Art by Yousef Amairi

Art by Yousef Amairi
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July 19, 2017

The Missing Peace: Charlotta Bass and the Vision of the Black Left in the Early Cold War Years by Robbie Lieberman

The Missing Peace: Charlotta Bass and the Vision of the Black Left in the Early Cold War Years

Lineages of the Literary Left: Essays in Honor of Alan M. Wald

Edited by Howard Brick, Robbie Lieberman, and Paula Rabinowitz
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On February 19, 1960, the Pittsburgh Courier published a review of Charlotta Bass’s semiautobiographical book Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper. Under Bass’s editorship, the California Eagle, one of the oldest black newspapers in the US West, had become an important voice for challenging inequality and discrimination. On the heels of her forty years with the Eagle, Bass became the first African American female to run for vice president. Nominated by Paul Robeson, she was on the 1952 Progressive Party ticket, a third party already diminished by a crushing defeat in 1948 after its standard-bearer Henry Wallace, an outspoken opponent of the Cold War, had momentarily raised the hopes of the Communist Left. In its review of Bass’s memoir, the Courier described her as “the indomitable as well as intrepid former editor of the California Eagle,” noting the paper as “a reflection of the vigorous thought and actions of a woman who dared to meet every challenge. She believed in America and the American Constitution. She believed in the Declaration of Independence. She believed in God.”[1] While recognizing Bass’s lifelong commitment to democracy and minority rights, the Courier had little to say about her interest in peace. Much of the journalistic and scholarly work on the black Left during the early Cold War years suffers from the same omission. Scholars attend to black internationalism or the use of nonviolence in the civil rights movement but rarely discuss peace issues, including concerns about nuclear weapons, military spending, and war, nor do they probe the relationship of these issues to antiracism, feminism, and anticolonialism.[2] Scholarship on Bass focuses on her as a community activist and newspaper editor in Los Angeles and portrays her alternately as a “race woman,” a protofeminist, or a “radical precursor of the black power movement.”[3] Only Gerald Gill, in a chapter on her 1952 vice presidential campaign, seriously addresses her interest in peace and the links she drew between US foreign policy and the status of African Americans.[4]
Charlotta Bass’s views after World War II underscored her broad, global perspective, particularly her outspoken and lasting support for peace and freedom. Her story helps fill a gap in peace movement history, which often leaves out African Americans (with the exception of well-known pacifists such as Bayard Rustin), and in African American history, which often leaves out peace activism. My focus here is on the interplay between the personal and political: the experiences that contributed to Bass’s interest in peace, the way in which she articulated her concerns, and the impact of her outspoken peace advocacy on her life. Her story is one of several that helps to break down the divide between the African American freedom movement and the peace movement, usually portrayed as unrelated struggles in the popular mind and in much scholarly literature, especially in the historical writing on the black Left.
Figure 6.1. Portrait of Charlotta Bass, Providence (?), ca. 1901–10. Postcard with a photograph of a young Charlotta Bass. The photograph may have been taken in Providence, where Bass (then Charlotta Spears) lived with an older brother and worked at the Providence Watchman, an African American newspaper. Credit: Charlotta Bass Collection, Southern California Library (Los Angeles).
Figure 6.1. Portrait of Charlotta Bass, Providence (?), ca. 1901–10. Postcard with a photograph of a young Charlotta Bass. The photograph may have been taken in Providence, where Bass (then Charlotta Spears) lived with an older brother and worked at the Providence Watchman, an African American newspaper. Credit: Charlotta Bass Collection, Southern California Library (Los Angeles).
Accounts of Bass’s life put her date and place of birth sometime between 1874 and 1890 either in Rhode Island, Ohio, or South Carolina. As a child, Charlotta Spears was deeply affected by reading Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward. Her family thought that socialism was un-Christian and would only get her into trouble, but her mother did take her to the first organizational meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in their Rhode Island town, and that became another defining moment in her life. Spears moved to Los Angeles at the age of eighteen, becoming editor and publisher of the California Eaglein 1912, a position she held for nearly forty years until she was forced to sell the paper during the Red Scare. In the years prior to World War II, she helped win a series of victories for equal rights, including fighting the first cases against restrictive covenants and successfully ending discrimination in employment at the Southern California Telephone Company, the Los Angeles General Hospital, and the Los Angeles Transit Company. She was known for her ability to build effective coalitions and she worked with and played leadership roles in many organizations. Her writing and activities focused on the local scene, but she was hardly indifferent to foreign affairs. In the 1930s, she spoke out against fascism and promoted independence in Africa. The weekly radio program she created in the late 1930s shared local, national, and international news from the black press.[5]Along with many other African Americans, Bass strongly supported World War II, believing that it would lead to democracy and equal rights at home and abroad. She was not naive and knew that such rights would not come without a struggle. Her nephew Ellis Spears learned this during his military training in Mississippi, which he called “the worst State in the Union for the Negro race.” He wrote to Bass that his experience there was “terrible” and that “if you could only see some of the things that happened here you would wonder what we are fighting for.”[6] Bass opposed A. Philip Randolph and the March on Washington movement—among her reasons was his “bipolar view of race relations” (that is, black and white), which did not square with her multicultural experience in Los Angeles. In practice, however, she participated in the “double V” campaign, supporting the war effort while continuing to fight discrimination and segregation at home.[7] Again like many others, she was bitterly disappointed by the lack of progress after the war. As she saw it, instead of seeing a victory for equality, African American veterans were welcomed home from war by lynch mobs, as occurred in Georgia and Mississippi. Fueling these attacks at home were US Cold War priorities, and she assailed the way that US policy makers gave anticommunism priority over anticolonialism and antiracism. From that time on—whether running for office, writing her regular column, or speaking out against the Red Scare—Bass articulated explicit links between peace and freedom despite the political and personal costs.
