Martin Luther King Jr., Statement on House Committee on Un-American Activities Hearings on the United Packinghouse Workers of America, June 11, 1959

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The House Un-American Activities Committee was an American judicial commission that was established in 1938 under the Roosevelt presidency. HUAC vociferously attacked FDR even though the majority of the nation supported FDR and his social reforms at a time when the nation was emerging from a deep economic depression. HUAC targeted the growing peace movement in the United States, leading inquisitions against freedom-fighters like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others, for their support and sympathy with the cause of the Soviet Union. Like the people of the Soviet Union who overcame tsarist rule, Robeson and Du Bois were engaged in the world-wide struggle to free human labor from imperialist exploitation–a struggle which they found to be inextricably linked to the struggle for African-American freedom, recognizing slavery, imperialism, and segregation as the sine qua non of American ‘democracy.’

In 1959, HUAC led an injunction against the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), accusing the organization of collaborating with the Communist Party.  The UPWA had lent its support to the South Christian Leadership Conference during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1957, led by King. UPWA representative, Russell Lasley, during the founding meeting of the SCLC in January 1957, remarked that it “an extreme honor and privilege to represent UPWA in a conference of leaders who have dedicated their lives to the cause of freedom and the establishment of a society free of racial injustice and second class citizenship.” In turn, during the UPWA’s annual convention in 1962, King addressed a roomful of union members and asserted that, “If labor as a whole, if the administration in Washington matched your concern and your deeds, the civil rights problem would not be a burning national issue, but a problem long solved, and in its solution a luminous accomplishment in the best tradition of American.”  principles.” Thus, the UPWA would play an important role in the March on Washington for jobs and freedom in 1963. 

Retaliating against their support for the Montgomery bus boycott and as result of the growing friendship between American labor and the civil rights movement, the U.S. Congress charged the UPWA of advancing the cause of communism. On July 31, 1959, King attended a meeting of the UPWA’s Public Advisory Commission in Chicago and issued a statement in support of their agitations. The statement is significant for our historical consideration because it confirms King’s commitment to the struggle for labor’s emancipation, recalling his insistence that all human labor has dignity, that we are dependent on the labor of others for our daily existence. As he puts it in his influential sermon, “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”:

“Most of us will have to be content to work in the fields and in the factories and on the streets. But we must see the dignity of all labor.

When I was in Montgomery, Alabama, I went to a shoe shop quite often, known as the Gordon Shoe Shop. And there was a fellow in there that used to shine my shoes, and it was just an experience to witness this fellow shining my shoes. He would get that rag, you know, and he could bring music out of it. And I said to myself, “This fellow has a Ph.D. in shoe shining.”

What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; (Go ahead) sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” And when you do this, when you do this, you’ve mastered the length of life.”


King’s Statement on House Committee on Un-American Activities Hearings on the United Packinghouse Workers of America, June 11, 1959

After discovering that the House Committee on Un-American Activities had conducted hearings in the matter of alleged Un-American activities in the Union of the United Packing House Workers of America, the Executive Committee of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference voted unanimously to publicly express its confidence in the integrity of this union.

The officers and members of the United Packing House Workers Union have demonstrated a real humanitarian concern. They have worked indefatigably to implement the ideals and principles of our democracy. Their devotion to the cause of civil rights has been unswerving. This union has stood out against segregation and discrimination not only in public pronouncements, but also in actual day to day practice. They have given thousands of dollars to aid organizations that are working for freedom and human dignity of the South. Because of the forthright stand of the Packing House Workers in the area of civil rights, they have aroused the ire of some persons who are not so commited. But in spite of this they have continued to work courageously for the ideal of the brotherhood of man. It is tragic indeed that some of our reactionary brothers in America will go to the limit of giving Communism credit for all good things that happen in our nation. It is a dark day indeed when men cannot work to implement the ideal of brotherhood without being labeled communist.

We sincerely hope that nothing will happen to deter the significant work being done by this dedicated labor organization. Again we express our confidence in the integrity and loyalty of the officers and members of the United Packing House Workers of America.

1. “6 Accused as Reds Balk at Hearing,” New York Times, 6 May 1959. UPWA president Ralph Helstein denied any Communist influence within the union. Following the HUAC hearings, the union distributed a questionnaire to union members accused of being Communist Party members prior to 1949 and who may have been in violation of the AFL-CIO’s Ethical Practices Codes. The codes stipulated that “no person should hold or retain office or appointed position in the AFL-CIO or any of its affiliated national or international unions or subordinate bodies thereof who is a member, consistent supporter or who actively participates in the activities of the Communist Party or of any fascist or other totalitarian organization” (Russell Lasley to Sir and Brother, 10 July 1959). HUAC was established as a standing committee in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1938 to investigate Communist and fascist influence within American institutions.

