Radical Black Peace Activism in the Black Liberation Movement

Anti-war Protests in Harlem in 1967 (Photo: Savanah Cox).

On July 4, 1964, the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) wrote a letter to the Vietnamese Front of National Liberation congratulating them on their “victories against U.S. imperialism.” They expressed their commitment to creating “a new world free from exploitation of man by man,” and explained their rejection of U.S counterrevolutionary measures against their Third World brothers. Eighteen months later, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) issued a statement opposing the Vietnam War, exposing that the U.S. hid behind the discourse of democracy and freedom to undermine the sovereignty and self-determination of racialized people throughout the Global South and in the United States. Given this deception and hypocrisy, SNCC offered its support to those who refused to be drafted into the service of U.S. imperial aggression, and encouraged Americans to put their energy toward the struggle for civil and human rights, instead of the propagation of war and suffering.

These proclamations were part of a long history of radical Black peace activism—a fundamental but often-forgotten feature of the modern Black Liberation Movement. These activists articulated the inexorable interconnection of the cessation of global conflict, disarmament, non-proliferation, racial equality, international cooperation, and economic progress. They called for the end of imperialism and colonialism, and the eradication of capitalist exploitation. They offered a vision of a new world order in which the United States was displaced as the world’s police, and militarization was no longer a viable mode of global interaction. Such envisioning proved anathema to the Cold War state apparatus, which responded by weaponizing anticommunism to curb internationalism, promote militarism, undermine economic justice, justify the expansion of neocolonialism and corporate imperialism, and rationalize racialized inequality.

During the Cold War, U.S. government agencies, including the State Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Subversive Activities Control Board, considered the conjoining of internationalism, radical Blackness, anti-capitalism, and pacifism to be anti-American, Communist-inspired, and a form of Soviet-backed subversion. While it is true that many radical Black peace activists, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Claudia Jones, and Louise Thompson Patterson defended the existence and empowerment of the U.S.S.R as a counterweight to the United States, their peace advocacy was ultimately about creating better structural and material conditions for the masses worldwide. Their support for the Soviet Union and socialism, therefore, amounted to neither subversion nor sedition.

Following the Second World War, radical Black activists associated durable peace with solidarity among progressives, workers, and the oppressed; and with the anti-systemic reorganization of society. In a June 2, 1949 article entitled, “Negroes in the Ranks of the World Front Fighting for Peace and Progress,” the prolific and world-renowned leftist artist-activist Paul Robeson wrote:

One of the problems that is confronting America today is the so-called Negro problem. Even this problem is connected with the fight for peace and progress, not only in America but throughout the world. I would like to stress that the Negro problem is only one phase of the labor problem…”

This and similar writings and speeches, along with his participation in the World Peace Conference in Paris that same year, brought the conjuncture of the Black scare and the red scare to new heights. Robeson was subjected to systematic FBI surveillance, discipline, and blacklisting that lasted over a decade.

Black communist luminary Claudia Jones argued that Black women were essential to the peace movement because imperialism was played out through the bodies of their husbands and sons– their men were subjected to violence in the armed forces that matched the lynch mob violence against Black civilians and veterans alike; and war threatened to permanently militarize and conscript their youth. Jones’s upbraiding of war was accompanied by the demand to organize and unionize women, to equalize pay, to take special action to protect “triply exploited” Black women, and to increase the leadership of Black women in the peace movement through the creation of peace committees among them. She also proffered that a broad antiwar and anti-imperialist coalition of labor, women, youth, and the general working class was necessary to combat Black bourgeois promotion of the Korean War.

Claudia Jones reading The West Indian Gazette in London in the 1960s (Photo: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).

In “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,” Jones exhorted that internationalist peace activism was the anecdote to the threat of the atomic bomb, global armament, the Marshall Plan-funded Atlantic war pact, and “the monstrous Truman-Acheson doctrine that war [was] inevitable.” Further, Jones argued that international solidarity was necessary to challenge “Big capital’s” reactionary ideological campaign that violently opposed women’s struggles for peace, economic redress, and social welfare. On January 21, 1953, she was convicted under the Smith Act, and after the Supreme Court refused to hear her appeals, Jones was imprisoned in 1955—despite deteriorating health related to hypertensive cardiovascular disease—and ultimately deported to the United Kingdom on December 9th of that year.