In its 1960 review, the Courier concluded that “insofar as it reflects the perplexity of many Negroes with fighting hearts,” Bass’s book was “a provocative study of how you may start out right and end up in a maze.” The “maze” was presumably her association with Communists and Progressives. These associations confounded her efforts to promote social justice and peace in the era of the Cold War and the Red Scare, made the Courier reluctant to engage her peace advocacy, and narrowed the scholarship about Bass.[8]
The views of peace proponents associated with the Communist Left in the early Cold War years were predicated on defending the Soviet Union. While the Soviet Union claimed to stand for peace, its internal policies highlighted the hypocrisies of that claim, just as ongoing racial inequality in the United States belied US claims of standing for freedom. There was a grain of truth in each of these cases, as E. P. Thompson pointed out, but the relevant point here is that leaders in the Communist-affiliated peace ranks, such as Paul Robeson, knew and kept quiet about the horrors of the Soviet Union.[9] This made their peace advocacy problematic. Yet it is important to note that Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois and those who shared their outlook—among them noteworthy black women such as Lorraine Hansberry, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Eslanda Robeson, and Charlotta Bass—had a view of peace that went beyond a defense of Soviet policies. It rested more broadly on (1) the idea of a shared humanity, which people could learn about through an exchange of cultures; (2) a disgust with US Cold War policies (i.e., support for European colonialism, the development of nuclear weapons, and the threat of war), policies they held responsible for creating greater economic and racial inequality; and (3) in many cases (such as Hansberry’s) an abhorrence of war and violence. For many, their sense of the potential in human beings to treat each other with decency and dignity also stemmed from their own experiences, especially from travel abroad including visits to the Soviet Union. Robeson’s experience was emblematic; as he stated before the House Un-American Activities Committee, “In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being.”[10] In Bass’s case, the global travel came later, though her reactions were quite similar. Nonetheless, such multicultural experience and exchange was central to her activism in Los Angeles and her strong belief in a shared humanity was part of her Christian outlook on the world.
To be sure, not everyone who abhorred war, promoted an exchange of cultures, and criticized US Cold War policies was willing to work with Communists. But as the Courier explained about Bass, she was among those who “chose to work, without too much question, with any and all groups” who shared her concerns. Titled “A Conundrum: Whither?” the article ended with a more sympathetic question: “Where should Negroes like Mrs. Bass have run when the ‘Commies’ came on the scene?” From the perspective of the black Left, the choices were limited; one could join the cold warriors in trying to exploit the US government’s rhetorical commitment to democracy and freedom around the world in order to make gains on the home front (the approach of mainstream civil rights leaders), or one could oppose US Cold War policies and work with those who were willing to critique the hypocrisies of the US commitment to freedom at home and abroad. The latter choice often led to working with communist front organizations that refused to criticize the Soviet Union.
Despite the fact that Bass’s words—especially during the 1952 Progressive Party campaign—mirrored those of the Communist Party, there was continuity between her earlier community organizing and her post–World War II national electoral campaigns and increasing commentary on international affairs. A good example was the way she recalled her service in 1943 as the first African American to serve on a grand jury in Los Angeles County. After listening to her fellow jurors make a number of disparaging remarks about Mexican Americans, she responded, “As I look at you, I am . . . afraid that your ignorance and prejudice will be your undoing. Unless you wake up, and together, all of us, you and I—Mexican, Negro, Asian, European, and African—create a world of peace dedicated to the real brotherhood of man, I am afraid we are lost.”[11] Her view of equality and freedom had always been universal, even when her focus and activities had been local. All people were children of God, she believed, and they deserved the same rights and opportunities.[12] The Red Scare and her need to defend herself against attacks that she was a Communist brought this continuity to the forefront.
Perhaps more important, there was one deeply personal reason for Bass’s more intense focus on peace issues after World War II. Her nephew, John Kinloch, was killed in action after he volunteered to join the first integrated combat regiment in 1945, believing that it represented what the war was about. Kathleen Cairns suggests that Kinloch’s death radicalized Bass; Cairns calls it the “final spark” that fueled a “growing cynicism.”[13] Kinloch’s death was clearly a vital motivating factor for Bass’s focus on peace issues from then on, feeding her anger at the treatment of black veterans after World War II and her opposition to the war in Korea. But bitterness about national priorities—seeing “the flower of our youth” sent to Korea while there were few resources devoted to ending segregation—was not merely an expression of cynicism.[14] In her political activity and in her column, she rejected “the tacit agreement that blacks would keep their noses out of foreign relations in exchange for a slow but steady expansion of civil rights.”[15] Differentiating her views from that approach—arguably a far more cynical one than her own—she sharply criticized US foreign policy, linking the struggle for democratic and human rights abroad to the struggle for equality at home. Like her compatriots Du Bois and Robeson, Bass saw peace and freedom as inextricably linked while focusing on her own government as the greatest obstacle to the achievement of these ideals.
Kinloch had come to California as a teenager in the late 1930s and Bass became his guardian so he could attend UCLA as a California resident. He worked on the Eagle,soon becoming its managing editor, as Bass groomed him to take over the paper. After he was drafted, Kinloch wrote to her from Europe about the enormous impact she had on his life.
[W]ith all the sincerity at my command . . . I want to thank you for six wonderful years of learning. I want to thank you for the opportunity you gave me to find out what the world is about, and for teaching me that there are people for whom honesty is a creed that is lived up to.
