Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

American Studies

First Advisor

Denning, Michael

Abstract

Red Lives is a side-by-side social and intellectual biography of Claudia Jones, Emma Tenayuca, and Ah Quon McElrath, three working-class women who came-of-age during the Great Depression, and whose lifelong commitments to grassroots organizing and radical politics emerged from the Popular Front’s cross-class, multiracial coalitions and collective actions. All three joined the Communist Party as teenagers and first organized for groups representing youth, the unemployed, or workers, often on campaigns for race and gender equity, civil liberties, and democratic rights, in New York, Texas, and Hawai’i. They produced and published theoretical work that elaborated the underpinnings of their organizing strategies, and offered radical analyses—with race, gender, and class at the core—of capitalism, democracy, and social movements. Extending the Popular Front’s organizing models and theories for decades, they championed communist-inflected, anti-racist, and feminist politics until the end of their lives. Telling these women’s stories illuminates the unbroken history of both reactionary opposition to radical, multiracial, working-class women’s activism and that activism’s perseverance and influence throughout twentieth-century America. It makes four key interventions in the scholarship on twentieth century social movements. First, it insists on the centrality of anti-racist and feminist organizing to Depression- and World War II-era Popular Front politics and organizations. Second, it challenges common chronologies of American communism’s rise and fall by highlighting the continuance of radical organizing in the face of anticommunism, white supremacy, and the rise of Cold War liberalism. Third, it demonstrates Popular Front communist organizers’ legacies in the civil rights and women’s movements from the 1950s to the 1980s. Fourth, it provides an analysis of radicalism’s ongoing historical erasure by both liberal and right wing anticommunists. Offering detailed narratives of the left-affiliated movements and diverse political theories that formed these women’s times and careers, Red Lives presents fresh evidence of a grassroots American radicalism—Popular Frontism—far more influential, lasting, and independent from the control of either Soviet or American Communist Party leaders than previously recognized. Jones, Tenayuca, and McElrath embody ideals of the Popular Front and American communism, and those ideals’ under-recognized longevity as a constant strain in left politics from the 1930s into the twenty-first century. For these women, Popular Frontism’s principles included: support for a multiracial American national identity and historical narratives highlighting how organizing work by people of color, immigrants, and radicals shaped the nation; insistence that political and labor movements be grassroots and rank-and-file led, as well as deeply embedded in the needs of local communities and working-class families; and adherence to a revolutionary politics based in multiracial and cross-class campaigns for race, gender, and economic justice, simultaneously. Building on recent work that highlights the long civil rights and women’s movements and the survival of radical organizing in postwar politics, this dissertation illustrates the centrality of anti-racist and feminist organizing to pre-Cold War labor and civil rights organizations fighting for economic justice, then demonstrates the Popular Front organizers’ legacies in the civil rights and women’s movements in the later twentieth century. Establishing the endurance of Popular Frontism also permits a clearer awareness of the continuous and intimate forms of anticommunism throughout the century. This awareness disturbs the still common perception of McCarthyism as an exceptional phenomenon in American political life, and illuminates the deep ideological inextricability between anticommunism and white supremacy. Documenting the range of on-the-ground organizing strategies in which these women engaged to convince working people to take part in labor strikes, mass demonstrations, and electoral politics, this dissertation details the challenges they faced in building sustainable careers and economic security from these efforts. In an example of working-class intellectual history, it analyzes their political theories and writings to demonstrate their commitment to anti-racist, feminist, and class-based politics from the 1930s onward. The work draws on oral histories, personal letters, manuscript writings, newspapers, government records, and published work from archives in Texas, New York, Hawai’i, and London, as well as various secondary scholarly and biographical accounts. Placed alongside one another in this framework, these Popular Fronters’ separate stories offer a window into day-to-day organizing labor in modern social movements, as well as the divisions, debates, and dissent among and between national leaders and grassroots organizers engaged in building labor, civil rights, and economic justice movements. The grassroots radicalism and organizing strategies that Jones, Tenayuca, and McElrath practiced offer a record and road map of opportunities and pitfalls in creating the coalitions, campaigns, and political theory necessary for a more just world.

Share

COinS