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Women and the Black Radical Tradition: Claudia Jones and Ella Baker

By Denise Lynn

On Christmas day 1964, Claudia Jones, only forty-nine years old, died alone in her London apartment.  Over three hundred people attended her funeral on January 9, 1965 to commemorate the woman who spent her entire adult life agitating against oppression.  “Visitors who come to London’s Highgate Cemetery see that next to the grave of Karl Marx there is the tombstone of Claudia Jones.  Many wonder what earned her the honor of being buried beside the founder of scientific communism.” [1]   On the other side of the globe, Ella Baker, a leading African-American Civil Rights leader, was defending her theories of decentralized leadership.  Tensions mounted in the movement when grassroots organizations rejected the ideas of central leadership and non-violence. One such organization, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in part, by the efforts of Ella Baker, became dedicated to Ella’s ideals of decentralized leadership, challenging the authority of high profile individuals in the Civil Rights Movement. In this paper I will examine the experiences of these two radicals.

Both Ella Baker and Claudia Jones spent their entire adult lives writing, speaking and debating the issues that African-Americans faced.  These issues included racist oppression, class hierarchy and the roles of women.  However, although they both confronted the same issues, they had divergent philosophies that shaped their political careers.  Their individual ideas can be examined in terms of Winston James’ definition of radicalism and Cedric Robinson’s theory of the development of the Black Radical tradition.  Although the radicalism of both Ella Baker and Claudia Jones fits within Robinson and James’ definitions, their unique experiences as women helped define their ideas and theories, and transform the role of women in the Black Radical tradition.

In Winston James’, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia, he defines radicalism or radical politics as, “the challenging of the status quo either on the basis of social class, race (or ethnicity), or a combination of the two.” [2]   He goes on to articulate, in terms of the above definition, radicals.  According to James radicals, therefore, “are avowed anti-capitalists, as well as adherents of varieties of Black Nationalism.” [3]   Included in this definition are those who have attempted to unite anti-capitalist and nationalist thought.  Though James examined Black Radicalism in terms of Caribbean migrants in the United States, his definition could be applied to native-born African-Americans as well.

However, before examining this definition in further detail, it is useful to examine Cedric Robinson’s thoughts on Black Radicalism.  In Robinson’s book, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, the Black Radical tradition “emerged from the West’s suppression of Europe’s previous knowledge of the African (and its own) past.” [4]   According to Robinson, the radical tradition emerged out of the Atlantic Slave trade, along with a racial identity.  The West, therefore, cannot claim to be the inspiration of the Black Radical tradition; instead it is the social cauldron. [5]   Robinson claims that Radicalism emerged, not within European history, but rather on its periphery.  It is a result of the contact between Europeans and Africans, however; it cannot be defined within European tradition.  Rather, “it is a specifically African Response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of human exploitation woven into the interstices of European social life from the inception of Western Civilization.” [6]   Simply put, it is the response of Africans, globally, to the industrial and imperial development of social behavior and thought of the West.  Therefore, James’ definition bodes well within Robinson’s articulation of the specific historical development of Black Radicalism.  Both anti-capitalism and nationalism emerged from this European development.

However, the weakness of both James and Robinson is their failure to recognize the unique impact of women in the Radical tradition.  Though James does include women in his study, it is brief and weak, because it fails to examine the situation of African- American Women in terms of Western Civilization, a topic wholly outside the experiences of African-American men.

African-American women have had an entirely unique experience within the development of the West.  As specific roles for white women developed, African- American women were relegated to the periphery of both womanhood and humanity.  According to Angela Y. Davis, “as the ideology of femininity-a byproduct of industrialization-was popularized, white women came to be seen as inhabitants of a sphere totally severed from the realm of productive work.” [7]   The role of African- American women was entirely divergent from the emerging domestic ideology.  According to Davis, “the economic arrangements of slavery contradicted the hierarchical sexual roles incorporated in the new ideology.” [8]   The role of slave women was in complete contrast to those of white women.  This is best articulated in the responsibility of African-American women to reproduce the free labor force.  Throughout the southern United States, “state legislatures adopted the principle of partus sequitur ventrem-the child follows the condition of the mother.” [9]   Ironically, this state imposed matri-lineage was later seen as the point of degradation for the African-American community.  However, what is most significant is that white Western authority imposed an antithetical role on African-American women, which has affected their role in both Western society and the Black Radical Tradition.

In effect, African-American women are subject to triple oppression.  First, from Western white male authority, second, they are relegated to second-class citizenship within their own community as a result of western influenced patriarchy.  As a result, of divergent theories of womanhood, they are subject to second-class womanhood, in contrast to the domestic ideal of white women.  Thus, the experiences of African- American female radicals are a byproduct of this triple oppression. Claudia Jones and Ella Baker were shaped in this context.

