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No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000

Edited by William Minter,
Gail Hovey, and Charles Cobb Jr.
Published by Africa World Press.

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More Interviews

1. Bill Sutherland
2. George Houser
3. E. S. Reddy
4. Charlene Mitchell
5. Mary Jane Patterson
6. Ben Magubane
7. Robert Van Lierop
8. Prexy Nesbitt
9. Jennifer Davis
10. Geri Augusto
11. Sylvia Hill, 2003
12. Edgar Lockwood
13. Cherri Waters
14. Dumisani Kumalo
15. Frank Beeman
16. Sylvia Hill, 2004

interviews list page

Interviews for No Easy Victories

The following text is the transcript of one of the interviews that was part of the reseearch for the book No Easy Victories. With the assistance of Aluka (aluka.org), sixteen of the interviews were transcribed and prepared for presentation on the web. Each transcript was reviewed by the interviewee, and a short introduction prepared by one of the No Easy Victories editors.


Charlene Mitchell

" So to me, Africa opened its doors ... as part of the movement and solidarity with us as we were with them. And I kind of always saw that as an equal thing, because I would learn so much from it. ... The more victories that were won by the continent, people on the continent, the more we were able to expose what was going on in terms of the segregation, discrimination here in the United States. ... It was on the face of it that solidarity was a two-way street." — Charlene Mitchell

Introduction

For Charlene Mitchell, a lifelong activist who joined the Communist Party USA in 1946 at age 16, solidarity with Africa was always a central component of her political vision. The connection between the domestic struggle against racism and the struggle for continental liberation was fundamental for the Party, as it was for prominent public figures linked to the Party such as Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Alphaeus Hunton. That perspective, moreover, resonated far beyond the ranks of Communist Party loyalists.

Mitchell was also one of the leading figures in the renewal of Communist Party activism in the late 1960s, along with her close comrade Angela Davis. She ran for president on the Communist Party ticket in 1968, becoming the first black woman to run for president of the United States.

The Cold War, and particularly the period of repression known as McCarthyism in the 1950s, profoundly marked the history of U.S. progressive solidarity with Africa. It was not only that Cold War motives combined with racist assumptions in shaping U.S. government policies of alliance with the white minority regimes and intervention in African countries. It was also that this atmosphere led to splits within progressive and potentially progressive forces.

The largest U.S. civil rights organization, the NAACP, [1] purged communists from its ranks in the 1950s. Just as important, it played down the theme of solidarity with African independence and resistance in South Africa that had been gaining momentum during World War II and the immediate postwar period. This period and these developments have gained new attention from scholars in recent years.[2] But it is rarely noted that despite the demise of the Council on African Affairs in 1955, the strand of activism connected to or influenced by the Communist Party did not simply fade away. It was also an integral part of the solidarity currents of succeeding decades as well.

Mitchell traveled widely and met various African liberation movement leaders, most notably Amilcar Cabral of the African Party for the Liberation of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC). But for the party leadership, in which Mitchell was prominent from the late 1950s until she left the party in 1992, the closest link was with the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa. The ANC, recognizing the diversity and fragmentation of its potential supporters in the United States, did not limit its contacts in the United States to the Communist Party. But the particularly close connection between the Communist Party USA and ANC activists affiliated with the Communist Party of South Africa always ensured that the American communist leaders were among those invited to international conferences or asked to help host delegations visiting the United States. The fact that both parties were part of the Communist International meant that independent links almost always existed between them as well.

In comparison to the research on the 1950s, there has been little historical investigation of the role of Communist Party members and former members in the social movements of the following decades, and in international solidarity in particular.[3] Historical exploration of the impact of the Communist Party is still handicapped by the legacy of repression, in which identification of communist ties was taken as grounds for ostracism or at least accusations of subordination to the Soviet Union. But it was the themes of linked liberation and the example of personal commitment, not loyalty to any presumed party line, that gave credibility to those social movement activists who came from a Communist Party background.

Thus, despite their ostracism by mainstream circles, Robeson and Du Bois retained their status as movement heroes for a broad spectrum of progressives, particularly within the black community. Politically committed cultural figures such as Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Harry Belafonte never made concessions to the political climate of division between communist and non-communist activists. From 1961 to 1986, Freedomways magazine, established with Communist Party assistance, provided a broad forum with an internationalist perspective on the civil rights struggle.

By the end of the 1950s, the weakened Communist Party did not play an organizational role as such in the spectrum of Africa solidarity work. Events such as the Riverside conference in solidarity with liberation struggles, referred to by Mitchell in this interview, were the exception. The National Anti-Imperialist Movement in Solidarity with African Liberation (NAIMSAL), closely tied to the party, never gained much prominence.

Nevertheless, veteran activists with links to Communist Party networks in the labor movement and other local struggles were almost always valued participants if not leaders of local anti-apartheid coalitions. Their ideological grounding in class analysis, their mass organizing skills, and their strong connections within the black community were welcome contributions. It is not known exactly how many party members were actually involved in such coalitions because many, fearful of repression, were not open about their party membership. The African Agenda newsletter, associated with the African American Solidarity Committee in Chicago, reached a national audience of activists in the mid-1970s.

The following interview, focused on Charlene Mitchell's background and views on African solidarity, was conducted by Lisa Brock in New York on July 18, 2004. It was videotaped by Nigel Scotland.

William Minter
April 2005

 

Transcript

 
Interviewee: Charlene Mitchell
Interviewer: Lisa Brock
Location: New York, New York, USA
Date: July 18, 2004

Q: Today is July 18, 2004. I'm sitting on 147th Street in the apartment of Charlene Mitchell. Charlene, can you give me your full name, your age, and your place of birth?

MITCHELL: Charlene Alexander Mitchell, and I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1930.

Q: Who were your parents and where were they born?