You remember that when I came to you, I was on the road to becoming one of those smart New York ‘young cynics’ with faith in nothing [but] items with dollar signs. I want to thank you for the convictions which I grew to hold after having worked at the EAGLE. I know what a pain in the rear I have been . . . that you have had Job’s patience in three directions.[16]
Kinloch described what was the “turning point” for him, a “heroic” speech he heard Bass give, and concluded, “I swore that night that I would try to live with as clear and conscious faithfulness to the people’s cause as you have.”[17]
The comment on being “a pain in the rear” refers in part to Kinloch’s fascination with the movies, which led him to disappear for hours on end, even when there was work to be done. By all accounts he was a gifted writer; he had published poems in the New Masses and the Saturday Review, and he had visions of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter.[18] He was already becoming a leader in his own right, organizing a junior council of the NAACP and performing on a nightly radio show while serving as writer and editor on the Eagle. There is evidence that suggests Kinloch was drafted for political reasons—in order to destroy the paper, Bass believed, since he played such a vital role in its operations.[19]
Kinloch was ambivalent about the war and the possibility of being drafted, as evidenced in his poetry, yet he shared the hopes of the black Left that it would open up opportunities to create a more genuine democracy at home.[20] His letters from Europe expressed his high hopes for the future; the war, he believed, would usher in a new world. In fact, he claimed that this new world was already becoming visible in Europe. He wrote to his mother in November 1944 of
a whole world lunging forward on the high road to freedom. . . . The holy places of evil in this world are getting the stuffing kicked out of them—by the big feet of us common everyday Joes. There are holy places of evil back home that will know our footsteps, too. . . . The dead will not have died in vain, for their children will live in freedom. Our children, too, the shining black faces, will live the tomorrow that their parents could only dream. They will because none of us shall fail to continue the struggle even when this fighting here is done.[21]
At the same time he refused to glorify war, “even a good one, a necessary and just one like this.”[22]
Less than a month later, he wrote “Aunt Charlotte” to tell her about “the biggest, best shock of the war,” namely that “Negroes will be accepted as volunteers for combat replacements in white infantry units at the front! NO SEGREGATION!”[23] He told her he had volunteered and, surely aware of the risk he was taking, asked her not to tell his mother. But mostly he expressed excitement about how this would move the struggle forward. Kinloch’s letters repeatedly asked “Aunt Charlotte” to try to get him status as a war correspondent so he could tell the stories of the “Negro troops” from close up. Such stories would highlight the views of black GIs who were “determined that democracy will have to come alive” for them “when the shooting’s over.” He relayed the story of one soldier who had told him how he felt about his job as a rigger: “It was damned near poetry the way he explained it.” Kinloch’s quoting of this GI’s story ended with these words: “I don’t care what anybody tells me, I know that job is important. When I get home I’ll know I have every right to living like an American should.”[24] It is not clear whether Bass ever responded, but whether she did or not she must have felt some guilt about not attending to his request to get him official status as a war correspondent. He sent a letter dated February 5, 1945, saying he had a kind of “eerie feeling” from writing and not hearing back (it had been nearly three months since he had heard from her), and again he pressed her to work on his request. Kinloch may have even had a premonition that he was not going to come back alive; in one of his last letters to his mother he made a plea for her to heal the breach between her and “Aunt Charlotte” and be proud of all the important work her sister was doing.[25]
When Kinloch was killed in combat nine weeks after joining the infantry (in which African Americans could only serve as privates), young activists in Los Angeles formed the John Kinloch Club in his honor, and a few years later they opened the Bass-Kinloch Cultural Center. Bass’s renewed determination to change the world, focusing on the links between peace and freedom, may be seen as yet another way of honoring Kinloch’s memory. She continued to express a firm belief in the US Constitution while criticizing the ongoing lack of equality for racial minorities at home—including high-profile cases of mistreatment of black veterans—but she now devoted more effort to decrying US foreign policy.
Bass had formally been a Republican, despite occasional detours, throughout her adult life. She served as the western regional director for Wendell Wilkie’s presidential campaign in 1940 but publicly broke with the Republican Party after World War II. She had clearly been moving closer to the Communist Party’s position on a number of issues since the early 1940s and in 1948, she supported the Progressive Party campaign, serving as cochair of Women for Wallace. She consistently criticized US Cold War policies in the pages of the Eagle, even as it became clear that this would invite attack. Surely her shifting commitment, particularly her devotion to peace issues, had something to do with the loss of her nephew. For one thing, it would have been hard to view his death as a necessary sacrifice, given the lack of changes in race relations at home after the war. As mentioned above, she was already convinced that he had been drafted to silence the Eagle’s voice. She had been very close to Kinloch, and it is not hard to imagine her anguish about his death leading her to a stronger interest in peace, an issue that already fit her Christian beliefs and was now underscored by the people she most admired, such as Robeson.
When Bass ran for Congress in 1950 on the Independent Progressive Party ticket—the same year Du Bois ran for Senate in New York on the American Labor Party ticket on a platform of peace and civil rights—her peace platform included opposing “preventative war,” admitting China to the United Nations, outlawing atomic and hydrogen bombs, and supporting independence for colonial peoples.[26] In the early 1950s, she also chaired Sojourners for Truth and Justice, a black women’s organization that linked peace and freedom, protesting the war in Korea and the lack of democracy that was evident in the cases of the Martinsville Seven, Willie McGee, and Rosa Lee Ingram.[27] Bass had many other links to the Communist Left, even as she continued her association with the NAACP and her church, and she was still known in Los Angeles as an organizer who excelled at building successful coalitions around particular causes.[28]
Figure 6.2. Charlotta Bass receives a bouquet of flowers at a congressional campaign rally in 1950. To her right is Reuben Borough, Progressive Party candidate for California treasurer; on the left is the folksinger Ernie Lieberman. Credit: Charlotta Bass Collection, Southern California Library (Los Angeles).