Claudia Jones was born in Trinidad on February 21, 1915, in the city of Port of Spain.  Trinidad, at the time, was still a part of the British West Indies.  Claudia’s family name was Cumberbatch, and it has been speculated that some of her father’s relatives at one time came to Trinidad from the neighboring island of Barbados. [10]   Claudia was born while the Great War in Europe was raging over colonial rights in Africa and Asia.  On February 9, 1924 Claudia, along with an aunt and three of her sisters, arrived in New York.  Debarking from the S.S. Voltaire under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, Claudia came to the United States to be with her parents who had already arrived.  The family settled in the largely African-American Harlem, where many other Caribbean’s had already settled.  There, her family faced many of the same problems native-born African-Americans faced, namely Jim Crow.

The Cumberbatch’s faced harder times, when Claudia was 12, her mother, a garment worker, “died of poverty and exhaustion as she worked at her machine.” [11]   Mr. Cumberbatch was left to his own devices to raise Claudia and her three sisters.  The Depression of 1929 hit especially hard in the Black Communities.  One of Claudia’s friends recalled that Claudia:

Was quick and clever at school, but along with 5 million other young people, had to
Leave school during the depression and go to work.  Seeking jobs, and on the job, she
Came smack up against discrimination at every turn. Instead of futile complaining, she
Determined, as she said in a birthday speech…’to develop an understanding of the
Suffering of my people and my class and look for a way forward to end them…’ [12]

Claudia, like other black youth during the depression was forced to go to work.  She worked, at times, as a sales girl and a factory worker.  Her experiences as a youth helped to develop her radicalism.  However, the 1930’s also saw mass actions on the part of global black communities that affected Claudia’s future radical development.

Both the 1936 invasion of Abyssinia by fascist Italian forces and the movement for the nine youths involved in the Scottsboro frame-up had an incredible political impact on Claudia.  According to Angela Y. Davis, it was through her work in the Scottsboro Defense Committee that she became acquainted with members of the Communist party. [13]

At the age of 18, Claudia joined the Young Communist League (YCL).  According to Claudia, it was her experiences as a youth that developed her political ideology:

It was out of Jim Crow experiences as a young Negro woman, experiences likewise born
Of working class poverty that led me to join the young Communist league and to choose
The philosophy of my life, the science of Marxism-Leninism-that philosophy that not
Only rejects racist ideas, but is the antithesis of them. [14]

The Scottsboro case piqued the interest of many African-Americans in the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA).  According to Robin D. G. Kelley, “the Communist led ILD (International Labor Defense) attracted national attention for its defense of nine young black men accused of raping two white women near Paint Rock, Alabama.” [15]   Claudia began to rise in ranks within the CPUSA, by the time she was in her twenties, she became responsible for the party’s Women’s commission. 

It was not until 1945 when a controversy within the CPUSA emerged, did Claudia become a well-known member of the party and an important voice for women.  In 1945, Claudia published an article in Political Affairs entitled, “On the Right to Self-Determination for the Negro People in the Black Belt.”  Prior to this an ideological struggle emerged within the party ranks between Earl Browder and William Z. Foster over self-determination.  Browder drew a line between, “the national liberation struggle of an oppressed nation” and its “nationalist” bourgeoisie, which “invariably subordinates itself to the interests of the oppressing imperialist power.” [16]   He raised the issue over whether African-Americans could be included in the communist working class consciousness or as a separate entity within the larger capitalist struggle.  According to Paul Buhle, “the national question, the status of an oppressed group within a state or empire, tended by its very nature to raise questions about the entire Marxist Class analysis.” [17]  

Claudia’s article emerged within this debate and had an impact on other black communists. In Harry Haywood’s autobiography, Black Bolshevik, he claimed, “I was withdrawn-still reluctant to become involved in the inner-Party struggle. But I had seen an article by Claudia Jones, a young black woman communist from the West Indies who had challenged Browder’s line on the right to self-determination.” [18]   Haywood concluded, “The article had greatly stimulated my interest.” [19]   According to Haywood, the article sparked several issues within the debate and raised the issue of the interests of the black community.  The article also articulated Claudia’s own theories within radicalism, including the alliance of Black Nationalism and anti-capitalism.

The article attacked Browder’s revisionist views on the question of the African- American community. According to Claudia, “Even the worst enemies of the Communist Party cannot fail to admit that we have been in the forefront of the struggle for equality of the Negro People.” [20]   The CPUSA had previously been reputed as an organization concerned with the interests of African-American people.  Since the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the Communist International (COMINTERN) took special interests in African- Americans.  In 1928, the sixth World Congress of the COMINTERN, “insisted that blacks concentrated in the black belt counties of the Deep South constituted an oppressed nation.” [21] Browder challenged these by claiming that Marxist ideology did not recognize special interests, rather, African-Americans were not a separate oppressed class.  Browder wanted to maintain a distinct class-consciousness, regardless of race and gender identity.

