[Marxism] Re: Role of CPUSA in US Civil Rights Struggle

Brian Shannon Brian_Shannon at verizon.net
Thu Nov 3 03:37:25 MST 2005

 >Can anyone shed any light on the role, if any, the CPUSA played
both in what Rosa Parks did and the ensuing civil rights campaign
throughout the Southern states. I've heard from comrades in the US
that Rosa's act was not the spontaneous action of a girl filled with
moral outrage, but rather strategically planned and carried out
with the backing of CPUSA activists.

 >Is this true?

 >This is not to attempt to diminish Rosa Parks; what she did was
heroic regardless of if it was planned or not. But if the CPUSA
were involved then it lends the entire history a different dimension,
makes it even more meaningful in my view.

(1) It was not a spontaneous act, but an opportunistic one. It was, 
however, not planned for any particular occasion, but when the occasion 
arose and it was clear that it could be presented correctly, it was 
taken by a woman who was already deeply involved in civil rights 

(2) She was not a girl. She was 42 years old. Both she and her husband 
were members of the Montgomery NAACP. Parks was its secretary, and E.D. 
Nixon who was an organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters 
and a close friend and ally of A. Philip Randolph, the head of that 
organization, headed it.

Randolph himself (and possibly Nixon too) was probably a member of the 
U.S. Socialist Party, but this organization's activity was more that of 
a network than anything corresponding in Europe. Randolph, along with 
many other elders involved in the civil rights movement, was for a 
period of time in the U.S. Communist Party. So was Bayard Rustin, who 
was the key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. But by the 
1950s, these people were social democrats and far from being CPers.

(3) There were undoubtedly some CPers in Montgomery. In fact, I may 
have met some when I was there in 1964 as part of a law student’s 
organization. Their participation would have been the same as any 
activist. I am sure that it was helpful. These few may have been 
involved in the coalition that preceded the bus boycott and continued 
the struggle. However, the main strategist, and credited as such by 
countless articles and books, was E.D. Nixon. Part of his skill was 
demonstrated when he realized that Dr. Martin Luther King would make an 
excellent spokesperson for the fledgling movement. It also allowed him 
to do what he did best: organization and tactics.

Any specific claim by a CP member (assuming that you are getting your 
question from some individual or handed down to you) however, would be 
no more significant than that of many of us who may have had a helpful 
idea at the beginning or during a struggle. Socialists are not 
recognized enough for their roles. When they are credited, it is often 
by those who want to denounce them.

(4) Later, the CP and smaller groups helped out in many ways. As you 
know, socialist organizations have the structure, continuity, political 
understanding and energy to help strengthen mass movements such as the 
civil rights struggle. Some ex-communists were helpful to MLK and he 
was attacked by FBI head J. Edgar Hoover for this.

(5) In the summer before Parks's action, she attended a civil rights 
workshop at the Highlander School, which had an historical connection 
with the CP and other left organizations. The Highlander School, I am 
sure, helped deepen the ideological, organizational, and personal bonds 
for those active in civil rights.

(6) To show how little this particular act resembles a conscious 
planning by the CPUSA or any other group, you should be aware that 
another person was almost the "Rosa Parks" of that period. "In early 
1955, Claudette Colvin, a 15 year old black girl was dragged off a bus 
in Montgomery and arrested for not giving up her seat to a white 
person. The NAACP now agreed to take up the Colvin incident as a test 
case. It believed that this would result in a similar outcome to the 
1954 Supreme Court decision on segregation in education. However, the 
NAACP decided to drop the idea when they discovered that Colvin was 
pregnant. They knew that the authorities in Montgomery would use this 
against them in the propaganda war that would inevitably take place 
during this legal battle." [From the Spartacus UK site on Rosa Parks. 
You will find more on Colvin if you google for her. Here is an article 
that I previously posted to Marxmail: 

(7) None of this is to denigrate the action of the CP during this 
period. It played an active and important role in the S.F. Bay Area 
where I spent my earliest days as a socialist. It was a key ingredient 
there in various forms of united fronts in civil rights, anti-Vietnam 
war work, and civil liberties.

Brian Shannon

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