Figure 6.2. Charlotta Bass receives a bouquet of flowers at a congressional campaign rally in 1950. To her right is Reuben Borough, Progressive Party candidate for California treasurer; on the left is the folksinger Ernie Lieberman. Credit: Charlotta Bass Collection, Southern California Library (Los Angeles).
Even so, Bass sounded more and more like Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois, who both faced attack for their words, activities, and associations, especially those having to do with peace. In his controversial speech at the 1949 Paris Peace Congress, Robeson argued that African Americans would not go to war on behalf of a government that denied them democratic rights at home: “We do not want to die in vain any more on foreign battlefields for Wall Street and the greedy supporters of domestic fascism. If we must die, let it be in Mississippi or Georgia! Let it be wherever we are lynched and deprived of our rights as human beings!”[29] In the wake of the attacks on Robeson that followed, Bass brought him to Los Angeles to sing on the occasion of the California Eagle’s seventieth anniversary, and the paper characterized him as “the great Negro leader of ALL the people.”[30] Her regular column in the Eaglepointed to the hypocrisy of politicians who seemed more concerned about democracy in Europe or Asia than at home. Speaking about the “senseless slaughter” in Korea, for example, she invoked John Kinloch’s death, one of several times she juxtaposed the sacrifices that African Americans made abroad to their precarious position at home. In a speech about Harriet Moore, who was killed along with her husband Harry T. Moore (Florida’s NAACP leader) after the Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb in their home, Bass pointed out that Mrs. Moore’s brother was flown home from Korea in uniform to attend her funeral.[31]
Figure 6.3. John Kinloch in front of the California Eagle offices circa 1941. Credit: Charlotta Bass Collection, Southern California Library (Los Angeles).
Figure 6.3. John Kinloch in front of the California Eagle offices circa 1941. Credit: Charlotta Bass Collection, Southern California Library (Los Angeles).
From the late 1940s on, Bass strongly and publicly objected to proponents of peace being dismissed as communists. In 1948, she demanded that the Daily News retract its “libelous” statement that she was a member of the Communist Party while continuing to use the pages of the Eagle to legitimize the struggle for peace.[32] Her May 11, 1950, column foreshadowed Du Bois’s indictment by the Justice Department as head of the Peace Information Center, a position from which he gathered signatures on the Stockholm Peace Petition that called on the nations of the world to outlaw atomic weapons. Bass wrote that anyone who spoke out
against the destruction of civilization by the construction of death bombs is considered an enemy of the government and is subjected to a loyalty test and public abuse. Any organization or newspaper that sees no cause for provoking a war with Russia is giving comfort and support to the Communist Party in its effort to overthrow our government, is what the Hearst and other Wall Street controlled newspapers would have you believe. But, Brother, it ain’t true.[33]
Bass explored this theme in other columns over the next several months. In her August 4, 1950, column, she commented on the irony of the New York City police breaking up a peace demonstration: “Sponsors of the meeting had applied for a permit which had been denied on the grounds that to hold a rally for peace would create a disturbance.”[34]
At a time when the causes of peace and civil rights were becoming divided, in part as a result of the Red Scare, Bass took the unusual position of supporting the integration of the armed forces and opposing war, surely a position that Kinloch would have appreciated. Bass’s campaign for vice president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952 continued to hammer home themes of peace and freedom. In a speech in Brooklyn, she talked about spending priorities:
We say—take the $65 billion that Republicans and Democrats are voting for death, and use those dollars to build a new life. Those billions could lift the wages of my people and all people, ensure everyone of jobs and old age security, educate and train and give new hope to our young people in decent schools, free our sharecroppers, build new hospitals and new medical centers. Yes, the $8 billion that is being spent to rearm Europe and crush Asia could rehouse all my people living in the slums of Harlem and Bed-Stuy and in every city in the nation.[35]
In California, Bass also emphasized the Progressive Party’s peace program: “Peace by negotiation. Peace which will bring an end to the war in Korea. Peace which will bring an end to the war on the Negro people here at home by wiping out jim crow [sic] and oppression. Peace which will outlaw the murderous Ku Klux Klan.”[36] She went on to mention jobs, a strong Fair Employment Practices Act, outlawing lynching and the poll tax, and establishing old age pensions, all of which added up to “Peace which will truly make this one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”[37]
Responding to the Progressive Party’s opposition to US Cold War policies, Timemagazine issued a vicious denunciation of the party’s presidential ticket. Its 1952 article titled “National Affairs: Shocking Pink” referred to the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate Vincent Hallinan as the “‘peace candidate'”—the quotations meant to indicate that he wasn’t really interested in peace at all. It described Bass as “dumpy, domineering . . . [c]hildless . . . bitterly radical,” mentioning as well that she had visited Russia.[38] The red-baiting took its toll. She had already been forced to sell the Eagle. A few years later, her sorority rescinded her membership. She had to justify her views to her church. (In a “Dear Pastor” letter, she wrote that she was “a loyal American in every sense of the word.”)[39] All of these were painful experiences, but they did not change her view of the world or prevent her from continuing her activity. In her farewell column in the Eagle on April 26, 1951, Bass concluded, “I am very confident that within my lifetime yet I will see first class citizenship achieved for all my people, true democracy for all Americans, and peace in all the world!”[40] She never stopped working for peace and democratic rights.
