“The only place where Negroes did not revolt is in the pages of capitalist historians.”
~ C.L.R James, A History of Pan African Revolt.
"Socialism and Communism [were] in practical application in Africa for centuries before they were even advanced as theories in the European world."
~ Cyril Briggs
America has never been a promised land for African people, never been a land flowing with milk and honey, never been a land of opportunity or democracy. America never gifted African people with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What was granted to African people was enslavement, genocide, and the pursuit of social and political misery. Kidnapped, beaten, raped, chained, and savagely packed on top of one another like sardines aboard European slave ships to a new world; a world that sought to make African people the mudsills of American society.
However, African people never accepted this arrangement. African people resisted on every level from the very inception of European colonization and domination. As the great C.L.R James has written, “The only place where Negroes did not revolt is in the pages of capitalist historians.” Therefore, to view Black African resistance as mere anomalies within the context of history is to make a considerable mistake. In fact, Black resistance is the very touchstone of Black African history, of Black political movement. Revolts by African people occurred routinely on slave ships, plantations, and Caribbean islands. The creation of Maroon societies or African runaways who banded together to escape slavery in order to form their own autonomous communities in remote, uninhabited and uncultivated areas. The Haitian revolution, the first successful slave revolt in the modern world and the first in the Third World, sent immediate shock waves of fear in the hearts and minds of imperialists everywhere. The revolts of Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner kept slave masters up all night, terrified at the potentiality of another Black uprising. National laws and societal customs such as the Black Codes were soon created to stop Black African people from speaking together in groups, no matter how minuscule.
Harriet Tubman challenged, very seriously and directly, the criminality and illegitimacy of the system of American slavocracy. Harriet was a true revolutionary guerilla, having made 19 successful raids going back into the South, risking her life to free her people. So, we see there is a long history and tradition of organized resistance in the history of Black African people. The development of Cyril Briggs and the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) came in direct response to the social and political climate existing in America post-World War 1 (WW1). Returning Black soldiers were violently discriminated against. Their families were never compensated for their service, they were physically and mentally butchered, and systematically denied employment and even medical treatment. However, most whites felt that the niggers were taking all their jobs. This fear led to many white workers forming labor unions that fundamentally excluded the Black worker. The New Negro Movement also rubbed whites the wrong way, leading to the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan and other white vigilante hate groups. This powder keg of a new black militancy mixed with the old regime of white supremacy led to a surge of incredible violence. The long history of racial subjugation, public lynchings of Black bodies, white lawlessness, the consequences of WW1, etc. ultimately produced the Red Summer of 1919. It also produced Cyril Briggs, Harry Haywood, and the African Blood Brotherhood.
Cyril Briggs was born May 28, 1888 on the small island of St. Kitts. Cyril Briggs' mother was of African-Caribbean descent, but his father was a white plantation overseer. Briggs, living on the racially segregated island, was considered coloured despite being very fair skinned. For Briggs, his light complexion served as a matter of contention his entire life. In fact, Marcus Garvey, during several heated exchanges between the two men, once said that Briggs was really a white man. Briggs was fortunate enough to receive a fairly decent education on the island, despite being racially discriminated against. He was a brilliant student and a dynamic and gifted writer whose writing abilities landed Briggs with several job opportunities with local papers. Eventually, this led Briggs to America in 1905, though his first several years in his new country are practically unknown. Regardless, his first writing job in America came in 1912 with the Amsterdam News, where Briggs brought a strong degree of militancy to the otherwise Black conservative newspaper while in his mid-twenties. Seven years later, in 1919, Briggs founded his own publication, The Crusader, and with that announced the formation of the African Blood Brotherhood.