Claudia emerged as a leading ideologue in the communist community.  Her article articulated her ideas on the rights of self-determination within the black community, specifically the African-American community.  Her nationalist sentiment emerged within her communist identity.  She maintained that, “It was our understanding of the Negro Question as a national question, that is, as the question of a nation oppressed by American imperialism, in the ultimate sense as India is oppressed by British imperialism and Indonesia by Dutch imperialism.” [22]   African Americans were essentially an oppressed nation; her ideas echoed the 1928 COMINTERN Pact.  “Every aspect of Negro oppression in our country stems from the existence of an oppressed nation, in the heart of the South, the Black Belt.” [23]   The oppression of African-Americans was a byproduct of imperialism.  In essence, although she claimed that African-Americans were a separate nation within the larger nation, they had a specific identity as a result of western imperialism.  Her theories also had a direct impact on the role of women within the communist party.

As a result of her involvement in the debate over self-determination, according to Rebecca Hill, “Claudia Jones emerged out of the Popular Front as one of its more obstreperous critics.” [24]   When she attacked Browder’s position on self-determination, she did not stop at addressing the race question.  She also attacked the party on issues of sexism.  “Claudia used the moment of internal rethinking, to question common Old Left assumptions about race, class and gender.” [25]   Sexism, according to Claudia, was another form of fascism.  Her goal was to, “inspire the growing struggles of American women and heighten their consciousness of the need for militant united front campaigns around the burning demands of the day, against monopoly oppression, against war and fascism.” [26]

A theory emerged out of women’s wartime (WWII) experiences.  The theory, called the Fascist Triple K-(Kinder, Küche, Kirche-children, kitchen, church), was a critique of the domestic ideology that emerged in the post-War United States.  Claudia claimed that, “The aim of this and other numerous anti-woman “theories” is to hamper and curb women’s progressive social participation, particularly in the struggle for peace.” [27]   Claudia frequently compared the Fascist Triple K of Nazi Germany to the roles of American Women.  Her belief that women’s assigned roles were a form of domestic fascism helped her to articulate the global struggle of women, and the specific need for the Communist Party to address those needs.

The fascist threat on women was, according to Claudia, “monopoly capitalism.” [28]   The threat was in the form of popular culture.  “We can above all expose the reactionary essence of monopoly capitalism, which on the one hand clouts the women with rocketing prices, housing shortages, hysterical threats of war; while, on the other, it woos them with free movies, speakers, etc., on the glories of American ‘free enterprise.” [29]   Capitalism, according to Claudia, lured American women into poverty and hysteria, while simultaneously offering them the promises of material wealth.  This in essence, was a direct threat on the autonomy of women, as well as their value in a capitalist labor structure.  Women, under this system, essentially had no value outside of the home.  Domestic work had no productive value in the industrial economy; however, its purpose was to keep women away from the political sphere. 

Claudia’s primary objection to the domestic ideology was that it failed to create class-consciousness among women.  The propaganda following WWII encouraged the compulsory evacuation of women from industrial jobs.  According to Rebecca Hill, “Communist Feminist writers objected to these representations by arguing that women had a right to work and to continue working after the war. This was one of the few ways in which Popular Front supporters tacitly argued against state agendas and policies during the war.” [30]   Much of the objection to the Fascist Triple K was in response to the War in Europe.  In her article commemorating the leadership of William Foster, Claudia Jones claimed that, “In formerly Nazi-occupied Europe, women resolved never again to return to the time when they were merely breeders of warriors.” [31]   Her statement alludes to both the fascist government of the Nazi’s as well as the role of women as reproducers of free labor. In the case of Nazi’s, it is soldiers, however, it is also an allusion to the reproductive responsibilities of African slaves.  She continues her statement that the women also did not want to be merely, “objects of pleasure, according to the old motto: Kinder, Kirche, Küche.” [32]   The fascist triple K had roots not only in Nazi occupied Germany, but in African slavery as well.  The fundamental problem was monopoly capitalism’s claim on women.  Claudia claimed that, “The Wall Street monopoly capitalists in their drive to aggressive world domination, atomic war and domestic fascism are seeking to align the masses of women with the war camp.” [33]   The threat of monopoly capitalists was a direct challenge to the Communist party. 

