Louise Thompson

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Louise Thompson

Louise Alone Thompson (September 9, 1901 – August 27, 1999) was an African-American feminist and prominent Communist Party USA member. She is noted as an early formulator of feminist intersectionality theory, as a leader in the movement to free the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s, and as a writer and social figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s. She married CPUSA member William L Patterson and was thereafter often referred to as Louise Thompson Patterson.

Early life

Louise was born in Chicago, USA in 1901. According to Erik S McDuffie (p 63), "She grew up poor in small, racist towns across the West Coast before settling by the advent of World War I in Oakland, California with her mother, Lulu Brown Toles. Her poor, single mother cooked for white families, sensitizing Louise early to the arduous travails of black women." She managed to attend the University of California and graduated with a B.S. degree in commerce in May 1923.[1] Hearing W.E.B. DuBois give a guest lecture at the University of California at Berkeley, and meeting him afterward, was a pivotal experience for Louise; she determined at this time to dedicate her life to fighting for racial equality.[2] That great scholar of the African diaspora remained a mentor of Louise's for many years.

After graduating from U.C. Berkeley, Louise taught briefly at the Branch Normal College for Colored People in Pine Bluffs, Arkansas. Then in 1926 she began teaching business administration at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. According to Erik S McDuffie, she "suffocated under the racial conservativism of these institutions" (64). The cultural scholar William J Maxwell tells us that at Hampton she "supported a student strike against the puritanical heritage of alumnus Booker T Washington." He continues to say: "Nineteen twenty-eight found Thompson fleeing the school along with its most energetic strikers. Confirming the idea that black college rebellions of the era provided a talent reserve for the New Negro movement, she went straight to New York City."[3] Erik S McDuffie thinks she had already gone to New York City in 1927, at least for a visit. In New York she met for a second time her future husband William L Patterson, who she had already met in California. In 1927 he had recently joined the CPUSA; Louise, however was not yet a communist.

In her early days in New York, Louise received a sociology grant from the Urban League and a stipend from the literary patron Charlotte Mason. She found Charlotte overbearing, however, and soon renounced her support. Later, Louise would write that during this period she acquired a "distaste and hatred of white philanthropy."[4] Louise helped convince Langston Hughes to stop taking Charlotte's money also.

At the urging of William L Patterson, she read Karl Marx's Capital in 1927 or 1928.[5]

By the early 1930s, Louise had become a "central figure" (Erik S McD, 64) in the African-American cultural blossoming in New York called the Harlem Renaissance. She associated with leading Harlem intellectuals such as Aaron Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and Langston Hughes, who became a close friend. In 1928 she married Wallace Thurman, a novelist; she soon discovered that he was gay, and they separated, but they remained formally married until his death in 1934.

Through her friends YWCA official Sue Elvie Bailey (Thurman), and Marion Cuthbert, a poet, Louise obtained in 1930 a position as a research assistant in the Congregational Education Service, a reform organization "composed mostly of affluent white liberals" (Erik S McD, 65).

Louise with Langston Hughes on their way to Russia to film Black and White

USSR trip

In 1932, a Black CPUSA leader, James Ford returned from Russia to recruit cast members for Black and White, a film to be made in the Soviet Union about US race relations. He invited Louise to organize the cast and she accepted. Louise formed a Co-Operating Committee for Production of a Soviet Film on Negro Life, corresponded with the Soviet organizers, and recruited most of the actors for the film.

In June 1932, Louise led a party of 22 Americans to the Soviet Union to participate in the making of the film. As it was for many African Americans who went to the Soviet Union, living in the young Socialist country was a transformative experience for Louise. Erik S McDuffie says that "from the moment" she arrived in the Soviet Union, she "felt a euphoric sense of personal freedom from American racism".[6]

Although the Soviets cancelled the Black and White film project in August 1932 in response to diplomatic pressure from the US, Louise, Langston Hughes, and many of the other cast members accepted a Soviet invitation to stay in the country a while and travel. Their itinerary included Soviet Central Asia, where they came to see themselves and comrades there as part of a transnational, multiracial community struggling against capitalism and imperialism. On 5 October they released an enthusiastic public statement from Buxara, Uzbekistan, about the revolution's achievements there.

