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Cyril Briggs and the African Blood Brotherhood: a radical counterpoint to progressivism.

The Progressive Era was generally an age of optimism. It was an age in which people believed that it was possible, through legislative reform, to correct societal ills such as poverty, racism, and sexism. However, at the same time, there were many people who had little faith in such idealism, feeling reform would come not through legislation, but only by way of the bullet. One such group was the African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption (ABB), first announced in the pages of West Indian immigrant Cyril Briggs' radical periodical the Crusader. The group was founded in response to the bloody race riots during the Red Summer of 1919 and drew its name from the symbolic blood sharing ceremony performed by some African tribes. The ABB credo, largely manifested from articles within the Crusader, merged black nationalism with Marxism, espousing workers' rights, black liberation, and anti-imperialism. Perhaps its most distinctive characteristic was its support for armed black self-defense. The ABB represents what can happen when groups of marginalized people, seething from long-standing injustices, decide that legislature alone is not enough to reform society. Though the group was short-lived (1919-1924), its impact on black radical American politics in the 1920s and 1930s was profound.

It is hard to separate the ABB from West Indian immigration. The leaders were almost all Caribbean; indeed, without its Caribbean members, the ABB would scarcely have existed. Besides Briggs, who was the executive head, other members of its ruling Supreme Council included West Indian Americans (and Harlemites) Richard B. Moore (Barbados), Otto Huiswoud (Suriname), W.A. Domingo (Jamaica), and Grace Campbell (born in Georgia but whose father was Jamaican). There remains considerable question as to whether the organization was founded by the Communist (Workers') Party, but whether or not it was, it soon became affiliated with the group. (2)

Although most West Indians fit within the mainstream political parties, a small but determined group felt that legislative reform, because of inherent institutional racism, could not improve conditions for blacks. For them, a more radical approach was necessary to bring about reform. For many people, in fact, by definition a Negro radical was "an over-educated West Indian without a job." (3) The reasons for this Caribbean radicalism are debatable. African American Kelly Miller, Dean of Howard University, for example, believed that Caribbeans at home were conservative but became "radical abroad." (4) There are several flaws, however, in such reasoning. First, it is inaccurate to assume the submissiveness of Caribbeans at home. There was a long history of Caribbean rebelliousness dating back to the Maroons, runaway slaves who established their own communities. Furthermore, many Caribbean immigrants, such as Marcus Garvey and W.A. Domingo, had already exhibited radical tendencies in the West Indies, belonging to nationalist organizations or militant trade unions. The seeds for their behavior were planted in their homelands, and reached fruition in the United States, where they frequently felt a loss of status and prestige from what they had known back home. Black immigrants, being among the elite of those in the Caribbean, had generally received a solid primary and secondary school education and job training, giving them the skills to expect good positions; therefore, many were genuinely shocked when they faced discrimination they had not endured at home. They were unaccustomed to Jim Crow laws, let alone heinous crimes such as lynching, in the Caribbean. In addition, because they often were forced to move abroad due to limited higher educational and employment opportunities in their native lands, Caribbean immigrants, like other immigrants who tended to be in the vanguard of radical politics, generally had a more international viewpoint than many native-born Americans. The experience of seeing life in other countries and interacting with other blacks helped lead to a more Pan-American perspective. Moreover, the immigrants, unlike most black Americans who were linked to the Republicans, felt no special allegiance to any one political party and had fewer qualms about aligning themselves with other parties. Their frustrations were also heightened by constant disappointments after World War I. Blacks had expected after their sacrifices during the war (including a substantial military presence on the United States' side) to be rewarded for their loyalty. Such, however, was not the case upon the soldiers' return home where the pattern of racial discrimination continued unabated. (5)

