Black Radical Abner Berry and the Limitations of Liberal Alliances

On March 6, 1930, demonstrators organized by the Unemployed Council gather in front of the White House in Washington before a major protest for International Unemployment Day. (CPUSA Archives)

In the midst of the historical moment that has been the long 2020, we are witnessing several convergences which some pundits suggest are forging a new political moment. While the COVID 19 pandemic has revealed the deep economic and social vulnerabilities wrought by fifty years of neoliberal capitalist policies and the Black Lives Matter uprising brings the militarized police state to the forefront, the presidential election leads people to once again ponder the efficacy of electoral politics. While mainstream politicians put forward “reformist reforms” that perpetuate problems, more and more people are forwarding liberationist policy platforms that hope to remake the political spectrum in favor of equity. This conflict between reformism and radical political change reveals that though history does not repeat, it certainly rhymes; reformism versus revolutionary change was a central part of the 1948 Henry Wallace campaign, and communist journalist Abner Berry was at the center of that debate arguing that Black leaders that advocated reform stood in the way of change.

Abner Berry was born in Texas. His three brothers are famous for being part of the trio the Berry Brothers who performed as dancers and actors in clubs and film. Abner, however, was drawn to politics and in 1934, he moved to Harlem to work as a Communist Party organizer. Berry was remembered as an effective organizer for the unemployed and for Ethiopian relief after the Italian invasion in 1935. But he was also effective in electoral politics and has been credited with helping the successful campaign of Ben Davis to New York City’s City Council and Adam Clayton Powell to Congress. By 1942 Berry became a lead editorialist and journalist for the Party’s Daily Worker where he expounded on issues related to Black Americans.1

For an organization that sought revolutionary change, the Communist Party had a long history working within electoral politics. In its early years, the Party’s revolutionary Third Period policy forestalled working with “social fascists” or reformers, in favor of pushing for a socialist America. The popular front anti-fascist policy led to alliances with mainstream reform organizations. But even within the Third Period, the Party ran political campaigns, especially in local and state elections. Berry described the importance of local representation in a 1947 theoretical pamphlet on the Party’s position on the “Negro Question.” He noted that the American system made state and local elections more important because the states held more political significance for the condition of the Black populations living within them. With the exception of Reconstruction when the federal government occupied the defeated southern states, state politics were essential to the conditions in Black America. He wrote that the “sovereignty of the citizen” was not through Washington, but within local government and he urged Black citizens to run for local offices.

Berry did not reject the importance of national elections and when the Henry Wallace campaign captured the loyalty of radicals, he was a quick advocate. He also lost patience early in the campaign season with liberal Black leadership including Walter White of the NAACP, who campaigned for the Democratic Party candidate Harry Truman. He accused White and other Black leaders of not just stumping for Truman, but taking “peashots” along with Dixiecrats, against Wallace. White specifically attacked Wallace’s record in the Department of Agriculture under Roosevelt, but Berry reminded him of his support for Wallace as Roosevelt’s Vice-President in 1944.

Berry took particular issue with Louis Martin, editor of the Michigan Chronicle, a Detroit based Black newspaper. Martin attacked the Wallace campaign’s links to the Communist Party, a link that would ultimately spell the end of the Wallace coalition, and open the avenue for “red-bait[ing].” Martin deployed anti-communism in his editorials thanking Wallace for his advocacy of full equality, a platform in his campaign, but his “gratitude” would not extend to alliances with the Party. Martin, Berry wrote, openly denounced any alliance with the Wallace campaign because of attacks on liberals who he claimed were unwilling to follow “Moscow’s orders.” It was liberal leaders, Martin believed that would help to usher in Black equality. This faith, Berry insisted, was unfounded. Liberals that supported Truman were simply allying themselves with “Dixiecrats” in upholding a two-party system with no place for Black Americans.