MITCHELL: My mother is Naomi Taylor Alexander and she was born in Dyersburg, Tennessee, in 1906. And my father is Charles Alexander. He was born in East Point, Georgia in 1908.

Q: And what did your parents do for a living most of their lives?

MITCHELL: My mother basically was a housewife, and my father was a laborer, but he also worked for the roundhouse of the railroads.

Q: Okay. What's a roundhouse?

MITCHELL: It's like the terminal for the train. Not necessarily for passengers. Then they take them to a table, actually, and it turns the train around so that it can go back out.

Q: And where was this that he—

MITCHELL: In Cincinnati.

Q: In Cincinnati, okay. And you have brothers and sisters?

MITCHELL: I had four brothers and one sister, one stepbrother and one stepsister.

Q: Where have you lived? You were born in Cincinnati. What other places did you live for significant periods of time?

MITCHELL: We moved to Chicago. For a little while we lived in Chicago Heights, which was kind of like a suburb of Chicago, and then back in Chicago on the South Side and on the near north side of Chicago, which is where I went to school at Waller High School. And then I lived in St. Louis for a while when I was kind of underground. And then I lived in Los Angeles and then New York.

Q: And you've been in New York for how long now?

MITCHELL: 33 years.

Q: 33 years. Wow. Well, you've been mostly in this apartment, for most of that time.

MITCHELL: For all that time.

Q: 33 years. So for all the newcomers to Harlem, you're not a newcomer. Where have you traveled?

MITCHELL: Oh my. Well, let's start with the very first trip that I made outside —I've been most all over the United States. I can't imagine a place that I have not been. Maybe Wyoming I have not been.

Q: But internationally.

MITCHELL: Internationally, I was in England at an Aldermaston demonstration. It was one of those first peace demonstrations that they had in 1960. And then I was in Denmark. I've been to Finland and to Sweden. I've been to Germany—both, when there were two Germanys, I was in both parts, East and West. I was in Czechoslovakia. I was in Bulgaria, I was in the Soviet Union several times. I was in North Korea. I was in Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea (Conakry). And I was in South Africa several times, Namibia. Portugal, Spain.

Q: A lot of places.

MITCHELL: A lot of places.

Q: And Latin America?

MITCHELL: In Cuba, and—well, I was in Mexico several times. But I was in Cuba, and I was in the Caribbean, and I was in Puerto Rico. But except for being in the airport in Lima, Peru, I've never been anywhere else in Latin America.

Q: Okay, all right.

MITCHELL: Do you know why I was in Lima, Peru?

Q: Why were you in Lima, Peru?

MITCHELL: Because, at the time, I was visiting Cuba, and you could not get a direct flight from the United States to Cuba. So the only way I could get back home after having traveled all over the world and then going back to Cuba, was to come through Peru [laughter]. It's a long way around.

Q: That is a long way. And what year was that?

MITCHELL: 1970.

Q: Okay. Well, we may have to go through Peru again to get to Cuba. You probably have always been an activist, or considered yourself an activist, probably since you were very young. Can you remember your very first political activity?

MITCHELL: Well, I joined an organization called the American Youth for Democracy, AYD, when I was 13 and that was 1943. And my very first political activity, as I recall, was not being able to go to a movie theater in Chicago called the Windsor Theater, which was at North Avenue and Clark. And they made the African American youngsters sit up in the balcony, and the white kids sit down below. And one day we just decided we weren't going to do that, and we just exchanged places. And so white kids went upstairs, we went downstairs. And then the management didn't know quite what to do because they couldn't tell the white kids they couldn't sit in the balcony, so what to do? So if they stayed up there, then we would be integrated anyway and that would be a problem. And finally, after about three times of doing that and everybody else joining in, they stopped [segregated seating]. That was the very first thing I did.

Q: Now, were most of these youths, were they a part of the American Youth for Democracy too?

MITCHELL: Yes, yes they were. But by the time we got through about the second demonstration, a lot of the kids from the neighborhood joined us. I used to live in Cabrini, before it became Cabrini Green. So that was a big integrated community and it was wonderful.

Q: What motivated you to get involved in this organization at such a young age?

MITCHELL: Well, I guess my father had always been politically active. He was the Democratic Party precinct captain for William L. Dawson, and then he joined the Communist Party. And so I met a number of the children of communists and we got to know each other because they met at each other's houses and I would go. So it was still —during that time that we just started to meet. And a couple of kids invited me to this meeting of the American Youth for Democracy which was, at the time of World War II, an important kind of thing at that time.

Q: Was it seen as a part of the double V?[4]

MITCHELL: It was exactly that, yeah.

Q: Okay.

MITCHELL: And at that time support for our servicemen. Our servicemen and women overseas, yeah.

Q: During World War II.

MITCHELL: Yes. But that was a good thing to do, at that time.

Q: Since then, since you were 13, what organizations—and this list may be long, you don't have to give small organizations, but what major organizations have you been a member of, and for how long?

MITCHELL: Well, the first one was the American Youth for Democracy. Then the Labor Youth League. I belonged to the NAACP Youth Council, and then later on to the NAACP. And I was part of an organization called TALO, which is a Temporary Alliance of Local Organizations in Los Angeles, which was part of a anti-police-crimes organization. And we used to watch the police. And it was a community effort in the sense that there were more than just—there were judges and doctors and lawyers and the community itself. And we divided ourselves, and we would go out to just watch the police [laughter]. And I think it stopped some of the harassment and abuse. And I belonged to the Urban League for a while. I worked for a number of unions but I was not a member of the union because I was a teenager at the time, like the United Shoe Workers and United Automobile Workers. I belonged to an inordinate number of churches. The one I remember in Chicago that I did belong to for a little while was the First Church of Deliverance, as I recall the name of it. Reverend Taub, I remember. I'm sure he's not alive now. And I was a student at the Moody Bible Institute.

Q: Oh really? [laughter]. Were you religious at one time?

