communist workers” from the Washington NNC intended to “sabotage” the plant.1 

Whereas Hunton’s NNC work focused on challenging Jim Crow, his CAA work highlighted the links between defeating fascism and winning colonial independence.

The defeat of Hitler and fascism offered the greatest possibility for independence in Africa, Hunton argued in the August 1943 New Africa. He called for the application of the Atlantic Charter for African peoples. At this point, he saw the Allied relationship with Africa as pragmatic and constructive, a reflection of his optimism that the war-time alliance between the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union would persist. He also saw a post-war Africa free from colonial subjugation. To Hunton and the CAA, this was how the war was to be won; by supporting plans for a new, independent Africa.

His NNC work did not stop, though. That fall, the NNC organized 100 leaders to lobby in Washington to discuss the abolition of Jim Crow in the armed forces. Often the NNC and CPUSA worked in tandem. As a result, one-third of CPUSA recruits during this period were Black. Coupled with the work of enlisted Black and white Communists (which number around 15,000) to break down racist barriers in a still segregated military, NNC lobbying efforts foreshadow the coming end of formal military segregation by 1948.

In an August 1944 Daily Worker column, Hunton merged the defeat of fascism with “victory over ‘white supremacy’” at home. The “immediate urgency and gravity of the problem of stamping out Jimcrowism [sic] struck this country last week with the impact of a thunderbolt.” He called the Philadelphia Rapid Transit walkout of 4,500 white workers protesting the hiring of eight Black transit employees “shameful.” He likened this action, “engineered by our home-grown fascists,” as “an attack upon the American government and…people.” To him, “victory over fascism” must entail “victory over the doctrine and practice of ‘white supremacy.’”2

Tellingly, the Philadelphia-based Rapid Transit Employees used racism and red-baiting as an organizing tactic during a 1944 union vote in hopes of remaining the workers’ collective bargaining agent; the CIO affiliated Communist-led Transport Workers Union ultimately won the election.

Like W.E.B. Du Bois, Hunton sought to build international alliances powerful enough to compel concessions away from the most egregious aspects of racism and Jim Crow, while also fighting for Black liberation in Africa. On his first day at the CAA office, Hunton recalled the cross-Atlantic solidarity showed by the British working class in the fight against slavery. He told reporters: “Just as labor and the liberal forces of England recognized 180 years ago that their own interest lay in the overthrow of American slavery, so today it is necessary for Americans and all people of the anti-axis [sic] world to realize that their future security and peace must ultimately depend upon the abolition…of imperialism in Africa and throughout the world.”

By reminding DW readers that slavery was defeated, in part, with international support, Hunton articulated internationalism in action: “The Abolitionist forces in America, looked to England for help in their struggle, and they received much practical support, financial and otherwise.” Just as Frederick Douglass looked to England, Hunton, Robeson, and Du Bois, as well as William L. Patterson, Claudia Jones, and later Angela Davis, looked to the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China.

Hunton’s observation was astounding. He added, “never before have the Negro and other oppressed peoples had such strong manifold allies as today,” allies that are now, in the post-Cold War world, gone.3

Even after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hunton refused to let “the boundless expression of joy over the victorious end of the war against the fascist axis [sic],” distract him from the “hard and grim reality” of continued racism. A canceled broadcast on “Negro veterans’ job rights,” exemplified the point. Though “the Army had prepared and okeyed [sic] the script,” the War Department and Columbia Broadcasting, Co. canceled the program “with the explanation that such themes were not to be dealt with.” According to Hunton, “Another item has been added to [the] record of discrimination against Negro troops.” He demanded that the program be broadcast as scheduled. “The War Department owes at least that much to the Negro soldiers for their part in winning the victory,” he concluded.4

By 1955 Hunton’s CAA was forced to dissolve, a tragic victim of the anti-communist Red Scare.

Today, as state legislatures across the country attempt to block the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT), it is important to recall the valiant efforts of people like Alphaeus Hunton who fought against both Jim Crow and colonial subjugation – prior to, during, and after WWII. Additionally, the silencing of Communists, such as Hunton, is similar to the attacks on CRT. Unfortunately, most people have never heard of Hunton, unlike his peers Robeson and Du Bois. Ignoring Communists and their positive contributions to U.S. history means Hunton’s story, like so many others, has been lost.  

  1.  “Noted Negro Educator Assails Dies,” Daily Worker, May 31, 1941, 5; Dorothy Hunton, Alphaeus Hunton: Unsung Valiant (self-published, 1986), 51-52; “Negro Congress Answers Dies’ Stooge Charges,” Daily Worker, May 28, 1941, 5.
  2. “Plan Lobby to End Jim Crow in Army: Negro Congress Asks Legal Ban On Race Bias,” Daily Worker, October 11, 1943, 3; Isserman, Which Side Were You On?…, Ibid., 166-167; Alphaeus Hunton, “Today’s Guest Column: America’s Postwar Lesson in Phila. Strike Must Be Learned,” Daily Worker, August 10, 1944, 7.
  3. Hunton, Alphaeus Hunton…, Ibid., 57; Alphaeus Hunton, “Today’s Guest Column: Crimea Conference Heightens Role of Negro History Week,” Daily Worker, February 15, 1945, 7; Hunton, “Today’s Guest Column: Self-Determination and Colonial Policy,” Daily Worker, April 19, 1945, 7. For more on African Americans looking abroad for allies, see: Gerald Horne, Black Revolutionary: William Patterson and the Globalization of the African American Freedom Struggle (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2013); Robeson Taj Frazier, The East Is Black: Cold War China In The Black Radical Imagination (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).
  4. Alphaeus Hunton, “Editorial,” New Africa, Vol. 4, No. 8 (August-September 1945); “Explain Radio Ban, Army Told,” Daily Worker, August 24, 1945, 3.
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Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is a journalist, activist, and politician from St. Louis, Missouri and President of the Saint Louis Workers' Education Society. Pecinovsky is also the author of Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA.

Comments on “Alphaeus Hunton: The Fight for Equality and Liberation during WWII

  • Alphaeus Hunton was indeed a great leader. But the article glosses over the fact that the “optimism” about US capitalism after the war led to the dissolution of the Party —
    virtually unanimously agreed upon, and not the result of State repression.

    Furthermore, there was indeed a great loss of the Party’s influence among African-Americans during and after the war, in pa
    rt caused precisely by the Party’s insufficient militancy regarding racism — and one might point out later that the Party considered the NAACP as the vanguard organization of the African-American people, and was initially cool to Martin Luther King.

    Reply
  • I have not visited this topic for a long time. I am interested to know if the author is continuing his research and writing on Alphaeus Hunton and the CAA. When researching the American anti-colonial and anti-Apartheid solidarity movements I was interested by Hunton’s break with W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson in the wake of red-baiting and government pressure during the mid-1950s. The Hunton papers and the Council of African Affairs collection are both at the NYPL Schomburg Center and make fascinating reading.

    Reply

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