Abner Berry interview, pt. 1

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Abner Berry interview, pt. 1


Editor’s Note: Liberation School continues our Black Communist History series with a transcription of an interview with Abner Berry. Berry edited the Harlem edition of The Daily Worker in the 1940s and 1950s. He was a founding member of Black Workers for Justice. These interviews were conducted over three decades ago and the audio files have been digitized as part of NYU Tamiment Library’s invaluable Oral History of the American Left project. Liberation School has been transcribing and publishing interviews from this collection not as an endorsement of all the statements expressed in them, but to help a new generation of organizers and revolutionaries gain access to the experiences, lessons and perspectives of prior generations of U.S. communists. While much has been written in academic circles about the role of communists in the Black freedom struggle, this history is systematically omitted in history textbooks and rarer still do we get to hear from the Black radicals themselves. Thanks to the Tamiment Library for digitizing these audio files and to Scott Simpson for the transcription. Stay tuned for more interviews with Abner Berry.

Interviewer: In Harlem, one of… well, two people who seemed to be particular nemeses for the Party were Ira Kemp and Arthur Reed.

Berry: Oh yeah.

Interviewer: During the Ethiopian campaigns and other…

Berry: Yeah. I knew them.

Interviewer: They were advocating boycotts of Italian store owners and icemen and so on.

Berry: But they didn’t have such a big following, you see. They were street speakers. And as such, they only had their followers that they would attract on the street corner. So that they were no match, you see, for an organization that had steel fibers running all through the community, you see. And therefore, they had a nuisance value and that was all.

Interviewer: What about the thing they organized, the Harlem Labor Union?

Berry: The same thing. It was a… it was not much of a… it wasn’t a union or anything. It had a few followers.

Interviewer: Now, what about the incident in, I guess in ’38 with Louis Campbell and Frankie Duty.

Berry: Oh…

Interviewer: What was that all about? And the Workers’ Alliance

Berry: Let me see now… Louis Campbell and Frankie Duty were the leaders of the Workers’ Alliance. I don’t know now just the answer to that. What was it?

Interviewer: Well, I’m not exactly sure what the origin of the dispute was — it may have been something about salaries or stipends in the Workers’ Alliance — but in any case, they apparently left the Workers’ Alliance and started picketing the Party headquarters, and organized something called the United Afro-American Union, which was an all-Black unemployed organization. And [George] Charney mentions it in his book, that when they started becoming dissatisfied, they called you and Sam Wiseman in to try to keep them from defecting, but the whole thing isn’t really clear in my mind, what…

Berry: It’s not really clear to me, because whatever they organized couldn’t have lasted a month long, or a week, or two weeks, you see. Because it was an organization that couldn’t function, you know, without the support, and without the kind of organization which the Party had then — to surround it, you see. It had no possibility of developing, as I can see, at that time, because I can’t remember it getting us into trouble at all.

Interviewer: It seems like that the Garveyites and Nationalists in the Thirties were not capable of organizing themselves in stable groups or in any kind of national organization.

Berry: No. No. They just weren’t able, they weren’t able — as I said before, they weren’t able to organize actions and groups, or collections. They just weren’t able to do that.

Interviewer: It’s curious: they also seemed unable to attract the intelligentsia.

Berry: Oh, no. Well, that was true all the way through…

Interviewer: It’s interesting, you know, when you talk about the “Americanization” aspect of it, that it seemed that, at least for a very large percentage of the Black community, this is something they desperately wanted: to be part of America.

Berry: Yes! They wanted to be part of America, yes.

Interviewer: And that the Party, in a sense, was trying to smash down the doors which were keeping them out.

Berry: Yes.

Interviewer: And that that gave them a tremendous amount of credibility.

Berry: It certainly did.

Interviewer: And emotional credibility as well as practical credibility.

