Confronting Reactionaries: Black Support for The Progressive Party During the Cold War

Portrait of Charlotta Bass (Public Domain)

During the Cold War, progressive voices were being drowned out by the drumbeat of war, as military and political relations between the United States and the Soviet Union rapidly deteriorated. Progressives were afraid of the escalating conflict and the ever-growing commitment to militarism. Many feared that military buildup and containment would commit the United States to endless war, a fear that materialized in the United States’ major engagements in nearly every year since 1950. As anti-communism, a ubiquitous element in American politics since the end of the Civil War, moved to the forefront, it defined foreign and domestic policy to the peril of the American left. At the beginning, as the Cold War rhetoric escalated, Henry Wallace, former Franklin Roosevelt Vice President and Truman’s Secretary of Commerce, warned Americans that conflict with the Soviet Union would jeopardize the New Deal and lead to war.

In 1946, Wallace was frustrated with Truman and went on a speaking tour denouncing anti-communist rhetoric. This did not endear him to Truman who forced Wallace to resign. That same year a new organization, the Progressive Citizens of America, was founded, and by 1947 it asked Wallace to run as the candidate for a third-party, a progressive party, that would become the voice for a growing but controversial anti-anti-communism. The Progressive Party campaign behind Henry Wallace in 1948 benefited from a multiracial coalition of progressives and leftists who shared few goals in common, but one common denominator was the desire to stem the tide of war for the sake of civil rights at home, and self-determination for the growing number of decolonized states.

Radical Black women activists rallied behind Wallace as the only candidate able to address racism, sexism, and commit to the expansive New Deal state. Wallace was not particularly radical economically and considered himself a “progressive capitalist.” But Truman and others in his administration were pushing for a military conflict with their former Soviet allies, and this led several communist-party radicals and fellow travelers to participate in the Wallace campaign. In July 1948, the Progressive Party held a founding convention attended by some of the leading Black radicals at the time including Eslanda and Paul Robeson, Charlotta Bass, and Shirley Graham.

Graham gave a speech at the convention outlining some of the hopes she and others invested in the Party. She began by invoking the history of Black Americans, noting that she did not come to the convention as a beggar, petitioner, or a weakling, but as an American claiming the rights of citizenship for Black America. She described the hardships the descendants of American slaves faced including economic dislocation, violence, and almost as bad, indifference and neglect. She invoked her two sons, one who was refused care while suffering from Tuberculosis and who eventually succumbed to the disease, and the other who fought in World War II, a white man’s war, for the liberty and freedom of white America. She quoted Henry Wallace in her speech who said he was troubled by the ten-year difference in life expectancy between white and Black America, the only candidate who advocated demolishing Jim Crow, and the only candidate who wanted to invest in the Black community and not war against people of color abroad.

Graham believed Wallace was the “logical successor” of Franklin Roosevelt. She was afraid that military investment in the new nuclear era would cost people of color dearly, and would spell the end of the modest gains made by the New Deal. She proposed a platform that was adopted at the convention. It demanded an end to Jim Crow, “full equality” for Black Americans, an end to the segregated military, anti-lynching legislation, anti-poll tax legislation, and funding for healthcare and housing. Some of Graham’s proposals were adopted in the years that followed, but others like anti-lynching, never made any headway until this year, and healthcare funding, something Graham invoked throughout her years in radical activism, remains a contested and unresolved issue. She saw in Wallace the only real hope to stem the tide against anti-communism, secure progressive goals, preserve the New Deal, and find real progressive leadership.

Eslanda Robeson, called Essie by her friends, would play a “key leadership” position in the campaign. Barbara Ransby argues that Essie and Paul were attracted to the campaign in part because of Wallace’s anti-racial credentials. He was often attacked by the right because of his vocal anti-racism. He was also deeply religious and compromised his own career to criticize the growing anti-communism that would subsume American political rhetoric and policies. Essie traveled with Wallace on his peace tour giving speeches, holding rallies, and advocating for Black American rights. The tour was meant to articulate the fears about America’s growing militarism and coincided with the Soviet Union’s “Struggle for Peace in all the World” campaign. The tour was not affiliated with the Soviet campaign, but that mattered little as American intelligence agencies monitored activists and propagated the link between the Progressive Party and communists.

On the other coast, Charlotta Bass busied herself supporting the campaign and mobilizing to get Wallace on the California ballot. Bass, editor of the California Eagle, a leading Black newspaper, hailed the campaign after its announcement in her paper. She celebrated it as a coalition of Black, Mexican, and Jewish Americans joining with their white compatriots against anti-communist propaganda and “anything else cooked up by the reactionaries of America.” Bass had been in both political parties at one point, but lost faith that either would stand up for democratic principles, especially in the face of anti-communist rhetoric. In August 1947, she participated in a conference with labor unions and civil rights groups to rally for the Progressive Party and start a campaign to collect signatures to get the Party on the California ballot. The participants secured the required signatures by February 1948. Bass traveled across the country to attend the Philadelphia convention in July and echoed the optimism of many involved in the campaign, arguing that a new political party emerged, a new voice for progressives, anti-racists, anti-sexists, and anti-war activists.

Though hoping for a victory, many of the Progressive Party campaigners did not expect it; rather they saw the Party as a protest against both the Democrats and Republicans. It was an opportunity to show both parties that they could not rely on the Black or woman’s vote without addressing real progressive ideas. Wallace would only secure 3 percent of the vote in his campaign, and Truman captured a second term. The campaign suffered from escalating anti-communism and the start of legislative and legal maneuvers to try and outlaw communism. Wallace only mildly rebuked any communists in the campaign, which distanced some liberals who began to mute their own political ideology in favor of self-preservation. But those associated with it and the Progressive Citizens of America were closely monitored and in later years faced official harassment or trials. The Progressive Party’s dreams of securing and expanding the New Deal and economic justice were dashed by anti-communist hysteria.

These early Cold War years solidified a trend in which progressive politics were likened to communism and activists were harassed into silence. Even today during the 2020 elections, many Americans eschew progressive policies, once key platforms of the Democratic Party, as radicalism, leftist, and even as communist. Progressive voices have been marginalized for fear of a socialist revolution, when policies advocated by progressive candidates mirror those of mainstream Democrats. Healthcare, publicly funded University education, old-age pensions, and anti-racist and anti-sexist legislation were platforms advocated and introduced by politicians of both political parties. America’s turn to the political right began in the early Cold War years as progressive politics, and basic human rights, became linked to an alleged communist conspiracy. Today, the Democratic Party has turned so far to the right that former Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg found support as a potential Democratic candidate; William Kristol, a neo-conservative and engineer of the culture wars, has registered as a Democrat; and Joe Walsh, well-known Islamophobe and never-Trumper, has committed to voting the Democratic ticket. Meanwhile progressive candidates promising a return to the New Deal Coalition have been marginalized and attacked as radicals and socialists, and moderate reformist programs have been accused of being revolutionary. As anger against capitalism grows stronger, some radical activists, like Angela Davis, have begun to promote a third-party alternative where progressive voices can have value. Progressives and moderates would do well to remember the history of the Cold War as a reminder that the deprivations of capitalism were not a foregone conclusion and that social programs are a far-cry from revolutionary communism.

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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.

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