J.R. Johnson

Notes Following the Discussions

(June 1939)

Originally published in the Socialist Workers Party’s Internal Bulletin, No. 9, June 1939.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 14–16.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In The New Negro by Alain Locke there is a reference to the fact that Garvey preached an exclusively black doctrine of race – only Negroes who were black were truly Negroes. This statement is of the first importance.

In America today, there are caste divisions among the blacks themselves and these are based on color. They are most clearly seen in the church. The mulattoes are petty bourgeois members of the Roman Catholic and Episcopalian (orthodox Protestant) churches. The blacks, the poorest, the most oppressed, are members of the Baptist and African Methodist Churches, the great stronghold of the black parsons and to this day the most powerful national organizations created and controlled entirely by Negroes. It was on this stratum that Garvey built his movement; his appeal to the “pure” black shows that. Also, they had just emigrated and were still coming in hundreds of thousands from the South, a proletarian and sub-proletarian mass getting better wages for the first time and rising to the possibilities that even the limited freedom of the North allowed them.

I have personal experience of these people, particularly in an “Ethiopian” movement in New York and in one of the “black” churches which I attended. The “Ethiopians” are fanatically chauvinistic and on the night I spoke to them two white comrades evoked great hostility. But of their revolutionary ardor there was no doubt. A similar passion was also obvious in the church service, and there, the weeping, the shaking of hands, the response to the preacher’s references to oppression, were no doubt a sublimation of revolutionary emotion. The greatest response was made to the passage on oppression and suffering. [1]

Garvey raised these people to political activity. His movement fell, and today their leader is Father Divine, merely a super-preacher and demagogue combined.

But the great response to (a) Freedom in Africa, (b) Freedom in Ethiopia, (c) Freedom in Heaven, seems to point to the fact that self-determination, i.e. a black state in the South would awaken a response among these masses, as bitterly as it is opposed by all the intellectuals and more literate among the Negroes. This is the tentative conclusion I have come to after carefully considering the course of our discussion and thinking back over the contacts I made with this stratum during my short stay in America. This of course will have to be tested by experience, but another question arises.

If it does prove to be so, the slogan of a “black state” will come badly from the SWP. It will infallibly awaken great suspicion among the Negroes. “They want to get rid of us.” Coming, however, from Negro intellectuals in a Negro movement, if there is the latent response, it will be accepted without difficulty. The SWP can then support it wholeheartedly.

The success of the Garvey movement, of the Divine movement, and the millions of dollars poor Negroes pour annually into the churches out of their almost empty purses, all these are evidence of their fanatical devotion and capacity for self-sacrifice. And the revolutionary energy, the readiness to give all which distinguished the Garvey movement in particular, in return for nothing tangible but the promise of a new society, show that here, in contradistinction to the great movements of organized workers for higher wages, closed shop, etc., we have perhaps the most important manifestation in American capitalist society of one most powerful current in the coming socialist revolution. The party must find a way to these millions and I am more than ever convinced that the way is through a Negro organization, going over the literate and vocal intellectuals and finding the masses whom Garvey found.


1. This clergyman offered me his pulpit for a Sunday evening – an audience of 800 people, the poorest of the poor. I could not do so before I left New York, but I asked him to wait until I returned. I shall make a cautious but clear appeal for revolutionary action and particularly raise the question of a black state.

Last updated on 17.7.2011