Berry: Yes, yes. Because the Blacks were emotionally attached to the Party. In my own case, the same way, you see. It was very strong then. Because it was not just a case of this being only a theoretical thing. It was a personal and a practical thing, for not only the communists, but to the mass of the Blacks, because, for instance, what happened is that you knew, and by the way this is what I — thing I knew for the first time, you see — I knew that when I was attacked, that there were hundreds of others, you see, who would do everything and anything in order to redress that attack, and to extricate me from the bowels of the war, in which I was. And then I had it from experience, not just what someone told. So that it was very — it was simple to see how this would affect you emotionally, you see. This was something like the relationship between a mother and child, you know, a young child and a mother would fight like the Devil, you know, to protect their child, and the child will feel secure in the arms of the mother. So this is true of the Communist Party during that time, fighting both tooth and nail, many were killed, you see. This one, wonderful woman — I can’t think of her name now — she was considered one of the most beautiful women in America. She was once married to V. J. Jerome. But she was hit on the back by a cop, and it resulted in her death. Well, there were many deaths fighting you know, at the time. So that knowing all this you see…

Interviewer: It’s interesting, because talking with Queen Mother Moore, I have the strangest experience of seeing almost two ideologies coexist at once in the same person in a very strange way.

Berry: Yes.

Interviewer: And each with their — you know, a set of arguments about African feelings.

Berry: Mmhmm. Mmhmm.

Interviewer: And while at this point, the classic Nationalist viewpoint is the dominant one, one sensed the residues, in a very coherent form,

Berry: Yes.

Interviewer: of the earlier orientation, in which she stood. When she described what amounted to her “conversion”, when she talk about like she discovered she wasn’t a “Negro”.

Berry: Mmhmm. Mmhmm.

Interviewer: And, you know, and the psychological changes. She said she used to dream of the transformation occurring within the Party —

Berry: Mmhmm.

Berry: And applying the feelings, and the goals — the new feelings, the new goals that she was having — could have found a place within the Party, and within a broader working-class struggle to transform America.

Berry: Mmhmm. Well, and she’s right, there, see? She’s right. This ambivalence, you see, on her part — it was forced, and is forced upon her by the line of the Communist Party, because it’s “either-or”. When, as a matter of fact, it is not either-or.

Interviewer: It has to be both together.

Berry: It has to be both together! And she realizes that, just as I do — that it has to be both together. And therefore, if we can’t talk sense, you see, to this doctrinaire group, then we will have to organize it the best way we can, that’s all. And this, of course, she goes about — never giving up the idea of revolutionary organization, you see. But at the same time trying the same, then, to the Blacks. So that they will join, in this general world, an American revolution.

Interviewer: It’s amazing, you know, when I was looking back, there just — I could sense somehow this incredible opportunity was lost. And, at some point — because if anything like that organization had been around in the Sixties, when we had gotten our thing started, the whole thing could’ve been turned around.

Berry: This whole thing, it’s just too goddamn bad. Look! It’s at the end, it’s at its very end, everywhere. Everywhere it’s at the end. They don’t know what to do.

Interviewer: They had this article in The New York Times magazine about the world economic crisis, and they called Keynes in 1930.

Berry: Well, Keynes saved them. Because — not just because of Keynes, but because Keynes had a Roosevelt. Keynes had a Roosevelt. And Roosevelt had a Communist Party!

Interviewer: [Laughs]

Berry: See, I’ve looked over that recently. And, actually, what happened is — I read Therobans (?) book. I don’t know whether you did.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Berry: Well, you did read Theroban (?) book. Theroban (?) chooses foreign policy as one of the reasons for the Communist Party’s deterioration. But I don’t agree with that, see. It wasn’t the development, or lack of development of foreign policy. It was the refusal of the Communist Party to develop an independent line — and tailed behind Roosevelt, and helped Roosevelt develop his capitalist line. That was the — the turning point of that was when calmed the economy. See, Roosevelt had [13:30: ???] with [???] and the other guy, who were consorting with communists all the time. See? With Browder meeting with Sumner Welles.

Interviewer: This was during the war?

Berry: No, following the war. [???] Not following the war, during the war. During the war, and before the war.

Interviewer: So in a funny way, the reactionaries were right when they said that Roosevelt [13:58: ?] Browder was meeting with —

Berry: Oh, yes!

