I’ve been reflecting here on coming of age in the 1950s, and on some of the extraordinary changes I’ve observed since then, from Title IX to travel, technology, and gluten-free cuisine. Along the way I’ve taken a couple of side trips into electoral politics, beginning with Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 campaign and lately delighting in Hillary Clinton’s crossover appeal to old and young women. Like so many others, I’m dismayed (truthfully, heartbroken – if not entirely surprised) to find that there were not enough Nasty Women to overcome the truly nasty man – to be explicit, that so many white women voted for Trump.
I’ve been writing about change in these posts, but at this moment I see mostly continuity; I’m very much afraid that the progress we thought was solid was, in too many cases, fragile and superficial. Apparently, racist rage never really goes away; it appears, hides, and reappears with every swing of the pendulum. The president-elect has nominated Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama to be our next Attorney General.
During the rise of Donald Trump, and especially since his election, I feel as if I am not only recalling the fifties but living through them all over again. In just one example, a few months ago Newt Gingrich, an enthusiastic supporter of our president-elect, suggested that we bring back the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). What is most eerily reminiscent of the fifties though, is the prevailing atmosphere of fear and dread, along with the recurring amazement that people with power over others are actually saying and doing the things they’re saying and doing. Over and over during the campaign I longed for someone to confront Trump as U.S. Army Counsel Joseph Welch did Senator Joseph McCarthy when he reacted to one of that senator’s murderous slanders: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
In these grim times, the most rewarding aspect of studying the fifties has been the discovery of certain challenges to the abuse of power, like Welch’s challenge to McCarthy, and the recovery of heroes and heroines of whom I had not been aware. I have been clinging to one heroine in particular, someone who suffered most of the horrors that decade had to offer – trial, conviction, imprisonment, deportation – and through it all, found effective ways to work for justice. That heroine was Claudia Jones, and in the dreadful days since the election I have found it inspiring to revisit her story and reread her words.
In 1950, Claudia Jones and 16 other “radical aliens” were detained on Ellis Island. Arrested under the McCarran Act, they were allegedly waiting for deportation hearings, but in a letter to the Daily Worker; Jones called this “a foul lie” – in fact they were there because they were suspected of being dangerous to the United States. Jones’s letter describes to readers of the Worker who these people really were – a diverse community of patriots – and calls on American traditions of liberty and justice to protest their imprisonment. Insisting that their detention is illegal and scandalous, she paints a picture of the contrast between their stuffy jail and the freedom of the gulls and pigeons in the air outside and the small boats that come and go in the harbor. She draws our attention in particular to the majestic Statue on the neighboring island, whose torch shone over the hateful prison.
Jones’s letter is available in the Daily Worker of November 8, 1950; the old newspaper microfilm is difficult to read, so I have posted a typescript here. I have also included (below) “A Strange and Terrible Sight in our Country” – an essay based on the letter and published in the September-October 2006 issue of The Women’s Review of Books. I wrote that piece during another dismal period, before Obama’s presidency, while the United States was abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. We are in a bad and dangerous place again – worse, I fear, than anything I have seen in my lifetime.
As we do our best to resist injustice, to celebrate our diversity and to protect our most vulnerable companions, we may find in the words of Claudia Jones both comfort and a call to action.
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“A Strange and Terrible Sight in Our Country” (2006 Essay)
In the autumn of 1950, seventeen foreign-born radicals living in the United States were imprisoned on Ellis Island in New York City. Because of the repression and silencing of the McCarthy era and its aftermath, we know very little about these prisoners and their struggles against arbitrary arrest and detention. Some were Communists, some were not; many were eventually deported, and for political reasons their stories are obscure in the historical record. But it is well worth the effort to recover their voices, for the courage and persistence of the prisoners as well as the contemporary relevance of their experience. The recovery of one such voice is especially rewarding – that of Claudia Jones, who spoke clearly and cogently about illegal detention in a letter to the editor of the Daily Worker written from Ellis Island and published on November 8, 1950.
Jones was born in Trinidad and entered the United States with her family in 1924 as a child of eight. She grew up and went to school in Harlem, where her father struggled to raise his four daughters alone after his wife, a garment worker, died at her factory sewing machine when Claudia was about thirteen. Jones graduated from high school and joined the work force during the Great Depression. Sources for her biography are scarce: conscious of continual surveillance by the FBI, she burned her papers before her deportation to the United Kingdom in 1955. The fullest account of her early life comes from an autobiographical letter written to the General Secretary of the Communist Party just before she left the country. There, Jones accounted for her early attraction to Communism by noting that of all the speakers on Harlem street corners in the 1930s, only the Communists made connections between the racism and exploitation of workers at home and the rising threat and reality of fascism overseas.