Her commitment to radical Black peace activism mirrored the efforts of women in the Sojourners for Truth and Justice (STJ), an organization founded in September 1951 by a national cadre of militant Black women. STJ sought to “rally Black women to defend their men” and to organize wives and mothers “of the legally lynched… of those imprisoned and threatened with prison… widowed by police brutality… [and] who mourn [their] sons dead in foreign wars.” Their program made the indelible connection between the insults, humiliations, and indignities of Jim Crow; the antiradical repression of the domestic police state; and the U.S. war machine that conscripted Black men to fight on behalf of empire. In response, they organized a sojourn to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in Washington D.C. from September 29-October 1, 1951, during which they protested the lynching, beating, shooting, and unemployment of their men who, to add insult to injury, were “forced to become part of a Jim Crow army and go thousands of miles [to] Korea to war out war to other colored peoples.”

In 1952, STJ organized a conference for members on the Eastern seaboard to mobilize against a government that sent their husbands, brothers, and sons to fight other oppressed and dispossessed people. They pointed to the fact that the U.S. appropriated astronomical sums “for the destruction and enslavement of other peoples” and provided “no protection to the homes and persons of Negro citizens… [and] refuse[d] passports to Americans who speak the truth.” Members urged that as long as the United States continued to wage war, racialized people throughout the world would continue to be targeted, dominated, and oppressed, and anticommunism would continue to be a means of silencing and subjugating those who contested the U.S. Cold War state apparatus. Given their radical position, the FBI insisted that all of the organization’s officers were either in the C.P.U.S.A. or “front” organizations, and that STJ was sponsored by the C.P.U.S.A. and followed the Party line. This rationalized their persistence surveillance of the organization, which included the infiltration of at least one “stool pigeon,” Julia Clarice Brown, who provided extensive information to the FBI. In the final analysis, the backlash against Robeson, Jones, the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, and others of their ilk epitomizes the ways in which the specter of subversion and treachery cohered around radical Black peace activism.

One organization continuing the tradition of radical Black peace activism is the Black Alliance for Peace (BAP). Through political education, organization, and movement support, BAP works to resist militarized state repression, the use of destabilizing and subversive policies and practices globally, and the U.S. program of permanent war. BAP contends that trans-Atlantic enslavement, genocide, colonialism, dispossession, and racism as the foundations of the continued reproduction of war. The organization also connects U.S. warmongering to the militarization of U.S. police forces that violently contain, punish, and victimize racialized populations; and to the legal system that warehouses racialized populations in jails and prisons as an anecdote to the provision of basic welfare and social services. Additionally, BAP opposes the targeting of Black and Brown youth for military service, which conscripts them into the system of violence that operates against them daily.

Black peace activism will likely fall victim to new technologies of antiradical repression, namely those targeting “Black Identity Extremism.” A recent FBI report situated post-Ferguson (2014) uprisings and isolated attacks on police officers in a longer history of “extremist” violence, particularly represented by 1960s and 1970s radical Black organizations like the Black Liberation Army. Such positioning creates an unbroken lineage of radical Black subversion and insurrection that rationalizes and legitimates the use of extraordinary repression and subjection.

In this way, the counterterrorism division of the FBI has transformed those who oppose racist police violence, consider the U.S. criminal justice system to be patently unjust, advocate Black self-determination, and defend Black life into a threat to law enforcement, and by extension, the authority of the U.S. state apparatus. If history is any indication, these radical Black activists who reject the dehumanizing violence endemic in capitalism, war, racism, and militarism will be subjected to the very force and brutality that they are struggling to eradicate.

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Charisse Burden-Stelly

Charisse Burden-Stelly is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Carleton College. She received a PhD in African Diaspora Studies in 2016 from the University of California, Berkeley. Her areas of specialization include race and political economy, Black political theory, antiblackness and anti-radicalism, and Black radical thought.