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Claudia Jones — a legacy deferred

Published Mar 10, 2010 5:58 PM

Excerpts from a speech by Andrea Egypt at a Workers World Party Black History Month forum in Detroit.

Andrea Egypt speaking at Int’l Women’s
Day in Detroit.
WW photo: Kris Hamel

Sometimes a legacy can be buried within the rubble of politics for a long time, waiting to be unearthed and refined like a diamond in the rough.

Such is the legacy of Claudia Jones. She was persecuted by the McCarthyite anti-communist witch hunt and by the McCarran-Walter and Smith Acts against immigrants.

Claudia Jones was a triple threat: She was Black, a woman and a communist, at a time when this country was undergoing social and political upheaval.

She was powerful in both theory and practice, with a radical, revolutionary approach that challenged national and women’s oppression. She launched transnational challenges to U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of Marxist and Leninist theory. She had the ability to address a wide range of issues and was widely known as the Communist Party’s principal theorist on the “woman question.” She wrote reviews, theses and essays on Pan Africanism, Black nationalism, Afro-Asian Caribbeanism and immigration rights as well as the West Indian diaspora of struggle, using her journalistic skills to integrate issues of race, class and gender on local and international levels.

She was noted for the party’s theory of the “triple oppression” of Black women. She wrote that “if the party wanted to be a place of equality, then it means above all fighting for the economic equality of women, because her economic dependence on men in our society, and her exclusion from production makes for a double exploitation of women and triply so for Negro women in present-day society.”

Jones was born in 1916 in Port-au-Spain, Trinidad, then a British colony. Her family lived well until the cocoa industry crashed and her father lost his job. The family was forced to emigrate. She was 8 years old when they moved to Harlem, where they lived in squalid, impoverished conditions. Shortly after they assimilated, her mother died due to spinal meningitis and overwork in the garment factories. Her father could find only custodial work to support the family. They were so poor that Claudia missed receiving an important Citizenship Award at her high school because she had no clothes to wear for the ceremony.

Due to poor conditions, at the age of 17 she contracted tuberculosis and was committed to a sanitarium for a year. She suffered severe lung damage that affected her health throughout her life.

Her health, her living environment, the death of her mother, her father’s employment situation, her inability to find work except in laundries and factories, as well as her sisters being confined to housekeeping jobs — these encounters with racism, sexism, poverty and working class exploitation would later inspire her, as a journalist, to call for equal pay and equal rights for all women of the world, starting with Black women, in order to win real change.

Black journalism was on the rise. Between 1935 and 1936 she wrote a weekly column for the Negro Nationalist newspaper. She attended marches and rallies on matters like the Scottsboro 9 case. She was impressed by how the Communist Party’s legal defense raised the case to a national level, exposing the racist injustice of the criminal court system.

She decided to join the Young Communist League and by 1937 was elected to its National Council. In the 1940s she became associate editor of the Weekly Review. Her weekly column, “The Quiz,” answered questions on religion, the Soviet Union and other political inquiries. She was editor in chief of the Political Score, which responded to political and social events and racial concerns surrounding the African-American struggle. She wrote “Half the World,” where she noted that the Communist Party needed to refine its position on gender and asserted that “white women need to be clear that the Negro question is prior to, and not equal to the women question.” She met with some criticism but stood firm in her belief that as the position of Black women advances, so will the entire social structure.

Her assessment was that “women bore the brunt of the culture’s economic and social exploitation and since women made up half the world population, no attempt to move society forward is possible if half the population remains unaccounted for and under-represented.” Between 1945 and 1946 she was Editor of Negro Affairs in the Daily Worker and was elected a full member of the National Committee of the Communist Party.

FBI agents had begun infiltrating her rallies and meetings to build a case against her for expulsion from the U.S. As she became more influential within the Communist Party in relation to her anti-imperialist views, the FBI seized upon the fact that no birth records identified her as a U.S. citizen.

Jones was arrested for deportation on Jan. 19, 1948, but released on $1,000 bond a day later. FBI records show a firestorm of protests and petitions against her deportation.

The FBI continued to plant agents at every rally and event she participated in. Jones was arrested again in 1951 with many other party members, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, under the Smith Act. Because of a speech she had given on International Women’s Day that challenged the overall male patriarchal establishment, she was charged with plotting the overthrow of the government. Her bail was raised higher this time.

Jones was sentenced to one year in prison but remained free on appeal. In 1955 the Supreme Court refused to hear her case and she was sent to federal prison, where she suffered a heart attack. She never recovered and her health began to interfere with her journalism.

Finally she was released but was forced into exile in Britain. She found refuge in the Caribbean community of Notting Hill, where she eventually became the Mother of Carnival.

There she also founded the West Indian Gazette and the Afro Asian Caribbean newspaper in 1958. She brought both awareness and self-identity to a nation subjected to the same racist and fascist imperial oppression, with a British twist. But her health and the newspaper began to suffer as she went in and out of hospitals to battle cardiovascular disease.

In 1964, Claudia Jones died of a heart attack. She was buried to the left of Karl Marx’s grave at London’s Highgate Cemetery. May we never forget to give her a rightful place for historical advancement and achievement in Black history and culture.