In 1936 Jones was recruited into the Young Communist League, where she received advanced political education and practical training. She was promoted quickly through the ranks and held a number of significant positions in the party, including membership in its National Committee, Peace Commission, and Women’s Commission, of which she was executive secretary at the time of her 1950 arrest. After more than a decade of Party work, Jones had become an accomplished and experienced speaker, writer, and editor. She participated in the leftist Congress of American Women and the National Council of Negro Women, and served for a time as Negro Affairs editor of the Worker. She produced several pamphlets, a regular column on women for the Sunday Worker, and theoretical articles for the journal Political Affairs. Her articles on gender, in particular, display the force and originality of her thinking. Although a loyal party member, Jones did not hesitate to criticize male chauvinism and white racism among her comrades. She saw, named, and denounced the “triple oppression of black women in American society.”
With sixteen “alien” companions, Claudia Jones was detained on Ellis Island under the infamous McCarran Act, passed by Congress over President Truman’s veto in the summer of 1950. Also known as the Internal Security Act, it was designed to “protect the United States against certain un-American and subversive activities.” The act required Communist organizations to register with the government and prohibited US citizenship to foreign-born persons involved in activities “prejudicial to the public interest.” The police sweeps and arrests that brought these prisoners to Ellis Island were known as “McCarran raids.” Many of the victims, including Jones, had been arrested earlier under the same act and were out on bail when they were picked up again in late October.
Jones’s letter to the Worker began with a description of the view from her window. She watched the pigeons and gulls gather freely and fly away, separately or together, just as they chose, and the various ships, tugs, coast guard cutters, barges and so forth, sailing in the harbor and anchored at the pier. The atmosphere and freedom of the foggy, rain-swept day outside, with the Statue of Liberty herself as centerpiece, was presented in stark contrast to the stifling conditions inside the island detention center, with its unbearable heat, especially in the room where the women were confined.
Observing the skyscrapers of New York City from her prison, Jones contemplated the people of the mainland beyond, “the wealth of men, women and children of many lands who for centuries… toiled in mine, mill, factory and the endless plain – all the stretch of these great green states to make America.” A major theme of Jones’s public letter was the identification of herself and the other imprisoned “aliens” as typical, in their character and diversity, of the best of the United States. As a passionate Marxist-Leninist, Jones naturally began by sounding the note of class, mentioning first among her companions a “Slavic-American, the brawn and brain of whose people are forever merged with the great industrial achievements of America’s working people, the miners of Pittsburgh, the auto workers of Detroit, the anthracite and copper miners of the Mesabe range.” Next she tipped her hat to the radical history of her adopted country, citing the case of a Finnish-American who spent four years in jail after World War I, when Attorney General Palmer and his young assistant, J. Edgar Hoover, led a series of raids against persons suspected of sedition and radical dissent. Jones insisted on the prisoners’ freedom-fighting heritage as well as their diversity: “Descendants of Haym Solomon and Giuseppe Garibaldi, and of the people of Simon Bolivar and La Pasionaria, San Martin, they are proud and honored descendants of these heroes and heroines.”
For Claudia Jones, race was never far from class in significance. She gave a prominent place in her list of companions to a “Negro man from the British West Indies, whose people’s blood mixed with that of Crispus Attucks . . . when West Indian warriors, of the strain of Toussaint L’Ouverture, fought in the American Revolution. Second-class citizens, like 15 million Negro Americans, whose sons serve in jimcrow [sic] units in Korea, they are no strangers to the second-class, jimcrow justice likewise meted out to West Indians of foreign birth” (like herself). The Communists kept reminding African Americans of their segregated status in the armed forces, where they were welcome to fight and die but unwelcome to mix on equal terms with white soldiers.
