Black Radicalism and the Trial of Claudia Jones

This is the second installment in a three-part series on Claudia Jones. Read the first installment here.

Claudia Jones with fellow Smith Act defendants before U.S. Federal Court building (Photo: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

Claudia Jones believed that her 1950 article “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace” prompted her arrest and indictment under the Smith Act in 1951. The Smith Act prohibited Americans from advocating the violent overthrow of the US government. Jones’ article made no such argument. Instead, it advocated women’s unity and organization against atomic weaponry. Jones warned that if women did not organize, it would be their children that would be sacrificed in the next imperialist war. She believed that it had to be women that organized against what she described as President Truman’s “cold-blooded order” to start a “suicidal atomic and hydrogen weapon race,” because women were invested in peace for the sake of their children. She argued that “monopolist rulers” were trying to “deceive the people” and to compromise the peace movement by counseling women to stay at home.

Jones’ primary concern was to organize women against demands that they adhere to what she called the “Fascist Triple-K,” Kinder, Küche Kirche, or “children, kitchen, church,” a Nazi slogan that prescribed housework and parenting as women’s only role. At the end of World War II, Jones was actively trying to secure some of the meager wartime gains women and minorities gained, including higher wages, and access to better jobs. She believed that Cold War gender prescriptions mirrored the fascism the US and allies defeated in Europe. Jones was concerned that these “fascist” sentiments kept women at home rather than organizing for peace and economic security. She was critical of the increased tensions during the Cold War, but she was not writing anything other Party women were not talking and writing about too. Her co-defendant, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn told the court that only Communists were concerned about equality and liberty, peace and justice and accused the government of being bullies.

Communists advocated peace as tensions between the superpowers increased and government repression targeted Party members. Jones’ own writing and activism focused on the need for peace as a prerequisite for race and gender equality. In “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” Jones argued “complete emancipation of women is only possible under Socialism.” American “monopoly capitalism” offered women “a programme only of war and fascism” and the status of Soviet women proved Socialism led to liberation. The same freedoms Soviet women enjoyed were impossible under capitalism and therefore impossible in the United States. Socialism abolished “class divisions and human exploitation” while “bourgeois democracy” only offered “programmatic demands” and “constant struggle.” Though advocating socialism was not treasonous nor was it illegal, foreign radicals like Jones had no protection against the anti-communist apparatus.

As it turns out it was not just one article that the FBI would use in its case against Jones, her FBI file contains the text of most of her written work in communist periodicals from 1948 until her deportation in 1955. Jones’ written work focused on the liberation of black and white working people under socialism, women’s radical potential, and the need to recognize Black women’s triple oppression. The Party paper The Worker claimed that is was the “directive” she issued to liberate Black women in her most powerful article on ending the neglect of Black women that drew the FBI’s attention. Though the FBI was interested in most of Jones’ written work, she was right about one thing, the FBI took special interest in her writings and her speaking engagements on peace.1

Peace advocacy was a liability in the Cold War. The Cold War peace movement focused largely on the fear of nuclear proliferation and opposition to US involvement in the Korean Civil War. As tensions mounted between the superpowers, advocating peace was interpreted as disarming the United States for a Soviet takeover. The Soviets were also supportive of peace agitation, linking the movement to communism. Black militants were specifically attacked for their involvement in the peace movement. W.E.B. DuBois was indicted after the organization he was involved in, the Peace Information Center, refused a Department of Justice order to register. In 1952, his passport was seized preventing him from traveling to a peace conference. Paul Robeson came under fire after claiming at a Paris Peace Conference that Black Americans would refuse to take up arms against the Soviet Union. Jones wrote a regular column in The Worker called “Half the World,” in it she condemned the Korean War and celebrated women’s leadership in the peace movement, all of which was noted by the FBI.

Jones was under regular FBI surveillance since 1941, and the Bureau was actively working to indict and eventually expel her from the country. That chance came with her 1951 arrest, along with several other Party leaders, under the Smith Act. The Civil Rights Congress (CRC) took up the cases, located lawyers, and secured bond. The CRC also began a public relations campaign to get the support of social justice organizations and unions against the indictments. Jones and the other accused were featured in pamphlets and fliers for fundraising efforts. In one pamphlet, Jones seconded the sentiments of her co-defendant Pettis Perry, who called the upcoming trials examples of “lynch law.” Jones argued that the “lily-white” jury system meant that they would be tried by a nearly all-white jury—which is precisely what happened. Jones also linked the fight for the “rights and liberties” of communists to the fight for the “rights and liberties” of Black Americans.2

The trial began on September 30, 1952 before Federal Judge Edward Conger. From the beginning the defense lawyers tried to argue that the Smith Act was a violation of the constitution and that suppressing freedom of speech meant that no speech was safe. In November, the defense brought in Yale Law Professor Thomas Emerson. Emerson argued that the trials were about “suppression of social ideas” and that suppressing communist ideas meant that other ideas could also be curtailed. The attorneys also tried to restrict any FBI evidence obtained through wiretapping. The Judge dismissed their motions. The evidence used against Jones included her writing on the Black Freedom Struggle and the peace movement.3

The trial lasted until December 3, by January 15, the Judge charged the jury to make its decision, which they deliberated on until January 21. The defendants were found guilty and Jones was sentenced to one year and one day, plus a $2000 fine. The FBI notified the Immigration and Naturalization Services of Jones’ conviction. Defense lawyers filed an appeal and the defendants, including Jones, were placed on supervised parole and restricted to the Southern District of New York. The defendants were instructed to end their association with the Communist Party, to which Jones told officials that she would not “desist in the fight for peace.”

At their sentencing, the defendants all gave a speech to the court. Jones immediately attacked the basis of her conviction—her communist beliefs—and her fight for the “unequivocal equality for my people.” She believed that Black Liberation could only happen with the alliance of the working class, and the justice system was threatened by that. She also contested the sentence based on her belief that the Korean war was unjust and that “peaceful coexistence” could be achieved. She attacked the court’s assumptions that Marxist-Leninist ideas meant violent revolution and instead claimed that she and her fellow defendants were “morally free” while the prosecution was violating both the constitution and the free expression of ideas.

She argued that the court was an expression of “conscious white supremacist prejudice” because it lacked any black or Puerto Rican jurors, except one black juror who was an alternate for most of the trial. Jones thought it was troubling that the prosecution convicted her using her own writing on race and peace, but refused to enter it into the record, suggesting they were scared she was right. She argued that she and her co-defendants were also tried on their opposition to racist ideas and their commitment to Marxism-Leninism, because it rejected racist ideas and was the “antithesis of them.” Jones closed by nothing that the “decadent” Smith Act would be swept from the “scene of history.”

Standing boldly before the Judge, Jones defended her communism and accused the court of targeting her for her anti-racism and peace advocacy. Jones remained on parole until the convictions were upheld in October 1954. She was remanded to a segregated federal penitentiary in West Virginia to serve out her sentence. Meanwhile, federal officials marked the days until they could finally be rid of her. Jones and her supporters accused the courts of violating the constitution and the right to agitate for social justice. It was not communism they feared, it was race and gender equality, silencing Jones would not silence the movement.

  1.  Abner Berry, “Negro Victims of FBI Raids Fought Brilliantly for Rights of their People,” The Worker, 1 July 1951, p. 4.
  2.  Claudia Jones, “A Message from Claudia Jones,” Civil Rights Congress Papers, Schomburg Center, New York.
  3.  John Hudson Jones, “Hear Plea for Dropping Case Against 17,” Compass, November 19, 1952.
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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.