MITCHELL: Yes. I was trying to be. That's why I joined so many churches and got baptized so many times. And then I joined the Communist Party when I was 16, and so —now I belong to an organization called the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, which is an outgrowth of kind of a break in the Communist Party.

Q: Okay. What leadership positions did you hold in these organizations?

MITCHELL: In most of these organizations, and the NAACP Youth Council, I was a member of the executive, but that didn't last too long because in Los Angeles, I didn't like the way—direction we were going. And then they stopped the Council and so I was no longer—it didn't exist anymore, and certainly I was not accepted as a leader at that time. The NAACP had expelled anybody they thought was a communist. And I was— in the Labor Youth League, I was a member of the national board of the organization, in addition to the city executive. In the Communist Party, I was a member of the political bureau, which is, I guess—well, there is the central committee, which is the overall leading body, but basically the policy-making body is the political bureau.

Q: That's it? All right. Okay. Did you run for any political office?

MITCHELL: Twice.

Q: What political offices were they?

MITCHELL: In 1968, I ran for president on the Communist Party ticket, and in 1988 I ran against Moynihan for U.S. senator in New York.

Q: All right. How'd you do?

MITCHELL: First one, not too well. Second one, pretty well.

Q: And you're on the leadership of your cooperative here in your building, right?

MITCHELL: I'm not anymore. It just got to be too much. But I was on the board of the cooperative, yeah.

Q: I want to turn now specifically to solidarity with Africa. And were you involved in solidarity activity with the growing anti-colonial movement in Africa, that sort of emerged after World War II in the late '40s and then sort of reached sort of a pinnacle in the '50s and '60s? Were you involved in any of that anti-colonial activity?

MITCHELL: Actually, in the '40s, no. The most I knew about Africa in the '40s, I guess, was the existence of the ANC. But no, I really didn't know much about it. But in the '50s, in the late '40s, in the '50s, already there was tremendous concern on the left in the United States, but particularly in the Communist Party. Not all the left agreed in terms of the importance of Africa. And I began to read a lot. But also, there was Alphaeus Hunton, whom I had come to know, and his interest, and his knowledge about Africa was—really showed deep.[5] And it was at that time that Ghana was in the process of receiving its—or winning, not receiving, its independence. And Du Bois was already interested in what was going to happen there. The interesting thing about it, at that time, was the Freedom newspaper—Paul Robeson and Louis Burnham, and Du Bois was kind of part of it, but they were mainly the activists there. And that was where there was a tremendous bringing together of the struggles in Africa and those for liberation in the United States, of African Americans. So that was when I really began to see the importance of it.

And then in, I think it was 1957, I came to New York for a meeting, and I heard about a big demonstration that was going to be held in Washington, DC, and it was in support of the movements in Africa for liberation. And the speaker was Tom Mboya. And it was really interesting because we came back and the song that we were all—it was kind of a protest song when we were marching sometimes. It's " I want to be a Mau Mau just like Jomo Kenyatta," and it was kind of a more militant aspect of the youth movement and the peace movement and bringing it together. Because it wasn't taking place all over in the peace movement, or the youth movement, and we kind of saw the importance of that.[6]

And then, of course, what was happening in Kenya at the time—and I hadn't thought about it until right now, and that is all of the blame for the terrible violence and how awful, people were being hatcheted to death, and so on, is the same as they're projecting what's going on in Iraq, with the beheadings and so on. All the blame, now, is on the people who are conducting this kind of terror, and not the people who brought earlier all the terror up on these people, in terms of just forbidding them any humanity whatsoever. So I really had not thought about that until now.

So, but that was kind of the beginning. And then, in 1960, when I went to London, one of the first people I went to meet with—well, I saw Claudia Jones, whom I had met earlier here in New York. Claudia was a member of the leading committees of the Communist Party and had been deported to London. So I went to visit her, and she took me to visit Yusuf Dadoo, who is an Indian member of the Communist Party and had been a member of the Indian Congress of South Africa.[7] But by then he was a leader of the Communist Party and a leader in ANC, and at one point, I think the editor of the African Communist, which is a quarterly magazine that still comes out. And I remember being so impressed about his knowledge and his understanding of what actually was happening in Africa, and why South Africa was so important.

And immediately after that, I began to hear more and understand more a phrase that Henry Winston, who's the chairman of the Communist Party, used. He would say that Israel was the northern end opening of American imperialism, and South Africa was the southern opening for imperialism in South Africa—in the world. And I kind of would put that together with what I had learned from Dadoo, and it was so very—not just moving, I mean, it explained so much to me that as a teenager, I could not understand. I'm not even sure teenagers do today, that Africans did not all come from—either come from princesses and princes or they were slaves. I mean, there were workers, there were people who were farmers. They were people. And they fought for their freedom from day one. But we seem to see it only as a bunch of people who need help, and not that they have been of assistance to the whole world development, and that a lot of the wealth in the world has come from that, from those workers.

So to me, Africa opened its doors, to me, more as part of the movement and solidarity with us as we were with them. And I kind of always saw that as an equal thing, because I would learn so much from it.

I read so many books. First of all, the novel—I can't remember the name of it, but I will. But this novel was about Africa, and the tremendous crimes that were being committed by apartheid there, and that was the first novel that I had read.

Q: Cry, the Beloved Country?

MITCHELL: Cry, the Beloved Country, exactly.

Q: Alan Paton.

MITCHELL: Alan Paton, right. And then there were some history books that I read, that began to tell about the history of what happened in places like Congo and all those just terrible crimes against humanity that had been presented. And that was another place that I had gone. I had gone to Congo (Brazzaville), and what I had learned there was just so interesting, that they had to have all this tremendous security against Congo (Zaire), called the Congo at the time, because the borders were being watched for them by U.S. and Belgian soldiers. And they were having to watch their borders, not just against the Congo (Zaire), but these foreigners who were on African soil, quote, " defending our way of life." So and that was always something that it was hard to miss. And that is the U.S. claim, of defending our way of life, so far away from home. Especially where the people who were the victims of our way of life were living and toiling.