World War 1, Black Soldiers, and The Red Summer of 1919
The Harlem Hellfighters, the 369 Infantry Regiment of the United States Army, were the best and most efficient soldiers in the entire war. To train for the war, these brothers stimulated combat by using broom sticks because they did not have the resources to acquire any weapons, and they dug trenches by utilizing surrounding neighborhood yards. Their own white countrymen spat upon them, harassed and ridiculed them while they were in service, and the U.S military denied them the opportunity to fight. The Harlem Hellfighters eventually served on the side of the French instead, and the French government would decorate the entire unit with the Croix de Guerre, its highest award for bravery, as well as 170 additional individual medals for valor. These were some bad Brothers! Not only that, but this extraordinary fighting regiment was also equipped with a powerful jazz band! In fact, the Harlem Hellfighters are even accredited with bringing jazz to Europe.
But the real war started once these brothers returned home. Their own home government refused to acknowledge them. Regular ol’ white boys were telling these grown men that they never fought in the war, and would turn violent if they caught the brothers wearing their uniforms in public. The best soldiers in WW1 came home to no jobs. None of their families were ever supported. The small bit of freedom they tasted in France as soldiers was immediately replaced with the bitterness of American second-class citizenship.
In 1919, postwar racial and economic tensions were reaching their boiling point. War is profitable, so business in the North was booming. There was, however, a labor shortage, as most white men were enlisted in the war and the United States government had halted immigration from Europe. The Great Migration saw Black families leave the segregated South in huge numbers for the North in hopes of finding better jobs, and possibly better lives. Black people did find the jobs, but they also found that the white working class in the northern and midwestern cities despised them, because they viewed them as competition. The death of Eugene Williams, a 16-year-old Black youth in Chicago who drowned after attempting to avoid attack from a group of Irish American youth, sparked the “Red Summer.” American cities were filled with rolling bands of racist, armed, inebriated, reckless and lawless white men. These same white men often were backed and encouraged by local, state, and federal law enforcement. As a result, they had no reason to legally fear any judicial consequences for hunting down, maiming, and murdering black men, women, and children in their own communities.
Race riots occurred in well over 30 cities. However, the bloodiest events were in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Elaine, Arkansas. Although the black community did the best that they could to resist state-sanctioned mass murder, the “Elaine massacre” resulted in the deaths of 237 Black men, women, and children. Only five whites were killed. After being hunted and murdered, hundreds more Blacks were arrested by the police and thrown into prison. While in prison, these Black community members were viciously tortured until they confessed of plotting a “Black uprising.”
Harry Haywood, Cyril Briggs, The Crusader, and the ABB
Harry Haywood was born on February 4, 1898 in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1913, his father was attacked by a group of whites, and their family moved to Minnesota. Two years later, they moved again to Chicago. Haywood served as a soldier in the French army during WW1, later returning to Chicago only to encounter the Red Summer. The Chicago race riot further radicalized the young Haywood, ultimately leading him to join the ABB with Cyril Briggs. The organization was Marxist-Leninist, Nationalist, all-Black, with members who were remnants of the Garvey movement. Briggs and Haywood wanted the ABB to be a revolutionary socialist alternative to what they felt was Marcus Gravey’s failure (or refusal) to organize Black workers domestically. To Briggs and Haywood, the Garvey movement seemed utopian and defeatist. They felt that the UNIA had no program dealing with or exposing the ravages of U.S imperialism and capitalism.
The ABB was a secretive group, much like a fraternity, with leadership under a supreme executive council. The death penalty was allegedly used if members revealed certain secrets of the Brotherhood. The main propaganda organ for the ABB was The Crusader, founded and edited by Cyril Briggs in 1919. The Crusader was a militant publication; it had no qualms with calling out white racism, the white left, or the United States government. The Crusader was a socialist paper, a paper that covered international politics, was anti-war, and a paper that constantly exposed the insidious nature of capitalism and imperialism. It was also used as an important tool for organizing and recruitment. In the pages of The Crusader was where the Brotherhood propagated most of their radical ideas on race, class, and Black liberation. The ABB was based on the principles and ideals of socialism and revolutionary Black Nationalism. The Crusader also had a strong Afro-Caribbean following that included many Caribbean-born political radicals. In the beginning, the ABB was independent of the communist party, but later merged into it. This would prove detrimental.