2. Russell R. Lasley (1914–1989) was an officer in UPWA Local 46 in Waterloo, Iowa, and served as UPWA international vice president from 1948 until 1968.

3. At the third meeting of the fledgling civil rights group on 8 August 1957, King announced the start of a voter registration campaign. SCLC treasurer Ralph Abernathy estimated that $200,000 was needed to finance the campaign. In October, UPWA president Ralph Helstein presented King with a check for $11,000 at their convention in Chicago (Art Osgoode, “Negroes Rap State Solons in Resolution,” Montgomery Advertiser, 9 August 1957; Ralph Helstein, Remarks at the fourth biennial wage and contracts, third national anti-discrimination, and third national women’s activities conference of the United Packinghouse Workers, 2 October 1957; see also UPWA, “Program proposals for 1957,” 21 June 1957). King later agreed to serve on the UPWA’s Advisory Review Commission of Public Citizens set up to monitor the union’s compliance with the AFL-CIO Ethical Practices Codes (Helstein to King, 8 July 1959).

Source: UPWR-WHi, United Packinghouse, Food and Allied Workers Records, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis., Box 389. Text and footnotes excerpted from King Papers digital archive, Stanford. 

The Indian Press Defended Paul Robeson in 1947

As revolutionary India entered the world stage as a free nation in 1947, The Hindu, a widely read Indian newspaper, condemned the banning of Paul Robeson’s public performance in Peoria, Illinois as a consequence for his agitation for world peace and the freedom of oppressed peoples everywhere. “If Paul Robeson is un-American, so much the worse for America,” declared the writer of the piece. The article was republished on the first page of The Baltimore Afro-American on May 24, 1947

In 1956, Robeson would be viciously targeted for his support of the erstwhile Soviet Union and his lifelong admiration for the Russian Revolution as well as the revolutions of Asian and African peoples for independence from colonial rule by the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, which was established in 1938 in efforts to quell the rising tide of communism as the American nation struggled against a deep economic depression. Robeson’s heroic defense at the investigation against the encroachments of the virulent Jim Crow, anti-communist regime:

Could I say that the reason that I am here today, you know, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is: I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for years for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. For many years I have so labored and I can say modestly that my name is very much honored all over Africa, in my struggles for their independence. That is the kind of independence like Sukarno got in Indonesia. Unless we are double-talking, then these efforts in the interest of Africa would be in the same context. The other reason that I am here today, again from the State Department and from the court record of the court of appeals, is that when I am abroad I speak out against the injustices against the Negro people of this land. I sent a message to the Bandung Conference and so forth. That is why I am here. This is the basis, and I am not being tried for whether I am a Communist, I am being tried for fighting for the rights of my people, who are still second-class citizens in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state, Mr. Walter, and my mother was a Quaker, and my ancestors in the time of Washington baked bread for George Washington’s troops when they crossed the Delaware, and my own father was a slave. I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country. And they are not. They are not in Mississippi. And they are not in Montgomery, Alabama. And they are not in Washington. They are nowhere, and that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up and fight for the rights of his people, for the rights of workers, and I have been on many a picket line for the steelworkers too. And that is why I am here today. . . .

Tagore on Scientific Inquiry and Self-Realization

Yet no one really believes that science is the one perfect mode of disseminating mistakes. The progressive ascertainment of Truth is the important thing to remember in the history of science, not its innumerable mistakes. Error, by its nature, cannot be stationary; it cannot remain with truth; like a tramp, it must quit its lodging as soon as it fails to pay its score to the full.

–Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana

Vyacheslav Molotov – The Nazi Invasion of Russia

This war has been forced upon us, not by the German people, not by German workers, peasants and intellectuals, whose sufferings we well understand, but by the clique of bloodthirsty Fascist rulers of Germany who have enslaved Frenchmen, Czechs, Poles, Serbians, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Greece and other nations.

Citizens of the Soviet Union:

The Soviet Government and its head, Comrade Stalin, have authorized me to make the following statement:

Today at 4 o’clock a.m., without any claims having been presented to the Soviet Union, without a declaration of war, German troops attacked our country, attacked our borders at many points and bombed from their airplanes our cities; Zhitomir, Kiev, Sevastopol, Kaunas and some others, killing and wounding over two hundred persons.