Claudia’s most fundamental concern was the role of black women.  Her most insightful theory is on the activities of black women in radicalism.  In a 1949 article she claimed that, “The capitalists know, far better than many progressives seem to know, that once Negro women undertake action, the militancy of the whole Negro people, and thus of the anti-imperialist coalition, is greatly enhanced.” [34]   She claimed that their radicalism is rooted in slavery.  Similar to Robinson’s theory of black radicalism, Claudia believed that the roots of militancy lay in the oppression imposed on Africans during slavery.  Women especially, felt the brunt of these attacks.  Claudia claimed that, “Historically, the Negro woman has been the guardian, the protector, of the Negro Family,” she continues:

From the days of the slave traders down to the present, the Negro woman has had the
responsibility of caring for the needs of the family, of militantly shielding it from           
the blows of Jim Crow insults, of rearing children in an atmosphere of lynch terror,           
segregation, and police brutality, and of fighting for an education for the children. [35]

African-American women have been responsible, according to Claudia, for the protection and rearing of children.  More important, they have had to protect their children from the racism of the white community.  This view of African-American women has a direct link to the fascism of capitalism.  Claudia claimed that, “Nothing so exposes the drive to fascization in the nation as the callous attitude which the bourgeoisie displays and cultivates toward Negro women.” [36]   African-American women were not included in the domestic ideology because they were subject to bourgeois claims on their labor.

This is clear when one examines the large-scale exclusion of African-American women from the professions.  They have traditionally been relegated to the domestic arena of bourgeois domestic settings.  Monopoly capitalism perpetuates this idea in propaganda that included the, “mammy who puts the care of children and families of others above her own.” [37]   This idea is reminiscent of antebellum slave holding families.  African-American women, have since according to Claudia Jones, been forced back into the homes of whites, thereby forfeiting their domesticity within the African-American community.  Claudia argued that this image must be combated in order to reject it as a, “device of the imperialists to perpetuate the white chauvinist ideology that Negro women are ‘backward,’ ‘inferior,’ and the ‘natural slaves,’ of others.” [38]

Claudia adopted the fascist triple K theory to point out to the CPUSA their failure to address the needs of women, including African-American women.  Claudia urged communists, like she had during the Browder debate, to recognize the issues of women and race within Marxist theory.  As Lenin claimed, and Claudia Jones reiterated women, “can be at times the decisive part of the mass movement.” [39]   The conflict emerged after World War II when the CPUSA echoed the movement of the larger society and relegated women to domestic roles.  The Communist Party also failed to organize women in industry as well as African-American domestic workers.  Claudia complained that this was a fundamental failure of the party.  In response to a draft resolution of 1948 to build up anti-monopoly and peace campaigns, she claimed that, “The resolution does not sufficiently stress the need for the people’s coalition to fight for the special social, economic and political needs of the masses of American women.” [40]   She continued to claim that, “Nor does it emphasize the Party’s vanguard responsibility in organizing and winning working-class women to the anti-imperialist camp.” [41]   The most vital aspect of Claudia’s theory is the incorporation of women and issues of gender into the Communist party line.  Her theories are an amalgam of the radical tradition defined by both Winston James and Cedric Robinson.  Claudia Jones recognized the oppression of the working class, African-Americans and women in the context of the anti-capitalist movement. She simultaneously combined the concerns of Black Nationalism within the movement to combat class discrimination.  She was also successful in incorporating the issues of women in the movement to oppose monopoly capitalism.  Unfortunately, Claudia paid dearly for her radical ideologies.

In 1948, Claudia Jones, along with other avowed communists, was arrested on charges of seeking to, “overthrow the government by force and violence.” [42]   She was arrested as a result of the Smith Act, as well as the McCarran Act, which regulated immigration.  Since Claudia was not a US citizen she was targeted under the McCarran Act.  Eventually Claudia served a year sentence after fighting legal battles with the US between 1948 and 1955.  She was eventually deported to England where she continued her political agitation as a member of the Communist Party.

Although Claudia Jones was younger, she and Ella Baker were contemporaries in the movements for social agitation.  Ella Baker was born on December 13, 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia.  In 1911, she moved with her family to rural Littleton, North Carolina where they worked as farmers.  As Ella would later explain, the church in her community became a base for the family and herself.  She joined the church at nine years old because, she explains, “In an environment where aggressive leadership existed largely in the church, I responded to the church.” [43]    Despite the role of the church in her early life, Ella remained distant from the dogma, dubious of the Church’s role in the African- American community.  “I am always happy to think,” she said, “that to some extent I was saved from the worst aspects of religiosity because my family was not emotional in its religion.” [44]   At an early age she was critical of the role of preachers, she believed that their sermons were rich with noise, but lacked substance.  This critique would carry over to her later philosophies of organization.