After the troupe returned to US soil, Louise said she "preferred Russia to living in America."[7] And in a 1987 interview she recalled: "Because of what I had seen in the Soviet Union I was ready ... to make a change. A leap."[8]

Louise joined the International Labor Defense in 1933. She was the principal organizer of the "Free the Scottsboro Boys March" in Washington DC, USA, which took place on 8 May 1933.[9]

Immediately after returning from the USSR, Louise resigned from the Congregational Education Service. Erik S McDuffie says she did so out of "frustration with white liberalism."[10]

CPUSA

Louise joined the Communist Party USA shortly after the Scottsboro Boys march, probably later the same year (1933).[11] From 1933 until 1948 Louise was employed in a CPUSA-aligned organization called the International Workers Order (ILO). Her main activities there were cultural outreach and union desegegation.[12]

Due largely to her USSR travels and her role in the Scottsboro defense, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called her "the leading colored woman in the Communist movement in this country," in its magazine The Crisis in 1934.[13]


Louise embraced the "New Woman" ideal of the 1920s, and embodied an ethos of independent Black womanhood.[14]

Her lifestyle in the 1920s and 1930s has been described as "bohemian".[15]

The freedom that she experienced during her visit to the Soviet Union in 1932 helped Louise "cultivate her public persona as a sexually liberated woman.[16]


Louise was one of the first to conceptualize and describe the triple exploitation of Afroamerican working-class women. In a 1936 essay, "Toward a Brighter Dawn", she used that term for the simultaneous racial, class, and gender discrimination that these women suffer. The idea was elaborated in CPUSA writings in the following decades, especially by Claudia Jones. It is the basis of the modern feminist concept of intersectionality.

Scottsboro

Louise was an important figure in the international campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black young men falsely convicted of raping two White women aboard a train in Alabama, USA in 1931. The case became internationally notorious as an example of Southern-US jim crow misjustice, with groups around the world rallying to the cause of the unfortunate young men, eight of whom faced the death sentence. In the US, the defense effort was led by the International Labor Defense, a Communist Party legal aid auxillary which obtained top-flight legal counsel for the young men. Other CPUSA organizations, as well as the NAACP were involved in the publicity side of the campaign.

Louise Thompson addressed one of the first large Scottsboro benefits in Harlem, which occurred in 1932 at the Rockland Palace. Sets by the Cab Calloway orchestra bookended her fiery speech.[17] During the Black and White tour in the Soviet Union, she also spoke at Scottsboro rallies there. Back in the United States, she joined the National Conference for the Defense of Political Prisoners in 1933, and was "the driving force" (Erik S McDuffie: 75) in organizing the Free the Scottsboro Boys March on Washington DC, USA, 8 May 1933. Five thousand people took part in the March and it drew national media coverage. Erik S McDuffie calls it "the first major protest for racial equality in Washington," and says it "presaged future marches on the capital for civil rights."[18]

With the Revend Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Louise organized large Scottsboro rallies in Harlem Churches.

In 1934, campaigning in Birmingham, Alabama, Louise found herself imprisoned in the same courthouse as the Scottsboro Boys themselves, after being picked up in a police raid of a leftist friend's house. She was held for several weeks without trial and then released. Her article "My Southern Terror" in the November 1934 edition of the NAACP's magazine, The Crisis, describes that experience.

The Scottsboro Boys eventually went free, the last being Haywood Patterson who escaped in 1950 to the state of Michigan, where the Governor refused to extradite him.

Party relations

In 1937, Louise published an article in the CPUSA's Party Organizer, called "Negro Women in Our Party". It addressed the issue of Black-White romantic unions between Party members, which was causing some controversy. The problem was that many Black women in the Party felt that Black male CPUSA members had too great a tendency to seek sexual relations with White women leftists, leaving Black women leftists unbefreinded. A CPUSA group in Harlem led by Grace Campbell would the next year go as far as to call for a ban on Black-White marriages within the Party for this reason.[19] Louise's 1937 article has been summarized by Erik S McDuffie (2011, p 19):

