Clarina Michelson, as a Party functionary in the Harlem Section, witnessed a turbulent period in the Communist Party as it struggled to build a base of support among black workers. The Bostonian Michelson had proved herself through Communist Party work organizing unions of miners in Kentucky and textile workers in the Carolinas and through leading political campaigns in Georgia. She went on to make her mark in organizing retail workers in New York City through the Department Store Section of the Office Workers Union, an affiliate of the Trade Union Unity Leage (T.U.U.L.). But in 1932, when she first returned north, she told Party leaders that she "liked to work among Negroes." The resulting assignment to the Harlem Section presented a challenge to her and to the Section leadership. She documented both her successes and her struggles as a white female Communist in Harlem.
In this poorly typed letter, she appealed to James W. Ford, an African American who had been the Communist Party's candidate for vice president in 1932 and was at this time active in the Harlem Section, and Charles Krumbein, New York District organizer for the Communist Party, to correct inequities in the Harlem Section. Her words painted a picture of behind-the-scenes racial tension in the Harlem Section. It gave perspective to the accomplishments achieved in the Scottsboro protests against this backdrop. While we do not know whether she finalized and actually sent this letter, the problems and issues it raised were real and revealing.
June 1, 1934
For Comrades Ford and Krumbein
Because I have been in Harlem for a year and eight months, and have formed certain opinions, I am writing this, in the sincere desire to help the Party in future work in Harlem. Unfortunately, it is very personal, but at the risk of being thought too subjective, I am writing it as I think it will explain why it is hard to get white comrades to do mass work in Upper Harlem, and the difficulties there are for white comrades working there. Also, the difficulties in advancing and developing Negro comrades.
Some of the difficulties, are-
1. Because the mass organizations should be and must be headed by Negro comrades, white comrades working in these organizations, no matter what their capability, or what leading positions [they] have had in the past, automatically take 2nd, 3rd or 4th place. A situation which does not appeal to all comrades, but which a communist should be willing to accept providing he gets a certain amount of recognition and cooperation.
2. Because the Harlem Negro leadership does not come from basic industry, the leading comrades are not rooted anywhere, and this instability causes an individualistic attitude, and a constant struggle for prestige and position in the movement, the only thing they have to hang on to. This affects not only white comrades, but causes friction among the leading Negro comrades themselves, and a resistance to pushing forward new forces among the many capable Negro rank and file workers.
3. Unclarity on the Negro question, lack of sensitivity etc, causing white comrades, even leading white comrades, to feel uncomfortable, get onto difficulties, and find it hard to work there--or they are really unfit for such work.
4. Because of the tendencies to petty-bourgeois nationalism on the part of some of the Party and non-Party comrades, white comrades often realise or feel that they are not wanted in leading positions, and even that their presence is resented on leading Committees, at important conferences, etc
5. Because of the natural distrust of white people on the part of many Negro workers, white comrades have to prove they are ok much more thoroughly than in most sections.
6. No effort is made in the Upper Harlem mass organizations to establish the prestige and bring forward as leaders before the Negro masses, the white comrades.
In Section 4, the Negro workers--potential leaders--are not sufficiently brought forward to leadership as is shown by the very small percentage of Negro unit organizers, agitprop directors, and the small percentage of Negro comrades at the recent Section and District conventions. Not enough effort is made to popularize the Workers School among the Negroes in the Party and mass organizations, nor is sufficient effort made to raise money so a large proportion of Negro workers can go to the School. The necessity for Negro leadership in struggles for partial demands and revolutionary struggles is by no means adequately realised by the white membership of Section 4--and other Sections. Nor is the need for unity of Negro and white felt, as has been demonstrated in the lack of response to the LSNR Fifth Ave Coach Co campaign, the resistance to the Section C.P. and I.L.D. leadership in several instances, etc. At the same time, a liberal attitude has been taken to Negro comrades by the Section leadership.
Before going to Harlem, I had for several years been in charge of union and other work in different sections and districts—in charge of the Natl Textile Union work in the anthracite, where we led 2 strikes; in charge of the NTWU in the NY district, for a short period when I was taken out to do special work. I was in the south for about 1 ½ years, in charge of the NTWU in District 16. I also established a functioning CP Section in Greenville, S.C. with 5 units, and a pretty good unemployment movement, with several branches and a Council of 25 Negro and white men and women, for the first time leading and winning in some united struggles, until the extreme terror, continuous raids, kidnappings, beatings etc by the KKK and police forced the movement partially underground. I was sent from District 16 to District 17 and was in charge of Natl Miners Union work for several months in Kentucky and Tennessee, up to within a few weeks of the 1932 strike. Here, in spite of considerable terror, many NMU locals were organized, and largely due to the favorable situation--the initiative and responsibility of the miners-- an active cadre of 30 organizers functioned, who organized the interstate NMU convention where the strike vote was taken. After getting out of jail and recovering from an illness, I asked to go south again, which was granted, and I again did NMU and also unemployment work in Tennessee. I was in charge of the 1932 election campaign in Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama, conventions being held in Atlanta and Chattanooga. As far as I know, my work has been satisfactory to the Party, and I think in every instance, the comrades where I worked, asked for my return, on being taken out. I state the above to explain that I am an experienced organizer, have had responsible Party positions, and been in difficult situations.