The ABB was one of the first Black organizations in the United States to advocate and practice armed self-defense, particularly against lynching and white mob violence. The ABB was actively engaged in the legal defense of the Scottsboro Boys, who were nine African American teenagers, ages 13 to 19, accused of raping two white women on a train in 1931 in Alabama. The ABB also provided much of the armed defense surrounding the burning of a Black autonomous community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, known also as Black Wall Street. They also advocated for the right of Black workers to organize their own unions, as Black workers were routine victims of white union discrimination. They demanded equal rights and the abolition of Jim Crow laws. Personally, Briggs even argued for Black separation and Black self-government, particularly in the South; Briggs viewed the liberation of Black Americans and the struggle for international socialism as a natural alliance.
Harry Haywood did not prefer the “reactionary bent of the Garvey movement.” He categorized organizations such as the NAACP, UNIA, Urban League, and the Associated Negro Press as “petty bourgeois nationalist” and “misleaders of the race.” Haywood felt these groups were reformist and not revolutionary, even detractors of revolution. As a member of the CPUSA, Haywood gained the party nickname “Hatchet Man” for his sharp attacks against reactionary nationalist ideologies. The ABB was active in various national Black labor struggles, particularly those in Chicago. In 1925, Haywood went to the Soviet Union for schooling, studying firsthand Lenin’s approach to national minorities. In 1928, there was a special congress in Russia on the Negro question. Haywood presented the congress with his Black Belt thesis. Haywood felt that a Black state was possible in America for Black people under a self-determined basis. It was the first time the Black Belt thesis was considered. Haywood wrote a position paper on his Black Belt thesis entitled "Negro Liberation." In it, he goes into further detail on why he believes the Black Belt should be viewed as a distinct nation, oppressed and subjugated under the grips of U.S. imperialism. The Soviet Union, under Joseph Stalin, accepted the theory and felt it was a viable answer to the “Negro Question.”
Marcus Garvey, UNIA, and the ABB
On occasion, Briggs organized with Marcus Garvey and the UNIA, despite their ideological differences. Unity Year 1919: during this year, Briggs helped purchase a ship for the Black Star Line; Briggs' blond hair and light complexion allowed him to pass as a white man to purchase the ship.
The ABB had ideas of infiltrating the Garvey movement and making it more class conscious. A meeting was held to discuss the matter. Hubert Harrison called Claude McKay, Cyril Briggs, Richard B. Moore, W.A. Domingo, among a few others. The details of the meeting are unknown, but soon after, Hubert Harrison resigned as editor and chief of the Negro World. From there an all-out war ensued between the UNIA and the ABB. By utilizing their old contacts within the UNIA, the ABB was able to uncover some of Garvey’s business dealings. Briggs accused Garvey of selling tickets of a ship that he did not own. Garvey dared him to prove it, which they did. Garvey did not own the ship, and Briggs used The Crusader to publish this information. The ticket holders read the paper, complained to the authorities, and Garvey was ultimately deported.
Communist Party, ABB, White Chauvinism
The coalition came about when Harry Haywood said that the Black militants were too few to pull off a revolution alone. He felt that the CPUSA offered acceptable revolutionary allies. Briggs was still a nominal member of the communist party when he died in 1966, prodding whites inside the party to purge themselves of racial prejudice and white chauvinism. During this time, however, the CPUSA issued punishments to their Black party members who spoke out against white contradictions within the party; the CPUSA even ignored leading Black comrades whenever they tried giving their own ideas. Briggs spoke out heavily against these actions, and it was said he got away with this kind of criticism because he had valuable ties to cats in the ghetto. Briggs also attacked Black businessmen and Black liberals, repeatedly exposing the emptiness of “race business” or “self-help” as a blind alley. Briggs moved to Los Angeles towards the end of his life to write for several papers, though he failed to gain the recognition that he probably deserved within his lifetime.
Students of the Third World and the Black Power movement might want to learn more of Briggs, Haywood, and the African Blood Brotherhood.