Marking the first time this volatile issue was discussed in a Party publication, the article appreciated how the personal and political intersected, with devastating implications for black women. Thompson identified Communist Party social events as a key site of interracial sexual tension, emphasizing how black women often felt like "wallflowers" at social events because no one asked them to dance. "These are the things," she wrote, "that hold a lot of Negro women back from the Party. They are not so political, but they do mean a great deal." For these reasons, black women did not "feel that they fit in, they [did] not feel as much a part of it as even ... Negro men comrades." Thompson's comments implied that black men felt more at home in the Party than black women in part because [they] had sexual access to white women. Urging Communists to devise a more "personal," "human approach" when dealing Recruiting African American women, she stressed that their recruitment into the CPUSA was "essential to [the Party's] Negro work."

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Louise in Berlin, Germany, 1960

Considering its policy of interracialism, the Party could hardly ban Black-White marriages. But it made some efforts to smoothe the troubled waters of intermember mating. For example, Theodore Basset began teaching White male Communists how to dance, because many of them felt unskilled in this area and were afraid to dance with African American women at party socials.[20]

Louise was affiliated with the League for Women Shoppers in 1938.

Louise married William L Patterson in September 1940. They "forged a lifetime partnership based on gender egalitarianism."[21]

In the 1950s Louise and the young poet and actor Beulah Richardson led an important feminist group called the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. The two women composed the group's Anthem in October-November 1951.[22]

Sojourners for Truth and Justice

In late 1951, Louise met a young poet Beulah Richardson, whose poem "A Black Woman Speaks of White Womanhood, of White Supremacy, of Peace" had been a "smash hit in the Communist Left"[23] that summer. The two women became friends and founded that year a Black left feminist group called the Sojourners for Truth and Justice. The group was named after 19th century African American writer Sojourner Truth. Although the group lasted less than two years, it was a trail blazer in terms of the positions it took, and in being the first Communist-associated organization in the United States to be founded and led by Black women.

The Sojourners' founding manifesto, "A Call to Negro Women", was written by Beulah and Louise in New York City in 1951, and the group had its inaugural convention in Washington DC from 29 September through 1 October that year. The convention was held in the meeting hall of the Cafeteria Workers Union, a predominantly Black female, left-leaning, CIO-affiliated union. The convention was attended by 132 women from 15 States. They wasted no time before going into action. The same day their inaugural convention ended, sixty of them rushed the doors of the Civil Rights section of the Department of Justice in Washington, demanding to see Attorney General J Howard McGrath. They had a message for him deploring the treatment of racialized people in the US.

The Sojourners didn't get to see J Howard McGrath, but were listened to politely for a few minutes by a Black justice department official, Maceo Hubbard. "Sir, we are here to speak our greivances. Our men are lynched, beaten, shot, deprived of jobs, and, on top of it all, forced to becom a part of a Jim Crow army and go thousands of miles [to] Korea to carry out war to other colored peoples," said tenant's rights organizer and Sojourner Angie Dickerson on behalf of the group. Maceo Hubbard promised to convey the Sojourner's message to the Attorney General but they never got a reply.

The Sojourners pressed on with their activism in the following months, campaigning for the freedom of Rosa Lee Ingram, and of W Alphaeus Hunton. And they called for an end to US government persecution of WEB DuBois and Paul Robeson. Their themes were human rights, Black equality, peace, and international solidarity.

The Sojourners went well ahead of other groups of their time in linking domestic US women's and minority-rights (race) concerns to the broader international context of colonialism and imperialism, and to issues of socioeconomic class.

The feminist scholar Carole Boyce Davies has written that in addressing these intersecting issues, and in reaching out to women of other cultures in international solidarity, the Sojourners also went beyond "narrow gendered formulations" which sometimes confined the White liberal, "mainstream" US feminism of the 1970s.[24]

The Sojourners signed the We Charge Genocide petition against the US delivered to the United Nations by William L Patterson in late 1951 on behalf of the Civil Rights Congress.[25]

And they demonstrated, along side the Council of African Affairs, against South African apartheid, approving the CAA's declaration that "the struggle of black women in America for freedom and justice is unthinkable as many hundreds of millions of their sisters in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia are degraded and enslaved by the same pattern of racist oppression which we strive to abolish in our own land."[26]