Q: And that rings familiar as well, doesn't it? Til today [laughter].

MITCHELL: Yes. To today.

Q: You mentioned Alphaeus Hunton. Say a little bit about who he was and what he did and why he was such an influence, especially in New York, on African solidarity movements.

MITCHELL: Well, Alphaeus Hunton first of all is a historian. And he's also an archivist, and I think an anthropologist, but I'm not real sure. But I know that he used a lot of anthropological means in terms of his work. And I met him and Dorothy Hunton, his wife. And he was so knowledgeable, not only about Africa in terms of where the people were, but about its industry and what it meant, the whole cocoa and coffee, and what was happening and squeezing those [producers] just out of the market, and paying so little for what they got. And I'm always reminded of Karl Marx, buy cheap and sell dear. Which is exactly what was happening all over Africa, but certainly what he was doing. So when Nkrumah became president of Ghana, it just opened up a whole new ballgame. And he [Hunton] was anxious to go over and do whatever he could do to help. And so he and Dorothy went there and lived and Alphaeus worked on an encyclopedia of Africa, which —I don't know that it's ever been—

Q: He worked on the encyclopedia with Du Bois?

MITCHELL: With Du Bois, exactly.

Q: He wrote about Africana. That was the Encyclopedia Africana.

MITCHELL: And he continued to work on it. As a matter of fact, I have the first volume that he did. And Dorothy used to come visit here a lot when she came back to the United States, because she was very good friends with Louise and Bill Patterson, who lived downstairs. And so we became quite friendly, but Alphaeus made such a tremendous contribution, because his—he was so objective in his look at what was going on in Ghana. And it was not at all a surprise that Nkrumah did not live. I mean, it just was not a surprise. So but I tell you, it was something in Harlem to be around this part, which I was at the time, when Nkrumah took his seat at the United Nations. But Alphaeus made a tremendous contribution to that.

Q: Well, what was it like in Harlem when Nkrumah took his seat at the United Nations?

MITCHELL: Well, first of all, just getting anywhere near there was impossible, if you were just an average person. But he was so well known, Nkrumah was so well known among African Americans, because he had gone to school at Lincoln. He had gotten to know not only people like Robeson and like Du Bois, but people like John Henrik Clarke, who lived here. And I happened to have known John at that time, and so John had a house up on 137 th, not far from here, near 7th Avenue. And so Nkrumah went there, so a number of us had a chance to get a brief glance and a handshake with him. But it was clear that Nkrumah was a Marxist. He was an internationalist. And I was—you could learn so much just from reading what he had written, and the whole idea that people just gathered around. It was not that they were just crowding into churches, but wherever he was. I mean, they weren't trying to knock each other down to get in, but just to be near where he was. And this first person, this first African, first person of our ancestry to go to the United Nations, it was just—it was a glorious time. It was.

Q: How do you think African Americans came to know—now this is sort of for you to think about how consciousness gets built. How folks in Harlem, or African Americans in general, came to know about Nkrumah, in the years leading up to that? Was it the press? The organizations? I just want to see your view of that.

MITCHELL: My own indication was that he was known in Harlem. He was here a lot.

Q: Okay, just here a lot. Okay.

MITCHELL: Yeah. I mean, he took part in campaigns and he did a lot of—he went to the clubs.

Q: Was this when he was a student or just—

MITCHELL: Yeah, when he was a student.

Q: And then on after that.

MITCHELL: And on after that, yeah. And so, many people who went to Ghana were people like plumbers who had met Nkrumah. I mean, they were people who wanted to go help Nkrumah with building his nation. So and I remember a couple of people who were building trades workers who went and that was it. So yeah, they knew him as a person.

Q: Okay. That's interesting, because often that personal connection doesn't get remembered in history. The political connections, but not the personal connections.

MITCHELL: Exactly. Exactly.

Q: And what about Robeson—what can you say about him and African solidarity?

MITCHELL: Well, Robeson was such an internationalist. It's difficult to place him just in African solidarity in the same way that you'd—now, I certainly don't say that about Du Bois. But Du Bois was—I mean, that whole pan-Africanist movement was something that he not only was interested in, I mean it was something he was very much active in. Paul Robeson was in solidarity with that, and so he was one of those people who offered not only his political being, but his talent and so on, in terms of any movement. In terms of building solidarity with Africa.

You would see him, and particularly in the '60s, when he was in England, because he could not be in the United States. He couldn't work in the United States. But when he was in England, every single thing that they were doing there, in terms of the solidarity movement, Paul Robeson was there. I mean, even if he could only be there for 20 minutes, he was there. And you could hear all the folks talk about him, but that was also true all over the United States when he came back. And he continued that. And if Paul Robeson talks about—or talked about Africa a great deal, in terms of what was happening there, particularly in the anti-apartheid movement. Ghana was, of course, the big thing for a while. But after that, South Africa began to loom more, and Kenya was more and more in the spotlight not only of the left, but of the U.S. government and what it was not doing, and what it was doing in the other way to show support to the colonialists, and not to the people of Africa.

Q: Charlene, what organizations do you remember to be the most active around African solidarity in the 1950s, mainly?

MITCHELL: Well, I'm trying to remember the names of organizations now. As I said, Freedom Magazine was one.

Q: And where did Freedom Magazine come out of? What organization, or did it have an organization?

MITCHELL: I don't think it was an organization. As I said, it was brought together by Robeson and Louis Burnham and some of the same people who later became Freedomways.[8]

Q: And these people probably had also been members of the Council on African Affairs.

MITCHELL: Council on—that's exactly, yeah.

Q: Okay. Council on African Affairs.

