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Bringing out of obscurity an influential Black leader

Published May 26, 2011 10:07 PM

Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism 1883-1918, by Jeffrey B. Perry (Columbia University Press, New York, 2009)

This is the first volume of a definitive political biography of radical socialist and nationalist leader Hubert Henry Harrison, whose involvement in the early 20th century in the Socialist Party, the Garvey Movement, the Liberty League and other organizations set a standard that would heavily influence Black and left activism and thinking for decades to come.

Born in the Caribbean nation of St. Croix in 1883, an island colonized by Denmark and later the U.S., Harrison grew up as a poor agricultural laborer on a plantation. His mother was an immigrant worker from Barbados and his father was born in St. Croix.

Despite Harrison’s poverty he was able to attend school. His literary competency as well as a strong identification with the working class and poor would prove pivotal in his political career, which blossomed after he migrated to the U.S. in 1900.

The United States stood at a crossroads politically and economically during the years at the turn of the 20th century. It was a period of tremendous growth through immigration affecting New York City and other urban centers across the country and also in its international influence.

Over the next two decades there would be the rise of the motor vehicle industry, mass transportation and the explosion of mass media. Politically the first two decades of the 20th century would become noted for the emergence of larger social movements that sought to address continuing racism and class oppression in the U.S. and around the world.

According to the author of the biography, Jeffrey B. Perry, “Harrison served as the foremost Black organizer, agitator and theoretician in the Socialist Party of New York during its 1912 heyday; as the founder and leading figure of the militant, World War I-era New Negro movement; and as the editor of the Negro World and principal radical influence on the Garvey movement (described by the historian Randall K. Burkett as ‘the largest mass-based protest movement in Black American history’) during its radical high point in 1920.”

Harrison’s “views on race and class profoundly influenced a generation of New Negro militants, including the class-radical socialists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, the future communists Cyril Briggs and Richard B. Moore, and the race-radical Marcus Garvey. Considered more race conscious than Randolph and Owen and more class conscious than Garvey, Harrison is the key link in the ideological unity of the two great trends of the Black Liberation Movement — the labor and civil rights trends associated with Martin Luther King Jr. and the nationalist trend associated with Malcolm X.”

Socialism and Black Liberation

In 1910 Harrison wrote two letters to the editor of the New York Sun criticizing the views of Booker T. Washington from the left, and Perry attributes to this the reason Harrison lost his job with the postal service.

After that Harrison worked full-time for the Socialist Party of America and became the leading Black proponent of the organization for several years. Under the banner of the Socialist Party, he lectured broadly against capitalism and become a campaigner for its 1912 presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs. Harrison initiated the Colored Socialist Club, which is reputed to be the first major effort to recruit African Americans into the Socialist Party.

Later Harrison wrote a regular column for the New York Call and the International Socialist Review entitled “The Negro and Socialism.” He emphasized that it was essential for the Socialist Party to seriously address the national oppression of African Americans and that if this was not done, it would limit the overall program of the party.

Harrison fell out with the Socialist Party over its refusal to militantly fight racism among its members and within the broader U.S. society. His criticism derived from the continuation of segregated locals in the South as well as racist positions on Asian immigration. He concluded by 1914 that the Socialist Party was putting the interests of its white constituents ahead of those of the African Americans and Asians.

In 1914-15 he affiliated with the Modern School Movement, formed by the Spanish anarchist/educator Francisco Ferrer. In addition, he created the Radical Forum where he laid the basis for the New Negro Movement, a predecessor of the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

During World War I Harrison formed the Liberty League and the Voice as an alternative to the more moderate views of the NAACP. The program of the Liberty League advocated internationalism, political independence for the colonized countries in the Caribbean and Africa, anti-lynching legislation, full enforcement of the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, along with armed self-defense and mass organizing.

Garveyism & communism

By 1920 Harrison was appointed editor of the Negro World, the widely circulated newspaper of the Universal Negro Improvement Association founded by Marcus Garvey in 1914. Garvey relocated from Jamaica in 1916 and settled in Harlem, from where the UNIA would grow into a mass-based organization throughout the U.S., the Caribbean and Latin America, and the African continent.

After 1920 Harrison criticized Garvey’s program from the left. He continued to write for the Negro World until 1922 but became involved with other organizations such as the American Negro Labor Congress and the Workers Party (later known as the Communist Party).

By 1924 he set out to form a united front among African Americans by forming the International Colored Unity League. Harrison, through the ICUL, advocated for political rights, economic and social justice, and the creation of a separate African state in the U.S.

Prior to his death in 1927 at the untimely age of 44, Harrison edited the publication of the ICUL, the Voice of the Negro. He announced publicly that he was to be treated for appendicitis and later died on the operating table.

Harrison’s funeral was well attended in Harlem, yet his legacy has remained obscure among younger generations of activists and intellectuals. This book written by Jeffrey B. Perry is a well-deserved contribution to the literature on the intersection between African-American political movements, social philosophies, and that of the emerging socialist and communist movements inside the United States during the first three decades of the 20th century.