[Both laughing]

Berry: Oh, they knew what they were talking about. But Roosevelt — without that, Roosevelt would not have succeeded. See? When Roosevelt, he — When Roosevelt issued his 7(a), was it? Ah, well, Congress passed the law with this 7(a) clause in it: the right to organize. Well, you see, presumably, that gave the communists an “open sesame”. They had carte blanche to go and organize these unorganized workers — most of whom were unorganized. This they did. They organized every industry. And without the communists, they could not ever — and would not have — organized them. Organized auto, steel, oil, mines, mills , radio — everything was organized by the communists at that time. And they kept to their line with Roosevelt. So instead of developing their own, and instead of developing their own — their organization, I mean, their organization, the organization. Then they dropped the formation of shop unity, altogether. Dropped the organization of practice. We were just like everybody else.
Interviewer: This tendency — which I suppose, in Leninist terms, would be called a right opportunist…

Berry: Yes.

Interviewer: … error — had to do with the fact that there was a cultural drive within the Party — because of it was a party of outsiders — the Negroes, the foreign-born — that — the “American Dream” still had this…

Berry: Now we were inside.

Interviewer: … and that these people — the people who composed the majority of the Party desperately wanted to become part of America, and pushed it to the right. It wasn’t just a question of bad leadership, but a deeply-rooted drive within these groups of outsiders, who still — the American mystique still had them.

Berry: That was a part of it. That was a part of it. But you see, the Party leadership at the time was the old-line Americans.

Interviewer: Aha. Right, Foster, Browder —

Berry: Browder — well, yes. These were all white Americans, you see.

Interviewer: It’s funny, it’s — you know, you think of it — here’s a party which is of Jews, of Blacks, of Finns, of Italians, of Slavs, being led by old, white WASPs.

Berry: Two old, white WASPs, yes!

Interviewer: Right.

Berry: And Dennis who was — he wasn’t, Dennis. Dennis that was a man who couldn’t speak in anything but clichés.

Interviewer: But it’s a strange — the sort of social and cultural drives there. And somehow, I don’t know, it’s funny how you sort of think that not until the American mystique, and the American Dream, loses its hold can you have a broadly-based Left. The system has to be de-legitimized in people’s minds to a far greater degree than it was in the Thirties.

Berry: Yes certainly I think you’re right.

Interviewer: Because the Depression, I think, came after a period of when people were talking about the American “economic miracle” — when Henry Ford was more of a hero than Lenin.

Berry: And then, you see, there’s a whole lot — the first and second-degree Americans began, during the Browder-Roosevelt era, you see, began to arise — began to become the movie producers, movie directors, movie writers, the Broadway, the construction men — developing in other industries, as well, see. They came right along with this Roosevelt thing. And that helped, too — this whole line in the Party, because a lot of the guys, and a lot of the names I see now in the movie, and a lot of the industrialists, and that I see now, and all these were contributed.

Interviewer: Wasn’t this guy Armand Hammer, petroleum —

Berry: Yes, Yes! That’s who I had — the guy I had in mind, you see. Well, so — when you had all of this, you see, it’s easy to see how you got lulled. Because everyone — going on the expectation of participating in the American Dream. And finally, when Roosevelt died, there was that sharp turn away — boom! Then the boom fell. That’s all.

Interviewer: Wow.

Berry: [laughs] Yes. And then the Communists were left to thrash around, and to try then to develop a program, a line. Because the line had been shattered: they had none.

Interviewer: Was this the only party in the world where it happened that way?

Berry: Well, I think this was the only party in the world where it could happen that way — but no, I think it happened in other parties. I think it happened in the French party, too. But other than that, I don’t see — I don’t see how — I don’t think it could’ve happened. Other than these two — these places. Because, see, in the French party — there was only one political organization in the whole of France. That was the CP.

Interviewer: Especially during the war.

Berry: Yeah.

Interviewer: They had the underground.

Berry: They had the whole underground. And somehow or other, they were enticed to turn in their guns. And they turned them in. Then they gave them that little token thing — they gave them — Thorez went into the Cabinet. One of the — I don’t know, minister of — even minister without portfolio or some other thing. And that was all.