MITCHELL: Yes. And then there was American Committee on Africa. Let me think, who else was there? There were loads of organizations in the '30s around Ethiopia, but I don't know the names of them. And then they extended to the '40s. It was the anti- Italian invasion. But I don't recall names of other organizations.

Q: Okay. What about the Communist Party? What was the Party's view of this growing anti-colonial struggle in Africa? Say, what happened with Ghana and the other places, Algeria, Kenya, Tanzania?

MITCHELL: Well, one of the interesting things about that whole period, and people talk about it badly and some talk about it good, but the period of the Communist International, it was a very interesting situation because early, very early on, members of the Communist Party—communist parties all over the world—were active in the fight against imperialism and colonialism in Africa. And that was a position, written position, of policy for the Communist International. So I'd have to date it back to then, because one of the people who emerged later on as general secretary of the Communist Party of the United States, Eugene Dennis, had spent a lot of time in the underground movement in South Africa against apartheid. And there were others, but I just think in terms of how policy was set and what the thinking was, going on for a long, long time.

Q: Well, say something about Eugene Dennis. I mean, when did he do this?

MITCHELL: In the '30s and—early '30s, late '30s.

Q: So he went to South Africa and worked with the Party there.

MITCHELL: For that reason, yeah. And as you know, the other thing was that the early idea of the African National Congress was that they did not accept whites. And— well, they didn't accept Indians either, at the time. But because of the early involvement of white communists within the movement against apartheid, it was a natural linking of the interests of the two organizations, so it was really very, very important. And remains so to this day. But in the United States that was also part of the whole struggle.

So we were always—at least from the time I was a member of the Communist Party, that's since 1946, I was taught that the struggle in Africa was part of the struggle for socialism all over the world. And that it would never be complete unless there were the changes that were necessary to force the colonialists out of Africa. And that was the policy. That was very much the policy. So all in the peace movement you would find some slogan somewhere around Africa, and you would know pretty much that there were some communists involved there some place. So that was one.

But the problem was that organizations like the NAACP and the American Committee on Africa were either anti-communist, or, in the case of ACOA, kind of anti-communist for reasons other than McCarthyism. But the NAACP permitted itself, and I have to say permitted itself, to be won over to the idea that they would be safe if they show their Americanism by getting rid of all the communists in the organization. And that's what the NAACP did. And in doing so, it divorced itself from the struggles in Africa. I mean, because you rarely see—as a matter of fact, I don't know if you ever see —any top NAACP figure involved around the struggles in Africa, which would have been a norm in—

Q: The '30s and '40s.

MITCHELL: In the '30s and '40s. But that kind of stopped by the time the McCarthy period came along. So McCarthyism didn't just succeed in getting rid of the communists, but in getting rid of the communists, it got rid of all of the militancy and any references to internationalism on the part of the other organizations. And so what you had, for example, with American Committee on Africa, is that it was almost a refusal to permit anybody who was known to be a member of the Communist Party to be even an activist in the American Committee on Africa. I quite remember those kinds of debates that were going on within the movement itself. Because there were, in the anti-apartheid movement, the South Africa Support Committees and so on, that were going on in the '60s. There were people who were very much involved within the ANC, but who were not supported by ACOA. It was really crazy.

Q: Right, right, right. Because they had ties with the Communist Party in South Africa.

MITCHELL: Right, right, right.

Q: Well, this moves into a discussion of the McCarthy era. And you've talked a little bit about the impact of that push on organizations like the NAACP and the impact it had on NAACP being able to do Africa work. Talk about the McCarthy era in terms of your own personal history vis--vis your ability to do this kind of work, and what happened with you.

MITCHELL: Well, in the '50s particularly, it was very difficult. Because, by that time ... Let's just go to the time of 1948, and begin there with the Progressive Party. The Progressive Party had an outlook, in terms of Africa, that Africa had the right to self-determination, to be free. And already at that time, Paul Robeson and other people who were active in the Progressive Party, as I was—in '48 I was 18, not yet ready to vote, but I was an activist.

Q: Say a little bit about the Progressive Party.

MITCHELL: The Progressive Party was a third party that came into being because it was felt that there was no response on the part of the Democratic Party to the needs of people at the moment. And it was felt that Harry Truman was already involved in being pro- and not only pro-, but a defender of Taft Hartley. And permitted that to take place, without a veto. Taft Hartley was an anti-union bill. It was also [that] the Dixiecrats had so much power within the Democratic Party. The Dixiecrats were Southern Democrats who voted as if they were the right wing of the Republican Party. And these were people like senators from Mississippi and North Carolina, South Carolina, names that we've got to know. Some of them died, some of them didn't die until recently, unfortunately, like Thurmond and so on.

So those were the kinds of folks who were making up the Democratic Party, and projecting ideas in terms of support for the policies in South Africa. And as a matter of fact, some of the policies of apartheid in South Africa came from the policies of segregation in the United States. So anyway, those were some of the areas that made it so terribly difficult to move people from thinking that Africa, the struggle for Africa, was somehow or other not just foreign in terms of another country, but foreign in terms of ideology. That if you were pro-Africa then you must be pro-communist. Because the Soviet Union and the whole Cold War atmosphere was very much alive, and that was part of the whole struggle in our country at that time, and in the world, for that matter.

So it made it very difficult for people like myself, for example, who wanted to become involved in some of the anti-apartheid movement kind of thing, made it very difficult, because you were a suspect, immediately suspect. Now, I don't know [suspected] of what, and I never did quite get people to spell it out for me. I mean, what is it that communists ever did to the anti-apartheid movement that we could not —anything but good? And they could not answer that, except that communists will take over. But if you're doing something right, why would communists want to take over? But that's what McCarthyism did. It had a whole mindset in the country. And so, those people who were of a different left persuasion than communists kind of utilized that period to show their own anti-communism. Anti-Communist Party, they would tell you they weren't anti-communism, but anti-Communist Party, because of its link with the Soviet Union.

