Black Radicalism and the Right to Bail

Mural, created by Willis Humphrey in 2008, depicting W.E.B. Du Bois in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

New York’s LaGuardia Airport was abuzz. On December 9, 1951, two of the most well-known African American activists of the time – Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois – eagerly awaited the arrival of their friend, W. Alphaeus Hunton. Finally, after serving six months in jail, Hunton rejoined his comrades.

Hunton, a former Howard University professor and leader of the National Negro Congress (NNC), worked with Robeson and Du Bois at the Council on African Affairs (CAA), the domestic linchpin of an international movement for Black liberation. As an NNC and CAA leader, Hunton helped build the intellectual and organization infrastructure for “the long Civil Rights movement.”

He was also a leader of the Communist Party, USA and a bail fund trustee of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), led by William L. Patterson. Like the CAA, the CRC was branded a “Communist front,” which meant anyone associated with it was considered a traitor by those in Washington, D.C. Federal officials were already inclined to paint civil rights activists with a red brush regardless of actual Communist affiliations.

As the Red Scare ascended, the U.S. government’s repressive apparatus focused on Robeson, Du Bois, and Hunton. They were targets of anti-communist, racist political repression. In August 1950, Robeson’s passport was revoked. In February 1951, Du Bois was indicted as a foreign agent. And in July 1951, Hunton began a six-month jail sentence for “refusing to divulge” the names of CRC bail fund contributors. At this time, the bail fund managed about $770,000 in donations – not an insignificant amount in 1951; roughly eight million dollars today.1

The CRC was a legal defense organization that used mass political action on behalf of victims of political and racist frame-ups. Mass political action was a hallmark of Patterson’s legal strategy, which had proven effective in saving the lives of the Scottsboro Nine. The CRC came to the defense of Communists, helped lead the defense of Willie McGee, and the Martinsville Seven, among others, and published the historic petition to the United Nations titled We Charge Genocide, of which Hunton was a signatory.

Released at UN headquarters in New York and Paris by Robeson and Patterson, respectively, the petition not only embarrassed the United States internationally, as historian Gerald Horne noted, but also bolstered African American civil rights domestically, “virtually invit[ing] the international community to intervene forcefully in what had been seen traditionally as an internal U.S. affair.” The petition “was a devastating indictment of…complicity and dereliction in lynching, murder, deprivation of voting rights, and all manner of crimes,” which brought unwanted attention to the Truman Administration’s mixed commitment to civil rights and equality.

As the CRC argued, at the heart of Hunton’s jailing was an assault on the Bill of Rights. The court not only refused to accept the “legality of the [CRC] trust agreement,” it also “disqualified” four CRC trustees from posting bail, and sentenced three of the trustees – Hunton, detective novelist Dashiell Hammett, and philanthropist Frederick V. Field – to jail for “criminal contempt of court.” Essentially, a “loyalty test” for bail was created. Another CRC defendant, Manuel Tarazona, was denied bail when his wife “refused to answer questions regarding her organizational membership.”

By August 1951, the CRC issued a call to “all defenders of the Bill of Rights.” It said, “The terroristic manner in which this Grand Jury has pursued the trustees…exceeds in violence any act of a similar character” in U.S. history. It was “a drive of terror” directed against the right to bail.2

That Hunton’s attorney Mary K. Kaufman served as a prosecutor in the Nuremberg War Crimes trials mattered little to the court; during the Red Scare the verdict was preordained. The government also insisted on knowing the source of funding for those attempting to post Hunton’s bail; the intimidation tactic worked. “Nobody wanted to be publicly smeared as a ‘supporter’ of Communism.”

Donald H. Aiken, deputy superintendent of banks, questioned Hunton and the other CRC trustees about the bail fund. He claimed the inquiry was not politically motivated. “We are interested only in violations of the banking law,” he insisted. Like the International Workers Order (IWO), another Communist-led group, the CRC’s books were above reproach. Additionally, the court hinted at recalling Hunton and other defendants to “ask them the same questions they had previously refused to answer,” thereby threatening additional contempt charges.3

Hunton wasn’t disheartened, though. Solidarity came from all corners. The All China Federation of Labor expressed indignation. “The prosecution…[of the trustees] is in violation of the American Bill of Rights and is part of a plot for a new world war…” Their fears weren’t unfounded. The Korean War was then raging. Millions would soon be dead.

The Furriers Joint Council, representing tens of thousands of workers, issued a statement “lauding” Hunton and the trustees, while damning the “violation of constitutional rights.” The union also called for Hunton to be pardoned. Other unions stood with Hunton and the CRC, too.