There were also enemy air raids and artillery shelling from Rumanian and Finnish territory.This unheard of attack upon our country is perfidy unparalleled in the history of civilized nations. The attack on our country was perpetrated despite the fact that a treaty of non-aggression had been signed between the U. S. S. R. and Germany and that the Soviet Government most faithfully abided by all provisions of this treaty.

The attack upon our country was perpetrated despite the fact that during the entire period of operation of this treaty, the German Government could not find grounds for a single complaint against the U.S.S.R. as regards observance of this treaty.

Entire responsibility for this predatory attack upon the Soviet Union falls fully and completely upon the German Fascist rulers.

At 5:30 a.m. — that is, after the attack had already been perpetrated, Von der Schulenburg, the German Ambassador in Moscow, on behalf of his government made the statement to me as People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs to the effect that the German Government had decided to launch war against the U.S.S.R. in connection with the concentration of Red Army units near the eastern German frontier.

In reply to this I stated on behalf of the Soviet Government that, until the very last moment, the German Government had not presented any claims to the Soviet Government, that Germany attacked the U.S.S.R. despite the peaceable position of the Soviet Union, and that for this reason Fascist Germany is the aggressor.

On instruction of the government of the Soviet Union I also stated that at no point had our troops or our air force committed a violation of the frontier and therefore the statement made this morning by the Rumanian radio to the effect that Soviet aircraft allegedly had fired on Rumanian airdromes is a sheer lie and provocation.

Likewise a lie and provocation is the whole declaration made today by Hitler, who is trying belatedly to concoct accusations charging the Soviet Union with failure to observe the Soviet-German pact.

Now that the attack on the Soviet Union has already been committed, the Soviet Government has ordered our troops to repulse the predatory assault and to drive German troops from the territory of our country.

This war has been forced upon us, not by the German people, not by German workers, peasants and intellectuals, whose sufferings we well understand, but by the clique of bloodthirsty Fascist rulers of Germany who have enslaved Frenchmen, Czechs, Poles, Serbians, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Greece and other nations.

The government of the Soviet Union expresses its unshakable confidence that our valiant army and navy and brave falcons of the Soviet Air Force will acquit themselves with honor in performing their duty to the fatherland and to the Soviet people, and will inflict a crushing blow upon the aggressor.

This is not the first time that our people have had to deal with an attack of an arrogant foe. At the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia our people’s reply was war for the fatherland, and

Napoleon suffered defeat and met his doom.

It will be the same with Hitler, who in his arrogance has proclaimed a new crusade against our country. The Red Army and our whole people will again wage victorious war for the fatherland, for our country, for honor, for liberty.

The government of the Soviet Union expresses the firm conviction that the whole population of our country, all workers, peasants and intellectuals, men and women, will conscientiously perform their duties and do their work. Our entire people must now stand solid and united as never before.

Each one of us must demand of himself and of others discipline, organization and self-denial worthy of real Soviet patriots, in order to provide for all the needs of the Red Army, Navy and Air Force, to insure victory over the enemy.

The government calls upon you, citizens of the Soviet Union, to rally still more closely around our glorious Bolshevist party, around our Soviet Government, around our great leader and comrade, Stalin. Ours is a righteous cause. The enemy shall be defeated. Victory will be ours.

Vyacheslav Molotov – June 22, 1941

German infantrymen invading Russia, 1941

The Star Of Ethiopia

In 1913, Du Bois wrote and presented The Star Of Ethiopia, a historical pageant chronicling the history of black civilization and its contribution to world history at the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in New York City. In many ways, the play is an early enactment of the story he so painstakingly documents in the idiom of social science in his 1946 monograph, The World and Africa. Foregrounding African-American drama’s connection to African dramatic and spiritual traditions as well as its historical distinctions, his chief purpose in imagining it was to create a complete work of art, one capable of educating and uplifting the masses. As he put it, “The great fact has been demonstrated that pageantry among colored people is not only possible, but in many ways of un­ surpassed beauty and can be made a means of uplift and education and the beginning of a folk drama.”

Towards the fulfillment of this mission, The Star of Ethiopia progresses in six movements that detail the origins of humanity in Africa, the contributions of African civilizations to the ancient world, and the struggle of the black worker for freedom from American slavery and imperialism in the modern period. Originally imagined for an ensemble of three hundred to a thousand performance artists, the play premiered in Washington, D.C. in 1915 and made its Philadelphia debut in 1916 (see below for pictures of cast and the playbill). It was revived in a 1925 performance at the Hollywood Bowl.

“Hear ye, hear ye! All them that sing before the Lord and forget not the Vision of the Eldest and Strongest of the Races of Men whose faces be Black. Hear ye, hear ye! And remember forever and one day the Star of Ethiopia, All-Mother of Men, who gave the world the Iron Gift and Gift of Faith, the Pain of Humility and Sorrow Song of Pain, and Freedom, Eternal Freedom, underneath the Star. Arise and go, Children of Philadelphia—the Play is done—the Play is done.”

