A rare and striking 1932 Communist Party presidential campaign poster calling for African-American self-determination in the South. With a fascinating backstory of the complicated politics of the movement for African-American civil rights.
In its early years the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) tended to view the struggle for African-American rights as inseparable from the class struggle; that is, in the eyes of the CPUSA, African-Americans were oppressed primarily because they were members of the working class, not because of the color of their skin. In part, this was due to the fact that the CPUSA was most active in northern cities, where African-Americans were members of the working class, albeit usually at or near the bottom of the ladder. CPUSA leaders simply had little or no experience of the rural South, where the vast majority of African-Americans were impoverished farmers living under Jim Crow conditions.
“the Communists, even then, still failed to understand in what respect the “Negro question” was more than a pure class question. While discrimination arising from race prejudice could not possibly be ignored, it was seen largely as it applied to the exploitation of Black workers and not as characteristic of attitudes toward the entire Black population.” (Auerbach, Organizing in the Depression South: A Communist’s Memoir, 7)
In this the CPUSA was going against the views of the Communist International and Lenin himself, who in 1920 argued that African-Americans were an oppressed nation in America’s racist society and thus merited national liberation.
A sea change began in the late 1920s, under the influence of General Secretary William Z. Foster (1881-1961), Party member and journalist Sol Auerbach (who used the pseudonym James S. Allen), and others. After much infighting, the CPUSA came around to the Leninist view and called for “self-determination for the Black Belt”, a huge crescent of territory stretching from Virginia to Texas, with its majority African-American population and a predominantly rural economy. What “self-determination” meant in practice was not always clear, but for many in the CPUSA it included the possibility of secession.
“self-determination… the right of the Negroes in the stretch of land known as the Black Belt, where they are in the majority, to rule themselves within their own state boundaries and determine their relationship to other governments, especially the United States government, including the right of separation if so desired.” (Auerbach, American Negro, 29)
“Equal rights for negroes !everywhere!”
This reorientation of the CPUSA carried through to the Election of 1932, when the Party nominated Foster for President and African-American Politburo member James W. Ford (1893-1957) for Vice President. Thus, for the first time since 1860 a Presidential candidate ran on a platform including the possibility of Southern secession.
This Foster-Ford campaign poster leads with the bright-red slogan “Equal Rights for Negroes !Everywhere!”, surmounting a large persuasive map of the United States bearing a second slogan, “Self Determination for the Black Belt”. On the map, southern counties are white, shaded or black, presumably in rough correspondence to their African-American populations, such that the “Black Belt” reaching from Virginia to Texas is unmistakable. Below the map is yet another slogan, “Vote Communist”, flanked by portraits of Foster and Ford and hammer-and-sickle symbols.
It is difficult to know the source for the map, but also in 1932 something similar had appeared on page 5 of Auerbach’s The American Negro. The most likely inspiration for both maps was the Statistical Atlas of the United States, published in 1925 by the Census Bureau based on the results of the 1920 Census. Plate 173 of the Atlas was titled “Counties in Southern States Having at Least 50 Per Cent of Their Population Negro” and featured four chloropleth maps of the South in 1860, 1880, 1900 and 1920.
The Election of 1932 and beyond
In any event, the 1932 campaign was a disaster for the CPUSA: The Socialists Party also ran a candidate, badly diluting left-wing support; Foster suffered a heart attack while campaigning and eventually traveled to the Soviet Union to convalesce; and the radical implications of the call for “self determination” presumably turned off white voters in the South and elsewhere. The Foster-Ford ticket won only .26% of the popular vote, though in fairness this doubled the CPUSA’s performance in the last general election.
Variations of the map were used in Communist pamphlets issued later in the 1930s, such as Auerbach’s The Negro Question in the United States. Ironically, in the 1950s, these were in turn appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan and other far-right entities, who republished it as “an exact copy of a map taken out of the secret files of the Communist Party”, showing a vast “Negro Communist Soviet”, where “about 10 million white people will have to be driven out of their homes.” (P.J. Mode collection of persuasive cartography, #8548. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library)
Rarity and references
The poster is extremely rare: The only example of whose location I am aware is that in the Merrill Berman Collection, while OCLC gives no institutional holdings. I find record of only two having appeared on the antiquarian market, one having sold at Heritage Auctions for $5250 in February 2018 and another at Poster Auctions International for $24,000 in March 2021.
Not in OCLC. Background from Sol Auerbach (under the pseudonym James S. Allen), The American Negro, New York: International Pamphlets, 1932; ibid., Organizing in the Depression South: A Communist’s Memoir, Minneapolis: MEP Publications, 2001; and Lee Sustar, “Self-Determination and the “Black Belt””, Socialist Worker for Nov. 1985, re-published June 15, 2012 at SocialistWorker.org.