Racial Fascism in the Postwar United States

Claudia Jones Delivering a Speech While on Japan Trip, circa 1955-1964 (Schomburg Center, New York Public Library)

 

The Communist Party (CPUSA) was a leader in the antifascist left in the 1930s. The Party had a broad understanding of fascism – it came in the form of national, political, and religious oppression (like in Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Japan, and Spain), but it also came in the form of racism, sexism and economic exploitation, which the United States had a long history of. The Party likened Jim Crow, economic exploitation, and union busting to fascism, and birth control and abortion restrictions to Nazi pronatalism. At the end of World War II, with the supposed defeat of fascism, the rise of Cold War anticommunism worried CPUSA members, including Claudia Jones. Anticommunist repression, coupled with racist violence led to concerns that a new brand of fascism was on the rise.

Scholars today have argued that a fascistic element has always been present in the United States. Alberto Toscano argues that analogies between Trumpism and European fascists ignore the “distinctly American forms of authoritarianism.” He describes the long history of Black radical thinkers, like W.E.B. Du Bois, that critiqued European fascism as just a continuation of “colonial dispossession and racial slavery.” Bill Mullen and Christopher Vials in The US Antifascism Reader claim that while a fascist state has different “mechanisms of power” than a liberal democracy, the “experience of racialized rightlessness” means that “fascism” does not refer to a “distant” or “alien social order.”

Charisse Burden-Stelly has argued similarly noting that Claudia Jones feared that the rise of anticommunism heralded a new fascist order. Burden-Stelly argues that Jones “theorized” that there were four distinctive characteristics in U.S. fascism: capitalist imperialism, militarism and war-mongering (especially pronounced in postwar military proliferation), anticommunism, and anti-Blackness. Anticommunism and anti-Blackness worked in tandem as the radicals in the postwar Black Freedom Struggle called for an end to capitalist imperialism, war and militarism and became as John Munro argues, “an especially subversive form of solidarity” that the state actively oppressed.

Anti-Black police violence highlighted the kind of U.S. fascism that then (and now) concerned radical activists. It would also lead to the 1951 We Charge Genocide plea to the United Nations to intercede on behalf of Black America.  Violence against Black veterans upon their return was particularly galling, as they fought to defeat fascism only to face it at home. The 1946 murder of Army veteran Charles Ferguson and his brother Alfonzo caught the CPUSA’s and Claudia Jones’s attention and the Party initiated a campaign to prosecute the police officer responsible. That same year Jones was appointed Negro Affairs editor for the Party’s flagship paper the Daily Worker. The Ferguson case garnered a great deal of her attention because it happened in nearby Long Island, it was an egregious example of police abuse, and it represented the kind of fascistic anti-Black violence that Black Americans faced in both the north and the south. 

On February 5, Charles and his three brothers were eating in a diner in Freeport, Long Island. There is no clear understanding of what happened next, but police officer Joseph Romeika ordered the brothers outside and lined them up against the side of the building. Charles evidently told Romeika that he had a .45 and when he reached to take it out, Romeika shot him and his brother, killing them instantly. The bullet that killed Alfonzo ricocheted and injured a third brother Joseph Ferguson, also a veteran. Witnesses could not agree on the events leading up to the shootings; three women claimed that they had seen nothing out of the ordinary before the shootings, while a truck driver claimed to have seen Charles arguing with a diner employee. An all-white Nassau County jury exonerated Romeika of any wrong-doing. For Jones, the exoneration served as an endorsement of anti-Black violence.1

Jones argued that the case was an example of the “lynch-like” violence that Black citizens faced and that progressives recognized its “kinship” to the “Aryan supremacy” doctrines, against which the U.S. had just finished fighting. Jones described Romeika as an “anti-Negro killer” and argued that the Nassau County officials in collusion with state authorities had no interest in pressing the case any further. She also argued that anti-Black violence bred more violence as the perpetrators acted with impunity and with the express permission of authorities. This was what the Party and Jones would describe as lynch-law. The Party did not coin the phrase lynch law but used it to describe the replacement of lynch mobs with police, prosecutors, juries and judges who did the work of the mob; the violence of the mob became the police use of violence and the justice system’s use of its processes to ensure the disciplining of Black America. As Mullens and Vials have noted, violence against “part” of the Black population served to discipline the entire population.2

