MANY PEOPLE were surprised by the recent revelation that Thurgood Marshall, the former U.S. Supreme Court Justice, collaborated with the FBI against alleged "communist subversion" during his tenure as chief NAACP lawyer.
Today, there are so few "communists" and "fellow travelers" in the African-American community that there's an assumption that it's always been that way. So, it's natural that many of us wonder what compelled Marshall to join hands with the FBI, which under Director J. Edgar Hoover, had a well-deserved reputation for enmity toward champions of racial equality.
However, the initial premise is mistaken: Though this history has been buried in an avalanche of amnesia and misinformation, the fact is that at one time, the Communist Party had thousands of sympathizers and members among African-Americans.
The atrocity that was Jim Crow and racial segregation helps to explain this phenomenon: Extreme conditions often produce extreme reactions. The effort to break this alliance helps explain why the FBI collaborated with Marshall and, more importantly, sheds light on why civil rights concessions flowed when they did.
Often it is assumed that communist influence among African-Americans peaked during the 1930s and the struggle to free the "Scottsboro 9" - black youths arrested in Alabama, convicted and slated for execution. Certainly, the ultimately successful effort to free these defendants increased the popularity of the "Reds" among blacks; at this juncture few whites supported the idea of racial equality and those who did were often assumed to be communists. Often this assumption was false, but it added to the impression that communists were militant in their defense of black rights.
Communist influence among blacks did not die with the successful campaign to free the Scottsboro defendants. Indeed, anything, it accelerated during the 1940s. Recall that during World War II, the U.S. was in an anti-fascist alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler's Germany. The close ties of U.S. Communists to the USSR had been an impediment to the party's growth here because the relationship was viewed as unpatriotic, but the Washington-Moscow alliance from 1941 to 1945 helped to dissolve this feeling. In fact, the pro-Sovietism of U.S. Communists seemed prescient at that moment.
It was during this time that Warner Brothers produced its notorious film "Mission to Moscow," which portrayed Josef Stalin as a benevolent and wise leader of the Soviet Union.
It was during this time that the young lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, worked closely with the black communist lawyer, Ben Davis, on anti-Jim Crow initiatives.
Both attorneys, as well as other NAACP stalwarts like the pioneering civil rights lawyer Charles Houston, worked closely with the National Lawyers Guild - which soon was to be scorned as a "communist front." Davis and Houston were old friends, both having graduated from Amherst College and Harvard Law School. Houston, in turn, had been Marshall's mentor at Howard Law School.
It was during this time, 1941-45, that NAACP membership increased 10-fold to over 400,000 - a level it has had difficulty reaching since.
In 1943, Davis was elected to the New York City Council representing Harlem. This card-carrying Communist received support from the cream of the black artists and intelligentsia, including Lena Horne, Billie Holliday, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Lou Williams, and of course, Paul Robeson.
In 1945, Davis was re-elected to the City Council with a similar broad swath of support that included Jose Ferrer, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Langston Hughes and many others.
In the same period, communists and others organized the Civil Rights Congress, which was headed by the fiery African-American lawyer William Patterson. A close friend of Lena Horne and Langston Hughes, Patterson had led the fight for freedom of the Scottsboro defendants and in following years led struggles on behalf of Rosa Lee Ingram, Willie McGee, the Trenton 6 and other African-Americans who had fallen victim to Jim Crow justice.
But 1945 was to prove to be the high-water mark for communist influence among African-Americans. It would not be long before the NAACP and their leaders like Marshall and Roy Wilkins would feel obligated to collaborate with the authorities against more radical blacks like Davis, Patterson and Robeson.
This was a monumental turning point in African-American history and so personally and politically painful that, like "repressed memory syndrome," it has been purged from our immediate consciousness though it continues to influence our actions each day.