So as a result, with all of the laws like the Smith Act and so on being passed— and not only laws being passed, but people going to jail one after the other. I mean, people like Ben Davis who had been a city councilman here in Harlem, a member of the Communist Party, was already jailed. Henry Winston was jailed, a lot of the leadership. These happened to be the African American people who I'm mentioning now, who were very active in one way or another in the anti-apartheid movement. They were all in jail, and it was clear that the intent was to jail anybody who was openly a communist. As a matter of fact, one of the laws passed at that time was the McCarran Act, which made it a crime not to give up the membership of the Communist Party, if you knew it. So that would be a crime and you could go to prison for that.

So people became frightened. And then, try to keep up the work of the Party in some way, to keep the Party functioning, many members of the Party went underground, and I was one of those people. But once you're underground, it is very difficult to be part of a mass movement in a way that reveals that you are a communist. Because the minute that you do this, you were going to be kicked out and probably arrested after you got kicked out, because now you're revealed as a communist because you admitted it [laughter ]. So it was a very difficult period.

So certainly I remember that one of the most difficult, difficult times in my life as a communist—and there have been some difficult—was the day that the Rosenbergs were executed. And I was in St. Louis. And nobody knew that I was a communist. And when I heard the news that they had been executed, I was crying. And I was completely alone, just completely alone. And the people with whom we had rented an apartment there were African Americans, they were Catholic, very conservative. The kids went to Catholic school, and so on. So I couldn't say to them, I'm crying because of the Rosenbergs. And it was, as I said, it was one of the most difficult times that I had, just in terms of personal political action.

Q: When, how long were you underground? What were the years?

MITCHELL: Early '52 to late '54.

Q: Okay. Actually, that was the time of the Defiance Campaign in South Africa.[9] Do you remember hearing about that when you were underground?

MITCHELL: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

Q: What do you remember? Since you were underground, you probably couldn't connect directly to it, but—

MITCHELL: Well, no you couldn't—not only couldn't connect directly to it, but it was difficult to get too much information about it. Because I was in St. Louis, which had at that time one TV channel [laughter]. And St. Louis being as conservative as it is, it was not about to put that kind of news on the TV, and certainly not very much on the radio. But I did hear, because I got literature and stuff sent or brought to me, and it was one of those other times that you've got so much pride. It was the same time as what was starting to happen with the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. And black folks are rising up all over the world kind of thing. But particularly in South Africa with the Defiance Campaign, and that was the pass thing.[10] I mean, they just weren't going to do that. And people were willing. And I thought to myself, here are people willing to go to jail rather than give up their dignity and their home nationality. To show some damn pass to be in their own country. Little did I know that now I would have to show a credit card and a driver's license to get on an airplane in the United States, but hey, what can I tell you? [laughter].

Q: I know, I know. I've got just a couple more questions. You've mentioned Nkrumah, you've mentioned Mboya. I want to hear your impression of various Africans that may have come through that you heard speak or that you heard of, such as Tom Mboya and any others that you can remember what you heard about them, how you came to see them or be aware of them, and then put up your impressions of them.

MITCHELL: In 1970—and one of the things that I did when I left Cuba, I went to Algeria. And there I met and had a chance to talk to—I went to Algeria and to Morocco, and in Morocco, I met with the head of the PAIGC.

Q: Amilcar Cabral?

MITCHELL: Amilcar Cabral. And that was the most interesting four hours I probably have ever spent with anybody [laughter]. The person who was kind of a European representative of PAIGC is a man named Joseph Turpin, whom I had gotten to know, we were quite friendly. And then I went to the conference in '69 in Sierra Leone, a German- Sierra Leone Friendship Society or something like that, and I had met a number of Africans who were representatives, not the people who were well-known. But Joseph introduced me to Amilcar Cabral. And he talked so much about the whole revolutionary role of Africa, and what that meant. But also how people misinterpreted that.

One of the interesting things, for example, was that at that time, Eldridge Cleaver was in Algeria.[11] And I had spent some time with Eldridge, just to go visit and to tell him how stupid he was. And I did that. I mean, I never did like Eldridge Cleaver, and he knew it.

I knew people in SWAPO,[12] and I was staying with some of them when I was in Algeria. So they called him up and said, are you going to have Charlene over to your house, over to your palace? Because they really resented the idea that he was in this big, big mansion and other people in the African movements were not. He was given—and I couldn't understand that. I mean, how was it they were in these little small apartments in Algeria and he had this huge mansion? And he was not a dignitary, not a person of state, or anything. I still worry about that.

At any rate, Eldridge and I were talking about how the Cubans were selling out the revolution and some of these other Africans were selling out the revolution and so on. And so I had mentioned that to Cabral, and he said, I don't know, but some people think that revolution is not about change at all. And they think revolution is about fighting. And he says, if you don't have a concept of change, then how will you get there just by fighting, if you don't know where you're going? And this was a big discussion, and he used the idea about fighting in the mountains. In Guinea-Bissau, we don't have any mountains. And he says, we don't have many trees to hide behind. So what are we supposed to do? If we are not able to win the masses to help us in the struggle for our independence, we'll never win. And so we have to have an idea of what it is that we want with the masses and for the masses, not just sort of, we're going to go out and take over and then they're going to join us.

As I said, it was in that discussion that he told me there was a conference going to be taking place in Rome in the next month from when I was there, I think, and that he would really like me to go. I was on my way to the Soviet Union at that time. Henry Winston was there having his treatments, he used to go for medical treatment to the Soviet Union. And so, he said by all means that I should go, and so I did. And it was at that time I met all of them, the whole kit and caboodle.

Q: Of African leaders?

MITCHELL: Of African leaders.

Q: Like who? Cabral.

MITCHELL: Cabral, [and] who was it in Angola?