 Jones credited the Party with preventing the case from being ignored. The Party organized letter writing campaigns, demonstrations, sent telegrams and delegates to officials, and organized a delegation to travel to Albany to see Governor Thomas Dewey. Jones reported on the campaigns progress while also encouraging Party members involvement. In her articles she called for a new grand jury and for the state to conduct its own investigation. Several prominent attorneys became involved including Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP, Arthur Garfield Hays from the ACLU, and Osmond K. Fraenkel from the National Lawyers Guild; they all pressed the state to create a committee to investigate.3

In April, the US Army had officially cleared Charles of any wrong and granted his widow a pension; a pension that was granted to soldiers killed in the line of duty. The Navy later cleared Joseph Ferguson as well.  Dewey eventually called for an investigation, but from the beginning it appeared to be a half-hearted effort to get activists to stop their campaigns. The governor appointed the Nassau County District Attorney, Gehrig, to the committee. Jones argued that Gehrig was responsible for the original “white-wash” of the case; she quoted a letter he had written that claimed it was activists that “injected racial implications” into the case. She wrote that he was referring to accusations against him that he was prejudiced against the Ferguson brothers and that Freeport was steeped in Jim Crow segregation and the police department was “anti-Negro.” She noted the beating of a Black “lay preacher” by Freeport police only months after the killings as evidence of the community’s racism. In Freeport, and “elsewhere” police “shoot first and ask questions later.” She wrote that this kind of “anti-Negro violence” served the interests of the KKK and the “big business and pro-Fascist forces” who sought disunity between Black and white workers to maintain their power.4

To no one’s surprise, the state’s committee exonerated Romeika a second time demonstrating the official acceptance of anti-Black violence. The case and its disappointing resolution appeared in the 1951 We Charge Genocide petition as evidence of official sanction for police killings. The We Charge Genocide petition noted the use of official violence (both police killings and false imprisonment) as part of the US government’s genocidal behavior toward Black Americans. This coupled with the constitutional violations inherent in anticommunist arrests, prosecutions, imprisonment, and in Jones’s case deportation, demonstrated how Black Americans lived under fascist regimes under the guise of democracy. This was an important point for Jones and her comrades, while the federal government expended enormous amounts of energy prosecuting her and her colleagues, it turned a blind eye to racist violence. This was proof that racial fascism persisted long after the U.S. had mobilized against European fascism. For Jones and the Party, anti-Black police violence served then (and today) as a fascist tool and demonstrates how repression can operate freely under a liberal democracy.

 

  1. “Brothers describe Freeport shooting,” New York Times, 18 July 1946, 27; Claudia Jones, “Army’s Exoneration of Slain Negro puts Ferguson case up to Dewey,” Daily Worker, 17 April 1946, 1.
  2. Jones, “Army’s Exoneration of Slain Negro puts Ferguson case up to Dewey,” 1.
  3. Claudia Jones, “Lawyers ask US probe in Freeport,” Worker, 10 March 1946, 5.
  4. Claudia Jones, “Reveal Freeport Whitewasher is on Dewey Investigation,” Daily Worker, 10 July 1946, 5; Claudia Jones, “Lawyers ask US probe in Freeport,” Worker, 10 March 1946, 5; Claudia Jones, “The Freeport Murder Case Won’t be Buried, Gov Dewey,” Worker, 7 July 1946, 7.
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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 “Racial Fascism in the Postwar United States

  • Thanks for this post. Per the citations: Please see “To Stand and Fight: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City” for further discussion of the killing of the Ferguson brothers.

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