Cyril Briggs, the founding father of the ABB, fits the profile of the radical West Indian immigrant. Briggs was a light-complexioned, mixed-race child born on the Caribbean island of Nevis in 1887. He immigrated to the United States on July 4, 1905, joining a growing West Indian population in New York City. The foreign-born black population in the city increased steadily from 3,552 in 1900 to almost 60,000 in 1930. (6) Upon his arrival in the United States, he worked as a journalist. Briggs, who had such a bad stutter that it was hard to understand him at times, more than made up for his verbal deficiency with the power of his pen. Beginning in 1912, Briggs gained employment at the Amsterdam News, writing pieces urging black self-determination and arguing against United States' involvement in World War I. Perhaps his most significant work with the newspaper was a two-part editorial (September 5, and September 19, 1917), advocating an independent black nation within the United States. Briggs was not the first to express the belief in a separate black state; others preceding him included Martin Delany, Alexander Crummel, and Marcus Garvey, but he was among the first to urge violence if necessary to secure such a state. Ironically, the inspiration for Briggs' demand came from President Woodrow Wilson, who in a speech on April 2, 1917, called "for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government." (7) This speech raised the hopes of blacks advocating a homeland within the United States who maintained "Wilson's principle of self-determination should include the destinies of peoples of color." (8) The hopes that Wilson would advocate for such a homeland, however, were soon dashed, and Briggs lost faith in the Progressive belief that the social system could be changed by legislation. By the time Wilson delivered his famous Fourteen Points speech (January 8, 1918) urging independence for subjugated ethnic groups such as the Serbs and the Poles, Briggs felt there was hypocrisy in the American position. He called the United States "a nation within a nation, [with] a nationality oppressed and jim-crowed." (9) If the president of the United States urged the creation of ethnic states abroad, Briggs reasoned, why should he prohibit it at home? Briggs' increasingly radical tone helped lead to his break with the Amsterdam News in 1919.

Even before leaving the Amsterdam News Briggs had established the Crusader in September 1918. In its early years, the periodical was the organ of the Hamitic League of the World, a group espousing "race patriotism." Perhaps Briggs' stance is summed up best in the editorial "Race Catechism," published in the inaugural issue of the Crusader, which stressed that blacks should be proud of their race and be prepared to make any sacrifices for it.

Although always continuing to emphasize the ideas of race patriotism, after the Red Summer of 1919 the Crusader grew increasingly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. Thus, it is not surprising when Briggs listed a cryptic advertisement in the October 1919 issue of the periodical, providing no agenda or even a phone number, just a call for those who were "willing to go the limit." The implication of violence because of the failure of legislation seems clear in this note. One letter-writer, for example, stated, "I don't know just what your game is, but I believe I can play it with you. So enroll me as one of those extreme limit players." (10) Just as the initial call provides scant information on the group, so does much about the ABB remain wrapped in secrecy, this despite the increasing attention that has been paid to this key organization in recent years. Though there is no known number of its members, the ABB never exceeded 3,000 adherents with a core membership of no more than a few dozen.

Inspired by nationalist movements such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood and by the growth of communism, the ABB's aims included "Absolute Race Equality ... The Fostering of Racial Self-Respect ... Organized and Uncompromising Opposition to the Ku Klux Klan ... Higher Wages for Negro Labor, Shorter Hours and Better Living Conditions ... Co-operation With Other Darker Races And With the Class-Conscious White Workers." (11) Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the ABB was its philosophy of incorporating both black nationalism and Marxism which is encapsulated in Briggs' editorial "The Salvation of the Negro" (April 1921). Here, Briggs expresses his desire to create an autonomous black state "in Africa or elsewhere" and to establish "a Universal Socialist Co-operative Commonwealth."

Interestingly, though the ABB advocated a coalition with white workers, the group itself had no white members. Briggs himself said, "I know of no instance of a white person joining it. Nor did we make any attempt to recruit whites." (12) Likely this reluctance to recruit whites came about due to persistent white chauvinism within the labor movement, a subject which is frequently reviled in the pages of the Crusader. Again, while progressive labor laws might benefit white workers, because of racial prejudices, many black laborers felt this legislation was not meant for them; therefore, Briggs felt more extreme measures were needed. It was this distrust of compromise which had earlier made him suspicious of socialism. Whereas most of the other black communists had at one time been members of the Twenty-First Assembly District Socialist Club, Briggs never belonged to the Socialist Party, which he felt did little to advance the black cause.

Briggs and other ABB members became increasingly convinced that black liberation worldwide could not be achieved through legislation but would necessitate bloodshed. The government, long investigating Briggs, planted infiltrators within the group. One agent, William A. Bailey, confirmed the government's fears, stating in a message from 1920, "if any International disturbances occur among the Colored People you may be sure that [Briggs, Domingo, and other West Indian radicals] will be instigators." (13) A year later, these fears were flamed by the reports of another infiltrator, James Wormley Jones, who had conversations with Briggs about purchasing weapons. In his report, Jones labeled the ABB leader, a "radical of the worst sort." (14)

