Hubert Harrison and Contemporary Struggles for Racial Equality

By Jeffrey B. Perry

This long-awaited final volume guides us through the last decade of Harrison’s life, when he played a major role in the political upheavals and cultural transformations that shaped Harlem in the wake of the First World War. Thanks to Perry’s definitive portrait, it will no longer be possible to overlook the fierce and flinty polymath who was arguably the most brilliant Black radical intellectual of his generation.

—Brent Hayes Edwards, author of The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism

Today’s AHA virtual book exhibit feature comes to us from Jeffrey B. Perry, who preserved and inventoried the Hubert H. Harrison papers. His newest book Hubert Harrison: The Struggle for Equality, 1918-1927, follows the earlier Columbia University Press publication of the highly acclaimed Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883–1918. This two-volume biography, based on extensive use of the Hubert H. Harrison Papers and diary, is believed to be the first full-life, multivolume, biography of an Afro-Caribbean and only the fourth of an African American after those Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

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Hubert Harrison (1883–1927), born in St. Croix and based in Harlem, was a brilliant, autodidactic, working-class, race- and class-conscious writer, orator, editor, educator, book reviewer, political activist, and radical internationalist. The historian Joel A. Rogers described him as “perhaps the foremost Aframerican intellect of his time.” The labor and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph considered him “the father of Harlem radicalism.”

Harrison played significant roles in the largest class-radical movement (socialism) and the largest race-radical movement (the “New Negro” / Garvey movement) of his era. He was a major influence on the class-radical Randolph, on the race-radical Marcus Garvey, and on other “militant New Negroes” and “common people” in the 1910s and 1920s. Harrison is a key link in two great strands of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation struggle—the labor and civil rights movement associated with Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. and the race and nationalist movement associated with Garvey and Malcolm X.

From 1911 to 1914, Harrison was a pioneer Black activist in the Freethought Movement and the leading Black theoretician, speaker, and activist in the Socialist Party of America. He maintained that “politically, the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea. The presence of the Negro puts our democracy to the test and reveals the falsity of it.” True democracy and equality implies “a revolution . . . startling to even think of,” he concluded. He also asserted that “the mission of the Socialist Party is to free the working class from exploitation” and that to champion the Black cause would become “the crucial test of Socialism’s sincerity.”

But the statements and practices of the Socialist Party caused him to leave it in 1914. After departing, he offered what is arguably the most profound but least heeded criticism in the history of the U.S. left. Harrison indicted the Socialist Party leaders, like organized labor leaders, who put the “white race” first, before class.

Within two years Harrison turned to concentrated work in the Black community. He served as the intellectual guiding light of the militant New Negro Movement, a race-conscious, internationalist, autonomous movement for “political equality, social justice, civic opportunity, and economic power.” In 1917 he founded an organization, the Liberty League, and a newspaper, The Voice, to go along with it. The Liberty League was a conscious breaking from the “old time leaders,” and it laid the foundation for later Black movements, like the Garvey movement, Black Power, and (with its calls for equality and for enforcement of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments) Civil Rights.

Harrison indicted the Socialist Party leaders, like organized labor leaders, who put the “white race” first, before class.

After Woodrow Wilson led the United States into World War I, urging that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” Harrison countered with a massive Harlem protest under the slogan “Make the South Safe for Democracy.” He later explained, “I was well aware that Woodrow Wilson’s protestations of democracy were lying protestations, consciously and deliberately designed to deceive.” He emphasized that white-supremacist “democracy” was “a convenient camouflage behind which competing imperialists masked their sordid aims,” that those who proclaimed the new democratic demands never had any intention of extending them, and that “the cant of democracy” was intended as “dust in the eyes of the white voters” and “bait for the clever statesmen.” He also, foresaw, however, that the flamboyantly advertised “democracy” would return “to plague the inventors” and that those who “took democracy at its face value,” which was “equality,” would “demand that the promise be made good.” He concluded that the failure to extend true democracy was becoming “the main root of that great unrest” that was developing throughout the world.

When Harrison founded the International Colored Unity League in 1924, it was under the slogan “Political EQUALITY, Social JUSTICE, and Civic OPPORTUNITY.” He reasoned that with obstacles in those areas removed, Black people would be in a position “to remove . . . other obstacles themselves.” For Harrison the New Negro had “come forward, neither to whine, to wheedle, nor to make petitions or vain demands” but to take their future in their “own hands” and mold their “own destiny” in order to win the things they want: “political equality, social justice, civic opportunity and economic power.”

In his later years, Harrison was a wide-ranging speaker and a regular lecturer for the New York City Board of Education. A great bibliophile and promoter of free public libraries, he was also an officer of the founding committee that grew into the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

At Harrison’s massive funeral, Arthur Schomburg said, simply, “He came ahead of his time.”

Harrison’s consistent calls for racial and political equality—with the Socialists (in 1912), with the Liberty League (in 1917), and with his last organization, the International Colored Unity League (from 1924 to 1927)—speak to contemporary racial equality struggles in the twenty-first century.

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