Ella’s early years had a profound influence on her political development.  Her grandparents, Mitchell and Betsy Ross had been slaves.  She grew up listening to their stories; one in particular, however, sparked her interests.  Her grandmother, Betsy Ross, was pressed by her master to marry someone she had no desire to marry.  When Betsy refused, her master did not whip her, instead he sent her out of the house, to the fields.  As Ella’s grandfather explained, “the master would not let her be whipped. No, sir. You know why? ‘Cause she was his daughter.” [45]   As the story goes, Betsy worked in the fields and attended social occasions for the slaves to flaunt her undaunted spirit.  Her master intended on her marrying someone who was light skinned.  According to Joanne Grant, in her biography of Ella Baker, “For Ella Baker this spoke of rebellion, particularly because it delineated the color lines: The mistress wanted the lighter skin tones to be perpetuated, but Ella Baker’s forebears said no.” [46]   These stories exposed Ella to the foundations of the Black Radical tradition, the rebelliousness of slaves against tyrannical masters.

Ella’s family had a profound influence on her political development.  According to Charles Payne, she remembered the world of her childhood as a kind of “family socialism,” a world in which food and tools and homes were shared, where informal adoption of children was taken for granted, a world with a minimal sense of social hierarchy. [47]   This world influenced her later ideas of economic development and social equality within the African-American community.  Her grandparent’s stories of rebellion, and her mother’s role in the church influenced her radical development, as she grew older.

Education was central to Ella’s early years.  Her mother insisted that she be properly educated, teaching her to read before she attended school.  However, education for African-Americans was limited after Grammar school.  Her mother sent her off to Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina.  “She entered Shaw, not as a scholarship student but as one who had to work her way through the boarding school.” [48]   She went to Shaw in the fall of 1918, according to Barbara Ransby, at a time of political turmoil.  It was the tail end of World War I and during the Wilson administration, the first southerner to be elected to the presidency since Reconstruction.  “Ella also entered Shaw at a time when both black rights and women’s rights were at important crossroads.” [49]   Woman’s suffrage would be gained two years later, however; African-Americans, particularly women would continue to be systematically excluded from the franchise.  The environment of Shaw opened up a new world for Ella.  It was a Baptist school run by white benefactors.  It was also the first black institution to enroll women.  “The philosophy of the school’s administrators emphasized humility and Christian service, but at the same time they reinforced many elitist assumptions about social class.” [50]   Ella finished her high school and college education at Shaw becoming the Valedictorian of her class.  In 1927, she left the University and headed north to Harlem, New York.

Ella Baker’s previous experiences as the granddaughter of ex-slaves and her college education broadened her worldview, however, when she reached Harlem she was exposed to a community rampant with political debate and cultural development.  Ella immersed herself in the intellectual community of Harlem, attending lectures, participating in debates, and learning about theories of economic oppression and nationalism.  Here she became acquainted with many African-American figures, including A. Phillip Randolph, James Weldon Johnson and George Shuyler.  She also met some radical activists from the Caribbean, including Cyril Briggs.  “Harlem exposed her to heated debates over fundamental ideas such as the relative merits of communism, socialism, and capitalism.” [51]

The Great Depression of 1929 exacerbated conditions for the African-American Community.  Ella Baker was no exception; the poor economic conditions of the community not only affected her financial well being, it also influenced her politics.  “Subsequently, the economic dislocations of the Depression played an important part in her rejection of ‘the American illusion that anyone who is determined can get ahead.” [52] Ella began to formulate her ideas of community based organizing.  She realized that one could organize people around the grassroots.  Baker’s experiences in Harlem provided an organic learning experience.  According to George Shuyler, “By force of circumstances her ‘post-graduate’ work has included domestic service, factory work and other freelance labors.” [53]

The economic dislocations of the African-American community compelled Ella, along with Marvel Cooke, to investigate the impact on women in labor.  The two went undercover for a day soliciting for domestic work on the street corners of New York.  Their results were published in the November 1935 issue of The Crisis, entitled, “The Bronx Slave Market.”  According to Barbara Ransby, the article. “reflected Ella’s lucid assessment of the complex reality of race, gender and class in the lives of African- American women.” [54]   The women were forced to seek work on the street corners since employment agencies were limited in the area.  To both Ella and Marvel Cooke, the scene resembled a slave auction block.  In the article they claimed, “She who is fortunate (?) enough to please Mrs. Simon Legree’s scrutinizing eye is led away to perform hours of multifarious household drudgeries.” [55]   Their direct illusion to Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s most notorious character insinuates the resemblance of slavery to the conditions of African-American women.  The issue was domestic work, contested terrain for African- American women who had traditionally been relegated to that arena, and were forced to the streets to perpetuate their conditions.  The depression struck African-American women especially hard and Ella Baker understood this.  One of the solutions the women drew from their investigation was that domestic workers needed to be organized.  This idea reflected Ella’s socialist sympathies.  Although she never identified her self as a Marxist she was aware that economic conditions played an enormous role in the lives of African-Americans.