Bass continued to organize her community from a global and leftist perspective even in her retirement community in Elsinore, outside of Los Angeles. In the mid-1960s, she proposed the publication of a small monthly magazine, the Elsinore Voice.Suggesting that it would be “a family publication to inform the outside world [of] the health benefits of Elsinore,” her proposal also suggested that the magazine would be
Dedicated to world peace and the abolition of war, atomic or otherwise, establishment of a friendly trade relationship with Russia, admission of China to the U.N., support of Freedom Marchers in their effort to abolish all forms of segregation and discrimination[.] . . . decent housing in all sections of the city, free of discrimination[,] . . . adequate pension for the aged.[41]
To sum up the development of her beliefs, we can say that Charlotta Bass was committed to Christianity, American democracy, and racial equality. But equally important, she was opposed to the Korean War, the buildup of nuclear weapons, and colonialism. Her accomplishments included a number of firsts, several of which have been mentioned above. She was also ahead of her time in discussing what it meant to be African American (as opposed to Negro) and in her awareness of the triple oppression of black working women.[42] But her individual achievements are beside the point here.
There were many other black leftists who shared Bass’s perspective, who desperately wanted to build a world of racial equality but whose vision did not end there. Ossie Davis and Canada Lee, Carlton Goodlett and Claudia Jones, Lorraine Hansberry, William Worthy, Eugene Gordon, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and Eslanda Robeson all shared the view that Bass expressed at the end of her autobiographical book: “We who fight on the side of the people believe that the great enemies of mankind are poverty and disease, inequality and war.”[43] They shared her global perspective, the links between peace and freedom that she spelled out, and her advocacy of both causes. Thus, their stories help to expand our conceptualization of the black Left in the early Cold War years, adding an important dimension to our understanding of these individuals and the movement of which they were a part. Peace was an integral part of their vision for a world free of colonialism, racism, gender inequality, and poverty. Because of their pro-Soviet outlook, their view sounded—and to many people continues to sound—at best naive, at worst duplicitous (and certainly treasonous to Cold War proponents). But I argue that there was an unmistakable sincerity and significance in their pleas for peace, precisely because of their refusal to separate peace from other issues. Their expression of a broad vision of peace was considered un-American and brought surveillance, attack, and repression. But this was not only because of their pro-Soviet outlook; it was also because of the particular way in which they linked the cause of peace with freedom and justice. Mary McLeod Bethune had spoken to these connections earlier, and both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King made similar arguments at various times.[44] But Bass and her contemporaries spoke out in the early years of the Cold War, when only Communists, it was assumed, promoted peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union, opposed the Korean War and the buildup of atomic weapons, and agitated against colonialism. They all may not have been strict pacifists (though a number of them were), but they shared a critique of what we would now call structural violence, which had to be addressed in order to move the world closer to conditions that could foster a positive peace.[45]
Why has the black Left’s interest in peace received so little attention? Peace historians have addressed the issue of racial inequality on occasion, but they tend to focus on the internal dynamics of peace movements and fail to address African American perspectives on peace in a serious way.[46] For purposes of this collection, it is more compelling to consider why scholars of the black Left—whether their work is historical or literary—pay so little attention to writing and activism around peace issues.
There are two major tendencies. The easier one to explain is the group of scholars who simply want to avoid questions about black activists’ ties to the Communist movement. Whether they fear tainting the legacy of their subjects or their own reputations, they don’t see the evidence because they have internalized the anticommunism that prevailed during the Red Scare era, or for some other reason, these scholars understate or neglect the black Left’s concerns about peace issues.[47]This approach mirrors the Cold War liberal approach to civil rights in its post–World War II phase (and to the early scholarship on the civil rights movement). Fear of anticommunist attacks on the civil rights movement throughout the first quarter century of the Cold War meant not only distancing the movement from the likes of Robeson and Du Bois but also warning young people to stay away from Communists and attacking Martin Luther King, Jr. when he spoke out against the Vietnam War.[48]
But we need another explanation for those who acknowledge Communist ties in many other areas. What are we to make of those who forcefully challenge the old view that Communists exploited the black freedom movement for their own purposes but simply refuse to use the word “peace”? To be fair, Charlotta Bass’s impact was most significant in Los Angeles, and there is reason to honor her leadership on a local level. Yet this does not explain viewing her post–World War II writings and activities as a “departure” from her otherwise admirable work rather than as an integral and important extension of her local accomplishments to a more global scope.[49] And again, even those who accept or even celebrate her and others’ ties to the Communist Left focus almost exclusively on black liberation struggles or black feminism even as their subjects specifically emphasized peace as a priority. The strong commitment to peace issues is inescapable if you look at Du Bois and Robeson and the many others who took their cues from those two. These activists did not write and speak about “internationalism.” The word they used was “peace,” and yet one searches in vain for the latter term in most scholarly studies on the black Left.[50]
Perhaps the neglect of peace issues stems from lack of interest among those focused on race-class-gender equality and/or issues of sexuality. Moving beyond Bass, there are suggestive cases to point to in the realm of literature. To take just one instance, the neglect of black authors’ interest in peace can be seen in the scholarship on Ann Petry’s novel The Narrows.