Du Bois sent letters to friends and allies calling for Hunton’s pardon. He optimistically noted, Hunton’s “imprisonment is so obviously a miscarriage of justice that I believe our appeal for pardon has a reasonable chance of success.”4

Despite domestic and international support, Hunton remained in jail until early December 1951.

If the 500 people gathered at New York’s Hotel Brevoort in January 1952 were any indication, the government’s prosecution did little to deter Hunton from defending the Bill of Rights. He told the assembled guests, “We are in this fight to defend the right of Americans to have bail, reasonable bail…”

That same month, 2,500 people at a “labor symposium” gave Hunton a standing ovation when he read the resolution endorsing the We Charge Genocide petition. The assembled unionists also “called for work stoppages, boycotts, demonstrations and delegations” to Washington to protest Jim Crow, lynching, and colonial subjugation.

That spring Hunton, the CRC, and the CAA collaborated in the annual New York May Day parade by mobilizing “America’s largest single Negro community [Harlem]” around the theme “Stop Genocide at Home and Colonialism Abroad.” The CRC demanded “an end to government-inspired Genocide against the Negro people” and the CAA called for the “immediate freedom of all African colonial and semi-colonial nations.”

Roughly one year after his release, Hunton, Robeson, and Du Bois – along with Charlotta Bass, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Esther Cooper Jackson, among others – celebrated at the first annual National Committee to Defend Negro Leadership Gala. The “defense of Negro leaders…[is] one of the most important causes of this historic time,” Robeson said. Award citations were given to prominent African American leaders, including Hunton, “who have fought for democracy and peace…”

Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker addressed the group and noted, “a persecuted people will have persecuted leaders.” Hunton exemplified this fact.5

  1. Re Robeson, see: See Nicholas Grant, Winning Our Freedoms Together: African Americans and Apartheid, 1945-1960 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2017), 83. Re Du Bois, see: Gerald Horne, Black and Red: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944-1963 (Albany, NY, 1986). Re Hunton and the bail fund, see: Tony Pecinovsky, The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946 (New York, 2021), 138-146
  2. Russell Porter, “$875,000 Bail Asked For Indicted Reds,” New York Times, July 11, 1951, and “Bail of 14 Reds Voided Again; New Bonds Required Today,” New York Times, July 17, 1951; “‘Loyalty Test’ for Bail,” Daily Worker, July 12, 1951. Re Tarazona, see: “Two Communists Freed In Bail Here,” New York Times, August 17, 1951. Re CRC call, see: “Urge Probe Of Saypol’s Aid To Rackets: CRC Also Asks Inquiry into Persecution of Civil Rights Group,” Daily Worker, August 6, 1951.
  3. Russell Porter, “Red Bail Trustees Also Defy State,” New York Times, August 1, 1951, and “State Ends Query of 4 On Red Bail,” New York Times, September 12, 1951. Re IWO, see: Robert Zecker, “A Road To Peace And Freedom”: The International Workers Order and the Struggle for Economic Justice and Civil Rights, 1930-1954 (Philadelphia, 2018). Re additional contempt charges, see: “Fields Loses Appeal On Contempt Term,” New York Times, December 4, 1951.
  4. Re All China Federation, see: “China Unions Hit Jailing Hunton, Hammett, Field,” Daily Worker, July 25, 1951, 2. Re Furriers, see: “Fur Locals Hit Jailing of Bail Fund Trustees,” Daily Worker, July 30, 1951, 2 and “Fur Dressers Urge Pardon for Dr. Hunton,” Daily Worker, September 27, 1951, 3. Re Du Bois’ letter, see: UMass-Amherst, Special Collections, W.E.B. Du Bois Papers: MS 312: Letter from Du Bois, August 8, 1951.
  5. Re Hotel Brevoort, see: “500 At Banquet Pay Tribute to Courageous CRC Bail Fund Trustees,” Daily Worker, January 28, 1952, 8. Re “labor symposium,” see: “2,500 At Genocide Rally Hail Work Stoppage Bid,” The Worker, January 20, 1952, 4. Re May Day, see: “Harlem To March On May Day Against Genocide Here, Abroad,” Daily Worker, April 29, 1952, 3; Re Gala, see: Robert Friedman, “Annual Citation Awards Set Up for Negro Leaders,” Daily Worker, January 13, 1953, 8
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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 “Black Radicalism and the Right to Bail

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    WOW! All these great people suffered untold persecutions to make life better for us… all Americans!!

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