The following is a guest blog post from Zebulon Vance Miletsky, author of Before Busing: A History of Boston’s Long Black Freedom Struggle. Before Busing tells the story of the men and women who struggled and demonstrated to make school desegregation a reality in Boston. It reveals the legal efforts and battles over tactics that played out locally and influenced the national Black freedom struggle.
Happy Book Birthday to Before Busing: A History of Boston’s Long Black Freedom Struggle, officially on sale today!
There is no enemy too big for the L.S.N.R. to fight; there is no Negro worker too “insignificant” for the L.S.N.R. to fight for. In the sight of the League of the Struggle for Negro Rights, there is no Negro worker who is an insignificant person. Stand up and fight for Negro rights in Boston!League of Struggle for Negro Rights, Eugene Gordon
George Borden had done nothing wrong. He was a father and a hard worker who stayed out of trouble. Except for a minor traffic infraction, he had no criminal record. His experience with the Boston Police, like so many Black men in Boston before him, had taught him to be afraid. On the balmy evening of Friday, July 13th, 1934, he was enjoying dinner in his cellar apartment with his family and a friend, when two swaggering, armed white men in civilian clothes entered his Roxbury apartment and after a scuffle that included an attempted escape through first an upstairs apartment and then a basement, it was while Borden was in the act of lifting himself upward out of a basement window that he was shot him four times.
In all of this Borden had one champion. A hero to Boston intellectuals, organizers, and leftists, Eugene Gordon, who was one of the most outspoken black leaders in Boston. A post-World War I migrant to Boston, he was a staff writer for the white-owned daily The Boston Post, eventually becoming its editor and chief columnist in 1925. As such, Gordon was a passionate spokesperson for the lives of Boston’s forgotten. Using the power of the pen, Gordon marshaled his considerable intellectual weight to spread the word about injustice for Borden and other Black Bostonians like him. He was also a communist.
In newspaper columns, and in meetings, he refused to let the police get away with another killing of an unknown black man—of a worker, of a comrade, of a father. Moreover, in his steadfast commitment, Gordon came to represent in many ways the strange alliance of not just Black or White Boston, but of what he called “Red Boston”—a loose affiliation of left-leaning progressive organizations that, in the 1930s and 40s, pushed some of the more traditional Civil Rights organizations to ever greater heights of community engagement and mobilization.
In addition to his role as a journalist, Gordon was also a prominent member of the League of the Struggle for Negro Rights (LSNR). The LSNR was an early effort by the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) to provide a broad-based national alternative to the most pre-eminent civil rights organization of its day, the NAACP. Yet, for Borden, and for many others in Boston, the NAACP had become ineffectual in its ability to protect men like Borden. It also seemed to be unable to address the “bread-and-butter” economic issues now confronting so many Black Bostonians caught in the grips of the Great Depression. Moreover, it had become impotent in its ability to fight off a new force in Boston life and culture—the return of Jim Crow discrimination in the city known as “freedom’s birthplace.”
In the decades leading up to the second World War, new political possibilities (and challenges) emerged in Boston as labor activism, political radicalism and struggles for economic justice in the Depression-era dove-tailed with African American civil rights campaigns. People like Communist organizer Eugene Gordon began to step forward to defend poor African Americans like Borden. As in other cities, black Bostonians attempted to leverage wartime military service to open up new possibilities in the city’s manufacturing base, port-related industries, and service economy. Yet, as was often the case, class-based solidarity regularly broke on the rocky shoals of persistent racism. In this political moment, educational struggles moved to the periphery as immediate bread-and-butter issues of economic security dominated.
During the 1930s and 1940s, there was a re-centering of black political activism on economic justice and the dire needs of the African American working class. As the city and nation slipped more deeply into the Great Depression, abstract ideological debates gave way to bread-and-butter issues. Employment and economic opportunity, as well as housing, moved to the forefront of struggles for racial justice. New alliances between organized labor, radical movements, and the black working class emerged. At the heart of these economic efforts was Boston’s “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign, a local manifestation of a national movement during this period. The battle in Boston was led by the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, a communist-organized successor to the American Negro Labor Congress.