Ella was not dedicated to one dogma, or philosophy of social change; rather, she believed that organization could radically affect society.  “She combined the Black Baptist missionary values of charity, humility, and service with the economic theories of Marxists and Socialists of various stripes who advocated redistribution of wealth and a transfer of power from capitalist elites to the poor working classes.” [56]   This she believed could be accomplished on the community level.  Ella combined her religious experiences as a youth and the influence of Harlem intellectuals to formulate a theory of grassroots organizing.  She claimed that, “I think the nearest thing to an answer is having people understand their position and understand their potential power and how to use it.  This can only be done, as I see it, through the long route, almost, of actually organizing people in small groups and parlaying those into larger groups.” [57]  Her theories centered on the idea of de-centralized leadership.  Although she appreciated the role of religion in the African-American Community, she recognized the roles of preachers as too central.  A central figure often placed more emphasis on their own public development, instead of the development of the community.

To answer some of the problems of the Depression, and an experiment in Ella’s theories of organizing, she along with her friend George Shuyler formed the Young Negro Cooperative League (YNCL).  According to Ella, the organization’s purpose was to, “accept with zest the opportunity which is now ours to prove to ourselves and others that the Negro can and will save himself from economic death.” [58]   Although the organization failed, it was an experiment in socialist organizing that Ella had experienced in the rural community she was raised in.  It exhibited the ideals that Ella would dedicate the rest of her life to, namely grassroots organizing.

For the remainder of Ella’s life she was involved in organizations such as the NAACP, SCLC and SNCC however, her political ideas could not be limited to one organization.  Her experiences in some of the organizations radically altered her ideas on leadership and the roles of women.  As one of the founding members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Baker witnessed first-hand the rise of charismatic leaders.  However, she also realized that women were often excluded from public leadership roles.  She claimed that, “I had known…that there would never be any role for me in a leadership capacity with SCLC. Why? First, I’m a woman. Also, I’m not a minister…The basic attitude of men and especially ministers, as to…the role of women in their church setups is that of taking orders, not providing leadership.” [59]   This fueled her criticism of centralized leadership.  Ella believed that under the leadership of the SCLC, the voices of young people as well as women were being drowned out.

One advantage of her position in the SCLC allowed her to organize others.  She utilized her role to organize students; the result was the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  Unlike the SCLC, the students were not entirely satisfied with integration, which many had come to see as accommodationist.  Rather, they wanted to force radical change.  Dubbed, “Ella’s Children,” [60] the students of SNCC penetrated rural areas, organizing the young and women.  According to Charles Payne, it became the organization Ella had longed to create. [61]   SNCC, during the formative years, rejected centralized leadership and adopted Ella’s ideas of group led organization.  Ella claimed in 1960 that, “This inclination toward group-centered leadership, rather than toward leader-centered group pattern of organization was refreshing indeed to those of the older group who bear the scars of the battle.”  Ella went on to claim that, “the disillusionment that come when the prophetic leader turns out to have heavy feet of clay.” [62]   This was a biting attack of the leadership of other organizations including NAACP and SCLC.  She claimed that SNCC was a refreshing alternative to older organizations simply because they were overshadowed by leaders who were invested in the approval of the white community.

In a 1966 interview, Ella Baker claimed that, “The NAACP, Urban League, etc., do not change society, they want to get in. It’s a combination of concern with the black goal for itself and, beyond that, with the whole society, because this is the acid test of whether the outs can get in and share in equality and worth.” [63]   Her attacks of mainstream Civil Rights organizations reflected her goals of socialist organizing.  The community was the base, according to Ella, and that base was the foundation for change in society.  One reason Ella Baker’s role in Civil Rights has often been overshadowed is due to her inconspicuous position.  She refused to take over leadership of organizations, including SNCC, because it refuted her ideals of community organization.  She was dedicated to the rural communalism she was raised in, and suspicious of leaders who sought the limelight instead of community development.  In her own words, “I hoped that inside of me there has always been the concept that the whole is greater than the part-that is the concept of developing a movement that involves people to the extent that they become knowledgeable about their own condition and were activated to do something about it.” [64]   Ella brought her ideas to the community and subsequently radically altered the organization of the Civil Rights movement.

Ella’s influences were outside of traditional Western ideals.  As Robinson claims, slavery and its cultural development on the periphery of Western thought influenced the Black Radical tradition.  Ella drew her ideas from her family and its tradition rooted in slavery and resistance.  She utilized these ideas to formulate a theory of community organizing that resembled her rural upbringing.

