A New Civil Rights Movement, a New Journal
Freedomways, the African American journal of politics and culture that for nearly a quarter century chronicled the civil rights and Black freedom movements beginning in the early 1960s, started in 1961, a year that was a kind of transitional one for the civil rights movement. The sit-ins that had begun in early 1960, and the continuing demonstrations and emerging fervor, had made national headlines, but the movement hadn’t yet achieved the national stature that it would a couple of years later. Nevertheless, the civil rights movement was still a significant, if not yet overwhelming, news media story. The 1961 Freedom Rides, in which Black and white movement volunteers tested a recent Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on interstate bus travel by sitting together on trips through the South, brought headlines, photographs and television news footage of racist mobs, burning buses and bloodied civil rights activists.
In addition to this, the Cold War still raged. John F. Kennedy had been elected on a platform of liberal policies at home and anti-Communist assertiveness abroad. The war in Vietnam was a set of kindling getting ready to blaze. Domestic McCarthy-era persecutions of American Communists and those who associated with them had not yet abated. Several political prisoners remained incarcerated. Anti-Communist trials of political activists were continuing. The Communist Party itself would be indicted under the McCarran Act, which demanded that the Party plead guilty to being the government’s almost cartoonish caricature of the organization and register itself and its members under those terms or face draconian fines and prison sentences. Yet despite all this, the winds of change were in the air. One example involved one of the country’s most prominent political prisoners, the Black American Communist activist Henry Winston, who had been convicted under the Smith Act a decade earlier. He had been blinded in prison due to medical neglect, and an international campaign was mounted demanding his release. In July, 1961, President Kennedy would commute Winston’s eight-year prison sentence. Winston would go on to lead the Communist Party, USA as its chair for two decades.
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At the same time, a new generation of nationally prominent Black artists, not content to portray themselves as apolitical figures, embraced the new freedom movement. Some of these artists would become associated with Freedomways over the years. Among them were Lorraine Hansberry, whose A Raisin in the Sun was the first prominent Broadway drama written by a Black writer; actors Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Harry Belafonte; visual artists like Margaret G. Burroughs, Charles White, Jacob Lawrence, Elton Fax, Romare Beaden, Elizabeth Catlett Mora; pioneering cartoonists Brumsic Brandon, Jr., and Ollie Harrington; musicians like drummer and modern jazz pioneer Max Roach, as well as trumpeter Bill Dixon, saxophonist Archie Shepp, and their cohorts in what was called the jazz avant garde; and a host of new writers, led by novelists James Baldwin, Alice Childress, Rosa Guy, John Oliver Killens, and Julian Mayfield, and including a host of poets (Alice Walker published some of her earliest poems and stories in the journal), essayists, and political analysts. My own contributions to the journal came late in its run, with a couple of book reviews, and, in 1984, with an article on jazz.
The foregoing history was the setting in which a small group of African American left wing activists, headed by the then-legendary and notorious W.E.B. Du Bois, founded yet another Greenwich Village-based little magazine. Freedomways was unusual even in the world of little magazines of the era, where what may have looked unusual to mainstream society was actually, in the diverse intellectual world of the Village in the late 1950s and early 1960s, quite commonplace. But what distinguished this magazine were qualities that came not only from its editorial personnel and outlook, but from its history as well.
Within the context of the domestic Cold War, the African American community was one of the few places where the organized left still enjoyed a reservoir of good will as well as personalities that commanded widespread respect. Among the top Communists tried and jailed by the federal government at the end of the 1940s was New York City Councilman Benjamin J. Davis, one of the most important Black elected officials in the country. Du Bois, who was arguably the most highly educated American of his generation, had spent more than half a century pursuing a career that splendidly blended activism and scholarship. He was a guiding figure in the effort to create the philosophical and political framework for the civil rights movement. Yet the federal government had indicted and tried him on charges of being an unregistered agent of a foreign power for the “crime” of heading an effort that collected 2.5 million signatures to ban the atom bomb. Du Bois was acquitted. Others, such as Trinidad-born Claudia Jones, who had been one of the leaders of the country’s youth movement during World War II and became a prominent Communist leader, were deported. Still others, like Paul Robeson, had his passport revoked and was hounded and harassed by Federal authorities throughout the 1950s.