As a feminist whose social analyses and recommendations preceded those of second-wave feminism by more than twenty years, Jones never overlooked the special circumstances of women, nor their heroism. Her account of her fellow prisoners moved from race to gender: “Here are women, Negro and white”, she wrote, “whose lives, like those of Emma Lazarus and Harriet Tubman, are a refutation of women’s inequality in any field of endeavor.” Not one to make the common theorist’s mistake of attending to people in general at the expense of individuals, Jones pointed out the particular sufferings of people such as her comrade in prison, Rose Lightcap, the only woman arrested in the first McCarran raid. Since male and female prisoners were segregated, Lightcap was kept in solitary confinement and under constant surveillance for a week before the other women were arrested. (Her husband was told by an INS official not to worry about his wife’s isolation because “by Wednesday she’ll have company. And she did.”) Thanks to their persistence, the women finally “won the right after protest… to move from the hotbox of a room and to be together during the days with the men. The heat was unbearable.” Jones herself was chronically ill with hypertension, heart trouble, and the long-term effects of tuberculosis contracted in her teens, although illness never interfered with her activism. Her premature death in 1964, at the age of 49, was one result of early poverty and a life of struggle.
Having informed readers of the composition and nature of this group of detainees, Jones asked the obvious question: why were these heroic and hard-working people — these excellent Americans – confined on Ellis Island? “The majority of newspapers,” she said, “tell you that we are here because we are awaiting deportation hearings. That is a foul lie.” Most of the prisoners, including Jones, had earlier applied for naturalization, some more than once. Their applications were ignored or rejected “purely on the grounds of our conscience, our beliefs and our ideas.” Under the McCarran Act they were “deportable” not because of their actions but because of their beliefs and associations. Jones wrote in her letter that they had not had hearings or legal examinations of any kind.
“We have never been confronted with any evidence, or made familiar with any crime, alleged or charged against us. Nor have any of us been informed or charged with the slightest infraction of the terms of our release on bail. The Attorney General made an atrocious situation worse when he first illegally re-arrested people “already out on bail, then [asked] the court to give him time to ascertain whether he was discreet about his use of his discretionary powers.”
Jones commented sarcastically on the legal improprieties surrounding the detentions but was not distracted from her primary theme, the identification of the prisoners with the best of the American past. “Lincoln once spoke,” she wrote, “of the basis on which people can be fooled. The truth, of course, is that this is a clear violation of the American Constitution (and) the Bill of Rights, both of which guarantee the right of bail and the right of habeas corpus.” But the legal case, no matter how significant, was still “incidental to the mass struggle to free us.” What was most important was the response of progressive people – particularly the labor unions, African Americans, women and young people – to the situation of the incarcerated patriots. Jones insisted that “no law or decree can whittle or pierce by one iota our convictions and loyalty to America’s democratic and revolutionary traditions. We are Americans, each and every one of us…” Like Martin Luther King, Jr. a decade later, Jones made the case for change by insisting on the identification of herself, her comrades, and her cause with an idealized American past. Many of Jones’s writings, such as this letter, were intended for potential sympathizers as well as party members – for anyone who thought the McCarran Act went too far, or feared for civil rights in a reactionary time. She was not reluctant to frighten her readers: “We are threatened,” she wrote, “with becoming the first inmates of America’s concentration camps.” Her comrade Elizabeth Gurley Flynn made a similar point in the next day’s Worker: “When the torch of the Statue of Liberty lights up every evening, the rays shine over a newly made concentration camp for American political prisoners, a strange and terrible sight in our country.” In 1950, only five years after the discovery and public revelation of the Nazi horrors, that image resonated in the imagination of readers.
The prisoners on Ellis Island were held illegally by a government that defied the rule of law, more afraid of Communism and dissent than it was mindful of civil rights. They were more fortunate than today’s detainees; although uncomfortable, they were not abused or tortured, and they had access to legal counsel. They were released from this round of detention within a month under writs of habeas corpus, although most of them faced further trials, harassment, and incarceration during the McCarthy years. Claudia Jones herself was imprisoned for almost a year just before she was deported in 1955. During the last nine years of her life, although separated from family and friends, frequently ill, and unable to pay her bills, she became a leader in London’s West Indian community. She is buried next to Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery.
Jones ended her letter to the Worker on a positive note, expressing confidence that “we can and will win this round against the ruling circles.” “In a break for fresh air,” she wrote, “I looked again in the yard. It is no longer raining… It seems also that the fog has begun to lift.” Her confidence arose in part from the Communist practice of looking at any battle as just one round in a long campaign, and in part from her own optimistic nature: she remained hopeful through difficulties that would defeat or discourage most people. Her letter merits our close attention, not only for its emphasis on the importance of public response to illegal detention, but also for its tone of steady resistance in a reactionary time.
This essay was originally published in the Women’s Review of Books, September/October 2006.
For more on Claudia Jones’ remarkable life and work, see my recent post “Finding Claudia Jones” and my 2012 paper “A Pride in Being West Indian”: Claudia Jones and the West Indian Gazette.