She was not, however; devoted to one theory of oppression.  Although she was sympathetic to socialist ideals, she did not adopt their solutions.  She was, according to Winston James’ definition of radicalism, anti-capitalist; however, she did not espouse radical communist insurrection.  She also did not define herself in terms of Black Nationalism.  Ella had contact with West Indians and was sympathetic to the plight of Abyssinians, however; she remained skeptical of nationalism.  According to Barbara Ransby, “Ella Baker never espoused narrow nationalist ideas in the way that some contemporary movements did.” [65]   She had an international outlook that was critical of colonialism, however, her ideals were far too eclectic to invest in Black Nationalist ideas.  Ella Baker remained dedicated to organization on the community level, even among poor whites, to combat the evils of capitalism and oppression.

Both Ella Baker and Claudia Jones spent their adult lives organizing for social justice, a justice that included African-Americans, women and the poor.  Their theories, however eclectic, reflect Winston James’ definition of radicalism.  Both women recognized the evils of capitalism, specifically its affect on African-Americans.  They both experienced the worst economic crisis of the early twentieth century, witnessing the impact of poverty and destitution on the working class and African-Americans.  This contributed to their attacks on capitalism.  However, the fundamental difference is that Claudia Jones adopted Marxist theories to combat class oppression and Ella Baker formulated community-based ideals of organization that reflect socialism, but adopted no specific dogma.

Claudia Jones remained a devout communist her entire adult life.  Her dedication is evident when one visits the grave of Karl Marx.  Right next to the founder of communism is Claudia Jones’ gravesite, the inscription on her headstone reads, “Valiant fighter against racism and Imperialism who dedicated her life to the progress of socialism and the liberation of her own Black people.” [66]   Early in her life, Claudia developed a class and race consciousness that allowed her at an early age to adhere to Marxist philosophies.  Her solution was a socialist uprising, this only, she believed, would liberate the masses of the oppressed from class, race and gender oppression.

Although Ella Baker too had a distinct class and race consciousness, rooted in her upbringing, Ella did not believe in Marxist theory, she was in fact often a critic of the CPUSA.  She admired their de-centralized committees that allowed for effective organizing, however, she did not believe in Marxist ideology.  Instead, she created her own ideals of organizing that would forever impact the grassroots movement.  Although she was already over fifty when she helped organize SNCC, she recognized the importance of young people and women in the movement for social justice.  Her ideas of de-centralized leadership created a schism in the movement between organizations dedicated to non-violence, led by individuals and organizations committed to community organizing that became disillusioned by the violence of whites and the often ineffectiveness of non-violence.

Although Claudia Jones was also devoted to Black Nationalism, Ella Baker was suspicious of nationalist sentiments.  Staying within the borders of the United States her entire life, Ella recognized the oppression of Blacks globally and often rallied to their support, however, she was not interested in nationalism.   Claudia Jones was born in the West Indies and remained concerned about the state of Blacks in the international arena.  During her exile in London she became the editor of the West Indian Gazette and traveled often in support of equal rights, including a demonstration in South Africa against Apartheid.

Both of these women were also influenced by the role of Blacks and women as a result of the development of the Black Radical Tradition.  Her grandparents who had lived their early lives in bondage more directly influenced Ella Baker.  She heard their stories of resistance and struggle and developed her own ideals of radicalism based on their influence.  Both women were also concerned with African-American women as domestics, reminiscent of slavery.  They agitated for the recognition of women and their liberation from the homes of whites.  Their ideas were rooted in the oppression of slavery, and the poor economic development of Blacks on both a global and a local level.

They were also both targeted by US officials as threats to the well being of the country.  Some have argued that Claudia Jones imprisonment exacerbated her already failing health and contributed to her early demise.  Although Ella Baker was older, she lived another twenty-two years after Claudia Jones. During her life, federal officials also investigated her.  These investigations legitimize the impact of both Ella Baker and Claudia Jones. They were a threat not merely because they vocalized their objections to oppression, they also agitated others and influenced younger generations of activists.  The most enduring impact of both women is that they forged a new role for women in social justice movements.  Claudia Jones forced the CPUSA to recognize the influence of women and their role in the working class community and Ella Baker forged a new role for women and youths in the Civil Rights movement.  Although they were dedicated to different and often divergent ideologies, Claudia Jones and Ella Baker helped to forge an important role for women within the Black Radical tradition.  They became the voice for those who were often silenced and agitated not only for the recognition of women in the radical tradition, but for the recognition of the unique role women have played both in the development of the radical tradition and the development of ideologies within it.

[1] Thomas Elean, “Remembering Claudia Jones.” World Marxist Review (March 1987), p. 67.

[2] Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America (London: Verso 2000) p. 292.