In the brilliant scholarship about The Narrows, there is barely a mention of peace. Yet the main character, the setting, and, arguably, even the inevitable conclusion are tied to war and militarism as well as to the race and class issues that have received close attention.[51] In one intriguing example, Farah Jasmine Griffin’s insightful chapter on The Narrows seeks to restore its leftist politics, beginning with Petry’s intentions. Griffin says that Petry’s argument for the significance of “sociological fiction,” rooted in Western culture and influenced by Marxism, echoes Du Bois’s claims in his famous essay “Art as Propaganda.” But Petry added one more feature to such propaganda, suggesting that socially conscious writers might be merely people with a conscience, a large portion of whose cultural heritage “stems from the Bible,” even if it includes Marxism as well.[52] Petry zeroed in on the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel. As quoted by Griffin:
In one way or another, the novelist who criticizes some undesirable phase of the status quo is saying that man is his brother’s keeper and that unless a social evil (war or racial prejudice or ante-Semitism [sic] or political corruption) is destroyed man cannot survive but will become what Cain feared he would become—a wander[er] and a vagabond on the face of the earth.[53]
It is not insignificant that “war” is first on Petry’s list of social evils—just as it was not an accident when Lorraine Hansberry made a similar list of social evils in response to an interview question.[54]
Griffin tells us how the main character in The Narrows, Link Williams, is a combination of Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois: a gifted athlete and a handsome young man with the ambition of becoming a historian and writing about slavery. Yet Link goes off to serve in the military and comes back a changed person, with no direction. There is no discussion, in either the novel or the scholarship, about what happened to him during his service in the army, but it clearly has destroyed his ambition.[55] The setting of The Narrows is a town controlled by a munitions factory, and the family that owns it is responsible for Link’s death; indeed, the one who pulls the trigger is not only the husband of the white woman with whom Link has an affair but also an officer in the US Army.[56] The high expectations of African Americans, including those on the Left, coming out of the World War II–era military and the way those hopes were dashed by continued brutal violence, even against those who supposedly fought for democracy, is again a central theme. But the Cold War context matters a great deal, since it helps explain why those expectations were not met. Anticommunism and preparations for war against the Soviet Union, support for European allies in their struggle to hold on to their colonies (lest they turn to communism), growing militarism on the home front—these were tied to the continuation of race and class oppression, as Robeson, Du Bois, Bass, Petry, and many others articulated at the time.
Scholars’ reluctance to highlight peace as a major theme in Petry’s novel is similar to the neglect of Bass as a peace activist. This perhaps explains why one of the more accurate summations of Bass’s life and legacy comes from an essay written by a middle school student who doesn’t yet know any better. “Charlota Bass did raise the issues in her relentless pursuit for peace and equality.”[57] More broadly speaking, the split between the causes of peace and freedom, for which the Cold War and the Red Scare were mainly responsible, has echoes today in a scholarly divide between the two topics that has barely begun to be breached. Surely the broad, significant legacy of the black Left from the Cold War era, a legacy that encompasses the linked struggles for peace and freedom, merits more attention than it has thus far received.


1. "A Conundrum: Whither?," Courier Correspondence, February 19, 1960, box 1 Additions, Charlotta Bass Papers, MSS 002, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, Los Angeles, California (hereafter Bass Papers).return to text
2. See, for example, the work of Fanon Che Wilkins, Brent Hayes Edwards, Brenda Gayle Plummer, Robin Kelley, and many others on black internationalism. Exceptions to this include Jacqueline Foertsch, Reckoning Day: Race, Place, and the Atom Bomb in Postwar America (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2013); Jacqueline Castledine, "Quieting the Chorus: Progressive Women's Race and Peace Politics in Postwar New York," in Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement, edited by Robbie Lieberman and Clarence Lang, 51–79 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); and Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008). Gerald Horne also addresses peace issues in several of his books, though he does so rather uncritically. Bass and her contemporaries did not use the term "structural violence," but that concept was central to the way they connected various issues to their desire for peace.return to text
3. Regina Freer, "L.A. Race Woman: Charlotta Bass and the Complexities of Black Political Development in Los Angeles," American Quarterly 56 (September 2004), 607–32.; "The Press as Pulpit: Charlotta Bass and the California Eagle," in Kathleen Cairns, Front-Page Women Journalists, 1920–1950, 73–106 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003); "Charlotta A. Bass: Radical Precursor of the Black Power Movement," in Rodger Streitmatter, Raising Her Voice: African-American Women Journalists Who Changed History, 96–106 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994).return to text
4. Gerald Gill, "'WIN OR LOSE—WE WIN': The 1952 Vice-Presidential Campaign of Charlotta A. Bass," in The Afro-American Woman: Struggles and Images, edited by Sharon Harley and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, 109–18 (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1978). The other study that addresses Bass's communist connections and her peace interests directly, offering a rare glimpse into the wide range of her interests and affiliations, is Robert Gottlieb et al., The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).return to text
5. Biographical notes, 1959, author unknown, box 2, Bass Papers; "Biographical Notes on Mrs. Charlotta Bass," The Progressive Party of Ohio, 1952, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers; Cairns, Front-Page Women Journalists, 92, 97.return to text
6. Ellis E. Spears's letter is from Camp Van Dorn, Mississippi, May 10, 1943, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
7. Freer, "L.A. Race Woman," 9; Cairns, Front-Page Women Journalists, 100. Bass did not share Randolph's intense anticommunism, but her opposition in this case also stemmed from discomfort with all-black organizations. See Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 153.return to text
