Claudia Jones and the Price of Anticommunism

Claudia Jones in London in the 1960s (Credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Divisions)

Between 1949 to 1958 dozens of Communist Party (CPUSA) leaders were tried, some were convicted, and several served prison terms. The cost of anticommunism went beyond the people who were put on trial, their families faced harassment, surveillance, job loss, and illness all while witnessing the constant harassment of their loved ones. As a number of Red Diaper babies (children of communists) have attested, the harassment took a heavy toll on their families. In the case of Claudia Jones, the Trinidad born CPUSA leader, theoretician and activist, after serving time in prison she was then deported to England, a country she had never lived in, away from her only living family members. Behind Jones was her loving father Charles Cumberbatch, a political activist himself who lobbied politicians, parole boards, and judges to seek relief only to lose and face the loss of his daughter and poor health.

The language of anticommunism celebrated family as a bulwark against communism, even while anticommunists targeted and legally harassed the families of those arrested. Sociologist Deborah Gerson has argued that the hypocrisy of anticommunists who argued that the white heterosexual American family was a bulwark was used by communist family members to expose the harassment and the targeting of their families. Even while anticommunists invoked family as a sacred institution, the children of communists were followed by FBI agents, excluded from nursery schools and summer camps, and even harassed by teachers who were informed by agents who their parents were. The spouses of those under indictment could not find work and were often ordered to stay away from other progressives, their own community of friends. The Families of the Smith Act Victims committee was founded in 1951 to help raise funds to support these families; after its founding, Attorney General Herbert Brownell claimed the organization was subversive. Family harassment became official public policy.

Claudia Jones’s family particularly her father Charles Cumberbatch, worked to support her throughout her long legal battle. In November 1950, after Jones’s second arrest, she was remanded to Ellis Island with other foreign-born communists arrested under the McCarran Internal Security Act. Cumberbatch joined a delegation of other “Families of McCarran Victims” to petition the United Nations Social Humanitarian and Cultural Committee to intervene on Jones’s behalf. The delegation was denied entry into the UN meeting, but one member was allowed to present a petition they carried. Jones would later be convicted under the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act and sent to a segregated prison in Alderson, West Virginia. Here her health quickly deteriorated. Cumberbatch was deeply worried about his daughter’s health and joined a delegation that traveled to Washington, D.C. in April 1955 to secure Jones an early release so that she could get proper medical care. When that effort failed, Cumberbatch traveled again to Washington, D.C., the next month, this time with a delegation led by Paul Robeson, to seek parole. Cumberbatch was still unsuccessful in his efforts. Jones would remain imprisoned until October of that year. Less than three months after her release, she was deported to London, England, in ill health and alone. 1

Though she was welcomed to England by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) which included fellow deportee John Williamson, her legal battles took such a toll on her health she was hospitalized for two months. Writing to her friend Stretch Johnson four months after her deportation, she noted that it was “impossible to be both uprooted and ill.” Later reports state that Charles Cumberbatch’s health deteriorated soon after his daughter’s forced removal and he died on June 8, 1956, six months after her departure. The Daily Worker eulogized Cumberbatch noting his political activities as an editor of a newspaper in Harlem and as an active member in New York’s West Indian community. 2

Jones wrote her own eulogy describing how her legal and anticommunist harassment imposed difficulties on her family. She described her father as the “essence of gentleness, understanding, strength, and compassion,” citing his activity with the Families of the Smith Act Victims and the Committee to Defend Negro Leadership as evidence. Her father was not a communist, but he respected Jones’s right to her own beliefs. She believed he exemplified the “Bill of Rights” and the vision of “progressive[s] and freedom fighters,” in his ability to respect the beliefs of others. Jones argued such sentiments were lacking in Cold War America. At her conviction Jones told the court she and other activists were standing up for rights while the courts were trampling on them. 3

Jones noted the mutual respect she shared with Cumberbatch. Having lost her mother as an adolescent he became her primary parental figure. Though he never adopted her political beliefs, their different philosophies did not hinder their relationship, nor did it impact his concern for her as she faced state harassment. Even in her grief, she cherished the memory of this relationship and its “share of richness,” particularly in their mutual ability to “transcend” their political disagreements and maintain respect and love for one another. 4

