Deporting Black Radicalism: Claudia Jones’ Deportation and Policing Blackness in the Cold War

Denise Lynn on Claudia Jones and her fight for a racially egalitarian socialism. 

This blog post is a special International Women's Day preview of the full article, due in Twentieth Century Communism 18. 

Claudia Jones

On an unseasonably warm day in November 1955, the fire department was called to an apartment for smoke in Manhattan, New York. The resident, Claudia Jones, refused the firemen entrance. Once the police arrived, the firemen forced their way into the home through a window where they discovered Jones was burning her papers in the stove, the fireplace, and the bathroom. The papers were immediately seized and turned over to Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents who realised that the papers were charred beyond recognition. Jones’ attempt to destroy her personal papers might have gone unnoticed had she not been under constant surveillance by the police and FBI. Jones was under a temporary stay of deportation and her latest appeal was denied only five days before the fire. Three days later, ill and out of options, Jones agreed to honour the deportation order and leave the United States, her home for over thirty years. (i)

She was barely out of prison a month when the fire department forced its way into her home. Since 1948, federal authorities planned and maneuvered to eject Jones because of her leadership in the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). Jones, born in Trinidad, emigrated to New York City when she was eight. Her experiences growing up in New York as a black youth led her to anti-racist Marxist politics. When she was twelve, her mother died at the textile plant where she worked. At seventeen, Jones contracted tuberculosis and spent some time at a tuberculosis hospital. When Jones donated blood to a fellow female patient, white patients warned that her blood could turn the woman black. In her teenage years, Jones watched American communists defend the Scottsboro boys, nine black youths arrested for allegedly raping two white women, one of the women later recanted. When the party protested the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Jones decided that the CPUSA, a mixed-race organisation, would be her political home. After joining the party in 1936, Jones quickly moved into CPUSA leadership and became one of its most important and influential theoretical voices. As a colonial citizen of the British empire, Jones integrated her anti-colonialism with Marxism and became an important voice in the Party against imperialism. Her attempts to become an American citizen in 1940 were thwarted because of both her race and her party membership. By 1941, even while the USA was fighting fascism abroad, the FBI expended resources to monitor Jones and try to determine her national origins. After the war, her leadership role drew scrutiny from federal authorities who were intent on making communism obsolete. Despite the legal harassment, Jones remained a committed communist and readily admitted her devotion to Marxist-Leninism. (ii)

After the Second World War, federal intelligence and law enforcement officials targeted CPUSA members and organisations using legislative hearings and criminal proceedings to criminalise their political activity. In 1953, Jones and several other CPUSA leaders was found guilty under the Smith Act.  The Smith Act, passed in 1940, made it illegal to advocate or belong to an organisation that advocated the violent overthrow of the American government. After her conviction was upheld on 13 October 1953, Jones was remanded to police custody and detained in a segregated federal reformatory for women in West Virginia. She was released on 23 October 1955. Because she was never naturalised, federal authorities pushed for her deportation. (iii)

During the Cold War, the American state strengthened existing legislation and passed new laws that legalised the harassment of both native and foreign-born radicals. In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act, allowed for the deportation of ‘dangerous, disloyal, or subversive’ persons. This same act was used to limit the rights of American citizens; both Paul Robeson and WEB DuBois had their passports seized to restrict their movement and limit their political activism abroad. The McCarran-Walter Act was part of the US’s containment policy, to contain radicalism at home and expel those that threatened the social order. The black freedom struggle and its advocates, like Jones, were specifically targeted using Cold War legislation. (iv)

The legal attack on the CPUSA particularly damaged the black freedom struggle because Cold War legislation linked advocacy of black equality to communism, and communists to treasonous subversion. As Gerald Horne has argued, the movement for black freedom splintered and a “critical and radical perspective” was marginalised. At the precipice of change, radical voices were rendered “mute” leading to a civil rights movement that was limited by Cold War legislation and avoided addressing economic justice. Horne argues that important voices that articulated an emancipatory politics with the potential for real liberation, like Shirley Graham DuBois and Paul Robeson, contemporaries and friends of Claudia Jones, were limited. Without discussions on economic justice, equality remained illusory, and the civil rights movement was silent on American foreign policy. (v)

Claudia Jones recognised that her commitment to black liberation, gender equality, anti-colonialism, and socialism made her a target. The CPUSA challenged the arrests and harassment of its membership by arguing that it violated the constitutional guarantee of free speech. Though Jones agreed with the party on freedom of speech, her ideas on class-based gender and race organisation were often at odds with the party. Her conviction and deportation were no exception. While the CPUSA understood Jones’ conviction and deportation as part of a racist state machine that sought to silence dissent, expel radical voices, and eradicate communism, Jones believed that her forced exile was part of the long history of social control over black Americans via the criminalisation of blackness. Jones understood something the party struggled with, that black oppression was not one more economic relationship; it was one means at racialised social control, one that political and economic elites exploited to control working-class and minority populations and prevent working-class unity.