Robeson had founded a newspaper, Freedom, which gathered many African American left wing writers. It would only last a few years, but the group of writers that supported it would go on to become part of the nucleus for Freedomways. Founded as “A Quarterly Review of the Negro Freedom Movement” (it would later drop “Negro” from its subtitle, indicating that the Black freedom movement could no longer be thought of as a strictly parochial affair), the new journal’s earliest editors included not only Du Bois; Shirley Graham, an experienced, world traveling novelist, biographer, playwright, and journalist, served as the journal’s first editor. She was married to Du Bois. Early editorial board members also included John Henrik Clarke, the prominent academic historian W. Alphaeus Hunton, who was a leader in the movement for solidarity with the newly assertive, and increasingly victorious, anti-colonial movements in Africa (Hunton would spend his final years in Africa, in Gambia, Ghana, and Zambia, where he died in 1970), and Augusta Strong, a linguist, journalist, and educator who had been active in the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) of the 1930s and 1940s, a group that historians credit as having trained many of those who would go on to play significant roles in the 1960s movements.
At the journal’s helm was Esther Cooper Jackson, another veteran writer and activist, who had been a leader of the SNYC and received some prominence during the 1950s as the wife of Smith Act defendant James E. Jackson, a prominent Black Communist who spent several years a fugitive after refusing to surrender to authorities to serve his term as a political prisoner. From the very first issue of Freedomways, Cooper Jackson was its managing editor — in effect the editor in chief — and would continue in that role during the journal’s entire 25 year run. She was its main organizer, and it was she who, most important of all, maintained the journal’s high standards of literary integrity, its array of prominent contributors from all wings of the freedom movement, and its enduring relevance.
Her primary collaborator on the journal in this effort was Jean Carey Bond, an essayist, fiction writer, member of the Harlem Writers Guild, and the niece of Benjamin J. Davis, who joined the journal in 1962 as a book reviewer. She continued to write reviews and essays, and she eventually shared editorial duties with Jackson, first as a contributing editor before becoming associate editor. Margaret G. Burroughs, who served for many years as the journal’s first art editor, was a prominent Chicago artist and a founder of the institution that is now the Du Sable Museum of African American History. John Devine, a labor activist from Philadelphia, would succeed Burroughs as art editor in 1963, and would serve as the only white member of the magazine’s editorial board. He remained with the magazine for the rest of its run. Burroughs would also continue with Freedomways as a contributing editor. Most of the people named so far in this essay would contribute to the magazine at one point or another as editors and writers, and the magazine would produce special issues on Robeson, Du Bois, and Hansberry, and on topics ranging from Harlem, Africa, Mississippi, the Middle East, and the Caribbean, to education and the Black image in the media.
It would be easy to conclude from this history that Freedomways was just another staid and dogmatic periodical, pontificating already digested truths about current affairs while relying on the certainties of a dubious ideology to make sense of and simplify the challenges of a complex reality. (This is a conclusion one can draw from what remains the most significant myth-making critique of the journal yet published, Harold Cruse’s anticommunist attack in his widely-read The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual , an assault best answered by browsing the journal itself.) Such a description would miss the reality of Freedomways by a wide mark. For one thing, the magazine maintained its formal independence from political ideologies and organizations throughout its existence; and while it is true that many Communist and other left wing contributors helped solidify its political identity as a magazine of the left, what also distinguished this periodical was that it was a true tribune and mirror of the actual freedom movement that was changing the country’s social reality.
A Voice of the Movement, a Voice for the Movement
Part of the journal’s strength came from the fact that the voices one found in Freedomways were the voices of the movement itself. The first issue contained, among other things, a stunning nine-page historical essay by Du Bois, tracing the story of “The United States and the Negro” from 1861 to 1961; a report from Conakry by Alphaeus Hunton on the newly independent Guinea; John Henrik Clarke’s report on his trip to Cuba (the same trip that Le Roi Jones, aka Amiri Baraka, famously chronicled in his “Cuba Libre” essay of the same year); a speech to the United Nations by Kwame Nkrumah, the president of Ghana; and a militant, pro-integrationist artistic manifesto by Elizabeth Catlett, praising the founding the National Conference of Negro Artists (which still exists as the National Conference of Artists), and denouncing the forced segregation imposed on Black artists, as well as on all African Americans at the time. The second issue contained an essay by one of the Freedom Riders who survived the attack in Alabama that left his bus a burned out hulk. Joanne Grant was already a well-known left wing journalist (she was the associate editor of the National Guardian, the country’s biggest-circulating radical weekly newspaper, and would go on to publish important work in African American studies) when she contributed first-hand reporting on Southern activism to an early issue. A 1962 letter from Julian Bond (credited to “Horace Julian Bond”), then a staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), offers readers one of the first histories of that pivotal organization. Bond, who died in 2015, also contributed an essay on nonviolence to the Spring, 1963 issue.
