Lesser-known Black women communists you must learn about (part two)
This is part two of a shortlist on Black women communists radicals must study. To read the first part of this list, click here.
Like many of the women mentioned before, Charlene Mitchell also spent time in the CPUSA as one of its leaders. As a teenager, Mitchell organized Black and white teens to picket the segregated businesses in the area she lived in throughout Chicago. She organized sit-ins, leafleting events, and demonstrations to put an end to Jim Crow laws. Mitchell became part of CPUSA in the 1940s, at 16 years old. As a Black communist, over time she developed a revolutionary consciousness and stressed the importance of pan-Africanism, anti-imperialism, and building solidarity between oppressed peoples of the world. After the FBI arrested Angela Davis on bogus charges, Mitchell spearheaded the campaign to free Davis. Mitchell could bring attention to Davis’ case internationally and eventually, Davis was freed. Mitchell was also the first Black woman to run for President of the United States. She ran in the 1968 election as part of the CPUSA ticket.
Williana Burroughs was born of an enslaved mother and spent a portion of her childhood in an asylum for Black children. Burroughs became a teacher and ended up joining the CPUSA through the New York Teachers’ Union. She helped organize teachers in her union and spoke out about working conditions for teachers. Because of her work and outspoken nature on conditions in the schools, the New York City Board of Education went so far as to fire Burroughs.
Burroughs did not let up her political work, but rather entrenched herself deeper in communist struggle. She joined the cause to defend the Scottsboro boys and other political prisoners. In the 1930s, Burroughs was among some of the first Black women to run for public office, running under the CPUSA banner for New York Comptroller and Lieutenant Governor of New York. Burroughs became another party leader in the CPUSA, among the many Black women leading movements for justice and true liberation. She ran the party’s educational school in Harlem for about a year.
She also traveled to the Soviet Union as part of the CPUSA’s American Negro Labor Congress. Her two sons, pictured above, ended up attending school in Moscow. Burroughs spent a good amount of time in the USSR, working as a reporter for the USSR international news station Radio Moscow from the thirties through the end of World War II.
Like Claudia Jones, Marvel Cooke used her writing skills to bring attention to the issues Black women face under the US’s continual capitalistic and white supremacist regime. She was born and raised in Minnesota and was subjected to harassment by whites many times growing up. White residents once protested at her home, wanting her and her family to leave the home because they were Black. White teachers and students would often hurl racial slurs at school (Cooke’s presence in the school system actually desegregated the respective schools she attended) and a white employer lied to her and told her she failed a test that would qualify her for a job.
Eventually, Cooke would move to Harlem after being offered a job to work for WEB DuBois’ The Crisis. Although she had no background in journalism, Cooke had a talent for writing that enabled her to have a career as a journalist. Cooke was not an ordinary journalist, though. She used her skills as a communist to bring attention to the exploitation that workers face.
Cooke helped found the first Newspaper Guild chapter of New York. We know the guild today as the NewsGuild-CWA. She often hosted union meetings at her home. Cooke supported strikes by journalists and editors at the newspaper she worked at in New York City. Cooke surrounded herself with many of the Black radicals of her day, such as Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and more. It was during her time working as a journalist and befriending Black radicals of Harlem that she joined the CPUSA. Despite the possibility of losing her job, if it was found out she was a communist, Cooke joined anyway.
Cooke became tired of the sensationalistic, hollow way stories were covered at the paper she worked for. She wanted to dive deeper and explore the realities of people trying to survive under capitalism. This eventually led to her writing stories and exposes on the poor conditions people worked in. She also left to focus on writing about the hardships Black people and Black women, in particular, face, being exploited by capitalism and white supremacy.
One of Cooke’s notable exposés was “The Bronx Slave Market.” For this multi-part series, she went undercover as a domestic laborer to report on the conditions Black women worked in. Cooke reported on the horrible exploitation Black women laborers faced from their white — often white women — employers. She exposed Black women were paid far less than legally allowed and that employers would change the hands on the clock to fool Black women into working extra time for free. Cooke said that Black women workers were treated like slaves.
In the 1950s, Cooke was summoned twice to testify about her connections to communism when the anti-communist, highly repressive McCarthy hearings occurred in the US. She pleaded the Fifth. In the 1970s, Cooke worked on the campaign to free Angela Davis. She volunteered for the Angela Davis Defense Fund as the national legal defense secretary.
Shirley Graham DuBois
The radical man we understand today as WEB DuBois may have never grown politically without Shirley Graham DuBois. Shirley Graham was a playwright, a composer, a writer, a communist. As mentioned in part one, Graham helped found the radical Black women’s group called the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. She also became a member of the CPUSA in the ‘40s. Graham married famous Black sociologist and writer WEB DuBois in the 1950s. It was Graham DuBois who guided an elitist, liberal WEB DuBois to conclude that communism is the only way Black people can be free.
Graham DuBois made many speeches to support African liberation and socialism. She made it clear in her writing and speeches that Africans throughout the world must use socialism to achieve liberation, as capitalism has only caused destruction for Africans in and outside the continent. In her life, she became friends with pan-African leaders, socialists, and presidents of liberated Ghana and Tanzania Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere, respectively. Graham DuBois was also close to Malcolm X and helped him create the group he founded, the Organization of Afro-American Unity. She even introduced Malcolm X to Nkrumah. Later in her life, Graham DuBois would visit and build relationships with socialist China and Vietnam. She spent the rest of her life in Beijing.
By Marvel Jackson
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