While in prison, her father would write to her multiple times a week expressing his concern about the conditions of her imprisonment. The “genteel title” of the Federal Reformatory for Women could not mask its horrible conditions “particularly for political prisoners.” Cumberbatch also traveled over 500 hundred miles to Alderson, West Virginia, where the mileage could hardly represent the actual distance traveling from his home community to a “jimcrow town” where the “accommodations and experiences” would arouse his “wry humor.” She described this humor as having a knowledge and awareness that though West Virginia was miles away from Harlem as a place and a relic, that the “people’s freedom movement” was even then undermining the segregation and prejudice ensconced there. 5

Jones noted that her father remained a student in his advanced years by learning about the state’s resistance to the freedom struggle via its abuse of his daughter. But he learned quickly not to rely on the legal system as he traveled the country on Jones’s behalf pleading for relief and release, a plea that was ignored. In one letter he revealed his new understanding about her devotion to the “struggle for social progress.” But her father also imparted his own wisdom on his daughter. He instilled pride in her African heritage through his active fight for “African freedom” and editorship of a West Indian newspaper in New York. He taught his children to “think and fight” for what they believed “to be right.” 6

Jones tried to constrain her grief in her eulogy, but she knew her American Communist community mourned him and held him in honor. He worked with many of the Party’s leading lights in his daughter’s defense and when he passed, the Party announced his funeral and sent condolences to their exiled comrade. Jones noted that she was overwhelmed in her grief, but also in the support she maintained among her friends. She closed her eulogy acknowledging the love so many shared for Charles Cumberbatch providing her a measure of consolation and serving as a “balm” to ease her pain. 7

Jones was just 40 years old when she was deported, and she died in London nearly nine years after her deportation on Christmas eve. She found the CPGB to be more embattled on antiracism and anticolonialism than the American Communist Party, prompting her to focus her efforts on England’s West Indian community. She founded Notting Hill’s Carnival celebration and became editor of the West Indian Gazette. Though it is speculation to assert that anticommunist harassment was what led to the early deaths of Claudia Jones and Charles Cumberbatch, one can certainly argue the anticommunist efforts contributed to their poor health and rapid decline. Jones’s fate and its broader impact upon her family exemplify how anticommunism took a heavy toll on the Black Freedom struggle by imprisoning, harassing and exiling some of its leaders. But we should not forget how it also placed a large burden on families who became the victims of racist  government policy. While policy makers celebrated the American family as an important institution in the fight for democracy, federal law enforcement harassed and targeted the families of the accused revealing the cruelties and hypocrisies of anticommunism.

  1. “Families of McCarran Victims Ask UN Aid,” Daily Worker, November 15, 1950, 8; “Delegation Urges D. of J. to Release Claudia Jones,” Daily Worker, April 10, 1955; “Free Claudia Jones Now!” The Worker, May 15, 1955, 6.
  2. Britons Welcome Claudia Jones,’ Daily Worker, 23 December 1955, 2; Claudia Jones to Howard ‘Stretch’ Johnson, 21 April 1956, Claudia Jones Memorial Collection, Schomberg Library, Harlem, New York; Funeral Services Tonight for Charles Cumberbatch,” Daily Worker, June 11, 1956, 3.
  3. Claudia Jones, “Claudia Jones Writes About her Father,” Daily Worker, June 26, 1956, 4.
  4. Jones, “Claudia Jones Writes About her Father,” 4.
  5. Jones, “Claudia Jones Writes About her Father,” 4.
  6. Jones, “Claudia Jones Writes About her Father,” 4.
  7. Jones, “Claudia Jones Writes About her Father,” 4.
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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 “Claudia Jones and the Price of Anticommunism

  • Now Be A Witness Again, Jesse Green: The New York times Style Magazine
    James Baldwin enabled the country to produce a literary figure who was both a hero to the individual and the conscience of a nation.
    A wonderful & challenging achievement.
    Thank you & many Blessings to you.

    Reply
  • Thanks Professor Lynn for the essay. We need to know more of Claudia Jones and her contribution to the struggle for freedom.

    Reply
  • It might be noted that the CPUSA was at the time of her deportation engulfed
    in an intense factional strife in which she was, along with John Williamson and
    William Z. Foster was part of the Left faction, as opposed to the Center and Right factions. The Left lost the battle.

    Reply

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