Q: Neto?

MITCHELL: Neto. And Mozambique.

Q: Samora Machel, or Eduardo?

MITCHELL: Eduardo.

Q: Eduardo Mondlane?

MITCHELL: Yeah, but also a light-skinned man—oh, very much present in the national in the '70s, and even through—I'll remember. But he was there.[13]

Q: Tanzania? Was he there?

MITCHELL: No, I don't think he was there. I know who you mean.

Q: Nyerere?

MITCHELL: Nyerere. I don't think Nyerere was there, but—

Q: Kaunda?

MITCHELL: Kaunda was there. And so I got a chance to spend some time with him, and didn't see him again until the first victory celebration in South Africa after the elections and I saw him then again. [I don't remember other names.] But there were people from Congo Brazzaville there, and people who later on invited me to come to Southern Yemen. It was a really huge international conference. And then they invited me to speak there, so that was really quite something.

But one of the things we learned about all of these people, that they were all engaged actively in those struggles. These were not people sitting over in Rome someplace and then when they left they would be going—but these were people who would go back if they were not already in the country that they came from, they would go back there. And they would spend time with the people who went. And they would fight a long time. These were really very important kinds of folks. Oh, from Guinea (Conakry). Sekou Toure. I spent time with him. At that time the representative of Guinea (Conakry) was at the U.N. And her name, oh, oh my goodness, this is terrible. But eventually I'll tell you and you can fill it in. But I had dinner with her at her house, and it was just a most delightful evening. I mean, literally, where we sat down on the floor and the pots were in the middle of the cloth on the floor, and we had this really wonderful evening. Jeanne—I'll remember.[14] But all those folks, I met, and then a couple of times when Africa was on the agenda at the U.N., I was invited to speak. And so I did that, and I met numbers of them more there ... All the folks I consider my heroes.

Q: That's wonderful. Now here, so Kwame Nkrumah came to Harlem, anybody else? Say a little bit about Tom Mboya for me.

MITCHELL: Well, Tom Mboya was in '57 a young man. And he was the speaker at an event, and he was saying all the things that one would applaud for. But the interesting thing that he did, that none of the other speakers did, is that he continued to speak of the United States as our friend. And it was just interesting to me, and one could say, well, he was doing that because he was in the United States and this was Washington and so on. But when you heard other people speak, they had a way of saying that at the same time, " but, these are some of the policies that they're working on." Like constructive engagement at times, like that. But I never noticed anything more than that. But it was clear, not too long after that, that he was vying for leadership in the country. I didn't know that he did have the backing of the CIA and USAID[15] in that struggle.

Q: Do you remember hearing any more about that? About his ties with the government?

MITCHELL: No, no I don't.

Q: Because he ended up being killed, somebody shot him in the '70s.

MITCHELL: Yes.

Q: What of your impression of some of the individuals in other—in sort of peace, non-violent organizations as they define them, such as George Houser and Bayard Rustin, in terms of their relationship to what you were trying to do. I mean, do you have any memory of them in the '50s?

MITCHELL: Well, only with Houser, I mean, he had the problem with ANC. As I said, two reasons. One, that the ANC was beginning to be involved in violence. And that, I guess, was a result of his thinking that they were connected in one way with communists. And you put those two things together, and with people who are pacifists, it's very difficult sometimes to have them see that there is a right and wrong to each situation. And in this situation, imperialism was wrong, and the people fighting against it were correct. He actually was anti-apartheid, but that question of how do you move against it. I mean, it was more of a—more aid and some political positions, rather than the right to self-determination, your right to decide your future, within that. And so, there was always this pull. Always this pull.[16]

 I don't know, with—

Q: Rustin?

MITCHELL: With Rustin, but I was going to say, there was a person that came along at the same time as Houser, a woman.

Q: Jennifer Davis?

MITCHELL: Jennifer Davis. Jennifer Davis, I thought, was different in that regard. I mean, I'm not sure how much the organization permitted her to do, but she had a policy of inclusivity. That in the anti-apartheid movement, that she would take part in certain things. For example, when NAIMSAL came along. National, what is it, Movement against Apartheid. National—

Q: National Anti-Imperialist Movement in Soli—

MITCHELL: Anti-Imperialist Movement in Solidarity with African Liberation. That's it. So when that came along, there was some hesitancy to be part of that. But by the time the '81 conference was held in support—the National Conference in Support of African Liberation was held here in New York at Riverside Church—Jennifer and ACOA, they were very helpful in some ways with that. But the formation of NAIMSAL, they were absolutely, of course, opposed to. But there was somebody else who—oh, and you said Bayard Rustin.

Bayard Rustin was more active in the movement around the civil rights movement and the struggle working with Dr. King. And I think he was more afraid of being labeled communist than he was actually of communists, if you know what I mean. I mean, he wasn't one to go out and become an anti-communist, but he felt that if the movement was labeled communist, it would not be able to go forward. And as a result, there was always this tendency to want to separate Dr. King from people who were communists, who were known communists. I don't think Dr. King ever actually went in that direction. Maybe for a minute, but otherwise I think it was absolutely opposed to where Dr. King felt the movement should be going.

Q: Is there anything that you want to mention about the way you see solidarity in the United States with African liberation struggles, not only in the '50s but in general as well. Any significant thing that you think needs to be raised that we didn't mention?

MITCHELL: Well, there are a couple. Within the African American movement in the United States, there were differences in a lot of ways. Let me give you one of them. One was in the way in which the African American movement would deal with SWAPO, as opposed to the way it would deal with the ANC. And it was so interesting. And it was very difficult for me to follow what those differences were. But eventually it became clear that SWAPO, for many academics and more middle-class African Americans, did not have that communist, quote " communist" connection that the ANC had. But then, when SWAPO became called a terrorist organization, those very same people pulled away from SWAPO as well as the ANC.

