Communism and Civil Rights  go to audio


Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, politicians, government agencies and other organized groups labeled civil rights activists as communists in an effort to divert attention from the issues that caused the movement to form. By effectively labeling activists as communist, defenders of the status quo could easily stifle the organizing efforts of any group or individual. In a McCarthy-type atmosphere where loyalty to country and government clashed with the realities of poverty and war, civil rights activists ran the risk of being seen as traitors and therefore unworthy of respect and support. Organizations like the Sovereignty Commission, the Ku Klux Klan, and the White Citizens Council worked hard to persuade onlookers that the civil rights movement was inspired and financed by communists seeking to overthrow capitalism and democracy worldwide. Despite the fact that widespread racism, discrimination, and segregation made for excellent protest opportunities, segregationists and other racists used an alleged "communist threat" to keep a large segment of the American public from sympathizing with civil rights activists. For example, certain organizations like the NAACP were banned from Mississippi for allegedly being subversive, which automatically brought the investigative and law enforcing power of the state to bear. When this happened, activists could expect to have their phones wiretapped, mail read, offices bugged, and cars followed. Quite often they'd be summoned to testify about their "disloyal" activities before the Congress or the infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Having fallen prey to these tactics, some activists left the movement altogether. Others like Martin Luther King, Bob Moses, Hobert Kornegay, and James Miller, among many, persevered and continued to work for equality despite the false charges.

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                                                                                                                               Total time: 1 minute, 24 seconds

Yeah, they were all white. I mean, there were black communists obviously. Most of what they—see you have to understand, if you came into contact—I did in coming out of Howard's campus, you know, there was the Young People's Socialist League was on Howard's campus. Bayard Rustin was—So we knew—we had some familiarity; we had talked to socialists and communists. They felt—we had lots of negative [relations]—one, they were hostile to black nationalism, not that we were committed to black nationalism, but they were hostile to it. They were hostile to spontaneity. See, they didn't think you could have a movement that was spontaneous; it had to be disciplined, organized and ideological. But at eighteen or nineteen years old, you're not disciplined. And SNCC was the exact antithesis; we were the communists' worse nightmare, not from necessarily [from] an ideological point of view in the sense of being right-wing; it's just [that] we were unmanageable. I found the argument bogus.

—Charles Cobb, organizer for SNCC
Charles Cobb, a native of Washington, D.C., was a SNCC Field Secretary in Ruleville, Mississippi, the home of Fannie Lou Hamer. While there, he engaged in voter registration drives, and in 1963, wrote the prospectus for what became the Freedom Schools. His intent was to address the shortcomings of the Mississippi school system and to expose black students to new ideas, provide them with alternatives for action, and to develop future leadersship within the black community.