- “Confraternity Among All Dark Races”:Mittie Maude Lena Gordon and the Practice of Black (Inter)nationalism in Chicago, 1932–1942
On December 7, 1932, Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, a black nationalist, established the Peace Movement of Ethiopia (PME) at the back of her restaurant on State Street in the “Black Belt,” the predominantly African American community on Chicago’s South Side. In the presence of her husband, William, and twelve other African Americans, Gordon drafted the PME’s mission statement, advocating black emigration to West Africa, political self-determination, and the “confraternity among all dark races.”1 A former member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Gordon became disillusioned after Garvey’s 1927 deportation and the subsequent organizational split at the 1929 convention in Kingston, Jamaica.2 Determined to advance black nationalist politics in the aftermath of the UNIA’s decline, Gordon established the PME in 1932, attracting about three hundred thousand supporters, particularly members of the black working poor in Chicago and across the United States.3 An astute community activist, Gordon mobilized hundreds of African Americans in Chicago, and in the process garnered national and international attention for her cause. In 1933, soon after the PME was established, she initiated a nationwide emigration campaign and mailed a petition to President Franklin D. Roosevelt with an [End Page 151] estimated four hundred thousand signatures of black Americans willing to leave the country.4
The number of PME members and chapters grew rapidly. It soon became a significant site for black men and women during the Great Depression to engage in nationalist politics—advocating universal black liberation, economic self-sufficiency, racial pride, unity, and political self-determination.5 Charting her activities from 1932 to 1942, this article demonstrates how Gordon constructed her commitment to black nationalism and internationalism, which scholars Michael O. West, William G. Martin, and Fanon Che Wilkins have defined as a commitment to “universal emancipation” unlimited by “national, imperial, continental, or oceanic boundaries—or even by racial ones.”6 Drawing on some aspects of Garveyism—Garvey’s race-based philosophy of black pride, African redemption, economic self-sufficiency, racial separatism, and political self-determination—while also implementing new strategies of her own, Gordon engaged in what I call “grassroots internationalism.”7 In essence, the term “grassroots internationalism” describes Gordon’s efforts to engage in internationalist politics on a local level, challenging global racism, imperialism, and colonialism from her base in Chicago. In this article, I use the term to capture the way some members of the black working poor engaged in global politics without ever physically crossing national borders. Though she could not afford overseas travel during the Depression era, Gordon articulated a commitment to “grassroots internationalism” through her writings, PME-sponsored community events, and collaborations with men and women from various parts of the globe.
Notwithstanding the largely male-centered narratives that have dominated much of the literature on black radicalism, recent studies have begun to address the crucial role that women have played in these movements—as leaders, organizers, and political theorists. The works of Ula Y. Taylor, Barbara Bair, and others have examined how nationalist women challenged, and at times accommodated, the strict gendered hierarchy of the UNIA.8 More recently, historians Carole Boyce Davies, Erik S. McDuffie, Dayo F. Gore, and others have offered key insights into how the U.S. Communist Party provided a crucial platform for black women radicals to engage in the struggle for racial and economic justice.9 Collectively, these works have documented the historical contributions of black radical women, moving beyond the Garvey-centered studies of the UNIA, and taking seriously black women’s political engagement with the Communist Left. However, by emphasizing black women radicals in the UNIA during the 1920s and in the Communist Left from the 1930s through the 1950s, scholars have overlooked women activists like Mittie Maude Lena Gordon who neither gained prominence during the height of the Garvey movement nor maintained affiliation with the Communist Left. With the exception of scant references, scholars have yet to seriously examine Gordon’s [End Page 152] political activism or assess the historical significance of her organization, the...