Mark Solomon

Professor of History, Simmons College (ret.)


2010-2011: Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow

The Movement in A Life: Memories of Racial Justice Battles in the Forties and Fifties

Project Description

The Movement in A Life: Memories of Racial Justice Battles in the Forties and Fifties

Growing up in the predominantly African American Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, I became aware of racial injustice, in part through the influence of left-wing teachers at my public school. By the time I was sixteen-years-old, I was on the streets with black and white friends in my first political engagement to protest the conviction of Rosa Lee Ingram in Georgia for killing a sexually abusive white foreman. That was the start of more than sixty years of activism.

I will be writing a history of the movement for racial justice from the late forties and fifties through the lens of my personal history of political and social activism. I plan to frame this narrative in a rigorous rendering of the political, social and cultural conditions at the time, exploring the continuities and discontinuities in the “long civil rights movement” as well as the achievements, failures and contradictions inherent in the politics and strategies of the left in battling racism and inequality.

Growing into social awareness in the 1940s meant experiencing the magisterial presence of Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois and to have had brief, but very memorable encounters with them. Other experiences, ranging from brief encounters to more substantive relations – all within the framework of social engagement – involved Charlie Parker, John O. Killens, Harold Cruse, Bayard Rustin, Jackie Robinson, Esther and James Jackson, Coleman Young, Judge George W. Crockett, Shirley Chisholm, Lorraine Hansberry, Douglass Turner Ward and other significant figures.

In 1948, I joined the third party presidential campaign of Henry Wallace and was moved by the immense power of the ever-present Robeson’s speech and song. In 1949 I had a memorable encounter with Robeson, who, days before his ill fated concert at Peekskill, offered sage advice to a callow youth.

In 1950, I was active in W.E.B. Du Bois’s controversial third party campaign for United States Senate against the liberal Democrat, Herbert H. Lehman. I met Charlie Parker who agreed to appear at a “Youth For Du Bois” rally in Bedford-Stuyvesant. That encounter inspired my interest in the links between the cultural left and the postwar generation of be-bop jazz musicians and led me to left-wing institutions that sought to advance postwar African American artists -- especially the neglected Committee for the Negro in the Arts that allowed our biracial circle of young people to rub shoulders with Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier, William Marshall and other rising artists.

Despite the fracturing of left-center alliances during the Cold War, the battle for racial justice flickered but did not die. An interracial, youthful left conducted spirited, imaginative campaigns from stop the execution of Willie McGee in Mississippi, to save the lives of the “Martinsville Seven” and the “Trenton Six” – all under the watchful eye of the FBI.

Throughout those years, the presence of Robeson and Du Bois helped the increasingly isolated movement to maintain a sense of authenticity and hope. I met Du Bois in 1954. That meeting became a source of sustenance as the cold war clouds gradually lifted and a new stage of the freedom struggle was about to unfold. Much, of course, has been written about both men. I will explore the impact of those transforming figures from the perspectives of young activists fighting isolation and seeking validation.

Drafted into the newly integrated army during the Korean War, I will write about the racial dynamics in the military from the perspective of my relationships with African American fellow soldiers. I had refused to answer questions about constitutionally protected civilian activities and was awaiting a “bad” discharge. The responses of black colleagues to my situation, I believe, provide insights into the attitudes of some African Americans towards the left during that repressive period.

I will also write about eight years of activism in Detroit, a very different city than New York. Detroit’s political and cultural life rested on the intersecting pillars of the labor movement and the African American community – presenting very different prospects for the left in the waning cold war years. There, the left was closer to the city’s mainstream, despite intense FBI surveillance. I was not surprised that a colleague in racial justice battles, Coleman Young, would eventually become mayor for twenty years. Also it was in Detroit that a generally unheralded movement unfolded to press school integration after the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

I am considering an epilogue that would explore my experiences in academia. Having introduced my college’s first course in African American history in 1969, I felt obliged to address the question of a white interpreter of the black experience and the implications of that situation for all students, but especially black students. I turned the course over to a black colleague and did not return until the college had had fulfilled its commitment to recruit additional African American faculty.

All those experiences, combined with utilizing traditional tools of historical research, will hopefully contribute modestly a better understanding of the racial justice struggle during the neglected high cold war years.

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