Gerald Horne’s meticulously documented biography, Black Revolutionary: William Patterson and the Globalization of the African American Freedom Struggle, argues that Patterson’s efforts to put the U.S. government “on trial” before the world court of public opinion were essential to the eventual erosion of Jim Crow. Despite repeated overtures to work with the traditional leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Patterson was frustrated by tactics that he considered too narrow sighted. A communist who rose to considerable heights in the Communist Party (CP) of the United States and the Communist International (Comintern), Patterson had unwavering faith in the power of international solidarity movements and in his ability to rally that pressure. From locking horns over the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s to submitting the 1951 Civil Rights Congress (CRC) petition to the United Nations, which accused the U.S. government of genocide against blacks, to standing as advocate for Angela Davis in the 1970s, Patterson lived a life “shaped by an all-pervading hatred of Jim Crow and imperialism [and a conviction that the] path to socialism [was] paved by the struggle for democratic rights” (p. 216).
Horne traces Patterson’s steps from his early years and legal training in California to New York, where he was exposed to the leading Marxists. But, he was bitterly struck by the execution of the Italian-American anarchists Fernando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vancetti. “I came to the conclusion . . . that through the channels of the law [alone] the Negro would never have equality . . . if [whites] . . . could be so victimized” (p. 26). This spurred his decision to join the Communist Party and to go to the Soviet Union, and upon his return to the United States, to plunge into organizing.
Patterson assumed the leadership of the CP’s International Labor Defense (ILD) following the death of J. Louis Engdahl in the early [End Page 701] 1930s and launched into a pattern of work that would capture the hearts and minds of black Americans and other struggling people the world over. He successfully marshaled support for the Scottsboro Boys. But, his Herculean efforts to rally international criticism of Jim Crow and solidarity for the boys also made him a “burr in the saddle” of the traditional middle-class black leadership and an arch enemy to U.S. government. Nonetheless, Patterson kept soldiering on as the ILD of the 1930s and 1940s evolved into the CRC of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Clearly, Patterson was aware that he was being monitored as a publicly known communist in a country with strong Cold War antipathies. Remarkably, he continued to press his campaigns in the United States and abroad, despite the persistent surveillance, collusion of well-placed informants, repeated calls for testimony, and imprisonment. Horne’s documentation demonstrates the breadth of such sources. He not only draws from Patterson’s personal papers and those of other key figures and institutions, but also mined the reams of FBI documents located through the Freedom of Information Act and poured through countless stacks of testimony given by Patterson and other figures before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Subversive Activities Control Board.
Horne deftly develops Patterson’s story and shows that despite the fact that the “red scare” pushed Patterson and other leftist figures, such as Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois, into the periphery, the U.S. Government did, in fact, move to dismantle Jim Crow laws. As evidenced by the 1954 school-desegregation decision, 1964 Equal Opportunity Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the U.S. government could not ignore the international scrutiny fanned by Patterson’s efforts and was forced to respond to the contradictions of the treatment of black Americans, while holding itself as the leader of democracy. [End Page 702]
JOY GLEASON CAREW is an associate professor of Pan-African studies at the University of Louisville. She is the author of Blacks, Reds, and Russians...