Asia in Africa

In the ninth chapter of his 1946 inquiry The World and Africa, which explores the role played by Africa in the ancient and modern world, W.E.B Du Bois theorizes the black foundations of Asiatic civilization, citing as evidence the African origins of the name “Nahsi” and the black features of the Buddha and Krishna, two of India’s most revered gods. Siddhartha Gautama who ascended to Enlightenment many centuries before Hume, Kant, and Hegel, sought to liberate Hinduism from the strictures of inequality and chart out a selfless path of human being-in-the-world. Du Bois copiously illustrates the long history of trade and inter-civilizational exchange in the Afro-Asiatic zone–the region above the Sahara Desert linking the African continent to the Asian land-mass, particularly the Indian subcontinent, in antiquity as well as by modern developments. Moreover, sub-Saharan Africa and India met in the body of water we now call the Indian Ocean and Roman North Africa had extensive trade relationships with the Indian peninsula. Finally, these continents were linked by the spread of Christianity and Islam.

As Du Bois confirms

The Asiatic and African blacks were strewn along a straight path between tropical Asia and tropical Africa and there was much racial intermingling between Africa and Western Asia.

He advances a scientific argument that presents evidence about race relations in the framework of historical materialism, guided by the logic of the Marxist dialectic. As such, though he draws on mythology and literature and indeed European ethnography as primary sources, he reads them to reconstruct a picture of the world that counters the Western imperial order, one in which the dark proletariat leads humanity in our common efforts to build a civilization founded on principles of peace and freedom. As a sociologist, Du Bois was interested in studying aspects of social life arising from human actions. As a humanist, he was guided by the belief that humanity had emerged from a common origin in Africa before developing continuously to our present condition. Ancient Greece and Rome were not European or “Caucasian”, per the evolving field of race science in Europe which struggled to establish the origins of humanity even while denying kinship with African and Africoid peoples throughout the world. Such was the vastness of the shadow cast by the Du Boisian epistemology on the history of science. Scientists today confirm what Du Bois discovered in 1946: that bi-pedalism, tool use, and language first arose in Africa before spreading to Asia about 2 million years ago and to the Americas by way of the Atlantic and the Pacific and later to Europe. Settled cultivation of land and use of iron began in Africa, as we now know. Du Bois was one of the first historians to insist upon this truth in the West in his pivotal study, The World and Africa which was published in America at the height of Jim Crow as a wave of virulent anti-communism swept the nation. The ground-breaking philosophy of history argued that contrary to white civilization, Black Africans had not only contributed to but led civilization in all epochs of human history.

Social science saw the history of human being in the world as a materially unified whole capable of being studied scientifically. Humanity’s origins were relatively recent in the history of the modern world and each phase of its development was characterized by a different relationship to means of production and reproduction. For example, means of production differed in the Stone Age and the Iron Age; during the latter, which began earlier in Africa, human beings discovered iron as a raw material, welding it to create tools, weapons, and other implements to improve their lives and build civilization. Du Bois’s intervened in the debate about positivism in Western social science, which suggested that the laws of the human social world operated in the same way as the laws of the natural world, a premise which he exposed as a fallacy. As he continued his scientific study of social life and human actions he realized that there was something incalculable about humanity–human behavior is counterintuitive and human consciousness infinitely variable, always operating in movement of time as an unknown factor. Moreover, as he increasingly turns to the work of Karl Marx and strengthens his commitment to the world Communist movement, he understands that each epoch of human history, and its attendant form of social organization, was constitutionally shaped by the mode of production upon which it depended. Hence, he saw that the world around him–a world riven by the color line–was so because it depended on a system of production that necessitated subjugation of the darker races and most especially the black race to labor for the capitalist planter and merchant.Thus, his dialectical reasoning interprets the ancient and modern past of humanity and human action in terms of their political and economic consequences for the dark nations in order to carve out a path for revolutionary change and non-capitalist development.

The rise of Islam and Christianity in the past two thousand years and the latter’s deployment in defense of European capitalism and slavery inculcated new civilizational developments for humanity in the medieval and modern period. Du Bois’s argument in this chapter also reminds me that both Hinduism and Islam developed against the spread of Western Christianity which also took on a new life in Africa and Asia, like other Abrahamic religions, and amongst African-Americans and indigenous American peoples in the New World colonies of Europe. His hypothesis is also confirmed by recent investigations of scholars such as Kosambi, Abu-Lughod, Gunder-Frank, Panikkar, and, to some extent, Wallerstein, though what distinguishes the Du Boisian thesis from the above and even a Martin Bernal is his commitment to a revolutionary politic, exemplified by his lifelong search for a broad strategy for human liberation and in particular, the unconditional freedom of the African-American people, who continue to wage a heroic struggle against the forces of white supremacy and war in the heart of the American Empire.