The government's worries grew even greater after the Tulsa riot on May 31 and June 1, 1921, when over fifty whites and more than one hundred and fifty blacks died. Although Briggs would not admit any Brotherhood participation in the riot in Tulsa, where the ABB had one of its posts, he praised the use of force by blacks. Briggs felt this way particularly after the failure to pass progressive anti-lynching legislation. Especially disappointing was the inability to make law an anti-lynching bill proposed by Representative L.C. Dyer of Missouri, with the backing of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) sponsored in 1921. The bill passed the House but lost in the Senate due to a filibuster by Southern lawmakers. Ironically, accusations in the New York Times (June 3 and June 4, 1921) that the ABB was involved in the Tulsa riot gave the organization much-needed publicity, which greatly increased their numbers. The June issue of the Crusader also marked the first time that the periodical identified itself "as the official organ of the ABB, signifying a changeover of the Brotherhood to an aboveground organization." This occurred exactly when the Workers' Party established "an aboveground legal party," thus creating another link between the two groups. (15) Briggs' increasingly militant communist stance put him in conflict with the more mainstream progressive black leaders. He had little use, for example, for W.E.B. DuBois and the N.A.A.C.P., believing the group was a puppet organization run by whites. He makes this position clear in articles such as "Dr. DuBois Misrepresents Negrodom" (May 1919) where he condemns the racial leader's "compromising tactics" in advocating black support for the American war effort and not rigorously enough seeking African self-determination.

Briggs also differed from the Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, an anti-communist who wanted to establish a black homeland in Africa. Initially, Briggs had been supportive of Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). He had even made an unsuccessful attempt to work with the UNIA at their convention in 1921. After being rebuffed by Garvey, Briggs used the Crusader to wage a harsh campaign against him. Briggs especially felt that Garvey was willing to kowtow to whites (even working with the Ku Klux Klan) in order to gain support for black repatriation to Africa.

The Crusader, a monthly, was never able to reach the mass audience of Garvey's newspaper, the Negro World, which was published weekly. While the Crusader had a circulation of about 4,000 the Negro World reached almost 200,000. Indeed, because of increasing government pressure and dwindling financial support, the Crusader ceased publication in 1922 after having published forty issues. (16)

By 1924, the same demise was met by the ABB itself; its extreme views, insufficient funding, lack of a charismatic leader like Garvey, and secretive nature worked against its gaining widespread popularity. With little to sustain it, the ABB's membership gradually drifted into the Workers' Party by 1925, a group to which most of the leading ABB members had already belonged. Soon, it would be replaced by the Communist party with the American Negro Labor Congress (ANLC). The lack of interest by blacks in communism can be measured palpably. In 1928, of the approximately 12,000 members of the Workers' Party, only about fifty were blacks, with most of them coming from the ABB. (17)

Evaluating the achievements of black radical groups such as the ABB has not always been done fairly. Critics such as Harold Cruse and Wilson Record saw the Communist (Workers') Party as being dominated by the Soviet Union. (18) Cruse in particular makes a harsh indictment of the role of Caribbean intellectuals within radical American politics. Record and Cruse, and to a lesser extent Theodore Draper, maintained that the socialist and communist parties were dominated by whites and only addressed black issues when it was convenient for their purposes. Any changes that took place were only made at the prodding of the Soviet Union. While these accusations are not without some substance, recent critics such as Winston James and Mark Solomon provide a more balanced viewpoint, arguing that American communists did not just follow in lock step with Soviet Russia nor were blacks mere pawns of the party. Leading black spokespersons such as Briggs were often unafraid to voice their opposition to white chauvinism. Even if it led to censure or dismissal from the party (as was the case with Briggs for several years in the 1940s). In general, though, black Marxist leaders believed that the best way to advance black concerns was by eliminating the capitalist system which would lessen some of the economic disparities that suppressed blacks and encouraged the growth of imperialism. Briggs, in fact, said that his "interest in Marxism-Leninism was sparked by its hostility to Imperialism and specifically ... of the right of self-determination of the nations formerly oppressed by Tsarist Russia." (19)

Despite its brief existence and small membership, the ABB was an important force in the history of communism in America and the rejection of the more mainstream progressive agenda. As African American Harry Haywood, a former member of the ABB stated, the group was "the first serious attempt by Blacks to adopt the Marxist world view and the theory of class struggle to the problems of Black Americans." (20) Its cadre of loyal followers would become the foundation in recruiting new members to the party during its heyday in the late 1930s.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of Briggs and some other ABB members occurred, however, in 1928 at the Sixth World Congress held in Moscow in 1928. It was at this meeting that a controversial proposal regarding "the Negro question" was proposed in which the Cominern (the international arm of Soviet Russia's Socialist party), declared that blacks in the American South had the right of "self-determination" as "a subject nation." (21) Briggs was at the forefront of this radical movement toward black self-determination. Though the objective, of course, was never achieved, this was the first serious attempt by the communists to address the endemic racial discrimination in the United States and link it specifically to the capitalist system (22)