8. Among those who write admiringly of her efforts to combat discrimination in employment and housing in Los Angeles up through World War II yet cast her post–World War II peace activism in negative terms or avoid it altogether are Streitmatter, Freer, Cairns (cited above). In Bound for Freedom, Douglas Flamming echoes the negative portrayal of Bass put forward by Time magazine, writing of her as a "peace candidate" and claiming that after her nephew's death Bass "adopted his leftist views." See Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 366, 370.return to text
9. See Martin Bauml Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: Knopf, 1988), 208–9, 352–54.return to text
10. "Testimony of Paul Robeson before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, June 12, 1956," History Matters to text
11. Bass tells this story in her self-published memoir. See Charlotta Bass, Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper (Los Angeles: Self-published, 1960), 127.return to text
12. She presented herself as a member in good standing of the Baptist Church and as a Progressive and a loyal American. See, for example, a draft of a dinner speech to be given in Brooklyn, April 18, 1952; see also a September 29, 1952, transcript of a broadcast, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
13. Cairns, Front-Page Women Journalists, 98, 102.return to text
14. "The Negro in the World Crisis," Typescript, p. 8, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers. Cases of racial injustice in the immediate post–World War II years are discussed in Gerald Horne, Communist Front? The Civil Rights Congress, 1946–1956 (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988).return to text
15. The quote is from John Henrik Clarke, who says that Du Bois put it even more aptly, suggesting that black people were offered a "bribe" in which they would be granted more equal status in the United States in exchange for "the slavery of all mankind." See "Black America Fashions Its Foreign Policy," 13, John Henrik Clarke Papers, box 28, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation.return to text
16. John Kinloch to Aunt Charlotte, December 20, 1943, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
17. Ibid. The "heroic" speech to which he referred included sharp criticism of A. Philip Randolph.return to text
18. See R. J. Smith, The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance (New York: Public Affairs, 2006), 29–30. Kinloch was optimistic that the movies were about to open up and that he would be able to sell some scripts.return to text
19. She made an appeal on the grounds of Kinloch's vital service to the paper that was clearly unsuccessful. Letter fragment from Charlotta A. Bass, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers. In a letter to his mother explaining why he can't come East, Kinloch reveals the desperate financial situation the paper is in and how badly "Aunt Charlotte" needs him. In a fragment of a letter about his being drafted, he writes, "A preliminary investigation of my case revealed that political pressure had been exerted within the Selective Service System and that documented evidence prepared by my lawyer had been withheld from the draft appeal board." John to Mother, August 22, 1941; Dear Mother, July 4, 1943; box 2 Additions, Bass Papers. The US government's suspicion and monitoring of the black press has been well documented. See, for example, Patrick Washburn, A Question of Sedition: The Federal Government's Investigation of the Black Press during World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).return to text
20. See his poem "A POME. FOR FOLKS. WHO WONDER. WHAT. THE HELL," quoted in Smith, The Great Black Way, 55–57. The poem begins with suspicion about the patriotism being whipped up and memories of the last war and ends with a call to combat Hitler and defend the fight for freedom as "COURAGEOUS, TO LIVE FOR, TO DIE FOR."return to text
21. John Kinloch to Mother, November 16, 1944, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
22. "The danger of fascism in America is sharply reduced," he wrote, "when you have millions of soldiers with first-hand knowledge of the lying deception about 'the glory of war.'" John Kinloch to Mother, December 10, 1944, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
23. John Kinloch to Aunt Charlotte, January 2, 1945, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers. The letter is dated 1944, but this is clearly a mistake.return to text
24. John Kinloch to Mom, Somewhere in France, September 14, 1944, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
25. John Kinloch to Mom, France, January 28, 1945, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
26. Flyer headed "For Action on Your Problems . . . Elect Charlotta A. Bass," n.d., box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
27. See Erik McDuffie, "A 'New Freedom Movement of Negro Women': Sojourning for Truth, Justice, and Human Rights during the Early Cold War," Radical History Review101 (Spring 2008): 81–106. Other clear links to the Communist Left, if we use guilt by association as a measure, included her serving on the national board of the Civil Rights Congress, signing on to the petition that William Patterson presented to the United Nations charging the US government with genocide against African Americans, and having an address book listing many other Communists and fellow travelers.return to text
28. One such cause was that of Wesley Robert Wells, whose story Gerald Horne relates in Communist Front?, 323–27.return to text
29. This was the sort of talk that led to the Peekskill Riots in August and September 1949 in which anticommunist attacks on Robeson and those who attended his concert there resulted in more than 150 people being sent to the hospital. On Peekskill and its aftermath, see Robbie Lieberman, The Strangest Dream: Communism, Anticommunism and the U.S. Peace Movement, 1945–1963 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 73–80.return to text
30. "Paul Robeson Sings in Los Angeles May 12, Auspices California Eagle," California Eagle, April 27, 1950, 1.return to text
31. She mentioned the Moores in several speeches. This particular point was made in a 1952 campaign speech for the Progressive Party found in box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
32. Charlotta A. Bass, "Notice of Libelous Statements Published and Demand for Retraction," August 31, 1948, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers. It is certainly possible that she was discouraged, like Robeson, from joining the Communist Party because she was of more use to the party if she did not formally become a member, but I have not found evidence to this effect.return to text
33. Charlotta A. Bass, "The Sidewalk," California Eagle, May 11, 1950, 3, 5.return to text
34. "Thousands Defy N.Y. Police Ban as They Gather for Peace Rally," California Eagle,August 4, 1950, 1.return to text
35. Draft of speech for Brooklyn dinner, April 18, 1952, p. 7, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
36. California speech, 1952, p. 6, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