On returning to New York, I said I liked to work among Negroes, and the District assigned me as Org-Secy in Harlem. Although I had had almost no experience in inner-Party work, practically all my work having been in the field, I agreed, having faith in my organizational ability. I started in October, 1932. The Section was in an almost unbelievably chaotic state. There was no collective leadership. I was told the Section Committee had not met regularly for several months. The units were just thrown together, abslutely regardless of shop or territory, and there was no record of the membership. There was no Org Dept, no Agitprop Dept, no shop work being done, no classes, no fraction work being done. There was considerable anti-District feeling, just wearing off, and a good deal of personal and petty friction and bickering. Also there was a good deal of anagonism between the YCL[Young Communists League] and CP [Communist Party].
Although much that should have been done, was not done in the 4 months I was Org-Secretary, certain progress was made. The Section Committee and Buro met regularly. The units were completely reorganized, each Unit having a territory of so many streets, and all new Party members were assigned to Units in their territory. The membership was recorded, and practically all the comrades living in other sections, transferred out of Harlem. A fairly well-functioning Agitprop Dept was established, and a School started, with several classes, including one for new members. Two weekly forums were established. An Org Dept was established, and a comrade Put in charge of shop work, who led the Edwin Tobacco shop strike. A Fraction Secy and Committee was put in charge of this work; a Finance Committee organized with a new Finance Director. A new comrade was put in charge of literature and a Literature Committee set up. Also a functioning Membership Committee. Four comrades were assigned to be responsible for work in Upper Harlem, Spanish Harlem, Yorkville and the West side. The friction and antagonisms were to quite an extent done away with. Organizationally, the greatest weaknesses were not having regular meetings with the Unit organizers (due to my inexperience), insufficient attention to Youth and Fraction work..Also there was laxness on the part of the Membership Director, an old-timer in the Party who was not sufficiently checked up on.
In the entire 4 months that I was Org Secretary, I was not once called to the District to make a report, and I never did make a report, nor did a District representative ever come to a Section Committee or Buro meeting. The Section Organizer occasionally told me that the Buro would be called to the District, but this was never done.
After 4 months, one day while working at home, the Section Organizer came in with the present Org-Secretary, saying: "This is the new Org-Secretary. Please hand over the records, etc." As I had not had the slightest intimation that a new Org-Secy was being considered, had made no reports to the District, and obviously some progress had been made, I was dumfounded to say the least. However, preferring mass work to inner party work, I agreed to the proposal these 2 comrades made, namely that in order to have as little opposition as possible in the Section Committee, that I state, (which I did) that I would like to quit as Org-Secty, and do mass work. After some discussion, this was agreed to by the Section Committee.
About this time, the Scottsboro upsurge took place, bringing thousands of Negro workers near the movement. Most of the leading comrades were on the streets all day and night speaking. In order to get organizational results, from this situation, I asked andit was agreed that I do ILD organizational work. 14 ILD branches, which are still the basis of the ILD in Harlem were set up in 10 days, from April 17 to 26, and did considerably in mobilizing for the March to Washington in May. 3000 new applicants were writte, calling them to meetings in their neighborhods, places procured for meetings, Branch functionaries set up, and duplicate crads of all applicants made, so they could be followed up. This was quite a job and for several nights, 4 or 5 comrades worked all night to get the technical work done. Other progress was made in the ILD, largely due to Comrade Fitzgerald's able leadership. A Section Committee [was set] up, Forum started, weekly directives to Branches, pretty good educational Committee, considerable struggles for Negro rights etc. The greatest achievement was the developing of many Negro men and women workers, as organizers and leaders, many coming into the Party.
During the summer the ILD District Convention was held. I was refused the floor on the grounds that there were already too many speakers I was also not given the floor at the District convention. When the extraordinary Party Conference was held last July, it never occurred to me that I would not go. The proposals for delegates were never taken up in the Section Committee or Buro, the Section at that time being pretty much run by a new Secretariat of 3- Organiser, Org-Secy and Liberator Editor. I told the Organiser and Org-Secy that I wanted to go to the Conference, and was told by the Organiser, "We have submitted a long list of Harlem comrades to the District. Your name was on the list. It is entirely up to the District." A good many Harlem comrades went, myself not included, some rather inactive ones, including a Negro woman comrade who had just been removed from the ILD leading fraction for disruptive work, and has since been expelled from the Party.
Last December, the LSNR was in a very weak state. Several hundred had applied for membership and never been written to, or organised into Branches. No struggles were being conducted, there was no Council, no educational work, no directives to Branches etc. There was no office and it was difficult to find the comrades assigned to LSNR work, due to their working, having to look for work, sickness, etc. I asked and was granted to be transferred to the LSNR. The first few months I was there, I was practically alone, sometimes not seeing the leading comrades for days and at times for a week or two. Gradually an organizational machinery was set up, a functioning Council, outlines to Branches, functioning [illeg.]leading fraction, etc. Some struggles were initiated and considerable publicity gotten into the Negro press. Recently $300 was raised through [illeg.] "Stevedore" benefit, which enables Comrade Williams to be a full time worker, on a very small wage, and a small sum has been set aside for a part time stenographer.