For Berry, an alliance with Truman was a coalition against Black America and newly decolonized states in Africa and Asia. The Wallace campaign was born out of concerns about American Cold War policy and Berry cited these concerns in his attacks on Black leaders. He asked these same leaders to consider what that policy meant for Africa, what it meant for organized labor, and what it would mean for the Black Freedom Struggle, already under attack for its radicalism. Berry reminded White that he had only recently fired W.E.B. DuBois for his growing radicalism. Berry indicted Black liberals like White for embracing anti-communism to secure their own power. He also noted that alliances with white liberals were already having a detrimental effect. Walter Reuther, the AFL President, and in Berry’s description the “garrulous redhead” had been quick on the “anti-red trigger” but was not quite as quick when dealing with charges of discrimination against Black workers. Eleanor Roosevelt, another “anti-communist…liberal” was instrumental in destroying “civil rights and non-discrimination provisions” in the United Nation’s Human Rights Report. Berry wondered what good these alliances with liberals and reformers had done for Black Americans, and what danger anti-communism was causing for the Black Freedom Struggle.

Anti-communism was an “anti-Negro position,” and liberals were wholly embracing it in the election. But Berry did not just target liberals in the election, he also feared that the Republican platform was equally detrimental, echoing his colleague Charlotta Bass’s concerns that there was no voice for Black America in the two-party system. Dewey’s campaign slogan could best be described as “do[ing] the wrong thing better.” Berry accused Dewey of promising to create a police state using language reminiscent of the racist dog-whistle “law and order,” Dewey described it as “strength in leadership.” He promised to be a strong leader in the epic conflict between communism and democracy. This pledge was nothing more than a promise to indict Berry’s friends and colleagues in the Party and to commit the United States to imperialist ventures against people of color in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The “strong” regime that the Republicans were promising was a military order that repressed liberation movements and committed itself to perpetual war in the name of a mythical democracy that the Black American did not enjoy. 2

Berry wanted a socialist America. He recognized that even within American capitalism, Black America could not reap its rewards. He rejected language that called the conditions of Black Americans in the south as feudal. He argued that it was not feudalism that impoverished and disenfranchised Black people, it was American capitalism and its particular expressions in the poll tax and other similar systems like crop liens used to bar Black Americans from the polls. Feudalism could not describe the uniquely American system of capitalism propped up by Black labor, and that was celebrated by white liberals as a working system that only needed reform. Berry warned that it was a sign of the “illiteracy of the times” when “grass roots democracy” came under attack as an outside force, and the voices of reformism were celebrated, even as they attacked democratic efforts. This conflict between reform and revolutionary change has been a long-standing one in the 20th and 21st centuries, and if that conflict has taught us anything, reform only begets more reform and only requires more reform.

Therefore, the question moving forward is one Abner Berry and his cohorts faced, when do you stop trying to reform a broken system?

  1. Abner Berry, “Dewey, GOP’s Hopeful, Who Offers to Do Things Wrong, Better,” Daily Worker, October 24, 1948, 3.
  2. “Abner Berry, Journalist & Activist, Dies at 85,” People’s Daily World, July 3, 1987, 10-A.
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Denise Lynn

Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.

Comments on “Black Radical Abner Berry and the Limitations of Liberal Alliances

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    Many thanks for writing about this great human being! He was my mentor and office mate for several years in the UN press section. I plan to write about my experience with him. Persevere in your good works!

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    Walter Reuther was not the AFL President. He was the President of the UAW, and before the merger of the AFL and the CIO, the CIO.

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    In this complex times it is hard to recall many black leaders embraced Russian politics over American terrorism..paul robeson, and Dubois quickly come to mind…the answer is still unclear..but neither ideology stem corruption greed or racism??

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    These is a wonderful and timely article on the lessons from the work of great revolutionaries like Bro Abner Berry. Abner Berry was a leader and mentor to us in the work of the Black Workers For Justice in the 1980s and 90s in North Carolina. Our Worker’s Center in eastern North Carolina was named in his honor: The Abner Berry Freedom Library and Worker’s Center. The Center was the hub and headquarters for organizing thousands of workers in our organizing of the black working class in the South. One of the great lessons as drawn out in this article is the critical importance of independence from the Democratic and Republican so-called parties. In this independence and the fight for radical solutions lies the keys to solving or at least mitigating complex political questions in every era. As Brother Abner would say, “We Will Win”!

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