Interviewer: Huh, well, yeah, it’s an amazing story. Do you have any specific comments on that paper?

Berry: Yeah, I’d better do that now.

Interviewer: Mmhmm. By the way, have you eaten lunch?

Berry: No.

Interviewer: Because I have some homemade stew I could heat up, if you’re — if you’re hungry.

Berry: Well, I think I — I can’t refuse.

[break]

Berry: Yeah, see, now the Empire Cafeteria struggle was one of those landmark struggles in Harlem, because by breaking the — you mentioned the fact that they won, but you didn’t mention what the consequences of their winning was to the rest of the struggle in Harlem, because that enhanced the authority of the Party. And it made the white workers in Harlem who followed the Party altogether different from any other white workers, see, because all you had to do then was to explain, if you got stopped by a Black on the street, or something like that, even during the riot, see, you’d say “Well, I’m a communist.” “That’s alright, boys, he’s a communist.” — you see, so —

Interviewer: You mean, because this was a case where the workers — the white workers —

Berry: The white workers had taken the lead in this thing, see.

Interviewer: In organizing to get jobs for Negroes —

Berry: Yes.

Interviewer: — at their particular workplace.

Berry: Yes, yes. And on here, the only person who was guy by the name of …. was arrested, beaten, and almost killed — at Empire. So he was known. His name was all over Harlem at the time. Because of — and because of that, you were able then better to go about your organizing duties than before.

Interviewer: It’s interesting, at about the same time that that happened, that was when the other boycott movement started disintegrating.

Berry: Mmhmm. Yeah.

Interviewer: And so that the Party had the credibility of winning when the other people were fighting about whether the people were light — the light-skinned people were getting the jobs or not.

Berry: Yeah, mmhmm. And here is where this — you mean as opposed to this Blumstein’s struggle. Well, yes, that was true. That was a force, and it ended a force, all the way. And here, where this was won, almost in the main, by whites, you see — the fight at the Empire — or by a large proportion of those in that struggle — were white. Oh yes, the riot. Now, it seems to me that people would understand the riot better if they could understand the — repicture for them the incident that sparked it. You know, the rumors that spread throughout Harlem on that day that a boy had been killed by the manager — which wasn’t true, you see — and to mention the resentments, also, that had been building up in the people of Harlem against a 125th Street merchant — because you didn’t need very much, you see, you just needed anything — a rumor, or anything else — before everything was rush to action. But this — you can get some newspapers — the Amsterdam News had the details — all the details. But you should have some details so that it makes logical — as to the reasons for the riot — or we didn’t call it a riot, we called it an uprising. [laughs] And this — the hearings that were held on the — the riot hearings. Now, what influenced the committee members in writing this report a lot was the fact that Robert Minor, see, sat all the time as though he were a functionary of the committee — questioning closely every witness, examining and cross-examining, you see, so that — and he helped individually, this wasn’t — well, he helped a whole lot in making this result what it was.

Interviewer: Did Robert Minor, like, have, credibility with, like, local Harlem leaders as a result of that, or —

Berry: No, but you see he was a Texan — well, you know who Robert Minor was, he was the outstanding artist, see, and who decided he was just not going to draw another cartoon — he was America’s leading cartoonist. He was the guy that invented, almost, the current political cartoon, and all of the cartoonists — Fitzsimmons and the others — were all — they all went to school under him. So that — but when he joined the Communist Party, he said he’s giving up, he’s not gonna write — he’s not gonna draw another cartoon, but once in a while he sketched one, you know. I used to — I kept one for a long time that he kept. But you see, he had — he came there with the bearing of a lawyer, you know he was a big Texan, see. Very, very, very — I wouldn’t say “athletic”, he wasn’t, he was man of about — at that time was about 45. And greying, and a little bald. He looked like a lawyer, anyway, but he wasn’t. And he’d sit there, and he would ask his question, you know, very sharply. And he was able — with the committee, you see, he had very nice standing. I knew some of the committee members, there was Mrs Haynes, and another was…

Interviewer:

Berry: He didn’t know just what the hell he was going to do with on the committee. But Ms Haynes was a realtor. She was a real mover on the committee.

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