“Black Radical; The Education of an American Revolutionary” – by Nelson Peery, 2007
Minnesota’s own Nelson Peery tells his story of his revolutionary awakening after World War II. He came home as a soldier and ran into discrimination and poverty in the North and heard about lynchings in the South. After the war, Peery and his 6 brothers became members or supporters of the Communist Party (“CP”), while their father became a well-known and professional anti-communist in Minneapolis and later Los Angeles. Later Peery left the CP to form the Communist Labor Party ("CLP"). This book can be seen as Part 2 of Peery’s earlier memoir, “Black Fire,” about his life in rural American Minnesota, the depression and World War II.
The book starts with him coming home after 4 years of combat. Peery’s experience in the Pacific war paralleled that of many black soldiers – not only in World War II, but also in the Civil War and World War I. Combat empowered black men and some women to feel both competent to handle any physical threat and entitled to equal rights with white people. It, in an odd sense, was the incubator for revolutionary and egalitarian feelings. Black ex-soldiers formed the heart of the anti-discrimination and anti-Jim Crow movement that developed after World War II. Educated not on the pablum of non-violence and obsequiousness, but on combat cohesion and the risking of their lives for ‘democracy,’ black soldiers after World War II were changed men. The 90 years of post-Civil War neo-confederate rule, the result of the defeat of Reconstruction, was about to end, in both north and south.
Peery re-joins his neighborhood after the war, but cannot just blend back into the aimless life of partial work and partying. He joins the Communist Party (at their office on Fifth and Hennepin), greatly influenced by people like Paul Robeson and W.E.B Dubois. Later he joins the Party group at the University of Minnesota, where he starts reading Marxism more deeply. He was part of a group that got the first black professor hired at the U in the late 40s. In an incredible scene during this period, Leadbelly tours Minneapolis and Peery invites him over to his home to meet the ‘Red Bishop' of the English Anglican church. At the families' south Minneapolis house, Leadbelly performs an impromptu concert for the bishop, and 200 other people show up.
The Party then asked Peery to leave the U and get a working-class job. With some trepidation, he agreed. Fearing the ordinary unskilled union jobs usually assigned blacks, he walked upstairs in the union hall to the office of the Bricklayers Union, and got a job as the first black bricklayer in Minneapolis through plain moxie and a threat of a lawsuit. Peery worked construction for awhile and learned the trade from the Swedes on the job. As the Red Purge picked up in the United States, mostly targeted at unionists and workers, Peery was then assigned by the CP to go ‘underground’ in Detroit. The CP was afraid the whole organization would be outlawed, rounded up and incarcerated in jail, much as some of their leaders were due to the Smith Act. In Detroit he meets one of the Scottsboro boys hiding there, who had been heavily marked by his experience in prison. Perry lost contact with the Party organization due to its own disorganization. Peery eventually decides to re-emerge on his own, contacts the CP again, and is then assigned to work in Cleveland. There he joins a black Party club that helps initiate a major boycott of the Cleveland Sears for their refusal to hire blacks.
Problems in the Party start to surface. Peery initially made the mistake of going to a CP convention in New York and criticizing Tito when Tito was Stalin’s darling. For this, he is roundly denounced by the Party leadership at the convention meeting. The very next day Stalin denounced Tito, and then the U.S. Party also decided to denounce Tito. Peery, of course, was suddenly back in favor. Peery did not fail to notice that ‘thinking’ in the CP was not an independent process.
It is somewhat difficult in this book to figure out exactly which political or strategic issues lead to the break between Peery and many black comrades on the one hand, and the CP on the other. It is clear during the McCarthy and 50's period that the white leadership was afraid of getting deeply involved in anti-racist activities that might involve illegalities. The Party lost its nerve, and it meant that more radical comrades were asked to leave. The black comrades in Cleveland, through their anti-discrimination work, had stood up to the East Cleveland white racists, the FBI and the Cleveland police in their work in the mass Negro Labor Council. Some were expelled for refusing to leave the Negro Labor Counsel. Peery was also expelled for something similar to this reason, though his conflicts with various leaders over other issues seemed to play a role too.
Peery’s first marriage, to a non-political women, fell apart in Cleveland, and he moved to New York. In New York, he met his politicized second wife, Sue Ying. After the departure from the CP and move to New York, Peery joined the Provisional Organizing Committee (POC) (…to reconstitute a Marxist-Leninist Communist Party in the United States of America), who were a group of ex-CP’ers in the city. There, in one significant moment, he describes having the idea of giving political speeches on street corners in Harlem. His Marxist speeches were made not far from the headquarters of the Black Muslims. In the audience was a young Muslim, Malcolm X. Later, Malcolm started giving street corner speeches, and of course, drew far vaster crowds than Peery. The implication is that Peery gave the idea of talking on the streets to Malcolm.
Then Peery and Ying moved to Los Angeles’ Watts district for the POC, and helped form the California Communist League, and later, the CLP, his own organization. You see, he seemed to have a habit of pissing-off the leaders of every organization he was part of, until the CLP. While in California, Peery was involved in the 1965 Watts uprising, which he characterizes not as a ‘riot’ but as a people’s rebellion against white privilege and the police state in Watts. During Watts, he sees the unorganized black masses of Los Angeles almost overcome the strength of the cops and state, though at the cost of many dead, wounded and arrested.
This is a personal, non-rhetorical book, combining both private and political details. What runs throughout this second part of his memoir is how Peery always understood that black nationalism, no matter how radical or phrased, is ultimately a dead end in defeating capitalism and institutional racism. While he well knew that many white people, even those who call themselves communists, are flawed, he also knew that no overthrow of American capital can occur without black, white and Latino workers uniting. And this is the ‘red’ thread that runs through all his organizing - his bedrock commitment to a united working-class movement.
And you can buy it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, August 17, 2009