One singular contribution of Freedomways to the growth in public awareness of African American history and culture was the “Recent Books” feature that appeared in the back pages of every issue. This was an annotated bibliography compiled and written by associate editor Ernest Kaiser, a Black writer and essayist who was also one of the best-known librarians of the day. He spent forty years as librarian, archivist, and research associate at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. His bibliographies constituted a kind graduate-level bibliography in Black Studies, long before such studies became standard university fare.
Part of the radicalism of Freedomways was its insistence on being a journal that was edited and managed by Black writers and literary figures that also welcomed the contributions of white writers. The poet Walter Lowenfels was the only significant modernist American poet to be convicted under the Smith Act; he contributed poems and essays to early issues. Anne Braden, a well-known white activist based in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote on “The White Southerner in the Integration Struggle” for the Winter, 1963 issue. NAACP researcher Herbert Hill contributed a pair of analytical articles to early volumes of the journal.
Activists that wanted help explaining why it was that the South seemed so ripe for the emergence of a historic movement for social change in the late 1950s and early 1960s could look to the theoretical writings in Freedomways by one of their own. J.H. O’Dell had been a union activist in Louisiana and staff member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, with duties ranging from fund raising to voter registration. He had been a Communist until the McCarthy-era repressions impacted the CPUSA organization and membership in the South, limiting the organization’s public presence in the region. The intervention by the Attorney General of the United States, Robert F. Kennedy, into the movement’s internal affairs illustrated how the government’s hounding of political radicals was brought to bear on the movement itself. Kennedy demanded that King fire O’Dell and other left wingers, or face open, official hostility. King complied. Nevertheless, O’Dell kept his ties to the movement while becoming more involved with Freedomways, and his first article for the magazine, “The Negro People in the Southern Economy,” appearing in the Fall, 1963 issue, was a landmark study of its kind.
“The Negro People and the Southern Economy” summed up both the conditions under which Black people lived in the region, charted how those conditions had changed in the nearly two decades since the end of the Second World War, and helped clarify some of the issues that catalyzed the civil rights movement. O’Dell firmly located the movement not only in the world of ethical and moral concerns, but in economic ones as well, focusing on jobs, occupational access, income, and unemployment. The movement, he concluded, was “crossing the threshold of its present, and entering a new period in its historical development.” It should be remembered that this article was written in the weeks after the 1963 March on Washington. This “new period,” O’Dell said, “is increasingly marked by the struggle for economic well-being and greater political power, the two basic conditions necessary for the full enjoyment of ‘equal rights’” (italics in original). Following “The Negro People and the Southern Economy,” All told, writes Ian Rocksborough Smith, in an invaluable 2003 study of the journal’s history, “O’Dell would have a tremendous impact on the magazine, penning over sixty percent of the staff editorials, writing twenty key strategy pieces over the twenty-five years of the magazine’s existence, and playing a central role in soliciting materials from activists for publication.” Freedomways would continue to chronicle, reflect, and advocate for these concerns, and for others as well. It came out early, for instance, against the war in Vietnam in 1965 (starting with an editorial written by O’Dell), published a two-issue special on the Middle East in 1983, and championed the presidential runs of Rev. Jesse Jackson, for whom O’Dell would serve as a principal advisor.
This essay has charted the early history of Freedomways, but the breadth, scope, and impact of the journal can hardly be successfully recounted in this short space. Let this short account serve, then, as an introduction, and as an invitation to read the entire run of this extraordinary publication. When read as a whole, this journal, founded by a small group of left wing intellectuals who were trying to find their way beyond the repression of the McCarthy era and contribute to the burgeoning movement of Black people for civil and human rights, offers an unprecedented and intimate view into the most important social movement of our time. By the end of its run, Freedomways had become something close to a journal of record of the mid-to-late 20th Century African American freedom movement.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared as a Reveal Digital blog post in August of 2018.
Geoffrey Jacques is a poet, critic, and teacher who writes about literature, the visual arts, and culture. His research interests include modernist poetry and poetics, African American literature and culture, and the postmodern city.