Jones also believed that her outspoken anti-colonialism was a liability during the Cold War as the United States expanded its military influence globally, pursued the containment policy, and used its might to subdue anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa. Jones became an outspoken advocate in the postwar peace movement denouncing the Korean war, American incursion into Vietnam, European wars against African nationalist movements, and global capitalism’s increased influence over the American government. She identified American containment as neo-colonialism, rendered more powerful by a bloated military making incursions into newly independent nations and planting its bases on foreign soil. She was not quiet about her opposition to the influence of anti-communism in post-colonial states, and she believed that peace was the only way to secure liberation for all people. Jones became convinced that it was her peace activism and criticism about Cold War policy that led to her legal harassment and eventual deportation. (vi)

Jones was integral in pushing the party to see beyond its economic determinism and understand the role that race had in preventing a socialist USA. But she further challenged the party to understand that gender was as integral as race and economics in the class struggle against elites who exploited those divisions. Jones pushed the party to understand black women’s triple oppression - race, class, and gender oppression - and she argued that as the most oppressed strata in the United States, black women were the vanguard of the working class. If you could free the most oppressed, then all could be freed. Carole Boyce Davies argues that when Jones was deported, her formulation of radical black feminism was expelled with her, hampering radical and progressive change for decades. Jones’ written and spoken work on race and gender equality were used to convict, and eventually deport her. Though it was a violation of her first amendment rights, Jones knew as a foreign born, black woman, she was vulnerable to the state’s oppressive policies. (vii)

Claudia Jones understood that Cold War legislation was used to discredit and destroy the CPUSA and stigmatise left-wing politics. For decades after and arguably to the present, American leftists struggled with legal harassment fortified during the Cold War and the move to the right of both mainstream political parties. But Jones knew that her deportation was not simply about the fear of communism, or an assault on her freedom of speech. She knew that what made her and her fellow communists dangerous was their challenge to the white racial order. And what made her most vulnerable to political and legal harassment was her status as a foreign-born, black woman. Anti-communist hysteria was embedded in the United States’ long history of containment, the containment of its poor and black underclass and the maintenance of wealth and racial structures that ensured white supremacy. This experience led Jones to focus her political energies on organising against colonialism and to push for a racially egalitarian socialism until the end of her life.

Deportation is a favored tool of racist and nativist legislatures and politicians to construct an idealised (i.e.: white) citizenry; and while deportation has been used against white radicals, what Claudia Jones knew well was that her blackness worked in tandem with her politics. Even the FBI recognised that her only real crimes were advocating the emancipation of black Americans and women. The muting and deportation of black radicals in the Cold War stymied any real confrontation with America’s racist past and forced contemporary Americans to realise that the emphasis on white citizenship has survived long past the civil rights struggles. Today, deportation and detention has become a favored tactic of white nationalists, led by Donald Trump. With white supremacists in the highest echelons of government, legal structures have coalesced to impugn people of colour, both immigrants and citizens, and define them as outside the rights of citizenship and basic humane treatment. The lesson we can take from Claudia Jones is that her case was not an anomaly but a central aspect of American history and representative of the regular attempts of white supremacists to define and delimit citizenship

Get 30% off Marika Sherwood's Claudia Jones: A Life in Exile until March 31st. 

(i) Federal Bureau of Investigation, Claudia Jones File (FBICJF), Federal Bureau of Investigation Memo, NY 100-18676; ‘Weather,’ New York Times, 15 November 1955, p1; ‘Claudia Jones Loses,’ New York Times, 10 November 1955,  p39; ‘Red Agrees to Leave the Country,’ New York Times, 18 November 1955, p10; ‘Fire Records,’ New York Times, 15 November 1955, p66.
(ii) Tamiment Library, New York University, Claudia Jones Vertical File, ‘Claudia Jones to William Foster’, 6 December 1955; Carole Boyce Davies, ‘Deportable Subjects: U.S. immigration laws and the criminalizing of communism,’ 100:4 South Atlantic Quarterly, Fall 2001, pp980-985.
(iii) ‘Woman Communist Leader is Arrested for Deportation,’ New York Times, 21 January 1948, p1; Davies, ‘Deportable Subjects,’ pp980-985.
(iv) Penny Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997, pp141-155; Maddalena Marinari, ‘Divided and Conquered: Immigration reform advocates and the passage of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act,’ Journal of American Ethnic History, 35:3, Spring 2016, pp9–10; Carol Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones, Durham: Duke University Press, 2008, pp148-150.
(v) Gerald Horne, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham DuBois, New York: New York University Press, 2000, pp111-112, see also: Gerald Horne, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary, London: Pluto Press, 2016.
(vi) Claudia Jones, ‘International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace,’ Political Affairs, 1950, p32.
(vii) Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx, Durham: Duke University Press, 2008, p2.