Civil Rights Congress

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Letter from East Bay Civil Rights Congress

The Civil Rights Congress was controlled by the Communist Party USA.


As explained by Communist Robert Treuhaft

"The Civil Rights Congress was formed nationally just around the end of the war; around 1945, I think. There was a national meeting of lawyers and people interested in civil rights, most of whom were probably Communists, to form an organization that had two main emphases. One was for the protection of Communists; and another, which became equally important, and more important, was the attempt to establish civil liberties and civil rights for Blacks, which was the only important national minority at that time. It was the only politically important minority, I should say.

The prestigious organization that occupied the field was the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But the NAACP was a somewhat elitist organization. They were primarily, almost entirely, interested in court action. They had chapters all over the U.S., but the chapters were mainly conduits to raise money to send East to finance the court actions — taking cases to court, to try to establish rights to employment, try to fight against discrimination, the right to vote, that sort of thing. Well, they had a good reputation because they had very good law- yers, but they were not terribly successful. They would win their cases very often but not until much, much later did the cases that they won have enough national importance to make a real difference in the lives of colored people. It was elitist to the extent that when Thurgood Marshall, now a Supreme Court justice, was counsel for the NAACP, he jokingly referred to it as the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People. That was true in my own experience. The NAACP here in California was a very unimportant organization, although it had national prestige and people would think of it in terms of fighting discrimination.

So the Civil Rights Congress was organized to have a broader, and more active, activist approach to fight for civil rights — not only in court but in the streets — to picket, to do things that were considered beneath the dignity of an organization like the NAACP. They never picketed. The need for such an organization by the end of the war was very great. There was a tremendous amount of dislocation in the lives of Blacks who had moved from the South to places like California and the Northwest, to work in the shipyards and other war industries. When the war was over, these people who had been living, for whom temporary housing had been constructed, found themselves in that same housing that would decay, and was now becoming permanent housing and permanent slums. And that's true, locally, even today in Richmond, Vallejo, Oakland.

The temporary housing continued to be occupied, and maybe the main place Black people could occupy until at least fifteen years after the war was over. And that housing was really falling apart.

The Civil Rights Congress was also interested in pushing legislation and in defending people who were being charged under the Smith Act. I guess it was around 1948 or '49 that the Civil Rights Congress was organized and formed. It had a brilliant national leader, William L. Patterson, who had been one of the defense attorneys in the Sacco-Vanzetti case and the Scottsboro case (nine Black boys accused of raping two white women)."[1]

A Communist Front Organization

The House Un-American Activities Committee examined the East Bay Civil Rights Congress as a "Communist Front Organization" in 1947. The report by the Committee indicated that Communist Party USA "set up the Civil Rights Congress for the purpose of protecting those of its members who run afoul of the law."

Further, the report noted that the East Bay Civil Rights Congress "was founded at a conference held in Detroit on April 27-28, 1946, effectuating the merger of the International Labor Defense which was led by Vito Marcantonio and 'part of an international network of organizations for the defense of Communist lawbreakers,' and the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties...organizations [that] had been so badly discredited by repeated exposure as to injure their usefulness in the newly envisaged campaign of Communist lawlessness. It will be found, however, that the sponsors of the Civil Rights Congress in many instances are the same as those of its predecessor organizations."[2]