The African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) was a radical U.S. black liberation organization of the early 20th century that developed ties to the Communist Party. The group was a propaganda organization built on the model of the secret fraternity, organized in "posts" with a centralized national organization based in New York City. The ABB had a total membership of less than 3,000 members at its peak.
The inspiration for what would become the African Black Brotherhood began with the appearance of a monthly journal. Journalist Cyril Briggs
left the Amsterdam News
to start the monthly magazine The Crusader
in 1918. The first issue, published by the Hamitic League of the World
, espoused African nationalist
politics, but within a Marxist
context. Editorials endorsed a separatist African-American state, with government control of the means of production. Briggs demanded African-American independence from the United States, in conformance with the principles of President Wilson
's Fourteen Points
proposal as applied to former African colonies of European governments. The same issue of The Crusader
endorsed A. Philip Randolph
's campaign for New York State Assembly on the Socialist Party
ticket. The Brotherhood viewed independence of the black community in the United States as a prerequisite to equality. Only with genuine political power, which included control of the means of production, including the land, could African Americans obtain genuine equality. Briggs proposed a “new solution”: “nothing more or less than independent, separate existence” was called for — “Government of the (Negro) people, for the (Negro) people and by the (Negro) people.”
The Crusader also asserted the right of African Americans to defend themselves against lynching and racist attacks. Racially motivated violence against African-Americans was endemic in the Jim Crow era. Large-scale attacks by white vigilantes against African-American neighborhoods were common. Historian Charles Crowe found that between 1898 and 1908, there were 40 major race riots in the South. In addition, large-scale attacks occurred in Atlanta in 1906; Springfield, Illinois in 1908; East St. Louis in 1917; Chicago, Phillips County, Arkansas and Omaha in 1919; and Tulsa in 1921. The Crusader would eventually reach a total readership of 36,000 persons, mostly in Harlem.
The African Blood Brotherhood
In response to these attacks, The Crusader
advocated armed self-defense. Politically, Briggs drew comparisons between government attacks on white and black radicals. He identified capitalism as the underlying cause of oppression of poor people of all races. While endorsing a Marxist
analysis, The Crusader
advocated a separate organization of African-Americans to defend against racist attacks in the United States, and likened this to Africans' combating colonialism abroad.
In September 1919, The Crusader announced the formation of the African Blood Brotherhood, to serve as a self-defense organization for Blacks threatened by race riots and lynchings. The ABB also organized inside the UNIA-ACL and advocated a policy of critical support for Marcus Garvey. ABB leaders Briggs and Claude McKay participated in the UNIA's 1920 and 1921 international conferences in New York. At the second conference, McKay arranged for Rose Pastor Stokes, a white leader of the Communist Party, to address the assembly.
The ABB became highly critical of Garvey following the apparent failure of the Black Star Line and Garvey's July 1921 Atlanta meeting with Grand Kleagle Clarke of the Ku Klux Klan. In June 1921, The Crusader announced that it had become the official organ of the African Blood Brotherhood. Arguing that the UNIA was doomed unless it developed new leadership, the magazine sought to convert the UNIA's membership to the ABB. In seeking to replace the UNIA, the ABB competed with Randolph's socialist publication The Messenger, which had called for Garvey's expulsion from the United States. In return, Garvey called for his followers to disrupt meetings of these oppositional groups.
Conflicts with Garvey and the Bureau of Investigation
In addition to the dispute with Garvey, Briggs and the ABB were targeted for investigation by police and federal law enforcement agencies. Historian Theodore Kornweibel reports that the government began manipulating radical organizations in conjunction with legal prosecution under the pretence of disrupting opposition to World War I
. Following the end of the war, a government campaign against communists, anarchists, and other radicals was instituted at the direction of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer
(himself the victim of two anarchist bomb attacks) in what came to be called the First Red Scare
. Government agents were secretly planted in the UNIA, ABB and The Messenger
. These agents provided intelligence to the Bureau of Investigation
while in some case sabotaging meetings, and acting as agents provocateurs
The ABB enjoyed a period of notoriety following the Tulsa Riot of 1921. Tulsa had an ABB chapter and news reports credited the organization with inspiring resistance to racist attacks.
Fusion with the CPUSA
ceased publication in February 1922, following Garvey's indictment for mail fraud
. Briggs continued to operate the Crusader News Service, providing news material to affiliated publications of the American black press. As cooperation with the Communist Party increased, the ABB ceased to recruit separately.
The leadership of the Communist International, while largely ignorant about the particulars of the situation of blacks in the United States, did understand the importance of ethnic and other non-class forms of oppression, and pushed the early CP to pay more attention to blacks in the U.S. Before this intervention by the Comintern, the party had largely ignored blacks, and thus was not particularly attractive to black radicals like Briggs. Instead, it was the Bolshevik Revolution that attraced their attention.
Poet and ABB member Claude McKay visited the Soviet Union several times in the mid-1920s, writing about conferences of the Communist International for African-American audiences. McKay's book, The Negroes in America (published in Russian in 1924 but not in the U.S. until 1979) argued, against the official Communist position of the time, that the oppression of black people in the U.S. was not reducible to economic oppression, but was unique. He argued against the color blindness that the Communists had inherited from the Socialist Party. McKay made argued vociferously for national self-determination in support of national independence for oppressed peoples, which to him meant an independent African-American government separate and apart from that of the United States. Subsequently, in the aftermath of the Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928, the CPUSA adopted a policy of national self-determination for African-Americans living in the Black Belt of the American South. The policy was neglected after the Popular Front period began in 1935, but was not formally replaced until 1959.
As the Communist Party developed, it regularized its structure along the lines called for by the Communist International (Comintern). Semi-independent organizations such as the African Blood Brotherhood with its divergent Afro-Marxist political theories were anathema to the Comintern and its Soviet leaders, who believed all communist and Marxist-Leninist organizations should be unified in a single communist party and platform in each nation under Moscow's overall direction and control. Sometime during the early 1920s the African Black Brotherhood was dissolved, with its members merged into the Workers Party of America and later into the National Negro Labor Congress. Many early ABB members, however, went on to be key CP cadres for decades.
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