37. Ibid.return to text
38. "National Affairs: Shocking Pink," Time, March 17, 1952. The language used to describe Bass was also code for calling her a lesbian. Thanks to Paula Rabinowitz for pointing this out.return to text
39. August 14, 1956, letter from Marian Jackson, Iota Phi Lambda Sorority to Charlotta Bass, box 2; letter to "Dear Pastor," May 5, 1953, box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
40. "The Sidewalk," California Eagle, April 26, 1951.return to text
41. Suggestions for magazine, n.d., box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
42. Bass wrote of the triple oppression of black women in a typescript of a speech in Brooklyn, p. 6. In an open letter to the editor of Ebony magazine, March 20, 1953, she critiqued the word "Negro" and suggested that the correct name for black people was "African Americans." Both documents are in box 1 Additions, Bass Papers.return to text
43. Bass, Forty Years, 341–42. She applied for a social security card in Illinois, which shows a birth date of February 1890. "United States Social Security Death Index," FamilySearch. Charlotta Bass, April 1969, citing US Social Security Administration, Death Master File, database (Alexandria, Virginia: National Technical Information Service, ongoing).return to text
44. See, for example, Mary McLeod Bethune, "'Closed Doors': Mary McLeod Bethune on Civil Rights," in Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights–Black Power Movement, edited by Bettye Collier-Thomas and V. P. Franklin (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 19. In a 1985 speech, Coretta Scott King said that "we cannot afford to separate peace from freedom and justice. World Peace cannot be achieved as long as massive poverty, racism, and repression are tolerated. And freedom and justice will remain a distant goal for millions of suffering people as long as the nuclear arms race and militarism are allowed to dominate the world economy." King is quoted in Juliet E. K. Walker, "War, Peace and Structural Violence: Peace Activism and the African-American Historic Experience," Occasional Paper No. 14, July 1992, Indiana Center on Global Change and World Peace, Indiana University, Bloomington.return to text
45. The theory of structural violence was developed by Norwegian peace researcher Johan Galtung, but the idea (if not the term) was used by a number of peace proponents—Communists among them—who differentiated between what Martin Luther King, Jr. later called "positive peace," meaning the presence of justice, from "negative peace," the absence of war. Thus, the black Left in particular offered an important perspective that has not been duly noted.return to text
46. Joyce Blackwell explores these issues to some extent in No Peace without Freedom: Race and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 1915–1975 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004). Melinda Plastas, A Band of Noble Women: Racial Politics in the Women's Peace Movement (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011) is more focused on internal dynamics as opposed to ideas. Marian Mollin has done the most to address both peace and freedom in a serious manner; see Radical Pacifism in Modern America: Egalitarianism and Protest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). From the freedom movement side, there is an acknowledgment, but no sustained discussion, of some black intellectuals' interest in peace in Kimberly Philips, War! What Is It Good For? Black Freedom Struggles and the U.S. Military from World War II to the War in Iraq (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).return to text
47. Flamming's work is the best example of this tendency as he views the attacks on her somewhat uncritically, but a number of other scholars just omit her peace activism and focus on what they see as her more positive legacy—that is, her earlier work challenging employment and housing discrimination. One of the strangest examples of missing the connections that Bass drew between peace, freedom, and equality comes toward the end of Streitmatter's chapter on her work as a journalist: "She ended one of her last speeches with a threat that could have as easily been delivered by Malcolm X. . . . 'Beware, ye nations of the world! The people are speaking out loudly and more coherently than ever before in their demand for peace and their share of the fruits of their labor.'" When did Malcolm X talk about "the people" and "their demand for peace"? Streitmatter, Raising Her Voice, 106.return to text
48. See Robbie Lieberman, "Another Side of the Story': African American Intellectuals Speak Out for Peace and Freedom during the Early Cold War Years," in Anticommunism and the African American Freedom Movement, 38–40.return to text
49. In Flamming's final chapter, titled "Departure," he suggests that Bass's "real departure was political." (Her physical departure was her move to Harlem, which was short-lived.) Flamming, Bound for Freedom, 365.return to text
50. Again, the handful of scholars willing to seriously engage peace issues and the black Left include Jacqueline Foertsch, Jacqueline Castledine, Carole Boyce Davies, and Gerald Horne.return to text
51. Alan Wald points out all this and more, including the story of the Treadway gun taught in the local public schools, one of which is named "Arsenal" (the Treadways are responsible for Link's murder). Yet his insightful and detailed analysis of the novel, of which there are few, does not lead him to consider that a desire for peace was part of Petry's outlook. See Alan Wald, American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), chap. 6.return to text
52. Petry is quoted in Farah Jasmine Griffin, "Hunting Communists and Negroes in Ann Petry's The Narrows," in Alex Lubin, Revising the Blueprint: Ann Petry and the Literary Left (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 141.return to text
53. Ibid.return to text
54. Robbie Lieberman, "'Measure Them Right': Lorraine Hansberry and the Struggle for Peace," Science & Society 75, no. 2 (April 2011): 206–35.return to text
55. This is the major theme in Willard Motley's We Fished All Night, but he spells out how each of his three characters is destroyed by his military experience. Motley was a pacifist and a conscientious objector in World War II, yet another African American writer who linked peace and freedom.return to text
56. Here we are reminded of John O. Killens's And Then We Heard the Thunder or even William Gardner Smith's Last of the Conquerors, in each of which it slowly dawns on the main character that the real enemy is not so much the Germans as the white Americans.return to text
57. The essay, titled "Charlotta Bass" by Victoria E. Garten of St. Mary's Catholic School, won first place in the Middle School category of 2007 Black History Month essay winners and appears in Chelsea DeWeese, "Celebrating Black History Month in the West," Arizona Daily Sun, February 24, 2007, to text

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