During the 1 ½ years I have been in Harlem, the following incidents have occurred, more or less continuously. They seem like small things, and would be, if they were not so continuous. Frankly, except for the fact that the rank and file Negro comrades think I am ok, I would many times have felt it almost impossible to work in Harlem. At a Committee meeting a couple of months ago, the Liberator editor said: "If Comrade Michelson goes on the Liberator editorial Board, I will go off. I dont need to give any reasons for this statement." Later, when pressed, she said: "Comrade Michelson manoeuvers" (Just that--no explanation). A meeting was arranged so this comrade could explain this statement, but the comrade didnt show up and nothing was ever done about it. I wanted to be on the Liberator Board as I was in closest touch with the Branches, LSNR struggles, etc. At the same Section Committee meeting, the Org Secy said that the 4 leading LSNR comrades all opposed Michelson doing LSNR work. When these comrades were called to a meeting to explain their position, they did not come and the matter was dropped. A couple of weeks ago, at a leading LSNR fraction meeting, a comrade stated: "Workers going to the LSNR office, look to Comrade Michelson as the leader. I am the leader. She is supposed to be the recording secretary." Another leading comrade agreed with this, stating that all records etc should be handled not by Michelson but by this comrade. (Another Negro comrade present stated that this situation was because Michelson was in the office, in the struggles, etc, and leader cant be de just on paper). Before quite a group of non-Party workers, a Negro comrade made an impassioned speech against me because I had called a UCL Negro comrade "kiddo," who incidentally always calls me "kid" or "kiddo". He said Negroes dont want to be patronized and that, I might get away with this in the south but couldnt here, etc." [Another] comrade also spoke against me afterwards apologizing saying he had been very foolish. Twice at Section Committee meetings, for no known reason, I was accused by 2 members of "building cliques," "playing favorites", "playing with workers' lives" etc etc. No show-down was ever made, not in any instance have these or any other Negro comrades been criticized for these unwarranted attacks.
At some LSNR Council meetings, with non-Party workers present, motions I have made have been attacked, at one meeting, every motion being attacked by 4 leading comrades, including some in support of a laundry strike on the Section. A leading comrade, former Section Committee member, made all kinds of accusations against me at a leading ILD fraction meeting later confiding to me that he did it because I brought him there for criticism for undermining another comrade's leadership. He frankly stated: "I attacked you because you were going to attack me. That's politics." Another comrade spread the news through the Section that "Michelson was manoevering to get Kingston out and Ford In." Absolutely untrue. When I was practically alone in the LSNR office, I was attacked for "demoralizing comrades by doing their work." AYCL comrade told me that he and others had been told that Michelson was a "menace" to the Section. No direct charge has ever been brought against me, nor have I ever been accused of chauvinism, or anything else definite, nor has any request for my removal been made.
In the entire time I have been in Harlem, I was only once or twice asked to speak or be chairman at an indoor meeting (I proposed it several times). Once at a meeting when the chairman didnt show up, a leading Negro comrade said: "Why dont you act as chairman. Its not a large meeting, anyway."(!) There is also a tendency to keep white comrades out of the Liberator, which I have noticed in connection with my self and other white comrades working in Harlem. Besides sending dozens of stories to the Liberator, I have been in practically [constant] struggle in Harlem, partly because there are only 3 or 4 white comrades doing work in upper Harlem. White comrades must of course realize, and I think I do, that one of their main jobs is to develop and establish Negro leadership, and keep developing new forces. At the same time, the leading Negro comrades must consistently bring forward the white workers to the Negro masses as workers leading in the fight for Negro liberation. Not doing this is not only an outstanding political weakness, but also causes unnecessary difficult situations for the white comrades. One white comrade tells me the rank and file Negro comrades tend to somewhat look down on this comrade, because although a militant and steady worker, the comrade is never brought forward as a leader, put on leading committees, etc.
With Comrade Ford in the Section, and the changes in the Liberator undoubtedly the situation will greatly improve. I regret the personal aspects of this, and am only writing it hoping it will help the Party's future work in Harlem. The main jobs for the Party I think, are-
1. Carry on a consistent, ideological campaign on the Negro question in the C.P. units, and especially the unions and all mass organization.
a. Consistently campaign against white chauvinism and petty-bourgeois nationalism, concretizing the theory when necessary.
b. See that the white workers put their theoretic understanding into practice, and in many concrete cases mobilize in united struggles for Negro rights.
2. Develop for leadership as quickly as possible, Negro workers from basic industry and farming sections, concrete assignments tobe given to our unions, with quotas of Negro comrades to send to school, bring forward on leading committees and other responsible positions.
3. Push forward for leadership, much more rapidly, Negro rank and file workers in Harlem and other sections; at the same time, encouraging and enabling large numbers to go the Workers School.
4. See that white comrades working in Harlem and other such Sections brought forward as leaders before the Negro masses, and are given recognition and cooperation.
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