They communicated with members of the African National Congress (ANC) inside South Africa, who warmly responded, thanking them for having "made it possible the link [between African American and African women] we have always wished for [on] this side of the world."[27]

Louise and Sojourner Charlotta Bass co-wrote letters to feminists in the Global South saying that Black American women's freedom was "inextricably linked" to that of their sisters in South Africa, and that freedom movements led by "colored women in Africa, Asia, and in these United States must lead to the complete emancipation of women throughout the world."[28]

The early demise of the Sojourners for Truth and Justice was caused partly by concerns in the CPUSA that the group was not racially integrated, and therefore a manifestation of racial separatism which the Party opposed on principle. The major cause of the Sojourners' demise, though, was cold-war era domestic repression in the United States.[29] According to Erik S McDuffie, "Government informants riddled the group, enabling the FBI to accumulate more than 450 pages of surveillance files in little more than one year."[30] The state also targeted members individually. In April 1951, Charlotta Bass had her passport seized by the Justice Department, and that same month Louise was forced to testify in New York State court about her political activities. At least for Louise, the harassment was familiar; she had been heavily surveilled by the FBI since the early 1930s if not before. Some of the FBI files on Louise can be viewed for free at archive.org.

Besides direct state repression, the cold-war atmosphere also harmed the Sojourners indirectly in that formerly friendly parties were now afraid to work with them. The NAACP, for example, had frequently co-operated with CPUSA people before World War II; but now the NAACP barred Communists and this prevented the Sojourners from participating in civil rights campaigns such as those led by Ella Baker, president of the New York NAACP.

By the end of 1952, the Sojourners no longer functioned as a group.


According to FBI surveillance files, Louise was on the Central Committee of the CPUSA in 1937 and re-elected to it in 1938 at the 10th National Convention.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Louise continued to mentor young Black militants. The New York Black Panther leadership, and the CPUSA's Black Liberation Committee, which had many youthful members as well as old hands, met regularly in Louise and William's Harlem apartment.[31]

Works by Louise Thompson

  • 1968. "With Langston Hughes in the U.S.S.R.", Freedomways 8.2 (Spring 1968), pp 152-8.

Other works

  • Erik S McDuffie, 2011. Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism.
  • Spartacus.edu "Louise Thompson". Accessed 2016.
  • United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, Louise Thompson Patterson files
  • Willam J Maxwell, 1999. New Negro, Old Left

Notes

  1. Louise Thompson Patterson FBI file.
  2. Erik S McDuffie, p 63.
  3. William J Maxwell 1999, p 142.
  4. William J Maxwell 1999, p 143.
  5. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 64.
  6. 2011, p 66.
  7. Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression, 1983 reprint, p 74, cited in William J Maxwell 1999, p 142.
  8. Erik s McDuffie 2011, p 74, quoting Louise Thompson Patterson papers, interview, 14 May 1987.
  9. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 59.
  10. Erik S McDuffie, p 75.
  11. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 59.
  12. William J Maxwell 1999, p 143.
  13. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 59; William J Maxwell 1999, p 143; William J cites Louise Thompson, "Southern", p 327.
  14. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 64.
  15. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 9.
  16. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 68.
  17. William J Maxwell 1999, p 143.
  18. P 75.
  19. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 120.
  20. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 122.
  21. Erik S McDuffie, p 149.
  22. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 160.
  23. Erik S McDuffie 2011.
  24. Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx, p 83; quoted in Erik S McDuffie, p 83.
  25. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 176.
  26. In Erik S McDuffie 2011, pp 178-9.
  27. ANC Women's League official Bertha Mkize to Sojourners, 20 April 1952, in Louise Thompson Patterson Papers, 2002, box 13, folder 4; quoted in Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 179.
  28. Letters to Miss Baila Page and to Minna T Sioga, both 5 April 1952, in Louise Thompson Patterson Papers 2002, box 13, folder 4; in Erik S McDuffie.
  29. "While the CPUSA's cool response to the Sojourners contributed to its demise, McCarthyism was the key factor in shutting down the organization" (Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 183.)
  30. 2011, p 183.
  31. Erik S McDuffie 2011, p 201.