As he argues in his “Guiding One-Hundredth Address,” race is not solely a physical reality; it is, first and foremost, a psycho-social dynamic in that the racial experience of each group is shaped by its relation to the social power structure, means of production, which together shape the movement of history. This Karl Marx understood is the struggle of the oppressed to overcome the oppressor in the pursuit of freedom, a deeply human drive. As he puts it here

all races really are a cultural group. It is too bad that we have to use the world “cultural” for so many meanings. But what it means in modern scientific thought is that 15, 000, 000 men and women who for three centuries have shared common suffering and have worked all those days and nights together for their own survival and progress; that this complex of habits and manners could not and must not be lost. That person’s sharing this experience formed a race no matter what their blood may be. That this race must be conserved for the benefit of the Negro people themselves and for mankind. I came then to Advocate not pride of biological race but pride in a cultural group, integrated and expanded by developed ideals so as to form a method of progress.”

Du Bois compels us to revisit the inconvenient truth that in the past four hundred years, the white race has subjugated the darker races to toil on its behalf so as to sustain its criminal pursuits throughout the world. It was thus no wonder that the struggles of black folk in America for peace and freedom from slavery and later, segregation, and the struggles of colonized peoples throughout the world against imperialism and European domination germinated a tremendous renaissance of civilization amongst the darker races in the twentieth century, from Baldwin in America to Tagore in India. The dark proletariat created civilization in the face of soul-seeping oppression, pressing on in its heroic quest to free society from imperial tyranny and monopoly capital, and to define and interpret reality so as to gain control of it and thereby, transform it themselves.

Du Bois’s thesis is a significant discovery because at the time he was writing in America, whites were perpetuating the lie that civilization amongst black people was impossible,drawing on this rhetoric to deny the connection of African-America to Africa–and the latter’s relation o Asia–so as to justify the slave trade and slavery, both of which formed the basis of the capitalist mode of production, a process that began in the early modern period and created the conditions for modern life aaa we know it. Thus, Du Bois marshals a wealth of evidence attesting to the achievements of black civilizations throughout the world in order to show the complexity of black peoples worldwide and to disprove, by way of scientific argument, the primary lie of Western science which served as colonialism’s chief alibi: that the black race was inferior by nature and that African-Americans were incapable of development and self-determination–a premise that compels him to write a novel called Dark Princess in 1928 wherein he presents a vehement rebuttal of European race theorists by way of a bravely imagined political allegory about a romance between an Indian princess and an African-American doctor who together establish a pivotal alliance against world imperialism. Du Bois’s research emphasized, by contrast, that it was oppression which had impeded the progress of black folks in America and throughout the world towards their highest potential, not nature or historical inevitability, as it was being suggested by bourgeois science. He thus recognized that colonialism had set the darker races back by several centuries in development. It was for this reason that he insisted upon world peace, communism, and Pan-Africanism, by which he meant something very specific, namely the progress of oppressed peoples against imperialism towards the non-capitalist path of development, wherein production and civilization are directed towards the fulfillment of human need rather than imperial gain.

Du Boisian Pan-Africanism, as Henry Winston, leader of the American Communist Party clarified some decades ago, rejected the vicious anti-communism of the day which had led to the witch-hunt of so many beloved leaders, including Du Bois and Robeson but also King and Gandhi, peace-bringers who were assassinated for their efforts to cultivate civilization amidst war, poverty, and colonial devastation. It sought to oust imperialism from every corner of Africa and the world. It advocated the pursuit of the non-capitalist path of national development in newly independent countries and called upon exemplary figures amongst the darker races to eschew the European bourgeoisie and join with the proletariat in order to build socialism in their countries. This intercivilizational vanguard sought to create a revolutionary society in its own image, in the service of the people’s interests–education, industry, harvests that fed the people, art that nourished and propelled their imagination in pursuit of the grandest possibilities of the human mind and spirit, music that combed through the most antagonistic knots of the soul, literature that revealed revolutionary being-in-the-world–the kind of human beings we must become to build the world that will overcome the one that is presently collapsing.

The Black Buddha, after W.EB Du Bois

Shalabhanjika, terra-cotta, 5th century, Gupta dynasty, India