The connection between capitalism and the oppression of blacks made the Communist Party much more appealing to many blacks and opened the floodgates for them to join the party after the financial crisis in 1929; black involvement in the communist party would reach its peak in the late 1930s. The ABB left a lasting mark on American politics, not the least of which was that if legislative reform measures do not reach into all strata of society, then those who feel beleaguered and oppressed will seek other means to redress their situation. This message was not lost on later black radicals such as Malcolm X, himself of West Indian heritage, who felt entitled to strive for their cause "by any means necessary." (23)


(1) Louis Parascandola is an Associate Professor of English at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus. The author wishes to thank Dr. Pat Palmieri for her comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

(2) The information on the ABB and the Workers' Party, including their origin, number of members, and even membership itself, is often conflicting. The secret nature of these groups and their amorphous nature (e.g. trying to distinguish, for example, between the Workers' Party, the Communist Party of America, and the Communist Party) did not always allow accurate information. In many cases, it is virtually impossible to unravel their tangled histories. Ironically, it is often the government files while investigating the groups that have provided the most information on them and preserved some of these materials.

(3) Kelly Miller quoted in Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America (New York: Verso, 1998): 2.

(4) Quoted in Keith S. Henry, pg. 29, "Caribbean Migrants in New York: The Passage from Political Quiescence to Radicalism" Afro-Americans in New York Life and History (July 1978): 29-44.

(5) James, 50-91.

(6) Calvin B. Holder, pg. 9, "The Causes and Composition of West Indian Immigration to new York City, 1900-1952" Afro-Americans in New York Life and History (Jan. 1987): 7-26.

(7) Quoted in Robert A. Hill, introduction and editor, The Crusader 3 vols. (New York: Kraus, 1987): xi.

(8) Theodore Kornweibel Jr., "Seeing Red": Federal Campaign against Black Militancy, 1919-1925 (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998): 132.

(9) Quoted in Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period (New York: Vintage, 1986): 323.

(10) Quoted in Hill, xxvii.

(11) Quoted in Hill, xxviii

(12) Quoted in Thomas, 101.

(13) Kornweibel, 136, his brackets.

(14) Quoted in Kornweibel, 145-46.

(15) Mark Solomon, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36 (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1998): 15.

(16) For more on Briggs and Garvey, see Theman Thomas, "Cyril Briggs and the African Blood Brotherhood: Another Radical View of Race and Class During the 1920s," Diss. U of California, Santa Barbara, 1981, 121-85; Tony Martin, Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Asvociation (Dover: Majority P, 1976): 240-42; and Cyril Briggs, "The Decline of the Garvey Movement" The Communist (June 1931): 547-52.

(17) Philip S. Foner and James S. Allen, ed. American Communism and Black Americans: A documentary History, 1919-1929 (Philadelphia Temple UP, 1987): 181.

(18) Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership (New York: Quill, 1984); Wilson Record, The Negro and the Communist Party (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1951). For a reasoned rebuke of Cruse, see James, 262-91.

(19) Quoted in Thomas, 95.

(20) Harry Haywood, Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist (Chicago: Liberator P, 1978): 123-24).

(21) Thomas, 182.

(22) While the proposal was very controversial and opposed by some blacks such as Otto Huiswoud, others including Briggs, Haywood, and Moore, embraced it though it left many specifics unclear (e.g. whether the founding of this black nation would be through violence, who would lead the struggle to create it, whether it would become a sovereign nation or a self-governing region that would be part of the United States). For more see Draper, 342-53; Haywood 332-38; Solomon 68-91; Cyril Briggs "The Black Belt Republic Plan," The Harlem Liberator (August 1, 1932); Otto Huiswoud "World Aspects of the Negro Question," The Communist (Feb. 1930): 132-47.

(23) Briggs remained active in radical black politics until his death from a heart attack in 1966. It is not known if he ever met Malcolm X or if Malcolm was familiar with Briggs' writings. Nevertheless, their anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist agenda was strikingly similar. Briggs' atheism, though, was not in keeping with Malcolm's commitment to Islam. The chief repository of Briggs' papers is the Theodore Draper Papers, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University, in Atlanta.

Louis J. Parascandola (1)
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Author:Parascandola, Louis J.
Publication:Afro-Americans in New York Life and History
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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