The upcoming federal holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an occasion to remember the movement in which he labored so prominently. This particular election year, King and that movement strike an even stronger relevance.
While it is unfortunate the country finds itself divided by political differences, it is encouraging the left has rediscovered its radical roots and is reaching for them with less hesitation. Not only is a socialist heading the pack of presidential candidates, but his place in this campaign has pushed to the left a Democratic Party that has gotten too cozy with Wall Street and too far from the masses of workers and the poor.
King would have understood this shift because in the relatively short time he was engaged in the civil rights movement, before he was assassinated, he exemplified this shift.
The civil rights movement began long before King, going at least as far back as the 1920s and ’30s. It is important while we honor the man that we pay respect to the radical roots of the movement that produced him. In doing so, we better prepare ourselves for the real areas in which we must struggle.
It’s worthwhile to review some of the history. While the two main Democratic and Republican parties were either passively supporting or silently indifferent to the cause of workers and black struggle, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) was at the forefront, sending its organizers — black and white — all over the South, to northern industrial cities, the West Coast, and to the territory of Hawaii.
In the South where King was born, the CPUSA organizers faced a barrage of hostility from the racist establishment. Some were murdered. Some, like CPUSA members Dorothy and Louis Burnham, fled. Others, like James and Esther Cooper Jackson, Ed and Augusta Strong, and Sallye Bell Davis stayed — all played a role in founding the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), a front group for the CPUSA, where activists like Rosa Parks were trained.
The subsequent Montgomery bus boycott that brought King to prominence was mobilized largely by black women workers like Parks. These black women were not simply tired. They were tired from overwork and underpay but also tired of US apartheid. They were also organizers.
Parks credits CPUSA member, Mildred McAdory, with the bus boycott’s success. In 1941, more than a decade before Parks’ arrest, McAdory was herself arrested in Birmingham for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, which launched a legal fight by the CPUSA against Southern apartheid.
Parks and McAdory were not alone in this struggle. Claudia Jones, Louise Thompson Patterson, Lena Horne, Beah Richards (actress who played Sidney Poitier’s mother in the 1968 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, etc., were all black women and one time party members.
The works of SNYC and the CPUSA are pivotal to understanding King and his own evolving commitments. These works extended to Hawaii where the Honolulu chapter of the NAACP was disbanded because it had attracted members of the Communist Party, like UH chemist Charles Fujimoto, educators John and Aiko Reinecke, and Ewart and Eugenia Guinier (the Guiniers were the parents of legal scholar Lani Guinier).
In the brief years of his activism, King went from supporting a bus boycott, fighting to end Jim Crow, an advocate for civil rights, and then to speaking to broader, working class solidarity against poverty, war, imperialism, and capitalism. He made this progression with communists at his side. Men like Bayard Rustin, who had joined the Young Communists League and helped conceive the March on Washington in 1941, and Jack O’Dell, another CPUSA member who was also director of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
So with King we have a man, but we must also appreciate and study the movement.
The contexts that nourished and produced him and all these activists must be celebrated. There’s still much work to be done. As Sallye Bell Davis’ own daughter reminded us: the struggle is not a marathon but a relay race, where we are obliged to take these issues toward promising futures as far as we can, then hand off the batons. Davis’ daughter is, of course, Angela Davis, who joined the CPUSA in 1968.
Let’s mark this day by picking up the baton.
Lowell B. Denny, III is the chair of the Communist Party USA – Hawaii Club in Kailua-Kona.