White radicals have long played a role as allies in local black freedom movements, but have not been immune to the significant challenges, associated with class-based inter-racial organizing. While the economic protest campaigns of the 1930s and 1940s did achieve modest success in opening up some new opportunities for African American clerks, delivery drivers, bank tellers, and even a few store managers, the scale and pace of change was nowhere near the level of need in the community, raising important questions about the effectiveness of this approach to racial change. Ultimately, World War II fundamentally altered the political terrain in the U.S., leading to a new period of civil rights activism in the post-war era.
Economically the status of black male and female workers across the city in most trades was perilous. Black men who had historically held positions as stevedores and longshoremen in the city’s bustling port were being ousted out of those jobs by changing industrial conditions and coming generations of European immigrants. Even the premier jobs once held by many black males and females in many of the city’s best hotels and restaurants, like the Vendome hotel, were being lost to an ever-growing wave of European immigration. It was for this reason that many trades began organizing. African American Men who worked as waiters in Boston joined the Boston Colored Waiters’ Alliance (Local 183 of the International Union of Hotel and Restaurant Employees). Thus the Communists’ focus on workers is reflective of early black traditions of union organizing.
In the city where freedom was born, George Borden should not have had to fear for his life. He was a father, a worker, and a law-abiding citizen. For a man like Bordon—a laborer, without friends in “high places,” he was vulnerable to the capricious whims of a discriminatory police force, in a city that was becoming increasingly racist.
The competition during these years between the CPUSA and the NAACP is well documented and played out in the struggle over national and international cases of injustice against African Americans in this period, such as the case of the Scottsboro Boys and countless others. Both sides had their drawbacks and cases to be made as to which direction would be best for depression-era Black laborers in the urban North, but The NAACP was increasingly being left out of this conversation.
For its part, the LSNR went to see Borden’s wife and attempted to get a warrant for the arrest of the police assailants. Its members also interviewed witnesses. According to Gordon, “the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People assumed its usual attitude of ‘watchful waiting,’ presumably to decide whether the case justified the Association’s entering it.” However, there was a sense of urgency in black communities throughout the city. The Borden shooting came after a rash of incidents of police brutality. A mass meeting, called jointly by the League of Struggle for Negro Rights and the International Labor Defense, was held on the following Friday evening in Roxbury, “where the police tried to intimidate the gathering by massing at the entrance and turning off the lights. At the very moment, a speaker was denouncing these characteristic police tactics to the mass meeting of Negro and white citizens, word came that Borden was dead.” In this moment of great despair, Gordon took his place at the rostrum. He gave an emotional plea that resonated deeply with the distraught attendees. In his booming voice, he told the audience that they must “Stand up and fight for Negro rights in Boston!”
The LSNR was quite effective in its campaigns to fight “the capitalist bosses” and slowly began to win the hearts and minds of many Black Bostonians in the 1930s. To this point, about the Borden case, Gordon wrote “there was one organization in Boston which was supposed to look after the interests of persons like Borden, that is, friendless persons who find themselves all at once overwhelmed by the brutal forces of society. That organization was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, headed by the colored lawyer Butler R. Wilson.” While Wilson had been out front on many issues, the NAACP had fallen “behind the times” in terms of its fight around economics and jobs, and the overall material concerns of Black Bostonians.
As the chief spokesperson for the LSNR, and through his columns, he stoked the fires of a growing enmity between the NAACP and the Communists, which in turn, caused the organization to retreat even deeper into its more familiar spheres of upper-class quarters of respectability. Even more active in the Boston organizing landscape than the Communist Party which backed the LSNR, were groups affiliated with the Socialist Party. Although Socialists did not adopt a racial position until later than the Communist Party, they were visible in scattered local campaigns. However, it was the Communist Party which became the most active in these years.
Employment and labor organizing had historically been the weak underbelly of the NAACP’s overall program in this period. As such, the LSNR made it a priority to align the larger project of political organizing with labor organizing. In the Communist Party, political organizing must lead to jobs, and they attended to this faithfully. This made the LSNR a very popular alternative to the NAACP, which limited itself to only political organizing in this period.
Zebulon Vance Miletsky is associate professor of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University.