And then there was the differences with PAC[17] and the ANC. For example, like Elombe Brath, the Patrice Lumumba Coalition. They were really very knowledgeable, but somehow or other they maintained their PAC devotion. And then, as things began to unfold in the '70s, they began to see that there is just something very wrong with this. And then they began to denounce PAC and the direction of PAC.

I had a visit with Stokely Carmichael and Miriam Makeba when I was in Guinea, and they were telling me crazy things. I mean, like the Soviet Union was selling out the struggle in Africa. They were giving the Africans bad guns. I mean, it was just so —it was totally ridiculous, and I could only think that they had so fallen for the Soviet Union as this bogeyman that it was impossible for them to see beyond it. It really was. I spoke with Stokely later on about that. I saw him several times. And he realized what had happened here, and the role that—how they used that position that he had taken.

So anti-communism has played such a divisive role within movements in the whole world that, even now, with what's happened with, quote, " the Cold War," people don't see that the same game is being played now with Iraq, the idea of terrorism and so on. That you can use this fear that the American people have to do so many bad things. And that's one of the things that happened in that period.

One of the things taught to us in this country, I think, about the African liberation movement and solidarity is that the more victories that were won by the continent, people on the continent, the more we were able to expose what was going on in terms of the segregation, discrimination here in the United States. And so it was on the face of it, it was no longer something you had to dig for. It was on the face of it that solidarity was a two-way street. We were getting it, and we were giving it. And the more we gave and the more they got, the more we received from what they had done, what they were doing. And every step of the way this was true.

But the problems that come with that is that somehow the nationalism begins to creep into the United States, about what our history is and what we need to do in terms of black business and building up and more people going to South Africa and other places in Africa to become part of businesses and so on, rather than what do we do in the struggle to maintain a movement forward for African Americans, but also to really stay on the ball with the help to these African nations. But real help, not just building up another bourgeoisie. And I've got nothing against their having a black bourgeoisie. But that can not be at the cost of what's happening with the people in these African countries.

So I think more and more, we're beginning to learn it, but less and less we're beginning to share it. And I think one of the problems is that organization as we know it, as we used to know it, is not at a high level. You don't have that idea of, what is the word now, connecting the dots? Or making the interrelationships and showing what they are. It's not happening. And when that doesn't happen, the movement is weakened for it. And when it does happen, the movement is strengthened. I guess if I were going to say the thing that I have learned more than anything else, and that lesson was taught to me more in the Communist Party more than anywhere else, it would be the ability to link struggles and the ability to understand time, place and circumstance. What time of day it is, what is the circumstance that you're in, and where are you. Where are you doing this. And if you can understand those things, and understand the interrelationships of what is going on with those things, then we will be able to move, I think, leaps forward.

Q: Thank you very much, Charlene.



[1] National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909, is the oldest and largest U.S. civil rights organization.

[2] See Brenda Gayle Plummer, Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935-1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Penny Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); James H. Meriwether, Proudly We Can Be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1935-1961 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

Much discussion of this period by scholars is in the context of biographical studies of two leading figures, W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. See, for example, Gerald Horne, Black and Red: W. E. B. DuBois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944-1963 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986); Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: Knopf, 1988); and David Levering Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois, vol. 2 (New York: Henry Holt, 2000).

[3] For a short overview of the Party's history that does include the later period, see Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas, " Communist Party USA," in the Encyclopedia of the American Left (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), http://www.marxists.org/history/usa/parties/cpusa/encyclopedia-american-left.htm.

[4] The Double V campaign, launched by the Pittsburgh Courier in 1942, called for victory over the Axis power abroad to be matched by victory over Jim Crow racism at home.

[5] The papers of Alphaeus Hunton are in the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library. A short biographical sketch and a listing of the files are available on the website of the digital collections of the library, at http://www.nypl.org/digital. For more background on Hunton and the Council on African Affairs, see Hollis Lynch, Black American Radicals and the Liberation of Africa: The Council on African Affairs, 1937-1955 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Africana Studies and Research Center, 1978), and Dorothy Hunton and Alphaeus Hunton: The Unsung Valiant (Richmond Hill, NY: D. K. Hunton, 1986).

[6] Tom Mboya (1930-69) was secretary general of the Kenyan African National Union from 1950 to 1969. Jomo Kenyatta (1889-1978) was the first prime minister of independent Kenya, from 1963 to 1978. They were both allies and rivals in Kenya's nationalist movement.

[7] Yusuf Dadoo (1909-83), was a leading figure in the South African Communist Party, the South African Indian Congress, and the African National Congress. He went into exile in 1960. See http://www.sacp.org.za/docs/history/dadoo00.html

[8] See Constance Pohl and Esther Cooper Jackson, eds., Freedomways Reader: Propshets in Their Own Country (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

[9] The Defiance Campaign against Unjust Laws was launched by the African National Congress in June 1952 and was suspended in April 1953. See http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/struggles/defiance.html.

[10] The " pass laws" required Africans in South Africa to produce a document proving their identity and their permissions to be in certain areas of the country.

[11] Eldridge Cleaver (1935-98), was one of the most prominent leaders of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. He fled the United States in 1968 and lived in exile in Algeria, Cuba, and France before returning to the United States in 1975. He later turned to the political right and joined the Republican Party.

[12] South West African People's Organisation.

[13] The top-ranking representative of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) at the Rome conference was FRELIMO vice president Marcelino dos Santos.

[14] Jeanne Martin Cisse, ambassador from Guinea (Conakry) to the United Nations from 1972 to 1976, served as chair of the Special Committee against Apartheid in 1975-76.

[15] United States Agency for International Development.

[16] See interview with George Houser in this collection. Despite his personal pacifist position, Houser was clear that the policy of the American Committee on Africa was to support the right of the liberation movements to decide what means they had to use to defeat apartheid.

[17] Pan Africanist Congress.