[3] James p292-anti-capitalists include socialists, communists, adherents and practitioners of other variants of Marxism, and non-Marxist anti-capitalists such as anarcho-syndicalists.  Black Nationalists include emigrationists, pan-Africanists, Garveyites, black statehood supporters, or a combination of these.

[4] Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1983) p. 3.

[5] Robinson p. 72.

[6] Robinson p. 73.

[7] Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race & Class (New York: Vintage 1981) p. 12.

[8] Davis p. 12.

[9] Davis p. 12.

[10] Buzz Johnson, “I Think of my Mother:” Notes on the Life and Times of Claudia Jones. (London: Karia Press 1985) p. 2.

[11] Johnson p. 6.

[12] Johnson p. 7.

[13] Davis p. 167.

[14] Johnson p. 7.

[15] Robin D. G. Kelly, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1990) p. 23.

[16] Mark Solomon, The Cry was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936 (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press 1998)  p. 83.

[17] Paul Buhle, Marxism in the USA (London: Verso 1987) p. 123.

[18] Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American communist. (Chicago: Liberator Press 1978) p. 543.

[19] Haywood p. 543.

[20] Claudia Jones, On the Right To Self Determination For the Negro People in the Black Belt.” Political Affairs (January 1946)  p. 68. Claudia goes on to sight the Scottsboro case as evidence of the CPUSA’s previous interests in the problems of African Americans.

[21] Kelley p. 13.

[22] Claudia Jones, “On the Right to Self Determination” p.  69.

[23] Claudia Jones, “On the Right to Self Determination…” p.  69.

[24] Rebecca Hill, “Fosterites and Feminists, Or 1950’s Ultra-Leftists and the Invention of AmeriKKKa.” New Left Review, 228 (1998) p. 69.

[25] Hill p. 75.

[26] Claudia Jones, “International Woman’s day and the Struggles for Peace.” Political Affairs (March 1950) p. 34.

[27] Claudia Jones, “International Woman’s Day and…” p. 35.

[28] Claudia Jones, “For New Approaches to our Work Among Women.” Political Affairs (August 1948) p. 740.

[29] Claudia Jones, For New Approaches…” p. 740.

[30] Hill p. 77.

[31] Claudia Jones, “Fosters political and Theoretical Guide to our work among women.” Political Affairs, (March 1951) p. 75.

[32] Claudia Jones, “Fosters Political and…” p. 75.

[33] Claudia Jones, “Fosters Political and…” p. 75.

[34] Claudia Jones, “And End to the Neglect of the Problems of Negro Women!” Political Affairs (June 1949) p. 28.

[35] Claudia Jones, “An end to the Neglect of…” p. 28.

[36] Claudia Jones, “And end to the Neglect of…” p. 29.

[37] Claudia Jones, “And end to the Neglect of…” p. 32.

[38] Claudia Jones, “An end to the Neglect of…” p. 32.

[39] Claudia Jones, “Fosters Political and…” p. 74.

[40] Claudia Jones, “For New Approaches…” p. 738.

[41] Claudia Jones, “For New Appoaches…” p. 738.

[42] Elean p. 66.

[43] Joanne Grant, Ella Baker: Freedom Bound. (New York: John Wiley & Sons 1998) p. 18.

[44] Grant p. 19.

[45] Grant p. 9.

[46] Grant p. 9.

[47] Charles Payne, “Ella Baker and Models of Social Change.” Signs vol. 14 (Summer 1989) no.4 p. 886.

[48] Grant p. 21.

[49] Barbara Ransby, “Ella J. Baker and The Black Radical Tradition.” (Dissertation: University of Michigan 1996) p. 52.

[50] Ransby p. 54.

[51] Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: The Free Press 1986) p. 102.

[52] Payne p. 42.

[53] Ransby p. 94.

[54] Ransby p. 99.

[55] Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke, “The Bronx Slave Market.” The Crisis, (November) 1935 p. 330.

[56] Ransby p. 95.

[57] Dorothee E. Kocks, Dream a Little: Land and Social Justice in Modern America. (Berkeley: University of California Press 2000) p. 169.

[58] Ransby p. 105.

[59] Payne p. 890.

[60] Harvard Sitkoff, The Struggle for Black Equality: 1954-1992. (New York: Hill and Wang 1993) p. 85.

[61] Payne p. 891.

[62] Ella Baker, “Bigger than a Hamburger.” The Southern Patriot vol. 18 (June 1960) no. 6 p. 4.

[63] Raymond D’Angelo, The American Civil Rights Movement: Readings and Interpretation. (New York: McGraw Hill 2001) p. 217.

[64] Kocks p. 175.

[65] Ransby p. 129.

[66] Johnson, p. 178.

Last Updated: 8/12/16